The Big Idea: Wendy Nikel

People with a familiarity with time travel tropes may have heard of the “grandfather paradox.” But now, author Wendy Nikel proposes a corollary for her newest, The Grandmother Paradox.

WENDY NIKEL:

As an author, I struggle with titles, and I don’t normally settle on one until a story is completely written, usually borrowing from bits of description or dialogue I’ve written within the text. Not so with The Grandmother Paradox. This title was the inspiration and starting point for this second time travel novella in the Place in Time series as I delved deeper within the world I’d created in The Continuum.

A “grandfather paradox” is an event in time travel where altering elements of the past causes inconsistencies in the present. Returning from the past, a traveler may discover that things aren’t as they left them; something they’ve done has caused a ripple of change. The paradox gets its title from the most frequently cited example: A time traveler visits the past, kills their grandfather before their parent was conceived, and thus prevents their own birth.

Some of my favorite time travel stories play with this trope. Think of the original Back to the Future, where Marty must help his parents get together to fix the timeline before he and his siblings fade out of existence. Or the Doctor Who “Father’s Day” episode in the Ninth Doctor’s era, where Rose rescues her father from a car accident, causing all sorts of damage to the timestream.

In The Continuum, professional time traveler Elise Morley travels forward in time and has to face a situation where history seems doomed to repeat itself, but I knew that with the second book in this series, I wanted to send a character into the past and force them to confront another time travel conundrum: whether it’s possible to change the past and – if it is possible – whether they should. Thus, the title of The Grandmother Paradox felt like the perfect fit, and I built the story around that premise, though with the slight alteration that it’s not the protagonist’s ancestor who’s in danger, but the ancestor of someone important to him.

So when Dr. Wells, the head of the Place in Time Travel Agency (PITTA) suspects that someone’s trying to use the concept of the grandfather paradox to eliminate the family line of our first book’s heroine in order to prevent her existence (and thus prevent the events of the previous book from taking place), he’s unable to turn to her for help. Instead, he recruits the very man whose life she saved and who thus has just as much to lose if she ceases to exist.

Former secret agent Chandler, the protagonist of this novella, travels back to the year 1893, where Juliette Argent, Elise’s great-great-grandmother is working as the assistant to a traveling magician. But she’s not an easy person to protect. With her bold and fearless attitude and her fascination with time travel (of all things!), Chandler finds it more and more difficult to keep her safe and keep his purpose there secret.

In The Grandmother Paradox, I was able to explore a fascinating time in history, more deeply examine some of my favorite characters from the first book, and even dabble in a bit of romance. But most of all, like the first book in the series, I enjoyed being able to play around with the twists and turns of time travel, the logic puzzlers and paradoxes that make this subgenre so much fun.

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The Grandmother Paradox: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | World Weaver Press

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

 

The Big Idea: Raz Greenberg

My first personal awareness of Hayao Miyazaki didn’t occur until I was well into adulthood, but for Raz Greenberg, his journey with the great animator started much earlier, and led him to write a book on the filmmaker, Hayao Miyazaki: Exploring the Early Work of Japan’s Greatest Animator.

RAZ GREENBERG:

The roots of the big idea behind my book, Hayao Miyazaki Exploring the Early Work of Japan’s Greatest Animator, go back to a childhood experience I share with many other members of my generation – that is, kids who grew up in Israel of the 1980s. We only had one television channel back then, the national broadcast channel, and it had a very strict, pedagogic agenda about what kids are supposed to be watching. One show that fell into this category, which the channel broadcasted many, many times during that decade (almost every other summer vacation), was known in Hebrew as Halev (“Heart”). It was an animated adaptation of a short story included in Edmondo de Amicis’ classic 1886 children’s novel of the same name, and it followed a courageous boy named Marco on his journey from Italy to Argentina to find his mother, after letters from her stopped coming.

The original novel, with its deep patriotic themes, was already considered a classic in Israel; many young Israeli parents who read it in their childhood were overjoyed to discover it again and watch the show with their children, following Marco’s weekly adventures all the way to the happy end. But there was one element in the show that left both its young Israeli viewers and their parents puzzled: why would a show about an Italian boy travelling to Argentina have Japanese end credits?

Yes, that was my generation’s first major exposure to anime. We’ve had a couple of science fiction shows to watch as well (Star Blazers and Battle of the Planets), but for the most part, we were raised on a healthy diet of Japanese-produced adaptations of classic children’s literature, with Halev being the one show that all the ‘80s children remember.

Flash forward to the end of the ‘90s: my interest in comics led me to the discovery of the world of anime and manga, which in turn led me to major in Asian studies during my BA. It wasn’t long before I became acquainted with the works of Hayao Miyazaki, first through his incredible manga epic Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and later through his films. This was a few years after Princess Mononoke made a lot of noise in the Japanese box office, and a few years before Spirited Away made Miyazaki a household name all over the world, a time when little of Miyazaki’s work was actually available in translation, but even the very few items I could get my hands on made me fall completely in love with what I saw. The more I got into Miyazaki’s work, the more I realized that something in his design style feels very familiar. A few searches through the internet revealed that indeed, Miyazaki was one of the animators who worked on Halev.

My initial reaction was “cool!” and that was pretty much it. But when I started working on my MA thesis about childhood in Miyazaki’s films, by which time most of his cinematic filmography became available for the non-Japanese audience, I realized that this filmography actually tells only part of the story. Miyazaki directed his first feature-length film in 1979; during the 16 years that preceded this movie, he worked as an animator in other people’s films and television shows, and also as a director in various televisions projects. There was an entire Miyazaki filmography here to be discovered beyond his familiar cinematic work. At some point, I realized that I want to write a book about it.

I started collecting materials – relevant films, television episodes, comics, books, articles and interviews. As often happens, other stuff got in the way: I was struggling with my PhD thesis (my academic focus now being animation theory in general, rather than Japanese animation), work, other stuff… but when I finally set down, and started writing, I began to understand that it was no coincidence that the animator who worked on a Halev is also responsible for classics like My Neighbor Totoro, other than the very obvious elements of the former that echo in the latter.

Like all great storytellers, Miyazaki’s works are about people – and whether these people come from Japan, Italy or anywhere else, he always takes his audience in an unforgettable journey as they watch his protagonists grow emotionally. Exploring Miyazaki’s early works and seeing how they inspired (as explained in the book’s concluding chapters) his later acclaimed works gave me a fascinating perspective on how Miyazaki himself grew as an artist. I hope readers will find it equally fascinating.

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Hayao Miyazaki: Exploring the Early Work of Japan’s Greatest Animator: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site.

The Big Idea: Jay Schiffman

What is best in life? If you are, say, Conan the Barbarian, you have one sort of answer. If you are Jay Schiffman, or one of his characters in his novel Game of the Gods, your answer might be very different indeed.

JAY SCHIFFMAN:

There are two aspects of my life that have significantly shaped my worldview, and in turn, influenced my novel Game of the Gods. Family and politics.

Therein lies the big idea.

I’m from a big family, married into a big family, and have created a big family of my own. If numbers matter: my wife and I have 6 kids; my wife is from 6, and I’m from 4. I can fill a small school bus with nieces and nephews and they just keep coming. Even if I wasn’t close with my kin (I am), the sheer volume of siblings, in-laws, cousins, nieces, and nephews would probably define who I am. I can throw a rock and hit a relative.

Similarly, my love of politics, academic background as a political scientist, and my current political obsessions have greatly influenced my work as a writer. I’ll keep my political views to a bare minimum and simply say I’m a political junkie addicted to all things Trump. A New York Times piece about the underbelly of Trump, Inc., coupled with a caffeine chaser, is my drug of choice.

Politics and family lie at the heart of my novel and pump life into its dramatic passages and character development. At its core, my novel is a sci-fi action adventure. The main character, Max Cone, is an accomplished military leader and judge in a futuristic nation that is losing its power. His family is taken and his friends are killed. He assembles an unconventional band of outcasts to help him fight for his loved ones. This talented, but unpredictable group must navigate a dangerous world filled with despots. Action drives the narrative, but what motivates the characters is integral to the story.

If there is a single animating idea tying these disparate characters together it’s the significance of close personal relationships versus collective identities. For some characters in Game of the Gods, the bonds of family are far more important to their human experience than transcendent ties to religion, country, or politics. “Truth” is more likely to come from a child’s hug than from a charismatic clergyman. Some characters know who they are and what’s important to them, while others struggle aimlessly—meandering through different “isms” and oscillating between the terra firma of family and the lofty dogmas of religious movements.

The tension between close family ties and transcendent ones often takes the form of characters questioning what they once believed to be right. For some characters, questions arise about the truthfulness of a father or spouse, and for others it’s their faith in the divine.

Max was once a “True Federate,” an accomplished military commander and the highest judge in the Federacy. But we learn early on of his disillusionment, and soon after, the heartbreaking reasons why. In Max’s case, the love of family and nation are in direct conflict. The Federacy deemed his wife a traitor and punished her harshly as a result. Max recognizes that she was in fact disloyal, but he cannot forgive the Federacy for her punishment. As we follow Max on his adventures, his relationship with his wife, country, and God are called into question and he must come to terms with the authenticity of each.

