The Big Idea: Sean Carroll

I’ve been aware of the “Many Worlds” interpretation of physics for some time — longtime readers of mine know it’s intimately connected with space travel in my “Old Man’s War” series of novels. But in the real world, how does it connect to the actual physics we know and (profess to) understand? Actual physicist Sean Carroll knows, and in his new book, Something Deeply Hidden, he delves right into it.

SEAN CARROLL:

If there’s one thing the world doesn’t need, it’s another book on quantum mechanics. I mean, who hasn’t written one? In preparation for writing Something Deeply Hidden, I searched on Amazon for books with titles of the form “Quantum X,” and was rewarded with Quantum Eating, Quantum Touch, Quantum Leadership, and many more.

The existence of these books reflects the widespread conviction that quantum mechanics, however scientists might think about it, is fundamentally profound and deeply mysterious, so it could mean just about anything. You might expect to find a countervailing stream of books by sober-minded physicists and science writers, doggedly explaining that quantum mechanics isn’t really all that inexplicable after all. It’s science, not mysticism.

That’s not exactly what you find. Sure, there are valiant attempts to dispel the worst kinds of quantum woo. But even the most hardnosed quantum books seem to agree that the subject is unavoidably murky, something so bizarre and ill-understood that it’s not meant to be grasped by mere human beings. This or that quantum phenomenon is trotted out, accompanied by an implicit shaking of the head – “Can you believe it? This makes no sense at all!”

So my big idea for Something Deeply Hidden was: quantum mechanics is understandable.

To be clear, the challenge is not just that quantum mechanics is complicated or recondite, like general relativity or the standard model of particle physics. It’s that physicists themselves, who are supposed to be experts, don’t understand it, and in their more honest moments they admit it.

Quantum mechanics sits at the absolute heart of all of modern physics; it’s the deepest, most important idea that physicists have. But what we teach our students, as philosopher Tim Maudlin has put it, is a recipe, not a theory.

We can set up a quantum system, like an electron orbiting the nucleus of an atom. And we can measure something about it, like its position. The quantum recipe tells us the probability of getting any particular measurement outcome. And that recipe has been tested to enormous precision, and has come through with flying colors every time.

What we can’t actually tell you is what happens when you measure a quantum system. What counts as “measuring”? How quickly does it happen? Do you have to be conscious?

All of these questions are, in the standard textbook formulation, left entirely vague. The resulting recipe is good enough for government work, or for building incredibly complex technologies, but it falls well short of the clarity and rigor we would expect of a well-defined scientific theory.

Thus, in the words of Richard Feynman, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”

At least, nobody thinks that other physicists understand quantum mechanics. Some of us, including myself, think we do understand the basics. The problem is that there is more than one honest, rigorous physical theory that reproduces the textbook quantum recipe in the appropriate regime. So we have multiple approaches, and have to decide which one is the best description of Nature; but that’s what scientists are always supposed to do.

So in the book I explain my favorite approach to quantum mechanics, the Many-Worlds formulation. It has a bad reputation, as it sounds a little science-fiction-y, or at least like you’re tacking on a bunch of extra stuff (entire universes worth) just to solve an irritating problem in quantum measurement. But the truth is the opposite: the theory is lean and mean, getting enormous mileage out of very few basic assumptions. The extra worlds are predicted by the theory, not tacked onto it.

One of the goals of Something Deeply Hidden is to make all that clear. But the broader, more important message is the one above: that quantum mechanics is understandable. Maybe my favorite understanding will turn out to be the right one, or maybe one of the various competitors. But they’re all ultimately intelligible, not ineffable.

It took me a while to come to this conclusion. I didn’t start out to be a rebel, fighting against the entrenched establishment of physicists who don’t want to face up to the quantum measurement problem. But the more I’ve worked in the field, and the more I’ve thought about it myself, the more irritating and embarrassing it is that we haven’t figure out quantum mechanics once and for all, and for the most part we haven’t even been trying. I’m hoping my book does its small part in changing that.

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Something Deeply Hidden: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Alexandra Rowland

Tulips, bitcoin, fantasy worlds — how to each relate to the other? Alexandra Rowland knows, and in their Big Idea for A Choir of Lies, they are happy to lay it all out for you.

ALEXANDRA ROWLAND:

Do you like coincidences? Here’s a cool one:

From November of 1636 to February of 1637, the Netherlands was gripped by the climax of tulip mania, the world’s first-ever economic bubble, and then a sudden crash of the market. At the height of the mania, a single bulb of the Viceroy tulip (which was not even the most expensive variety) sold for 2500 florins, more than $34,000 in today’s money.

From November of 2017 to February of 2018, the internet watched the rise and fall of the bitcoin bubble. There were rumors of people making their fortune because they’d bought into bitcoin years ago for pennies, and of people taking out mortgages to buy-in once the boom hit, then losing their homes when the bust followed.

And in November of 2017, I blithely started writing A Choir of Lies, a novel about fantasy tulip mania, thinking that it was going to be about something very obscure and difficult to explain to people. I wrote the fictional boom during the real boom, and the bust during the bust. To my enormous chagrin, I delivered the first draft to my editor at the beginning of February, 2018.

Yeah, I got nothin’.

Economics is a funny thing. Most people don’t understand it, so they think that it’s dull and boring. It’s supposedly about money and numbers and rules, and we hear a lot of pompous people using terms like “trickle-down” and talking about “the free market” with the same hushed reverence that some people use to talk about their god: An abstract and unknowable force to be worshiped and revered, which moves in mysterious ways and demands that we behave according to certain laws and principles or else.

But, like all the rest of our religions, economics is more about people than anything else. It’s just humans being human really, really hard at each other. We came up with “rules” of the “free market” based on simple observations of how people tend to behave in certain situations, and then we sort of… forgot that it was about them. We talk about the movements of money without thinking enough about who is moving it and why. This causes a ripple which turns into a tidal wave, and before you can think better of the whole sorry affair, you end up with late-stage capitalism and a bunch of CEOs who sweat and agonize about profit margins and, every decade, forget a little more that at the end of the day, it’s still just about people, and that people are important.

A Choir of Lies is narrated by Ylfing – if you’ve read A Conspiracy of Truths, you already know him: the sweet apprentice storyteller with a heart as big as the world. In the wake of the events of the first book (which you don’t need to have read to understand this next one), Ylfing is struggling with his relationship to his calling. He has seen stories used destructively, and he’s lost his connection to his audience. To escape having to tell stories, he takes a job as a translator to a wealthy merchant, Sterre de Wayer. However, as soon as she finds out the real extent of his skills, she persuades him to use those skills for her own ends and fan up a mania for her most recent import: bulbs of stars-in-the-marsh, an exotic bioluminescent flower. Ylfing can do what he does because he knows people. He knows that they will devour stories like a pack of ravening wolves. That’s all that marketing is—feeding your audience a story that whets their hunger instead of sating it.

The big idea for this book might seem fairly dry at first glance—a fantasy novel about economics? Really? YAWN—except that when I say that this is a book about economics, I mean that it’s a book about hunger and desire, about floods and famines, about how we determine our values (in every sense of the word—our worth, our cost, our morals). And, of course, woven through every line of it, it’s a book about… people. Just people being people as hard as they possibly can, with everything that that entails—the capacity for great kindness and self-sacrifice, the capacity for great greed and selfishness, and for the ability to hold those two contradictory impulses simultaneously in one hand.

Economics isn’t boring at all, it’s fascinating. It is as fascinating as political intrigue or comedies-of-manners or religious persecution or war, because all those things too are just people-being-people, coming up with intricate rules of a game that they’ve decided is terribly, terribly important, and then forgetting that that they can make new games with new rules, if the old ones no longer suit.

At the heart of the game of Economics (Late-Stage Capitalism Expansion Pack) is the idea that money is the most important resource. The big idea of A Choir of Lies, in one sentence, is just a question asked very softly: “But what if it isn’t?”

—-

A Choir of Lies: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site. Follow them on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Steven S. Drachman

In today’s Big Idea for The Innocent Dead, a famous Muppet is revealed to be a master of teleology by author Steven S. Drachman. And that’s not the wildest idea on display today!

STEVEN S. DRACHMAN:

My Watt O’Hugh books (they’re now at long last a “trilogy”) are about a time-roaming 19th century gunman and his seemingly hopeless battle against a magical, secessionist, Utopian movement known as the “Sidonians.” The Sidonians, and their showy ruler, are responsible for the deaths of those Watt has loved, and are to blame for the shambles that his life has become. Shortly into the third book, this obsessional fight takes Watt all the way to the Hell of the Innocent Dead, the 6th level (out of a total of 18).

It is a land born from Chinese mythology, where those who die before their time go to await justice. It’s not the worst possible Hell: no one is on fire, but everything smells really bad, it’s damp and always just a little bit too cold, and the food is awful. Still, it is terribly unfair, a torment for someone who has really done nothing wrong, who simply cannot leave behind the terrible injustice of his death, who haunts the living when he sleeps.

But it is something more, too. It is not just a place, but an idea.

“Hell was invented by humans,” a long-time denizen explains to Watt. “Somebody thought of that and someone believed it. And here it is.” (He unwittingly quotes Kermit the Frog, who seems to have had a good grasp of the nature of Hell.)

The idea that consciousness plays some kind of role in the life of the universe is an old and appealing idea; and it is also an unprovable one, at least until we learn, Doolittle-like, how to talk to electrons. Still, physicist Arthur Eddington once announced, “The stuff of the world is mind stuff,” and, as the New Yorker writer Jim Holt noted in Why Does the World Exist, this opened a whole panpsychist Pandora’s box of philosophical musings (and some scientific musings as well, notably by Roger Penrose).

If the stuff of the world is mind stuff, and our consciousness comes straight out of the stardust that swirled about during the Big Bang, then you are really not an insignificant fleck of sand in an indifferent universe of two million quintillion planets. Instead, every atom is conscious, and we are all part of a single, universal thought.

So, in my tome, the 6th level of Hell still exists in the 19th century, because somebody thought of it long before, and the rest of us believed it, and it will be there until we collectively come up with a better theory, and prove this better theory. The superstitions of the past are not things we proved false and outgrew; they are things that used to be true and are not true anymore. At one time, in other words, there were turtles all the way down, and the stars in the sky were just pretty lights.

“We were eternal,” says Billy Golden, a colleague in the anti-Sidonian resistance. “At one ‘time’ you — we — were half-Divine. Then, we still danced with eternity. Beauty still existed, then. Now we are chromatids and centromeres, and our ‘soul’ is nothing more than ‘subjective experience,’ a part of evolution, a necessary survival mechanism. Look what we gave up when we rewrote the story.”

