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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Jason Sizemore

Apex Magazine is running a Kickstarter to help fund their new year of publication, and editor Jason Sizemore asked if he could borrow the Big Idea stage here to talk about his publishing company, and the concept of fandoms in the current era. Here he is!

JASON SIZEMORE:

I have a hot take to share with you. Are you ready?

This whole pandemic thing is a drag.

Shocking information, I know. Naturally, I’m being facetious, but the first step in overcoming a problem is acknowledging the problem. The fact is, for many, the pandemic has taken a bite out of our mental stamina. We’re constantly facing questions regarding personal and family safety. Should I go out? Will engaging in social activity be beneficial enough to offset the possibility of contacting COVID-19?

This is where online fandom can be a lifesaver. There is no replacing in-personal interaction, but online engagement can be a social bridge until you are comfortable and safe enough to participate in public events and activities. We’ve seen this through the rise of virtual events, online reading and writing groups, and Zoom, Discord, and Slack becoming a part of our daily lives.

Personally, online engagement has been an important part of my mental health. Sometime ago, I joined a Discord server for Hearthstone. Using Discord reminded me of the fun I had in my post-college days of goofing around on IRC. I eventually decided to create a server specifically for Apex Books and Apex Magazine. The community we’ve built on our Discord server has been an endless source of delight and fun. We have in-jokes. We play games. There are writing sprints. Arguments about how gross (or tasty, I guess) black licorice can be. My online friends do a lot to help my brain stay even-keeled.

While I won’t claim that online fandom engagement is a substitute for in-person socializing, I do believe it has helped me not be so reliant on public social exposure. It extends the time I can endure between activities.

Recently, the need to see others created a stressful situation. I had an opportunity to attend a local writing convention. I knew attending would be a great boost to morale. It was also a chance for professional development. But the news was filled with reports of yet another highly contagious variant spreading its way across the country.

I decided to chance it.

The convention was fun, of course. It felt great being with friends and colleagues. Leaving Sunday evening, my spirits were soaring. I was confident I had made the right decision. Then the day after, I received a message notifying me someone I had interacted with at the convention had tested positive for COVID. On Tuesday, one of my friends I had spent much time with that weekend was positive. Queue the worrying about every cough, body pain, and sniffle. The concern grew worse as more attendees reporting coming down with COVID. Ultimately, I avoided it, but I probably added to the grey in my beard from the stress.

I think about how stressed I felt the whole week after the convention. It’s made me think long and hard about attending ChiCon 8 in September. Every day, the mental calculus spins my head. The week of stress has also made me thankful for my online friends and communities.

Whether you’re into Hearthstone, Apex Magazine, or something mega-popular such as K-Pop, don’t be afraid to jump into online fandom. Many genre publications run Patreon accounts that offer Discord server access. SFWA has long had online forums and the organization just recently started a Discord server. You’ll find that your fandom commonality becomes secondary to the importance of the social engagement offered by the community. Like in-person socializing, once in a while you’ll encounter a toxic individual. Thankfully, they are few and far between and most online interactions are lovely.

If you’re looking for a place to chill, come hang with me and hundreds of others on the Apex Books and Magazine Discord server. A great way to do that is to join our Patreon or with an Apex Magazine subscription.

Most conveniently, we’re currently running a Kickstarter to help fund our 2023 publishing year. Backing the Kickstarter at any level grants you access to our community. You’ll also receive some wonderful exclusive rewards such as free original fiction, a one-page RPG scenario, and alien head swag!

Camaraderie. Award-worthy fiction. Alien head cocktail coasters. What more could you ever want?

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Sunyi Dean

What is fiction good for, anyway? Sunyi Dean has an idea, and in this Big Idea for The Book Eaters, she delves into it, and how our stories can cause us to change our lives.

SUNYI DEAN:

Back in August 2012, I was attending a teacher training course and got talking to a fellow trainee. We drifted into discussing linguistics and literature. He loved reading, which we could agree on, but only nonfiction. I liked nonfiction, too, but was surprised by the vehemence of his distaste for novels.

“There is nothing in fiction which can surpass the complexity and beauty of real life,” he said. “What even is the point of stories?”

The kind of question that book-nerds dream of being asked.

“Stories aren’t in competition with reality,” I told him. “They’re a framework for making sense of reality.”

Everything in life is a story. Including this essay. Conducting a science experiment? Data is just a set of numbers until you draft a narrative to explain their relevance. Trying to win votes? Create a political yarn that frames your ‘vision’ of the future. Advocating for rights? Proselytizing for religion? All of that is crafting a narrative about the world and how it works, ordering pieces of the universe into a shape that makes sense to the human psyche.

We need stories to understand ourselves, as individuals. Share your story, social media begs—and we oblige, weaving narratives about our lives in which we are important, interesting, unique. Our species is adept at the self-made myth.

That’s not an indictment of humanity; we’re just doing what is necessary. Without those narratives, humans would be adrift in a sea of sensory input and chaotic data, struggling to impose order on existence. But with them, we can key into the universe.

Stories aren’t pointless; they’re powerful.

That power also makes them dangerous.

I grew up watching Star Trek, and it changed my life. The ST universe  portrayed an inclusive, socialist, and largely secular society. In other words, it was an antithesis to the conservative, suspicious, and theocratic culture that I’d been raised in. While the adults around me were busy insisting the world had to be a certain, fixed way, Star Trek cheerfully but adamantly assured me that it did not. 

That is where stories veer into being dangerous. Data can be skewed. So can politics. Advocacy can be subverted. Religion can be controlling. All of those negative aspects can be effected with a sufficiently skilled narrative. Stories can ruin us.

In writing, authors will say that villains are always the heroes of their own legend. This is equally true in real life, and not limited to fiction. Abusers tell themselves that their actions are justified. The wealthy elite spin stories where their wealth was deserved and earned. Dictators, criminals, and killers all have stories to shore up their actions.

Many people consider the human race to be bad, yet most people also don’t consider themselves to be bad humans. For better or worse, that cognitive dissonance is down to stories.

The question then becomes: how do we separate good stories from bad, or skewed stories from truthful ones? How do we frame the story of our lives in a way that is empowering for ourselves, without doing harm to others?


My debut novel, The Book Eaters, is about stories and their power—both good and bad—and navigating those tricky issues. 

The book eaters are a race of paper-eating humanoids who are dying out. Infertility is reducing their numbers, and an increasingly technologized world makes it harder to remain hidden and safe. To stay alive, they rely on an archaic system of arranged marriages and forced births to keep their dying species limping along, and live under a veil of strict secrecy.

In order to maintain their system of control, the family patriarchs have laid down strict rules about what books their children are allowed to eat. Girls are fed fairytales and taught to be ‘princesses’ who think only of marriage. Boys are given adventure stories and raised as ‘knights’ who enforce laws, or else patriarchs who rule houses.

In short, book eaters have crafted a very specific narrative about their society, one which keeps its members alive and safe even as it oppresses and warps them.

Enter Devon Fairweather, a book eater woman and the main character. As a woman, Devon is forced to comply with the system of arranged marriages, and produce children with different husbands. She desperately wishes things were different, but like the rest of her people, she suffers from a critical lack of imagination. Her worldview has been moulded by her family’s selective diet of fiction, and she struggles to imagine her life outside of the ‘story’ the patriarchs have framed.

Ironically, I also suffered from this failure of imagination.

In my early thirties, I thought my life was ‘over’ in the ways that mattered. I thought I had no path out of my marriage, or back into work. I had spent so long chasing happiness and being disappointed I could no longer imagine what it would be like to find it.

Writing salvaged me.

I began drafting The Book Eaters in 2018—my third novel, since the first two had failed to sell or attract interest. While grappling with Devon’s arc, I examined my life and really thought about who was telling my story. I realised that if I wanted things to change, I would need to relearn how to craft my own narrative; I would have to trust that the future could be different, even when I lacked the ability to envision that new path.

Long story short, I ended my marriage in the spring of 2020 and moved out, mid-lockdown. Starting over is hard; financial free-fall is terrifying. Covid was everywhere and the kids were miserable. I don’t miss those days.

But making drastic changes in my life became the catalyst I needed for understanding how Devon could make drastic changes in hers. A few months after separation, I finally had the clarity to type up an ending for The Book Eaters that did both of us justice, and set a new path.

Stories have power, especially the ones we tell about ourselves. What is your story, and what is it saying?


The Book Eaters: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Izzy Wasserstein

When events are on a precipice, where can we look for the support we need to help pull them back? Izzy Wasserstein has an idea, and in this Big Idea for All the Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From, she’s ready to share with you what she thinks it might be.

IZZY WASSERSTEIN:

It all began with punching fascists.

I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. I’m not a violent person. Outside of wrestling with my siblings as a kid, I’ve never punched anyone. But fascist-punching is an obvious moral necessity.

