The Big Idea: David Siegel Bernstein

The phrase “science fiction” has two relevant parts to it. In Blockbuster Science, author David Siegel Bernstein delves into the science of the fiction, and separates out the fantasy of the genre from the fact. Here he is to tell you process of his exploration.

DAVID SIEGEL BERNSTEIN:

Science fiction is driven by fear or hope, while science is driven by necessity or curiosity. The overlap between their motivations is huge. Science fiction has always had the power to inspire scientific and technological breakthroughs that change our world. Companies used words like “robot” and “android” after they were popularized in fiction, and today’s STEM experts often say they were first inspired by stories they read when they were young.

To me, what could be a more fun way to explore the world of science than through its use—accurately or fantastically—in science fiction entertainment: movies, books, and TV shows? This question is the big idea behind Blockbuster Science: The Real Science in Science Fiction. So as you may imagine, this book was born from my geeking love for both science and science fiction. This made it incredibly fun to write. How could it not be? I got to explain the science behind popular narrative concepts like time travel, AI, genetic mutation, asteroids, cyborgs, alien invasion, the zombie apocalypse, and more. I also created lists of songs (consider it science and science fiction mood music), movies, and books that highlight chapter topics.

The entire experience of writing this book was different from my fiction writing, where I’m mostly locked inside my head. Blockbuster Science was much more an external journey. I scoured research journals, textbooks, newspapers, and magazines to learn what is old news, where cutting edge research is heading, and new outcomes possible from widely accepted theories. I made my best attempt to explain key scientific principles in jargon-free, easy-to-understand narratives. For the creators of hard-science fiction, I hope this book draws the boundaries that cannot be broken and teases those that are begging to be broken with the right what-if.

I like questions—even ones for which we have no answers, yet. I made sure to season in a lot of question marks throughout each chapter. A lot of recent discoveries have led to questions that scientists never thought to ask before. Curiosity about our world drives fiction authors and filmmakers to explore the realm of possibility. Besides, isn’t science itself all about asking questions? Questions such as, what caused the big bang? Consider how cause comes before effect. In the standard big bang theory, as described in the book, there was no before (i.e., time) before the big bang. Think of searching for the cause of the big bang as being like searching for north while standing at the North Pole. Don’t worry, I address on a few of the newer theories that may provide you with a more satisfying theoretical answer to that question.

Every chapter of Blockbuster Science covers a different topic. Time and space, which are so interwoven that they are cleverly coupled under the moniker spacetime, and quantum mechanics start the learning process. The weirdness of string theory, the origin story called the big bang, parallel worlds, black holes, evolution and biology provide truckloads of building blocks for fictional worlds. Interconnectivity, AI, extraterrestrial life, interstellar communication, energy sources and rocketry buttress those building blocks. Substance, materials, invisibility, the holographic universe and technology spin up more possibilities until everything ends in the chapter that covers the end of everything (the sun, the universe…everything). Is it really the end? I offer up a few “workarounds” based on the science described throughout the book, but I warn you, it will sound like science fiction.

Blockbuster Science isn’t only for science fiction fans who want to know more about the science behind the plot. This book is for the curious—anyone who wants to know more about the natural world and the universe of which they are a part. It’s for the science geek in everyone, especially those who smirk at jokes such as: Schrödinger’s cat walks into a bar, and doesn’t. My kind of people!

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Blockbuster Science: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Felicity Banks

Writing alternate history is fun and interesting, but here’s another interesting thing: Every day, we’re making a history too. What happens when the latter crashes into the former? Author Felicity Banks has some thoughts on that and how it affects her new novel The Antipodean Queen.

FELICITY BANKS:

Every time there’s a crocodile attack in Australia’s Northern Territory, tourist rates go up.

That should probably make me fear for humanity, but it just makes me smile. We Australians often laugh at over-the-top depictions of our deadly animals and even deadlier landscapes. I’m a city girl myself, so I know how silly it all is.

Okay, so there was that one time my grandma killed a snake. And the kangaroos hopping around the major roads at night are a bit of a hazard. Sure, there’s that one playground I always check for brown snakes these days. The annual bushfires aren’t great, either. Yes, my backyard has a little bit of a red-back spider breeding program. And it’s a teensy bit creepy that huntsman spiders are so common that the ones living inside have a shared nickname (Fred).

In Australia, nature is constantly reminding us that humans aren’t as impressive as we like to think―and we love it.

I’m quite patriotic, for an Australian. Ever since Europeans invaded, Australian culture has been a curious mixture of British, American, and other cultures. Our manners are more straightforward, and our suspicion of authority runs deep. Most Australians are uneasy with national pride, and not just because it’s a favourite tool of racists. Sometimes we do awful things to try to keep ourselves safe from a perceived threat―and we know it.

A love for one’s country is a curious and complicated thing, and the more history I learn the more complicated it gets. How can I respect the unique prehistory of Australia when my university sprawls cheerfully over a sacred site? How can I be proud of my country when the white middle-class life I know was built on attempted genocide? How can I enjoy Australia’s excellent lamb when I know that flocks of imported sheep permanently devastated vast areas of once-productive land?

These are the questions that flutter around the edges of my writing, dipping into a half-sentence here or there as I write a story that looks like it’s all fun and fantasy.

Here’s the thing: I write with hope, and magic, and optimism. Sometimes it’s not easy, and sometimes it feels closer to outright lies than fiction. But if I can write something better than real life, I believe the power of my imagination can haul that version of Australia closer to reality. If I didn’t believe that, I couldn’t go on.

I had my Big Idea of writing Australian alternate history back in 2011, not knowing then that important parts of my history are only now coming to light. As I began to read more deeply about Australia’s colonial era―smiling sometimes, and crying often―I found a few things to be proud of. Part of Australia granted the right for women to vote in state elections in 1861. Back in 2011 I had a vague notion that the second book of the trilogy would be something to do with women’s suffrage. The question was how to make it relevant to modern readers. Surely any character who wanted to silence the political voice of half the population could only come across as cartoonishly evil.

Sigh.

Speaking of cartoonishly evil. . .

Right now, in Australia, our government is risking the safety of thousands of vulnerable LGBTIQ people by making the entire population take an expensive and non-binding postal plebiscite on gay marriage, even though it’s already well established that the majority of Australians support equal rights. I’m bisexual but married to a man, and cushioned by the appearance of heterosexuality. In recent weeks even I have felt the sting of half-heard conversations, advertisements that would usually be classified as hate speech, and an email telling me that as a Christian I should vote ‘No’.

So here I am writing a fantastical version of history while being haunted by the uncomfortable knowledge that real-world history is still being written. I’m heartbroken over the real mistakes of both the past and the present, but I choose to believe that my country can grow to better deserve the love I give it.

Oh, and there’s a crocodile in the book too.

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The Antipodean Queen: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

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

The Big Idea: Elizabeth Bear

Hey! It’s Elizabeth Bear! She’s my Hugo-winning pal! She’s awesome! And she has a new fantasy series beginning with The Stone in the Skull! That’s aweseome! She’s here to tell you about it! And that’s awesome too!

ELIZABETH BEAR:

I’m here under false pretenses.

Let’s just get that out of the way. I’m here under false pretenses, because I’m not sure that The Stone in the Skull actually has a single unifying big idea so much as it’s stitched together out of a patchwork tapestry of little ideas that all play off one another, and the story arises from the consequences of those decisions. It is actually natural that it would work that way, because it’s my attempt to meld two of the great traditions of fantasy into one whole. This is a story with sword-and-sorcery roots, and an epic destination.

There are four protagonists in The Stone in the Skull. They include (in the order their points of view arise), the Dead Man, raised from infancy to be the personal guard of a Caliph long since deposed; Mrithuri, the young and brilliant but inexperienced rajni of a small but wealthy kingdom that was once the capitol of a now-fractured empire; the Gage, a brass automaton constructed by a wizard who replaced each piece of a living body with metal, in turn; and Sayeh, the widowed middle-aged rajni of another and poorer empire-remnant, ruling as regent for her young son and desperately trying to cling to power for his sake.

These are disparate people, set in motion by circumstance–or manipulation–faced with questions both of natural catastrophe and political disaster. But they have something in common, and so does the fractured political structure that they’re moving through: they’ve all in the process of facing and dealing with the aftermath of disaster, and the necessity of putting together something new out of the broken fragments of the old. A mosaic. A resurrection.

Which is why I say that the Big Idea of The Stone in the Skull is a lot of little ideas stitched together, I suppose. Because that’s how things–big things, things too huge for one person to do by themself–get built, isn’t it? One piece at a time. One mismatched fragment stitched to another. One fragment in the mosaic, and then another, and then another.

The Big Idea of this book is that you can build big things out of little things–small actions, small choices, small loyalties.

Small people in a big world, with difficult pasts–but all of them, rising up out of some shattering. All of them, in search of a future, and hope.

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The Stone in the Skull: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Matt Harry

When Matt Harry set down to write his novel Sorcery for Beginners, he undertook a journey that, as it turns out, had a parallel in the book he was writing. Here he is to tell you about that journey.

MATT HARRY:

This whole thing started because of Einstein.

I know the date exactly, because I take notes on such things. It was 21 April, 2013. I was looking for a little light reading material during my lunch. I scanned the bookshelf, picking up my wife’s copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Einstein. By the time I finished my sandwich, I decided I must somehow be more than a complete idiot. Even with the helpful explanations and jokey sidebars, I still couldn’t grasp the Theory of Relativity.

But flipping through the book gave me an idea. If they can explain something as difficult as theoretical physics to people, I mused, what if they could do the same thing for something impossible? Something that doesn’t exist, like Monster Hunting, or Time Travel, or Magic?

Magic. The concept hit me like a falling apple approaching the speed of light. Enchantments for Morons…Spell Casting for Dummies…okay, so the title doesn’t work yet, but a how-to guide that explains how to do magic, real magic? There’s something there.

I spent the next couple of days fleshing out the story — a lazy teenage protagonist whose parents had just divorced, a mysterious bookseller, a group of bullies tormenting our hero. I also changed the title to Sorcery for Beginners, realizing that ‘Dummies’ might not be the best way to address a potential audience. High on the fumes of a new idea, I pitched the concept to my then-agent—as a screenplay.

“Love it,” he said with the tooth-cracking enthusiasm only an agent can muster. “Great idea, fantastic, just one problem — no one’s buying spec screenplays right now. If you told me this was based on a book, it’d be an immediate sale, six figures easy. But since there’s no book …”

I was frustrated. I’d been repped in Hollywood for a few years at this point. I’d had a couple scripts optioned; an indie movie I wrote had been made and gotten distribution; I’d written projects for some big producers, but nothing had taken off. I was still working a day job and writing on nights and weekends. The time had come to try something new.

