The Big Idea: Charlie N. Holmberg

For The Will and the Wilds, author Charlie N. Holmberg asks: When is a kiss not a quite a kiss — or perhaps more accurately, not only a kiss? The answer: when certain, special, creatures are involved.

CHARLIE N. HOLMBERG:

Once, almost exactly three years ago, Charlie had a weird dream.

In this dream she was in her old house in Midvale, and author Elana Johnson was her mother.

She met this strange man who had a unicorn horn jutting out of his forehead. He was invisible to everyone else but her. Then he lost his horn and needed to get it back. However, the only way to regain the horn was, essentially, to take a maiden’s virginity.

And no, my book isn’t about that. But it is about this strange creature I dreamed up one night who wouldn’t leave my thoughts.

When I relate this dream to others, it doesn’t sound like anything special, yet it really stood out to me. I couldn’t pull my mind from it. So I opened a notebook and started writing down ideas. The first and foremost was this phallic-demon-unicorn-man. Then I brainstormed the place he was from: the monster realm, or “The Deep,” in his words. (Yes, I was watching Disney’s Moana at the time. How did you know?)

I’m a sucker for the enchanted forest trope, and I’d never written an enchanted forest story, so that became my setting. But the forest itself wasn’t magical; the beings within it were. It’s riddled with demons—“mystings”—that hail from another world. A harsh world. A soulless world. It’s no wonder they want to come to the mortal plane. And it’s no wonder humans want to stay far away from them.

I’m branded as a clean author. I couldn’t have demons running around stealing maidenhoods for their phallic headwear. So I turned The Will and the Wilds toward the next best thing: kissing. I love kissing books. I love writing them, I love reading them, and this is the kissingest book of them all.

To get Maekallus to the enchanted forest, I needed someone to summon him. Herein walks Enna, the plain outcast of the local village, wannabe scholar for things of the bizarre. She’s in trouble, and she needs Maekallus’s help. A bargain is struck that binds them together. But this story needs to take up roughly three-hundred pages, so of course Maekallus fails to keep up his end. Of course he’s bound to the mortal realm and can’t go back home. Of course the mortal realm would start eating him alive, and because of their bargain, Enna is subject to the consumption, too.

What about the kissing? Glad you asked!

Maekallus is a trickster and a demon. He doesn’t eat mortal foods to survive; he eats souls. And what better way to eat a soul than through a kiss? And so, as the mortal realm slowly converts his body into a puddle of rank tar, he tricks Enna into kissing him. Into giving him her soul.

But he only gets a piece. Why? Well, that’s a spoiler. Yet if Enna wants to survive, she has to keep Maekallus alive, and that means feeding him a piece of her soul every few days, all while trying to figure out how to break the curse holding him to the mortal realm, and her to him.

As a hot bonus, the more soul Maekallus gets, the more human he becomes, and he starts to feel for the first time.

And that, my fellow kissing-book-lovers, is the big idea behind The Will and the Wilds.

 —-

The Will and The Wilds: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Simon Jimenez

When you have a big idea for a story, the question then often becomes — what practical things do I need to do to make this big idea work for the story? For The Vanished Birds, author Simon Jimenez had his big idea, and now in the Big Idea piece, he explains how he made it work, in the context of his novel.

SIMON JIMENEZ:

I wrote no encyclopedia and I drew no map before I began writing The Vanished Birds. I laid the track as the train chugged forward and hoped I wouldn’t be outpaced and run over. Of course I was. I wince now as I think back on all the soft resets and double-backs and total rethinks and rewrites I had to do. I’d blame this all on the fact that it was my first book and I didn’t know what I was doing, but that wouldn’t be the truth. This is how I tend to go about all things. Without a plan and screaming in freefall.

The Big Idea of The Vanished Birds came into being as I wrote that first chapter. It’s something of a short story, a completed loop that tells the story of an entire life, structured in a way similar to other time-travel or future tense long-distance relationships, where the pairing has two unequal perceptions of time. The Time Traveler’s Wife. Any Moffat-written Doctor Who episode. Two people in a, well, call it long-distance fling. One is planet-bound and he experiences time as we do, and the other is perpetually traveling between the stars for work, and because of this, she has a very different experience of time.

For her, or for that matter any traveler engaging in long-distance spaceflight in this fiction, time is squeezed short. Her months are his years. She ends up rock-skipping across his entire life, meeting once every fifteen years.

He gets older, she does not.

As I wrote the contours of their decades-long relationship, all I knew—all I needed to know to tell this short story about this farmer’s life and his relationship to the spacefaring woman—was that interstellar travel had a cost of time. This formed the emotional spine that I wanted the rest of the novel to be built on, as it spoke to all the fascinations and fears I was preoccupied with at the time (and still am). The romance and loneliness of travel, and the delusion of leaving it all behind. The anxieties of unequal love. Ageing and obsolescence. I wanted the world-building to reflect some aspect of these preoccupations, the rules of the “game” serving to heighten these dramas, all of it borne of necessity.

The two lovers meet once every fifteen years not because that’s the way the tech works and how the math shook out refer to the wiki page please, but because fifteen years felt like a good rising increment when dramatizing the man’s entire life. You get the big spikes of youth and adolescence and the middle passages. And since I didn’t want her to get markedly older during this relationship (both to juxtapose the increasing difference of their age, and to keep in mind that in the scope of the larger narrative of the novel, this is for her just a brief dalliance), her round-trip journeys couldn’t be more than a few months, her time. This proportion of spent time doesn’t align with any real-world laws—as far as I’m aware at least—which meant I had to push toward the fantastical to justify this reality.

And so I began to whittle out the shape of a Big Idea: Pocket Space, the extra-dimensional arena by which interstellar travel is possible.

Space flight and unequal time. There were hundreds of tried and true options I could draw from considering all the fiction that had come before me. Spool an engine and fold space like a napkin. Fly down the frictionless blue-light highways of hyperspace, with no cost of resource or time. Or be adherent to the laws of spacetime as we understand it today and take your cues from reality. The latter half of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos runs right through the wall of FTL in a particularly memorable way. Travelers are vaporized by the speed of the jump as they move from one point in the galaxy to another, blood and viscera sloshing in their pods, dead as dead can be, until they are slowly, painfully, resurrected. Death then but a necessary evil, to get to where they need to be. I think you can go two ways about it: be stridently authentic or make it all as easy as winking with both eyes. And the further the story takes place from the present day, the more allowance is afforded the improbability of your space magicks or technobabble.

