Cesar Torres is joining us today to talk about his novel 9 Lords of Night. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Manhattan is about to be slammed by a Nor’easter in October, and just as the snow begins to fall, a killer begins his hunt. He writes symbols on his victims and removes their hearts. He quickly earns a nickname: The Night Drinker. Nestor Buñuel is the best NYPD detective to investigate the case, which will be his last before retirement. But this is unlike any case he has worked before. Buñuel becomes a pawn in the hands of this ritualistic killer, who is driven to evil by a long-lost movie called 9 Lords of Night, a powerful film rumored to be the work of both a genius and madman. This new thriller from the mind of author Cesar Torres is a descent into a surreal nightmare, in which detective Buñuel moves toward a destiny that he can’t escape.
9 Lords of Night is the exciting sequel to 13 Secret Cities, and the second volume in Cesar Torres’ Coil Series, in which powerful beings from another dimension begin to enter our reality.
What’s Cesar’s favorite bit?
My favorite bit of 9 Lords of Night is the aviary scene:
The sculpture repeated the word “nocturnal” once, twice, and then over and over, elongating Nestor’s sampled voice like taffy, until it became a series of pleasant notes. The sculpture dropped these notes into the rhythm of the sounds around her, and suddenly the melody generated by the room became a deeper, more complex composition. Her body emitted music, as if every part of her skin were a high-end sampler, synthesizer and stereo speaker.
“Do you have a name?” Nestor said.
“My name is Atl, which translates roughly to water. I am named after a symbolic representation of Xiuhtehcutli, the god of fire. Nice to meet you.”
“Nestor. My name is Nestor.”
Atl emitted a series of musical clicks and chirps. Her skin faded from neon green to dark brown, and then she fell silent. Nestor was still holding in his breath; this machine was sublime, like a sunset.
In my novel, Nestor Buñuel, a weathered trans police detective and Felix Calvo, a queer academic, have joined forces to help investigate the serial murder of a woman of color, but their collaboration has none of the glamour we may expect from a typical thriller. Nestor does not get along very well with Felix, and though they have a lot of their own queerness and Hispanic heritage in common, they each feel distant and isolated from each other. And yet, both men are part of a murder investigation that gets weirder and darker with each new twist. Nestor and Felix are almost trapped in this destiny, in the way that characters from ancient Greek plays and myths were forever bound to a particular outcome.
I have so much love for my two main characters Felix and Nestor, no matter how their anxieties, phobias and flaws bubble to the surface. It’s thanks to them that the novel can take the reader on a journey that defies expectations. We think we will be reading a classic police procedural in the first third of the book, but soon, we discover that 9 Lords of Night is meant to go into deeper places of the heart, where our notions about gender, race, police surveillance and even AI converge.
The aviary scene is my favorite bit, because it stands out in contrast against the scenes of police work, forensics and criminal investigation. I love the gritty stuff, but I also love scenes of strangeness and beauty. By this point in the novel, the darkness and brutality of the murders in this book are weighing on the reader, but the scene inside the Aviary points to a new place where the novel will go: It’s a place where imagination can galvanize the detective story together with historical data, cinema and science fiction. It’s an alchemical moment.
Cesar Torres is a novelist, filmmaker and fashion designer. In 2014, his novel 13 Secret Cities put him on the map as a genre-defying fantasist. He is also the author of the How to Kill a Superhero book series, a saga comprised of four novels that has become a cult sensation among queer and gay men. He writes that series under the pen name Pablo Greene, who is known for his queer superhero cosplays. Cesar directed Beyond Built, a documentary about the world-famous bodybuilding gym Quads. He is currently writing the third book in his Coil series, and launching a new fall line for his brand of fitness wear LED Queens. For more info visit cesartorres.me.
Nancy Kress is joining us today with her novel Terran Tomorrow. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Nancy Kress returns with Terran Tomorrow, the final book in the thrilling hard science fiction trilogy based on the Nebula Award–winning novella Yesterday’s Kin.
The diplomatic mission from Earth to World ended in disaster, as the Earth scientists discovered that the Worlders were not the scientifically advanced culture they believed. Though they brought a limited quantity of the vaccine against the deadly spore cloud, there was no way to make enough to vaccinate more than a few dozen. The Earth scientists, and surviving diplomats, fled back to Earth.
But once home, after the twenty-eight-year gap caused by the space ship transit, they find an Earth changed almost beyond recognition. In the aftermath of the spore cloud plague, the human race has been reduced to only a few million isolated survivors. The knowledge brought back by Marianne Jenner and her staff may not be enough to turn the tide of ongoing biological warfare.
What’s Nancy’s favorite bit?
My favorite bit in Terran Tomorrow is something that doesn’t even appear in the novel: zebras. In this future, post-apocalyptic California, there are no zebras. Actually, there never were zebras in California. Paradoxically, that’s what lets me have so much fun playing with the idea of zebras. I love me a useful metaphor.
In the late 1940’s, Dr. Theodore Woodward, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, instructed his interns diagnosing patients to consider common diseases before exotic ones: “When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras.” But science fiction writers don’t diagnose patients; they create startling futures (if they’re not startling in some way, nobody reads the book.)
Science fiction is always about zebras.
