Category Archives: Big Idea

The Big Idea: Matt Richtel

In his guise as a reporter for the New York Times, Matt Richtel won a Pultizer Prize writing on the intersection of technology and the fallible humans who use it. In fiction, and in his new novel The Doomsday Equation, Richtel does the same… but this time the results may be apocalyptic.

MATT RICHTEL:

Thank you for clicking on this. In doing so, you’ve done your little part to help predict the next world war.

Yes, you (I do mean you, clacking away on the keyboard) are part of a remarkable development, one that is not nearly so farfetched as it may sound. It’s the newfound capacity of computers to help predict – and shape – human events. Including war.

The premise stands at the heart of The Doomsday Equation, near-term science fiction that lives just on the other side of real, and borrows from the exploits of a real person. His name is Sean Gourley. A Silicon Valley darling, fairly called a wunderkind, he created an algorithm to help predict the outbreak of armed conflict and project its length. When will war come and how long will it last?

Do you doubt the concept? As it is, computers use Big Data to make all kinds of predictions, involving weather, stock markets, retail supply and demand. The more information you put into a computer, the more scenarios it can measure, the more it can do what the human brain cannot: see patterns that are the precursors to events. Sean figured out the kinds of patterns that precede a war, “the mathematics of war” he called it in an article in the esteemed journal “Nature.”

The paper proposed an algorithm that its authors called “The Power Law.”

I call it: The Doomsday Equation. In the book, hundreds of inputs – from weather patterns to stock market indices to shifting demographics to our daily surfing Internet patterns – contribute to predicting the stability of the world. Or, rather, impending instability – Armageddon. The implications become staggering (I hope) and, in the end, the world’s fate left in the hands of a protagonist who shares all of Sean’s intellect but none of his grace. The made-up man at the center of The Doomsday Equation is named Jeremy Stillwater. He’s a wonder with computers but he’s terrible with people.

He’s self-righteous, maddeningly so, aggressive and impetuous, driven by conflict himself and, as a result, he’s the last person in the world who should be in a position to prophesize and prevent doom. Over the years, he’s infuriated and alienated all those who had invested and believed in him: his girlfriend, not least, but also the well-heeled investors, academics and even military liaisons who had hoped to use Jeremy’s digital oracle to predict the next terrorist attack.

And so, having isolated himself from the world, there is nowhere for Jeremy to turns when his computer gives him ominous news: global nuclear war, three days and counting.

Is it a joke? A bug? Someone out to settle a score with Jeremy? Or the most important computer message anyone has ever received?

Frantic, skeptical, Jeremy begins a lonely hunt to figure out if his computer is telling him the truth. That’s half the equation, and it is borrowed from real life.

So is the other half of the equation, namely, the conspiracy that has put the world in such a precarious position. I don’t want to give too much away, but what Jeremy discovers is an ancient plot, a network as old as parchment and the Biblical Scrolls, devoted in its own way to keeping the world pure of modernity.

Put another way: the tools that Jeremy must use to save the world are the most modern. But the foe he faces is as ancient and inborn as human nature itself. And their clash gets at the heart of questions we have begun to face: what price modernity? Where it heals does it also betray? Is it salvation or damnation?

With each page of Doomsday Equation, the clock clicks down, heading inexorably to zero, as Jeremy can only save the world by coming face-to-face with the fact that his own craving for interpersonal conflict – his default embrace of self-righteousness – may well be a big part of the reason the world stands on the brink of war. Can computers tell us that war is coming? Can they save us from ourselves? Or will they, by extending the darkest parts of us, merely hasten our demise?

The Doomsday Equation.

The Doomsday Equation: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Peter Darbyshire

In today’s Big Idea, author Peter Darbyshire casually subverts the Bible, Shakespeare and the reasons why one might choose a pen name, all in the service of his latest novel, The Dead Hamlets.

PETER DARBYSHIRE:

What if Christ left his body behind on our earthly realm when he went off to the undiscovered country?

And what if some other soul happened to find its way into Christ’s abandoned body and re-animated it?

This was the idea my demented muse burned into my mind with a mad cackle a few years back. When the smoke cleared, I had my Cross series of supernatural thrillers, written under the pen name Peter Roman*.

Cross was inspired in part by an Old English poem I read in university more years ago than I care to remember. I’ve forgotten most of what I learned while getting my English degree — there’s been little need for the politics of iambic pentamer since I fell out of the ivory tower and found myself in the real world, red in tooth and debt. But “The Dream of the Rood” has stuck with me over the decades, thanks to its intriguing perspective on the Crucifixion. It tells Christ’s story through the point of view of the cross that bore Christ.

I started thinking about the poem again one night when I was facing a relative’s death and had to deal with the practicalities of what to do with the body. When loved ones die, we tend to think of them in terms of memories or, if you’re so inclined, souls. We disconnect the dead from their bodies, which are soon to be hidden away somewhere out of sight and forgotten. The body becomes an afterthought to us, simply a carrier for the person, or at least what the person once was.

And then the muse struck, and I thought: what if the Rood from Christ’s story wasn’t a cross of wood but was instead the physical body that bore Christ’s soul during his time on Earth? What happened to that body after Christ left? What if, unlike all the other buried bodies, it didn’t stay forgotten?

And so I came up with the character of Cross, the poor soul who wakes up in Christ’s abandoned body in that cave all those centuries ago, with no idea of who he is or how he got there. He quickly learns that he can harness the supernatural powers of his body, and he discovers that he’s sort of immortal — he gets himself killed with disturbing frequency, but every time he does so the body resurrects with him still inhabiting it.

As it turns out, Cross is no saint. The first book in the series, The Mona Lisa Sacrifice, opens with Cross hunting down and killing an angel for its heavenly grace, which is the power his body needs to perform its magical tricks. That particular misadventure leads him unwittingly into the middle of a war between the seraphim, who are divided about what to do with themselves ever since God abandoned the lot of them on the mortal realm. Cross also has to deal with a colourful and dangerous cast of characters, including a vengeful faerie queen he once wronged, the real Alice from the Alice in Wonderland books, a curious gorgon — and Judas, who was not a misguided human but in fact an ancient trickster god.

I can’t say too much else about The Mona Lisa Sacrifice because, well, spoilers. At the end of the book, though, I was left with an unfinished relationship between Cross and the faerie queen. I began thinking about where to go with the series next, and lo and behold, I remembered another ancient text I’d studied in university: Hamlet.

Actually, I thought of A Midsummer Night’s Dream first, as the faerie feature prominently in that play, and their sense of mischief in Shakespeare’s text largely informed the way I wrote them in The Mona Lisa Sacrifice. But I quickly moved on to Hamlet because of its preoccupation with mortality and death — something that Cross grapples with on a regular basis. I started flipping through my battered university copy of Hamlet until I read the line “Enter Ghost,” and suddenly I had the idea for my next book.

The Dead Hamlets features a mysterious and deadly spirit haunting the faerie court, and it is somehow tied to the Shakespearian play Hamlet. Cross is the only one who has the ability to stop it, thanks to his own peculiar nature. But he quickly discovers that everything is not what it seems to be with the spirit, and that Shakespeare himself hid a terrible and deadly secret about his greatest play.

Some familiar characters from The Mona Lisa Sacrifice return in The Dead Hamlets — the faerie queen and her court, the eerie Alice, the mysterious and horrifying Royal Family — but the book also introduces some new players, including the eccentric Scholar, the undead playwright and demon hunter Christopher Marlowe, and a very supernatural and very dangerous Shakespeare.

If you like the first two Cross books, the third instalment in the series, The Apocalypse Ark, is due out in the fall of 2015 and I’m starting to outline the fourth book. Cross is a character that won’t die. Just like that Old English poem I read all those years ago.

*Why the pen name Peter Roman? The official story is I use the pen name to distinguish my genre books from my other novels, written under my real name, Peter Darbyshire. It’s a case of branding my different author streams. The true story is that “Roman” is shorter than “Darbyshire,” so I get to see my name in bigger type on the cover.

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The Dead Hamlets: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Randy Henderson

In which author Randy Henderson and the protagonist of his novel Finn Fancy Necromancy have a conversation about things and stuff.

RANDY HENDERSON:

“The Big Idea of Finn Fancy?” Finn asked. “Let’s do it!  Time to get all introspective, Mork from Ork wrap-up style.”

“Fine,” I replied. “For this book, the big idea was simply to have fun.  I –”

“Hang on.  That’s your standard answer. But let’s get real here, shall we? This is the BIG Idea, so let’s talk about what that really means. I mean, you did turn forty shortly before writing this book.”

“Uh, yeah?” I said, shifting uncomfortably in my chair.

“Well, this book is about a guy who’s banished from our world as a teen in 1986 and comes back in 2011 as a forty-year-old. So first, let me ask, what band’s playing on your computer right now?”

“The Smiths, but –”

“Uh huh. And what’s the last game you invested serious time into?”

“Well, Shadowrun on my Genesis emulator. But — do you have a point with all this?”

“I’m just establishing some context here. Along those lines, let me ask what made you a fantasy junkie? What do you remember most fondly of those books you read growing up?”

“Um, I guess a sense that the author geeked out as much about the magic as the reader, that they were having fun. Not that they were trying to be gritty and hardcore.  Not that they were trying to be especially clever, or ultra-realistic, or exploring the metaphor. I mean, some books had layers and seriously dark and ugly moments of course. But I just imagine the authors were mostly grinning ear to ear and saying ‘this is frickin wonder, baby! This is magic!'”

“Funny, I don’t remember Hitchhiker’s Guide having magic.”

“No. That had humor. Humor was also a big draw for me. Adams and Pratchett, obviously, and the Xanth novels, they were clearly having fun. But I also love the humorous characters in serious fantasies as well. The rogues and the rascals, the imps and the wits.”