So it’d be an immediate sale if it was based on a book, huh? I fumed as I hacked my way back home through LA traffic. Guess I’ll just have to write Sorcery for Beginners as a book and sell it, then. Easy!

This wasn’t completely unknown territory for me. I had actually started as a prose writer, way back when I was a middle-grader myself. My first ‘novel,’ The Great Girl Chase, was written in seventh grade. The title alone should tell you how terrible it was.

Then I focused on plays for awhile, then journalism, then in my sophomore year at Ohio University I took a film analysis class and got hooked. For the next ten years I wrote screenplays and made movies. I had some minor success (see above), but when a good friend of mine got a three-book publishing deal, it inspired me to take up prose again.

I began outlining my first real novel in 2008. I thought it’d be fun to do something in the vein of the books I’d loved as a kid, like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Dark is Rising sequence. Unfortunately, while my finished novel had some cool details and world building, it ultimately wasn’t good enough to get me a lit agent.

But Sorcery would be different, I vowed to myself as my car crept past the Hollywood Bowl at 0.1 mph. I was a better writer now than I was five years ago, and I was more excited about this idea than I’d been about anything in a while. How hard could it be to crank out another book? I threw myself into it with the ferocity of a kirin, and two months later I had a first draft. I sent that off to lit agents, got multiple offers of representation, and a big publishing deal soon followed.

Just kidding. My first draft was only okay. And I had learned enough by that point to realize it was only okay. I sent it to my good friend, got notes, and I started to rewrite. I beefed up the secondary characters. I added more obstacles to the plot. Halfway through the third draft I realized it would be kind of fun if my story about kids finding a magical help guide was formatted like a help guide. That required adding about 15 thousand words of sidebars, spell pages, and fake magical history. Cue additional rewriting.

Somewhere during draft seven, I realized that what I was going through with this book was a perfect theme for the story. We all want things to be easy, but doing anything of value takes work. Owen, the main character, wants sorcery to fix everything in his life. But he needs to realize that only he can change his circumstances, and doing that takes effort. This led to more rewriting.

Finally, I had a draft I felt pretty good about. I queried agents and got a lot of good responses, even a couple offers of representation. Ultimately I went with Inkshares because the CEO Adam Gomolin really believed in this book and vowed to push it as hard as he could.

But even then, the work wasn’t done. My editor at Inkshares suggested increasing the presence of the bad guy Euclideans (who didn’t even have a name until the sixth draft). That required more rewriting, adding a few scenes, and putting a whole new chapter in the beginning. Even the captions for the illustrations went through some finessing. (I should stress here that all of this contributed to making a much better novel, and I’m incredibly grateful to everyone who helped me through the process.)

Now, four-and-a-half years, 11 drafts, many tossed pages later, my debut novel Sorcery for Beginners is complete. And I’ve learned the same lesson as Owen: that no matter how easy something seems, doing anything of value takes work.

Also, that Einstein was a pretty smart guy.

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Sorcery for Beginners: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

 

The Big Idea: Kat Howard

For An Unkindness of Magicians, author Kat Howard decided to go about things… well, just a little differently. She’s here to tell you why doing it that way made sense for her novel.

KAT HOWARD:

This is a book that began with an ending.

Not the ending of the book–No, that took me a number of drafts to actually know. But the ending of magic.

An excantation.

It’s a word so archaic that I had to add it to my computer’s dictionary. I don’t even precisely remember where I first read it – maybe it flashed across my twitter stream  or maybe it popped into my inbox as a word-a-day offering. It’s a kind of disenchantment, done by a countercharm. Magic to end magic. I read that definition, and my hair stood on end, and I knew I had a book. A book about an ending of magic.

Except a book isn’t only an ending. I needed a why: why would magic be ending? I thought about what I knew about magic, about what made magic real and true, about what made magic matter. Magic, I thought, should take work. It should have consequences. To paraphrase Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, magic should not be something you can get by tearing out someone else’s liver.

An Unkindness of Magicians is about what happens when magic is paid for with someone else’s liver.

And not just by one person. By an entire society, for multiple generations.

There is, of course, more to it than that, because even with the why, An Unkindness of Magicians is about more than simply an ending of magic, more than the abomination of magic that led up to the events of the story. People tend to not be happy when their power is taken away, particularly when they see that power as something they deserve.

An Unkindness of Magicians is about many kinds of endings:

  • Of friendship, when you discover a person is not who you thought they were.
  • Of familial bonds, when you learn that who you are matters less than what you could be used for.
  • Of a place that is a prison made sentient.
  • Of a terror that has stalked a community and of a system that simply looks the other way.

And yes, about an ending of magic.

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An Unkindness of Magicians: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Walter Jon Williams

You can’t judge a book by its cover, but a cover can still tell you a lot about a book. When I saw the Quillifer cover, I felt like I already knew more than a little bit about Walter Jon Williams‘ titular character. In his Big Idea, Williams confirms my suspicions. Read on to find out who Williams has imagined, and how he fits his illustration.

WALTER JON WILLIAMS:

Ideas for my fiction never arrive from a single place. Some come from my reading an article in a newspaper or magazine; some come from a brainstorming session with friends. Some ideas come from reading other fiction– either I think to myself, “I believe I have discovered an aspect of your premise that you have not considered,” or maybe I get annoyed and think, “Oh my god, I can do better than that!”

Two novels came from dreams– one a brief flash lasting only seconds but setting into motion the first of a series of tumbling imagination-dominoes that resulted, later that day, in the complete plot of a novel. The other novel, Implied Spaces, was the result of the only lucid dream I’ve had in my life– I dreamed the first 100 pages or so, and then awoke with a pretty good sense of where the rest of the book was going.

Quillifer came about because I took a pleasant autumn walk. I live in the Rio Grande Valley, a strip of bright green drawn down the brown, arid expanse of New Mexico. My neighbors are ranchers and farmers, and their fields are irrigated with water drawn from the river. A walk along the irrigation ditches is a perfect way of clearing the mind, ambling along while enjoying the trees, green fields, horses, cattle, and the frogs and fowl that live in the water.

So one afternoon, about ten years ago, I set out for a walk while listening to an audio book of Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Shakespeare. And by the time I came home, some ninety minutes later, I came back with six books plotted and the name of my protagonist.

I have no idea how any of that came about: there must have been something about the day, the trees and the fields and the frogs, and my receptive mind, and Shakespeare, and maybe Peter Ackroyd. But one thought was foremost in my mind as I recorded my ideas later that day.

If I write this, it will be a lot of fun.

There were a number of good reasons why I couldn’t have that fun right away. I was contracted to write some other books before I could start anything new. Then Ralph Vicinanza, my long-time literary agent, passed away, and I had to look for a new agent.

But more importantly, I was known as a science fiction writer, and the six books of the Quillifer series were secondary-world fantasy. (Now I thought that my novel Metropolitan was high fantasy, but readers disagreed– they seemed to think it was some kind of weird science fiction.)

I could toss off one fantasy novel, maybe, without endangering my career as an SF writer– but leaving my primary career for five or six years, while I wrote in another field, would probably put a stake through my SF career, and I wasn’t entirely ready to risk that.

But by and by, I succumbed to the temptation of having a lot of fun, and I started to write. And then I sold the first three books to Joe Monti at Simon & Schuster.

But I hadn’t sacrificed my SF career after all, because I also sold three more books of my far-future Praxis series to another publisher. Fortunately both publishers were willing to let me alternate deliveries of the books, so I’d be writing fantasy and SF in alternate volumes.

Now I could start enjoying myself.

Whether the reader enjoys Quillifer or not will depend entirely on whether or not they find the hero congenial, for the book is narrated entirely in Quillifer’s voice. Quillifer is a young man, lowborn but bumptious and roguish and on the make, an apprentice lawyer and serially in love. Though he finds himself in war and peril, he prefers to skate through life on brains and charm.

In fact he’s the smartest guy in the room. His problem is that he won’t shut up about it. He will cheerfully and eloquently offer solutions to every problem under discussion, and a great many that aren’t. He mocks his enemies, laughs at their pretensions, sleeps with their wives, and satirizes their failures.

Naturally some of these people are not inclined to appreciate his gifts. His cleverness gets him into at least as much trouble as it gets him out of.

But for the most part he has fun. I’m betting that readers might want to have fun along with him.

Fun has been a little hard to find in fantasy of late. Post-Game of Thrones and its well-deserved success, shelves have been so flooded with works that concentrate so exclusively on violence, violation, and despair, that the term “grimdark” has become a commonplace. I decided to provide an alternative.

Not that Quillifer is without tragedy. Its protagonist faces one harrowing situation after another. But I strove for balance, because I simply don’t find it convincing to write a world where only bad things happen and where happiness is impossible. Tragedy and misery may be part of the human condition, but so is laughter, song, and romance, and Quillifer finds his share of all these things.

In his adventurousness youth he is a useful guide to his world, which is not of the Middle Ages but more akin to the Northern European Renaissance. The printing press has ended the monopoly on literacy enjoyed by nobles and monks, and gunpowder has made a common soldier the equal of a knight. Quillifer intends to discover whether, in this changing world, it is possible for a clever, educated commoner to rise in the world. He’s not a lost prince looking for a lost throne, he’s a charming high-flyer looking for the main chance. This brings him into conflict with the established order, much to the latter’s dismay.

Not that Quillifer’s spending all his time on the hustle: there’s a whole world to explore. And I pride myself on some fairly thorough worldbuilding– if there’s one thing taking nearly a decade to write a book will do, it’s being able to think about it a lot, and to do tons of research. (And as an SF guy, I love me some research!)

Though I pride myself on my imagination, the research kept turning up bizarre things that turned out to be far stranger than anything I’d been able to think up on my own. We tend to think of the Middle Ages as fairly static and simple, and of Medieval society as consisting of a number of orderly classes like royalty, nobles, knights, and serfs. In reality the Middle Ages were complicated and weird, as I discovered when I visited Gdansk and discovered King Arthur’s Court, complete with a high gothic building, a round table, and the coats-of-arms of Arthur’s knights.

I had always assumed that King Arthur belonged somewhere in Britain and not in Poland, but discovered that King Arthur’s Court was built in the mid-Fourteenth Century by wealthy local burgesses, who dressed up as knights, called each other by made-up knightly names, and held feasts, fairs, entertainments, and jousting. They were very much like our Society for Creative Anachronism, except that in their case it was Creative Realism. They were cosplaying the Middle Ages during the actual Middle Ages!

Forgive me for thinking that was pretty strange.

People also tend to think of the Renaissance as a period of art, poetry, and humanism. Which it was, but it was also a period where millions of people were killed over the difference between transubstantiation and consubstantiation. Enlightenment and invention had created better and more efficient ways of slaughtering people.

