The Big Idea: Steven Erikson

Call Steven Erikson a radical, a rebel or just someone who watches too much TV, but the fact is: Right now, a particular trope of fiction has him fed up. And he’s doing something about it, as he explains in this Big Idea for his latest, Rejoice, A Knife the Heart.

STEVEN ERIKSON:

I have a confession. I watch a lot of television. When it’s not sports that I’m watching, it’s dramatic series, be they mainstream or Netflix or any of a number of available networks. And I go to films. A lot. Sometimes I wonder why I bother, since my disaffection grows. What’s bothering me about all these television shows, series, and all those films? In a lot of them (okay, in most of them), at some point, somewhere, a certain expression of power shows up. I’m not talking the superhero flicks here. I’m talking about something rather subtler, so commonplace we barely notice, even though it drives plot after plot.

It’s this: men with black sunglasses and wearing suits and driving black SUVs show up. They chase down the hero, truss them up and whisk them away. Or the hero escapes a few times, only to eventually confront whatever hidden hegemony is behind all the secrecy, and it’s the black-suits all getting gunned down in the white heat of righteous rage (because, really, who wouldn’t?).

Or: a SWAT team kicks in the door and basically does the same thing. Or maybe it’s a Special Forces squad. Or how about the classic combination: SWAT team and some guy in a lab coat wearing wire-rimmed glasses who’s always last to arrive.

The point is, time and again, some hidden authority barrels into the story, and we’re off and running. Now, for entertainment purposes, sure, it’s what we’re kind of used to these days: secret cabals of government/corporation/whatever are out there messing with the lives of innocent people, and the plot often boils down to an almost Western motif: the lone individual against corrupted nodes of concentrated, above-the-law power, be that a monomaniacal rancher, robber-baron, or the Illuminati.

Well, all of that leads me to a second confession: I am having a growing problem with authority. I am not so naïve as to not understand the notion of secrecy (or even privacy if one wants to swallow the illusion that corporations are people, at least legally, and that successful competition demands the hiding away of knowledge); and I get that nations play the same game. But, you see, film and television are showing us a world, and in that world anyone who has a secret will by default erect enormous organizations devoted to keeping that secret, and that organization must, of course, not only be heavily armed, but also justified in killing to defend that secret. Until the hero arrives to tear it all down.

When I watch the eponymous scene – that SWAT team charging in, faceless and guns bristling, to tie up and whisk our hero away – a small but steely voice in my head speaks to those anonymous soldiers: “What gives you the right to do this? See how you revel in your power to terrorize someone, hiding your humanity there behind your face-shield. See how readily you take orders, even when those orders can destroy the lives of your country’s own citizens. How eager must be your salutes to that great cold-eyed spider at the heart of the web, that the sovereignty of a single person should mean so little…”

Yeah, I know: Steve, take a breath. It’s only a silly show, after all. And we watch with nary a blink of the eye. This is the modern world, after all, one where abuse of power is so common we barely take notice of it. It’s just how it is, and Hollywood is simply reflecting that reality. Yeah, I get it.

I’d been meaning to write a First Contact novel for well over a decade. I’d made researching such a novel into a hobby. I had an inkling that I didn’t want to create a novel that sat easily within the sub-genre. I wanted to dismantle a few tropes, the first one being how so many First Contact stories involve, a priori, an Earth-based authority as humanity’s first point of contact: a secret Majestik-style cabal deep inside the government, the ubiquitous Men In Black; or an astronaut settled deep into the quasi-military realm of NASA; or a scientist (collected up by men in black suits wearing black sunglasses and driving big black SUVs) acting at the behest of the People in Power, and more crucially, that ET’s willing to play along.

Instead, and I think this qualifies as a Big Idea when it comes to First Contact SF, I wanted an ET arriving that then set about doing what it does, while utterly and completely ignoring the usual list of suspects (presidents, men-in-black, scientists, the military); and to then not only ignore them, but bring them down. An end to secrecy. An end to hidden power-blocks and all the vicious games they play to stay in power. Wake up, world, to a brand-new day.

Sometimes an idea for a novel only comes alive when two entirely disparate elements suddenly come together. That synergy is the fuel every writer looks for. It launches the rocket, does all the heavy lifting, and before you know it, you’re floating in orbit, looking down on the whole shebang.

Rejoice, A Knife to the Heart is my thought-experiment, my ‘what if’ followed by ‘then what?’ Sometimes, the only way to kick back is through art. Anything else and suddenly the black SUV’s pull up outside your house and, well, you know the rest…

Rejoice, a Knife to the Heart: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Ryk E. Spoor

The thing about trilogies is that they always have that “middle chapter” — the one that has to do its own thing while serving the arc it’s in the middle of. Writing one is always a challenge, and Ryk E. Spoor is here today to tell you how he’s managed it with Demons of the Past: Revolution.

RYK E. SPOOR:

The Demons of the Past trilogy (Demons of the Past: REVELATION, REVOLUTION, and RETRIBUTION) is probably the most complex work I’ve yet written. To an extent this is because I’ve spent more time on it than anything else – the first draft, originally simply titled Psionic! was written in 1978 and I’ve updated, redrafted, and enlarged upon it for decades since. It takes place in the same writing multiverse as Paradigms Lost and the Balance Sword trilogy (Phoenix Rising, Phoenix in Shadow, and Phoenix Ascendant), and is one of the most personally important stories I’ve yet published. The trilogy is a complex game of strategy and manipulation with the only chance for the good guys to win really resting on three words sent from one person to the other – and even that only gives them a chance.

That setup occurred in the first book, Revelation (from Double Dragon Press). At the end of Revelation, the main viewpoint character, Captain Sasham Varan (formerly of the Reborn Empire) was a fugitive from his own Empire because he knew that the Prime Monitor – right hand of the Emperor – was a monster with hidden and malevolent intentions, as well as viciously hostile psionic allies hidden across the Empire. Varan’s only allies were the mysterious trader called The Eonwyl, the R’Thann scientist Sooovickalassa (often called “Vick”) whose unique process had made Varan a psionic, and astrophysicist and warrior Guvthor Hok Guvthor. Varan’s best friend Taelin Mel’Tasne – a high-placed member of the Five Families that helped guide the Empire – had received and, to his horror, understood Varan’s cryptic, three-word message “Please trust me”, leading Taelin and his brother Lukhas (high in Imperial Security) to formulate a very desperate plan indeed.

In Demons of the Past: REVOLUTION (from Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire Press), both Varan’s group and Taelin’s have to come to an understanding of what they are dealing with, and how they can do so, all while Shagrath’s manipulations bring the Reborn Empire closer to the brink of a galaxy-destroying war.

The middle of a trilogy is always the hardest. In a prior Big Idea column, I discussed how I addressed some of those issues in Phoenix in Shadow, by essentially having a storyline for one of the major characters be concluded in that book, even if the true main plot couldn’t be resolved until the third book.

But I couldn’t use that approach for Demons of the Past: REVOLUTION. Unlike the Balanced Sword trilogy, the characters in Demons of the Past are all personally caught up in what is really one huge plot, which can be divided into three books based on the type of activity in each: Revelation is about recognizing the problems that are facing the characters; Revolution is about the characters coming to an understanding of those problems, their own capabilities and relationships, and how they must move forward; Retribution is about the characters taking that understanding and turning it into action. The separate character arcs are smaller, and contained within the overarching plot, in a way that prevents the admittedly more satisfying in-book resolution seen in Phoenix in Shadow.

Mechanically, Revolution is also the book where I had to make sure that all of the key clues to the actions the characters would take in the future were properly set up. The final confrontation in the third book is dependent on Varan and his friends pulling off a very carefully coordinated strategy, and. to be fair to the readers, all the aspects of that strategy must be set up in the three books, so that the reaction at the end is “Ohhh, yeah, that makes sense” rather than “what nether regions did the author pull THAT out of?”

To an extent, that meant that Demons of the Past as a whole had to be focused on the characters more than any other book I’ve written. Varan, the Eonwyl, Taelin, Guvthor, Sooovickalassa, and even Shagrath had to be not merely clearly different, but clearly defined in a way that would allow the readers to say “oh. That’s right, of course this character would have to act that way”, because the characters’ behavior, beliefs, and personalities ultimately determine the success or failure of the major action in the trilogy.

In a way, knowing the core purpose of the middle book, and the personalities involved, simplified the writing. I knew Varan’s group had to discover the nature of Shagrath’s allies the Kaital (the name they eventually learn), Shagrath’s true origin and name, and enough details about both to provide a foundation for defeating them. I also knew the characters themselves had to learn more about each other, and that key elements in that area were the Eonwyl’s secret past, the true history of the Thovians (Guvthor’s people) and of the R’Thann (Vick’s species), and Varan being threatened by a weakness (a phobia of Zchoradans and related species) that had been established early in the first book. In addition, we had to learn something about Taelin’s actions and plans, and about Shagrath’s true intentions, capabilities, and resources – and the latter should be terrifying indeed, or there’s not much tension to drive the book.

None of this, of course, offered the same type of closure as the ending of Phoenix in Shadow. There were some high dramatic points the book could end on, but all of them amounted to some form or another of cliffhanger. On occasion, I’ve referred to Demons of the Past as being “Star Wars, if Luke had gone on to the Academy and only learned how rotten the Empire was when he’d been in service for twenty years”. Revolution, then, is the Empire Strikes Back of the trilogy. It has to end with the characters in it deep, no matter what they’ve learned. It has to tell us what the magnitude and nature of the opposition is. And it has to leave the characters in a situation where they will be forced to act decisively.

Ultimately, the latter drove the decision. The title of the book – Revolution – refers to the fact that Varan must accept that to save even a part of the Reborn Empire he will have to place himself against what it has become, and be himself a revolutionary, willing to bring down the star nation that he loves and that was his home and source of pride. This brings him full-circle back to his very first adversaries – the Zchoradan Meld, the only other star nation that can begin to rival the Reborn Empire. Varan must face his phobia and his own patriotism and overcome both to plead for the aid of his own people’s long-time enemies.

That is, in many ways, the high (or low) point of the book, the understanding and acceptance of Varan of the course he must take, regardless of the personal cost. He must accept the consequences of his past confrontations with the Zchorada, and the propaganda that Shagrath has created to make Varan out to be a true monster, in order to convince his former enemies that they have – that they must have – a common cause.

And that must end in doubt, not certainty.

