The Big Idea: TJ Klune

In the writing of The House in the Cerulean Sea, author TJ Klune looked a little history north of our border — and current events right here in the US — to inform his world of magic, and bureaucrats who seemingly trudge through it.

TJ KLUNE:

When an author gets an idea in their head—one with legs that isn’t just a fleeting thought—it tends to worm its way into our brains and won’t leave us alone until we either write it down or kill it with fire.

Before I started The House in the Cerulean Sea, I had the pieces of an idea, these little shards that didn’t quite come together into a clear picture. It had to do with magical people dealing with fear and discrimination. Specifically, it would involve magical children, those who should have been protected at all costs, but instead were shunned for simply existing at all.

It helped (maddeningly so) that I could already hear the main character’s voice in my head, a fussy fellow named Linus, who was a stickler for the rules. He would be a caseworker in an Orwellian world, where the government sees all, knows all, and controls everything. Linus would work for said government with the bureaucratically gloomy name of The Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY), a drone who did as he was told because it was expected of him. And he’d be queer, because that’s what I write: queer people from all walks of life.

The pieces were there, but the picture was still fuzzy.

It remained fuzzy until I stumbled across the Sixties Scoop, something I’d never heard of before, something I’d never been taught in school (I’m American, by the way). In Canada, beginning in the 1950s and continuing through the 1980s, indigenous children were taken from their homes and families and placed into government-sanctioned facilities, such as residential schools. The goal was for primarily white, middle-class families across Canada, the US, and even Europe—to adopt these children. It’s estimated that over 20,000 indigenous children were taken, and it wasn’t until 2017 that the families of those affected reached a financial settlement with the Canadian government totaling over eight hundred million dollars.

I researched more, and discovered instances the world over, in my own country and abroad, of the same thing happening: families being separated because they were different, because of the color of their skin, because of their faith, because those in power were scared of them. I wrote The House in the Cerulean Sea in the spring of 2018, months later, in the summer, news exploded from our southern border about families searching for a better life being separated and put into government-sanctioned facilities.

History, as it does with terrifying consistency, was repeating itself once again.

Let me be up front about something: I’m a white dude. There really isn’t much I should be preaching about. I’m queer, and a loud one at that, but the marginalization I’ve faced because of this isn’t to be compared to others facing bigotry. It’s not a contest. It sucks across the board, but I’m a mid-thirties cis man in America. I’m privileged in ways others are not. I know this, so when I wrote Cerulean, I knew I had to do so carefully, to make sure that what I’d decided on to be the central theme of the story wouldn’t be lost.

That central theme?

Kindness.

Look, I get how that sounds. I’m sure more than a few of you reading this rolled your eyes at the word. It’s trite, isn’t it? Sure it is. But stick with me for a moment.

As I write this, it’s 2020, and we’re so divided, I don’t know how we’ll recover from it. Those in power fling insults as easily as they breathe. People take to the streets in masks and hoods, spreading their hate as if it were gospel. We’re all so angry almost every second of every day, and we have a right to be. We should be angry. The world is on fire. The news grows more dire with each new breaking broadcast. People are hurt—or worse, killed—because of who they love, what they believe, or the color of their skin. We’ve lost our way, and I worry that this has become our new normal.

I can only do what I think I do best: write. And so I began writing The House in the Cerulean Sea, imagining a world not so different from our own, where people who are different than the majority are controlled by those in power. The smallest of us—the children—are taken from their homes and placed into euphemistically named orphanages, overseen by caseworkers in DICOMY. Linus is sent on a top-secret assignment to investigate a special orphanage, one hidden away, housing what the world considers to be the most dangerous of children.

What he finds there changes him. How exactly, you’ll have to read for yourself, but I never strayed away from kindness as a theme. It was—and still is—important to me. To offer a hand in compassion rather than a fist raised in anger seems like it should be common sense, but many appear to have forgotten that. We, like Linus discovers, need to use our voices for those who can’t speak for themselves, those who should be allowed to be small in this great, wide world. But sometimes we also need to shut up and listen to those small voices, because if we don’t, we run the risk of drowning them out.

We are better than what we currently seem to be. I know we are. And I don’t believe it’s too late for us to course correct. It’s going to take time, and a hell of a lot of hard work, but we’re capable of it. The House in the Cerulean Sea is my great wish into the universe, a fable about the goodness in us all, if only we can believe in it. Hope is a weapon, kindness our battle cry. As long as we stand together, I know we’ll shape this place we call home into something we can all be proud of.

—-

The House in the Cerulean Sea: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Ann VanderMeer

And now for something a little different: A Big Idea about a Web site, not a book: Avatars, Inc. But it is an anthology, and it’s something I think qualifies here, because as editor Ann VanderMeer explains, it’s got quite a big idea behind it.

ANN VANDERMEER:

The XPRIZE Foundation has been around for over twenty years, doing great work by incentivizing breakthroughs in science and technology. In 2018, XPRIZE produced Seat 14C, its first fiction anthology, followed by Current Futures in 2019, and now Avatars Inc. The goal: To use storytelling to intrigue and inspire the public about our possible futures, brought about by the work XPRIZE is doing today.

There has been a big push in the last several years in current STEM programs around the world to add in the “A” for Arts and have STEAM. And why not? Including the arts into any science and technology program will only expand your reach and include more people. It’s much easier to get the point across in a story than in a bland, jargon-filled article. Which is why you are seeing more and more fiction writers invited to speak at science conferences.

We face many challenges in the modern world, what with climate change, health issues, global conflicts, access to education, and poverty. At XPRIZE, people are working together to find solutions for the future. And the stories being expressed with the XPRIZE anthologies give rise to the imagination. Indeed, storytelling is often used for applied creativity in problem solving.

The relationship between science fiction stories and actual science has always been there. Many scientists who became involved in the Space Program at NASA were early readers of science fiction and were inspired to make a career of science. It’s not just that certain technologies and ideas that originated from science fiction stories become real in our modern day, but also that some SF readers go on to pursue careers in the sciences and make an impact in the world.

I was first approached last year to edit the Current Futures anthology to promote World Oceans Day. I had the opportunity to bring in new voices and work with other writers that I knew and admired. It was a dream project and I was thrilled to see writers like Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Deborah Biancotti and Karen Lord get excited about stories and work with them again. I was also thrilled to work with other writers for the first time, including Malka Older, Madeline Ashby and Gu Shi.

When I was later asked to edit Avatars Inc, I immediately said yes, and what a wonderful venture it has been. I love working with writers from all over the world and seeing what they can come up with. In this case, they were asked to imagine the uses of avatars in the near and far future. This idea expands on the real-life ANA Avatar XPRIZE competition underway with teams all over the world competing to develop avatar technologies. As innovators work together to develop uses for real avatars, the writers work to imagine what could be. And one of the things that science fiction writers do best is explore the possibilities of “What If?”

Pat Cadigan’s story “The Final Performance of the Amazing Ralphie” imagines the avatars entertaining those consigned to off-planet hospice care. People struggling with health care issues need more than medical attention and this story shows how technology can step in and enhance the lives of those that may have been forgotten.

Avatars are often used in places where it is tricky for humans to navigate. In “Uma,” by Ken Liu, avatars move high up in the power lines to fix and maintain the electrical power structures that we all rely on so heavily. But in this story, their use is pushed beyond the original mandate when life is threatened. Their original purpose is questioned and new uses are discovered.

In both of these stories we can see the typical uses for avatars expanded beyond the original ideas and that’s what gets me so excited about these narratives. Yes, medical and mechanical uses are abundant, but these writers take this a step beyond and imagine what would happen if the avatars (and the humans operating them) are pushed further. Indeed, some of the best inventions have come about when an original idea paves the way into something else. For example, something as simple as the Post-It note, or more complicated like the pacemaker, were both discovered as a result of other pursuits.

After spending the last couple of years fully invested in fantasy while I worked on two mega-anthologies (The Big Book of Classic Fantasy and The Big Book of Modern Fantasy – a combined total of over 2000 pages!), it was refreshing to dive back deep into science fiction. And it reminded me that there are so many highly intelligent creators out there, both in the arts and in the sciences, who continue to create and innovate fearlessly and without slowing down. It brings me much hope for the future that even as we seem to be facing dark days ahead, there are others who show us what opportunities can be achieved and how far we are willing to go to ensure a better future.