What’s less obvious is what we do when punching fascists isn’t enough. When fascists or other authoritarians hold power, when they’ve co-opted institutions and are counting on anticipatory obedience: what do we do then?

That’s the question that I’m obsessed with in my debut short story collection All the Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From. It’s also compounded by other problems, like the existential threat of climate change. So I find myself asking: how we might survive, even (someday) thrive?

If you’re hoping I’m about to give you the answer to those questions, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I don’t have the answer. But I’m pretty sure I know where to find the various answers we’re going to need: in our communities.

That’s the idea at the heart of my work: that we need each other, we need our communities, our loved ones, our chosen families. Politicians and leaders can’t save us. We can’t even save ourselves. But maybe we can save each other.

That’s not to say communities are uncomplicated or without flaws. Like lots of queer folks, I know first-hand that the communities of our birth don’t always welcome our differences. Chosen communities can fail us, too. Communities of all kinds can shelter predators, can be undermined by power, by hierarchies, by outside influences. We can fail each other in so many ways. But that doesn’t change the fact that all we have is each other. I write stories about desperate people facing hard times.

They’re not always happy stories, but they’re not nihilistic, either. I think a better world is worth fighting for, and so I keep asking myself: what might that world look like, and how might we get there?

In my work, it looks like

  • two women working on saving the ocean with people they’ll never meet
  • a princess and an assassin finding what they need in each other and in a bigger cause
  • students at a boarding school deciding which monsters are preferable: those within or those without
  • a diviner of the future who joins the attempt to kill a tyrannical god, knowing it will mean her death
  • runaways with chimeric bodies finding ways to keep each other safe in the face of a world that wants them dead

As I’m writing this, our rights are under sustained attacks by courts, politicians, thugs with guns, fascists, and fascist enablers. The rich are getting richer while everyone else struggles to get by. A pandemic is still raging, climate change threatens to shatter human civilization, and our self-proclaimed leaders aren’t doing enough about either problem.

I don’t have the answer to these problems, and don’t believe there is an answer. I do believe we can find answers, but we’ll need to listen to, protect, and support one another. We’ll need to lean on each other’s expertise, and on each other.

I’m still working to understand what that will look like. I expect I’ll spend the rest of my life working on it. I hope you’re thinking about it too, because we desperately need your answers.


All the Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

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The Big Idea: Greg van Eekhout

Even in fiction, pets are a big responsibility. Author Greg van Eekhout makes that extra clear in his new novel, Fenris & Mott, where we’re introduced to a new version of a particularly legendary dog. Follow along in this Big Idea as the author tells you a little about a dog ownership in a world in the midst of major change.

GREG VAN EEKHOUT:

By the way, the world is ending. I don’t mean Earth is going to do a Krypton, but our way of life is causing mass extinction and extreme weather and generally making the planet a less hospitable, more difficult, more dangerous, and more costly place to live. I know you know that, but the reason I bring it up is that I decided to write a middle-grade novel (i.e. marketed to readers aged 8-12) in which Ragnarök is taking place now, and to describe massive floods and fires and storms without acknowledging climate change seemed dishonest. 

What I’d set out to do was write a book about promises. When Mott finds a baby Fenris abandoned in an alley, she promises to take care of him no matter what. Even when she learns that Fenris isn’t a dog puppy but rather the wolf of Norse mythology destined to bring about destruction and eat gods in the twilight of the universe, she is determined to keep that promise. And even when Fenris’s appetite grows and he starts devouring pick-up trucks and A-list movie actors, she remains undeterred. Not even the gods who are using Ragnarök to their own benefit can stop her. Mott’s a tough cookie when it comes to keeping promises because she knows how lousy it feels when someone breaks a promise. But what is the Ragnarök prophecy if not the universe’s promise to end in mayhem, disaster, and strife? 

It can be a little tricky writing about kids who take action to save the world. Too often we look to them as the solutions to the problems we created. We shrug our shoulders and say, “Sorry, youngsters, we failed you, but we have no doubt that, through your heroic efforts, you’ll turn things around, because you’re awesome.” That’s lazy, irresponsible, and hugely unfair. Do I want to promise kids they can beat the gods (in this case, the gods being fossil fuel companies and those who owe their fortunes and political careers to fossil fuel companies)? Sure. But to paraphrase Jewish scholar, Shlomo Bardin, it’s the job of every one of us to mend the world. We’re not required to finish the work, but neither are we allowed to quit. That means we adults still have to fight this battle. 

I like my books to be layered, so it’s not all climate catastrophe and musings about promises. There’re also musings about root beer and sleep overs and a young Valkyrie who doesn’t understand why she can’t just stab people in Los Angeles. And I went through pains to make sure Fenris was both as cute and chaotic as any puppy with the capacity to eat the moon. I hope the book is funny, fun, exciting, and hopeful. 

Finally, I’ll close by making a promise of my own, the same one I make to readers of all my books: The dog doesn’t die. 

—-

Fenris & Mott: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Alan Smale

Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a NASA spacecraft! Come along in Alan Smale’s Big Idea, as he tells you about his new novel, Hot Moon, where an alternate history involving Russia and the moon has occurred.

ALAN SMALE:

I’m writing this blog post on one of my very favorite anniversaries: July 20th. Which, in this noble year of Two Thousand and Twenty-Two, is the 53rd anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. 

My love for the Apollo Program has been deep and abiding, and has played a critical role in my life. It strengthened my interest in science from a very early age, influenced my most significant career decisions, and has given me some of my most powerful memories and experiences. And, given the various groups I hang with these days, I know I’m not alone in that. Show of hands?

Nice.

When Neil and Buzz walked on the Moon I was an eight-year-old living in Yorkshire, England, fascinated by every detail. I studied up and memorized everything I could about the Apollo astronauts (from all the missions), the Saturn I and Saturn V rockets that took them into orbit and beyond, and all of the technical details of their Lunar Modules and Command and Service Modules that were available to me. I was gripped by the dramas, like Apollo 8’s orbits of the Moon, the Apollo 11 landing, and the Apollo 13 Lost Moon mission, but also had an insatiable appetite for the small stuff: the meticulous and extensive engineering testing they did on the earlier Apollos, the minutiae of the spacesuits and the ALSEP experiments, the dorky aluminum golf carts of the Lunar Rovers, the routes of their surface excursions. The rocks. The rolling. The entire package.

Back then I really, really believed I’d be living in space by the time I reached the age I am now. I mean, why wouldn’t I? 

In 1969, some of the pundits were saying we’d be on Mars by the 1980s. And even back then I knew that might be a stretch, but hey: I didn’t need to go to Mars, exactly. I just wanted to slip the surly bonds of Earth, meaning its gravity, and get up there to live and work in space. 

Well, dang it, that didn’t happen, and I’m still subject to those surly bonds, but I gave it my best shot. Took physics and astrophysics at college. Even ended up working for NASA, though not on human spaceflight – I do astrophysics research, manage one of NASA’s Big Three astro data archives, and help others to do science. But, bottom line: here I am, still stuck on Planet Earth. Le grand sigh.

What I’m leading up to is this: Hot Moon was the book that I always wanted to write. My labor of love, my tribute to the Apollo Program that inspired so many people way back there in the dark ages, shortly after the dinosaurs perished and just a few moments before Vietnam and Watergate crushed the idealism of a nation. Because: it was Space, people! 

My Big Idea was not that the Soviets get to the Moon first, although in Hot Moon they do, and I do believe it would have changed everything if it had happened that way in real life. The Big Idea is that the Apollo program continued. And it was ambitious, and glorious, and exciting. And of course there’s conflict: the book features war in space, this world’s first ever space battle, between clunky Apollo and Soyuz craft, maneuvering around a Skylab in lunar orbit. Honestly, a lot of things don’t go well for my characters. But the technology, science, orbital maneuvering, and just the sheer risk and excitement of spaceflight: all of that is as accurate as I could make it, and I hope the heady thrill of those years comes across.

Just like me, the commander of Apollo 32, Vivian Carter, loves the Moon. She’s utterly dedicated to her ten-day exploratory mission to the Marius Hills area. A mission that … she ends up losing, due to the Cold War turned hot. In space.

Hot Moon is a thriller with a nerd’s beating heart, and perhaps a hint of competence porn. It’s MacGyver on the Moon, trying to figure out how to beat back an armed-and-dangerous Soviet threat with rocks and model rocketry, ingenuity and improvisation. And once everything hits the fan, there may be a touch of Andy Weir in the math that will keep Vivian Carter alive, and eventually help her solve the book’s deeper puzzle about What’s Really Going On. How to defeat the relentless KGB/Spetsnaz cosmonauts arrayed against her, on the surface and on the captured Columbia Station in orbit. And, how to survive the hostile Moon itself.