The first time they turn up in Terran Tomorrow, Dr. Zack McKay is sparring with his colleague, Toni Steffens. Both are geneticists trying, without much success, to find a way to counteract a bird-born, weaponized virus that, along with the rest of a deadly war, has reduced Earth’s population to a fraction. The survivors are still at war, both with the microbe-contaminated environment and with a strong terrorist group called New America. Much of the book takes place in a shielded military base in California. Seven hundred diverse people live under capable commanders who are doing their best to both preserve life and to aid the scientists who are its only hope. Zack has zebras on his mind:
As Zack finally reached Decon in Lab Dome, Toni Steffens’s voice sounded in his earplant. “Did you succeed?”
“No. Didn’t try.”
“Then you owe me another five dollars. Why didn’t you try? It’s a serious bet.”
“Zebras,” Zack said. Let that shut her up for a while.
Zack and his colleague had a long-standing bet: Who could get one of Colonel Jenner’s elite squad of soldiers, whom Toni referred to as the Praetorian Guard, to say something, anything, as they escorted scientists to and from Lab Dome. So far, Zack owed Toni $345, which was a problem in an “economy” that didn’t use money. Toni was good at getting the soldiers to break silence, usually by provoking them to outrage. Zack did not do outrage, but he enjoyed hers. Usually.
She appeared in the doorway of the esuit room just beyond Decon, a plain woman in her forties, dressed in ancient jeans grown a little tight and a top of flexible brown plastic fabric, the only cloth that the the 3-D printer, running out of polymers, was still able to produce. “Zebras?”
“Caitlin was drawing them at breakfast.”
“And how does a four-year-old even know about ungulates not found within a thousand miles of what used to be California?”
“From a picture book on her tablet. Toni, what was that Latin you quoted yesterday for Occam’s razor?”
“’Numquam ponenda est pluritas sine necessitate. Frusta fit per plura, quod potest fieri per pauciora.’ It means—”
“I know what it means. The simplest explanation that fits the facts is usually correct.”
“Not exactly. A literal translation—”
“Ill-educated barbarian. So you think we’re looking for a zebra when the hoof beats we’re hearing are from a simple horse?”
“No. I think we’re looking at horses when we might need a zebra.”
One of the pleasures of introducing a metaphor is that you can play with it throughout the novel. Terran Tomorrow is the third book in the Yesterday’s Kin trilogy, which began with aliens who arrive on Earth to warn us about a spore cloud drifting through space toward Earth. The first shock is that these are not aliens at all, but rather humans taken from Earth 140,000 years ago. Since then, their and our evolutionary paths have diverged slightly (140,000 years is not long enough for much diversion). The two cultural paths, however, shaped by environment and genes, have been radically different. In the second book, If Tomorrow Comes, a small group of humans travel to the alien planet, World. In Terran Tomorrow, a group of Terrans and Worlders return to Earth. Nobody is expecting them; they have been gone for twenty-eight years and have long been presumed lost. But here they are, to disbelief and consternation: “Well,” Toni says, “a zebra after all.”
More zebras, unexpected and game-changing events, turn up in the microbial world. Perhaps they aren’t unexpected for microbes, which promiscuously exchange genes, adapt constantly to new environments, and can produce a new and often mutated generations every twenty minutes. But these particular mutations and adaptations are unexpected to the geneticists at Monterey Dome. The first one stuns Zack: “Hoofbeats drummed across his brain. Zebra.” The second one even more so:
There. She had named it, the elephant in the room. Humanity bifurcating. If the changes in neural structure or efficiency were permanent and also inheritable, the human race was on its way to becoming two species.
Not an elephant in the room. A swamp’s worth of dinosaurs. Or—
An entire herd of zebras.
Elephants, dinosaurs, zebras—a bit zoo-ey, but perhaps appropriate for a book that concerns saving the environment and the mammalian life dependent on it. Characters in Terran Tomorrow have decidedly different ideas about how to do this. Colin Jenner, green farmer, wants sustainable ecology, no matter the price. Colonel Jason Jenner, commander of Monterey Base, sees mostly military solutions. The genetic researchers, Marianne Jenner and Zack McKay and Toni Steffens, put their desperate hope in science.
But only an extreme solution will work, a desperate gamble that can change the entire situation. In his non-fiction bestseller, statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb evoked a different animal to embody the idea of an improbable event that upends all theories and changes the entire game: The Black Swan.
Nancy Kress is the author of thirty-four books, including twenty-six novels, four collections of short stories, and three books on writing. Her work has won six Nebulas, two Hugos, a Sturgeon, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Her most recent work is TERRAN TOMORROW (Tor), the final book in her YESTERDAY’S KIN trilogy. Kress’s fiction has been translated into Swedish, Danish, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Polish, Croatian, Chinese, Lithuanian, Romanian, Japanese, Korean, Hebrew, Russian, and Klingon, none of which she can read. In addition to writing, Kress often teaches at various venues around the country and abroad, including a visiting lectureship at the University of Leipzig, a 2017 writing class in Beijing, and the annual intensive workshop TaosToolbox. Kress lives in Seattle with her husband, writer Jack Skillingstead, and Cosette, the world’s most spoiled toy poodle.
Alexandra Rowland is joining us today with her debut novel A Conspiracy of Truths. Here’s the publisher’s description:
A wrongfully imprisoned storyteller spins stories from his jail cell that just might have the power to save him—and take down his jailers too.
Arrested on accusations of witchcraft and treason, Chant finds himself trapped in a cold, filthy jail cell in a foreign land. With only his advocate, the unhelpful and uninterested Consanza, he quickly finds himself cast as a bargaining chip in a brewing battle between the five rulers of this small, backwards, and petty nation.
Or, at least, that’s how he would tell the story.