“And of course you were a sucker for romance.”

“Who? Me?”

“Uh huh. So, now, flash forward, you’re sitting down to write Finn Fancy Necromancy, and –?”

“Well, I was pretty burned out from previous writing projects. I didn’t want to jump right back into months of constructing another epic plot spanning multiple points of view and the fate of nations, I didn’t want more deep research. I just wanted to write.  And have fun.”

“So?”

“So, I faced a blank page, and wrote a guy narrating in a humorous voice while a magical meteor plummeted at his head.”

“Jerk.”

“What?”

“Nothing. Then what?”

“Well, then I had to ask, why? Who was he? What story can I tell from here that will be dramatic and have tension and suspense of course, but above all, one where I can just have fun writing it. So I set it in our world, but made him be an exile from the 80s, added a misfit cast of supporting characters he could interact with, and wrote it in first person with a humorous voice. Basically, I focused on the things that I enjoyed reading in fantasy — magic, humor, and relationships — and the things I enjoy personally. I deliberately set up the conditions of the story in favor of me just having fun with it.”

“And there wasn’t anything deeper?” Finn asked.

“Like?”

Finn sighed. “Like how, in this book, I’m worried about where I fit in, what I really want to do with my life. I’m looking back on the dreams of my youth and pondering my future. I’m questioning what is best in life, and it certainly isn’t to crush my enemies, see them driven before me, and hear the lamentations of their women.”

“Well, yeah,” I replied. “But that’s natural for your character. You’d been absent from our world for twenty-five years.”

“Riiight.  For me, the forty year old child of the eighties. Okay. Fine, then mind if I ask you a question about me now?”

“Sure,” I replied.

“Why the heck did you write me as a necromancer?”

I blinked. “Uh, well, what’s wrong with being a necromancer?”

“My biggest skill is I can talk to the dead! Woo-friggin-hoo!”

“Hey, you can also rip the souls out of people.”

“No, I can’t. You created me half-trained and nowhere near strong enough, remember?”

“Oh. Sorry. I might be thinking ahead a few books. Still, it gives you room to grow, something to look forward to, right?”

“Uh huh.  Wizards, now they’re awesome. They’re, like, the Swiss army knives of magic users. Lightning, magical shields — Zeke, that ex-enforcer you stuck me with?  He can even pee fire like a flamethrower. Not something I want to watch, but still, if you knew you were going to be throwing sasquatch mercenaries and angry leprechauns at me, a power like that might have come in handy. Just saying.”

“Dude, I’m sorry,” I replied. “I just thought the lone wizard bad-ass was well covered territory. Besides, I decided to make this a story about your family, not just you; and a family of necromancers just worked better.”

“Oh.  Yeah. Thanks so much for that. Were you reading books on torture psychology when you came up with that brilliant idea, Oh Master of My Fate?”

“Um, no,” I said. “I was binge-watching Arrested Development.”

“Lucky me. You couldn’t have given me your family?”

“No,” I replied. “I couldn’t do to my family what I do to yours.”

“Nice. Okay, there is one area I do wish you’d made us more alike though. Did you have to make me a virgin?”

“Well, you had been out of your body since you were fifteen,” I said. “And you do know this is going on the internet, right? Anyone can read it.”

“Bat’s breath.” Finn sighed. “I miss the days when everyone just used their Commodores to play Zork and write bad allegorical fantasies with Paperclip.”

“Not everyone did that,” I said. “I think that was mostly just dorks like you.”

“But I’m mostly you, right?” Finn asked.

“Whatever.”

Finn Fancy Necromancy: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Brian McClellan

When you’ve written a half million words in a world of your own devising, it’s okay to stop, look around, and take stock of what you’ve wrought. Thus does Brian McClellan look upon his works in the Powder Mage Trilogy, here on the release of the final book in the series, The Autumn Republic. Take it away, Mr. McClellan!

BRIAN McCLELLAN:

As the final book in the Powder Mage Trilogy, The Autumn Republic is the climax of a five hundred thousand word epic fantasy. By now many of you are familiar with the sorcerers powered by black powder, returning gods in an industrialized world, and a nation caught in a world-class conflict. These are all the big ideas of the series, but now that I’ve reached the final book I need to stop and examine what this story is really about.

One of the biggest tropes of epic fantasy is that of the fool: the young farm boy or neglected orphan who learns of his destiny and goes off to fight the good fight, gaining wisdom and experience along the way. It’s the very first trope I wanted to throw out when I started this trilogy, and doing so gave me Field Marshal Tamas—a living legend, a man at the very height of his power who decides that, for the good of the people, he will overthrow his king and send the nobility to the guillotine. Promise of Blood opens with this revolution and the entire trilogy deals with the ramifications of one man’s action against his government.

Without Tamas, the conflict that takes place in the Powder Mage Trilogy would never have happened.

Tamas was not originally meant to be a viewpoint character. My original plan was to tell his story from the point of view of his son but I quickly became enamored with his character. How often in fantasy do we get to see the narrative from the point of view of a man who answers to no one? The wise man well into his journey instead of the naive youth at the beginning of his?

What, I wanted to know, would bend or break a man like that?

More than anything else, The Autumn Republic is the tale of Field Marshal Tamas coming to grips with his own legend. He is powerful, driven, already immortalized on the pages of history. He has spent decades planning the revolution that opened the trilogy and he is fully committed to it, willing to become history’s villain for the greater good. Willing to sacrifice anything for his goals. Or so he thought.

Tamas may be an old man, much further along in his hero’s journey than some whippersnapper fresh off the farm, but that does not mean that his journey is complete. His ideals have been corrupted by old wounds and a quest for vengeance, but he still has the ability to regret, grow, change, and adapt to fight the new challenges thrown in his path.

—-

The Autumn Republic: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Amy Bai

Who will your heroes be? How and why are they as they are? Amy Bai gave serious thought to these questions when writing Sword, and found the answers for her through a most circuitous path.

AMY BAI:

I grew up, as so many of us did, on Hans Christian Andersen, the Grimm brothers, Charles Perrault, and Disney; on destiny and good girls with shining hair, golden boys on tall horses bending over them to save them with kisses; on the wickedness of evil stepmothers and the last wishes of dying kings. I believed in the power of enchanted swords, wise old mentors, fate, and the deadly secrets of the spinning wheel. I never doubted that the serving girl was disguised royalty and that someday her prince would come. I knew that gentleness and kindness won you the help of the furry woodland creatures, that beauty was worth more than confidence, and that if you waited patiently and were good, if you suffered with grace, you would be swept out of an ordinary life into jeweled-encrusted slippers and true love.

As I got older, I found myself princes more well-rounded than Gallant and Charming—Will Stanton, Cefwyn Marhanen, Rand al’Thor, Frodo and Aragorn, Bastian and Atreyu, King Arthur and Lancelot. They saved the kingdom, defeated the big evil, and changed the world: they lived large.

I was twelve when I discovered Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, and my world opened up. There was destiny and magic, dragons and world-ending threats, and hey presto! there was also a girl protagonist who wasn’t passive, graceful, decorative, or a damsel. Aerin-Sol’s power had nothing to do with beauty, and she neither waited for nor expected a rescue. She worked for what she wanted. This is much, much more of a thing now than it was then, thank frak, but for an early-90s tween living in an isolated rural town in Maine with a teensy library, it was a Big Deal of the mindblowing variety. I still reread The Hero and the Crown pretty often, because I am obsessive that way, and damn if I don’t get that same little thrill of vicarious power every time. Girl fighter. Girl ruler. Girl hero.

So all things considered, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that when I finally mustered the courage to try writing novels, this kind of story was what came out.

By that time I was a veteran of the sort of undergraduate writing workshops where you begin by talking about theme, then move on to some more theme, and bring it home with a really deep discussion about theme… and along with a diploma and a lifelong partner, I’d emerged from college with a vague sense of shame for my love of fairy tales and SF/F. When I started Sword, I had a handful of ideas and absolutely no clue what I was doing. (I’d love to say this process has undergone a vast metamorphosis since, but alas, several hundred thousand words later, I think I’ve just gotten more comfortable with the initial state of confusion.)

In spite of the confusion, I’m glad I didn’t know how to outline a book back then, because I’m almost certain I would have censored myself. I’d have edited out the influence of all those well-loved fairy tales and books, spent the entire first draft trying to recreate everything I’d been taught to value about words up to that point, and the end result would probably have been something along the lines of the world’s worst Great Gatsby fanfic.

Many long nights, the thunderous arrival of the ebook, a vast shift in the publishing industry, and a complete rewrite later, what I arrived at was a coherent story, and also an homage to everything I love to read… but most of all to that amazing moment when I realized that heroism and agency weren’t the sole purview of men.

Gender flipping of genre tropes is hardly a new thing: it’s been done badly, done well, and done better than I could ever hope to do it myself, but one thing I personally don’t think it will be anytime soon is done to death. (If you’re wondering why, just visit VIDA’s site and take a look at the numbers there. Enough said.) So when I decided that Sword required a twisted nursery-rhyme-turned-vague-prophecy and three reluctant and/or outright disgusted heroes, it was natural to me that the Sword of that prophecy who guides the hands of men and commands the army, and the Crown who harbors all their hope and also rules a kingdom should be my two female main characters—while Song, a Bard who has the more traditionally feminine role of easing their sorrow with music, emotional stability, and a lot of snappy one-liners, would be the brother and friend of my two ladies.

Natural, because those were the stories that spoke loudest to me; natural because I could see me in them. And natural because although years and countless improvements in gender equality have passed since I read a book with a girl hero for the first time, it’s still more likely that in the movies I watch and the books I read, I’ll be expected to identify with a sidekick or a love interest, rather than a hero.