Taelin’s course, too, must be moved forward, and it struck me that it would be symmetry that he would do as Varan did, sending him a hidden message, but where Varan’s had been a message of subtle terror, Taelin’s would be one of hope – that also showed how fragile the hope could be.

In the end, I think I succeeded as well as I might have; the course for our heroes is clear, if fraught with perils of many sorts, and the dénouement of the entire trilogy is (mostly) set up, in its elements at least. I hope readers will agree, and follow Varan through to the final volume (coming next year), Demons of the Past: RETRIBUTION.

—-

Demons of the Past: Revolution: Amazon|Ring of Fire Press

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

 

The Big Idea: Jennifer Estep

Football, cooking smells and names — how do they all come together to be inspirations for an epic fantasy novel? Jennifer Estep knows how, and today she’s here to tell you how they combined for Kill the Queen.

JENNIFER ESTEP:

I tried to write epic fantasy for years—years!

In fact, the very first (unpublished) book I ever wrote way back in college was an epic fantasy. But even though I wrote a couple of them when I was first starting out, the genre just never quite clicked for me. So I moved on and started focusing on urban fantasy, along with young adult fantasy. But in the back of my mind, I promised myself that I would try my hand at adult epic fantasy again someday. As much as I loved reading works by David Eddings, Terry Brooks, and J.R.R. Tolkien, I wanted to write my own books and tell the stories that I wanted to tell.

Now, thirty-some odd books later, my first published epic fantasy, Kill the Queen, is out. I’ve been pitching the book as Gladiator meets Game of Thrones with a kick-butt heroine. It’s a good description, but it’s not the “big” idea behind my book.

Truth be told, I don’t think there was just one “big” idea that inspired my book. No, to me, Kill the Queen is several “little”, disparate ideas that morphed into one story.

The first “little” idea that helped inspire the book was football. I love football, especially the NFL games. I participate in a couple of fantasy leagues, and my friends and I used to get together on Sunday afternoons to watch football and hold MeatFest—a cookout that featured inordinate amounts of meat, especially bacon.

About two years ago, I was watching a football game and listening to the announcers’ hyperbole about how the players were “weekend warriors” and “gladiators of the gridiron”. I had been thinking about trying to write an epic fantasy again, and I was searching for an idea. For some reason, the word “gladiators” resonated with me, and several “what-if” questions popped into my mind. What if I created a fantasy world where people cheered on gladiators/troupes the way they do football players/teams in our world? What if my heroine was forced to become a gladiator in order to survive? What if her gladiator training helped save her kingdom?

With those “what-if” questions swirling around in my mind, I came upon a second “little” idea—my family. My grandfather had several brothers and sisters, and as a result, I have dozens of cousins. Some of my favorite childhood memories are of our summer family reunions when we would all get together to eat, play games, and just hang out and catch up. What if my heroine, Evie, was part of a royal family and all her cousins were slaughtered during a massacre/coup? That would be a great way to start my book, as well as provide a lot of motivation for Evie to get revenge on the people responsible for the massacre.

One of the things I have a love/hate relationship with in epic fantasy is that you, as the writer, have to name every single thing in the book. The magic users, castles, kingdoms, rivers, cities, plants, animals. They all need names. After many false starts and stops, I finally decided to use Roman mythology (along with Norse mythology) as the basis for some of my names.

Why was this my third “little” idea? Well, I’ve always loved mythology, and I like to use names with meanings that tie in to my characters’ personalities, surroundings, and more. For example, in Kill the Queen, Bellona, my main gladiator kingdom, is named after a Roman war goddess. Plus, since I was writing about gladiators, using Roman mythology seemed like a good way to add another layer of subtle depth to my overall world building.

Sometimes, my “little” ideas are things that percolate in the back of my mind for a long, long time. Several years ago, I read an article talking about how the sense of smell is the least used sensory descriptor in books. As writers, we almost always describe what our characters see and hear, but we don’t necessarily talk about what they smell all that often. Oh, I thought when I read the article, it would be a fun writing challenge to include more smells in a book someday. Well, that someday finally arrived.

One of the first things I do when I start writing is think about my heroine’s magic/powers. For Kill the Queen, I wanted Evie to have a couple of different powers, including one that most people would think was a weak, useless ability, so I decided to give her an enhanced sense of smell. Most people scoff at Evie’s ability, but she can actually smell people’s emotions, which comes in handy. Plus, having a character with an enhanced sense of smell was something I haven’t done before, and it also played to one of my strengths as a writer. (More on that below.)

The fifth—and perhaps most important—“little” idea that helped shape Kill the Queen was my own writing strengths. Over the years, as I’ve written various books and stories, I’ve identified some of the things that I enjoy writing—action/fight scenes, strong heroines, and food talk. Whenever I’m contemplating writing something new, I often think about what characters, settings, and plots will really let me bring out my writing strengths. That’s what I did for Kill the Queen, and I think this is one of the things that finally helped me get over the hurdle of writing epic fantasy. Penning a gladiator-themed book let me incorporate several action/fight scenes, and Evie becomes both physically and mentally stronger as she progresses through her training. Plus, Evie works in the gladiators’ kitchen, and people’s emotions often smell like food to her—garlic guilt, cinnamon curiosity, and more.

A book doesn’t necessarily have to be one “big” idea. Sometimes, one or two or five (or more!) “little” ideas can all come together to create one story.

Happy writing and reading, everyone!

—-

Kill the Queen: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Amy S. Foster

Why do writers write books? One reason is to figure out who our characters are, and who they need to become to be fully realized. Amy S. Foster explains the journey one of her characters makes, across a trilogy of books that ends with The Rift Coda.

AMY S. FOSTER:

Almost three years ago I wrote a post about the Big Idea I had for the first book in my series. My Big Idea was to create characters who sounded and acted like actual teenagers even though they were Super Soldiers guarding a doorway to the multiverse. It was a Big Idea, but it was not the Big Idea that would end up dominating the landscape of these novels.

I couldn’t have known when I created Ryn- a female, a girl warrior that I would run up against so much institutionalized sexism that in the beginning, I wasn’t even aware it was happening. But it did and it still is.

It was little things at first. ‘Why does Ryn care about boys?’ ‘Good story, but is she doing all of this to have sex?’ ‘Ryn is far too preoccupied with her love life. She’s a soldier.’ I was confused. Did I put too much romance in my novels? I mean sure, Ryn likes a boy but, that boy was always written as a device. He was an outsider. The voice of reason. He came into the situation and said ‘uhhh Great Big Super Important scientific discovery and teenagers are policing it? Really?’

The story started out with Ryn figuring out who was in control and why the people in charge were not only making teenagers into deadly killing machines but also interning immigrants from other Earths inside a village that while nice enough, was still a prison.

Soon enough I realized that Ryn’s journey was about much more than teens recognizing themselves in Ryn’s dialogue. I wanted teenage girls to recognize themselves in Ryn, period. But they weren’t and why would they?

Society tells us that women must choose between love and power. Girls aren’t supposed to be gun toting, hand to hand combat bosses, tactical genius’ AND be into boys (or other girls). Or their hair. Or clothes or make up or their feelings. How would a girl pick up the Rift Trilogy and be able to project herself into the role of Ryn if she has never seen a girl in real life be a fully realized female warrior? I’m not being extra about my feminism here. It was only this year, this month, that the first female candidates were able to be up for selection as a Navy Seal. And it’s not like the response has been positive. People are pissed. Pundits are complaining about standards slipping.

As I began to craft the final installment of the trilogy, the real Big Idea came to me. I need to help the world redefine what the female warrior archetype is. No, she is not a guy with boobs. She is a woman and she can lean into those singular attributes to make her a better warrior. Empathy, active listening, communication, admitting vulnerability- these skill sets will guarantee she is a superior soldier. They will also help establish that she is not a monster (I’m looking at you Joss Whedon/Black Widow) and therefore doesn’t have to be Asexual (Wonder Woman, you are hot, but I think we could have all used a little more time in that room with Chris Pine). Speaking of that- why is Diana the only child of the Amazons? Oh right, they are warriors- they can’t be mothers too (except why not though? Themyscara seems a fairly idyllic spot for raising a kid and they are incredibly maternal).

You see were I’m going with this. We don’t have a vast cadre of female warriors to choose from but the ones we do have are either virginal or non committal. They can have sex but not think about having a family. They can be creators but not destroyers. And so I had to make sure that Ryn embraced these parts of herself that she had been told by society made her weak. She had to learn to lead not from a hierarchal vantage, but from a more feminine non-linear one. She had to be okay with saying, what should I do here? And not worry about being perceived as incapable. Finally, she had to come to terms with the fact that she had feelings and those feelings weren’t getting in the way of her job and that in fact, they would make her better at it.

The more I speak about this at comic cons and write about it and do interviews, the more traction I get. I can see the change happening. Last week I got an email from a young girl who said she loved the book and was thinking about enlisting. She had never considered being a soldier before because she thought she was too emotional. She wrote that Ryn helped her understand that her empathy could actually do some good in the world.

If that’s not a Big Idea, I don’t know what is.

—-

The Rift Coda: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: D.B. Jackson

Think time travel is disorienting for the characters who use it? Think about the poor author who has to plot it! D.B. Jackson knows, and explains all the nitty-gritty details about it in this Big idea for Time’s Children.

D.B. JACKSON:

Anyone who has written a time travel novel knows that they can send an author ‘round the bend. Time travel is a plotting nightmare. It creates narrative holes big enough to accommodate a truck. It acts as a virtual eraser, a do-over generator, a distributor of endless mulligans. Even the most sound, well-considered plot point can be undermined by the simple question, “Well, why can’t one of our characters go back and prevent this?” Hermione Granger’s ill-advised flirtation with Time-Turners is just the tip of the iceberg. Time travel will make an author’s brain explode.

So, naturally, I have just published the first novel in a new time travel/epic fantasy series.

In Time’s Children, volume one in my Islevale Cycle, Tobias Doljan, a fifteen-year-old time traveler – or Walker in the parlance of my created world – is sent back fourteen years to prevent a catastrophic war. Upon arriving in the past, however, he barely escapes an assassination plot that claims the lives of his sovereign, the royal court, and all of the royal family except the sovereign’s infant daughter, the princess Sofya. Tobias, with the help of his friend and love, Mara, who follows him back through time, must protect Sofya from the assassins, reestablish the royal line, and correct the dark, spiraling misfuture that his journey through time has unleashed. The book is fraught, but it’s also fun. It has action and suspense, assassins and demons, and lots of different kinds of magic. Because the time travel wasn’t complicated enough.

