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Big Idea

The Big Idea: T.A. Pratt

Here’s a small and possibly irrelevant piece of personal trivia about Dead Reign, the third book by T.A. Pratt featuring sorcerer and all around badass Marla Mason: One of my best friends from Ben Lomond Elementary School in Covina, California was named Marla Mason. So when Blood Engines, the first book in the series, came out, it was difficult for me to imagine the book’s Marla Mason as anyone but my friend Marla, all grown up. Which was sort of a kick, if you know what I mean. I am assured by T.A. Pratt that the name is merely coincidental.

Fortunately for the rest of you, imagining a childhood friend as the heroine of these books is not required  for their enjoyment: Mason is enough of a character in herself to stand quite well enough on her own. And that’s a good thing, because in Dead Reign she has to stand up to a very serious opponent: Death himself. Man, it’s always something. Here’s T.A. Pratt to explain why and how Mason has gotten herself into this predicament.

T.A. PRATT

I didn’t think I’d ever write a series, but here I am, about to see publication of Dead Reign, the third book following a continuing cast of characters — though I like to think each book stands alone just fine. I can’t seem to stop myself; I’m having too much fun. The headliner for each book is Marla Mason, chief sorcerer of the imaginary east coast city of Felport, a woman whose job description falls somewhere between mob boss and superhero. (She keeps the city from being destroyed by malevolent supernatural entities. In exchange, she gets a nice cut of the city’s legal and illegal revenue.)

One of the perqs of Marla’s job is use of the dagger of office, a knife passed down from chief sorcerer to chief sorcerer over the decades, with a blade capable of cutting through anything, material or immaterial, from reinforced concrete to ghosts. One relatively uneventful summer day, Marla is visited by a young man who claims to be the god of Death, ruler of the underworld… and he says the dagger of office once belonged to him. Turns out the dagger used to be Death’s terrible sword, the blade from the grim reaper’s scythe, a nasty weapon capable of stealing life and carving up anything — even abstract concepts like time and hope. Death lost the weapon long ago (in a bet, naturally), and now he wants it back.

Most people would probably do what the god of Death asks, but Marla is more stubborn than prudent, and she refuses to give up the dagger. Death responds by banishing Marla from Felport and taking control of the city for himself, promising to let her back in once she agrees to his demands. Death’s not exactly experienced with governing living humans, but he has help from a couple of associates, including an elderly necromancer with the Cotard Delusion (that is, he thinks he’s *dead*), and the revivified mummy of presidential assassin, actor, and all-around bastard of a guy, John Wilkes Booth.

Having been beaten up and ousted from her home by a bona-fide god, a reasonable person might choose to cut her losses and make a deal. Marla, however, takes a different path. “If the god of Death is in my city,” she reasons, “that means the underworld is currently undefended.”

So she decides to invade and conquer Hell. (Not quite singlehandedly. She has her new personal assistant, a valet in the mode of Jeeves, who happens to be crushingly agoraphobic.) She figures if she takes over the underworld, she can trade Death his domain in exchange for hers.

My original plan was to have Marla enter a sort of patchwork underworld incorporating elements of the afterlife from various cultures, from the bureaucratic hell of Chinese mythology to the fields of Elysium to the Inferno of Dante. I got to thinking, though, about the way people create their OWN hells in life, and decided it would be more powerful to force my very flawed heroine to explore an underworld created from her own guilt, regret, and bad decisions… and inhabited by the not-insignificant number of dead people she’s personally killed.

(If that sounds a little weighty, rest assured that the underworld also contains steampunk cyborg dragons, guys with knives for fingers, and a guano-stained city full of undead pigeons.)

Dead Reign: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

You can read more about Marla at MarlaMason.net, which includes a Marla Mason short story, “Pale Dog.” She’s recently started sharing glimpses of her life on Twitter. Visit T.A. Pratt’s LiveJournal here.

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Phil Plait

The End of the World As We Know It: It’s coming! With big sharp nasty teeth! It’ll do you a treat, mate! Well yes, you say, but which end of the world? Because there are so many on the way — including some that are based on actual science, which is to say, they could happen without the intervention of a supernatural being.

Dr. Phil Plait, aka “The Bad Astronomer” (because he’s made a career out of debunking bad assumptions about astronomy) entertainingly lays out some of these for you in his brand-new book Death From the Skies!, detailing scenarios like death by solar flares, black holes and — yes — even alien attack, laying out the real science behind the horrible, awful, terrible endgame scenarios for the entire planet. It’s probably the most fun you can have learning about The End of All Things.

But what possessed Plait to start thinking about the end of it all in the first place? Here he is to tell you.

PHIL PLAIT:

So a few years ago I was talking with my agent over ideas for my next book. We had batted around a few thoughts, mostly things that would be really fun for me to write and for the reader to read, and trying to condense these ideas down into the fabled “elevator pitch” (something you could sell to a publisher/TV exec in the length of time of an elevator ride).

I came up with cosmic catastrophes. I had studied supernovae for my thesis — phenomenally cool and violent events — and was at the time working on a space mission that detected gamma-ray bursts, explosions so violent that they make the sweatiest Fundamentalist vision of Armageddon look like a pleasant breakfast at IHOP.

As I thought more about it, I realized I had (wait for it… wait for it…) A Big Idea. Why not write about them all? Everything that could wipe out life on Earth? Asteroid impacts. Massive solar flares. Wandering black holes, colliding galaxies, ramming an interstellar dust cloud. Hell, maybe even alien invasions!

Why not? Books had been written on these before, of course, but never all of them in one place, and not with an eye towards our modern understanding of them. And who doesn’t love an epic disaster movie?

Writing it turned out to be interesting for me. My first book, Bad Astronomy, was about astronomical misconceptions. I had written about many of them on my website, so the amount of research I had to do for the book wasn’t so bad. I had already done most of the heavy lifting in that case.

But this new one was different. I knew something about asteroid impacts, but a little bit of research showed me I was woefully unprepared to write about solar flares!

Don’t even get me started on evaporating black holes.

But it’s not what you know – as they say, whoever they are – it’s who you know. Or whom. Whatever. Happily, I have lots of astronomy-based friends, and started making an irritant of myself to them.

“How does the magnetic field tangling under the Sun’s surface make a flare and not a coronal mass ejection?”

“What happens, exactly, if you try to smash an asteroid with another asteroid?”

“So the meson flux from the gamma-ray pulse is bad, but how deep into the crust does it penetrate?”

I discovered that this book was requiring questions that were getting a little weird. Worse, I realized that even stuff I thought I knew, I didn’t know well enough to describe in detail. In one humiliating moment, I had to call a friend, an expert on gamma-ray bursts and a fairly high NASA muckety-muck, and admit to him I didn’t understand exactly how the formation of a black hole drives two titanic and incredibly destructive beams of matter and energy away from it.

He said that’s OK, no one really does.

I felt better.

In the end, I relied heavily on the advice of my stable of experts, and probably still got some things wrong. I’m pretty sure I made some small errors in the solar flare chapter (man, that stuff is tough!), but hopefully they’re minimal. As a science writer, that’s really the best you can hope for.

One chapter I really enjoyed writing was on alien invasions. I actually had to talk my agent into letting me write it (though my editor was interested to see what I could come up with, and gave me a shot). Stretching the topic just a bit, I wrote about viruses and bacteria from space – and discovered I had no clue why some bacteria make us sick. Do *you* know why? *Honestly*? It’s because they exude toxins that affect us. Bacterial warfare is really chemical warfare! And I learned that writing an astronomy book. Go figure.

And after many years of bull sessions with friends and lying awake at night wondering why aliens have never contacted us – and they haven’t; no apologies to the UFO people – I finally got my shot to write about aliens sending out interstellar probes loaded with von Neumann machines. These metal bugs are designed to eat planets, replicate, and send out more probes. You can wipe out all life in a galaxy in a few million years, and never have to leave the comfort of your couch! It’s a xenophobic alien’s paradise.

Fun for the scifi fan in me, too.

And all the time I was writing the book, I was mindful of the seriousness of it. People might freak out; I’ve had emails from people who were terrified after I’d written about supernovae, magnetar pulses, and wandering planets. So I made sure I did two things: even while describing devastating events I made parts of it light-hearted, and I made damn sure to explain the likelihood – or really the unlikelihood – of getting nailed by these things. You’re more likely to die on an amusement park ride than by an asteroid impact. The odds of a black hole passing through the solar system and gobbling down the Earth are so low that it’s a good bet it won’t happen for thousands of times the age of the Universe.

And the Sun won’t expand into a red giant for 6 billion years. Sure, it’ll happen. But it won’t happen to you.

So I had a lot of fun researching Death from the Skies!, writing it, and even reading it to myself while looking for grammar errors in the proofs. I don’t know if the behind-the-scenes stories are obvious to the reader or not, but I know them (and come to think of it, you know a few now too). But I hope that some of the fun leaked through, and even though I kill the reader, time and again, over and over, all through the book, I hope it’s a good ride.

Death From the Skies! Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read the “Bad Astronomy” blog here.

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Matthew Stover

Here’s why I know that “handselling” — the act of someone saying to you “Dude, you have to buy this book” and then putting the book into your hands — actually works: A couple years ago, when I did an appearance at the Joseph-Beth bookstore in Cincinnati, the science fiction buyer for the store and I were talking about books (no surprise) and he mentioned Matthew Stover and his book Heroes Die, featuring a badass character named Caine. I allowed that I’d never heard of it, and the buyer stopped the conversation, went into the shelves, retreived the book and said, “Here. You must have this.” Well, who was I to argue? I took it.

And the guy was right, because Caine, and Heroes Die, was a heaping plate of kickass kickassery with a side of kickass sauce. Caine himself was a perfect anti-hero: tough, smart and ready to take part in a series of truly excellent action sequences, set in a world that’s half science fiction, half fantasy and all brilliantly conceived and pulled off. I got sucked right through the book and when I was done, I did not stop at “go” or collect $200, but instead went directly to Blade of Tyshalle, the sequel. So, yeah, I’m a fan, of both Caine and Stover.

So when I learned that Caine was coming back in a new book, Caine Black Knife, I emitted what I have to admit was a most unmanly squee. But it was worth it: Caine Black Knife is yet another heaping plate of kickass kickassery with a side of kickass sauce. If you like your fantasy both smart and violent — and I really do — you’re going to want this book. When Stover asked if he could write a Big Idea piece about the book, my response to him was, and I quote, “Dude, if you don’t, I’m totally gonna throw things.”

Fortunately nothing’s been thrown. And here’s Matthew Stover to talk to you about Caine, and Caine Black Knife.

MATTHEW STOVER:

What do you do after you save the world?

That’s most of the Big Idea of Caine Black Knife, right there. Simple enough, right?

Well . . . apparently I don’t do simple. Neither does Caine.

Lately it seems like I’ve become more interested in the consequences of actions than in the actions themselves. Or maybe not so lately; looking back on them, it seems like the Acts of Caine have always been about consequences.

Let’s start at the beginning.

The first of the Acts of Caine, Heroes Die, is set a couple hundred years from now, when the dominant form of entertainment is a virtual-reality-from-hell thing where you can get the illusion of actually being your favorite fantasy hero, in real time, as he or she has real adventures and quests and all that good stuff, not to mention real fights where he or she might really die. The actors who play your favorite characters are translated to an alternate universe—with a fair amount of Mystic SciFi Hand-Waving—that more-or-less operates the way we expect a fairly standard medieval fantasy world to work. The central character of Heroes Die is the #1 star of this form of entertainment, an actor named Hari Michaelson who plays an obscenely popular High-Fantasy-James-Bond type named Caine.

The plot in Heroes Die is framed as a consequence of one of Caine’s top adventures. At the climax of that one, he murdered a ruler, triggering a bloody war of succession. The guy who finally ends up on top is a superhumanly powerful sorcerer, who has come to realize that the greatest threat to his empire’s stability are certain otherworldly demon-spawn who infiltrate society and create havoc for the entertainment of their demon-spawn brethren back home. He calls them Aktiri, and sets about exterminating them—and anyone who even looks like them. The story begins when Caine’s estranged wife, also an actor, goes missing while trying to rescue innocent people falsely accused of being Aktiri.