But a made-up reality that might change under your feet is a no-less deadly reality. So Watt is chagrined but not surprised to discover that the Sidonian rebellion is full-blown even in the 6th level of Hell, where he is soon designated a “general” as the battle approaches.

In the world of Watt O’Hugh, we’re all helping the universe decide what it wants to be when it grows up. And the Universe, as with any sentient, conscious creature, will either grow up to be “good” or “bad,” live a long life or die young.

Its prognosis, furthermore, doesn’t look good.

—-

Watt O’Hugh and the Innocent Dead: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s website. Follow him on twitter.

 

The Big Idea: Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe

Reboot, reimagine, reinvent — there is nothing new under the sun, as they say, and humans find ways of looking at old stories in new ways. This is an idea that acclaimed editors Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe have taken to heart in their new anthology The Mythic Dream. Here they are to go into the details.

DOMINIK PARISIEN and NAVAH WOLFE:

We’ve always known that old stories have power. And as editors and readers, we’ve always been drawn to retelling those old stories. There’s something uniquely compelling about seeing authors taking the bones of an old tale and giving it new life. There’s a certain kind of narrative truth that comes from reading a familiar story turned on its head.

Retellings are a pleasure for authors to write, and for audiences to read and fall into. They give that shiver of recognition, that thrill of having something familiar refocused in dramatic ways. They’re also a joy to work with as editors. On a commercial level, there is of course the benefit of working with stories that people recognize. But, more importantly, putting together these types of anthologies is an incredibly creative process for editors, much more than simply compiling narratives. We get to delve deep into the bones of those stories, work with our authors to help them determine which bits might be worth exploring, which might resonate in today’s world and how, to juxtapose familiar and unfamiliar tales and find the connective threads between them across time and cultures.

Our first anthology, The Starlit Wood, was born on our shared love of fairy tale retellings. It was an absolute joy to get to immerse ourselves in an editorial project that let us explore and play with the stories we grew up with, the stories that shaped our narrative, story-loving minds. For our second book together, Robots vs Fairies, we went in a very different direction, but retellings still slipped in as reimagined versions of Pinnochio, Peter Pan, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We couldn’t quite leave retellings in our rearview window.

And so for our third project together, we knew we wanted to return to that same familiar territory, but like a retelling, differently. We wanted to play some more in that liminal space that comes when you retell an old story in a new way. So it was immediately clear to us what our next anthology should be.

We’ve always been fascinated by myths. Not just the two of us—the human race. And how could we not be? Myths are stories with power. They resonate across ages and cultures and help us understand the world, as it was or might have been, as it could be. Our myths define us. They’re the stories we tell and retell that shape our past, that tell us where we come from, how we got here. They anchor us into a common history, and make us feel rooted, like we belong. If our stories have been told for generations, then we’ve been here at least that long. Where stories have history, so do we. But what happens when our origin myths fail us? When the stories that define us don’t leave space for marginalized voices and identities?

When we were figuring out what we wanted this book to be about, one quote from Madeleine L’Engle kept resonating with us: “When we lose our myths, we lose our place in the universe.” We knew we wanted The Mythic Dream to use myths to reclaim our place in the universe. And so we asked eighteen brilliant writers to take these classic stories and reimagine them, to explore our collective past, examine our present, and take hold of our future.

And we couldn’t be happier with the resulting stories. Alyssa Wong imagines an Artemis and Acteon, where the hunting ground is the internet rather than the woods. Seanan McGuire puts Persephone in a carnival. Amal El-Mohtar gives Bloddeuwedd back her voice, her agency, and her vengeance. Arkady Martine’s Inanna takes command of galaxies and starships. Carlos Hernandez’s Cuban bogeyman becomes a source of hope instead of terror. Indrapramit Das asks what happens when an Indian AI become a goddess. Carmen Maria Machado’s Erysichthon gets a powerful dose of consequences.

And that’s the big idea of The Mythic Dream. Taking the stories that shaped and defined us, and shaping them in turn, in order to create the world we want to see around us. So join us in The Mythic Dream, and reclaim your place in the universe, one myth at a time.

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The Mythic Dream: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

The Big Idea: David Koepp

David Koepp is already one of the most successful screenwriters of all time, with films like Jurassic Park, Spider-Man and one of my personal favorites, Death Becomes Her, to his name. Now he’s turned his attention to novels with the bio-thriller Cold Storage. Koepp is here to tell you how the novel began, and why this time it is a novel, not a screenplay.

DAVID KOEPP:

New York City, as is its habit, pushed the big idea in front of me, disguised as a very small one.

I was walking down the street in mid 2017, up early on a steamy August morning. It was only 7 a.m. but the city was sweltering already, and walking the two blocks from the deli to my apartment had covered me with a thin sheen of yuck.

It was the look on the guy’s face that I noticed first. He was a Hispanic guy in his mid-twenties, thin and looking exhausted, dressed in a security guard’s uniform. I figured he was on his way home from the night shift. Then again, it was 6:30 in the morning, so he might have been up early. Coming or going, his expression told me he hated his job.

I thought back on jobs I’d had and hated when I was his age, and that despite my loathing, I was grudgingly grateful to have had them. Maybe this guy felt the same way. I wondered, if something weird happened at his boring-ass job that night, what if he decided that, even though it was a shitty job, it was his shitty job, and god damnit he was going to do it well.

That’s a guy you could tell a story about.

All my ideas for the past thirty years have come in movie form, so I assumed this one was a film as well. I collected string for a few more months, waiting for other parts of the story to pop into my head from my daily life – a mysterious beeping smoke alarm somewhere in the attic that took weeks to find, my own fears of infection and decay – and then I sat down to start throwing words at it.

Movies often begin as treatments, horrible documents that reflect neither good prose nor good screenwriting but are more a summary of what a script could be. For some reason, after the first couple sentences on this one, I couldn’t face working in this-happens-and-then-that-happens form for the umpteenth time and decided to try it as half-decent prose. I think that because the story originated as a character idea – a hard-working, resentful but earnest young man trapped in a polyester shirt on a hot August morning — the telling of it began as thoughts inside someone’s head.

Yowza, what a difference.

In thirty years of movie writing, I’d never written a character’s inner thoughts before. Lame, but true. The script writer is limited by the tools of the medium, able to write only what an audience sees or hears. If a character doesn’t see, say, or do it, you can’t get it in your movie. The lucky writer of prose, by contrast, gets to write anything, anywhere, anytime. Thoughts inside a person’s head? No problem. The point of view of an inanimate object, like a deadly fungus? Sure, go right ahead, sounds cool.

And the pace of a book! Movies are slaves to plot, they thrive on constant forward movement. Tarantino digresses for ten or twelve minutes and everybody loses their mind; we’ll be talking about his boldness for decades. But in a book, an author can wander off in any direction at all, like a four-year-old chasing a butterfly in a meadow. The reader will usually hang with it. Mostly, the butterflies I chased were the inner thoughts and feelings of that night shift security guard.

Maybe I got him completely wrong. Maybe he loved his job and just didn’t like the heat. Maybe he’d just started his own private security company and was overcome with responsibility, or maybe he STOLE the uniform and had left the real guard dead in a doorway somewhere. All I had to base my 300 pages of assumptions on was the look he had on his face in a single moment.

In the couple years since the moment that sparked the book, I’ve had time to think about the big idea lurking behind that chance moment of passing, the question raised by that flash of perceived insight into the life of another person.

How come we don’t know each other anymore? Our communication is broken down, despite unprecedented ability to get our thoughts out into the public discourse, and to read and hear the thoughts of others we might not agree with. Of course, we don’t read and hear them, we click away at the speed of light, and because we can’t see their faces, we’re never forced to wonder what makes them tick.

But the city knows better, it pushes us into each other’s paths. The city said “hey, check out this guy,” so I did; it asked “what’s his deal?,” so I wondered.

I hope your day at work was unshitty, dude. With zero deadly fungal outbreaks.

—-

Cold Storage: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt.

The Big Idea: Michael Mammay

It’s easy to be a hero — sometimes. In Spaceside, author Michael Mammay examines the other side of being seen as heroic, and what it can do to a character (and the story they’re currently in).

MICHAEL MAMMAY:

Spaceside is a sequel. It stands alone, but it takes place after the events of Planetside, and features the same main character. The Big Idea with this book was to incorporate the impact of the events of Planetside, both in the world and on the main character. I can’t tell you too many specifics without spoiling the first book, but suffice it to say that in Planetside, Big Things happen. Things that get galaxy-wide attention. When Big Things happen in life, the impact lingers, but I think sometimes in sequels we’re ready to move on to ‘the next big adventure’, so those things from the first book slide into the background.

But when Big Things happen, there are always lasting effects. At the end of The Lord of the Rings (The movies more than the books, but somewhat in both), after they get the win, we see everybody back at the shire, and they’re celebrating, and everybody’s happy. We don’t see Frodo looking over his shoulder, worried about lurking Nazgul. We don’t see a tour bus full of middle-earthers driving by in hopes to get a glimpse of the celebrity who saved the world. We don’t see protestors with signs calling him an Orc Killer.

In the real world all those things happen.

Are there any universal heroes at this point? For every well-known figure who is a hero to one group of people, there’s another group of people who hates them. Probably a big group. Writing someone who is universally seen as a hero or a villain felt false to me, so I tried to capture that in Spaceside…the dichotomy where a hero to one person is a villain to someone else.

When I see Luke Skywalker hiding away in the corner of the galaxy…to me, that’s very real. Can you imagine the eyes on him? The people asking him to do things? The pressure every time he just wants to walk down the street to Space Starbucks? (Incidentally, why are there no Space Starbucks? Where are the tacky chain restaurants in science fiction? But I digress).

Colonel Carl Butler, the main character of both Planetside and Spaceside, doesn’t have the option to hide away. Beyond that, he’s got his own issues stemming from what he did, and he’s not necessarily doing a great job of dealing with them. He’s in therapy, which helps, but he can’t go out in public without people staring at him, which keeps putting it in his face. He also drinks a lot. When echoes of what happened previously start to turn up, it’s only a matter of time before he implodes. He doesn’t trust his own judgment, and he can’t tell if he’s imagining things or if there really is a conspiracy.

He eventually does have to deal with the thing in front of him. It wouldn’t be much of a novel if there wasn’t a new conflict. But he’s also still stuck dealing with the thing behind him, and it gets harder and harder to separate one from the other.