Have there been other alternate-space-program stories recently? Yes: it feels like this is our moment. You should obviously check out Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series. Rosemary Claire Smith has a nifty story in the Jul/Aug 2021 issue of Analog, “The Next Frontier”, which you should read too. There’s also a certain TV show with a similar premise. I started writing HOT MOON in 2017, long before I knew anything about For All Mankind, and had delivered a complete draft to my agent and beta readers before the first episode aired (publishing is a slow business, especially when you toss in a pandemic). But Hot Moon has a very different feel and direction than other alt.space stories I’ve seen. For one thing, it takes place entirely on and around the Moon. And it’s very much a technothriller rather than a soap opera, though hopefully one with heart. Suffice to say that there’s room for a few different alt-Apollo takes, and those listed above are all very different. 

I’m here for all of it. I have a thing for the Moon, and so do Vivian and her crew, and the astronauts at Columbia Station and Hadley Base, and those tough guys from USAF Special Ops, and some of the more sympathetic Soviet characters whose viewpoints we get to see along the way. I hope you’ll join us all for high jinks in one-sixth gravity. 

Obligatory PSA: if you’re about to fire off a social media post along the lines of: “The Moon landings were fake! How do we know they really happened?” I’d ask you to pause, take a very deep breath, and consider: the 400,000 people who worked on Apollo were all lying? And the Soviet Union, our adversaries in the Space Race, would have let us get away with such a brazen deception? 

Nah. NASA really did it. And if they’d kept on doing it, maybe we’d now be in the future that I assumed I’d be living in, having passed through a 1979 something like the one in Hot Moon along the way.

And that would have been really cool.


Hot Moon: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Dan Moren

In blank we trust. Who is that blank for you? Are you that blank for others? Trust is a valuable thing, and according to author Dan Moren, the lack of it is prevalent in his new novel, The Nova Incident.

DAN MOREN:

Who do you trust? 

It’s a harder question than you might think. Maybe because trust is in such short supply these days. Nowhere is that clearer than in our relationships with the institutions in our lives—especially the ones that nominally exist to look out for all of us. From the police to the highest levels of our government, trust isn’t something that can be taken for granted these days. (And, indeed, the idea that we’ve ever been able to trust those institutions is one deeply rooted in privilege.)

There’s an element of this lack of trust that is decidedly personal, though. As of this fall, I’ll have been a self-employed freelancer for eight years—longer than I ever worked for any single organization. The reason for that isn’t precisely rooted in distrust, but it’s certainly played its part. 

My longest run at a single workplace ended when I was abruptly laid off in 2014, along with the majority of my colleagues, as part of a cost-cutting measure. Unsurprisingly, that experience left a sour taste in my mouth. I’d been good at my job and I’d thought my performance and loyalty would count for something in the long term, that the company was as invested in me as it expected me to be in it.

Not the case. 

That certainly colored the way I view large institutions and made me less inclined to go work for another large organization (something that I’ve been fortunate enough to not have to do). 

I won’t say the genesis of The Nova Incident necessarily stems from that specific event, but a mistrust of institutions is definitely a major theme. Nova may be a sci-fi adventure story, but it’s also a spy thriller (two great tastes that taste great together, trust me) and a classic spy trope is that when you’re in a duplicitous business, you can’t really trust anyone—even (or perhaps especially) the people who are supposed to be on your side. In this line of work, being too trusting can get you killed.

Commonwealth covert operative Simon Kovalic and his team have been through a lot together throughout the Galactic Cold War series thus far; they’ve taken on planet-sized corporations, megalomaniacal royalty, and brutal crime lords, just to name a few. But suddenly they find themselves dealing with a threat much closer to home: when a bomb explodes on Nova, the Commonwealth’s capital world, an organization called Nova Front claims responsibility, demanding that the planet withdraw from the galactic alliance.

To reveal too much more of the plot risks spoiling some surprises, so let’s say this: issues of trust—or the lack thereof—run throughout this story. In investigating the attack, Kovalic and his compatriots quickly find themselves in murky waters, questioning if they can even trust what they think they know about Nova Front and the bombing itself.

Meanwhile, trust is fractured from within as well as from without. Despite everything that this group has experienced together, there are still undercurrents of uncertainty among them. Pilot Eli Brody has lingering suspicions about the death of former teammate Aaron Page; sniper Addy Sayers is given information that plants seeds of doubt about the team’s true loyalties; even the stalwart Sergeant Tapper knows something is amiss, even if he’s not sure what. 

But what really defines the story is the team’s relationships with the larger institutions that they come into conflict with, especially organizations of their own government. After all, the team is itself the instrument of that government, and if they question the motives of its other arms, they must by necessity question their own. 

Ultimately, The Nova Incident delves deep into the big questions about trust: can we ever really trust an institution to act in the best interest of people it represents? Should one expect loyalty from an organization that demands it from you? And, when the chips are down, who really has your back? Because trust might get you killed, but going through life without it is an awful lonely way to live. 


The Nova Incident: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

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The Big Idea: Ruthanna Emrys

The way our world is going now, there might not be much of future to look forward to. For author Ruthanna Emrys, she tried to imagine what that future could possibly look like in her new novel, A Half-Built Garden. Follow along as she talks about how we all can get there.

RUTHANNA EMRYS:

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.” 

Ursula Le Guin’s quote has become a touchstone for resistance, and a source of hope in seemingly inescapable circumstances. But how do you imagine something better than the circumstances that shape everything around you? What looks as different from modern global capitalism as capitalism looks from god-touched emperors? And what parts of modernity will stick around and cause trouble even after they’re supposedly relegated to the past?

A Half-Built Garden started as an effort to imagine that different, better, world – and to imagine what could crash into its assumptions as dramatically as climate change crashes into the market. Living in 2017 Washington DC, I saw how desperately agency workers worked to keep the basic functions of government going, even as other parts of that government were taking away their power to do good and prevent harm. The first seed of my future, then, was the idea that nation-states would continue to move towards authoritarianism and away from basic societal maintenance, leaving gaps where new forms of governance might step in.

That replacement was shaped by earlier, happier DC experiences, working with the Environmental Protection Agency on citizen science projects. The Dandelion Networks that dominate 2083 started as groups working on bioblitzes and personal air quality sensors and public pothole reporting – and who ultimately took on the responsibility of solving the problems they were measuring. They’re aided in this by algorithms to enforce the biases that they want to shape society, weighting decisions toward protecting ecosystems and human rights.

By 2083, Dandelion Networks built around watersheds control most of the planet, living in an uneasy truce with the remnant governments of nation-states. The descendants of billionaires and CEOs live in exile on artificial islands, playing power games and looking for some way to return to power. I had a lot of fun coming up with the little details of life in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Network, and the everyday problems that people still face. The nuclear family is a thing of the past, but sometimes you need matchmakers to find coparents. People argue about everything from carbon budgets to knitting patterns. And sensors regularly pick up water pollution, which might be just a fluke or might be corporations testing the boundaries of their fencelines.

Or it might be aliens. Aliens would change everything.

It was often hard, writing a hopeful future from within an inescapable present. Some days fascism and climate crisis and pandemic took up all my brain space. Others, they just made me question whether there was really a way to get from here to there. Another of my favorite quotes is Mariame Kaba’s “Hope is a discipline” – a better future isn’t something to have faith in, it’s something to work towards, regardless of how scary or frustrating or unlikely it feels. So on the days when I had brainspace, I opened my computer and tried to map out a way. 


A Half-Built Garden: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

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The Big Idea: Jackson Bliss

Life is full of decisions, and sometimes those decisions can be tough. For author Jackson Bliss, making decisions was the driving force behind his newest novel, Dream Pop Origami. Read on to see how one’s decisions will impact the story.

JACKSON BLISS:

Dream Pop Origami is based on a single big idea I had in grad school with lots of interesting and unexpected consequences: what if a memoir about mixed-race/AAPI/BIPOC identity was structured like a choose-your-own-adventure novel? How different would the reading experience be if readers got to choose what the next “chapter” of a memoir? How differently, if at all, would the idea of memoir change if readers had agency in their own act of reading someone else’s life? How differently, if at all, would the construction of text and mixed-race identity change if the reader, not the author, decided its structure, narrative speed, major themes, and level of emotional interiority? 

I came up with the idea of Dream Pop Origami during my MFA. I wrote the first—and horrendously disjointed—draft between 2012 and 2014 when I was working on my dissertation and from 2014 to 2019 when I was commuting from LA to Orange County to teach writing/rhetoric at UC Irvine. I revised the manuscript from 2019 to 2021 in Ann Arbor and LA. Never in a million years did I think I would publish this memoir because it’s so heterodox, multimodal, experimental, and stylistically eccentric (both literally and figuratively). What excited me was the idea of creating an interactive work of nonfiction, something I’d never seen before in any form except hypertext (I’m thinking of Shelley Jackson’s My Body, which I’ve read and taught many times, finding new layers in every new reading). Though I didn’t realize it at the time, much of the excitement I had for this book was based on two important things from my childhood.

