One of my writing buddies in Chicago has a debut novel. Wesley Chu’s The Lives of Tao is sort of like Mission Impossible, if the team were possessed by hyper-intelligent aliens. You want action, conspiracy, and some humor? That’s what Wes is aiming to provide.
So what’s his Favorite bit?
Choosing My Favorite Bit is especially difficult for a first novel. After all, a debut is very special to an author, kind of like that first stuffed animal, first kiss, or that first Nintendo console. So for The Lives of Tao, I hemmed and hawed, trying to decide which of my precious tidbits to favor.
Do I choose the friendship that develops when Tao inhabits Roen and whips him into secret spy shape? Do I go with the humorous dialogue that is peppered throughout the book, or how about protagonist Roen Tan’s journey from overweight loser to suave super spy? The choice is like asking Michelle Duggar to pick which one of her nineteen (last time I checked) kids she likes best.
At the end of the day, I decided to choose one specific scene to be My Favorite Bit that I feel encompasses many of my other favorite parts of the book. It’s the scene where Roen got jumped by a team of Genjix at a nightclub and barely escaped with his life. Now, is this truly my favorite scene because I enjoy kicking my main character’s butt? I do admit to finding a perverse enjoyment writing him getting beaten up, but that’s not the reason why it’s my favorite scene.
See, you have to get to know Roen before he met Tao, the Prophus alien that inhabits him. Pre-Tao, Roen was an overweight loser who meandered his way through life. Life didn’t kick Roen down; he did that all by himself. He had many opportunities to succeed, but he simply thoughtlessly blew every single one of them. He had big dreams, but was too weak and lazy to realize them. He’s the guy sitting at the bar watching the world pass him by, thinking, “I coulda been someone. I coulda been a contenda.”
Well, he wasn’t a contender, and was just doing the minimum to scrape through life. Then Tao came along and put him to work. From months of dieting to daily morning workouts to combat training to forcing Roen to talk to the girl he was crushing, Tao pushed him to his limits and forced him to stand outside of his self-imposed comfortable bubble that had become his daily life. And of course Roen dragged his feet, whined, and pouted all the way. Roen and Tao got into their fair share of mental scuffles, which, of course, made it all the more traumatic when it took place in his head. It’s not like you could lock yourself in the bedroom, after all.
Eventually, Roen bought into Tao’s guidance. Slowly, his outlook on life changed. Little by little, Roen grew stronger, became healthier, and found confidence. He began to transform into that person he could have always been. Now, having an all-wise alien giving him advice might seem like cheating, but really, it’s all Roen. Tao just gave him directions. Roen earned his own successes.
So what does this have anything to do with Roen getting jumped at a nightclub and getting his butt kicked? Everything. Because Roen fought back. Because he didn’t crumple like wet tissue when the going got tough. The new Roen still pretty much came out beaten to a pulp, but he was able to keep his wits about him and find a way to escape. That scene was the one moment when Roen turned the corner to becoming a dynamic character. He proved to himself that he could change. That all that hard work paid off and that he did change. It was the moment that made everything else in the book possible.
There’s a belief in people who practice contact sports that a person’s mettle isn’t tested until the first time he takes a hit. Does he step back? Freeze? Cover up? Or does he fight back? In Roen’s case, he took a punch, and for the first time in his life, he stood up for himself and fought back. And that fighting back made all the difference in the world.
Wesley Chu was born in Taiwan and immigrated to Chicago, Illinois when he was just a pup. It was there he became a Kung Fu master and gymnast.
Wesley is an avid gamer and a contributing writer for the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. A former stunt man and a member of SAG, he can also be seen in film and television playing roles such as “Banzai Chef” in Fred Claus and putting out Oscar worthy performances as a bank teller in Chicago Blackhawks commercials.
Besides working as an Associate Vice President at a bank, he spends his time writing and hanging out with his wife Paula Kim and their Airedale Terrier, Eva.
The first thing you should know is that Delilah S. Dawson’s new book isn’t a vampire novel. At all. Don’t let the fact that some people drink blood fool you for a second. Here’s the cover copy.
True love’s kiss isn’t enough for this Blud princess. But blood and music may win her heart forever. . . .
Delilah S. Dawson’s delightfully dark series takes readers into a clever new world of endless discoveries and sensuous encounters that will leave them breathless.
After four years crammed in a suitcase, drained and unconscious, Ahnastasia Feodor, Crown Princess of Freesia, is not sure which calls to her more: the sound of music or the scent of blood. The source of both is the handsome and mysterious Casper Sterling, once the most celebrated and self-centered musician in Sangland. Fortunately, bleeding one’s subjects dry is expected of Blud royalty. Much to Ahna’s frustration, however, the debauched and reckless enigma—he is definitely not a Bludman, though not exactly human either—is her only ticket back to her snow-rimmed and magical homeland. Ahna needs Casper’s help to defeat an evil sorceress and claim her throne—if she doesn’t drain him first. But as they team up for a harrowing journey filled with pirates and painted ladies, daimons and dashing Bludmen, her craving for blood becomes an unrelenting hunger of the heart. . . .
So what’s her Favorite Bit?
DELILAH S. DAWSON
A beautiful, half-dead princess and a drunk musician face off, a delicate bargain hanging between them. Does she beg him to help her, promise him riches or love?
No, she threatens to kill and eat him and then says this: Nothing shall be more beautiful than your death.
And that’s possibly the only thing that could convince him to help her. That’s where their romance begins.
If you’re a fan of Walt Whitman, you might recognize that quote as a slightly altered line from his poem Starting from Paumanok. It’s the first of dozens of little Whitman Easter eggs scattered throughout Wicked as She Wants, which seems like your basic steampunk paranormal romance but… isn’t.
My Blud series takes place in a parallel universe called Sang where half of the people and most of the wild animals are blood drinkers. Bludmen aren’t magical, undead, or sparkly; they’re simply a long-lived people who subsist on blood and are often ghettoized by the frightened humans. The bunnies are fuzzy little murderballs, and the horses are man-eating monster steeds.
And the world has other twisted versions of what we have on Earth, including analogous historical and literary figures that are slightly skewed. In Sang, Willem Sharkspeare wrote A Big Kerfuffle Over Nonesuch and Mr. Willowbee ran away with Miss MaryAnn in Sagacity and Susceptibility. The book’s heroine, Ahnastasia, is a Sangish version of Princess Anastasia Nicolaevna of the Romanov dynasty, albeit with fangs and talons. But for some reason, Walt Whitman never existed in Sang, which means there’s no version of Leaves of Grass, which leaves the book’s hero, Earth transplant Casper Sterling, sincerely vexed.
I still remember the chills I got the first time I read Whitman and understood that he’d perfectly captured the existential angst, spiritual joy, and earthy passion of humanity. Whitman became the secret muse of this book, and there are dozens of slightly altered quotes from his works in the text. Many of them are said by Ahna, especially at times when Casper might otherwise give up on her, their quest, or himself.
One of my favorite bits is when Ahna finds this written in his journal:
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin
Hoping to cease not until death
Fuck you, Walt Whitman.
Since Casper’s favorite writer doesn’t exist in the new world where he’s trapped, he’s desperate to cobble together as much as he can from the quotes he half-remembers. And it makes him furious that he can’t capture it exactly. Just as he’s a world-class pianist who has never been inspired to create his own unique works, so is he obsessed with
Whitman and focuses on recreating Leaves of Grass instead of writing his own poetry. For Ahna, who has never been to another world and doesn’t know of Walt Whitman, the words come unbidden, simply a part of who she is. And that helps Casper finally accept who *he* is, once he learns to really listen.
Part of the joy in hiding Easter eggs is knowing that every now and then, someone might pick up on one and smile. As an accidental romance writer who rages against the faction of the literary world that looks down on the romance genre, I also take a sneaky pride in mixing “real” literature into a book that Whitman fans might sneer at simply because there’s a buff dude with a ponytail and blouse on the cover and sex spelled out in delicious detail on the pages once Casper and Ahna get down to business.
I believe that reading and writing poetry can be empowering, and I also believe that reading and writing sex can be empowering. Whitman pushed boundaries with his philosophy on love and passion, and I hope that my book, in some small part, pays homage to his playful but serious rebellion.
Please consider this steampunk vampire sex book my barbaric yawp.
Delilah S. Dawson is a native of Roswell, Georgia and the author of the paranormal romance Blud series for Pocket, including WICKED AS THEY COME, WICKED AS SHE WANTS, and two e-novellas, THE MYSTERIOUS MADAM MORPHO and THE PECULIAR PETS OF MISS PLEASANCE. Her first YA, a creepy paranormal called SERVANTS OF THE STORM will be available in 2014 from Simon Pulse. RT Book Reviews has called her “a wonderfully fresh new voice!” and “on the fast track to the top of the genre!”