In truth, Chant has little idea of what is happening outside the walls of his cell, but he must quickly start to unravel the puzzle of his imprisonment before they execute him for his alleged crimes. But Chant is no witch—he is a member of a rare and obscure order of wandering storytellers. With no country to call his home, and no people to claim as his own, all Chant has is his wits and his apprentice, a lad more interested in wooing handsome shepherds than learning the ways of the world.
And yet, he has one great power: his stories in the ears of the rulers determined to prosecute him for betraying a nation he knows next to nothing about. The tales he tells will topple the Queens of Nuryevet and just maybe, save his life.
What is Alexandra’s favorite bit?
“I didn’t miss him, mind you. Not at all. I was just rather pleased to know he wasn’t dead[. . .] My heart was behaving rather oddly—felt all light, like a soap bubble. Not because I was happy to see Ylfing. I was probably having a heart attack at that moment, that’s all.”
The narrator of A CONSPIRACY OF TRUTHS is a crotchety, opinionated old man called Chant, a wandering mendicant storyteller who has been arrested on charges of witchcraft and, in the first scene, accidentally indicts himself as a potential spy. For the first one hundred and thirty-three pages of the book, he is locked in a cold, isolated jail cell awaiting the results of that trial with nothing to do but complain and no visitors except his lawyer, and during this time he regularly assures the reader that:
1) his apprentice, Ylfing, is an idiot, and
2) he doesn’t miss him at all. Really. Really he doesn’t. Not even a little bit. In fact, Chant hardly even thinks about him, and he certainly doesn’t worry about him. (Unfortunately, being a debut author means your publisher just can’t splurge on book-printing technology like “ten-foot-tall letters of fire that spring from the page to spell out L I A R.” Such a shame, because this would have been a good place for it.)
All first-person narrators should be considered, to some degree, unreliable because all people are unreliable. None of us gives a perfectly objective report of the events that happen to us—and Chant definitely doesn’t. Sometimes he lies on purpose; sometimes he lies accidentally, simply because he hasn’t interrogated his own biases and preconceived notions. This (paired with the vibrancy of his opinions and the staunchness of his intent to inflict them on the world around him) is one of several reasons he was so much giddy fun to write, and this scene in particular, where he’s reunited with the apprentice he tooooooootally isn’t even a little bit fond of, who isn’t at all like a much-beloved nephew or grandson, is the first moment we truly and clearly see how much Chant might be misrepresenting himself and his feelings.
Ylfing as a character is something of a foil to Chant—where Chant is grouchy and sharp-tongued and prickly, Ylfing is a cinnamon roll of a human: soft and sweet and warm, effortlessly kind and good (and smart, and insightful, and well-suited to the profession to which he’s apprenticed). For all his gruff bluster, Chant values that softness—he sees worth in the way Ylfing runs at the world with his arms outstretched and the doors of his heart flung wide open. That’s part of the profession, after all: opening yourself up to embrace the whole world. Ylfing is better at it than Chant is.
The scene of their reunion is a moment where Chant, a master storyteller, tells a story that fails. He tries to dissemble about the depth of his affection, and… can’t quite bring himself to be convincing about it.
We learn who we are by the way we respond to the people around us, as if each person holds up a mirror to reflect a small piece of ourselves, and we assemble our self-image from the patchwork of those reflections. The long-awaited arrival of Ylfing (one of the last characters to join the cast) influences how we think of Chant more than any other person in the book – for the first time, we see Chant interacting with someone who knows him, who loves him, and that gives us a wildly different perspective than we have gotten before in the book. Chant says, a little later on: “For all my apprentice is a genuine idiot, I’ll allow he can spot a soft heart from a mile off. Or perhaps it’s just that hearts soften after he spots them.” Chant’s, at least, certainly does, and that says as much (or more) about him as it does about Ylfing.
So that’s my favorite bit: The introduction of Ylfing! He’s a candle that illuminates some of Chant’s much deeper complexities, he introduces a paradigm shift in how the reader perceives Chant’s representation of himself, and… Well, to be honest, he’s my favorite child. I mean look at him– he’s a golden retriever puppy. He’s a cinnamon roll. He’s kind and genuine and adorable, and hearts soften after he spots them — five bucks says yours will too.
Alexandra Rowland is a fantasy author, game monitor at an escape room company, and occasional bespoke seamstress under the stern supervision of her feline quality control manager. She holds a degree in world literature, mythology, and folklore from Truman State University, and she is a host of the literary podcast, Be the Serpent. Find her at www.alexandrarowland.net or on Twitter as @_alexrowland.
Aliette de Bodard is joining us today with her novella In The Vanishers’ Palace. Here’s the publisher’s description:
From the award-winning author of the Dominion of the Fallen series comes a dark retelling of Beauty and the Beast.
In a ruined, devastated world, where the earth is poisoned and beings of nightmares roam the land…
A woman, betrayed, terrified, sold into indenture to pay her village’s debts and struggling to survive in a spirit world.
A dragon, among the last of her kind, cold and aloof but desperately trying to make a difference.
When failed scholar Yên is sold to Vu Côn, one of the last dragons walking the earth, she expects to be tortured or killed for Vu Côn’s amusement.
But Vu Côn, it turns out, has a use for Yên: she needs a scholar to tutor her two unruly children. She takes Yên back to her home, a vast, vertiginous palace-prison where every door can lead to death. Vu Côn seems stern and unbending, but as the days pass Yên comes to see her kinder and caring side. She finds herself dangerously attracted to the dragon who is her master and jailer. In the end, Yên will have to decide where her own happiness lies—and whether it will survive the revelation of Vu Côn’s dark, unspeakable secrets…
What’s Aliette’s favorite bit?