With me so far?

The story was supposed to end with that book. However, my publisher foolishly offered me a bathtub full of dollar bills to write a sequel, and I foolishly agreed. Thus was born Blade of Tyshalle.

Blade of Tyshalle follows four different protagonists (and a host of secondary characters) as they wade through the catastrophic aftermath of the events of Heroes Die.

It’s actually four novels in one, as each protagonist follows his own individual plotline within the overall story, and the plotlines intertwine and break apart again, influencing each other both directly and indirectly until they all braid together for a Big Bond-Movie Blow-off. (It’s four novels in one because I was, at the time, young and stupid enough to look at the narrative strategy of War and Peace, and think Hey, I’d like to take a swing at that. Like I said: young and stupid.)

Blade’s BBMB involves, by the way, the End of the World As We Know It. It rips apart the whole context of the story and kicks the pieces off a cliff, because Blade of Tyshalle was absolutely, positively, amputate-intimate-body-parts-if-I-so-much-as-dream-of-changing-my-mind, the final book to feature Caine.

But, y’know, best-laid plans and all that.

The thing is, I really like the guy. Kind of like George Lucas and Jedi, I guess. I’ve had Caine living in my head for so long that he’s an old friend. We’re comfortable with each other. So I found myself wanting to write another story about him. This brings us back to the original question: what do you do after you save the world?

More pertinently: what do you write after your series-carrying central character has saved the world? Because—no offense to any of my colleagues out there—I think the dumbest, most obvious thing an author can do is whip up a new Dark Lord to Threaten All That Is Good In the Universe (or, worse, bring back the one your hero just got finished beating). So what’s left?

The obvious answer is that same one George Lucas came up with: Prequel, for the win!

But it’s never that easy. I call it Caine’s Law: Everything is more complicated than you think it is.

Caine, as a character, only gets really interesting (to me, anyway) at the end of his career, when he’s a little older, a lot slower, and grown up enough to be haunted by some of the nasty things he’d done when he was a young homicidal sociopath with a wide streak of malignant narcissism. The younger Caine is mainly interesting, to me, in the context of who he will eventually grow up to be. (Hmm, more of an echo of Anakin Skywalker here than I had realized until just now . . .)

So I thought: why not put the younger Caine in exactly that context? Show him as he is, in his declining post-Epic Hero years . . . and show where he came from. What set him on the road to become who he is.

Without really meaning to, I have, in the Acts of Caine, undertaken a sort of smorgasbord of genre. Heroes Die is Hard SF plus Romance (the protagonist’s struggle is to Win the One He Loves, and the solution to his problem involves creative application of the story’s central speculative technologies). Blade of Tyshalle is Epic Fantasy plus Tragedy (the protagonists’ struggle—all four of them—is to Save the World From the Forces of Darkness, and their commitment to this goal leads inevitably to the destruction of all they hold dear).

Caine Black Knife is Bildungsroman plus hard-boiled detective story.

The hard-boiled detective story follows a double narrative: the (tacit) story of the crime itself, and the story of the hero’s gradual (and usually violent) uncovering of the crime’s story. The Bildungsroman involves a pivotal episode or episodes in a young man’s life—the moment or moments where, through acquisition of self-knowledge and rejection of conventional mores, he sets himself on the path of manhood.

In Caine Black Knife, that Bildungsroman moment is an unforgivable crime… committed by Caine himself. The two narratives unfold in parallel: the Young Caine’s life-defining crime, and the Older Caine’s struggle to face the consequences of that crime.

Not to mention the consequences of being the Guy Who Saved the World. And the consequences of what he did to Save the World. Not to mention the consequences of what he did to become the Guy Who Saved the World in the first place.

Because he is, after all, Caine.

Everything is more complicated than you think it is.

Caine Black Knife: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt of Caine Black Knife here. Visit Matthew Stover’s blog here.

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Kenneth Hite

Now that my travels have ended (yay!), it’s time to get back on the stick with the Big Idea features — we’ve got quite a few coming up in the next couple of months, and this week I’ll hit you with at least a double shot. To begin, I’m really excited to bring this next book to your attention, by Kenneth Hite. Ken and I go back a long ways — he was at the college newspaper when I was — and Ken’s always had a great combination of wit, knowledge and geekery. All of that comes to fruition with Tour de Lovecraft, an immensely readable trip through the works of everyone’s favorite dark fantasist, H.P. Lovecraft, which combines a deep love of the work with a clear-eyed view of quality of the same. If you’re a Lovecraft fan, you’ll find lots to enjoy, and to argue with.

Here Ken talks about Lovecraft, literary criticism and how a “medium-sized” idea from elsewhere inspired the Big Idea here. Hey, Big Ideas are all over the place.

KENNETH HITE

The Big Idea for the Tour de Lovecraft came from a Medium-Sized Idea for a different book entirely, the game Trail of Cthulhu, which I was writing for Pelgrane Press. I decided to re-read all of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories for that project, to get myself into the proper mood and to make sure I didn’t forget anything really creepy. But re-reading all of Lovecraft at age 42 wasn’t the same as reading it all for the first time at age 14. I found myself, almost against my will, performing the Dread Sin of literary criticism as I read.

For whatever reason, we’re all supposed to hate literary criticism: “We murder to dissect,” and the rest of that Romantic noise. It’s even worse here in the SFnal ghetto, hiding out from the grim searchlights of mainstream academia while simultaneously complaining that they don’t point the big beams at us enough. But literary criticism is what any reader does, whether they know it or not, and surely us sons and daughters of Heinlein should know that our job is to know what things we do and to do those things well. It’s not like literary criticism is foreign to our tribe. To name just a few: Thomas Disch, John Clute, Ursula K. LeGuin, David Hartwell, Alexei Panshin, Joanna Russ, and a guy named H.P. Lovecraft have done it with distinction and brilliance.

To read critical essays by any of those writers, whether or not you agree with their conclusions or even their taste, is to get better at reading. The fact that most literary criticism reads like Basque political manifestos is no more relevant to the art of literary criticism than the fact that most science fiction reads like adolescent stereo instructions is to the art of SF. To turn Ted Sturgeon (himself an occasional literary critic) on his head, ten percent of it is still probably worth your time. (While I’m name-checking, here, let me throw some love at the mainstream critic Northrop Frye, whose Anatomy of Criticism came out the same year as Songs For Swinging Lovers, and holds up just as well as Old Blue Eyes does. Frye also, for what it’s worth, seemed to “get” SF.) My goal with the Tour de Lovecraft, which I posted in raw form in my LiveJournal as I went along, was initially just to kill time and share some of the new found Lovecraft love I was feeling. But pretty soon I was trying to hit that ten percent, to breathe some life into Lovecraft by dissecting him.

Or rather, by dissecting his stories. Dissecting Lovecraft – his psychology, his biography, his philosophy, his politics – may have its value, but it doesn’t seem to get us any great distance down the road to the stories themselves. And besides, we’ve pretty much been doing that and only that since Sprague de Camp’s biography rose in 1976 and drove a generation of sensitive scholars mad. Maybe it’s time to let the Old Gentleman rest for a while and try to dissect Cthulhu – or at least “The Call of Cthulhu” — instead.

Tour de Lovecraft is available from the Atomic Overmind site in both softcover and pdf form. Visit Ken Hite’s LiveJournal here. Hite is also the Ennie Award-winning author of the Trail of Cthulhu role playing game, available through Pelgrane Press.

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Julie Czerneda

How do a graduate student’s observations of fish in a laboratory wind up fueling not one but two science fiction series? Well, first, it helps to have that graduate student be Julie Czerneda, who would become the Prix Aurora-winning author of In the Company of Others (also a Nebula Award nominee), and whose latest novel, Riders of the Storm, is most recent installment of the “Clan Chronicles,” which encompasses a pair of separate yet interconnected trilogies. From fish to science fiction, here’s Czerneda to explain how you get from the one to the other.

JULIE CZERNEDA:

Once upon a time, there was a girl who would — diurnal cycles being what they are — read by moonlight. Her parents had the silly notion that lights should be turned off by 1 am. Alas, she was never completely satisfied by what she read. Stories seemed to stop short. They failed, in her opinion, to go over the next hill. To dare more …

Thank goodness she discovered science fiction. And the value of a flashlight.

Once upon a somewhat later time, there was a grad student who would — diurnal cycles being what they are — observe fish (fathead minnows) in a damp dark basement at 1 am. The fish had the silly notion it was a spring morning (because of clever tank lighting and temperature) and performed extraordinary, life-threatening feats in the name of sex. Alas, while being very careful to record her data faithfully, the student was never completely satisfied. Ideas seemed to stop short. Her hypotheses, and those in the literature, failed to dare more … .

I remember walking home at some ungodly hour — not that it mattered in January in northern Saskatchewan, it was dark from teatime to coffee break — my parka cracking in the cold, tears freezing my glasses to my face as usual, and thinking what I needed was science fiction.

You see, there are times when it isn’t enough to think outside a box, you need to blow it away. Science fiction is that to me. A potent blend of reasoned questioning and eye-popping wonder. Permission to take risks and make extrapolations. To grasp for ideas that are both incredible and essential, in hopes of better understanding, well, everything. Go over the hill. (I’m very impatient with things like hills.) See what’s there.

Which led to my first attempt to finish a piece of fiction, my first attempt to sell it, and my first sale: A Thousand Words for Stranger. But what really matters, of course, is the Big Idea and that basement of fish.

How powerful is sexual selection? As species evolve, mates choose sex partners based on whatever they see, hear, smell, touch, or taste that convinces them this one (or however many) will do better than all those others. Being a biologist, my use of the term “do better” is all about the success of the generation that results from that partnership. (Aside: I picked well. We have great kids. Although I can’t say I was thinking along those lines at the time.)

I could see in my tanks the cost in energy, risk, and survival male minnows paid to attract females. Or flipped around, the price expected by the females. Many would only breed once in a lifetime, if that. From all evidence, this extreme works for them.

What about us? How far could sexual selection go within a species that understood its own biology? Surely intelligence would curb extraordinary, risky behaviour. (I can hear you snickering, but I’m talking species here, not teens.)

Science fiction lets us create experiments unthinkable or impossible in the real world. I postulated a species where females had a specific way of identifying the ideal mate. A test, so to speak. You pass, you get to pass on your genes to the next generation. I assigned a cost to being attractive. More on that later.

First I leapt over the next hill and made up a wonderful future of aliens and interstellar travel and amazing things in which to play. I see no reason thought experiments can’t be fun.

Thus came the Clan into being: an alien species with extraordinary mental abilities (easier than antlers or rubbing pads) in which females test prospective mates in a contest where only a male as strong or stronger will be chosen, ie. succeed. To make things interesting, the more powerful members of this species have the ability to teleport, ie. move from place to place using another dimension. Handy thing, that. However, being intelligent, you’d expect they’d notice that encouraging more and more power in their females might increase this ability but also will one day seriously limit the number of suitable mates — especially if failure to be chosen means death.

So what would they do?

I set the experiment in motion with Sira, the main character of Thousand. She’s the Clan’s first female who is too powerful for any male to match, and the proof that their population is in serious trouble. Her attempt at a solution leads to all manner of adventure and trouble. I was happy with the story … so were readers. (Thank you!) There were two sequels, comprising the Trade Pact trilogy. By the second, though, I knew something important.

I knew — alas, or otherwise — that it wasn’t enough for me to write an adventure derived from the Big Idea. I had to poke at it. I wanted more. How could the Clan be as I portrayed? What could possibly solve their problem — if anything? Where could they fit in the predominantly human plus varied alien society I’d envisioned? What made it all work!? (Aside: Also, by this time I’d written enough not to be afraid of revealing the Big Ideas in my stories. Little did I realize …)

So was born what DAW and I now call The Clan Chronicles: Stratification, the Trade Pact trilogy, and Reunification.