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Sword: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Kobo|Publisher

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

The Big Idea: Rebecca Adams Wright

Rebecca Adams Wright was one of my students at the Clarion Writer’s Workshop. I’m delighted beyond words to spotlight her first, terrific, collection, The Thing About Great White Sharks, here on the Big Idea. As she explains, the title may say “sharks” but what it all really comes down to is people.

REBECCA ADAMS WRIGHT:

My stories begin with people. People from all walks of life, people in unlikely circumstances, people that I can’t get out of my head. An old man, stroking the head of his robotic dog.  A young girl, befriending a man made of glass. A husband, obsessed with the furnace his wife maintains on their claustrophobic space station.

My great delight in the sculpting of character means that when I was first working on the stories that would later make up my collection, The Thing About Great White Sharks, I didn’t intentionally set out to tackle any ideas of Great Meaning. Mostly, I set out to write about people who were confronting ghosts, odd golems, alien invasions, hordes of murderous bees, flying circuses, and talking gardens. All of these situations were all interesting to me. I cared intensely about my protagonists but I didn’t yet grasp what their stories had in common. My characters came from so many different backgrounds, were evenly split between men and women, ranged in age from twelve to their seventies, lived on different planets and existed in different eras (sometimes millennia apart).

Basically, I wasn’t sure my little band of narrators was united by any Big Idea. But hey, they were all living inside their own self-sustaining story pods, so what did it matter? They had rations in there. They had oxygen. They were fine trundling along their small orbits alone.

Then a few of the stories got picked up by magazines, and a few others won awards, and I started to think about putting them together in a collection.

Now, to me, the best story collections are often—I’m going to date myself here—like great mix tapes. The mix tapes your closest, coolest friend made for you in high school.  The voices on the tracks may be wildly disparate, some of the songs may scream in thrash metal and others may whisper to you in velvety jazz, but that juxtaposition is part of the appeal. Placed so improbably back to back, well-selected songs speak to you in ways you don’t expect. All of a sudden you’re looking at your own complicated jumble of perceptions from a new perspective.

I wanted my collection to work like that ideal mix tape. I gathered my stories together and panicked. I despaired. I stacked and shuffled, trying to find a way to make all the seemingly disparate narratives fit together in such a way that the sum total would take on Lofty Overtones. Finally, I realized that the only way to make any progress toward a book was to stop trying to paint apples to look like oranges. I decided I would simply do my best to polish each individual story and damn any thematic union between them.

It was only then, as I released desperation and re-immersed myself in the individual narratives, that I began to see the Big Idea peeking out of all of them. The unifying factor was coming out of character, of course. How had I missed the pattern?

The grieving couple in “Tiger Bright,” who inherit a big cat and devote themselves to the animal’s care.

Ed, the Korean War veteran and traveling salesman in “Storybag,” who quickly becomes protective of the very strange item that appears in his magical sample case.

The artist in “The White Chalk Road,” who manufactures an entire world in an effort to make it home to one fiercely-loved old dog.

My protagonists have a tendency to be isolated—by war, by work, by sickness, by life on alien planets, by their own neuroses. But over and over again, these characters were trying to climb out of isolation, to make contact. Sometimes they could only manage a small wave from a long distance. Sometimes they stood screaming directly into each other’s ears. Sometimes they missed the potential for communication entirely and went sailing out into some weird stratosphere, raving. But the point is that they were all battling to communicate, to build connections, to form relationships.

The idea that humanity is defined by our need to connect to one another, that we all, every one of us, require at least one meaningful relationship to hold us together.  That’s the Big Idea and the unifying theme running throughout the stories in The Thing About Great White Sharks.

There are a lot of other ideas here, too—about animals, and what they mean to us, and how both strange and familiar they are.  About violence. About humor and wonder, and how we should never stop looking for either one. But the very human need to make contact—that’s what drives all the rest forward.

This book about ghosts and golems and aliens and robots and bats and sharks is really about people.

I should have known.

—-

The Thing About Great White Sharks: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read a story in the collection. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Courtney Alameda

First off: Whoa, that cover. It’s awesome. And the cover tells some of the idea of Shutter, by Courtney Alameda. She’s here now to explain what, and why, and how in the end a story may be worth a thousand pictures.

COURTNEY ALAMEDA:

Ideas don’t strike me. Characters do—at least figuratively.

When people ask me about the idea behind Shutter, I point to the novel’s protagonist, Micheline Helsing. I met this pint-sized exorcist/photographer in a dark, dilapidated house, frozen on a stairway. She held a Nikon camera as one would a handgun, its long telephoto lens pointed at the ground, her attention trained on the landing, sweat plastering her blunt bangs to her forehead. Together, we listened to the footsteps—slow, wooden creaks—coming down the hall on the second floor. The violet light her ghostly quarry emitted grew stronger, brighter, and more brutal with each step.

I thought: There’s someone I haven’t seen in YA before.

Micheline’s ability to capture a ghost on analog film is nothing novel: It’s been done in film and video games. The belief is found in several religions across the globe, and is a mainstay concept on popular ghost hunting shows. The older I get, the more I realize most ideas aren’t new or individual in and of themselves, really. To misappropriate John Donne a little, no creator is an island entire of herself. The things we read, watch, and consume all have an impact on our subconscious mind. It’s up to us to determine how significant that impact becomes in our work.

So the game was afoot: I had to devise a fantasy construct for either Micheline or her camera, one I hadn’t come across in my reading, viewing, or gaming experiences. I started with the ultraviolet ghost and worked backward in my research, discovering first that there are species of birds and insects capable of perceiving ultraviolet light. Later, I found that some human women are born with an additional color cone in their retinas, allowing them to perceive millions of variations in color the average eye cannot discern.

I’d found my construct: These women are called tetrachromats, and one percent of women would have the ability to see this broader range of color.

The tetrachromats in Shutter see the auras of the undead in a color spectrum: The slower, longer wavelengths of light—reds and oranges—represent the lowliest creatures, shuffling zombies and the like. The bestiary moves through the entire spectrum, representing a vast number of undead creatures unique to Micheline’s world. The ghosts, of course, are made of nothing more than violet energy and light, the shortest and fastest wavelengths visible to the human eye.

I brought in the Van Helsing legacy on Micheline’s insistence. She’s a stubborn sort of girl, a lesson I would learn again and again over the course of writing the novel. But the Helsing connection gave Micheline a legacy to shoulder, as well as an illustrious, rich history that I mined for both Micheline’s character the three boys who are her dearest friends and hunting companions. But like the camera, I realized that I wasn’t the first to reimagine the Van Helsings in a modern age—in fact, aside from Sherlock Holmes, Dracula has been portrayed in film more times than any other figure from classic literature. There are books, video games, and even Japanese manga in which Van Helsing or his descendants figure prominently.

I differentiated my Helsing Corps by making them an integral part of everyday life in Micheline’s world, a sort of police force for the supernatural or undead. My father was a police officer in the San Francisco Bay Area, and so my childhood was saturated by police stories, thrilling ride-alongs, and a basic knowledge of police procedure. With that model in mind, it became easy to imagine Helsing “reapers” responding to emergency calls and patrolling the streets at night, keeping their neighborhoods safe from the undead threats lurking in the city’s abandoned places.

Better yet, the Van Helsing legacy allowed me to connect a YA novel to a piece of classic literature—and my greatest hope is that my work might inspire a young person or two to seek out the source material. Shutter is not a re-telling of Dracula, but much of Stoker’s work provides the underpinnings for my own: The unbreakable friendships between Micheline, Ryder, Oliver, and Jude are meant to mimic the ones shared by Van Helsing’s own hunting party. Crosses still have power in Micheline’s world, and she shares her religious beliefs with her famous forebear. The otherworldly vengeance that provides the basis of the plot has much to do with the events of Dracula, but saying much more than that would spoil the novel.

As I move forward in my work, I specifically look for projects that follow this model; things I can tie back to my literary godparents, both classic and contemporary. I particularly like taking tired tropes and twisting them until they remember how to breathe, or until they get so bent out of shape, they look like something readers haven’t seen before.

But most of all, I wait to see someone like the girl on the stairway with a story to tell.

—-

Shutter: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear is awesome, Karen Memory has been getting some great notices, and I’m on vacation. Thus, this is one of the shortest Big Idea intros ever. Take it away, eBear!

ELIZABETH BEAR:

Where did Karen Memory come from?

Well. That’s a complicated question. It involves a certain well-known young adult editor with glorious hair, a college friend with a memorable name and a good turn of phrase, and a little attitude problem I happen to have with generalizations. And a long, long road between here and there.

In the middle of September in 2009, said editor (with the glorious hair) solicited me for a YA proposal for a steampunk novel with a lesbian protagonist. She solicited me because while in her presence, I happened to mention that I really wanted to write one, which is a nice thing to have happen. So I thunk and thunk until my thinker was sore, and happened to talk it over with an old friend of mine, Karen Memery Bruce, who is a librarian and a puppeteer. In the course of that conversation, Karen Memory’s apparently-already-iconic first line got written—or a version of it, anyway.

According to my blog of September 20th, 2009, the original version of the first line was, “You don’t want to know this, but I’m going to tell you anyway.”

That eventually settled down to the version that is about to see print—that has already seen print, actually, in at least two places, but more on that later. It goes like this now: “You ain’t gonna like what I have to tell you, but I’m gonna tell you anyway.

And that was it. That was her voice. Everything after that was just letting her have her head and tell her story. (Well, and figuring out how that story went.) And in writing this book, I found a place to vent a lot of my frustrations about how people who are not heterosexual middle- and upper-class white men tend to be erased from existence in certain types of fiction. For example, there’s a historical character in this book, in fact, who is incredibly famous—iconic even—in his fictionalized person, but his real history is so marginalized it’s almost forgotten that there was a historical character upon whom the legend was based.

Needless to say, I named my new protagonist after my friend.

I had a proposal finished within the week.

It was rejected.