ALIETTE DE BODARD
My favorite bit of In The Vanishers’ Palace is the fruit, or rather the flirting that happens around a basket of fruit.
Let’s rewind a little. In the Vanishers’ Palace is a dark retelling of Beauty and the Beast where they’re both women and the Beast is a dragon, a river spirit who can shapeshift into human shape. It’s inspired by Vietnamese folklore and fairytales and set in a ruined and ravaged world where nothing grows anymore. Beauty is Yên, a failed scholar who is sold to Vu Côn, the dragon character, and taken to Vu Côn’s palace to tutor her two teenage children. Yên and Vu Côn find themselves slowly falling for each other in spite of everything that should separate them…
I’m a big food person and a big believer in food as comfort, so obviously that looms large in the narration. In the book, at one point, Yên meets a malevolent creature and finds refuge in Vu Côn’s bedroom (for maximum embarrassment!). Vu Côn wants to comfort her (and to flirt with Yên as well, to whom she’s attracted to): she hits on the idea of using magic to make a basket of fruit. And not just any fruit, but the beautiful and plump fruit from before the breaking of the world.
“Here. You need some comfort.” Vu Côn must have seen Yên’s face. “This is what they were, before the Vanishers poisoned the world. Mangosteen. Rambutan. Carambola. Dragon fruit. Breast-milk fruit. Mango. No fungus. No rot.” She sat down again, the basket in her lap. She picked out a tight, almost perfectly round shape, red as a bleeding heart and with rough, gritty skin.
(I did make sure to include my favourite fruits in the basket, obviously! Rambutan is the BEST).
Of course, it doesn’t go according to plan. The most obvious issue is of consent, since Yên is still Vu Côn’s servant and prisoner at this stage: the book itself is deeply concerned with consent, which was problematic in the original version of Beauty and the Beast, and I wanted to make sure respect and mutual consent was on the table from the start.
A less obvious one is that I originally wrote the scene the wrong way: Vu Côn proffers the fruit, Yên is entranced but embarrassed, they kiss. And I wasn’t happy about it: my subconscious kept insisting something was wrong. I thought it was the kiss, but then I realized that the problem was Yên. Unlike Vu Côn who is centuries old, Yên grew up in the broken world. She has stories and legends to remind her that things weren’t always this way; but what she doesn’t have is a real notion of how fruit tasted. She’s not entranced: she’s afraid, and unsettled, because the fruit taste weird to her. They aren’t rotted on the tree, or stunted, or covered in lichen and fungus that radically alter their taste. The fruit are a comfort to Vu Côn because she grew up with them; to Yên they’re just weird food.
So we have this reaction instead:
It tasted sweet. Too sweet, an almost-sickening explosion of juice and soft flesh in Yên’s mouth. No grit, no soothing harshness. She made a face. “Elder aunt—”
And then they still do get around to kissing, because embarrassing forbidden kisses are such a good way to keep the plot going!
Aliette de Bodard lives in Paris, and writes speculative fiction: her short stories have garnered her two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award and two British Science Fiction Association Awards. She is the author of the Dominion of the Fallen series, set in a turn-of-the-century Paris devastated by a magical war, which comprises The House of Shattered Wings (2015 British Science Fiction Association Award), and its standalone sequel The House of Binding Thorns (2017 European Science Fiction Society Achievement Award). Her latest is In the Vanishers’ Palace (https://aliettedebodard.com/bibliography/novels/in-the-vanishers-palace/ ), a dark retelling of Beauty and the Beast where they are both women and the Beast is a dragon.
Beth Cato is joining us to talk about her novel Roar of Sky. Here is the publisher’s description:
In this stunning conclusion to the acclaimed Blood of Earth trilogy—a thrilling alternate history laced with earth magic, fantastic creatures, and steampunk elements—geomancer Ingrid must find a way to use her extraordinary abilities to save her world from the woman hell-bent on destroying it.
Thanks to her geomantic magic, Ingrid has successfully eluded Ambassador Blum, the power-hungry kitsune who seeks to achieve world domination for the Unified Pacific. But using her abilities has taken its toll: Ingrid’s body has been left severely weakened, and she must remain on the run with her friends Cy and Fenris.
Hoping to learn more about her magical roots and the strength her bloodline carries, Ingrid makes her way across the Pacific to Hawaii, home to the ancient volcano goddess Madam Pele. What she discovers in this paradise is not at all what she expects—and perhaps exactly what she needs.
But Ambassador Blum comes from the same world of old magic and mythic power. And if Ingrid cannot defeat her once and for all, she knows Blum will use that power to take the lives of everyone she holds dear before escalating a war that will rip the world to pieces.
What’s Beth’s favorite bit?
I’m a total history geek. The alternate history 1906 of my Blood of Earth trilogy has given me ample opportunity to dig into dusty old library discards, skim century-old magazines, and to Google away endless hours.
The first book in the series, Breath of Earth, rewrites the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire with a fantastical twist of geomancy and incredible creatures. The second book, Call of Fire, takes my characters to the Pacific Northwest, where slumbering volcanoes might awaken in a cranky mood.
An advantage I had in researching these two books is that had I lived near or in the locales I was writing about. However, as I started the outline for the trilogy finale, Roar of Sky, I realized I didn’t have that advantage. I needed to begin that book in the Hawaiian Islands, the Big Island in particular.
