The Big Idea: Nancy Kress

In today’s Big Idea, Hugo and Nebula Award winner Nancy Kress takes a look at controversy, science, and change — Sea Change, as a matter of fact.

NANCY KRESS: 

At parties in my city—environmentally conscious, crunchy-granola, high-tech and socially activist Seattle—it is easy to start a flaming argument. Just walk up to a group, tilt your head, and say inquiringly, “What do you think of GMOs?” Then stand back to avoid being scorched.

Genetically modified organisms have passionate denouncers and equally passionate supporters. This is especially true for GMO crops, since the genemod bacteria and animals are usually hidden away in labs, ranches, or manufacturing facilities. But there is GMO food right out front on your table, plated in front of your kids. Everybody has an opinion.

Including me.

But I didn’t want my new novella from Tachyon, Sea Change, to be a polemic for one side of the controversy. I wanted to explore in a balanced way both sides of the myriad questions involved.  In this corner of the boxing ring: GMOs aren’t natural! We don’t know what they do to the human body long-term! GMO crops will contaminate wild flora and/or kill animals, possibly including us!  There are studies! Look at the science!

And in the opposite corner: Neither is most of medical science “natural” to the human body, from Tylenol to heart transplants! There are decades of research already! Not one person has ever died from a GMO! If we don’t engineer crops, climate change and a growing world population will starve billions of people! Those studies have been invalidated! Look at the science!

The pugilistic metaphor is a deliberate choice. It isn’t only in Seattle that “GMO” is a fighting word, and with reason. There is a lot at stake: money, scientific reputations, food security, perhaps the future of the planet. The politics of genetic engineering, of agribusiness, of food regulation are all more complicated than they first appear. Both sides have waged wars of disinformation. Sometimes the war of words has spilled over into actual violence, with test farms attacked and crops destroyed, or Monsanto employees bodily threatened.

I am not a scientist. I think I would make a very bad scientist: not detail-oriented enough, or patient enough, or logical enough. Science fascinates me (forget rock stars and movie actors—I’ve always been a science groupie, sometimes embarrassingly so). But what I find really compelling are people. Why does a given person believe, act, love as they do? This is fortunate, because a writer cannot make a story solely out of controversial arguments. The science needs to happen to characters.

Sea Change happens to Renata Black. As I age, my protagonists get older (eventually I expect to be writing about octogenarians), partly because I get tired of brash, young, badass heroines. So Renata is a middle-aged woman in a near-future Seattle. Her life is not going as expected. She is a mother, a wife in a difficult marriage, an activist in a secret organization. An idealist, but one who recognizes that realizing ideals happens slowly, with effort, imperfectly, and sometimes at great personal cost.

Sea Change also happens to Jake, Renata’s actor husband. To their chess-loving son, Ian. To thirteen-year-old Lisa, a member of the Quinalt Nation. To Kyle, an ex-NFL wide receiver turned teen counselor, who has the unenviable task of trying to hold together a revolutionary cell of talented, utopian-minded misfits.

Finally, the novella is about other things as well as GMOs. Ocean blobs. Legal jurisdiction fights. Love and loss (if I hadn’t thought of it too late, I would have called my story Sea Change: A Love Story). The Quinalt Peninsula northwest of Seattle, which contains the world’s only temperate rainforest: wild, coastal, and beautiful.

A section of the Peninsula belongs to a Native American tribe, the Quinalt Nation, and so they, too, are part of my story.  For this, I had the help of a Native American sensitivity reader. The Quinalt, who have occupied their land for 1,000 years, depend heavily on salmon fishing, which is threatened by modern agricultural run-off, in addition to the host of other threats the outside world poses to Native American cultures.

Sea Change spans twenty-eight years. It begins in 2005, the year that Switzerland banned genetically modified foods and the United States added sugar beets to the GMO foods available to consumers, which already included summer squash, soybeans, papayas, and tomatoes. Renata is in college. When the novella ends, she and the world are both very different. But the battles over science go on.

And, as I read the news each day, it seems that they always will.

—-

Sea Change: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site.

The Big Idea: Jennifer Brody

People have dreams — and then they have the dreams that come after that first set of dreams came true. For Jennifer Brody, who created Spectre Deep 6 with Jules Rivera, her new graphic novel is about the latter.

JENNIFER BRODY:

I always wanted to work in Hollywood. Growing up in a small town nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, movies were my escape. Well, movies and books and TV. Anything that allowed me to travel to different places and worlds and see how other people lived, even if they were fictional characters. My imagination always ran big and wild, especially because I spent a lot of time bored in school. But Hollywood seemed so exotic and far away—so impossible. An acceptance to Harvard got me out of Virginia, and an internship landed me at Disney.

Disney. Pinch me.

Upon graduating, I knew that I was moving to LA one-way without much money or even a job lined up. It was like that back then. You packed up your car and hit the road. You had to have blind faith. You chased after your dream. You lived on ramen. You had a roommate. You got paid $500 bucks a week. You ran errands and answered phones and started at the bottom. My first job was at Michael Bay’s new company Platinum Dunes. The first film we made was a remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We were the first to do the remake thing. Everyone thought we were crazy. My parents wondered if my tuition money had gone to waste.

The film was a hit, earning over $80 million at the domestic box office. Within a year of moving West, I landed my dream job working for the executive producer of The Lord of the Rings. Did I mention that I’m a giant nerd? I’d read Tolkien’s classics cover to cover numerous times. A run of book-to-film properties followed on our slate, including The Golden Compass, Love in the Time of Cholera, and Inkheart. Working in Hollywood was a dream come true, albeit a complicated one with its share of workplace toxicity (which has now become quite public).

Despite loving my job, I had an itch that started to grow stronger. It needed scratching. After working on so many wonderful authors’ books and helping bring their worlds to life on the big screen, I found myself wanting to write my own big sci-fi trilogy. It took years and tons of work, but eventually I found the courage to do so. The result was my debut novel The 13th Continuum, the first in what would become the Continuum Trilogy. You never forget certain the things. The first time you hold a galley of your first book in your hands—your words printed on real paper. The first time you read in public. For actual people. The first time you sign a book for a fan.

I love writing and building worlds more than anything. But something was still missing. One of the things I most enjoyed about my old job was working with a team to make a film, especially the director. In cinema, the director is the one who really brings the story to life in a visual medium. I’ve always been driven by collaboration. I love how different creative talents can come together to make something better than the sum of its individual parts. Even just working with a great book editor elevates your work. I was already starting to put my books and stories together for film and TV, but that is a process that takes years and years.

I wanted something that would combine both my love of books and my love of visuals—and that’s when it hit me. I needed to write graphic novels. The medium of comics had exploded since I was a kid fueled by the Marvel and DC Comics media empires, and expanded to include more experimental and diverse storytelling. I realized that I could work with an artist to bring my vision to life, and I didn’t need millions of dollars to shoot the film or TV show (that could come later, right?). This was the perfect middle ground between books and cinema.

I had stories aplenty—I needed an artist. But they don’t just fall out of the sky, or do they?

One fine Saturday, I moderated a panel at AnaCon and a plucky, fiery artist named Jules Rivera. caught my attention. She had green hair (we both had fun hair). She wrote a sci-fi indie comic called Valkyrie Squadron and a feisty web comic called Love Joolz. She had a background in engineering. I hit her up soon after over a sci-fi short story I’d written and published called 200, and then another crazy idea followed about soldiers that died in the line of duty, only to be reanimated by military scientists and brought back as ghosts—actual spectres—to continue to carry out missions for our government in exchange for day passes to haunt their old lives and fix their unfinished business. Spectre Deep 6  was born on an afternoon brainstorming in a hotel lobby in downtown LA (though it could more aptly be named The Secret Lives of Ghosts).

The comics industry can be tough to break into, especially for women. I cautioned her. I thought we’d be lucky to sell one of our proposals. But then my amazing publisher stepped up and offered us a six book deal. Yup, you read that right. Six books! Both series would be built into trilogies. Working in graphic novel proved to be a beautiful middle place between writing prose novels (and trust me, I’m still doing those—my new series Disney Chills publishes in July) and making films. As the artist, Jules takes my words and punches them up and translates them into visuals. It reminds me of working with a director, one who gets your vision.

Jules makes my work better. We work closely together on every aspect of the scripting, character and world designs, visuals, and more. These books—Spectre Deep 6 and 200—are better for our shared imaginations and a touch of insanity. That’s how it should be for any creative work, right? I also know that Jules will be my partner in crime for many more projects.

—-

Spectre Deep 6: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Bookshop|Turner Bookstore

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

The Big Idea: Tone Milazzo

Get out your comic books: Author Tone Milazzo is thinking about the super humans that populate our popular culture, and how they relate to the themes of his new book, The Faith Machine.

TONE MILAZZO:

It took me decades realize some pretty obvious things about superheroes.

For example: Batman will never stop the Joker from killing, not for good. When Bats takes the Joker back to Arkham Asylum at the end of a comic, it’s a carpool. Just a guy giving the Joker a ride home after work. For all his struggles, the best Batman can do is maintain the status quo. He has to if there’s going to be more Batman vs. Joker stories. Batman wins the battles, but he’ll never win the war, and the Joker gets away.

I think a lot (too much) about what if superpowers were real. How would the criminal justice system, economics, technology, intelligence, and the military accommodate even bottom-tier superheroes and villains? Superheroes are in their own printed world, but aren’t a part of their world. Heroes want to fix their world’s problems. But the publishers won’t let them. If you drop someone like Superman or Spider-man into a world like ours, they start changing things, and that world spins off into something unrecognizable (and, from a publisher’s point-of-view, unmarketable).

That hasn’t stopped superheroes from lurching toward realism since Marvel’s initial line up was set in New York instead of Fictional City, USA. A decade later, Denny O’Neil and Neil Adams challenged Green Lantern/Green Arrow with the real problems of drugs and racism. They brought Batman down to earth as well, abandoning the last traces of his TV persona and redefining him as The Dark Knight. A few years after that, Chris Claremont and John Byrne would bring complex, human relationships into The Uncanny X-Men at Marvel. Each of these legendary creative teams brought superheroes a step away from the simple, pulp origins of the 40s.