Well. Okay then. Saddle up, ride on.

Some years went by. I converted the first chapter or so of my proposal into a short story, which was included in the anthology Dead Man’s Hand, edited by John Joseph Adams. And when I next had the opportunity to pitch a book to my long-term and much-beloved editor at Tor, Beth Meacham, I asked my agent to send her Karen. Her comment was, more or less, “Does this have to be a YA?”

“No,” says I. “Of course not.”

“Well,” says she. “Okay then. I’ll buy it.”

It remains pretty YA friendly, for what it’s worth. Or at least as YA friendly as a book about an occasionally foulmouthed, extremely sharp-minded, nearly fearless girl who works in a bordello and faints at the sight of blood can be. It may be the only book ever written with a prostitute as a protagonist with this much adventure and this little sex. It also has rooftop chases, perilous escapes, true love, gunfights, derring-do, a deaf opinionated cat, a bit in a burning building certified authentic by my partner the firefighter, and a mecha battle or two.

If it’s not clear yet, I adore Karen. And I adore the cover art, directed by Irene Gallo and painted by Cynthia Sheppard. It looks just like her. And more than that, I cannot wait to share her with everybody I know. I feel like Karen is a friend of mine—the sort of friend you make, and then can’t wait to invite to parties so all your other friends can enjoy her too.

So what it boils down to is that the Big Idea in Karen Memory is Karen herself—indomitable, smart-mouthed, and proof positive that a woman in a man’s world can still have agency, ideals, and a real badass super-sized serving of attitude.

—-

Karen Memory: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

 

The Big Idea: Greg Van Eekhout

Look! Greg Van Eekhout is going to quote a famous person at you! For reasons! Oh, and also tell you about Pacific Fire, the follow-up to California Bones, which I liked quite a bit (I blurbed it, you might recall). And don’t worry, that famous person quote has a point.

GREG VAN EEKHOUT:

John Milton writes, “The child shows the man as morning shows the day.” Indeed, one presumes the child shows the adult of any gender. And here I am, kicking off a Big Idea post about a book that features cannibalism and dragons with a Milton quote, not because I’m trying to fool you into thinking I’m classy like that, but because the relationship between the children we were and the adults we become is one of the central themes of Pacific Fire.

I should probably backtrack a bit and put the Pacific Fire in context. It’s the second book of the trilogy that began with California Bones and will conclude later this year with Dragon Coast. These books are about wizards who get their powers from consuming the remains of magical creatures. Eat dragon bones and you get some of the abilities of a dragon. Eat a wizard who’s eaten dragon bones and you get the wizard’s abilities. The world is an alternate California ruled by the most successfully voracious wizards, or osteomancers, and our protagonists are people both magic-using and not who get caught up in the osteomancers’ power struggles.

In California Bones, Daniel Blackland is the son of a wizard and a spy. When his father is killed for the magic contained in his bones and his mother returns to her native Northern California, Daniel is essentially orphaned. He grows up in hiding, trying to avoid his father’s fate while being used by his crime lord guardian for his magical skills. Ten years later, in Pacific Fire, Daniel finds himself trying to father and protect Sam, the osteomantic sort-of clone of the chief wizard of the Southern Californian kingdom and the man who, all those years ago, killed and ate Daniel’s father. In trying to save Sam, Daniel’s also trying to save the exploited and abandoned boy he was himself. But when the powers in charge come after Sam to fuel the patchwork dragon super-weapon they’re building, Daniel sees history repeating itself.

The first book of the trilogy is, among other things, a heist story. Pacific Fire is, among other things, a sabotage caper, as Sam sets out to destroy the firedrake before the bad guys can use it. Daniel, meanwhile, sets out to intercept Sam before the bad guys use him.

And that’s where the Milton quote comes in. Amid the fisticuffs and magical and spider assassins, rock monsters, a narco sub built from the ribcage of a sea serpent, a water mage, a scary chef, and the aforementioned Pacific firedrake, is Daniel’s struggle is to prevent his own childhood from repeating itself in Sam. And there’s Sam’s struggle to become the man he wants to be while knowing he started life as an artificial creation, a treasure to be plundered.

What Milton states poetically boils down to this: adulthood is the consequence of childhood. Osteomancy is the practice of gaining magic by consuming the remains of the past. Our today is built from the stuff of our yesterday. And in their own ways, Daniel and Sam are fighting to craft their own tomorrows.

—-

Pacific Fire: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Heather Webb

Author Heather Webb knows what people think of creative folks, and their overall mental fitness. But as with nearly everything, there’s more to the story — literally — than common perception. Webb explains why and how her exploration of the theme influenced her novel Rodin’s Lover.

HEATHER WEBB:

Aren’t all creatives a little bit “mad”? This is what many of us assume from centuries of stereotypes and tales of artists and writers doing nutty things. Where is the line drawn between fervor, obsession, and madness—and who decides? Several studies have been conducted to explain the creative’s so-called high proclivity for mental illness. As expected, it’s a difficult tendency to measure, and there aren’t any real answers.

Perhaps artists are “special” or gifted and see the world without filters, with a fine lens that is a constant stimulus to the brain.

Perhaps artists use their gifts as a coping mechanism, a means to expel that which torments them.

Perhaps only a fraction of artists are truly mentally ill, and must overcome their limitations to create because of some inner need, some drive to capture their inspirations.

Or maybe it’s a bunch of hog wash because we’re all a little bit mad.

This is one of the Big Ideas I tackled in my new novel, Rodin’s Lover. My protagonist, Camille Claudel, is the collaborator, student, and lover to the famed Auguste Rodin. (For those of you who don’t know anything about him, he sculpted The Thinker, The Gates of Hell, and dozens of other ground-breaking works during the 1880s.)

Not only was Camille as brilliant as Rodin, but she made waves in the art world with her sensual pieces—women didn’t sculpt from nude models and they certainly didn’t create portraits of naked men and women dancing! (See The Waltz by Claudel, my absolute fav) The ups and downs of garnering reviews and commissions, her kooky family, and her tumultuous love affair with Rodin prompted her mental unraveling. So here we have it—a classic story of an artist going mad. Or is it?

How did I go about this sticky, yet compelling topic?

I peeled back layers of my characters’ psyches to expose their deepest desires. Next, I heightened their motivations by accessing their emotional lenses—the way they viewed their world around them in relation to their pains, hopes, desires. During my revisions, something “crazy” happened. Each character revealed their own bent of madness.

Rodin was driven to create and could think of little else…until he met Camille. Her passion for sculpture flamed his own, and soon, his feelings for her eclipsed his reasoning. What could be a stronger force than love to drive us to distraction? Paul Claudel, (Camille’s playwright brother) found God, and his zeal turned caustic, condemning, and downright punishing. Camille’s senses became heightened, she lashed out irrationally in fits of rage, then inner voices begin to torment her…

Do their unstable moments, their passions and inner demons, make them crazy?
The bigger question is, does it matter? Their obsessions don’t detract from the beauty they’ve created and left behind. I, for one, and thankful for whatever muse inspired them to such masterpieces…But then I’m a writer with my own obsessions. Perhaps you should be the judge.

—-

Rodin’s Lover: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Myke Cole

War changes you, and in the case of the protagonist of Gemini Cell, the new novel by Myke Cole, the changes are more drastic than they are for others. But as drastic as they are, they have their root in a common affliction for those who have gone into combat. Cole explains below.

MYKE COLE:

When you sign up for a hitch in the military, you understand that you might get hurt. Warfighters exist to kill people and destroy property, that’s what they do. You’re ready for privation, for injury.

But it’s one thing to suffer. It’s another thing to change.

You tell yourself that won’t happen. Sure, you may experience horror, but you know who you are. After months in the suck, you take pride in maintaining your sense of self. War is hell, but you haven’t let it make you into a demon.

Then you come home, and something’s off.

It’s in the little ripples you make in the world, the complex web of interactions that extends from the store clerk who bags your groceries to your own spouse and children. You’ve had this experience, and even though you lived through it, it broke something lose inside you, something that can never be put back. The isolation grows and you realize with dawning horror that you have changed in a way that those who’ve never gone to war haven’t, that the change is permanent, that it separates you from everyone else, even those you love the most, forever.

This chasm, this permanent isolation is what we call PTSD, and it’s the big idea behind Gemini Cell.

Warfighters don’t have a monopoly on PTSD. It affects everyone who experiences trauma, from victims of abuse to those raised in poverty, but Gemini Cell is a book about a warfighter, and it’s that brand of PTSD I’m focusing on here.

The protagonist, James Schweitzer, is killed on an op. The story would normally end there, but Schweitzer is summoned back from the dead and put back on the line serving his country. Death has given Schweitzer a lot of advantages: near-immortality, super strength and speed, heightened senses, but it’s also permanently cut him off from the people he once loved and lived alongside. Schweitzer is still a man in every sense save one: he lacks a beating heart.

That’s enough.

Schweitzer left a wife and son behind, and his efforts to reunite with them throw his permanent change into stark relief. The dead can be reanimated, but they can’t be brought back to life. Schweitzer may be able to rejoin his family, but he can never be a husband and father again, not like he was.

Schweitzer’s unlife is a pretty bald stand-in for life with PTSD, the permanent shift that sets you apart from those you love. The challenge of first accepting the change, then charting a new course, a way forward now that the goal posts have all moved, is enormous. For many, it’s insurmountable. It is as if, dead, you walk among the living, who must force a smile and pretend that nothing is wrong.

Many return from war superpowered, able to complete challenging tasks under immense pressure. They are stronger and fitter, undaunted by the fear of death that they have faced so many times. They are disciplined and focused. They get up early. They notice things others might have missed. But these benefits only serve to set them further apart. The loved ones they left behind still want to sleep in, still want to spend their Saturday nights at the loud rock concerts with drumrolls that sound far too much like gunfire.