Those of us who write fantasy and science fiction often build into our magic or tech systems costs and limitations that limit their reach. Otherwise we risk allowing these world building devices to take over our stories. This is how I sought to keep time travel from robbing my book of all its narrative tension.

Time Walkers are rare in my world – I don’t have lots of them running around Islevale, undoing one another’s efforts. They cannot Walk without magically “Bound” devices called chronofors, which are also rare, not to mention dear. Walkers can go into the past, and then return to their original time, but they can’t explore the future. As they journey through time, Walkers must endure the “between” a harrowing, airless expanse that lengthens the farther back one travels. Walkers can only carry their chronofors when they journey – no weapons, no tools, no money, no clothing. If a Walker meets herself in the past, she might go insane.

Finally, and most significantly, for every year Walkers go back, they age that much. If a Walker is twenty, and goes back one year, she arrives as a twenty-one-year-old. And after she returns to her time, she is twenty-two. So, yes, my brief plot synopsis omitted a key detail: Tobias and Mara begin as fifteen-year-olds. When they arrive in the past, they are twenty-nine-year-olds, though their emotions and intellects remain the same. They are, essentially, children in the bodies of adults. If they make it back to their own time, they will be forty-three.

And that could easily be the big idea of the book. Adding that cost to my magic system creates tremendous narrative tension, drives a good deal of my plotting, and powers my key character arcs. Certainly, it informs elements of what I think of as the crucial themes of my book. But the central premise – the emotional core – of Time’s Children is somewhat more nuanced.

Allow me to backtrack for a moment. Early on, when I was still building my world and conceptualizing the novel, I struggled with my plotting. I usually outline novels, and this one was giving me fits. I had a conversation with a friend, and mentioned the problems I was having, and she asked me a simple question (I’m paraphrasing a bit). “What matters to you most? Not about the book, but about your life, your world. What are you most passionate about? Because,” she said, “that’s what you should be writing about.”

It took me all of two seconds to come up with an answer to her question: family. My wife and my daughters, and the love and laughter we share, mean more to me than anything. As soon as I realized this, I knew what Time’s Children and the entire Islevale Cycle are about.

It’s not just that Tobias and Mara have given up so many years of their lives, and it’s not just that they find themselves trapped in a broken past, their bodies and minds seemingly out of sync. What matters is their response to this singular circumstance. Their future is lost to them, at least for now. Sofya is dependent on them for food, for shelter, for love, for her very existence. And Tobias, before Mara finds him, is overwhelmed by the responsibility foisted upon him. I’m a parent, and I remember that feeling. I remember holding my older daughter the day she was born, and feeling both this unbelievable wave of love, and this panicked sense that I was barely more than a kid myself (even though I wasn’t that young when she was born). How on earth was I supposed to be a father?

What I soon realized was, I had a partner in this. Nancy and I had been a couple, but now we were a family, and together we would get through whatever we had to.

That’s what Tobias and Mara find. The only way they can cope with all that has gone to hell since Tobias Walked back in time, is to create a family out of ruin. In their case, the “family” begins as a deception, a way to conceal Sofya’s identity and spirit her to safety. But as this book ends, and the series goes on, their family coheres into something more powerful and more real. It continues to be a façade, but it also informs their relationships. Out of tragedy and danger and loss, they create a refuge built on love and loyalty and devotion not just to one another, but to the greater unit they have formed.

This sounds heavy, I know. Again, these really are fun books. But at root, they are about creating and relying on family under the most trying of circumstances. And that’s the big idea.

—-

Time’s Children: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Julie E. Czerneda

Today in The Big Idea, Julie E. Czerneda tackles the subjects of time, memory, intelligence, friendship.. and slime. They all have a role in her novel, Search Image

JULIE E. CZERNEDA:

Twenty years ago, when my host, John Scalzi, started this amazing blog of his, my second novel was published by DAW Books. It concerned a character who was, well, a blob of well-intentioned blue goo, liable to explode under stress. Beholder’s Eye. What these things had in common? Two authors, each going where they hadn’t before, both to discover it was the best direction of all. 

I didn’t set out to write Esen-alit-Quar, Esen for short, Es in a hurry or between dear friends. I set out to study the evolution of animal communication, starting with chemical signals and their role in the reproductive behaviour of fathead minnows (Pimephales promelas). Though perhaps they were a sign of what was to enter my life. After all, fathead minnows develop a mucous-secreting pad on their heads, used to rub clean a spot under a rock suitable for eggs to be laid. There they’ll wait, hoping a female approves their choice.

Slime, and its function, thus mattered early to me.

I also, as a humble grad student, had the privilege assisting my prof with his animal behaviour classes. There was the expected amount of cage scrubbing, the unexpected need to capture pigeons (at -40C) from the rooftop, and, of course, the discovery hamsters lustfully slime the sides of their enclosures, requiring more scrubbing.

A trend might have started.

Not that I noticed. By day, I was thoroughly busy with biology. By night, when I’d moments, I played with ideas. A Thousand Words for Stranger and the Clan Chronicles series came from those fathead minnows and the evolution of secondary sexual characteristics. (Really. Ask me some time.)

Esen? She came from that behaviour class. I’d taught the difference between r and k strategists: the former living short lives with many offspring, the latter few offspring with longer lives. That idea I had? I designed a species to be the ultimate k strategist. To live the longest possible life, reproducing rarely if at all.

I jotted notes. Doodled. How to do this? What if a living thing had control of its structure at the molecular level, harnessing energy to dispense with aging cellular components? Interesting. My something would need the ability to store and recall—with absolute accuracy—itself, leading me to extrapolate a biochemical memory. (This was thirty years ago, so I’m delighted by recent discoveries in that field.) Where might you find such beings evolving? Where energy was widely dispersed, but available if you had the time to travel far enough. Ergo, space. They’d be very few, and reproduce, reluctantly, by fission not sex. I fine-tuned the notions, noting almost in passing my creations didn’t have to have any one shape.

Because they could have any that they “remembered.”

All of which was fun, but hardly a story. Fine, then. What would my semi-immortal (for I wasn’t creating gods, but organic life) creatures do with their vast life span?

There’s something you need to know about me. When I was playing with these ideas, it was a time (the late 70s, need I say more?) of innumerable science fiction plots about how awful immortality would be. Star Trek, for example. Movies, TV shows, and books galore.

I didn’t buy it.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d sob appropriately over, say, a vampire’s broken heart as a beloved aged and died. But beyond that? I’ve never accepted the “inevitable boredom” premise. It’s not in me. I’m not bored. I don’t get bored.

I get curious.

Thus, so would my beings. And what in the universe would fuel their curiosity? All of us. Beings whose lives were mere flickers of comparative time. Whose continuity came not from shared memory, but new life. Who saw death coming and created art and civilization in response.

My ideas were grew positively yummy. My beings would be archivists, of a sort. They’d collect information about “ephemerals” as they’d call us. Store and share it, not as objects, but as biochemical memory. Who’d collect genetic information to transform themselves into the species they observed, the better to learn every aspect. There’d be, oh, five in total, four budded from an original parent who’d be the Senior Assimilator, able to pick and choose what to share with the rest.

You’ll notice I still didn’t have a story.

Ah, but then I thought: what would bring disruption and chaos to a secret group of ancient beings, full of knowledge of living and extinct intelligences?

The unintended, unplanned arrival of number six. Esen.

***

Here are the first words of Esen I ever wrote.

“We would be together as long as he lived.

“And after that, I would remember Paul Ragem, my first friend, until the hearts of stars grew cold.”

I wrote her first book knowing this was how it ended. Otherwise I’d no outline or plan, only to set Esen in motion and see what happened along the way. No, that’s not entirely true. I’d two intentions by this point. One, to use Esen’s unique perspective to have as much fun as possible with real biology, the odder the better—and slime was a major goal, trust me.

Two, as you may have guessed, was to have a story about friendship.

Another thing you should know about me. I believe our deepest, most meaningful relationships are those between friends. The people we’d do anything for, who’d do anything for us. Who require no payment, no promise for their actions. Who call after a decade, and you pick up where you left off without pause. (Yes, family can be friends, but not always. Partners too. Mine is.)

I distrust stories that diminish normal, ordinary friendship. You know the ones I mean: where friends are introduced only to be sacrificed to motivate the main character to do whatever they must. I dislike stories where any friendship worth having must lead to “benefits.” Again, don’t get me wrong, I love a good romance. I just don’t want the only relationship that’s significant, that moves the story, to be the happy couple’s. We’ve far more friends than lovers. (I’m going to assume anyone for whom this isn’t true hasn’t time to read this blog. Good luck with that.)

All of which brought me Esen. I wanted a science fiction story, to please myself for only I (I thought) would ever read it, about friendship. How it grows. What it looks like. Feels like. How better than have a lonely Human try to explain it to the most alien bit of blue blob imaginable?

How better than have her try—no matter how hard–to understand what none of her kind have before?

Not that writing Esen, and her friend Paul, was difficult. In fact, I found writing her irresistible. The problems they face, and she attempts to resolve, are biological. Different sense organs. Different life cycles. Aliens who physically can’t make the leap to mutual understanding without a bit of help from someone who can. Mostly. For the other idea I’d had from the start? When Esen assumes another form, she’s still herself. A unique individual of that species, and no other. It lets me create wonderful complications for her to solve. You see, Esen means well, but she’s not always graceful or wise. Being Youngest. Writing her earnest efforts makes me laugh. More importantly they gave me the courage, as a writer, to put into words what I find silly or touching or utterly vital.

***

Picking up the story of Esen and Paul after writing a dozen very different books was as easy for me as breathing, and as wonderful as discovering a path down to a new river on a crisp sunny spring morning. You see, I’ve never stopped collecting weird, real, biology to inflict upon her. I’ve never lost my joy at portraying her wide-eyed curiosity about everything alive, because I share it.

And I’ve never lost sight of the importance of friendship. Into the future we go!

—-

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The Big Idea: J. Lincoln Fenn

Living on an island means a different way of thinking about life — and death. J. Lincoln Fenn explains why, and how it made a difference for her latest novel, The Nightmarchers.

J. LINCOLN FENN:

I was driving the long, flat road from Kihei to Kahului, sugarcane fields and the distant rainforest mountains of Iao Valley to my left, listening to the public radio station and a fascinating discussion about the word ‘kanu’, which means two things in Hawaiian, ‘to bury’ (as in burying a corpse) and ‘to plant.’ When a family member was buried the spirit didn’t rise to a heaven or hell, eternally severed from the living, but remained on the island, inexorably linked to their descendants. The land and the ancestors were intertwined.

