Theodora Goss is joining us today with her novel European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman. Here’s the publisher’s description:
In the sequel to the critically acclaimed The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Mary Jekyll and the rest of the daughters of literature’s mad scientists embark on a madcap adventure across Europe to rescue another monstrous girl and stop the Alchemical Society’s nefarious plans once and for all.
Mary Jekyll’s life has been peaceful since she helped Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson solve the Whitechapel Murders. Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein, and Mary’s sister Diana Hyde have settled into the Jekyll household in London, and although they sometimes quarrel, the members of the Athena Club get along as well as any five young women with very different personalities. At least they can always rely on Mrs. Poole.
But when Mary receives a telegram that Lucinda Van Helsing has been kidnapped, the Athena Club must travel to the Austro-Hungarian Empire to rescue yet another young woman who has been subjected to horrific experimentation. Where is Lucinda, and what has Professor Van Helsing been doing to his daughter? Can Mary, Diana, Beatrice, and Justine reach her in time?
Racing against the clock to save Lucinda from certain doom, the Athena Club embarks on a madcap journey across Europe. From Paris to Vienna to Budapest, Mary and her friends must make new allies, face old enemies, and finally confront the fearsome, secretive Alchemical Society. It’s time for these monstrous gentlewomen to overcome the past and create their own destinies.
What’s Theodora’s favorite bit?
I hope you’re not offended if I assert that Hungarian pastries are the best in the world.
Oh, I know, the French tarte tatin is world-famous, as is the Italian tiramisu. And who can pass up a piece of bakhlavah? Pavlova, dulce de leche, halva, flan, panettone . . . Every culture has wonderful sweets to share. But my favorites are the traditional Hungarian ones, because they are not too sweet, and often combine contrasting flavors in interesting ways: chocolate and apricots, poppy seed and sour cherries. If you want to disagree with me, go right ahead, but not before you travel to Budapest yourself, sit down at one of the traditional old cafés like Gerbeaud or the Centrál Kávéház, and try some of them for yourself. I’ll gladly share a tarte tatin with you, if you’ll take a bite of my Eszterházy torte.
Why am I talking to you about Hungarian pastries? Because one of my favorite moments in European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman happens when Mina Murray, Mary Jekyll’s former governess, welcomes Mary and her friends to Budapest by taking them shopping on Váci utca, and then suggests they stop at Gerbeaud. She buys them a selection of traditional Hungarian pastries, including Eszterházy torte, Dobos torte, krémes, and Rigó Jancsi. My favorite of these is the Eszterházy torte, which is layers of buttercream between layers of a flourless cake made with walnuts, egg whites, and sugar. Lots of layers, like five or six or seven, so you get plenty of buttercream and walnuts. Dobos torte is probably the most famous Hungarian cake for its shining caramel top. Rigó Jancsi, which you seldom find outside Hungary and Austria, is the most romantic: it’s supposedly named after a Romani violinist who fell in love with a Belgian princess. She left her husband for him, they were married, and he created the pastry for her. Krémes is like a Napoleon, only better.
So there they are, Mina and Mary and other members of the Athena Club, sitting in a café in Budapest eating pastries. Why is this one of my favorite bits of the book? When I was writing the first and second Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, I wanted my characters to have adventures, of course—they would overcome obstacles, fight adversaries, and have revelations of various sorts. All the things characters do in books. After all, Vladimir Nabokov said a writer is someone who puts his characters up a tree and throws stones at them. I’ve thrown all sorts of things—murder and mayhem—at mine. But life is never all adventure. I also wanted my novels to contain moments that are more realistic. Moments when the characters are just sitting round drinking tea, or when they get bored, or have to go to the bathroom. (Even characters have to go to the bathroom sometimes.) There they are in Budapest, trying to fight the dastardly Société des Alchimistes, but they have to eat, right? So for about an hour, they stop and sit down and have cake. Not just any cake, but some of my favorite cakes.
There’s another reason this particular bit matters to me. In this novel, it makes sense for my characters to go to Budapest because the villains they’re dealing with are in Budapest—that’s where they were in the original texts I was drawing on. The plot requires a trip to that part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, I was born in Budapest and it’s my favorite city in the world. In this book, I wanted to show you a bit of the city I love, as it would have looked in the late nineteenth century. Sure, I populated it with monsters—that’s what I do. But I also wanted to make sure you knew there were cakes. Really good cakes. The monsters may not be there anymore, but Gerbeaud and the Centrál Kávéház are, and they still have all those pastries, right in the pastry cases, close to the front. You can order them, just as Mina did for Mary and her friends. I guarantee that they will fortify you for whatever obstacles you need to face, whether fighting monsters or just finding your way to the art museum.
Theodora Goss is the World Fantasy and Locus Award-winning author of the short story collection In the Forest of Forgetting (2006); Interfictions (2007), a short story anthology coedited with Delia Sherman; Voices from Fairyland (2008), a poetry anthology with critical essays and a selection of her own poems; The Thorn and the Blossom (2012), a novella in a two-sided accordion format; the poetry collection Songs for Ophelia (2014); debut novel The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (2017), and sequel European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman(2018). She has been a finalist for the Nebula, Crawford, Seiun, and Mythopoeic Awards, as well as on the Tiptree Award Honor List. Her work has been translated into twelve languages. She teaches literature and writing at Boston University and in the Stonecoast MFA Program. Visit her at theodoragoss.com.
You might have missed this post on Tor.com about my research trip to NASA. Come check it out (there is much squeeing)!
Here’s a teaser:
It’s like this… An astronaut asks if you want to spend the day at work with him. You say, “Yes.”
More specifically, it was like this. Kjell Lindgren, a NASA astronaut who spent 142 days in space, was a consultant when I was writing The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky. So by “Would you like to spend the day with me at work?” what he meant was “Do you want to come to the NBL and watch a full dev run?”
Now, if you’re like me, you say, “Yes.”
Let me explain. He invited me to go to the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, which is a swimming pool the size of a football field and three stories deep, containing a full-scale replica of the International Space Station. A “dev run” is a developmental run of a spacewalk—basically, they simulate a spacewalk in 6.2 million gallons of water.
To which, my basic response was, “Hey Kjell… Know how I’m a professional puppeteer? If you’re in NYC and want to visit Sesame Street, let me know. but you probably won’t want to stay for the whole day because it will be really boring.”But what he actually said was, “Do you want to watch me do a dev run at the NBL? But you probably won’t want to stay for the whole day because it will be really boring.”
Lauren James is joining us today to discuss her novel The Loneliest Girl in the Universe. Here’s the publisher’s description:
The daughter of two astronauts, Romy Silvers is no stranger to life in space. But she never knew how isolating the universe could be until her parents’ tragic deaths left her alone on theInfinity, a spaceship speeding away from Earth.
Romy tries to make the best of her lonely situation, but with only brief messages from her therapist on Earth to keep her company, she can’t help but feel like something is missing. It seems like a dream come true when NASA alerts her that another ship, the Eternity, will be joining the Infinity.
Romy begins exchanging messages with J, the captain of theEternity, and their friendship breathes new life into her world. But as the Eternity gets closer, Romy learns there’s more to J’s mission than she could have imagined. And suddenly, there are worse things than being alone….
What’s Lauren’s favorite bit?