Those returning from war find themselves swimming upstream, having to navigate job markets that have no use for those whose primary occupation is killing people and destroying property. They are forced to grapple with a world that suddenly has too many choices, a world that looks and smells and sounds familiar, but no longer makes any sense.

It may seem as impossible as a dead man rejoining the living, but military service members do impossible things all the time. The skills that set the warfighter apart in the first place are the same skills they must leverage to cope with being set apart. You can never return life to how it was, but a new life can be built, and it may not be until many years down the road that you realize that it is better than the one you left behind.

Raised from the dead, Schweitzer has plenty of work to do. He must serve on his nation’s front line against a resurgence of magic that threatens to bring destruction to all. But his toughest challenge is in finding a way to exist in a world where he shouldn’t, where his every step is a violation of natural law.

It won’t be easy, but it’s not surprising. This is war, and war is hell.

—-

Gemini Cell: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith

Sometimes a book’s big idea is a risky one. And sometimes writing a book and getting it to publication involves one risky idea after another. Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith’s new novel Stranger has risky ideas in it from start to finish — and beyond. They’re here to assess their risks for you.

RACHEL MANIJA BROWN and SHERWOOD SMITH:

We knew it was risky when we started.

The heart of science fiction is the tension between the familiar and the different, between new ideas and much-loved themes. Our post-apocalyptic YA novel, Stranger, features our favorite tropes— mutant powers, colorful alien wildlife, building a new civilization from scratch, man-eating plants, desperate treks through the desert, swordfights, attacks by mutant creatures, towns under siege— but in an unusual context.

Young prospector Ross Juarez comes stumbling through the desert, wounded and delirious, and is rescued by the citizens of Las Anclas, a frontier town whose walls are guarded by armed townspeople and carnivorous roses. He brings with him a hidden treasure, a power no one has ever had before, and a whole lot of trouble.

Our risky idea was to base the characters of our post-apocalyptic town on the people of modern Los Angeles. Its real teenagers aren’t the straight white culture-less heroes who inhabit most YA novels. They belong to many races and cultures and religions. Some are gay or lesbian or bisexual. Some are disabled. And few of them ever see people like themselves as the heroes of sf novels.

We knew it was a risk to write a YA novel with protagonists who didn’t fit the mainstream publishing mold. Sure enough, Stranger got caught up in a controversy before it even sold, when an agent offered to represent it on the condition that we make one of the protagonists straight or else remove his romance and all references to his sexual orientation.

We refused. Then we put out a call to other writers to see how common it was to be told to change the identity of their characters. We heard many similar stories from writers who were asked to make gay characters straight or to make characters of color white; you can read them in the comments to this article.

To this day, it is a risk to write protagonists who belong to current minority groups. (It is even more difficult to be a writer who belongs to one or more of those groups.) We were lucky to find a publisher and editor willing to take a chance on our book: Sharyn November at Viking.

But the identity of our protagonists wasn’t our only risk. Most recent YA set in the future is dystopian, and explores our worst fears of what our world might become. In these books, love is outlawed, children are forced to murder each other on television, Big Brother watches everything, and hope is at best a wistful notion and at worst a cruel joke.

We took a chance on a more optimistic future. We chose a post-apocalyptic setting not to explore how grim and cannibalistic life can get, but as an opportunity to create a new landscape here on Earth, full of danger but also full of wonder.

Our creatures and plants came from the Rule of Cool: we first invented whatever we thought would be fun, then created an ecosystem that could encompass them all.  Wouldn’t it be awesome if squirrels could teleport sandwiches out of people’s hand? Absolutely! And if they exist, probably other creatures have psychic powers too. Bring on the mind-controlling giant lobsters and illusion-casting rabbits!

Wish-fulfillment is often used as a dirty word. But we took a chance on a world where some prejudices have died out, so two gay teenagers could have relationship angst that has nothing to do with homophobia, and an African-American girl who joins the town’s elite military Rangers wonders if she’s their token… telekinetic.

We enjoy such wish-fulfillment for ourselves; books about the difficulties of being a real-life minority are important and necessary, but they shouldn’t be the only books out there. Sherwood’s wish-fulfillment was a world where old women are respected rather than dismissed and menopause can bring badass powers. Rachel’s wish-fulfillment was a world where the Jews fight invaders and monsters rather than anti-Semitism. And we both enjoyed the chance to create a society without gender stereotypes or sexism, where the sheriff is a woman whose Change gave her super-strength and a skull face, and the male protagonist is the one who gets a makeover.

It’s not a perfect world, even apart from the deadly crystal trees, the chance that a mutation will kill you rather than giving you cool powers, and the nearby tyrant looking to expand his empire. Rachel is a PTSD therapist, and Sherwood has spent a lifetime observing the effects of trauma in the classroom and out of it. We used our experience to make the aftereffects of trauma and battle realistic. PTSD isn’t something you can shrug off, power through, or cure with love. But neither is it something that will destroy your life forever.

Our book is fiction, but we don’t want it to convey messages we don’t believe in.  We created a hopeful future because we believe in hope. Nowadays, that may be our most radical idea.

Life imitates art. Our book started with a risky idea and was bought by an editor willing to take a chance on it. Now it’s embarking on yet another risky journey. We decided to self-publish the rest of the books in the series. Sherwood explains our reasons in full in this post.

In short, staying with Viking would mean a minimum of two years between the release of Stranger and its sequel, Hostage, with the likelihood of a similar gap between all subsequent books. We decided to prioritize releasing the books in a more timely fashion and being able to control their price, over keeping the prestige and resources of a traditional publisher. So Stranger is published by Viking, and Hostage is published by the writer’s collective Book View Café.

This risky strategy seems fitting for a series that, from the beginning, has been all about taking chances.

—-

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

Read an excerpt. Visit Brown’s blog. Visit Smith’s blog.

 

The Big Idea: Red Equinox

Sometimes a terrible event can inspire authors not just to create fiction but to look at their environs a whole new way. Douglas Wynne explains how an attack on his town brought about his latest novel Red Equinox — and a reevalution of his city.

DOUGLAS WYNNE:

On April 19, 2013 I sat at the computer riveted to a live streaming Boston police scanner as authorities closed in on the trailered boat in Watertown where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was holed up. “Watch your mic,” an unidentified officer kept repeating, aware that the world was listening in.

Boston is my adopted city. I moved from NY to “the hub” in the early nineties to attend Berklee College of Music and eventually settled down about an hour north of the city, near my wife’s hometown. I’d spent a good part of the day wondering if the Marathon Bombers were headed north on Route 1 toward our neck of the woods, that part of Massachusetts where H.P. Lovecraft placed his fictional town of Arkham and Miskatonic University.

We’ve become accustomed to the idea that terrorists kill in the name of their gods. They are delusional, of course. Fanatics. But sometime soon after the Marathon Bombings I was struck by the kind of what if that makes a writer explore a horrific scenario simply because the question won’t stop whispering in his ear until he does: What if the hideous acts of a terror cell caused their victims to actually witness their terrible gods walking the earth?

The notion that members of a cult of chaos might live among us, that their nihilistic faith could cost us our lives, is a long-running leitmotif in horror fiction. You can hear strains of it in the eloquent, yet discordant music of H.P. Lovecraft, right on down to that most modern incarnation of the genre—the beating drums of Fox News.

I wanted to bridge the gap between Lovecraft’s xenophobia and the real post 9/11 fears we have to live with now, no matter how liberal our worldview may be. So I invented a modern incarnation of Lovecraft’s Church of Starry Wisdom, an urban religious minority living in flood-ravaged Boston. These aren’t the gibbering inbred hicks of HPL’s forgotten shanty towns. They attend MIT and use 3D printer technology to bring ancient abominations to life. They have a coherent philosophy akin to that of eco terrorists, believing that man’s greatest achievement was raising the sea level high enough to turn coastal cities into a suitable habitat for their dark marine deities, and having accomplished that, he should be eradicated before he destroys the planet.

I got hooked on Lovecraft when as a teenaged Stephen King devotee I started branching out and picked up a cheap paperback of The Lurking Fear and Other Stories with a fantastically lurid cover. I still have it. There’s something about the cosmology and the gorgeous dread that gets under your skin. When I sat down to write Red Equinox, I wanted to pay homage to that influence, but I also wanted to tell a character-driven story because that was what got me hooked on King in the first place and opened the door to the more abstract horrors of Lovecraft, Poe, and Machen.

I started with two lists: the Lovecraftian tropes I wanted to include, and a longer list of the ones I wanted to defy. I could tell right away it was either going to be a train wreck or a hell of a ride, but in any case I was going to write a book I wished I could buy: a cinematic Cthulhu Mythos thriller with character as the engine.

That meant writing about people I find interesting, people I could care about. It meant a cast you won’t find in traditional weird fiction: a female lead with Seasonal Affective Disorder who discovers monsters lurking at the edges of her infrared photography, a homeless African American occultist who wears a Burger King crown and 3D glasses, an immigrant Brazilian street artist, and an Irish American covert agent with a gambling habit. These are my heroes. In short, a ragged band of freaks that waspy old Howard Phillips would have shunned. I even named the hurricane that floods Boston after Lovecraft’s wife and gave my heroine a dog for a sidekick because HPL was a cat person.

Maybe it’s a passive aggressive love letter to Lovecraft. I wanted to thank him for the cosmic dread but not the racism. And I wanted to see if that cosmic dread could coexist with the headlong momentum of an urban thriller.

In the process I fell in love with my adopted city all over again.

The story is set in an alternate Boston, a city on a slightly different historical track from the real one. The angles are a little askew. It’s a place where the words BOSTON STRONG never made it onto T-shirts and bumper stickers because the Marathon Bombings didn’t happen, but the Church of Starry Wisdom did.