Come 1986, and two titles, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns dragged superheroes as far as they could into the real world, and dragged me, as a reader, along with them. I wanted stories that brought my childhood heroes into adulthood with me, a thick layer of nostalgia to protect me from the real world, but without the corniness. Any comic that professed, “This is what real life superheroes would be like,” had my money. Thus began the Dark Age of comics. The age of gritty anti-heroes whose imperfections outweighed their virtues. That’s what I thought I wanted. Until ten years ago, when two grassroots political movements emerged and were destroyed.

Occupy Wall Street was oppressed as law enforcement persecuted its members and leadership. Meanwhile, the Tea Party was exploited by Republicans for their votes and funds while giving nothing back. I saw new powers destroyed or manipulated by the existing powers. If this is how upstart political powers were treated in the real world, why not superpowers?

In this context, I finally realized this reality informed both Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. The Comedian and Dr Manhattan worked for the government, while the rest of the Watchmen were outlawed. Superman worked for the President, while law enforcement hunted The Dark Knight. I hadn’t seen this message about power under the Dark Age’s thick layer of grim and gritty.

The only way I could come to terms with superhero fiction was to write my own. Superheroes whose actions change and improve their world, but with a tension between superpowers and the established powers. My own lurch toward realism. For that, I needed a setting.

That came to me while reading The Men Who Stare at Goats, Jon Ronson’s non-fiction book on Cold War psychic warfare programs. According to first-hand accounts by the participants, members of the US Army’s First Earth Battalion were capable of clairvoyance, stealth, and the titular remote slaying of farm animals. They were superhuman and part of the intelligence community under the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency). What if these “agents of the mind” existed, operating among us? Striking in secret with subtle powers, but still servants to greater, mundane powers?

Psychic espionage became the framework for exploring these themes of power in the The Faith Machine. A clandestine world where power doesn’t flex along a strict line between flashy good guys and bad guys. It’s hundreds of factions aligned to nations, criminal justice systems, economics, technology, intelligence, and the military, all at each other’s throats, usually for selfish reasons. When nascent powers manifest in this world the extant power structures move in to destroy or employ them to maintain the status quo. A story about one of those nascent powers learning to fight back, and to win once and for all.

—-

The Faith Machine: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Dan Moren

We are all searchers of truth — some more than others. Dan Moren is thinking about the truthseekers in this Big Idea piece for his new novel, The Aleph Extraction.

DAN MOREN:

Truth is a binary concept: either something is true, or it isn’t.

Or is it?

As a certain Jedi Knight—and questionable teacher—once said, “many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”

When writing any story, truth becomes a much more slippery concept for the characters, the reader, and even the writer. That’s especially true when you’re dealing with the shady realms of spies, criminals, and legends, as in my latest novel, The Aleph Extraction,

As Aleph opens, Commonwealth covert operative Simon Kovalic and his team are sent after the Aleph Tablet, a legendary artifact that’s believed to contain secrets which could tip the balance of the ongoing Galactic Cold War. Are those secrets real? Is the artifact they’re searching for actually the genuine article? Does the “real” artifact even exist, or is it all just a myth?

The idea for the Aleph Tablet stemmed from my fascination with the Mesha Stele, an ancient inscribed stone that’s one of the oldest pieces of archaeological evidence mentioning events from the Bible. I first came across the Mesha Stele in one of my Near Eastern Studies courses in college and, as someone raised by a pair of parents who were not particularly religious—one a mostly secular Jew, the other a lapsed Catholic—I was captivated by discovering the “truth” of religion. With the customary self-assuredness of a twenty-year-old, I figured that hard evidence must lead in a direct line towards capital-T, universal Truth.

A year or so after I learned about the Mesha Stele, I was traveling abroad in France and turned a corner in the Louvre only to come face-to-face with the stone itself. But as amazed and awed as I was to see it with my own eyes, what didn’t happen was an Indiana Jones moment, where I was confronted by the incontrovertible truth, beams of energy shooting forth as from the Ark of the Covenant—probably a good thing, since ouch.

Maybe it was because the stone was smaller in person, maybe it was because it was just tucked away in some random alcove in a museum, but for me, the truth of it in that moment was less earth-shattering than I’d hoped. Ultimately, the Mesha Stele is a window into historical events, but it neither confirmed nor denied truth.

That was a milestone in a lifelong journey, where I’ve learned that “truth” isn’t always synonymous with “fact.” Truth can be far more personal, such as one’s belief in a higher power. It’s something that one needs to search out for oneself, and it can take a long time—for some, their whole lives. Others might never find it.

All of the main characters in The Aleph Extraction are searching for truth in one way or another. Kovalic wants to know if the suspicions about his boss’s ulterior motives are true; daredevil pilot Eli Brody wants the truth of what happened between Kovalic and their former team member Aaron Page; and new recruit Addy Sayers, well, she wants to know if the future that Kovalic and his team promise can truly live up to her expectations.

As an author, you have to know the truth of your story, even if your characters don’t. Keeping track of what different characters know—and, more to the point, what they think they know—can be a tricky proposition. As the omniscient force behind the scenes, you can see the whole picture, but you want to be careful about how you dole out that information to the characters and to the reader—especially, if you’re building for a big reveal.

Every story depends at least in part on withholding the truth, whether it’s your classic whodunnit or a mainstream literary novel. Fundamentally, if your readers know everything that’s going to happen, then there’s not much reason for them to keep reading.

Character’s points of view are a lens through which you can present the reader with a facet of the truth. Those characters may have doubts and questions, or they may be convinced that they—and perhaps only they—know the real truth. They may even avoid confronting truths that are inconvenient or uncomfortable.

By the time The Aleph Extraction comes to a close, all the characters have had to grapple with truth and decide whether they can live with it.

I can relate: the older I get, the more I come to grips with everything I don’t know—and may never know. Having recently turned 40, the idea of ever getting to some sort of universal Truth seems further away than ever, especially given the world we live in, where the very idea of truth has become a weapon to be wielded in the service of opinion.

Ultimately, I’ve reconciled myself to the idea that some truths are unknowable, destined to forever remain a mystery. Is the Aleph Tablet one of those? You’ll just have to read the book to find out.

—-

The Aleph Extraction: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Apple Books

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

The Big Idea: Ilze Hugo

I’m going to use this intro part of this Big Idea piece to say that the cover of The Down Days, by Ilze Hugo, is probably my favorite book cover of the year. To date! There might be a better one down the line! But I suspect not. And now here’s the author to tell you about the book that merits such a fantastic bit of cover art. Spoiler: It’s super timely at the moment.

ILZE HUGO:

I stumbled onto the idea for my debut novel, The Down Days, while doing research for the Time Out Cape Town travel guide. I was visiting sightseeing attractions for research and on my list was a medical museum I’d never heard of that was hidden away behind one of the city’s hospitals.

Stepping inside, I found the usual array of weird historical medical memorabilia along with an exhibition on the history of disease in Cape Town that blew my mind. (Don’t get too excited and start dreaming about buying that plane ticket – the exhibition wasn’t much more than a few boards of text laid out in a row; no artefacts or fancy lights or audio or anything). But the ideas contained within the words on those boards made me think about epidemics in a way I’d never done before. Particularly the way epidemics have shaped my city.

Take scurvy, for example: If it wasn’t for scurvy, the Dutch East India Company wouldn’t have found the need to plant a veggie garden on the tip of Africa in the first place. During the 1600s, spices were a hot commodity. People went all ‘Dune’ for them. And getting them back to Europe was a death sentence for many. In fact, so many sailors were dying from scurvy while sailing between East and West that the Dutch East India Company had to come up with a plan. Their solution? Set up a pit-stop at the midway point and plant a veggie garden there. And so Cape Town was born.

The idea that viruses could shape a city culturally, socially and geographically. fascinated me, so I started doing more research on the cultural history of disease in Cape Town and abroad. What really struck me was the plethora of similarities in how humans responded to epidemics across different time periods and time zones. Every single epidemic seemed to be the same story on repeat. The history of epidemics was Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, stuck in the same loop, ad infinitum.

Take the way in which governments and society as a whole have consistently used epidemics as an excuse to further racial/political agendas and give a voice to really screwed up prejudices. (One South African example is how, during the Bubonic Plague outbreak in Cape Town, Africans needed a plague pass to travel because they were deemed ‘unclean’; their homes were also razed to the ground and they were sent to tented camps on the Cape Flats, while the houses of Europeans were merely disinfected.)

Another thing I found interesting was how myths, misinformation and conspiracy theories spread like wildfire during each epidemic. And crazy made-up cures circulated, like drinking whiskey or bleach. (This spread of myths and fake news would later become a major theme of my book.)

So now I had something that really interested me. Epidemics and how they change history. With a lot of great historical material to use for world-building. I was all set and ready to write my novel, right? Umm, no. Not exactly.

There was a problem. Epidemics were well-worn territory. It seemed like every damn novelist and their mother had written one. Not to mention all the films on the topic. So, how to do it differently?

While I was planning and writing the book, South Africa was reeling from a wave of corruption scandals; we had a major electricity crisis; and a water crisis that seemed positively Apocalyptic. (In April 2018, the city announced that we were 3 months away from running out of municipal water. To curb the crisis and try and stop Day Zero, citizens were only allowed to use 50 litres a day. That’s about 13 gallons – less than a 6th of what the average American uses per day*.)

But although it felt like the world as we knew it was falling apart, people were still going about their daily lives. Adapting to all the load shedding schedules and water restrictions and the bizarre newspaper headlines that sounded like punchlines to one big cosmic joke. Moaning a bit, sure, sometimes even having sleepless nights, but mostly cracking jokes. Cause what else could we do? We just had to keep going. Falling in love, feeding the dog, paying the bills, putting on pants in the morning. (Although nowadays, thanks to self-isolation and Zoom, that too is optional.)

I couldn’t help thinking about all those classic post-apocalyptic films and novels where they make it seem like one day the world just crashes to a stop in a big ball of proverbial flames, the clock resets and the next moment we’re running around in mohawks and leather bikinis with guns strapped to our ankles, dodging cannibals and living off fried rats.  And about all the horrifying epidemics mankind have managed to weather and somehow survived throughout history.