When you write realistic science fiction, it takes a lot of research. I always try to make the science in my books as accurate as possible, – the time machine in one of my other books, The Last Beginning, is based on real life research into sub-atomic particles at CERN, like the Large Hadron Collider.
This book is set on a spaceship a few decades into the future, so I did a lot of research into space travel and the theory of space travel behind NASA’s equipment. I read a lot of non-fiction about space travel – NASA does a series of free eBooks explaining their science for beginners, so I had a great time diving into them.
I think there’s a danger of crossing over into Fantasy instead of Science Fiction if you don’t base your technology in solid scientific concepts, and there’s never been as much appeal in writing Fantasy for me. As long as there’s some seed of truth, it’s very easy to make readers believe anything else.
I wanted to write about the fear and confinement and constant stress of being alone on a small spaceship, where you’re completely responsibility for running the ship. I read up on the experiments NASA did where they made people live in a pseudo-spaceship for a year on Earth, to see how that affected them mentally. I read a lot of therapy and mental health books about post-traumatic stress disorder, stress and young carers.
I watched lots of sci-fi films like Moon,Gravity and Interstellar – and that really
helped with capturing the aesthetics and design of the ship. I tried to explain it in a series of terrible sketches:
I also had to calculate the time it would take for laser beam messages to travel to and from Earth to my spaceships on every single day of narrative, something which ended up needing an Excel spreadsheet this big:
The dark side of writing a book set in space: the calculations. Luckily I have a Masters degree in Chemistry and Physics, which helped with this. And it was all worth it in the end.
Lauren James’ books have sold over fifty thousand copies in the UK alone. The Loneliest Girl in the Universe was inspired by a Physics calculation she was assigned at university. Lauren is a passionate advocate of STEM further education, and all of her books feature female scientists in prominent roles.
Lauren is published in the UK by Walker Books, in the US by HarperCollins and in translation in five other countries around the world. She lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient. She has written articles for the Guardian, Buzzfeed and The Toast, and wrote an article for the Children’s Writers and Artist’s Yearbook 2019.
You can find her on Twitter at @Lauren_E_James, Tumblr at @laurenjames or her website http://www.laurenejames.co.uk, where you can subscribe to her newsletter to be kept up to date with her new releases and receive bonus content.
BRADBURY BASE, Sep 19, 1973 — WITH fireworks and music, with games and speeches, the success of humanity’s settlement on Mars is scheduled to be celebrated at Bradbury Base tonight. Bradbury Base, which was established in 1953 with an initial population of four, is now a thriving city.
Watching his mother kneel awkwardly in her rented space suit, Aaron worried his lower lip inside his own helmet. She did not touch the fireworks, but her arm twitched as if she wanted to. Or was that twitch because of the Parkinson’s? He should have told her to stay on Earth, but she was so damn excited that he landed the Mars gig for Parkhill Pyrotechnics.
God. When had Mom gotten so small?
He turned away and scanned the horizon of Mars as if it were business as usual to be working here. The stars were amazing. He had dim memories of seeing them on Earth when he was a kid, before the asteroid hit. They sparkled like a silver peony aerial shell, with the dome of Landing a steady glow against the sky. The streets of the colony had been packed with people celebrating the tenth anniversary of Arrival Day. Hard to believe it was 1973 already.
Over the speaker, Mom’s voice crackled, “You adjusted the perchlorate balance?”
She threw her arms into the air like an Olympic gymnast. “Triumph! I—Oh!”
Off-balance with unfamiliarity in the light Martian gravity, the sudden movement tipped her to the side. Aaron hopped forward and caught her before she could pitch over onto the small array of pyrotechnic devices.
“Sorry.” She patted his hand clumsily. “I was just so pleased I remembered my chemistry.”
“It was always second nature for you.”
“On Earth. The mix has to be different up here.” She nodded to the firework. “Did you think about using an oxygen chamber around the fuse instead?”
He rolled his eyes, grateful that his helmet kept his expression from being too obvious. Clearly, some things hadn’t changed. “Mom—The show is in an hour and a half. If I’ve screwed up, you aren’t going to fix it by quizzing me.”
“Well. Well… I’m proud of you. Your great-granddaddy would have split a side if he’d have known Parkhill Pyrotechnics would have a show on Mars someday.”
“Thanks. I—” He shouldn’t have taken the time to walk her past the fireworks staging area. He knew how she got. Always wanting to help out, despite being retired. “Listen, we should get a move on so I can load the program.”
She clambered to her feet. Aaron caught her arm and helped steady her. Even in the bulky suit she was tiny. “You and your punch cards. It seems so lonely.”
“It’s safer. If you’re in a bunker, there’s darn little that can go wrong.”
“I’m just saying—”
“Can we not have this argument again?” He thumped the bag of punch cards slung over his shoulder. “There was no way I could have brought a team of twenty up to Mars. If I still did things the old-fashioned way, I’d never have landed the contract.”
“You’re right. Of course, you’re right.”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have snapped.”
“No, no. It’s good for me to remember that I’m only a tourist these days.” She turned away from the town to face the dome of the Bradbury Space Center. “Let’s go watch your show.”
In Landing, the city lights reflected off the interior of the dome and would have made the fireworks nearly invisible. The Bradbury Space Center, on the other hand, with its vast space for interplanetary rockets, could hold the whole town but, more importantly, it was easier to darken. Turn off the work lights and you had an unobstructed view of the sky.
Through the thick glass of the air lock’s window, Aaron spied banners proclaiming “1953-1973” inside the hangar. The interior of the space center had been swathed with red, green, and blue bunting for the celebration.
He held the door for his mother as she ducked into the chamber after him, kicking the ubiquitous red dust off her boots. Aaron shifted the satchel over his shoulder while he waited for the air to cycle.
With a hiss, the door finally opened and they stepped onto the hangar floor.
People were already filling the hangar with a cheerful buzz of conversation. Some folks had even brought blankets and carried sacks with picnics like everyone was trying to recreate a holiday from Earth. Heck… the mayor had gone so far as to erect a bandstand and rounded up a horn section from somewhere. Darn good thing they’d have music, too, given that between the dome and the thin atmosphere, the fireworks made more of a snap than a bang.
People thought fireworks were about the flash and bang, but if his mom had taught him anything it was that they were about building community. For one night, everyone breathed with the same breath, with the intake of Oh and the exhale of Ah.
Aaron popped the seal on his helmet and pulled it off, switching from the steely recycled funk of suit air to the steely recycled burnt-hydrocarbon funk of the hangar. Burning things, at least, smelled comfortably familiar if you mixed in a little sulfur stink.
His mother’s hands fumbled with the latch on her helmet. The suit’s heavy gloves made her normally nimble fingers clumsy. No… No, it wasn’t just the suit. He’d never get used to thinking of her as fragile.
“Here.” He handed her the satchel with the punch cards in it. “Let me help.”
Her mouth quirked to the side in a sheepish grin. The external speaker on the suit crackled. “I’ll blame it on the suit instead of getting old.”
“Fair assessment—” He tugged on the latch and grunted. “Darn thing’s stuck.”
“Triumph! It’s not me!” His mom again flung her arms up in celebration.
With the movement, the catch on his satchel released and the bundle of punch cards came out, flying in a high inertial arc in the light gravity.