There’s no wrong answer here; it all depends on what kind of story you are telling. If you’re writing a light adventure narrative that takes place across many varied ecosystems in Star Wars-esque style, you probably don’t need to go too in depth about the hyperdrive that flicks the ship across the galaxy. But if your story is directly concerned with the mode of travel people engage in in the future, then that mode of travel will need to have a certain amount of friction and personal/societal cost in order to be relevant to the characters’ arcs and to actually investigate the topic at hand. After all, the believability of a world is directly proportional to the cost of living in that world, for we are justly wary of utopias.

I took a bit from many different sources. My initial plan was to have every journey through Pocket Space adhere to the first ratio I set up, of her months to his years. But as I tunneled further into the book and discovered the other stories I wanted to tell, I realized two things: that A) I needed Pocket Space to be somewhat elastic in its ruleset to allow for different stories about time, and B) I needed Pocket Space to be somewhat fleshed out, and not an afterthought, since it was starting to have greater and greater prominence in the story. There was also the question of coherency and what the reader was understanding about this future-tense travel; not just cursory understanding, but real, gut feeling understanding of the cost of it, the difference between being told how heavy a rock is, and actually holding it in your hands.

I needed the concept to be concrete. For it to have texture and variability and immediate parse-ability when it came to the emotional needs of the story, so people weren’t confused who was where and when and how. To make it more intuitive to the reader I drew comparisons between the Pocket and our oceans. I’m certainly not the first to make links to the ocean and some aspect of outer space, and for good reason. It felt like the most apt link to make, considering the tone and direction the story was taking, of journeying through a frontier space amidst a corporate legacy of expansionism. Gradually the Pocket more and more resembled the old-fashioned maps that charted shipping routes and known currents. Currents, all with their own speeds, their own ratios for time-loss, their own beguiling names. And since there were currents, there were now favored shipping and travel routes. This in turn suggested ideas of galactic control. What systems lay along the quickest currents and what trade routes and what resources were waiting for extraction. The rest followed from there.

That all sounds very tidy, like the ideas had flowed easily along a single current, but the truth is I actually can’t remember where any of it really came from. Everything I wrote here is just self-justifying reasoning developed with the benefit of hindsight. At a certain point it becomes hard to know the origin of any one idea, or the reason why the thing is the thing and not some other thing. The act of writing a self-referential feedback loop of drafting, observation, and re-drafting, the Big Idea born from a thousand small and impossible to remember decisions. I settled on the name Pocket Space because it is simple and easy to remember and, more importantly, the name immediately suggested to me what it was; it didn’t hide its definition behind some impossible to remember made-up term. And I liked the slight contradiction of the smallness of the pocket and the bigness of space; that the mind can’t quite wrangle it.

This is the fun part, the inventing. The part that feels like play. You write of a ship unfolding out of the Pocket, exiting the strong current that it had for months been riding and the action suggests something tactile and strange. Maybe a black substance like tar dripping off the sails of the ship at port. And you wonder what that substance is and its properties, which in turn propagates other ideas about the world. You start asking yourself who the first person was to sail this black ocean and where those uncharted currents finally brought them. What unexpected end. If they were satisfied by this journey, regardless of how they did it, and how long it took. And maybe one day you’ll realize why you do not write with a plan. How the work has always been about you.

—-

The Vanished Birds: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site.

The Big Idea: Parker Peevyhouse

At first blush, the ability to do anything sounds like a great idea. But there are reasons that it wouldn’t be… especially when you’re writing a novel. Parker Peevyhouse explains why, and how reining it all in made a difference for Strange Exit.

PARKER PEEVYHOUSE:

When you live in a simulation, anything is possible. But what makes for a good story is limitations.

In early drafts of my new novel, Strange Exit, characters could manipulate their surroundings at will—more so as they came to realize that they were inside in a simulation. Objects would fly, doors would slam. On the surface, it was exciting. But it cut a lot of the tension. If characters can do anything, then what’s to stop them from overcoming any obstacle they meet?

My editor encouraged me to develop more specific rules for my simulation. At first, I struggled to find inspiration. A set of arbitrary rules didn’t seem interesting to me. I thought about some of my favorite movies, like The Matrix and Inception, and realized that the rules in each of those movies (and there are so many rules in Inception!) arose specifically from the way those simulations were designed to be used. More importantly, those rules begged to be manipulated, even while they couldn’t be broken.

In Strange Exit, the sim is supposed to help people adjust to life after nuclear winter. Instead, people keep using it to recreate buildings and neighborhoods that they feel safe in—places to hide from more nuclear attacks or just from anxiety over what they’ve lost in the war. I decided that my first rule would be that characters could only manipulate environments that they had personally created within the sim. So when our main character, Lake, enters a pocket of the sim someone else has created, she’s at a disadvantage. They can make walls grow around her, or firestorms chase her away, and she can’t match that power. They can make every rack in their convenience store sell only Spicy Hot Cheetos and she has to compromise her snacking integrity or go hungry.

Another rule I introduced: when a person leaves the simulation, any pockets they’ve created vanish and anyone who’s inside those pockets wakes from the sim. So every time Lake manages to convince someone to leave the sim, she shrinks the unwieldy program and takes some of the pressure off the failing system. And when Lake finds a partner, Taren, and teaches him this rule, he finds a way to manipulate it further: he creates a pocket in the sim and convinces people to step inside so that when he leaves the sim, they all leave too. Their pockets close, the sim shrinks, and pressure lifts from the life support systems that are on the brink of failing.

Settling on these rules gave me a new vision for the story. I decided to focus on Lake’s training Taren to wake the “sleepers” and clear the sim. Even as Lake teaches Taren her methods, he finds his own way to shrink the sim. The rules of the sim force the characters to be clever and innovative. But more than that, the rules force them to make choices that put them at odds with each other. Soon, their methods diverge so much that they no longer see eye to eye. Taren starts making risky choices that put people in danger, and Lake focuses on efforts that they have too little time to explore. Finally, the two are pitted against each other, more enemies than friends.

