The Big Idea: Charlie N. Holmberg

Immortality has been done in fiction, many times. But has it been done like Charlie N. Holmberg does it in Smoke and Summons? Holmberg is here to explain why the immortality found here may be unique after all.

CHARLIE N. HOLMBERG:

Once upon a time, my agent and editor got together behind my back, schemed, and then called me demanding I stop this standalone nonsense and write another series. This was in the middle of my California vacation.

GREAT TIMES.

I am a prolific writer (having no other hobbies, I have to spend my time doing something). I jump from idea to idea, and my brain likes to work in short and sudden chunks, thus the streak of standalones. I’d written one series, one time, and it was honestly a fluke. It started with a standalone that had more story to tell, so two more books almost accidentally happened. But that series outsold my standalones ten to one. So I wasn’t surprised to get pressure to do it again.

Problem was, I didn’t have any ideas big enough to encompass multiple books. And I needed a good, big idea, because I don’t like staying in one world too long. I needed to create something that could suck up about 300,000 words, be interesting, and be especially interesting to me.

I started going through my Pinterest boards, phone notes, and idea folders, pulling out literally anything and everything that sounded interesting. I’d figure out how to tie it all together later, hopefully. It was during this Frankensteining of creativity that I came across THE THING. Something I had written down about a year earlier. Something I didn’t even remember writing down. It was just two words in its own Word document.

“Immorality switch.”

And I knew I had my big idea. I only needed to look down at my hands to determine how I was going to create this immortality switch: fidget spinner. I was going to make a magical fidget spinner that let my character be immortal, but only for one minute each day.

This opened up a world of possibilities. What could a person do with one minute of immortality, where consequences were nearly moot? It could be used for crime, for gain. To save oneself at the last moment, or kept on hand as a safety net. It could be used to cure the terminally ill or mortally wounded. And how it would be used would depend on who was holding it at the time. Who would know about it? Who would have access to it? What happened if someone snatched the device from someone else mid-spin?

So I made it. I gave it a history and a value. And I gave it to a poor sewage worker who could use it to turn his life around. In fact, his new life depends on it, so when a woman on the run steals it, he’ll do anything to get it back.

The device is rare, ancient, and more special than anyone realizes; I was able to connect it to a bigger magic system, the secrets of which carry across a whole series. Eureka! And I called it an amarinth. An amaranth is an imaginary, undying flower; an immortal thing. But then my vegetarian friend told me amaranth was also a fancy grain and was likely to be the next hot and popping thing for healthy people, so I changed one of the vowels in my term. Super creative, I know.

Ultimately, when readers dive into the Numina world and learn about this device, I want them to ask themselves one thing.

What would I do with my minute?

—-

Smoke and Summons: Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound |Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Charlie Jane Anders

Night follows day, day follows night — or does it? It depends on where you live. And in The City in the Middle of the Night, award-winning author Charlie Jane Anders considers a world where neither follows the other, and everything that entails for her characters and their lives.

CHARLIE JANE ANDERS:

Five or six years ago, I became obsessed with tidally locked planets.

These planets, where one side always faces the sun and there’s a permanent day side and a permanent night side, were turning out to be incredibly common in our galaxy. And it was looking as if any exoplanet our descendents might colonize would turn out to be tidally locked.

And this image, of living on a planet with permanent chilly darkness on one side, and boiling hot sunlight on the other, captivated me and took over my imagination. In my novel, The City in the Middle of the Night, direct sunlight is actually toxic, so humans can only live in the thin zone of twilight in between the day and night sides.

(I thought about calling my novel Twilight, or The Twilight Zone, but apparently those titles were already taken? Also, the strip of twilight is called the Terminator, so I thought about calling my novel The Terminator—but turns out someone already used that one, too.)

I grew up in the country, with no street lights anywhere nearby. So the nights were incredibly dark, and if you wandered far enough from my parents’ house, you couldn’t even see your own hand in front of your face. I used to play flashlight tag with some of the neighborhood kids, and we would run around in total darkness until one of us ran into the electric fence around the horse field out back. Good times.

So I loved the image of endless, total darkness, which humans can barely even explore because we’ve lost all of our survival gear and all-terrain vehicles. The City in the Middle of the Night started to click for me when I thought of it as the story of a girl, Sophie, who gets banished into the night side of her planet, and learns to communicate with the creatures who live in the darkness.

These creatures, the Gelet, have their own science and technology, but humans decided they were just dumb animals because we couldn’t understand them. And they can’t live in our light, any more than we can live in their darkness.

That image of a girl getting banished into total darkness, colder than the South Pole, led to a whole story. Sophie is a shy girl, who doesn’t talk to you unless she knows you really well —-in fact, she’s the opposite of a lot of the other heroes I’ve written. She stays in the background and never raises her voice, and she definitely doesn’t stand up at any point and give a rousing speech. But she’s still the hero of the story, and her courage inspires people and changes the world.

And Sophie goes on an incredible journey—-not just wandering into frozen darkness, but also traveling from one human city to another. She has to journey with a group of smugglers from her hometown to the city of Argelo. They cross the Sea of Murder, which is a whole ocean that is a solid ice shelf on one side, and on the other side is a scalding wall of steam that will cook you alive if you sail too close to it. And did I mention the Sea of Murder has pirates? And giant sea monsters?

The other thing I kept thinking about as I wrote this book is just how weird it would be to live without sunrise and sunset. If you couldn’t look up at the sky and see the sun changing positions, along with the shadows moving around and changing shape, how would you know when to sleep and when to work? How would you even know how much time was passing if the sun never changed its position?

In my book, “night” and “day” are places rather than times, and I avoided using any words like “minute,” “hour,” “second,” “yesterday” or “tomorrow.” (Thank goodness the amazing copy-editor caught a few places where I slipped up.)

And this becomes a huge social divide for the humans living on January, as different societies approach the problem of sleep and time management differently. One human city has a rigid curfew, and everyone sleeps and works at the same time, because they believe that if we don’t keep a strict circadian rhythm, then we stop even being human. But another city, known as the City That Never Sleeps, has a much more chaotic approach (and way better parties.)

This debate is about more than just what time to go to sleep, or how to structure your life: at its root, it’s an argument over the nature of humanity, especially when we’ve gone to live on another planet where we’re an invasive species.

And I guess that’s the thing I was obsessing about in general in this book. My fascination with tidally locked planets led me in a couple of different directions: 1) Communicating with radically different creatures who live in an environment we can’t even visit, and 2) The debate over when to sleep and how to organize our time, without sunrise and sunset. And both of those questions come down to: what does it mean to be human? Who do we think of as people? How do we understand each other as equals, instead of trying to control each other?

When never-ending darkness lurks on the edge of town and the sky offers no clues as to how much time has passed, “human nature” is up for grabs. I had a lot of fun exploring this bizarre world and the questions it raises, and I’m so excited to share The City in the Middle of the Night with you.

—-

The City in the Middle of the Night: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Keith R.A. DeCandido

In today’s Big Idea, Keith R.A. DeCandido is here to represent for The Bronx, and why it’s a fantastic setting for his new urban fantasy novel, A Furnace Sealed.

KEITH R.A. DeCANDIDO:

Finding an urban fantasy novel that takes place within the confines of New York City is about as difficult, to quote that great philosopher Edmund Blackadder, as putting on a hat. Just in general, the Big Apple is a very popular setting for fiction, not just of the urban fantasy variety.

But when you say “New York City” to the vast majority of humans, what they think of is the Manhattan skyline. They think of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building and the Freedom Tower. They think of the Brooklyn Bridge and the George Washington Bridge and the 59th Street Bridge (and then they feel groovy). They think of Central Park and the Theatre District and Greenwich Village. They think of Harlem and Chelsea and Chinatown.

In other words, they think of Manhattan south of 125th Street. To most folks, that’s what New York City is. Maybe, maybe they might throw Brooklyn in there.

A Furnace Sealed is my attempt to remind folks that there’s a lot more to the Big Apple than that. The city has five boroughs. There’s also Queens to the east and Staten Island to the south. There’s Inwood and Washington Heights, the northern tip of Manhattan that is often forgotten.

And there’s the Bronx, my home borough, the northernmost portion, the home of the Bronx Zoo and the New York Yankees, the only part of the city connected to the mainland.

The Bronx has a long and fascinating history. It also has an image problem, as the only image most folks can conjure is the South Bronx forty years ago. Fort Apache, the Bronx was released in 1981, Howard Cosell famously said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning” during the World Series in 1977, and all too often when I tell people I live in the Bronx, they think it’s still like that. “Do you carry a knife?” (I used to carry a Swiss Army Knife, but post-2001 airport security has gotten me out of that habit.) “Is it safe where you live?” (Very.) “Are you the only white people?” (No, and also, even if we were, so the hell what?)

But the Bronx has Little Italy (the real one, not the tourist trap in lower Manhattan), the aforementioned Bronx Zoo, City Island (a New England-style fishing village off the east coast of the borough full of great seafood and adorable crafts stores), several huge parks, the New York Botanical Gardens, Woodlawn Cemetery (where many famous personages from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Miles Davis to Fiorello LaGuardia are buried), the Bronx Museum of the Arts, several great universities (Fordham University, Manhattan College, Mt. St. Vincent, etc.), and very soon an independent bookstore, the Lit. Bar. It’s where Edgar Allan Poe spent the last years of his life and where break-dancing and hip-hop were born. Alan Alda, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Neil deGrasse Tyson are all from the Bronx. And there’s so much more besides.

