We know a number of things about zombies, mostly involving their undead state, their willingness to consume brains, and their general monotone emotional nature. But could it be that we’re missing something fundamental about zombies and their nature — and what that fundamental thing about their nature can mean for their literary (undead) lives?
Those are some pretty heady questions to put on the decomposing shoulders of a zombie, but in her debut novel The Loving Dead, Amelia Beamer puts them there anyway, and goes looking for some answers amid the zombie apocalypse. Here she is to give a little background.
I was on a panel about politics and science fiction in San Francisco, and author John Shirley was trying to get me to say that the zombies in my first novel were a political statement: that they were secretly unleashed by the government, or something equivalent. That’s not at all what my agenda was. I want to show that zombies can be literary, and not just in the sense of remixing Jane Austen.
Don’t tell anyone, because zombie stories are entertaining, and the word “literary” tends to mean “boring,” — i.e. works more concerned with lofty themes and techniques than with telling an engaging story. This is the basic tension between genre literature, which is plot-driven, and mainstream literary fiction, which is focused on the characters’ thoughts and feelings.
I wanted to write a novel where I could do both of these things. So it had to be a zombie novel. Zombie stories can render characters better than stories about everyday people with normal problems — because during an emergency, people reveal who they really are. They’re scared, they’re worried about their loved ones and their own safety, they don’t have enough resources, they’re missing crucial information, and they still have to make responsible decisions. A disaster requires all of our mental and emotional capacity just to survive from moment to moment. The idea that there might be a normal future is crowded out by the emergency. And anyone who survives has to live with the ramifications of their decisions.
Any disaster – like an earthquake or flood – can serve as the setting for this kind of story, but the zombie apocalypse is the perfect setting because the disaster is so obviously fictional. Every other kind of disaster has happened to someone, and fiction about real disasters risks making light of the real people who’ve lived and died in these disasters.
If I’d forgotten to put in the zombies, my characters would still have stuff to talk about. The zombies just force the characters to work harder at staying alive so that they can afford the luxury of wondering whether they’re really dating the right person.
And themes don’t have to be boring; even the most entertaining novels have themes. One theme I’m concerned with in The Loving Dead is the idea of consent in romantic relationships. So I have a character who’s seeing a much older guy that she met on Craigslist, in exchange for money; they’ve both agreed to this exchange and they’re both adults, but in any relationship where there’s a significant difference in power, consent isn’t a simple matter. Particularly in a world where zombieism is a sexually transmitted disease that heightens the sex drive and lowers inhibitions.
Zombies can also be powerful metaphors, and this is another way that zombie stories are literary. Sure, zombies want to eat you, but they also represent the possibility that your closest loved ones will betray you. Your own body might betray you. And if you manage to survive, you might do so by abandoning everyone you know and love. Even Shaun of the Dead, a comedy, ends with an element of sorrow and loss.
I watched a lot of zombie movies while working on The Loving Dead, and I came to understand something important about zombies. If you set aside the initial fear and shock that zombies are supposed to inspire, you realize that zombies are incredibly loving.
In fact, we can learn some lessons from zombies about love. Zombies have a refreshing lack of prejudice. They treat everyone equally, and they never lie. They desire you no matter what mood you’re in or how you smell. They love you regardless of how much money you make, or how lousy your jokes are. They just want to be close to you, and they’ll stop at nothing to get this.
The 50s were an archetypal time, both for America and for science fiction, but more than half a century later, does that era have anything to say to our own? Larry Doyle was minding his own business when one day a couple of years ago someone said something that made him believe that in many ways the 50s have never left us — and one result of that epiphany is Go, Mutants! a smart-alec comedy that imagines the 50s never really ended, and that the drive-in movie aliens were real… and that their kids are now in high school.
Who was that person that jolted Doyle back into the 50s, and what did they say? Let’s ask Doyle.
We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty and sincerity and dignity.
– Sarah Palin, September 3, 2008
I had been worried about America for a while. Ever since the Event, we had been slipping back into bad habits, starting wars to stop ideas, equating dissent with treason, abandoning principles in the service of protecting them, etc. But Sarah Palin’s speech before the Republican Convention gave voice to a dark yearning that had been palpable for years:
America wanted to go back to the Good Old Days.
Though it is risky to ascribe calculation or forethought to anything Ms. Palin does, her choice of quotable was telling. Westbrook Pegler, a powerful newspaper columnist in the 1950s and 60s, was a big fan of the way things were. “[It’s] clearly the bounden duty of all intelligent Americans to proclaim and practice bigotry,” he wrote in reaction to the civil rights movement. He supported old-fashioned lynchings. He also hated Jews, another traditional value.
And so when Palin approvingly spoke Pegler’s words – which were in near perfect code – it felt as if the Fifties had never ended.
And I wondered, what if?
I’ve always thought that popular culture is the purest expression of its time, that it more truly and vividly displays the hopes and fears of an era than the great speeches or history books. (I am biased, of course, as a purveyor of such stuff.) In the Fifties that meant comic books and B-movies, which were preoccupied with invading aliens and atomic mutants, stand-ins for communists and the Bomb, at least on the surface. Another popular genre, the juvenile delinquent movie, suggested a greater worry closer to home. America’s children were Young Hellions and High School Hellcats who might become a Reform School Girl or Crybaby Killer (Jack Nicholson!)
And so Go, Mutants! takes place in an America where the pop culture of the fifties never ended, where it is in fact history. Aliens really did invade, many, many times, from Venus and Mars and assorted galaxies; mad scientists and frequent atomic blasts created mutants of all sizes and consistencies. Mid-century design, and particularly the space-age Googie aesthetic, became the standard. And it’s all seen through the eyes of a big-brained alien teenager who is a rebel seeking a cause.
It’s fun, and even silly I suppose, but I hope some readers will see past the surface hilarity for the deeper amusement. Go, Mutants! takes place today as much as yesterday, as a skimming of the headlines will attest (Arizona’s next illegal immigration target: Babies), and may have something on its mind. At least I did when I was writing it.
But I won’t mind terribly if people simply laugh, at, for example, the scene where Peg Furry, a bigoted deputy sheriff with a distinctive northern twang, pays to have sex with a radioactive ape.
The American tradition of political paranoia isn’t new — just ask Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, circa 1800 — but that doesn’t mean the latest version of it can’t be annoying to those of us living through it. Meg Gardiner knows all about that feeling, as she explains in this Big Idea about The Liar’s Lullaby, her latest mystery featuring her forensic psychiatrist Jo Beckett. The good news is that she was able to turn her annoyance into creativity. Not that it was was easy…
Delusions can be dangerous. And not only to the delusional.
That reality—that warning—underpins The Liar’s Lullaby. I’m not just talking about clinical delusions, such as I can fly or The microwave wants meto stab you. I mean political delusions—conspiracy theories about secret government plots to destroy America. Extravagant fantasies that involve Them, and their sneaky cousins, They.
The Liar’s Lullaby is a thriller with a political tinge. It asks: How can you tell reality from delusion? How do you sort legitimate threats from fantasy? And because it’s a thriller, and has to, you know, thrill, the heroes must answer those questions right damned now, or people die.
In the story, country-rock star Tasia McFarland is killed by a gunshot as she makes a spectacular entrance at a stadium concert. The San Francisco police can’t determine whether her death is entertainment’s worst stunt catastrophe, a desperate suicide, or murder. Tasia had warned people that she was going to be assassinated. But she had a history of paranoia and erratic behavior. So the SFPD asks forensic psychiatrist Jo Beckett to perform a psychological autopsy to uncover the truth.
But the case pulls Jo into a whirlpool of media hysteria, conspiracy theory, and political hardball, because Tasia wasn’t just a singer. She was the ex-wife of the President of the United States.
The novel’s about the collision of fame and power. Also about the collision of helicopters, country-western singers, celebrity stalkers, White House minions, violent right-wing militants, and a television reporter from the Channel of the Blondes.
The big idea is: The Celebrity-Political complex has turned conspiracy-mongering into an American sport. It’s both crazy and deadly. To sort truth from fiction, it’s going to take a shrink. Jo must find out whether there’s a real conspiracy, one that threatens the President.
The Liar’s Lullaby is the third novel featuring Jo Beckett. I got the idea for the book after spending too much time imbibing U.S. political news. I keep up with current events diligently. Okay, obsessively, but don’t call me a news junkie. I’m an author—it’s research. Sure, if I could mainline the New York Times via Ethernet cable, I would. But I can quit any time.
What I couldn’t quit doing, for ages, was shouting at the television whenever some wingnut spewed a fever dream about FEMA concentration camps or the looming Obama commie-sharia tyranny. The anti-government rhetoric had gone beyond shrill, up into the notes only dogs can hear.
This high-pressure spray can of hysteria is nothing new. “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” was published in 1964. But today, demagogues at the freaky end of the EM spectrum amp up the static and serve outrage as entertainment, night and day. It’s so loud, I can’t keep track of who’s destroying America this week. Miss USA? The Jonas Brothers?
Psychiatrists speak of “consensus reality.” In the paranoid subculture, people have formed a consensus unreality. They eagerly swallow the craziest lies. They crave proof the world is about to fall into the side pocket—because they’re gonna fight back.
But when commando wannabes show up at political rallies dressed like characters from The Unit, they aren’t restoring Norman Rockwell’s America. They’re indulging in fantasies of political violence. They’re playing Apocalypse, holding a karaoke revolution. Hey, kids, let’s put on an insurrection in my dad’s barn! You bring the camo, I’ll bring the ammo. Wolverines!
Tragically, these fantasies don’t always stay confined to the mind.
So this stuff made me nuts. As in wishing I had a white jumpsuit and an Elvis wig—not so I could shoot the television, but to scare the TV into thinking that if it didn’t stop puking this nonsense, I just might. Finally, things got to the place where my kids pointed the remote at me and hit Mute.
So I did the sensible thing, and shut up. And wrote a novel.
Fortunately, I had Jo on deck. She’s a consultant who analyzes the dead for the cops. When the police can’t determine whether a person’s death is suicide, accident, or murder, Jo performs a psychological autopsy. She’s a deadshrinker.
The hard part in writing the book was suppressing the urge to snark. When I see delusional losers, I want to expose them—to write them as idiots, and to have them fall, hard. I want readers to point at them and laugh, Ha-ha, Nelson Muntz-style. But in a thriller, idiots make lousy villains. Idiots get caught, ten pages in.