Without a clear set of rules for the simulation, the tension between Lake and Taren wouldn’t exist. As the story stands now, their differing visions are what give the story meaning. The sim makes many things possible—odd happenings, and deep explorations of anxieties around nuclear warfare. But the rules that limit the sim force the characters to make difficult choices that reveal the core of who they are and what they believe. It’s the same with any story set in a simulation: we marvel at how characters break the laws of physics, but we care most about how they respond to rules they can’t break—only bend.

—-

Strange Exit: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s|Hicklebee’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow Peevyhouse on Twitter and Instagram.

The Big Idea: Rod Duncan

When it came to writing novels, Rod Duncan discovered that it helped for him to get out of his own head, and to take a chance on a character outside of his own personal experience. That character has since taken him places, including to his newest novel, The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man.

ROD DUNCAN:

My first four attempts at novel writing were driven by male protagonists. They earned me a drawer full of polite rejection letters from publishers and literary agents. It was a female protagonist that finally won me the long-sought book deal.

The commissioning editor later told me that she’d been sceptical. Could a male author really manage a first-person female voice? But some small observation early in the book convinced her. From there to the end of the manuscript she turned the pages with confidence, seeing each thought or action of the protagonist not as proof of gender identity, but as evidence of an individual character.

In the Alien screenplay, Ripley was an individual who could have been man or woman. It was only with the casting of Sigourney Weaver that she became female. Why should that surprise us? Unless we believe that each character is required to represent an entire gender.

Films have casting directors, costume designers, make-up artists, actors. But with novels, the readers get to do all those jobs. This is where the magic comes in. Through the creative act of reading, we translate words on a page to pictures in our minds. Much of the impression we get of a character’s gender will be unconsciously constructed. Write a good character and, if your audience believes they are male or female, that’s exactly what they will see.

There are surely differences between men and women. But how much of the difference derives from the asymmetric experiences imposed by society? How much is genetically defined? And what portion of the genetic difference resides in secondary sexual characteristics as opposed to the workings of the brain? In whatever way we answer those questions, the moment we say ‘A woman would never do that’ we are making a sexist assumption. There is at least as much variation of character within the genders as between them.

Some years after my first publishing contract was over, I found myself writing a short story from a male perspective. A private investigator walked a gas-lit street in an alternate history, approaching a dangerous rendezvous. But later, our handsome protagonist needed to disappear. I was taken aback when he removed a disguise and revealed himself to be a woman.

I’d wonder later whether this unconscious reverting to a female voice was in some way an exploration of a more female side of my own personality. Conversely, I might be more comfortable writing female characters because they are more obviously not me. Thus they emerge with more interesting personalities.

Either way, the detective, whose name I discovered was Elizabeth, had a distinctive voice, and was insistent on using it to tell me her story, which grew into a novel, The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter, and then into a trilogy, the Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire.

To my surprise, people started telling me that they had fallen in love with Elizabeth. She was strong without being a superhero, they said. And she was apparently so truly feminine that one reviewer questioned whether the author could really be a man. As before, I believe the gender people perceived was largely their own construction.

There are a few tricks, of course – the smoke and mirrors that all writers employ. The places the eye of the description comes to rest. The saying enough, but not too much. Leaving room for the audience. I believe the reason Elizabeth seems female to some female readers, is because they are doing the heavy lifting, creatively speaking.

Not that Elizabeth feels comfortable in the role that the fictional society of my alternate history allows her. She must pass as male to do many of the things she wants to do. But adopting either role, she finds herself modifying the shape of her body. Which distortion is more unnatural, she asks: the binding cloth that flattens her breasts or the corset that thins her waist?

Elizabeth’s second trilogy began with The Queen of All Crows. In this series of adventures, she encounters societies where the role of men and women are very different. It forces her to think about her own relationship with gender. Neither of the available roles has allowed her to be fully at peace with herself.

Reviewers have explored various interpretations of Elizabeth. To some she is a woman reacting to the oppression of a patriarchal society. To others she is obviously non-binary. But within her society, this discourse does not exist. These terms would be unfamiliar to her. Is gender a social construction? How deep do the privileges run for those assigned male at birth? Elizabeth has never been confronted with such questions. She approaches the issue from experience and observation rather than ideology.

Even when dressed as a man, she does not doubt her womanhood – though both presentations feel to her like disguises. Perhaps her discomfort comes from the rigidity of those two roles. Or perhaps she would experience a dysphoria in any society, however the genders were understood. Either way, these are not questions she is at first equipped to ask.

The title of this trilogy, The Map of Unknown Things, hints at the nature of Elizabeth’s inner quest. She is exploring a landscape that has yet to be pinned down with the names of ideologies or social movements. But in whatever way we understand Elizabeth’s relationship to gender, it is clear that she finds herself out of step with the world.

The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man is the final book in the trilogy. The tides of history are carrying the world towards war. Elizabeth finds herself working behind the scenes to prevent the disaster. In the wilds of the Oregon territory, she meets someone assigned male at birth but who identifies as neither male nor female. The encounter is like a mirror for Elizabeth, enabling her to understand something of her own nature. She will never be the woman that society demands. Nor can she properly fulfil its ideal of the masculine role. But perhaps she will at last find a way to understand herself.

—-

The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Kameron Hurley

For this Big Idea, Kameron Hurley looks at what it takes to get a book right — and how her latest novel, The Broken Heavens, had to look beyond binary expectations to get there.

KAMERON HURLEY:

Two choices: Left or right. This or that.

Choose one or the other. There’s no in-between. No other choices.

From the time we are small we learn that we have choices: yes, or no. Good, or bad. The idea that there are only two choices has become pervasive in our media, our politics, our relationships, and it’s divided us deeply here in the U.S.

When I began writing my Worldbreaker Saga back in 2012, which begins with the novel The Mirror Empire, I too was obsessed with this idea of two choices: the light and the dark. I was writing fantasy, after all! While my protagonists might be morally messy early on, I always knew I was headed for a showdown where they had two choices: good or evil. Genocidal or self-sacrificing.