It made me happier to write this book than the first one. That doesn’t mean it’s better, but it does mean it’s more personal. As a former soldier myself, telling the story of someone dealing with what they’ve been through was something I really wanted to do. Those aren’t stories that make headlines, but they’re real stories that people are living. I’m not sure I’ve done them justice, but I definitely gave it a go.

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Spaceside: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Susan Forest

In today’s Big Idea, Susan Forest is an author with a mission — a real-world mission that reveals itself in a fantastical way in her novel Bursts of Fire.

SUSAN FOREST:

I love traditional fantasy. I love the magic and the quest. I love the perils, the monsters, and the politics. So when I set out to write Bursts of Fire, I wanted to create a clever, light-hearted heist romp fantasy.

Ever have a story grow?

Right.

Ideas beget ideas prolifically, and the story became an epic political and family saga. When I spoke with Laksa Media about publishing my novel(s), the topic of the central driving idea came up. Laksa Media’s mission is to bring social issues to light for examination and discussion through fiction. When Publisher Lucas K. Law asked me what social cause my series addressed, I looked at him for a moment and blinked.

But I immediately knew the answer to his question. Addictions. Because the subconscious plays a role in story creation, even when the conscious mind is unaware of its influence, the subtext was there all along. It only took his question to make me see it—The Big Idea.

Why addictions? For me, the answer is clear. There is no family that has not been touched by addictions, including mine.

Take James (not his real name), a former boyfriend.

I met James when I was a newly-single mom breaking into my first semi-professional acting role. James was a pro, and if not handsome, he was charismatic, highly respected, and talented. He was also an alcoholic. And he was attracted to me—of course, at a time when I was feeling most unattractive and vulnerable.

James only stayed in my life for about six months, and those six months were wild. I was cautioned about him early on, but he made me feel like the only woman on earth. He also sent me away in tears. I knew he would never become a permanent part of my life, but I think the defining break came for me when my sister-in-law, a psychologist, warned me never to leave him alone with my children.

The idea of addictions has always fascinated and terrified me, which may be one reason why my subconscious had built this theme into the story when I wasn’t looking. But the topic dovetails perfectly with Laksa Media’s mission; it’s an issue of mental health hidden in shame, and needs to be brought into the open. Through Laksa’s editorial input, deeper research, and further drafts, Bursts of Fire—and the entire Addicted to Heaven series—deepened in complexity and richness.

Alcohol and drug addiction are little-understood forms of mental illness; for centuries, the stigma of the illness has colored research and treatment, leading to medical and health myths. Heredity, environment, social structures, economics, and politics all appear to have roles in the development and persistence of the malady.

Those with genetic conditions, such as untreated ADHD (which runs in my family), are statistically more likely to succumb. So are people with early trauma. Exposure to substances, particularly at a young age, seems to be a factor, and people diagnosed with addictions have measurable changes in their brain structure and chemistry.

Cultures which pair alcohol with masculinity, or those exposed to cultural trauma such as having children removed en masse from families, have higher rates of illness. Drug policy has been racially and economically influenced, from the British/Chinese opium wars to the criminalization distinctions between cocaine and crack.

But, much evidence is correlational, and causality is complex.

Treatment has ranged from exorcism, imprisonment, and forms of chemical intervention, to abstinence through willpower or religion. Harm reduction has shown promise, but it is highly controversial. Medical care models based on for-profit frameworks are not necessarily also based on best scientific research.

Hope for better treatments comes from our willingness to see addictions as chronic illnesses like diabetes, which can be treated through lifestyle and dietary adjustments or through medication. If addiction can be separated from its clinging stigma, perhaps we can create a similar range of individualized therapies with greater effectiveness.

The bottom line is we simply don’t have all the answers. But a seven-book series gives me the scope to explore a wide range of issues dealing with substance use.

The first book of the series, Bursts of Fire, releases three high-born, magical sisters into a world of abrupt change, to rely on their wits and unravel the mystery of a mad king’s inexplicable attack on their home. It abounds with breathless excitement, but it also deals with the first tastes of addictive spells.

Book Two, Flights of Marigolds, takes the adventure and politics higher with a rebel defeat and pursuit of a McGuffin, but it also takes the social issues deeper by examining the question of enabling and co-dependence. Later books in the series will introduce a pair of mischievous con men and a clever cat burglar and also address factors that make some individuals and groups more at risk for substance abuse than others.

The series considers not only adverse consequences, but also the joys and delights of substance use. Drugs and alcohol have been used throughout history and across cultures for celebration, rituals, social affiliation, pleasure, inspiration, and spiritual connection. Carl Hart, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Columbia University, notes, “If the vast majority of people who use any drug do not become addicted, you can’t blame the drug for addiction. The reality is, the overwhelming amount of drug use that occurs in a society is positive; not only positive, but life enhancing.”

So, yes: Bursts of Fire (and its ensuing sequels) is many things: a political epic, a family saga, a heist romp, a magical fantasy. It is also a garden of exploration for big ideas. Bring on the delights of fantasy novels. Bring on the thieves, kings, and magic users. Bring on the hidden social issues. Big ideas can grow from stories of rollicking adventure. And one can also have thoughtful content within a book or a series that is fun to read.

—-

Bursts of Fire: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Sophia McDougall

Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas series was written a number of years ago, but only this month is being released in the US for the first time. Today, McDougall recounts the where, when and why this alternate history series was created… and what it’s like looking back on that creation today.

SOPHIA McDOUGALL:

It was early autumn, but it still felt like summer. My teeth were sticky from ice-cream. Boys were flying kites in the bright blue sky. It was the end of my first grown-up holiday, a week with my best friend in a greasy hotel on the Costa Brava.

There was just time freshen up before the bus to the airport. A TV was on in the hotel lobby and as we hurried through on the way to the bathroom, I heard something about the conservative leadership election. I brushed my teeth hastily and headed back. I wanted to know how it turned out.

Then my brain processed that what I’d actually heard was that the election results would be delayed … as a mark of respect …

And the lobby was unusually crowded, and everyone was staring at that TV…

I joined them.

And we all watched the twin towers fall, for the first of hundreds upon hundreds of times.

Like millions of others, I felt history shifting, splitting in two.

When I got home – also like millions of others – I picked up the habit of watching the same horrific footage over and over, as though it might somehow play out differently. Or as though, in the smoke, it might be possible to pick out the answers we were so desperate for.

What did it mean? Would it happen again? Would there be a war? Could we stop it?

What would happen next?

But now, as you read this, you have what not even the most powerful men on the planet had at the time: you know what happened next.

Perhaps you remember how that suspense felt then. You know how it still feels now:

Who gets to survive this? What can we do? Is it even worth trying?

When the books are written, the answers will be known. If the characters try to grab hold of any of history’s levers and pull, readers will know in advance if they succeed or fail. Exceptional writers can narrow this distance from historical figures – Hilary Mantel almost makes me forget that I already know the fate of Anne Boleyn, almost convinces me that this time things might be different.

Or you can use the distance to ramp up the suspense. Characters can run around shouting “this ship is unsinkable!”

But the fact that the past is now unchangeable makes it easy to forget that it was never inevitable. Things could always have been different. History, as it is lived, always can be different.

Two years after that last afternoon in Spain, I started writing the Romanitas trilogy.

Later still, when people asked why I wrote alternate history, I said, “Because it’s more like history than history.”

*

I didn’t mean to write a novel then. I was a poet. The thing about poems? They’re short. I was twenty-three and confident to the point of cocky, but I still knew I was nowhere near ready to write novels.

I assumed that in a few years, I’d write literary fiction. That was what I’d studied. That was the obvious next step. I overlooked the fact that I spent at least as much time saturating in Philip Pullman and Star Wars and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as I did contemplating Sylvia Plath.

But one afternoon, I found myself daydreaming about the big epic fantasy trilogy I’d like to write – you know, for fun! – after the serious, proper books that would somehow materialise first.

A cast of thousands. Supernatural stuff. Characters who still had the chance to change a world whose history wasn’t known yet. Oh, and I always loved stories about people on the run!

And yet … would these books have to be set in a “magical world”? Wasn’t there a way to write epic fantasy, or at any rate something like epic fantasy, in this one?

And what would people be running away from?

Well, the Roman Empire was epic and scary and suffused with the supernatural. And it was a world I knew pretty well. I’d read their letters and poems and histories. I knew something about how they thought.

But everyone would already know what happened. There would be such immovable limits to what could happen. As if it had always been inevitable.

Unless … it was an alternative world. Recognisable, but different. A Roman Empire that hadn’t fallen. A modern Roman Empire.

Obviously I wasn’t going to write this novel yet, but immediately a lot of it arrived in my head.

Rome would be huge and inescapable and sometimes as seductive as it was horrific.

Romans with cars. And television.  But also guns. And an arms race between Rome and … maybe Japan? And a wall across North America. And also slavery.

That’s what the characters would be running away from! A teenage brother and sister, and she’d save him from being crucified … and she’d hate Rome with everything she was – but could she ever really outrun it?

At the other end of the scale, there’d be the heir to the imperial throne … soaking in privilege, but in danger too. There’d be people willing to kill to prevent the changes he’d make to the Empire …

Well, I thought, that all sounded cool. But yikes! Definitely too demanding for a first novel! Maybe in ten years’ time, I’d be ready to have a crack at it.

Twenty minutes later I thought, “Oh well, I’ll just start.”

*

It’s only now – seventeen years since I started writing Romanitas and eleven years since I finished it – that the trilogy is finally reaching the US and Canada. Revisiting them now is strange – after all this time, you might think I’d be able to encounter them almost as a new reader myself, without knowledge what happens next. But I can’t. I remember everything. The parts I’d do differently now, the parts that feel more relevant than I’d like (that fucking wall isn’t the half of it) and the parts I lived so intensely that it feels as though I never really stopped writing them. For so long, they were the centre of my life, and they continue to shape so much of it. I definitely didn’t see that coming.

—-

Romanitas: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound

Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Reese Hogan

In fantasy worlds, we’re used to the idea of “secondary worlds” — worlds not unlike our own, branched off in specific ways — and in Shrouded Loyalties, author Reese Hogan branches off from an unusual place indeed.

REESE HOGAN:

To try to figure out the big idea behind Shrouded Loyalties—and the wording here is something I had to constantly remind myself of as I thought about this blog post; not all the big ideas coming together, but the big idea that started it all—I’d have to boil the book down to the very first elements that were present, before it blossomed and grew into something beyond what I imagined.

Only three things from my very first draft survived until the final book: 1) the setting—I always knew I wanted a World War II-inspired secondary world; 2) people being hunted for magic tattoos—these grew into the marks two of my characters receive in the second chapter; and 3) the idea of a soldier returning home from war to discover that her little brother is an enemy collaborator.