Therefore, in the name of research, I had to make a great sacrifice of time and money and travel to Hawaii. Oh darn.
It’s easy to joke about this being the best tax write-off ever, but there was no denying it was a work trip. I dragged my husband out of bed at 5 o’clock every morning, at the latest, to hike and explore before the sun was even up. I’d read extensively to prepare for our trip–not just modern travel guides, but century-old travelogues by writers like Mark Twain and Isabella Lucy Bird. I didn’t bother to pack a swimsuit; instead, I brought portable emergency kits in case we stumbled on dry lava (a’a is some wickedly sharp stuff) and collapsible hiking sticks.
The Halema’uma’u Trail at Volcanoes National Park topped my wish list. A century ago, nighttime visitors traveled on horseback down a heavily forested series of switchbacks to the crater floor, where the journey continued on foot across the old lava flats to the shores of Halema’uma’u. This is the lava lake long-regarded as the home of Madame Pele, goddess of volcanoes. Back then, visitors played at the very edge of the lava. They singed postcards to mail as souvenirs and tossed coins in the molten flow to see how quickly they would melt.
Safety standards are a bit higher now. We took the trail by foot from Volcano House, a famous hotel right on the rim, and followed steep switchbacks and moss-lined holloways to the dried lava basin below. This may sound corny, but the experience didn’t simply feel informational at that point, but emotional. Spiritual. I’ve lived with my characters since 2013 and spent hundreds of hours with them in their world. Now I was walking in Ingrid’s and Cy’s footsteps. I was giddy and babbling, taking pictures of everything, rattling off historical trivia. My husband, bless him, smiled and nodded.
At the bottom, we stepped from thick rainforest onto swells of dried black lava. Far across the field of the rippled yet smooth pahoehoe flow, we could see the plume of Halema’uma’u. Signs forbade us from going further due to the toxic fumes. Even so, I was thrilled to stand there, to feel the strangely hollow tap of lava underfoot, to take in the reality of a place I’d studied by book for months.
That experience feels even more poignant now with recent events on Kilauea. In May, a series of fissures opened up in the Puna district to the east, draining Halema’uma’u and causing a massive collapse of the surrounding lava fields and cliff. By massive, I mean the lake is now a 1,500-foot pit with no molten lava visible. Repeated large earthquakes damaged the incredible Jagger Museum on the rim. The Halema’uma’u Trail down the cliff was blocked by enormous boulders. Volcanic activity decreased as the summer went on, and Volcanoes National Park has recently reopened to a limited degree.
In Roar of Sky I describe the lava lake as it was a century ago, much larger than during my visit in January 2017. As I wrote, I wondered if readers would believe it all: that tourists ventured across the treacherous terrain at night and roasted hot dogs over bubbling lava. Now, I can’t help but shake my head in awe after nature’s most recent show.
I hope that someday I can return and take in the changes for myself. For now, I know with certainty that the Big Island is one of my favorite places to read about in history, and to write about, and to visit. I only hope I did it some justice in Roar of Sky.
Nebula-nominated Beth Cato is the author of the Clockwork Dagger duology and the new Blood of Earth Trilogy from Harper Voyager. She’s a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cats. Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.
Gene Doucette is joining us today to talk about his novel The Spaceship Next Door. Here’s the publisher’s description:
When a spaceship lands in Sorrow Falls, a lovable and fearless small-town girl is the planet’s only hope for survival
Three years ago, a spaceship landed in an open field in the quiet mill town of Sorrow Falls, Massachusetts. It never opened its doors, and for all that time, the townspeople have wondered why the ship landed there, and what—or who—could be inside.
Then one day a government operative—posing as a journalist—arrives in town, asking questions. He discovers sixteen-year-old Annie Collins, one of the ship’s closest neighbors and a local fixture known throughout the town, who has some of the answers.
As a matter of fact, Annie Collins might be the most important person on the planet. She just doesn’t know it.
What’s Gene’s favorite bit?
I’ve been trying to work out the best way to answer the question before me—can I describe my favorite bit from The Spaceship Next Door—for a while now.
It’s a surprisingly difficult thing to answer, although not because I don’t have a favorite bit. The problem is that to talk about the plot of The Spaceship Next Door means dealing with a ton of spoilers. Telling someone who hasn’t already read the book what my favorite part is means giving away a lot of the plot first.
Here’s what I mean. One of my favorite bits is a dialogue regarding the nature of the aliens, but I can’t tell you who had that conversation, or where, or what I even mean by the nature of the aliens without wrecking the whole book for you.
As it is, you’ve just learned that there are aliens, which isn’t readily available news. I mean, okay, It’s implied. A spaceship does land in a small town, and then three years go by in which nothing happens. Since the events in the book—save for the first chapter—all take place after that three years has passed, it’s fair to assume that something does eventually happen, because otherwise I’d have framed the book as “and then nothing happens, ever.” It’s also not a leap to assume that when that something happens, it involves aliens, because again, there’s a spaceship, and it landed. On top of that, nobody’s exactly made a secret of the fact that this is a First Contact story. We sort of advertised it that way.
But: there are aliens, and maybe you didn’t know that.
There are plenty of other good bits though, including bits that are spoiler-free enough to talk about. One scene in particular is… well, it’s all of chapter three, and it’s also the scene I picked for auditions when I was casting potential readers for the audiobook, because I consider it the best representation of all the elements of the book that a narrator would have to get right.
(Side note: because of this, I’ve heard the chapter read back to me over forty times. I’m not saying this drove me insane, but I can still hear it sometimes, late at night.)