So I wrote about delusional losers who’ve been seduced by a deadly fantasy. They’re fanatics—they believe they’re the righteous few who can light the fire and cleanse the nation. They won’t stop for anything. And that puts the heroine’s back up against it.
Jo has to solve the puzzle of Tasia McFarland’s death before anybody else gets killed. But the political and media free-for-all becomes a circular firing squad, and Jo ends up at its center. And Jo isn’t a superhero, she’s a normal gal who’s smart, intrepid, and physically brave—but vulnerable. And in this story, she must figure how to stay in the consensus reality known as alive and breathing.
One thing—the novel isn’t nonstop death and intrigue. At one point, the story turns on the actions of an out-of-control monkey.
Thrillers should thrill, but should also be fun. I want you to hang on by your fingernails as the story careens toward the cliff. And that’s not crazy. It’s not delusional. It’s the suspension of disbelief. And, I hope, a hell of a ride.
What do spiders have to do with stories? For most of us, not much of anything, unless the spider gets into the book you’re reading, in which case it might get very physically involved in the story when you squish it with the book. But for Nnedi Okorafor, whose latest novel Who Fears Death is receiving breathtakingly good reviews (“A fantastical, magical blend of grand storytelling,” said Publishers Weekly in a starred review), spiders came to mean something very important during the writing of the novel — something integral to storytelling. Here’s how Okorafor stopped worrying and learned to love the spiders… or, well, if not love them, at least learned to appreciate them metaphorically.
I’m terrified of spiders.
Something about them makes me jumpy. Of course, because they are sneaky and tricksy, this is reason for them to always be present in my life. Wherever I go, I bring spiders. They get in my car. Land on my computer. Scramble across my desk when I’m teaching a class (my students enjoyed my reaction that day). There was the large pink spider (with an ample hairy backside) that lived in the vent of my car. One day, it had the audacity to come out and stand on my dashboard while I was speeding down the highway. While in Nigeria, there was the legendary spider that was the size of a dinner plate. This cousin of Shelob was hanging out in a hallway corner in the house.
When I was deep in the writing of Who Fears Death, a spider kept appearing in the same spot in my bedroom. Spiders prefer shadowy places, but this black wolf spider came out in the open. It would stand in front of my bed. I smashed it with a book twice (I don’t normally kill creatures…but this spider was huge and in my bedroom), I sprayed it with Raid, I sprayed the spot with Spider Killer (this is supposed to keep spiders away for 6 months!), I had my brother capture it and put it outside once. Each time, it returned to stand on that same spot (or some other spider took its place).
The spider returned six times over several weeks. By the sixth visit, I left it alone. I had a feeling that I was being visited and that it had something to do with what I was writing. In West African culture, spiders tend to represent creativity and storytelling. That recurring (or shall I say reincarnating) spider in my bedroom might have been sent by the famous storytelling Ghanaian spider named Anansi.
Or maybe it wasn’t Anansi at all. Maybe it was the lesser-known but equally formidable Nigerian story-spinning spider named Udide Okwanka. He is the supreme spider artist who toils beneath the ground, in the ekwuru (the spirit world). He possesses the power to gather fragments of any object and shape them into a new object. Maybe Udide Okwanka had gifts to impart to me, writing tools, perhaps. Sounds like magical realist mumbo jumbo, doesn’t it? Imagine that! But see, this is my Big Idea—The Story.
Who Fears Death is a novel that delves into several charged issues, but first and foremost, it seeks to be a grand display of storytelling. I should love spiders, for I love stories. For me, stories snap the world into focus, add new dimensions, hybridize old ones, and present me with a new vocabulary of smells and sounds. More than once in my life, stories have kept me sane. Who Fears Death is my homage to the oral tradition of my Igbo heritage and the writing tradition of my Western upbringing. It is no coincidence that I have written an oral story in book form.
We begin with a woman named Onyesonwu (which means “Who Fears Death” in Igbo) sitting in jail because of something terrible that she has done. She will be executed in two days. She doesn’t have much time but she must speak her story. If she does not, who will? The individual documenting her words will type them onto a laptop computer. From oral telling to written document.
Onyesonwu’s story is an intense weave. It deals with dark issues including genocide, rape, female circumcision, child soldiers and the rough tight constraints of fate. Nevertheless, the story bathes in light, too. There is the truest love, deep friendship, hope, valor, plenty of consensual sex (*blush*), and there is great adventure. And yes, there are strange spiders in this tale, too.
Who Fears Death is NOT a “look how bad Africa is and doesn’t that make you feel better about what you have?” kind of novel. Nor is it a romanticized view of Africa. It is “real” fiction. I wove this tale from the fragments of stories I gathered from family, friends, from within, from the atmosphere, from underground. This is a vision of a part of “Africa” from the inside that could not simply be explained or documented in a textbook, biography, or traditional African novel. I could only present this vision by using the spider’s tools, a.k.a. The Story.
In Birds of Heaven, Nigerian author Ben Okri wrote:
“It is easy to forget how mysterious and mighty stories are. They do their work in silence, invisibility. They work with the internal materials of the mind and self. They become part of you while changing you. Beware the stories you read and tell: subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.” (34)
How close his description of stories is to that of spiders. And no matter how bothered I am by spiders, I have to admit I’m fascinated and rather obsessed with them, too. And they seem to feel the same way about me. Go figure.
Author Leanna Renee Hieber likes all things Gothic, and I’m not just saying that because when I met her at Phoenix Comicon a few weeks ago, she was dressed head to foot in a sumptuously Gothic blue and black Victorian-era getup (although she was, and that was my first big hint). The Gothic sensibility is also a cornerstone of her “Strangely Beautiful” series of novels, of which the second, The Darkly Luminous Fight for Persephone Parker, has just hit bookstores. What does it take to go Gothic in a true and fully committed way? Hieber has a list… for starters.
LEANNA RENEE HIEBER:
My sequel in the Strangely Beautiful series just released in May, The Darkly Luminous Fight for Persephone Parker. The series in two words: Victorian Ghostbusters. In one word: Gothic. I started writing my first novel when I was 12 years old, set in 1888. It was a sequel to The Phantom of the Opera because in my infinite pubescent wisdom I thought I could one-up Leroux. Suffice to say that was ridiculous, however it proves my favourite themes have long been with me.
There are certain things one expects in a Gothic Novel. (Cue Wagnerian music).
Leanna’s Top Ten Gothic Goodies:
(And yes, she uses each of them at least once in her series)
10. Setting / Atmosphere. For example: It was a dark and stormy Victorian London
9. Angsty, forbidden love!
8. Women in nightgowns running into the rain, screaming, crying, fainting.
7. Prophecies / Big Secrets / Mysterious Powers, oh my!
6. Older Man / Younger Woman and/or Hot-for-Teacher or Ward scenario.
4. Reader knows who the bad guys are and watches the train wreck until the characters realize it- right before it’s too late.
2. Orphan heroine alone and somewhat helpless until she ‘gets schooled’ on things- if you know what I mean. Then she does something awesome to save the day. (Because if she remains useless I have no use for her either).
1. Tortured hero all in black, storming around, brooding and deeeeelicious.
A book is of course more than mere ingredients, and while I could list many more Gothic additives, my work also relies on my love of Horror, Romance, Fantasy, Historical and Young Adult fiction. I’m product of every genre I’ve ever adored. What this has meant for my writing process is that I take these ingredients and make them my own. The best way I’ve found to do this is to focus on the characters beyond their trappings, to create characters I love deeply, characters I continue to expand and explore, who I trust to tell the story they want told, within my favourite mental sandbox in which to play: a Gas-lit Victorian London filled with ghosts.
O Gothic Novel, Why do I love you?
Because in nearly no other genre can a reader lose oneself so completely, if one allows for the ride. A dark, tempting world, the Gothic can engulf you like a big black cloak loathe to relinquish you. It lurks around every corner, waiting for you. It knows somewhere a part of you is waiting for it too.
Now to be clear, I need the drama with a capital D to be justified by dimensional characters and by dimensional, albeit paranormal circumstances. But there’s a reason why the first book in the series, The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker has been optioned for a Broadway musical. Drama. I loves it. (A love healthily fostered by my many years as a professional actress and playwright).
The Gothic is fun, flamboyant and flexible, it allows for the wildly fantastical as well as quiet moments of tenderness and poignancy. The human emotion therein can be real, even if the circumstances are fantastic. And the clothing is fabulous. (How many more f words can I use?)
I also take great pride in carrying on a grand literary tradition that cycles into popularity every century at some point. (As for my timing, I can’t worry about whether I’m trendy or not, I’m just writing what I love to write and hoping it finds its way into hearts and homes. Someone at my publisher (Dorchester) the other day described me as a bastard child of Wilkie Collins and Daphne du Maurier. Bring it.)
O Gothic Novel, where are you going?
The Darkly Luminous Fight for Persephone Parker makes good on the personal and paranormal/mythological promises planted in The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker. But as I sit working on Strangely Beautiful # 3 and contemplate the final book in the quartet, it feels like my series may veer away from some of the Gothic givens as it progresses. Now that all my characters and my dual worlds are established, I find myself relying more on the stalwart pillars of Fantasy and on my paranormal and mythological underpinnings. But rest assured; I’ll bring along healthy trunk-loads of angst, plenty of ghostbusting and maybe few more nightgowns for good measure.
Reporters are often told to ask the “W”s — Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How? (which does not start with a “w” but which has a “w” in it, so there) — because in a news story, all of these things are usually relevant. Author Michael Koryta is a former reporter, so it would be no surprise to discover he knows to ask these questions, and you’ll read, for So Cold the River, one of these “w”s — “Where?” — plays a significant role in how all those other “w”s unfold in the course of the story.
I’ve been patiently waiting for a Big Idea for years. I continue to do so. In the meantime, I’ve done the best I can with my small ideas.
I’d love to claim that So Cold the River is a work of staggering imaginative powers but I’m afraid someone might get around to using the interwebs and determining that all of the wonderfully creative elements – a subterranean river! a hotel with an incredible glass dome! mineral water reputed to cure all ills! – are actually real. Then I’d have some egg on my face, wouldn’t I? So, I suppose I should cop to it and admit that the Big Ideas for So Cold the River were extracted almost entirely from the true history of its setting in the small towns of West Baden and French Lick, Indiana.