“Shit!” His mother jerked away, reaching for the punch cards.
For a moment, Aaron was more stunned that she had cursed than about the cards.
The cards—Shit. He turned and jumped, to try to catch them, but his gloved hand only batted at the bundle. The rubber band holding them slipped and the cards sprayed around them like a Waterfall Shell expanding. Each individual card tumbled free and fluttered to the ground. They dropped so slowly, it almost seemed as if he could catch them.
Not that it would do any good. They were already hopelessly out of sequence.
“Oh, sweetie. I’m so sorry.” His mother stared at the cards, still falling to the blackened hangar floor.
He took a breath, trying to not completely lose it in front of his mother. There was nothing that could be done and she would already be feeling bad enough. He had to keep it together.
But the show was in an hour.
A barrage of curses ran rapid-fire through his mind, but he just took another breath of the recycled air and turned to his mom. “Let’s get you out of that suit first, okay?”
He held up a finger to silence her and turned the corners of his mouth up in a smile. “No way we can pick things up in the gloves, so let’s get that sorted.”
Pick things up? There were two hundred and fifty individual cards. Forget about picking them up, how was he going to re-sequence them fast enough? His sequencer was back in Landing proper and that was a good quarter-hour away from the hangar by train. Then he’d have to get to his hotel and back and… Shit. Aaron put his hand on the latch of his mother’s helmet and gave it a quick tug. The darn thing popped free immediately as if it had never been stuck.
“Well, turtle feathers.” His mother scowled and pulled the helmet off. “If it had done that in the first place…” Her voice trailed away as she stared at the cards.
Behind them, the airlock cycled open, and a family of five stepped into the hangar.
“Careful—” Aaron held up his hand to direct them around the pile of cards, but the smallest of the suited figures bolted away from the group, running toward the bandstand. The little booted feet kicked up the punch cards like dried leaves. “Turtle feathers” was not a sufficient level of expletive. Aaron compressed his lips to hold everything else in. Instead, he gestured to the cards and asked the rest of the family to go around.
When he turned back, his mother was on her knees, gloves discarded, gathering cards.
He yanked his own off and dropped to the hangar floor beside her. Picking up a card, he pointed to the notched corner. “These should all be facing the same way to load them into the computer.”
“How do we know what order they go in?” She rifled through the ones she’d already picked up and reoriented the cards that were upside down.
“See these last three columns of holes? That’s the sequence number.” A jump in numbers would cause the computer to throw an error. Damn it. He sagged on his knees. There was no way he could run the program out of sequence.
And what if one went missing? Or was folded?
God. That would jam the machine. If it choked on an early card, the entire sequence would sit there in the middle of a field of red, without detonating. His claims that he could actually get fireworks to go off on Mars, with the thin atmosphere and the complications of the gravity—all of that was about to look like shameless boasting. His professional reputation would be ruined.
And the deposit. All that money to haul stuff up here. He’d have to eat the expenses and give them the deposit back. It would be the end of Parkhill Pyrotechnics.
Aaron’s hands shook as he snatched cards off the floor.
“Can we do it the old-fashioned way?”
“What? Run across the airless plains of Mars and light fuses?” He grimaced an apology for letting the sarcasm slip out. She looked miserable and that wasn’t what she’d meant anyway. “Sorry. No. There’s no way to manually drive the electronic initiator without the computer.”
“I am so sorry.” His mother glanced down at the cards in her hands and shook her head. “It takes me five minutes just to count the holes to figure out where they are in sequence.”
“I know.” He snorted. “If we had a team like Grandpa’s then maybe we could sequence them faster.”
His mother’s head snapped up. “You are brilliant.”
“Mom…” She’d always had faith in him, and this time he was going to fail, and she’d feel responsible. “It’s not your fault.”
“It is. And I’ll fix it.” She jumped to her feet and ran to the bandstand.
She took long, bounding strides and in a moment was talking to the mayor. Even from where Aaron was, he could see Mom turn on the charm. A moment later, the mayor handed her the microphone.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” Her Southern twang sounded more apparent over the hangar loudspeakers. “Do y’all want to see some fireworks tonight?”
They cheered. God. How many times had he heard Mom pump up a crowd before they started a show on Earth? The roar went up from their bellies, full of enthusiasm for this new life.
And he didn’t have a show to give them.
“Then we need your help! My son, Aaron Parkhill, has programmed a brilliant show for you, but…” She let her voice drop to a conspiratorial whisper and held the microphone closer so it sounded like she was sharing a secret with each person individually. “But… I dropped the cards. What I need y’all to do is to help us get them back in order so the show can go on.” She held a card over her head. “On the right side, there’s a line of holes. That’s the number of the card. Go over there to where Aaron is—Wave, honey.”
Sheepishly, feeling like he was twelve again, Aaron got to his feet and waved.
“Go over there, grab a card, and sort yourselves into a line. Remember when you were in school and had to sort yourself by height? Just like that.” She gave a wink. “I used to be the tallest girl in my class. Wouldn’t know it to look at me now. Oh… And y’all know that rhyme? ‘Here he lies molding
his dying was hard,
they shot him for folding,
an IBM card.”
A wave of laughter went up. Aaron turned in a circle, watching the scattered individuals join together.
“So, careful with those cards. Now… can y’all help us out?”
They gave another cheer and the band struck up a march.
In moments, people were coming over and grabbing cards. They were laughing and sliding into line, trading places with their neighbor as someone with a higher number joined them. Good lord—he’d just handed a card to Elma York, one of the first astronauts to land on Mars. And there was the mayor snatching up a card. Was everyone helping?
Aaron handed out the cards till he only had one left. Number 92. He walked down the line full of people laughing and chatting as if this was the best game they’d ever played. His mother stood at position 67, giggling with a little girl who held her card in both hands.
Just like that—the cards were sorted. He’d been worried that this was the end of Parkhill Pyrotechnics. It hadn’t been the end when his mom retired and it wouldn’t be the end now. His mother had managed to turn a disaster into a success. He’d thought she’d gotten small with age, but he was wrong. His mother was still a giant.
She built something better than fireworks. She built community.
Laughing, Aaron threw his hands into the air like an Olympic gymnast. Like his mom. “Triumph!”
I’m joining you today to talk about my novel The Calculating Stars. Here’s the publisher’s description:
On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.
Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too.
Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.
MARY ROBINETTE KOWAL
Given the frequency with which I ask other authors to talk about their favorite parts of their new novels, you might be wondering what my favorite bit of Calculating Stars is. Honestly, it’s the stuff I didn’t write.
See, it goes like this… I looked at all the things that I would need to know in order to write convincingly about orbital mechanics and said, “screw it! I’m hiring an expert.” Several experts, actually. But I’ll use this one as an example.
Stephen Grenade was my main science expert. He’s an ACTUAL rocket scientist. He also, luckily for me, got a degree in chemistry which came in really when Elma and her brother were trying to calculate how hot the meteorite was in order to make the Chesapeake steam. I’d found a website [http://www.chemteam.info/Thermochem/Thermochem-Example-Probs1.html] that had the equations for how to do it but I couldn’t even understand the math. All I had was that the total mass of water was 18 trillion gallons and an average depth of 21 feet.
Stephen wrote back this…
Anyway, for a 10 km wide asteroid, I get around 270 °C.