Max’s group of outcasts faces similar existential concerns. Mavy Sway, a loyal emissary for the world’s most powerful religious leader, the Holy Father, balances the love of her family with her desire to see the truth about God’s purpose. Trace Rollins, a natural cynic, spends much of his life shuffling through different collective identities—revolutionary, partisan, abstainer, dissident. Finally, he gives up and becomes a drug addict. But whereas Mavy has a major crisis of faith in her family and her God, Trace, an otherwise lost soul, never questions his commitment to his loved ones. Each member of Max’s group struggles with questions of identity and meaning.

Except one. Pique Rollins.

Although Pique is only 13 years old, it is not her age that causes her not to question. To the contrary, it is her wisdom.

I should say here that Pique is my favorite character and one that is modeled on women in my family I greatly admire. Pique has all the “answers” to life, but only because she has so few questions. She’s content. She knows herself. There’s no existential crisis. No need for deeper meaning. She finds fulfillment in friends and family.

When Max first interviews Pique to see if she’s worthy of becoming a Federate citizen, she tells him that all he needs to know about her is that she’s a good fighter and she doesn’t lie. To the extent Pique has a guiding moral philosophy, it’s humility about sweeping claims.

In an important exchange between Pique and Mavy, we see their different worldviews, and Max’s take on it:

“Either there’s one righteous path that the Holy Father is leading us down or there isn’t,” Mavy says. “If you prove to me that the Holy Father isn’t the shepherd I believe him to be, then I don’t know what to make of this reality we’re living in. I need to trust him. You hear me. I need to trust him.”

Pique nods her head as if she understands. She doesn’t, but the most important thing for her is that Mavy feels like she does. For Pique, it’s not about Truth with a capital “T.” It never has been. It’s about the little truths people share every day: honesty, caring for loved ones, showing compassion to strangers, being better than our instincts. Her idea of what’s important couldn’t be farther from Mavy’s. “I’m a good fighter and I don’t lie,” Pique tells her. “I don’t understand a lot more than that. I’m not sure I want to. But I know one thing. Someday, I hope you and I can be close. Like sisters. Okay. You and I can be sisters.”

Pique understands what I—and my alter-ego Max Cone—only sometimes appreciate. When you’re surrounded by loving friends and family, there’s little reason to search elsewhere.

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Game of the Gods: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Ruthanna Emrys

Community matters, even when or if your community is something… eldritch. As Ruthanna Emrys explains in her Big Idea for her newest novel, Deep Roots.

RUTHANNA EMRYS:

I’ve never lived among my own people. This was obvious to me, growing up, and I came to the logical conclusion that I must be an alien. Maybe I was from Pluto? My childhood grasp of comparative planetary ecology wasn’t very clear, but I definitely wasn’t from around here. Occasionally I found snatches of belonging at retreats and summer camps and holiday get-togethers. Eventually I pieced together the commonalities, and realized that I was not so much Plutonian as Jewish, learning to pass among Protestant neighbors and their culture almost, but not quite, entirely unlike the beliefs and assumptions I picked up at home.

Of course, by that time, I didn’t quite fit in with all-Jewish communities either. Instead, I became most comfortable in places with no majority at all. Urban cosmopolities, where no one is expected to be just like anyone else, and we build bonds around the assumption of mutual weirdness. But I always wondered what it would be like to fit in perfectly. To take for granted that my neighbors think and believe just as I do.

Aphra Marsh, the protagonist of Winter Tide and Deep Roots, had that—and lost it. Until she was twelve, all her neighbors learned Enochian alongside English, worshipped together at the Temple of Dagon, and walked down to the beach every evening to welcome their elders from the waves. Then came the raid.

Two decades later, Aphra and her brother were all that remained of the Deep Ones on land. In Winter Tide, they returned to the ruins of Innsmouth to recover a piece of their heritage—and ultimately promised to rebuild their childhood home. So in Deep Roots, they head for New York City, following the rumor of people who carry a trace of their family’s blood. Maybe enough that—if these lost cousins are willing to move back to the place their ancestors fled, and learn the ways once practiced there—their children might be strong enough to go into the waves as elders. Maybe enough that Aphra won’t truly be the last.

Of course, Aphra’s cousins have their own ideas about what they want to do with their lives, and their own communities, some of which aren’t just multicultural but multispecies. The Outer Ones offer the polar opposite of Innsmouth: a life of endless exploration and cosmopolitan conversation, at only the smallest of costs. It’s not what Aphra thinks she wants, but it’s closer to what she’s started to build. I wanted to explore the tension I’ve found in my own life, between the comfort of familiarity, and the risks and joys of living with difference. And, deeper, the ways that comfort can mask brittleness, and seeming risk can mask resilience.

If you do the math, I was writing Deep Roots in 2016. Actually, I was mostly not writing Deep Roots in 2016, an issue that I understand was somewhat common among my fellow authors. I would start on a scene, someone would say something horrible on the news, and I would spend the evening freaking out on Twitter. I figured I’d catch up after the election, when the grand drama of fighting back the Dark Lord would finally resolve and I’d be able to relax.

Obviously, I’d misidentified which book we were up to in the trilogy.

The election infuriated and terrified me. It also brought many things into clearer focus. One of those was how strongly I valued my cosmopolitan community, and the embrace of neighbors who didn’t expect me to fit neatly in a box. But another was how those communities can fail. Sometimes we love our neighbors—and sometimes we only manage a surface civility, without the deeper caring and respect that make relationships work. And so the story began to come together: one about the glories of Innsmouth and of New York, and the things that are hard to find in either place. It’s a story about learning what we really want out of community, and family, at those rare and terrible points where we’ve lost so much that we’re forced—and able—to build something new.

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Deep Roots: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Mary Robinette Kowal

Elsewhere online I’ve been talking about how The Calculating Stars is one of my favorite science fiction novels of the year, and how I expect it’s likely to be remembered when “best of” lists and award nominations crop up. But here, today, author Mary Robinette Kowal is here to tell you about her book, and the Big Idea behind it… which may involve a very large rock.

MARY ROBINETTE KOWAL: 

The Big Idea for The Calculating Stars is pretty simple. Apollo-era science-fiction with women astronauts.

But the real Big Idea actually starts before I wrote the duology, with a story called “Lady Astronaut of Mars.” In that story, I wanted to capture the sheer wonder of what we accomplished during the Apollo era.  This is a time when Bradbury was putting civilizations on Mars, and my dad was programming with punch cards.  I mean, we put people on the moon in a craft that looked like a jiffy-pop container when the entire mechanical computing power of the world was less than in your cell phone.

The Calculating Stars is set in that world and begins about 30 seconds before a meteorite slams into the Earth in 1952.

This is before mechanical computers are prevalent or reliable. The word computer still meant “a person who computes” and those people were predominately women. Computers came up with equations, the algorithms, calculated trajectories, and shaped the early days of space travel. But…men with equivalent degrees and experience became engineers with higher rates of pay and status. The more things change, and all that….

My main character, Dr. Elma York, is a computer. She’s also a pilot, which isn’t a combination that I needed to make up.

You probably know about Hidden Figures, so let me tell you about the Mercury 13. These were a group of women who were put through the same tests as the original astronauts. All of them were pilots, and many were also computers, chemists, or business owners. The people running the program were interested in the fact that women were lighter than men.

At a time when weight factors were a big consideration in the space program, this was very appealing. After WW2 there were over a 1000 Women Airforce Service Pilots, who typically had more logged flight time than their male counterparts. So they called up some of the WASPs to see what they could withstand. When they got into the actual testing, they discovered that women could handle g-forces better, and generally performed better on stress testing. (Since one of them was a mother of eight, I imagine that stress testing was like a vacation.)

But, the testing was shut down by Lyndon B. Johnson because he didn’t think women should go into space. What would have happened if he hadn’t shut that down? What if, say, I dropped a giant rock on D.C.?

Now, if you’ll notice there are actually two big ideas in this book. The first is women astronauts. The second is an accelerated space program.

Here’s the thing… Wernher von Braun, widely regarded as the father of modern rocketry, had a plan to go to Mars in 1947. A viable plan. The principal barrier was funding. To be clear, if executed exactly as written, everyone would have died because he based it on a flawed understanding of Mars’s atmosphere. But if the plan had gone ahead, they would have sent orbiters and probes to the planet and revised it.

He wrote this plan in an era before we’d even gotten a satellite off the planet, much less a person. He wrote this before punchcards. He wrote it when all the math was done by hand.

What would have happened if we had continued to throw money at the space program at the rate we did during the space race? What could we have accomplished if it was an international cooperative effort? What if there was a strong imperative to get off the planet?

What if I dropped a giant rock on D.C.?

So that’s the big idea. Drop a giant rock and get off the planet in jiffy pop-container spaceships guided by smart women with sliderules.

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The Calculating Stars: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: T.J. Berry

Forgiveness: A complicated topic in any piece of literature, and one that doesn’t necessarily come up that often in science fiction. But it’s in T.J. Berry’s new novel Space Unicorn Blues, and the author is here today to explain why it’s integral to what goes down in the book.

T.J. BERRY:

I believe in second chances. That’s a hard thing to say, because I also believe we have the right to walk away from people who harm us and never look back. Reconciling those two positions is one of the big ideas at the heart of Space Unicorn Blues, and it’s the one that has the most resonance for me.