Maybe that whole fried rat scenario wasn’t so realistic after all? Maybe the Apocalypse would be more of a slow fizzle, rather than a big bang. Maybe it wouldn’t even be so Apocalyptic after all. Because in among the doom and gloom, people are stronger and more resilient than we give them credit for. Whatever the universe seems to throw at us, we just roll with it and adapt. Humans seem to have a way of surviving against the odds. Like cockroaches.

Yes, that’s what I wanted to write about. Not another just depressing, slit your wrists, let’s all cry in a bucket and put on the spandex kind of Apocalypse. I wanted to write an apocalypse with hope. Full of craziness, sure. And chaos. And cults. And confusion. And corpse collecting. And quarantine. And mass hysteria. And ghosts. And hair thieves. And MMA Easter Bunnies. And masks. Of course, masks. (Crazy ones, fashionable ones and colourful ones.) But also… hope.

*According to this National Geographic article: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2018/02/cape-town-running-out-of-water-drought-taps-shutoff-other-cities/

—-

The Down Days: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Laura Lam

Start with cinematic dreams and stellar ambitions, and what do you get from there? For Laura Lam, you get Goldilocks, her new novel. She’s here to tell you how it all came together.

LAURA LAM:

I love astronaut films.

Gravity. Interstellar. The Martian. Armageddon. Ad Astra. The Mars TV show on Netflix that’s OK, not a film, and also half a documentary. Sunshine. Moon. Some are more scientifically plausible than others. They have tone and pacing ranging from cerebral and contemplative to high octane and a little silly.

I love the stakes of space, the vastness and unknown of it all. It keeps secrets, even as scientists are getting better at peering into its depths.  It reminds me that humans and the Earth are just a tiny speck in the grand scope of things.

Yet a lot of astronaut films arise from those initial machismo beginnings of the Mercury 7 and those who have The Right Stuff. And I love watching the space cowboy archetype. But in a lot of them, the female characters are relegated to people back on the surface, either as human computers, or comms people, or the astronaut’s wife (as happened to Liv Tyler twice in two different films). We’ve started seeing more women in space—Anne Hathaway in Interstellar, Jessica Chastain and Kate Mara in The Martian—but the only one that seems to star a woman is Gravity, with Sandra Bullock. That’s maybe my favourite astronaut film, but she’s also alone for the bulk of it.

I really wanted to see an astronaut film with a cast of women front and centre. Working together, relying on each other, and of course, starting to learn that they were all keeping secrets. So I started writing Goldilocks. Though as a book, not a screenplay, since I have no pull in Hollywood.

There’s so much fascinating space history, past and present, about people who weren’t the default picture of an astronaut that I hadn’t learned about until relatively recently. The Mercury 13, who took the same tests as the Mercury 7 and performed better but weren’t allowed to go into space anyway. The African American human computers highlighted in Hidden Figures. Margaret Hamilton, with that amazing phot of her standing next to the pile of code she wrote for Apollo 11 that’s taller than she is. Mae Jemison, who was the first African American astronaut in space AND was a character on an episode in Star Trek: Next Gen, which is so damn cool. We just had the first all-female space walk 6 months ago after the first one was cancelled because they didn’t have two space suits of the right size, and we still haven’t had a woman on the moon. There have been no openly trans and/or nonbinary astronauts yet as far as I am aware (although trans man Sam Long has been campaigning for it). We only found out Sally Ride was gay after she passed (or at least I did). I want more films and books about people like them. One of the Mercury 13, Wally Funk, is in her 80s and still trying to get into space through Virgin. Send Wally Funk to space!

The Mercury 13 in particular helped me coalesce the purpose behind Goldilocks. I imagined a future where bigotry kept rising, particularly of the sexist variety, since things like the Heartbeat Bills and the discourse around women running for politics were fresh in my mind. I tend to pitch the book as The Martian or Interstellar meets the Handmaid’s Tale, which works well enough as a shorthand starting point. Most books have a series of ‘what if?’ questions behind them that echo that underlying Big Idea, so mine would be:

What if Earth was dying and there was a potential lush and verdant Planet B, called Cavendish? What if the best people for the mission to go there were women, and a woman had even financed the bulk of building the spaceship, but at the last minute they were thrown off the mission to be replaced by men? What if they decided ‘screw that’ and stole the spaceship to save humanity anyway? Then what if after they left, things started really going to hell in a handbasket back on Earth? And what if everyone on board had secrets that, if unleashed, could fracture the trust they need to complete the mission?

I did a lot of research. I tried to keep the science reasonably accurate, with a few big extrapolations of our tech potential in the near future (warp drive, a gravity ring, etc). I do not have a scientific background, so I figured if I could describe things in a way that made sense to me, it would make sense to most other laypeople. I did a lot of solo research, but also ended up speaking to a critical care doctor who is a visiting research scientist for the Cardiovascular and Vision lab at NASA, the former head of life sciences for the Johnston Space Center in Houston, two astrophysicists, a professor of space law, an evolutionary biologist who runs a lab looking at algae in the context of climate change, and several experts in infectious diseases and vaccines, which made going into 2020 armed with that knowledge more than a little alarming.

So I wove in a love of science, my fears for the future of this planet, my favourite bits of astronaut films, and interpersonal dynamics of a group of women with ultimately very different ideas of what it means to save the future of humanity. It will probably never be translated to the big screen (though I guess you never know, I can dream), but damn if it wasn’t a hell of a lot of fun to imagine what it would be like to go into space and to have the right stuff.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Jon McGoran

In the aftermath of writing his latest novel Spiked, author Jon McGoran found the reality of the moment catching up with the future of his fiction in ways he didn’t expect… and in ways that gave him food for thought.

JON McGORAN:

One of the things that has drawn me to science fiction since I was a kid is the way it embraces­—or, as a writer, allows one to embrace—big ideas. I have one of those restless brains that is always churning out ideas: not always big, definitely not always good, and probably 60% in the form of puns. But some of them are big, and some of them stick with me. And some of those make their way into stories or books.

My Spliced series started with a single big idea: What would happen if genetic engineering technology matured to the point that it was available on the street as a form of body modification?

That idea sparked many questions, and many other ideas. What would the world be like by then? Transformed in many ways by climate change. Who would actually get spliced? Probably mostly young people. Why would they do it? Many reasons, including solidarity with the natural world, protesting its destruction, and preserving and honoring species going extinct. How would others react to them?

That last one became one of the defining themes in the books. I knew that if these chimeras existed, some people would seek to use them: some demonizing them for political gain, some seeking to label them as non-persons, and some trying to physically exploit them for profit. And yes, there’s a lot of overlap among those groups.

Those ideas were at the core of the first two books in the trilogy, and they remain essential to the final one, Spiked, as well. But Spiked also goes in different directions that are incredibly relevant today.

The people most vehement about labeling chimeras as non-persons are also most enthusiastic about embracing computer implants, called Wellplants in the book, named for the character who developed them and who also leads the anti-chimera backlash. Is it kind of hypocritical for one group of transhumanists to try to dehumanize another group of transhumanists? Heh-heh. Sure is. But people are like that, amiright? In my mind, Wellplants are a way to explore the impact of smart phones, the digital divide, and the ways in which wealth and technology can make some people very different from others.

The other big idea is… Pandemics.

Pandemics have been a part of the Spliced world from the beginning. Part of the backstory of the trilogy is that a flu pandemic some time between now and then contributed to a depopulation that altered the social landscape. Combined with energy scarcity and a costly new super-efficient energy distribution technology, they caused a virtual abandonment of sprawling suburbs, a blight that mirrored in ways what happened to inner cities in the last century.

But pandemics reappear to take center stage in Spiked. I don’t want to go into too much detail (after all, the title is Spiked, not Spoilered), but it has been eerie. I spent a couple of years researching pandemics (especially the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic), first for the back story and then for Spiked, then writing scenes of a pandemic tearing through my city of Philadelphia, and finally watching one take place in real time, while waiting for the book to come out.

I write a lot of near-future science fiction and science thrillers, so seeing ideas from my books come to life is nothing new, but this has been orders of magnitude different. And much sadder and creepier.

There are a lot of differences between COVID-19 and the pandemic in Spiked, but a lot of similarities as well, like viruses jumping from species to species and widespread quarantines.

At the risk of revealing a little too much, the pandemic in Spiked doesn’t just happen, and part of the impetus behind its release is to save the environment in the face of dwindling resources and impending climate collapse, to save the Earth—for the right people, of course. It’s an idea I find both reprehensible and fascinating. (I explore another version of the same idea more deeply in another novel that is as yet unfinished).

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a human tragedy of colossal proportions on many fronts. But one razor-thin silver lining bears out some of the ideas in Spiked: the accompanying global slowdown has had a strikingly beneficial impact on the environment. In India, mountain ranges long invisible have reappeared in the distance. Satellites over China reveal a substantial decrease in air pollution and an increase in the clarity of the atmosphere. In a few short (or, subjectively, excruciatingly long) weeks, the air and water have grown demonstrably cleaner and healthier. In some places carbon emissions have plummeted to extents that have previously been declared unachievable.

No one expects these benefits to last, no one wants the pandemic to last, and no one seriously sees this as a long-term solution to climate change. But it does raise some interesting and difficult questions. Perhaps the biggest of them is this: If the world is capable of taking such drastic action (or inaction, as the case may be) to save hundreds of thousands of lives in the short term, why are we so incapable of taking similarly drastic action to save hundreds of millions of lives in the long term, not to mention, the planet itself?

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Adrian J. Walker

For his new novel The Human Son, author Adrian J. Walker decided to get into a different mindset entirely. A very very different mindset.

ADRIAN J. WALKER:

Human beings make terrible decisions. I wrote The Human Son in the shadow of Brexit, so I know what I’m talking about.

Don’t worry, that wasn’t a political statement. I’m not suggesting anyone was wrong or right in that particular vote; rather that everyone was, and has been in every single vote that’s ever been taken.