I made a couple of assumptions. First, that the asteroid is around 10 km wide. Second, that all of the water stays around, instead of a lot of it getting thrown up into the air or turned into steam pretty much immediately. Third, that the asteroid dumps all of its heat energy into the water instead of any going into the air or ground.
For the record, below is how I got that number. If you want to run it past someone else, please feel free. I’m also laying it out so I can double-check it later if needed.
The first thing we need to do is raise the bay’s temperature to 100°C. That’ll take an amount of energy given by (water’s mass)*(change in temperature)*(specific heat of water).
If the Chesapeake bay is 18 trillion gallons, that’s about 6.8E16 grams of water.
During March, the Chesapeake bay is around 7°C. So we need a temperature change of 93 °C.
The specific heat of water is 4.184 J/g/°C.
Multiplying all of those together gives me 3.05E19 Joules of energy.
Now we need to boil that water to make it into steam. That’ll take more energy equal to (water’s mass)*(water’s heat of vaporization)/(water’s molar mass).
From above, the water’s mass is 6.8E16 grams of water.
Water’s heat of vaporization is 40.7 kJ/mol.
Water’s molar mass is 18.0 g/mol.
From the equation, that gives me 1.54E20 J of energy.
Adding the two energies together, I get 1.84E20 J of energy.
To figure out how hot the asteroid would be, I use the equation delta T = (T2 – T1) = (total energy)/(mass of the asteroid)/(specific heat of the asteroid).
T1 is 100 °C, assuming the asteroid would dump all of its energy into the water and end up at the same temperature as the water/steam, 100 °C.
So solving for T2 and plugging everything in, I get 100°C + 170°C, for 270 °C.
All of this is makes me so geekily happy because I can follow it. I wouldn’t be able to generate any of that, but what I looooooved about working with him is that he wouldn’t just give me the answer, he would give me the thought process behind the answer. That, in turn, was something that I could gift to my characters.
So in the book, Stephen’s email became this…
I picked up the receiver and dialed my brother’s work number.
“United States Weather Bureau, Hershel Wexler speaking.”
“Hey, it’s Elma. Got a minute for a weather question?”
“That is the literal definition of my job. What’s up?” Paper rustled on the other end of the line. “Planning a picnic?”
“Heh. No.” I pulled the equations I’d been working on closer. “I’m helping Nathaniel figure out how big the meteorite was, and composition and . . . The Chesapeake was steaming for three days. I could sort it out on my own, but . . . I thought there might be an existing equation for figuring out what temperature it would take to make a body of water that big steam.”
“Interesting. . . Give me a sec.” Beyond him, I could hear the Teletype bringing in reports from weather stations around the world. “You’ve got the depth and volume of water, I assume?”
“Okay. So . . . during March, the Chesapeake Bay is around forty-four degrees. So we’d need a temperature change of 199.4 . . .” A drawer opened, and the timbre of his voice changed as he pressed the phone to his shoulder.
I could picture him with the phone pressed between cheek and shoulder, brows creased as he worked the slide rule. His crutches would be leaning against the edge of his desk. His glasses would be down at the tip of his nose to help him focus better, and he’d have the corner of his lower lip tucked between his teeth, humming between muttered phrases. “. . . divided by water’s molar mass . . . and that gives me 1.54E20 J of energy . . . hm-hmmm . . . Adding the two energies together . . . hmmm . . . 1.84E20 J of energy. You’d need . . . It would need to be approximately 518 degrees.”
“Thanks.” I swallowed at the number and tried not to betray how much it frightened me. “You could’ve just given me the formula.”
“What? And admit that my kid sister is better at math than I am?” He snorted. “Please. I have an ego.”
There’s more stuff like that in the book, which makes it richer than I could possibly have done on my own. Besides Stephen, I also had two astronauts, two fighter pilots — one active duty and the other a Vietnam vet — a flight surgeon, an astronomer, and a ton of other people lending me their science knowledge.
Every time we had an email exchange, I would bounce up and down with giddy glee. It was fun. It was SO. Much. Fun.
Sometimes I would just send them passages that said things like, “[More pilot jargon here]” and they would turn it into, “Wright Patterson tower this is Cessna four one six fox at one two thousand five hundred direct to the field.” (That one is from Derek “Wizard” Benkoski, by the way)
So there you have it. My favorite bit of Calculating Stars are the things I didn’t write.
Did you know there is YARN based on Mary’s books? Firefly Fibers and their friends at Why Knot Fibers created two custom gradient colorways, one for The Calculating Stars and one for The Fated Sky. You can preorder these beautiful fibers here, in different weights.
Rebecca Roanhorse is joining us today to talk about her novel Trail of Lightning. Here’s the publisher’s description:
While most of the world has drowned beneath the sudden rising waters of a climate apocalypse, Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation) has been reborn. The gods and heroes of legend walk the land, but so do monsters.
Maggie Hoskie is a Dinétah monster hunter, a supernaturally gifted killer. When a small town needs help finding a missing girl, Maggie is their last best hope. But what Maggie uncovers about the monster is much more terrifying than anything she could imagine.
Maggie reluctantly enlists the aid of Kai Arviso, an unconventional medicine man, and together they travel the rez, unraveling clues from ancient legends, trading favors with tricksters, and battling dark witchcraft in a patchwork world of deteriorating technology.
As Maggie discovers the truth behind the killings, she will have to confront her past if she wants to survive.
Welcome to the Sixth World.
What’s Rebecca’s favorite bit?
My favorite bit about “Trail of Lightning” isn’t something you can read. It’s something you listen to. It’s the book soundtrack.
Music plays a huge role in my creative process. I put together a soundtrack for my novels as I’m outlining, and for the rest of the drafting and editing process, the soundtrack serves to keep me focused. I try to pick songs I don’t already have an association with, and then I don’t listen to those songs outside of working on the novel.
My book soundtrack functions in a couple of ways. First, as a sort of Pavlovian bell to get me into the headspace I need to be in to write, very quickly and without a lot of atmosphere required. A cup of strong coffee, a set of headphones and Spotify is enough to transport me to the apocalyptic future of the Navajo reservation, even when sitting in some featureless airport or hiding in the car at my kid’s soccer practice. But the primary function of the soundtrack is what I eluded to earlier. It embodies the mood and the themes of the novel. A song can come to represent a scene, like “Short Change Hero” or “Warm Shadow”. Or it can keep me focused on a character’s personality, like “The Difference Between Us”. Sometimes a song simply functions as zeitgeist, like “Why Did Love Put a Gun in My Hand”. So here are five songs from the “Trail of Lightning” book soundtrack and the reasons they are part of my favorite bit.
Short Change Hero by The Heavy
Trail of Lightning is set on a post-Apocalyptic Navajo reservation, but I wanted to capture a lot of the pathos of the classic Western and then play with the tropes by letting a Native woman be our hero, or anti-hero, as it were. The opening scene has our MC, Maggie Hoskie, enter a room of hostile townspeople that need her help. The scene unrolls from her POV as she pushes open the door and people turn to stare, judging her. She walks through the crowd, her moccasins silent against the tile floor. The townspeople offer her money for her help, and at first she balks because of the low pay. But when they promise her more, she takes the job. The whole scene is meant to evoke the classic Western opening of a mysterious stranger riding into down, boot heels sharp against the floor as he enters a saloon and the crowd falls silent. And this song is perfect for this mood. Plus, it let’s you know right away, as does the MC, that this might not be a hero story after all.