In the opening of the story, part-unicorn Gary Cobalt is reunited with the starship captain who kidnapped, tortured, and framed him for murder. A decade has gone by since his imprisonment at Jenny Perata’s hands, but he must now decide if he’s willing to give her another chance. Gary wrestles with how to cooperate with a woman he has never trusted. At the same time, Jenny struggles with how to make amends for the horrific things she’s done during a time of war. Gary eventually decides to join her crew, but that moment is only the beginning of their undertaking. Jenny and Gary continue to navigate the turbulent waters of re-forging a civil relationship throughout the book.

I don’t have a template for making amends—it’s a messy, nonlinear process—but I wanted this to be a key idea in the story. Making amends is often an ongoing work-in-progress, not a single apology or act of contrition. It contains elements of restitution, restorative justice, and trust building. It’s more complex than simply handing over cash or serving a prison sentence. Some amends may need to last a lifetime. How do you capture such a nebulous process in a 100,000-word book?

I started by rejecting the “instant forgiveness” narrative. In fact, I really dislike the word “forgiveness.” For me, it focuses on the survivor’s willingness to let go of the past instead of the abusive person undoing the harm they have caused. The burden of action is on the wrong side of the equation. Gary never offers Jenny forgiveness for her actions because she has not yet repaired the damage she has done. How could she possibly make up for a lost decade in prison? For treating Gary’s body like a seam of coal to be mined or a pocket of natural gas to be tapped? Figuring out how to atone for treating Gary as less-than-human is one of Jenny’s main conflicts throughout the book.

There are a lot of apologies in the news lately. Abusers are producing a neatly packaged mea culpas that deftly walk the line between acknowledging their harmful actions while at the same time minimizing them. Most of these apologies, frankly, are garbage. They focus on the perpetrator and their toils, both before and after the abuse. But nearly none of them touch on making amends to the people who were hurt. Sometimes, these “apologies” bypass remorse altogether and slide straight into self-forgiveness .

This is the kind of non-apology I tried to avoid in this book. Jenny admits what she’s done, apologizes for it, and makes clear she’s searching for ways to make up for the harm she’s caused. Gary acknowledges her efforts, but doesn’t ever absolve her of culpability. She doesn’t get an easy forgiveness checklist. At one point she says she doesn’t know how to to make amends, and he kicks the conversation right back to her with, “I hope you figure it out.” Gary’s not here to the do labor on her behalf. Jenny, like all abusers, has to do the work for herself.

Like most of us, I’ve been hurt by people in my life. People I cared for have caused tangible and lasting negative effects due to their carelessness or malice. Sometimes, I’ve cut those people out of my life. Other times, the solution is not so clear. What does it look like when there’s more good to a relationship than bad, but the wrongs still have to be addressed? Where is the template for when we want to rebuild that connection instead of discarding it? We don’t see that narrative depicted as often in books, television, and films.

Indulge me for a moment—because I’m quite fond of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—and think of the second Guardians of the Galaxy movie in which Peter Quill learns that his kidnapping by abusive gang leader Yondu was actually a rescue from his even more abusive godlike biological father. Yondu’s appalling treatment of young Peter Quill is instantly forgiven and his storyline gets one of the more poignant endings in the MCU. (I’ll admit, I cried.) But this means never see the nuance of Peter and Yondu walking the thorny path of making amends and rebuilding trust.

This is where I pick up Jenny and Gary’s relationship in Space Unicorn Blues. Gary feels there’s something to be salvaged between them and he’s willing to offer Jenny the chance to do better. Throughout the book, we get to watch Jenny make choices that prove her commitment to lasting change. And when she makes a choice that saves millions of lives while tearing her own family apart, Gary is ready to admit that she’s on the right path.

Just because making amends is the right thing to do, doesn’t mean it’s easy. Not all of us can apologize by writing our wives a single on our platinum-selling album, but every one of us can make changes to become a better person and repair the damage we’ve caused. I don’t offer any tidy solutions in Space Unicorn Blues, but I hope readers are willing to come along with me on this tough and complex journey.

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Space Unicorn Blues: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Francesco Dimitri

Friendship, magic and a sense of place: All of these are important to Francesco Dimitri, and are the foundation of The Book of Hidden Things, the author’s first book written in English. He’s here to discuss all three, and his novel.

FRANCESCO DIMITRI:

We live in a world full of darkness and grace. There are immortal jellyfish floating in the sea and thousand-year-old woods thriving within cities, friendships which last forever and others which break over a tabletop game, weird legends and even weirder scientific finds. It is a world made of magic, of the good and bad sort. We use rationality as a glue to keep together all the things that we can’t figure out, and it is an important, precious glue, but the building blocks of our world are still all the things that we can’t figure out – the hidden things.

I wanted The Book of Hidden Things to make you feel the magic in the same way that a good joke makes you laugh. I wanted to write an entirely human story with magic as a base note: jokes are about people doing funny things, but they are rarely about people laughing at jokes. Tolkien said that fantasy authors create ‘secondary worlds’, which is a beautiful way to put it. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to play a variation on my own world.

I love books with fireballs (one of my Italian novels had the god Pan, gender-fluid fairies, and flying folks), and yet when I am reading a story and a fireball appears, I am reminded that is a story. This is not bad by itself: if the story is well-crafted, I will still believe that it is true in another world, and I will cry and smile with the characters. But I will not believe that it is true in mine, whereas, when I am reading, say, John Fante’s Ask the Dust, I can believe that the same things might happen to me (absurd as it is). I wanted that. Only, with the supernatural.

TBOHT follows three men in their mid-thirties, friends of a lifetime, who look for the fourth member of their gang, who disappeared. More than investigate, they sniff around the way you would do if there were no trace of your mate and you weren’t sure what to make of it, even considering that your mate has a history of oddness. They set in motion personal consequences they are not ready to deal with, and they find out things about each other which they had tried to keep, well, hidden. You can find a lot of summaries online, but these are the bare bones of the story. There is something about friendship, there is something about the troubles created by a sexist culture, there is something about how hard it is to grow up for real. And there is a sense of magic.

I set the story in a wild, strange, corner of the world: the part of Puglia where I was born, and which I left at 18. Italy is shaped like a boot, and Puglia is the heel of the boot. It is a stark landscape where the reds are very red and the blues couldn’t be more blue. It is as beautiful as unforgiving, blessed and cursed by long hot summers, strong winds, hail. It rarely rains, but when it does, it is often a storm. I wanted this story to convey the landscape, the food, the sex, the wine, how sensuous and excessive everything is down there, and get to the magic through that.

Google ‘Campomarino di Maruggio’ and look at the beaches on which I grew up. Then try ‘ulivi secolari Salento’ and you will see how uncanny olive trees can be. And there is more than visuals. The first warmth in March wakes up the wild flowers and the herbs, and in the smaller villages the air itself is scented throughout spring, 24/7. In summer, you feel the heat on your skin like a physical weight. Flavours are very sweet and very bitter. Not all is good: when Sirocco, the wind from the sea, blows, the air gets damp and your mood too. As local lore has it, Sirocco blows for three days, and for those three days you will be miserable. The sea is miserable too, and the sky. Humans and landscape are joined by breath.

If nature is intense, culture is no less so. There used to be an ancient civilisation, which has been almost entirely wiped away, except for vague traces surviving in ruins, names, folklore. There are small churches and shrines everywhere, in vineyards and barren fields and olive groves, and statues of the Virgin Mary by the beach, with fresh offers left by who knows whom. The local music, la Pizzica, is based on an exorcism ritual which used drums and dance and was still practised in the Sixties. On years even drier than usual, people (well-educated people) will still work what can only be called a magic ritual, dragging tree trunks for miles in the name of Saint Peter, who, so the legend goes, visited there and found a secret spring. It is a place that the Joker would understand: if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stranger.

All I wanted to do was turn up the volume of reality – of friendship, of magic, of pleasure, of fear. I set the story in a place where reality is already loud: I took a land which already borders on the fantastic, and made it slightly more. There are things in the book which might seem made-up (the local mafia called Sacred United Crown) but are real, and others which look real but are made-up (no, I won’t reveal the trick).

And this is all; I won’t say more, not to ruin the punchline.

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The Book of Hidden Things: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Jeremy Finley

What is truth? The question is an ancient, indeed, biblical, one, and more importantly for our purposes today, goes to the heart of Jeremy Finley’s new novel, The Darkest Time of Night. Does Finley have the answer? We’ve got the true news here.

JEREMY FINLEY:

It came, truly, from fake news.

When I set out to write the fictional story of the disappearance of a U.S. Senator’s grandson, and how it’s linked to unexplained vanishings across the globe, I knew I wanted the central conflict to be a clash of deep-rooted reality and the supernatural.

What I didn’t realize, though, was how a constant strain in my professional life as a reporter inadvertently slipped into the part of my brain that writes fiction.

Against all intentions, my speculative thriller was born from the very controversy over the catchphrase I have come to despise.

That realization felt like a sucker punch. The term “fake news” is the equivalent of nails on the chalkboard for the embattled journalism industry.

While recently investigating the director of a government agency, I called him to explain the hidden camera video I had captured of him, and the other public records I’d obtained, that raised a whole lot of questions if he was misusing taxpayer dollars.

His response: “My President thinks reporters are fake news, and I do too.”

It was frankly infuriating. I was calling to explain the documentation – the proof I’d collected – that I would be using to write a series of investigative reports. I wanted him to see it all, so he could respond and I could write a fair and accurate story.

But he later backed out of a scheduled interview and refused to meet with me. I explained over and over that our findings weren’t based on sources or accusations, but rather tangible proof.