The first was choose-your-own-adventure novels. Until these novels became available, I thought I hated reading since the shit we had to read for history, social studies, and English classes in elementary school were fucking horrendous. The reading assignments were unbelievably boring and the book reports they made us write were so formulaic. They were also low in content and historical accuracy too, written in a dry style, stripped of any and all imagination, and totally lacking in literary merit or creativity whatsoever. But when I started reading first choose-your-own-adventure books, they changed my fucking world! I saw for the first time what a strong narrative arc could do for storytelling. I learned that giving your characters (and readers) agency was a natural way of giving them their humanity by forcing them to make their own decisions and then live by the consequences of those decisions.

In other words, there’s a necessary relationship in literature, I think, between causality, ontology, and humanity. When characters get to make their own choices and live by those choses, they get to exist in the text and we get to study their existence. And as a consequence, their humanity is both tested and developed on the page. I guess it took a niche fiction market for me to see how exciting this could be!

The second thing was my reconnection to video games. Being a mixed-race kid and the son of Japanese immigrants on my mom’s side, I was an Atari 3600, IBM PC, and arcade gamer as a boy. Sometimes, video games kept my company when I came home to an empty house. Years before I became a dedicated book lover, an emerging writer, or literature scholar, I first found joy, companionship, and interactive storytelling in video games. Whether it was in Oregon Trail (where everyone got dysentery), Treasure Island (which required you to type in the exact command or die by bluebeard), and King’s Quest, there was never a time when I didn’t have access to a (narrative) video game in my childhood. Years later when I was getting my PhD, I bought an Xbox 360, which was a terrible idea for my sleep schedule, but great for my creativity.

Once I began teaching at UCI, I bought myself a PS4 as a reward. I became kinda obsessed with Detroit: Become Human, and the Fallout, Deus Ex, Dishonored, Life is Strange, Mass Effect, and Final Fantasy series. I found exhilaration in the organic multimodal storytelling of those video games, the way that music, dialogue, gameplay, backstory, side missions, character arcs, and graphics could work together to create a multidimensional text that could be so rich, so powerful, so of-the-moment, and so emotionally impactful. I also found exhilaration in the power of my own decision making as a player. Most of these video games give you agency to make your own decisions and those decisions not only affected the ending, but the plot lines and the character arcs as well.

For all these reasons, Dream Pop Origami is as much the product of a literary fiction/creative nonfiction writer, electronic musician, and literary scholar as it is the product of an avid traveler, lifetime gamer, hypertext creator, and conceptual artist. This memoir is the product of choose-your-own-adventure novels and to RPG/action video games but it is consciously and unconsciously responding to those media too in many different ways. Just to give you one example. At the end of each chapter in Dream Pop Origami, readers get to pick the next chapter like this:

次に/Next:

  1. To see Jackson going through culture shock, go to page 62.
  2. The Tower Records in the East Village was church and the coffee table books were the hymn books of pop culture, all on page 239.
  3. To read about the first time an Argentine boy stole Jackson’s cell phone, go to page 34. 
  4. Or just turn the page gently and with understanding.

It’s not necessary to have read a choose-your-own-adventure novel, played a video game, or stayed up to date with the most critically acclaimed/experimental works of creative nonfiction in the past thirty years to appreciate this memoir. But if you have, this book will have so many more layers available to you. Ultimately, there’s no wrong way to read Dream Pop Origami and there’s no previous knowledge needed to enjoy it, but there are definitely rewards for readers who can see the other discourses that this book is part of and also responding to.


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The Big Idea: Clay Harmon

Power dynamics in relationships always have the capacity for drama… but what happens when some of that power is magical? Author Clay Harmon is thinking about this in his Big Idea for Flames of Mira.

CLAY HARMON:

Can members of a relationship exist on equal footing when power imbalances exist between both parties? This is one of the questions Flames of Mira seeks to explore. Ig, our main character, is bound to several chemical elements (think the periodic table) which lets him dodge the blades of his enemies, break through walls of rock, and coat his arms in lava. But despite all his power, he’s bound to obey the magically-enforced orders of the people he works for.

While the power he wields makes for some dazzling fight scenes, I found myself more interested in Ig’s powerlessness at the hands of those he’s bound to and the dynamics this can create. It was an opportunity to explore various relationships someone in Ig’s position might find himself in, whether they be healthy or extremely toxic, and it brought into focus a theme of power dynamics and how a skewed power balance in a relationship can cause it to become toxic in nature.

Constructing and responsibly navigating the relationships I wanted to include in Flames of Mira was a delicate process that was important to get right, given how damaging unhealthy power dynamics can become. The first question I asked myself while writing Ig was how his behavior might change as a participant in a power-skewed relationship over the course of several years.

He employs various strategies to deal with this, whether he’s falling into a tenuous coexistence or becoming friends with the people he serves, with only the occasional, painful reminder of the power imbalance that exists between them. Over time, this leads to a mental health crisis as he starts to wonder if he’s become friendly with these people so he can cope with the futility of escaping. The power he has—the ability to control the elements—makes him uncomfortable, and he starts to believe that over time, his mere existence damages the healthy relationships in his life.

As the story progressed, it created another opportunity to explore power imbalances but within romantic relationships. What happens when you become codependent in a relationship where your partner holds all the power? In this situation, Ig develops an impaired sense of power and feels that his purpose in life is to help his partner achieve their goals, thinking that his own wants and desires aren’t important.

This relationship is so dysfunctional that it results in Ig’s warped rationalizations for his partner’s actions, such as tricking himself into thinking he’s in love or believing he can change their nature. He comes to have an overblown idea of the influence he’s capable of exerting, to the point he thinks he is solely responsible for his partner’s wellbeing and happiness.

This exploration of the inherent toxicity in Flames of Mira’s romantic subplot served as an opportunity to write the reversal of the popular enemies-to-lovers trope, which pushed me outside my comfort zone as a writer since I hadn’t read many books with a lovers-to-enemies story to use as guideposts. This trope fit perfectly within the magic system that binds Ig to those he serves and lent itself to one of Flames of Mira’s central themes.

Ig hopes that the people he serves will change, thinks that he’s the only one who really understands them while refusing to acknowledge the actions they regularly take that reveal their true nature. He believes them when they tell him they’ll stop taking advantage of the power imbalance in the relationship.

Over the course of years Ig has found himself entangled within multiple power-skewed relationships, to the point it will become paramount for him to realize that equality among other participants in these relationships is impossible. Once he does, he will finally experience hope of breaking free.


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The Big Idea: Chris Gerrib

When robbing a bank becomes too mainstream, try hijacking a spaceship! Author Chris Gerrib tells us a little about how he came up with the idea for his newest thriller, One of Our Spaceships is Missing.

CHRIS GERRIB:

Stories sometimes have more than one Big Idea.  For my latest novel, I had a lot of big ideas.  For this post, I’d like to discuss the two biggest of the Big Ideas.

On March 8, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared while on a routine night flight from its home base of Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.  The aircraft was a new Boeing 777, which had (and still has) a very good safety record.  Needless to say, there were a lot of theories as to what had happened.  At the time and while writing the first draft of this novel, I thought it was a hijacking gone bad.

That then was the seed of the first Big idea – a heist novel.  “Hey, gang, let’s steal a spaceship!”  Well, heist stories are thrillers, and so I had an opportunity to play with Standard Thriller Subplots.   And that’s where I got my first Big Idea.

Standard Thriller Subplot #3 is this – hunky, honest and not-terribly bright man is paired with sexy, mysterious and smart (oh, and did I say she was sexy?) woman and asked to investigate something.  Whenever the author needs to pad their wordcount, the two characters have hot sex until the requisite wordcount is reached.  There are subvariants of this – #3A is where the female character is really working for the Bad Guys, #3B is where she used to work for them but now is reformed – you get the picture.

I decided to take this subplot and stand it on its head.  I do have a hunky and not-very-bright male investigator – Ray Volk, Special Agent, FBI.  He’s gay, single and a player – he’s wrapping up a one-night-stand when he gets called to start investigating.  He’s paired with a sexy and to-him mysterious man.  Alas, his partner is not into sex with anybody, male or female.  This opens the door for Standard Thriller Subplot #4 – A Girl In Every Port.  And actually Ray has an opportunity to tick that box; alas he’s not looking for a girl.  

Going back to Malaysia Flight 370, I now think that one of the pilots decided to commit suicide by depressurizing the plane and flying it over the ocean until it ran out of fuel and crashed.  This “suicide by airliner” has happened on several occasions now – Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed because the copilot locked the captain out of the cabin and flew the plane into the ground.  

This was the second Big Idea – spaceship safety.  Germanwings was a classic MIAR – Madman In a Room disaster.  (As far as I know I’ve invented that acronym.)  In the tight confines of an airliner, you might not be able to prevent MIARs.  But on a large passenger ship?  Maybe you could prevent it.