“This ain’t no place for no hero
This ain’t no place for no better man
This ain’t no place for no hero
To call home.”
Warm Shadow by Fink
This is one of those songs that sets just the right mood. The lyrics are not as important as the broody tension of the song. It’s the perfect backdrop for monster-hunting. In Chapter 2, Maggie heads up a mountain alone, looking for a monster that has kidnapped a little girl. It’s her job to rescue her, but Maggie knows that might be impossible.
“I follow the easy tracks, broken branches and grass shine, up the mountain for over an hour with no visual on my prey. I keep moving anyway, sure of my path. And for a moment, lost in the beauty of the waning sunlight and the steady rhythm of my breath, I forget I am here to kill something.”
The Difference Between Us by The Dead Weather
I always think of this song as Maggie’s theme song. It’s discordant and jangly, a little unpleasant to the ears. It’s raw and honest and runs hot and cold. Tough, textured, and a little badass. Yeah, that’s my girl.
“I’m not the way that you found me
I’m never here or there
One day I’m happy and healthy
Next I ain’t doing so well.”
Tricksters and Fools by Lynx
One of the key players in my novel world is Coyote, the infamous trickster. I’m quite fond of him in this novel, and he’s a scene stealer, so he definitely needed his own theme song.
“He wore a dapper gentlemen’s suit right out of the Old West. His shirt was a white high-collared affair, tucked into trousers that were striped an outrageous crimson and olive and gold. Over the shirt was a double-breasted vest of the deepest red velvet. It was topped off with a golden puff of a silk cravat, embroidered with delicate rose-colored thread. A gold watch hung from a chain tucked in his vest pocket, and over his shoulders spread a camel-colored topcoat with a thick gray fur collar. The coat flared out around him when he walked, like the mantle of a rogue king. He carried an engraved mahogany walking stick with a golden handle, and greeted me with a wide mocking smile and a tip of his top hat. He was every inch the gentlemen scoundrel from some old Hollywood Western.”
Gun in My Hand by Dorothy
This last song sort of sums up a lot of elements of the story and is just plain fun. Plus, it’s got a post-apocalyptic rock’n’roll sensibility. I can see this playing on the jukebox at Grace’s All-American. Maggie sits at the bar, a whiskey in hand, and questions how the fuck she got herself into this mess.
“Why did love put a gun in my hand?
In my bed, in my head, in my hand
Was it for redemption?
Was it for revenge?
Was it for the bottle?
Was it for the ledge?
Was it for the thrill of pushing my hope to the edge?
Rebecca Roanhorse is speculative fiction writer and Nebula, Hugo, and Sturgeon Award Finalist. She is also a 2017 Campbell Award Finalist for Best New Science Fiction and Fantasy writer. Her novel TRAIL OF LIGHTNING is the first book in the SIXTH WORLD series, followed by STORM OF LOCUSTS in 2019.
Jeremy Finley is joining us today with his novel The Darkest Time of Night. Here’s the publisher’s description:
“The lights took him.”
When the seven-year-old grandson of U.S. Senator vanishes in the woods behind his home, the only witness is his older brother who whispers, “The lights took him,” and then never speaks again.
As the FBI and National Guard launch a massive search, the boys’ grandmother Lynn Roseworth fears only she knows the truth. But coming forward would ruin her family and her husband’s political career.
In the late 1960s, before she became the quiet wife of a politician, Lynn was a secretary in the astronomy department at the University of Illinois. It was there where she began taking mysterious messages for one of the professors; messages from people desperate to find their missing loved ones who vanished into beams of light.
Determined to find her beloved grandson and expose the truth, she must return to the work she once abandoned to unravel the existence of a place long forgotten by the world. It is there, buried deep beneath the bitter snow and the absent memories of its inhabitants, where her grandson may finally be found.
But there are forces that wish to silence her. And Lynn will find how far they will go to stop her, and how the truth about her own forgotten childhood could reveal the greatest mystery of all time.
The Darkest Time of Night is a fast-paced debut full of suspense and government cover-ups, perfect for thriller and supernatural fans alike.
What’s Jeremy’s favorite bit?
I wrote it, so it shouldn’t give me chills.
I’m severely critical of my own work. Blame it on a career in broadcast journalism where there’s always a critic waiting, ready to pounce in a Facebook comment about the way you pronounced “nuclear” or that your haircut is too short for a guy with your ears.
But I like it, this quote from Chapter 11.
It raises the hair on my arms — not because it’s comprised of two sentences that will one day be debated and analyzed in AP English classes — but rather because it comes from a father writing a letter about his beloved daughter. I am completely wrapped up with my own two girls, and I could watch military fathers surprising their daughters on a loop 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and never grow weary of it.
It’s a quote of a father’s fear.
So here it is:
“I wish I could go back to the beliefs I had before this, where the only purpose of the stars was to bring us light in the dark. Now I cannot look too long into the heavens for fear of what I might see.”
The quote serves several purposes in my upcoming novel, The Darkest Time of Night. I won’t spoil what it means or what he is referring to. But it is a significant development in the book, one that changes everything for Lynn, the man’s now grown daughter.
It was a tough section to write for a couple of reasons. Not only because of what it means for Lynn, but that it encapsulates her father’s fears that she was never aware of.
Fathers always want to protect their daughters. It’s what we do. We joke about getting shotguns when they turn sixteen. When my youngest, my true daddy’s girl, went to kindergarten, I hid outside the gym so I could make sure she had stopped crying. After a week of this, one of the teachers said it wasn’t helping because my daughter could see me peering around the door.
It’s a feeling that is both joyous and terrible, when you love someone so much that you feel physical pain when they are hurt or sad. My oldest daughter, who bravely lives with a deadly peanut allergy, gets that flicker of fear in her eyes when our food arrives at a restaurant. She overcomes that doubt, only after my wife and I remind her that we’ve checked with the kitchen and all is well. But secretly, I want to sneak into the kitchen and do a full-on inspection for any trace of a peanut.
That is what the quote is truly about. What happened, what prompted this father to write it, was born from fears for his daughter.
I mentioned that the quote was difficult to write for two reasons. The other is that it truly, in two sentences, hints of the plot of the story. Who doesn’t love the night sky, whether it is a brilliant winter evening with your breath lifting into the air, or a steamy summer darkening, with crickets in the grass and preening stars?
The characters in my novel learn, however, that the sky is black for a reason, and there is much hidden there in the dark.
JEREMY FINLEY is the chief investigative reporter for WSMV-TV, the NBC-affiliated station in Nashville. Jeremy Finley’s investigative reporting has resulted in some of the highest honors in journalism, including more than a dozen Emmys, Edward R. Murrow awards and a national certificate from Investigative Reporters and Editors. He lives with his wife and daughters in Nashville, TN. The Darkest Time of Night is his first novel.
Laura Anne Gilman is joining us today with her novel Red Waters Rising. Here’s the publisher’s description:
In the last novel of The Devil’s West trilogy, Isobel, the Devil’s Left Hand, and Gabriel ride through the magical land of the Territory to root out evil by the way of mad magicians, ghosts, and twisted animal spirits.