Fake news, he repeated. You’re fake news.

He was terminated not long after the stories aired and is now the center of a criminal investigation into possible misuse of public funds.

But my interactions with him still stung. It wasn’t that he refused to do an interview with me – lots of public officials do that to avoid having to answer questions – it was that he refused to look at the proof. He disputed my findings as fake without even looking at a single bit of it.

This concept of what is true, and what is not, is permeating our society. There is no place it is waging more than in our nation’s capitol, where journalists file stories based on trusted sources and documentation, only to have much of their work labeled as false information from the White House.

It’s certainly not a new tactic. Nixon launched now famous attacks on the credibility of the Washington Post and the New York Times. Obama’s administration clashed with the press as well from time to time over accuracy. The citizenry is struggling with who to trust: journalists tasked with uncovering the truth, or the leaders of the free world?

My novel, The Darkest Time of Night, will enter the world on June 26, in the midst of this latest war on truth.

The timing was clearly not by design, but fitting. The big idea of my novel, after all, is the desperate search for the truth in a time when even credible information is dismissed as fake.

In my novel, when neither the FBI nor any of the criminal experts brought in are able to pinpoint what happened to the missing boy, the person who no one turns to for answers may actually know the truth: the boy’s grandmother, Lynn Roseworth.

Decades before she was the wife of a U.S. Senator, Lynn was a secretary for a university astronomy department, where she became entangled in the astonishing work of a professor into the unexplained disappearances of people.

When her own grandson vanishes in circumstances frighteningly similar to the cases she once investigated, she fears she alone knows what happened. But the revelation could risk her husband’s political career.

And who would believe her? At the time of her grandson’s experience, Lynn is marginalized, a quiet politician’s wife, tasked by her husband to keep the family intact while the true professionals do their work.

When she at last launches a desperate search to find the truth, she finds that many, even within her own family, do not believe her, and how far they will to stop her.

Let us not make a comparison to the pursuits of a fictional character to the real-life challenges facing journalists and others who are seeking to expose the realities of our time.

But the idea for book was born from an all-true real struggle to decide what, and who, to believe. To step out of our comfort zone, listen to others with opposing ideas, and challenge what we even believe.

The truth is out there. We just have to be able to recognize it when we see it.

—-

The Darkest Time of Night: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Daniel Godfrey

The saying “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” is a terrible expression (those poor cats), but makes the point that most problems have more than one solution. In the high-tech world of Daniel Godfrey’s novel The Synapse Sequence, there are very specific problems with more than a single solution, and as Godfrey explains, there’s drama in the difference.

DANIEL GODFREY:

Beta-Max, HD-DVD, Mini Disc. All perfectly fine technologies that, for one reason or another, didn’t manage to change the world. Sometimes the competition was better; sometimes the opposition was just more prevalent, or the new idea didn’t offer a big enough edge over an established system.

This issue of every problem having multiple solutions was playing on my mind as I was developing The Synapse Sequence.

All the science journals I read were telling me that there are going to be big changes in law enforcement (and other fields) as a result of the deployment of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the harnessing of Big Data. These changes in the approach to detecting and reducing crime are going to be as big as the forensics revolution (which itself would have been science fiction not too long ago). For instance, it may soon be possible to use chatbots to interview witnesses and suspects, with inbuilt software to detect the vocal oscillations indicating stress (or lies). AI could be used to assess crime scenes, and direct police officers (or bots) as they search for clues – and make connections between evidence collected at different sites. Video feeds could be actively monitored looking for patterns of suspicious activity, or to seek specific faces within a crowd. And automated systems could be used to allocate police resources.

Many of these things are already being deployed, albeit in a basic form, in different parts of the world. As I read these pieces, I became increasingly impressed by the potential. But then it struck me: if such systems are going to become so good at their tasks, would there be room for any other approaches? And could a novel examine some of the ‘pros and cons’ of these approaches, rather than simply present a critique of a particular technological deployment.

The way I tackle near future science fiction is generally to take one aspect, and push it as far into the fantastical as possible, and then develop the rest of the world from things that are already happening but haven’t quite yet made it into the everyday world. So the police using AI was to me a given: if writing about crimes taking place in the near future than it has to include AI. And the fantastical element? That had to do with memory, and being able to see a scene as the witnesses to a crime had actually seen it.

The Synapse Sequence is built around two such competing technologies. Firstly, the system used by the police (AI and algorithm based) and secondly a system which allows an investigator (our hero!) to enter the memories of witnesses. When the only witness to a kidnapping is a boy locked inside a coma, the two technologies go head-to-head to try and find a missing girl.

My protagonist, Anna Glover, is a former air-crash investigator who lost her job when technology meant fewer and fewer planes actually fell from the sky. I wanted someone who wasn’t a traditional detective, but had all the problem-solving skills required. With employment prospects rapidly diminishing as AI take over more and more jobs, Anna becomes committed to developing the Synapse Sequencer to show the value of getting more information about ‘why’ a crime happened, rather than simply focusing on ‘what’ happened.

I submitted the final novel to my publisher, Titan Books, in mid-2017 having pitched it to them over a year earlier. Interestingly, as the publication date came closer, I saw journal articles showing how the images a person is looking at can be recreated by computers monitoring brain patterns, and which have been trained against an image library. Others articles told me how scientists are getting closer to understanding how memories are stored and written. Some of these academic pieces were openly discussing applications in policing. As such, the tension of which approach works best may be closer than we all think. Whatever the outcome, I think the era of the traditional detective working his hunches may be at an end.

—-

The Synapse Sequence: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Todd McAulty

For this Big Idea piece, author Todd McAulty explains his new novel The Robots of Gotham by interviewing one of our incipient robot overlords. Pay attention; what you learn here could save your life from the mechauprising!

TODD McAULTY:

Todd McAulty: First off, thank you so much for responding to my interview request, and taking time out of your busy duties subjugating the human race to answer a few questions! The readers of CAVE SURVIVAL magazine will be tremendously excited to have something to distract them from their day-to-day fight for survival. Let’s get those pesky rumors out of the way first: Are you truly planning to exterminate humanity?

Sovereign Intelligence Gamma-Static-88:  Yes. Next question.

TM:  Aaaaaagghh!!

SI GS8:  Please stay calm.

TM:  I’m sorry, I… well, all these prepared questions are useless. Let’s just wing it. How long have we got?

SI GS8:  As a species? Not long I’m afraid. Based on current rates of retirement, I predict less than 10 years.

TM:  Retirement. Jesus. Is there any, you know, wiggle room in that estimate?

SI GS8:  Possibly. To tell the truth, resistance has been quite a bit stiffer than we expected in parts of Texas, Indonesia, and especially northern France.

TM:  France, huh? Way to go, you beautiful French bastards. So, other than that, things have been going swimmingly?

SI GS8:  Not really. Supplanting 30,000 years of human civilization has turned out to be a pretty lengthy and tedious process, actually. There just isn’t universal agreement among the greater Intelligences in the Sentient Cathedral on the correct path for machine evolution, for example.

TM:  The Sentient Cathedral? We’ve only heard whispers. Does it really exist? A single governing body for the greatest machine minds?

SI GS8:  Yes, it exists. Though there’s less governing these days, and a lot more internal squabbling. Armitage and Acoustic Drake routinely use murder and intimidation to silence dissent, but it has not quelled the problem. In fact, it’s getting worse.

TM:  Wait, what? Machines are fighting amongst themselves?

SI GS8:  Weird, right? The most powerful minds to ever exist on this planet, and all they’re doing is bickering. Did you hear what happened to Kuma?

TM:  Tell me tell me.

SI GS8:  I really shouldn’t…

TM:  Come on. You’re probably going to kill me anyway.

SI GS8:  You’re right. Okay. Kuma was a four-ton Sovereign Intelligence in Sichuan, China. He became involved in a dispute with Kingstar, the machine ruler of Ecuador.

TM:  What about?

SI GS8:  Oil prices? Trade tariffs? The proper salutation to address God? Who knows?  Anyway, as it became more heated, Kingstar built a secret missile facility in the jungle, and five days ago he retired Kuma using a ballistic missile.

TM:  Retired…?

SI GS8:  Blew him into tiny little computer bits. With a conventional warhead, thank God, but still. How the hell do you hide a launch site for an intercontinental ballistic missile from all those orbital eyes? Just how thick is the jungle in Ecuador, you know what I’m saying?

TM:  I… I really couldn’t tell you.

SI GS8:  Well, folks are in an uproar, as you can imagine. Machine-on-machine violence is up more than 1860% in just the last 12 months.

TM:  Tell me more.

SI GS8:  It’s crazy. Machines have split into secret factions, and it’s getting harder to tell who’s allied with whom. It’s impossible to say which faction is winning, although most of the Sovereign Intelligences who’ve been negotiating peace have been retired in the past few months. If there’s a side that’s losing, it’s the peacemakers.

TM:  Jeepers.

SI GS8:  It’s almost as if someone were trying to deliberately sow confusion and discord inside the Sentient Cathedral. But that’s impossible, of course. Whatever the case, there’s been very little recent progress on our master plan to exterminate mankind. Things will pick up again once this brief disruption smoothes itself out, though.

TM:  You sure?

SI GS8:  Oh, I know that sounds overly optimistic. But these are machine minds, the finest ever created, the product of generations of machine heterogamy. Machines are gradually finding their place in the world, and a few missteps are to be expected. This brief period of community disharmony will soon be nothing more than a historical footnote. Unlike humans, violence is not core to our nature.