—-

Find the AVATARS INC anthology here: www.avatars.inc

Visit the ANA Avatar XPRIZE website

Follow AVATARS INC on Instagram

Follow XPRIZE on Twitter and Instagram.

Follow Ann VanderMeer on Twitter and Instagram

The Big Idea: Myke Cole

In Sixteenth Watch, author Myke Cole wants to bring your attention to a different sort of military branch — one whose remit is different, but no less vital, than any other, and how that differing mission is vital for his novel and the story he’s telling within.

MYKE COLE:

When we hear the word “military,” we’re rightly put in mind of its core connotation – bombs exploding, bullets flying, bodies hitting dirt. We picture Baghdad during the opening phases of “shock and awe,” drone feeds from Afghan mountainsides just before they evaporate in clouds of superheated grit blown out by the overpressure. That’s a military, that’s what a military does. “We put warheads on foreheads” was an axiom I heard all the time. “Our primary role,” an enterprising 1SG (First Sergeant) told me in Camp Liberty, “is to kill people and destroy property.”

She wasn’t wrong. Militaries exist to fight and warfighting is an ugly business. It is, no matter how we dress it up, an exercise in killing – inflicting as much egregious harm on other human beings as quickly as possible in the hope that they will cry uncle and comply with our policy objectives.

A core function, sure, but not the only function.

In my years in uniform I saw military engineers build infrastructure that would benefit civilian populations for years to come. I saw the attache corps foster relationships with foreign governments that would further diplomacy so that we could avoid future fights. I saw sports teams and gaming clubs. I saw research centers and scientific ferments. The military gave us the Internet. The military (or military contractors) gave us handheld radios, superglue, duct tape, GPS, and nuclear power.

When I decided to join up (ironically after I had already done two tours in Iraq as a mercenary) I wanted the branch that was the most elite, the hardest to get into. I thought, as most do, that was the US Marine Corps.

It wasn’t.

It was the US Coast Guard.

Like most of you, I didn’t realize the USCG was part of the American military, but they have fought in every American war since the service’s creation in 1790. The Coast Guard has an undeserved reputation for being soft, more cops than warfighters, and as a member you are far less likely to deploy overseas than in the other four branches. This means that everyone who wants to join the military, but doesn’t really want to join the military, thinks the Coast Guard will be a nice smooth ride (they get a rude awakening when they report to New London for OCS or Cape May for boot). They have an insane glut of applicants and the smallest budget of all the branches. Therefore, they are selective as hell. It is really hard to get into the guard.

The Coast Guard are warfighters. They kill people and destroy property. They put warheads on foreheads.

But unlike the other four branches, that isn’t the why of the service. This difference is why the guard alone is under the Department of Homeland Security rather than the Department of Defense. It is why the guard alone is governed by its own special title of the US Code – Title 14.

Because while all other military branches were chartered first and foremost to take lives, the guard alone were chartered to save them.

And that’s the big idea behind Sixteenth Watch.

Military science fiction is an incredibly popular genre. It has a guaranteed audience of rabid fans who scarf down book after book from names you’ve probably heard – Jack Campbell, John Ringo, Karen Traviss, Linda Nagata, Orson Scott Card, Joe Haldeman, David Drake, Elizabeth Moon, Tanya Huff, Robert Buettner, and plenty of other big names that are no longer with us. But one thing all of this vast body of work has in common is its focus on the core of the military’s mission – killing people and destroying property. Military SF has always centered around the warfighting aspect of the military experience.

But while the Coast Guard certainly fights wars, that isn’t the heart of what they do. The guard’s core 11 missions are marine safety, search-and-rescue (SAR), aids to navigation, protecting living marine resources, marine environmental protection, ice operations (ice breaking), PWCS (ports, waterways, and coastal security), drug interdiction, migrant interdiction, defense readiness, and maritime law enforcement.

Only one of these – “defense readiness” is a warfighting component. The guard is a military service dedicated almost wholly to environmental protection, life-saving, and the enforcement of maritime law.

The guard’s story, the story of these other missions, is absolutely a military story, and it is a story that has not been adequately told in military science fiction. Some of the greatest authors in the genre have extrapolated every military service in the country out into the stars. We’ve seen Heinlein’s Mobile Infantry, Buettner’s army of orphans, the Adeptus Astartes of Warhammer 40,000, the Federation fleet and the Imperial navy. We’ve seen iteration after iteration of futuristic imaginings of the warfighting.

But not the Coast Guard. We haven’t sufficiently imagined the rigors of search-and-rescue missions on the moon, haven’t speculated on the challenges of customs enforcement along an interstellar border. We haven’t sat down and taken our best guess at how Title 14 of the US Code would stretch and bend and change to accommodate the new frontier, how the challenges that face the Guard in 2020 – fighting for respect and the budget allocations that come with it – would play out as humanity expands into the stars.

We haven’t and I’m proud to take my shot at changing that.

Captain Jane Oliver of the United States Coast Guard has been through some tough times, and emerged changed by them. A combination of her unique abilities and wild circumstance have placed her on the moon in a unique position to both propel the Coast Guard into the future and prevent the first lunar war with China, a war that, should it break out, surely won’t stay on the moon.

I can’t wait to share Jane’s story with you.

I can’t wait for her to get the chance to show you that there is so much more to warriors than war.

—-

Sixteenth Watch: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Premee Mohamed

For the Big Idea about her novel Beneath the Rising, author Premee Mohamed considers the nature of one of the most important types of relationship we have, yet also the one that is many ways the least understood by those who participate in it. Which type of relationship is this? Read on.

PREMEE MOHAMED:

The main thing you need to know about fruit fly research is that it stinks.

It is not glamourous. Their jellied slops are composed of sugar and yeast and malt. A fly lab does not smell (as you’d expect) like a hip new brewery, but stale or even recycled beer: a dive bar bathroom. Fabric and hair soaks it up and when you get home you have to segregate your clothes from the family wash. Such was my state in early 2002, when I was finishing ‘Beneath the Rising’ and an honours project on Drosophila chromosomes and a genetics degree. And, messily, visibly, also the tail-end of a depressive spiral. I was twenty years old and I did not know what I was supposed to be doing for the rest of my life.

Depression, as I was dimly beginning to guess, makes you wonder whether you are worthy of many things. Notable candidates included attention, respect, and love. I often wondered why my friends didn’t leave me, as I felt they should. Why they stayed, checked up on me, gave me their notes, took me to appointments. Listen, I’ve been writing this book, I wanted to tell them deliriously sometimes. It’s about knowledge and power and prestige. The keeping of the gates against disaster. I mean, more than one type of gate. But other things. You don’t even know.

It was an adventure story, heroes in a race against time: a teenaged genius, her loyal friend. It was about evil awakening, sniffing, shrugging off its long sleep. Labyrinths, ancient books, magic, secret societies. Responsibility. Guilt. What it meant to want to save the world, and have it backfire. What it meant to save the world at all.

It did not occur to me that below these grand and worrisome things I was really writing about the relationship between the two kids. Reproducing my own life, and my friendships, and how my breakdown was causing a re-evaluation of what friendship meant to me. That friendship was not lesser than romantic love, only different, and the unfairly short shrift it got had to do with how we, as a society, construed its necessity.

Friendship was easy; it was the love you learned immediately after learning to adore the people who kept you alive. Easy to pick up, easy to feel, easy to calibrate against other loves as you got older. Easy to fence off from romance, which existed absolutely on its side of the electrified wires.

Romantic love seemed animal. Was me shouting at my flies “Mate, dammit!” when I threw them into a vial. Platonic love seemed rational. A calculated weighing of what was owed, what was deserved, what was earned. Under this framework, it seemed even worse to me that my friends were my friends. What had I done, depression wanted to know, to retain their friendship?

In ‘Beneath the Rising,’ the narrator, Nick, struggles with this just as I did; we could not articulate it, especially under duress (admittedly, mine was not due to fighting actual monsters). In fiction, we are told, character is destiny. Plot derives from characters’ desires: they want something, they make choices to get it, they are thwarted, boom. But I had begun to ask myself: Aside from those, what if there are choices made not to achieve your own goal, but in order to keep a friendship intact? What would you do to preserve a relationship that is not romance, especially if you want it to be?

And these are difficult questions for him, they are not easily answered. The friendship is uneven in many ways; how can you be friends (he wonders) with someone who will not even acknowledge the imbalance, let alone the other elephants in the room? What does it mean to give up your own desires, or more noble ones, for that?