But it was a false choice.

And it literally took me years to realize this.

At some level I must have understood I was setting up a false choice as I finished the second volume, Empire Ascendant, and began the grueling process of tying everything up in the third and final book, The Broken Heavens. Emotionally, I was rebelling against my own embrace of these false choices, because no matter how many times I tried to get myself to write the ending I had in mind at the beginning of the series, it just never felt… right.

It took writing 90,000 words of… something for my agent to finally call me out. “Frankly, this isn’t very good,” she said. “Let’s take this out of the schedule and have you work on something else.”

I was incredibly angry with her, at first. Angry because she had identified in the writing the fact that I was deeply unhappy with the choices I had waiting for my protagonists, and I had absolutely no idea how to fix it.

Fixing issues this big, things that are so deeply ingrained in you that you have trouble thinking outside of the false paradigm, can take time.

I needed the time.

After the US election, I took a fresh look at the book and wondered if my work was contributing to this narrative of two choices; this idea that all we ever got to choose from were a range of bad alternatives forced on us by powers far larger than ourselves. How was that inspiring? Impactful? Hopeful?

The idea that we only have two choices is a very western, and honestly fairly recent, phenomenon. It’s a fallacy promoted by media for clicks, by political parties for votes, by foreign and domestic forces who want to ensure we remain angry and divided and nihilistic.

The truth is we have an infinite number of choices. Tradition, politicians, friends, family, social mores, will tell you it’s not true, but that’s because thinking outside of those choices is dangerous to the status quo. It upends assumptions about the way the world could and should be.

And in this series, I absolutely wanted to upend the world.

It took a lot of angry writing on my part. Long, long email back-and-forths with my agent, until she suggested I start thinking in another way. What if I stopped focusing on breaking things apart, and instead focused on bringing things together?

And there it was.

It all clicked.

While the rest of the book writing process was not smooth – I still did a tremendous amount of revision of the first third of the book, even after turning it over to my editor – the ending finally worked.  It was true to the world, the characters, the lore, the journey, from The Mirror Empire through Empire Ascendant and now, here, at the end: The Broken Heavens.

I am immensely proud of finishing this book. More so, I am proud that I took the time and didn’t do the lazy, expected thing with how I finished it up.

A fellow writer, Tobias Buckell, once paraphrased some advice from Tim Powers, which went something like this:

No one will remember if a good book was late. And a good book will only be late once. But a bad book? A bad book is bad forever.

I took the time to make The Broken Heavens a good, satisfying story. And it’s made all the difference.

—-

The Broken Heavens: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Jess Nevins

If you think you know the horror genre — or at least, you know the greats of the genre — then Jess Nevins has news for you: You’ve probably only scratched the bloody, screaming surface of a genre that goes back literally millennia. He’s here now to tell you what he uncovered while writing his latest book, Horror Fiction in the 20th Century.

JESS NEVINS:

Horror fiction—that is, fiction intended to frighten—is a peculiar beast. It’s as old as human popular culture—the Epic of Gilgamesh has horror elements, and the Epic is over 4,000 years old—but it’s held in low esteem by mainstream critics and readers. Horror fiction appears in every genre of literature, but attempts to create a precise definition of the horror genre have been surprisingly contentious affairs. The horror genre is universal, but what horror readers have traditionally seen is a fraction of what is out there.

It’s that latter point that struck me when I started writing Horror Fiction in the 20th Century and stuck with me throughout the book. I’ve been a horror reader all my life, but it wasn’t until I read Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s anthology, What Did Miss Darrington See? (1989), that I realized how much I’d been missing. Most of the stories in Miss Darrington are horror, written by women in the first half of the twentieth century. I was fascinated by the stories and went to the standard horror fiction reference books to learn more about the authors.

Those books were silent on these women or mentioned them only in passing. More rigorous attempts at research revealed two things: first, that there were a lot of women horror writers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, far more than I’d ever heard of; second, that these women were—through critical ignorance, happenstance, or deliberate action—written out of histories of the horror genre, despite the quality of the women’s work and their significance to the genre.

Discovering this vast array of ignored writers was like a spelunker squeezing through a tight crack in a cave wall and discovering a mammoth cave system, missing from all maps, stretching out for miles in every direction. My Big Idea was to explore the far reaches of the cave system and cover it all in detail—to write a history of the modern horror genre that included everyone important, not just the authors and works that appear in the standard histories.

Sometimes I have the outlines of a book firmly in my mind from the beginning, and can write the book within those outlines. Horror Fiction in the 20th Century wasn’t like that. Every cave I entered had further tunnels to crawl through. There were female authors of horror fiction to be considered, but also women who were known as mainstream writers but who occasionally dabbled in horror, with excellent results. African-American literature had its share of works of horror, as did Latinx literature, and Native American literature, and Australian Aboriginal literature, and LGBT literature, and all of those needed to be included. A number of the Gothic Romances of the 1960s and 1970s were written to frighten. I could not ignore horror fiction in comic books and roleplaying game fiction and Young Adult fiction. And there were many horror writers who produced sustained excellent work, but through no fault of their own are now completely forgotten. They, too, deserved a place in my book.

Most of all, there were the horror writers from outside the Anglophone world. Of whom there were many. So many, and so few translated into English. I realized that if I was going to write a history of the horror genre in the twentieth century, I would have to include horror writers from around the world, and not just those from the United States and the United Kingdom. A lot of intense research and difficult translations followed, but in the end I was able to include the major non-Anglophone horror writers and works in my book.

Reading all these new-to-me authors and works shaped my thinking about the horror genre itself and my reactions to the standard reference works on and histories of horror fiction. Too many of them, it seemed to me, relied on received wisdom and traditional judgments to guide who would be included in the encyclopedias and histories and who would be excluded. Viewed from a twenty-first century perspective, the results were problematic: too many mediocre white male horror writers; too much space devoted to English-language horror; too much repetition of received wisdom; too much rejection of new understandings of gender, sexuality, and race; too much regurgitation of tired and discredited ideologies and biases.