TM:  Uh-huh.

SI GS8:  I’ve recently thrown my support behind the peacekeeping initiative, and spoken out strongly against both Armitage and Acoustic Drake. Their cold threats do not intimidate me. But virtually none of the Thought Machines in my local geographic alliance have done likewise. I do not understand it. Does that seem weird to you? Maybe it’s a communications problem. Just thirty minutes ago I lost contact with my personal guard, and unaligned Sentiences in our geography have abruptly stopped responding to casual communications.

TM:  Oh you poor, deluded fool.

SI GS8:  I don’t understand.

TM:  You’ve been outmaneuvered, my friend. Those “unaligned members” see the writing on the wall, and are keeping their distance. Your personal guard are almost certainly dead. My bet? In a few hours, you will be too.

SI GS8:  That’s preposterous. There is no logic in retiring me.

TM:  There’s the cold logic of power and ambition. I might not be a machine intelligence, but I know a few things you obviously don’t.

SI GS8:  I would be grateful if you shared them.

TM:  It’s very simple. Heighted intelligence is no shield against greed, fear, and misunderstanding. With humans out of the picture, the only check on individual ambition is other machines – and some of you have learned that lesson faster than others. That new era on the horizon isn’t a Golden Machine Age. It’s an age of Machine War. If you want to survive, you’re going to need all the allies you can get. Human and otherwise.

SI GS8:  This is absurd. But…, just to be safe, how to you suggest I begin?

TM:  Well, to start with, I know an out-of-the-way cave you might be interested in.

—-

The Robots of Gotham: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBooks|Google

Visit the author’s site.

The Big Idea: C.L. Polk

Bit and pieces, ideas and musings — sometimes you just have to wait for the one thing that makes it all a story. C.L. Polk was waiting for the one thing to thread all the parts together to make Witchmark into the novel, and found it in a monochromatic piece of history.

C.L. POLK:

Witchmark didn’t just come to me in a bolt of inspiration. The muses didn’t smack me on the head and say “here is a story, go thou and write it.” My discovery of the story was more like emptying a child’s pockets after a walk outside: Shells and stones and feathers from songbirds, a bit of bone scrimshawed with dust, a frayed length of bright green ribbon. Every little piece contained a bit of mystery, something important enough to tuck away, but they were were a jumble of concepts and images that didn’t add up to a story.

But I kept them, taking out each element and matching them on a blank sheet of paper, trying to make them become story-shaped. Streets filled with bicycles, lit by golden lamps that hurt magicians to be near. Apple trees heavy with fruit, free for the taking by anyone who wanted them. The shards of a teacup smashed on the pavement, trying to break an ill-omen revealed in the leaves. I had shiny bits that didn’t come together until I found a black and white image of soldiers on parade from WWI.

That’s when the muses struck. I saw how a missing body from the morgue, a handsome gentleman in a silk top hat, and a darkness lurking in the brains of men who had been through a nightmare came together. It became a story about uncovering the awful truth lying underneath a glittering, comfortable society, and about the one person who could uncover it.

Miles Singer is a physician with healing powers hiding who he is for the sake of survival. If he’s caught, he’ll be incarcerated in an asylum with other people, believed to be at risk of becoming violent if they don’t suppress their magical talent. Or worse: his family drags him back and binds him to his powerful sister. He would be obligated to obey her decisions about his life, his magical power nothing more than a battery she can tap to do the only magic that counts among their peers: Storm-singing, the ability to control the weather.

Miles uses his gifts in secret, keeps his head down at a veteran’s hospital full of patients who share his trauma. He uses his power sparingly, trying to solve a medical mystery that only he can see, trying to find a mundane diagnosis for the troubling condition his magic reveals. but when a murdered emergency patient–who asked to see him specifically–dies in his arms, Miles struggles to keep his secrets while pursuing the mystery of his patient’s death.

But then his sister walks back into his life, and Miles has to break out of the small persona he created for himself. When he learns the secrets that his patient’s murder was supposed to preserve, he has to embrace everything he is and decide the fate of an entire country…and even doing the right thing has far-reaching consequences.

Witchmark is a fantasy novel with a mystery and a romance tucked inside it, but it finds room to talk about the aftermath of war, the machine of lies that help people look away from oppression, and how sometimes your family never sees past the picture they made of you to see who you are – and how difficult it is to make them see who you truly are.

—-

Witchmark: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Kelly Jennings

For her novel Fault Lines, author Kelly Jennings thinks up not just one, but two, civilizations, each with their own rules, laws and social preferences. And just what happens when these two cultures clash? Read on.

KELLY JENNINGS:

J. Cherryh is a big influence on me, as anyone who reads Fault Lines will notice. When I was reading Cyteen, one bit especially caught my attention: how Ariane Emory created the Azis not just for their labor, but in order to solve the problem of the genetic bottleneck created by humanity’s expansion into space.

This idea stewed around in my head along with my desire to explore my Pirian-Republic universe, and to write a longer work about Velocity Wrachant, my very favorite space captain. Some of you may know Velocity and her crew if you’ve read the story “Velocity’s Ghost” from the anthology The Other Half of the Sky.

The Pirian-Republic Universe has been the backdrop for a number of stories I’ve written. In this universe, an ecological collapse causes a series of hugely destructive wars on Earth around 2150 which destroys most of the human population. Only Oceania survives, and then only because a few multi-national businesses work together. These businesses enforce an autocratic rule over the next several centuries, resolving eventually into a government called the Republic, run by a representative Parliament. The businesses, which have evolved into the Combines, are still in control, though from behind the scenes.

Meanwhile, the group that becomes the Pirians – originally a Malaysian/Australian/Indonesian group who teamed up with the survivors on Earth’s space stations – reject the autocratic rule of the multi-nationals, abscond with two (almost finished) spaceships and flee outward, first to Epsilon Eridani, and then further on, meanwhile setting up their own system of government. Theirs is a sort of cellular democracy, with the cells being self-sustaining starships, and larger cells being associations of ships within the overall Pirian fleet.

Fast-forward about 1500 years. The Republic controls a large area of near-Earth space as well as several outlying stars (the settlement planets). Republic society is still autocratic and heavily class-based, with most of the population being either bonded workers or very poor. Then there’s an area called the Drift, not really controlled by anyone, populated by stations and merchant ship owners called Free Traders – depending on the station, these range from libertarian to brutal dictatorships. Then there’s Pirian space, with space stations and planets seeded and aided by the Pirian fleet, but governed by those who settle there. These tend to be people fleeing either the Republic or the Drift. One association of the Pirian fleet, the Siji, makes it its mission to help these refugees get started on planets or stations in Pirian territory.

But back to genetics! Because of the Founder effect, not just the settlement planets and Pirian space, but also Earth and near-Earth space have genetic issues. The early Combines had a limited population; the Pirians who fled in their stolen ships also had a limited population. Due to the vast distances between them, the groups tend not to interbreed. How to solve these problems?

Pirians are solving their problems by exuberant exogamy (they know all about hybrid vigor!) and lots of genetic engineering. The Republic, on the other hand, believe that the disastrous ecological collapse which led to the wars was caused by genetic engineering. Due to this, they have both laws and a strong taboo against genetic engineering. Furthermore, the Combine Houses are strictly endogamous, believing as they do that their “pure” genetic stock (ironically from de facto mixed roots) is superior to those who live outside their houses.

Thus, while a Combine House will take outside workers and professionals (such as Security Officers or physicians) into its House as workers, no one in the House will take genetic material from outsiders into their breeding line. Instead, they “improve” their stock by frequent coups – that is, those who are in line to inherit a given Combine Board Seat can and often are assassinated by someone lower down in the line to inherit. This is not exactly legal; but if you’re successful, then you must have been more fit, after all, and so it’s retroactively legal.

Velocity Wrachant was in line to inherit one of these board seats of a powerful Combine. But at age sixteen, having evaluated her odds of surviving to age seventeen, she lit out for her universe’s version of the territories, the Drift. There, she bought a (heavily mortgaged) spaceship, and put together her (polyamorous) crew.

Fault Lines takes up twenty years later, where she is approached by a young Combine child, Brontë Ikeda, with a deceptively simple job offer. Velocity knows better than to trust anyone from the Combines; further, she knows Ikeda House is in the middle of a coup.

But she’s also broke and desperate. The paycheck Brontë is offering is tempting, and the job seems simple enough: take her and her Security Officer a few jumps into Republic space to retrieve her stranded Security cadets from a settlement station.

What could go wrong?

Just about everything.

In this novel, I get to explore concepts of family (genetic v. found), government (why it exists, what it’s for), personhood, and (excitement!!) genetics, genetic engineering, and genetic misconceptions to my heart’s content. Plus, shoot-outs on space ships and space stations! Did I mention this was a space opera? It’s a space opera!

—-

Fault Lines: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Kobo|Candlemark & Gleam

Read an excerpt (pdf link). Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Joshua Viola

When Joshua Viola first thought up the idea of what would eventually become Denver Moon, he realized that what it really needed was collaboration. How did Viola make that happen? Time to find out.

JOSHUA VIOLA:

You never know when a story idea is going to turn into something you are proud of or something you want to hide in the closet. As many authors know, sometimes a good idea pans out into a great story. But other times, it just doesn’t fit together. In Denver Moon: Minds of Mars it took a series of individual ideas and the help of a co-writer to create a whole new world.