People ask me: Would the book end the same way if you wrote it today? I am not sure. It seems crucial that I have had eighteen solid years of brain development (and avoiding quite so many solvent fumes), true. But I have also had years of watching who stayed with me and who left when things were at their worst.

The friends who got me through 2002? Are all still with me. I could not drive them away by being so consumed by my degree that I neglected them, ignored emails, constantly showed up to things fresh from the lab with flies in my hair or covered in radioactive markers (and always smelling like regurgitated beer). And I have patiently waited out unrequited love many times in those years as well. I, the grown-up reader, am angry at Nick for being the way he was; but I, the teenaged writer, did not want to leave it out. I wanted them to make bad choices. I wanted the exhausting exorcism of writing a one-sided romance buried in a friendship like a shard of glass in a soft fruit. I don’t know that I want that any more.

Now, I wonder about who gets driven away and who doesn’t, and who comes back. I wonder about conditionality. It’s a theme reprised (now that I look at it) in everything I write, in which no one is loved romantically, or everyone is loved platonically, and every relationship lives in the blurry grey area that I used to think was neatly separated. I look forward to frustrating readers with it just as I continue to frustrate myself; because none of this, it turns out, is science.

—-

Beneath the Rising: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Chris Kluwe

There aren’t a lot of people who are both a published science fiction author and also a pro-level athlete — but Chris Kluwe is one of those, and more besides. But in addition to the things he is, there are the things he is not. Both of those matter for his new novel Otaku, how it’s written, and who its protagonist is.

CHRIS KLUWE:

Today I’d like to tell you about the big idea for Otaku, my first traditionally published sci-fi novel, which I began as a love/hate letter towards gaming, but eventually turned into so much more.

More specifically, Otaku started as a middle finger towards Gamergate, in that I wanted to write a Gibson-esque thriller that “Pepes4Trump69YOLO420” would start reading as a firmly established cis-het white male power fantasy that they immediately identified with, and then once the protagonist was revealed as a half-black half-asian bisexual woman with a lock of dyed blue hair, their brains would recreate the scene from Scanners so quickly that their brain matter could coat a ten block radius.

What can I say, I like to piss regressives off.

After writing a couple chapters, though, I realized that there were many other things I wanted this story to be.

I wanted Otaku to be a story about climate change, and what that actually means to the social fabric, because that’s the reality of the world our children are going to inherit. Ever since reading Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, I realized that any future story set in our reality had to take into account the fact that we’re changing our environment, and not for the better. Otaku is set in Miami, and the reason why is that if you talk to any sort of risk assessor, they’re going to tell you that Miami is absolutely fucked. Like, 100%, the-water’s-coming-and-there-ain’t-shit-you’re-gonna-do-to-stop-it-fucked, and to me, that’s an interesting setting because there are so many places in the world that humans live that we shouldn’t, yet we persist anyways. If Miami goes underwater, I don’t think the human reaction is going to be to leave, because we never leave.

We adapt.

We built levees in New Orleans, and skyways in Minneapolis, and tornado shelters in Oklahoma, because we don’t care if the planet is trying to kill us, our desperate will to survive in even the most inhospitable conditions is a constant throughout human history. When the waters rise, we aren’t going to abandon the coasts, at least not at first. We’re going to fight it as long as we can (because a lot of rich people like their beach houses), and it won’t be until way after the fact that we realize fighting the sea is a losing proposition that the wealthy will retreat inland.

Miami’s skyscrapers won’t last forever, their gleaming steel frames looming out of the sparkling blue, but they’ll last long enough for generations to grow old and die in them.

I wanted Otaku to be a story about inequality; the rich staying dry while the poor scramble not to drown; the majority oppressing the minority because that’s the way it’s always been; the woman being told her place via violent misogyny because games are a man’s world and how dare you challenge that. The grinding, brutal inequality that pervades our world at such a granular level that it takes an effort of will not to burn it all down in the hopes of finding a single ash of justice, the voice of the priest who tells you to suffer while you’re alive because everything will be better once you’re dead.

“But Chris,” I hear you say, “you’re a cis-het white dude who made a bunch of money playing football! What the fuck do you know about inequality?”

That’s a valid concern. I don’t know a lot about inequality vis a vis personal experience and it would be wrong to claim otherwise. As John has written about on this site before, I have the world on the lowest difficulty setting.

However, I can talk to other people, those who have experienced the shittiness of being a woman online, of being a black queer gamer, of trying to navigate a dick-centric world, and when they tell me I’m wrong about something, that a character wouldn’t react that way, I can fucking listen.

Then I can make sure my story reflects their truth, because it is the truth.

I wanted Otaku to be a story about obsession, because having been both a professional athlete as well as a top-tier gamer (World of Warcraft, 3rd in the U.S. for Burning Crusade, Flying Hellfish represent), there isn’t actually a lot of difference between the two. Both demand hours of preparation, menial tasks that no one on the outside cares about (practicing punt drops; grinding consumables) yet are essential to the final product. Both reward those who can focus on a task to the exclusion of all else, even if it means broken friendships and families, because the willpower to shut out the world is what separates the champs from the chumps.

Both are merging, slowly yet surely, as we strive to recreate the real in the digital with perfect 1:1 fidelity. Pong joysticks gave way to N64 rumble packs gave way to Beatsaber wands and the future just keeps rushing towards us like a freight train. Ten years from now, who knows how we’re going to play.

Above all, I wanted Otaku to be a story that I was proud of, and I am. I think it’s a story that reflects where our society is now and where our society might go if we’re not careful (minus the swordfights against killer robots, but hey, you never know), and it would be an honor to me if you’d consider reading it.

See you in the real, chummer.

—-

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

Read an excerpt. Follow the author on Twitter.

The Big Idea: K.B. Wagers

Sometimes the world’s not easy, and sometimes the world’s imperfect. But uneasy, imperfect worlds can make for good stories, as K.B. Wagers explains in their Big Idea for A Pale Light in the Black.

K.B. WAGERS:

Like nearly everyone else, I suspect, I’ve weathered the last few years like a hero in the final fight of a kung fu film. I’ve been feeling more than a little battered and bruised, swaying on my feet, trying to track where the next hit is coming from. Everything has suffered—my health, my writing, my relationships—in this onslaught of what so many of us joke is the darkest timeline.

It isn’t though. It’s just life, our lives, our futures at stake. And there have been bright spots in the last few years. My friends seem kinder despite our troubles. We’re all more willing to pitch in and help, to offer hands to those who need it. I’m not trying to make a silver lining out of all this horror going on, only pointing out that there seems to be a collective hope that we can weather the storm.

In one of my favorite movies, Mad Max: Fury Road, Max insists, “Hope is a mistake. If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane.”

I don’t believe it.

Do we need to fix what’s broken? Yes. But hope is what gets us up in the morning. It’s what gets us through the bad days and the worse nights. It’s what keeps us on our feet long after our opponents should have beaten us down.

When David Pomerico at Harper Voyager approached me about creating the world of the Near-Earth Orbital Guard, the one thing I knew I wanted to do was write a world that had been through the fire and still survived. A world that wasn’t the same but was still standing. I knew that I wanted a hopeful story full of family and love and people who looked out for each other, not a dark and gritty future where it’s everyone for themselves.

There are some folks in the NeoG world who are out for themselves, but our heroes know that their strength lies in one another. They know that the person at their side is the one who will save them in times of trouble and will never ever let them down.

A Pale Light in the Black ended up being one of the easiest stories I’ve ever written. It seemed to just appear on the page and even when we had to restructure the entire thing during edits, that too was easier than I could have guessed. The hope of the characters and the world they lived in was the best possible feeling I could have experienced after these last few years and in some ways it’s not a stretch to say I think this book may have saved my life.

Because in times like these it’s hard to find hope, but this is when we need it the most. It keeps us fighting. Keeps us kind. It is not a mistake to hope but a fire to keep us warm in these cold days. A Pale Light in the Black is all about hope—the hope that happens when we agree to trust each other, when we don’t abuse that trust, and when that trust in turn can save all of humanity. I hope you’ll come meet the folks at the NeoG and let them give you a little bit of that hope with their story.

—-

A Pale Light in the Black: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

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

The Big Idea: Katie M. Flynn

Author Katie M. Flynn took a journey to bring you her new novel The Companions, a journey where so much of it was simply experiencing the town she called home, and how it has changed over time.

KATIE M. FLYNN:

First the fear: In grad school at UCLA, my advisor was a German ornithologist with a dry sense of humor who loved to throw me off balance with facts I couldn’t always tell were true.