As Isobel and Gabriel travel to the southern edge of the Territory, they arrive in the free city of Red Stick. Tensions are running high as the homesteading population grows, crowding the native lands, and suspicions rise across the river from an American fort.
But there is a sickness running through Red Stick and Isobel begins to find her authority challenged. She’ll be abandoned, betrayed, and forced to stand her ground as the Devil’s left hand in this thrilling conclusion to The Devil’s West Trilogy.
What’s Laura Anne’s favorite bit?
LAURA ANNE GILMAN
Last time I picked a “favorite bit,” it was a scene in THE COLD EYE, one that reminded me why – and how – I get satisfaction from writing.
Now, as we’re closing out the Devil’s West trilogy with RED WATERS RISING, I can look back over the three books and say, without hesitation, that my favorite bit isn’t a scene, but a relationship.
Isobel née Lacoyo Távora and Gabriel Kasun.One of them is only just coming into her own, her entire life ahead of her, while the other’s already seen maybe too much of the world, and the people in it.
It was inevitable that they’d bond – but it wasn’t until RED WATERS RISING that I realized what that bond had become.
When Isobel first encounters Gabriel, she’s not much impressed.
She had his measure now: likely a professional gambling man, or maybe a law’s advocate, someone who held things close. A sharp man, either way. The charm was on the surface; she couldn’t tell yet what was underneath.(from SILVER ON THE ROAD)
At this point, Isobel herself is barely more than a child, for all that she’s being asked to take up adult responsibilities.She’s a mix of arrogance and ignorance, her innocence barely tempered by growing up in the devil’s household.
But when her boss – the devil of the series title – tasks Gabriel with teaching Isobel what she needs to know, to survive out in the Territory – they are thrown together in a relationship that’s about as unglamorously intimate as possible: riding the dust roads together, just them, their horses, and a pack mule. She’s stubborn, but teachable.He’s broken and pragmatic, but resigned to the deal he’s unexpectedly made.
So there’s the set-up: a young girl, full of ambition and power, and a grown man, dragging a life’s worth of mistakes and regret, spending a year riding through the Territory together.
Over the course of three books, they face dangers both mortal and magical.They also see things of wonder and beauty, share a lot of “oh my god what just happened?” moments, and not a few incredibly awkward ones (because what’s a character for but to torture a little?).
As they travel, Isobel begins to see beyond that façade Gabriel puts up.And Gabriel, who at first saw only a young girl with handsome looks and a sharp wit, learns firsthand why the devil chose her to be his Left Hand, the voice of brutal justice in the Territory.
Readers following their adventures have seen how they interact, the trust, respect, and friendship that grows.But when I was re-reading all three books (preparing to write the novella that follows), the full arc of their relationship – how it grew and what it became – took my breath away.
They are no longer teacher and student, but neither are they peers: Gabriel is aware of the fact that Isobel holds far more power than he, and he does not envy her it.And they are not romantic – if there was ever a moment they thought of each other like that, it came and went.
That’s incredibly important – that it’s not romantic – because what they have is love.Pragmatic love, asking and expecting nothing of the other save that they be themselves.They’ve seen what the other is capable of, good and ill, and accepted it entirely.
Laura Anne Gilman is the Nebula- and Endeavor-award nominated author of The Devil’s West, the Locus-bestselling weird western series (SILVER ON THE ROAD, THE COLD EYE, and RED WATERS RISING), as well as the short story collection DARKLY HUMAN, the long-running Cosa Nostradamus urban fantasy series, and the “Vineart War”trilogy. Her short fiction has recently appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and THE UNDERWATER BALLROOM SOCIETY.Her work has been hailed as “a true American myth being found.” by NPR, and praised for her “deft plotting and first-class characters” by Publisher Weekly, among others.
A former New Yorker, she currently lives outside of Seattle with two cats and many deadlines.More information and updates can be found at www.lauraannegilman.net.
The Seminar at 4th Street Fantasy is an opportunity for aspiring, neo-pro, and intermediate writers to hear about aspects of the speculative fiction industry from professionals who work in it. Ask questions, eat lunch with our panelists, and meet other emerging writers! This year our Seminar theme is The Business of Authoring. Discussion may include (amongst other possibilities) issues around contracts; being a debut author; self-publishing, Patreon/Drip, and being a ‘hybrid author’; games writing, freelancing, and tie-in writing; and all the other ways people make this business work (or fail to).
In addition to Mary, this year’s Seminar leaders include Max Gladstone, Kelly McCullough, and Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
All the Things We Do That Aren’t Smashing Things 4:00-5:00pm
A discussion of all the ways we tell stories about building lives, civilizations, and legacies using anything but the edge of the sword. Why do we so often truncate our experience/expectations of fiction to revolve so firmly around the linked concepts of heroism and violence when there are so many other crucial aspects to being human? How has the fantasy genre dealt with this conundrum, and how have specific fantasists tried to approach it? How do we keep the discussion from degenerating into a prudish or performative rejection of the abstract concept of “violence” altogether, while affirming that there are other common and crucial ways of getting things done?
Saturday, June 23rd
The Craft of Cutting Out: Using Reductive and Restrictive Tools 11:00am-12:00pm
“The difference between life and art is that art has a frame,” someone once said. All art comes from some manner of limitation, and this will be a craft-centered discussion on the use of limitation as a deliberate creative tool— whether it means using minimalist typing programs like Writeroom, or a typewriter, or a notebook and pen, or a simple instrument rather than a complex one, or a limited and controlled environment (Maya Angelou famously maintained a hotel room in which she would write every day sans distraction) to channel creativity. What happens when we go unplugged rather than electrified? Where do we draw the line between healthy asceticism and punitive measures?
C.L. Polk is joining us today to talk about her novel Witchmark. Here is the publisher’s description:
C. L. Polk arrives on the scene with Witchmark, a stunning, addictive fantasy that combines intrigue, magic, betrayal, and romance.
One of Publishers Weekly‘s Most Anticipated Books of Spring 2018!
In an original world reminiscent of Edwardian England in the shadow of a World War, cabals of noble families use their unique magical gifts to control the fates of nations, while one young man seeks only to live a life of his own.
Magic marked Miles Singer for suffering the day he was born, doomed either to be enslaved to his family’s interest or to be committed to a witches’ asylum. He went to war to escape his destiny and came home a different man, but he couldn’t leave his past behind. The war between Aeland and Laneer leaves men changed, strangers to their friends and family, but even after faking his own death and reinventing himself as a doctor at a cash-strapped veterans’ hospital, Miles can’t hide what he truly is.
When a fatally poisoned patient exposes Miles’ healing gift and his witchmark, he must put his anonymity and freedom at risk to investigate his patient’s murder. To find the truth he’ll need to rely on the family he despises, and on the kindness of the most gorgeous man he’s ever seen.
What’s C.L.’s favorite bit?
C. L. POLK
Stories change a lot between revisions. You’d never recognize the story I first wrote for Witchmark. I added thirty thousand words, cut two subplots, and discovered Grace Hensley, Miles Singer’s younger sister.