Stratification is the prequel. Where the Clan came from, how they arrived in human space, why they are as I’ve shown them. It began with Reap the Wild Wind and continues in Riders of the Storm, released this week. Stratification has already proved to be the hardest, most challenging thing I’ve ever done. The completely new story and characters were fine — the difficulty lay in having to write match/explain/foretell what was already in print, namely in the Trade Pact books. I have notes, maps, journals. At times I felt as though I was doing grad studies again, this time in my own fictional world. A shame I’m not as easy to work with as minnows. Rift in the Sky will take the Clan to the Trade Pact. My last chance to get it all right. Wish me luck!

The best, however, is the groundwork for the finale to come. I can’t wait. Because when I write Reunification, I will go over the next hill. I already know what’s there. It’s nothing I imagined that dark Saskatchewan night. It’s stranger and far more wonderful and bigger than here or then. I’m not at all surprised.

You see, since I was a girl who read by moonlight, I knew that’s what science fiction was.

Glad I found it before the minnows.

Riders of the Storm: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt of Riders of the Storm here. Visit Czerneda’s newsgroup here.

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Lauren McLaughlin

Every teenage girl has “that time of month,” as it is so euphemistically referred to, but in Cycler, the totally inventive and fun debut novel from Lauren McLaughlin, Jill McTeague discovers that during her time, her body goes through entirely different changes than most girls — specifically, four days a month, she becomes Jack, right down to all the appropriate plumbing.

As you might expect, an idea like this is fertile ground for an examination of gender politics, particularly the teenage division, but as McLaughlin notes in this Big Idea, once she started in on the writing, the book went places she never expected it to regarding gender concepts — because of the characters themselves. Where does it go? Well, here’s the author herself to explain it all.

LAUREN McLAUGHLIN:

Gender is a prison. That was the Big Idea behind Cycler. I actually wrote it in sharpie on a piece of white paper and taped it above my desk as I worked. I wanted this story, about a girl who turns into a boy four days out of every month, to be an examination of gender as a cultural construct. I wanted to explore the ways in which gender identity constrains us, shapes us, limits is. But a strange thing happened.

Once I set my characters in motion, they immediately adapted to their bizarre circumstances and made the best of it. The girl persona, Jill, strategizes to hide her alter ego so that she can blend in with the rest of her high school peers. The male persona, Jack, who spends his four days hidden from view, develops a powerful memory so that he can scour Jill’s life and live vicariously through her.

Neither of them confronts the issue of gender directly. And why would they? They have no control over the powerful transformations that rule their lives. I think in some ways this reflects our experiences of puberty. Our bodies change, our interests change, and we begin thinking as sexual beings. We are not in control of the process; rather it feels as if the process is controlling us. We are subject to its whims and ever on the cusp of heartbreak and humiliation.

And it is in this crucible of thwarted longings and desperate fumblings that we lay the foundation for our sexual identities. No wonder, then, that a great many of us get it dreadfully wrong, our bodies hungering for one thing while our fragile egos lead us to seek conformity at all cost. The obvious example, of course, is the gay or lesbian teen rebelling against desire to begin a journey of self-denial and self-loathing.

But I think this disconnect between what we carnally desire and what we seek to conform to is more broadly applicable. Think of the popular girl who finds herself uncomfortably smitten with the class nerd or the purple-haired rebel secretly pining for the quarterback in defiance of the misfit code. In our desperate attempts to find a box to fit into, we betray our own desires. We do it to ourselves.

But we don’t keep the damage to ourselves. We inflict it on everyone. One of the strangest things about gender conformity in our society is the way we have become addicted to the bloodsport of it all. Think of the Mommy Wars, the Hillary Wars, “Iron my shirts.” All of these are examples of people trying to enforce their version of femininity on all women. To celebrate their favored brand of femininity, they must demonize all others. What the soldiers in this pointless battle fail to realize is that gender is not binary. There is no one correct expression of femininity and no one correct expression of masculinity. Nor is gender timeless. Even the most “traditional” or “conservative” fighter in the culture wars will hold opinions on gender that his or her great grandmother would find radical. Gender changes through time, through place, and from person to person. It is a fluid and creative construct. But oh, how we love to shape it into a blunt instrument and bash at each other.

In Cycler, I represent what I call the Binary Theory of Gender through Jack and Jill’s mother, Helen. Go to your local bookstore and you will find countless books promising to decode the opposite sex by reducing them to a set of stereotyped characteristics. The Rules, Why Men Marry Bitches, and, of course, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus are just a few examples.

A Rules girl through and through, Helen encourages her daughter to nurture the most stereotypical feminine traits. Because she’s willing to try anything to achieve her twin goals of safeguarding her secret and landing the perfect prom date, Jill jumps right on board.

The problem with this approach is that it presents the opposite sex as, at worst, the enemy and, at best, a dim-witted booby prize. How can you love someone you have basically manipulated into a relationship? Anyone who’s actually been in love knows that love is a wild and lawless thing. Attempts to decode the endeavor with comforting gender stereotypes might sell a lot of self-help books, but they won’t guarantee smooth sailing. Just ask The Rules co-author, Ellen Fein. After “capturing the heart of Mr. Right” by putting her own rules into action, she wound up divorced.

But one thing I wanted to avoid in Cycler, was replacing one Theory of Gender with another. While it’s all well and good to poke fun at girlie girls and macho boys, the truth is, I’d miss them if they were gone. In fact, some of my best friends are Rules girls, bless them. While I consider myself fairly androgynous (psychologically, if not physically), I would hate to live in a world where that became the official prescribed gender identity. What I hope to accomplish with Cycler, other than telling a sexy, thrilling and hilarious story, is to poke holes into everyone’s conception of gender, including my own. I want to destabilize the notion of gender as a stable category. Because it isn’t stable. Whatever feels right to you now will seem quaint and ridiculous to your great grandchildren. And that is exactly as it should be.

—-

Cycler: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Visit Lauren McLaughlin’s blog here. Read an excerpt from Cycler here.

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Tobias Buckell

Did you know? Today is the official Ohio is Coming to Kick Your Ass With Science Fiction Day. Why, you ask? Because in addition to some other Ohio-based dude having a book out today, today is the release date of Sly Mongoose, the third in a series of action-packed kick-ass novels by none other than Tobias Buckell. With Mongoose, Publishers Weekly has declared that Buckell has delivered a “story worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster,” but the Nebula Award nomination that Buckell racked up for Ragamuffin, the previous book in the series, will hint to you that there’s more going on in these books than just shoot-em-up mayhem. It’s Buckell’s combination of smarts and action that got him tapped to write the next book in the Halo sequence, called Halo: The Cole Protocol.

That’s in the future, however. Here in the present, Buckell’s here to tell you how a talk by another Ohio-based science fiction writer helped get his mind in the right place (and planet) for Sly Mongoose. Take it away, Toby!

TOBIAS BUCKELL:

So, usually people ask you ‘where do you get your ideas?’ when they find out you write novels. I understand the impulse behind that question, but it’s usually not easy to answer in a sentence realistically. For my first two novels it involved a blended stew of things that I’d been obsessing over for a few years, that I was trying to get to work together. And after a bit, answering the question in regards to a particular book becomes frustrating.

But in this case, the genesis for Sly Mongoose has a very specific incident. I was at a convention in Pennsylvania where NASA scientist and award-winning author Geoffrey Landis was a guest. For those of you who don’t know Geoff, he’s an honest-to-goodness rocket-scientist type (although he doesn’t *actually* work on the rockets, but you know what I mean: he’s damn smart and works for NASA. He builds things that end up bolted to Mars rovers and stuff like that).

Now, Geoff gives amazing presentations about what we know about Mars and what NASA is planning for Mars. If you ever get a chance to sit in on one, you’ll get yourself learned up a bit, so I’m always game if my schedule is willing to slip in and listen to one of his presentations every year or so. That way I can run around repeating the information and getting to keep my ‘science fiction author’ ID card for another year.

So I’m there at this presentation right about as I’m finishing up my second novel, and at the end of getting the Red Planet downloaded into my cortex, Geoff comes over to my chair and says “Toby, you should stick around, I’m doing a presentation on Venus, and I think you’ll get a kick out of it.”

I’m so glad I listened.

The next presentation starts off with Geoff giving us the rundown on Venus and what planned missions to Venus are going to look like, or may look like if they’re approved. Then he suddenly reminds us all about Venus’s basic properties. It’s hot. Crazy hot. The pressure is off the chain. It rains frickin’ sulfuric acid! There’s no air.

Then Geoff says, all that aside, Venus is probably the second most habitable planet in the solar system.

Say what? I’m intrigued, as Geoff goes on to explain that if you go high enough up into Venus’s atmosphere, the pressure is standard, the heat normal, you’re above the sulfuric acid-raining clouds, and then tells us that there, normal breathable Earth air is a lifting gas. So if you were to, say, enclose a mile-wide structure in a bubble, and fill that with normal breathable air, it would float.

In other words, you get a scientific justification for Cloud City. As long as it’s a giant floating marble.

Within a minute of Geoff saying this, I had written out an outline for a Venusian world called Chilo, where cities float, blimps get you everywhere, and I could freely mix the tropes of airship battles, deep sea mining adventure, submarine battles, zombies, and space opera in one big explosive adventure.

After the presentation I approached Geoff and asked what his plans were for floating Venusian cities, as I was totally geeked out. He’d just blown my brain. Geoff responded by saying he had no plans for it, he even had a CD’s worth of data and sketches and calculations he could give me. I was off to the races.

And that is why, at the beginning of Sly Mongoose, the book says ‘For Geoff: thanks for Chilo.”

Seriously, Geoff: thanks.

Sly Mongoose: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Visit Tobias Buckell’s personal site here. Read an excerpt from the first chapter (and see a video trailer) here.

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Jason Pinter

A child disappears one day… and returns five years later with no memory of where he’s been all this time. What’s his story? That would be enough for any thriller, but with The Stolen, author Jason Pinter wants to go deeper, into the background of his main character, journalist Henry Parker, and how his past informs the book’s tale. Pinter’s here to help you figure out how it’s all going down.

JASON PINTER:

I don’t think I can really get into The Big Idea for my third novel, The Stolen, without talking about The Big Idea for my first novel, The Mark. I’ve been a voracious reader of crime fiction in all its permutations for years. From the early works of Hammett and Chandler to their descendants like Connelly, Lehane, Lippman and Pelecanos, to the development of the thriller from Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal to more recent offerings by Harlan Coben, Charlie Huston, Karin Slaughter and Lee Child, I read them all. Not just for the mystery or suspense, but because many crime novels could also been seen as a snapshot of a time and place. The crimes investigated were often emblematic of the world the characters lived in, the characters themselves inhabiting traits of much of the populace. You could pick up a James Ellroy novel and learn as much about Los Angeles in the 1950’s as you could from any primary source.

So when it came time to write my first crime novel–something in knew I always wanted to do–it began with the character. First and foremost, I wanted my protagonist to be someone my age. I began writing The Mark when I was 24, an age group not often depicted in crime novels unless the character in question was either a drug addict, degenerate, or more often, both. Crime fiction heroes tended to be older, more world-weary, with loads of baggage and, more often than not, at least one divorce and a drinking habit. I wanted my hero to be younger. A little more naive, a little more optimistic. Someone who the readers could watch accumulate baggage over time, but that would be half the fun.

I didn’t want to write a down-and-dirty police procedural, nor did I want to write a book where the hero could survive major league ass kickings with a wink and a nod. I wanted to write a fun, fast-paced crime series, but one where my characters retained their scars from book to book.