Today we have a debut novel, so please give a very warm welcome to Brian McClellan. His epic fantasy Promise of Blood, just came out from Orbit.
Field Marshal Tamas’ coup against his king sent corrupt aristocrats to the guillotine and brought bread to the starving. But it also provoked war with the Nine Nations, internal attacks by royalist fanatics, and greedy scrambling for money and power by Tamas’s supposed allies: the Church, workers unions, and mercenary forces. Stretched to his limit Tamas is relying heavily on his few remaining powder mages, including the embittered Taniel, a brilliant marksman who also happens to be his estranged son, and Adamat, a retired police inspector whose loyalty is being tested by blackmail. Now, as attacks batter them from within and without, the credulous are whispering about omens of death and destruction. Just old peasant legends about the gods waking to walk the earth. No modern educated man believes that sort of thing. But, the thing is, they should.
What’s Brian’s Favorite Bit?
One of my favorite things as a reader is meeting new and interesting characters. As a writer, I want to give my audience the same opportunity to enjoy dynamic heroes, anti-heroes, and villains. I’m deeply invested in each of my characters, but, like any parent, I have my darlings. In Promise of Blood, there are three secondary characters that I particularly enjoyed writing.
The first is Olem, a sergeant in the Adran army and bodyguard to Field Marshal Tamas. Olem has a special “Knack”: he doesn’t need sleep. This unique magical talent makes him a prime candidate for his line of work. Olem is calm, collected, and usually seen smoking one of his hand-rolled cigarettes. He’s a perfect right hand man, always ready to dispense advice or carry out an order. The common soldiers look up to him, while none of the officers seem to notice that he wears a beard against army regulation.
Olem may have been the easiest character for me to write. As a man with simple tastes and quiet loyalty and competence, he’s the kind of character that provides an excellent backbone to the narrative.
Mihali is a larger-than-life character. As the greatest chef in all the Nine Nations—and probably the world—he’s earned the title “Lord of the Golden Chefs.” Monarchs open their treasuries to book him for their banquets.
But there’s something not quite… right about Mihali. It could be sorcery. Or he could be insane. Mihali is that delightful character that is unpredictable within the confines of the society in which he resides. He rubs elbows with noblemen, merchants, kings, and peasants, and he believes that all people should be fed equally. He’s the type of man you’d want to spend all afternoon with, even if he does have some absurd ideas about religion. Just don’t call him a cook…
Ka-poel may be my favorite. She’s been the constant companion of Captain Taniel Two-shot for over a year now, accompanying him when he returned from the war in Fatrasta. No one knows much about her—not even Taniel. Her past and her strange, unfamiliar sorcery are a mystery.
Most see her foreign clothes, freckled skin, and diminutive stature and dismiss her out of hand for an “uneducated savage.” Others think she’s an imbecile because of her silence. In reality, Ka-poel is a mute.
Writing a fully realized and interesting character without any dialogue ended up being a great deal of fun. All her communication must be done through hand signs and miming—and Taniel does not speak her primary language. When I first started writing her, I thought that she would be incredibly hard to bring to life. But Ka-poel’s silence became her strength. It allowed me to keep her intentions hidden from the other characters as well as from the reader.
It’s exciting as a writer to be able to create a character that you can empathize with and relate to. It’s even more challenging and rewarding to create characters that the reader feels just as passionately about. After all of the research, world building, and complicated plotting, my ‘favorite bit’ of the writing process is still the characters.
Brian McClellan lives in Cleveland, Ohio with his wife, two dogs, a cat, and between 6,000 and 60,000 honey bees (depending on the time of year). He majored in English with an emphasis on creative writing at Brigham Young University, where he was a student of Brandon Sanderson. He attended Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp in 2006. In 2008, he received honorable mention in the Writers of the Future Contest. His first novel, Promise of Blood, is came out internationally from Orbit Books on April 16th with a sequel, The Crimson Campaign, to follow in February 2014.
Paul Cornell is one of my favorite people, at least in part because he’s a darn fine writer. I have been waiting very impatiently for his new novel London Falling to come out in the US. Today’s the day. This is an urban fantasy mixed into a police procedural with all the wit, grit, and realism you could want.
Police officers Quill, Costain, Sefton, and Ross know the worst of London—or they think they do. While investigating a mobster’s mysterious death, they come into contact with a strange artifact and accidentally develop the Sight. Suddenly they can see the true evil haunting London’s streets.
Armed with police instincts and procedures, the four officers take on the otherworldly creatures secretly prowling London. Football lore and the tragic history of a Tudor queen become entwined in their pursuit of an age-old witch with a penchant for child sacrifice. But when London’s monsters become aware of their meddling, the officers must decide what they are willing to sacrifice to clean up their city.
So what’s Paul’s Favourite Bit?
London Falling is my first urban fantasy novel. (You may know me from my Doctor Who episodes, or perhaps from my comics work. Or not at all, in which case, hi, and thanks for being open-minded enough to still be here on sentence three.) It’s the story of a unit of modern London undercover police who accidentally gain the ability to see the magic and the monsters. After they’ve finished panicking, they decide that the only way they’re going to survive is to use (real) police methods and tactics to try to complete what’s now become a terrifying operation. There’s loads of wry police humour, but it’s actually quite a dark book, a survival novel about the emotions of a group of disparate professionals, thrown together and struggling .
I think the novel actually has a few things in common with Mary’s Glamour books, that, while not realising it at the time, I’d been influenced by her in the writing of it. The force our heroes encounter is ‘the paramilitary wing of feng shui’, something similar to the Psychogeography of the Situationist movement, the power of buildings and landscape (in this case, London) to ‘remember’ beings and events. In other words, it looks and feels like magic, but my inclination (and the police instinct of my leads) is to pick that concept apart, to ask what that means. So, actually, rather as becomes clear of Mary’s series in Glamour in Glass, London Falling is an SF novel wearing another genre’s clothes. It’s actually a ‘clever people solve a problem’ book, in the tradition established by SF editor John W. Campbell.
Now, I should say (because I hate it when someone in a genre says ‘actually, I don’t belong with all these other people, I’m loads better’), that I still wear my urban fantasy… underwear… proudly… (because if the other genre is the book’s clothes, you see where that metaphor came from, but I’m not sure about where it went). London Falling feels and reads like an urban fantasy novel, and that’s exactly what I was aiming for, just as Mary’s books consciously have a dialogue with and do honour to earlier works in the historical fiction genre.
So here’s my favourite bit. (‘Finally’, they say.) My favourite in a certain way, that is. I could equally pick something highly emotional, where there’s triumph or despair, but I think this makes the point I was going for above. Detective Constable Kev Sefton (black, gay, a boxer, tired of how corrupt his undercover partner Costain is, put upon by the world, but starting to have a real interest in how the hidden power of London works), has just taken my other three leads (Costain, DI Quill, and genius intelligence analyst Lisa Ross) on a tour of the supernatural sights of London, to try and orient them in their new world. (They haven’t yet got to… the really terrifying thing.)
They found a Starbucks. ‘In June 1934,’ Sefton read from his laptop, ‘London Transport held an inquest into the death of a bus driver who’d been killed at the junction of Cambridge Gardens and St. Mark’s Road, after he swerved violently for no apparent reason. Other drivers testified at that inquest that they had also had to swerve at that spot, to avoid a double – decker bus – a number seven to be precise, in the livery of the General Omnibus Company – which had become part of London Transport the year before – which “whizzed out at them”, and then disappeared. These appearances happened at two particular times of day, there being a morning service and an afternoon one.’
‘So the bus driver that got killed didn’t stick around to become a ghost,’ said Costain, ‘but we just saw the ghost bus that killed him.’
‘My point,’ said Sefton, ‘is this. You hear stories like that all your life and think: cool, a ghost bus. But now we have to look at this stuff analytically … a ghost bus?! The “ghost” of a motor vehicle? A public conveyance, presumably, which didn’t head towards the light, move on to join the choir invisible in … bus heaven, the great terminus in the sky, where all good buses go when they … I don’t know, break down, but instead is doomed to … drive eternally the streets of Earth! How can there be a ghost bus?!’ He looked between them, hoping they were getting this. ‘There isn’t even any record of a number 7 crashing.’
‘There very probably would have been at least one death occurring on any particularly bus route –’ began Ross.