It’s because most of you reading this probably didn’t know most of what I just wrote about that I conceived The Bram Gold Adventures, of which the first book is A Furnace Sealed. Bram Gold is a Courser, a supernatural hunter-for-hire. He’s the guy you hire to wrangle a unicorn or babysit werewolves on the night of the full moon or get that pesky leprechaun off your lawn. And he works and lives in the Bronx. The first story I wrote with him appeared in the 2011 anthology Liar Liar, which had some fun with the history of the Marble Hill neighborhood, which used to be a physical part of Manhattan, then an island, and now is physically part of the Bronx (though politically still part of Manhttan).

The theme of the urban fantasy world I’ve created is that most of the creatures are not quite what you expect—much like the borough where the book takes place. Unicorns are, in fact, surly beasts any time they smell a male (which is why virgins can calm them—they don’t have man-funk on them). Vampires are total wusses who are pale and sickly and don’t like sunlight. Werewolves are mostly just people who turn into big dogs once a month.

And Coursers—and magic users, for that matter—are just people doing a job. In addition to letting people know that there’s a whole ‘nother part of the Big Apple to the north, I also wanted to make sure that I portrayed characters who need to feed and clothe and house themselves. Most people make decisions based on what they can afford, and fictional characters should do likewise. At one point in A Furnace Sealed, Bram has to put his investigation on hold because he’s working a shift at Montefiore Hospital. (In addition to being Bram Gold, Courser, he’s also Dr. Abraham Goldblume, who works two days a week as an ER doctor. He changed his name for the former job because if you want your nasty monster hunted, you’re not gonna hire a schmuck named Abe Goldblume. Bram Gold, on the other hand, sounds like he can get stuff done.) He has to work that shift, because he’s already called in sick too often, and if he does it again, he’ll get fired, and it’s hard to find more work when you’re fired for poor attendance at your only-twice-a-week job.

Back in 2009 and 2010, I worked for the U.S. Census Bureau, and I got to go to a lot of different parts of the Bronx. It was that work in particular that got the wheels turning about the manifold glories of the Boogie-Down Bronx, and I wanted to bring them to the world in a way that I hope youse guys (as we say in da Bronx) find entertaining. And if you do, rest assured, I’m already hard at work on Book 2 of The Bram Gold Adventures…

—-

A Furnace Sealed: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Smashwords

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The Big Idea: E.E. Williams

It’s always delightful for me when I learn a compatriot from my journalism days branched out, as I did, into the literary world. In this case, it’s E.E. Williams, with whom I shared a newsroom twenty five(!) years ago, writing mysteries, of which My Grave is Deep is the latest. In this Big Idea, Williams delves into the making of his mysteries, and why they take the time they do.

E.E. WILLIAMS

It took me 25 years to write my first mystery novel, “Tears in the Rain,” so titled after the famous line uttered in the movie Blade Runner. It took another 17 years to write the second book, “Tears of God,” and another five to complete the third, “My Grave Is Deep,” which was recently published on Amazon.com. All three feature amateur detective, Noah Greene, who sacrifices everything dear to him to follow a dream of becoming a private investigator.

Why it took that long to write that first book is a mystery in itself because from the time my father handed me a book – a thick tome about a black stallion in the Arabian desert, the name of which has vanished on the winds of time – and told me to read it, it was my life’s goal to be an AUTHOR. I put that word in caps because I didn’t just want to write books. I wanted to be famous, and rich, and so successful Stephen King would call me for tips.

I had this vision in my head that I would live in an A-frame house in the Colorado mountains during winter, where I would hunker down over my typewriter (yeah, that should tell you just how old I am), pecking out my next bestseller, and then in spring, take the manuscript to my publisher, drop it off, pick up a fat paycheck and catch a plane for Europe where my wife and I would travel and eat at the world’s best restaurants, and where I’d be recognized and asked to sign autographs for my adoring fans. I’d return to the states just as the latest book hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list and do a book tour that would take me from the East Coast to the West, and sell the movie rights to Steve McQueen or Paul Newman, before returning to Colorado and another winter of writing.

Oh, I was going to be a star. Excuse me. A STAR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Then, life happened.

I got married my senior year in college at Kent State. I graduated with a degree in journalism and got my first job at the Dayton Journal Herald, now defunct. From there I went to the Miami News, now defunct. And then the Dallas Times Herald, now defunct. (Yes, I was a serial newspaper killer.)

It was when I worked at the Miami News that I decided to get serious about writing the book I always wanted to write – a mystery. A surprise, that. After reading the book my father gave me, I started a strict regimen of Sci-Fi novels. I devoured everything written by Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein, and Ursula K. Le Guin. (Now, of course, I devour everything written by Scalzi, James S.A. Corey and Richard K. Morgan.) I thought if my dream were to ever come true it would be writing Sci-Fi. But … before I hit the shift key for the first time, I read an Esquire Magazine piece that stated some of the best writing being done by novelists was in the mystery genre. They recommended Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald and John. D. MacDonald.

It was John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series that I first picked up. Travis lived on a houseboat, The Busted Flush, and did investigative jobs for hire. There was a color in each of the book titles. “The Deep Blue Good-by.” “The Girl In the Plain Brown Wrapper.” “Nightmare in Pink.” “The Dreadful Lemon Sky.” I was hooked. I devoured all 21 McGee novels like a starving man. Then chomped down Chandler, followed by Hammett, the other Macdonald and Robert Parker. I was fascinated by the stories of world-weary detectives overcoming long odds to turn back evil. That was the kind of book I wanted to write.

And so, I started a book that didn’t even have a title because Blade Runner was still off in the future. I wanted a McGee-like amateur hero, someone who loved movies with the same sort of passion as I did, and who lived in Miami because, well, that’s where I lived.

I dove into the book with gusto, determined to make it a bestseller. The gusto didn’t last long. I had a family – a wife and young son. Could I afford to take a risk on writing books, I asked myself. I was good at newspapering. What if I failed as a novelist? What if I failed my family?

So I put my energy and focus on writing about sports stars, and actors, and yes, other novelists. I did it well enough to keep getting promoted, a velvet fist if there ever was one. I bounced from one paper to another, – 14 in 42 years – working at some of the country’s biggest and best, including the New York Daily News, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Fresno Bee (where I met the estimable Mr. Scalzi).

Oh, it wasn’t as if I didn’t work on the book. I’d write for a day or two, sometimes three, and put it in a drawer and go months before starting again. By which time, the thread of the plot was lost, requiring a do-over. I did a lot of do-overs. Then I lost the manuscript in one of those 14 moves (remember, everything was on paper, not in a computer). Began again. Moved and lost it again. My wife, once threw it out in the trash, something I prefer to chalk up to as a tragic mistake rather than a comment on the book’s quality.

The years stacked atop one another and when I looked up, 25 of them had passed. I told myself it was because I had that day job. And yet, so many of my friends and colleagues were successful novelists – John, of course, and Sherryl Woods and John Katzenbach – and they all had day jobs just like me. I was embarrassed by my own inability to do what they’d done. I decided it was either do what I always dreamed of, or stop dreaming.

Eventually, I found the will and discipline to drag “Tears in the Rain” over the finish line and get it published.

Stardom, fame and fortune did not follow.

Still, I loved the characters I’d created and gave it another go with “Tears of God.” It’s a better book and only took me 17 years to write.

Stardom, fame and fortune did not follow.

Nevertheless, I continued to enjoy writing and seeing my characters grow, so out poured (can something that takes five years really be described as pouring out?) “My Grave Is Deep.” It is, I think, the best of the three.

If history is any indication, stardom, fame and fortune won’t follow. Regardless of its reception, I’ve started to write a fourth Noah Greene mystery and I have but one hope.

That it doesn’t take 25 years to write. Because, you know, death.

—-

My Grave Is Deep: Amazon

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The Big Idea: Kevin J. Anderson

It will be no surprise to learn Kevin J. Anderson has written a lot of novels — he’s one of the most prolific authors working today, not only in the genre of science fiction and fantasy, but in all of fiction. But he’s also written quite a lot of short fiction as well. Over the past six months has collected much of that decade-spanning output into a series of “Selected Stories” book, the (for now) last of which has been released today. Anderson is here to discuss the collecting, curating and publishing of those works — and because there are four of them, rather than do my usual thing of putting purchase links at the bottom, this time if you’re interested in one or more of the books, click the cover and it will take you to the Amazon sale page for the book.

KEVIN J. ANDERSON:

It’s not often that a writer gets to look at decades’ worth of their writing with an objective eye. I spent the last year and a half combing through all of my published short fiction—well over a hundred stories dating all the way back to 1978—so I could compile a four-volume set of my “Selected Stories.” (It’s the “selected” stories rather than the “complete” stories because even I don’t have copies of some works and, frankly, a few of those early pieces were better left buried in the contributor box.)

Simply gathering and rereading all of those works was quite illuminating. I remembered the stories, since they are my creative babies, but remembering them was different from reading them. I began the process of sorting the stories by genre, which proved to be a bigger than expected challenge, since I write widely and produce many different types of fiction. The collections sifted out into a full volume of fantasy, one of horror and dark fantasy, and two volumes of science fiction, the second of which was just released. In total, over 500,000 words of short fiction, 90 stories ranging from novella length down to flash fiction.

I didn’t want this to be just a bunch of random stories like a big bag of literary potato chips, but rather I intended it to be a real retrospective, giving readers some sort of context about the stories, what inspired each work or what sort of thematic connections they had with other tales. These works had been written over the span of four decades, but compressing the time scale and reading them all at once highlighted certain consistent concepts that I visited again and again, sometimes because I still had more to say on a subject, other times because the ideas wouldn’t leave my brain.