I also wanted my character to exist in a world not fully explored in crime fiction. I didn’t want to write a P.I. novel, a political thriller, or straight up noir. I wanted my character’s career to some extent to be a mirror of the world he lived in. The newspaper industry seemed a perfect fit. Since I’d worked for nearly a decade in media, I knew enough to make Henry’s world feel legitimate. It was a world different from usual crime fare, and since I began the novel not too long after the Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass scandals (which still boiled in my gut), it all came together. Henry Parker was a young, idealistic, ambitious and perhaps slightly hubristic reporter. He was sick and tired of his generation seemingly represented by plagiarists, egomaniacs, rich offspring and navel gazers (is there a little of me in Henry? Maybe just a bit…). So Henry began work at the fictional New York Gazette, in part to help wipe away the stains left on the journalistic establishment. He wanted to be a young journalists whose stories were more important than his byline. But of course, it’s not that simple.

Henry ends up accused of murder, his face plastered across the very newspapers he aspired to help clean up. Overnight, Henry becomes the very thing he despises the most. I loved the irony of his situation, and knew this was something he would have to live with and deal with in each subsequent novel.

So how does that lead into The Big Idea for Henry’s third outing, The Stolen? It began with Elizabeth Smart, the young girl abducted by Mormon extremists and found nine months later, whose story captivated the nation until he rescue. It always seemed odd to me that the girl couldn’t escape, that she was never able to alert authorities or anyone to her capture. How could anybody be abducted and held against their will for such a long time–especially so close to their home by a couple that wasn’t exactly Bonnie and Clyde–without being able to alert anybody? This planted a seed. Eventually that seed grow, and a scene formed in my mind.

The scene was of a family eating dinner one night. A typical American family in the suburbs. A couple of kids, a nice home, toys scattered about. But despite this, there is an air of sadness about the parents. Then the doorbell rings. The mother goes to answer it, and when she opens the door she sees standing there the son who’d vanished without a trace five years ago. The boy looks untouched, healthy. He has no scratches on him, and has no memory of his lost years.

That scene gave me chills, and of course raised numerous questions that would be answered throughout the book. Who took the child? Where has he been for five years? And how can he not remember where he’s been? After doing some research, I knew those questions could all be answered.

We learn early on in The Mark that Henry come from a broken home. A brutal father and a mother so shell shocked that she’s completely withdrawn emotionally. Henry in many ways never really had a childhood, and lost himself in his work. So when he begins to investigate the strange reappearance of this child, he’s looking into lost years that could very well have been his own.

***

The Stolen: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Visit Jason Pinter’s Web site here, and also his blog, available here. An excerpt from The Stolen is available for you to read here.

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Greg Egan

If you like your science fiction hard — we’re talking diamond-scratching hard, here — then you already know that Greg Egan is your man; this Hugo winner’s been spinning tales of hard SF for years that make you think and thrill at the same time. After a six-year break from novels, Egan is back with Incandescence, which features a journey to the very core of the galaxy. You know, like you do. And for those of you who are wondering just how seriously Egan takes the “science” part of the phrase “science fiction,” here’s Egan to explain the genesis of Incandescence, which involves Einstein’s greatest discovery, and how people who aren’t exactly Einsteins themselves might discover it.

GREG EGAN:

Incandescence grew out of the notion that the theory of general relativity — widely regarded as one of the pinnacles of human intellectual achievement — could be discovered by a pre-industrial civilization with no steam engines, no electric lights, no radio transmitters, and absolutely no tradition of astronomy.

At first glance, this premise might strike you as a little hard to believe. We humans came to a detailed understanding of gravity after centuries of painstaking astronomical observations, most crucially of the motions of the planets across the sky. Johannes Kepler found that these observations could be explained if the planets moved around the sun along elliptical orbits, with the square of the orbital period proportional to the cube of the length of the longest axis of the ellipse. Newton showed that just such a motion would arise from a universal attraction between bodies that was inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. That hypothesis was a close enough approximation to the truth to survive for more than three centuries.

When Newton was finally overthrown by Einstein, the birth of the new theory owed much less to the astronomical facts it could explain — such as a puzzling drift in the point where Mercury made its closest approach to the sun — than to an elegant theory of electromagnetism that had arisen more or less independently of ideas about gravity. Electrostatic and magnetic effects had been unified by James Clerk Maxwell, but Maxwell’s equations only offered one value for the speed of light, however you happened to be moving when you measured it. Making sense of this fact led Einstein first to special relativity, in which the geometry of space-time had the unvarying speed of light built into it, then general relativity, in which the curvature of the same geometry accounted for the motion of objects free-falling through space.

So for us, astronomy was crucial even to reach as far as Newton, and postulating Einstein’s theory — let alone validating it to high precision, with atomic clocks on satellites and observations of pulsar orbits — depended on a wealth of other ideas and technologies.

How, then, could my alien civilization possibly reach the same conceptual heights, when they were armed with none of these apparent prerequisites? The short answer is that they would need to be living in just the right environment: the accretion disk of a large black hole.

When SF readers think of the experience of being close to a black hole, the phenomena that most easily come to mind are those that are most exotic from our own perspective: time dilation, gravitational blue-shifts, and massive distortions of the view of the sky. But those are all a matter of making astronomical observations, or at least arranging some kind of comparison between the near-black-hole experience and the experience of other beings who have kept their distance. My aliens would probably need to be sheltering deep inside some rocky structure to protect them from the radiation of the accretion disk — and the glow of the disk itself would also render astronomy immensely difficult.

Blind to the heavens, how could they come to learn anything at all about gravity, let alone the subtleties of general relativity? After all, didn’t Einstein tell us that if we’re free-falling, weightless, in a windowless elevator, gravity itself becomes impossible to detect?

Not quite! To render its passenger completely oblivious to gravity, not only does the elevator need to be small, but the passenger’s observations need to be curtailed in time just as surely as they’re limited in space. Given time, gravity makes its mark. Forget about black holes for a moment: even inside a windowless space station orbiting the Earth, you could easily prove that you were not just drifting through interstellar space, light-years from the nearest planet. How? Put on your space suit, and pump out all the station’s air. Then fill the station with small objects — paper clips, pens, whatever — being careful to place them initially at rest with respect to the walls.

Wait, and see what happens.

Most objects will eventually hit the walls; the exact proportion will depend on the station’s spin. But however the station is or isn’t spinning, some objects will undergo a cyclic motion, moving back and forth, all with the same period.

That period is the orbital period of the space station around the Earth. The paper clips and pens that are moving back and forth inside the station are following orbits that are inclined at a very small angle to the orbit of the station’s center of mass. Twice in every orbit, the two paths cross, and the paper clip passes through the center of the space station. Then it moves away, reaches the point of greatest separation of the orbits, then turns around and comes back.

This minuscule difference in orbits is enough to reveal the fact that you’re not drifting in interstellar space. A sufficiently delicate spring balance could reveal the tiny “tidal gravitational force” that is another way of thinking about exactly the same thing, but unless the orbital period was very long, you could stick with the technology-free approach and just watch and wait.

A range of simple experiments like this — none of them much harder than those conducted by Galileo and his contemporaries — were the solution to my aliens’ need to catch up with Newton. But catching up with Einstein? Surely that was beyond hope?

I thought it might be, until I sat down and did some detailed calculations. It turned out that, close to a black hole, the differences between Newton’s and Einstein’s predictions would easily be big enough for anyone to spot without sophisticated instrumentation.

What about sophisticated mathematics? The geometry of general relativity isn’t trivial, but much of its difficulty, for us, revolves around the need to dispose of our preconceptions. By putting my aliens in a world of curved and twisted tunnels, rather than the flat, almost Euclidean landscape of a patch of planetary surface, they came better prepared for the need to cope with a space-time geometry that also twisted and curved.

The result was an alternative, low-tech path into some of the most beautiful truths we’ve yet discovered about the universe. To add to the drama, though, there needed to be a sense of urgency; the intellectual progress of the aliens had to be a matter of life and death. But having already put them beside a black hole, danger was never going to be far behind.

Incandescence: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Visit Greg Egan’s Incandescence page, which features quite a lot of supplementary material. Also visit his listing of his works available online.

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Marie Brennan

Holy crap, I nearly got through the whole week without posting a Big Idea piece. And, well, that’s just wrong. So, let me correct this by introducing you to Marie Brennan, whose Midnight Never Come is chock-full of Elizabethan-era faerie goodness (“Stunningly conceived and exquisitely achieved” — Publishers Weekly, in a starred review), and which went immediately from my “in” pile to Krissy’s hands once it arrived here, so it’s not like I’ve gotten to read it. Sometimes that happens. One makes allowances for the desires of one’s spouse. But Krissy’s enjoying it so far, at the very least.

In this Big Idea, Marie Brennan explains how and why it was she made the faerie realm a dark mirror to the human one — and how she deals with keeping the two realms separate, even as they reflect (and even rely) on one another.

MARIE BRENNAN:

As I’ve been saying any time someone asks me where this book came from, Midnight Never Come grew out of a roleplaying game. Which is not what I want to talk about here; I’ve already been asked about that in several interviews, and I have other things to say. (Besides, the Big Idea of the game — a 650-year alchemical experiment — is not the Big Idea of the book.)

But I give you that context so you’ll understand why the foundation of the novel’s concept came when I was trying to make up a faerie history for England. The one written for the game system, Changeling: The Dreaming, was incredibly lame, so I threw it out and started from scratch. What would faeries be doing while English history is trundling along? Of course, that automatically implies something: that the fae aren’t static, timeless creatures. They have a history, too, and it reflects, contrasts with, or otherwise interestingly comments on what humans are doing.

Fittingly, then, the first thing I came up with was Invidiana: Elizabeth’s dark mirror. Being a faerie, she’s all about immortal beauty; Elizabeth tried desperately to create an unchanging image of herself as the beautiful Virgin Queen, even as she aged and her teeth went bad and smallpox left its scars. Elizabeth never married; Invidiana is the most loveless creature you can imagine. And both of them, of course, are reigning queens of England. I originally just implied a metaphysical link between them, but in the book it’s explicit: when Elizabeth was imprisoned in the Tower during Mary’s reign, she made a secret deal with Invidiana, that they would help each other out.

Which set the tone, not just for this novel, but the whole series — however many of them I end up writing. There’s a faerie palace hidden beneath London, the Onyx Hall, and its inhabitants care about mortals enough (benevolently or otherwise) that they choose to live in terrifyingly close proximity to church bells and iron nails and other things not very friendly to them. They consume mortal art, copy mortal fashion, and generally mirror mortal doings — but always with a difference.

The challenge in this, if you have the kind of academic brain I do, is deciding where to place the boundary between the two. How closely can my fae reflect humanity before they turn into human beings with pointy ears? (Not that I ever say their ears are pointed.) The practical questions I always try to answer when creating a secondary world, I deliberately leave unanswered here, because they would leach all the numinous out of the fae. So you know how the Onyx Court gets the bread country folk leave out for the faeries — but what about the rest of their food? If I start down that road, pretty soon you need faerie farmers and faerie carters and faerie millers and blacksmiths and wheelwrights and all the other mundane professions that keep an actual society functioning, and it stops looking very mythic. They have banquets; don’t ask where the food comes from. (Much less where it goes afterward . . . .)

Also, since I’ve set up this connection between Invidiana and Elizabeth — how far does that go? The notion is that Invidiana does things to help Elizabeth on her throne, and vice versa; more broadly, each one of them is manipulating the politics of the other side for their own benefit. But it’s very easy to turn that into a Secret Masters of the World setup, where all the cool things in English history turn out to be the work of fae. And I definitely don’t want to do that, because it trivializes the achievements of the real people who lived at the time. Instead, I look for the cracks, the places where there’s no explanation, or there’s room for another one. The Spanish Armada’s the easy example: sure, there’s the work done by the English navy, but there were also storms. Freakishly unseasonable ones, in fact. That wasn’t any human’s doing, so I have no problems claiming it for the fae. Or Elizabeth never marrying; I can easily acknowledge the personal and political issues that kept her single, while also implying Invidiana might have something to do with it.