It was this last idea that really defined how the book grew. Originally, Blackwood was a soldier in the army, rather than a sailor on a submarine, but I needed her to be farther from home to give her brother, Andrew, the space to distance himself from her emotionally. I needed to give the enemy a reason to want Andrew on their side, so his and Blackwood’s parents became scientists who’d left valuable research behind after dying in a freak accident. I needed to give Blackwood a secret big enough that the enemy getting ahold of it could mean the downfall of her own country, and I needed to give Andrew the motivation and means to take that secret and give it to the very people she hated.

Finally, from a draft of the book that only shared Blackwood’s side of the story, I gave Andrew a point of view, so the reader could understand why he makes the decisions he does—and maybe even sympathize with those decisions. So, before I ever had a pair of spies targeting the Blackwood siblings or an alternate world filled with monsters, I had Blackwood and her brother, two very very different people who could barely hold a conversation, pitted against one another in the most personal way possible.

The result brought me into territory I hadn’t expected, in terms of grief and depression and self-loathing, and I found myself growing increasingly convinced that this was the story my heart had been leading me to all along—the temptations that can seduce us in our darkest hours, and the powerful toll mental health issues can have on relationships and communication. I am no stranger to these feelings, but I don’t often see them explored in the SFF genre, and I realized as I wrote Blackwood and Andrew’s relationship that this was my chance to make these issues accessible in a new way. That’s why Shrouded Loyalties, a novel about alternate realms and spies and monsters, is at its heart a story of two people who never learned to communicate.

But I didn’t know any of this when I started writing it. In the beginning, my big idea was as simple as a teenage brother lured to the wrong side of the tracks, and the guilt of the big sister who knew deep down that she should have been there to protect him. I didn’t know if the relationship would be fixable. I didn’t know how far Andrew would go in his collaboration. All I knew was that there’s nothing more devastating than a sibling relationship gone this badly wrong, and that it was something I was dying to explore.

—-

Shrouded Loyalties: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Keren Landsmann

Today’s Big Idea, for Israeli author Keren Landsmann’s new book The Heart of the Circle, is heartbreaking.

KEREN LANDSMANN:

I had a big idea. I was going to write about the murder of Shira Banki in Pride in Jerusalem in 2015, and how it affected writing The Heart of the Circle. It was supposed to be a very inspirational post, about what I think being an ally means, why literature is important and how it can change people’s point of view, with a call for action at the end. It would have worked lovely with the book’s main theme about social awareness, joining forces against extremists and highlighting marginalized population. But my country is in flames as I’m writing this, and that post is as far away from me as possible.

Selomon Teka, an 18 year old boy was killed a few days ago. The cause for his death changes according to whom you prefer to listen to. Either he was a trouble-maker who started a fight and threatened a police officer who tried to calm spirits, and got shot because of it, or he was innocent, just had a fight with his friend, and the police officer meddled for no reason, shooting him point-blank, killing him.

The only things that remains constant in both the police’s version and the family and friends’ version is that he is dead. And that the boy was Ethiopian. Which means his skin was dark.

When I write, I do so to deal with the real-world, when reality becomes too unbearable for me. I put all of my confusion and pain into my writing, and things feel better after that. I wrote about prostitution when I started working in a free STD clinic in south Tel Aviv and got to know the sex workers that came to me. I wrote about trying to cheat death after a close friend died suddenly. I started writing about LGBTQ rights after that same friend, a few years earlier, explained to me what it means to be gay in our so-called free country.

We talked a lot, and from those conversations Reed and Lee were born. The world in which my characters lived was way better in the first draft, but then Shira Banki was murdered in 2015, and I realized what my story was really about. The Big Idea behind The Heart of The Circle isn’t that big – it is simply the notion that we should treat people with respect.

Now, you see, that’s what I was going to write about. But the world clearly had different plans. Selomon Teka’s death started demonstrations all over Israel, and some of them were violent. People were blocking roads, throwing rocks, fighting with police officers, and burning tires. When I say my country is in flames, I mean it in the most literal way.

The stories that surfaced since Selomon Teka’s murder exposed an ugly, brutal, segregated Israel, which I thought had disappeared into the eighties, after huge waves of immigration from Ethiopia. People are now speaking of police harassment, unjustified body searches and arrests, and I don’t know what to do. I have no words. Because what can I say? “Don’t judge a person by the color of their skin”? From what I’m seeing on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, not everyone agrees with that idea, one which I didn’t think was that ‘big’ in the first place.

Shira Banki shouldn’t have died. Selomon Teka shouldn’t have died. I’m not naïve. I’m a doctor and I know people die; I know our world is unjust. But I still don’t understand why an 18 year old boy is dead because of his skin color, and why a 16 year old girl is dead because she marched for equal rights.

People die in my country every day. We have many problems here and a lot of injustice. And in weeks like the last one we just had, I continue to wish more people understood those most basic human concepts: respect, acceptance, kindness.

Maybe it is a big idea after all.

—-

The Heart of the Circle: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Christopher Brown

No matter what, there are always lawyers. But what happens when there lawyers… but not much law? It’s an idea — dare we say, a big idea — that Christopher Brown considers in his novel, Rule of Capture.

CHRISTOPHER BROWN:

Who are the lawyers you call when you get in trouble in dystopia?

This question came to me one hot summer day several years ago when I was working on my last novel, Tropic of Kansas. I was diligently slogging my way through the middle of the book—you know, the part where you get totally stuck in the weeds, lost without a compass, tearing your hair out and nothing to help you except for every book you’ve ever read and all the things the world around you has to teach if you open your eyes. The characters I was writing that day were a pair of young fugitives, on the run through the ecologically devastated heartland of an authoritarian mirror America, chased by Carhartt militias and autonomous drones. And then one of them got sick, and had to turn himself in. What do you do when your buddy gets locked up in a dystopian prison camp? Especially when you’ve already had one jail break, which is all any single novel can handle.

I took my own break, ran an errand, and then stopped for a coffee by the side of the highway. As I walked back to the car, I noticed the giant billboard looming over me with the image of a larger than life dude sporting leather jacket and tie, wild long hair, a cunning smile, and a very Austin tagline: THE LAWYER WHO ROCKS.

And I immediately thought, what kind of cases would that kind of lawyer handle in my dystopian USA? Being one myself, I know lawyers can make a living helping navigate any legal system you throw at them. And even in the most repressive societies, the ones that lock people up and disappear them without due process, there are lawyers who fight to extract some kernel of justice—and extract some fees along the way.

By the end of the day, there was a billboard inside my novel. Donny Kimoe, “the lawyer even the law is afraid of.” And conveniently for my cell phone-avoiding character, there was a pay phone nearby, and a last quarter in his pocket.

Donny’s onstage scenes got cut, but his billboard survived. And after I finished Tropic of Kansas, I kept thinking about the character, and about that idea, of the lawyers of dystopia. And the more I thought about it, the more potential I saw. Science fiction is full of laws, from Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics to the Prime Directive, but almost entirely devoid of lawyers. In contrast, most legal thrillers are not actually about the law, but just the facts—figuring out who committed the crime and meting out punishment. If you set a legal thriller in a science fiction, the “literature of ideas,” you could have the best of both worlds—a gripping courtroom drama whose outcome rides not just on the lawyer proving the facts, but on the lawyer figuring out how to work an unjust system.

I pitched the idea to my editor—“think Better Call Saul meets Nineteen Eighty-Four”—and he liked it so much he wanted two.

Rule of Capture, out today from Harper Voyager, is the result. The story of Donny Kimoe, a burned out trial lawyer defending political dissidents hauled in front of the special emergency court of an America drifting into totalitarianism. Busy trying to save one client from the death penalty after he’s framed for aiding an attack on the President, Donny gets assigned the unwinnable case of Xelina Rocafuerte, a young journalist and eco-activist who witnessed the assassination of a grassroots political leader and is being prosecuted as a terrorist to silence her.  To get her off, Donny has to extract justice from a system in which due process has been suspended. That means breaking the rules, and risking the same fate as his clients.

Donny practices law in a world where the clients are mostly guilty. It’s the laws they violate that are unjust. In otherwords, it’s a lot like the real world, but uses the tools of dystopian fiction to tell truths more conventionally realist legal thrillers cannot. Crafting an imaginary legal system is as challenging a form of worldbuilding as it sounds. But to get started, I didn’t have to go much farther than the nearest law library, where, it turns out, you can find real-world precedents for just about any dystopian legal premise you can imagine—usually codified in laws that are still on the books.

I found an entire section of dusty how-to books on the administration of military rule over the civilian population, mostly from the time before World War Two when martial law was frequently invoked to suppress labor struggles. The suspension of habeas corpus so popular in the South American dictatorships of the 1970s is a power the founders wrote right into our Constitution—one Lincoln invoked during the Civil War. And for my Kafkaesque emergency court, I drew from the trial transcripts of the tribunals still going on at Guantánamo Bay. To paraphrase the Gomi-no-Sensei, the dystopia is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.

Once the research was done, I learned that writing lawyer stories is harder than it looks from the outside. Behind the often clichéd courtroom scenes (“Objection!”) and procedural narrative structure, they require you to tell your story in a very different way—the way evidence is presented to a court, which is very different than the usual “show, don’t tell.” Lawyers are a peculiar species of trickster, and they don’t allow too much interiority for fear of giving up their sneaky strategy. But once you figure these rules out, the format reveals tremendous promise. Especially when you mix it up with the things you’ve learned from turning the world upside down in science fiction.

 

Done right, it might even help prevent us from needing lawyers like Donny in real life.

—-

RULE OF CAPTURE: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Powell’s | Audible

Watch the book trailer. Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram.

The Big Idea: Matt Mikalatos

In today’s Big Idea, author Matt Mikalatos considers the idea of justice, and how it works both in our world in and the world of his novel, The Heartwood Crown.

MATT MIKALATOS:

“Whatever happens, don’t go to the police.”

Twenty years ago I lived in a totalitarian state. Still, I was an American, and was treated with general respect. We Americans brought a decent amount of money into the country. My acquaintance who warned me away from the police brought in more than a decent amount.

Someone had broken into his house in a gated community and stolen some electronics. He made a report, and the police returned his belongings a few days later. They had caught the thief, they said, and executed him. The thief’s family had been required to pay for the execution.