You would need two things – one, dual control, such that critical functions require two people to perform them.  Second, you’d need to ensure that nobody can truly lock themselves in a room.  You’d need a way to bypass the locks.  And wouldn’t having a way to bypass a lock be helpful in hijacking a ship?

As I mentioned in the beginning, I have a lot of Big Ideas in the book.  I’ll just list a couple of them here.

  1. The US now only has 48 states.
  2. We’re not a superpower, at least not in space – Mars is.
  3. The same historical events that caused items #1 and #2 above created a lawless region in our Solar System that’s just perfect for a spaceship to disappear into.

They say science fiction is the fiction of ideas.  I believe that One of Our Spaceships is Missing is an example of that.  I had a lot of fun writing it, and I hope you have fun reading it!


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The Big Idea: Trent Jamieson

With all things in life, balance is the key. This is also true for author Trent Jamieson’s newest novel, The Stone Road. Follow along with this Big Idea to see how he found balance between novels, and in his own life.

TRENT JAMIESON:

A week after I turned forty, the seventh cranial nerve on the right-hand side of my face was severely damaged by an infection, I literally woke up to a different face in the mirror. I couldn’t speak clearly, I couldn’t blink my right eye, the right side of my face drooped painfully: everything changed. 

I went back to work a couple of days later, and after the tenth person asked me what was wrong, and I mumbled my response for the tenth time (Bell’s Palsy is almost impossible to say when you have it) I sat in the storage cupboard behind the counter at the bookstore where I work and cried.

I’d written five novels in the previous couple of years, and I was exhausted. Everything had been rush, rush, rush, while holding down a day job, and teaching at night. My life was a wreck, and I’d lost the face that I’d known all my life. I needed to slow down. But it’s a risk to slow down. All my books had been fast-paced, rollercoaster rides, that rattled from scene to scene. I wasn’t sure if I knew how to write novels any other way. I wasn’t sure if I slowed down that I would even have a writing career left.

The answer was in my short fiction. Before I ever really thought about writing novels, I had been a short story writer. Bittersweet was my happy place. Slower, more reflective work the kind of material I leaned into. It was the sort of fantasy that I liked to read as well, the Earthsea Books in particular, but I had never been confident enough to bring it into my fiction.

I had been working on a novel based on a short story of mine called Day Boy. It was a dystopian fantasy about a wild kid that worked for a vampire in a small country town. It was a book of grim fathers and violent sons, and the choices we all must make between dark and light. It was epic in a quiet way, it was a heart breaking, and an angry voice shouting defiance. I decided to write it as an episodic novel, building slowly to a wild ending, a sort of violence as dislocating and sudden as losing your face to Bell’s Palsy.

Day Boy was the best book that I had ever written, and people liked it. It even won two Aurealis awards, and was short-listed for a few other prizes.

But I felt it needed another story to balance it. And that balance found itself in The Stone Road. It is a book of grandmothers and granddaughters and the boundaries that they must walk to protect their town. I imagined it in a weirder, wilder part of the Day Boy world, and I wanted it to address the violence at the heart of Day Boy

Like Day Boy, it had begun as a short story, but it went in directions that I had never expected. In Day Boy, the vampires protect people from the monsters that threaten their communities by fighting them, in The Stone Road, Jean and her grandmother must deal with monsters by outsmarting them. It’s a book about community, death and family secrets: a slow burning fire that blazes by the end. 

Both books reflected my bewilderment at life, at the abrupt change I found in the mirror, and both taught me a lot. That there is power in the quiet and the slow, and that resilience isn’t found quickly, and even when it’s found it’s fragile, but we move on. We have to.

It’s been a decade since I got Bells, my face never quite recovered, I have a crooked smile, my right eye waters when I eat, and sometimes the nerve will start ticking in my eyelid or locking up when I am nervous or tired. My body will never let me forget. I wrote these two, quiet books, about community, and fathers and sons, and grandmothers and granddaughters, and I became a father myself. My life is richer, different, but it’s still me. I write for the joy it gives me, no matter how hard writing often is. 

I look back at that sad broken person who started their forties, and I hardly recognise him, but together we took the path into the quiet, slower places, and we’ve done alright. You can tear yourself apart, but you can also put yourself back together again. Maybe that’s a little idea, I don’t know, but it feels big to me.


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The Big Idea: Will Wiles

Over time, little things can add up. This is the case for empires falling, governments collapsing, and sickness spreading. In Will Wiles’s Big Idea, he goes into detail about how being aware of these little things can lead to big changes. See what changes await in The Last Blade Priest.

WILL WILES:

Decay, that’s the thing. I wanted to talk about decay. Not physical decay, but the decay of cultures and institutions – an awful creeping fear that the familiar world is crumbling, and might have been crumbling for some time. It was 2016 and I didn’t much like the way the world was going – in the UK, at least, the existing order was fracturing, a rupture that felt quite sudden, but also the result of fault lines that had been growing and rumbling for years. The outlook seemed ominous, but within it were intriguing glints of possibility.

At the time I was reading John Julius Norwich’s immense, wonderful history of Byzantium, and I was struck by how long decline can take, and how it can be interspersed with periods of relative quiet and even recovery in between flashes of irrecoverable disaster. The scenery can appear quite normal, before it falls over with a bang. A character in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is asked how he went bankrupt, and he answers: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” 

You’d think, when an institution is entrusted with a vital responsibility, it would never lose sight of that trust. But it happens all the time, throughout history. Armies become more interested in bribes and kingmaking than defence of their state. Religions sink into luxury, or become hidebound and pedantic and incapable of change. The watchdogs of democracies drift into slumber.

These processes, the workings of decay, fascinated me as an undergraduate student of history, and they fascinate me today. The gears turn, and then – crash. Gradually, then suddenly. Sometimes, the occupants of these systems are unaware of the slow-turning disaster. Sometimes, they are aware, but powerless. Sometimes, it’s their efforts to change course that hasten the final crisis. 

Gloomy thoughts, you might say, and you wouldn’t be wrong – but tremendous narrative. It’s fascinating for a reason, and it’s an underpinning of the Gothic. Decay is, after all, a process of life – the dead whale sinking to the lightless floor of the ocean makes that desert blossom with weird and wonderful creatures. Of course, it’s best enjoyed through the pages of a book, in an armchair in a stable and prosperous society, rather than witnessed in the fabric around us. But reflecting on these things can help us keep alert to the warning signs and the wicked problems.

So, an institution is entrusted with an awesome responsibility. At the heart of the world there is a Mountain, a Mountain completely unlike the mountains around it, with a dreadful ever-shifting countenance that repulses anyone who looks at it too long. Perhaps it’s not a mountain at all, but it is the size of a mountain and among mountains so it is called the Mountain.

The Mountain is the source of all magic in the world, and can grant godlike powers to any person willing to journey to it and strike a bargain with its monstrous protectors. And it has spawned a world religion based on human sacrifice to appease the avian necromancers that guard the Mountain, and a simple mission: ensure that no human ever gives themselves the power of a god. 

Simple. A typical fantasy set-up maybe, a hidden kingdom defending a magical resource of incalculable value. And my earliest outline had a fairly typical approach to the set-up: a questing party, from an upstart nation that doesn’t respect the old ways, aims to penetrate this mountain fastness. The sprawling monastery-fortress of the decadent priests and their monstrous demigods would naturally be the destination of that story, held for the end.

But the more I thought about that rotten religion and its factional battles in a demon-haunted fortress, the more time I wanted to spend there. Why store them up for the end, and then see them only from the outside? Why not spend a little more time with them? 

Moreover, what if some of the priests at the heart of this ancient religion weren’t entirely blind to their decayed state, and had some awareness that the world outside was changing? And, in fact, even the gods realised things had to change? Suddenly there were two stories to tell: the brash, infidel newcomers, and their quest to open up this secret religious kingdom; and the struggle within that religion between reform and tradition.

At the heart – excuse me – of this battle is the question of human sacrifice, an ancient necromantic rite to bind men to their gods, which the gods now say isn’t needed any more. For one of the young priests in training to deliver death to the gods, this comes as a great, secret, relief – but puts him in vastly more danger than he realises. 

This seemed like a great opportunity to get inside some of these questions of decay and renewal, and competing visions of progress in a world gripped by a gathering crisis – but also to have a lot of fun with a story of intrigue, murder, betrayal and human folly. And at the heart – sorry, again – would be the vital question of responsibility, and who gets to wield power, when those best placed to take it are not the ones you’d want using it. 

Also there are abominable snowmen. 


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The Big Idea: Zac Topping

“Better to bring a casserole to your neighbor’s house than a shotgun” is a Midwest saying that rings extra true in author Zac Topping’s new novel, Wake of War. Follow along in his Big Idea as he takes you through war-torn streets of the near-future — streets that are all too familiar.