The desire for that balance runs from the microscopic to the macro level of the book. I did everything humanly possible to get my history right, so the places where I add a layer will actually mean something. (Hello, unscalable mountains of research.) I also have two protagonists — one human, one fae — and kept count while I was writing, so their points of view would have roughly equal screen time, so to speak. I didn’t start off with this whole developed mission statement, though; it grew as I wrote, as I found myself making choices for Midnight Never Come, and when my publisher and I agreed I would write a second book, I looked back and thought, “okay, these are the rules I’m playing by.”

If I can keep up that balance through the appalling political morass that is the English Civil War, it’ll be a miracle.

Midnight Never Come: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Book Web Site | Read an Excerpt | Author LiveJournal

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: David Louis Edelman

David Louis Edelman has been making a name for himself in science fiction over the last couple of years with his Jump 225 trilogy of books, the first of which Infoquake, racked up some nice reviews and helped propel Edelman into nominations for two different kinds of John W. Campbell award (one for Best Novel, and the other for Best New Writer), which is a one-two punch that not many other writers can claim. Edelman and his trilogy are back with MultiReal, and to explain the Big Idea of the book and series, Edelman’s got a set-up that… well, I’ll just let you read it for yourself.

(Holds up tarp to protect himself, cowers)

Okay, David: Take it away —

DAVID LOUIS EDELMAN:

Could Adolf Hitler ever have been the good guy?

The man was a warped, murderous bastard who ordered the slaughter of millions of people, started an unnecessary war of conquest, and permanently 86’d the dreams of an entire generation or three. But seriously – let’s say you hop in a time machine, track the dude down as a teenager, and put him through a serious reeducation program. And maybe give him a heavy dose of Prozac. Or better yet, hand him a Macintosh. Could he be redeemed?

Because a non-insane Adolf Hitler would be a great guy to have on your side. He had the raw charisma to motivate tens of millions of people to get off their asses. He had the cunning to convince Neville Chamberlain that he wanted peace with Europe, and then the strategic genius to turn around and conquer it months later. He had the tenacity to never give up, even when the odds were stacked against him. If only Hitler didn’t have that whole “stinking, festering, maggot-ridden evil” thing going on – and if only he had some competent advisors who weren’t also stinking, festering, etc. — he might have accomplished some amazing things.

That was one of the Big Ideas behind my novels Infoquake and MultiReal. Create a character with Hitler-like strategic genius, with Gates-like business savvy, with Clinton-like personal magnetism, with Machiavelli-like disregard for ethics. Stick him on the fence between the ultimate selfishness and the ultimate selflessness, give him a technology that could revolutionize the world or destroy it, and see what he does.

My character, Natch, is a business entrepreneur in a far-future society where software runs the human body. To be concise, he’s a manipulative bastard. To be a little less concise, he’s a very manipulative bastard. The first time you meet Natch, he’s busy creating a complicated terror hoax that will scare millions of people, just so he can take advantage of the panic to leap to the top of the Primo’s bio/logic investment guide. (Imagine if someone started mailing suspicious envelopes filled with Sweet n’ Low to major media outlets during the anthrax scare of 2001, and you’ll get the idea.)

Natch is still a relatively young man; he hasn’t had the opportunity to do Hitler-sized damage yet. You can sense that he’s not beyond redemption; he’s just pointed in the wrong direction.

During the course of Infoquake, he manages to connive his way into co-owning a new technology called MultiReal. And MultiReal, as you discover in the book MultiReal, is a potentially epoch-changing technology. It’s like the Internet to the Internetth. Simply put, MultiReal allows you to hop through potential realities and choose the one that suits you. Hit a baseball, and choose the reality where you hit a home run every time. Shoot a gun, and choose the reality where you hit the target every time. Confront an enemy, and choose the reality where that enemy inexplicably decides to commit suicide…

(Before you start protesting about how ludicrous that sounds, let me say that MultiReal is a lot more complicated than that – complicated enough that it takes most of two novels to set up. And if you’ll excuse a little chest-thumping, let me point out that Publishers Weekly said “MultiReal is firmly established as one of the most fascinating singularity technologies in years,” and Norman Spinrad said in Asimov’s that “Edelman seems to have convincing and convincingly detailed knowledge of the physiology and biochemistry of the human nervous system down to the molecular level.” The latter of which makes me cackle with glee, because it’s so not true.)

You can probably see where I’m going with this MultiReal stuff. It’s all a question of choice. How do you make the right choices? What happens when you’ve got two equally good choices – or two equally bad ones? Can you take responsibility for your choices? How important are your choices? Could even Adolf Hitler have led a life of charity, industry, and philanthropy if he had made better choices?

So during the course of Infoquake, MultiReal, and the still-in-progress Geosynchron, Natch must ask himself these questions. But he’s not alone; the entire world around him is facing difficult choices as well. Society is ideologically split between governmentalists who favor a strong central legislature and libertarians who prefer a patchwork of smaller, subscription-based authorities. Most of the world has adapted to the bio/logic technologies that have radically changed society, but there’s a vocal minority of conscientious objectors who feel they’re being shoved under the rug. Humanity has begun expanding to Luna, Mars, and a dozen orbital colonies, but the mass of Earth-bound people are having a difficult time accepting the needs of these new pioneers.

When you reach a fork in the road, how do you decide which path to take? Or could MultiReal be the key to allowing humanity to take both roads…?

I had my own choices in mind when I started writing Infoquake and MultiReal back in late 2000. I was in the middle of a fairly acrimonious divorce. I had just quit my contract job programming U.S. Army websites that nobody in the U.S. Army knew or cared about. I had changed my hair style, moved outside the DC Beltway, gotten a new pair of glasses, and sold a house. I was in a mood to take a poke at everything I thought I knew or valued with a really sharp stick to see if it held up.

And so I decided to put it all on the line for my characters. During the course of the Jump 225 trilogy, you’re going to see a man who was once one of the world’s most despicable human beings put in the ultimate hot seat. You’re going to see Natch faced with possibly the most momentous and far-reaching decision any human being has ever had to face since the dawn of history.

What’s he gonna do? The answers lie just ahead…

—-

MultiReal: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Visit MultiReal’s site here, which includes written and audio excerpts. Visit David Louis Edelman’s blog here, and learn about the “Jump 225 Jumbo Mega-Bonanza Summer Giveaway.”

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Nancy Kress

Your sweet adorable pet: What if it was a raging vector of viral infection? Maybe that’s not something you actually want to spend time thinking about, but that’s okay, since Hugo and Nebula Award winning author Nancy Kress already thought about it for you. The result: Dogs, which Publishers Weekly is lauding as “a spine-chilling, suspense-laden story,” featuring Man’s Best Friend becoming a whole lot less friendly.

Why did Kress think of this in the first place? Well, like some viruses one can think of, this story had a long incubation period. Here’s the author to trace the vector of infection back to the source.

NANCY KRESS:

In 1998, four years after it first came out, I read Richard Preston’s non-fiction bestseller, The Hot Zone, which harrowingly details the importation of monkeys infected with Ebola into the United States. The monkeys were housed in an animal holding facility in Reston, Virginia, destined for research by pharmaceutical companies, when they began to die with the characteristic, horrifying “bleeding out” of Ebola. Both the CDC and USAMRIID, the United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, were called in to deal with the crisis. All the monkeys were destroyed.

I was riveted. Genetic engineering had already begun to take firm hold of my writing, both as potential benefit and as potentially monstrous bioweapon. But now I expanded that interest to naturally occurring pathogens that could be just as deadly. What if Ebola in its most dangerous form had been transmitted to monkey-house workers? What if it had gotten out into the general population?

Some novels have a long gestation period. Over the next five years, the topic didn’t leave my mind. I knew I wanted to write about an animal-carried plague, but I didn’t want the bubonic-plague model, in which fleas on rats carry the disease but aren’t much affected themselves. Then avian-flu broke out in Asia. This was closer to what I wanted; chickens could both become infected and infect humans, although only if humans had close, prolonged contact with the chickens. More interesting to me was the response of various Asian governments: quarantine and destroy the birds. But some element was missing in my mind.

It was supplied by both 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

The attack on the World Trade Towers, which so sharply clarified the bitterness of Arab jihadists for the United States, profoundly discouraged me. When young, I’d lived for a year in an Arab country (Tunisia) and had developed a liking for Arab culture, as well as a respect for the complicated, tangled ways that family, business, politics, and religion mesh in that part of the world. It’s utterly different from the way things get accomplished in the United States. I knew I couldn’t write about it from an Arab point of view, but I wanted now to write about it in some way.

Hurricane Katrina dismayed everyone with how badly FEMA handled the crisis. I read the angry, post-hurricane interviews with people who had been badly let down by a flat-footed government more interested in its own prestige than it protecting its citizens.

Then, in 2003, I got a dog.

Who can say how disparate elements finally, after years of simmering in the well of unconscious, come together in a writer’s brain? All at once I saw how a biological pathogen, a government’s ineptitude in the face of emergency, and a person involved with Arab culture, could come together in my book. The novel’s heroine Tessa Sanderson Mahjoub is not an Arab; she is the widow of one. Dogs can carry viruses that make them profoundly dangerous to human beings, not because diseases easily jump species barriers (they don’t) but because retroviruses like rabies can cross the blood-brain barrier and change canine behavior. Thirty-five million American households harbor 65 million dogs. How would the United States government respond to a plague among domestic dogs?

Just as important, how would dog owners, pretty fanatic people themselves, respond to interference with their beloved pets? Spot and Max and Cosette are not regarded in anything close to the same way as medical-research monkeys or Asian chickens.

In working out the plot of Dogs, I wanted to present all sides of the complex issues involved, the chief of which is the good of the majority versus the rights of the individual. In any real plague situation, that’s the conflict that will surface. I’m not sure we’ll handle it particularly well. Dogs, like much SF, is a sort of rehearsal for how that crisis might go down.

Dogs: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read Nancy Kress’ blog here. And participate the Dogs photo contest here: three winners will receive a prize package which includes a signed copy of Dogs.

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: David J. Schwartz

If Spider-Man — and indeed the entire Marvel canon — has taught us anything, it’s that being a super-hero isn’t as easy as it looks. But if you think that’s difficult, try writing one… especially when you’re aware of all the inherent flaws of the genre, no matter how much you love it. In Superpowers, author David J. Schwartz writes up not one but five newbie superheroes, and decides in working with them to zig where most writers (and readers) zag, just to see what would happen. What’s the zig — and what happens? David J. Schwartz uses his super-typing powers to explain.

DAVID J. SCHWARTZ:
I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point I became a person who has a lot of skepticism about the things I love. Pulp fiction? Love it–aside from the bits where women always bring trouble, the mysteries rarely make actual sense, and the bewildering etymology of the word “gunsel.” Latin American literature? Transcendent, if you’ve got a tolerance for metric tons of macho, the dominance of Catholic themes, and a fascination with incest. The Lord of the Rings? It still gets me–except for the part where it’s all about buttressing flawed monarchies, defining good and evil along racial lines, and, well . . . elves.

Which brings me to comic books, specifically super-hero comics. I can’t get enough of these stories, and I have the long boxes to prove it. I love the discovery of weird abilities, the monthly struggle to do the right thing, the last-minute victory against overwhelming odds. This despite the rampant sexism in comics which presents women as ornaments or victims in order to appeal to the fantasies and insecurities of adolescent boys; despite the fact that I worry that heroes with unlimited power and unimpeachable virtue make some readers complacent about the state of truth and justice in the world; and despite the fact that the struggles between costumed figures often seem too mythic to say much about the mistakes and choices made by normal humans.

I like mythic, too, but for Superpowers I made a decision early on: no super-villains. No silly men with overly complicated plans, no giant monsters, no shadowy government organization pulling strings. In a way super-villains make it easy on heroes; obviously _someone_ needs to do something about Dr. Unpleasant, and who better than the ordinary sanitation worker who’s just received the strength of a gorilla from a radioactive plantain? This is how writers and editors avoid having decent, hard-working Captain Banana beat up on normal civilians, which is all well and good except for the part where crime becomes something perpetrated by archetypes instead of people.