The emotions coming out of this moment would become a core part of The Heartwood Crown. The horror of someone losing their life over a VCR. The recognition of how messy it is to seek justice. Do we consider issues like this thief’s poverty? Why is justice harsher if he steals from the rich and influential? Wasn’t another injustice created by killing this man? What does that mean for his family, his friends, his community? What is the role of government and the police force here? And, years later, realizing that this sort of thing happens here in the United States, too… that too often terrible costs are paid for small crimes.

The Heartwood Crown is the second book in a trilogy. I already had the big idea for the series overall: There’s a fantasy world called the Sunlit Lands that’s only open to teenagers. What’s more, to cross from our world into the Sunlit Lands they have to be teens who have experienced tragedy or true injustice in their personal lives.

And I already had the main characters, carrying over from the first book, The Crescent Stone:
Madeline Oliver is a privileged American with a terminal illness.

Shula Bishara is a Syrian war orphan.

Jason Wu lied to his parents, and his sister died as a result.

Darius Walker had a loved one stolen away by the magical people of the Sunlit Lands.

The big idea I was lacking was a theme. I knew that I wanted to explore issues of injustice, generational wrongs, revenge, mercy, and forgiveness, but I was having a hard time narrowing all that down.

I had plenty of in-universe ways to explore those themes. Madeline discovers her terminal illness was the result of magical interference in her life. There are people in the Sunlit Lands called the Scim who have been in generations of poverty because of another people group, the Elenil. Shula is dealing with the loss of her parents and siblings. And all these teenagers had the passion and desire to fix the world, they were looking for solutions.

The intersection of injustice and the question “what do we do about it?” finally brought my big idea into focus: exploring the myth of redemptive violence.

My whole life I’ve been taught that violence is the solution to injustice. Entire genres of movies taught me that if someone threatened my loved ones, I should hunt the bad guys down and kill them. The government taught me that if there’s an evil regime somewhere in the world, we should go to war. When I was a child, some people in my religious tradition even taught me that a loving God required not just death but violence in response to evil actions. “It’s only through violence that we can have peace,” they would say. It sounds like a George Orwell quote, but that’s the message of redemptive violence. It’s what leads us to places where criminals are executed for stealing a VCR or selling loose cigarettes.

Fantasy novels often embrace this idea. We have to kill the evil king, fire bomb the city with dragons, build our undead army, or find the magic spear that can slaughter our enemies. It’s not that other tools don’t exist, but if there’s injustice we reach instinctively for the sword.

So now that I had the big idea, I had to flesh it out. Darius already had a magic sword and a thirst for revenge, so I sent him off for the traditional quest: build an army, then find and kill the evil king.

Meanwhile, Madeline’s perspective changes as she confronts her own mortality. She doesn’t want to kill anyone – her own impending death is more than she can bear — she just wants to fix the world. Does she have the moral imagination to find a solution? Is power and violence required to change the world?

Shula is wrestling with the violent deaths of her own family… and how could anything other than a violent response be sufficient?

And Jason is dealing with the very real question that haunts many of us: How can he forgive himself?

This led, of course, to flying cats and swamp monsters and necromancers and a kitten-sized unicorn named Delightful Glitter Lady. There are unbreakable oaths and dirigibles and enchanted shackles and – yes – revenge. Secrets. Sacrifice. It’s still a fantasy novel, after all!

Ursula K. LeGuin said, “Imagination is the instrument of ethics. There are metaphors besides battle, many choices besides war, and most ways of doing good do not, in fact, involve killing anybody. Fantasy is good at thinking about those other ways.”

Twenty years ago a man was executed for stealing from an acquaintance of mine. Today there are spaces where our culture keeps pushing us, over and over, toward violence. The Big Idea for The Heartwood Crown is that maybe, just maybe we can expand our moral imagination to find new solutions to the problems that plague us. As Jason often says in the book, we have to learn to change our story. That was a little frustrating as the author since he would never do what I wanted (he refuses to fight warriors, confront dragons, or accept the consequences of magic), but it’s good advice for us in real life.

—-

The Heartwood Crown: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

Here’s a link to the first couple chapters of the book. Matt’s website and Twitter account.

The Big Idea: Dee Garretson

There’s the old adage that history is written by the winners — but history, and who gets to tell it, is more complicated than that. As Dee Garretson will tell you, as she talks about her new novel, Paradox Hunt.

DEE GARRETSON:

My son used to believe I had eyes in the back of my head, to the point where he would comb through my hair looking for them. At those times I would tell him I could make the eyes disappear whenever I wanted to and he fell for that as well. It wasn’t something he wanted to believe, unlike Santa Claus, the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny, all who rewarded his beliefs with good things. He believed me because I was a person in authority. I feel a tiny bit bad about it now, but then it made my life easier so he wouldn’t pinch his sister in the backseat when I was driving.

We also had a kid in our neighborhood with an amazing imagination who convinced the other kids they could get rabies from touching a tree that a rabid animal had climbed. While that kid didn’t have any authority, he could tell stories and sound absolutely convincing so they believed him. I really hope the boy grew up to be a writer instead of a politician.

It’s easy to shape the beliefs of a few young children, but people with power and reach can manipulate the beliefs not just of the young and gullible but of the educated as well. I’ve thought about this for a long time. I studied history in college and I’ve wanted to write a story with this theme ever since I read an article in the Chicago Tribune about how the Chinese government didn’t broadcast the 1969 moon landing and decided their people didn’t need to know it happened. It happens in the U.S. as well-we hear about far too many textbooks that try to lessen the impact of slavery or promote a revisionist history of the Civil War.

So the big idea for Paradox Hunt arose from all of this: How do you know the history you are taught is true?

Paradox Hunt is about two young people from two different cultures, and each culture has manipulated the accounts of their histories to keep the powerful in their societies in control.

The galaxy is on the brink of chaos and Earth has grown repressive over the centuries, touting democratic principles while ruling with an iron fist. Sixteen-year-old Quinn Neen has discovered the truth behind the façade and he is determined not to be part of the elite who let the horrors continue.

I wanted to take this story beyond just having the characters fight against authority. Both Quinn and Mira, the main characters, benefit from this power structure. Their families are in charge. What does it take to move beyond your own self interest to do what’s right? It’s easy to search for truth and rail against power if you don’t have it, but if you benefit from it, it’s so much more difficult.

I wrote this story as a future where Earth is in control of much of the galaxy, because it’s easy to imagine that given humans’ propensity to colonize what they want, it’s a likely way in which the future may play out. I wrote it as young adult fiction, not because I want to go back to being a teenager (!), but because much like writers trying to get published for the first time, young adults have that mix of naivety and bravado to keep going even when it seems like everyone around you is trying to slap you down.

Save the galaxy? Sure, we can try that. Why not? Who says we can’t?

I like to write about people who are optimistic enough to believe they can make a difference. We all need those stories in this day and age. Oh, and just for fun, I’ve included a diva parrot, because why can’t there be parrots on space ships?

—-

Paradox Hunt: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Gretchen McCulloch

Hey, did you know you’re on the internet right now? It’s true! And as it happens, the internet has been doing things to the way language is used for almost as long as there has been an internet. And now, author Gretchen McCulloch is here to tell you a little bit about that, why she felt that it was interesting enough to capture in her book, titled, naturally enough, Because Internet, and how, in some ways, a book is an ideal repository of information about an electronic medium.

GRETCHEN McCULLOCH:

In 2014, I started writing a book about internet language. Every so often, while I was working on it, I would look at myself and think, surely this is a fool’s errand. How could I possibly sum up the entirety of the living, breathing language of the internet within a couple hundred static pages? 

That wasn’t my only problem. I also had to figure out who I was writing this book for. Imaging the audience is a crucial part of writing for me — it inspires my jokes and metaphors and cultural references, even though I know it’s never completely true. When I write for somewhere like The Toast or Wired, the audience is already very clear in my imagination, a joyful companion while I write. But I could imagine these audiences because I was already reading these news sites — writing for them is adding my voice to an existing chorus. A book doesn’t have an audience when it doesn’t exist yet. 

The big idea that solved both of these problems together was deciding that I was writing to the reader of the future. If it was going to be several years before anyone read the words I started drafting in 2014, why not acknowledge how weird that was and cast my sights even further forward? If any book about the internet was inevitably going to be out of date sooner or later, why not write it with an eye to the reader of, say, 2049 or 2099, just as much as towards the reader of 2019? 

Writing towards the future provided useful practical guidance. One thing I had to figure out was exactly which bits of the internet needed additional context. When I was writing towards the reader of the present, I’d worried about seeming condescending by explaining what Snapchat or Usenet was (for two, ahem, very different audiences). But when I thought of myself as writing towards the future, I realized that I was grateful to writers of the past for their vivid explanations of now-dead technologies, and felt less self-conscious about necessary asides. 

Another practical thing that I did for the benefit of future readers was to safeguard against link rot, a problem I faced constantly when trying to access urls from old articles. I archived all of the links mentioned in the book via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, and made a donation to help them stay in operation, which I then made a note of in the acknowledgements section. This allows readers of the future to know what to do with any urls that stop working, acknowledges the important work that the Internet Archive does, and encourages other authors to do likewise. 

Writing for the future also let me write a book that wouldn’t sound dated quite so quickly.  I grew tired of reading “now” or “current” or “modern” and flipping to the copyright page, so I became conscientious about using absolute time references like particular years and decades. I noticed the amusing datedness of words like “Web site” and “E-mail” in earlier books about technology. Linguistic conservatism caters to the reader of the past, but the reader of the past doesn’t exist anymore — someone in 1999 can’t bend time and read a book published in 2019. The reader of the future does exist — someone in 2039 can very well pick up a book published in 2019. Why should I not, in my turn, aim to avoid things that are likely to seem hilariously out of date to a reader a few decades hence? (I’ll give you a clue: one of them is uppercase “internet.”) 

But those were largely cosmetic changes. Writing towards the future also changed the structure of the whole book. Rather than worry about whether I was chronicling a complete list of all of the possible functions for emoji or punctuation, all of the possible memes or social media platforms, I went for a longer timeline of where each of these things came from — all caps has precursors in Victorian letters, irony punctuation has proposals back to 1575, people doodled in postcards before emoji came on the scene, and so on. I started aiming for a bigger picture of how each of these things fit into communication, one that could still be true even if we replace all of the specific sites and tools we’re using.

I found out that, paradoxically, a book can be bigger than the internet. The very constraints of a book — its linearity, its lack of updates — are also its greatest strengths. I can be far more confident that each reader will have a roughly similar experience of a book, rather than spidering off in all directions as with hypertext. When I work on an article or the podcast, I have to assume that each individual post or episode might be the first time someone has even heard of linguistics. There’s no designated reading order for the internet. But with a book, I have the luxury of being able to take people through a sequence of chapters, letting ideas build on top of each other, developing a fuller argument. It’s a smaller space, but it can support bigger ideas. 