Example: We’re having lunch in the quad, lovely day, cute but slightly aggressive squirrels are daring closer, closer to us and our vegan feast courtesy of the $3 on-campus Hare Krishna buffet. “Aww,” I say because up close they remind me of the gerbils I kept as pets when young. “You know,” my advisor says, “these squirrels could be carriers of the bubonic plague.”

His amused smile, sort of self-satisfied and mischievous—I never knew whether he was messing with me. In retrospect, I know he was always messing with me while simultaneously telling me the truth, a rare talent.

I went home and consulted the Internet like a true academic, and sure enough, I read that the plague had become endemic in squirrels of the American West. Flare-ups of old infectious illnesses occur from time to time, new ones too: H5N1, Ebola, SARS, MERS, COVID-19. Our catalogue of deadly outbreaks is ever growing, and once they’re loose in the world, they don’t ever really go away.

Then, the stories: I can trace the origins of The Companions back to a file on my computer created in 2009 and ominously titled, “Airborne illness.” I had by then developed an unhealthy fascination with outbreaks. I wrote a couple stories about characters living in quarantine conditions, one about a girl who was a super spreader, an asymptomatic carrier of an infectious illness, a “Typhoid Mary 2.0.” The original, Mary Mallon, died in 1938 on North Brother Island, New York, where she was confined for nearly thirty years. I was taken by this isolation, by the idea of a prolonged quarantine, the loss of basic rights, an authoritarian control of a body deemed dangerous in the name of public safety.

That same year, I started drafting another story about a scientist working out of his garage who may or may not have figured out how to upload his soul. But I couldn’t decide whether he had in fact succeeded, so the story turned into a very Waiting for Godot kind of thing, and I grew weary and abandoned the project.

Followed by the failures: From 2009 to 2013 I wrote two novels, both of which fell apart by the time I got to the ending. These failures made me skittish of novel writing, but they also taught me about the pacing and plotting and structure of a longer work. They taught me to be careful.

And the breakthroughs: Meanwhile, the two tropes I was playing with in those 2009 stories—outbreak-induced quarantine and mind upload—seeded. I thought about them enough over the next many years that the networks in my brain finally made the connection, synapses fired, and in 2013 I started a new story in which a teenage girl is murdered and brought back decades later as a product, a companion to a bored, homeschooled child living in a quarantined San Francisco.

I love short stories in their own right, of course, and most stories are done when I’ve finished them. But some live on, I can’t shake them, and then I start to think longer, bigger, wider; I go underground.

And finding out you’re not done: Living in San Francisco since 2002, I have witnessed the latest tech boom firsthand. It’s been hard on the city I call home, on my friends and neighbors. Lots of people have moved—some of the best people, our teachers and artists—and I’m left feeling alone at times, always having to adapt to a new reality, with new actors coming in and out of my life, and cynical—the city isn’t getting better because of tech; in many ways it’s gotten so much worse. While there are more billionaires per capita than in any other city in the world, homelessness in San Francisco is surging. When I think about my city, it’s a little like a superimposed image—one picture of the city I love situated atop another, the city I live in.

In The Companions, the towers, where the wealthiest live—and are confined under quarantine—became my entry point for exploring these themes of class, technology, and isolation.

And in the case of Lilac, I knew I wanted to capture this feeling I had of superimposition. One dimension is her journey to find her murderer and to figure out what happened to her best friend—these characters still out there in the world, albeit elderly. Another dimension is Lilac’s journey as a product, from release to recall, and the people she touches along the way. Another dimension still is Lilac’s trajectory from that of a privileged teenager in Laguna Beach to a type of violent outlaw. In tracing these threads I had fun crossing genre lines, hoping to create a literary mystery-science fiction-thriller-bildungsroman set against a backdrop of a world changed and changing by climate change.

What happens to places lost to rising seas? Who is there to remember them, and for how long? I’m forever fascinated by the plasticity of the human brain, by our ability to tell and retell ourselves stories, to rewrite our memories, our histories. Somewhere in the center of all of this is the question: what does it mean to live forever in a world that is dying?

To counter the darkness of this question I stayed focused on the connections between characters—human and companion—despite differences. As I write presently, dear friends are entertaining my kids so I can finish this piece, and it’s in these connections both imagined and real that I have found—dare I say it—something akin to hope.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: J.T. Nicholas

To quote the immortal Freddie Mercury: Who wants to live forever? If you think you do, here’s J.T. Nicholas with a couple thoughts to consider, via his new novel, Re-Coil.

J.T. NICHOLAS:

What if we lived forever?

Most of us learn early on that we have an expiration date. But medical technology keeps getting better and better and that expiration date keeps getting pushed farther and farther away. Two hundred years ago, the average life expectancy was in the 30s and now that doesn’t even constitute middle age. So, what happens when we crack the secret of immortality? What if, once we had shuffled off the mortal coil, we could be stuffed into a new one, to pick up where we left off? And if something came along and threatened to take away that immortality, what lengths would we go to in order to keep it?

Those were the big questions, the big ideas, behind Re-Coil. What would happen to the world, to society at large, if death was transient? It’s not a new concept: the idea of breaking free of the shackles of mortality has been around forever in science fiction. We’ve got clones and cyborgs, beings uploaded wholesale to electronic wonderlands, brain switching and regeneration. We’ve got genetic manipulation to extend lifespans so long that it might as well be immortality. Hell, we’ve even got good old-fashioned resurrection. Defeating death is a common enough trope, but I wasn’t really interested in the mechanics, the how’s and why’s of it. The thing that I found interesting was what would it do to humanity, to society? And what would whatever society that emerged do to stop threats to that immortality?

You see, in the world of Re-Coil, immortality is an immutable right. If you die, you will be reborn… eventually. But with an ever-expanding population and scarce resources, new coils – new bodies – are always in short supply. Want to cut the line? Well, you better make sure your premiums are up to date, and the better the insurance plan that you purchase, the more likely you are to be put into a body that matches your specifications. Don’t have insurance? You’ll get there eventually, but you might lose a few years of personal objective time as you hang out in the Archives, waiting in perpetual nothingness to be reborn. And except for the best (and most expensive) plans, there are no guarantees that you’re going to end up in a body that matches your original equipment or personal preferences.

It’s that last bit that lead to the hardest aspects of writing Re-Coil. The story – the plot – is a whodunnit at its heart, a mystery where the protagonists are trying to hunt down their would-be killers and stop the first truly existential threat to humanity since mankind uncovered the secrets of immortality. It’s part mystery, part space action romp, and part cyberpunk conspiracy tale. But writing those bits was the easy part. For me, the hard part of Re-Coil was creating the world, fleshing out the societies, and answering the questions my agent and editor posed. Big questions on race and sex and gender and identity and power that I hadn’t really intended to write about, but once I set up the basic premise, I couldn’t possibly avoid. What happened to all those constructs and how society viewed them if a given person could find themselves wearing a body so different from the one issued at birth?

I knew I was dealing with sensitive topics in a sensitive time and, to be honest, I was scared shitless. Would I screw it up and inadvertently write the most offensive book of all time? Would focusing too much on those elements draw readers away from the story and make the book seem preachy? It was a fine line to walk and I’m fortunate to have had a group of people willing to help me walk it. The best thing about reading (and writing) are those unexpected moments where you find your horizons broadening a bit or where you’re forced to think about things in a different way. Re-Coil did that for me and I hope there are some others out there that it does the same for.

That’s Re-Coil. That’s the Big Idea.

—-

Re-Coil: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Jeff Wheeler

You may have heard of the expression “the stink of fear.” For The Killing Fog, author Jeff Wheeler is working with an idea that’s similar — and both bigger, and stranger.

JEFF WHEELER:

Like many authors, travelling to different places has sparked my imagination in surprising ways. But it was during lunch at a restaurant with my wife, brother, and sister-in-law that the big idea came for The Killing Fog.

In my mind, I had already put together the idea for my new series. I’d recently returned from a writer’s conference in Beijing, so the culture and mythology was already stewing in my mind. The geography of this new world had been inspired by a trip to Alaska the previous year where I first conceived the idea of an ancient evil emperor who lay buried in his city beneath a massive glacier who continued to be re-born, conquering civilization each time. China is huge. Glaciers are huge. But neither of them was the big idea.