At this point, the only thing most people are aware of about these places is that the name French Lick is funny and that Larry Bird once played his basketball there and not in Boston. From 1901 until 1929, though, the towns were internationally renowned resorts, with two of the finest hotels in the world, elegance of the first order, and more than a small dose of corruption. Guests ranged from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Al Capone, and while the hotels are the lasting testaments to these glory days, what built the resort in this rural portion of the Midwest was its mineral water. One brand was called Pluto Water, the other Sprudel Water, and they were believed to be healers of extraordinary power.
The Depression, as was its way, killed off the thriving little resorts. They’re coming back now – restored hotels, a Pete Dye-designed golf course, a casino that pretends to be a riverboat for reasons that no one but an Indiana legislator could possibly explain. I’m excited about all those developments, but it was the past and not the future that inspired So Cold the River. That so much fascinating history had transpired in such an out-of-the-way place was intriguing, but it was the idea of the water and the legends and folklore surrounding it that really gave life to the story.
The Big Idea couldn’t have been smaller, or simpler, but then seeds generally are, no? The idea: what if there was some truth to the mythic reputation of the water?
It was a question, really, an idle notion, but I’ve found that’s where most of my story ideas develop. This one intrigued me, but it certainly didn’t fit into the Lincoln Perry series I was writing, or into traditional crime fiction at all. The nature of the question itself called for a touch of the supernatural, of the fantastic, and there was certainly a large part of me that was leery of dabbling in something so different. But in the end, the writing is most fun when you feel a challenge, and there are a host of inherent challenges to trying something different. Whether this departure was a success will be for the readers to determine, but I know one thing: I had a hell of a lot of fun writing it.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to look for a Big Idea. It’s around here somewhere, damn it. I’ll find the thing…
Sometimes a ghost is just a ghost — that is, a dead soul wandering about the world without having moved on, and occasionally breaking things or scaring people. But sometimes a ghost is something else entirely: evidence that the world has changed, and with it, the ground rules of how the world actually works. Stacia Kane has ghosts of the latter persuasion in her new novel Unholy Ghosts, and building the world in which ghosts actually make sense — and where a ghost hunter isn’t just an entertainer on a cable network TV show — was her challenge. Here’s how she did it.
It actually started with one line in an old issue of STARLOG magazine, a mention of a “professional debunker;” that is, someone who investigates hauntings. This would be unlike the “Ghosts are totally real, dudes—and we will find them!” shtick of those ghost-hunting TV shows that sprout up everywhere these days, with lots of night-vision camera work and people running around screaming. (Am I the only one who thinks, “That’s right, boys. It’s Doctor Venkman!” every time I see one of those?)
I already had a series that straddled the urban fantasy/paranormal romance line—the Megan Chase books (Juno/Pocket)—but I really wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to move away from heavy romantic elements, and I wanted to write a main character with real, deep problems. Someone who couldn’t solve those problems by casting a spell or pulling a gun or sexing up a gorgeous paranormal creature; I was frankly tired of gorgeous paranormal creatures. Don’t mistake me; I’m not putting down books where gorgeous paranormal creatures are sexed up, or saying that there aren’t plenty of books out there where no gorgeous paranormal creatures are sexed up. I just wanted to do something else.
I wanted to write dark fantasy; I wanted to write something creepy and dangerous and badass, something more Escape From New York than Pride and Prejudice (with or without zombies).
I had this heroine, Chess Putnam, who is addicted to painkillers, racked with self-hatred and insecurity, but determined to keep living the best way she knows how. And I loved Chess and understood Chess and identified with her in ways I can’t even explain, and I wanted to write about her so desperately.
And having this character, and having a plot—a debunker discovers the ghosts she’s investigating are real—I needed a world where that mattered. I wanted to do a series, and while the idea of a contemporary Bill Bixby Incredible Hulk-style heroine who wanders from town to town had some appeal, it just wasn’t right for me.
So I needed a world where people actually had reason to fake hauntings. To do that I needed to do something I hadn’t really done before, at least not in so much depth. I built a world.
I decided that in this world ghosts were a real and ever-present threat, and this super-religion was in charge, this church which promised to protect people from ghosts—and the reason for that? Because the ghosts rose from the grave en masse and slaughtered the fuck out of humanity, essentially, and the church stopped them. Since most urban fantasies seemed to be placing their “then everything changed” events in 2000, I put mine—called “Haunted Week”—in 1997, just for kicks.
So I had a seriously reduced population under the control of one international government, and that government was all that stands between mankind and its extinction. If you have a haunting the Church pays you a settlement. If you fake a haunting you’re defrauding the government. And it’s Chess’s job to catch you doing it (and she’s good at it, and proud of being good at it, too).
More than that, I have a Church whose magic—based on British Traditional Witchcraft and on folklore—actually works. Everyone know that magic works, has seen it work, and owe their lives to it. Adding modern technology—and a bit of as-yet-uninvented technology as well—made the world feel even more unique, especially when I took the Church’s 18th-century origins and made that part of their “look” and culture, so it was sort of like The Crucible meets The Wicker Man (but sadly without Christopher Lee in a dress). And to top it all off, I gave it a soundtrack full of the best punk rock I know.
Now I have a world which is completely different but familiar at the same time, at least to me. A post-apocalyptic world. An authoritarian world which nonetheless has pockets of utter lawlessness. A world where magic is real but gods are not. I loved it and thought it was awesome, but it terrified me, too, because I actually had to write it, and it had to make sense, and I had to do it justice. Well, I was the idiot who wanted a challenge, right? So what more could I toss in there?
Thanks to my utter fascination with underground spaces, I also had the City of Eternity, a vast underground space where all the ghosts “live,” where the psychopomps which are one of the cornerstones of Church magic (how else do you magically banish ghosts?) take them.
Everyone knows where they’re going when they die. Everyone knows that their souls live on underground and that magic actually works. They know there are no gods, no Heaven or Hell. There is no real religion; there is a Church that preaches simply Fact and Truth.
I’m not an organized-religion girl myself, but to me this was the heart of the idea, and the world. How does that lack of faith in a higher power, and yet the unchangeable faith in the Church’s magic, inform Chess’s character? What about her drug dealer’s enforcer, Terrible, who—thanks to her debt to said dealer—gets involved in the case she works in Unholy Ghosts?
Terrible is this big, mean, ugly thug, a greaser with no formal education and no Church to believe in—but like Chess, he was saved from an even worse life by his boss. How does that mold and change his character? What about Lex, who works for a rival dealer? What about any of the characters who populate the city’s ghetto, which is called Downside and largely ignored by the Church? How does their outlook on life differ from those living “normal” lives in other parts of the city, and how does that differ from the way things are now, in our world?
What do any of us believe in? What really makes a person bad, or good? Most of my characters are junkies or thugs or drug dealers. Some might see them as bad people. But are they really? Or are they just people trying to get through the day, trying to find something to sustain them in a world where such sustenance is hard to find? Is a person “bad” because of what they do, or because of who they are? What level of badness do you need to hit before it cancels out the good, and vice versa? How do the rules change without god-based religions, and who decides “good” or “bad?”
Ultimately, you do. You, the reader. Whether you like the characters or not, whether the creepy dystopian worldbuilding—called by more than one reviewer “the best worldbuilding [they]’ve seen outside of straight science fiction”—attracts or repels you, whether you feel the story, characters, and world all integrate and build off each other or not, my goal is not only to entertain you, not only to tell the most kick-ass awesome story I possibly could, but to make you think, and feel.
Whether I’ve succeeded is entirely up to you, but I certainly tried.
As a genre, science fiction is often lauded for its “sense of wonder” — or as many of its practitioners prefer to spell it, “sensawunda” — but like any aspect of writing, this element doesn’t just show up on the pages of a book; the author has to work to put it there. Ryk E. Spoor was working to get it in the pages of his latest solo novel Grand Central Arena, and here he is to give you a tour of the places he went to get it, and who he called upon to get it from, a list which includes everyone from golden age SF writers to a guy who made album covers. Very cool album covers.
RYK E. SPOOR:
Grand Central Arena is a novel intended to evoke the gosh-wow sensawunda of the true Golden Age (which is either 12, or the 1930s through some part of the 50s, I think), and in specific to echo and salute the work of E. E. “Doc” Smith, creator of the Lensman and the Skylark series. In the latter, the power scale escalates until, in the final battle, the heroes end up destroying two galaxies by the expedient of taking a star from one galaxy and precisely overlaying it on one in the other galaxy. Grand Central Arena contains many references to classic SF, fantasy, various anime, mysteries, and other pop culture, in ways ranging from the direct and overt (one of the characters is named Marc C. DuQuesne – name of the villain in the Skylark series, and he has the name for a good reason) to fairly subtle (the appearance of the Milluk species mimics to a great extent the spider-robot created by Dr. Zin in “Jonny Quest”).
In Grand Central Arena I attempted – and, I hope, succeeded – in playing on this scale with slightly more modern “tools” in my writer’s toolbox. As such, it perhaps is not a terrible surprise that there’s more than one Big Idea lurking inside the shiny façade. (Spoilers ahead, of course!)
One of the sometimes-subtly repeated central ideas is the question of identity and reality – is what we see real, and whether we even know who we are. Ariane Austin originally thinks of herself as just a racing pilot, nothing particularly special; yet by the end of the novel, her identity – her self-identity – is much more as “Captain Ariane Austin of the Holy Grail“. Marc DuQuesne begins his stint with the crew as somewhat mysterious, but trying to live life as an essentially ordinary man. Yet that is, perhaps, nothing more than a mask, and one he will have to remove. The question of whether certain beings are “real people” is implied more than once – the AISages that assist humanity in almost every role, but which cannot function in the Arena, and in the opposite role the Blessed to Serve, collectively slaves to ultra-powerful AIs.
The Arena itself raises this question; it is something so different, so bizarre, with rules and powers that defy ordinary understanding, that it almost inevitably leads to the question of whether it really exists at all or is just some kind of monstrous simulation that our heroes are trapped within.
It is the Arena – the setting and title focus of the novel – that I will focus on, as it shapes every other event and idea within the novel. Just in sheer scale it is a very very Big Idea, a construct so huge that it can encompass a scale-model duplicate of the universe within, a “place” where all species who attempt FTL travel find themselves, and where they all must meet and conduct their business according to rules laid down by the unknown, and perhaps unknowable “Voidbuilders” who created the Arena.
As a writer, I created the Arena and its ultra-tech capabilities – and sometimes apparently-though-not-actually arbitrary rules –to provide the tools and opportunities to write a story on the scale I wanted: something that might, just possibly, touch others with the same awe, the same sense of amazement, of wonder, of uplifting vision that the greatest works of the Golden Age engendered in me.