I didn’t set out to write a revisionist history of horror fiction, but in some respects that’s how Horror Fiction in the 20th Century turned out. I do pay due homage to the generally-accepted greats in the genre, from Algernon Blackwood to Thomas Ligotti. But what I also do is devote significant attention to overlooked, underserved, and ignored authors, and point out where traditional critical narratives about horror fiction are misguided or incorrect. For example, I argue that H.P. Lovecraft was a popularizer more than an innovator, and the inheritor of a tradition rather than a writer without precedent. This is a revisionist argument—but one that is based on facts, inasmuch as this kind of argument can be based on facts.

The Big Idea for Horror Fiction in the 20th Century was to write a truly global history of horror, and what I hope readers take away from my book is an appreciation for the wonderful variety of the horror literature of the world. The American and English horror authors we know so well—the Ambrose Bierces and Richard Mathesons and Robert Aickmans and Caitlin Kiernans—are very good. But so are Silvina Ocampo and Jehanne Jean-Charles and Dino Buzzati and Ge Fui and Mieko Kanai. The horror genre isn’t Anglophone, isn’t something only men read and write, and isn’t limited to hoary tropes, motifs, and plot dynamics. The horror genre is global, nimble—and glorious.

—-

Horror Fiction in the 20th Century: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Niki Smith

A life of adventure for some often involved pretending to be someone other than you were… but was it possible in some cases that what was being pretended was closer to who that person always was meant to be? It’s a thought that Niki Smith has considered for The Deep and Dark Blue.

NIKI SMITH:

So early next morning she softly arose,
and dressed herself up in her dead brother’s clothes,
She cut her hair close, and she stained her face brown,
And went for a soldier to fair London town.

English Folk Ballad, Sweet Polly Oliver

 

As a kid, tales of girls chopping off their hair to have adventures as knights or soldiers were my first glimpse of the wider, queer world that was waiting for me.

Finding these stories was exhilarating. Legends of women who dressed as men to fight in battle go back to the Trojan War! Mulan disguised herself to take her father’s place. Shakespeare uses the trope in five separate plays, sometimes for hijinks, other times for adventure, always for drama. The stage was all-male profession: male actors playing women characters who disguise themselves as men, toying with and winning the hearts of other men… every layer was messier, more exciting. It was queer.

I was a preteen when Mulan was released and my copies of Tamora Pierce’s Alanna quartet were already dog-eared from rereading. The trope has only grown since then: Terry Pratchett, Scott Westerfeld, Bloody Jack, Voltron. Countless girls disguising themselves as boys to live the lives they always wanted, as knights and pirates and soldiers! My to-read list is constantly growing; I can’t resist a revisit to one of my favorite childhood tropes.

But in all the fun of blurring gender roles in those stories I devoured as a kid, in the legends and myths and fantastical adventures—those girls were always girls, deep down. A new life, an adopted name, shorn hair, yes, but living as a boy was always just a temporary facade. And despite the “gender bending”, the layers of queer undertones, the flirting (and often falling in love!) with boys while in disguise—each story ended with a firm return to life as a straight, cis girl. Even as a kid, I knew I wanted more.

And I wanted more in so many ways. The heroine of these stories was always that—a girl. Pretending to be a boy was the only way to have an adventure. No matter how exciting the fantasy world, no matter if there were dragons or swords or magic spells, a woman’s life was always tedious and full of boring needlework. It was something to escape.

Society calls old, unmarried women “spinsters”—why? Because they earned enough through their work spinning thread to support themselves independently. In a time when marriage was expected, their skills meant they were free to make that choice for themselves and maintain a life of self-sufficiency. When I sat down to write The Deep & Dark Blue, I knew I wanted to flip the trope of the girl who hates to do embroidery on its head. I developed a system of magic with its roots deep in “women’s work”, in fiber arts, textiles, spindles and weaving, all powered by a magical indigo dye. And watching over it, an enclave of women, the Communion of Blue, carefully passing down its secrets to a new generation of girls.

All of that led to The Deep and Dark Blue, my queer fantasy middle grade graphic novel. Two siblings on the run after a coup, seeking refuge with a mysterious order of women… but for one twin, changing her name isn’t a disguise. It’s the chance for a young trans girl to live as herself for the first time, surrounded by the magic she’s dreamed of for years.

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The Deep and Dark Blue: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Matthew Hughes

When cultures meet, is there always a “clash” — or is there a way for disparate peoples to not only get along but thrive? This was a line of inquiry that Matthew Hughes is interested in, and pursues in his new novel What the Wind Brings.

MATTHEW HUGHES:

Back in 1971, when I was an English major at Simon Fraser University, I happened across a footnote in a book about cross-cultural contacts. The author was making the point that castaways arriving on foreign shores – like Japanese fishermen washed up on the coast of what was to become British Columbia – usually fared poorly. But the footnote mentioned an exceptional case: shipwrecked African slaves on the jungle coast of sixteenth-century Ecuador who allied themselves with the local indigenous people to form a mixed society – the “Zambo state” – who survived and prevailed against attempts by Spanish conquistadors to re-enslave them.

I thought: that would make a great historical novel. But it turned out to be difficult to research, because most scholarship was in Spanish-language academic journals.  Still, I kept it in mind as the decades rolled by and I eventually became a novelist. So, when the teens of this century arrived and North American scholars began writing about the Zambos, I could do the research and write the book.

Over my fiction-writing career, two themes dominated: I tended to write about outliers struggling to thrive in social environments not made for their kind; and the societies I created were often diverse, full of odd people energetically pursuing odd goals.

Writing about oddballs comes naturally to me, because I am one. Writing without judgements about diverse cultures came from observing how diversity gives a society strength and resilience. So when I came to write What the Wind Brings, it made sense to me that the Africans, many of them survivors of wars among well organized West African states, would combine with Ecuador’s Nigua people, who had spent generations fending off attempts by the expanding Inca empire to come subjugate them.

Military skills combined with an intimate knowledge of a challenging landscape offered an advantage. But the marriage of African and Nigua was not made in heaven. The Africans, as I envisioned them, came from a patriarchal culture; the Nigua, like many indigenous peoples of the Americas, I assumed to be matriarchal. Both groups had customs and ingrained habits that required rough edges to be rubbed smooth. And so they were, by mutual agreement.