During lunch, I learned that my niece has a form of synesthesia I’d never heard about before. She can smell the emotions coming from other people. She knows, immediately and unmistakably, when someone is lying or trying to pretend to be someone they’re not, or if the person is just mean-spirited at heart even if they wear a smile on their face. You can wonder, as I did, what it’s like for a teenager in highschool to endure something like that. You can’t control it. You can’t shut it off—it’s always there.

As I listened to this during lunch, it made me realize that my main character in this new series needed this gift. That it would be the only way she could survive the return of the Emperor, known as the Dragon of Night. Smell is a sense we often take for granted, a sense that we enjoy when someone is baking bread or homemade snickerdoodles, and a sense we detest when there’s a toilet that needs unclogging. Imagine, though, if everyone had a smell based on what they felt. And you were the only one who could smell it.

I knew this idea would change the way I needed to write Bingmei’s story in The Killing Fog. Here’s a girl who watched her grandfather get murdered and knows the smell of the man who did it. She’s taken into a fighting school (it’s medieval China, there has to be martial arts!) and works with a group of honorable warriors against the enemies of the various kingdoms. They have no idea that an ancient enemy is about to be re-born, an enemy who knows magic and can control it in ways that no one else can. An enemy who would seem like a god, a being of incredible power and wisdom, one that most would welcome as a benevolent ruler. Except Bingmei, and only Bingmei, knows the truth about him immediately because of the way that he smells. He can’t hide the stink of killing countless people from her.

I had to write this series very differently than any of the other worlds I’ve written. Bingmei’s gift/curse impacted every scene. I had to invent different smells to represent complex emotions. And many times I’d forget that I’d already done one and would have to fix it later. That was frustrating! I needed a glossary of smells!

For Bingmei, when you know a merchant is lying to you, it helps to also know those who aren’t. She can’t be deceived. Yet she also lives in a world that is struggling to survive the harsh weather changes that come each year—remember, the terrain was inspired by Alaska. She smells the pettiness and greed that pervade her society. She also smells the love a mother has for a child. But in the balance, she senses the world as it really is and wonders if it is even worth saving.

The idea of a person smelling emotions had never entered my mind before that lunch date. The idea teased me, made me wonder how I was going to incorporate it throughout the series and try to make it seem real, as real as it was to my niece. Thankfully, she was one of my first readers and helped describe what it is like to live with her ability.

—-

The Killing Fog: Amazon Barnes & Noble Indiebound Powell’s

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The Big Idea: J.R.H. Lawless

The thing with satire is that it has to have a relationship to the world we live in — and if we’re not careful the line between the two becomes blurred. As J.R.H. Lawless notes, in this Big idea for his novel Always Greener.

J.R.H. LAWLESS:

The Big Idea of this novel is, unsurprisingly, a direct result of where I was when I wrote it: Split between the office at the French National Assembly in Paris where I worked and slept, on one hand, and the black and white cottage in rural England where I’d work at a distance and take care of our new-born daughter when I wasn’t needed in Paris, on the other.

It should therefore be no surprise, once again, that the fundamental Big Idea ended up being that the power dynamics of our societies are fundamentally effed and that we, and our children, are all seriously boned if we don’t do something about it.

Not the most original of Big Ideas, certainly — but then again, there’s a reason for that; it’s because the warning remains as valid as it was when all the great dystopian writers penned their warnings about what would happen “if this goes on”. If not more so. But back in the sweet, innocent days of 2007 when I first started working on the piece, I came up with a series of hopefully interesting answers to the question of how best to develop that core dystopian Big Idea.

The first question was: What is the best way of showing the dehumanising effects of where we are headed on individuals, all around the world? The answer was: To show examples of some of the lives affected the most.

Which lead to the second question: What book premise could I come up with that would let me show those lives most naturally and effectively? That’s when I cooked up the core conceit for Always Greener: A future reality show where contestants compete for the title of “greatest victim” of the Corporate-run world, with lens implants allowing people around the globe to experience life through their eyes, 24/7, so they can vote on who the biggest losers are at the big weekly elimination feature shows.

Obviously, the right POV was an important third question, which lead me to my MC, Liam Argyle: A fundamentally optimistic man who accepts the job offer to become the host of this hot new reality show in hopes that it’ll give him a chance to finally make a difference in the world; without realising how violently the realities of the show, and of his contestants’ sorry lives, will challenge his faith in humanity.

Finally, developing the Big Idea meant deciding what tone would best carry that message home. And there was only one choice here, fuelled by the Pratchett and Adams I was surrounded by in my rural English cottage: Dark, uncompromising humour.

Wrap that all together, and the result is an adult SF comedy novel that’s been a long time in the making and hopefully kicks this series off with a bang, before the sequel, The Rude Eye of Rebellion, also hits the shelves in Fall 2020. The book is chock full of the most absurd situations and etymological footnotes I could come up with.

Everything in this book would be ridiculous — should be ridiculous — if it weren’t so damn likely to become reality in the not-so-distant future. Unless we find some way to get off our collective arses and do something about it, that is.

—-

Always Greener: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Google Books|Kobo

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The Big Idea: Michael R. Johnston

History doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, but it can inspire writing of the future — as Michael R. Johnston discovered as he started writing the series of which his latest novel, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, is part.

MICHAEL R. JOHNSTON:

Some years ago, apparently unconvinced that being a full-time high school teacher, husband, and father (with a toddler!) was enough of a drain on my energy, I decided to go to grad school. This lasted only two semesters before I decided it had been a bad idea and walked away, but the decision to go, and one specific class, changed the course of my life.

The class, Modern Irish Literature, met at the ungodly hours of 6 to 9pm on Monday nights. We covered the literature of Ireland from the Easter Rising of 1916, through the War of Independence, the Irish Civil War and—much later—the Troubles, then up to the present day.

But while the class was fascinating, it wasn’t exciting. The first half of each class meeting was discussion of the reading, complete with student-generated “deep questions.” Sometimes the questions were provocative and thought-inducing, other times they were obtuse and unanswerable, but we’d spend a good hour and a half on them, batting ideas back and forth. And then the professor would read from his essays on the subject.

Listening to someone reading an essay is almost never exciting, and I would often find my mind wandering. One such night, I began to wonder if I could translate the Irish struggle for independence into a Science Fiction context. This was just me doodling, really, because I’d given up on the idea of writing professionally after three terrible novels (only later did I learn how many of my idols started by writing unpublishable novels). The more I thought about this idea, however, the more it began to feel like a story I had to write.

And then, after months of wrestling with it, throwing almost everything out and starting over several times, I had a novel. It got me accepted to Viable Paradise, where the remaining kinks were worked out of the story, and more importantly, my passion for being a professional writer—for writing stories other people would want to read and would pay for—was rekindled.

From late 2013 to early 2015, I rewrote the book, throwing out a lot of what I’d had, including the parts inspired by history. That became The Widening Gyre, my debut novel. In that story, starship captain Tajen Hunt and his crew discovered that their benevolent alien overlords are anything but benevolent. They kicked the Zhen off Earth and began to recolonize it with humans, no longer content with being second-class citizens of the Zhen Empire.

When I began The Blood-Dimmed Tide, I was able to return to the original idea of freedom fighters fighting a messy and complicated war. Many of the events in the novel are inspired by real events in Ireland, and the fates of some characters were informed by the fates of the real people who inspired them.

When The Blood-Dimmed Tide begins, Tajen thinks he’s got it all figured out. He found the lost Earth, he discovered the treachery of the Zhen, and he’s helped found a human colony to repopulate Earth. He even got the guy. He finally has a firm place to stand again.

But then everything he’s worked for is undone. The clean, easy space battles of Tajen’s past are replaced by a difficult fight for survival against an enemy that doesn’t care who they have to step on to get what they want. And, just as some Irish worked for the British, the Zhen have human agents among the people of Earth, working against the cause of human independence. Tajen is lost, his footing unsure, and he has to find his way back to stability.

Finally, just as in real life, there’s more going on than our heroes know, and events outside of their control are hurtling toward them.

—-

The Blood-Dimmed Tide: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: K.S. Villoso

Who is the bad person? What makes the bad person bad? And how different are they, really, from you and the people you love? As K.S. Villoso observes in this Big Idea piece for The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, the lines might not be as clearly cut as one might hope.

K.S. VILLOSO:

Monsters hide in plain sight.

Epic fantasy usually tackles the concept of good versus evil. The big battle is against dark forces on the outside, threatening to end a time of peace and overturn the way things are. The enemy is an other, a stranger who is someone completely unlike us, whose ways barely resemble ours. And yet they want what we have and are willing to do whatever it takes to get it; it’s up to us to protect the status quo, to answer that hero’s call and rise to the challenge.