What I wanted was a universe where a few individuals could affect the destiny of the human species – and, perhaps, all other species – by their choices and actions. A universe where I could have armadas of ships clash in a war that was fought by people (alien or human), not automated ships, drones, calculations. A universe in which there was truly room for grand-scale heroes, dark villains, intricate plots, challenges and victories worthy of the best of the space operas, one which Doc Smith himself might look at and nod, saying “not bad!”… and one that at the same time took advantage of what we’ve learned about storytelling in the past 50, 60 years and bringing that into the mix.
The Arena grew in the making. The basic concept was to have a single location to which anyone travelling FTL would go – a location that would then, somehow, force or facilitate the interaction of the new arrival with all the older ones. It would have some complex rules governing interactions which would force our Heroes into some sort of difficult contests or quests in order to return home, and humanity would have some sort of “edge” that would get them enough of an advantage to survive this encounter. There would also be some mechanism to facilitate communication, so we didn’t spend far too long just learning to talk to the aliens.
Originally I had envisioned the ships from our universe arriving in what amounted to an actual docking slip, and simply stepping out of the airlock brought you into the “common” area which became what is now called “Nexus Arena” in the novel. This, however, had a lot of practical problems with it; perhaps the largest problem being that this would make the “rooms” devoted to each species be physically connected by being on the same huge construct, yet I wanted possibility for both isolation and adventurous interaction in the Arena.
For a bit I toyed with making the entry areas somewhat larger (allowing more than one ship, giving a small living space, etc.) and adding some huge effectively wild areas inside the gigantic construct. But that left me with the question of why the heck aliens would create such a gargantuan construct and then have these areas inside – and why they’d stay that way, after thousands or millions of years with alien species coming and going. Plus, as effective FTL travel would require our ship being moved to another (cooperative) alien’s “docking slip”, I was at something of a loss as to how to get from there to here. What, you have to CARRY your starship out the door, down the hall, and over to Alien 509’s launch slip?
While I was chasing that idea around in my head, I wondered – if this construct was effectively holding the universe inside it, by keeping anyone from travelling FTL between the stars directly – what lay OUTSIDE this construct?
I suddenly had a memory of the band Yes and the covers/paintings done for them by Roger Dean, and I saw it, for a moment… a gargantuan sphere (which would become Nexus Arena) drifting in a limitless sky, with floating islands that seemed weightless, yet had gravity to pour waterfalls into the infinite void.
This is one of those instants in writing that is almost impossible to describe; I literally stopped breathing for a moment, knowing that I almost had it, almost the exact correct idea, and that even breathing might keep me from finishing the thought. Everything seemed frozen in a single moment as I saw this impossible universe laid out in front of me, but… not quite right, missing one single piece to make it exactly and precisely what I wanted.
And then suddenly it was there, in a perfect flash of inspiration that crystallized the entirety of the Arenaverse for me: the floating islands were the landing slips. One island for every star. Travel from one island to another and activate the drive according to some rules, and you’ve gone from your star system to the next. Breathable – or usually breathable – air. Storms of unimaginable scale, adventures across the universe of sky and floating island and whatever lies between. And on every floating island, a gateway that brings you to Nexus Arena.
The details, of course, changed as I developed the background and the story. The floating islands became the Spheres – with the Island bit still on top, but a huge harbor area inside. The rules for how and when you could travel from one point to another, the details on how the Arena controlled the use of technology to keep interactions on the level desired, all of these things developed and changed, but that single moment defined the most critical elements: a way to keep FTL travel possible yet controlled, a way to let us meet alien species and compete with them in something like a fair setting, yet a setting in which you could set out into an unknown universe and – perhaps literally – sail the stars. But in a sky of wind and light and shadow and color, where instead of cold vacuum and dead, dead rock, there would be air, life, danger, and opportunity.
This gave me the space-opera universe I wanted, and with Captain Ariane Austin, Marc C. DuQuesne, and Dr. Simon Sandrisson I had the very people needed to enter that universe… and change the history of humanity forever.
Whether I really succeeded in telling the story I wanted to … I can’t know, not yet. But if just a few people feel that sense of wonder, if just one girl or boy at the Golden Age feels a chill of awe go down their spine when Orphan throws wide the Window of the Arena, or when Marc C. DuQuesne tells the Molothos they have no idea what they’re dealing with, or when Ariane Austin finds a key to victory in her heart where before was only defeat… then yes, I have succeeded. Because the true Big Idea is the Sense of Wonder; all else is just details.
Everything you know about war is going to change… someday. We know that because it always has before; we’re not fighting wars today like we fought them 70 or 90 years ago, and those were fought differently than the wars before then. What will the next war be? With The Machinery of Light and the rest of his Autumn Rain trilogy of books, author David J. Williams gives you an answer. Here’s the short version of the short version.
DAVID J. WILLIAMS:
“There will be a convergence between the rise of a peer competitor and the maturing of technologies that could threaten U.S. military dominance.”
–Lt. Col. Thomas Bell, USAF, in “Weaponization of Space: Understanding Strategic and Technological Inevitabilities”
I get bored by all those Hollywood movies in which the world dodges total war/Armageddon at the last moment.
And I’m figuring I’m not the only one.
So I decided to give the people what they want:
The finale of my Autumn Rain trilogy features World War Three across the Earth-Moon system. I don’t think that’s really much of a spoiler, because it’s kinda obvious from the back-cover… and besides, the War to End All Wars is really just the background to the trilogy’s finale. Because while the United States and the Eurasian Coalition are beating the crap out of each other, an even deadlier game is taking place behind the scenes… as my verging-on-posthuman characters struggle to uncover the secret behind the Autumn Rain experiments… even as those experiments approach culmination…
But I digress.
Regardless of geopolitical permutations, we can postulate certain principles that will govern the next phase of warfare. I took a stab at synthesizing the research I’d done in writing the Autumn Rain books into an overarching theory: you can see the entirety of it here—and presented it last year at the Library of Congress and the National Academy of Sciences, so it’s been getting some nice attention. My basic contention is that the current so-called “generation” of warfare (which favors insurgencies/guerillas) will give way at some point across the 21st century to a new paradigm favoring retooled/revamped nation-states. Were those nation-states to engage in total war, the ultimate outcome would be totally unpredictable, of course. But here’s some of the dynamics I would expect to see in what unfolds:
The outcome of the war will be determined in space: Space is already militarized. Every time an American GI in Iraq uses GPS, he or she is dependent on space-based assets. Anyone who wants to neutralize American supremacy needs to eliminate those assets. In addition, whichever side controls space can engage in strategic bombardment of the other’s homeland from orbit. (The evolution of space-based weaponry is thus likely to proceed along the same lines of the early 20th century, where each side first used the air for reconnaissance… and then started mounting guns on their aircraft and targeting other aircraft… and then started bombing targets on the ground… )
The war in space will be a function of “topography”: In the lower orbits, you’re looking at the mother of all free-for-alls, thanks to a myriad intersecting orbits. But higher up, things are even more interesting. The key libration points—L4 and L5, where the gravity of Earth and Moon allow a smaller object to remain stationary with respect to them both—will be particularly strategic. As Heinlein once noted, if you had a mass-driver at L5 (and enough rocks), you could control everything. Or at least wipe the smile off anybody you didn’t like down on the surface…
Solid vs. space tension: Though the Moon is lower down the gravity well than L4/L5, your hardware there might be more advantaged, since you could bury it underground, whereas anything hung at L4/L5 would be more than a little exposed.
You aren’t going to see any flying aces: The rise of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) is merely the start of it. With the advent of hypersonic engines, we’re going to be creating aircraft capable of pulling more Gs than a pilot can withstand. Beside which, those aircraft will be intensely vulnerable to…
Directed-energy (DE) weaponry will come into its prime: By this I don’t mean handheld laser weapons—that’s something that will remain science fiction – but rather, laser cannons: strategic weaponry capable of striking targets at long range. Such weaponry is likely to mature across the next several decades, and will transform warfare. Not just because you’ll be able to hit any point on the surface at the speed-of-light. But also because it will make the industrial-strength missile shields that Reagan dreamt of a reality. Which means that…
Cities will be detargeted, at least initially: the primary target of weapons will be other weapons, with the #1 goal being the speedy elimination of the other side’s DE capability. Cities can be nuked (or held hostage to those nukes) once you’ve broken down your opponent’s defenses. From which we can expect…
Rapid degradation of firepower: With energy weapons blasting away at one another, the attrition of those weapons will be disproportionately concentrated in the initial stages of the war. After all, this is speed-of-light warfare we’re talking about. In particular—and particularly scary—it will almost certainly be necessary to take humans out of the firing loop. Reaction time will belong to the machines. And speaking of…
Let’s not forget about cyberspace: The single best way to deal with an enemy asset is to hack it. When Russia went after Georgia in 2008, they shut down the Georgian net. When two superpowers try to do the same thing to each other, look out.
Expect to be surprised: From the Roman corvus to Allied code-breaking, secret weapons have determined more than one war. And it’s no secret that The Machinery of Light contains more than one secret weapon…
Zombies: Very popular in literature these days. But there’s a (zombie) elephant in the room here: In all of zombie literature, there is one person whose needs, wants and desires are woefully underarticulated — yea, hardly a shuffling moan is heard in his or her defense. Who is that silent person? Author Robin Becker knows, and in Brains: A Zombie Memoir, she finally gives that person a voice. I’ll let her explain herself — and her silent partner — better.
Brains: A Zombie Memoir developed out of this simple realization: Most zombie movies aren’t about zombies. They’re about humans, those desperate survivors holed up in houses or vacant buildings, fighting amongst themselves over food or whose plan to follow. It’s their struggle, their survival, their story that we’re told.
But what about the zombie? Who will tell his story?
The idea occurred to me in 2004. It was a banner year for zombie movies, the year of Shawn of the Dead and the Dawn of the Dead remake. Land of the Dead, with it optimistic ending (at least for the ghoul), followed close on their heels in 2005.
That’s when the “big idea” became bigger: What if a zombie retained sentience? What if inside one of those rotting, moaning, brain-eating automatons lurks a being who thinks, feels, maybe even loves?
The question became this: What if the living dead have souls?
Suddenly I was rolling around in the mud of zombie ontology, Cartesian duality, and a few stray tendons. I started reading about the philosophical zombie and my mind was blown.
I had to write that story! My zombie would be a special being, almost transcendent, and all alone in a sea of mindless monsters. He would be conflicted and scared—but still driven to do what the living dead do best: Eat brains. That would be the tension, the crux: a character driven by two opposing impulses, the higher and the lower. Good and evil, if you will.