I wrote a brief introduction to every single story illustrating some technique or inspiration, maybe just an anecdote related to the piece. Readers going through the collection would have an interesting take on what was going on in my life at the time, how I approached the craft and art as a writer, my philosophy on certain things, and even little Easter eggs that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Now, that seemed like a good idea when I started the task, but then I had to come up with something to SAY about ninety stories. In doing so, though, I discovered parallels I didn’t even realize, subtleties that my subconscious (as coauthor) had slipped in without my forebrain’s knowledge.

I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, a rural farming community where my dad was the town bank president. I call it a cross between Norman Rockwell and Norman Bates, and it was definitely not a “nerd-friendly” place. I was the oddball kid who read comic books, Famous Monsters of Filmland, H.G. Wells, Andre Norton, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. I avidly pored over Vampirella magazine whenever I could get my hands on a copy, and my parents didn’t quite know what to do when their son was so interested the scantily clad, sexy space vampire, though in all honesty I was far more captivated by the monsters than the cleavage. I was picked on by the other kids, teased for getting straight A’s in school (because I would much rather read than go out and play). Remember the kid Ralphie from A Christmas Story?  That was me.  

I sought refuge in alien worlds, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and comics, and then I would escape into my writing. When I was around ten years old I spent all the money I’d saved up to buy a Smith Corona electric cartridge typewriter, because I wanted to be a writer. Many of the early stories in these collections were plunked out on that electric typewriter. I published my first story when I was a Junior in high school, fifteen years old (and that story, “Memorial,” is included in Science Fiction, Volume 1).

Some of my small town experiences, and nightmares, became the basis for an entire sequence of Bradbury-esque dark fantasy tales set in the mythical Wisconsin town of Tucker’s Grove. Those 13 stories are interspersed throughout the fantasy and horror/dark fantasy volumes. Though I had many bad memories of small town life, my real Wisconsin childhood wasn’t nearly as bad as what I put my characters through.

Over the years I cowrote many stories with a spectrum of collaborators, sometimes as a learning exercise, sometimes by assignment, sometimes because I needed a person’s specific skills or experience. My coauthors include Brian Herbert, Doug Beason, my wife Rebecca Moesta (yes, we’ve collaborated on many stories and novels, and we’re still married!), Sherrilyn Kenyon, Mike Resnick, Dean Koontz, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Gregory Benford, Sarah A. Hoyt, and Grammy-award-winning singer Janis Ian and Neil Peart, legendary drummer from the rock group Rush. They’re all included in these collections.

A lot of the stories were done at the request of an editor, so that the writing became a sort of parlor game or an improv act. Like many Golden Age pulp writers, when an editor would show them the cover painting and instruct them to write a story to order, I was often asked to create a tale about solar sails or cloning or virtual reality or even purple unicorns, and I would say “I can do that!” One piece (“Controlled Experiments” in Science Fiction, Volume 2) was from an anthology in which every single story began with the line “There were rats in the souffle again.”  I’m sure literary divas shudder in horror at the very idea, but to me that demonstrates an author’s flexibility and creativity. Give me a challenge and I guarantee I’ll entertain you.

The hardest part of putting together these four volumes was the paperwork. Simply digging up original copies of all those initial publications, trying to track down copyright dates, then scanning and proofing those old stories—the sheer drudgery of compiling was the reason the project took a year and a half.

We released the four volumes through my own publishing house WordFire Press. Because these were my babies, I insisted on doing all the interior design and layout myself. Working with my brilliant graphic designer Janet McDonald, we created the covers. WordFire released them in ebook, trade paperback, hardcover and audio (so there’s no excuse not to get a copy).

I’ve published a lot of books—about 160 by my latest count—but putting these collections together gave me an unexpected overview of a lot of words, characters, settings, and ideas. It’s also inspired me to write a few more stories that have been hanging out on the back burner of my imagination.

It probably won’t be too long before I have enough for a volume 5.

—-

Visit Kevin J. Anderson’s site. Go to the Wordfire Press site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: James Fell

In today’s Big Idea, James Fell explains the title of The Holy Sh!t Moment, and how it perfectly encapsulates not just the book, but the process of making the book itself.

JAMES FELL:

I wasn’t keen on the title.

The sample chapters and proposal were ready. We just needed a name.

“Come up with a list of about ten and send it to me,” my agent said.

I did, and he replied, “Let’s go with ‘The Holy Sh!t Moment’.”

It had been near the bottom of the list. “Really? I’m not sure about that one.”

“We don’t have to be married to it, but publishers will like it so it’s good for pitching. It describes perfectly what the book is about. We have time to think of something else.”

But we never did. My agent was correct that publishers liked it. Raved about it, in fact. So did most everyone I told the name to, so long as they weren’t the type to clutch pearls over a swear word.

I had a holy shit moment about holy shit moments.

I wanted to branch out. Also, I wanted more fame and fortune. I’d been writing about health and fitness for seven years. I was a regular in the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, despite being a Canadian living in Canada. I had a reputation as a no bullshit guy, a myth buster, a fan of science and evidence.

My first book was a science-based weight loss guide published by Random House Canada. It did well up here, but we couldn’t sell it to a big house in the U.S. My agent explained why: “The United States is ground zero for stupid diets.”

Despite having ample reach in the U.S. via writing for a variety of American publications, and a popular blog and sizeable social media presence, the New York houses weren’t interested in a realistic and moderate approach to losing weight and getting in shape. Keto was the new thing. If I wrote about how cutting sugar cured cancer, I’d get a book deal.

Fuck that.

When it came to losing weight, I’d written a lot about motivation. There are more ways to transform your body than there are beers in a Munich autumn; I’d focused on the critical component of inspiring movement and better eating.

After a conversation with my agent, I realized if I could motivate people to lose weight and keep it off, I should be able to motivate them to do other things. Science-based motivation though. Not that cheesy “rah-rah you can do it!” ad nauseum crap or someone proclaiming to have the “secret”. I knew there were good self-help books that didn’t devolve into pseudoscientific dumbfuckery or motivational Pablum. I figured I could write one of the good ones.

But I needed a hook, so I rode my bike.

My Argon Krypton is my idea machine. For three months, I rode Calgary’s ample pathway system, blasted Rush on my iPod, and let my mind wander.

On one such ride, I saw a man running toward me; he wore a Boston Marathon shirt. I smiled and thought, I did that.

It launched a cascade of remembrance, because I’d been such a terrible runner in my youth. Gym class was the worst part of my day, and I wondered what changed. This next part will seem like bragging, because it is.

How did I go from an unathletic, unpopular, overweight guy who was flunking out of college to getting two master’s degrees, qualifying for the Boston Marathon, having millions of people read my work, and marrying a hot doctor?

Told you: bragging.

Change happened in the space of a few seconds where I woke up to the reality of my life. I lamented the notice from the University of Calgary that said I was being kicked out due to my poor grades. I was distracting myself from my troubles with the school newspaper and saw a quote from, of all people, folk singer Joan Baez.

“Action is the antidote to despair,” it read.

I don’t think what most people need to change is only to read some inspirational quote. But if it hits at the right time, it can open a new window in a person’s mind. In a flash, I realized my situation was of my own making, and I had the power to fix it. I’d been a lazy man, now suddenly inspired to take action to make things better. Awash in the relief of seeing light at the end of the tunnel, it became the moment that split my life in twain, dividing it into “before,” and “after.”

It was a deeply emotional sensation that put my motivation into permanent overdrive. Recalling the experience on that bike ride, I wondered, What is the science behind such an event?

I screeched my bike to a halt and almost fell over due to neglecting to unclip from the pedals. I pulled out my phone and began to search popular books on life-changing epiphanies. All that existed were collections of anecdotes; Chicken Soup for the Soul kind of thing, not science. I’ve had two stories published in those chicken soup books. Don’t hate.

I typed into my Facebook page a post asking people if they’d experienced a sudden epiphany that transformed their lives, then hopped back on my bike and rode home.

Before getting in the shower I checked Facebook. The comment field had exploded with inspirational tales of life-changing moments.

My agent liked the idea. I dug into the research, interviewed dozens of world-renowned psychologists, and filled it with stories of people whose sudden “Holy shit!” moments had changed their bodies, helped them beat addiction, sent them back to school or on a new career path, brought them back from the brink of suicide, realized their true gender, even inspired them to change the world.

And, science fiction fan that I am, I peppered it with references to both Star Trek and Star Wars. There is a chapter on religious epiphany; as a nonbeliever I struggled to choose an opening quote. I finally decided on Darth Vader:

“I find your lack of faith disturbing.”

—-

The Holy Sh!t Moment: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s | Audible

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

The Big Idea: Django Wexler

Every hero has a journey — or so it would seem — but does that have to be the journey we expect them to take? Django Wexler asks that very question in this Big Idea for his new novel Ship of Smoke and Steel.

DJANGO WEXLER:

There’s a story we like to tell in science fiction and fantasy: call it the “journey to power”.

The parameters of it are so obvious they almost don’t bear repeating. Our protagonist (orphan farmboy, penniless waif, lowly ensign) begins in a position with no power or authority. Over the course of the story, they gradually improve their lot, often as a side effect of pursuing other, more altruistic goals. The farmboy becomes a master swordsman, the waif leads a revolution against the oppressive state, the ensign assumes command of the starship in a crisis. By the conclusion, they can look back from the dizzying heights and reflect on how far they’ve come, and perhaps laugh about how provincial concerns like local bullies seem on the eve of the Final Battle.