‘So one death on board is all it takes to make an entire bus into a ghost? Why not ghost houses where people died, or ghost hospitals? Every bit of London would be full of them. Listen, what about those ships you saw?’ He felt the risk of pursuing this, the risk of losing them with theory rather than the sort of factual detail coppers worked with. But Ross had said they should allow assumptions. And more than mere assumption, he was certain, he was starting to put together a working hypotheses. ‘They must have had lots of passengers on them but, in the case of them, as in the case of that particular bus, we don’t see any of those people sticking around to become ghosts. We see the vehicles themselves. When, even if we agree that vehicles can “die” and come back to “haunt” places, one of those ships was sunk somewhere else! So what’s it doing on the Thames? We could find, if we wanted to search the bottom of the sea, what remained of the actual hull of one of those ghost ships of yours, haul it up, restore it to full working order and launch it here, and then there’d be the real ship and its ghost floating on the same river! How does that work? And what about that Jack thing I met? He’s not even a real … person, or vehicle or anything that you might even think could die and haunt somewhere, he’s just an … idea!’
‘You’re saying it’s not always about something that’s died and stays on here afterwards,’ said Costain.
‘But sometimes it is,’ said Quill, ‘like with Harry’s Dad, or the kid that bloke at the football match was carrying.’
There was silence as they considered that.
‘That old fellow at the bus stop saw it,’ said Costain.
‘Yeah, he did,’ Sefton found himself pointing at Costain like he’d got an answer right in a quiz game, and realised how patronising that looked and lowered his fingers. ‘But only for a second … and that’s another thing. I don’t think this is about who’s got the Sight and who hasn’t. I think it’s a … spectrum of who can see what, when and where. That place, for some reason, is where it’s easier for people without the Sight to see the thing. And then it vanished for us too. But maybe we could follow it and see it elsewhere. Or maybe we could see it all the time if we used some of those hand gestures.’
Ross managed one of her awkward smiles. ‘You’ve got something going here,’ she acknowledged. ‘Go on, establish the narrative.’
Sefton shared that look with her, feeling relieved.
I’m hugely proud of this book, and I can’t wait to see what an American audience thinks of it. Thanks for listening, and thanks, Mary, for letting me talk to your readers. Cheerio!
Paul Cornell is a writer of SF and fantasy in books, comics and television, and has been Hugo Award-nominated for all three media. He’s written Doctor Who for the BBC, and both Superman and Batman for DC Comics. His creator-owned comics series Saucer Country returns next year, and in the meantime he’s writing Wolverine for Marvel. London Falling is his first urban fantasy novel. The sequel, The Severed Streets, is out in the USA next year. He lives with his wife and son just north of London. He’s on Twitter as @Paul_Cornell.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 is a finalist for both the Nebula and the Hugo award this year. I’m very pleased that he’s stopped by to talk about this novel.
The year is 2312. Scientific and technological advances have opened gateways to an extraordinary future. Earth is no longer humanity’s only home; new habitats have been created throughout the solar system on moons, planets, and in between. But in this year, 2312, a sequence of events will force humanity to confront its past, its present, and its future.
The first event takes place on Mercury, on the city of Terminator, itself a miracle of engineering on an unprecedented scale. It is an unexpected death, but one that might have been foreseen. For Swan Er Hong, it is an event that will change her life. Swan was once a woman who designed worlds. Now she will be led into a plot to destroy them.
So what’s Stan’s Favorite Bit?
KIM STANLEY ROBINSON
My first idea for this was that there should be a romance between a mercurial person and a saturnine person. Clearly that would be an odd couple, but then aren’t they all. Then I decided the mercurial person should be from Mercury and the saturnine person from Saturn. This may be because I had just read a wonderful review of Galileo’s Dream by Adam Roberts, in which he noted in passing that I appeared to be much too fond of the Greek theory of the four humours or temperaments. This is definitely true, and I thought I would double down by going for an even less reputable theory of personalities.
So I liked the idea, but people living on Mercury and near Saturn implied a civilization spanning the Solar System, and therefore one pretty far out in the future. At that point my editor Tim Holman encouraged me to give that far future the full treatment. That seemed like a good idea, but as I got into the writing I could see there was a problem: how convey lots of information about this solar system-spanning civilization without overwhelming the story?
Some will say I didn’t actually solve that problem, but to the extent I did, it came from a formal solution invented by another writer. I had recently written an introduction to John Brunner’s excellent Stand On Zanzibar, which had solved a similar problem by using the method invented by John Dos Passos in his great U.S.A. trilogy. I had owned U.S.A. for over thirty years, but only at this point did I actually read it. Well, it is a great book. It should be read by anyone with an interest in American history or literature, or in the novel as a genre. To me it’s in the running for the mythical Great American Novel.
What Dos Passos did was to create four different kinds of text, and weave them together. The main one follows a cast of characters that continues to grow through the trilogy. Nothing particularly unusual there, although the size of the cast, and the way these characters bounce through their lives like pinballs in a pinball machine, is notable. But added to that main strand are three others: one tells the biographies of prominent Americans of the period, done as prose poems; another gives us newspaper headlines and first paragraphs of news articles of various kinds, characteristic or revealing or funny, or all of these at once; and the third strand is called “Camera Eye” but actually is the stream of consciousness of a single character, unidentified and always seen from inside, not connected to the main strand stories. It turns out these stream of consciousness passages are mainly Dos Passos’s own experiences. All four strands have a great energy, and a kind of crackpot poetry in them, and they add up to more than the sum of their parts. You feel you have experienced the United States between 1916 and 1930 much more fully than most ordinary novels will allow.
So, I adapted all the strands to my own purposes. My main strand follows my characters Swan and Wahram and Genette. The newspaper columns I turned into extracts from all kinds of unidentified texts, and I cut all these texts into minimal pieces to imitate how we read online, linking from one source to the next as we pursue the information we want. The biographies of famous people I had to alter somehow, because I don’t think pocket biographies of fictional people can be as interesting as the same for real people; so I had my biographies be of moons and planets and big spaceships, as these were in effect historical actors in my story. Then lastly I made the camera eye strand be the stream of consciousness of a quantum computer, put in an android body and let loose in the world for the first time.
Doing all this allowed me to include a lot of information that would have been difficult to get into the plot in normal ways, and it also made the whole thing a lot of fun for me to write. I hoped that would translate into making it fun to read too.
I owe a lot to my editor Tim Holman for giving me the vision, and to John Dos Passos for inventing the method.
Kim Stanley Robinson is a winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. He is the author of nineteen previous books, including the bestselling Mars trilogy and the critically acclaimed Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, Sixty Days and Counting, The Years of Rice and Salt, and Antarctica. In 2008, he was named a “Hero of the Environment” by Time magazine, and he recently joined in the Sequoia Parks Foundation’s Artists in the Back Country program. He lives in Davis, California.
Adam Christopher has a sequel to his fantastic book EMPIRE STATE.
The Empire State is dying. The Fissure connecting the pocket universe to New York has vanished, plunging the city into a deep freeze and the populace are demanding a return to Prohibition and rationing as energy supplies dwindle.
Meanwhile, in 1954 New York, the political dynamic has changed and Nimrod finds his department subsumed by a new group, Atoms For Peace, led by the mysterious Evelyn McHale.
As Rad uncovers a new threat to his city, Atoms For Peace prepare their army for a transdimensional invasion. Their goal: total conquest – or destruction – of the Empire State.
So what’s Adam’s favorite bit?
Ah, The Age Atomic. My first sequel, the first time I’ve deliberately returned to a world and characters I’ve previously created. There’s something nice about that – writers often feel more than a little bereft when they complete a novel, because, having lived with the story and the people within it for months – maybe even years – letting them go can be difficult. These characters come to life during the writing process, sometimes born from nothing more than a name and a vague notion. Over the course of the first draft, the second, the third, they become their own people. They develop personalities and traits beyond what the writer consciously intended, and they begin to find their own story and plotlines within the work, no matter how detailed your outline might be. When the writing is going well, when the book works, its characters become your best friends. That’s the beauty of creation, and is my favourite part of the whole writing process.
So returning to the world of Empire State was a pleasure. I was going to see how my old friends were doing, and find out what new trouble they were in. But I also wanted to expand the world I’d created, and add some new characters who would play a vital role in the story.
Empire State, my debut novel, is set mostly in a twisted, alt-universe reflection of Manhattan. It’s Prohibition-noir; half-science fiction, half-hardboiled detective story. For The Age Atomic, I wanted to shift it forward a little, as my story about atomic robots and Communist paranoia was most definitely Silver Age sci-fi: the 1950s. But our everyman hero, Rad Bradley, is a pulp detective, and despite the change in era I wanted him to have a suitably hardboiled opening scene.