Would a sentient zombie be able to refrain from eating brains if necessary? If it benefited him in the long run, could he ignore the gleaming viscera before him? Could a zombie be “civilized”?
Spoiler alert: Turns out, the answer is no.
I set about writing in the first-person POV of a thinking zombie. At the time, there wasn’t the amount of zombie lit there is now—Max Brooks’ Survival Guide and the Permuted Press catalogue, mostly. The field was wide open! My book would be the first zombie diary, a memoir, a zomoir, as I called it. It would chronicle his resurrection and subsequent struggle to survive—just like the zombie movies do, but from the other side of the consciousness divide.
With this in mind, I couldn’t go the straight genre route. If I adhered strictly to the rules, Brains would only be a short story. “Mwaaaa,” the living dead said. “Gunh. Nom.” The end.
I decided that the characters would be aware of zombie mythology. They’ve all seen the movies, and most have read the Zombie Survival Guide. In fact, the characters in Brains comment on the amazing fact that everything in the movies turns out to be true. These genre conventions remain: a virus spread by biting; the infected sick with a fever and chills; slow, stupid Romero zombies. To kill them you shoot ‘em in the head.
Oh, and gore. There had to be gore.
Just as I was aware of genre, while at the same time playing with it (in the form of the smart zombie), I couldn’t be all philosophical. How boring! Those ideas had to be inherent in the text, not overt soliloquies. Luckily that was easy because the more I tried to be serious, the more I faced the absurd. Jokes appeared, seemingly of their own free will. (Plus, I love zom-coms!) The outer characteristics of zombies (drooling, shambling, limbs falling off) sharply contrast with the trauma of a mind trapped inside that fetid body—and it’s fertile ground for humor.
So I took it one step further and created Jack Barnes, PhD. in English, complete with pipe and elbow patches. As a human, Jack was the kind of guy who sees casual conversation as competition. Surely he would be melodramatic—but his drama would be ridiculous because of his physical state. The indignity of his situation! The humanity!
It didn’t hurt that I teach at a university and so am all-too-familiar with profs like Jack. The book was an opportunity to “write what I know” and poke gentle fun of my profession, while at the same time tackle real phenomenological questions: What makes a person? Who deserves to “live”? Is consciousness what makes us human? Is language?
In the past, I’d been a careful writer, afraid to make the puns that I love so much, afraid to make popular culture allusions, afraid to have fun, darn it. Because writing is serious! But during the writing of Brains, I said screw it. If zombies cannibalize humans, then the memoir of a professor-turned-zombie would cannibalize culture.
But a strange thing happened on the way to the end, and it was completely unexpected. I started to care about Jack; I started to worry about his future, his survival. He finds a small band of other rational zombies and together they fight to survive. When their situation becomes dire, the jokes dry up, the allusions to other movies and books slow down, and we are left with the all-too-human story of one entity’s quest to discover who he is and therefore how to “live.” No philosophical zombies, no jokes. We are left with—dare I say it?—love.
One final word: Although Brains is in the voice of a zombie, when the apocalypse happens—and it will—I’m killing them, even if a few can think or write. When it comes down to us or them, I’m picking us. Every time.
Vicki Pettersson is in the enviable position of having a successful urban fantasy series with her “Signs of the Zodiac” books, of which the latest,Cheat the Grave, is the fifth. But when any series goes out to the fifth book (or beyond), the question becomes: What now? What next? What’s new? Pettersson’s answer to this was to do the unexpected with her main character — a zag instead of the usual zig. And what does that zag entail? I’ll let Pettersson explain it to you.
The initial premise for my Signs of the Zodiac series was simple: take the superhero construct of good and evil and drop those dueling sides – represented by Light and Shadow – down in Las Vegas to watch them battle it out against the neon backdrop. Vegas is my hometown, so research is a cinch and the real world setting is just odd enough that readers often question the gray areas of what’s real and what’s not. (After all, what’s stranger, superheroes duking it out in Sin City or the fact that Wayne Newton is still headlining here?)
This lets me write a dark, gritty urban fantasy and still point out the best places to cop a $.99 breakfast. It’s like Fodor’s Guide to Supernatural Vegas – the perfect little getaway for a readership enduring a recession, craving escapism, and faced with all around, monumental world change.
And change is the Big Idea behind my fifth book, Cheat the Grave. In the real world, change blares into our lives via a headline: if it’s not a bailout, a bank fail, or an earthquake – it’s Greece. Or it visits our life in a phone call: if it’s not your mother, your kid, or your own bad decisions – it’s your good ones. Because every action, or inaction, ultimately finds a way to assert itself in your life.
Now if you’ve read any of my previous books, you’ll know this has never been a static series. (If you haven’t, then you missed the limited offer on my Vegas Roulette Predictor Ring. Sorry.) I push Joanna hard, and have admittedly, at times, treated her like a rat in a science lab. What happens if I push this button? What if I zap her here? You found your way out of that maze, girl? Then it was too easy. Here’s a tulpa blinding you with lightning bolts, flood waters rising at your feet, and a man with a rotted soul seeking to trap yours in his bewitched blade.
Normally when a character faces tough situations she just gets tougher. Yet Joanna started out pretty hard from word one. Any tougher and she’d start resembling a walking strip of beef jerky. So I took the opposite tack and made her more vulnerable instead. This doesn’t mean she cozied up on me. She’ll never be the type of character to hand over her recipe for pound cake or believe in magic sparkling unicorns.
But this softening has brought up new questions for both Joanna and me. Like, who are you when you’re separated from those people that have come to most define you? What happens when the things you’ve built up around you are pulled, have fallen, or drifted away? And what if life, very suddenly, can’t be confined to two distinct camps – good and evil, Light and Shadow, right and wrong – but instead allows in uncomfortably and previously unseen shades of gray?
In other words, change. Because what else can a book be about when a superhero has been stripped of her ubiquitous leather and weapons and masks, and indeed, her every available defense? Yes, I forced Joanna to give it all up, then I pushed her to keep going afterwards, and by God she did.
And because Joanna has changed irrevocably, I’m now scrambling to make sense of my next book. Mind, I don’t expect more recipes or any less bloodshed – as Cheat the Grave’s tag line says, old habits do die hard. But there’s grace, I think, in watching someone taking responsibility for their own part in a changing world, and peace can be found if they’re able to accept that world’s new shape. And if a superhero can’t manage it, I don’t know who can.
So, Paolo Bacigalupi is having kind of a good month. Just this last weekend, his novel The Windup Girl was awarded the Nebula Award for Best Novel, the Nebula Award being one of the two highest awards in the science fiction and fantasy field (the other one is the Hugo, and The Windup Girl is nominated for that as well). And this month also marked the release of Bacigalupi’s first YA novel,Ship Breaker, which garnered a starred review in Publishers Weekly (“a stellar YA debut”), and is otherwise getting the sort of critical love that makes an author woozy (disclosure: I read an early version of the novel and gave it a blurb).
The reason for the acclaim for Ship Breaker is not only the writing but also the setting, which thanks to recent events in the Gulf of Mexico is more evocative and relevant than ever, and perhaps more than many of us would like to think about. Paolo explains below.
Whenever I think about the environment (Be Green; Love Mother Earth; Blah Blah Blah), I like to think of a family going out to a nice restaurant. Mom and Dad place their orders–but for some reason, the kids don’t get anything. Instead, the kids wait and watch while their parents gobble down dinner.
Their parents eat the arugula salad, the rosemary-infused bread, the sun-dried tomato farfalle, the veal piccata, and generally have a pretty great time. Maybe Mom’s wearing pearls, because, you know, it’s a nice restaurant. Dad is definitely wearing a tie–he’s classy that way. Mom and Dad go through a couple bottles of wine, linger over the tiramisu, and then, when they’re stuffed to the gills, they shove their picked-over and scraped-over plates down the table to their children, with the last bits of pasta and the runny lines of sauce, and some chewed-up bits of meat, and say, “Here kids, eat up!”
So the kids get the scraps, while their parents get the meal.
And then, to top it all off, Mom and Dad get up from the table and walk out the door, leaving the kids to deal with the pissed-off waiter who just showed up saying that the credit card has been declined. So the kids end up washing dishes in the back for the next couple hundred years to pay off the bill.
That’s Environment 101. The first person at the table gets the cheap energy, the clean water, the clean air, the rain forests, the coral reefs, and the open space, and has all the fun. The last person gets stuck with the cleanup and the bill. The last person is always going to be a kid. It’s not personal. It’s just the way things work out.
So when I started working on my young adult novel Ship Breaker, I knew I wanted to write a novel for kids that would help them viscerally experience the sort of scraps that we adults are leaving on the table for them to chow down on. Oil has run out, global warming and massive hurricanes have ravaged the Gulf coast, and poverty means that if you’re not working as a ship breaker, you’re selling a kidney.
As I was writing, I thought I was doing a pretty good job of providing a nice ecotastrophe setting. But that was before Deepwater Horizon blew itself up and started spewing oil into the Gulf. Now I’m wondering if I was too optimistic.
Cynicism aside, the most interesting thing about the oil rig disaster isn’t the ecological catastrophe–it’s that we were drilling there at all.
An oil company doesn’t just wake up one day and say “Gee, I think I’d like to drill for oil 5000 feet below the ocean’s surface! That sounds like fun!” They do it because they’ve run out of easy oil. They’re throwing every bit of technological know-how into projects that are just at the edge of human ingenuity and technology to get out the energy and keep the party rolling. And they don’t stop drilling at 5000 feet, that’s where they start. Sometimes, they go as deep as 35,000 feet.
That’s amazing technology. It’s also called going after the scraps.
Our parents and grandparents got all the easy oil. We’re currently busy eating up the last bits, and we’re giving our kids…. well, not a whole lot. Because, after all, it wasn’t like we were going to use all that oil for anything other than a flight to Disney World or to manufacture anything more important than a new iPad. It wasn’t like we were going to use that oil to build a wind turbine so our kids would have energy of their own, down the road, when they really need it. We were just going to waste it. Dumping it into the Gulf versus dumping it out our tailpipes? As far as our kids are concerned, it might be six of one, half a dozen of the other.