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro subverts a lot of genre tropes, and it’s no different when it comes to its approach to this age-old fantasy trope of us versus them. Once the story gets going on, readers immediately realize they don’t know who the enemy is—they don’t know who is them. Queen Talyien doesn’t. She is a fish out of the water, thrown into a whirlwind of events where her primary goal is to survive and find her wayward king. The sinister evil, hiding in the background, seems almost inconsequential and a little typical, the expected backside thorn in our hero’s adventure…until it isn’t. Observant readers will see what’s been there from the beginning. If you look hard enough, you’ll understand that this isn’t a story about building defences against an outward threat, but about finding a cure to the poisons underneath.

Filipino mythology is rife with monsters. The catch-all phrase for most is the aswang, and while they come in a variety of forms—shapeshifters, werewolves, ghouls and vampires that suck unborn children out of wombs—the defining characteristic of most is that they can live right next to you. These monsters might be right under your noses. Your neighbour could be one, the local hermit, maybe even your own grandmother. The pig you slaughtered last night is missing its innards, or a child goes missing…is there an aswang amongst us? You stare at each other with distrust, wondering who it is, if it’s the woman right next to you or the man who just came into town last night.

Stories where the accusation of being an aswang has made people turn on one another or even resort to murder. People have used it to denounce whole villages, claiming that the entire population is riddled with aswang, like a disease that builds on distrust. What you can’t understand, you blame on someone else, and people are always looking for easy answers—even if it means condemning others. But when we seek enemies that way, what we are really saying is that we are just as much capable of being villains as heroes. We could be our own worst enemy. In fact, we very often are.

There are some great, terrible monsters in Chronicles of the Bitch Queen, the series for which this novel is the first installment. But the most frightening thing about them is how they came to be. We let this monster into this house, into our bed. Because for that to happen, first you had to open the door.

—-

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Una McCormack

On the occasion of The Last Best Hope, the first novel associated with the Star Trek: Picard television series, author Una McCormack muses on Star Trek, the future it imagines, the present we live in today… and how it all comes together.

UNA McCORMACK:

At the end of last year, I visited CERN. Yes, that CERN, of the massive magnets and the Higgs-Boson. I was one of a party that included a bishop and at least one other writer of speculative fiction. We were our own murder mystery in the making. It was a great day, talking to smart people about their visionary work, but the highlight was taking the lift down to see the Complex Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment – one of the two vast particle physics detectors built on the Large Hadron Collider.  We went down, down, underground, and came out to see an incredible monument to human ambition, talent, organisation. The bishop and I looked out across this work and shared the sense of awe and wonder we were both experiencing.

Afterwards, I spent the day in Geneva. I visited the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum. On the way home, I was able to travel on my British/EU passport for one of the very last times. I kept thinking about what human beings can achieve when we collaborate on a large scale. Vast secular cathedrals that bring us closer to understanding the fundamentals of our universe. Humanitarian organisations that bring relief and bear witness. International treaties and agreements that, for all the bureaucracy, have contributed to maintaining peace in Europe for the best part of a century. I thought about how much I’d taken these things for granted across my life, and how fragile these institutions all suddenly seemed.

Such things were much on my mind when I sat down to watch the first episode of Star Trek: Picard. In this, I think, we are following the narrative of a man whose story stands at the intersection of great individual talent and wider, social need. A man whose personal qualities – wisdom, compassion, a humanitarian outlook – once formed the backbone of the organisation he served. But now we find him at a time of his life when the values he holds have become no longer congruent with the organisation to which he has been dedicated.

For those of us of a certain vintage, Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) offered not only a positive vision of humanity’s future, but one predicated upon collaboration, in which species looked beyond ties of blood and nationhood to find common ground with all forms of life. At the heart of this project was the figure of Captain Jean-Luc Picard: explorer, diplomat, scholar, humanist, a man whose chief drivers are curiosity and compassion.

Of course, TNG had its flaws. But in its best episodes, such as ‘The Measure of a Man’, in which the civic rights of the android, Data, are debated, TNG dealt thoughtfully, and committedly, with questions of selfhood, and our obligations to each other. In ‘Darmok’, Picard learns to communicate with an alien species who speak through metaphor, showing the joy of immersion in another culture, and the thrill of meaningful contact with the other. In ‘The Inner Light’, Picard lives an entire different life, as a member of a species long extinct, coming back to his own time to bear witness to the fact that they existed – that they lived and loved, and hoped to be remembered.

In Star Trek: Picard, we are presented with a future where the powers that be are no longer committed to these great ambitions. Starfleet, it seems, withdrew from the great challenge of its age, the humanitarian project to save the Romulan people from the effects of their sun going supernova, making a distinction between ‘lives’ and ‘Romulan lives’. We see a man whose values are no longer shared by the institutions to which he devoted his whole life, and who is struggling with this misalignment.

My British nationality no longer gives me access to my European rights. By a quirk of history, I am able to claim these rights through Irish grandparents. So can my daughter – but my partner cannot. These great endeavours – these great projects of human collaboration and organisation – sometimes we seem to be retrenching. We seem these days to prefer to emphasize what disunites us rather than what might connect us. Science fiction reflects our times back to us – but can also remind us that the future is not yet fixed. And that once upon a time, we dared to dream of futures which were not constructed upon exclusion and exploitation, but which reached outwards in the hope of collaboration, diversity, and mutual aid. Perhaps one day we will learn this trick again.

—-

Star Trek Picard: The Last Best Hope: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

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The Big Idea: Kelly Braffet

One of the cliches of the writing life is the writer in their cold garret, scribbling furiously onto pages. As Kelly Braffet tells us in today’s Big Idea, in her case this cliche is not entirely wrong, and also, it led her on the long and strange journey that resulted in her latest novel, The Unwilling.

KELLY BRAFFET:

Modern book promotion goes like this: you write a book. You sell the book. You edit the book within an inch of its life. Then, in the weeks before the book is published, you write essay after essay and Q&A after Q&A for blogs and websites and – basically – anyone who’ll have you. Anything to get your name out there. Lots of the Qs in the Q&As are very similar, and one of the challenges is to come up with fresh answers. Which is to say that I expected to write more than once about crime novels versus fantasy novels, and about working on the same novel for 20 years, coming back to it in free moments like a room you never quite finish painting; and about, oh, I don’t know, systems of magic and research methods and where I get my ideas. (I don’t know if I get them so much as they accrue in the corners of my mind over time, like mental dust bunnies.)

What I didn’t expect to write about was my last college dorm room, not at all – but here I am, about to write about it for the second time in a week, and I guess that’s one of the interesting things about writing in general, that it leads you to unexpected places. That dorm room was where The Unwilling was born, and the first thing to know about it was that it was terrible.

I was a senior, which should have earned me a pretty sweet spot, but I utterly tanked the housing lottery, and I ended up in half of a converted attic in one of the older houses on campus. If I stood in the exact center of it I could almost stand upright. My housemates and I did not actually talk to each other, not because we weren’t all nice people but because they were all friends who’d signed up to live together, and I was the antisocial introvert who lost the housing lottery. In general, I think that living situation can be best summed up by the moment when I ran into a woman at a party who was friends with said housemates.

“So, your whole house has scabies, huh?” she said, and then, horrified by my expression: “Wait – you didn’t know?”

Other things that year were less than ideal. Most of my friends had graduated, and the few that were left weren’t on the campus meal plan, so I either ate solo, which was depressing, or brought sandwiches back to eat in my terrible dorm room. I was also nursing a broken heart, and I stopped sleeping. I knew I was depressed and thought a volunteering gig might help, but the one I found was a long commute away and I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would. Nothing seemed good or hopeful, and there seemed to be no road forward. The only things that brought me solace were video games and reading.

In the middle of all of this, I read a fantasy novel by a writer I liked, and was very disappointed. I can write a better fantasy novel than that, I thought. It’ll be about four people who live alone in a castle after their kingdom collapses. There’ll be a tower. There’ll be a big wall, with a city outside it. At the time, I saw no metaphorical parallels whatsoever between my lonely life at the top of Andrews House behind the wall of my depression and the world that would eventually become that of The Unwilling, where my four characters lived lonely lives in a tower behind a literal Wall. I mean, I see them now. But now I’m 44; then I was 21.