Enter the damsel in distress, Jennifer Jones. My favourite bit of The Age Atomic starts in chapter two, in which Rad has to rescue the aforementioned Ms. Jones from the clutches of Cliff, a gangster with a secret. Here’s the first couple of paragraphs:
She was pretty and her name was Jennifer and she was going nowhere, not tied to the chair like she was. She had long brown hair with a wave in it and was wearing a blouse with ruffles down the front that Rad thought looked nice but which meant she must have been freezing.
The man standing next to the chair was less pretty. His name was Cliff and he had a face to match, and he was holding a gun that was pointed at Rad in a way that made the detective nervous. The thug was wearing a trench coat, and beneath the coat were muscles, hard, solid; muscles that spoke of bar room brawls and violence in the small hours. Rad Bradley was a detective now and had been a boxer before, but Cliff’s frame made him decide that, when it came down to it, he didn’t want to go one-on-one with Cliff, even if he could get that damn gun out of the way. But, then again, a job like his on a night like this, punching someone you didn’t want to was likely to be in the cards.
The gun in Cliff’s giant fist was a revolver, and the hammer was back.
Writing in that kind of pulp style is a lot of fun, believe me. Of course, things are not quite what they seem and by the end of the chapter, Rad realizes that Jennifer knows a heck of a lot more about what’s going on in the now-frozen Empire State than anyone else.
Writing Rad and Jennifer was my favourite part of the book – here’s an old character, the hero of Empire State, someone I know well, meeting someone brand new. Jennifer Jones starts off as a stranger – for me and Rad both – but over the course of the novel I grew to know her and understand her point of view and, importantly, what she needed to do in the book. It might sound strange when writers talk about their stories and characters like they don’t quite have full control of them, but that’s actually true. In The Age Atomic, Rad and Jennifer form a dynamic duo as they investigate the Empire State’s robot menace, eventually uncovering…. Well, you’ll have to read the book to find out.
And as for the remarkable Jennifer Jones, well, I suspect we haven’t seen the last of her…
Adam Christopher is a novelist and Sir Julius Vogel Award-winning editor, and is the author of Empire State, Seven Wonders, and The Age Atomic. Born in Auckland, New Zealand, Adam grew up watching Pertwee-era Doctor Who and listening to The Beatles, which isn’t a bad start for a child of the 80s. In 2006, Adam moved to the North West of England, where, when not writing, he spends his time drinking tea and obsessing over superhero comics and The Cure. You can find Adam online at www.adamchristopher.co.uk and on Twitter as @ghostfinder.
For full disclosure, I blurbed Between Two Thorns and said this. “Emma Newman has created a reflection of Bath that reminds one that charming is not safe. Between Two Thorns shows the darkness beneath the glamour of the social Season. Learning to be a young lady has never seemed so dangerous.”
I strongly suspect that you will like this book and today is its release day so it’s easy to pick up a copy and find out if I’m right.
Meanwhile, let’s find out what Emma’s Favorite Bit is.
There’s a song I love with lyrics describing how a man feels about the woman he loves. You get a sense of it being unrequited but how many times have love stories started this way?
It’s sweet and cheerful. Then the last two lines of the song are about the police dragging him away. You realise – with horror – that you’ve just listened to an obsessive stalker waxing lyrical about the woman he’s targeting. It never stops being bright and upbeat but, just like when you learn someone you love has died on a beautiful summer’s day, there’s no warmth or happiness any more. You’re just left shivering. The song is ‘Lily’ by the Smashing Pumpkins.
But I’m here to talk about my favourite bit in Between Two Thorns!
That bit is a conversation between one of the main characters, Cathy, who was born into a ‘Nether’ family and their immortal Fae patron, Lord Poppy.
The privileged life for a woman in the Nether comes with forced marriage, no right to property and very little say in how she lives her life. It has more in common with Regency England than the modern day but with a critical difference; no-one ages whilst they live there. The same men have been the heads of the Great Families for hundreds of years and there are none of the technological and economic pressures that create social change. Cathy engineers her escape, lives – and ages – just like any young woman in Mundanus until the day she is found again by Lord Poppy.
He’s intrigued as he can’t understand how she’s evaded capture for so long but Cathy knows that if she says the wrong thing he will do the most terrible things to her. Every time she answers a question it’s a gamble; there’s no way to predict how he will react.
“So something happened that made you want to stay in Mundanus, even though it would age you? Even though it would disgrace your family and you’d live a cursed life?”
“Yes,” she said, throat dry. She couldn’t reveal everything, she’d never tell anyone the real reason she’d fled her family. But she had to give him a sliver to be believable. “I fell in love with Mundanus. I didn’t want to go back and live in the Nether like everyone in the Great Families. I couldn’t bear to leave it. So I ran away and hid from my family so they couldn’t stop me living there.”
Eyebrows high, he sucked in a breath and the hand that had caught hers fluttered over his chest. “Oh! Oh darling child I understand. I know what agony it is to fall in love with something we can never have. And what deserves our love and attention more than Mundanus? Poor, empty world, denied our gifts and beneficence for so long!” He clasped her hand again, this time pressing it over his heart, but she felt no beat through the silk shirt. “Now I understand what a delicious creature of passion you are, it was buried so far beneath an inconsequential face and forgettable body that I almost missed it!”
Whilst her gamble pays off, Cathy has a new problem: Lord Poppy finds her interesting enough to bestow a gift of three wishes upon her. After all, if she can run away and survive in a world without magic and servants, what interesting things could she do with those? Cathy’s no fool; she knows the wishes are more likely to get herself into even more trouble but she can’t refuse. All the while, Cathy has to remain polite and make sure she doesn’t say anything unwise as her freedom and the chance of living the life she struggled so hard to create are being destroyed.
Lord Poppy talks about doing the most awful things in the same way that one might talk about taking someone out for ice-cream. When she makes a comment about being glad he understands why she ran away, thinking the worst of the threat is over, he says;
“As am I! I arrived with a heavy heart, convinced that I was going to have to turn your tongue into a tethered wasp and then enslave you for eternity for having been so disloyal to your family.” He paused as the colour sank away from her lips. “But now I don’t have to, because I understand that it was love that drove you, and how can I deny love? And it really is such a relief, as it would have been so inconvenient, everything has been arranged for so long I was struggling to imagine how I would recover.”
This is why it makes me think of that song; he describes something chilling in a cheerful, upbeat way. And that’s the main reason this is my favourite bit; because the things I find the most frightening are not blood and gore and zombies (though they can be scary). No, the things that are the most horrifying lie beneath a veneer of beauty and don’t appear to be anything other than lovely until it’s far too late.
Emma Newman was born in a tiny coastal village in Cornwall during one of the hottest summers on record and now lives in Somerset, England. She writes dark short stories, post-apocalyptic and urban fantasy novels and records audiobooks in all genres. Her hobbies include dressmaking and gaming and she drinks far too much tea. She blogs at www.enewman.co.uk, rarely gets enough sleep and refuses to eat mushrooms.
There is a fascinating element to Laura Lam’s new book Pantomime that I can’t tell you about. So instead, I’m just going to show you the official blurb.
R.H. Ragona’s Circus of Magic is the greatest circus of Ellada. Nestled among the glowing blue Penglass – remnants of a mysterious civilisation long gone – are wonders beyond the wildest imagination. It’s a place where anything seems possible, where if you close your eyes you can believe that the magic and knowledge of the vanished Chimeras is still there. It’s a place where anyone can hide.
Iphigenia Laurus, or Gene, the daughter of a noble family, is uncomfortable in corsets and crinoline, and prefers climbing trees to debutante balls. Micah Grey, a runaway living on the streets, joins the circus as an aerialist’s apprentice and soon becomes the circus’s rising star. But Gene and Micah have balancing acts of their own to perform, and a secret in their blood that could unlock the mysteries of Ellada.
So what is Laura’s Favorite Bit?
One of my favourite aspects of the world-building of Pantomime is Vestige. Long ago, a race called the Alder ruled the world, and they created beings called Chimaera. Now, in Ellada and the Archipelago, the Alder and their Chimaera are gone, and all they have left behind is Vestige: advanced technology that might be magical. Societies rely on practical Vestige such as weapons and industry tools, but many artefacts serve no “useful” purpose and are instead curiosities collected by the rich.
I had the idea for a certain bit of Vestige when I went back to San Francisco for a visit. I grew up in the East Bay and now live in Scotland. When I went back, I started doing some of the touristy things I’d never done before. My friend recommended the Musée Mechanique at Pier 45 in Fisherman’s Wharf (warning: if you click on the link there’s an automatic recording of “Laughing Sal” which sounds like it’s straight from a nightmare). We wandered around over 300 arcade games, orchestrions, antique slot machines, and animations. I found them fun, and also a little sinister.