ZAC TOPPING:

Crumbling, bullet-pocked buildings. Bombed out streets. Dust and rubble and the sound of snapping gunfire. A place that people had once called home, now called a combat zone. Devastation, despair. The epicenter of societal collapse. A scene that could be from any number of war-torn cities in far-off countries we see cycling through the news every day. But what if it wasn’t in some distant place? What if it was right here at home where you couldn’t just change the channel and put it out of your mind? 

That was the question I sought to explore in the pages of Wake of War, a near-future military thriller in which the United States finds itself embroiled in a second civil war. What would a conflict like this look like here on American soil? What would it mean for the future of the nation? How would it change our way of life? And if we could just imagine what it would be like for those of us here in the States, could we maybe better understand what it is others are going through elsewhere around the world? Would we be so quick to call for violence if we truly understood what that meant?

A lot of questions, I know, but it’s safe to say that it’s a good time to be asking them. Over the last several years we’ve come closer to the brink than ever before. We’ve seen cities burn. Protests turn to riots. Armor-clad enforcers snatching people off the streets. Tempers are high, opinions are set, and the political landscape has become dangerously volatile. Tensions are high for a reason, though. There’s a lot that needs to be set straight here in the US. An abundance of archaic mindsets preventing forward progress. Some radical ideas that might possibly be overcorrection. All the necessary ingredients for conflict laid out before us. 

Now I don’t pretend to have the answers, not even close. I consider myself an average person of average intellect with an average understanding of what’s going on. But what I do have is some perspective as to where we may be headed. You see, I’ve been to war. I’ve walked those rubble-strewn streets, I’ve seen the devastation violent conflict brings. I’ve been a part of that. But it was in a country on the other side of the world. It wasn’t my home. They weren’t my streets, and there’s a disconnect there that makes things…hazy. So to make things undeniably clear, I brought the story home.

Wake of War isn’t about the politics that led the nation to war. It isn’t about generals moving pieces around the board, or leaders plotting and scheming grand plans for domination. It isn’t a twisted fantasy of the apocalypse. It’s a story about the people who are caught up in the fighting, the people who are trapped by the violence, and rendered helpless by the inescapable situation. It’s a boots-on-the-ground look at where we may be headed if we don’t figure out how to live and thrive together. Wake of War is a cautionary tale. Brutal, raw, uncomfortable. But if we don’t look away, and if we truly consider the consequences of a complete societal failure, maybe we can realize that’s not the outcome we want. And instead of fighting, instead of burning the country to the ground, we can work together to create a better future, for all of us.


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The Big Idea: Alex White

Sacrifices in stories generally tend to be noble ones. Characters are made to suffer but always for the greater good. Author Alex White shows us that sometimes things are just plain bad, and sacrifices are no fun. So how do the main characters in August Kitko & The Mechas From Space manage to find any joy in the lives they’ve been dealt?

ALEX WHITE:

I think there has always been a tendency to try and characterize a story by its dominant emotion—after all, that’s the root of the movie genre system (action, comedy, drama, romance, etc.). Oftentimes, when a character is struggling with an insurmountable, perhaps lethal force, we classify these tales as tragedies. It’s the mom dying of cancer, or the soldiers about to make their final, hopeless charge. Perhaps the characters can affect some sort of major change in their final hours, but they’re still considered sad stories, bittersweet at best.

“Rebellions are built on hope,” says the Star Wars character about to be incinerated by a nuclear blast.

Is hope the same as happiness? The promise of tomorrow certainly isn’t enough to cut it; there are too many people whose tomorrows are just as crappy as today. If you’re dying, are you entitled to feel optimistic? While the answer is, “Of course!” I don’t often see that resoundingly appear inside of genre fiction. It’s always hope for others, hope for a world that will survive you.

In August Kitko & The Mechas From Space, the two main characters have been chosen as Conduits by the invading giant robots known as Vanguards. To interface with these machines, August and his love interest, Ardent Violet, have a lot of tech forced into their bodies (our society is often traumatic to the queer form, but that’s a different Big Idea). They both experience deep depersonalization from the invasive and damaging nature of the modifications. Worse still, these changes will one day kill the characters—humans weren’t meant to be Conduits, and one day, it will burn them out and poison them. It won’t be pretty.

A lot of people in our world face something that will abridge their lives, whether it’s illness, stress or poor living conditions. My spouse has a progressive, degenerative disease that will one day kill her—maybe sooner, maybe later. That’s just on a personal level. On a global level, we have over a million dead from a preventable pandemic, and millions if not billions more about to be displaced by preventable climate change. What are we supposed to do when so much of life falls outside of our control? How do we find happiness in a tragic framework?

The characters inside my story are so much smaller than the forces that guide the plot that it’s almost laughable. Not one of them can punch out a giant robot, and they’re not genius pilots. They’re scarcely chosen ones, more like the cursed, and sometimes it felt a bit existentialist to write. Genre fiction is obsessed with telling us the smallest voices make the biggest difference, but what if that’s not your lived experience?

We idolize characters like Bilbo and Samwise because they’re tiny people that create the ripples that knock down the Great Evil. They personally deliver the killing blow, and that’s enjoyable and cathartic. My Salvagers trilogy fits that mold nicely, but reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Plenty of people in Lord of the Rings died to remove single drops from that ocean of troubles, their lives as spent and useless as match heads. Sure, some of the Hobbits went on an adventure! Other people had to leave their elderly to be put to the orc sword because they likely couldn’t travel, to say nothing of any orc born unworthy for battle. Surely protagonists exist in those populations, even if they can’t infiltrate Mordor and duel a giant spider.

There’s too much evil to fight all at once, so is it still valid to be a mote of good when you can affect very little? And if so, is it still okay to be happy inside of dark circumstances? We can’t simply flush away the lives people lived because the ends are at odds with our conception of heroism. These characters deserve to make choices that are meaningful to them, empowering within the scale of their own lives.

At the end of the day, Earth is just an infected drop of water spinning through space. The people here matter, even if they’re not the elites that poison our planet and thrust us into bloody conflict. The daily choices they make that affect only their immediate spheres are still valid, interesting entertainment. That’s what I’ve sought to capture with August Kitko & The Mechas From Space—two characters falling madly in love while the worlds burn.


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The Big Idea: Ryan Van Loan

In Ryan Van Loan’s third installment of The Fall of the Gods series, the author sheds light on an important fact: being smart doesn’t guarantee being wise. This makes a world of difference for the protagonist of The Memory in the Blood.

RYAN VAN LOAN:

My Big Idea for The Memory in the Blood began with a fundamental character flaw: intelligence. 

I know, I know, (high) intelligence isn’t usually seen as a character flaw, but stick with me for a moment. You see, the main protagonist of my series, Sambuciña “Buc” Alhurra, is a whip smart streetrat who taught herself to read, proceeded to devour entire libraries’ worth of books, and invented the term ‘autodidact’. In leveraging her newfound literacy to become the first private investigator in her world, Buc discovered a potential pathway to upending her corrupt society and giving everyone a fair shake in her world. All she had to do was solve a mystery empires had failed to unlock, face down pirate queens, mages, and the undead, and institute a hostile takeover of the most powerful trading company in the world. Oh, and kill the Gods that pulled the strings of the aforementioned empires and trading companies. 

That’s all.

To get that far, though, Buc was determined to use anything and anyone. When wits wouldn’t serve, she turned to her blades or her trusty slingshot. She had a partner in crime-solving, Eld, but as I wrote about for the series debut The Sin in the Steel on John’s blog in 2020, Buc has never believed she needed anything or anyone. And it showed. Time and again Buc is five moves ahead of everyone, but she is also her own worst enemy. Believing herself superior to everyone else, she discounts her adversaries’ smarts. She runs roughshod over would-be allies, ignoring potential opportunities if it means giving up control.

And it makes perfect sense, because she grew up on the streets where trust was simply another sound for death. Which brings us back to that misnomer: intelligence. Buc rivals Sherlock in intelligence, but (depending on your Sherlockian version) she also has a similar flaw entwined with that wonderful mind: wisdom.

She lacks it. Bigly.

That was at the heart of my Big Idea. Through the first two books in The Fall of the Gods Series, we see Buc’s mind at work and we see her just snapping victory from the jaws of defeat–often in spite of, not because of, her intelligence. Buc doesn’t ken the difference between the two and at first it didn’t matter, but when you aim to reshape the world, smarts (and blades) will only take you so far. Coming into The Memory in the Blood Buc has achieved everything she set out to do save the last bit: kill the Gods.

She’s also lost just about everything she didn’t realize she held dear and in that loss, she realized something profound. The Buc of The Sin in the Steel is too close to the streets to trust anyone, the Buc of The Justice in Revenge is wrestling with her newfound power, but the Buc of today is weathered, beaten, but not defeated. Through those earlier trials she gained something that birth and proclivity did not provide: wisdom.