I’m being reductive, of course, but this thread or something like it is at the root of many, many SFF narratives, and for good reason. It’s immensely satisfying — the underdog who we identify with almost automatically slowly getting the upper hand. Often there’s a contrast between those in power at the start of the story, who abuse their authority, and the hero, who wields power justly and honestly. It’s a story most of us can identify with, because almost everyone knows what it’s like to begin at the bottom of some field, and we can all enjoy the fantasy of becoming powerful enough to give petty tyrants their comeuppance.

Let me stress that this is a good story, which is part of some of my absolute favorite works. It’s in Harry Potter, The Wheel of Time, and Star Wars. (The journey to power overlaps, but is not identical to, the more familiar Hero’s Journey of Campbellian fame.) I’ve used it in my own works, many times. Winter’s story, in The Shadow Campaigns, follows her journey from lowly ranker through sergeant, regimental officer, and finally commanding general, from the front lines to the heights of power.

In my middle-grade fantasy, The Forbidden Library, the protagonist Alice becomes a powerful Reader over the course of the series, accumulating contracts with magical creatures than increase her repertoire of abilities. In fact, one of my favorite moments in that series comes in the fourth book: having spent nearly all her time since encountering magic in strange alternate worlds battling monsters, Alice finds herself spat out, alone and penniless, on a Florida beach. (The story takes place in the early 1930s, so no cell phones or internet to the rescue …) She makes her way back to her home in Pittsburgh, and in the process discovers just how powerful her abilities make her in the “normal” world — she can go anywhere, do anything, and no one stop her. I like it as a moment of reflection, that pause just before the summit where we look down at how far we’ve come.

Ship of Smoke and Steel, my new YA fantasy, has a very long history in my archives. It was originally called Soliton (the name of the colossal ghost ship that is the primary setting) and it made good use of the journey to power. Our protagonists (originally there were two of them) were poor orphans, unaware of their magical abilities, who were abducted to be given to Soliton, which collects mage-bloods for mysterious reasons. Once aboard, they had to make their way in the dangerous, lawless society of the monster-haunted ship, gradually uncovering their own power along the way.

That first attempt never quite worked out — it was part of a somewhat ill-conceived Massive Worldbuilding Project, the sort of thing that starts with “Year 0: The World is Created by The Gods” and pages of maps on millimeter graph paper, and it collapsed under its own weight — and the ideas for Soliton lay dormant in my files for many years. (Writer pro tip: never throw anything away.) When I got the chance to return to them, after more than a decade and nine novels, I decided to take a different approach. (n.b. different as in “different from what I had done before” — I certainly have no claim to originality in the genre!)

Isoka, the protagonist of Ship of Smoke and Steel, is a powerhouse from the beginning of the story. She is an adept of Melos, one of the Nine Wells of Sorcery, the Well of combat and war, which grants her energy blades and nearly impenetrable armor. When we first meet her, she’s an enforcer in a criminal organization, laying waste to a gang of rivals. And while she learns a few new tricks over the course of the book, by and large this is not a story about her coming into her power — she’s already done that.

Instead, Isoka’s story is what you might call a journey to empathy. Apart from a younger sister, to whom she’s obsessively devoted, Isoka starts the book with a callous disregard for the feelings or welfare of others, happy to slaughter her way to the solution of any problem. Soliton, when she’s shanghaied on board, presents her with a situation that can’t be solved by cutting it to pieces, both physically (it’s full of giant monsters and other adepts) and emotionally (much to her surprise, she falls in love with a princess). Her struggle with this is the heart of the book.

Why do it this way? Some of it is just how the characters came to me, of course. Some of it, as I said, is just wanting to try something I haven’t done before. And I think some of it comes from the outside world — this book was written in 2017, and with times being what they are, it’s the journey to empathy that really speaks to me right now. I had a lot of fun writing it, and I hope it speaks to all of you, too.

—-

Ship of Smoke and Steel: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: David Mack

Author David Mack knows what you expect out of a book series. But with The Iron Codex, he’s making the argument that you should sometimes get something else than what you expect. Let’s read his thoughts on why this is.

DAVID MACK:

In the publishing industry, there are certain expectations that govern how a new book series is launched, promoted, and sustained. The Iron Codex was written to defy those expectations.

One of the most common bits of received wisdom that is imparted to authors when they embark upon the creation of a series of novels is that, while each book must tell its own story, each entry in the series should be very much like all the others under the same banner. They should share a core cast of characters. Employ the same settings. Evoke consistent themes and tones. And, above all, belong to the same easily defined and marketed genre or subgenre.

For example, if one launches a series whose first book concerns a grouchy, ghost-talking private detective solving a murder in Victorian London, one’s publisher and readers are likely to want the second book to feature the same main character, supporting cast, setting, and tropes. Moreover, it’s reasonable for them to expect that its plot will concern another mystery to be solved. Perhaps another murder, or maybe something else, just for variety. But the essential reading experience of each book in the series should be very much like those that preceded it.

It’s a logical and reasonable approach to crafting a series. It has a long track record of success.

It also was exactly what I did not want to do when I created my Dark Arts series.

I created Dark Arts to be something different. Its first book, The Midnight Front, was plotted and planned as a World War II-era secret-history war epic about demon-powered sorcerers waging secret campaigns behind the scenes of the real war’s events. But I had no interest in creating a series that simply hopscotched from one war to another. I didn’t want the progression of the series to be “World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Iraq War, etc.”

What I’d envisioned was a series that would follow a core group of sorcerers through different eras and regions of 20th-century geopolitical history, by telling stories best suited to those times and settings. Consequently, book two of Dark Arts is a radically different style of novel from its predecessor. Instead of another war epic, The Iron Codex is a Cold War-era spy-thriller.

Just to increase my difficulty level, I decided that book two should also have a different main character than book one; I wanted the female lead from book one to take over as the heroine. The Midnight Front had been about Cade Martin’s journey from naïveté to jaded cynicism. I wanted The Iron Codex to chronicle Anja Kernova’s path from self-doubt to self-knowledge.

Of course, switching the main character from one book to the next has been done by other authors as they developed a series. (I’m looking at this blog’s esteemed owner’s own Zoe’s Tale as a sterling example.) But often those series were more consistent in style, genre, and setting than Dark Arts promises to be.

That’s not to say there are no through-lines connecting the stories that constitute my series. The magic system, which was extrapolated from the rituals of Renaissance-era ceremonial magic, is an essential element in every book. Subplots from book one are continued in books two and three (the latter of which I am still revising for final delivery to my editor), and my supporting characters have their own arcs that follow them through the series.

Will those links be enough to keep readers from abandoning my series en masse when they realize that each new book will be a different narrative flavor? Book three is going to be a paranoid conspiracy piece about betrayal, and I have notions of making book four a high-velocity heist thriller. Of course, it’s possible book four will never happen, because I might have just committed career suicide with this unorthodox approach to my series’ genre identity.

There are a lot of reasons why this experiment might not succeed. I knew that was a risk before I started. But on some level I genuinely believe that, just as I find it more interesting to write a series that changes up its approach with each book, there is an audience that will appreciate and celebrate it. My acquiring editor certainly believed it to be a worthwhile endeavor.

If that turns out not to be the case, future generations of writers will likely use my name in whispered tones as a caution to others. But even if this experiment fails to pan out commercially, I will defend my creative choice. (Though maybe not my business savvy.) I think the Dark Arts novels are fun and unlike much else out there. I’ve enjoyed writing them, and I can’t imagine having taken any other approach to telling the tales of these characters. Now, however, my role is done, and all I can do is hope that the books find their readership via word-of-mouth.

And so I cast my peculiar narrative bread upon the waters of public opinion … and hope that my reward proves to be more than just a handful of soggy gluten.

—-

The Iron Codex: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

Read a prequel story. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

The Big Idea: Brenda W. Clough

In today’s Big Idea, Brenda Clough explore the issues of power, and superpowers, and whether both are more trouble than they are made out to be — and how that affects her new trilogy, of which The River Twice is the first installment.

BRENDA W. CLOUGH:

I was born in Washington DC and have lived here, off and on, all my life. So a fascination with power comes naturally to me. All my novels revolve around power and the difficulties of acquiring and managing it, and my new time travel trilogy Edge to Center is no exception.

And what is time travel but the ultimate power? Think about it. Nothing is over, if you can go back and fix it. No battle lost, no relationship destroyed, no opportunity missed. You blew it big time. But you could go back and make everything right – couldn’t you?

Well … of course not. Who wants to read about Superman steamrollering all the opposition? The whole point about writing about power is to explore the dilemmas it generates.  My hero Jack Wragsland falls into every possible pit of knives his ability to manipulate time allows him to get into. A reasonably conscientious fellow, he does try to fix it. It does not go well.

But there’s more to power than tinkering with space/time. The main tool the human race has developed to manage untrammeled power is government. Only good governance separates Americans from Yemen or North Korea. There’s a reason people want to immigrate into the United States, and it’s not because of our climate. Living in a well-run nation allows you to get stuff done: useful things like staying alive and having a family and not starving to death, picky details like that. And writing books – are there any great novels you know of that written by a resident of Pyongyang? Think of how difficult it would be to start a decent theater project in downtown Lebanon today. If art is the fullest expression of a culture, it’s government that gives the space for that culture to flourish.