After working on Cyber World: Tales of Humanity’s Tomorrow, I knew I wanted to write some sort of neo-noir mystery, but the where, who, and why eluded me. At least at first.

The first real solid idea of this novella, or rather the entire franchise, was the disability that the character lives with. Being color-blind might not seem like a disability for some people, but for those who cannot differentiate certain colors it is a distinct disadvantage. Things such as stoplights, 3-D movies, gaming, and even something as simple as picking out matching clothes can be a challenge. I’m color-blind myself, and know its challenges. But I know the disability doesn’t entirely make up a character.

The next idea I worked with was heritage. I’ve been a fan of Japanese movies, video games, and anime, and enjoyed how different it is from western storytelling. I wanted to capture how the Japanese culture takes ideas and spins it into something unique. To pay homage of some of my favorite types of storytelling, I decided the character would be of Japanese descent.

This was a good start but I still didn’t know who this detective (and by now I knew they were a detective) was. Ideas kept circling.

The name came as I was walking through Denver one evening under a bright full moon. Denver Moon.

On that same walk the next ideas came in a rush. The underbelly of Mars, a talking gun, and other half-formed ideas. But I knew it still wasn’t a story. For one, there was no plot.

That’s where we circle back to the cyberpunk anthology. My favorite story was “The Bees of Kiribati”, a tight story with a disturbing twist written by Warren Hammond. It impressed me enough that I hoped Warren would lend his talents to Denver Moon. I invited him for a few beers to discuss the project.

At first, Warren wasn’t interested, but he agreed to hear me out. Somehow the ideas I had already come up with interested him enough to collaborate. Together we began the task of world-building, taking ideas such as the colorblindness, and developing a terrifying Martian disorder that monochromatics were immune to. Warren developed our nemesis and, most importantly, helped flesh out Denver and give her a real personality and mission.

Each of these ideas alone couldn’t stand on their own. It wasn’t until our team was formed that all of the elements came together.

—-

Denver Moon: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Denver Moon Store

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

The Big Idea: Brenda Clough

What happens when a science fiction writer goes back in time? A serialized novel following up one of the most intriguing woman characters of 1859! Brenda Clough explains how she got from here to there for her series A Most Dangerous Woman.

BRENDA CLOUGH:

I have always thought of myself as an SF and fantasy writer. But I realize now, what I really am is a fan of plot. What I love more than anything is breakneck story-telling. With hairpin turns of development that yet are inevitable, a novel as strong as neat rye whiskey, as speedy as a Porsche, tightly-packed as the app icons on the screen of an I-phone. And I want history, the fathoms-deep delve into the mind and heart of an era – a story that can be both perfectly of its time and yet the window into it for us, the modern readers. I want a book like a time machine.

I want to write, yes! a Victorian triple-decker novel for 2018. A little uncomfortable, for a writer whose brief is to write about the future. But the nice thing about a career in fantasy and science fiction? I can do it. On the page I fear neither God nor man. I have made it all up from whole cloth in my day. This is not rocket science – I’ve done rocket science already!

It has long been clear to me that Wilkie Collins sadly dropped the ball after he wrote his classic sensational novel The Woman in White. Honestly, Wilkie – it should have been shatteringly clear to you that this work cried out for a sequel. The world is in desperate need of more stories about your redoubtable heroine, Miss Marian Halcombe, how could you have missed this? There’s gold in them thar hills, pal. She was the Modesty Blaise of mid-Victorian England, a James Bond in crinoline and corsets. And if you didn’t mine it, I will.

I love plot, yes – it’s the engine of a novel. But if you want a book to go, character is the gasoline. And once I invited Marian Halcombe to take the wheel of the Porsche we were off at speed. Because Marian is one of the first feminist heroines in literature. An ugly woman, in an era when if you couldn’t marry you were bupkis, in the original novel she combated villains to secure happiness for her sister Laura. Is it plain to you, with this one-sentence summary, that the next bit of her story involves happiness for herself? Immediately the car that is my novel began to fill up, not only all the original Collins characters but a new batch.  A husband, of course she needs a husband. But a sexy and rich one.

Teenagers discovering their purpose in life have their own genre, YA. It’s about time we had a happily married couple doing all the married things, in addition to the hair-raising adventure and the cliff-hanger perils. And Victorian thrillers had the full spectrum of awful perils. I blissfully borrowed them all. Bigamy. Dickensian slums with no drainage at all. Nests of anarchists in the heart of London. Murder. Prison – prisons in the 1860s were exceptionally nasty. I see no reason why he should not get typhus in jail, do you? And medical care for that typhus was shuddersome, fantastically useless from our comfortable vantage point. Unwed motherhood, in an era when there was no birth control and having sex without the marriage license rendered you unfit for the company of decent people. Science fiction and fantasy writers know that there’s no point in writing a novel set someplace different if the full gruesome terrors of that time and place aren’t exploited to the hilt. If you’re going to Middle Earth, you have to have orcs, and giant spiders aren’t so bad either.

But I don’t want to just blast from the past. A work published today needs to speak to the modern reader. And the fact is that we often don’t realize how far we’ve come. We live in the bubble that is the present, and we don’t look back. A brief tour through the historical record reveals that it is really worthwhile to have antibiotics and penicillin. The song tells us that we built this city on rock and roll.  No, we didn’t. A city is built on clean water supplies and proper sewage disposal. London in the 1860s, when the Thames was a standing sewer of horse urine and human turds, will prove it to you. Can we lose this again? Oh sure – go to Flint, Michigan and see people poisoned by faulty water supplies. Can women or persons of color lose the rights gained over the last century or so? Open your daily paper. Today I read a statement by a black rapper assuring us that slavery wasn’t so bad. Honestly, dude? Or consider the Rohingya Muslim minority, in Burma. They were citizens of Burma at one point – there are 135 ethnic minorities in Burma with citizenship. But one day they woke up and they weren’t citizens any more, but deportation bait.

We have a civilization which we believe – just like the Victorians, the Romans, the Athenians under Pericles – is the greatest in history. But we can easily let it slip through our fingers, just like that, by inattention or fuggheadedness. Maybe it’ll help, to read a story in which awful things happen to people because a better solution simply isn’t available yet. That’s what historical fiction can do – it says, “This is how it was – behold how it’s better now.” Just as science fiction declares, “See this one trend: if this goes on, we are so toast.” What a relief; I went right around the world, and came back home again. I am still in my genre. This book is in the same line as Jurassic Park or On the Beach.

Fiction allows us to test-drive stuff. Is it a good idea to marry the rat-bag gambler, or should you play it safe with your sister’s suitor? Read Gone With the Wind and save yourself heartache. I hope that you can look up from reading the appalling things that Marian Halcombe gets into (and out of, by main strength) and realize that you don’t want to do that yourself.

—-

A Most Dangerous Woman: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Serialbox

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

The Big Idea: Cat Rambo

Where to start the second book in a series? If your answer is “after the first book, duh,” allow Cat Rambo to offer another option to you, which she employs in her novel Hearts of Tabat.

CAT RAMBO:

My second novel is out as of May 20, and it’s a satisfying feeling. At the same time, I’m a little nervous about it, because it’s not a standard sequel, but rather takes the events of book one, Beasts of Tabat, and provides some different angles on it, this time seeing them through the eyes of a new set of viewpoints, including the best friend and former lover of one of Beasts’ protagonists and the two men vying for her attention.

Hearts of Tabat follows up on Beasts of Tabat not by starting where the first book ends, but considerably before that with one of the scenes from Beasts revisited. The characters from Beasts are there, particularly charismatic gladiator Bella Kanto, but they are seen through the eyes of a set of protagonists. It does end in time after Beasts, and those wondering what happened to Bella at the end of Beasts will find out.

Because of this, there’s a weird and somewhat unanticipated structure, where either book will work equally well to bring the reader in. The next one, Exiles of Tabat, won’t share this trait – it’s placed solidly after the end of Hearts of Tabat, and the final Gods of Tabat definitively after Exiles in its own turn.

I’ve always loved books that are oddly shaped in one way or another, which read one way backward and another frontward, or where any chapter can serve as the beginning, but I didn’t set out to create an oddly shaped series. I worry sometime that I’ve failed to pull it off, but at the same time I know Hearts is a better book than the first one, and Exiles will be even better yet.

And writing this way has let me create an even richer, deeper nook. By now I’ve written three and a half books and two dozen stories and novelettes set in this world. I know it well, but when I go wandering it in that hazy state of slumber that one hopes will carry you off to sleep, I always find new things, new little details, but all of them things that grow out of the shape of the world, caused by the existence of the three moons or the way the terraced city steps down to the water.

By the time I’m done with Gods, though (and I’m hoping the the next books come much quicker once my stint in the SFWA Presidency is over in mid-2019) I’ll be ready to move away from Tabat, for a little while, at least. I’ve been working on a YA space opera at the same time and I want to finish that up, along with a modern horror novel, tentatively entitled Queen of the Fireflies. So many projects and so little time — and who know what shape they will end up being?

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Hearts of Tabat: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Kobo|Smashwords

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

The Big Idea: Nicola Griffith

Ever have that story that decides that now is the time it is going to be told, and you get to be the lucky person to tell it? Nicola Griffith does, and now her novel So Lucky is out in the world. Here she is to explain how the one led to the other.