What the Middle Ages and the Renaissance had in common was that both eras were great roiling masses of change. People who view the Middle Ages as static forget that the Middle Ages produced eyeglasses, the spinning wheel, the windmill, the blast furnace, the clock, the magnetic compass, distilled liquors, gunpowder, the printing press, and ultimately the Renaissance.

So who can thrive in an era of change? Someone who’s smart, flexible, informed, free to act, and unhampered by obsolete dogma.

Someone not unlike Quillifer.

“Well,” I can hear you thinking, “so far you’ve got a fine historical novel, but I believe this is supposed to be a fantasy.”

Well, yes, I provide fantasy stuff, too, and it’s fantasy stuff that I had nearly a decade to think about, so it’s about as thick and layered as everything else. I don’t want to go into it in detail, because that would easily double the length of this essay, but suffice it to say there are fantastic beasts, exotic humanoids, magic, a cursed weapon, and one tempestuous, vengeful, beautiful goddess whose relationship with Quillifer is, umm, fraught. (It’s one thing to challenge the earthly establishment, but challenging divinity is much harder to do.)

I hope you can tell that I had a lot of fun creating this book. I did my best to make the fun as contagious as I could.

I am sufficiently modest not to praise myself in the terms which I feel I deserve, but egotistical enough to let someone else do it. I shall conclude, therefore, with a quote from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz, who very kindly provided a blurb that graces the cover.  “Walter Jon Williams is a visionary of tremendous power and originality . . . He kills every damn time.”

You know, I probably should have led with that.

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

Visit the author’s site.

The Big Idea: David Walton

You want thrown gauntlets? David Walton throws one in the first sentence of this Big Idea piece for this novel, The Genius Plague. Read on to see it, and whether you agree.

DAVID WALTON:

Zombie books just aren’t creepy enough.

They’re exciting, don’t get me wrong. When some drooling dead guy is breaking down your door to sink his teeth into your flesh, it’ll get your blood pumping. But the thing is, he’s dead. He’s not a person anymore. You can shoot him in the head and not even feel guilty about it.

But what if the zombies weren’t mindless? What if they were smarter than you? What if you let them into your house because you didn’t know there was anything wrong, because they didn’t even know they were zombies, and when they stabbed you in the back and infected your family, they truly believed they were doing the right thing?

My zombies aren’t really zombies at all, not in the classic undead sense, although they’ve been infected with a fungus that sends microscopic tendrils to set up shop in their brains. The fungus doesn’t turn them into moaning, decaying corpses, though. It’s much more subtle than that.

At first, it even seems to be beneficial. The fungus streamlines certain pathways of the brain and makes the hosts smarter, with better memory and learning ability and communication skills. Researchers think it could cure Alzheimer’s and dementia. Kids start taking it as a drug to do better on their exams.  But the more beneficial the fungus appears, the more committed its hosts become to protecting it and spreading it to every human on Earth.

And why wouldn’t they? It’s a good thing, right? And if they have to kill anyone that gets in their way, that’s just what’s best for humanity. Or for the fungus. Whatever.

My zombie horde is spreading the plague on purpose, and they’re smarter than you are.

I first thought of this idea when I heard the suggestion that from an evolutionary perspective, wheat is the most successful organism on Earth. After all, wheat has taken humans that used to roam wild and domesticated them, getting them to spread its seeds all over the globe, and then enslaved them to weed out any competing plants and eradicate pests. All so stalks of wheat can grow tall and strong by the trillions.

It’s an amusing notion, and it’s not exactly wrong. But I realized that fungus is even better suited to using humans than wheat is, not because we want to eat it, but because fungus already directly manipulates animals to spread its spores. The zombie ants are the famous ones, of course (go watch the Planet Earth video if you don’t know what I’m talking about), but there are various other ways that fungus subverts animals to do its bidding. And fungus is smarter than you think — some single organisms create vast networks of microscopic tendrils that spread through an entire forest and pass information about where the moisture and nutrients are, basically acting like a giant Internet. Or a giant brain.

So what would you do, if there was a drug that could make you smarter? Or cure your dad of Alzheimer’s? No need to be squeamish about a little fungus living in your brain — you already have trillions of microorganisms living in your mouth, throat, stomach, lungs, and all over your skin. You won’t feel a thing. It’s a simple choice, really, given all the problems you have in your life. There’s not much at stake: just the free will of every human on Earth.

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The Genius Plague – USA: Amazon | Barnes and Noble | BAM | IndieBound | Powells

The Genius Plague – Canada: Amazon.ca | Indigo

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

The Big Idea: Nick Mamatas and Molly Tanzer

Drinking and writing: Two activities that have gone together famously (and occasionally, infamously) over the years. Now here’s Nick Mamatas, co-editor of Mixed Up: Cocktail Recipes (and Flash Fiction) for the Discerning Drinker (and Reader), to add a twist to this celebrated concoction. Yes, I just made a pun. No, I’m not sorry.

NICK MAMATAS:

It’s actually a little idea: very short fiction celebrating cocktails, with recipes and flavor text. There are plenty of cocktail books organized around literary themes, and plenty of fiction titles that include recipes, but the exact formulation of ingredients in Mixed Up Cocktail Recipes (and Flash Fiction) for the Discerning Drinker (and Reader) is brand new.

Mixed Up is designed for the food/beverage section of the bookstore, featuring classic and new cocktail recipes, and flash fiction by a cross-genre selection of writers including fantasists Jeff VanderMeer and Carmen Maria Machado, crime writers Jim Nisbet and Libby Cudmore, thriller authors Robert Swartwood and Benjamin Percy, and literary fiction authors Jarret Kobek and Cara Hoffman. (And, as book covers say, “many more.”)

What’s the big idea? Well, once upon a time, there was fiction everywhere: in the magazines full of household tips, and the ones about hot cars and hotter pin-ups. Junior’s little weekly school magazine had short fiction in it, and so did the coffee table magazine for the whole family. Daily newspapers ran occasional fiction as well. And that’s almost entirely gone now, having been replaced by listicles, bullet points, and pie charts. You know, content. My co-editor and I wanted to bring fiction back as an equal partner to non-fiction.

And there’s plenty of good non-fiction being written about cocktails. The origins of the drinks, and their ingredients, are utterly fascinating, as are the life stories of the people who invented and poured them. And of course the tales of those fueled and felled by alcohol are also endlessly compelling.

What’s been missing is the ineffable something that only fiction can provide. Anecdotes tend to simply evaporate before offering an epiphany; historical gossip lacks for climaxes, except for the tragic classic: “And then the famous author drank so much he stopped writing and just died.” We wanted to offer something different—compelling narrative as the central ingredient, not just the garnish.

Mixed Up was not easy to place with a publisher, because it was so…mixed up. Recipes and essays about drinks? Sure! But fiction?

“Where would it go?” editors wanted to know. How do you sell such a book to stores; they’re definitely not going to put it on all applicable shelves at once. Other anthologists twisted up their faces at the idea—“Yeah, but how can you sell to SF and crime and literary readers at the same time?” Our answer was simple: Mixed Up is a cocktail book, and a gift book. We’re reclaiming space for fiction to exist outside the fiction shelves.

We want thirsty readers to open our book and discover not just the amazing recipes perfected by co-editor Molly Tanzer, but also a family of fire-breathers, a midnight crime spree among the kiddie play structures in a suburban backyard, an illicit flask in the hands of a pregnant woman attending an art exhibit, and that really amazing East Village party Vladimir Putin secretly attended back in the year 2000.

We think you’ll like it. And if not, have one more round of your favorite drink, then read the stories again.

 —-

Mixed Up: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the co-editor’s Web site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Jon McGoran

What’s the next step beyond gnarly tattooing? Jon McGoran has an idea, which makes up the central conceit of Spliced. But how he got there is another story entirely.

JON McGORAN:

I came up with the idea for Spliced while researching my book Dust Up, an adult thriller about biotech in big food and pharmaceuticals. Researching science thrillers is a lot of work, but it’s also a lot of fun—sometimes too much fun, especially when you’re under a tight deadline and find yourself absolutely engrossed by some little nugget that is only tangentially relevant to the story that you should, at that very moment, be writing.

One topic that I came across, which I knew was only slightly relevant to the book I was writing, but which I also knew I would write more about later, was bio-hackers. Much like the people who built computers in their garages in the seventies and eighties, these amateur scientists are doing basement biotech in their own homes. Some of them know exactly what they’re doing; others not so much.

Part of a long tradition of citizen-scientists, I found it fascinating and compelling, but also vaguely terrifying in an, “Oh, so that’s where the plague that kills us all is going to come from,” kind of way.

I knew immediately that I wanted to write about this somehow. The most obvious idea to me was that plague, mentioned above. But I wanted to do something a little subtler, and slightly more removed from the garage science aspect of it.

That’s when I thought about gene splicing as a form of body modification: people splicing animal genes into their own to change themselves in subtle or drastic ways, to become chimeras. Given some of the extreme forms of body modification out there, and the ubiquity of tattoos and piercings, it seemed to me almost obvious that if such technology was available, there were those who would use it. Then I started to explore why.

One of the great aspects of writing science fiction is the opportunity to build and explore worlds of your own design, and when writing about the near future, I find especially fascinating the combination of outlandish and familiar, the changes both expected and unexpected, intended and unintended.

But when I decided that I would be writing in about a future several decades from now – enough time for gene splicing to become a low-tech, garage-based procedure – I realized it had to be a world dealing with much more acute effects of climate change. To ignore that in the future would be too much like denying it now.

It was a fascinating aspect of writing the book, made easier by a devastating series of rain and snow storms that repeatedly knocked out power infrastructure and crumbled roads in my area.

While climate change and gene splicing were initially separate but coincident aspects of the same future, I came to realize more and more how much one informed the other. For many of the chimeras, getting spliced wasn’t simply about a certain look or an act of rebellion, it was a statement – about oneness with the natural world, or separation from a humanity that so disregarded it, or even an homage to one of the many species rapidly going extinct.

As I continued to flesh out the world in which the story would take place, I quickly realized that the central premise—young people getting spliced and becoming chimeras—would have an impact on the world in which it took place, and would provoke a reaction from that world. Looking at the world around me –  even back in the quaint, naïve days of a year or two ago – I knew that reaction would not be entirely pretty, and that the bigotry and intolerance I saw wouldn’t likely have disappeared by the time Spliced takes place (although, to be honest, I had hoped it wouldn’t have gotten so much worse so quickly).

That reaction became the final major component of the premise of Spliced—a religious and political backlash of intolerance against chimeras that coalesces around a law—The Genetic Heritage Act—that defines anyone whose DNA is not 100 percent human as no longer legally a person. It’s a stupid law, written by ignorant people, but with devastating effect. And as we’ve seen too many times in human history, when people define other people as less than human, it opens the door for wrongdoings of the most horrific kind.