I had a lot of fun watching Buc grow across the series and I hope you did, too. In writing this book think I came to the same realization Buc did, early on in The Memory in the Blood, at about the same moment: wisdom means understanding that no matter how many cards you’ve got hidden up your sleeve–tucked beneath a blade or three, no matter how righteous your cause, no matter how hard you’ve worked for something…when the Gods are at the table, all bets are off. A portion of wisdom lies in that recognition, a greater portion comes in knowing that it doesn’t matter. 

Injustice must be fought to the last.


The Memory in the Blood: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|IndieBound|Powells|Bookshop 

Read an excerpt (spoiler warning). Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram.

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The Big Idea: A. C. Wise

Are the bad guys inherently bad, or did they choose to be bad? Author A. C. Wise takes us into the mind of one of literature’s most famous villains in her new novel, Hooked, in order to shed some light on this question.

A. C. WISE: 

Part of me wants to be a little bit cheeky and quote the tagline of my favorite computer game of all time, Planescape:Torment, and say the big idea at the center of Hooked is “What can change the nature of a man?” That’s certainly part of it, but there are other questions that follow from that one as well: How easy is it to change the nature of a man? Does true change always come from within? At the end of the day, all these questions feed into one big question that James (aka Captain Hook) must answer for himself over the course of the novel: Who am I, and who do I want to be? 

Hooked is a companion novel to Wendy, Darling, which was published by Titan Books in June 2021. While the two can be read as standalone titles, they do inform each other, and they explore many similar themes as well. Wendy has a very strong sense of who she is, and much of her story is about holding onto her truth and fighting for the right to define herself rather than fitting herself into someone else’s definition of who she ought to be. James, on the other hand, is a bit more lost. 

Is he only a villain because Peter Pan cast him as one? Or is there something fundamentally wicked in him that Pan simply brought to the surface? Given the opportunity, can he become something other than a villain? And does he even want to, or is it easier to play the role Pan designed for him? After all, a vicious, sneering, larger-than-life pirate captain never has to be vulnerable or afraid if all there is to him is being the baddie in someone else’s story. However, if James allows himself to be introspective and question his own nature, he opens himself up to all the messiness that comes with being human, including loss and heartache. 

Both Wendy and James as characters have been shaped by their experiences in Neverland and their encounters with Peter Pan. They are both recovering from trauma, and each has different means of coping. Their strategies aren’t always perfect. Frequently they are messy and result in the people around them getting hurt, either intentionally or unintentionally. But in their way, they are both trying to seize control of their own identities and lives. 

To what degree does my past shape me? Can I make it part of who I am without letting it wholly dictate my future? These questions of identity echo across both books. Who am I? Who was I? Who will I choose to be? They are indeed big ideas and big questions and it was fun letting a character who has often been reduced to a one-dimensional foil to Peter Pan explore them in Hooked


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

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

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The Big Idea: Kimberly Unger

Sure, we’ve all wished to visit the imaginary or virtual worlds of fiction and dreams… but when it’s time to come home, will we always find the exit? This is a question Kimberly Unger is considering in her latest novel, The Extractionist.

KIMBERLY UNGER:

I suspect most of us can agree that imaginary worlds have a way of being compelling. We’ve all been trapped in a book we couldn’t put down, drawn to return to a webcomic or sucked into binge-watching a TV show or having a whole-ass weekend vanish into a videogame.  In fact, this is such a familiar feeling that almost every pop-culture science-fiction world (and a few fantasy worlds) has a storyline where our protagonist, or the entire ensemble cast, gets pulled into a reality not their own.  

The thing that always fascinated me was the way different writers and writers rooms handled this experience.  Sometimes it was merely a question of hardware; there was noone on the outside to unplug the people or unlock the door and so the story becomes a matter of picking the lock from the inside.  In other cases (the one that seems to come to everyone’s mind when I bring this up is ST: TNG’s Hollow Pursuits) the reasons are much deeper, sometimes rooted in an individual’s personal experience or mental health.  Each one of these stories is a mystery, of sorts, where the main characters need to explore and question and assemble the clues until they can find a way out.  And they usually do.

With nearly every science-fictional universe (that has a way to tap into an alternate reality) experiencing this phenomenon of people getting “stuck”, I started noodling on the idea of just who is in charge of getting them out?  Does this fall under the purview of mental health work and require a special medical license?  Do you call the Geek Squad to drive down in their stylish VW Beetles to unplug your widowed grandpa when he decides he doesn’t want to leave his wedding videos? Do you hire a detective to unravel the mystery of why someone got stuck?

Now, my day-job is working with Virtual Reality (plus its kissing-cousins Xtended and Augmented Reality) and an ongoing game-design question is “how long” can we expect someone to wear a modern headset for any given session.  The answer to this, doesn’t revolve solely around comfort, or whether the band gets sweaty, or you start to get queasy over time.  It’s the rest of your life that factors in.  It’s your kids and your pets and your day-job and your dishes and your laundry and remembering to go get the post.  It’s all those little things that pull you out at the end of the day, that justify taking off the headset even if you are having a blast.

Because of this, I’ve always had a bit of a problem with the idea of a virtual world *so* engaging that you would never voluntarily leave it.  Even the fundamental necessity of needing to use the bathroom is going to limit the time you can stay immersed and from there we head straight over into body-horror via skull plugs and catheters.  At the same time, I felt it was important to maintain the element of choice, especially if the “just unplug the computer” option was a viable solution (as banal as it might be, unplugging the computer is usually a solid option when things run amok). 

So the solution I came up with for The Extractionist, the Big Idea, was a simple one.

What if the version of you banging about in Virtual space (the Swim) no longer neatly fits back into the version of you in the real world? Imagine if Neo’s realization that he was The One meant he couldn’t go back to his own body on the Nebuchadnezzar, or if Parzival’s confession of love to Artemis meant he couldn’t log back out again to escape IOI? That would be the kind of problem that needed an intervention.  Ideally a human intervention, someone who could understand the importance of saving those realizations, those moments of inspiration.

Instead, the machine throws an error and puts you into limbo until someone, some human, can come and sort it all out.  And that someone is an Extractionist.


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

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

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The Big Idea: Mia V. Moss

Futuristic stories often take their cues from the present, and this is certainly the case in Mia V. Moss’s new novel, Mai Tais For the Lost. Set in an alarmingly realistic future Earth, Moss’s story is part mystery, part sci-fi, and all underwater.

MIA V. MOSS:

What if the world’s wealthiest individuals, gazing from the decks of their megayachts with cocktails in hand, watched the California coast burn from a safe distance and thought: how can I escape being consumed by the flame without sacrificing my #yachtlife vibes?

This is the question that spawned Mai Tais For the Lost, a noir murder mystery set on a future Earth where the wealthy have primarily opted for two paths: Mars or the ocean. The surface of the planet is largely uninhabitable, but people try their best anyway. Fire tornadoes, acidic monsoons, haboobs that last for days, are all part of a normal weather cycle where the names of the seasons have largely been replaced by skull and crossbones emojis.

Why would anyone try to live in such misery? Because they don’t have a lot of choice. As we in our present day continue to face climate catastrophe, as climate refugees—a term in use since 1985—grow in number year after year, we are also forced to watch the spectacle of billionaires making up currencies and inventing new pastimes for themselves like ‘space tourism.’ These people who hoard the majority of the world’s wealth have demonstrated time and again that when it comes to choosing between helping solve humanity’s problems and profiting from those same problems, they will chose profits every time.

In my mind I saw these billionaires standing on the decks of their megayachts, contemplating the fate of their fellow humans, and I saw them come to a decision: they could no longer live safely on the planet’s surface, so why not take the party underwater? In the undersea habitats they funded, they could sculpt whole nation-states of their own design, with their own currency and state-run media.

And if any member of their new workforce got out of line or started demanding things like ‘human rights’ or ‘fair wages?’ They could be deported straight up to the boiling hell-surface to any number of coastal shanty towns clinging to the edge of the sea. For the wealthy, it is a win/win scenario! Full governmental control and a captive workforce terrorized always by the looming threat of exile.

The concept first came to me some years ago when I saw an artist’s rendering of hyper-futuristic haute couture diving masks. I envisioned custom diving suits tailored to make the wearer look like fabulous glittering mermaids and the galas they might wear them to. I thought: this is exactly where the rich will be partying twenty years from now while the rest of us wander the wastelands on the surface, retweeting our indignation at their good time.

From there, things quickly got out of hand. I imagined a history where the Electric Blue Moon yacht was deliberately sunk next to its owner’s new habitat city of the same name. Alcohols were distilled at a lower ABV so the populace could keep up with an endless string of happy hours in this new paradise. Yacht rock remixed with disco became the prevailing vibe, and everywhere you looked, the descendants of those first self-serving billionaires were relentless on their quest to find shinier, more hedonistic ways to obliterate any sense of responsibility to the planet.

In these decadent confines, I set out to tell a story of a person born into one world and raised in the other. Someone who wants to believe they’re better than everyone else on the privileged side and smarter than everyone on the working class side, but ultimately knows that they have failed on both counts. Marrow has developed no way to grapple with the truth of her reality, and so she tamps down on her own inner world and spends her time prying into everyone else’s.