So I sent two characters in Pantomime to the Museum of Mechanical Antiquities, full of Vestige curiosities. Micah Grey, my protagonist, had been there has a child and had fond memories. There, the visitors look at technology more advanced than they could ever hope to create, such as the clockwork woman:
“This one is my favorite,” I whispered into her ear.
It was a clockwork woman’s head. She was life-sized, and her proportions were Alder – large eyes, high cheekbones and eyebrows, long neck. Even at rest, a muffled ticking could be heard through the glass. Her face had a strange skin, realistic in every way but for the fact it was transparent. The gears and pulleys of her face visible underneath looked to be made of brass. Her eyes were uncannily real, the irises a strange mixture of blue, green, hazel, and topaz, the eyelashes copper. The eyelids blinked occasionally. The father put the coins into the slot. Everyone else who had been following the noble couple gathered around again.
The clockwork head awoke. She shook her head, blinked rapidly, and twitched her pale pink lips. She yawned, and her tongue was as mechanical as the rest of her, the teeth impossibly even and white. Her face settled into a pleasant smile and she stared straight ahead, almost expectant.
This piece of Vestige has levers connected to pressure points at the base of her neck. When someone pulls the lever, she shows a different emotion. Micah and the other visitors are amazed by the sight of a mechanical object uncannily mimicking a human. There’s also the undercurrent of eeriness, because they do not know where she came from or how she was made.
That is a feeling that pervades Pantomime and its world, riven with technology that is winding down. When an artifact breaks, they lack the knowledge to fix it. Only the Alder and the Chimaera know how, and they’re long gone.
Laura Lam was raised near San Francisco, California, by two former Haight-Ashbury hippies. Both of them encouraged her to finger-paint to her heart’s desire, colour outside of the lines, and consider the library a second home. This led to an overabundance of daydreams.
She relocated to Scotland to be with her husband, whom she met on the internet when he insulted her taste in books. She almost blocked him but is glad she didn’t. At times she misses the sunshine.
Marie Brennan’s novel A Natural History of Dragons is exactly calculated to please. It is the memoir of Lady Trent and captures the tone of memoirs from the 1800s with delightful aptitude. You know how much I adore language and this novel hits all my sweet spots, as well as offering rollicking adventures with dragons.
Oh, and did I mention that it is illustrated? Mmm…
What’s Marie’s Favorite Bit?
When I set out to write the Memoirs of Lady Trent, I knew I wanted two main ingredients in the stew: natural history (specifically as applied to dragons), and pulp-style adventure.
But pulp adventure isn’t something I’ve really done before. So — true story — I went to my movie shelf, and to novels in the subgenre I intended to write, and started making a laundry list of motifs that show up in them. Hidden treasure! Ancient curses! Booby traps! Impassable terrain!
Mind you, there’s two kinds of archaeology out there, and only one of them is pulpy. I’m trained in the modern kind, that involves lots of very painstaking excavation and documentation to shed light on societies of the past. Indiana Jones is, shall we say, the other kind. But who can resist ruined temples and mysterious inscriptions? Not me, that’s for sure.
Which is where the Draconeans came from. Aesthetically speaking, they’re part Egypt, part Atlantis: an ancient civilization whose nature and downfall are almost completely unknown in the “modern” day (which is to say, the point at which my protagonist, Isabella, is doing her work; it’s more like our nineteenth century). Their architecture is based on that of Egypt, with megalithic pylons, hypostyle halls, and so on. Their art is Egyptian-style, too; it has the same flat, quasi-2D perspective, the same kinds of striding statues, etc. And they, like the Egyptians, had a writing system that the people of Isabella’s day are struggling to decipher.
But they’re like Atlantis in their mystery. Draconean civilization was much more widespread than the Egyptians ever dreamed of; their ruins are found all over the world. There are vague, mythical references to its collapse. Nobody really knows what the Draconeans were like, though, or why their empire fell. Even the name “Draconean” is a later invention, based on the fact that they worshipped dragons like gods. (Just as the Egyptians frequently attached animal heads to human bodies to represent their deities, so are dragon-headed human figures common in Draconean art.)
Only a little bit of this comes up in A Natural History of Dragons. During the expedition to Vystrana, Isabella visits a small Draconean ruin, which ends up being the site of several later plot points, but Draconean civilization itself doesn’t feature very heavily in the story . . . yet. See, the premise of the series required Isabella to be a natural historian, and I also made her an artist — partly because that’s a skill natural historians frequently had (in order to draw their subjects), and partly because it was an excuse to get some Todd Lockwood sketches as interior art. She has to be moderately competent with languages, in order to adventure all over the world, and needs a certain amount of derring-do. But I didn’t want to make her good at everything, and so I resisted the urge to make her an archaeologist.
That, I’ve saved for a character who will appear later in the series. He will be more than moderately competent with languages; he’ll be a linguist, studying Draconean inscriptions in an effort to break through, the way Jean-François Champollion and others did with Egyptian hieroglyphs. He’ll also be an archaeologist, more interested in the ancient dragon-worshipping civilization than the modern dragons Isabella’s chasing after.
And yeah — if you think the Draconeans are going to be an important plot point in the series as a whole, you would in fact be right. I just couldn’t put it all in Isabella’s lap; she has to work with other people to make the plot go.
But if you want to know where my heart really lies, it’s in those ruined temples, with their weathered art and silent inscriptions and archaeological mysteries. Because I just can’t resist that kind of thing.
We filed through into a large room enclosed by a dome of glass panels that let in the afternoon sunlight. We stood on a walkway that circled the room’s perimeter and overlooked a deep, sand-floored pit divided by heavy grates into three large pie-slice enclosures.
Within those enclosures were three dragons.
Forgetting myself entirely, I rushed to the rail. In the pit below me, a creature with scales of a faded topaz gold turned its long snout upward to look back at me. From behind my left shoulder, I heard a muffled exclamation, and then someone having a fainting spell. Some of the more adventurous gentlemen came to the railing and murmured amongst themselves, but I had no eyes for them — only for the dragon in the pit.
A heavy clanking sounded as it turned its head away from me, and I saw that a heavy collar bound its neck, connecting to a thick chain that ended at the wall. The gratings between the sections of the pit, I noticed, were doubled; in between each pair there was a gap, so the dragons could not snap at one another through the bars.
With slow, fascinated steps, I made my way around the room. The enclosure to the right held a muddy green lump, likewise chained, that did not look up as I passed. The third dragon was a spindly thing, white-scaled and pink-eyed: an albino.
Mr. Swargin waited at the rail by the entrance. Sparing him a glance, I saw that he watched everyone with careful eyes as they circulated about the room. He had warned us, at the outset of the tour, not to throw anything or make noises at the beasts; I suspected that was a particular concern here.
The golden dragon had retired to the farthest corner of its enclosure to gnaw on a large bone mostly stripped of meat. I studied it carefully, noting certain features of its anatomy, comparing its size against what appeared to be a cow femur. “Mr. Swargin,” I said, my eyes still on the dragon, “these aren’t juveniles, are they? They’re runts.”
“I beg your pardon?” the naturalist responded, turning to me.
“I might be wrong — I’ve only Edgeworth to go by, really, and he’s sadly lacking in illustrations — but my understanding was that species of true dragon do not develop the full ruff behind their heads until adulthood. I could not get a good view of the green one the next cage over — is that a Moulish swamp-wyrm? — but these cannot be full-grown adults, and considering the difficulties of keeping dragons in a menagerie, it seems to me that it might be simpler to collect runt specimens, rather than to deal with the eventual maturation of juveniles. Of course, maturation takes a long time, so one could –”
At that point, I realized what I was doing, and shut my mouth with a snap. Far too late, I fear; someone had already overheard.
Marie Brennan is a former academic with a background in archaeology, anthropology, and folklore, which she now puts to rather cockeyed use in writing fantasy. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to many short stories and novellas, she is also the author of A Star Shall Fall and With Fate Conspire (both from Tor Books), as well as Warrior, Witch, Midnight Never Come, In Ashes Lie, and Lies and Prophecy. You can find her online at SwanTower.com.
Myke Cole’s second novel, Fortress Frontier, is out today and it’s the book that makes you fall in love with military fiction, even if you don’t normally like it. It’s military fantasy — you know, like military SF only with magic. And really good writing.
It helps that Myke is actually in the military so the books feel grounded in real society. So what’s his Favorite Bit?
There’s a reason folks want to work for big bureaucracies, whether corporations or government agencies. They’re famous for job security, stability, weathering storms be they political, social or economic. Especially these days, with the economy in a trough, folks speak wistfully about a ‘government job,’ an office where you can get your tasks done in four hours, and then spend the next four checking twitter.