Researching the book brought me back to my old stomping grounds more often than I’d been since college and introduced me to some of the city’s weirdest features: the odd acoustics of the Christian Science Center’s Mapparium, the “Halfway to Hell” graffiti that has been repainted on the Harvard Bridge for half a century, the “non-Euclidian” geometry of the Stata Center at MIT, and the cabalistic secrets encoded in monuments built by Freemasons.

There were false starts (I trashed and rewrote the first chapter in the second draft) and backtracks (realizing I still needed a character I’d killed), but the city itself often presented solutions to the twists and turns my plot had taken without a map. At times, the journey felt strange and synchronistic, like I was on the scent of something. After all, my father-in-law is a Freemason named Howard, who lives on Phillips Ave up here in Lovecraft Country. And at the end of the journey, the Big Idea sparked by an act of terrorism turned out to be a myth about light shining against the darkness in the heart of the city I love.

—-

Red Equinox: Amazon|Kobo|Indiebound

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

The Big Idea: Greer Macallister

In some ways, writing a novel is a bit of magic — you sweep someone away to another time or place using only the power of words. When Greer Macallister was writing The Magicians Lie, about an actual, professional magician, there was another level of magic to consider — as well as some intriguing practicalities.

GREER MACALLISTER:

I write stuff of all sizes, inspired by ideas of all sizes. Some ideas are the right size for short stories, others for poems, other for plays, and so on.

One day a little over five years ago, I was hit upside the head by the Big Idea that became The Magician’s Lie. I knew from the beginning it was a Big Idea, the right size for a novel. I was inspired, actually, by an absence.

Picture a magician doing a trick. Is he pulling a rabbit out of a hat? Shuffling a deck of cards? Cutting a woman in half? Chances are it’s one of the three, and almost certainly, he is a he. We’ve seen countless references to, and images of, a male magician cutting a woman in half. But have you seen anything, ever, about a female magician cutting a man in half? I realized that I hadn’t.

And immediately I realized I wanted to write that book, about that magician.

So The Amazing Arden was born. She would be famous, and infamous, and she would perform an illusion called The Halved Man, and when it seemingly went wrong and a man’s dead body was found under the stage after a performance, she would be suspected of murder.

I knew right away who she would be – but when would she be? I had a choice to make. Would she be a present-day, modern woman, with a Vegas show and a TV special? Or did it make sense to set the story in the past, when stage magic occupied a more central place in the nation’s daily entertainment? After some research, I found I had almost complete freedom. Even today, it’s a rare thing to see a female magician cutting a man in half, and gender politics in the US are, sadly, still retrograde enough that some people would be upset by such a sight. Still, a contemporary setting just didn’t seem right. I found that one of the first famous female magicians performed the world’s most deadly illusion, The Bullet Catch, onstage in New York City in January 1897. I decided to include that real event in my novel to inspire my protagonist.

But I’d never been a historical fiction writer. I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know where to find facts, how to select them, and when necessary for the story I wanted to tell, when to ignore them. I got mired in the research, and every time I started a new scene, I’d have to stop writing to go answer basic questions. Would the protagonist, in this particular situation, be wearing a hat? Gloves? How would a person without money get from Baltimore to New York, and how long would it take? Did theaters in the late 1890s and early 1900s have gas lights or electric? What were their precautions against fire? When were sequins invented?

Over the course of five years of writing, I figured out all those things, and more. I discovered I loved writing historical fiction. There’s just something magical about whisking readers away in a compact 320-page time machine. And though I’ve never before spent so long and wept so many tears over writing a novel, I’ve also never been as proud of the ultimate result. My next Big Idea is historical too, and I wonder if all my ideas will fall into that category from here on out. Time, as it does, will tell.

There’s no telling where inspiration will come from, in the end. Any idea might be Big or Small, and you might have thousands or just a handful. Look around you, engage with the world, and let your mind work its magic. You can be inspired by anything you’ve seen – or, as I was, by something you haven’t.

—-

The Magician’s Lie: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit Greer’s website at greermacallister.com or follow her on Twitter.

 

The Big Idea: Marcus Sedgwick

You ask questions, sure. But have you asked The Question? You know, the question that’s so important it requires capital letters. In this Big Idea, Marcus Sedgwick is addressing The Question, and how it relates to his latest novel, The Gates of Heaven.

MARCUS SEDGWICK:

“What are we doing here?” A pertinent question at times, for example, when you find yourself trying to shop on 5th Avenue on Christmas Eve, when your car breaks down on the New Jersey turnpike, or when you attend a school reunion. However, even more than that, “what are we doing here?” is one of the most fundamental questions in life, one that everyone must have asked his or herself at some point. You might even argue that it’s The Question.

Very often, The Question first enters our heads during the teenage years; a time apparently calculated for no other reason than to get us worrying about the really big things in life – which we can summarise as being Love and Death. I think The Question defines two kinds of people – that is to say, there are two kinds of reaction to it. The first kind of person is so scared by it, by the potentially nihilistic chasm that yawns wide at its consideration, that he or she then determines never to think about it again, and spends the rest of their life making sure they fill their time and their mind with everything and anything, noble or mundane, to ensure that never happens. The second kind of person spends the rest of their life trying to answer it.

Writers, I guess, belong in the second category, because it’s my belief that all writing is an attempt to find an answer. If that sounds like a big and somewhat pretentious claim, well, so be it. You might argue that not all books seem to be deeply philosophical tomes, but I still argue that even a funny, flippant or feeble book is still trying to work out what it means to be human in some specific way or other, and why the Hell are we here.

So speaking of big and somewhat pretentious ideas, this new book of mine is unashamedly prodding and poking at The Question. You’ll notice I don’t claim it answers it. That’s because I think it’s the job of writers to ask questions, not to provide answers. That’s the job of philosophers, preachers and politicians, and you can take your pick of the ones you trust from that list. But given that I’ve just said that answering The Question is precisely what all writing is trying to do, I should at least give a bit more detail on the particular slant I’ve taken.

Along with love and death, one other thing foisted itself on my psyche when I was a teenager – and it might sound strange but that thing was the rather elusive image of the spiral. A few years after I became a writer (oh Lordy) I started thinking it would be good to write a novel about this image, or symbol, since I had never managed to rid myself of my obsession with it. But, it being patently absurd to write a novel about a geometric shape, it took me a good few years to find an approach to making a book that allowed me to muse upon the meaning of the spiral in the way I wanted to.

So why the spiral? What’s so special about it? Well, as the years went by, I discovered I wasn’t the only one who’s felt that this beautiful image has something very pertinent to say in reference to The Question, to who we are as a species, at what we try to do, and how we try to survive and explore. Cultures from all epochs and all parts of the world have ascribed meaning to the spiral, occasionally with evil connotations, but much more often with more noble aspirations. From primitive cave and rock art, found in countless forms throughout nature, in mathematics and the sciences, and from the smallest scale (think of DNA) up to the immense (we live in a spiral-armed galaxy), the spiral is to be found waiting patiently for us to ascribe it meaning.

So, what is so special about it? I think it’s two things. First, the spiral is simply an innately beautiful shape, but secondly, it’s innately mysterious. The spiral is a symbol of infinity – all other geometric shapes can be depicted in their entirety; the square, the triangle, the circle and so on, but you can only ever depict part of the spiral, and thus the implication of the infinite, and therefore, of the mysterious, and in that most wonderful of words, the ineffable – that which may not be known. And that’s what life ultimately is too – ineffable.

So why are we here? We can only really guess at answers, and amuse ourselves by finding the ones which satisfy us best, unless or until we cross the threshold to the infinite and are rewarded with an answer. Or with that yawning nothingness. And in the meantime, books are pretty much the best way to prod and poke at The Question, either as reader or writer. As Michael Moorcock once wrote, “I think of myself as a bad writer with big ideas, but I’d rather be that than a big writer with bad ideas.” Absolutely right. If we only get one trip around the block, I’d rather not waste too much of it on Christmas Eve shopping on 5th Avenue, or breaking down on the sixth busiest road in America. Let’s aim for the stars and in doing so, hope to find some answers that please us while we’re here.

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The Ghosts of Heaven: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: James Morrow

Welcome to 2015, and the very first Big Idea of the year. And who should we have to kick things off but James Morrow, an author who regularly thinks about the biggest ideas of all: Gods, living and dead, and the implications thereof. Is it any surprise that his latest novel, Galápagos Regainedtrains its sights on the question of the existence of God? But what may surprise you is how Morrow, through the writing of this novel, has come to think about the idea of God itself.

JAMES MORROW:

Laced with satire and leavened with a touch of fantasy, my tenth novel, Galápagos Regained, is an historical epic about the coming of the Darwinian worldview. The plot turns on an outrageous competition established in 1848 by the hypothetical Percy Bysshe Shelley Society. My fictional Great God Contest is vaguely based on the famous Longitude Prize sponsored throughout much of the eighteenth century by the British Parliament with the aim of inspiring a simple and practical method for determining a ship’s position on the open sea. (As most of you know, the purse was eventually awarded to John Harrison in 1765 for his chronometer.) My twenty Byssheans—an association of rakehells and flâneurs occupying a manse in the heart of Oxford—propose to bestow an enormous cash bounty of £10,000 on any theologian or philosopher who can prove, or disprove, the existence of God.

Galápagos Regained features as its heroine the intrepid Chloe Bathurst, a successful Victorian actress who, owing to her outspoken political views, loses her position with London’s Adelphi Theatre Company. Chloe soon finds employment as a governess at Down House, the estate of Charles Darwin, though her job is not to educate his children but to nurture the live specimens he brought back from the Galápagos Islands, the mythic “Encantadas.” (The fine print on my poetic license permits me to imagine such a menagerie.) Eventually my heroine gets wind not only of the Great God Contest but also of her employer’s nascent theory of natural “descent with modification”—an incendiary notion that he has resolved never to publish during his lifetime, lest he suffer the censure of his dear wife, his other Christian relatives, and the world at large.