With the themes and ideas and setting of Spliced largely in place, I was able to focus on the story itself: Who are the people involved, what do they do and say, how do they drive events and how are they impacted by them. Those fundamentals of story are obviously incredibly important to the book, but they are also incredibly important to me as story-teller, and as a person who spends more time with imaginary people than real ones. I absolutely develop emotional attachments to my characters (which is one reason I’m so fond of writing series).

But apart from the joy of bringing these characters to life, one of the things I love most about writing the books I do is the intellectual journey from cool idea to cooler ideas to deeper meanings, and wrapping it up in a believable world, compelling characters, and, hopefully, a kickass story.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Alethea Kontis

In When Tinker Met Bell, Alethea Kontis is working in the universe of another author. How does she do it? As it happens, she drew inspiration from another universe entirely, one she visits once a year.

ALETHEA KONTIS:

In 1996, fresh out of college with a Chemistry degree and absolutely no idea what to do with the rest of my life, the manager of the Waldenbooks where I worked convinced me to accompany her to my very first SF convention. It was called “DragonCon.”

Jennifer Kelley changed my life that year.

There, among the misfits and geeks from all walks of life, I found my tribe. Publishers, authors, artists, actors, and everyone in between—our common ground was that we just loved being fans. As DragonCon grew, I grew with it, evolving from t-shirt wearing fangirl to tiara-wearing professional. Every Labor Day weekend, Atlanta, Georgia is my home away from home. There, I am Katniss. I am the Anarchy Cheerleader. I am the Princess. I am Wonder Woman.

Fast forward to 2015. My friend, neighbor, and fellow writing group member Kristen Painter has this series called Nocturne Falls. They are sweet (read: no sex), funny paranormal romances, set in a small town in Georgia where it’s Halloween 365 days a year, to mask the fact that vampires and werewolves and witches really exist. (The first book—The Vampire’s Mail-Order Bride—is permafree across all platforms, if you’d like to check it out.) The first handful of Kristen’s books sold so well that she just couldn’t write them fast enough to satisfy her fans. So she set up her own publishing company and graciously selected a few authors to play in her universe.

I was one of the chosen few.

Now, I’ve worked in other worlds before. The Dark-Hunter Companion I wrote with Sherrilyn Kenyon hit the New York Times list back in 2007…and then the Dark-Hunters got so tangled up in movie contracts and rights grabs that I wasn’t able to work with Sherri again until a decade later. Last year, I dipped my toe into the Kindle World IP of another local writer, Roxanne St. Claire. The contemporary romance novella I set in her Barefoot Bay was so good, my editor told me to change nothing. (This never happens.) But the book released last October, right before the election, and subsequently got buried.

I would be an idiot to try this again, right?

Only…I know Nocturne Falls. Once a year, I essentially live there.

I know what it’s like to get up every morning and put on a costume and glitter and go to work. I know the pain of the ill-fitting tiara and the 12-hour corset. (I know to never sacrifice your feet, no matter how cute the shoes are.) I have hosted sideshows and walked in parades. I know how it feels to have a crush on someone in costume, without any idea who they are in “real” life. I know how freeing it is to dance your face off at a rave while standing between a fairy, a stormtrooper, and a guy in BDSM gear.  I know how easy it is to almost step on a camouflaged Carpet Commando, and how jealous I am of every person who gets to drive Ecto-1.

And because I was raised at DragonCon, many of the staff and volunteers and track directors are like family to me now. The microcosm of ODCers (Original DragonCon) has much of that small-town vibe about it. We follow each other on Facebook, mourn pets, see children start new years at school, and exchange holiday cards. We hug each other when we can at con, exchange gifts, and then go to work entertaining the tourists and looky-loos. We name awards after each other when we die.

I know these things. And everyone tells us that we’re supposed to write what we know. So I accepted Kristen’s offer.

The Truth About Cats and Wolves debuted in the first Nocturne Falls Universe launch. I made sure a few of Kristen’s characters appeared as cameos, but mostly I stayed in my wheelhouse. I kept the characters YA, because I will always be YA at heart. I made my heroine a Greek girl whose magically-inclined parents work at the best diner in town. Again, not so much of a stretch for me. And then I gave Kai a best friend named Bellamy Larousse, a happy-go-lucky, over-the-top southern belle cheerleader who also happened to be a barista…and a fairy with giant wings.

I knew, without a doubt, that I wanted my follow-up book to be called When Tinker Met Bell. Happily, my first book performed well enough to get me invited back.

R.L. Stine is the only other author I know who comes up with a title before plotting out any of the book. But I did have a few other tidbits in mind. Like, Bellamy was a terminally optimistic fairy, so Tinker would have to be a pessimistic goblin. And despite the fact that goblins and fairies can’t be friends, Tinker and Bell make it work anyway. My story would feature large helpings of Shakespeare (star-crossed lovers, you know), Dungeons & Dragons, and Labyrinth. But unlike Sarah, Bellamy would get her Goblin Prince, come hell or high water.

Because that is what we nerds do when we get the chance: we rewrite history.

Well, my history, anyway, the one with Yule Balls and Robot Wars, parades and masquerades. Because this is the world I know. And in my world, everyone—every misfit, misplaced geek who comes to town—deserves a happy ending.

Even more, we deserve to have one heck of an adventure getting there.

—-

When Tinker Met Bell: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Kobo

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

The Big Idea: Fran Wilde

Today, award-winning author Fran Wilde has a shocking confession to make! About something she said! Here! And yes, it involves her new novel, Horizon. What will this confession be? Will there be regret involved? Are you prepared for what happens next?!?

FRAN WILDE:

Dear readers of John Scalzi’s blog, for the past three years, I’ve been keeping secrets.

I’m not sorry.

Trilogies are a delicate thing. They are a community of books unto themselves. They inform and support one another; their themes and actions ripple and impact one another. They have their own set of rules. Among them: Write down the main character’s eye color or favorite food so you don’t forget it. You’ll regret using that hard-to-spell naming convention by the middle of your second book. Destroy something in book one, you’re not going to magically have it to rely on in book three — at least not without some major effort. Everything gathers — each choice, each voice.

Trilogies are, by intent, more than the sum of their parts.

And, when brought together, a trilogy’s largest ideas sometimes appear in the gathered shadows of what seemed like big ideas at the time.

In Updraft, book one of the Bone Universe trilogy, what began to crumble was the system that upheld the community of the bone towers. It didn’t look like it then. So I didn’t tell you when I wrote my first Big Idea.

Instead, the first time I visited this blog, I wrote: “At its heart, Updraft is about speaking and being heard and — in turn — about hearing others…”

That was true – especially in the ways Updraft explored song as memory and singing and voice. But it was also kind of a fib. I knew where the series was headed, and voice was only the tip of the spear.

I planned to return here a year later to write about leadership, and I did — and, I wrote about demagoguery too, and abut having a book come out during a charged political season. That was September 2016, Cloudbound, the second book in the series was just out, and wow, that post seems somewhat innocent and naive now. But not any less important.

Again, saying the big idea in Cloudbound was leadership was true on its face, but it was also a an act of omission. And again, singing came into play — in that songs in Cloudbound were being adjusted and changed, as were messages between leaders.

With Horizon, I’m going to lay it all out there for you. Horizon is about community.

Structurally, Horizon is narrated by several different first person voices — including Kirit, Nat, and Macal, a magister and the brother of a missing Singer. These three voices come from different places in the Bone Universe’s geography, and they weave together to form a greater picture of the world, and its threats. A fourth voice appears only through a song — a new song — that is written during the course of Horizon, primarily by one character but with the help of their community. That song is the thread that ties the voices together, and, one hopes, the new community as well.

And, like Horizon, for me, the big idea for the Bone Universe series is also community. How to defend one, how to lead one, how to salvage as much as you can of one and move forward towards rebuilding it.

In my defense, I did leave some clues along the way. I shifted narrators between Updraft and Cloudbound in order to broaden the point of view and reveal more about the lead characters and the world, both between the books (how Nat and Kirit are seen each by the other vs. how they see themselves), and within them. I shared with readers the history of the bone towers and how that community, and the towers themselves, formed. I showed you the community’s [something] – that their means of keeping records and remembering was based on systems that could be used to both control messages and redefine them. I made the names of older laws and towers much more complicated to pronounce (and, yes, spell SIGH), versus the simpler names for newer things. This community had come together, then grown into something new.

The evolution of singing in the Bone Universe is, much like the idea of community, something that can be seen in pieces, but that resolves more when looked at from the perspective of all three books together.

Remember that solo voice — Kirit’s — singing quite badly that first book? In the second book, Nat’s voice joins Kirit’s — a solo, again, but because we can still hear Kirit, and because we know her, it becomes a kind of duet. In the third book, three voices present separate parts of the story, and when they all come together, that forms a connected whole.

When you listen to a group of people sing, sometimes one voice stands out, then another. Then, when multiple voices join in for the chorus, the sound becomes a different kind of voice. One with additional depth and resonance.

That’s the voice of a community. That drawing together of a group into something that is more than the sum of its parts. It is an opportunity, a way forward, out of a crumbling system and into something new and better.  

That’s the big idea.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Annalee Newitz

In her debut novel Autonomous, former i09 editor-in-chief and current science and tech writer and editor Annalee Newitz gets under the skin of the healthcare industry and thinks about all the ways it’s less-than-entirely healthy for us… and what that means for our future, and the future she’s written in her novel.

ANNALEE NEWITZ:

There’s a scene from the Torchwood series Miracle Day that I will never be able to wash out of my brain. After humans stop being able to die for mysterious reasons, our heroes tour a hospital full of people who are hideously immortal: their bodies pancaked and spindled and melted, they lie around in agony wishing for oblivion. For all its exaggerated body horror, that moment feels creepily realistic in our age of medicine that can keep people alive without giving them anything like quality of life.

Torchwood: Miracle Day wasn’t my first taste of healthcare dystopia, but it made a huge impression because it distilled down one of the fundamental ideas I see this subgenre: some lives are worse than death. This is certainly the message in countless pandemic films, where the infected are ravening, mindless zombies. Killing them is a mercy.

This idea takes a slightly different form in books like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl. Both narratives toy with what it means when people are turned into medical experiments, like futuristic versions of the Tuskegee Study. We see some ruling class of people deciding that another class should serve as its organ donors or genetic beta testers. What if somebody were treating us like lab rats, as if our lives didn’t matter?

And then there are the false healthcare utopias, which I find the most disturbing because they remind me of listening to U.S. senators trying to sell the idea that they have a “much better plan” than Obamacare—even though I know people who will die under these “better plans.” Politicians have probably been pushing false healthcare utopias since at least the 19th century, but in science fiction its roots can clearly be traced to Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World. In that novel, everyone is medicating with Soma just to deal with how regimented and limited their lives are.