And that’s where Ship Breaker comes in. I wanted to write a story for young people set inside the consequences of our present. Life when the bill comes due, so to speak. But beyond all that disaster stuff, I also wanted to write an adventure story, because, if you can’t tell by now, I’m sort of depressing to hang out with. I even depress myself. So I wanted Ship Breaker to be gripping and pulse-pounding, instead of relentlessly depressing. And I also wanted the kids in my story to have a chance at winning. I mostly won’t write an upbeat or hopeful story for adults, because we so clearly don’t deserve it, but for young people, who haven’t yet started screwing things up, I wanted to at least provide the possibility of something better. A window into a better future, so to speak.
So Nailer works as a ship breaker on Bright Sands Beach, tearing apart oil tankers for scavenge quota, and fighting to survive in his brutal broken world. But out on the waters of the Gulf, he can see beautiful high-tech clipper ships sailing past. They’ve got high-altitude parasails and hydrofoils, and they’re fast and they’re sleek, and they’re completely unlike the ships that he tears apart every day. They’re right there, in his sight, but just out of reach. And if he’s smart enough and lucky enough, he might find a way to get out to them.
There are not a lot of books I am inclined to like just on title alone, but I have to tell you, Kid vs. Squid is one of them. Because, come on! Kids! Squids! You can’t lose. Fortunately, however, there’s more going on here than a truly excellent title, and author Greg Van Eekhout has come by to explain how an extended fit of author pique ended of generating a story of kids, squids, and Atlantis.
GREG VAN EEKHOUT:
I was feeling really out of sorts one day. I don’t remember why. Lumps in my Malt-O-Meal, insufficient sock elasticity, who knows? Probably the world had once again failed to recognize my special snowflake status. In any case, I got angry about it (whatever it was) and I decided I was going to show them. Who “them” was and what, precisely, I was planning to show, I had no idea. But I would show them by writing something. In fact, I would write a whole bunch of things, one thing a day, for as long as my anger lasted. I asked friends and readers on my blog to send me words to use as story prompts, and they sent seventeen of them, and so I wrote seventeen little stories on consecutive days. (And if you want you can check out the full output of my FROTHING RAGE here.)
The word for Day 7 was flotsam, which is a fine, fine word, and I started my morning writing session with my customary very large Americano, a lemon scone, and a big dollop of anticipation for the fun I’d have crafting a little story around this word.
So. Flotsam. Junk floating on the sea. What would be an interesting thing to find floating on the sea? People? Okay, go with that. And where are they going to land? Um. Um. Sip coffee, chew scone … a beachside boardwalk? Okay, go with that. From there, the notion formed very quickly that these people land on the beach at the beginning of every summer and they work the cotton candy stands and T-shirt shops and midway games and carnival rides and tattoo parlors. And then, after Labor Day, the sea calls them back and they trudge across the beach and walk into the water and their lungs fill with brine and, once again, they drown.
Post to blog, finish scone, go to Day Job, and possibly be a fraction less angry with the world.
Most of the stories I wrote for these exercises were quickly forgotten, several were sold to the very fine science fiction podcast Escape Pod, but “Flotsam” kept scratching at me. Many an idle moment was interrupted by my brain going, “Dude, wait, who are these weird flotsam people? Where do they come from? How’d they get to be flotsam people? Not cool to leave your own brain hanging like this, dude.”
I found these questions sufficiently scratchy that I decided to answer them in a book. Even a short novel requires a commitment to months or years of work, so you really do want to make sure the scratchiness driving you to write a novel reaches all the way down to your bones. This one was hitting marrow.
Obviously, this had to be a book about Atlantis. Just as obviously, this also had to be a book about the weird town where the Atlanteans washed ashore every summer. I grew up near Venice, California, which was plenty weird but not quite in the ways I wanted it to be, and this book would be my chance to create a town with just the right kind of weird. This had to be a town with human-jellyfish hybrids, and haunted arcades, and lost and forgotten dark rides beneath the wreckage of old amusement parks.
And I wanted it to be a middle-grade novel (middle grade being a publishing category aimed at readers between the ages of eight and twelve), because I wanted this to be a summer vacation book, a book with weird magic and absurd situations, a book about having the best friends you’ll ever have, a book mixing humor and adventure, and a book about beginning to become the person you will be for the rest of your life. I wanted to write the book I needed when I was eight or ten or twelve but couldn’t find.
Also, one day when I was on the beach in San Diego I spotted this kelp man stomping across the sand. And I wanted to write the kind of book where guys like this make sense.
In the end, I don’t know if I ever showed anything to that amorphous “them” who’d made me so angry, but I do know that I’ve never had a more joyously fun time writing than I did with Kid vs. Squid. If readers experience even a fraction of that fun reading it, then I will be a very satisfied writer boy.
Vampires occupy a special place in modern literature, and are often used allegorically by authors to cast a light on current social issues and inequities. But does this allegory run the risk of minimizing the same social issues its uses as a jumping off point? In today’s Big Idea, author Alaya Johnson ponders this question, and how she dealt with it in her Jazz Age vampire novel, Moonshine.
Writers from Bram Stoker to L.A. Banks have used vampires and other paranormal creatures to evoke entirely human societal issues of racism and classism and general inequality. But when I had the idea for Moonshine, I was most excited by the way I could use the 1920s (and the rump-end of the Progressive movement) as a dynamic period in which to integrate issues of oppression with supernatural creatures. In my world, these are mostly vampires, the most hated and discriminated-against group, but also include djinni, faery, golems and other creatures from the traditions of the many immigrant groups living in New York City during its Jazz Age.
I also liked the idea of using the 1920s to highlight the vast disparities between the rich and the poor–to pull back the curtain a little from the image of glamorous frivolity that most of us have of the “roaring” twenties, and show that things were bad for plenty of people long before the crash and the Great Depression.
I will say upfront that Moonshine has a fairly light tone and a not-inconsiderable focus on romance, so if that’s not so much your thing, caveat emptor. But I tackled those issues of rendering people “Other” as seriously as I could. The first thing I decided was that even though I was going to be exploring the oft-used trope of “vampires as an oppressed minority” (Charlaine Harris, anyone?) I wasn’t going to have them replace the various immigrant and minority groups who were actually oppressed in the twenties. The act of replacing real oppressed groups with fantastical, over-idealized (or over-demonized) ones is problematic for a lot of readers. Mostly, I think, because it implies that real racism (and sexism, homophobia, classism, etc.) aren’t big enough problems to deal with on their own merits.
I tend to divide most paranormal stories (particularly vampires stories) into two broad camps: Society Vampire (a.k.a. Supernatural creatures are real and known to society) versus Secret Vampire (a.k.a. Supernatural creatures are secret and only known to a Select Few). So, the television shows Buffy and Supernatural are examples of the latter, while True Blood (the Sookie Stackhouse mysteries) and the Anita Blake series are examples of the former. While the racism metaphor can be evoked in Secret Vampire stories, it’s far more prevalent in Society Vampire stories. In True Blood vampires have “come out of the casket” and appear on CNN arguing for equal rights. This can be funny and illuminating if handled well, but I think it walks a fine line, because too much focus on the fantasy oppression at the expense of actual, lived-by-humans oppression can have effect of making oppression itself seem like a fantasy scenario and not deadly reality.
Which brings me back to Moonshine. I wanted to find a way to integrate the experiences of historically oppressed groups with my fantasy history of supernatural oppressed groups. But I also felt like I was writing in dialogue with the truly massive body of paranormal fiction that has been published in the past decade. I don’t claim to be an expert on modern vampire fiction, but most of the hero(ine)s have attitudes towards paranormal creatures that are outright bigoted and jingoistic.
The history of immigrant discrimination (particularly in the twenties) felt particularly apt to me, because it seemed to me that the attitudes towards vampires in these works follow similar faulty logic: “Some vampires are evil and kill people, therefore I have a divine/moral/foreordained right to judge–and kill–them preemptively.” To me, the moment that Buffy showed that a vampire could redeem himself without a soul (Spike), they had effectively given the game away for the morality of Buffy’s actions. And yet the show refused to acknowledge what it had done.**
Arguments against full protections for immigrant groups often go the same way. Indeed, no need to reach back into the Jazz Age when we have the horrifying example of Arizona in 2010. Immigrants commit more crimes, defenders say. If you’re Lou Dobbs, you apparently think that they’re also literally unclean (carriers of infectious diseases). Because of these spurious claims to higher rates of some undesirable traits, defenders of draconian anti-immigrant measures justify the blanket targeting of all immigrants, legal or otherwise.
The inherent injustice of this is apparent to a good many people without the fantasy context, but at least as far as I could tell, it was missing in the literature. So I wrote Moonshine in many ways as a response to the Anita Blakes and Buffy Summerses of the paranormal fantasy world– to show (hopefully) that it’s possible to use the metaphor without minimizing the real experiences of oppressed groups and also to take the issue of that fantastical oppression seriously.
As my main character would say: Vampires are people, too!
**As an aside, I think that was why Whedon completely screwed up the end of the sixth season–unwilling to follow-through through on the fascinating, if dark, logical arc of the story (and the worldbuilding), he had to twist both Spike and Buffy to fit the old categories of “good with a soul” and “bad without a soul” into which he had long since written far too much ambiguity.
Here at the Scalzi Compound, we’re big fans of Holly Black, not just as a human being (we’re pals, she’s awesome) but because she’s consistently taking the idea of fantasy in YA and twisting it in new and fun ways. The latest twist: White Cat, which imagines a world like our own in which magic is not “magical” in the usual adjectival sense, but is something a little grittier, a little seedier, and not necessarily something you’d want to play with. To which I say: coool. Here’s Holly to break it down for you.
If you know me from my Spiderwick Chronicles or Modern Faerie Tale series, you might not guess my love for heist movies, noir and cons. From Rififi to The Sting to Ocean’s Eleven, from Hammett to Chandler to Mosley, I love it all. I love the snappy dialogue, the twists, and the intricacy of the plots.
My big idea for White Cat came from me sitting around thinking about different models for magic. I had worked out a little of the book at that point, enough that I knew I was writing about a charming young con artist named Cassel, so I wanted something appropriate to the mood of his world.
Magic in novels needs some organizing principle. There are solitary wizards who resemble hermits, magic schools and universities, wizards teaching apprentices in the model of a medieval tradesperson, councils of mages not unlike a corporate board of directors, and large baroque organizations of wizards so full of rules and ceremonies that they might be modeled on the structure of a church. None of those quite fit. Then I thought:
What if the magic in this world worked like organized crime?
From there I decided that for that to work, I needed two things (a) for everyone in the world to be aware of magic and (b) for magic to be illegal.