Eager to settle her prodigal father’s debts and keep him out of prison—and equally eager to give a headline-grabbing performance before the Shelley Society—Chloe resolves to enter the competition and offer up Mr. Darwin’s species theory as an implicit disproof of God. Her chances of winning, she imagines, are good. Not only does Darwin himself regard “descent with modification” as a big problem for conventional theism, but as an accomplished actress she can surely make a persuasive presentation. There’s just one catch. Darwin is scandalized by the Great God Contest, and he refuses to lend Chloe the giant tortoises, exotic marine iguanas, and rare tropical birds that she wishes to parade before the judges.

Our heroine hits on an audacious scheme. With the sponsorship of the Shelley Society, she will mount her own expedition to the Galápagos archipelago, so she can collect the sorts of live, illustrative specimens whose evolutionary significance she learned about at Down House. So now the novel becomes a deuces-wild adventure yarn—a nod to Candide, a tip of the hat to Around the World in 80 Days, a wink in the direction of Indiana Jones—and remains in that mode for three hundred pages, as Chloe traverses the Atlantic on a brigantine, steams up the Amazon River on a packet boat, crosses the Andes in a flying-machine, and sails to the Encantadas aboard a replica of Noah’s ark.

As with most of my projects, even high-concept extravaganzas like Galápagos Regained, I did not fully anticipate the implications of my experimental design. But that’s nature of literary thought-experiments, isn’t it? You don’t know the results until you actually play the Gedanken game. Many surprises awaited my heroine—and her author—as she pursued her quest for the Shelley Prize.

Several months into the project, I realized that Chloe herself should not harbor a strong opinion about the God question. She’s not a philosopher, after all; she’s a survivor and a schemer, galvanized by the thrill of the hunt, the heady scent of her Creator’s blood. In conceiving Chloe this way, I believe I avoided turning Galápagos Regained into a facile allegory on the contemporary clash between the New Atheists and their detractors.

Surprise number two: I had assumed at the outset that Chloe would ultimately make her case against God before the Shelley Society back in Oxford, and that this proceeding would occur largely off-stage, the reader having already endured a surfeit of theology. But then I realized that the final showdown could—and should—occur on the archipelago itself, as Chloe is called upon to defend her two best friends against accusations of sacrilege (a capital crime on Galápagos) before a courtroom filled with indignant Mormon colonists who’ve appointed themselves judges and barristers. And what better rebuttal to the charges could Chloe devise than to demonstrate that blasphemy is an incoherent concept, its victim being nonexistent? And so the antepenultimate chapter of Galápagos Regained offers readers a demented foreshadowing of the Scopes Trial, with Chloe holding forth on the local Encantadas reptiles and birds in light of the Darwinian Tree of Life.

Final surprise: before the composition process ended, I discovered what I, James Morrow, really think about the question of the divine. No, I haven’t abandoned my atheism. But I’ve decided that, up to a point, the God concept is good to think with (after which it becomes terrible to think with, as we see demonstrated every day in the political arena). I mean, look how far Spinoza got with his eccentric pantheism. Look at how much Newton achieved by fancying himself God’s avatar. Consider the heretical rhapsodies of Dante Alighieri, John Milton, William Blake, and Shelley himself (devotee of a religiously-inflected, whacked-out Epicureanism). In other words, I’ve decided there’s an ontology of nonexistence. I’m not kidding. An ontology of nonexistence. God is a wholly human construct, but he occupies a different plane of nonexistence than do Tinker Bell and the Tooth Fairy. And it’s at this juncture, I suppose, that I part company with the New Atheists, much as I admire their project and wish confusion on their enemies. But that is another day’s discussion.

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Galápagos Regained: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (docx file). Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Shannon Page

Life takes you places you don’t always expect, and it can do it at any age. So Shannon Page found out when she and the late Jay Lake sat down to write Our Lady of the Islands. That knowledge informs the book and the people in it, as Page explains below.

SHANNON PAGE:

I’m forty-eight years old. I got married in October; I’m going to become a first-time aunt next spring. I just taught myself how to barbecue (canning will come next). I recently started acquiring and editing books for a small press. My own debut novel came out last year, and now Our Lady of the Islands has received some very nice attention from Publishers Weekly and several other reviewers. I even took up swimming a few years ago and am sometimes teased by fellow swimmers to “slow down.”

Such wonderful things! All accomplished in my late forties.

Now, I love coming-of-age books: those powerful stories where a young person overcomes adversity and figures out who they are and what they need to do in the world. But when Jay Lake and I sat down to write Our Lady of the Islands, and he began the brainstorming with “A young woman…”, I interrupted him at once.

“Jay,” I said. “We’re both over forty. Our lives are fascinating, complex, and changing all the time. We’re still interesting—and so are all our friends. Let’s write about someone who’s not sixteen. Or even twenty-six.”

To Jay’s credit, he thought that was a great idea. Thus was born Sian Kattë, a middle-aged businesswoman whose comfortable life is disrupted quite violently, leaving her to sort out…well, who she is and what she needs to do in the world. She suddenly acquires the power of healing by touch—a power she has not asked for and cannot understand, much less control.

Sian initially resists this enormous disruption—who wouldn’t?—but the world won’t leave her be. As her life falls apart around her and she becomes entangled in political and religious intrigue, she eventually realizes that she needs to let go. Answers that worked perfectly well in her twenties and thirties no longer fit her story. Sometimes, things need to break in order to be healed.

Though I wasn’t given any magical powers in the process, I faced much the same challenges back at the beginning of my forties. I had a comfortable home, a longtime marriage, a stable and safe career. And none of it was working, though I was in complete denial about it. By the time Jay and I had that initial conversation, that life had ruptured completely. I’d filed for divorce, moved to another state, and was pouring myself seriously into my writing. Jay’s path, though different in its details, was similar; he called it “taking a left-hand turn when the road goes straight.” He already knew his life might well be cut short by cancer. He didn’t want to waste any of it stuck in old paradigms.

We wrote the novel, passed the manuscript back and forth several times, sent it out to a few first readers…and then, guess what? Our lives were not through changing. Jay and I ended up parting company, and the manuscript sat, trunked, until early last year, when Jak Koke, managing editor of Per Aspera Press, asked me, “What ever happened to that book you wrote with Jay? Can I read it?” A year later, he made us an offer…contingent on some major reworking.

Deep into his final struggle with metastatic colon cancer, Jay was happy to see the book marketed, but made it clear that he would not be able to work on any revisions. So I agreed to take that on, hoping to get the book out in June, for Jay’s birthday. Unfortunately, it needed more work than that tight deadline permitted, so the publication date was pushed back.

Jay entered hospice on May 21, and died on June 1.

Though this version of the novel diverges in some ways from the draft he and I worked on, I think he would like it. His world and our characters remain; the story is still the one we set out to write. I am deeply sad that he wasn’t able to read it. This book quite literally wouldn’t exist without him. But I do hope it does honor to his memory.

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Our Lady of the Islands: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit Page’s Web site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Chad Orzel

There is a scientist inside you, just waiting to come out! No, not like the creature in Alien. This is a good thing. Chad Orzel, author and professor of physics, explains why in his new book Eureka!, and also here in this big idea post.

CHAD ORZEL:

It seems very appropriate to be writing about the new book in a feature called “The Big Idea,” because I can say without hyperbole that it’s a book about the biggest idea in the history of humanity.

OK, maybe there’s a trace of hyperbole there, but just a little. Eureka is about an idea that is radically transformative on every level from individuals to the entire human species. It’s not an Internet technology, or a particular fact, but a process:

You look at the world around you,

You think about why it might work the way it does,

You test your theory with experiments and further observations, and

You tell everyone you know the results.

This four-step process is the essential core of all of science. More than that, it’s central to just about everything we do. Science leads directly to all the technologies that have allowed a not especially threatening species of hairless plains apes to thoroughly dominate the surface of the planet (for good or ill). More than that, science is central to activities that we do just for fun.

That may seem like an odd thing to say, given the distant relationship most people have with modern science. When I tell people I’m a physicist, one of the most common responses is “You must be really smart. My brain just doesn’t work that way.” Which is flattering to my nerd vanity, but just not true—we all use the process of science every day, often in pursuit of hobbies that we wouldn’t think of as scientific. And many of the great discoveries in the history of science followed paths analogous to many of the things non-scientists do for recreation.

A good card player in a game like bridge, for example, can deduce almost exactly who has what cards from exceedingly limited information—the bids made by the other players, and the conventions of the game. Astronomers like Vera Rubin used exactly the same process to deduce the existence of vast amounts of invisible “dark matter” in the universe, five times as much of it as the matter we do see.

Someone passing time on an airplane by doing the crossword puzzle in the in-flight magazine makes use of the same process that led physicists to quantum mechanics. The idea that particles behave like waves wasn’t anybody’s first guess, but it’s the inevitable result of fitting together indirect evidence, in the same way that when all the “Down” answers fit nicely, you know the annoying pun in 6-across is also correct.

Even the simplest of hobbies, stamp collecting, has a key place in science. We remember Charles Darwin as the father of evolution not because he was the first person to write about evolution—his own grandfather was writing poetry about evolution in the 1790’s. Darwin’s scientific fame is the result of decades spent collecting facts about the natural world and studying the patterns that emerge when they’re put together. No one observation points conclusively to evolution, in the same way that no single stamp makes a collection, but the mountain of observations Darwin collected made a case that was overwhelming in 1859, and has only gotten stronger.

Eureka tells these stories, and many others. It’s broken into four sections—Looking, Thinking, Testing, and Telling—each highlighting a particular aspect of the scientific process, and connecting great scientific discoveries with ordinary hobbies that use similar processes. Whether you’re cooking, or playing sports, or just reading mystery stories, you make use of the same bag of mental tricks scientists use to probe the mysteries of the universe.