False healthcare utopias can take many forms, and they overlap with more familiar dystopias too. Some deal with surveillance. In the chilling novel Harmony, Project Itoh imagines a future Japan where the government monitors everyone’s microbiomes by tracking everything that goes into and out of their bodies (yep, there’s toilet surveillance).

Sometimes the false healthcare utopia is just a precursor to a more familiar zombie dystopia like 28 Days Later. Consider, for example, our extreme overuse of antibiotics. Though it appears that we can cure pretty much any infection with antibiotics, we’re very close to living in a world where antibiotics no longer work at all. One of the most terrifying books I’ve read this year is science journalist Maryn McKenna’s book Big Chicken, which is about how the agriculture industry depends on antibiotics to keep animals “healthy” in filthy, overcrowded conditions. This is creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are coming for us, pretty much any day now. That’s right–penicillin-doped chickens are the real culprits in I Am Legend.

I’m fascinated by how many false healthcare utopias depend on coercive neuroscience. Often, brain surgery is involved—we see this in John Christopher’s Tripods and Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, both about so-called utopian worlds created by neurosurgical interventions that restrict freedom of thought. Maybe these stories focus on brains so much because these are fundamentally stories about lies, and brains are, after all, the organ that we use for lying.

When I started work on my novel Autonomous (out today! yes it is!), I knew I wanted to explore the lies of the pharmaceutical industry and its gleaming ads promising a better life to those who can afford a scrip. One of the protagonists, Jack, has become a pharmaceutical pirate so that she can bring expensive, patented medicine to poor people who need it. But she also sells a few of what she calls “funtime worker drugs” on the side, to fund her Robin Hood activities and keep her submarine in good repair.

Those funtime drugs are why things go sideways for Jack. She sells some pirated Zacuity, a “productivity” drug that I loosely based on Provigil or Adderall. It gets people really enthusiastic about work, but it has some unexpected side-effects that the pharma company Zaxy has suppressed. Now Jack has to stop the drug from killing more people, while also evading two deadly agents sent by Zaxy: a robot named Paladin and a human named Eliasz.

So Autonomous is chase story with some hot robot sex, but it’s also very much a book about how pharma companies sell us an idea of “health” that is actually really unhealthy.

Today pharma companies market drugs the way Disney markets Star Wars movies, and for good reason. Drugs like Adderall and Provigil are supposed to make us feel better and more competent—or at the very least distract us—for a few blissful hours. Just like a movie. I’m not trying to say there’s a problem with taking drugs (or watching movies) to feel good. Nor am I saying that people don’t need anti-depressants and other meds to treat psychological problems. The issue is when these drugs are overprescribed for enhancement, and “feeling really good” becomes a terrible kind of norm. Pharma companies want us to believe that if we aren’t incredibly attentive, productive, and happy every day, there must be something wrong. This paves the way for an ideal of mental health that almost nobody can (or should) live up to.

There’s another, deeper problem that’s caused by selling medicine as if it were a form of entertainment. Nobody would ever argue that going to see the new Star Wars movie is a right. It’s just a luxury for people with disposable income. If we see medicine like that too, it’s easy to fall for the lie that our healthcare system is great even though it only serves the richest people in the U.S.

In the world of Autonomous, the pharma companies are full of guys like Martin Shkreli, jacking up the prices on medicine because they can. They get away with it because so many people in the U.S. believe that anyone can get medicine if they really deserve it. Only a lie of that magnitude could make it seem fair when working class people can’t afford to treat AIDS-related complications. Or cancer. Or a heart infection.

Autonomous is a book about lies. But more importantly, it’s about what happens to the people who see through those lies and try to do something about it. Everyone deserves to have medicine. It is a right, not a privilege. Until we recognize that, I’ll be hanging out with the pirates.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Douglas Wynne

In Cthulhu Blues, author Douglas Wynne wants you to catch the waves. Or perhaps more accurately, to appreciate the fact that the waves already have you — and show something else between them.

DOUGLAS WYNNE:

Back when I was studying music production and engineering at Berklee College of Music, I had a mystical epiphany that didn’t even involve recreational chemistry. It came to me in the classroom while looking at a handout the instructor had passed around. She was about to present an overview of AM and FM radio technology and wanted us to take a look at the wave spectrum within which those broadcast frequencies are nested. On the left, the diagram showed the subsonic vibrations elephants transmit through the ground to communicate over long distances. Moving to the right, it worked its way up through the octaves of audible sound waves and then on to ultrasonic, radio, microwave, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, x-rays, and gamma rays.

My education up to that point was far more focused on playing guitar than on physics, but I had read about how even matter is essentially composed of waves—or particles, depending on the method of measurement—vibrating at high enough rates to create the illusion of solidity. Still, seeing it all laid out like that, bottom to top, made a profound impression on me. It reminded me that all human perception is just a glimpse through the slats of a fence, a fragmentary picture of a reality we can only experience with a biological bias and a crude, albeit ever expanding, set of tools to fill in the blanks.

It’s a humbling idea. One that I later remembered I’d first encountered in the horror story “From Beyond” by H.P. Lovecraft. In that tale, a scientist discovers alien life forms writhing in the air all around him by tuning his perception with a resonator device he calls “The Ultraviolet.”

When I set out to reimagine the Cthulhu Mythos for the SPECTRA Files trilogy, this idea of exposure to special frequencies opening up human perception to other dimensions and entities was a major element I wanted to explore. After all, the closest thing to real magic I’ve experienced in my own life is the way that music—invisible wave patterns in the air—has the power to open the human heart to unexpected dimensions of feeling.

Music plays a major role in the SPECTRA books. There’s a cosmic boom box that houses a lab-grown larynx, a grand piano that acts as a portal to infernal realms, and a sea organ borrowed from a real architectural instrument in Zadar, Croatia, that plays haunting chords when the waves roll into its chambers. But the main character, Becca Philips, does her work higher up in the wave spectrum. She’s an urban explorer and photographer who shoots infrared photos of abandoned buildings in flood-ravaged Boston. Becca finds an eerie spirituality in the ghostly light emitted by weeds and vines in that range. But when her photos pick up fractal tentacles seeping into our world from an adjacent dimension, she is caught between cultists employing weird tech to evoke monstrous gods and a covert agency that suspects she might be one of them.

From water to sound to light, there are waves rolling through the entire trilogy. But the wave spectrum isn’t the big idea, perception is: how we see the world and our place in it.

Becca Philips is a character defined by her sensitivity. She experienced loss at an early age and continues to suffer from recurrent depression compounded by Seasonal Affective Disorder. It’s her sensitivity to light and shadow, her unique way of looking at the world, that makes her a great photographer. And it’s her unique perception that entangles her in the unfolding apocalypse and puts her in a position to do something about it. In book one (Red Equinox), she willingly exposes herself to the harmonics that align the human plane with that of the monsters, an act which makes her more vulnerable even as it dispenses with the illusion of a benign reality so she might be empowered to save others from what lurks just beyond that thin veneer. Becca chose this vision as an act of heroism and chose to keep it when offered a drug that would make it go away. But sometimes the cost of courage is that your contact with dark things changes you and makes you one of them.

I knew from the start that as a sensitive, Becca would also be susceptible to the telepathic dreams of Cthulhu slumbering on the ocean floor sooner or later. I knew she would struggle with her sanity and ultimately have to make a judgment about the sanity of mankind at large and whether our supremacy on the planet is ultimately for the best. As a vegetarian and animal rescuer, Becca sees the value of all life. But when you look long enough into the abyss, the abyss looks into you, and in Cthulhu Blues Becca finally has to grapple with the question of whether or not the Great Old Ones might be better for life on Earth than mankind in the long run. The crux of her crisis is that the same empathetic eye that drives her to save animals, children, and civilization, also opens her to the possibility that the cultists might be right to topple the human race from its throne. She has to ask herself what it is in the spectrum of consciousness that sets humanity apart. If we’re not at the top of the food chain anymore, what makes us unique and worth saving?

I’ve always thought it’s our capacity for compassion. Our ability to see others, even the wretched and subhuman, the animal and the alien, with a kind eye. But if we retreat into the tunnel vision of fear at the first scent of crisis, then what do we have left that makes us the good guys? When you’re caught between a militant covert agency and a radical religious cult, are dark gods really worse than white devils?

—-

Cthulhu Blues: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|JournalStone

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

The Big Idea: Claire Eddy, Ibrahim Al-Marashi, Anoud and Dr. Zhraa Alhaboby

Here in the US, our fate and fortune was tied up in Iraq for many years. But what does the future hold for that country now? Iraq + 100, an anthology of Iraqi science fiction, offers several views of possibilities. Now, the acquiring editor and three authors from the anthology talk a bit about the book and the futures therein.

Claire Eddy, Senior Editor at Tor/Forge

I got a submission last fall from a small UK publisher and once I started reading I couldn’t stop. The editor of the anthology, Hassan Blasim, asked a simple question–how could you imagine your nation 100 years from now?

The question posed to Iraqi writers (those still in their homeland and those who have joined a world-wide diaspora), has produced an amazing project, a roadmap of what their country might look like following the disastrous foreign invasion of 2003.

Simply put, I believe that Iraq+100 is a piece of fiction that has the potential to make a difference.

I don’t say this lightly.  I am very passionate about all the projects that I take on, but Iraq + 100 has a particularly special importance to me. These writers have given us not just wonderful stories, but the collection itself has a unique voice that I think deserves to be heard. Storytelling has always had the power to not only entertain, but to inform and change hearts. I truly believe that this project has the ability to do these very things.

I think a project like Iraq + 100 would do well at any point in time. In the environment that we find ourselves now, however, I think this book has a much bigger potential.

Ibrahim Al-Marashi, author of “Najufa”

My story “Najufa” is based on my first trip to the Iraqi Shi’a shrine cities of Najaf and Kufa as an adult with my father and mother in 2010. The tensions that drive the relationship between the narrator and his grandfather in the story is based on the tensions I had with my own father during that trip. My father was born in the east African island of Zanzibar, as a result of his father escaping Najaf during the British occupation of Iraq in 1920 for taking part in an insurgency then. My father returned to Iraq in the sixties, went to medical school in Baghdad, and would visit Najaf and his relatives there often.  However, my father did not travel to Iraq when Saddam Hussein was in power from 1979 to 2003.

I expected the trip in 2010 to be a nostalgic “home coming” for him, but as an old man in his seventies, he seemed oblivious to the whole place or experience. He was more concerned with drinking tea and relating his life experiences to any random person in the tea house than visiting the shrines.  I compared his indifference to the spirituality inside the shrine complex to my observations at the same time of the younger pilgrims there, some who wanted to leave after a few minutes of praying, since their mobile phones are not allowed within the confines of any shrine, as terrorists use them to detonate explosives remotely.  Everyone had to check in the mobile phone outside the shrine, like a coat check, and without phones, that generation became fidgety.  After 2003, regardless of whether one was from Iraq or the “West,” what united us all was addiction to technology. In the story I wanted to project the evolution of how we will become the technology 100 years later, even in an ancient shrine city in Iraq.