Let me explain.

The Human Son begins with a decision. 500 years after they were genetically engineered to fix climate change, a small population of advanced beings called the erta gather in a hall and discuss what to do next. Their purpose has been fulfilled and the earth is rebalanced, but at a cost; in order to fix the planet, humanity had to be allowed to die out. Now they must decide whether or not to resurrect it, but they quickly realise that they lack the right data to make this decision. To remedy this, a quiet and clinical atmospheric chemist named Ima — our hero — volunteers to raise a single human child as her own by way of experiment. This, as every parent will know, leads to unexpected results.

As I wrote about Ima’s life and the (at first) utopian existence of her species, I watched what would be four years of political strife unfold in my own timeline and wondered what the erta would make of it all. The difference between their decision-making abilities and ours became one of the book’s big ideas.

Faced with the monumental task of fixing a broken planet, the erta know immediately what needs to be done first: remove humans. Their lack of human frailties like fear, desire and agenda combined with a supreme scientific prowess allows them to identify every global system at play, and specifically those which are most difficult to predict and control. As it turns out, these systems are the social, economic and psychological behaviours of humans themselves. The data is right there in front of them, and so the erta’s decision is swift; so long, sapiens, and thanks for all the carbon.

Compare this with the decision making process of Brexit, or any other great democratic enterprise for that matter. Ask 65 million furious little boxes of fears, hopes, and neuroses to make a gigantic choice with little or no background information and then, to help them decide, shout slogans at them.

Ima would be baffled at such a process. ‘But where is the data?’ she would ask.

The Human Son is told in the first person, and narrating from Ima’s clinical and sometimes harsh perspective had a big impact on my writing. At the start of the book she is a perfect example of her species, seeing things purely as they are rather than what they are like. Simile, metaphor and poetry are of no use to her; in fact, she can’t stand them, so they don’t feature at all in her writing. I was surprised at how fun it was to write in this style, and how liberating it is to describe the world precisely as it appears rather than through the filter of prose. Even more enjoyable was allowing Ima’s voice to develop through the book; her journey as a parent leads her to realise that sometimes truth lies not just in words themselves, but in the space between them. By the final chapter her voice has changed immeasurably.

The more time I spent with Ima the more I thought about what it would mean to delegate to an intelligence such as hers, free from the human gravities of desire and agenda. Fear dominates most discussions about machine intelligence and, to many, the concept of allowing a non-human entity to make human decisions is horrifying. We may as well just boot up SkyNet now and give it the launch codes while we’re at it, right? And even if it didn’t blow us up, what about the humanity? All those fiddly little human nuances we hold so dear. How could any non-human intelligence know what’s best for us?

But such intelligences are already in place and developing, though in arguably more mundane ways and with fewer guns. Big Data allows us to predict social, economic and psychological behaviour with increasing accuracy, and meteorological and geological modelling software is improving by the day. I wonder what we would do if some future amalgamation of all these systems attempted to give us advice. What would be the reaction if it was able to predict with indisputable accuracy the outcome of a political decision? Would it be heard? Or would it be scoffed at, as experts tend to be?

And what if these systems become accessible to us on an individual level? What if we could tap into all this data and use it to help us make decisions about our own lives? And I’m not just talking about the things we already ask of computers — which route, which insurance package, which book, etc., but rather: Do I take that job? Vote for her? Marry him?

Would we listen to it? Our would we revert to our trusty intuitions — those ‘gut instincts’ we’re so proud of yet which, if we’re honest, so often fail us?

If most of us would do the latter, then it’s because human decision making is as much about asserting an ideal as it is about making the right choice, whether for ourselves or for the other 7 billion bundles of neuroses stumbling around the planet. This means that if we want to develop technology to help us make better decisions, then we must also find a way of abandoning our agendas, desires, and fears. Like the erta, we would need to cast off that which drags us down.

Whether or not this occurs through cultural shift or rapid transhuman evolution, it will ultimately come down to yet another choice: do we want to remain as we are and continue to stumble, or fly and risk losing our souls?

—-

The Human Son: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: A.J. Hartley

If we’re lucky, we don’t come to close to thing that might terrify us. A.J. Hartley did not have that luck, and the encounter he had informed what would become his latest novel, Impervious.

A.J. HARTLEY:

How do you make fantasy out of real life horror?

It happened 51 weeks ago, my personal glimpse of a distinctly American nightmare many of us generally witness from the safe distance of our living rooms while the usual images crowd our TVs and laptop screens: aerial footage of locked down schools surrounded by police cars with strobing lights, SWAT teams running past assembly halls, classrooms and libraries, crying children being led away. Then the endless talking heads babbling about motives, about mental health issues and, of course, about weapons. If there is a good thing to come out of this Corona virus nightmare it’s this: no more mass shootings.

51 weeks ago I was sheltering for fear of something other than contagion. I was huddled in a silent dressing room in a soundproofed corner of our university’s performing arts complex. I am, among other things, a Shakespeare professor in UNC Charlotte’s department of theatre, and I had been about to participate in an end of year celebration for our graduating students. Then the gunfire started in a neighboring building a couple of hundred yards away. Some people ran, some took shelter, fearing that we might be more vulnerable outside. I took a group of students and we waited it out in a locked dressing room, watching our muted phones for news of what was or might be going on.

I was oddly calm at the time, as if I had always known this day would come. I knew that my job was to stay composed and help others to do the same, and though we knew shots had been fired, we didn’t hear anything. Theatres are built to screen the noise beyond their walls out, so we kept still, listening for the sound of footsteps approaching, of someone trying to get in, wondering which of those with us might help fight off an attacker.

Run. Hide. Fight.

Those were the instructions we got through our phones from the school’s emergency broad cast system. We had missed our chance at the first, and all we could do was the second, hoping it didn’t come to the last.

And it didn’t. People died, but not us. One student, Riley Howel, sacrificed himself to disarm the gunman, and then the police contained the situation. We didn’t know that for almost two hours, during which time there were rumors of a second shooter which came through social media, talk of the police looking for bombs in other buildings… So we waited until the all clear came, the police swept the buildings and we emerged back into normal reality.

Except not really.

It was a couple of days before my first full on panic attack. I was grocery shopping at the store I always go to. It was all absolutely familiar. Then, for no reason I can identify, I started freaking out. I had to warn people how much danger they were in. I had to get out of there before he got me.

It wasn’t rational or triggered (the perfect word) by anything I could pinpoint. I just felt unsafe. 51 weeks on, a part of me still does.

So I did what I always do when I need to process something: I wrote. Specifically, I wrote a fantasy novel about a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-esque high school girl called Trina who wakes up one day with a curious affinity for and skill with blades: kitchen knives, machetes, swords. She was a hero born for a specific moment, a moment taking shape in her school, a moment we have seen countless times on those TV screens and laptop computers…

I wrote almost continually for thirteen days, pausing only to eat and sleep and use the bathroom. And when I was done I had a story called Impervious: young adult in terms of the protagonist, a little shorter than most complete novels, but a story, whole and finished. I tidied it up over the next week or so, polishing some more during the editorial process which spread out over the few months after the novel was acquired by Falstaff books. But the heart of the thing was done in those first thirteen days when I could still feel what it had been like, sneaking, hiding, wondering if I would walk away from it. Never in my life has the old cliché been truer: this was a book I had to write. It was part catharsis, part clarification and it was entirely necessary.

I am not naïve enough to imagine for a moment that a novel will have any significant impact in the world, but maybe—maybe—it will help people who have been in similar situations, or have not fully imagined what that experience is like. At the time I was baffled by how upsetting it was since, as I kept telling people, I had never personally been in serious danger. I wasn’t shot. I didn’t see those who were. But I have felt vulnerable ever since, as if a portion of the world I knew only by repute has become real to me. Maybe the book will do similarly for others. If nothing else, it’s a book about heroes, sung and unsung, and we always need those.

—-

Impervious: Amazon|Others

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

The Big Idea: S.L. Huang

Characters these days often have extraordinary abilities that make them seem almost more than human. The protagonist of S.L. Huang’s new novel Critical Point has one. It may not be the one you expected.

S.L. HUANG:

So, I’m a nerd.

I’ve always been a nerd. By middle school, I had all the Star Wars movies memorized, was making jokes about mathematical limits, and wore T-shirts with Maxwell’s equations. And, like many nerds, I’ve always wanted superpowers.

I mean, who doesn’t? Superpowers would be awesome.

I’ve also always been athletic, but I tended to be better at math than, say, softball. Somewhere along the line, it started to feel grossly unfair that I could do all the calculations for hitting a home run, but I couldn’t actually do it. I could know exactly the initial velocity I needed over the precise range of angles, and then solve for the force in the collision of bat and ball—clearly that meant I should be the most amazing batter ever! Or gymnast, or martial artist, or skydiver…

And not just math. Learning the science behind combustion should totally let me become the Human Torch, right?

What if, I thought—what if being a math and science nerd meant being able to do literally anything one could calculate? What if understanding the theory was all it took to be an expert in the practice?

I ended up learning martial arts and swords the old-fashioned way—through annoying amounts of sweat and hard work—and meanwhile went to MIT to study math. In my heart of hearts, though… I still only wanted to pretend to have superpowers.

So after graduating, I moved out to LA to become a stuntwoman.

Working on film and television was a nerd dream come true. It’s like LARPing on steroids—and with really talented professionals helping you get all the cosplay right! My very first stunt job was on Battlestar Galactica, and as someone who was already a diehard fan of the show, I had to work hard to stay professional and not go around creepily petting the set. As it turns out, there’s a lot more math and engineering in stunts than you might expect—riggers rattle off instant trigonometry on the fly as they set up wire work sequences, or invent new ways of using equipment from other industries to drop cars or cannonball people into the air. But as a performer, I continued to train in all sorts of new physical skills on a regular basis, and every time a new trick eluded me, I’d remember that old wish—if only I could assimilate it all, Matrix-style, just by being able to do the math.