It makes sense because in many ways an island is a world unto itself. Resources are finite, and choices have consequences that can’t be mitigated. Be rude to someone at the pharmacy counter and rest assured you’ll run into their cousin at a PTA meeting. All the trash and garbage produced doesn’t go to some ‘out of sight, out of mind’ landfill—it’s a visible, ever-growing mound that everyone has to drive by. Set the sugarcane fields on fire to harvest the syrup, and ash called black snow falls on rich and poor alike. Things that can’t be changed must be accepted. “It is what it is.” Why would death be any different?

I thought about how different that is from the Western American idea of frontiers, and constant reinvention, the secrets that can be buried, the bloody conquests reframed as destiny. The idea that what we do here on Earth is ultimately irrelevant because we’re assured we’re the chosen people, with an eternal, separate paradise waiting in the sky. So not only do we think that we can dominate everything with impunity—from other cultures to genomes—we think it will have no real effect on our present, and future. We believe we can be severed from consequences and don’t have to acknowledge them.

This is our collective delusion.

Because the truth is, as one of my characters in The Nightmarchers says, “The things we bury have a way of digging their way out. They creep and clutch and bloom in our dark, shadowy places.”

We’re seeing those blooms everywhere. From institutionalized racism born of slavery, to the Western wildfires that cast smoke across the entire United States, to the gross machinations behind the Hollywood dream machine, all the things we tried to bury—mass genocide, toxins, sexism, racism and all the other ‘isms’—are growing, twisting, and cracking the foundational values of our culture.

We could very well be in for a grim harvest, at least in the short term.

But even as a horror writer I have to acknowledge another human propensity, which is our ability, in the face of great adversity, to drop ideologies and divisions with as little thought as a snake who sheds its skin. To exist in peace.

Not that it’s easy. Hawaii is one of the most culturally layered places I’ve ever lived, with a visceral pain born out of colonization, World War II, Japanese internment camps and a near continuous flow of immigration. Anger and clashes happen. But at the end of the day, if your car breaks down on the road, people will stop and help you push it out of the traffic. You’ll be an “Auntie” to children whether or not you’re related (or even know each other). One of the most poignant moments of my time there was going to an event about the struggle to reinstate Hawaii as a kingdom. It was standing room only—not many white people in attendance—and a Hawaiian teenager offered me his seat.

When I feel despair, I think of him.

And while the discussion about ‘kanu’ on the radio might have seemed like a small seed, it bloomed into this essay, and a novel that questions our fight to dominate a world that could be, if we only got out of the way, a real paradise, here and now. Whether we’re able to recognize our interconnectedness is irrelevant to the fact that we are. The world is an island, and nothing disappears into a void. Everything we bury grows, and all our ghosts linger, quietly watching.

—-

The Nightmarchers: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBooks|Kobo

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The Big Idea: Marshall Ryan Maresca

Are the old, and even quaint, ways the best? Marshall Ryan Maresca has thoughts on this, and how they affected the creation and development of The Way of the Shield.

MARSHALL RYAN MARESCA:

Somewhere archived away in a box in my house, there’s a piece of paper with scribbled notes that I wrote in 2007:

FOUR SERIES

  • Magic Student/Street Thief
  • Fantasy Detectives — Magic crimes
  • Two brothers – thieves — HEISTS
  • Pacifist Warrior— Ancient order

And there it was—an idea: that I could bring together these characters, who could each tell their individual stories, but could also tell a larger story through the weaved threads of each narrative.

At the time, I hadn’t even written one novel— let alone four interconnected series—but the underlying ideas got their hooks into me too hard for me to ignore.  I had to do this, no matter how daunting and wild the idea was. So I dug in, radically reorganized my life, and got serious about the work of novel writing.  Over several years, those bullet points evolved into, respectively, The Thorn of Dentonhill, A Murder of Mages, The Holver Alley Crew and, now, finally, The Way of the Shield.

The process of developing these books created a paradox.  In writing Thorn, Murder and Holler Alley, I had created a world with a city constabulary, bustling infrastructure, elected Parliament and city council, standing military, and in the midst of social progress.  An ancient order of warriors with shields and swords seemed almost quaint.

Then I realized: that was the point.  It is quaint and outdated.  Here’s the Tarian Order, an organization with a deep and rich history in the culture, but with no formal authority or mandate. There were other Orders, but most of them were either disbanded or folded into modern organizations.  The only reasons the Tarian Order remains are tradition and inertia.  Most people only join as a path to improve their station.  But Dayne, my pacifist warrior, is a true believer.

Dayne is steeped in the history, enamored of the Order, and there is nothing he wants more than to devote his life to it.  Not to use the Order as a political stepping stone, and not just for mastering the physical discipline of the combat arts.  Dayne truly thinks saving every single life is the most important calling he can follow.  He wants to be the proud figure, standing tall with a shield, protecting the people and placing himself between them and harm.

But this changing world of modern politics rears its head again.  Dayne learns that he will not be promoted to full membership in the Order.  The Parliament holds the purse strings, and the Parliament gets final approval over the appointments.  Dayne failed to save the nephew of a powerful member of Parliament, and that member is making Dayne pay for his mistakes.

Dayne is left adrift: he has the talent, he has the passion, but he’s got no sense of what his future is going to be if he’s not able to be a part of this thing that he’s devoted his life to.  What is he going to do now, if he can’t be a Tarian?

Let me jump back to 2007, and that phrase I glided over a few paragraphs back: I radically reorganized my life.  That was a crucial moment for me to reach this point.  In 2007 I was working a job I hated. Hated.  It gnawed at my soul, and everything about my life was degrading because of it. Finally, I said to myself, “You’re 34 years old, and what are you doing with yourself?  Working this terrible job for terrible people, and hating everything.  You keep saying you want to write books, but are you?  No, you aren’t, and you need to.”

So I quit that job.  Which, let’s be real, probably wasn’t the best plan for a thirty-something husband and father with a mortgage, but it’s what I had to do.  Fortunately, my wife understood what was going on, and we came up with a new plan for our lives so we could continue on and I could also write.

Because had this idea—this mad, wild idea, at that point just a series of handwritten bullet points —and I knew I had to make it real.  I had to fight with everything I had to make it happen.  At the time, a lot of people called it impossible, said I wouldn’t be able to do it. No one was going to let me do it.

But yet, here we are, pushed forward with will and drive.  Four interconnected series in one grand, sprawling fantastical city.  With The Way of the Shield, the fourth piece clicks into place.

That’s the spirit I infused into Dayne: he has talent, he has passion, and when he’s told what he wants is impossible, he’s going to do it anyway.

—-

The Way of the Shield: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Charlie Jane Anders

Comedy! The Internet! Incipient fascism! Charlie Jane Anders has got it all in her latest, Rock Manning Goes For Broke. She’s here to explain it. There are footnotes!

CHARLIE JANE ANDERS:

What happens when Comedy goes TOO FAR (and then just keeps going)?

Supposedly some famous dude said on his death bed, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”* Nobody seems to agree on who actually said this, and whether anyone actually ever said those exact words. But in any case, this is a crock of shit. I’d way rather write comedy than be dead, and I think dying will probably be pretty fricking difficult. I fully expect that after I finish dying, I’ll have no energy left for anything else.

And I know you’re not supposed to admit this, but comedy has always come kind of easy to me. I love coming up with the most ridiculous thing that can happen in any situation, and the silliest thing someone can say or do. I grew up reading Henry Fielding and Douglas Adams and PG Wodehouse, but also watching everything from the Keystone Kops films to reruns of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. I love the moment when everything just spins out of control and vehicles are sailing off cliffs and people are throwing mashed potatoes in each other’s faces and the world is just spiraling into chaos.

Partly, I feel like those demented moments of out-of-control physical comedy are when we come closest to glimpsing the true nature of reality. In real life, everything is chaos**, nothing is ever really under control, and we’re all one banana peel away from hilarious disaster. And partly, those moments are just really, really fun to write.

So back when I started writing Rock Manning Goes For Broke, I was obsessed with physical comedy in particular, and just seeing how far I could take it on paper. And here’s what I found out: the more you take physical comedy to its furthest extreme, the more you start blurring the lines between “hilarious” and “terrifying.” Because when slapstick hijinks go really to enough of an extreme, they start to look more and more like regular violence and mayhem.

This wasn’t really that much of a surprise, to be honest. There’s a reason why Jackie Chan breaks several irreplaceable bones in every other movie he makes. And anyone who’s ever dipped into “splatstick” or the burgeoning genre of horror-comedy knows that slippery gory monstrosities can easily cross over into being hilarious. (See Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, Brian Yuzna’s Society, or dozens of other bizarro funny horror films.)

The main character of my novella, Rock Manning, is an aspiring comedy performer who wants to follow in the stumbling footsteps of Chan, along with Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, the Three Stooges, Charlie Chaplin, that dude from The Tall Blonde Man With One Brown Shoe, and countless others. And luckily, Rock’s best friend Sally Hamster has a video camera, an eye for great set pieces, and an almost limited reservoir of sadism. Soon, they become Famous On The Internet—just as society is crumbling and the United States is teetering on the brink of a fascist takeover.

A lot of the energy in Rock Manning Goes For Broke comes from the increasingly bizarre and high concept films that Rock and Sally are creating and posting online. Including things that honestly ought to be their own genres, like “Vacuum Cleaner Salesman vs. Roman Gladiator,” or “making an ice cream sundae on top of a hearse going 90 miles per hour.” These kids view danger and narrative consistency with equal measures of steely disdain.

But also, I got a lot of juice, storytelling-wise, from the collision between off-the-chain physical comedy and the brutality of incipient fascism. Rock and Sally’s high-school classmate, Ricky Artesian, becomes part of a brand new “militia” called the Red Bandanas, who aim to “clean up” America with a mixture of fearmongering, manipulation and extreme violence—and they want Rock to star in some propaganda films promoting their movement.

I know I started this essay by saying that comedy is way easier than that dying guy thought***, but the ugly flowering of fascism is surprisingly hard to make light of. Everyone from Chaplin (in The Great Dicatator) to Mel Brooks (in The Producers) to the makers of Hogan’s Heroes has lampooned the Nazis, but they’re still terrifying and abhorrent monsters. All the things that make a pie fight**** hilarious are also what make a swarm of real-life brownshirts pants-wettingly scary: the chaos, the indignity, the loss of control.