It seemed like the perfect setup for a detective story, and so, with the help of some high-fashion party animals and an android mermaid burlesque dancer, the Nightingale Electric Detective Agency was born.


Mai Tais For the Lost: Amazon|Barnes & Noble

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The Big Idea: Rachel Swirsky

For a country with an at-best-precarious social net, the idea of a Universal Basic Income can be beguiling. But how would it work in hard reality? Rachel Swirsky has decided to take a swing at giving an answer to this in her new work, January Fifteenth. And if you think this would be easy to answer… think again.

(Disclosure: The book’s cover uses a quote of mine, speaking positively of the author’s writing.)

RACHEL SWIRSKY:

Sometimes, when we ask what looks like a single question, we’re actually asking dozens or hundreds or thousands.

What would it be like if the United States of America had Universal Basic Income?

Tens of thousands of questions.

What kind of Universal Basic Income? How would it come about? How would it be regulated? Dispersed? Who determines eligibility? Who determines amount? Are there restrictions for felons? Does it come along with other social services or replace those systems entirely? Is there a trial run? How long will it last? Can it be canceled? What institutional forces might try to influence the project or hijack it for themselves?

Beyond logistics–and there are so many logistics–lie the lives inflected by innumerable variations. How do you raise children who have their own universal basic income? How do these new assets affect people in institutional care? In prison? In the military with a foreign girlfriend overseas?

When I began writing January Fifteenth, I started with one question, and ended up with more tangled stories than I could write.

#

Universal Basic Income is a guaranteed, recurring governmental stipend that’s issued to every citizen, regardless of need or status. I’ve been referring to it loosely as a “national minimum salary paid by the government.”

It seems like a pretty cool idea.

Cool doesn’t always mean good, let alone feasible. Those are different questions. But at face value–the idea that every citizen should have access to a minimum wage that will fund their essential needs? I like that idea very much.

When I started writing this novella in 2017, my husband and I had just left California where he had been working his entire career. His job had great security on an excellent salary. Walking away seemed ridiculous, if not impossible. Unfortunately, the rewards came alongside some serious difficulties, and eventually my worsening health made staying impossible.

We knew that moving without a job offer in hand would be difficult, but we didn’t realize how rough things would get. It took my husband three years to find full-time work, and another two years after that (until, essentially, last month) to find a job in his specialty.

During my husband’s interminable job search, as I struggled to increase my freelance income, I found myself tantalized by the idea of UBI. We were lucky enough to have Obamacare to see us through between COBRA and my husband’s new job coverage, but there were still so many possible financial spike pits that kept our nerves jangling.

At the same time, it was very clear to me exactly what UBI couldn’t offer us in that position. If all we’d needed was money, we could have kept sitting pretty in California.

Money wasn’t sufficient, but it was necessary.

I think that’s the dream of UBI: what if everyone could have what’s necessary?

Hundreds of thousands of questions, representing hundreds of thousands of points of view. Ultimately, I had to pick four.

#

How can UBI help families in crisis? To me, the single mother escaping abuse has always been the archetypal reason for welfare–at least, ever since my twenty-years-older cousin applied for welfare so that she could leave her husband when he started hitting the kids. Like my cousin, the first narrator of the novella, Hannah, is a single mother of two escaping an abusive ex-partner, Abigail. UBI got her and the kids out of the house, but can anything stop Abigail from stalking them across the country?

Who does UBI leave behind? The second narrator, Janelle, is a freelance reporter raising her orphaned little sister. In her younger days, she wrote essays about how UBI alone couldn’t resolve the Black/White wealth gap. Nowadays, she’s stuck doing the same banal UBI fluff stories over and over because news aggregators won’t work with reporters who have controversial opinions. What is she supposed to tell her little sister when Nevaeh finds those old essays and wants to advocate for reparations?

What does it mean to waste money? Olivia, the third narrator, is a wealthy college student whose peers think of the day people pick up their UBI as “Waste Day.” Are they right? My aunt who used to be a slum lord would think so; she told me once that giving money to poor people was a waste because if they knew how to do something with money other than waste it, they wouldn’t be poor. On the other hand, my first reaction when I heard about UBI was to chafe at the idea of giving money to people regardless of need; wouldn’t that be a waste? Would people waste their UBI money? Would it matter if they do?

How could bad actors take advantage of UBI the way they take advantage of other social services? Sarah, the novella’s fourth narrator, is a pregnant teenager trapped in a fundamentalist polygynous cult. In the real world, such cults use welfare to “bleed the government beast” and fund their human rights abuses, including child marriage and claiming benefits for abandoned boys. UBI has helped keep Sarah captive, but can it also help her get out?

#

Politics favors simple answers for obvious reasons. Is UBI a good idea? Yes or no? Does it help people or not? Is the money worth it or isn’t it?

I don’t know the answers, but I suspect they aren’t simple.

As I wrote in the author’s note to the book, my best prediction is money can make life easier, but it can’t solve everything.

Also, I’m definitely wrong about something.


January Fifteenth: Amazon|Barnes&Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s website. Follow Rachel on Facebook and Twitter.

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The Big Idea: K.B. Jensen

With a story collection title like Love and Other Monsters in the Dark, you might think that author K.B. Jensen has a skewed view on, well, love. But as she explains in this big idea, it may be not all that skewed, when you dig into what love really means for each of us.

K.B. JENSEN:

Love is the most frightening monster of all, because love and loss go hand in hand. In Love and Other Monsters in the Dark, you’ll find monsters of all kinds, as well as the horrors of everyday love.

What scares you most? For many people, it’s losing loved ones, especially the love of your life. Love can inflict pain far worse than any other monster. Love is absolutely wonderful, but it can also gut you.

My stories feature alien monsters smashing office windows, multiple murderers, strange creatures, painfully internalized thunder storms, and skeletons in the wall. But the stories where my characters confront love are the most challenging. The final story about a couple facing terrible complications, “Arnav and the Apocalypse,” begs the question, what choices would you make to protect a loved one during a zombie apocalypse?

Another story, “Remembering the Future,” makes you wonder: If you could travel back in time to save someone you loved from a serious injury, would you? What if your significant other was talking incoherently about the future, what would you do then?

There’s also tenderness, confusion, loyalty and types of disloyalty to contend with. Pairing the two themes of love and other monsters can be playful and humorous at times. Tragic at others.

I’ve always been afraid of the dark, but I don’t shy away from it. Sometimes, when I open a blank document and start typing a story, I find my writer’s mind wandering into oddly imaginative and strange worst-case scenarios. When I was a kid, I used to sit on the floor of my room with a notebook, and stare into the darkness in the hallway, sitting at the very edge of the light. I’d write stories there, my heart racing, afraid of monsters in the dark. The writing comes from dark and light places for me. Both nightmares and dreams. I like to examine the ways we protect, love and hurt.

Some of my stories were written in the before times, but many were my way of clinging to love in hard times. The pandemic is another monster that appears as a character, sometimes subtly and metaphorically, sometimes outright. It brought out that love and fear in a whole new way. I don’t cry easily, but I wept when I wrote “Arnav and the Apocalypse.”

My short stories are not true. They are fiction. But here’s the thing many writers won’t admit—the feelings are usually real on some level. We feel what our characters feel.

The thought of something happening to one of my loved ones, especially my husband, has always been much more frightening to me than if something happened to me personally.

At the beginning of the pandemic, he was top of mind when I donned by first mask at the grocery store, and a pair of rubber gloves you use to wash dishes. Like many people, I hid in the basement away from my family when I caught sniffles. Everything became a risk calculation. I was never afraid of dying from Covid-19. I was afraid of infecting the people I love, especially those at higher risk. While things continue to get better, we’ve all been through so much personally and collectively.

I don’t understand why so much art dances away from our pandemic trauma. My writing comes from the subconscious, like dreaming on paper, and those experiences are a part of my dreams—part of the dance.

In one of my shortest stories, “The Day Time Melted,” a character is stuck making chai in the kitchen. The government couldn’t stop the bombs from coming, but they could stop time. The only thing the woman wants is to tell her husband that she loves him, but he’s in the other room.

I felt like time had simply stopped for my husband and I, when I was writing that during a lockdown. I’ve always loved him, but as the pandemic raged on with its sense of impending doom and our world got smaller and smaller, it made us closer. I’m thankful we avoided the absolute worst-case scenarios I imagined in my immediate family, but also deeply saddened for others who weren’t so lucky or privileged.

There are plenty of horrifying and literal monsters in my story collection. Creepy dolls. Dark angels. Serial killers. But if you ask me, what the most frightening thing is in my new book, what’s the big idea, it’s this: The fear of losing someone you love is worse than any other monster in the dark.


Love and Other Monsters in the Dark: Amazon|Barnes & Noble

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

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