I would have one in a thousand people have the ability to do curse magic. That way, everyone could potentially know a worker or two, but they’d still be pretty uncommon. An average high school might have one to two workers enrolled there. A large university might have as many as a hundred, between students, faculty and other staff. Given the rate of Scalzi’s traffic to Whatever, nearly fifty of you reading this would be curse workers.
Of the total workers, most are luck workers. The rest work dreams, physical curses, emotional curses, memory, death or, very rarely, transformation. To actually curse another person, one has to have bare hand (the curse worker) to bare skin (the victim) contact. And, just to balance out the benefits of having magic, all curse work results in blowback. That is, some of the curse rebounds on the curse worker. As Cassel’s grandfather, a retired death worker with blackened and rotted fingers, tells us, “every curse works the worker.”
Curse magic was outlawed in the United States in 1929. Once it became outlawed, just like Prohibition led to the rise of the five big crime families in New York, the ban on curse magic would lead to magical power being controlled by the mob. Black market demands would keep curse work profitable and I would have the world I wanted to play in.
The hardest, but also most fun part, was expanding on how having magic around would change society.
– In a world where hands touching skin could be dangerous, people would want each other to wear gloves. Thus everyone wears gloves when they are in public. If you saw someone barehanded, it would be like they were carrying a knife; they might have a good reason, but you’d still want to cross the street. Since bare hands are seldom seen, they’ve become objects of fantasy. Magazines features fold-outs of scantily clad girls without any gloves. The ultimate sign of trust between any two people would be shaking bare hands.
– Amulets that protect against curse work (each one cracks after it wards off a curse) are sold at drug stores and bodegas, near the counter along with the mints and lighters. It’s hard to know if you’re buying a good one or a dud, especially since curse workers themselves are needed to make the amulets, and they mostly don’t identify themselves.
– Despite being illegal, people want luck workers at weddings and baptisms and for times when things aren’t going so well. So hiring curse workers for minor things occupies that gray area of illegal things that everyone does anyway, like speeding. With the help of my publisher, I even mocked up what a subway ad in this world might look like:
Being born a curse worker runs in families, but can show up in people not immediately related to curse worker too. Crime families aren’t families in the traditional sense, but made up of magical recruits initiated into “the life.”
Cassel Sharpe, our protagonist, isn’t a curse worker himself, but he comes from a family of curse workers and con artists. His grandfather and brother work for the crime families, his father was a minor-league grifter, and his mother is in jail for working some guy into signing over all his money.
Cassel is trying to stay on the straight and narrow at Wallingford Preparatory – no cons, only a little bit of forgery and some bookmaking. His memories haunt him, though, especially his memory of killing his best friend, Lila, who he loved, three years ago. He has no idea why he would have done that. When he wakes up on the roof of his dorm room with no idea how he got there, out of a dream of chasing a white cat, he begins to believe that his memories are hiding more than they’re revealing. And so Cassel begins to investigate his past and figure out who he really is and what he’s really done.
Art is a powerful inspiration for more art, and for the artists who create it, as acclaimed author Guy Gavriel Kay found when thinking about Under Heaven, his latest book of historical fantasy. For this one, Kay reached far back in time, to a place and art form many of us here in the West don’t know very much about. I’ll let him share both with you.
GUY GAVRIEL KAY:
So, here’s a big idea for a novel: eighth century Chinese poetry. Bow down all ye dazzled. (Slip quietly out the back, all ye others?)
But the truth is, it was a poem, and a note to the translation, that became catalysts for Under Heaven, my newest book, which is indeed inspired by Tang Dynasty China in the 8th century. That glorious, violent, dazzling era.
The fast backgrounder is this: it is pretty much undisputed (except by a few diehard fans of limericks) that China in the Tang period represents an absolute apex of many elements of culture, with their poetry preeminent. The great names of the High Tang are, really, among the very greatest names of anywhere, any time.
When I started reading and corresponding with academics in preparation for Under Heaven I knew I’d have to try to come to terms with this element of the setting. It wasn’t an ordeal. This is magnificent art, even in translation – though the limitations of that are obvious and enormous. (“Poetry is what is lost in the translation,” Robert Frost famously said.)
I actually owned a few of these translations from years ago (sorry, I’m, er, like that) and while awaiting the arrival of a truckload of new books and articles on various topics from various places, I began reading one of them. It was a Penguin Classics edition of selected work of the two greatest figures, Li Po and Tu Fu (now generally called Li Bai and Du Fu, in the altered spelling system we use).
There’s a poem by Du Fu called ‘Ballad of the Army Wagons’, a risky, unusual work with a remarkable level of identification with ‘ordinary soldiers’ and their families in a society where poets were more likely to write about themselves and their literary friends – or about the court and high deeds, though usually set in a fictional (fantasy?) past.
The poem voices the lament of conscripted farmers being sent off to war leaving families to starve, crops unsown, harsh taxes still demanded. And the ballad ends with a vision that stopped me cold: of the crying ghosts of slain soldiers by a remote western mountain lake, a savage battlefield for past a hundred years, including very recently, in Du Fu’s own time. The image of those ghosts wailing in that mountain bowl hit me hard this time, and immediately.
But that wasn’t all. In a note to the poem, one of the men who worked on that Penguin edition adds a personal story. Seems his father, a mining engineer in the modern day (obviously!), working in this remote northwestern area (north of Tibet) used to pay herders to bring him the bones of soldiers who had died in those battles 1300 years ago and more. They were still there by the lake. And this modern-day engineer felt a need to do what he could to lay some of those long-ago ghosts to rest, to honour them.
The fusion of the poem and the note, and what I’d begun reading about time and place and the dazzling array of possible figures to draw upon for a novel (history done with my usual ‘quarter turn to fantasy’ as one reviewer’s described it) became central to the shaping of my book. That poem, the mountain lake, those battles, the unburied dead … fused into one of the first ‘big ideas’ for Under Heaven. The story begins there.
Brothers and sisters, do you have faith? Writer and editor Maurice Broaddus would suggest to you that you do, whether you think you do or not. And it’s that sometimes evanescent nature of the thing that infuses Dark Faith, a collection of stories on faith from science fiction, fantasy and horror authors — not necessarily the group you expect, basically. But then, as Broaddus explains below, that’s part of the point.
If I said I had a collection of stories revolving around the idea of faith, I bet if I were quiet enough, I could hear the collective eye roll of disinterest. Oh, you might hear me out on the topic, but only with the glazed eyes of indifference. I can guess what you’re thinking: a bunch of preachy stories dressed up in horror and fantasy, but you know and I know they are a bait and switch waiting to happen. A stuffy collection of Sunday School stories trussed up alongside Jesus tales.
Sheesh. I wouldn’t want to read that … I got stuff to do. Judging from far too many stories encountered in my slush pile, many writers THOUGHT that’s what we were trying to put together. What we wanted were stories from a variety perspectives using faith as a jump off point.
Dark Faith began as a tribute anthology to the convention that I put on, Mo*Con (yes, Maurice Convention). If you could do a convention in the con suite for a weekend, that’s Mo*Con. Sometimes billed as “the intersection of spirituality, art, and social justice”, the convention is built around a series of three conversations: typically, one on matters of faith, one on matters of writing, and one on some social issue.
The fact of the matter is that we all believe in something and no matter what our worldview is, it begins with a leap of faith. Faith is edgy. Faith is risk-taking. Faith is scary. Then again, maybe I have a broader definition of the word faith than some.
So I invited horror, science fiction, and fantasy writers to riff on the idea of faith. Who we are, artists and people of faith, expressing our theology, whatever it may be, in our writing. And with the challenge to take it to another level: Art is never for its own sake, but people’s sake. I believe that art should be engaged with and, in its own way, explore truth – and we shouldn’t be afraid of truth, no matter where it takes us.
And in this anthology, it has taken us to new and interesting places. Life can be magical and terrifying, filled with both fantasy and horror. There is life and there is death – everything in between is unknown. We live in the throes of “why?” We react to injustice, we question why bad things happen to good people. The existential terror of what it means to encounter God, the ultimate Other. On the other side, there’s the idea that God is personal and relational, Jesus can be a guy you can sneak around back and share cigarettes with. We can see faith lived out in love and relationships; or be horrified by the things done in God’s name. Faith in action can move us to do something, to confront the sins of our age, such as sexism, homophobia, racism to name a few.
That’s the big idea. The small idea looks something like this: I wanted to give writers an intriguing theme and then get out of their way. So we get a zombie story from Catherynne Valente, a dark science fiction tale from Gary A. Braunbeck, and stories that blur and transcend genre labels from Nick Mamatas, Lavie Tidhar, and Tom Piccirilli. Some stories are violent, some are funny, some are sex filled … all will move you.
William Gibson famously said “the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” This fact is evident in the world of electronic publishing: with the arrival of the iPad, Kindle and Nook, many folks believe that we’re at the start of a whole new era of reading… to which Hugo-winning editor Ellen Datlow might be forgiven for rolling her eyes; see, she was publishing science fiction electronically fifteen years ago — so long ago that Steve Jobs was still in his Apple exile, and Amazon.com’s warehouse was barely larger than Jeff Bezos’ garage. The future was already here, if not evenly distributed, and Datlow was there to get it underway.
Some of the best of the fiction she published online is part of Digital Domains, a collection that brings these stories into print — print! Of all things! — including some for the very first time. What’s more, Datlow is here now to share with you some of the history of the future of publishing, and how we got from there to here.
When I began editing the fiction for OMNI online in the mid-90s, it never occurred to me that I was at the vanguard of a new delivery system for short fiction. The actual first online fiction we published was a series of commissioned novellas sponsored by a car company–and they weren’t on the OMNI website, because at the time, we didn’t have one. They were on a section of AOL that was a content area. This was in 1995. Soon after, a real OMNI online site was created, mixing fiction with non-fiction as did the print OMNI.
Soon after Kathy Keeton, the creator of OMNI died, the corporation pulled the plug on us and my former colleagues and I formed Event Horizon: science fiction, fantasy, horror a website intended to draw attention to our budding web business, Event Horizon Web Productions. The four of us: Robert Killheffer, Pamela Weintraub, Kathleen Stein, and I ran three live, real-time online sf conventions for Eos Books and an online book tour. Event Horizon published original and classic fiction, commissioned superstrings (round robins) and provocative nonfiction commentary, and held online chats with a variety of writers.