It’s an important scene, because it’s when the two main characters—or at least the two most significant—meet for the first time, in a diner. Those two characters are: a government analyst and certified intelligent-person, Edgar Somerville; and a sixteen-year old local named Annie Collins. Ed and Annie are in the middle of everything that follows, up to and including (minor spoiler) possibly saving the world.
So that’s what makes the scene important. What makes it fun, and why I like it so much, is that in the course of about five minutes, Ed discovers that the sixteen-year old who has just sat down across from him may just be the cleverest person he’s ever met. Basically, she talks rings around him, and he’s a pretty smart guy. Annie pulls off a dizzying series of accurate deductions about who Ed is and why he’s in town, and she does it almost effortlessly, to the degree that even if Ed refuses to confirm anything, it’s nearly impossible to deny that she’s correct about all of it. It’s impressive enough that when Ed later offers her a job, it seems like a perfectly sensible decision.
In the next chapter, an army general asks Ed if he told Annie anything confidential, and even if Ed can scarcely believe the general would question Ed’s ability keep information to himself, he also sort of understands why this would be a valid question.
Finally, from a writing perspective, getting Annie’s character right was critical to the entire story. Annie is a clever-but-otherwise-ordinary sixteen-year old, and by the end of the book she [huge spoiler deleted] while relying entirely on her wits. It’s important for Ed and the residents of Sorrow Falls to appreciate how clever she is, but the reader has to buy into it too. The dialogue scene in chapter three between Annie and Ed establishes that, and makes everything that follows work.
Also—and maybe this is only important to me—it’s a really funny scene.
Gene Doucette is the best-selling author of the fantasy series Immortal and The Immortal Chronicles, and sci-fi thrillers Fixer and Unfiction. He is also a humorist, award-winning screenwriter and playwright. He lives in Cambridge, MA with his wife.
Peter Tieryas is joining us today to talk about his novel Mecha Samurai Empire. Here’s the publisher’s description:
The Man in the High Castle meets Pacific Rim in this action-packed alternate history novel from the award-winning author of United States of Japan. Germany and Japan won WWII and control the U.S., and a young man has one dream: to become a mecha pilot.
Makoto Fujimoto grew up in California, but with a difference–his California is part of the United States of Japan. After Germany and Japan won WWII, the United States fell under their control. Growing up in this world, Mac plays portical games, haphazardly studies for the Imperial Exam, and dreams of becoming a mecha pilot. Only problem: Mac’s grades are terrible. His only hope is to pass the military exam and get into the prestigious mecha pilot training program at Berkeley Military Academy.
When his friend Hideki’s plan to game the test goes horribly wrong, Mac washes out of the military exam too. Perhaps he can achieve his dream by becoming a civilian pilot. But with tensions rising between the United States of Japan and Nazi Germany and rumors of collaborators and traitors abounding, Mac will have to stay alive long enough first…
What’s Peter’s favorite bit?
I love trying new restaurants and exploring new cuisines, and because of that, I’m always curious what people eat in the worlds I read and write about. But I know my tastes are weird. Just the other day, I had Thai yellow curry with Korean kimchee, a croissant, raw garlic, and Chinese-style dumplings. The day before, I had nacho-styled fries with ramen and peanut butter and jam for dinner, which made my wife comment wryly on my strange palette. I like trying new combinations and sharing them with friends, sacrilegious as it may seem for the foodie puritans of the worlds.
Mecha was my chance to share the weird cookbook of the United States of Japan.
Mecha Samurai Empire is a very different book from United States of Japan. USJ focused on the tragedies of WWII on the Pacific side and was a dark mystery following a member of the thought police and a government censor through an authoritarian system. Mecha is about five cadets who are aspiring to be mecha pilots and revolves around their time at school, preparing for examinations, and learning about the history of their world. Of course, every study session and simulation test means the cadets need good food to recharge their juices.
The five protagonists end up at the top mecha academy in the USJ. This allowed me to draw on my own university memories attending Berkeley, many of which were intertwined with food. My entire budget for a month, aside from rent, was $200 which included books, extracurricular activities, and food. It wasn’t much, so I used to strategize how to split one meal into three. I’d scour for coupons, find the best deals, and hit up a pizza joint for $1 slices on special sales days. My favorite places were La Burrita and the restaurants in what locals called the “Asian Ghetto.” Sit-down diners were generally too expensive for my budget. But all that fineagling led to creative approaches to sate my hunger. Which is why for me, food is such an important part of not just my life, but that of my characters.
In my worldbuilding, one of the first questions I ask about each character is, what are their favorite and least favorite foods? Why? What does it tell us about their personality? Whether it’s a passion for sausages, or unusual concoctions blending five cuisines to completely awesome vegetarian meals, each of them has preferences and proclivities that go hand in hand with who they are.
One of my favorite scenes was when one of the cadets, Mac, goes to a restaurant with his friend, Griselda, who’s an exchange student from the German Americas. They visit a genre-themed restaurant in Dallas Tokai after escaping from a big fight and enter the spiritual/divinaton section. But the meal becomes a pretext for both to ponder the deeper threat of a looming Nazi-USJ conflict:
We take off our shoes and are given slippers (servers take away our shoes and store them until the end of the meal).
Several waiters dressed as magic and divination specialists bow to welcome us. One says to me, “Your spiritual outcast looks foggy,” while to Griselda he says, “There is much conflict and confusion in your path.”
“So vague as to mean anything,” Griselda says to me, as we both take our seats.