Anoud, author of “Kahramana”

Kahramana is a slave girl in a story from A Thousand and One Nights which originates from the Abbasi Era in Mesopotamia, a golden age of enlightenment after which the region fell under conqueror after conqueror and women were further marginalized.

A Thousand and One Nights is one of the few literary examples I recall from the region where women are strong, dangerous characters that move a plot. Usually we’re either ‘damsels in distress’ needing the actions of men or we’re ‘conniving’ and ‘seductive’ inspiring men to act. Women did not swing a sword, not exactly. No surprise there, most of the authors are men.

A Thousand and One Nights did reflect on the norms of its times in the sense that women were spoils of war and slavery existed and was accepted. But women and slaves in those stories, like Kahramana, could be dangerous, independent, smart. Their husbands or keepers were their subordinates in the plot. They had little or no power to move the story along.

My story is more of a pun on A Thousand and One Nights. I make fun of the status quo between east and west, refugees and those on the receiving end. I chose her simply because Kahramana resonated with me as a child. I often passed by a fountain in Baghdad’s Kahramana Square that fascinated me. The fountain was built by a famous Iraqi sculpture in the 1970s to depict Kahramana (sometimes called Morjana) the slave girl from the story of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves.

Kahramana was standing tall on top of a pile of large jars holding a jug and pouring down onto the jars underneath her feet. According to the story the slave girl was slaying the thieves by dousing them with boiling oil on then sealing each jar shut. We, as Baghdadis, were celebrating a woman slyer. We, in a country where women need men’s permission for anything. And I, the push-over little girl, found her both disturbing and amazing. She just stuck with me.

Though I have come a long way from the timid ‘good girl’ I was raised to be and I like to think I can stand up for myself, I still get pushed around because I’m of the wrong gender, I behave inappropriately for my social class, am of the wrong nationality, standing on the wrong side of a border. It’s fucking endless. And when I want to fly off the handle I remember Kahramana standing over the heads of thieves in a Square in Baghdad, killing them all, indifferent.

Dr. Zhraa Alhaboby, author of “Baghdad Syndrome”

The idea for Baghdad Syndrome was unclear at first, thinking about it brought hopes and fears together. Hence, I began to imagine a future in which Iraq heals with a scar, the scar is the syndrome.

Baghdad Syndrome is a collection of physical and mental symptoms reflecting what people in Iraq are going through. Inspired by my last visit to Iraq, I looked more worried about the future than people living there, I saw the syndrome in almost everyone! The heart rate increases with every sudden explosion, and fear of loss. The depression comes from uncertainty, where people do not really know whether they will return home if they went out. Hallucinations and nightmares, due to the verge of reality with unbelievable events. Yet, their faces were smiley, living the moment and kept smiling to survive. Amusingly the painful reality was turned into humour. The blindness in the Syndrome is a metaphor to the endless electricity cuts in Baghdad, leaving a city that loves lights in darkness. Another darkness is the sudden loss of beloved ones, a point in life where nothing else could remain the same afterwards.

The inspiration to link the syndrome with genetic mutations came from my work. During that year (2014), I was writing a report about health-related human rights in Iraq. Revising international reports showed that health was underrepresented. Back then I contacted the Ministry of Human Rights in Iraq, it was a hopeless attempt because having no internal governmental connections means the request will be overlooked. Yet, I received a prompt reply from a local employee striving to share internal reports from several parts of the country. These reports demonstrated increased rates of congenital malformations in newborns in areas still compiled with war wastes. However, the symptoms of Baghdad Syndrome are far away from being a relatively immediate physical impact.

Writing about the future was not an easy task, I needed a link to tell the story. My style of writing is through the lenses of ancient history and riddles. My emotional link with Scheherazade’s statue in Baghdad had always inspired me, I had the sense she was watching and telling stories about what’s happening around her. With my admiration of A Thousand and One Nights, I thought Scheherazade could be my witness and say my riddle this time. When I had the context, the syndrome, and Scheherazade, I could write part of myself in each character in the story to finalise it. After finishing the story I realised, I always sketched the statue with a background of buildings and a pigeon around! Looks like my version of the future was in my sub-consciousness after all!

—-

Iraq + 100: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Books-A-Million|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Follow Dr. Zhraa Alhaboby on Twitter. Follow Ibrahim Al-Marashi on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Axie Oh

From traded video tapes to the printed word, author Axie Oh’s debut novel Rebel Seoul has had quite the journey. Here she is to tell you how it all came together.

AXIE OH:

The “Big Idea” for Rebel Seoul was super soldiers, specifically female super soldiers, but let’s go back to the beginning.

In 2001, I became addicted to Cartoon Network’s Toonami, a television programming block that brought English dubbed anime into the West. The block ran late at night in what was called the Midnight Run. So, as an 11-year-old schoolgirl with reasonable parents, I had to set a timer to record the shows on the VCR. To make it easier, my friends and I would take turns recording the shows and would meet on the weekends to exchange tapes like some sort of grade school smuggling ring.

My two favorite shows were Sailor Moon and Mobile Suit Gundam Wing. Though both anime, these shows were in vastly different genres. Sailor Moon, about a Tokyo schoolgirl with magical powers, was in the “magical girl” genre, which as the name suggests, featured girls with magical powers, while Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, about young men who pilot giant robots called Gundams, was in the “mecha” genre, which focused primarily on robots and elements of science fiction.

I equally loved both of these shows. In Sailor Moon, I found an adventure story with an all female cast, a story of romance with a dashing boy who oftentimes was in distress, and a heroine to believe in, to see myself in (she was blonde, but she was Asian!) and to love with a fangirl’s unwavering devotion. In Gundam Wing, I found an intelligent war story of rebellion and sacrifice that moved me to the core, a cast of beautiful boys to swoon over (be still my adolescent heart!) and some amazing visual eye candy in the Gundams themselves – massive robots blowing up stuff Is. The. Shit.

This was the beginning of my love, not only for anime, but for media in all its forms: TV shows, films, video games, Korean dramas, K-pop, comics, and of course, books.

Rebel Seoul is the second book I’ve ever completed, and my debut novel. Before Rebel Seoul, I’d written a young adult fantasy, as well as several short stories and flash pieces, some of which can be found in obscure pockets of the Internet.

The inspiration for Rebel Seoul came from a dream. In the dream, a girl stood at the top of the tallest building in Seoul, South Korea, listening to a song as it drifted through the wind. The girl was crying. Somehow I knew she had never heard a song before. It made me think, what sort of person would have never heard a song before?

Answer: A government experiment, obviously.

I then built a world and story and characters around this dream image (or gif, really) that stayed with me through each revision of the novel, although it never made it into the novel itself. I imagine it’s in the prologue before the first scene. The government experiment became a super soldier project called “The Amaterasu Project,” where girls were transformed into weapons with codenames: “Ama” for girls with psychic and mental abilities, “Tera” for girls with physical abilities like increased strength and quick reflexes and “Su” for girls with both physical and mental abilities. I wanted to make the idea “big,” so I added giant robots.

So there I was, the big idea: female super soldiers piloting giant robots!

In a way, I feel like I combined those two anime I loved when I was a child. The girls were now the pilots saving a war-torn world.

As a 1st gen Korean American growing up in the U.S., I didn’t have a lot of mirrors in popular media. Discovering Toonami and watching these shows was one of the first times I ever saw people like me – beautiful, strong, courageous people – as heroes. Perhaps this is another big idea, or perhaps this is the big idea, that I wanted to write a book where my 11-year-old self could be the hero.

—-

Rebel Seoul: Amazon|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: TR Cameron

We all make mistakes — but as TR Cameron recounts regarding his new novel Trespassers, some mistakes are bigger than others.

TR CAMERON:

What is the biggest mistake you’ve ever made?

Thinking about my own contenders for that title is a nightmarish undertaking. I relive countless relationship blunders, work miscalculations, and poor life decisions. It’s a part of being human to have moments we would take back if we could, to avoid hurting others, to avoid hurting ourselves.

But to quote an ancient proverb, innumerable legal cases, and Caine from Matthew Woodring Stover’s brilliant Heroes Die, “You can’t unring the bell.”

Barring time travel, what is, is.

We are left with the fallen pieces of whatever we’ve broken and the challenge of reassembling them. But we know the fixed version will always be compromised, rendered weaker than the original, no matter how we try to mend the breaks. For small things, this is an acceptable finish, and we can resume our lives unburdened by the incident.

But what if the mistake is so big you can’t fix it?

This question lies at the heart of Trespassers. A young officer in charge of a battleship’s night shift makes a choice driven by a combination of ego and patriotism. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, Lieutenant Commander Anderson Cross’s decision would be a mistake of the first kind, easily fixed and put away. This time, it puts his ship on the path to disaster. For the rest of the series, he must contend with the realization that his decision directly results in a holy war that will claim countless lives. He must contend with the realization that his decision turned the dream of first contact with an alien race into a nightmare. Cross’s story is the Big Idea of the tale—how do we come to terms with a choice gone wrong?

Despite the best intentions, Cross makes a mistake—partly a result of his actions, partly a result of circumstance, but now entirely his to own. In facing this failure, he has more choices to make. Some of them naturally go awry because perfection is more often sought than achieved.

How can a person, any person, bear up under such intense pressure without shattering?

His long-time-friend and sometimes-romantic-partner Lieutenant Commander Kate Flynn faces her own set of choices as events unfold. She must decide how to help Cross overcome his error, how to tell him that his fear of confronting that failure is causing him to make more poor decisions. She has to choose whether to risk their friendship by telling him the hard truth.

Cross and Kate are you and I, are all of us. We consistently wrestle with the fallout from our own mistakes, and we strive to help others through the pain and confusion when they fall. Often, we find the edge of the thin line that separates help from harm only after we’ve left it behind.

These are the moments when we discover who we really are.

These are the moments when we identify our true friends.

These are the moments that make us.

For the characters in Trespassers, the stakes are monumental as they travel the thinnest of paths at the border of life and death. Hopefully, the mistakes we make in our daily lives have lesser impact. In both cases, these ongoing challenges we create for ourselves are pivotal in our learning, growth, and maturation. Each new mistake teaches us vital things about the world and our place in it.

The Stoic philosopher Seneca once said, “a gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a [person] perfected without trials.” Our mistakes are self-imposed trials, granted by the universe to inspire our growth. Our response to them may lead us on the path toward perfection—or at least toward a better self.

Perhaps the best result we can hope for is embodied in the Japanese practice of kintsugi, which finds beauty in the rejoining of things once broken. The restoration is made obvious with application of gold lacquer, and the glittering repairs add to the history of the item being preserved. The original then incorporates the art and vision of the restorer and becomes somehow greater for its destruction and resurrection.