Grace was the favorite child. Gifted with a strong talent for Storm-Singing, Grace grew up as her father’s daughter, trained to take his place as the leader of the secret circle of mages who hold back the storms that would ruin Aeland’s agricultural prosperity. And she’s a failure, because her brother successfully escaped his fate as a lackey and magical battery. The subsequent loss of reputation has put the Hensley name in freefall, and she’ll do anything to claw her way back to the top.
I sense the enlightened nods. Ah. An antagonist.
Except it’s not quite so clear. Grace refuses to force her brother into the subservient position that would repair the damage to the family name. Faced with a choice between power and love, Grace promises the one thing she absolutely shouldn’t–she swears a blood oath not to bind her brother’s magical power without his consent:
She had a blade out of her pocket in a heartbeat. I shut the door but kept my hand on the lever. She drew the white-handled blade across her skin. “I bind my power to this promise: I will not bind your power to mine without your consent.”
Blood welled up in her palm, and she drew a stylized G that carried the suggestion of a bolt of lightning. “By my oath, my mark, and my blood, this is true.”
She used the strictest of vows. A tripled oath was impossible to break. It was old magic, older than Link Circles, older than storm-singing, and she’d done it without hesitation.
She held her hand out. The blood seeped back into her skin, the spell a part of her forever.
With this vow, she wins enough trust to start interfering in Miles’ life…and she’s every bit as abrasive as an opinionated sister can get. Love for her brother or not, Grace Hensley is still a bit of a snob, and is scandalized to discover where her brother lives:
“Birdland? You live in a single room in a boarding house in Birdland?”
She was as I remembered her, making an awful face at a supper she didn’t like or a notion she wouldn’t abide. The years melted away as I winked at her. “You’re sounding better. Cold cleared up?”
“After I nearly burned to death with your cure. I’m perfectly well.” She glanced around at the kitchen. I was glad Mrs. Bass’s enameled iron pots were free of stains and she’d never let a speck of dust settle anywhere. But Grace looked as if this kitchen were a pathetic hovel. “How much are they paying you?”
“Enough.” The meat had surrendered to hours on the simmer. “I could afford a flat, if I could find one.”
“Leave it to me. Birdland. Indeed.”
And where he works:
“So you donated a hill of money to the hospital.”
“I should have offered more. You really don’t have a lift?”
“We really don’t.”
“The least I could do for them. A parting gift.”
I put my spoon down. “A what?”
“I know what to do.” Grace leaned over her bowl, elbows firmly on the desk. “Your own practice.”
“Hear me out. You can have privileges at every hospital in the city—”
“I wouldn’t need privileges unless I was doing surgery—”
“You can,” she said. “You’d never have to worry about being discovered.”
Oh, of course. I leaned back. “Because my patients would be from the Hundred Families. An exclusive clientele, getting their maladies treated with magic.”
And the company Miles keeps:
I settled back into my place between my sister and Tristan, who regarded each other with narrow- eyed dislike. “Miles, who is this?”
I winced. “Grace, this is my . . . friend, Mr. Tristan Hunter.”
Her hand tightened on the crook of my elbow and I blundered on. “Mr. Hunter, this is Dame Grace Hensley, Her Majesty’s Royal Knight.”
Tristan swept off his hat and bowed. “How do you do?” The gesture was perfectly correct, but it was no courtesy.
Grace stood with her feet and shoulders squared up to face him. She bristled with hostility. What on Earth— ?
Of course. She could see Tristan’s veiling magic.
“Grace,” I said, gently. “Mr. Hunter is my friend.”
She continued staring at him. “Indeed.”
Protective, loyal, and ambitious, or judgy, controlling, and arrogant? People don’t seem to stay neutral in their opinions on Miles’ sister. But I can’t help but speculate that Grace probably would be considered driven, responsible, passionate, and in a difficult position if her name was Gary. I love Grace because she defies the narrow strip of ground fictional women are allowed to occupy. She’s not nice enough. She doesn’t do emotional support. She’s opinionated, openly ambitious, sure of her own abilities and talents. She has flaws and weaknesses that make me facepalm, but her love for her brother shines through, creating all kinds of obstacles in what ought to be a clear path to her destiny as the leader of Aeland’s magicians.
C.L. Polk writes fiction and spots butterflies in Southern Alberta. She has an unreasonable fondness for knitting, single estate coffee, and the history of fashion. Her debut series beginning with the novel Witchmark is available from Tor.com.
I have a post at the Tor/Forge site today about The Calculating Stars and Hidden Figures and internalized bias, go check it out!
Here’s a teaser:
As mainstream culture becomes increasingly vocal about the politics of gender, it makes me aware of all of the damaging narrative that I’ve internalized and which has created internal biases in myself. Those show up in my fiction. So when I sit down to write, I now assume that I have a bias.
J.S. Fields is here today with the final book in the Ardulum series, Ardulum: Third Don. Here’s the publisher’s description:
The planet wakes.
Atalant is torn between two worlds. In uncharted space, head of a sentient planet, the new eld of Ardulum now leads the religion she once rejected. Emn is by her side but the Mmnnuggl war brewing in the Charted Systems, threatening her homeworld of Neek, cannot be ignored. Atalant must return to the planet that exiled her in order to lead the resistance. She must return home a god, a hypocrite, a liar in gold robes, and decide whether to thrust her unwilling people into the truth of Ardulum, or play the role she has been handed and never see her family, or her world, again.
What’s J.S. favorite bit?
I’m a scientist.
And I’m back.
Although I spend a lot of time in real life, and in the ARDULUM series, talking about wood science (or the science of cellulose, specifically), I never really get a chance to talk about the other side of my job, which is…
Wait for it…
Not the kind that grow on your bread, or in your shower, or the black kind that everyone gets super bent out of shape about for no good reason (can someone please make one of those friendly spider memes for mold? Please?). I work with wood-decaying fungi which, as you might imagine, is sort of perfect since all the tech in ARDULUM is cellulose-based. So what better plot device, what better mass-panic-inducing organism, than a fungus that can literally eat the galaxy?
Fungi have always been a part of the Charted Systems and the Alliance, if somewhat subtly. The menagerie of genders presented in the series are each modeled after a species of fungus. Conveniently fungi present practically limitless options for gender and sexual reproduction, and aliens should be at least as diverse as fungi (our closest evolutionary friends, in terms of kingdom). But I didn’t just want to model gender in THIRD DON, I actually wanted to imagine what fungi, as sentient beings (that can communicate with us. I’m not saying current fungi aren’t sentient. Don’t come after me, mycophiles!) would look like, how they might move, and how they might communicate.
Unfortunately there wasn’t a lot of space to get into the minutiae of sentient fungal mechanics, but I’m really pleased with the parts I did get to play with. How do fungi emote? If we give them more ‘understandable’ traits, a big one would be a large spore expulsion. Although not all fungi release spores in such a manner on Earth, it seems like a reasonable evolutionary trait to be able to aggressively shoot spores (especially foul smelling ones) at someone who is bothering you. The spores could be sticky, smelly, or rapidly come to life and continue attacking. What fun! And what a mess to clean up. One can imagine if extended negotiations were needed with sentient fungi, one would try to make sure tempers stayed cool.
Another big issue would be communication. Fungi communicate chemically, as do most living things, and also, in theory, through their extensive hyphal networks. For THIRD DON I tried to combine the two methods, by indicating that the sentient fungi used chemical signals, but in order to communicate in ‘Common’ with Atalant, rubbed their hyphae together to mimic speaking sounds. I assume the chitin content of fungal hyphae would need to be drastically increased to make the kind of noises needed to ‘talk,’ but hey, this is science fiction. You can take some things on spec, surely.