Within the conformity, there’s a certain freedom from supervision (which might be why more than one writer cut their teeth banging out manuscripts when they were supposed to be reviewing spreadsheets).
The secret here is anonymity. A drone in a bureaucracy is a needle in a haystack. Cause no trouble, and trouble will leave you be. Smooth sailing until retirement and then summers in a conversion van cruising the national parks with Dylan screeching on the radio.
There is no organization where this is truer than the US military. Want to fly below the radar? Ride the easy wave until you do your twenty and get out? You can absolutely do that in the US military. Lot’s of folks do. Keep your head down, do your job and don’t make waves.
But here’s the thing. As with all bureaucracies, there’s the risk that the organization’s mission will fall on you. You can do your best to keep your nose in the books and your mouth shut, and fortune and circumstance will find you anyway, single you out, and shine the spotlight on you. All you wanted was anonymity, and suddenly your name is on everyone’s lips. It’s down to you. A packed house of thousands, and everyone is watching.
Then there’s the big question. You didn’t want the spotlight, but you got it anyway.
Now, what do you do with it?
And that’s my favorite bit in FORTRESS FRONTIER.
Colonel Alan Bookbinder is an army bureaucrat. He wears a soldier’s uniform and has risen to a high rank. But he’s a paper-pusher who’s never seen combat. Bookbinder knows that they need people like him, knows that he fills an important role, knows that the army couldn’t put warheads on foreheads without his help.
But, in his heart of hearts, he wonders. There is a nagging voice that reminds him that the primary purpose of a military is to kill people and destroy property. Can a man who has never done either call himself a soldier?
He has quietly advanced, earned the Colonel’s rank that has all and sundry tugging forelocks and stepping aside. He looks at these men and women who render him salutes and call him ‘sir,’ he knows that many of them have grappled with the enemy, firing rounds in anger, sheltering in place as the mortar fire came raining down. Is he worthy of the respect? Has he truly earned it?
The rank fades into the background as he does his daily work, until one day, when the commander of his besieged installation is murdered.
Chaos erupts around him. Fights break out, people run pell-mell, the efficient and disciplined organization that the army depends on goes to pieces. Bookbinder may be a bureaucrat, but he’s still a Colonel. He knows the importance of order in a crisis.
So, he shouts to have it restored. “God damn it! Who the hell is in command here?”
Stunned eyes turn toward him, foreheads crease in relief as they see the eagles on his shoulders.
He asked who was in command.
“You are, sir,” they say, waiting for instructions, “You are.”
As a security contractor, government civilian and military officer, Myke Cole’s career has run the gamut from Counterterrorism to Cyber Warfare to Federal Law Enforcement. He’s done three tours in Iraq and was recalled to serve during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. All that conflict can wear a guy out. Thank goodness for fantasy novels, comic books, late night games of Dungeons and Dragons and lots of angst fueled writing.
I absolutely loved The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke. It’s a science fiction novel that is about a young girl who is raised with an android for a tutor. What I find remarkable about the book is that the story stays intimate and never veers into The Fate of the World. In many ways, it feels more like mainstream women’s fiction than classic SF. At the same time, it uses the SF lens to explore real issues of self and personhood in ways that I don’t think would be possible without the science-fictional concepts in it.
By focusing so tightly on one person and her journey, it gave a real sense of the wider world. Plus, I thought the language was hypnotic, which is always welcome. It just pulled me through the book.
So what’s her Favorite Bit?
CASSANDRA ROSE CLARKE:
I enjoy dancing. I’m probably not particularly good at it (I’ve attempted enough team sports in my life to understand that my coordination skills are… poor, to put it mildly), but if there’s music playing, I’m probably moving. Or at least suppressing movement.
Unfortunately, my circle of friends is made up largely of people who find the existence of night clubs both baffling and terrifying — and while I don’t hold it against them, their aversion has resulted in me funneling my dance-related urges into Zumba classes and, weirdly, my writing. For example, The Assassin’s Curse, my YA novel, contains a bit of dancing on board a pirate ship, and another as-yet-unreleased novel features a dancer as the main character.
The Mad Scientist’s Daughter is no exception to this unusual rule.
Dancing isn’t a common thread throughout the novel, but it does play a role in a pivotal scene early on. The main character, Cat, takes Finn, who is an android, to a rent party. Things progress as you might expect:
They danced for two hours. The party filled up the house and once people got drunk enough the band started playing and everyone danced, flailing around arrhythmically. Someone took the doors off the hinges and created an uninterrupted passageway between the inside of the house and the backyard, a corridor of sweat and music and flushed fevered bodies. Finn danced better than Cat expected, and she realized, drunk though she was, that he was copying the movements of the people around him, combining them to create something new. This was always how Cat danced as well. He did it more efficiently.
I love this scene for a couple of reasons. First of all, it was fun to think about how an android would approach dancing. Fiction often presents dancing as something inherently human, a reflection of our being alive (I’m looking at you, Matrix Reloaded) but the truth is, like most physical activities, it’s a series of movements, arranged in such way as to create beauty. I saw no reason why Finn’s more mechanical approach to dancing wouldn’t be successful, nor why Cat wouldn’t recognize her own human actions in it. I mean, we can program robots to dance now. (Seriously, go to Youtube and search for “dancing robots.” My post can wait.)
Another thing I love about this scene is the way the physical intensity of Cat and Finn’s dancing reflects a moment of emotional intensity that occurs a little later on. Going into too much detail would be a bit spoilery, but I will tell you this: in that scene, as music plays in the background, Cat learns a truth about Finn’s nature. She chooses in that moment to interpret the truth in a particular (and ultimately catastrophic) way, but the reality is much closer to Finn’s dancing: just how Cat does it, only more efficient.
Finally, there’s one other important aspect of this scene that I’d be loath to neglect — the music. After all, have you ever tried dancing without music? It’s difficult. In the text, I never specifically mention which song Finn and Cat are dancing to, but I always imagined it something similar to “Venus in Furs,” by the Velvet Underground. Not in terms of subject matter, but rather in terms of the sound of the song, which has always struck me as wild and desperate, even when you ignore the lyrics. It’s not an easy song to dance to, but if anyone would try, it’d be Cat and Finn.
Cassandra Rose Clarke is a speculative fiction writer living amongst the beige stucco and overgrown pecan trees of Houston, Texas. She graduated in 2006 from The University of St. Thomas with a bachelor’s degree in English, and in 2008 she completed her master’s degree in creative writing at The University of Texas at Austin. Both of these degrees have served her surprisingly well.
During the summer of 2010, she attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop in Seattle. She was also a recipient of the 2010 Susan C. Petrey Clarion Scholarship Fund.
Her first novel, a YA fantasy called The Assassin’s Curse, was released in October 2012.
Hey. Want to see a video? David D. Levine has brought us something that I think you’ll like. Now, I have a soft spot for David, so I’m not at all impartial. He and I were in a writing group back in Portland and I think he’s a darn fine short story writer. He’s also a really good reader. This video is a combination of those two skill sets.
So watch “Letter to the Editor” and then let David tell you about his Favorite Bit.
DAVID D. LEVINE
I think my favorite bit of the “Letter to the Editor” video is The Claw.
This video is basically just me doing a dramatic reading of a story I wrote for John Joseph Adams’s forthcoming anthology The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination. The first draft of this story was about a famous comic book mad scientist — one who is famous for implicating his superhero adversary for the loss of his hair. I never named the scientist or his rival, but the editor said that was still too close to a copyright violation and I had to change the story to be about a character of my own creation. This change made the story much better in a lot of ways, but I had to come up with a new character name and origin story. In the end, the two questions answered each other: it was his hand, not his hair, that he had lost, and the cruel nickname with which the media had saddled him was Dr. Talon.
The revised story was accepted, and as the release date drew near I had the opportunity to read the story at a convention panel about the anthology. The reading was phenomenally well received, so much so that I read it again at the same convention, and again at another convention shortly thereafter. The crowd reaction was so fabulous, and the nature of the story was such, that I decided it would be a great idea to make it into a video. But I had one major production problem: what kind of prop could I come up with for Dr. Talon’s prosthetic claw? It had to suit the name, it had to look good, and most of all it had to be cheap.
As I began my search for a prop, I knew exactly what I was looking for: a toy called “Awesome Arm” (http://www.tk409.com/images/arm/6.jpg) which I had wanted when it had first come out but had never bought. But when I looked around, I found that, although there were a lot of other people with fond memories of this toy, the few who had them were not letting go of them. There were none to be found on Ebay or any of the other auction sites.