But when comedy goes Too Far, it not only gets closer to being a warped version of our worst night terrors—it also lets us start to ask questions about our propensity for organized violence. And that moment when the mayhem stops being funny and turns ghastly is a good preparation for the real-life moments when we witness atrocities right in our backyard, and it’s on us to do something to stop them.

 

* This whole fetish for saying pithy things on your deathbed always perplexes me. Why would you want to waste a clever line on a moment when nobody can possibly appreciate it? Plus to be honest, my last words are probably going to be something along the lines of “ow, this fucking hurts, you fuckers,” or possibly, “I want a discount on my hospital bill because these goddamn peas were still frozen on the inside. Let me speak to a manager. Yes, I will hold.”

** The difference between fictional chaos and real-life chaos is that you can at least sometimes enjoy fictional chaos, because it’s a lot harder to giggle with abandon when actual reality is getting torn to bits by flying doll-heads and exploding chickens and stuff. Actually living through a huge screaming mess is surprisingly not that much fun at all.

*** I feel very comfortable picking on that guy, because he’s dead, and also he could be any one of a number of dead guys, none of whom know where I live.

**** I actually organized a Ballerina Pie Fight in real life. Ask me about it sometime.

—-

Rock Manning Goes For Broke: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Subterranean Press

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The Big Idea: Ashley and Leslie Saunders

They say write what you know, and thus twins Ashley and Leslie Saunders and have written The Rule of One, a novel about twins. But there’s so much more to writing than writing what you know. Here’s how the Saunders imagined in stereo.

ASHLEY AND LESLIE SAUNDERS:

What would make a country like the United States adopt a one-child policy?

That’s the central question we asked ourselves when we started brainstorming The Rule of One. We knew we wanted to tell a story about twin sisters and we wanted it to be an adventure with high stakes. What’s higher stakes than twins being born into a world where their very existence is a crime?

Using China’s former one-child policy as inspiration, soon our minds were swimming with a future that included a planet that has reached well beyond its carrying capacity, bloated metropolises, crippling limited resources that drives the U.S.’s class system to a dangerous breaking point, and constant government surveillance with microchips implanted inside every citizen’s wrist.

We had our dystopian setting, now we needed our central theme: identity.

Our Big Idea: twins who have to pretend to be one person in order to survive.

 

Ashley: Our story is told from dual perspectives; being the eldest twin, I wrote all of Ava’s chapters, who is also the older sister. Ava is the one who gets the life-validating microchip implanted into her right wrist at birth. She is the identity that both sisters build their entire lives around– Ava is the only one to truly exist in a Rule of One America.

In real life as children, Leslie and I would come home from school and tell one another every single tiny detail of our days. We became such experts on each other’s lives that we could sub in for each other if someone got us confused. Pulling this from our own lives, we amplified our nightly ritual with Ava and Mira. If they aren’t perfect when it’s their “turn” above ground (the other sister must stay hidden in the basement), they will lose everything. As the first born, Ava sees it as her duty to ensure the safety of her sister– a large portion of her identity is tied up in being the designated guardian.

Writing Ava’s chapters, I always held foremost in my mind how I would react if it was me who was branded a traitor and forced to leave my childhood home, fleeing into the unknown, all while trying to protect my twin sister, the person whom I love more than anyone else in the world.

Halfway through writing the novel, Leslie and I took a pause and decided to travel the exact cross-country journey our characters take in the book. While researching a location in Palo Duro Canyon, we were stalked by a bobcat and those thought-experiments suddenly became reality. Isolated in the wilderness, I felt sheer terror, and on instinct we decided to run. I had no weapons, just like Ava, and the entire three-mile sprint back to our car the bobcat was growling, and I envisioned the animal attacking my sister. We made it (or else I wouldn’t be writing this) and drenched in sweat, I immediately wrote down every emotion I was feeling. I’ve never felt more connected to Ava as I did in that moment, because the terrifying experience revealed to me that just like Ava, I would do anything to protect my sister. And just like Ava, in that life-threatening ordeal I saw myself as the leader, the one needing to do the saving. But when I looked over, Leslie had a razor-sharp rock in her hand, ready to do her own protecting.

I knew then why it was so important for Mira to step out of Ava’s shadow to become her own woman. Free from the necessity of mirroring Ava’s identity, Mira could be the hero of her own story.

 

Leslie: Like Mira in our story, I am the youngest twin. I therefore took the reins writing all of her chapters, using my experience growing up as the second born, infusing my own personal experience into Mira’s desires, arguments and character arcs.

Have I ever been jealous of my twin sister, Ashley? Yes. Have I ever thought that she was better at something than me? Sure. Do I ever grow tired of being compared to her? It depends what kind of day I’m having, but let’s go ahead and say absolutely. To imagine these questions in a future world where my very existence was illegal, and I was forced to share an actual identity with my twin sister really got the wheels in my mind turning. Like at top speed.

What if I not only shared clothes, the same interests, and most importantly, identical features with my twin, but in order to have any life at all, I had to be my sister. We had to share a name, a personality. An existence. The love I have for my twin knows no words- like Ava and Mira, we are inseparable. But I am a fierce individual and I have my own identity. To infuse a character study of twin sisters with my love of high-stakes adventure was really a dream project for me. Writing the POV of a youngest twin who goes on a journey of self-discovery was both exciting and cathartic.  I don’t think I’ll ever write something more personal. Yes, it’s set in a near-fi America about twins being chased by the government. But Mira feels like me: a young woman trying to discover who she is.

As Ava and Mira’s story expands beyond the first book, it’s been a fun ride shaping their individual identities while still remaining true to their inseverable bond. No matter how much they change, they will always be identical twin sisters. Two bodies, one soul.

Fighting to survive in a world they don’t belong.

—-

The Rule of One: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Ryan North

I am not saying I am a time traveler. For all most of you know, I am not. But if I were, and remember I am not saying I am, then I would be very interested in Ryan North’s new book How To Invent Everything. Very, very interested. Theoretically.

RYAN NORTH:

I wanted to write the most dangerous book in the world.  Assuming time travel exists, I think I’ve succeeded.

The big idea in How To Invent Everything is this: is it possible to collapse our modern civilization into a single text which anyone, regardless of experience or education – or the time period in which they’re stranded – could use to rebuild our world from scratch?  I wasn’t at all certain that it was, but if it were, it sounded exactly like the sort of book I wanted to read.  And the more I thought it, the more it excited me, because this would be a book which – once you’ve gone back in time with it – would absolutely make you the most influential, powerful, and decisive person in history.

So, all I had to do was write it.

***

I’m probably not the person you’d choose to write a book like this.  Up to now, all of my writing has been fiction: comic books about a girl with squirrel powers, short story anthologies about a machine that knows how you’re going to die, and choose-your-own-path versions of Shakespeare.  This was obviously something different, and I had no idea where to start.  So I began with what I knew: fiction.

I made up a future in which time travel existed and was practiced routinely.  It was a world in which time machines are rented like cars: generally painlessly, though sometimes with the risk that your too-good-to-be-true deal of a vehicle breaks down.  It was a way to ease myself (and readers) into the concept, and it helped me set up some ground rules: you, as a reader, are a temporal tourist.  You are trapped in the past in a broken rental-market time machine.  There is a repair guide, but it very quickly reveals a unfortunate truth: that time machines are for sure the most complicated pieces of machinery humans have ever produced, and that there aren’t any user-serviceable parts inside.  Time machines are so complicated, in fact, that it’s actually easier to tell you how to rebuild all of civilization than it is to explain how a 45.3EHz chrotonic flux inverter works.  So that’s what this time machine repair guide does.

With that, I had my in.  The “corporate repair guide” angle gave me an absurd tone to play with, and it let me keep things funny, light, and entertaining, while still sharing actual (useful!) information.  The only challenge now was to fill the rest of the book.  No problem, right??

I began by researching the inventions I knew I wanted to include.  I’d always wanted to have computers in there – because come on, how awesome would it be to go through life knowing you can build a computational engine from scratch in any time period you care to name? – so that’s where I started.  And I discovered something fascinating: once we’d invented electrical logic gates – the things modern computers are based on – we started seeing them everywhere.  You don’t actually need electricity.  You can build logic gates out of ropes and pulleys.  You can build them out of water.  Heck, you can even build them out of living crabs.  And this meant that there was lots of potential there for a knowledgeable time traveller to invent computers centuries – if not millennia – ahead of schedule.

I soon found that it wasn’t just computers that could’ve shown up much sooner in history than they actually did.  I was honestly shocked to discover how many inventions fit into this category.  An example: we had the raw materials for compasses in 200 BCE: that’s when we noticed that some rocks stick together, or in other words, discovered magnets.  But it wasn’t until 1000 CE that we actually invented compasses.  And here’s the kicker: to get a basic compass (which, I remind you, unlocks navigating the entire world), you don’t need the “tiny sliver of metal balanced on a pin wrapped in plastic” fancy compasses we have today.  You just need to tie your magnetic material to a string.  The string lets the rock rotate freely, the rock points towards magnetic north, and hey presto: that’s your compass.

Figuring out how to tie a rock to a string took us over 1000 years. 

You might think that’s embarrassing (and, you know – you’re not wrong) but I actually found it really inspiring.  And the more examples I found of low-hanging fruit throughout history, of inventions that could’ve been invented at any point in time but which for one reason or another we only figured out relatively recently, the more inspired I got.  Sure, it meant there was tons of room for a time traveller to optimize our timeline (great for my book!) but also meant that it was – and is – very likely there’s still things like that in our own time that we ourselves haven’t yet figured out.  What are we missing today, right now?

That last one is actually the one question How To Invent Everything doesn’t answer.  What fundamentally world-changing invention are we not seeing, even though we’ve already got all the parts we need?  What will people 1000 years from now laugh at us for not figuring out already?

What’s the equivalent of tying a rock to a string, for those of us living here at the end of 2018 CE?

I probably won’t be the one to figure it out, but I can’t wait to see who does.

—-

How To Invent Everything: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s 

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The Big Idea: Cheryl Low

In Detox in Letters, author Cheryl Low thinks about magic, down the grimy, dusty details — and also gauges the limits of what magic can do.

CHERYL LOW:

The Crowns & Ash series began as an exploration of magic. Or maybe just a love letter to it.

All my life I have loved magical worlds. Embedded in the first fairy tales we heard growing up were the promises of wonder—that anything could be possible with a little bit of magic.

In the streets of the Realm, around the Queen’s Tower, people play out their long lives with boundless fashion, cake and tea for every meal, and elaborate duels, on a carousel of romance and intrigue. But none of it would be possible without magic.