I’d long been writing stories on the side, and this idea wouldn’t stop nibbling at me. Meanwhile, I was having some of the most brilliant and seedy adventures running the gamut of LA’s film scene, where I worked with old cowboys, drag racers, off-the-wall explosives experts, and—on some memorable occasions—people who were a bit too unconcerned about the law. I learned how to play hardball on money, how to jump off a twenty-foot building, and how to keep an M16 clean in the desert. And at some point, this very old idea of mine clicked with all the new life experience.

I could write a protagonist so good at math, so good at doing calculations in the moment, that she could not only hit home runs but take down armies of grown men. I could make her the snarky antiheroine of a fast-paced scifi thriller and drop her right in all the sleaziest parts of LA I knew too well, and give her every physical skill I’d seen an ex-Olympic gymnast or ex-professional athlete do during one of my normal days at work.

Because she could do the math.

Because math would be her superpower.

At the time I was writing it, it took a little courage to make my main character a woman, even as I was working as a weapons expert and had become the first professional female armorer in Hollywood. Nowadays, because she’s a small nonwhite woman and so am I, people often ask if my protagonist is based on me. “I hope not,” I always say with a laugh. “I hope I kill a few less people than she does!”

I’m rather bubbly and nice in person, so no, she definitely isn’t based on me. Her powers, though… Her powers are totally wish fulfillment.

These books became my love letter to mathematics and geekdom, but also my love letter to Los Angeles, even all the parts of it that were less than kind. All the things that shaped me. And that’s especially true in the book coming out today, Critical Point, which is the third book in the series. From book 1, Zero Sum Game, we’ve learned of not only my main character’s powers, but all the other people in this fictional world who have unexpected abilities, too. Not only science and math, but any other mundane skill you might imagine, all as otherworldly powers—to become superheroes, and supervillains, or somewhere in between. Telepaths, fighters, cultists, healers, hackers. And here in book 3, we’re going to get hit with exactly what kinds of impacts these superpowered people can have upon the world, if they so choose.

It’s not like one terrible person with a cult of personality would be able to sway global events in reality, right? Right?

On a more giddy and delightful note, there’s another reason Critical Point is a culmination of all my math-backgrounded movie gallivanting. Let’s put it this way: in my head I call this book “the one with all the explosions.”

So, so many explosions.

—-

Critical Point: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Danielle Trussoni

A shocking revelation about Danielle Trussoni’s past turned into the big idea for her novel The Ancestor — and more than the novel beside. She’s here now to tell you about the revelation, and how it lead to her newest projects.

DANIELLE TRUSSONI:

My new novel The Ancestor is about a woman who takes a DNA test, discovers she is related to an aristocratic family in the Italian Alps. At first, it seems like a wonderful surprise, but when she visits the family castle in the Aosta Valley, she learns the dark secrets and her family’s genetic inheritance.

The idea for this story came after I took a DNA test myself, and had the surprise of my life. My father was Italian American, and I grew up in the shadow of this heritage. My childhood was filled with large family gatherings, Italian food, Catholic school and stories of my great-grandparents’ lives in the Italian Alps. I visited the small Alpine village where my ancestors were born, and am part of a group of relatives who organize tours to the village every year. And so I was astonished to discover, after taking a 23andMe test, that I am exactly 1.7% Italian. My sister took the test, too, and her results were the same. We are more English and Norwegian than Italian, more French and German than Italian, a fact that shattered the cultural identity that was an enormous part of our childhood.

This surprise made me realize how powerful ancestral stories are in our lives, and it made me wonder: What could be the most shocking revelation you might discover in your ancestral pedigree? What would such a discovery do to our sense of family and belonging? The Ancestor is my answer.

While the discoveries the heroine of The Ancestor makes lead to a suspenseful hunt for the truth, what most interested me when I was writing this book was the idea of human relationships and, specifically, our relationship to our human ancestors, and our ‘genetic family tree’ in the present and past.

I spent a lot of time reading about the history of human evolution, and way too much time thinking about Neanderthals and other hominids that evolved alongside Homo Sapiens. I was so engrossed by this research, that I branched out, and found myself learning about a branch of (some say faux) science called cryptozoology: the scientific pursuit of hidden, or undocumented creatures such as the Yeti or mermaids or giant medusa jellyfish.

By the time I was done, I had pages and pages of research that had no place in The Ancestor. Being the kind of writer I am, I wanted to use this research in my fiction, and so I wrote an audio drama podcast called Crypto-Z, which imagines a team of cryptozoologists hunting down a cryptid in the Italian Alps. There are actors performing and an ambient bath of sound that creates a truly immersive listening experience.

The idea behind writing The Ancestor and Crypto-Z was to explore the idea of our genetic connection to each other, the past, and ‘the other’ in ways that challenge the notion of tribalism, while creating utterly different kinds of narrative experiences. I wanted to ask the question: What if there are other humans that evolved alongside us? What if they are still here, hidden among us? How would we see ourselves differently when faced with our ancestors?

You can see the trailer for Crypto-Z on Youtube and sign up for it on Apple Podcasts to get the first episode when it goes live later this month.

—-

The Ancestor: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Oblong Books (signed copies)

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

The Big Idea: A.J. Hartley

A book doesn’t have to have a single big idea — it can have ideas of all sizes, combined to make something new. A.J. Hartley had a few ideas for his “Steeplejack” series, of which Firebrand is the second, and today, he’s here to explain them, and what he’s done to make realize these ideas effectively.

A.J. HARTLEY:

The core of the Steeplejack series, the idea at its heart, came out of the collision of two smaller ideas that I had assumed would be separate books. One was a fantasy adventure set in a world which looked like Africa. The other was a Victorian steampunk mystery centering on a character who worked on the city’s tall factory chimneys. When I realized that the two stories might be combined, creating a unique, 19th-century metropolis within an African context, the series came together. The result was not just a world that had all the smoggy trappings of a Sherlock Holmes mystery surrounded by a wilderness full of strange and potentially dangerous creatures, the story was also necessarily defined by the racial dynamics of the population. Bar-Selehm, the city which is the home for the books, is based very loosely on Durban in South Africa, a city with a substantial Indian population in addition to the minority white and indigenous blacks. Since I imagined a conquest of the region which took place several centuries earlier than did the British subjugation of South Africa, however, the imaginary city is a steam-driven industrial power house living according to a political system resembling apartheid.

The protagonist of the series is Anglet Sutonga, a brown skinned Lani steeplejack who, in book one, was recruited by a powerful local politician to investigate the events surrounding the murder of her apprentice. In book two, Firebrand, she has acquired greater autonomy and agency, and is now attempting to unravel the theft of some secret government plans against a backdrop of rising political tension. This latter is driven by the rise of a right wing populist politician who is seeking to return the city to older ideas of racial segregation in response to the recent immigration of foreign refugees fleeing their war-torn homeland.

I should say here that I’m a white guy, and that with the best will in the world, there are certain things I’m never going to be able to evoke as well as a someone who has actually lived the experience. That’s worrying for a writer. We’re told to write what we know, and limited though that injunction might be, it’s solid advice if only because when readers can tell you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re screwed. At best they are momentarily knocked out of the story. At worst you lose them completely and you look like an imposter.

That said, the world is full of books about white people and I didn’t want to merely add to the pile. I’ll go further and say that I think I have a moral obligation to at least try to write stories which reflect the diversity I see around me.

But the road to hell is paved with good intentions and it’s not enough to mean well. Now, I’m on safer ground with fantasy. The world of the Steeplejack books is made up. It’s a place and time that has never existed, so I’m as well qualified to write it as anyone else, but to do it well requires me to draw on other people’s experience. I’ve been to places, for instance, where I knew I could not trust the police, that if anything happened to me—or even if it didn’t—they would be as likely to treat me criminally as they were to help. But I haven’t lived the bulk of my life in such a condition, so to imagine it I needed to listen to those who had. I shared my work as it developed with friends of color and asked them to flag any moment, any idea, any assumption which felt wrong, off, or stereotypical. Because one of the hardest things about writing people who aren’t you is the tendency—usually one you can’t see—to rely on what you think you know but which is actually coming from impressions shaped by your own difference. This is especially true when you are representing minorities who, perhaps, you don’t have much close personal contact with, so that your impressions of them are absorbed largely through, say, TV and film.

Writers live by their voice; the sound they make in a reader’s head through the arrangement of words. I like words and I like to use them to build stories. What I learned from this series, however, was that I was likely to be most successful if I shut up and listened. I’m not talking about writing dialect (a nightmarish trap for white people trying to write people of color), I’m talking about story. I’m talking about events and situations and how characters other than me might perceive them. And it’s hard, because you really do have to pay attention when people call you out for an assumption or something that looks prejudicial. You can’t say ‘But that’s not what I meant!’ Intent doesn’t matter. Effect does. So for all my writerly scribbling there comes a point (or points, plural) where I have to share my stuff and ask other people how it reads to them.

Does it work? I’m not certain. The result is better than me working alone, that’s for sure, and I think there’s value in any good faith attempt to talk across racial lines because we, as a culture, seem to be so bad at it. I know I can’t please everyone—from either end of the political spectrum—but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do everything in my power to get it as close to right as I can.

It’s probably self-evident that I wanted to use the fantasy frame to explore current social and political issues, mixing adventure, mystery and wonder with some fairly hard truths from our own world, but I don’t think I had realized just how topical it would feel. The novel was completed long before the last presidential election, and though there are flashes of campaign rhetoric in the mouth of Anglet’s principle political antagonist, Nathan Richter, the extent to which the book now seems to reflect our own country is a little unnerving. In fact, in spite of the unfamiliarity of the world and its occasional deviations from conventional reality, it barely feels to me like fantasy at all. All of which makes me wonder if the real ‘big idea’ has to do with the book’s generic hybridity; it’s a mystery, a thriller, and a fantasy adventure, but it’s also a kind of alternate history with an edge of social commentary. I like to think that it’s both fun and serious, both a diversion from reality, and a story about political resistance in a world which seems rather more familiar than I would like.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Chandra K. Clarke

In a world that’s full of dystopias and which frankly feels more than a little dystopian itself these days, Chandra K. Clarke asked: Is that all there is? Her novel Echoes of Another is her way of trying to answer that question.