In the end, I wrote a book about the internet by not trying to compete with the internet on its home turf. If you want to look up the latest memes and slang, there’s always websites like Know Your Meme and Urban Dictionary and Emojipedia. But if you want something that tries to take a step back and see the internet as if we’re already living in the future, well, may I interest you in a book? 

—-

Because Internet: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Listen to her podcast. Follow her on Twitter.  

The Big Idea: Derryl Murphy and William Shunn

Authors Derryl Murphy and William Shunn weren’t necessarily looking to collaborate on a story. But then a chance encounter on the road set events into motion that would result in Cast a Cold Eye. I’ll let the two of them take it from here.

DERRYL MURPHY and WILLIAM SHUNN:

Derryl Murphy:

My mind often wanders to thoughts of Story on long drives. A story I’m writing, a story I want to write, often a story I had no idea existed. The latter happens more often than is healthy, and in the middle of one eight-hour drive with my wife and two (now adult) sons I watched an old truck with a hand-painted sign approach, and as it zipped by I knew I had misread the sign but insisted Jo write down that misreading in my notebook: Spirit Photographer.

At the same time I was wrestling with a few disparate ideas circling the Spanish flu epidemic that had killed a great-grandfather. Perhaps I could tie them together when I got home.

Reader, I could not. I tried and tried, but wasn’t happy with any of the outcomes. At one point I was sure this would be a short story, another time I worried I was looking at a novel. About ready to shelve it and move on to other things, I happened to read a story by Bill Shunn and thought, Gee, I wonder if he might have the key? And so I emailed him.

William Shunn:

When Derryl’s email arrived, I was already working on too many projects at once, with too little time for them all – like usual. This was the summer of 2004, and I lived in Queens, New York. I had a novel and a handful of short stories going, not to mention another draft of my seemingly endless memoir project. Derryl is Canadian, but I had become acquainted with him online when he moved to Utah and started hanging out with some of my old writing group friends. I liked him and I admired his work, but jumping into a collaboration with anyone was not high on my list of priorities.

It wasn’t just that I was so busy with my solo projects. I don’t think I trusted the process of collaboration. I had only tried it once before, in the mid ’90s, with a young writer who was on a hot streak and couldn’t seem to not sell every story she wrote. Our collaboration sent her streak careening into a brick wall, and after just two rejections she swallowed some sleeping pills. She was fine – it was only six pills – but my desire ever to collaborate again had suffered a mortal blow.

Or so I thought. Despite myself, something about Derryl’s pitch spoke to me: “It involves photography and spirituality, sorta, which might make for a nice blend between us.” The pitch also involved Luke Bryant, a teenager whose parents were among the many who died in the Spanish flu epidemic, and Annabelle Tupper, a widowed “spirit photographer” who needs an apprentice for the duration of her stay in town.

With no idea what I was really signing up for, I said yes. Soon enough we were brainstorming over email, tossing ideas back and forth until we had a rough plot that we liked. Then Derryl sent me the first chunk of actual text – Luke hiding out in a cemetery where he can feel the statues watching him – and the hard part was underway.

Derryl Murphy:

It’s a difficult thing, writing with someone else. Whether it’s more difficult doing so long distance or if you’re in the same room fighting over the keyboard, I don’t know. But while it was a long haul – some four years – it did result in 24,000 words, as opposed to the five or six years it took to write a 5,100-word story with Peter Watts. (Points to the first person who can point out the odd thing Bill and Peter have in common.)

What did that four years get us? Well, I fully believe that Luke Bryant would not be the realized, pained, and desperate young man he became if it wasn’t for Bill. I think working together resulted in a fine line between keeping things real and heavy-duty one-upmanship: we didn’t mess things up for each other, even as we ramped things up more than either of us might have done on our own.

It also got us a damned spooky story. And a damned moving one.

William Shunn:

From this remove, it’s hard to remember who was responsible for which elements of Cast a Cold Eye. Certainly Derryl provided all the expertise in early photography, including the eerie detail of Annabelle’s chemically blackened eye. The Nebraska setting was my contribution. Beyond that – the stern uncle and aunt, the gun in the truck, the ghostly buffalo – who can say? One thing I can say for sure, though, is that this slim book would not exist without both of us.

The Big Idea of Cast a Cold Eye, looked at one way, is of a boy plagued by ghosts who learns to see a brighter world – literally – through the lens of a camera. It’s the story of a haunting, yes, but even more so it’s a story about perception.

But looked at another way, it’s a story about two people with their own ways of doing things learning to work together to create something neither one could have created alone. That’s what Luke and Annabelle do in the book. I like to believe that’s what Derryl and I did in learning to tell their story.

Derryl Murphy:

We were lucky enough to sell the story, a rejection or two before a fairly quick acceptance from PS Publishing in the UK, which resulted in a gorgeous little hardcover book, in a very limited signed and numbered edition and an only-slightly-less limited unsigned edition. When it was gone, it was gone. An apparition only a few people got to witness.

All these years later, we’re happy we can finally share the story of Luke and Annabelle and the ghosts that haunt them with the wider world.

—-

Cast a Cold Eye: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Apple Books|Kobo

Read an excerpt. Visit Derryl Murphy’s site and Twitter. Visit William Shunn’s site and Twitter.

The Big Idea: Christian McKay Heidicker

How scary is too scary? Or not scary enough? And does the calculus change when you’re writing for a younger audience? These are the questions that Christian McKay Heidicker confronted when writing Scary Stories for Young Foxes. Don’t be frightened: His answers await you below.

CHRISTIAN McKAY HEIDICKER:

When I started work on Scary Stories for Young Foxes, a middle-grade novel for ages eight to twelve, I had a tough decision ahead of me.

How scary should I make this thing?

The book is a retelling of classic horror tropes from the perspective of fox kits. Outside of some narratively necessary anthropomorphism (the foxes talk), I tried to make the story as scientifically accurate as possible. So, the zombies are rabies-infected foxes. The ghost is a white-furred predator that’s camouflaged by snow. And the witch is a woman who taxidermies small critters in order to sketch them for her children’s book. (This person was real, by the way. Her name was Beatrix Potter. Apologies if I just ruined your childhood.)

I had a vision and a formula. I just needed to decide how far to push the horror for my tender-aged readers.

Many fox kits don’t survive their first winter. The world is filled with hawks and badgers and tractors and traps that will snuff out their innocent, adorable lives. If I was going to be honest, then young foxes were going to die in this book. This started a tug-of-war in my brain.

Animal deaths in fiction seem to be more difficult for us to cope with than human ones. A good author friend stopped watching Game of Thrones because “They keep killing the direwolves!” Another friend still gets teary-eyed when she talks about Hedwig. Save the Cat, the all-time bestselling book about screenwriting, encourages writers to always, ALWAYS rescue the pet. I was caught between being honest about nature and breaking one of the golden rules of storytelling. So, I started searching for a model for how to be honest about fox experiences without disturbing my young readers beyond reason.

Of course, animal deaths are prevalent in popular children’s fiction: Where the Red Fern Grows, Black Stallion, Old Yeller, The Yearling. But these stories follow a specific formula: the death always comes at the end, and it teaches the reader a Big Lesson, be it about morality, responsibility, or even just introducing kids to the concept of death. But none of these stories qualify as horror. In order to deliver on the promise made by SSFYF’s cover, I’d need to shiver my readers’ whiskers from start to finish. I kept searching.

Fortunately for my book, anthropomorphized deaths seem to be less traumatizing than those of “real” animals, who have little to no agency. Charlotte from Charlotte’s Web was aware of her own mortality, so her death felt more like grandma slipping off to sleep. Aslan from Narnia obviously has his own thing going. And the splatter-horror fest that is Watership Down is mercifully shelved in the adult section.

Disney movies weren’t much help because they tend to exchange Big Lesson deaths for plot device. The Lion King and Bambi kill off parents early in the story so the main character can go on a great adventure. The best example I could find was in Pixar’s Finding Nemo. In the opening scene, the mother fish and ninety-nine percent of her eggs are eaten by a barracuda. It isn’t a lesson or a plot device but a bonding moment between father and son. Even though these are the last characters to die in the movie, the scene infinitely magnifies the threat of the deep, wide ocean our heroes about to get lost in.

Revisiting Finding Nemo emboldened me to make my book slightly scarier and to start poking at the literary norms. Why do we save animals in stories? Are we reasserting the obvious point that innocent creatures don’t deserve to die? Are we trying to convince the audience that we aren’t bad people and would never hurt a cat, not even a pretend one? Or are we just sweeping facts under the rug?

Considering that humans have developed into the type of creature that doesn’t like to know where our food comes from, I’d vote on the latter. We aren’t revolting against animal deaths in media for the animals’ sake—it’s for our own peace of mind. If anything, our ignorance of animal plights puts them in more danger. We only feel guilty drinking from plastic straws after seeing a YouTube video of one being bloodily extracted from a sea turtle. Most people I know tend not to finish these videos. I think this is because we’ve been trained to compartmentalize animal suffering from a young age. But I’m not convinced this does our kids any favors. As Neil Gaiman points out, “. . . if you are keeping people, young people, safe from the darkness . . . you are denying them tools or weapons that they might have needed and could have had.” Scary stories can be healthy for kids. But where was my model for how to tell the scary story I wanted to tell? David Attenborough to the rescue.

Right as I started writing the book, my fiancée introduced the BBC series Planet Earth to her young daughters. Those of you who have seen the show know that it can be harrowing. In one memorable scene, a lone baby iguana scrambles to escape a swelling tide of hungry snakes. My soon-to-be-stepdaughters barely batted an eyelash. In fact, I don’t think they blinked during the entire segment.

Was it scary? Absolutely. Did the girls pinch at their own elbows with worry for the poor baby iguana? You betcha. Did they whimper when some of the iguana’s siblings were caught and devoured? Of course. But did they want to see how it ended? Minecraft itself couldn’t have torn them away.

Most shockingly, the girls didn’t even cry. They’re four and six years old. They cry when I mess up the grilled cheese. But they accepted the iguana’s horrifying reality with quiet stoicism. There seems to be something about nature that kids inherently understand. Prey has to die so the predator can eat. The rain stops, and there isn’t enough water to go around. Humans tear down forests, leaving behind homeless orangutans. And there’s no all-powerful author who read Save the Cat to write them out of it.