Everything in the city is fueled by magic, from the lamps lining the streets to the cars driving down them. Factories take in barrels of raw magic to churn out a variety of charms, power sources, and drugs for the residents of the Realm. They’ve turned something once natural to them into a commodity—forgetting its origin and purpose.

Even the drug of choice, dust, is rooted in magic. The carnivorous pixies, a dangerous pest in the city kept back by the constant glow of street lamps, are lured into the dust factories and fed raw magic until they’re so full that their frail wings can no longer lift them off the ground. Then the pixies are strung up, roasted, and ground down into the fine, glittering powder known throughout the city as dust. It is rolled into cigarettes, sprinkled on cakes, and steeped in tea, keeping most of the residents lulled in a constant high.

But magic is one of those elements in a fantasy world that is as exciting as it is difficult. There must be rules.

As the creator, I spent some serious time figuring out how a city of magic-wielding, spoiled socialites could function without constant war in the streets. Even before the current Queen took the throne, the Realm was far from utopian. If anything, the residents of the fantastical city could always be described as passionate, not exactly good or evil, but something in between that tips daily from side to side. So, how do I keep them from snapping their fingers and destroying their rude dinner guests?

Limits. All power must have a limit, as well as a cost. It can make the impossible possible, but it can’t solve every problem. Limitations and real consequences make stories truly exciting. Even immortal creatures must have a weakness. Vampires and the sun. Werewolves and silver. Dragons and that one, fate-blessed hero.

In the Realm, magic causes just as many problems as it solves—maybe more. It has become their poison, clouding their minds just as their Queen has clouded the sky above. And as the people of the Crowns & Ash series relearn their history and their powers, they are forced to realize the dark source and inevitable boundaries of that magic. There are some things that can’t be changed with charms and spells.

I set out to make a world literally high on magic—breathing it and eating it and bleeding it—and I absolutely love this world. It is a thrill to write and a delight to share.

—-

Detox in Letters: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBooks|Kobo

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

The Big Idea: Myke Cole

What is a hero? For Myke Cole, the answer to this question is not exactly the one that usually applies. It’s a thing that helped to fuel the writing for his latest, The Queen of Crows.

MYKE COLE:

Five years ago, I wrote about a singular experience. I know we live in the age of TLDR, so I’ll sum it up for those of you who won’t bother to click on the link – After my 2nd tour, the love of my life took a long look at the man she’d fallen in love with, compared him to the guy who came back from Iraq, and split. That’ll make you do some out-of-character stuff, and in my case, it resulted in my going to the on-post chapel at Naval Air Station, Pensacola in the hopes that something, anything, might break me free of the singular compulsion to suck-start a Glock.

It was the low-point of my life, and I was desperate for any human connection, so I was thrilled when one of the parishioners approached me, noting my tactical pack (which still had my blood type scrawled across it in black sharpie) and asked if I’d been down range. When I told him that I had, he turned to his son, and said “See? That’s a hero.” Then, he walked away.

Guess I was wrong about losing my fiancé being the low-point. This was lower. This utter isolation. Look, I know the guy meant well, that he was trying to honor what he viewed as a burden I had taken on so he wouldn’t have to. But by affixing a label, even a complimentary one, he’d severed all human connection. There was no need to get to know me, no need to understand my humanity. I was a “hero.”

Dark story, I know. But things got better for me. I moved on. I got my feet under me, put my life back together again, but I never forgot that singular moment, that intense powerlessness, when someone else had defined me. I looked at the world differently after that, suddenly awake to the way we use labels and the weight of institutions to define others, to rob them of their chance to do it for themselves. Worse, we cling to these definitions when the people we foist them upon resist, we fight them tooth and nail. This person is a “patriot,” this one a “coward.” This is what “good people” do. A “Christian” behaves in one way, but not another.

Labels, and the institutional membership they convey, don’t square with the complexity of human existence. They bound life in sharp lines that cut a bloody swath through the reality of the way people are actually in the world. And yet we need them, we will fight to uphold them. In 2018, we are witnessing a singular contest, a cold civil war with the sole objective of defining what sort of person may call themselves an “American.”

In a perfect world, we define who we are moment to moment, at complete liberty to live our true selves in all their complicated glory.

But we don’t live in a perfect world.

And that’s the big idea behind The Queen of Crows.

Heloise Factor, the hero of The Armored Saint, ends things on . . . let’s just say (without spoiling anything for those of you who haven’t read the book) a high note – an act of singular heroism. Unfortunately for her, it is an act steeped in meaning to the members of her religion, and anyone who achieves it is – according to the scriptures of their faith – rendered divine.

The mantle of a saint is heavy. It comes with reverence and honor. Saints are worshipped, are even obeyed. But saints are also chained down by the weight of expectations. There are things saints must do, things saints must not do. A saint is a living symbol, their every word and action a kind of theater, a passion play that affirms the faith of a watching body of the faithful.

And Heloise is most certainly a saint. But she is also a young woman of sixteen winters, who loves, who desires, who is frightened, who is unsure. The moment of her heroism was quick and dramatic, but the consequences are far beyond anything she could ever have imagined. Thrust into the role of symbol and leader of a rebellion against authority, her humanity comes into conflict with the title she never asked to hold.

In The Queen of Crows, Heloise is pitted against the most powerful army in her nation, with only a fractious mob of peasants behind her. And even they will not follow her if she casts aside the title of sacred icon, refusing to act the part of the divinely-inspired holy warrior her people have decided she must be.

How will Heloise hold up? Who will she choose to be? And most importantly, can she win the contest to come?

Only one way to find out. Come along, and I’ll show you.

—-

The Queen of Crows: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Edward Willett

For his novel Worldshaper, author Edward Willett posits another type of authorship entirely… one with literally global implications.

EDWARD WILLETT:

Authors sometimes talk of their fictional worlds as though they lived in them. They’ll speak of characters taking on lives of their own, unexpected plot twists, settings that complexify beyond what was intended.

In reality, of course, all of this happens inside our heads…but what if, in reality, it happened in reality—or, at least, in a version of reality? What if we authors could immerse ourselves in our fictional worlds physically, rather than intellectually, and occasionally even rewrite them while we’re living within them?

That’s the “big idea” behind Worldshaper, my ninth novel for DAW Books, start of a brand-new series, called (you’ll never guess) Worldshapers.

The series will take place within the many worlds of the Labyrinth, an extra-dimensional realm in which people with sufficient will and imagination, called Shapers, can give the worlds of their imaginations physical form, and then take up residence within them.

Each of these worlds is populated with millions or even billions of humans, for whom those worlds are the real world, as ancient and solid and eternal as our own world seems to us—even though none of them have existed for more than a few decades.

The Shapers, having taken up physical residence in their Shaped worlds, can no more leave them of their own volition than a fictional character can exit a novel. The fortunate ones made good choice in Shaping their worlds. Others, alas, embody Psalm 7:15: “Whoever digs a hole and scoops it out falls into the pit they have made.”

A single powerful Shaper, Ygrair, discovered the possibilities of the Labyrinth and opened it to the Shapers. But Ygrair has been weakened by the attack of an enemy, the Adversary (he has his reasons) who has found his way into the Labyrinth. He seeks to execute Ygrair and destroy the Labyrinth. Along the way, he’s turning every world he can get his hands on into a copy of the “perfect” authoritarian realm he Shaped for himself.

As Worldshaper begins, Ygrair’s lieutenant, Karl Yatsar, arrives in yet another in a long string of worlds, seeking a Shaper strong enough to gather and hold the knowledge of as many Shaped worlds as possible and deliver that knowledge to Ygrair, who will be able to use it to secure the Labyrinth against the depredations of her Adversary.

Shawna Keys, an aspiring potter in a small Montana city, turns out to be the Shaper of the world Yatsar has just entered, closely pursued by the Adversary, who, during a brutal attack, successfully collects Shawna’s Shaping knowledge. The adversary is about to kill her to cement his control of her world when, to Yatsar’s astonishment, she apparently resets time by three hours.

Everything goes back to the way it was. The attack never happened—but everyone killed, including Shawna’s best friend, has not only vanished, they’ve been utterly forgotten.

Shawna’s amazing display makes Yatsar think she may the one he seeks…but when he approaches her, he’s shocked to discover that Shawna Keys has forgotten she’s a Shaper: she’s the author of the book of her world, but she doesn’t remember writing it.

With the Adversary after her, though, she has no choice but to trust Karl. They flee to the one place Karl can form a Portal into the next world, with the Adversary in pursuit and working steadily to turn every aspect of Shawna’s world against her.

As the series continues, I look forward to exploring all kinds of questions raised by the big idea of authors living in the worlds they shape.

For example: authors do horrible things to characters all the time. Remorse is fleeting because, after all, the characters aren’t real.

But in the Shaped Worlds, they are. So, if you were an author living inside a world you’d written, would you continue to rewrite the living, breathing “characters” around you for your own selfish ends?

Dystopias, alien invasions, war, plague, and supernatural horrors all make exciting stories. Would we be so willing to create worlds that contain these things if we had to live in them? No? What if we could live in them but be immune to their dangers? Would we still choose to make such worlds, at the expense of those we force to live there?

Shawna’s Shaped world is very close to ours, with a few minor changes: for example, lacrosse is the big professional sport, she once saw The Da Vinci Code: The Musical on Broadway (Hugh Jackman did his best in the Robert Langdon role, but the show sucked), there are colonies on the moon, and the president lives, not in the White House, but in the Emerald Palace.

But as the series continues, Shawna will enter worlds belonging to Shapers with imaginations far different from her own. Like an adventurous reader, she will encounter ideas, characters, and situations she may find abhorrent. Yet, to fulfil Ygrair’s task, she must attempt to save all of the Shaped worlds, even those she hates. Her commitment to the quest, her commitment to what you might call “Freedom of Shaping,” and her own confidence in her ability to Shape things for the better may all erode in the process.

Lest this sound too grim, let me hasten to add that, since Shawna is written in first-person, she has my sense of humour. The result (according to one pleased reviewer) is a “sarcastic wiseass smart-mouthed main female character.”

I can’t live in my fictional world physically like the Shapers can, but in Shawna (and the other characters) you’ll still find bits of me, as you will in the ideas infusing the series, both small…and big.

—-

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

Read an excerptVisit Willett’s site and follow him on Twitter. Check out his podcast, The Worldshapers, featuring conversations with science fiction and fantasy authors about the creative process.