CHANDRA K. CLARKE:

One of my favorite Sidney Harris cartoons is one you’ve probably seen: it shows two mathematicians staring at a complicated equation on a chalkboard. In the middle of the equation is the line “THEN A MIRACLE OCCURS.” In the caption, one mathematician advises the other, “I think you should be more explicit here in step two.”

I think of this cartoon nearly every time I rewatch some of the earlier incarnations of Star Trek, as it reminds me of how I felt the first time I watched The Next Generation (TNG). Like many of you, I loved it for its optimism, its fumbling steps toward the concepts of diversity and inclusion, and the fact that it (usually) embraced thoughtful, reasoned approaches to problems. But after watching an episode, I would think to myself, Great! Love it! Want it! Uh . . . how do we get there from here?

That niggling feeling has only gotten worse since the TNG series finale in 1994. In real life, we seem to have entered a backsliding period or, at the very least, a retrenching: demagogic leaders gaining power all over the world, progressive legislation being rolled back, and nation-states withdrawing from collaborative agreements. And science fiction, the literature that had once inspired me to keep winding the clock now seems awash in more of the same: dystopias, post-apocalyptic landscapes, and zombies. Lots and lots of zombies.

(And yes, I’m sure you can think of at least a dozen examples of more positive SF, just as I can Google for encouraging headlines. I’m talking overall trends. Work with me here . . .)

That feeling was compounded by a sense of wasted potential, especially with the stuff coming out of Silicon Valley. When tech bros weren’t burning tens of millions of dollars on dubious inventions, such as Wi-Fi-enabled juicers, they were launching massive, disruptive “platforms” that had the capacity to be positive socioeconomic forces, with little thought (or care) for how they might be abused. Where it once it felt as if we were on the verge of some big breakthroughs and substantial progress, we now feel as if we’re scrambling to avoid disaster while fighting a rearguard action.

My response to this was to write Echoes of Another. In it, a well-meaning scientist invents a technology that can record and play back the neurological and physiological states associated with “flow”—that rare but lovely state of total focus and peak performance. She wants to be able to invoke flow on demand so that humanity can bring peak states to bear on our biggest problems. But before she’s able to do much with her prototype, it is stolen, copied, and put to a range of uses, both good and . . . well, really rather bad.

My goal in Echoes was to explore the wild and weird ecosystems that spring up around any new technology, as well as the unintended consequences that always follow when you don’t factor basic human nature into your cool new toy. While I’m at it, I try to subvert some tropes, because I’m contrary that way.

More importantly, I tried to position the novel in a cautiously optimistic time and place. Set in Toronto, the near-future that I want is one in which we’ve come to grips with climate change mitigation, we’ve made solid progress in decarbonizing the economy, and the long arc of the universe is bending once again toward justice and equality. It’s certainly not perfect. But it is, if not a midpoint, then at least a stepping-stone on the path to a rosier future—something akin to the one depicted in TNG.

That’s because, for my money, science fiction’s highest and best use is to inspire people to think about the future they want. Don’t get me wrong: dystopias and other cautionary tales are absolutely vital. We need to explore the ways in which things can go wrong so we have an opportunity to avoid bad situations in real life. But there are two sides to the SF coin, and we’ve been getting tails for too long. We’re at the point where social media pundits are nervously wondering whether certain politicians are using dystopias as playbooks. And I do believe that if our art is as relentlessly depressing as our headlines seem to be, we risk invoking a kind of paralysis because there seems no point in trying.

I would love more SF that encourages us to actively chart a course into the future, rather than stumbling blindly into it; helps us come up with thoughtful, reasoned approaches to our current problems; and gives us something to shoot for, not just shoot at.

Echoes depicts a fictional future that I think could be within our grasp. I hope it inspires you to create a real one that’s even better than what I have envisioned.

—-

Echoes of Another: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

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

The Big Idea: Corry L. Lee

When thinking about how to develop a magic system for her new novel Weave the Lightning, a big idea came to Corry L. Lee… almost like a bolt out of the blue.

CORRY L. LEE:

I love reading the adventures of diverse protagonists. Except… what’s this? There’s magic! There’s spaceships! But the world is still riddled with the same sexism and racism? With infinite possible worlds, why are imagined societies so often burdened by the same glass ceilings and arbitrary lines in the sand as our world?

Speculative fiction has deep roots in imagining a better world. In writing Weave the Lighting, I wanted to create a better world… that at the same time was a terrible world with serious, systemic problems my characters could fight.

So I started planning around two fixed points: gender equality and a big, crunchy magic system. If the magic was important, and magic didn’t discriminate along gender lines, I reasoned that a society would develop where women and men were treated equally. If that magic were practical enough to erase unequal biological challenges (like the risks of unprotected sex), that would help, too, but I wasn’t concerned with those details at first.

What I did care about was making the magic really cool but dangerous, hard to learn and easy to screw up. I also wanted it to feel like magic, which to me meant drawing deeply from a mage’s personal experience. In the back of my mind, too, was a way to give strength to people who might otherwise seem weak.

I decided that to create new magical objects in my world, a mage had to be hit by lightning. (I’ve always loved lighting. So beautiful, so deadly.) To allow technology to grow and influence the magic, I created a storm cycle—decades that passed where all that sparked in a storm was electricity. And to make magic personal, I decided that a mage had to shape their magic out of a desperate need—a need to fight against overwhelming physical odds, a need to heal a dying loved one or feed a starving family.

There’s more to the magic system, of course (you can read about it on my website if you geek out about magic systems like me or like having the rules explained up front), and I’m really proud of how it turned out. It’s intricate like a lightning strike—it branches and forks and grows organically. It influences the world in deep and inextricable ways and, like lightning itself, is hard to control.

I don’t believe in the inevitability of patriarchy. I don’t believe that skin color or sexual preference or physical ability must divide us. People will draw lines, yes. We will define a ‘them’ to hold up against ‘us.’ In Weave the Lightning, the lines are not our own. The fascist regime draws lines that are hard and dangerous—but the world is filled with magic, and the people will rise up to fight.

Weave the LightningAmazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie-Bound | Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit Corry L. Lee’s website. Follow her on Twitter.

 

The Big Idea: Rysa Walker

Hold on to your butts: in this Big Idea for her new novel Now, Then and Everywhen, author Rysa Walker eyes the topics you’re not supposed to talk about… and then totally goes there.

RYSA WALKER:

There’s an old adage that you should never discuss politics or religion in polite society. If that still holds and it’s something you believe strongly, consider this a warning: I’m about to discuss religion and politics.

I’ll start with an anecdote you may have heard. Two science fiction writers are at a bar in the late 1940s having a friendly chat over a few too many drinks. After a shared lament about the penny-a-word rates they’re earning, one of them notes that they’ll never get rich writing science fiction. “The real money,” he says, “is in religion. I’ll bet I could start my own religion and be a millionaire long before you make that much writing.”

There are multiple versions of the tale, some with the wager and some without. I won’t name the authors in question, both because the story is quite possibly apocryphal, and because even though the undisputed winner is now dead, he left behind a very profitable (and very litigious) church.

While we may never know whether the story is literally true, it’s hard to deny the central point. In the US, tax breaks alone tip the scales in that direction. Most religious leaders also wield far more political power and seem to provoke less anger when they dare to express a political opinion in the course of their work… even though their tax-exempt status should, in theory, preclude that.

Personally, I’d rather write even if it never makes me a millionaire, but religion still intrigues me. I was raised in a rural area of the South so deeply fundamentalist that I was nine years old before I fully understood that religious beliefs extended beyond the narrow spectrum of Protestant churches lining the highway that bisected our tiny town. I met my first non-Protestant around age twelve when a Catholic family moved in, and my first non-Christian when I went away to college, although I’m sure there were a few atheists in town who were simply smart enough to keep their mouths closed on the subject.

My own religious views took a sharp turn as a teenager, when a chance encounter with Mark Twain’s Letters to Earth awakened my inner skeptic, and also because I began questioning the racist views of my particular denomination and chafing at the whole women be silent thing. (Which will surprise no one who knows me.)  But I still have a certain affinity for the more positive messages of the New Testament and fond memories of sermons at my grandparent’s church, where the minister focused on the golden rule and charity rather than the eternal damnation of anyone who held different beliefs.

Given my previous career as a professor of government and history, I’ve had a chance to explore many of the intersections of religion and American politics. The most baffling combination, in my view, is the odd meshing of Ayn Rand’s loosely organized political theory and fundamentalist Christianity. There’s really no overlap between her philosophy of Objectivism and the words of Jesus in the New Testament. Indeed, they’re close to polar opposites. Yet somehow, prosperity gospel ministers manage to blend these into a message that resonates with many Americans. See me? I’m rich. And if you send me your love offering…or seed money…or sustaining gift…you can be rich, too. God wants you to be rich.

It’s a successful business model. But what if they could ramp that message up a notch? What if they could say not merely that you might become rich if you support them? What if they could guarantee it? If they get thousands of followers with vague promises of prosperity, how many more might they get with some actual follow-through?

To put it in the context of our two science fiction writers in the bar, let’s imagine that the religious entrepreneur has more than drive, charisma, and an active imagination. Now he also has the ability to jump back a few centuries and drop off copies of the central text of his new religion, avoiding that whole awkward phase when established religions dismiss it as a cult. Since he wants his religion to become mainstream, he probably would not introduce an entirely new theology with aliens and the like. He would, instead, follow the lead of Christianity in its early days, blending his ideas with customs already embraced by the people he hoped to convert. At various junctures in history, he might also make a few stops to deliver a  well-timed prophecy, perform a miraculous cure, or co-opt a few rival groups. And once he reached the modern era, he could spread his new religion rapidly by providing the faithful with the occasional uncannily accurate stock tip—as long as they kept up their monthly tithe, of course.

A similar wager sets in motion the events in both of my CHRONOS series. The main antagonist, Saul Rand, is one of three dozen genetically altered historians equipped to travel through time to study their subjects in person. There are safeguards, of course. Rigid controls on when and where the historians can travel. And the Temporal Monitoring Unit is there to ensure that the historians don’t alter the timeline enough to affect the course of history. Saul has found a way around those safeguards and he’s convinced that a world crafted in his own image would be an improvement.