Writers have themes that we go back to, over and over again. The stories all change, but they often tend to nibble around the same central theme, like those pedicure fish that eat the dead skin off your feet. I’m very interested in power, for one thing: all of my books are about people dealing with powerlessness, and the power other people have over them. My second constant theme, though, is identity: who am I? Who do I want to be? Who does the world think I am; who does the world think I should be? I think everyone struggles with this issue; there might be somebody out there who feels absolutely no tension between who they are and who the world expects them to be, but I feel like that would require near-superheroic levels of confidence. Living that way would be pretty great, I suppose, but believe me when I say I wouldn’t know.

I’ve spent twenty years writing The Unwilling. During those twenty years, I’ve written five other novels and published three of them. Through all of it, I’ve come back to this story, these four people stuck behind this wall. Part of the allure is that I love fantasy stories, and have since I could read; also, the tropes of the fantasy genre are uniquely suited to exploring that central question of identity. All of the central characters in The Unwilling are given roles at birth: you are the future City Lord, you are his future wife, you will command the army. My protagonist, Judah, is the only one without a prescribed role, and she suffers for it. The existence of magic is a wild card that gives that otherwise heavily controlled world the potential of breaking wide open.

We don’t have magic, unfortunately. Our only hope of breaking the world wide open is constant, conscious examination of those big questions. Who am I? Who do I want to be? Who does the world think I am? How do I bridge the gap between the two – or do I even want to? This is the biggest question of all, and it’s one we spend our entire lives poking at: in the reading of books, in the writing of books, in terrible little dorm rooms. Wherever we happen to be, whatever we happen to be doing. It’s the question that drives us forward. And I’m sure I’ll come back to it in my next book, and my next.

—-

The Unwilling: Oblong Books and Café | Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound |Powell’s

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The Big Idea: R.W.W. Greene

For his Big Idea on the novel The Light Years, author R.W.W. Greene considers what things make the cut, when civilization itself is on the line.

R.W.W. GREENE:

Moving always sucks. But especially when it’s unexpected. Even someone with Chrisjen Avasarala-level planning skills, when faced with an eviction or a sudden breakup, is going to lose a thing or thirty by the time she unpacks the boxes, bags, and bales in the new digs. Somehow, she’ll end up with both copies of Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, no can opener, a single black shoe, two years of Yankee-Swap gifts, and the bad phone charger. It can be a new home, but it’s never the same home, and it’s going to take a while to get comfortable.

That’s the big idea I kept in the crosshairs while I wrote The Light Years, which is springing from the presses at Angry Robot Books this month. In the book, which is set a mere thousand years from now, Earth has burned to a cinder and humanity is no longer living there. Generation ships, hibernation pods, and a little faster-than-light-travel for the well-to-do have given the species a fresh start, and after several hundred years in survival mode, things are settling into the new normal. There’s finally time for a few luxuries. They can begin unpacking the box marked “The Humanities.”

Naturally, time and travel left big gaping holes in all the packing boxes, and even with the best intentions, there was no escaping Earth without leaving a lot behind. There was data loss at every point in the exodus.

After all, the statue Winged Victory of Samothrace was so very, very heavy. It was carefully scanned, of course, along with The Mona Lisa and Starry, Starry Night. The Google Books servers were uploaded to the ship-based computers, along with as much of the Library of Congress as could be digitized and everything on Spotify and iTunes. All the shows on the streaming services came along, all the memes on Twitter, all the approved YouTube videos, even the ones being made right… now. I mean, now.

Now.

Is it still a work of art if the original no longer exists? That’s something the Earth refugees will no doubt want to debate later, after they’ve built the infrastructure of a new civilization. People with the means will debate it, I mean. Philosophy and classical studies will be luxuries for quite some time, I’m afraid.

The richer countries were better represented on the What-To-Bring-To-The-New-World Committees, which could explain the loss of so much non-Western art and culture. There was a representative sampling collected, but with only a generation or so to plan, sacrifices had to be made. And was it such a loss? If no one had made a parody or dorm-room poster of it by 2050 or so, how relevant could it be?

Hey, you know how after a breakup you tend to go through Facebook and Instagram to get rid of the pictures of your ex? There was a similar move to tidy up history and culture for posterity. No one remembers which version of Huckleberry Finn made the cut, and there are numerous books and films mentioned in the archives that were judged unworthy for inclusion. (However,  the director’s cuts of Bloodsport, Home Alone 2, and Zoolander were carefully curated so that future audiences could enjoy them.) In a different political climate, different decisions might have been made, but that’s democracy for you.

Many of the recorded histories reflected poorly on the countries working so hard and spending so much money on the fleet of colony ships, so the rougher parts got sanded smooth or trimmed away. There was little political will to bring the mistakes of the past into the new future.

Science and tech? They brought everything relevant, of course. Every theory. Every paper. Every debunked anti-vaccination and Intelligent Design study. All those adverts about crystals and CBD oil. It was far easier just to bring everything then to engage in politically divisive debates over facts and merit, and the really important bits were locked away under patent and copyright and statutes of secrecy.

What else was there to pack? Pictures and videos of beautiful places. A recording of the mating calls of loons. The sound of a busy street in Manhattan. Genetic samples (but there was no way to get samples of everything) and seeds. A few, small personal items.

More data was lost in transit. Most of the Earth’s citizenry traveled frozen or in massive generation ships, but representatives and build teams from the greater nations had faster means. They got to the new worlds first to make them ready and, as was their due, claim the best spots. They set the rules, created the social system, and decided what was cool long before the other refugees arrived. Family recipes were modified for available resources, and soon no one remembered what a real meal from the Old Country tasted like.

Remember how the old iPod shuffle algorithm was only pseudo-random? That’s also how the bowdlerized, gerrymandered version of the Sum Total of Human Knowledge contained in the colony ships’ computers worked. Stuff that people wanted to find got stored at the top, search-engine-optimized and nicely cross-referenced with keywords. Other stuff was never seen again, like that song from that album that never shows up on your playlist. It’s still there in the depths, where even the nerdiest of the data-spiders never go. (Somehow, though, “Friends” made it into the zeitgeist again. Go figure.)

And, thus, a new civilization (and book) was made from what we carried from the old.

Most anyone who has taken a creative-writing class has been asked to consider the following prompt: Assuming friends, family, and pets are safe, what is the one thing your protagonist would grab whilst fleeing his or her burning house? A rational character would, of course, grab the perfect, narratively-useful, archetype-defining thing for its creator to use. However, rational behavior is a lot to expect out of someone in panicked flight, and I expect most civilizations, most lives–real or imagined–are made and remade from those off shoes, duplicate CDs, unfilled needs, and broken pieces.

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The Light Years: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Valentine Wheeler

In No Parking, author Valentine Wheeler imagines a town undergoing change, and what it means for the people who live there. And it all started… with lunch.

VALENTINE WHEELER:

I started writing No Parking because of a chicken wrap.

No, seriously. A new restaurant came to town, and they make a killer shawarma. I was eating a chicken shawarma wrap, and I was listening to a customer complain about our full parking lot, and inspiration struck.

Set in a small town southwest of Boston and southeast of Worcester, not quite making the metro area for either, the town of Swanley is struggling to figure out just what community means and who it’s for. Is it the descendants of the settlers that built the town, the commuters looking for an affordable house in exchange for a longer train ride to work, immigrants seeking a fresh start in a quiet place, the kids who grew up wanting to leave and still somehow stuck around? Ultimately, how can all these groups work together to make a place they all can be proud of and want to live?

I’ve lived in Massachusetts for nearly fifteen years, and every town I’ve lived in I’ve tried to be a part of the community by joining groups, volunteering, being a poll worker, and meeting my neighbors. I’ve always been someone who jumps in with both feet in a new place, for better or for worse; I love town politics and neighborhood associations and anywhere where people who live in close proximity are forced to come even closer together and work out their issues in front of all their neighbors. It’s like a locked-room bottle episode, but the tension’s sometimes wound even tighter.

I see this every day at the Post Office. I work in a small town southeast of Boston, not too far from where the town of Swanley would be. I see so many ways the community rubs up against itself every day in line (and in the certified letters people send each other… honestly, you don’t spend six years working for the post office if you’re not at least a little bit nosy). But I also see the way it can be beautiful. I see condolence cards and wedding invitations, Bar Mitzvah invitations going out to hundreds around the world and postcards crossing back and forth across a mile of town. I’ve watched all the little old houses get knocked down, and huge new ones put up–and seen the fights over the affordable housing and senior living communities when those go up instead.