Of course, nature documentaries always end on a hopeful note. Life finds a way. There’s no use in telling kids that the Earth is dying if you can’t also tell them there’s something we can do about it. You’ve gotta scrape a little char off that burnt grilled cheese.

After months of tweaking and balancing and adding a lick on the whiskered cheek for every gnash of teeth, I tried to make Scary Stories for Young Foxes land in what I call “Cozy Horror.” So long as there’s balance to the world . . . so long as life continues . . . things can get pretty scary. And instead of disturbing them to sleeplessness, I’m hoping my book will provide readers with tools to face the challenges ahead.

—-

Scary Stories for Young Foxes: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Jeffrey A. Carver

For his Big Idea for The Reefs of Time, the first of his Out of Time series, Jeffrey A. Carver talks about structure — of his story, the universe, and other important things.

JEFFREY A. CARVER:

Big ideas are the meat and potatoes of classical science fiction, but sometimes they collide with one another like bowling balls on a pool table. In The Chaos Chronicles, I have played with some pretty cool cosmic ideas: sentient suns and sentient singularities, supernovas and hypernovas started (or stopped) by the likes of humans and their alien friends, the starstream (a cosmic superhighway for star travel), an enormous Shipworld at the edge of the galaxy serving as refuge for species who have lost their home planets… and in my new book, time travel a billion years into the past, via quantum entanglement. I love this sort of thing! They are part of the driving energy of these books.

But long before I rolled any of that into this story, I had a big idea of a very different sort—a grand scheme for how I was going to structure the books. It was very new for me: I was going to make the books small. Short. Quick. Snappy. Entangled with each other, though not necessarily in a quantum sense.

I tend to create long stories—my mind just works that way—maybe not Game of Thrones long, but long enough that I’d completed a number of my books with enormous exhaustion, as well as satisfaction. Unfortunately, I’m also a slow writer. I had to rethink my approach.

Thus was born my crucial idea: Write that long story that’s percolating in your head—you’re going to, anyway—but do it in a string of short, connected-but-self-contained novels. That way you can keep the books coming, but still write long. (I can just hear you muttering, “Say, isn’t that what most people call writing a series?” Well, yes, that’s obvious now. But then, to me, it was a revelation.)

At first, I stuck to the plan. Neptune Crossing was suitably short, and pretty snappy. The books that followed were… not exactly short, but not long, really. And then I took a break to write in a different universe, and Eternity’s End was… the longest book I’d ever written. Uh-oh. By the time I came back to The Chaos Chronicles, my “big idea”—short, quick, snappy—lay in little bitty pieces. Smashed by the bowling balls of my other ideas. Sunborn took seven years. The Reefs of Time took eleven. A lot of people thought I’d quit writing, or died! When it was finished, it was so complex I had to break it into two volumes, though it was still one novel.

So much for my structural “big idea.” But I still had the cosmic gems I mentioned earlier. And they were a big part of why it took so long to write the blasted books.

When you set a story around sentient stars and supernovas and time-entanglement, there’s a central challenge: How do you wrap your people around such things? Part of it is a plotting problem. How do you make the ephemerals and the near-eternals intersect? But more than that, how do you create relationships? The stories I like to read are all about relationships. The cold universe might not care about us, but good stories aren’t just about cold, unfeeling things (or even “cold equations”). Stories are about people clashing and loving and hating and killing and rescuing and winning and losing and finding redemption. And by people, I mean everyone sentient, regardless of species, planet, number of dimensions occupied, or organic status.

I wasn’t sure how to do that. I’m a pretty intuitive writer, meaning I often don’t know what I’m writing until I’ve written it. Oh, I try to plan, but my way forward can be (with a nod to E.L. Doctorow) like driving in the fog at night with one headlight out. There’s a lot of faith involved. Faith that I’ll find the way. Fear that I won’t. Wrong turns. Bridges out. Lucky breaks. That’s how I felt as I threw my people together with cosmic entities.

So you want a character to somehow have a relationship with, maybe even a friendship with, say, a sentient star who lives on a scale so unthinkably different that the human is a mayfly by comparison? In this case (I eventually realized), it is helpful to have a third party who has a special facility for manipulating time. Time fusion. You can’t maintain it for long, but maybe for a brief interaction, the human and the star can connect. Share thoughts. Share feelings. Share joys and pain.

Or, as in Reefs, where the mental and emotional journey backward in time (through something called a ghoststream) is just as important as what you find when you arrive in deep time. I wanted to warn the characters: It’s crucial to notice little things you feel along the way. There might be something alive there, something that matters to you, even if you don’t know it yet. Also, that quantum thread of space-time you’re moving along is fuzzy, as quantum things tend to be. Think of it as yarn, not thread. The edges are uncertain. You might need to make use of that uncertainty to find your way home. You might need the help of unexpected others to find your way home. (I, the author, certainly needed the help of others—for example, my initial readers—to find my way home.)

But for all this, I think the biggest challenge remains the question (or questions) wordlessly posed: Who am I? What am I doing here? What will I do when confronted by, not just the problems I was expecting, but the hard edge of the infinite?

These are questions John Bandicut confronts—again and again, as his story unfolds and one crisis after another looms in his path. Will there be any rest for this man? Any salvation or redemption?

It’s not just John. Everyone who comes into his life, from the noncorporeal alien Charli, to the inscrutable Ik (whose homeworld was destroyed), to the two women he loves (Julie, a human; and Antares, an alien)—each one ends up facing similar questions. Why me? Can’t someone else save the world this time? Can I please rest?

Because you’re here, no, and not yet. And don’t expect to be thanked.

Battered by the winds of destiny, by the forces of chaos, by malice, or even just by ignorance, they have to find a way. It all seems terribly unfair. Who could be expected to rise to the job of (take your pick): preventing a comet from devastating the Earth, stopping a deadly AI from destroying a “Shipworld” vaster than the Earth, redirecting a rogue intelligent stardrive, or stopping a hypernova being engineered by a malicious intelligence? And yet, somehow, they find a way. Because they must.

If the lives of others depend on you, you must change, grow, adapt. Find a way. Because if there’s redemption to be found in this world, maybe that need is the first place to look.

—-

The Reefs of Time: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Kobo|Book View Cafe

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Facebook.

The Big Idea: Heather Webber

As a well-known pie enthusiast, I believe pretty much all pie is magic. But in Midnight at the Blackbird Café, author Heather Webber takes the “pie is magic” concept even further than that — and in the process opens doors to questions far beyond what might be in the pie filling.

HEATHER WEBBER:

Have you ever mourned someone you loved deeply?

After that person passed away, did you ever dream of them? A dream so real it was like they were still alive?

I have. And it’s those dreams that are driving force behind my new novel, Midnight at the Blackbird Café, where a magical piece of pie can bring a visit from a dearly departed loved one through a dream. Yes, pie. Blackbird* pie, specifically.

You see, this book was inspired by the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” After hearing the song for the first time, I was captivated with the concept of broken wings and how emotional wounds can keep many from being able to metaphorically fly. And if blackbirds could, what would they sing to us in the dead of the night? What do we most want to hear? Blackbird research led me quickly to the Song of Sixpence with its “four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie,” and then a tidbit in Celtic folklore revealed that blackbirds were considered guardians and messengers of the “Other world.” With that, the heart of this book took form. What if blackbirds with their songs could pass messages from dearly departed loved ones through, of all things, pie, to bring comfort and love to those left behind?

Yet, writing about death and its aftermath can be challenging, because everyone has different ways of grieving…and healing. As I wrote, it was a struggle at first to see past my desire have these special dreams heal every broken heart right from the outset. (It is a heartwarming, feel-good book, after all…and I’m a sap.) But I knew it was just as important to explore grief, and its various stages, through my characters’ eyes. A piece of pie wasn’t going to fix everybody, and the downside to these dreams had to be shown as well.

One of my main characters is a young widow searching for answers to the mysterious circumstances surrounding her husband’s death. She believes a visit from him in a dream will bring the closure she needs to move on. But will it? What is closure, exactly?

Another character eats a piece of pie to keep a connection to his wife, who passed on nearly ten years before. Yet is keeping that connection holding him back from living? Doesn’t learning to fly mean letting go?

Believing that loved ones who have passed on are still around in some way is not a new concept. Cardinals, butterflies, pennies, rainbows, feathers—and dreams—are often thought to be signs that heavenly loved ones are near. Are these signs wishful thinking? A coping mechanism? Maybe. Maybe not. If the sign brings a measure of peace and comfort…does it truly matter?

Like the characters in Midnight I want to believe that there might be more to life—and death—than anyone dreams possible. I’d eat a piece of that blackbird pie every chance I could get. Would you?

 

*Disclaimer: no birds were harmed in the creation of this book—the pies are made with fruit.

—-

Midnight At the Blackbird Café: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Snail On The Wall

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.

 

The Big Idea: Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

In today’s Big Idea, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone are feeling epistolary, which, considering the letter-writing format of their collaborative novella This is How You Lose the Time War, is entirely appropriate.

AMAL EL-MOHTAR and MAX GLADSTONE:

Dearest Max,

I write to you from the past—knowing you’re presently asleep while I’m awake, three hours’ worth of time zone between us—to talk about ideas. It’s tricky to know where to begin; when the most succinct description we can manage of our book clocks in at “epistolary spy vs. spy novella across time and space,” the ideas crowd and clutter.

But I think it all ultimately begins and ends with us. The two of us, becoming friends, and writing each other letters.

Do you remember when we first decided to write something together? I know the fact of it, but I don’t remember the hour, the words—only that we loved each other’s work, wanted to work together, wanted to set a sensible boundary of how and when and for how long to work together. A novella, not a novel or short story; something epistolary, to give our voices space to harmonize in their difference. I remember the plan, scribbled on a paper on the coffee table in my parents’ house, and the season, a cold snowy spring—but I wish I could remember, rather than invent, the moment in which one of us suggested it.

But I do remember the refrain we developed once we’d secured the time and space for a writing retreat at which to work. We spoke of

“The novella

that we will write

in [mysterious benefactor]’s house.”

We used it as punctuation, as shorthand, and we made jokes of it. Dolphins will speak! The stars will throw down their spears and water heaven with their tears! Because of

the novella

that we will write

in [mysterious benefactor]’s house.

We always structured it as hyperbole and line breaks. Ludicrously grand and specific claims capped with a bob and wheel, a promise, a spell. And look, look at this magic we made between us—our book is real, is soaring on red and blue wings, and my heart is a bird on a spit in my chest, as the prophets say.