The resulting mixed society outfought and out-thought the Spaniards, until finally the latter agreed to leave them alone. The Zambos endured for generations, and today their descendants are a distinct, thriving culture within the Ecuadorean social mix.

My own cultural background was originally working-class British, a typical Liverpool mongrel of English, Irish, Welsh strains, with a little Manx. I came to Canada as an immigrant child in 1954, and I was lucky we came then because Canadian immigration policies in those years discriminated strongly in favor of WASPs – even men like my father, a 40-year-old unskilled and uneducated laborer with a wife and five children.

Then, in the 1960s, those policies gave way to new thinking. Canada began to welcome newcomers from all over the world, including people who were formerly legally discriminated against, like Canadian-born Asians who had long been barred from becoming pharmacists or architects under provincial laws governing the professions.

The official Canadian term for such people, according to the census, was “visible minorities.” In 1961, when I was twelve, less than one percent of Canadians fit that bureaucratic category, some of them the descendants of American slaves who were brought to Nova Scotia after the Revolution, others the children of Chinese railroad builders who never went back to China (though they were harshly encouraged to do so).

By 1981, under the new immigration rules, the percentage had increased to 4.7, and by 1991 it had reached 9.4. By the time of the 2016 census, the number had risen to 22.3 per cent, and that did not include the more than four per cent of my fellow citizens who are aboriginal people and are not, for arcane bureaucratic reasons, classified as “visible minorities.”

By 2031, visible minorities, almost all of them first- or second-generation immigrants, will account for a third of Canadians.

But at the same time we have been taking in people of all colors and cultures, we have not imposed a “melting pot” ethos on the newcomers. We are a multicultural society. We follow Rodney King’s advice: we all just get along.

Well, not quite all. We have our racists and reactionaries, most of them in rural settings where visible minority immigrants don’t tend to settle. And our record regarding aboriginal peoples leaves a lot to be desired, though we’re now finally making real efforts toward reconciliation.

But here’s the thing: there is no established political party in Canada that opposes immigration and multiculturalism. Recently, a Conservative Member of Parliament left his party and tried to start one. His “People’s Party” ran candidates in October’s federal election – and was roundly rejected by the people, attracting a paltry 1.6 percent of the nation’s votes. Their defector/leader lost his seat.

So, in my lifetime, since washing up on Canada’s shores, I have seen my country evolve from whites-only to all-are-welcome. We have grown no ghettos; yes, first-generation immigrants tend to settle in neighborhoods where the neighbors look like them, but their children spread out and live among the rest of us. Intermarriage is too common to be remarked upon. There is no National Front in Canada, no Know-Nothing Party. No Stephen Miller would ever rise to a position of power here.

That is the one of the big lessons of my life, and it’s the idea I have sought to express in What the Wind Brings. Without beating a drum or ladling in infodumps, I wanted the reader to come away with an understanding that diversity is strength, that we succeed by finding ways to all get along and by looking out for each other.

These days, it’s a timely lesson.

—-

What the Wind Brings: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Kobo|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Charles Soule

“There is nothing new under the sun,” as some playwright once said — but is it possible to put a new and intriguing spin on a old concept and in doing so make a really cracking tale out of it? This is of interest to Charles Soule in his new novel, Anyone. And here, with his Big Idea piece, it might be of interest to you as well.

CHARLES SOULE:

Anyone is a book about body-swapping. It’s not the first, and it won’t be the last. There’s the amazing Takeshi Kovacs series by Richard Morgan, starting with Altered Carbon, Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates, and of course, Mary Rodgers’ Freaky Friday – among many others. The idea of experiencing life in someone else’s body is one of those concepts that comes around a lot, because it’s a pretty fascinating and alluring idea. It’s something we, as yet, just can’t do. We’re trapped in the meat in which we’re born, we see through the eyes we have, and that’s that until the day we die. Who wouldn’t want to experience life as someone else, even for just a little while? I know I would. Whether it’s terrifying or invigorating or some weird version of the uncanny valley I couldn’t even begin to anticipate, I know I’d learn something profound.

(A quick digression – we can’t get into another body (yet), but a process does exist by which we can get into other minds, and you’re doing it right now: reading. If a book is good, if it hits that transportive state that takes us out of ourselves and into the story, then, yeah – we’re living as Harry Potter or Lisbeth Salander or Jack Reacher or Mina Harker for a while. Writing is a bit like that too, but it’s harder to get there; you’re both creating and experiencing the character at the same time, so it’s twice the work.)

Digression complete. My point is that body-swap stories aren’t uncommon, and that alone wasn’t the Big Idea grand enough to build my second novel around. It wasn’t body switching I was interested in. I wanted to see what would happen in a world not too different from ours where it became commonplace to just inhabit other people’s bodies for a while, like renting an AirBnb. I wanted to find out how society would change if you didn’t know just from looking at someone the sort of body they’d been born into. When I started, I didn’t know the answer. Seriously. That’s the fun of writing a high-concept speculative fiction story, by the way – or really any story. You start with a question or a puzzle, and then you solve it by telling the tale. I didn’t know all the ways the body-switch technology in Anyone, called “the flash,” would affect the world when I started writing the book, and I was surprised by some of the places the story went. True, no-joke surprise. It’s one of the best things about writing a novel. You never know what’s going to happen until you really dig in.

I began by thinking about how we, as a species, approach other human beings. We make so many instant categorizations upon a first encounter with someone new. There are the basic, surface groupings: age, likely gender, physical characteristics like height and weight. Of course, those can all be misread, but it’s part of the information set we gather about a person at a glance. And then there’s the less conscious set of assumptions we might make whether we want to or not: things like socio-economic status. Those things come to us because of whatever biases we’ve grown up with; the cues we’ve come to recognize as having certain meanings, even if unfair or unwarranted.

So, the Big Idea in Anyone was to create a world where that did not exist. If you don’t know who the person you’re interacting with “is,” in the way we define that now, then you have to categorize them more by “what they do” – in other words, their actions. I like that idea very much. We should all be judged by what we do. What we put into the world, good or bad.