Cross will grow through his own rejoining, or he will remain forever broken. Kate will grow through her efforts to help him bring his fractured pieces together, or she will sacrifice their relationship in the attempt. The rewards are high, and the risks higher.

I have undeniably grown as a result of my own mistakes, and though I don’t always have it in me to display them with pride, they are nonetheless a vital part of the person I am now. I sincerely hope you can say the same.

So, the Big Idea once more: how do we best face our mistakes? Perhaps the key to success is a simple shift of perspective—to abandon the natural desire to unring the bell and instead accept our trials as an opportunity to become. To remember, as John Campbell aptly put

it: “The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.” That light reveals our true self.

Cross’s true self will be revealed against a backdrop of space battles, alien invaders, adventure, and enough explosions for three summer blockbusters. And, of course, mistakes and more mistakes as he grows and learns. Writing a book driven by a mistake threw my own into greater relief, and allowed me to find a way into Cross’s head. I believe the way he faces his challenges, both successfully and unsuccessfully, is authentic to the experiences we all share. It was a pleasure to write such a conflicted character and watch him find his way onto a path, even if it is not (yet) the path to perfection.

I wish you the smallest mistakes necessary to find the way to your own light, and strength in your continuous becoming.

—-

Trespassers: Amazon

Read a sample. Visit the author’s site.

The Big Idea: Susan Forest & Lucas K. Law

Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law tackle a topic in The Sum of Us that I wouldn’t have considered for an anthology of speculative stories. But the fault here is mine, not theirs, and in today’s Big Idea, the explain why their particular topic served as fertile ground for this collection.

SUSAN FOREST:

My father, Don Forest, was a remarkable man. He was the first person to climb all the peaks in the Canadian Rockies and Interior Ranges of BC over 11,000 feet (64 peaks), and at age 71, the oldest person to climb Canada’s highest mountain, Mount Logan. And, though he’d always treasured the outdoors, he didn’t take up mountaineering until he was in his early forties.

He taught my brother and sisters and I not only the nuts and bolts of outdoorsmanship, but the culture, the folklore, and the way of life of the mountain community. A highly respected “old mountain man,” he took no greater delight than to teach his children, and later his grandchildren, how to clean a fish, how to make a meal on a one-burner stove, how to repair a broken ski binding twenty miles from the highway. For him, his “Grizzly Group” of mountaineering comrades were his community. The glint of early morning sun on a high peak was his spirituality.

He gave it all up when, in her late seventies, my mother developed dementia.

Of course. An avocation can be a powerful passion, but your mate, your bonded life partner, is a piece of yourself. And she had stayed home many weekends, uncomplaining, caring for home, hearth and children as he went out to make his mark. They cared for each other.

I understand some of this. I love my work, my writing, my editing; but my children and my husband are part of me. Always, they come first. There is no question that the care we give one another is, personally to me and to most people, the highest priority, the highest calling, there is.

So, when Lucas approached me about working with him on The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound, an anthology about caregivers and caregiving, it was not only the timeliness of the subject in a western world of aging demographics, or his amazing line-up of potential authors, or the phenomenal experience I had working with him on Laksa Media’s first anthology, Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts, that prompted me to say, “Yes!”

It was an opportunity to read stories that captured the dimensions of love, sometimes unreturned; of desperation of a caregiver’s inability to conceive of a world without their partner; of the hard choices faced by those who, for whatever reason, choose not to take up this tough road. To explore the magnitude of human relationships implicit in an anthology centred on what it means…to care.

And I am so glad I did.

 

LUCAS K. LAW:

The Big Idea for The Sum of Us comes from the women in my life—the exemplary courage they have shown when they go through adversity and challenges. They are not famous or well-known. They are just ordinary folks who define the breadth and depth of giving and of caring for a young boy growing up in Malaysia, and later a man making his way in Canada.

The woman who influences me the most is my mother. She lost her mother when she was ten. At eleven, she had to leave home to live in a boarding school, as schooling was not available in her kampong. Two years later, she moved into a rented shack to take care of her three younger brothers (later, a fourth brother) who came for primary education. At fifteen, she left school to make a living. To be independent and be a caregiver at such a young age was amazing and heartbreaking. Imagine the piles of laundry she had to do for four boys—hand washing, line drying, ironing, folding—a constant and thankless chore.

I was six when another strong woman came to live with us. My paternal grandmother did not come willingly, but she could no longer take care of herself.  My pregnant mother took care of her, as well as a household of seven other people. Caregiving turned out to be 24/7. A year later, my grandmother died of cancer.

In the last ten years, mental illness has struck several of my relatives. And it was the women who held everyone together through their strong determination, resiliency, and commitment, even when they felt the sting of stigma and silence from their friends and strangers.

So I totally understand when Liz Westbrook-Trenholm dedicated her story in The Sum of Us: “To the women in my family: gentle or strong, never to be discounted.”

I have seen caregiving that comes from many places, directly or behind the scenes: parents, relatives, day-care workers, educators, volunteers, people in medical, police and fire services, and many more. Caregiving has cast a wider net than what is termed by traditionalists who see caregiving as strictly for the old, ill, or disabled. Caregiving consists of the words “care” and “giving.” Any action that compasses those qualities and makes a difference in someone’s life is deemed to be “caregiving.”

However, my Big Idea is worthless if the stories remain just stories, hidden away within the pages of The Sum of Us, and no one ever knows they exist—the messages they carry about caregiving being a noble profession, voluntary or involuntary, paid or free, short-term or long-term, are lost. It is up to us to find ways to tell and share these stories and our stories of the unsung heroes in our society—invisible in the background or relegated to a footnote, quietly making a difference to those whom each touches. The authors have done their jobs with their stories; let’s take a step further and get these stories into the hands of others.

Suggest or recommend The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound to your local public and school libraries. Help these stories of caregiving and caregivers live beyond these pages.

—-

The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit Susan Forest’s site and follow her on Twitter. Visit Lucas K. Law’s site and follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Catherynne M. Valente

And now, some of the most famous authors in the English language show a side that you probably never knew about — and Catherynne M. Valente uses that side to build up her latest novel, The Glass Town Game.

CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE:

So let’s say you’re a geeky kid, like any other geeky kid. School sucks, your siblings range from pretty okay to deeply annoying, everyone’s always telling you what to do and when to do it when all you really want to do is read your books and play with your action figures and maybe log on to your favorite multiplayer game.

Now, let’s say you’re a geeky kid who’s going to grow up to be one or two or three of the greatest geniuses of English literature, and you live in a Yorkshire village in 1828, and electricity is only a thing inasmuch as some American fooled around with a key and a kite awhile back. What’s a precocious, highly competitive pre-teen to do?

Welcome to Glass Town, perhaps the world’s first massively multiplayer offline text adventure. Meet the mods: Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell. You may know them better by their last name: Brontë.

You see, when the Brontës were kids, and not yet idols of literary fiction, they were exactly like nerdy kids are today, and invented a huge fantasy world together, complete with every worldbuilding cliche we know so well: every prince’s lineage was meticulously recorded, every horse had a backstory, every villain had an ancient grudge to twirl his mustache around, every city had a precise encyclopedia entry listing population, imports and exports, historical battles, and famous citizens. There was even a magic system worked out, invented and curated, naturally, on the monasterial Island of Philosophers. It may be strange to think of the writers of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as your average Dungeons and Dragons playing adolescents, but they were exactly that—except they did it long before you ever heard of it. Long before it was cool.

The four of them, not only Charlotte and Emily, who you will have heard of, but Anne and Branwell, who you may not have, created the fantasy worlds of Glass Town, Gondal, and Angria, and peopled them with a cast of thousands. (Anne also wrote excellent books, but they are less blusteringly romantic and more iron-jawed feminist, and so do not get gushing film adaptations. Branwell, unfortunately, went down another, yet tragically traditional hipster route—he got fired from his job for sexual harassment and ended up having to move back home, where he became addicted to heroin and died quite young.) They wrote hundreds of stories in their private universe, full of a child’s understanding of British politics, Yorkshire fairy tales, Shakespearian plots, an obsession with Arctic and African exploration, and, growing up in the shadow of the Napoleonic Wars, battle after battle after battle. The main players in these sagas were a set of wooden soldiers their father bought Branwell for Christmas, which his sisters immediately claimed as communal property and used to act out their sagas, much as children today can play with their Skylanders aciton figures, then plug them into their consoles and watch them have adventures onscreen. But of course, the Brontës had no screens beyond pieces of paper. It hardly mattered. Geeks are geeks, and geekery is timeless.

Being the geniuses they were, however, these geeks took it a step further. Their fantasy world was downright postmodern. They invented in-world publishing houses and made two of the wooden soldiers into editors that printed magazines for the people of Glass Town, magazines that the Brontës completely laid out and wrote themselves under a number of different bylines, even going so far as to have inter-columnist rivalries. When 11-year-old Branwell invented an obvious Mary Sue by the name of Young Soult the Rhymer, the greatest poet of all time, 12-year-old Charlotte immediately began a brutal sniping campaign, writing scathing reviews of Young Soult’s work, calling it rubbish and analyzing it mercilessly line by line. They wrote histories of Angria, and then created other historians to contradict the “accepted” narrative.

And when Branwell, as young boys love to do, got tired of his poetry being trashed and turned to his favorite games, gleefully blowing up castles and forts and ships and camps, murdering every main character in a daily bloodbath worthy of George R. R. Martin, Emily and Anne invented an elixir of life to bring everyone back to play another day, virtually inventing the Continue screen long before Atari was a pixel in the mainframe’s eye.

In a small playroom in a Parsonage at the top of a hill in Yorkshire, four children created an utterly complete universe to rival any speculative fiction writer working today. You can’t even call it just fantasy—some of their characters go to space.

I was captivated by this, not by how cute it is that such fancy famous people made up stories about their dolls, but by how incredibly modern the Brontë children really were, when we think of them as these miserable Gothic maidens on the moor, never cracking a smile. We have so much of their Glass Town writings, still, today, available to read at the click of an Amazon button, and it truly is extraordinary work. I doubt any MFA program would turn down what Charlotte and Emily produced before the age of 13. You can see the beginnings of the writers they’re going to be, the characters they’re going to create, little baby Rochesters and Heathcliffs and Berthas and Janes. You can see them struggling against the women and men they knew they’d have to be when they grew up. You can see them trying on the adult world for size.

But I saw in them what I see in every kid I’ve ever met—the fierce loyalty and obsession to the games they play, online or offline, the imaginative hunger for other worlds. I wanted to make Glass Town a real place, that they really traveled to, and had adventures in, I wanted them to confront their creations, not least because the Brontës are so bloody post-post-modern that they actually did write about visiting their world and confronting their creations in 1828. Charlotte even wrote about dreaming that she herself and all her siblings were just characters in a novel someone else was writing.