So that’s how I see it, anyway—our Big Idea was that we wanted to write together. We wanted to find a methodology for blending our styles, for working together

on a novella

that we would write

in [Mysterious Benefactor]’s house

but that’s only the half of it, I think. I’m holding my memory up to the light, but I so badly want to see yours, what colours your own memory will cast against this page. What do you remember, Max? What’s the core of this, for you?

Love,

Amal

 

***

 

Dearest Amal,

It’s your future as I’m writing this—you still have a few hours of morning left. Enjoy them! Learn from my mistakes! Unfortunately the only mistakes I’m aware of so far today are, as follows: 1. didn’t have protein with breakfast, so I’m peckish now that it’s lunchtime, and 2. spent time on Twitter chatting about queer subtext (not to mention text) in the Great Gatsby. AND I ALONE AM ESCAPED TO TELL THEE!

So, in sum, it’s been okay over here, at least insofar as things-I-can-control are concerned. Wish I had more Future Wisdom to impart! Most of the things I’m discovering right now on a day to day basis have to do with child care, and most of them boil down to the fact that hardly anyone knows hardly anything, and that it’s a wonder and a miracle any of us is alive at all.

But to your question, about memories: I actually remember the initial conversation! I could find the date without much trouble, but since we intend this particular correspondence for outside observers I’m chary of letting others that close to the marrow of the thing. Suffice to say I was on my way home from a long, long tour, a bunch of authors in a single car, and I’d hit New York City dog tired and careworn.

New York is a great city to wash up in. You vanish like a grain of salt into a water glass. I was feeling that weird dry kind of lonesome you get when you’ve been around people too long and all of a sudden they’re gone—you’re worn out and hungry to be alone, but when you are, you feel like you’ve done something wrong. That one day, everyone I knew in the city was busy, or so far away it didn’t make sense for them to come. So I found an Italian restaurant near the Flatiron that had a restaurant week special, sat by myself at the bar, and opened up a folder of your stories to read.

We’d been corresponding for a while by this point, longhand, extremely low-tech. (It still feels weird to write you email! Or to text, even, after such a long entirely paper-based correspondence.) Naturally I’d read your criticism and I’d read The Green Book, but I hadn’t read your other stories; I’m honestly not sure why. I’d been writing you from the tour, but, of course, travel being what it is, I couldn’t get any letters back. I remember struggling to post them, hoping the counter attendants at the tiny B&Bs with their breakfast room TVs showing bad politics would remember to drop them in the mailbox. Anyway—I was starved for replies by this point, and I had a folder of your stories—so there at the bar, I read them all, one after another. Your friend’s story is not entirely your friend—but you can feel them in it, and also there’s a pure self betrayed in the telling of a good story. You learn what someone cares about by learning what they love, or hate, enough to write down.

By the end of the night I was drunk on those stories. They were different from my work—but they were so full, and so finished. I could also see how they meshed, sort of sideways, with my own concerns & projects. Basically I was overcome with a desire to just get out the instruments and jam, high school garage band style. Surely, if we could do something together, the spheres would revolve into harmony, dolphins would speak, all that’s mean and evil in the world would suffer revelation and weep for the harm it caused, and all forms of life would enter into a great colloquy.

I guess there’s a lot of Bill and Ted in that vision, which is appropriate, given what came later.

So, basically: that one night on the walk back to the hotel I grabbed my phone and texted you how we had to write something together. And you said yes! And that’s where it started.

But of course it started further back, didn’t it? With letters. Do you want to talk about the letters?

Love,

Max

 

***

 

Dearest Max,

I’m so grateful for your memory. It’s aligned the tumblers in my own mind’s lock, and the hour and my surroundings spilled out: I remember that conversation, when you read my stories, so clearly! I was standing in my sister’s kitchen, probably staying over—I was especially nomadic that year—when you texted, and I remember glowing more and more brightly, feeling unspeakably happy to be seen.

Which is also my memory of writing letters.

There is, in letter-writing, a tender and terrible vulnerability. To write a letter is to commit one’s naked self to the page, to send it into the future with no more protection than paper and wax, and to place that self in the hands of a person you’re inventing, a person who may or may not actually exist. One can, of course, write at several layers of remove—party invitations, thank you notes, the equivalent of a friendly nod in letter and ink—but cards are not correspondence; that friendly nod is not a tête-à-tête. To write a letter, longhand over pages, is to delve inevitably into one’s own thoughts, to reach for things we don’t know we feel until we’ve dredged up the words for them, and in so doing make a single person’s future self privy to the unbearable intimacy of our present.

“How I love to have no armor here,” writes Red to Blue, as their own correspondence deepens.

I remember that when we started writing to each other, I used whatever I had to hand—sheets of harsh white paper stolen from the printer, jammed into white #10 envelopes, scribbled on with whatever pen was nearest me. The content, I figured, was what was important—but then you started writing back on gorgeous creamy G. Lalo paper, so I got the same brand to match, and I introduced you to sealing wax, and suddenly it felt like our correspondence was robed in sensory magic, easily distinguished at a glance from the press of bank statements and circulars. We’d committed to physicality, to slowness, to something that couldn’t be approximated in email, no matter how swift and effusive the clack of keys beneath our fingers. We’d committed to time travel—and didn’t those letters have a knack of arriving just when we needed them? When the weight of the world pressed against our lungs, and those golden envelopes stamped in colour arrived bearing a space in which to breathe?

Your letter, this one, found me at my gate in the San Francisco airport, minutes before boarding a flight to Seattle, and closed a circle years in the making. Because all this began with you on tour writing to me—and here I am, on a tour launched by the book we wrote together, a book we wrote because we’d written letters to each other, writing you a letter about our book.

It feels fully as magical, to me, as finding words in the rings of a thousand year old tree, or the swirl of tea leaves in a porcelain cup.

Love,

Amal

 

***

 

Dearest Amal,

Tea leaves, tree rings, and wax seals—when we started writing letters I was surprised by how dangerous the whole project felt.

Even to me that sounds a little weird. After all, what could be more normal than dropping a letter in the mail?

Maybe it was the fact that we both spent a lot of time on the internet and at conventions, participating in Public Discourse in front of the whole world. There’s so much thought in public these days—and so much of that public thought is tactical, designed to accomplish a specific effect, whether that’s gathering a following or even wasting someone else’s time. Lots of good comes from that public conversation, but it’s all so omnivoracious. Twitter wants your every idle thought.

By contrast, writing letters felt like staking out our own territory—a small paper space between the two of us, unscanned, unhindered. The letters were so fragile! Walking to the mailbox in a blizzard I’d find myself thinking how easy they would be to destroy. Dropping one in a puddle would do it. And yet—how many thoughts have I dashed off in seconds and sent whirling off into the void, barely remarked upon except, of course, by a vast silent intelligence that records all I say and do, and uses it to build shareholder value? In a sense those words will last forever—they’ll last as long as capital sees value in unstructured human generated text, anyway—but in a more real sense they’ve been ripped from me altogether. While letters only last as long as paper.

Then again, some paper has lasted longer than capitalism. And, as the man says: manuscripts don’t burn.

The phrase hadn’t yet entered the public consciousness back then, but in a real sense writing letters felt like we were both fighting to reclaim our time. We were carving a few hours a week out to impose some order on our own lives, and offer that to a friend. And I think there’s a bit of that rebellion come through in the book, too—a quest for silence and slow time in a world where all that’s solid melts into air.

And now we’ve made a book. We’ve written the novella we would write at [the mysterious benefactor]’s house. Sending it off to readers feels a bit scary—part of the reason this was such a hard project to title was that for most of its life we referred to it either by the file name, or simply as

the novella

we would write

In [the mysterious benefactor]’s house.

It’s scary to think of those words out there as a product! But if a book is a commodity of a sort it’s a kind of letter, too, sent out in a bottle on the waves in search of a reader. Fragile ink on fragile paper, or ephemeral strings of ones and zeroes, here one minute and gone the next, leaving marks in dreams. Now it’s out there in the world. And we’ll have to see what it does there—what further moves it inspires in this great weird Time War we’re all, always, fighting to win. Or to lose.

Love,

Max

—-

This is How You Lose the Time War: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit Amal El-Mohtar’s site and Twitter. Visit Max Gladstone’s site and Twitter.

The Big Idea: Sean Grigsby

Ash Kickers by Sean Grigsby

Author Sean Grigsby has a theory about people. It’s… not terribly optimistic. But it does have relevance for his latest novel, Ash Kickers, which features firefighters in a slightly alternate version of the world. One with dragons!

SEAN GRIGSBY:

Whatever catastrophe nature throws at us, people always seem to make it worse.

Not all of us. Some seek to help and not to hurt, to heal instead of destroy. Firefighters are just one example of a few good people trying to make a difference. I’m proud to call myself one. But, like I said, sometimes there are a few hateful assholes standing in our way.

The Smoke Eaters series is about firefighters versus newly-returned dragons, sure, but there are other big ideas at play. In the first book I talk about corrupt government using disasters for their own gain, and replacing first responders with robots. In Ash Kickers, it’s something much worse.

So, the year is 2123. Parthenon City, Ohio is doing great because they’ve discovered that dragon blood can save lives and heal all wounds. The smoke eaters are no longer slaying the scalies, but tranquilizing them and placing them in specialized enclosures to live out their happy, fire-breathing lives.

The miracle of dragon blood has attracted people from all over an ash-covered United States to flock to Ohio, desperately seeking cures for their loved ones and to benefit from the safety of a dragon-free city.

But some people don’t like that. A group forms, calling themselves PC First, led by a man named Duncan Sharp (it was the sleaziest alt-right name I could think of). They consider these immigrants to be “rats” who are going to use up all of the medicine and resources. I think it’s pretty obvious by now on whom I based these fictional jerks.

However, just like in our reality, Parthenon City has actual problems to worry about. A phoenix has emerged and it’s causing the dragons to go bonkers. A string of suicide arsons is also plaguing the city, leaving police and fire marshals baffled as to who is behind it.

PC First, though, is more concerned about hoarding all the things! Just like a dragon. This lack of compassion for fellow humans, this cruel self-importance… well, it just makes things worse. Not only for decent people trying to make their burning world a better place, but also for the schmucks who try to get ahead by shoving others down.

When I’m called to fight a blaze, I rely on my fellow firefighters. No one fights over the attack line. No one complains that they weren’t the one to carry grandma out of the window. Every single person on the fireground is important and works as a team. We have to. If we don’t, someone could die.

I hate to break it to you, but the world out there is on fire right now, and we can either get busy helping or get busy hurting. I’m strapping on my helmet and charging in to quell the flames. I hope you’ll come with, because I can use all the help I can get.

—-

Ash Kickers: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.