 

The Big Idea: Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law

Today’s Big Idea is a two-fer: editors Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law bring your their own — and their highly divergent — paths to co-editing Shades Within Us, a collection of short stories about migration.

SUSAN FOREST:

I am a fraud.

I’ve never had the guts to move away from my hometown; yet as a writer of science fiction and fantasy, I scribble constantly about journeys: space exploration, interplanetary colonization, fantasy kinship groups displaced by war, climate refugees. So what do I know?

But migration is a huge idea in speculative fiction. Whether borders be physical or internal; whether the voyage is forced or embraced; whether people move for political, economic, climate-related, or other reasons, speculative fiction is a fiction about crossing boundaries and becoming immigrants to a new way of living or thinking. So the exploration of this body of fiction through reading, writing—and yes, editing—requires an acquisition of knowledge. Research.

My research has probed limited experience (through travel), primary sources, secondary texts, and personal imagination. When Mars One was announced in 2012, I asked a group of science fiction writer friends, “Seriously: would you go on a one-way voyage to Mars?” OMG, YES! some of them responded. This was a tough concept for me to get my head around. Let alone the fear I would have of all the risks and loneliness and cultural disorientation, contemplating leaving my family and everything I know behind is a non-starter.

But then, I suppose it would be for many people who find themselves crossing these borders. My mother’s mother, at the age of 23, came to Canada with her husband and two small daughters just after World War I to a distant cousin’s prairie homestead, knowing full well she would never see her birth home or family again. And unlike Mars, Western Canada at least has air.

But I may well have to get my head around my own migration. In my dedication to this book, I wrote: “To Heather, who helped me to see how the concerns of migration are close to home,” because we can no longer depend on the assumption that our safe, known worlds will always be with us. Tipping points come suddenly. Though we can all see the collapse of worldwide systems coming—humans have been living far beyond the means of this planet to support our species for a long time—like death, it will come abruptly, and as a surprise. No one will be prepared. Not me.

I think seriously about this. It informs my writing. So when the chance came for me to edit Shades Within Us, the proposal offered me a perfect opportunity for research. These stories of crossing borders, both literal and metaphorical, were not only a joy for me to read and to work with to bring closer to fruition, they offer an incredible range of experiences of moving across, through and within our fractured world. Because these stories brought me into the thinking, experiences, and lives of the characters choosing—or forced—to make those transitions.

 

LUCAS K LAW:

The Big Idea for Shades Within Us was conceived five years ago—along with the themes for the other anthologies we did for Laksa Media. We did not have the current migrant crisis or anti-immigration events in mind at the time. It never occurred to us because the seed for this anthology came from my own history and interest. “Migration” comes from the Latin word migrāre, which means “to move from one place to another.” Unfortunately, these days, there is a quick tendency to associate migrations with refugees and illegal immigrants. There lies the danger.

My maternal grandfather and his brother left China with his father in 1916. They left their sister and family behind to gain opportunities in Malaysia. Later, during the Chinese civil war in the late 1940s, he lost all family ties in China. My grandfather spent most of his life in rural plantations and fishing villages, as a shopkeeper, a farmer, and a small business owner, before he retired. When he could no longer care for himself, he moved again, to the city to live with his son and family.

So often, physical movement is the focus of a migration story when it first unfolds. But each move is more than a simple relocation. It is a transformation of time, place, and being. Each decision affects a multiplicity of others.

It is difficult for those who have never faced such decisions to truly comprehend the complexity and conflict that takes place in body, mind, and spirit—what my grandfather and so many others have gone through in such transitions, responding to economic challenges, employment and new opportunities, and finally, to failing health. And these are only a few of the myriad factors affecting the reasons people migrate or relocate.

With such complexity, what are the commonalities? Transition and change. Boundaries, visible or invisible, voluntary or involuntary, internal or external. And the attainment of a new life, a new world, a new reality, for good or ill, for better or worse.

Migrants are much more than just refugees and illegal immigrants.

In Shades Within Us, twenty-one authors explore the struggles and sacrifices, survival and redemption, losses and gains in their Tales of Migrations and Fractured Borders. These are not stories of despair, anger, and revenge; these are stories of facing those adversities and challenges with equal determination, resiliency, and humility.

Their stories ask us to open our eyes to see, our ears to hear, and our hearts to understand that each of us may be impacted somewhere along the journeys. Only by sharing our own stories of relocation and by listening to others about their stories, then we might reach a deeper understanding of the word “migration” and its history—its role, impact, and potential opportunity for us and the future generations.

—-

Shades Within Us: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Jaine Fenn

Autho Jaine Fenn starts this Big Idea piece with an admission — and then explains how she got around it for her new novel, Hidden Sun.

JAINE FENN:

Don’t tell anyone, but I’m a fraud. Most writers have bouts of imposter syndrome, but when it comes to writing scientifically rigorous fiction, I live in special fear of being found out. The gaps in my science education mean I have been known to, shall we say, err on the side of vagueness in my science fiction. Or invoke Clarke’s Third Law. Or ask a grown-up for help.

However, Hidden Sun isn’t science fiction. It’s science fantasy. In my teens, while my teachers were telling me that nice girls don’t do science – early 80s rural England, what can I say? – my reading was moving from fantasy to science fiction, via writers like Anne McCaffrey, Gene Wolfe and Ursula Le Guin. I still liked the feel of classic fantasy – being able to retreat to Middle Earth got me through some difficult times ­– but found myself looking for something more in a story, some shadow of logic and learning, an underpinning of esoteric knowledge of a slightly different flavour to that usually labelled ‘magic’.

Then I went to college (or ‘uni’ as we Brits call it). I did an arts course – like a nice girl – but when I found the ‘astronomy for arts students’ additional module, I was right in there. The course delivered: heaps of cosmology, minimal maths. And it turned out my lecturer was a geek; he’d actually devised the astrophysics Brian Aldiss used in the Helliconia trilogy. My mind was duly blown.

This positive early experience left me with a yen to one day write a book whose protagonist driven to discover how the universe works without the tools or support of a scientific establishment. That half buried desire resurfaced a few years ago and the result is the Shadowlands duology, of which Hidden Sun is the first book.

Rhia is a natural enquirer, part of a diffuse and informal network of proto-scientists living at a renaissance level of technology in isolated pockets of shade – the shadowlands – dotted across a bright, hot, alien world, known as the skyland. The skyland beyond her land’s borders interests Rhia, but the sky overhead fascinates her. She just wants to spend her time observing the stars and coming up with cosmological theories. Unfortunately she has to contend with the politics of a squabbling nobility, the assumption that women don’t have enquiring minds and, most recently, the shocking disappearance of her feckless younger brother.

I loved it when elements of Hidden Sun – the court intrigue, the murder mystery, the skyland with its alien/human symbiotes – came together in a logical yet organic way, accreting like a solar system round a star. And at the heart of the Shadowlands duology is that unconscious desire, building for years, to spend time with a character far smarter than me but without the mentor I had, who is fired up with the desire to unlock the secrets of the universe. And for her to succeed.

I’ve no idea if my old astronomy lecturer will read this post. But I remain indebted to him for the grounding he gave me in the most cosmic of the sciences, which is why it seemed only fitting to dedicate Hidden Sun to him.

—-

Hidden Sun: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Michael J. Martinez

In today’s Big Idea, Michael J. Martinez reminisces back on his college days, and how an offhand comment back then informs MJ-12: Endgame, the finale of his supernatural spy series.

MICHAEL J. MARTINEZ:

I went to a university with a heavy fraternity/sorority presence; the Greek houses were a major hub of campus social life. During my freshman year, a couple of upperclassmen asked me to consider joining their houses. Heady stuff for a newbie from the sticks, right?

Of course, once I delved into the whole process, the hazing thing reared its ugly head. Now, the frat brothers I knew swore up and down it wasn’t hazing per se, but rather simply testing a pledge’s resolve and fitness to join the fraternity.

Even at 18, I wasn’t that stupid. “Look, you’re telling me you want me to join the club,” I remember saying to one of them. “If you want me, why should I then have to go through hell to get in?”

His answer: “Because we’re better than you, until you prove otherwise. I want to give you that chance.”

We’re better than you.

What a terrible sentence, those four little words. Arguably, that single sentiment has caused humanity more pain than any other. It is, I would argue, a fundamental part of human nature and the most dangerous flaw humans have.

How many wars started with that sentiment at the very core? We deserve your territory more than you. Our gods are better than yours. Our color people are superior to your color people. Our economic or political systems are better than yours. We are more, you are less. Submit or we’ll destroy you.

How many interpersonal relationships burn out because of this? At work, at school, at home, you can hear it echo in every little office conflict, every academic rivalry, every little resentment in a relationship. It’s insidious.

And by what measure do you make the claim? Some of it is objectively measurable, sure – wealth, experience, success in careers or relationships. But the problem with that, of course, is that after you measure that, what do you measure it against? What’s wealth to someone who simply doesn’t want it? Is the Wall Street executive better than the artist because of the relative size of their bank accounts? Every religion of the world says it’s the one true way, but nobody’s come down from on high to provide arbitration.

(And wouldn’t it be a cosmic joke if that did happen, and the answer was, like, “It was Marduk all along. You guys have been off for three millennia.” Oops.)

“Better” is a highly subjective measure, and that’s why people fight over it, because everyone is convinced it’s actually objective.

But what if it were, if not exactly measurable, but at least obvious?

What if you had someone who really could say I’m better than you and had something that nobody else had – an ability beyond human measure, one that was demonstrably superior to everyone else?

Ultimately, that entire debate is at the crux of MJ-12: Endgame and, really, the entire MAJESTIC-12 series. On the surface, it’s a cool spies-with-superpowers thriller set during the early days of the Cold War, with teams of Enhanced agents from the Soviet Union and America’s MAJESTIC-12 program facing off against each other around the world.

And yet, the Cold War was also, at its core, all about we’re better than you. And what happens when your superpowered covert agents take a look around at the masses of humanity and start thinking the same thing?

The comic books I grew up with never did a great job with showing that sentiment in their heroes. Superman is actually a pretty great guy. He could rule the world with an iron fist inside of a week, but he doesn’t. He’s nice! He’s arguably the most noble character in pop culture simply because he quashes that innate drive for superiority and control, knowing full well he could act with impunity.

How would you react if you were granted a superpower, though? Would you be altruistic? Would you kick back and let that ability make bank for you so you could be super comfortable? Or would you try to “make things right” because, at the end of the day, you’re better?