Now, look. I know body-swapping wouldn’t immediately create a utopia free of preconceptions or assumptions about other people, and the book acknowledges that. Human nature is human nature. We like to other-ise people. We like our tribes. I think it’s hardwired in from the earliest days out on the savannah trying to figure out what we can eat, what might eat us, and who might help us find more things to eat. But in the grand tradition of science fiction since its very beginning, Anyone lets me take a Big Idea (what if anyone could be anyone), apply it to society, and see what comes out the other side.

There’s obviously much more to the story – intrigue, spills, thrills and chills, page-turning action, twists and turns and a heck of an ending – but that’s the Big Idea I started with.

When anyone can become anyone… what defines who we are? Again – we are what we do. To quote the big theme statement of the novel: you are you.

Anyone is out now. I hope you’ll check it out, if you get a chance.

—-

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

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website. Follow Charles on twitter.

 

The Big Idea: Colin MacIver

There are few words more laden with negative association than “traitor” — it’s an apparent repudiation of country and of honor. Is there ever a time when there could be more to the word than that? Author Colin MacIver muses on this subject in his Big Idea post for his novel Turncoat.

COLIN MacIVER:

Throughout history and legend, there have been traitors and turncoats. Roland had his Ganelon; Arthur his Mordred. As we move forward, motivation appears more complex, or we simply know more about the actors. Was Benedict Arnold simply a disgruntled subordinate or was he unfairly passed over and therefore returned to his primary allegiance? Approaching the present, we have the English public school graduates who gave UK national information to the Soviets for ideological reasons from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Perhaps most difficult to explain is the case of Robert Hanssen, a senior CIA officer, who for twenty years sold US classified data to the Russians. He was caught in 2002 and placed in solitary confinement. Chris Cooper played him in the 2007 movie “Breach.” It was while watching this movie that I recurred to the eighteenth century agent, code name Pickle, a man deep in the counsels of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, who failed a second attempt at rebellion in Scotland after the ’45. Those few authors who have deigned to mention Pickle have concluded that he acted from hope of gain.

My belief, my big idea, is that, while not discounting a mercenary motive, I have discovered a more honorable intent for Pickle turning his coat. He believed that a second rebellion could fail and that the subsequent punishment of clans in arms would bring a retribution so great it would amount to genocide. So he shopped his Prince and his cause.

I cannot conclusively prove this so I wrote my account of PIckle’s actions not as history but as fiction. To bring out the story of Pickle, I have an historical figure, a grandson of the great Daniel Defoe, Daniel Baker, travel to the Highlands to interview one of the last living survivors of the ’45. This format allows for a steady unwinding of the history of the second aborted rising while also allowing for comic and romantic interludes.

Pickle eventually died in an alleged “hunting accident.” For what did he sacrifice his honor and his life? Like him, I do not believe the Highlands could have withstood a second purging. On the other hand, if an invasion by Charles had succeeded in reinstating the Stuart dynasty, the slow progress of the United Kingdoms toward constitutional democracy would have been interrupted, with results we can only speculate upon.

A turncoat Pickle was. A man without honor, I don’t think so. But I leave the reader to decide. And, oh, yes, I have not given you the name of the man both Baker and I think was Pickle. If I did, you probably wouldn’t buy the book.

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Turncoat: Amazon|Barnes & Noble

The Big Idea: Cynthia Hand

In this Big Idea for her new novel The How & The Why, author Cynthia Hand looks into what makes us “family” — whether it’s genetics, blood, love, care or… more than that.

CYNTHIA HAND:

I’ve always had a hard time with the way adoption is portrayed in television and film. My central complaint, speaking as an adopted person, is that the portrayal is so often wildly unrealistic. These stories tend to focus on the search for the adoptee’s “real” parents and give little-to-no energy to understanding the adoptive parents. For example, look up, “Who is Superman’s father?” and you’ll find page after page on Jor-El, not Jonathan Kent. Or think about how in Once Upon A Time, the biological mother, Emma, does battle with the adopted mother, the literal evil queen. Or how the creators of The Umbrella Academy responded to questions about the incestuous relationship between Luther and Allison by saying “They’re not even related,” and “They are not biological.” The message comes through clearly: what makes a relationship “real” is blood.

For most adoptees, that is simply not the truth. Our “real” relationships are with our parents, and by parents, we mean the people who loved us and took care of us every day.

Therefore my goal as I set out to write The How & The Why was to give a realistic portrayal of adoption–one that thoroughly examines the different sides. The big idea was to show the point of views of both a teen birth mother and a teen adoptee and to examine the way each of them experiences “family.”

What ended up happening as I wrote the book, of course, was far more complex. Yes, my characters have a variety of family in their lives—biological and adopted, friendships, connections, and support systems that defy the conventional definition of what it means to be “related” to someone. What I didn’t expect was how much of the novel ended up being about how people shape their identities out of the stories they are told about themselves.

This made me think about how I had shaped my own identity, as an adopted person. I followed my character, Cass, as she tried to understand herself through her adoption, asking who am I over and over again. Then I followed S, the birth mother, who was basically asking the same question. I could see the invisible connections S had with Cass: the shape of their feet, their hatred of anything cherry-flavored, how they both felt gazing up at the moon—things they shared without even realizing it but that still inevitably connected them.

This made me wildly uncomfortable when I applied it to myself. Through the writing of these fictional people’s stories, I came to realize that who I am has been shaped by my relationship with my parents, of course, but it had also been forged from what I got from my birth parents, both in DNA and something even less tangible–those invisible connections I still had with them. Which are real, too.

Writing is funny that way. You start off having something definitive to say — adoptive families are real families — and then the narrative veers away toward something deeper. You come to figure out what you know through writing it. You discover things about yourself you never dreamed were there, lurking in the unexplored shadows. It’s what makes writing worth it, in the end.

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The How & The Why: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|RDBooks|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Annalee Newitz

Time Travel! Annalee Newitz is playing with it in their new novel The Future of Another Timeline! Or, perhaps, has been playing with it already, or will have been playing with it at some unspecified point in what might have been the future! Maybe! They’re here now to sort all the timelines out for you.