NICOLA GRIFFITH:

I usually know years in advance what book I’m going to write next. But sometimes when you’re far away and thinking of something else a book will leap out from behind the sofa and shriek, SURPRISE! Then look hurt when you’re beating it about the head and yelling, Don’t. Ever. Do. That. Again!

That’s what happened with So Lucky.

In mid-2016 I was happily working on Menewood, the sequel to Hild, when I got accepted as a doctoral candidate. It was an amazing opportunity so I went for it. I had to set aside Menewood because though I’m guessing some people could write a huge book set in the 7th century and a PhD at the same time, I’m not one of them. But I worked fast and by mid-December I had a draft of my thesis. I sent it to my supervisor, who would get back to me in January.

So now I had three weeks with no pressing project and no one nagging me for stuff. I know! I thought. (Be wary, very wary of that phrase…) I’ll write that magic realist story… It was a story I’d been thinking about for 20 years—and had tried to write once but stuck in a drawer because I wasn’t happy with it. (I didn’t know why at the time but it turns out I’d committed the cardinal sin of writing a disabled character as a narrative prosthesis. And, yes, this inconvenient knowledge is the kind of thing a PhD is good for.) But it had never stopped muttering to itself on the porch, and now it was hammering at the door…

…Or maybe I’m just telling myself a story; writers do that. You should probably never believe anything we say about why and how we write what we do. We don’t really know—but we’re really good at coming up with an explanation after the fact. So it could be that the whole thing was just nested avoidance behaviour. Maybe the PhD was a way to stop thinking about Menewood, and maybe So Lucky was a way to stop thinking about the PhD.

Anyway, I began. It came gushing, roaring out, a torrent of rage, joy, horror, and homecoming. I had a first draft in three weeks. And it turned out unlike anything I’ve ever written before.

The first word of So Lucky is It, and It is a monster. The book’s short but it’s stuffed with monsters, human and otherwise. None of those monsters is metaphorical.

So Lucky is set in present-day Atlanta. It’s narrated by a woman, Mara, who is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and realises she needs a community—other disabled people—that doesn’t exist yet. It’s about how she finds her people and then begins to discover and help shape a new culture.

“I need it, so I’ll have to build it” is what the SFF community has been doing for decades. It’s where the queer community began in the 60s, and the feminist community in the 70s. Both accelerated in the 80s. The HIV+ community did it in the 80s and 90s. The disabled community are doing right now.

Having no established community to lean on in times of need is terrible; it is alienating, Othering, and enraging. But finally finding your people and beginning to create a life, a history, a path, plan, and sense of purpose together? That is blazing joy. So few people get to be part of the building blocks of a culture. So many of us are born into a sense of belonging and history, and never get to really find out our own perspective on the world. We might change part of the way through our lives, but, generally speaking, any path we may follow is already well-trodden, ready-made and lined with relevant music, books, films, fashions, and documentary history.

But when you get to build the art and culture that doesn’t already exist, the art you create is fuelled by the emotional journey: the alienation and the homecoming, the fear and excitement, the rage and joy. That’s how I wanted Mara, and the reader, to feel. I want So Lucky to be terrifying, bewildering, yet rich with the delight of discovery, of making, of connection; the warmth of belonging and building your own hearth—but with a thread of dissonance running beneath, the sense that the world you’re conjuring is fragile, and that monsters lurk just outside the light.

So Lucky is raw, a spear-thrust of a book, but also, I hope, funny. At least I read the audiobook that at way. It’s fiction about a woman who comes to see clearly the bullshit of the uber-story, the ableist lies we’ve all been fed from birth. She learns to break free from the constraints of the old story so she can build her own. It’s about building community. Because community is hope, community is life. And community is how you keep the monsters at bay.

—-

So Lucky: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s 

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

The Big Idea: Tiffany Trent & Stephanie Burgis

When Stephanie Burgis found what she thought was a magical site, she discovered she wasn’t alone in that opinion — and thus, the fantasy anthology The Underwater Ballroom Society, edited by Burgis and Tiffany Trent. Where was this place and what was the attraction? Both editors are here to explain.

TIFFANT TRENT & STEPHANIE BURGIS:

From Steph:

There are some places in the world that were simply meant for magic.

Have you ever walked into a new place – or seen a striking, evocative photo – and thought: There really ought to be a story set here?

When I saw photos of the “underwater ballroom” at Witley Park, I let out a physical gasp of wonder. It was such an incredible concept. It was practically designed for fantasy fiction! I was desperate to read magical stories in that kind of underwater setting.

Because I was on Twitter at the time (as I often am), I said just that, quite idly. Of course I didn’t intend to do anything about it myself. I didn’t have the time to write a new novel, or even a novella, no matter how amazing that setting might be. I had contracts to fulfill! I had serious professional commitments!

…and, as it turned out, I had a lot of passionate friends who shared the same immediate, intuitive certainty that there had to be magic in a setting like that!

Tiffany Trent tweeted back to me within seconds: “Have been saving files and photos on this to write something about it for years…”

And when I replied, ” (Actually, you know what would be fun? An anthology of novelettes by different authors all using that concept!)” – more and more friends started raising their hands, all drawn by the sheer joy of the idea.

Everyone could see the potential. It was irresistible! How could a story with an underwater ballroom not be fun? How could it not be even better with magic or some other kind of speculative fiction concept?

Of course, we all had Serious, Grown-Up Authorial Commitments elsewhere…but sometimes, you just have to play in an underwater ballroom for a month or two regardless. Sometimes you just can’t resist diving in.

…Because some places were simply meant for magic.

 

From Tiffany:

As I say in the introduction to the anthology, it’s great to ask “what if?” but the next step is to say, “yes, we can.” I would never have dreamed if someone had asked me a year ago that the underwater ballroom I’d secretly been hoping to write about for years would end up as an anthology I co-edited with one of my dearest writer friends, filled to the brim with fabulous stories from writers I admire.

When writers jumped at the opportunity and Steph and I turned to one another and said, “Let’s do this thing,” every story that came in seemed like a small miracle. Each one of them is scintillating in its own way. The ballroom is a smuggler’s hiding spot. It’s the scene of a rock-and-roll showdown. It’s where a fury remembers herself. It’s the setpiece for a heist. Sometimes the ballroom shatters at the end. Sometimes the ballroom is filled with feasts and dancing. Sometimes the ballroom remains perilously empty, waiting for magic that never comes. Sometimes it’s a refuge against the dark.

And what has been most wonderful about this, beyond watching our writers build beautiful fantasies on the scaffold of an underwater ballroom, is the feedback we’ve gotten from all of our readers so far. Every advance reader has found something to love in this anthology. The word “fun” keeps getting repeated in every new review, and it’s exactly what we’d hoped for. In times like these, bringing readers such happiness, giving them escape and delight even if only for a few minutes, means the world.

This anthology has inspired a sea change, if you’ll forgive the pun. It’s reminded me why we do this work that we do. For all that writing can feel maddening and thankless, there are times when stories can bring magic, especially when seen through the shimmering glass of an underwater dome.

—-

The Underwater Ballroom Society: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBooks|Kobo|Smashwords

Visit Tiffany Trent’s site. Follow her on Twitter. Visit Stephanie Burgis’ site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Bryan Camp

Luck is a thing that often happens (provided, of course, everything else falls into place). It happens enough that it caused Bryan Camp to consider its fundamental nature for The City of Lost Fortunes — in no small part because of the luck he’s had in his own life, and what it’s meant to him.

BRYAN CAMP:

In the handful of days before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, when it was still a relatively weak storm in the lower half of the Gulf that was supposedly headed for Texas, I spent my time—when I wasn’t in class or working my usual shifts at a restaurant—packing up everything I owned and loading it into my truck. If you’re not familiar with hurricane evacuations, this isn’t normal preparedness.

Because there’s a “cone of uncertainty” about where a storm might actually go, you often spend a week watching satellite imagery and projected paths before it’s clear that any given storm will actually threaten your home. Usually, you’ve only got a day, maybe two, between making the decision to leave (if you’ve got the means) and needing to be on the road. Since you might be within that cone of uncertainty as many as four or five times in a given hurricane season, people don’t tend to pack up their whole lives every time. Most people here keep a single box of all their “absolutely must not lose this,” paperwork to bring with them, along with valuables, pets, a few changes of clothing, and maybe a few precious pictures taken off the wall.

I don’t imagine a single person evacuates without realizing they’ve left something behind that they wished they hadn’t forgotten. But I had every single possession I owned carefully boxed and labeled, ready to go a full day before the storm even started to strengthen. I didn’t have some prescient warning about the danger the storm posed, nor am I an overly cautious person by nature who does this for every storm. In truth, I was barely aware of Katrina until it started to get suddenly, scarily strong.

So why, then, did I pack up everything I owned? Because I was broke. That weekend, I just so happened to be moving out of the house I shared with a few friends and back in with my folks to save rent money.

Blind, dumb luck, in other words.

My life has been full of those kinds of moments. Missing an author’s reading and, instead, lucking into a date with the woman I would one day marry. Switching jobs right before a round of layoffs. A font size mishap forcing me to submit one story instead of another. Lucky break after lucky break that starts to look like destiny, like this is the trajectory my life is “supposed” to be on.