Finally, movement. Fungi capable of running a planet and interacting with bipeds need a way to locomote. And since this is an entire kingdom we’re talking about here, not just a species (like, say, Homo sapien), there needed to be some variation. So I selected across a broad group of fruiting forms, from the very recognizable stinkhorn fungi (specifically the ‘veiled lady,’ Phallus indusiatus), to the ascomycetes cup fungus elf’s cup (Chlorociboria spp.), to a fungus that has no known fruiting body nor common name: Scytalidium cuboideum.
Dragging seemed the easiest way to get around, and most fungi make hyphae, so across the board the fungi pull themselves along with braided hyphae. But to denote species differences, I got into the mechanics of each type. The veiled lady can detach their ‘veil’ and wave it around (or smack other beings with it) in anger, using hyphal ‘hands.’ Scytalidium cuboideum moves both through its mycelium, and through expulsion of pigment from its hyphae (in real life, the fungus makes a beautiful red pigment which is used in textile dyeing). The final fungus, elf’s cup, doesn’t do much unique with their movement, but since this fungus has been used for hundreds of years in Western Europe for dyeing wood intarsia and marquetry pieces, I wanted to make sure there was a nod to its expansive pigment production. Hence, every time the fungus is on something woody in THIRD DON (which is basically all the time), it injects a blue-green color into the wood, as well as leaves a trail of blue-green pigment in its wake. Like a car leaking oil, but prettier.
The sentient fungi of THIRD DON are mostly limited to one chapter, and play a very small role in the overall plot, but in many ways they were the most fun to write. A biped is a biped, especially in sci-fi, and especially if we want people to be able to relate to the character, but fungi…ah, we have such creative freedom with fungi! Genders and digestion and habitat and communication…really it’s a wonder there aren’t more sci-fi stories dedicated to their biology.
And maybe if there were, people wouldn’t be so terrified of the mold in their shower.
J.S Fields is a scientist who has perhaps spent too much time around organic solvents. Fields enjoys roller derby, woodturning, making chainmail by hand, and cultivating fungi in the backs of minivans. Nonbinary, and pronoun indifferent. Always up for a Twitter chat.
Marie Brennan is joining us today with the serial fiction Born to the Blade, written with Michael R. Underwood, Malka Older, and Cassandra Khaw. Here is the description:
Youth. Ambition. Power. Oda no Michiko and Kris Denn have much of the first two, and crave the last. To get it, all they must do is survive.
For centuries, the Warder’s Circle on the neutral islands of Twaa-Fei has given the nations of the sky a way to avoid war, as their chosen warders settle disputes through magical duels of blade and sigil. But that peace is on the edge of crumbling, crushed between the aggression of the Mertikan Empire and the determination of the still-free nations to not be consumed. Twaa-Fei may be neutral, but it is also home to a million intrigues, schemes, and deadly intentions.
Michiko and Kris arrive in this treacherous world together, bladecrafters eager to serve their countries — Michiko as a junior warder for Katuke, a vassal of the empire, Kris as an upstart challenging to win a seat for his home, Rumika, in the Circle. But before the young bladecrafters have even settled in, a power struggle erupts, a man’s head is parted from his shoulders, and every good thing Michiko thinks she knows about the empire comes into question. A storm is coming, and Kris and Michiko stand at its eye. Will it bind the nations of the sky together… or tear it apart?
This is going to sound weird . . . but my favorite bit in Born to the Blade, the collaborative novel I wrote with Michael R. Underwood, Malka Older, and Cassandra Khaw, might just be Bellona.
Bellona? The arrogant, high-handed character everybody loves to hate? How can I name her, when I could choose from Michiko, Kris, Ojo, Adechike (officially nicknamed “Beautiful Cinnamon Roll” by the writing team)?
I don’t like Bellona. It’s no accident that she’s named after the Roman goddess of war: she spreads strife wherever she goes, sometimes on purpose, sometimes just by being who she is. She’s utterly invested in the ideology of the Mertikan Empire, which is best described as “rabid meritocracy.” It’s a land where every person is . . . not encouraged, that’s too gentle; more like required . . . to pursue excellence in whatever it is they do, whether that’s being a bladecrafter representing the Empire on the neutral islands of Twaa-Fei, or a street sweeper in the capital city.
In Mertika, if you can prove you’re good at a thing, then the job is yours. Other islands in the sky use formal confrontations with swords to settle political treaties or points of dispute, but in Mertika, you can challenge for any position, attempting to prove your worth through a suitable kind of duel. Want to become a cook? Think Iron Chef. Barber? Time to see who can produce the fastest, cleanest shave. Anybody can become Emperor or Empress . . . if they can defeat the current ruler in a test of combined swordplay and magic.
Of course, there are consequences if you challenge and fail. Then you tumble all the way to the bottom of the hierarchy, not only in this lifetime but the next.
Because that’s the other thing: Mertikans remember their previous lives.
Every island in the sky bestows a magical birthright on people born there (regardless of their ancestry). For Mertikans, it’s past-life recall. Combine that with their ideology, and you have a recipe for the “tiger mom” stereotype on steroids: a constant drumbeat telling them to achieve, achieve, achieve, and the awareness of whether they’re surpassing their previous incarnation or failing to live up to it.
I don’t like Bellona, but I love the window she gives us into the Mertikan Empire. She did great things when she was Aelia Tullius, and now she’s ambitious to do more. She has to be excellent at everything she sets her hand to, whether that’s dueling, lying (an excellence she’s never really possessed), or throwing a baby shower for a pregnant Warder. When her superior, Lavinia, tells her she should recognize the limits of her reach, Bellona rejects that outright:
Only an idiot concluded that, because the peach was high in the tree, she would never be able to pluck it. Someone, sometime in the distant past, had faced the same problem . . . and invented the ladder.
Bellona will invent whatever ladders she has to in order to achieve her goals. Even when I detest those goals, even when I want to smack her upside the head with proof that just because Mertika pursues excellence doesn’t mean it’s good, I find her mindset compelling. So while I love many of the characters in our story — nerdy Takeshi, long-suffering Yochno, noble Penelope, flamboyant Shun — Bellona might just be my favorite, because she’s so determined to be the best.
If what she winds up being best at is making readers loathe her, then we’ve done our job.
Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. She most recently misapplied her professors’ hard work to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent; the first book of that series, A Natural History of Dragons, was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and won the Prix Imaginales for Best Translated Novel. Her collaborative novel Born to the Blade, written with Michael R. Underwood, Malka Older, and Cassandra Khaw, is out this spring from Serial Box. She is also the author of the Doppelganger duology of Warrior and Witch, the urban fantasies Lies and Prophecy and Chains and Memory, the Onyx Court historical fantasy series, the Varekai novellas, and more than fifty short stories. For more information, visit www.swantower.com.
(Tor Books – July 3, 2018) A meteor decimates the U.S. government and paves the way for a climate cataclysm that will eventually render the earth inhospitable to humanity. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated timeline in the earth’s efforts to colonize space, as well as an unprecedented opportunity for a much larger […]