I leave the food choices to her and go to use the bathroom. I stare in the mirror and see my eye has swollen. It looks like the entire side of my head has a bulbous mass popping out of it. I wonder about the question she asked: What if we do go to war with the Nazis? How would our friendship change? Even thinking about it gives me a headache as I can’t bear the thought of our being on opposing sides. I wash my eye before heading back to our table.
One of the onmyoji brings out a covered plate on a tray. He uses his fingers, does a chant in Japanese, and suddenly, the plate cover floats away.
Griselda claps as they place the food on the table. She explains, “They dip the Wagyu beef in special panko and soy sauce, and they fry it for thirty seconds at 180 degrees.” She cuts it open. “It’s pink in the middle, just perfect. This miso soup uses this fresh aka dashi the chef makes every morning. The dashi stock here isn’t the powder kind, but it’s boiled with just the right amount of Katsuobushi, so the umami balance is spot on.”
The beef is super tender. When she asks how it is, I tell her, “I love it.”
I’ve never had a miso soup that is this rich with flavor, especially with the dried tuna from the Katsuobushi. The tofu practically melts in my mouth. We eat in silence, relishing the meal. The onmyoji brings out two mugs full of beer.
“This is for lightweights,” Griselda says. “Kanpai!”
“Prost!” I reply, as our cups clash.
I take a sip. It tastes bitter, and I don’t like it at all. But when I look over, Griselda’s drunk almost half her cup. I force myself to drink a quarter before I have to stop.
“How is it?”
“Good,” I say.
I was expecting to be drunk with my first sip, but it doesn’t have a noticeable impact. Griselda is already finished with her drink. “Don’t let me pressure you, but, uh, hurry up.”
Two mugs later, I’m too full to drink any more. I still don’t feel anything until I stand up. I feel dizzy and stumble. Griselda catches me, laughing.
“I feel like the whole planet is spinning around me,” I tell her.
“That’s what I thought the first time too. Does beer put me in tune with the planet? But actually, it’s because alcohol thins your blood and creates a distortion in your cupula.”
“Your reality is distorted because chemicals inside your ear are going crazy.”
Amidst all the changes and distortions of the alternate history of Mecha Samurai Empire, my hope is that food is a common connection for readers in our own reality with their universe.
One final cool coincidence from the original book; I wrote about a tempura shrimp burger, which was my version of mixing two loves, tempura shrimp and hamburgers. I was pleasantly surprised when the Japanese chain restaurant, Mos Burger, recently came out with a tempura shrimp burger. Tweets about the connection between USJ and the shrimp burger went viral in Japan and at a recent conference in which I was a guest of honor, they actually served tempura shrimp burgers. Other famous authors have presciently predicted fascinating trends in science through their fiction. I am happy to have predicted the shrimp tempura burger! Now I just need to go back to Japan to try it!
Peter Tieryas is the author of Mecha Samurai Empire and United States of Japan, which won Japan’s top SF award, the Seiun. He’s written for Kotaku, S-F Magazine, Tor.com, and ZYZZYVA. He’s also been a technical writer for LucasArts, a VFX artist at Sony, and currently works in feature animation.
Cheryl Low is joining us today to talk about her new book Detox In Letters, the second book in the Crowns & Ash series. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Welcome to the Realm, where magic is your drug, your poison, and your only hope.
An illness is spreading through the city, marking the sick in mysterious letters scrawled across their skin. What is first thought to be madness reveals itself to be an awakening as residents rediscover themselves, their pasts, and their long-forgotten magic… things the Queen wants to remain buried. Things she will sacrifice her own children to suppress.
Mercy has never been a staple of the Realm. Treachery, blood, and magic steeps the city as the rebel leader, Red, seeks to topple the Tower, Princess Fay eyes her mother’s throne, and Prince Vaun must decide whether to submit to his mother’s terrible demand.
What’s Cheryl’s favorite bit?
Detox in Letters is the second book of the Crowns & Ash Series and it was a delight to write! After setting up the world and the characters in the first book, this was where I really had the chance to dig in to the meat of the Realm and start the characters on their personal evolutions.
Fay Dray Fen is my favorite bit of Detox in Letters. She monopolized almost all of my favorite scenes in this book. She’s the princess of the Realm, completely rejected and ignored by her mother, but the single most powerful character outside the Queen’s Tower. She built her reputation into a legend, inspiring both adoration and fear from her people, but throughout the first book, she was still playing her role as princess and following the rules. She was bitter and spiteful. But, in a city where power makes the rules, her cage was very much her own construction.
Detox in Letters picks up almost six years after Vanity in Dust and Fay takes a much more active, antagonistic role against the Queen. As a princess of the Realm, she has almost no one above her and, recognizing the flaws of her city, she starts taking steps toward change. She devours information, tests her strength, and eyes the throne.
Even when the Queen takes notice, first warning and eventually attacking Fay for her disobedience and treason, the princess sees it all as a sign of her own strength and her mother’s waning power.
Rage rippled through her, surprise cutting to the bone. A hundred screams rang out, hands pulling at her waist but unable to move her from the monster’s path.
Fay’s fingers sank into rough fur, pressing into muscle until she felt the shape of bones. How dare it turn on her? How dare the Queen? She twisted her hands and a loud snap rang in her ears. A breath gushed across her cheek and a spray of blood wet her skin, flecking her hair. The weight of the wolf hung from the grip she had on its throat, suddenly very real. Its hind legs and tail went limp, dragging on the floor. The mighty head hung to one side, dangling as though only flesh and fur kept it attached.