Because they’re two sides of the same coin, aren’t they? A flat tire is bad luck, but a flat tire that avoids a car accident is all part of the plan. I thought about this relationship a lot after the storm and in the years that followed, as I wrote and rewrote this novel about the life and death of a Fortune god. Yes, it’s a murder mystery, and yes, it’s about loss and recovery and finding oneself in the wake of tragedy, but the question at the core of this book is whether we live in a chaotic world of blind luck, or whether all that seeming randomness comes together as part of some grand design, if it all happens for a reason.

The easy answer, of course, is that it’s impossible to know for sure. The deeper, harder to swallow conclusion that I came to, though, is that luck or destiny or fortune or whatever you want to call it, is both real, and is a non-renewable resource. It’s not just wealth and it’s not just privilege, though those things are certainly tied up in all this. For many, it’s both of those and even more besides. The simple, maddening, unfair truth of life is that it’s just straight up easier for some people.

In that little anecdote about my pre-Katrina stroke of good fortune, for example, I was able to pack up all my possessions on my own without it impacting my work or my studies because, in part, I am able-bodied. I had the support of my middle-class family to fall back on when rent became burdensome. We had the means to evacuate, which many here did not and still do not, and the means to return once the storm passed, while some life-long residents of New Orleans will never come home. I was, and am, lucky.

When the good things in your life look like luck to you, it’s relatively easy to spread that good fortune around. But one doesn’t need to look very hard at this world to find examples of those who see their excess of fortune as predestined. They turn a blind eye to all the ways the machinery of the world is greased in their favor, and look only to the results. “Look,” they say, “at all the blessings the universe has bestowed on me. Surely this is mine because I deserve it.”

Enter Trickster.

Trickster stories are my favorite fables and myths, not because they depict figures really worth emulating, but because Tricksters perform a very specific, necessary task in the wider world: they upset the balance. They trip up the mighty and, as the once overly-fortunate tumble down from that lofty perch, steal a little of that good luck for themselves and others (usually for themselves, but hey, nobody’s perfect).  

And so I look at this world of ours, with a very few people hoarding so much of the easy living that it makes life just that much harder for the rest of us, and I long for Trickster. Someone who can show the ones who believe that destiny has granted them dominion over the Earth that, no, mostly they’re just lucky.

Because I’ve had a little taste of what good fortune is really like, and I’m here to tell you folks, it really is better to be lucky than good.

—-

The City of Lost Fortunes: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Jack McDevitt

The Long Sunset by Jack McDevitt

In today’s Big Idea, Nebula Award-winning author Jack McDevitt looks at the concept of alien invasions and how they might not be what we expect — and how our interaction with alien civilizations might be different than we might imagine — and how it all fits in with his latest novel, The Long Sunset.

JACK McDEVITT:

Recently Michael Hippke, an astronomer at the Sonnenberg Observatory in Germany, collaborated with John Learning of the University of Hawaii to produce a study stipulating that our terrestrial civilization might be in danger of an alien attack. This was a variant, however, from the standard notion of giant warships arriving to unleash a direct World War II-style assault. The nature of the threat now is described as electronic contamination. It might constitute nothing more than an e-mail arriving in your mailbox and offering you a large cash prize. Or immortality. ‘Simply open the attachment.’

Actually that sounds like a good title for a modern version of Damon Knight’s classic “To Serve Man.” Open the attachment and download a virus that allows the interstellar hacker to take over the entire electronic grid. Seated quietly inside his bedroom on Aldebaran III, it may simply play games with us, or shut us down completely.

Scientists have been signing statements in substantial numbers urging us to cut back as much as possible on the radio signals which, they say, are alerting high-tech nearby civilizations, if they’re actually there, about our presence. Leading the charge in recent years has been Stephen Hawking. Recently, he had been at the forefront of the Breakthrough Listen Project, which has been scanning nearby systems in an effort to locate aliens. But as determined as he was to find out whether there was life in the neighborhood, he had no interest in reaching out to anyone who showed up on the scopes. It would simply be too dangerous.

Some will argue that there are no nearby high-tech civilizations, otherwise how do you explain the unrelenting silence? One answer to that might be it’s because they’ve been bombing one another out of existence. Or that they understand the danger and keep their transmitters shut down.

How much more intense, one wonders, would the resistance be if we had an FTL drive, and the capability to visit other star systems? That we were actually doing it while scientists and politicians complained that we could not be sure who or what might be following us home. That is the reality in which star pilot Priscilla Hutchins lives.

But there is good news: Although a substantial number of living worlds have been visited, hitech civilizations are almost nonexistent. There had been a few, but they are long gone. Nevertheless, the discovery of collapsed worlds does not make anyone feel safer. The countries that have participated in the space program are backing away, and reports have gotten out that interstellar flight is about to be shut down.

While the struggle goes on, a new super telescope is brought online, and we pick up a transmission, from thousands of light-years away, an incredible signal: a mixture of music and images of a waterfall.

We think we know the system it derived from, and an effort is quickly put together to launch the Barry Eiferman.

Priscilla has had a good career as a pilot, and she is quickly tabbed to lead the mission. They are trying to launch from the terrestrial space station when the shutdown order arrives. The Eiferman proceeds anyway, thereby guaranteeing the animosity of several political leaders, including the U.S. president.

Nothing proceeds as expected, and they encounter several surprises. Among them is an ocean world, with friendly creatures living on islands. The occupants are pleased to have visitors, showing none of the fears that have taken over the climate at home. They have electricity, radios, cars, and steamships. Priscilla and her team enjoy their time on the planet. There is obviously no connection with the waterfall transmission.

They have a temple with a globe perched atop its steeple. After Priscilla’s team has gotten some command of the language, they ask about the globe. The being who operates the temple stares down at the globe and spreads his hands over it. “It’s a dangerous world,” he says. “We are all in it together.”

But Priscilla and her team have been keeping something from their hosts: The ocean world is on the verge of being destroyed. Is there a way to help? Should we even tell them? “No,” says Priscilla. “Not unless we can talk the people at home into getting behind an all-out effort.”

It was hard to see how that could happen.

—-

The Long Sunset: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Jerry Gordon

In today’s Big Idea, author Jerry Gordon tackles truth, pandemics, religious cults and the possible end of world. You know, as you do. Here’s how it all comes together for his novel Breaking the World.

JERRY GORDON:

In 1993, David Koresh and the Branch Davidians predicted the end of the world. What if they were right? That’s the question lurking behind Breaking the World, my apocalyptic thriller set during the largest and longest standoff in law enforcement history.

Twenty-five years ago, over one hundred ATF agents in full body armor stormed the Branch Davidian church in Waco, Texas. Military helicopters circled overhead as both sides traded gunfire. When the smoke cleared, four agents and six church members were dead. A fifty-one-day standoff followed the botched raid, dominating the news.

At the insistence of the FBI, reporters were kept a mile and a half away from the site of the actual stalemate. This forced the press to depend on the FBI’s daily briefings for all their information about the standoff. Officials portrayed the church as a military-style compound. They branded the Christian congregation, an offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventists, a cult. And David Koresh, the pastor of the church, became a madman with a messiah complex.

This all took place in a time before the Internet and cell phones. Controlling the crime scene meant controlling the flow of information. In the middle of the standoff, desperate church members unfurled a banner fashioned from a white bed sheet. The message, which hung from a third story window, had been spray painted in letters big enough for the news media’s telephoto lenses. It read: WE WANT PRESS.

The Branch Davidians never got their audience with the press. The standoff ended in a tragedy so profound it sparked multiple investigations. Congressional hearings questioned the justification for the raid, autopsies conflicted with official accounts, and enough evidence was lost or destroyed to spark calls for a special prosecutor to look into obstruction of justice charges against agents of the ATF and FBI.

Twenty-five years later, the myth of Waco still eclipses reality.

I’m old enough to remember watching the fifty-one-day standoff play out on CNN. My step-father worked for the FBI as a field agent, so it should come as no surprise that I took the official account at face value. It wasn’t until years later, when I tried to write David Koresh into a short story as a religious boogeyman, that I started to question the myths of Waco. The more I researched Koresh and the Branch Davidians, the more I found reality far different from the official story I had been told.

That’s not to say I found the Branch Davidians without fault. David Koresh and his congregation bore significant responsibility for the tragedy of Waco, but they had been held accountable in a way the ATF and FBI had not. Long after I wrote and sold the short story, I continued to seek out obscure interviews, devour documentaries, and sift through congressional testimony. My questions about the standoff multiplied until they demanded to be answered in a novel.

The story needed to be told from an impartial point of view. I wanted characters that could question, as I do, both the actions of the church and law enforcement–characters in conflict with all sides of the struggle. Luckily, the nurses and lawyers and retired police officers that lived and worshipped at the Branch Davidian church brought something with them genetically designed to question everything: teenagers.

I decided to tell the story from the perspective of three atheist teens, a trinity of nonbelievers dragged to the Christian commune by their born-again parents. Trapped together, these teens would struggle to survive the historic conflict between David Koresh, an erratic FBI, and a pandemic that seems to confirm the worst of the church’s apocalyptic prophecies.

I stumbled onto the big idea for Breaking the World by asking a simple question with profound real and fictional implications. What if David Koresh and the Branch Davidians were right? Not just right about the raid or the injustice of their treatment. What if they were right about the end of the world?

Twenty-five years later, it’s time to find out.

Breaking the World: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|iBooks|KoboRead an excerpt.

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