So the other protagonist is Calla Ang, heir to an (imaginary) country in Southeast Asia. The problem she has is how to manage her political power. God knows there are plenty of knife pits a ruler can fall into, and the misery this can generate is just as great as meddling with time lines. Which Jack helps her with, a couple times.

There is a solution within the story, one that both characters work towards. It’s a grown-up answer, not an action-movie solution, kind of Zen: that you don’t have to wield the sword. You can have the power, and hold it back. Sometimes the wiser path is to simply not use the maximal weapon in your hand. Of course you can dive in there, thrashing and trashing, and that makes (I trust) for a thrilling set of novels. But if you keep on throwing the big hammer, are you smart? Sometimes, as Tolkien told us, the answer is small and mundane.

I insist that my protagonists be smart. Jack and Calla make horrible mistakes, but they learn from them. They don’t keep on banging their heads against walls. They grope their way, eventually, to a solution that Marvel heroes would never fall into.

—-

The River Twice: Amazon|Book View Cafe

Visit the author’s site. Read the Book View Cafe blog.

The Big Idea: Jess Montgomery

Who tells the story of a novel? For her new novel The Widows, the question is not an academic one for Jess Montgomery — her story of 1920s Appalachia hinged on the right voice to tell the tale.

JESS MONTGOMERY:

A few years ago, we were planning our first trip to visit our younger daughter for her birthday weekend at Ohio University, in Athens County, Ohio. While searching for places to hike in the Appalachian foothills, I ran across a tourism website for Vinton County (just southwest of Athens County), which featured Maude Collins, Ohio’s true first female sheriff in 1925 after her husband was killed in the line of duty while writing a speeding ticket.  Maude worked as her husband’s jail matron in the small jail attached to the county-owned sheriff’s house, where they lived with their five children. So perhaps it was expedient practicality that led the county commissioners to ask Maude to fill out her husband’s term. In any case, she won election in her own right as sheriff in 1926—in a landslide.

My imagination immediately sparked at the notion of a woman in law enforcement at a time when that was nearly unheard of. (Women still represent a minority of officers in sheriff’s departments.) But I was also taken with the mix of attributes I saw in Maude’s expression in a photograph of her: toughness and tenderness. Sorrow and selflessness.

I was also drawn by the setting of Maude’s story—1920s Appalachia. So many 1920s stories and books are set in big cities. The pop image of 1920s femininity is a sequined flapper girl with a feathered headband. Both Maude and the setting went counter to stereotypical 1920s imagery.

What’s more, my family of origin is from Appalachia, with deep roots that go back generation after generation on both sides. I grew up steeped in Appalachian lore, dialect, food, attitudes, customs, crafts, music. When I was in high school, I wrote a musical, “Just an Old Ballad,” inspired by the Appalachian ballads I’d grown up learning. Amazingly, my school’s drama teacher allowed me to produce and direct it—and I cast in the lead male role a young man who I’d later date and marry. Thirty-plus years later, we’re still happily married—a pretty great outcome for a self-penned and produced high school musical!

A deep desire to write again in such a setting quickly came to the surface as I considered Maude’s story, time and place. And soon, I started asking the sort of “what if” questions that lead writers—and their characters—to interesting places. What if a 1920s Appalachian sheriff is murdered—but his young wife doesn’t know who did it? What if she fulfills his role, motivated by the burning need to find out who killed her beloved—and why? What might she discover about him? About herself? About her community?

Soon I’d developed Lily Ross and an inkling of plot. I started writing from Lily’s point-of-view, in the past tense.

The story fell flat.

I wrote forty or so pages incorporating the murderer’s point-of-view.

The story felt cliched.

I wrote a hundred or so pages from the point-of-view of Daniel, the murdered sheriff in my story.

The story felt forced.

But through all these misstarts, another character emerged—Marvena Whitcomb. Daniel’s friend since childhood. A widow herself, after her common-law husband died in a mine collapse. A unionizer. A moonshiner.

And as I wrote, I realized that Marvena and Lily were unlikely allies, destined to discover together who had murdered Daniel and why.

What’s more, I realized that the story’s Big Idea wasn’t woman-in-1920s-becomes-sheriff-and-solves-murder-of-husband.

The Big Idea was about relationships and community. How those can support us, yet betray us. How difficult it can be to balance individual desires with the needs of the community. What it can cost our humanity—or give our humanity—no matter how we tilt the balance, whether toward our individual wishes or toward the community.

I realized that though Lily is the main protagonist of The Widows because she has the greatest character growth and change, the story needed to be told from the point of view of both women. Together, they do so much more than solve the crime of the murder of the man they both love in different ways. Through them, so much comes to life. Daniel, in their hearts and memories. Their community, in all its many aspects, both wonderful and dark. The backdrop of their story—woven from worker’s rights, strife between union miners and management, women’s rights, prohibition, coal mining.

Once I realized that The Big Idea in The Widows is the relationship between Lily and Marvena, and how it develops, the story began to unfold and live for me.

I hope it does, as well, for readers.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: James L. Cambias

Can a “big idea” be a bad idea? Author James L. Cambias (who has been one of my favorite writers since we were both at the University of Chicago together) grapples with this problem, and how confronting this issue made his new novel Arkad’s World all the better.

JAMES L. CAMBIAS:

“It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.”

— David St. Hubbins

Sometimes Big Ideas can be dangerous.* My new novel Arkad’s World was almost killed by a Big Idea.

The book is (in part) a love letter to boys’ adventure stories. As a tip of the hat to one of the greatest adventure stories, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, I wanted to include an ambiguous villain — a Long John Silver type character, who would seemingly befriend my young hero Arkad, while pursuing a selfish hidden agenda.

My incredibly clever Big Idea would be that this slippery character would never actually say anything true. His statements would all be sarcastic, or jokes, or rhetorical questions; and when he actually seemed to be speaking in a straightforward manner he was lying. This pathologically untruthful villain would get hold of Arkad, and the two of them would search for a lost spaceship containing Earth’s lost cultural and historical treasures. Meanwhile, a seemingly menacing rival team (who are of course actually the good guys) pursue them and ultimately Arkad realizes he has been duped.

Sounds good, right? Very clever, right?

Okay, here’s the problem. My young hero is naive. He knows a lot about the world he lives on, but almost nothing about what’s going on elsewhere in the Galaxy. He doesn’t know how important the lost spaceship is. He doesn’t know the political background.

And the only character who can tell him all that important information is lying all the time. Which meant the reader can’t find out any of this stuff either.

For about six months in 2015 I bashed my head against this project, until I finally realized that my clever Big Idea was actually a really bad Big Idea. It was so clever that it crossed the line into Stupid. I had to scrap most of what I had written, redo my outline, eliminate my unreliable character, and start over.

The delay meant that I didn’t finish the manuscript until the end of January, 2016. I was about a week away from submitting it when I got the news that David Hartwell had died.

David was my editor at Tor. He “discovered” me and published my first two novels. He gave me encouragement and wise advice. I wanted him to see this book — not just because I wanted to sell it to him, but because I wanted his opinion of it. I wanted to impress him.

But because of my stupid clever Big Idea, he never saw Arkad’s World. I felt really bad about that.

His death also meant an emergency reorganization at Tor Books. Without David as an advocate, Arkad’s World kind of fell through the cracks, and the company declined to publish it.

In the end, it was someone else’s Big Idea — an absolutely crazy-sounding Big Idea — which finally got Arkad’s World published. In the Fall of 2017, at Gregory Benford’s urging, I went to the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop in Huntsville, Alabama. (You can read my account of it here.) The TVIW is a conference dedicated to actually building and launching an interstellar probe to Proxima Centauri by 2060. It sounds mad, but right now I wouldn’t actually bet real money that it won’t happen. The people involved in the project are very smart and very dedicated, and at least a couple of them are very wealthy.

On the third day of the conference I played hooky along with some other science fiction writers — including Allen Steele, Sarah Hoyt, and Toni Weisskopf, the publisher at Baen Books. We went on a tour of the Marshall Space Flight Center, including a visit to the old Saturn rocket engine test stand from the Apollo program. Ms. Weisskopf and I were both disinclined to climb the rickety-looking stairs all the way to the top, so we had a little time to chat while the others made the ascent. I told her about Arkad’s World, and she asked to see it.

Pitching a science fiction novel to an editor when you’re halfway up a rocket test stand is pretty damned cool. I think the Rule of Coolness forced Ms. Weisskopf to buy the book. Which she did. And now it’s out, so everyone can see the Big Ideas I didn’t have to throw out.

*See the history of the 20th Century for examples.

—-

Arkad’s World: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site.

The Big Idea: Chad Orzel

I liked Breakfast With Einstein so much I gave it a blurb, which you can see in the image above. But why did I like it? Because it explores the esoteric realm of quantum physics — here in the everyday world. Here’s the author, Chad Orzel, to dig deeper into it all.

(PS: The UK edition of this book made the Sunday Times list for Best Books of the Year, 2018. Not bad!)

CHAD ORZEL:

Quantum mechanics is one of the most amazing theories in all of science, full of stuff that captures the imagination: zombie cats, divine dice-rolling, spooky actions over vast distances. Maybe the single most amazing thing about it, though, is that we think it’s weird.

That probably seems a strange thing to say, because quantum physics is so weird, but that’s exactly the point. These are the fundamental principles governing the behavior of everything in the universe, and yet they run completely counter to our intuition about how the world works. If these are the basic rules underlying everything, shouldn’t they make sense? How can the entire universe behave according to strictly quantum laws, and yet we’re not intuitively aware of it?