The site wound down in July 1999, just as I was offered running SCIFICTION, a new part of the SCI FI Channel’s website that would be dedicated to publishing new fiction weekly. SCIFICTION was alive for almost six years. During that period, the Channel was sold at least three times, eventually ending up in the hands of NBC. Although attempts were made to publish a best of SCIFICTION, they never worked out.
In total, I worked for online sf/f/h websites for about ten years. During that period, the quantity and quality of online fiction improved immensely, in part to the credibility OMNIOnline, EH, and SCIFICTION brought to the medium. OMNIOnline was the first online market accredited by SFWA. “Thirteen Phantasms” by James P. Blaylock and published by OMNI Online, was the first online story to win the World Fantasy Award. “The Specialist’s Hat” by Kelly Link, first published by Event Horizon, also won the World Fantasy Award. Linda N. Nagata’s novella “Goddesses,” was the first online piece of fiction added to the Nebula ballot by the additions jury and was the first to actually win the Nebula Award.
Digital Domains is merely a representation of the fiction published by OMNI Online, Event Horizon, and SCIFICTION. Some of the stories are award winners or award nominees and some are favorite stories of mine, and a few have never been published in print before now. I’d like to feel that I helped pave the way to the explosion of great genre fiction currently on the web.
Of course, there’s still the crucial economic issue that hasn’t yet been resolved: How to pay the creators and editors of that fiction. Corporate sponsorships, donations, advertising, or a combination of the three still seem the most common.
What does astronomy — a field full of logic, physics and (in reference to human time spans) permanence — have to do with the metaphysical and supernatural nature of ghosts? In Shade, the new YA novel by Jeri Smith-Ready, quite a lot, including the need, from a writing point of view, to frame the supernatural in a world that we all know and understand. For more details on this process, Smith-Ready is here now to cast some light into the world of Shade.
I’ve loved the stars since I was a kid. By age seven, I knew every constellation visible in the Northern Hemisphere, and by age eight, I was reading astronomy texts that were way over my head, skipping the equations and funny-looking letters in search of otherworldly magic. Though I didn’t become an astronomer, I would eventually marry one (all the fun and fascination, with none of the high-level physics!). And though I don’t write straight science fiction, my new novel Shade let me revisitmy childhood love of the larger universe.
In Shade, 16-year-old Aura Salvatore can see ghosts, as can everyone born after her. Her winter solstice birth marked an occurrence now known as the Shift, a metaphysical mystery that the ghost-blind adults of Aura’s society have yet to solve.
Determined to decipher the Shift, Aura investigates whether it might be connected to her missing father and an event that happened in Ireland’s Newgrange passage tomb a year before her birth. Since ghosts can be annoying and even deadly, Aura’s goal in life is to undo the Shift and make them go away—until her boyfriend Logan dies and becomes a ghost.
For ancient cultures such as those who built Newgrange and Stonehenge, the stars were a nightly reassurance of the world’s order. People could predict how the sky would look year after year, decade after decade. Aura’s attraction to astronomy springs from her need for order in the face of the Shift’s worldwide existential chaos.
After all, the presence of ghosts goes against cosmic order. They skirt the boundary of life and death, the one division we most need to rely on. To control ghosts and restore the illusion of order, many governments created agencies such as the U.S. Department of Metaphysical Purity. One innovative corporation developed a ghost-repellant technology known as BlackBox, layers of electromagnetically charged obsidian that line the walls of sensitive areas such as bathrooms and military bases.
In addition to their obsidian allergy, the violet-hued ghosts of Shade are repelled by red. The color concept is based on the visible light spectrum, where violet and red lie at opposite ends. Red corresponds with the first “chakra” (or energy center, in traditional Indian medicine), located at the base of the spine, where it represents life and the physical world. Violet is associated with the seventh chakra, at the top of the head, representing pure thought. Though I’d chosen obsidian because of its use by ghost hunters, I later discovered that the rock corresponds to the color red and the first chakra. Score one happy world-building accident
It’s ironic that a novel about ghosts—fantastical entities by most accounts—became my most science fictional book to date. I had to imagine how the knowledge of ghosts’ existence would affect not only the teens and children who could interact with them, but also the adults who couldn’t. How unsettling would it be to know that at any given time (barring the presence of the expensive BlackBox), a dead person might be watching you? Paranoia would reign, and ghosts would be the new terrorists. (It’s no coincidence that “Metaphysical Purity” sort of rhymes with “Homeland Security.”)
The biggest challenge for me as an author, especially when writing for a young adult audience, was to keep the world-building from dominating the story. I wanted to explore the intricacies of the electromagnetic spectrum and how it all ties beautifully together with chakras and ancient astronomy in some universal fictional Theory of Everything Cool. Certainly I needed to know for my own background how the Shift and the ghosts work.
But I couldn’t put it all on the page. For one thing, readers of YA fiction, whether they be teens or adults, expect a faster pace with fewer digressions. They want the Big Idea to be shown, not told.
More important, the social, philosophical, and metaphysical ramifications of ghosts are not exactly a huge priority for Aura (though she ponders them more than most people her age do). She’s too busy worrying about passing calculus, or how revealing an outfit her aunt will let her wear, or whether she should have sex with her boyfriend. When Logan dies—especially given the nature of his death—that loss becomes her entire world. Her quest for answers to the Shift takes a back seat while she rages and grieves.
So to show the world through her eyes, I had to choose which world-building details I added and when. There had to be enough background—especially in the opening scenes—to ground the reader in this contemporary yet unfamiliar world. But the focus always remains on Aura’s emotional experiences. Because while I like my books to have a brain, first and foremost they need a heart.
That’s where the real magic lies, anyway. That’s what still aches a little within me when I see a sky full of stars, some of which died long before their light reached our planet. And like ghosts among the living, they’ll retrace their old paths long after we ourselves have faded to black.
Oh Noes! It’s the Zombie Apocalypse™! It’s the end of the world! Yes, yes, Mira Grant said, zombies, end of the world, blah blah blah. Been there. Done that. Got the bloody t-shirt. But what comes after the end of the world, when the world actually is still there? One answer: Feed, which takes a couple decades beyond the zombie apocalypse to a world which has, in its way, adjusted to the undead. And Grant (the pen name for current Campbell Award nominee Seanan McGuire) does a pretty good job with it, according to a starred review in Publishers Weekly: “Shunning misogynistic horror tropes in favor of genuine drama and pure creepiness, McGuire has crafted a masterpiece of suspense with engaging, appealing characters.” Well, then.
So how does it work? And how do you truly show a United States in which living and undead share the same country? Ms. Grant reveals all!
Feed is a book built around a single, simple idea that took two years to come together, largely because it was a lot more complicated than it looked. What if the zombie apocalypse happened…and we survived?
A little background:
I’m a horror movie fanatic. Some of my earliest memories involve watching The Blob and Alien in my family’s living room. Little Shop of Horrors was my favorite musical for years (and has only recently been displaced by Evil Dead: The Musical). So the rise of public awareness regarding the inevitable zombie apocalypse has been fabulous for me, especially since it means people don’t look at me as oddly when I start assessing the zombie-preparedness of their homes. But as time went on, I started getting really bothered by the fact that no one who wound up in a horror movie had ever seen a horror movie. Scream and sequels aside, you’d think that eventually people would learn not to date boys named Johnny, not to trust anyone with a machete, and to reliably shoot for the head. But they didn’t.
I began toying with the question of what would happen if the horror movie really happened. What if it happened in the real world, where everyone has had the opportunity to see a horror movie, or at least has a friend who’s seen a horror movie? What would happen if the zombies came? There were really only two scenarios. In one, all the horror movie knowledge in the world couldn’t save us…and in the other, we’d have to deal with something the movies never seemed to care about. We’d have to deal with after.
Because I could get to after, I had to put together a logical “before,” which meant having scientific, potentially survivable zombies. Luckily, I’m also a serious virology nut, and having me at the dinner table is frequently an exercise in “Hey, wanna know what I learned about MRSA today?” (Hint: The answer is “no,” especially if you’re eating.) Most viruses don’t want to wipe out their host species, since without a host, the virus has nowhere to go but extinction. Assuming we had viral zombies, it would actually be in the best interests of the virus that controlled them to find a balance, of sorts, between killing everyone and failing to spread itself in an efficient manner. I literally spent about two years playing with my zombie virus, looking for that perfect balance, and constructing the society that would naturally spring up around an ongoing threat of zombie infection. What would it do to funeral rites? To medical emergencies? In a world where everyone is just one bite away from becoming the enemy, how willing are people going to be to form lasting bonds with other people?
Once I had my virus hammered out (and survivable), it was time to figure out exactly how we were able to come through the apocalypse alive. I decided that at first, the mainstream media would probably laugh the risen dead off as some sort of stunt—a mass zombie walk gone a little overboard, maybe—and that at least in the early days of the Rising, the Internet would be the only and most reliable source of information. Bloggers and people on Twitter and message boards and a thousand chat rooms and Facebook updates would spread the news faster than any other network possibly could, and we’d wind up with a sort of grassroots resistance to the living dead. The movies would give us a starting point, and we’d be able to work things out from there.
I was in the process of writing Feed when Hurricane Katrina happened, and I saw the Internet react and come together just the way I had proposed we could, and would, given a big enough emergency. But that came later. First I had to get to the point of being able to start the book—I had a virus, I had a game plan for surviving the virus, and I had a culture that existed about twenty years after the Rising, focused heavily on Internet news and never going outside when you didn’t have to. What I didn’t have was a plot. I complained endlessly to my friends about the fact that my zombie world had no place to shamble. And then one night my friend Michael asked a simple question:
“Why don’t you do a Presidential campaign?”
It was simple; it was elegant; it was perfect. By taking the political angle, I could really dissect this society and the way the coming of the dead had changed it. A Presidential campaign, by its very nature, will span the United States, and that’s what I wanted. I wanted to show how the world would change in the aftermath…and how we might be forced to adapt, but we wouldn’t just lay down and die. Little things, like the fact that George Romero is considered a global hero, resulting in “George” and “Georgia” being two of the most common names given to children. Big things, like the closure of the national parks and the abandonment of Alaska to the dead.
By the end of that night, I had the full story unfolding in my head, complete with the narrators who would make it come to life. I think I wrote a hundred pages the first week, barely noticing when things like “bedtime” and “dinnertime” passed me by. I was twenty years away; I was twenty years past the end of the world.
That first big idea really was a lot bigger than I thought, because it literally required me to rebuild America, as well as put together a viable mechanism for raising the dead (it also cures cancer and the common cold). I loved every minute, and I still do. I also sleep with a machete under my bed. You know.