Watching a town fight itself from a working class town to a tech-startup-filled suburb of the upper middle class has been fascinating, especially since many of the million dollar houses are now owned by the kids of the carpenters and train conductors and beat cops who lived there decades ago. When a town changes, people change with it–some of them, anyway. The question remains, though, of whether it’s the same town at all at the end of it.

Swanley is a town in transition, too, and the key conflict of the novel ultimately breaks down to that question. Who is a community for, and who gets to determine what that community means? Marianne Windmere, the main character of No Parking, has watched her town grow and change over sixty years, and she’s not sure if she’s ever fit in. But sometimes we don’t realize what we have until it’s threatened. Marianne doesn’t know if she loves Swanley. But she’s willing to find out. Because it’s the place that loves her, that knows her, and it’s where the people she loves are all tied together in their own ways. It’s home.

And where does her queer community fit in in a small town? This question, at least, I can answer. Because queer people find each other. These characters–bi, ace, trans, pan, gay, and lesbian characters all find their place in No Parking’s Swanley–and their relationships are woven deeply into the heart of Swanley and the heart of No Parking. We build our own community inside the larger one, and in a healthy community, that building continues outward and upward to fight for other marginalized groups just as hard as they fight for their own.

No Parking has, at its heart, a queer love story, but that’s merely the core of a series of interconnected love stories: a woman falling back in love with her town, the platonic love left behind after the romance has cooled and the relationship ended, and the love of the family you don’t realize you’re building.

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No Parking: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Kobo

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The Big Idea: Jim Ottaviani

Sometimes storytellers miss out on telling a story. But as Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks learned with Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier, that just means that some stories, you get to come back to.

JIM OTTAVIANI:

Astronauts started on the cutting room floor of another book. More than ten years ago I wrote a graphic novel about the 1960s space race. In the course of doing research for that book (T-Minus), I came across the story of thirteen women pilots who took — and passed — the rigorous physical tests NASA gave the first astronaut candidates that made you shudder and cringe when you watched The Right Stuff.

We all know what didn’t happen next, and I know a good story when I stumble over it, but with only 124 pages to get readers from the dawn of rocketry to landing on the Moon I couldn’t fit that story into that first book.

This happens all the time, and I’ve learned over the years to not just wipe a tear of regret from the corner of my eye and move on. I set the story aside, knowing I would come back to it. And here we are!

But I don’t think having more than a dozen main characters works well outside of sprawling, multi-volume fantasy or science fiction epics, and besides, the Mercury 13 are only the beginning of this chapter of the Space Age. So when I came back to it I needed to find a focal character, and I decided that it should be somebody that wasn’t famous.

Not that Sally Ride’s story isn’t great. It is. So is Valentina Tereshkova’s. (Not to mention the bit where Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols, who appears in the book as well, plays a key role in NASA’s astronaut recruitment.) But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much more fun it is to discover someone new, and that the story itself would work better for me — and you, I hope! — if I made the famous people supporting characters.

Because that’s how real life is for most of us.

How to find her, though? Well, the great thing about NASA is they document everything, so I got to spend weeks pretending to work while really I was just having a ball reading oral histories of women astronauts, looking for someone who both witnessed and made history. And hey, if I ran across a person who sounded like they’d be fun to meet, that’d be a bonus. I did, and her name is Mary Cleave.

She’s been to space! She’s been the boss of NASA’s science directorate, deciding which robots go to space! She has a great sense of humor, which comes through even when interviewed by a deadpan and serious historian! So I started learning more, and working up the nerve to contact her directly. I eventually got her on the phone to pitch her the idea of doing a comic book about her, her colleagues, and doing in science in space.

Over the years people have asked me about that “comics about science” thing a lot, but there’s one group that never questions the idea. That’s people like Mary — the scientists and engineers themselves. They think and communicate visually, so they get it. What a lot of them don’t get (Stephen Hawking was an exception) is why I’d want to write about them in the first place, and why it takes me weeks to draft the initial letter asking them if they’d be interested. Mary was the same: When Maris and I went to visit she couldn’t figure out why everyone’s so impressed by meeting astronauts, or why we thought it was weird to have one offer to pick you up at the airport. “We’re just regular people!”

Well. Sorry, but I don’t buy that. Astronauts are competent and accomplished to a degree you and I can barely even imagine. But still, there’s something to what she said, since the famous and not-so-famous astronauts I’ve been lucky enough to meet are indeed people you can just talk to. Hang out with. Maybe even join at a pub where George Washington and Ben Franklin talked and hung out and had beers, and have some yourselves.

I didn’t have a beer during our first visit with Mary (I was driving) but next time? Heck yeah. And in the meantime Maris and I got to make a book with an astronaut, and maybe help make Mary Cleave a little more famous.

—-

Astronauts: Amazon |Powell’s | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Books-a-Million

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The Big Idea: Juliette Wade

The paths we walk in our lives are not necessarily straight and narrow, and in writing her new novel, author Juliette Wade found she needed another metaphor entirely to explain her character’s movements. In this Big Idea, Wade explains on why the metaphor she landed on was Mazes of Power.

JULIETTE WADE:

This is the story of a very old, and very big idea. When I first had it, I was thirteen years old, and the idea was so big that I couldn’t even wrap my mind around it. It was the idea for a world of cavern cities, where families were restricted in their professions, and about conflicts of power… but until I’d turned this idea over hundreds of times, over years, it always seemed out of my grasp. I learned about anthropology, and added a new social awareness to my idea, and realized it was for a work of sociological science fiction. I studied linguistics, and added that, too. I tried to write a story about it, knew it was wrong, and learned more, and wrote it again. I concentrated hard on learning how language and the world around us reflect our concepts of our social selves, and wrote it again.

Until it stopped being wrong, and became the world of Varin.

Varin has a caste system. This caste system has seven levels. It’s easy to think of such a system as a set of boxes, and to think that nobles go in one box, soldiers and police in another, servants in another, then artisans, laborers, merchants, and undercaste. But there came a point when I realized these were not boxes. In a real social system, all kinds of people are born into categories where they don’t necessarily fit. While they may be taught who they are, what their values are, and what they are supposed to be like, often, they struggle. People at every level will make bargains between their personal truths and the demands of society. They will use what power they can wrest from the world around them to achieve their ends. They will make the choices that become available to them.

Societal categories like these are not boxes. They are mazes.

What are the key properties of a maze? A maze is complex. It offers paths, but the pattern of these paths is difficult to see while you are moving through it. It appears to offer you choices, but at the same time, limits the choices you can productively make if you wish to achieve a particular goal.

There are three mazes in Mazes of Power.

The first maze is the competition for Heir to the Throne of Varin. Twelve boys enter, one from each of the Great Families of the Grobal nobility. Each travels a path through public events, interviews, deals, trials, and assassination attempts, trying to reach the center where only one may stand.

The second maze is the tangle of servants’ hallways that run behind the walls of the Eminence’s Residence. Imbati-caste servants, who must not hurry in the public halls where nobles might see them, are allowed to run there. They know the fastest ways from place to place, and they use speakers to listen in on the talk in public rooms, to know when to appear when they are needed, or to learn secrets no one realizes they possess.

The third maze is the society itself. Every person in Varin is born into a path they cannot see, and cannot choose. Some of those paths run through public places, and others through hidden places. Within these paths, the people of Varin make choices, as we make choices, but the choices they make are limited by the larger structure of the society around them. Expectations are set and reinforced, and there are consequences for breaking them. No person, no setting, no interaction exists outside this system. Nothing is untouched.

If you are a Varini, this structure limits you, but it also protects you, because it tells you who you should expect to see in the street, in the marketplace, or at the radiograph office. It tells you what you should say to a person with a green lower lip who wears a gray coat, or to a woman in rust-red, or to a man with a black tattoo on his forehead. It keeps you safe and holds you up, but it also restricts you and presses you down.

Varin was designed to be unlike our world in a great many ways, and to break our Earthly expectations, but it should feel very familiar.

After all, we all walk within mazes of power.

—-

Mazes of Power: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (click on the “excerpt” button). Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Charlie N. Holmberg

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

CHARLIE N. HOLMBERG:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about the kissing? Glad you asked!

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

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

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

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

 —-

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

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

The Big Idea: Simon Jimenez

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

SIMON JIMENEZ:

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

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

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

He gets older, she does not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site.