The answer is that quantum behaviors only become obvious when you’re looking at really small things: the behavior of electrons within atoms, say, or smallish groups of atoms moving slowly. As the things you’re looking at get bigger, their quantum-ness sort of blurs out, and we’re left with objects that, to an excellent approximation, behave according to the rules of Newtonian physics. The everyday, human-scale world, is just too big for us to see quantum physics in action.

At least, that’s what we think. If you know where to look, though, you can find hints of quantum physics absolutely everywhere, even in the most mundane of activities. The process of getting up in the morning and getting ready for work or school is absolutely full of phenomena and technologies with quantum roots.

Quantum physics got its start in an attempt to explain the red glow of a hot object like the heating element in the toaster you use to make breakfast — to explain that color, you need light to behave like a particle. Quantum physics determines the time on the alarm clock that wakes you up, through the cesium atomic clocks that we use to define the second — to make that connection, you need electrons to behave like waves. Quantum physics enables the sensors in the digital cameras your friends use to take cat photos, the semiconductor computer chips used to process them, and the lasers that carry them over fiber-optic telecommunications lines for you to stare blearily at as you sip your morning beverage of choice.

At the deepest level, the universe really does behave according to quantum mechanics, and while the huge size of the human-scale world mostly blurs out quantum phenomena, there are subtle hints left behind. That’s how we know about quantum physics, after all– from the work of scientists who spotted those little clues in the behavior of human-scale objects, and doggedly followed them to uncover the fundamental rules that we find so weird.

Breakfast with Einstein is a book about those clues, about how quantum phenomena manifest in everything that we do. It explains the quantum rules that govern everything, and how those rules applied to huge numbers of atoms combine to produce the world that we see. And it tells you where to look to see quantum physics in your daily routine. It probably won’t make you a morning person, but it might help make your mornings a little more amazing.

—-

Breakfast With Einstein: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|One World Publications (UK)

Visit Orzel’s writing for Forbes. See his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Arwen Elys Dayton

You want to give your children every advantage… but how far would you go to give them those advantages? It’s a question that Arwen Elys Dayton is intensely engaged with in her new book Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful.

ARWEN ELYS DAYTON: 

About a week ago, a researcher in Shenzhen, China, named He Jiankui claimed to have used CRISPR to edit the DNA of twin girls who were born in late 2018. When the girls were early-stage embryos in a petri dish, He made changes to their genetic code to eliminate a gene called CCR5 and so render them resistant to HIV and other diseases. He was, according to reports, at least partially successful. The work hasn’t been independently verified, but no one is questioning that it’s possible. Because it is entirely possible.

Since 2012, when an element of bacterial immune systems was isolated and its potential for altering any DNA became widely understood, researchers all over the world have been figuring out how to use this tool—called CRISPR, as you have probably guessed—to usher in a new age of genetic manipulation. From editing human immune cells so that they can fight or even prevent HIV and cancer, to removing inherited disease, to giving future generations traits that no humans have ever had (night vision? immunity to the flu?), we are on a frontier of artificial human evolution. Aside from CRISPR, there are numberless advances occurring in all aspects of medicine. At least four groups are working to grow human-compatible (or outright human) organs in livestock, researchers all over the world are pursuing competing techniques for fighting the “disease” of old age, and various labs are focused on editing not humans but the insects that infect us—like mosquitos—to wipe out diseases that have been scourges for thousands of years.

The future is unfolding in research universities and biotech companies, and yes, even in sketchy, possibly unsanitary home garages. We are already debating who gets to make the choices about what can and cannot be changed in our DNA. But while we debate, some researchers have started choosing. And editing.

My natural mindset is not dystopian but intensely hopeful, and the idea that we might soon be able to remove disease from humankind is . . .well, it’s like a realization of the most inspiring parts of the science-fiction stories I grew up with. And as a mother, I instinctively, innately, want my children to have every advantage. Resistance to cancer? Who would say no? Longer life? Of course I want that for them. Higher intelligence? A stickier question, to be sure, but if it were only a matter of a few tiny adjustments . . . ?

I want to believe that, given infinite options, I would have strong convictions about what was acceptable and what was too much. But would I? Would you? How do we—intellectually, morally, and viscerally—weigh such options? And here is the birthplace of Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful—not the science itself, but the emotional life under the coming genetic paradigm.

When I was eleven years old, I watched a news story about a girl who was the same age as I was. She was refusing medical treatment for a fatal but curable disease because it went against the religious beliefs of her family. I have thought about that girl during all of these intervening years. How could she (or perhaps, some would say, only her parents) feel so strongly as to be willing to accept death rather than a proven alternative? And yet, as a fellow eleven-year-old, I also believed that she should have some say, some choice, in what was done to her, regardless of the consequences. The push and pull of my feelings about that girl, who probably died decades ago and whose name I can’t remember, were my touchstones in writing this novel. I wanted to paint myself into corners that felt just like that one. Or worse.

What happens if the design of a designer baby doesn’t go to plan? Where—and how—will he spend his life? (In Stronger, the answer is this: mostly underwater, away from other humans whom he does not understand, keeping busy by wrangling a flock of manatees that are growing human organs for transplant.) Other murky scenarios include a pair of semi-identical twins—both are dying, and the decision is made to harvest the healthy organ tissue from one to save the life of the other; forced modification of convicted felons to make them useful to society; the ability to keep a piece of a dead loved one alive . . . inside yourself. Unconscionable? Yes . . . for some.

On a meta level: What happens if countries cannot agree on biological ethics? Or on what makes (and keeps) humans human? When will this become a political issue? And what happens if religious groups make unwavering medical stands? Can we foresee a “Genetic Curtain” dividing the parts of the world where anything goes and the parts where humanity chooses not to change?

These intimate and grand puzzles were the big idea in Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful. The science will happen—is happening!—no matter what we do (short of a planet-killing asteroid or plague or other apocalyptic option, of course). How we use the science to change ourselves, and who we become as a result . . . well, that’s the question. And it was delicious and terrifying to explore.

—-

Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful: Amazon |Barnes and Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Visit Get Underlined. Visit her on twitter.

The Big Idea: Steve Nedvidek

A love of family history and a desire not to wander the fairlanes in their spare time led Steve Nedvidek and his co-creators to make The Jekyll Island Chronicles, an alt-history graphic novel series. How did these motivations end up combined into a colorful artistic creation? Nedvidek explains it all.

STEVE NEDVIDEK:

I was a kid who grew up enthralled by heroes and the worlds they inhabited: aliens with super powers, talking apes on another planet, and musketeers in some place called Paris.  Heck, even Charlie had a chocolate factory. But one day, much later, I realized my biggest heroes were a part of my family. They were REAL people who did REAL things and made REAL differences to me.

My father was a Marine who fought in Korea, taught me to draw, and worked in a factory his whole life. My grandfather was an immigrant from Bohemia who joined the US Cavalry to gain his citizenship, raised three sons, and could handle a bullwhip. So cool…

I began to wonder. “What were their worlds like?” Especially Grandpa. With little or no information kept by the family, my imagination kicked in and I began to dig into a time of our history that I had learned very little about—the early 1900’s. I found this world interesting and fresh and, really for the most part, unknown to me: the Great War, the League of Nations, Henry Ford, tech that was changing the world, and people who parented the kids that would become “the greatest generation.”

A convergence occurred that I noodled on for subsequent years: Why were none of the heroes I grew up with in THIS time frame? Why were superheroes only after WWII and why were they either aliens or somehow mutated? Wouldn’t it be awesome if veterans like my grandfather had access to the coolest gadgets of the time? What if Tesla and Carnegie designed superhero costumes? What would THOSE heroes be like?

In my adult years, with a family, mortgage, and full-time job, I found two friends in the same situation. Like me, my long-time friends Ed Crowell and Jack Lowe had familial connections to WWI, had read Tolkien and Bradbury and Wells and Stan Lee as kids, and wanted to tell a compelling story.

None of us played golf very well, especially me. So, we set off to do the next best thing.

“Let’s make a graphic novel,” I said. “That’ll be fun!”

Working on our short game would’ve actually been easier. Writing something that was basically an elevator speech—action heroes battling anarchists right after World War I—wasn’t easy. Especially when we had done NOTHING like this before. And while we did have great vigor and energy in our inexperience, we also had some pretty great assists.

First, we had Jekyll Island: THE Jekyll Island with its iconic Jekyll Island Club. The place where the Federal Reserve was created. The Golden Isles were winter home of Pulitzer. And Rockefeller. And Morgan. And Carnegie. 1/6 of the world’s wealth called Jekyll home. These Golden Isles are magical. They are REAL. The homes of many of these industrialists are still intact for visitors to see. Jekyll was the natural locale for our story to take place.

We also had SCAD—the Savannah College of Art and Design. That was one of our other “big ideas.” We sponsored a class in Savannah for high level sequential arts students to help us visualize our heroic characters, the cabal of evil anarchists, and the machines that would dominate our alt history/diesel punk world. The students of SCAD were charged with creating a pitch packet for us, that would help us persuade publishers and production companies to take a look at the story we were trying to tell.

We had a successful Kickstarter campaign that gave us financing. Here’s a fact: a graphic novel is insanely expensive to produce. Every word on the page must be laid out, drawn, inked, colored, and all sound effects and copy bubbles must be added. I had been a cartoonist most of my life, but I cannot do THAT.  It was going to cost us.

We had history. A typical writer’s meeting in my basement had each of us with our computer open, scouring and verifying weird and little known facts of the Gilded Age. “Hey, look at this!”, “Did you guys know…?”, and “Oh man, this is amazing!” were often heard. In a way, stringing together these factoids (like the explosion of a blimp over Chicago or the mail bomb campaign of 1919) created a narrative that in many ways wrote itself. This is the blessing of history and the extra blessing of alt history.