So I sent a query to a few costumer friends of my acquaintance: do you have, or can you build, some kind of mechanical hand prop? This turned up a few suggestions, but nothing completely satisfactory, and I began to think about using a rubber glove with bits of aluminum foil glued to it. But my friend Julie Zetterberg Sardo passed my query along to her friend Carol Ann Zebold, and Carol wrote to me saying that she had a mechanical hand prop that might suit my needs.
It was the Awesome Arm itself! And she offered it to me for a comparative pittance (in fact, she insisted on selling it to me for less than I first offered).
The actual prop, when it arrived, turned out to be as good as as I’d hoped. It was a right hand, as specified in the story (in fact, no left-handed Awesome Arm was ever manufactured), and it was lightweight, fully articulated, and quite scary-looking. All I needed to do was sew a sleeve extension to cover my real hand and it was perfect for my purposes. It provided a great, character-specific means of expression in the video and was tons of fun to work with.
My original plan for the video was simply to film myself with a webcam, which seemed appropriate for the story, but when I mentioned the project to my friend Robin Catesby she immediately stepped forward and offered to help with the filming. She provided lighting, props, and cinematography services and also edited the final video into shape, including some nifty static effects to cover the transitions between takes. The resulting video is far better than I could ever have produced by myself.
So now the video is done and is available for the world to see at http://youtu.be/NkOuPyILWx0. I hope you’ll find the story and performance engaging, and when the anthology is available I hope you’ll buy a copy. (That’s The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, edited by John Joseph Adams, available for pre-order now and on sale everywhere on February 19. See http://www.johnjosephadams.com/mad-scientists-guide for more information.)
David D. Levine is the author of over fifty published science fiction and fantasy stories. His work has appeared in markets including Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF, and Realms of Fantasy and has won or been nominated for awards including the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Campbell. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife Kate Yule, with whom he co-edits the fanzine Bento. His web page is http://www.daviddlevine.com.
This week we move out of my usual SF and Fantasy fare into a novel that explores conflict in Afghanistan with Susan Froetschel’s Fear of Beauty. Her essay on the novel is really interesting and she is also sharing an excerpt with you.
Now, let me get out of the way so you can read about her Favorite Bit?
If I must choose one favorite bit from what’s now my favorite novel, then it must be a section midway through Fear of Beauty. Sofi dwells on a last memory of her father from many years before when she left her childhood home. She doesn’t know her age, because birthdays are not celebrated in rural Afghanistan, and didn’t understand that she was heading off for an arranged marriage, never seeing her parents again.
Before committing to a mystery set in rural Afghanistan, I headed to the nearest university library in and explored old books from the 1920s and 1930s, published after the country had shed British influence and declared independence. The photographs of steep mountains, productive and golden fields, intrigued and inspired my writing. Since 2001, I had already delved into reading news stories that describe a way of life with minimal education for girls, parents selecting marriage partners for their children, the constant hardship of providing food for families without electricity, running water or other conveniences.
I also sorted through my own childhood memories and could imagine a mother treasuring the last memory of her father and a two-day donkey trip two decades before – partly because my own mother died when I was eight years old and because I’m now old enough to realize that daily routines, our surroundings, can change without warning.
Love for family is an emotion shared by every culture and centers on caring about another’s future, shared or not. Even when Louis May Alcott wrote “Love is a great beautifier,” in Little Women, she was describing Meg at work, preparing for marriage. Despite their inevitable separation and a lack of education, Sofi’s father wants to ensure a secure future for his oldest daughter. He taught her the skills to raising a variety of crops and, before they part, he hands over a small package of bulbs, advising her to start her own secret garden that can contribute to her family’s comfort.
This section (pages 190 to 193) flowed, easy to write as I recalled many pleasant childhood memories with my father. Children enjoy spending time with fathers, so often away, busy at work or traveling. Any time alone with parents, away from other siblings, is special, too. I still remember my dad taking me to the library every other weekend, letting me borrow as many books as allowed. An accountant, he taught me how to log canceled checks in a ledger, and we sat on the floor and sorted out hundreds of cancelled checks every month or so. One Christmas, he gave me a tape recorder for pretend interviews, him as silly politician to my role as broadcast journalist. He got excited about school assignments, encouraging me to work on them early, in third grade handing over scraps of plywood – showing me how to sand the wood and add hinges for a special book-report cover.
Parents can’t be sure which events will transform into lasting memories, and there’s no one way for loving parents to prepare their children for the future. In any society, feelings run strong about parenting methods. Some steer their children toward specific careers, and others are more hands off. For some parents, education is a chore to endure, and others encourage curiosity and a love for lifelong learning – even when no teachers or schools are available. Strict parents can push their children to achieve and confront risk.
Children observe their parents, their attitudes about work and life, their approaches to conflict and problem-solving. The methods may or may not pass down through families. Children taught to learn on their own can sense other possibilities, and every day make decisions about whether to abide by a parent’s values or defy them. Parents often don’t know what memories they’re making or how their respective societies have reinforced the patterns.
Back to Fear of Beauty… other men of the village urge Sofi’s father to leave without saying farewell, and watching from a window, she knows that she’ll never see her father again. The section closes with Sofi’s thought: “At that moment, I realized that the men had no more control than the women do.” At that moment, the protagonist concludes that she can no longer wait for her husband or the men of her village to take action and prevent crimes being plotted near her village.
Childhood memories, sibling rivalries, parental reactions to young love, a family’s quest for happiness, influence or wealth – all are part of the foundation for lifelong contentment or resentment and serve as motivations for many a crime in mystery novels and real life – whether in the United States or Afghanistan.
And if we don’t completely agree with how we were raised as children – strict or flexible, curious or closed, with emphasis on education, wealth or strength – sometimes we discover that we have more in common with strangers than those closest to us.
From Fear of Beauty (Seventh Street Books, 2013). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
My father had delivered me to Laashekoh years ago. I lost exact count. My mother and the other women in the family dressed me in colorful clothes and arranged my hair with a pretty veil saved for my special day. The family laughed and cheered, praising my strength, disposition, and good fortune.
I was the oldest of my siblings, and the memories feel odd with every passing year as my parents remain young and healthy. During that happy celebration, it had never occurred to me that it would be my last memory of them.
With tears in her eyes, my mother embraced me and my father lifted me gently to our donkey. The younger children danced and waved, and I waved in return as my father and I set off on a grand adventure.
At some point during the trip, my father assured me that I was one of the lucky ones, moving on to a village with good farmland. My male cousin was only six years older and his family promised that they would wait at least a few months before we began our life together or thought about having children. And I smiled with joy because time with my father was all that mattered to me.
The trip took more than two full days, with only a few stops. The last stop was not far from the tight trio of mountains my father had pointed to as our destination. Always thoughtful, he chose the beautiful scene as a place to sit, drink water, and have one last talk alone.
I have something to give you, and you must tuck it away until you can find the right place for planting. He pulled a package from his pocket and slowly unwrapped it. These are yours, to remind you of home.
Inside were tiny corms that burst into the flowers and cloaked a nearby hill in purple every autumn. With every year, the cloak expanded, as my parents dug up the green strands and separated the corms, spreading them into other nooks. In the fall, the children helped my mother pluck the golden threads from delicate blossoms that emerged only for a day. I accepted the packet and should have been delighted. But I sensed a serious break in the life I had always known. There was no talk of my returning home, and I dreaded not seeing the cloak of purple near my home again.
My father put his hand to my chin and gave directions: They’re not many, and they are our secret. Tuck them in your bundle. That’s a good girl. Keep them until you find a good place away from other people. Plant them wisely, and remember how we took care of them together as a family.
Dread of the future filled me, and I could not speak.
The family we are meeting. They are kind people. In a few years the threads will help your family.
Then he followed my mother’s directions, smoothing my hair, brushing dust away from the shalwar, adjusting my chaadar. My happiness returned, and I smiled at him, because fathers did not typically bother with such details. As he returned me to the donkey, tears showed in his eyes. At that moment, I hoped he might change his mind and decide to take me home. But with nothing more to say, we continued on our way.
As we rode into the village, the donkey was weary, and my father was quiet. We stopped at a large house, and women immediately pulled me inside and covered me in new clothes that were big, soft, and warm. Someone showed me the kitchen where I would work and the bed that
I’d share with my cousin’s sisters.
Shhh, one of the younger girls whispered and pulled me close to the window where we could watch my father talking with her father and Parsaa’s, too. My father handed over some bills and a bundle of embroidered sashes, in the fiery colors of gold, orange, red. The two men held each other’s shoulders and kissed.
She’s a good girl, my father said, the most intelligent of my children, and you know me well enough that this praise is not false. I had never heard my father express such an opinion before and dipped my head to hide my pride.