That question is at the heart of MJ-12: Endgame, which closes out my MAJESTIC-12 super-powered Cold War series. Even if what you can do is superhuman, does it make you a better person? Are the other people fighting for their beliefs lesser people simple because they don’t share your beliefs? If you have the ability to impose your will on others, should you?

Today, we see so much of this in our daily civil discourse. Some of it is truly horrifying. We’re better than you is the worst impulse of human nature, and the most common, and it’s being fed every single day with more and more fuel.

We’re better than you leads to conflict, war, catastrophe. In MJ-12: Endgame, it brings the world to the very brink. The book is, of course, primarily a fun spy thriller with all sorts of twists and turns and cool powers and stuff. But I hope it also gets people thinking about that sentiment, those four little words full of poison. I hope it gets them to think twice, because no matter who we are and what we do, we are not better than anyone else. Different, sure. But not better.

And for the record, I never joined a frat.

—-

MJ-12: Endgame: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Greg Van Eekhout

Yeah, okay, Greg Van Eekhout’s Big Idea piece for Voyage of the Dogs got me genuinely choked up. Read it and you’ll figure out why.

GREG VAN EEKHOUT:

Spoiler: I don’t kill off any of the dogs in this book.  Why not? Because I’m not a monster, that’s why not.

Voyage of the Dogs is a middle-grade novel, meaning it’s marketed to readers aged seven to twelve. It’s about four dogs on a starship. When they wake up from cryosleep, they discover that the ship is badly damaged and the human crew has taken the escape pod and left them behind. The barkonauts struggle with dwindling supplies, cascading disasters, pack dynamics, and the feelings any uplifted, abandoned dog would grapple with. There’s adventure, there’s humor, there’s emotion. There’s also butt sniffing, because dogs.

So, that’s basically the pitch I’ll be using with most audiences, and if you stop reading here you’ll have a good idea what this book is about. But this is Scalzi’s blog, and I know you are a special and sophisticated audience, and I want to go a little deeper and tell you why I wrote this particular book at this particular time. I want to tell you why, after six previous novels, this was the only book I could write.

Life can be really hard sometimes. A few years ago, I went through one of those really hard times. My elderly parents’ health had been wobbly for a while, but it became clear that the wheels were really coming off the cart. If you’ve been through this rite of passage, you know what can be involved: ER visits. Fighting with doctors and insurance companies. Finding caregivers. Finding money to pay for said caregivers. Maintaining your own life while maintaining the lives of other adults. It’s a sad, stressful, laborious bunch of stuff. But I was lucky that I wasn’t alone in this. I had my wife. I had friends. And I had my dog.

Dozer is some kind of small terrier mix. He looks much like Lopside, the dog on the cover of the book. (That’s not an accident.) He eats poop and a few months ago he swallowed an entire dead ground squirrel. He’s obnoxious, scrappy, yearning, earnest, gross, and perfect. He is a very good boy. Petting him lowers my blood pressure. It calms my heart. It loosens my knots and releases the vice squeezing my brain. In fact, Dozer was so helpful during this time that we decided to get another dog, Amelia. Amelia is a mix of corgi, rat terrier, and whatever the heck. She’s yappy. She pees when she gets excited. She growls at me when I dance. She is kind of awful. And she is perfect. A couple of weeks before my mom died I took the dogs to her care facility and put Amelia in bed with her for a cuddle. At this point my mom was usually too weak to talk, but she managed the last words I ever heard her utter. “Sweet. Soft.”

On the day my mom finally passed away, the hospice coordinator asked if I needed anything. I told her I needed a dog, so she brought over the care facility’s house dog, a hairy little thing named Winston. Winston eats entire cups of sour cream, plastic and all. He likes to go into residents’ rooms and knock over their trash bins. I have a picture of me carrying Winston around less than an hour after I lost my mom, and there’s a genuinely happy smile on my face. Winston was my wingman that day.

So, skip ahead a few months. Both my parents are gone. During this whole period of care giving, I’d been working, writing, traveling to book events, fulfilling contractual obligations, but now I was out of contract, no books in the publishing pipeline, no books in any state of completion, and also without an agent because I’d parted ways with mine during all this stuff. I had to work.

I looked at my list of ideas, and I considered the headspace I’d have to occupy for months or more to turn one of those ideas into a completed book. They were all cool, chewy, fun ideas, but all of them dark. And I could not bear occupying a dark space. So, what then, could I bear to write? Something fun but not frivolous. Something hopeful but not packed with sweet lies. Something that could break a reader’s heart but also promised to mend it.

The answer was obvious. I could only write a book fueled by the strength and comfort given to me by Dozer and Amelia and Winston and all the dogs in my neighborhood and all the dogs on the Internet.

We often ask if people deserve dogs? The barkonauts in Voyage of the Dogs ask themselves the same question. I don’t have the answer. But I know I need dogs, and I needed to write this book. I could not have written a different one. I’m grateful for the chance to share it with you.

—-

Voyage of the Dogs: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Michael Mammay

Trust in your friend, colleagues and superiors is a good thing… mostly. In Planetside, author Michael Mammay considers the price of loyalty and the cost of trust, and how both can end up being different than one might expect.

MICHAEL MAMMAY:

The big idea that became Planetside started with a conversation I had with another officer while deployed to Afghanistan. It was early in 2014 and we’d been there six or eight months on that particular tour, and for whatever reason we were sitting in his office one morning and talking about people we’d worked for before, and our list of generals who we’d work for again if they called, no questions asked, no matter the job.

I feel like I need to explain that.

As a relatively senior officer (I had 24 years experience at the time) I’d had the chance to work for some amazing people. Forget the television stereotypes of the uptight or inflexible leader. I’m talking about generals who are so smart, so charismatic, and so driven that you’d literally do anything for them. Leaders who know people, and how they tick. They give an order, and you want to follow. They get the most out of everybody around them, and get everybody moving toward the same goal.

That might sound like a problem, that kind of personal loyalty, but it’s not. The reason that these particular leaders are so good is that you trust them. If they were the type of person who would abuse that trust, then they wouldn’t be on the list in the first place. You trust that they’ll put you in situations where you’re going to be successful, because they know you, your strengths, and your limitations. You trust that they would never ask you to do something that went outside the morals or standards of the organization.

But what if they did?

That was the idea that came to me later that day. It’s not based on any real situation where I saw it happen, but rather the idea that it could happen. What if somebody that you trusted, that you’d do anything for, asked you to do something messed up?

That’s the big idea at the center of Planetside. In the first chapter, Colonel Carl Butler answers a summons from General Serata, one of the generals on his list of people he’d follow anywhere. They’re more than leader/subordinate. They’re friends. So even though he doesn’t understand the details of the mission at the time, when Serata tells him that he’s the right guy to handle it, Butler trusts that. It’s not a job he wants, but he signs on because it’s Serata asking. And he is asking. He could have simply ordered it, but he’s got too much respect for Butler to do that. Butler, while subordinate, is a senior officer who has earned that kind of deference. At the same time, Serata knows him well enough to know that he’ll say yes.

Of course there’s more to the mission than initially meets the eye. I mean, it wouldn’t be much of a book if there wasn’t. As he gets deeper into his investigation and the difficulties present themselves, Butler starts to understand more clearly why Serata chose him for the job. To get to the bottom of things, he needs to be able to maneuver in both the political landscape of the base and in the war-ravaged landscape of the planet itself. He has both skill sets, which is rare. Most people have one or the other. Both locations hold secrets. It’s debatable which is more dangerous.

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

Listen to an audio excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Claire O’Dell

A dash of fan fiction, a smidge of authorial inspiration and a dollop of a world-famous investigator adds up to a brand-new concoction in Claire O’Dell’s novel A Study in Honor. How did this all come about? As O’Dell will tell you, it was elementary.

CLAIRE O’DELL:

A Study in Honor is all Jim Hines’s fault. (Except for the parts that are all my fault.)

Back in 2014, Jim wrote a blog post about his experience writing fanfic. I’d never felt the tug of fanfic before, but after reading about how satisfying and involving it was for him, I decided to take a stab at writing some myself. After all, fiction is a conversation with itself, and what else is fanfic but a very intimate conversation?

Right away, I knew I’d want to write a Watson and Holmes story, but with a few changes. For one thing, I wanted to make them both black women. Why? Several reasons. Most (though not all) of the pastiches I’ve come across show Watson and Holmes as two straight men, or one man and a woman. And in those same stories, Holmes is always a white man.

So, Dr. John Watson became Dr. Janet Watson; Sherlock Holmes became special agent Sara Holmes. Both black. Both queer. One wealthy, and one who needed all her stubbornness to achieve a medical degree.

But the top reason is because of the other changes I made in the story. It’s the mid-twenty-first century when Dr. Janet Watson steps off the train in Union Station in Washington, DC. She’s newly discharged from the war–not the war in Afghanistan, though that would be plausible, but the New Civil War–a New Civil War that came about because the alt-right rebelled against equal rights for people of color, for gays, for women. The right viewpoint for such a war and its consequences logically belongs to a black queer woman.

I also wanted to do a deep dive in Janet Watson’s character, to make her more than an accessory to Holmes. This is a woman who has lost nearly everything in the war. Her parents died in a terrorist bombing. Her beloved abandons her. A sniper’s bullet shattered her arm when the enemy overran her medical unit, and the replacement prosthetic is unreliable.

A surgeon needs two reliable hands, she thinks. Not one of flesh and one of metal and false memories.

Her plan is to argue with the VA for a more modern device, so she can resume her career as a surgeon. She expects to stay in DC only a few days, a week at the most.

Her plans get upended the next day. The war has wreaked havoc with the economy on both sides, the VA tells her, and prosthetic devices such as Janet needs are scarce. She will have to wait her turn. Jobs aren’t easy to come by, however, and housing costs more than she can afford. When a friend tells her about someone who needs a partner to share the rent, Janet reluctantly agrees to meet the person.

That person turns out to be special agent Sara Holmes, a quirky, brilliant woman somewhat given to ignoring boundaries. The apartment in question is #2B at 2809Q Street, in an upscale neighborhood. Janet has reservations, but oh, the apartment would make a lovely refuge.

All of that poured out of me as fast as I could type. By the time I had three chapters written, I knew Janet would not let go of my imagination until I finished her story. She is stubborn and smart and defiant. The war might have left her wounded in body and mind, but she’s not going to give up. As she writes in her journal:

I will have my victory. I will have my life back. I swear it.

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A Study In Honor: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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