If the original wager in the bar was tilted in favor of the wannabe messiah, adding time travel makes it a slam dunk. And once his new religion was widespread, it would give him a tremendous amount of power to change history. Whether that was for good or for ill would be largely determined by the personality of this new prophet…although I think it’s fairly safe to say that anyone with the hubris to think that he or she should have the ability to shape all of history is not someone you’d want in that role.

—-

Now, Then and Everywhen: Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Read an excerpt. Visit Rysa Walker’s Website | Instagram | Facebook | Twitter

The Big Idea: Robert Mitchell Evans

Science fiction writers don’t only grow up on science fiction. Their influences can be all over the map in terms of genre and medium. Just ask Robert Mitchell Evans, who for his novel Vulcan’s Forge has tapped into another rich vein of storytelling entirely.

ROBERT MITCHELL EVANS:

“I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn’t get the money — and I didn’t get the woman.” – Walter Neff’s confession, Double Indemnity.

My twin loves are film and science fiction. Drive-in movies are among my earliest memories. My older brothers, in order to obtain the family car, always promised my parents to take me along and that they would be going to Disney-like movies but invariably we went to lurid full-color horror spectacles. This goes a long way in explaining a great many thing about me. My affection for film noir came many years later when a history of cinema course introduced me to the dark and cynical genre. With Vulcan’s Forge I have fused my passions for movies, noir, and science fiction.

By far, I am not the first to combine science fiction and noir. Hard-bitten private eyes, dogged detectives, and fatales of every kind, produced by terrific writers, are numerous in science fiction but I wanted something else.

Don’t get me wrong, Spade, Marlowe, Hammer, and the rest of those classic characters, both on the page and the silver screen, are great and excellent SF version of these iconic archetypes are wonders to behold but I wanted something more akin to Walter Neff in Double Indemnity or Frank Chambers in The Postman Always Rings Twice, an person that, because they are unable to resist temptation, finds themselves suddenly in over their heads with lust and murder taking over their lives. It took me quite a while to find the characters and plot where everything came together for the kind of SF noir I wanted but eventually I did.

Writing a novel you discover surprising things about yourself and your subjects. Vulcan’s Forge taught me that noir stories besides being about crime and character are also about culture.

Noir characters, the outcast, the forgotten, and the greedy, propelled by taboo appetites, brawl with their cultures. They are characters that fall into crimes chasing forbidden desires and it is their culture that defines those taboos.

Invented cultures fill science fiction. Some are utopian and others dystopian but usually they are already well-established societies with readers meeting them mature and functional. But what about a culture being born? How do you teach a specific culture to a population? What about the people that don’t fit in? These are a few of the questions that nagged at me as I wrote Vulcan’s Forge.

In the backstory, near the end of the 21st century a rogue brown dwarf barreled through the solar system disrupting the planets and destroying the Earth. With decades of warning humanity launched thousands of automated arks loaded with human eggs and sperm, replicating technologies, and artificial intelligences. Advanced automation, the vast resources of the solar system, and artificial intelligences made producing individual arks so affordable so that even sub-cultures could construct their own in hopes of persevering their unique value. The net results were thousands of colonies spanning the vast complexity of human cultures, including somewhere a planet devoted to perpetuating Texas. Propelled by light-sails these arks dispersed through the local stellar neighborhood and a few found habitable planets. The onboard computer intelligences established colonies and with artificial wombs they raised the first generation of colonists — humans who had never have known Earth.

Jason Kessler lives in a colony dedicated to a mythologized view of mid-twentieth century urban Americana. Charged with helping establish this culture Jason, a third-generation colonist, carefully screens curated mass media to create a stolid society morally guided by Doris Day, John Wayne, and Mickey Mouse. However, he is far from ready to settle down to the life of a respectable family man. When Pamela Guest, sensual and mysterious, sweeps into his theater offering him a life free of suffocating societal expectations he leaps at the chance and lands amid corruption, crime, and a conspiracy beyond his petty concerns.

One of the central questions that emerged from writing Vulcans Forge was what does an individual owe their society and what does society owe them in return? To me this strikes at the very heart of what it means to be human. We are individuals with compelling drives to be our own persons and yet simultaneously we are also highly social animals fighting for in-group status. Jason’s desire to live as he wants, forsaking a ‘family life,’ whatever that may mean, is understandable but life isn’t just about selfish wants it’s about ‘us’ as well. One the other hand a culture that demands total obedience and compliance is despotism even if they are operating on a misguided belief that they are serving some greater good.

Vulcan’s Forge forced me out of my writing comfort zone. Noir is a deeply cynical genre; it is base drives that compel its characters. What ‘good’ characters may exist in these stories are often sidelined or ineffectual. None of my earlier novel length fiction embraced such a worldview and I seriously doubted my ability to sustain it. Following Jason as he made mistakes, as temptation overpowered his judgment, and he discovered truths about himself and his world challenged me but I firmly believe that outside of our comfort zone is where creation waits. That’s not to say I didn’t have fun writing this novel. I played games with myself burying references to favorite movies in the narrative. I wrote it ignoring trends and markets. It is a love letter to the shadowed world of film noir and a reminder that even among the stars we will remain our own worst enemy.

—-

Vulcan’s Forge: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Mysterious Galaxy|Powell’s

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

 

The Big Idea: Ilana C. Myer

Where some people end their books is where Ilana C. Myer, in her new novel The Poet King, begins hers. Why does she do it that way? She’s here to explain.

ILANA C. MYER:

Power is something we talk about a lot in fantasy—from rings of power to the One Power to the sword that makes a farmboy a king.

I wrote my first book, Last Song Before Night, intrigued by the idea in Celtic myth of poets wielding magical and political power. Through the eyes of multiple poets, I explored the tension between art and political gain. The path to success for a poet, in that milieu, was by using art to ingratiate himself with authority. And what did that mean for his art?

As the enchantments arise, so do new challenges. The second book, Fire Dance, explores the consequences of accessing enchanted power, on an expanded geopolitical landscape that introduces elements of Middle Eastern magic, Spanish flamenco, and more.

Finally, the last of the series tackles another fantasy preoccupation: The role of a king.

Many fantasies revolve around putting the rightful king on the throne as an end goal. Right at the start of The Poet King, that goal has been realized: A brilliant, charismatic poet has brought about the downfall of a weak king and taken the throne. He promises to bring the realm to heights of glory never before achieved, combining the enchantments of poets with the authority of the crown.

That is, however, the beginning of the story.

As a book where the enchantments of poets come at last to full fruition, at their most fierce, elemental, and dangerous, The Poet King required that I return to the original sources that first inspired the series. In order to write the end, I had to go back to the beginning. There is no roadmap for researching a novel, no syllabus assigned; there is only following one’s instinct. Mine took me to unexpected places. I went as far back as I could in time, to tales so strange to modern ears that even in translation they are nearly opaque. But the enchantment imbued between the lines needs no translation.

Readers will recognize some of the inspirations without difficulty: Arthurian literature, with its roots in Celtic myth, turned out to be indispensable as a source. And then there were other stories, wilder, that perhaps won’t be recognized by most but lent a hand in their own way. An accidentally well-timed trip to Ireland was useful as well, in particular for capturing the atmosphere of Academy Isle in winter. All these roads intersected to lead me to the story I wanted to tell about art, power, and the magnificent king who seems to flawlessly combine the two.

It may sound obvious to say that power comes at a cost, but that hasn’t always been the case in fantasy. Fantasy that relies on flashing wands like laser guns often doesn’t deliver a sense of awe for the forces that are being tapped. As someone who sees magic as analogous to the mysteries of our world, I believe a sense of awe is warranted. I also believe that power should function in fantasy much as it does in our world: Someone will always pay the price.

For me, literature is about the human heart or nothing at all. And there is nothing like a test of character for showing us who people really are.

Coming face to face with what we’re capable of—and what we choose to do about it—is the most meaningful use of enchantment I’ve found.

—-

The Poet King: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Christopher Swiedler

What kind of book is In The Red? As author Christopher Swiedler relates, this seemingly simple question turned out to have a more complex answer than one might assume.

CHRISTOPHER SWIEDLER:

Many years ago, an instructor in a writing workshop asked me whether my sci-fi novel In the Red was for middle grade or young adult readers. My answer was a blank stare, so she helpfully explained the difference. In young adult sci-fi and fantasy, the world can’t be trusted. Darkness and evil are omnipresent. Protagonists fight against the scary things, but even when they win, the balance doesn’t really shift.

I nodded. I’d seen these sorts of books, and they weren’t my thing.

On the other hand, she went on, readers of around eight to twelve years old are optimistic. They still want to believe that the world is good. In middle grade stories, evil, suffering, and conflict are aberrations that can be overcome. Characters know that when they grow up they will be part of a decent, honest, and fair society.

My ears perked up. Optimism about the future? A world that’s positive and trustworthy? I felt an instant connection. This was what I was writing.

My own love story with science fiction began when someone gave me an anthology of Robert Heinlein stories for my twelfth birthday. I quickly devoured Space Cadet, Podkayne of Mars, and every other Heinlein book that I could find. His juvenile novels were written decades before the term “middle grade” was coined, but everything about them fit perfectly into the genre. The stories all had plenty of conflict and danger, but the basic structure of society was always trustworthy. Younger characters had competent, positive role models to look up to. And most of all, the worlds were places that the reader wanted to be.

I explained to the class how In the Red is about a boy named Michael who lives in a domed city on Mars. He wants to join the planetary Rescue Service like his father and spend all his time out on the surface. That’s a little complicated, though, since putting on an environment suit tends to trigger a claustrophobic panic attack that’s bad enough to make him puke and pass out. His doctor has diagnosed him with environment suit anxiety disorder and his parents have forbidden him from going outside the dome, all of which makes him feel like a complete failure. In an effort to prove to them that they’re wrong, he and his best friend Lilith ‘borrow’ a rover and drive all night to his dad’s research station. They have a good shot at it, too—until a massive solar flare knocks out the planet’s artificial magnetic field and all of its navigation and communication satellites, leaving them stranded out in the middle of nowhere with a beautiful-but-lethal sun just about to rise.