The goal of all this, as the subtitle says, is to help people recognize that we all have an inner scientist, and make use of the process of science. That realization allows a greater appreciation and understanding of scientific discoveries both new and old. More than that, though, I hope it encourages everyone to make more conscious use of their inner scientists: Look at the world. Think about why it works that way, and what you could do to make it better. Test your theory by trying things out. And if you find something that works, tell the rest of us about it, so we can all benefit.

The look-think-test-tell process of science is at the heart of every great human advance, from cave paintings, to Stonehenge, to the Large Hadron Collider. It’s the most powerful tool we have for understanding how things work, and how to change them, and used more widely it can help make the world a better place for all of us.

And that is genuinely a very Big Idea.

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Eureka!: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Watch these videos related to the book and this Big Idea piece. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Jim C. Hines

It takes a special kind of author to intentionally release a bad novel — And Jim C. Hines is that author! But he has a reason for doing it, and a way of making that bad novel — Rise of the Spider Goddess — lift itself above its station to offer what turns out to be an encouraging lesson about writing. Here’s Hines to explain.

JIM C HINES:

Let’s get one thing out in the open right now. The Prosekiller Chronicles: Rise of the Spider Goddess (An Annotated Novel) is a bad book.

I didn’t know that when I wrote it back in 1995. I thought my novelization of the adventures of Nakor the Purple!, the character I had been playing in our college D&D game for the past year or so, was freaking brilliant! At last I could write the long-awaited tale of what happened after those adventures. There was magic and swordfighting and vampires and ancient temples, and at the heart of the story was my favorite spunky elf druid with a tragic backstory, along with his friends: an angry vampire with a tragic backstory, a spunky young thief with a tragic backstory, etc.

There were also pixies, a fire-resistant owl who became a falcon later in the book because I wasn’t paying attention, and an EVIL spider goddess named Olara.

For years, I kept this book buried in the darkest, dustiest corners of my hard drive, guarded by poison needle traps and rust monsters and worse. I swore no one would ever know just how bad my first attempts at writing had been. I wanted people to think I had sprung into this world as a fully-formed professional author, a brilliant writer of flaming spiders and nose-picking jokes and so on.

That’s total goblin dung. Every author I’ve spoken to writes crap from time to time, especially in the beginning. We all have a Rise of the Spider Goddess buried away somewhere. The idea that anyone is born with an innate ability to write brilliant fiction is a myth.

The idea behind publishing this book is all about busting that myth and owning the crap. Not just owning it, but laughing about it. I’ve added more than 5000 words of commentary and snark at my younger self’s writing, from his paper-thin worldbuilding to the over-the-top Evilness of the Evil Minions of Evil to his valiant attempt to incorporate every fantasy cliché he had ever encountered.

But even as I cringe over that kid’s lousy writing, even as I poke fun at his refusal to revise or proofread, I’ve also got to respect his determination, and to acknowledge that this was a beginning. This is how writing careers get started, not with big book deals and bestseller lists, but with people sitting down to write about their favorite D&D character, because they’ve got a story to tell, and because they just plain don’t know any better.

That deserves to be celebrated and shared. And yeah, laughed about. Because how can you not laugh at lines like this?

“Sitting casually on the floor, a guard sat honing a dagger.”

Author’s note: “Sitting casually on the floor, a guard sat…” That’s freaking art right there!

For writers, I hope this book serves both as 50,000 words of what not to do, but also as recognition that we all start somewhere, and often that place isn’t very pretty.

For my fans, I figure it could be interesting to see where my career really began. You’ll see the seeds of ideas that crop up in my later work, particularly the goblin books. You also see the beginning of my voice, as well as my habit of including groin-kicks in every book I write. (Because kicking an elf in the groin is just plain funny.)

For everyone else, well, have you ever done a group reading of The Eye of Argon? Sat down for a Mystery Science Theater marathon? If so, then hopefully you’ll have fun with this one.

I want to make it clear that I’m not advising my fellow authors to run out and publish all the broken trunk stories we locked away when we were learning to write. But I think there’s a lot to be said for acknowledging those early efforts. For sharing and even celebrating those beginnings.

For a long time, I was ashamed of this book. I was ashamed of how bad a writer I was in 1995.

Screw that. Writing a bad book is nothing to be ashamed of, because dammit, I still wrote a book. Then I wrote more of them. And with each one, I got better.

Rise of the Spider Goddess is a bad book, and I’m proud of it. I hope the notes and annotations I’ve added are enough to transform it into something you can share and laugh about and celebrate with me.

—-

Rise of the Spider Goddess: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google Play|Kobo|Smashwords

Visit the author blog. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Cixin Liu

The name Cixin Liu is largely unfamiliar to English-speaking science fiction readers, but to Chinese science fiction fans, he’s a superstar of the genre, amassing the sort of award tally and name recognition — and sales! — that would be the envy of any writer in the world. Now for the first time his novel The Three-Body Problem is available in English, translated by Ken Liu, himself a multiple award winner in the genre. With the help of Ken, Liu is here now to tell you his acclaimed work, and how it cuts against the grain for Chinese science fiction.

CIXIN LIU:

As a longtime scifi fan—I’m probably among China’s first generation of scifi enthusiasts—I’ve always believed in the existence of a large number of intelligent species and civilizations in the universe. If some of these civilizations discovered each other and could communicate with each other, they would form a cosmic society of civilizations. I’ve always wondered about the form of such a cosmic society and the kinds of relationships between its members.

In Chinese science fiction, extraterrestrial civilizations were usually imagined as benevolent and wonderful. This set off the contrarian in me, and I decided to imagine a worst-case scenario.

The only reference point we have in the study of cosmic society is human society. There are many different civilizations on Earth itself, each with its own internal complexities and relating to each other in complicated ways. Politics, economics, culture …  feed into each other in an intractable knot. It’s very difficult to come to any clear conclusions about cosmic society based on this example.

But a soccer match inspired me. It was the first big-stadium match I’d ever been to: a game between the Chinese national team and UC Sampdoria of Italy at the Beijing Workers Stadium. I had just started my job back then, and all I could afford was one of the cheap nosebleed seats all the way in the last row. From that distance, the complicated technical moves the players made on the pitch were filtered away, leaving behind only a shifting matrix of 23 dots—one of the flitting dots being the soccer ball. Even the brightest star of the match, Ruud Gullit, was just another roving spot in my eyes. I regretted not bringing binoculars with me, but I also realized that the elimination of details revealed the clear mathematical structure of the game.

This is just like the stars, I realized.

Interstellar distances hid and made inaccessible the internal complexities of each civilization. In the eyes of observers like us, extraterrestrial civilizations appear as only points of light. The complicated internal structures and forces within each civilization are reduced to a limited set of variables and parameters associated with each dot. This also revealed a clear mathematical structure for cosmic society.

I came up with a set of axioms as the foundation of this approach to cosmic sociology:

  1. Survival is the primary need of civilization.
  2. Civilization continuously grows and expands, but the total matter in the universe remains constant.

Axiom number one should be self-evident, but the second half of axiom number two has not yet been proven by cosmologists. However, as a premise for a science fiction novel, I thought it was logically sound.

I also came up with three conjectures based on the facts as we know them:

First: barriers to communication. It is very difficult for civilizations to communicate with each other and to understand each other across the universe. This is due to 1) the insurmountable time delay imposed on all communications across interstellar distances (at least based on known physical laws); and 2) the vast biological differences between the two sides in any attempt at communications. On Earth, biological organisms are classified into domains, kingdoms, phyla, classes, orders, families, genera, species—the higher you go in the hierarchy, the larger the differences between taxa in the same rank. Humans cannot communicate effectively even with animals in another genus. At the cosmic level, if one takes into account the possibility of non-carbon-based life forms, the differences between them and humans may be greater even than the differences between domains on Earth.

Second: technological explosion. It took humans about a hundred thousand years to advance from stone tools to the age of agriculture, but only two hundred years to go from the steam age to the information age. Explosive advances in technology could occur at any moment in any civilization in the universe. Thus, even a primitive civilization that appears as harmless as a baby or a sprout is full of potential danger.

Third: detection reversibility. This concept is based on the Principle of Reversibility in optics. If one civilization can detect the existence of another in the universe, sooner or later, the second civilization can also detect the existence of the first.

Based on these axioms and conjectures, one can deduce a possible shape for cosmic society, and it is indeed a worst-case scenario, which sits at the foundation of my Three-Body series. The details of the deduction process is set out in the second book in the series, The Dark Forest, and as the title hints, the universe is a dark place where only one kind of relationship is possible between different worlds: as soon as one civilization has detected another, it must do all it can to destroy it. This has nothing to do with the moral conditions of the civilizations involved—as long as one accepts the two axioms, all civilizations must behave in this manner. Chinese readers dubbed this conclusion “The Dark Forest Hypothesis.”

This is also an answer for the Fermi Paradox, a very dark answer. If any civilization exposed itself in the universe, it would soon be destroyed. This is why the universe is so silent.

Of course, this is just a possibility explored in fiction. Faced with the eerie silence of the universe, right now we have no way to prove or disprove this hypothesis.

There is something to the old saw about science fiction being the literature of possibilities. It presents various possibilities for the reader, and sometimes the possibilities that exert the most attraction are also the least likely. But in this wondrous universe, anything that seems impossible also has the potential to be reality. As G.R. Burbidge once said, “If stars did not exist, it would be easy to prove that this is what we expect.”

At the very least, it would be irresponsible to not consider the worst of all possible worlds as one possibility for the reality of our universe.

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The Three-Body Problem: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit Tor.com’s collection of material on the book, including commentary and further excerpts. Translator Ken Liu’s Twitter feed is here.