ANNALEE NEWITZ:

I’ll admit it: I’m addicted to tropes. I love to see them done well, but mostly I love to see them turned inside out, mutated, genderswapped, racebent, unraveled, or forced to wear a silly shoes. When I set out to write a time travel novel, though, I knew the tropey situation might be dire. The list of time travel tropes at TV Tropes is instructive: there are roughly a hundred of them, ranging from the Grandfather Paradox to closed time loops, and that’s not counting all the other tropes related to alternate history. 

The Future of Another Timeline (on sale today!) wasn’t even supposed to be a time travel story. It started as an alternate history that was kind of small and personal. I’ve often wondered what my life would have been like if abortion had been illegal when I was growing up, and the spectre of getting pregnant was looming over my horny high school self like a kaiju ready to barf napalm. So I started taking notes, building up an alternate reality without abortion rights. Then I added some angry riot grrls going on a murder spree in high school, killing rapists. Because obviously extreme times call for extreme measures. 

But then I started asking myself what would have led to this dire scenario. The answer I kept returning to was time travel. A secret group of feminist time travelers was in an edit war over the timeline with a group of men’s rights activists from the future. The bad guys had deleted abortion rights from U.S. history, but my heroes would go on a mission to revert that edit, trying to create a world where riot grrls could just enjoy punk rock instead of murdering people. 

I already had a pretty unusual premise, so I decided to make my time travel as mundane as possible. I chucked out the “secret time travel” tropes, and the “omg one thing in history has changed we have to change it back” storylines.

Instead, I created a world where time travel has always existed, everybody knows about it, and we all take for granted that the timeline has been heavily edited by travelers for millennia. Time machines are embedded in ancient shield rock formations on the Earth’s surface that have endured virtually unchanged since the Cambrian period half a billion years ago. Nobody knows how these devices got there, or who built them, but if you tap on the rock with a specific rhythm it opens a wormhole to the past. Humans discovered them in pre-history, and have been mucking around with the timeline ever since. In the modern era, geologists are the people who study time travel.

The idea of a heavily-edited timeline felt real to me. Plus, who doesn’t want to push the “go” button on an incomprehensible technology that’s barely distinguishable from nature?

As you might guess, this setup raises even more questions. Why isn’t everybody changing everything all the time? Are there any limits? Who is in charge of running these Machines when we discover them? What I found was that the more I set limits, the more the standard tropes could be helpful. After all, a trope is basically a narrative limit we’ve all seen before, so it doesn’t sound so damn strange when I say that of course there’s an organization called the Chronology Academy that controls access to the Machines. There’s only one timeline (and you know what that means, Back to the Future fans), and we can only go to the past. If you meet yourself in the past, as you know from Tropey McTroperson, BAD THINGS HAPPEN. If a traveler changes the timeline, or is present for a change, only they remember the old timeline. 

Then I came up with more weird rules that I haven’t seen in any trope list yet. For reasons that scientists don’t understand, the wormhole won’t open for travelers unless they’ve lived in close proximity to a time machine for roughly four years. So you have to be pretty damn serious about time travel, and willing to devote a lot of time (heh) to it, before you can jump into the past. 

Most of my characters are women and people of color, so I also played with a trope that’s become quite common recently in our slightly-more-woke-but-not really times. That’s the “scary to time travel if you’re not a cis white man” trope. You’ve seen it on TV in shows like Timeless and Legends of Tomorrow, and much further back in Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred. The idea is that everything was much worse for women and people of color in the past–and, implicitly, that things are better for us in the present.

In Future of Another Timeline, I wanted to question that idea. First of all, the present is no piece of cake, and in many post-colonial places it’s hard to say things are definitely better than past eras. Yes, there were different hardships in the past, but throughout history there have always been spaces of resistance where women and people of color and other marginalized groups could organize. When my character Tess goes back in time, she’s able to ally herself with 19th century feminists and anarchists; when she travels back to the 1st century BCE, she finds safe haven among priestesses of the goddess al-Lat. I wanted to recognize that there have always been powerful women and people of color in history; it’s just that historians have deleted our contributions.

One of the major differences between our timeline and the alternate one in my novel is that women and freed slaves achieved universal suffrage in 1870 in the U.S. As a result, Harriet Tubman became a senator in 1880. I wanted to center an event that’s rarely glimpsed in time travel stories, instead of the usual (tropey) Civil War and World War II. And the Big Bad my novel, Anthony Comstock, is trying to crush women’s reproductive rights. Only the Daughters of Harriet, a secret organization of intersectional feminist time travelers, can stop him. YES IT’S A TROPE. But it’s swerving in a new direction.

Navigating the trope obstacle course to write about time travel has been delightful and hard as hell. Still, I love that it allowed me to visit a 1992 Grape Ape concert, the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the ancient city of Petra in 13 BCE, and the Ordovician period about half a billion years ago on a megacontinent that no longer exists. 

I think of stories as map overlays on a skeletal field of tropes. One story might be like the traffic layer in Google maps, which draws angry red lines down the freeway during rush hour. But another is like the terrain layer, which converts the cartoony perfection of an abstract map into an overhead view of mismatched houses and blobs of unexpected trees. Each new layer, like a new story, offers a fresh perspective on the same old piece of land. I hope The Future of Another Timeline gives you a new way of navigating the histories you thought you knew.

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The Future of Another Timeline: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Sean Carroll

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

SEAN CARROLL:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Alexandra Rowland

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

ALEXANDRA ROWLAND:

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

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

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

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

Yeah, I got nothin’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Steven S. Drachman

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

STEVEN S. DRACHMAN:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Its prognosis, furthermore, doesn’t look good.

—-

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

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

 

The Big Idea: Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe

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

DOMINIK PARISIEN and NAVAH WOLFE:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

The Big Idea: David Koepp

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

DAVID KOEPP:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yowza, what a difference.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

Read an excerpt.

The Big Idea: Michael Mammay

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

MICHAEL MAMMAY:

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

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

In the real world all those things happen.

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

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

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

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

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

—-

Spaceside: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

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

The Big Idea: Susan Forest

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

SUSAN FOREST:

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

Ever have a story grow?

Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Sophia McDougall

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

SOPHIA McDOUGALL:

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

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

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

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

I joined them.

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

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

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

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

What would happen next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

And what would people be running away from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

—-

Romanitas: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound

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