And, this sounds corny, but we had each other. There are three of us on this team. Having three co-creators makes it easier to handle the load of writing duties, setting up social media (newsflash: men in their 50’s aren’t good at this), talking to newspapers, paying bills, getting cosplay costumes ready for Comic Con, and doing whatever was required to finish Book One. To be sure, there were times of tension, arm wrestling, and frustration with each other. But, in the end we know that this thing does NOT GET DONE if we don’t cooperate. So, we do.

Plus, we are still having fun! Book Two is done and is released this week, just in time for the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War. Our publisher is making a donation to the WWI Centennial Commission for each book in the series sold in November and December. This will go to help complete the memorial in Washington, DC to those that fought in the Great War—it’s the only modern war still without a memorial in our Capital.

Book Three is started and should be out in mid-2020.

And although our golf games still stink, we have our world:  weird facts, exotic locations, supercharged machines, historical characters, a dollop of fantasy, and super cool heroes–all of whom are vets of the first World War.

I think Grandpa would be proud.

—-

The Jekyll Island Chronicles: A Devil’s Reach: Amazon|Indiebound|Powell’s|IDW

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

The Big Idea: Nancy Kress

Wiping out a terrible disease that kills millions each year: An unmitigated good, yes? Well, hold on there — Nancy Kress is here to explain how there are consequences to every action, and what those consequences mean for you, and her new novel, Terran Tomorrow.

NANCY KRESS:

Why should you care about gene drives?

Right now, I can see you thinking: I don’t! Next! But give me five minutes to explain why you should.

First, the five-second-or-so version (depending on how fast you read): Genes drive can, and soon will try to, eliminate an entire species.  Sparrows, wolves, mosquitos, and you are all species.

The five-minute version: A gene drive is an artificial “selfish gene” capable of forcing itself into 99% of an animal’s offspring, instead of the usual 50%. Theoretically, they could affect promoter genes, which are in charge of turning other genes on and off. In actuality so far, we know that they can affect reproduction by turning all males or females (pick one) of a species sterile. We know this because London researchers, supported in large part by the Gates Foundation, have succeeded in creating this gene drive in females of the malaria-carrying mosquito Anopheles gambiae sterile. At the same time, as part of the international effort Target Malaria, a small field trial with sterile male Anopheles will begin in Burkina Faso by the end of 2018. If all goes well, Anopheles may eventually be eliminated, and with it malaria.

What if all does not go well?

What if it does?

What if the same technique is used to eliminate other species?

These are the places that hard science fiction looks for stories—the impact craters of major technological advances like gene drives. I write hard SF, and my new novel, Terran Tomorrow, is interested in the impacts, good and bad, of genetic engineering on the natural world. Since those impacts are made by people, Terran Tomorrow deals not only with how people mess around with genes but also, and more importantly, why.  For what good or bad reasons, under what circumstances, with what consequences. How do we clean up other people’s genetic messes? How do we clean up our own—and at what personal sacrifices? Science is much more about people than petri dishes.

Terran Tomorrow is the conclusion of my Tomorrow’s Kin trilogy, which began with the Nebula-winning novella “Yesterday’s Kin.”  In the first book, aliens came to Earth. In the second book, humans went to World. In this third book, humans and a few aliens return to Earth, and are startled and shocked by the changes since they left. Environmental changes, personal changes, a complete upending of the social order. Time dilation, if it brings a decade of genetic warfare, can do that.

Marianne Jenner, evolutionary biologist, is caught between the clashing philosophies of her now-grown grandsons, ecologist Colin Jenner and his brother, U.S. Army Colonel Jason Jenner. Geneticist Zack McKay and his fractious scientific team are trying under impossible conditions to create a planet-saving gene drive. Alien visitors are rebelling. So are ex-wives. A civil war rages. And sparrows are now deadly.

Sparrows? Yes, because, as I mentioned in the five-minute version of why gene drives matter, they can theoretically affect other genes besides those regulating the reproductive system. There are also promoter genes affecting various metabolic pathways in organs such as the brain.

In real life, scientists are exploring links between microglia, a form of brain cells, and both schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s, in which microglia don’t seem to be functioning optimally. Could a gene drive change that? Or cause it? What else in the brain can be permanently changed with a gene drive?

In Terran Tomorrow, people must confront and act on two of the most difficult questions in genetics: How much risk do we undertake in experimenting with the building blocks of life? And if others have experimented and the results are catastrophic, how much risk do we undertake trying to clean up their disaster?

There are no easy answers to those questions, not in real life nor in fiction. That’s what makes the questions worth doing what SF does best: rehearsing one possible future. Because gene drives are already here.

—-

Terran Tomorrow: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

 

The Big Idea: Alexandra Rowland

Sometimes you start write something for fun, and then suddenly… the stakes become higher than that. Just ask Alexandra Rowland about that, as it concerns her new book, A Conspiracy of Truths.

ALEXANDRA ROWLAND:

Stories are in everything. If the human brain has been optimized for one purpose, it’s storytelling.

Well, okay, I’m being poetic. It’s pattern recognition, technically, if you want to be dreadfully literal about it. We look into the night sky and see a random scattering of stars, and we impose order on it, drawing constellations and filling up the void with patterns—stories. We see a piece of paper with green ink making pictures, and we impose a story on that too: Not just paper and green ink, but money, a dollar, and suddenly that same scrap of paper and ink has the arbitrary worth of approximately one candy bar.

Show someone a story, tempt them into giving one percent of their attention to it, and you can hack right into that part of their lizard brain that evolved to make educated guesses about the world around them, the better to keep them alive in a hostile wilderness. And once you’re in, once you have them by the throat, you can do all sorts of things to a person. You can lead them all sorts of places.

These days, the hostile wilderness is made of stories—it’s not just the effortless access we have to movies, TV shows, games, but also the battering tempest of the unending news cycle, the way social media amplifies the audience’s every scream of response. Someone realized once how irresistible patterns are to our brains and, because capitalism, monetized it and set it loose on an unsuspecting population. Half of the reason it feels so good to take a day or two away from Twitter is because your brain gets a rest from endlessly and reflexively sifting through clickbait and propaganda. There’s such a torrent of false positives that we survive by resisting the instincts of our lizard brains, armoring ourselves against the very stories that we’ve evolved to embrace. And it’s hard. We’re just not wired for that.

When I began writing A Conspiracy of Truths, it was only ever supposed to be for fun. It was supposed to be my procrastination project – a low-stress, low-stakes, low-pressure thing for me to screw around with, experimenting and tinkering and fucking up as freely as I pleased while I avoided the other book I was working on, the one I was Serious about. “I wonder how much worldbuilding I can cram into one novel without it getting annoying,” I thought to myself, blithely ignoring the other project I was allegedly committed to. “Let’s try it for the sake of science and see what happens. No gods, no masters, eh?”

But stories are in everything, and the human brain is optimized for them, and… things rather got away from me. Things seem to have, uh, really gotten away from me.

First, the damn thing disregarded all my intentions and grew its own plot – a story, initially just a framework to support the weight of the world I was constructing on top of it, but gradually taking up more of the space, more of the weight, more of my attention. And then, I suppose, either to spite me or to prove a point, it made its story about stories: About the power of the right lie whispered in the right ear, about the power of truth deployed strategically, about the ways we take strength from stories, what they do for us, how they change us.

The main character and snarky first-person narrator, Chant (a member of an order of wandering storytellers going back thousands of years) gets arrested, accused of witchcraft and espionage, and thrown in jail. He is looking at a very real possibility of being killed for crimes he didn’t commit, and he has nothing—no money for bribes, no friends in high places—just the clothes on his back, the words on his tongue, and a complete inability to give up and accept defeat.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem in the world looks like a nail: So, for the lack of any other tools at his disposal, Chant hammers stories at every ear he can reach. He knows he doesn’t need to change someone’s mind completely—all he needs, in most cases, is to plant a seed of doubt, to make them empathize with him for a split second, to make them pause, and wonder, and listen. He saves his sorry neck with stories.

I finished writing this book in mid-September of 2016, about six weeks before the election that brought us a painfully sharp reminder of the undeniable and overwhelming efficacy of propaganda. The book was only supposed to be an experiment in worldbuilding, but it became more about manipulating reality. The moral, if there is one, comes down to this: “It doesn’t matter if it happened that way in real life, as long as the story is good, as long as it’s truer than truth.”

Let me tell you the truth.

—-

A Conspiracy of Truths: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Dan Koboldt

Science Fiction writers love science, but we don’t always get the science we already know 100% correct. Fortunately, Dan Koboldt is on the case, with his book Putting the Science in Fiction.

DAN KOBOLDT:

A few years ago, I wrote an article for Apex Magazine called “Eye-based Paternity Testing and Other Human Genetics Myths,” mostly because I was irritated at how frequently I encountered misconceptions about genetic inheritance in books, television, movies, and other media. I’ve worked as a genetics researcher for fifteen years, and it surprises me at how often people get this stuff wrong.

One frequent myth is the idea that physical traits like (like eye color) are inherited in classic Mendelian (i.e. dominant and recessive) fashion and can predict family relationships. The rock song “All I Wanna Do” by Heart is a great example. A woman has a one-night stand with a young man who apparently is hitchhiking. Years later, they run into each other and she’s got a child. “You can imagine his surprise,” the song goes, “when he saw his own eyes.”