That wasn’t going to work for me, because what I really wanted to talk about was power–political, military, and personal–and how we use it. The story is about how these five college kids in Madison, Wisconsin wake up one morning with new abilities, and how that changes their lives. It’s about their good intentions and the bad decisions that follow. In a way, power itself becomes a villain, because the thing that they discover is that once you have that sort of power, it’s very difficult _not_ to use it.

Which is all well and good, but there’s one thing that villains do really well, and that’s drive a plot. My Rule One for writing–hopefully every writer’s Rule One–is DON’T BE BORING. The challenge for Superpowers was, having decided to forgo the slug-fest, not to go to the other extreme and write a full-bore angst-fest. How to avoid that? My personal crutch is humor, and there’s a lot of comic potential in not knowing your own strength, or having no control over when you’re going to turn invisible. Keeping it light works until the point where it’s necessary to knock that crutch out from under the reader and beat them with it. Hey, you don’t need a villain; you’ve got me!

Did I say that I love superhero stories? I do, and as much as Superpowers is about Big Ideas, it’s also about the sheer fun of being able to fly, or to run the two-minute mile in less than a second. Yeah, these are power fantasies, but I think we’ve all imagined what it might be like to do those things. I also had a lot of fun referencing–both openly and in ways that only the true geeks will pick up on–the characters and stories that I obsessed over in my teens and twenties. Many of which did the sort of thing that I’ve tried to do with this book–tell a good superhero story with full awareness of the problems inherent in the genre.

—-

Superpowers: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt of Superpowers here. Visit Schwartz’s Livejournal here.

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Judson Roberts

The Vikings: You know them as burly guys with braids and swords who gave teleological and philosophical underpinnings to the music of both Richard Wagner and scores of heavy metal bands — but what do you really know about them? If the answer is “really? Not much,” don’t feel too bad; most people are in same boat (one that has a dragon head) with you. But fortunately for you Judson Roberts does know a lot about the life and times of the Vikings, and uses that historical verisimilitude to inform his “Strongbow Saga” of books, of which The Road to Vengeance is the latest installment.

So there’s not a small amount of irony that in his quest to recount the world of the Vikings, Roberts discovered he had to go through some experiences here and now, in our world, to get that era right. Here’s Roberts to explain why that was so.

JUDSON ROBERTS:

When I set out to write a historical fiction series, I had several specific goals in mind. First, I wanted to tell a fast paced story with lots of action, excitement and adventure. Second, I wanted to bring the ninth century time period and the Viking peoples, within whose world the story is set, so vividly to life that readers would feel like they were being swept into that world and were experiencing it. And third, I wanted to strive for the highest possible degree of historical accuracy, particularly because I feel the Vikings have for the most part been badly misrepresented in fiction.

Two of my all time favorite books served as my inspirational role models. The first was James Clavell’s Shogun, and the other The Lord of the Rings. As far as I’m concerned, Shogun sets the gold standard for the three goals listed above–prior to reading it I’d known nothing at all about medieval Japan, with its samurai history and Bushido culture, but by the time I finished the book I felt like I’d been transported to the far side of the world, and back to the early 17th century. And Tolkien’s Middle Earth, although a fictional creation, becomes more real for me every time I read it than the real world settings of much historical fiction.

My earliest drafts fell far short of achieving my second goal. I wasn’t bringing the Vikings’ culture to life. I wasn’t succeeding at getting inside the heads of a people who’d lived over a thousand years ago. What I was creating felt comparable to the dreadful 1993 Disney-produced film of The Three Musketeers, starring Kiefer Sutherland and Charlie Sheen, whose characters may have been garbed in costumes appropriate to the period, and placed in authentic looking settings, but as soon as they opened their mouths you heard twentieth century surfer dudes, and every shred of the movie’s credibility went out the window.

Ironically, what led me to my breakthrough big idea was having almost every aspect of my life get blown to hell.

I was living on the east coast at the time, where I’d created and had been running an innovative anti-gang and drug program for a local district attorney’s office in North Carolina. The program, a several-year project funded by a federal grant, had been so successful that a larger statewide drug intelligence and interdiction program modeled after it was being planned, and as my small, local project was being gradually phased out I was offered a high level position in the soon to be created new agency.

Unfortunately, the new statewide program was to be funded primarily by the federal government. The year was 2001, and the newly elected Bush administration swept into office, bringing with them a disdain and distrust for any program or plan originating during their Democratic predecessor’s term, including the new state program I’d been planning to move to. With a stroke of a pen they killed its funding. I suddenly found myself, at age fifty, unemployed and with an unusual background and skill set: investigating and prosecuting various types of organized crime, with special expertise in large conspiracy cases and electronic surveillance–skills for which there was virtually no market, especially in North Carolina, except for the government that now was not hiring.

On top of that, my first marriage, which had endured for thirty years but had been struggling for the last ten, came to an end, and I was having a lot of trouble with my health, but a succession of doctors were unable to diagnose the cause. After months of efforts to turn things around that proved unsuccessful on every front, I followed in the footsteps of Davy Crockett, who uttered these immortal words as he left the east and headed west toward the destiny he found at the Alamo: “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.”

There is a point to this story. In Texas, I built a new life from the broken fragments of my old one. I fell in love and remarried, I succeeded in getting my health problem identified and under control, and on the career front I moved in new directions–first as a private investigator, and later as an actually published, income-earning writer rather than merely an aspiring one. But going through the overall experience led me to an understanding of how the Vikings’ beliefs gave them a perspective on their lives very different from how we tend to view our world today.

In the modern western world, we have a tendency to believe (until events beyond our control prove us wrong) that we are the masters of our own destinies. The Vikings knew better. They believed that everything–the lives of all men, the pantheon of pagan gods they worshipped, and even the world itself, was subject to and controlled by a power or force they called fate. And they believed that fate was not random, but was shaped by an intelligent hand, or more precisely, three pairs of hands. For the Vikings visualized fate as an immensely vast tapestry being woven on the looms of three ancient sisters called the Norns. Although the life of any individual might consist of no more than a few brief lengths of thread in the overall tapestry of fate, nevertheless every thread was positioned and woven into the pattern of the tapestry with purpose and intent. It was not necessarily granted to men to understand the purposes of their lives, or the reasons for the twists and turns they might follow. And for certain no one could escape their fate. But it was within the power and control of every man to face whatever his fate brought him with courage and dignity, or with fear and disgrace–and such, to the Vikings, was the ultimate measure of a man.

Understanding that, I was at last able to re-approach my characters, and to tell their stories and portray their world as they themselves might have seen them. The rest is history–mixed liberally with fiction, of course.

—-

The Road to Vengeance: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read excerpts from The Road to Vengeance and the other Strongbow Saga books here, and explore through Roberts’ research on the life and times of Vikings here.

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Marjorie M. Liu

In its review of The Iron Hunt, her latest, Publishers Weekly called Marjorie M. Liu “one of the best new voices in paranormal fiction” — and given how hot the field is these days, that’s not a small compliment. The Iron Hunt finds Liu doing what she does best: Creating a strong character who stands between humanity and the demons who, as you might expect, do not exactly wish us well. It’s always something. But the roots of the book arise out of ground you might not expect, or eve have been aware of. Here is Liu to tell you how a quote from one of the fathers of modern Chinese literature set her on the path to The Iron Hunt.

MARJORIE M. LIU:

Every writer searches for that meteoric fragment of inspiration, and the following quote from Lu Xun was mine, from the beginning, as I began the mental somersaults that would take me into the creation of The Iron Hunt:

“Imagine an iron house having not a single window and virtually indestructible, with all its inmates sound asleep and about to die of suffocation. Dying in their sleep, they won’t feel the pain of death. Now if you raise a shout to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making these unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you really think you are doing them a good turn?”

“But if a few wake up, you can’t say there is no hope of destroying the iron house.”

There. The Big Idea. But let me backtrack for a moment.

My first big idea was an old idea by the time I got around to writing The Iron Hunt – the sequel to a novella penned almost two years ago. Called Hunter Kiss, its central conceit was born from watching the news, my evenings exposed to stories of kidnappings and bloodshed; reports of mass rapes, mass murder. Fearsome crimes. And I would sit – as many do — safe on my couch, staring at the television, and ask myself, “Who does that? Who is capable of that?”

Better yet, why? No doubt there is an occasional madness to human beings – and while some insanities are delightful and quirky, and become the eccentric mainstay of some talented individuals, it’s those other, darker urges that electrify, terrify – and that remain, at their worst, unfathomable. All you can do is brace yourself.

Yet, that’s how the first idea started, and it could not have been simpler: Some people are evil. Of those, not all become wicked by themselves. I envisioned the spiritual manipulation of humans in biological terms. Demons – so to speak — riding on the backs of souls, feeding like parasites on the energy of strong emotions. Needing human pain to survive.

Alien creatures, not of earth. No hell, no heaven, just an invasion from another world. An army, locked inside a prison located in a dimension beyond ours, from which demonic rats and scrappers occasionally escape through cracks in the veil separating us from them – becoming malevolent shadows, whispering in human heads. Not the worst of the demons, either. Not by a long shot.

This was something I wrote down after a particularly bad dream. I didn’t think much would come of it, until I saw a documentary on tattoos around the same time I had a novella to write (and never underestimate the inspirational qualities of a deadline). As I rested in bed, watching some dude covered head to toe in scales and monsters and swords, I remembered an old Sci-fi Channel commercial – also about tattoos — and thought, “How cool if those were alive.”

And Maxine Kiss was born. The last Prison Warden. Covered in living, breathing, demonic tattoos. Part of a symbiotic relationship inherited from mother to daughter. Maxine was the first Big Idea – after the demons, before Lu Xun: loner, nomad – the iconic gunslinger — no friends but the demons who live on her body; and totally clueless about the vast history of her legacy, or how much danger the world is in.

A world unabashedly influenced by my obsessions with C.S. Lewis, Hans Christian Anderson, and Jorge Luis Borges. If you read too much of them, ideas are bound to get stirred up, inspired by orphans and magic, quests and destiny — and those damn labyrinths. Add a dash of quantum physics, and an alien race that treats genetic manipulation like a divine art, and you’ve got urban fantasy blended with science fiction. Part of the Big Idea — but still not the Big Idea.

Which takes me back to Lu Xun, who was a wanderer, a man keenly aware of the natural oppression of society, as well as his own intellectual loneliness. Swallowed up by the world — which will kill any individual, slowly, who stands alone. And plenty do, whether they realize it or not. The end of the world happens every day, for some. Might not have anything to do with demons or prison veils, or aliens from other dimensions and planets, but in the end, in your heart, you give up, succumb to apathy, die alone – or you search out others of like-mind to share the burden of living, and fight for something better.

The heart of The Iron Hunt is quiet, and very simple. Rooted in character. Our world, and the world of the book, might be a difficult place, and dangers abound – but you have a choice whether to see only the suffocating walls, without hope. You have the choice to do good or evil; or to coast, in apathy, within the deadly status quo. And that choice – for the heroine, Maxine, for the friends she finds — is what rests at the core of The Iron Hunt.

The Iron Hunt: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt or listen to an audio excerpt of The Iron Hunt here.

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Peter David

What does it take to return to Neverland? Author Peter David, who as a child dreamed of life among the Lost Boys, mulled over this question as an adult. His answer is Tigerheart, a pastiche and paean to Peter Pan and J.M. Barrie that is being praised as having “the same kind of atmosphere as William Goldman’s The Princess Bride.” That’s ringing the changes off two classics at once. How did David do it? By paying attention to the little things, as he explains in this Big Idea.