I have loved the Brontës since I was a child, and when you love someone, you want to make their dreams come true.

But more than the Brontës dreams of visiting their fantastical universe, I wanted to make every child’s dream come true. Because there are moments, when you are young, and up in your room playing and thinking and imagining and wishing, when there is nothing in the world you want more than for the world inside your head to become the real world that you live in.

Hell, there are moments when you are old when you feel that way.

I didn’t want to write one of those novels where famous writers didn’t actually write their work, they just went to a magical place and recorded it. I know all to well that making worlds is hard work, and those plots always bothered me. I wanted to write a novel where somebody made a world so well, worked their toys so tirelessly, that it became real. And that’s what this book is.

The Glass Town Game is my gift to any kid who played so long and so hard that it felt more real than real life, to anyone who used to be that lonely, nerdy kid at the top of the stairs, making their action figures have epic adventures day after day that they could never hope to have. The history doesn’t matter. The famous name doesn’t matter—it’s never mentioned in the book. What matters is what every kid knows matters—the game, man.

So suit up, log on, and press start. Glass Town is about to get real.

—-

The Glass Town Game: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Ferrett Steinmetz

Nerds love the idea of the Singularity, but as Ferrett Steinmetz hypothesizes in The Uploaded, even in the Singularity, the rapture of the nerds is not evenly distributed.

FERRETT STEINMETZ:

Writers are evil people. You’re walking down the aisle of your wedding, lost in marital bliss, and your writer friend is thinking yes, yes, this is wonderful, but how could this all go wrong?

We don’t mean to ponder these awful outcomes.  We writers should be focusing on your joyous wedding vows, not imagining brutal Kill Bill-style interruptions or wondering what would cause someone to burst into the room to shout, “I do know why this man and this woman should not be legally married!”

But you know, nobody wants to read a story about things going right.

My unfortunate specialty is asking what goes wrong after the happily ever after – which is why my go-to example here is a wedding.  But in my book The Uploaded, I take the biggest happily ever after and absolutely destroy it.  I’m not talking about what gets wrecked after two people get married – I’m aiming at what happens five hundred years after all humanity unites in peace and harmony.

That’s right: The Uploaded is destroying the Singularity.

Now, if you’re not familiar with the Singularity, it’s basically the nerdy Rapture.  At some point we’ll get enough computational power to upload our brains into the Internet, at which point we will have conquered death and everyone gets access to a digital Heaven that’s basically a supercharged World of Warcraft.

Do not get me wrong: in The Uploaded, this works.  This isn’t some crazy pay-for-play system where you shell out millions to avoid death and only the 1% get in.  The Upterlife’s creator, Walter Wickliffe, was fanatically devoted to ensuring that “all should pass through, but for the lowliest of criminals,” and he wound up becoming a politician to ensure no governments could spy on your archived consciousness.  He won a hairy Supreme Court case that ruled that archived citizens were actually human, and as such they can own property, they can be elected to office, and they can vote.

So that’s the perfect Singularity: you work, you obey the law, you get to live forever.  It’s that simple.

Except, of course, that it isn’t.

Because if you’re a student of history, you know that no paradise lasts forever.  Attitudes change.  People forget things.  And even though “forgetting things” is a little different when you have immortal politicians with memories that stretch back 500 years, well….

I’ll let Mama Alex, one of the characters from The Uploaded, explain it.

“Thing is, Amichai,” she continued, “people don’t change all that much. But the most virulent racists died off, and the new kids grew up with more black and Latino and Asian friends, and the world got a shade better. Not perfect – occasionally some freshfaced a-hole raised on yesterday’s thoughts would squirm into power for a time – but better.

“We never could have won if we had to face down all our enemies in their prime, Amichai. We just outlived ‘em.

“You’re right to call ‘em ghosts, Amichai. They haunt us. Every baby could be gene-engineered disease-free. Except the old-guard dead think genetic engineering’s a violation of nature, and they’re still around. And that opinion is not going away. Their old, bigoted culture gives new kids an excuse to be a-holes.

“You might hate death. But we’ve come to fetishize eternity – like hanging around forever is an unquestionable good. Death? It’s got its downsides, Amichai. But it sure clears away the underbrush.”

So society freezes because the old politicians never die.  But neither do their voters.  Within a few generations, the dead outnumber the living.  So nonviolent political change?  Gets increasingly unlikely.

Even worser: living culture changes.

Atheists often laugh at Christians, because there’s no Heaven and look at you restricting your life to live by imaginary rules when there’s no reward but the void.  But the problem with the Singularity is that suddenly, there is a Heaven – you can see it.  Hell, you get phone calls from your dead relatives squeeing about how great it is adventuring against the giant invasions on Wingbright Pass, leaving five-star reviews of the virtual mead.

You can’t have any of that until you die.

Being living becomes unfashionable.  Furthermore, living things become kinda creepy.  I mean, you can spend time crafting some nice woodworked chair in the real world – which you’ll leave behind when you die, and it will rot the whole time – or you can focus on creating virtual things.

The “real” world only becomes useful as a means of keeping the servers going.  And slowly, through a combination of culture and political incentives, the living become trained to hate themselves.  Your life’s too short to get the expertise that, say, architects and doctors with 200 years of experience have.

Your best career move is to die.

And yet that’s not the Big Idea here.

Because I don’t think it’s any surprise that The Uploaded features a protagonist who fricking loves the physical world, a culturally Jewish orphan named Amichai who’s tired of watching all his friends be told that their creativity isn’t worth looking at.  There’s going to be a dawning awareness of the secret government plan designed to cut down the living, and a big damn hero who becomes a symbol for the rebellion.

(It’s not Amichai.  It’s actually his pony.  This is a weird story.)

But that said, the Big Idea is not really “What happens 500 years after we conquer death?”, though that’s pretty big.  The Big Idea is what Amichai wrestles with throughout the course of the book:

That there are no happy endings.

There’s only work.

Because history is only work, my friends.  We thought we defeated the Nazis?  Well, the Internet provided an exciting new place to nurture hatreds.  We white folks got taught that Martin Luther King pretty much conquered racism in the 1960s?  Turns out we’ve still got a looooong way to go.  We elected Barack Obama?  Well, the backlash is Trump.

A large part of The Uploaded is about what happens when humanity gives into that urge to believe that the work is done.  Amichai becomes massively influential in the impending revolution, of course, but even though he’s smart enough to understand that the revolution is not the end point, he doesn’t know how to shape this movement so its momentum brings everyone to where they need to go.

The Uploaded is largely about that struggle.  Yes, Amichai wants to tear down the dead’s rule.  But to quote that King George line from Hamilton, You’re on your own.  Awesome, wow.  Do you have a clue what happens now?

Amichai doesn’t.  No one does.  And that’s the Big Idea:

Happy endings are an illusion.  There’s only maintenance of a fair society.  And anyone who checks out of that maintenance becomes a medium in which the most unaccountable horrors will flourish.

Anyway.  Terrible things happen.  There’s also ponies and a couple of cheap laughs.

Buy my book.

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The Uploaded: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Max Gladstone

Cities, sisters and war: Max Gladstone’s new novel The Ruin of Angels talks about each, together and apart. Here he is to explain how it all weaves together in his work.

MAX GLADSTONE:

Consider two sisters.

Kai and Ley live in different worlds, but sit at the same table. They grew up together, but they don’t see each other often these days. If you asked them, they’d give reasons—school and travel and work and things like that—but those reasons aren’t enough to name the distance. There was a death in the family when they were young, and they grew up in a hard home, in a country in trouble, and dealt with that in different ways. Kai dug into her home soil, dove into work, and built a life. Ley left, chasing a dream she could barely name, always just out of reach. She wanted to change the world, and she couldn’t do that at home.

They need each other more than anything. They’re all they have, in a dangerous time. But their different values have caused them to make different choices, and the conviction that they’ve made the right choices makes it almost impossible for them to understand each other’s needs.

One sees the girl who couldn’t leave, and the other sees the girl who couldn’t stay.

That’s the heart of Ruin of Angels, my new novel: the challenge of living in different worlds in the same space. What happens when it’s so difficult to understand the people we live beside—or the people we love—that we can’t help them? That we don’t even know how to help each other?

Cities are filled with different worlds, interlaced but not always intersecting, defined by values, history, choices, architecture. There are many Bostons, New Yorks, Nashvilles, some so sealed off from the rest their inhabitants never step into the worlds they live beside. Some people live all their lives in one of these sub-cities; others never have the freedom of that ignorance—they pay careful attention to which city they’re in at any given moment, because stepping wrong is the difference between life and death.

Class and culture and race shape these worlds, and they’re reinforced by the values residents hold, or are trained to hold. Is it a good or a suspicious thing to have a well-paying corporate job? Do you feel exhausted, or excited, on your fifth week of eighteen-hour grind? How important is it to live near your blood kin? Would you go to space if there were a good chance you’d never come back? When is violence the answer? (Are you sure? How does your experience of violence line up with the stories you tell about it, or about yourself?)

But crisis demands we break down those walls—or let them crush us.

Agdel Lex, where Ruin of Angels takes place, where Kai and Ley meet, is a fractured city. A hundred fifty years ago (or so), a great war started there—the God Wars, the near-omnicidal conflict between human sorcerers and the Gods whose powers they stole. The cataclysm frayed reality around Agdel Lex—and while every city holds many worlds, the worlds of Agdel Lex are a bit more literal than most.

The Iskari, Agdel Lex’s occupying power, have one vision for the city they seek to rule: an orderly metropolis, fit to a considered design, with everyone in their proper place. (Proper so far as the Iskari are concerned, anyway!) Like many governments, they think the many worlds should all be one. As the Iskari rule grows more complete, thanks to time and effort and new technologies, the families who ruled the city before the Iskari take shelter, and tell different stories, about a different city. Beneath these two cities gapes the inescapable fact (and world) of the War, a horror no one can quite bear to confront, but no one can forget. Torn between two poles, we find immigrants and wanderers trying to build their own future.

The system has worked—not really—for a while.

But a crisis is coming. It doesn’t start with Kai and Ley—their fight’s just the point when it turns visible. When the crisis strikes, Kai, and Ley, and their friends and enemies and lovers and students and partners, face dangers they can’t resolve alone. They’ll have to take down the walls that part them—walls formed by history, by pride, by self-absorption and pigheadedness and trauma. They’ll have to trust and reach out—and maybe even that won’t be enough.

W.H. Auden said it best, but he said it twice, and I’m not sure which version’s right:

We must love one another, or die.

Or:

We must love one another, and die.

That’s the big idea in Ruin of Angels. It’s the big idea in a lot of my life right now. The times are changing. We have to love, and work like hell, to build a better world. And no one can do it alone.

So, good thing we’re not alone.

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The Ruin of Angels: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBooks|Kobo

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