Parsaa’s father offered mutual assurances. She’ll be a great help. The other women in the village will help her get settled.
I must leave before sunrise. Should I say farewell to her tonight?
Let us explain, the older man said. She is with the other girls, so why upset her? She fits in well already and will forget her old life soon enough. Upset, my father looked toward the house, but did not see us peering into the dark. You’re young. Parsaa’s father laughed and put a hand to my father’s shoulder. This is your first daughter. The other men in your village should have warned you.
Pressing my hands against the mud and rock walls, I yearned for my father to change his mind, furious he didn’t retort that his daughter would never forget. But he nodded slowly and walked away, the sweet donkey nudging at his shoulder. To think I’d never pat that animal’s head again or chase our chickens or sit at my mother’s feet stung at me. I wondered if the donkey would forget about me, too. Would my father ride home, and forget, enjoying life with my mother and younger brothers and sisters?
I could not help feeling resentment, but turned to my new friend, pretending not to care. Girls had always left our village, and the boys stayed. That was the village’s custom, and I knew that I would not have this friend for long.
At that moment, I realized that the men had no more control than the women do.
Fear of Beautyis Susan Froetschel’s fourth novel. She taught writing and journalism at Yale and Southern Connecticut State University, and is now a consulting editor at YaleGlobal Online, a free public-service magazine about globalization, defined as the interconnectedness of our world through people, products and ideas. The book is published by Seventh Street Books.
When I was living in New York, I lived around the corner from Felix Gilman. Really. Just around the corner. We met at one of the KGB readings and had that funny thing where you slowly realize that you are neighbors. I picked up a copy of his first book, Thunderer, and was blown away by it. It’s like he takes the New Weird movement but makes it accessible. I am fascinated by his imagination.
The new book, the Rise of Ransom City, fascinates me all over again because it sounds like it was written a hundred years ago. It does not sound like Felix, but the richness of the world and the vibrancy of the characters is still there.
So what’s his Favorite Bit?
I love the cover design. The cover design is the only thing about the book that I can love unreservedly, without any equivocation or second-guessing or sudden attacks of anxiety, because I had nothing to do with it. Nice work, guys.
The hardback is also satisfyingly heavy. Heavier than a lot of other hardbacks, if I do say so myself. Not too heavy to read on the bus, but with a good solid heft to it. Feels like you’ve got value for money, you know?
OK: I loved writing in Harry Ransom’s voice, and I will miss him now the book’s done. I don’t really buy it when writers talk about characters taking over books and charting their own course – my characters go where I tell them, damn it, or I will know the reason why – but this was definitely a book that was built around a particular voice. (In fact, the first draft was very different, and it had to be painstakingly cut down and re-centered around that character; anyway, old wounds).
Backstory: Harry Ransom is the book’s narrator. “Professor” Harry Ransom, he sometimes calls himself. The book is his rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-who-knows-what’s-next story. Harry is a sort of genius, probably. He grew up in a small mining town in the middle of nowhere; a childhood sickness and a miracle cure left him with an obsession with light and electricity. As a young man, he heads out to the western frontier to make his fortune, looking for investors in his wondrous Free-Energy Lightbringing Apparatus. Later he does get rich and famous in the big cities back east, though not in the way he expected. He gets caught up in the Great War between the horrible supernatural forces of the Gun and the Line, and some bad things happen and he becomes sort of notorious. The book that’s in the reader’s hands is (this is the conceit) composed from the letters he sends back as he heads out west again, this time for good, to found his utopian community of Ransom City – he’s setting the story straight, he’s settling some old scores, he’s recruiting followers. He’s trying to strike a balance between salesmanship and sincerity. He’s an enthusiast, a high-energy salesman, a bullshit artist who is also almost as brilliant as he thinks he is, a utopian dreamer. All of this is fun to write.
What’s also been fun is seeing readers’ responses. Obviously Harry is not entirely reliable. (Who is?) Obviously he’s not just making it all up, either. (Who would write a 368-page book that is entirely unreliable even on its own terms? Not someone who wants it published, that’s who). Different readers have had very different takes on Harry’s precise level of sincerity and fidelity to facts. That’s satisfying for me as a writer, and also allows me to stroke my chin and say how interesting that you think that as if I wrote the whole thing as an elaborate psychological experiment; which perhaps I did.
Can I do another? I loved writing legal stuff into the book. In real life, I’m a litigator. I don’t care for legal thrillers as such but I like fantastic, absurdist takes on the law, and have always meant to get around to writing a proper Legal Fantasy. In prior drafts I had courtroom scenes — legal battles over Harry’s dubious patents. Very little of that survived the flensing process. Really just Chapter 25, “The Injunction,” which is only about two pages long, and is about an injunction. Probably for the best, really.
Felix Gilman is the author of three novels: Thunderer, Gears Of The City, and The Half Made World, which was one of Amazon’s Top Ten SF/F novels of 2010, and was described by Ursula LeGuin as “gripping, imaginative [and] terrifically inventive.” His new book, the Rise Of Ransom City, came out November 2012. He lives in New York.
For the first My Favorite Bit of 2013, we have Jaine Fenn who brings us Queen of Nowhere. Here’s what the publisher says about it.
When paranoia is a way of life, trust doesn’t come easily. The Sidhe look like us. They live amongst us. What they lack in numbers they make up with their fearsome mental abilities and the considerable physical resources at their disposal. And their biggest advantage? No one believes they exist. Almost no one. Bez, the best hacker in human-space, is fighting a secret war against them. Always one step ahead, never lingering in one place, she’s determined to bring them down. But she can’t expose the Hidden Empire alone and when the only ally she trusted fails her she must accept help from an unexpected quarter. Just one misstep, one incorrect assumption, and her Sidhe trap – her life’s work – could end in vicious disaster. Worse, if Bez fails then humanity may never have another chance to win free of the manipulative and deadly Sidhe …
And now, here’s Jaine’s Favorite Bit.
I’m not a trained scientist. More unusually for someone who writes SF, I’m not a gadget-fiend, so whilst I understand the urge to sacrifice all at the altar of Shiny! I can resist.
A clever bit of tech in a story pleases me, and in my own stuff I try for consistency and scientific accuracy (except for the bits that obey Clarke’s Third Law), but I’ll never come up with some of the harder SF concepts writers that Alastair Reynolds or Charles Stross manage.
So then, just what is my ‘thing’?
It’s the urge found in a lot of fiction, but which SF lets the writer indulge to the max: Megalomania.
In Queen of Nowhere I get to fully exercise my inner demi-god. The novel is the story of Bez, a genius hacker trying to bring down a galactic conspiracy that (almost) no one believes is real. That ‘almost’ is important, because she does encounter people who are in the know and who could be of help in her near-impossible task. Except, of course, they have their own agenda.
And here’s where the first authorial evil cackle can be heard, because obviously I know what her potential allies are really up to. Or even, in some cases, what they really are. Anyone who has read the earlier Hidden Empire books will know about certain characters, and I like the idea of readers who’ve followed those other story-lines being in on the secret too, though that’s not a necessity. But in one case, no one knows – although the clues are there if you look carefully. Bez herself only finds out the full truth at the very end, and though I’m obviously not going to let on what the deal is with her strangest ally, I will say this: it’s the sort of universe-changing secret you don’t get to play with outside the SF genre.
As well as messing the reality itself and having fun with the fates of my characters (bwa-ha-ha – sorry, that just slipped out), I also get to build whole new worlds. Several of them. Or rather, new cultures. I was a humanities student, and I love twisting the rules when creating new cultures, to see what comes out (hopefully without inadvertently thieving from or offending any existing human cultures – that can be a fine line to walk). I had a number of chances to come up with new worlds in Queen of Nowhere because although the book is Bez’s story, her plans affect the whole of human space. She visits several worlds in the course of the novel, and influences the fate of people on many others … and vice versa as, mistress of data though she is, she can’t know everything. And in this case, what she doesn’t know can definitely hurt her…
Jaine Fenn studied Linguistics and Astronomy at college before spending a decade and a half developing a healthy distrust of technology whilst working in computing. She lives in Hampshire, England with her husband and her books.
As well as numerous short stories she is the author of the Hidden Empire series which started in 2008 with Principles of Angels and is published by Gollancz. Queen of Nowhere is the fifth book in the series, but it’s not necessary to read all the preceding ones as there will not be a test.
The magical book that might result if Jane Austen’s Emma were set against the Luddite uprising in the Year Without a Summer Up-and-coming fantasist Mary Robinette Kowal enchanted fans with award-winning short stories and beloved novels featuring Regency pair Jane and David Vincent. In Without a Summer the master glamourists return home, but in a world where [...]