The world of In the Red is tough and dangerous, but it’s not evil. Adults are trustworthy. Problems can be solved with ingenuity and courage. I’d been writing a middle grade novel without even realizing it.

“So it’s not a dystopia?” someone in the class asked.

“Actually,” I said, “I guess it’s kind of the opposite.”

This was the height of the YA dystopia craze, and I could see the disbelief on everyone’s faces. I just shrugged. I wouldn’t describe the world of In the Red as a utopia, but Mars in the twenty-second century is definitely a place that I wish I could have grown up. Domed cities? One-third gravity? Playing with friends, going to school, and living a normal life under a butterscotch sky? Sign me up!

“Is it science fiction like Star Wars?” another writer asked. “Or the ‘hard’ kind?”

This was a much easier question than whether the book is YA or MG. I’ll take a well-written space opera, but my bread and butter is the scientific accuracy of hard sci-fi. Long before a teacher got around to explaining Newton’s laws, Isaac Asimov taught me the principle of “equal and opposite reaction” in Marooned Off Vesta, where the characters melt a hole in a ship’s water tank to use as emergency propulsion. Similarly, the spinning alien spacecraft of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama helped me understand how centripetal acceleration works to simulate gravity. These stories gave me a love of science and engineering. I grew up wanting to emulate their logical, intelligent, and scientifically-minded protagonists.

In the Red has its share of futuristic magic bits, like an artificial planetary magnetic field that protects colonists from solar radiation. But I’ve done my best to be accurate about chemistry and physics. The characters use real scientific principles (and a big helping of courage) to escape their predicaments. Michael and Lilith manage to send radio signals over the horizon, plot ballistic trajectories, and navigate on Mars during a dust storm that blocks out the sky. And in my personal favorite bit, a timely application of Boyle’s pressure-volume law is instrumental in helping them escape a rapidly-flooding underground tunnel.

“It’s definitely the hard kind,” I told the class.

The skepticism was palpable. An optimistic-future, hard-science fiction book for middle grade readers? Exactly, I wanted to say. But it’s not as if I’m inventing anything. A half-century ago, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke did all this and more. I’m just following in their footsteps.

Young readers today are living in a radically different environment than the post-war world of sci-fi’s Golden Age. Instead of nuclear war, we now have global pandemics and the threat of climate change. Instead of MULTIVAC, we have computers in our pockets. But hope is just as essential now as it was during the Cold War. If we can’t imagine how our society will get better, then why bother working toward it? If we can’t dream of growing up on Mars, then what chance do we have of ever getting there?

The world that our kids will face as adults is literally the stuff of speculative fiction. They will encounter challenges that we can only dream of. Some young person living today will be the first human to set foot on Mars. Imagination and optimism aren’t enough to get us there—but they’re a good start.

—-

In The Red: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Eeleen Lee

Travel delays are rarely the raw material for novels, but as Eeleen Lee found out, sometimes a little time — and a new obsession — can lead to inspiration, and eventually a novel, in this case, Liquid Crystal Nightingale.

EELEEN LEE:

In late 2005 I was stuck in transit at Charles de Gaulle airport, and to pass the time I bought a notebook and made myself do a few writing exercises.

“Write what you know” goes the clichéd advice. I had just begun collecting rocks and minerals as a hobby and was eager to use this new knowledge. As the novel took shape over the next several years it deviated from the original plan: I had envisioned a collection of science fiction short stories, in the style of Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table. Each chapter was to be inspired by a mineral or some aspect of gemmology.

The second story I drafted was about a city called Chatoyance. It looked like a giant cat’s eye when seen from space, and this trait was inspired by the interplay of bands of reflected light on the surface of certain minerals such as tiger’s-eye.

In collecting specimens I also collected myths, superstitions, and legends. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend and allegedly, they’re forever. The ancient Chinese believed when a tiger died its soul entered the ground and became amber. Opals are the captured interplay of fire and oil on water, according to Pliny the Elder. Diamond and opal are the birthstones for April and October, respectively.

Out of all this extensive lore and romance a universal recognition of eternity emerges, albeit bookended by birth and death. Gems⁠—and humans⁠— are shaped by and subject to the forces of time.

What is associated with power, magic and romance, is unfortunately also connected with ongoing exploitation, corruption, and the plundering of riches. In a few surreal instances, when my hobby transmuted into obsession, it has granted me unexpected glimpses into corridors of power, if not movement within them. It is supremely disconcerting to view scintillating jewelry pieces up for auction in a hotel ballroom, surrounded by traders and VIPs, and the next minute read about the latest embargo on conflict stones on your phone. These experiences inspired the creation of the wealthy Tier Dwellers in my novel.

Gemstones also remind us that we live in a universe subject to extreme forces of nature. To extract treasure from the rocky layers beneath our feet, is to enter the realm of various chthonic deities, and tempt fate. The mining company in my novel does not respect such forces. Which is why the asteroid miners in my novel conduct rituals and name their children after rocks and minerals as a form of appeasement. But the miners pay for their employer’s hubris when tragedy strikes.

I also highly recommend a visit to the Earth Gallery of the Natural History Museum in London or to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. The most striking exhibits are the ammonites and amber specimens. The amber evokes raw honey with its trapped insects, grit, and pollen, and the ammonites are timeless and self-contained in their Fibonacci-sequenced spirals. Gemstones are also artefacts, bringing us into contact with our past and the planet’s deep past.

A writer working in a certain genre is all too aware of its past. The dazzle of preceding works is so bright as to outshine but she sets herself a Sisyphean task to improve on or at least match these past glories. The major sci-fi films hanging over my novel are 2001, Solaris, and Alien but I tried to avoid any throwbacks to my favourites. The goal was to throw-forward as far as possible: via an invented martial art, a sprawling yet claustrophobic urbanscape, and new spins on the science fiction staples of cybernetic implants, forcefields and guns.

In a genre that tends to feature action and explosions, I was seeking to reintroduce a sense of quiet, or disquiet, and a plot that prompts audiences to absorb its implications rather than merely following it. But there’s still action and explosions because it would be strange to not include these in a space opera. It’s all part of the experience and immersion. In gemmology you immerse your eyes and hopefully, in reading you immerse all of yourself.

—-

Liquid Crystal Nightingale: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: S.A. Jones

It’s not every day that your book is the debut novel for an entire publishing line, but S.A. Jones has that honor with The Fortress, which is the first release from Erewhon Books. It’s a big responsibility, but as you’ll see below, Jones has a big idea to match.

S.A. JONES:

I began writing The Fortress when I was twelve, although I didn’t know it then. At the time I was a competitive swimmer and had the occasional dream of Olympic glory. But I also wanted to be Prime Minister of Australia and David Attenborough, so I was keeping my options open.

Along with four others in my swim squad, all boys, I had achieved the qualifying time to try out for the state team. This meant travelling from our tiny island in the Buccanneer Archipelago in Western Australia to the “big smoke” of Port Hedland in the Pilbara region.

Being four boys and me in the 80s, our squad was called “SJ and the Meaner Machine,” after the formidable Australian freestyle relay team “The Mean Machine.” My initials are “SJ.” We had shirts made up and everything.

We were chaperoned by the coach and his wife and billeted with a family in Port Hedland. A roster of chores was drawn up for us five kids while we were there. This was a sensible thing to do given we ate constantly and created mountains of chlorinated washing.

When it was Jeffrey’s turn to do the dishes, he refused. This put my coach and his wife in an awkward position, because Jeffrey was their son. His parents insisted.

Jeffrey refused and began to glow red around the ears. This was a warning sign we were all familiar with. Jeffrey’s tantrums were epic: a loud, kinetic spectacle that he claimed to have no memory of afterwards.

The embarrassment in the room at Jeffrey’s refusal became a palpable thing, another presence.

As the redness spread from Jeffrey’s ears to his temples and a high pitched whine began to escape his mouth, Jeffrey’s mother announced that I would do his dishes.

His dishes. As well as the dishes I was rostered to do.

“That’s not fair,” I pointed out.

But the desire to avert a scene was stronger than the inclination for fairness, and my protests fell on deaf ears.

As I stood by the sink doing Jeffrey’s dishes, my face burning with humiliation, Jeffrey smirked at me from the doorway.

For the few days we were billeted there, I had to do all Jeffrey’s chores as well as my own.

As injustices go it was trifling. It probably doesn’t even rank in the top ten most sexist experiences of my life. What is significant is that during those few days my consciousness of girlhood, and what that means in relation to boyhood, was born. Even setting aside the gross error of judgement in releasing Jeffrey from his chores, there were three other kids in that team that could have shared the load. But they were boys.

Housework was girl work. I was the girl. The SJ in the Meaner Machine.

I’ve given a lot of thought to what it is to be a girl. In some ways, Jeffrey has always been smirking at me from the doorway of that kitchen.

I’ve read wonderful, powerful books about the female experience. Kate Grenville’s Lilian’s Story. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things.

But where was the book about Jeffrey? About what happens to a boy who learns early in life that the world will bend his way. Who is not taught to discipline his emotions and appetites. Who expects that handmaids will clean up when he won’t.

And more importantly, what does it take for this man to change?

The Fortress is my answer to that question.

What is evident is that empathy is not enough. If it were, we would have no difficulty entering into the reality of other people’s lives and changing ourselves to better their reality. Fathers would discard sexist expectations as they raise daughters. White women would unpack their colonialism as they understand how it distorts the lives of their friends of color.

Clearly, some people do work from empathy to change.

But if empathy were sufficient in itself, our world would not look like it does. That is why The Fortress is so carnal. I could have told this story while being coy about the sexual elements in the way of “serious” literature. But I want the reader to be physically discomfited. The aroused and feeling weird about it reader is the reader I want. The reader I designed.

The Fortress is supposed to get under the skin because imagination – the gateway to empathy – isn’t enough. Change is not an intellectual exercise. It is gritty, visceral and awkwardly physical. Like shame (which often pre-empts change), it happens in the body.

—-

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

Visit the author’s site.