PETER DAVID:

My fascination with Peter Pan goes back to my awareness of my name, since the Boy Who Never Grew Up was partly the inspiration for it. For that matter, my first real girlfriend was named Wendy. I was certain we’d wind up married purely on that basis. Anyway, the Mary Martin TV version helped cement my obsession with the character, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’d read the James Barrie book, not to mention the original play.

So when various Peter Pan sequels began hitting the stands, some of them written by people with remarkably well-suited surnames (James Barrie versus Dave Barry. Coincidence? I think not) I was first in line to pick them up.

Yet I found all of them–even the eventual “official” sequel–to be lacking. I couldn’t put my finger on why. Returning yet again to the Barrie original, though, I realized what it was, and why, though the flesh of the books may have been willing, the spirit was weak.

What most people seem to ignore, or perhaps even not get, is that the Neverland isn’t merely another place. It’s a dream realm. If you read the original Barrie play, it’s virtually unstageable. At least, it can’t be mounted if you try to stick to Barrie’s descriptions, because they’re written in a surreal, dreamlike manner that calls for all manner of things on stage that can’t be done. Any version you see of the play is of necessity watered down from Barrie’s original vision, and the subsequent novelization of his own play merely exacerbated that. The narrative is all over the place, by design. It reads like someone experiencing a dream, constantly switching perspective and perceptions. Sometimes you’re right alongside the characters, other times the narrator is speaking in the royal “we,” and on other occasions he changes to first person, seemingly at random. He comments on the characters, drops hints, openly manipulates the goings-on, and draws rather acerbic conclusions. Sometimes he even seems more sympathetic with Hook than he does his nominal hero. The story is not logical; it’s paralogical, set within a dreamlike state that makes sense in and of itself.

And I realized that that narrative voice was essential to make a Peter Pan sequel feel like a genuine sequel. You have to use the narrative in a far more active manner than anyone else had been doing because it has to sound like someone is recounting a dream they once had, possibly in childhood. It has to be surreal. And no one was doing it that way. They were treating Peter Pan like just another adventure character, no different than the Hardy Boys or Tarzan. It was the wrong approach.

Since no one else was doing it in a manner true to Barrie, I decided to.

Ironically, as the story developed, it became less and less an actual sequel to Peter Pan (or, if you go with the original title, Peter and Wendy) because my protagonist, Paul Dear, was the one who really drove the story. In the original, Peter Pan shows up seeking his wayward shadow and winds up transporting the Darling children to the Neverland in order to serve his emotional needs. Paul, by contrast, actively seeks out the dream realm in order to retrieve something he hopes will bring back together his family, shattered after an emotional loss. The Barrie characters wound up as the supporting characters. So, even though Pan et al were in public domain, I decided to do pastiche versions instead. I figured if it was good enough for Philip Jose Farmer, it was good enough for me.

But I maintained the ethereal, dreamlike style I had borrowed from Barrie. I felt it was even more important since I was setting aside the goodwill inherent in the Barrie characters and instead substituting archetypal versions that would have to stand or fall on their own merits. Plus I firmly believed that it would make the book unique against a field of other narratives that never wandered beyond the normal boundaries of either third person or first person.

Still, I wanted to have a modern sensibility set against the old-fashioned writing style. That’s why, for instance, I have Paul’s mother trying to deal with Paul’s flights of fancy (claiming he’s talking to animals or magical boys in the mirror) by bringing him to a psychiatrist and having him take medication. Layering 21st century methodology against an early 20th century writing style. I thought it would provide an interesting contrast.

It is, I admit, a risky proposition. No one’s really writing stories in that manner anymore, so anyone coming to Tigerheart without a real understanding of Barrie’s writing style may find themselves put off. It takes a few chapters to become accustomed to the notion that there’s a first-person, occasionally third-person narrator who’s not actually participating in the story, yet doesn’t hesitate to skew the outcome of events and even speak smugly about his ability to do so. To me, the ideal way to experience Tigerheart is to be a child listening to a loving parent reading it to him or her…or, for that matter, to be the parent doing the reading.

Tigerheart: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt of Tigerheart here. Visit Peter David’s blog here.

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Lewis Shiner

These are the days of $4 a gallon gas here in the US, a fact which does not generate much sympathy from most other people in the world (who saw the back end of $4 gas a long time ago) but which pinches us pretty hard anyway, and makes us wonder if our car-driven society might have been better off not so car-driven.

Oddly enough, author Lewis Shiner has been mulling over the same thought (although not necessarily because of $4 gas), and the implications of cars and highways on the life of our nation, and the people within it. It’s a theme in his latest novel Black & White, which Publishers Weekly is lauding as a “powerful and affecting novel… a stunning tapestry that captures hopes, dreams, greed, bigotry, ambitions and betrayals.” A nice recommendation, to be sure, but why not hear from the author himself? Here’s Shiner himself to talk about cars, highways, and life, not necessarily in that order.

LEWIS SHINER

What if the US had decided against building the Interstate Highway System?

Admittedly, this is a long shot. From the days of Henry Ford’s “motor car for the great multitude,” we in the US have been assured that each of us deserves his or her own automobile. It’s our own little piece of Manifest Destiny, part of that fiercely independent, “Don’t Tread On Me” attitude that seems fundamental to our national character.

Still, if there was ever a last chance for an alternative, it was in 1956, when the fate of the $50 billion highway package was far from certain.

When I started researching my new book, Black & White, I hadn’t thought that much about freeways. Growing up in Texas, I’d welcomed the Dallas North Tollway and the 635 Loop that helped me get around faster. When I moved from Texas to North Carolina in 1996, I drove a U-Haul across more than a thousand miles of interstate highway. Freeways seemed inevitable.

Black & White is about a North Carolina neighborhood called Hayti, once the most prosperous black community in the South. During the 1960s, Hayti was bulldozed to make room for the Durham Freeway, leading to a new industrial development called Research Triangle Park. The money to do it came in large part from the federal urban renewal program. All told, urban renewal wiped out 150 neighborhoods like Hayti, and virtually all of the displaced residents were African-American. Freeways were often the excuse for the demolition.

Even knowing that, there was a certain cold logic at work that seemed hard to refute. Given that the highway has to go somewhere, the most likely place for it is where the land is cheap. Jim Crow still ruled the South in those days, so black neighborhoods were frequently poor neighborhoods, and the residents lacked the political clout to save their homes.

Then I read Tom Lewis’s Divided Highways (Penguin, 1997), and I started to ask if that highway really needed to exist.

The dream of the Interstate Highway System was to end traffic congestion forever. With the advantage of hindsight, Lewis makes it clear that the dream never had a chance. Once a highway is built, new homes, stores, and workplaces will naturally spring up in proximity. With more destinations now in reach of the freeway, traffic grows to fill all available lanes. Expand the number of lanes and more cars show up to choke them as well.

And the cycle grows more vicious by the day. With more and more destinations accessible only by freeway, cars become even more indispensable. Longer trips mean more fuel consumption, more pollution. With highways getting all the money and railroads proportionately starving, trucks take over all the freight transportation. More pollution, more wear and tear on the roads, more congestion.

Congestion and impatience breed collisions, creating more congestion, more frustration, road rage, feelings of helplessness, until in 2008 half the passenger vehicles on the road are huge pickup trucks or SUVs that look like armored cars. My daily commute to Research Triangle Park over ten miles of Interstate 40 is a nerve-wracking journey through a war zone.

What if, instead of spending all those billions on the interstate system, we had spent the same amount on public transportation?

I’ve ridden subways and commuter trains in New York and Boston, in Europe and Latin America, and the quality of the experience is profoundly different from that of driving a freeway. Instead of glorifying the individual, it values the community. There is no advantage to be gained by reckless stunts–everyone on the train arrives at the same time. Instead of spending the trip in caffeine-fueled aggression–or, as I do, in stark terror–you can read, listen to music with your eyes closed, or even talk to a stranger.

These thoughts had a considerable effect on the novel. It’s bad enough to sacrifice a neighborhood for the sake of a greater good. It’s far worse when the destruction–for dubious motives in the first place–is one more step toward the wrong future.

I put these ideas in the mouth of an activist named Barrett Howard. My viewpoint character in the longest 1960s segment is a highway engineer, and Howard’s ideas begin to eat at him, undermining his faith in his work, eventually sending his life on a new course.

In the largest part of the book, set in the present, the highways took on a more sinister character. Barrett Howard’s murdered body is found inside a concrete embankment of the Durham Freeway. Traffic jams, crazed drivers, and bleak expanses of concrete became part of the background of the novel.

Where would we be without our cars and highways? I can’t help but think we’d be in a better place. But thanks to our Interstate Highway System, we’ll probably never know.

Black & White: Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Visit Lewis Shiner’s collection of online short fiction and other writing here.

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: N.M. Kelby

Inspiration is a funny thing in that it hardly ever comes as you straight-on; it comes in at different angles and sometimes what it inspires doesn’t necessarily seem to be an obvious takeaway. Case in point: Murder at the Bad Girl’s Bar and Grill, a funny, Florida-soaked mystery novel (“A perfect beach read” — New York Post), whose inspiration found its home in a different clime, with an entirely different mood. In this Big Idea, author N.M. Kelby explains how the inspiration got from there to here.

N.M. KELBY:

Murder at the Bad Girl’s Bar and Grill is a tiki-styled retelling of Macbeth set in South Florida. The characters include the last living relative of Macbeth (a Scottish clown who has a puppet circus, in addition to a set of vestigial wings), a Barry Manilow impersonator with a dog named “Mandy,” the “Queen of Scream” Danni Keene (the retired star of 1980 shockmiester horror films), FBI dropout Brian Wilson (named after THE Brian Wilson), a landlocked mermaid, and Jimmy Ray, the star of Whale Season, a 70 year old Buddhist Blues player whose advice as to how to be a good Buddhist is “Throw your heart into the world like a Frisbee.”

Did I mention that there’s also a Meticalla tribute band from Lawrence Welk’s hometown that plays “Leper Messiah” on the accordions? Oh, and there’s a couple of dead bodies and a kettle of vultures, too.

The book surprisingly began in Vermont. In winter. -5. I’m from Florida. You can only imagine. I was there because I felt that I’d lost my sense of magic in the world. So, I decided to go back and visit an old influence of mine, Peter Schumann. His work with the Bread and Puppet Theater had always been inspirational to me––and I was desperate for inspiration.

When you think puppets, you usually think of silly sock things, at least I used to. But Schumann created epics, some called “circuses”, using towering puppets, some two stories high. The work could be filled with whimsy or political themes, but it was often beautiful and shockingly magical.

So that winter, I visited Herr Schumann and his Bread and Puppet Museum. And here’s what I wrote in my notebook. When you read the book you’ll see how I used many of these passages in the final edition:

They are everywhere you look. Puppets and masks are hanging from the rafters, or set in amused repose at tea parties, or sunning themselves at imaginary beaches, or standing silent as language waiting for the moment of use. Their faces are the color of stone or rust. Their expressions are simple and kind: content as the moon dreaming of itself.

Nearly fifty years of puppets hang from every spare space on both floors in this museum––although it is not really the kind of museum that one usually visits in the dead of winter. It is not a striking building designed to illuminate the art that is contained within. It is, in fact, an ancient barn outside of the rural town of Glover, Vermont. At -5, it is the most balmy day of the week. Brittle winds are wailing through the slats in the walls that winter’s heaving has caused. The wounds of winter are everywhere. The floor longs for tropical oceans and has buckled into waves that the coming of spring will lessen, but only so much.

Desire is so powerful.

Throughout the cavernous space, puppets move in the fog of cold, animate themselves. No one is willing to give them life. Not now. Not in the bitter edge of winter.

Is this heaven? they think.

Not now, we say.

From every inch of this space––from the 20 ft ceiling to the stable that once held the team of horses that tilled this land––clay eyes watch you.

You can’t help yourself when you think of the biblical, think dust to dust. Here, in this place, it’s easy to believe that we are made of clay, animated by some unseen hand. A madonna hangs from the rafters above you, exposed as an angel, holds the Child close to her breast.