It’s a great song but also not very realistic. Having similar eyes doesn’t make two people related. While it’s true that blood relatives often resemble one another, most physical traits that we think of as “genetic” are influenced by multiple genes and environmental factors. Eye color is a spectrum, and appears to be influenced by at least 15 different genes. It doesn’t always follow predictable inheritance patterns, either. People with blue eyes can have brown-eyed children and vice-versa.

In other words, eye color, like most physical traits, is not a good paternity test.

Another common myth is the idea of a “advantageous” mutation that changes an ordinary person into a superhero. It’s true that exposure things like radiation, carcinogens, and some classes of viruses can cause genetic mutations. However, a mutation occurs in the DNA of a single cell. Our bodies have millions of cells by the time we’re adults. Most mutations have no effect. Some may be deleterious, causing the cell to die. Even fewer mutations confer some kind of advantage to the cell, allowing it to grow and divide. If this happens, you don’t become a superhero; you’ve got cancer. Sorry, Spiderman.

After I wrote the article, I thought it might be fun to have an ongoing blog series to educate authors about scientific and technical aspects of science fiction. The problem was that many of the relevant topics were outside my area of expertise. We may not like to admit it, but scientists don’t know everything. We tend to specialize in a given field, and outside of it we may not have any more knowledge than the average person.

I wanted my blog articles to be written by true experts. After all, someone who works in a relevant field on a day-to-day basis can provide depth and nuance that you won’t find on Wikipedia. Also, their information tends to be more up-to-date, because not all of us get around to writing books or updating the relevant wiki page.

So I started to collect experts in other subject areas. The SFF community, as it turns out, is full of them. Most writers have day jobs, after all, and a lot of them work in science, engineering, medicine, and other technical fields. This was the genesis of my Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Each week, I invite an expert to discuss their real world expertise as it applies to science fiction. Most of the contributors are SFF fans themselves, so they offer some lovely examples of works that get things wrong (or right).

Fast forward a few years, and the blog series had collected something like 150 articles representing a wide range of disciplines. Eventually, someone smarter than me had the idea to collect this useful information into a book. I thought that Writer’s Digest books would be the ideal publisher for such a reference. Luckily, they agreed.

Putting the Science in Fiction includes 59 chapters from a wide range of technical experts who collectively have endured more than 200 years of graduate school. Two thirds of the book’s contributors identify as female, by the way, so we’ve kept the “mansplaining” to a minimum. There’s also a hilarious foreword by bestselling author Chuck Wendig.

Our goal is simple: to help writers add a dose of realism to their science fiction stories. Every chapter is short and to the point; we address common pitfalls and misconceptions, and then offer some tips for getting the details right. With a bit of expert guidance, anyone can write stories that are realistic and compelling (even to readers who know a lot about the underlying science). And that, my friends, is the big idea.

—-

Putting the Science in Fiction: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site.

The Big Idea: Beth Cato

Magic is powerful and can change the world — but in Beth Cato’s new novel Roar of Sky, magic also has consequences, especially for those who wield it.

BETH CATO:

In my books, I write about women who are strong in realistic ways. In my first series, The Clockwork Dagger, Octavia Leander is a medician who is defined by her compassion and her courage to make a stand, whether in a battlefield surgical tent or against drunken punks pummeling gremlins for their amusement. I wrote her the way I did because I was sick and tired of waiting for someone else to write books about my favorite role-playing game archetypes–white wizards and clerics–as the main heroes, not as convenient doctors there to keep the big burly warriors alive.

I had a different idea in mind as I started Breath of Earth, the first book in my Blood of Earth trilogy. Ingrid Carmichael is a smart and savvy woman of color in an alternate history version of 1906. America and Japan are allied as the Unified Pacific and in the process of dominating mainland Asia. The economy and technology of her world is driven by geomancy: energy harvested from the earth and stored in crystals called kermanite. This harvesting is perilous business. Geomancers take in the power of an earthquake and hold it as a fever. This means that in a big earthquake, the lash of power could kill a geomancer almost instantly if they don’t break direct contact with the ground or channel the energy into kermanite.

When I describe the plot of Breath of Earth at conventions, I like to say, “Spoiler alert! There’s a big earthquake.” There’s no hiding that the climax of the novel is the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, but in this version of history, it happens for very different reasons.

Did I mention that Ingrid happens to be a geomancer? A really, really, powerful geomancer? Something women aren’t supposed to be–and certainly not women who look like her.

The second book, Call of Fire, takes the action up to the Pacific Northwest. To save herself and countless others, she must risk holding a whole lot of geomantic energy.

Some people insist that fantasy writers have it easy because magic provides an easy solution to problems. Not in my books. Magic carries consequences and Ingrid is a human woman channeling demigod-level powers. Her body is irreparably damaged. As I already established in my other series, I don’t believe Ingrid should be conveniently healed and sent on her way.

The cover of my trilogy’s finale, Roar of Sky, shows Ingrid standing amid the lava fields of Kilauea on Hawaii’s Big Island. She holds a guandao, a halberd-type weapon, but not to wield it in battle. She now relies on various aids to help her walk, climb stairs, and perform other basic functions. The events of the previous two books have left her in constant, nearly debilitating pain.

Even though I write a lot about magic, I see my books as fundamentally realistic. The women I know embody a quiet kind of strength that isn’t readily depicted in genre novels. They deal with pain on a daily basis, but they endure. They have trouble walking. It takes them several tries to get up from a chair. They cope with migraines that stab their eyes like ice picks, yet they get kids ready for school, drive, and do what needs to be done with one eye open. They endure. The women I know wouldn’t work well for some motivational feature on the nightly news; their lives are too normal, too boring. But you know what? They endure.

Ingrid is a gifted geomancer, but what enables her to stay alive isn’t her godlike power. It’s her endurance, her willingness to adapt, to find a way to stand up even through sheer agony. That’s what makes her a strong character, like so many of the real women I know.

—-

Roar of Sky: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: K. Bird Lincoln

In today’s Big Idea, we learn of the tomb of a surprising person in a surprising location, and how K. Bird Lincoln used it to think about the world and characters she created in her new novel, Black Pearl Dreaming.

K. BIRD LINCOLN:

I grew up Lutheran in a mostly white church in Cleveland, Ohio. Imagine my surprise twenty years ago in Tokyo when my then-boyfriend’s kooky uncle leaned across the dinner table, bathing me in whiskey sour breath and said, “Hey, I’m from Shingo-mura, the town in Aomori that has Jesus’ Tomb.”

Right. For sure. Smile. Take another sip of beer.

I’d been told weirder things before, so I brushed it off. Only, the whole “Jesus’s Tomb” thing wouldn’t let go of me. Once Google became popular around 2002 that drunken phrase niggled at my brain cells until I caved and dropped down a rabbit hole of weirder-than-fiction history.

Kooky uncle’s surname, Herai, is actually quite unique in Japan. The Google rabbit hole revealed the theory it’s a Katakana-pronunciation version of “Hebrew” in Japanese. Regardless of what you believe, TripAdvisor lists “Christ’s Grave” as the number one “Thing to Do” in Shingo-mura. The city has a page that explains the whole history in English. TLDR: Jesus escaped Golgotha across Siberia, went to Northern Japan, changed his name to Daitenku Taro Jurai, married a farmer and had three daughters.

Huh. That wasn’t in my Sunday School class. My first instinct was affront, derision, disbelief. How could a country like Japan presume to claim Jesus? They couldn’t just steal him from centuries of Western tradition, culture and religion with an absurd story!

Fast forward a decade and I’d lived in Japan, had children, traveled widely, and experienced many ways in which U.S. culture has appropriated Asian cultural heritage in equally absurd ways. My children are biracial Japanese-Caucasian, and at the time I wrote the Urban Fantasy Dream Eater, there weren’t many multi-racial heroines represented in fantasy genres I read the most.

Believe me, I know exactly how fine a line I would walk presuming to write about Japanese culture from an insider perspective. So, I didn’t. The Portland Hafu series is based in “third nation” cultural identity: the shared habits, experiences, and traditions created at the intersection of two or more peoples.

Like my daughters who must feel awkward and guilty both at the Hiroshima Memorial and Pearl Harbor. Like Koi Pierce Herai in Dream Eater’s sequel, Black Pearl Dreaming, who is both U.S. and Japanese, and a mix of human and creature of the myth-based Kind.

The Big Idea is this: The people who wrestle every day with what to take and what to ignore from their cultural heritages, whose outside perspective even in the country of their birth, are the ones who will save the world.

Claiming Jesus is buried in a small town in Aomori may be absurd, but it does not perpetuate derogatory stereotypes or bring moral harm in a racist or sexist manner to Lutherans (or even Jews.) In Black Pearl Dreaming, Koi travels to Aomori and rightly ignores the Grave of Christ to focus on bigger issues. She contends with tricky, racist wounds still festering from the World War II Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the U.S.’s use of the Atomic Bomb. What do we owe those we’ve harmed in war? What if the harm inflicted allows the survival of a people? Who is qualified to judge the balance of good or evil? Or forgive.

When the stakes are high, it is those who are fluid with their identity, who cannot force their round pegs into one solid square nationalistic shape, that have the meta perspective necessary to empathize with all sides.

Regardless of your politics, the times are calling for more empathy, more understanding of disparate points of view. It’s the interstitial and the third nation folks who may hold the key to humanity’s ultimate survival.

—-

Black Pearl Dreaming: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Kobo

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

The Big Idea: Steven Erikson

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

STEVEN ERIKSON:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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