Peter Schumann is a gnome of a man who speaks in a still-stubborn German accent. He is rough-hewn. His accent is filled with wood smoke and raw wool. There is a wolf dog at his side. The dog is nearly as large as a child’s pony, but not docile–seems unwilling to give in to being tamed.

He and I shiver uncontrollably as we walk through this mad and exquisite clutter which really seems to be one man’s mind. Peter makes all the masks himself. They all seem to resemble him.

In the dark corners of the barn, somewhere in a place difficult to determine, there are the soft groans of a cow that has been too cold too long and refuses the relief of giving milk and now just stands focusing on the pain of being alive in weather so cold that it breaks metal and men.

At one point I turn to Peter and say, “When you see all of this what do you think? What do you see?”

“I see my heart,” he says this as if it’s a great sorrow.

And so that night I began to write the tale of Sòlas Mackay, the last living relative of Macbeth, a circus clown by training and disposition who suddenly believes that his life’s work, his beautiful puppets, could be the reason behind his estranged brother’s murder. But I made it funny, too.

Visit N.M. Kelby’s blog here. And learn about the BBQ sauce the book inspired.

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: David J. Williams

Terrorism is alive and well and living in the 22nd century — and if you don’t believe that, check out The Mirrored Heavens, in which one of the US’ proudest technological achievements is attacked and US scrambles to respond. Library Journal is calling it a “stellar hard sf debut,” which must make David J. Williams, its author, feel all shiny. Here’s Williams to discuss the Big Idea behind the book, and how The Mirrored Heavens, while taking place a century from now, has its roots in what happening in space right now, here in the real world.

DAVID J. WILLIAMS

I consider The Mirrored Heavens to be cyberpunk where the state never withered away. Instead it grew. And grew. My netrunners (I call ’em razors) don’t work for faceless corporations, they work for faceless governments (who also mess with their memories). When I started writing the book prior to 9-11, the National Security State wasn’t exactly grabbing the headlines, but the events of the last several years have pretty much confirmed it’s something we’re going to be stuck with for a while. And I’m a firm believer that science fiction affords a unique vantage from which to analyze that State: how it moves, how it behaves, how it responds when under pressure.

Not to mention what it might look like several decades from now. History has always obsessed me (I probably read more of it than I do science fiction, and that’s saying something), so my default approach to writing SF is as future history. When I turned the novel into Bantam, there were tons of appendices: timelines, treaties, documents, schematics, etc. Most of them were cut in the name of page count sanity (they’re now up on the website, www.autumnrain2110.com), but it was only once I’d written those that I felt able to approach the central narrative.

And I deliberately set my future only a hundred years from the present, precisely because I wanted to provide continuity: to be able to explain very clearly how the world we live in today became the world in which my characters dwell tomorrow. As to the nature of that world: I grew up during the Cold War, so maybe it’s just pure unoriginality on my part that this became the direction I took for The Mirrored Heavens. The Eurasian Coalition is a combination of a rising China and a resurgent Russia, and its domination of the Eastern hemisphere in the second half of the twenty-first century becomes the ultimate challenge for the United States, plunging the world into a second cold war that makes the first one look like a tea-party.

Alongside this geopolitical development is a technological one: the weaponization of space. Which is something that’s already starting to creep into today’s headlines. Last year China conducted an anti-satellite test. We did the same earlier this year. From a military perspective, space represents the ultimate high ground. In Gulf War Number One, Norman Schwarzkopf was hailed as a strategic genius following his crushing of the Iraqi army. But the truth of the matter is that it’s very difficult to lose a battle if you can see the enemy and the enemy can’t see you. We had—we have—the eyes in the sky, and the Iraqis did not. (Which is why the only thing that gives the U.S. military trouble today are guerilla movements that blend in amidst a population.) Any nation that wants to challenge the core of our national power will have to do so in the heavens.

By way of analogy, consider World War One. At the beginning of that war, both sides dug trenches. And then they took aircraft—which, by the way, had been around for barely a decade by that point—and sent them over each others’ positions to take a look at what the other guy was up to. And eventually the generals said, you know, can’t we do something about all these #@#$ aircraft that the other side has got flying over our heads. So then planes started sporting guns and started shooting at each other.

Thus it is with space. Space is already militarised—it’s already used for military purposes everytime we look down from the sky with a spysat. But to have it be weaponized would be a big additional step. In my book, such weaponization has occurred in conjunction with the maturation of technologies that currently are in their infancy—in particular, speed-of-light weaponry: lasers, particle beams, xasers, microwave cannon, etc. When Reagan proposed his Strategic Defense Initiative in the 1980s (aka SDI, aka Star Wars) he was proposing exactly these kind of weapons. Obviously the Gipper wasn’t a guy to be bothered in the slightest by the fact that the technology just wasn’t there, but the point remains that the missile shields he was proposing will eventually be entirely feasible (regardless of how we feel about that): weapons architectures that have the dual mission of safeguarding the homeland and taking out the other side’s shields.

So in The Mirrored Heavens, this weaponization of space extends all the way out to the Moon: two superpowers that have divided the whole of the Earth-Moon system between them. And that have occupied the nations of the equator in order to secure valuable launch base real-estate (since it’s cheaper to launch hardware from the lower latitudes). And that have divvied up cyberspace in order to preclude virus attacks—i.e., the Internet gets segmented along geopolitical lines in the name of national security. This is the world into which my characters are born. They’re U.S. agents charged with keeping America safe: an America that has drifted into permanent emergency/martial law in the face of a never-ending threat.

But they live to see a new era. The dawning of the twenty-second century brings fresh hope: because as the arms race accelerates out of control, and Earth’s ecosystem keeps on melting down, the superpowers finally come to their senses and sign a comprehensive series of environmental and political accords. Detente has arrived. Things are looking up.

And then the book starts.

Read David J. Williams’ blog here. Catch an interview with Williams on Fantasy Book Spot here.

Categories
Big Idea

The Big Idea: Walter Jon Williams

This week’s Big Idea is special. Not only does famed author Walter Jon Williams explain the whys and wherefores of his big new novel Implied Spaces to you, but he also finally explains what UFOs are made of! You will be shocked and surprised, as I was. And you will also find out what, if anything, this discovery has to do with Implied Spaces. Honestly, if you don’t come out of this enlightened in one way or another, you’re just not trying hard enough. Read it again, why don’t you.

To get the ball rolling, Williams is here to admit something to you (aside from the composition of UFOs, that is). Mr. Williams, what is it that you want to admit?

WALTER JON WILLIAMS

It has to be admitted that I suck at dreams.

I don’t remember most of my dreams, for one thing. What little I do remember is pointless surrealism, and there’s little worse than surrealism without a point.

Early in my writing career I sometimes would wake in the middle of the night from a dream I was sure would make a good story. Always I promised to remember the dream in the morning, and always I failed. Determined not to let any more masterpieces slip through my fingers, I decided to keep a dream diary.

Sure enough, I soon woke with a brilliant literary idea. I reached for the bedside light, the notebook, and the pencil, and I jotted the idea down. Happy in the knowledge that I’d preserved a fictional treasure, I turned off the light and went back to sleep.

When I woke I grabbed the notebook and read, in very shaky handwriting, the following story idea:

UFOs ARE REALLY MADE OF BREAD.

Really. That’s what it said.

I briefly contemplated writing a story about a flying saucer made of pumpernickel rye, and then I gave up on the whole idea of keeping a dream diary.

Occasionally, though, I get a dream right. Back in the Eighties, I got two novels in a row out of dreams: Knight Moves and Hardwired. The first was nominated for an award, and the second remains my best-selling book to this day.

In each case, the dream wasn’t so much a dream but a fragment. An image, benign in one case, malignant in the other, that lasted only a few seconds, but that was so powerful that it conveyed a substantial emotional jolt. Though each brief vision was stunning, there was also an element of ambiguity that managed to suggest that a lot more was going on than was contained within the frame of the image— a novel’s worth, in both cases.

Since then, dreams have not played much of a part in creating my fictions, which are usually assembled out of sweat, time, and cold hard speculation.

Till Implied Spaces, anyway. A few years ago I awoke from a dream that I actually remembered, that contained some striking, powerful images, and that not only failed to be surreal but that had a plot.

I viewed the dream from the point of view of the protagonist, a person who (other than loaning me the use of his eyes) was not otherwise me. The character was a swordsman wandering through some desert country, and was employed, or had employed himself, to track down a group of bandits that had been preying on caravans. He had assembled a motley group of adventurers for this purpose, and in due time tracked the bad guys to their hideout, a hidden oasis.

The swordsman’s partner was a talking cat, who acted as a scout, and who turned out not to be the most fantastic element in the story. For when the swordsman’s posse attacked the bandits, it was discovered that the outlaws were in the employ of evil magicians. These super bad guys had blue skin, red eyes, and dressed in robes and black turbans. They had little balls that flew about on the ends of their fingers, like junebugs tied to strings, and when these balls chased you, they caused you to disappear with a clap of thunder.

It’s the sort of thing that takes a wandering swordsman aback.

I won’t spoil the suspense by telling you if, or how, the protagonist dealt with this discovery.

I’ll only mention that the first 100 pages of Implied Spaces came right out of that dream. And also that the story elements asked more questions than they answered. I had no idea who the protagonist was, other than a pair of eyeballs that I borrowed during a dream. A world with blue-skinned evil magicians, talking cats, and wandering swordsmen might not be unusual as sword-and-sorcery, but I happen to be a science fiction writer. Though I’ve sometimes written fantasy, it’s hard-edged enough so that the casual reader often mistakes it for SF.

So I amused myself by taking a sword-and-sorcery story and propping it up with science fiction underpinnings. There was a reason for the talking cat, and technological supports for blue-skinned magicians and the stuff they got up to, and a reason why the inhabitants of this desert had access only to medieval technology.

At some point I pull back and reveal all this, just like a film in which the camera tracks back to reveal what is behind the scenery. Such a “reveal” (to use fiction-writers’ cant) is intended to cause the reader to re-evaluate everything he or she knows about what’s going on.

And you know what? It was such fun to pull such a major reveal, that I kept right on revealing. As I built the plot— something I always do before I ever actually write anything— every so often I built in a big blockbuster Gotcha!, in which the camera pulls back to reveal yet more scenery all different from the previous scenery, with all sorts of unanticipated things happening in the scenery to cause the reader to re-evaluate what has gone before. Each time the camera draws back, the scene keeps getting bigger and bigger until it becomes, literally, cosmic.

One of the things I’m saying, I guess, is that you shouldn’t read Implied Spaces if you don’t like surprises.

This is a book in which the fact that human beings create whole universes out of nothing is just a part of the background. It’s not even the biggest idea in the book. A lesser writer might have been satisfied with building the novel around the people-creating-universes idea, but not me.

Quite a number of my books involve taking several Big Ideas, accelerating them to near lightspeed in my Plot Accelerator, and then smashing them together just to see what happens. Implied Spaces features invented universes, nanotechnology, bodies-on-demand, zombies, talking animals, the pervasiveness of the electronic world, magic swords, some of the freakier aspects of wormhole physics, a not-quite-Singularity, and a lot of Big Questions— questions about why we’re here, why the universe was made, what our purpose is, and so on. (Questions, by the way, which I make bold to answer.)

There’s also a love story. Did I mention the love story?

And poetry. I don’t know how smart it is to mention the poetry, it might make people not want to read it. Suffice it to say that while I am not a good poet, I can imitate one when I have to.

I’ve lately been oppressed by the feeling that, in the last few books, I’ve been sort of holding myself back, trying to give the reader not so much what the reader wants, but what some executive in a publishing company thinks the reader wants.

No more. When it’s gonzo universe creatin’ time, the gonzo get creatin’!

I’m back, and I’ve got a Plot Accelerator and I know how to use it!

—-

Read Walter Jon Williams’ blog here.

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