She swung her arm down, just as quickly as she had brought it up, and threw the body to the floor. It landed in a heap, no longer the Queen’s ghostly thief of souls, but a very real, very solid beast at her feet. It had changed when she grabbed it, just before she killed it. She had killed a wolf.
The others growled, skirting along the side of the room but watching her uneasily. The tools of the Queen did not know what to make of a victim that refused to die.
Her mother had tried to kill her.
Fay clicked her teeth and stepped around the dead monster, toward the rest of the pack. They fled. They had a soul to bring back to the Queen tonight, but it wasn’t hers. It would never be hers.
Silence clung to the room, all eyes upon her. They gawked, minds reeling, unsure whether to lay their gaze upon the dead beast at her back or the princess that had killed it. And then the thunder above rumbled again and the wild patter of rain beat down against the rooftop, sweeping them into a rise of voices and footfalls as guests climbed down from tables.
Fay walked away from the wolf, waves of guests edging into the space she abandoned to get a closer look. They parted for her in the hall, all the way to the door.
“Wait!” Vaun called from her back, but she didn’t stop.
The doorman faltered at her advance, his throat bobbing when he swallowed and his shoulders pressing back under the weight of duty. He opened the doors because she showed no sign of stopping. The sound of the storm rolled in through the entrance, rain beating a violent melody outside.
“Fay!” Vaun caught her arm just as she reached the threshold, skirts swaying when his grip brought her to a stop. He grabbed her other arm, too, just above the elbow, holding her back to his chest with the dark night ahead of them. “You can’t go out. It’s raining. Everyone will see,” he whispered near her ear.
She considered shoving him away but the worry in his voice reminded her heart that it did not need a mother’s love. Instead, she turned just enough to look back at him. His face was no less pretty for all the dread and worry gathered there.
“Maybe the wolf went mad,” her brother speculated in an act of desperation. “She’s losing control. It could have slipped the leash.”
She touched his hand on her arm to peel away his hold. He let go. “Don’t fret, little prince.” Fay smiled as the shock and anger wore off. She had killed a wolf. “Everything has changed.”
CHERYL LOW might be a dragon with a habit of destroying heroes, lounging in piles of shiny treasure, and abducting royals—a job she fell into after a short, failed attempt at being a mermaid. She can’t swim and eventually the other mermaids figured it out. She can, though, breathe fire and crush bones, so being a dragon suited her just fine.
…Or she might be a woman with a very active imagination, no desire to be outdoors, and more notebooks than she’ll ever know what to do with.
Find out by following her on social media @cherylwlow or check her webpage, CherylLow.com. The answer might surprise you! But it probably won’t.
Shawn Sheehy is joining us today with his post-apocolyptic pop up book, Beyond the Sixth Extinction. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Elaborate pop-ups feature some wonderfully creepy creatures that just might dominate the ecosystem — and be essential to our planet’s survival — in an eerily realistic future world.
Whether or not we know it, the sixth global extinction is already underway, propelled not by a meteor but by human activity on Earth. Take a long step forward into the year 4847 with the help of stunning pop-ups portraying eight fantastical creatures, along with spreads and flaps presenting details about each one. Paper engineer Shawn Sheehy envisions the aftermath of extinction as a flourishing ecosystem centered around fictional creatures that could evolve from existing organisms. Promising high appeal for curious kids and science fiction fans of all ages — and plenty of food for discussion in and out of a classroom — this evolutionary extravaganza offers a timeline of the six extinction events in Earth’s history, a “field guide” to each creature, a diagram of species relationships, a habitat map of the (imagined) ruins of Chicago, and an illuminating author’s note.
What’s Shawn’s favorite bit?
There is no cute in “Beyond the Sixth Extinction.” There are no puppies, pandas or chipmunks. Creatures such as these fail to fit the profile (with the possible exception of puppies; see below) of organisms that might endure into the fifth millennium. Cute has poor prospects for survival.
These creatures also fail to fit my aesthetic profile for the near future.
Science fiction writers either imagine things they would like to see come true (transponders—flip phones), or they imagine things that they don’t want to see come true (insert any post-apocalyptic scenario here.) Place me solidly in the second camp. Imagining a creepy future helps me to engender communal affection and a sense of conservation for the diversity and wonder of the wild world— a world that, sadly, is rapidly vanishing.
So. I creep it up.
While I was in the idea generating stages of BT6X, I stumbled across a useful passage in Stephen Jay Gould’s “Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History.” He comments on how much more popular radial symmetry was as a body form in the earth’s past. He directs our attention to the fossil evidence of these creatures found in the Burgess Shale.
Contemporary examples of creatures with radial body form symmetry include sea stars and sea anemones. Humans tend to be much more familiar with bilateral symmetry, since that is what we exhibit—as well as ALL OTHER TERRESTRIAL ANIMALS. Crazy, huh? Being radial evidently only works in the water.
I leaned a bit on radial symmetry in creating the creatures in BT6X. I leaned heavily on juxtaposition—taking features of two different creatures and whipping them up in a blender. For most of my creatures, there is a primary source in the juxtaposition; essentially, the 21st-century creature from which the 49th-century version evolved. The secondary source creature lends characteristics that make the primary creature more alien.
The rotrap (an elision of “roach” and “trap”) in BT6X is a solid example of this birthing-in-a-blender approach. The primary source creature is the common house mouse. The mouse, incidentally, readily fits the profile for a creature that will survive the sixth extinction. It is omnivorous— a trait that depends on a certain intelligence. It is adaptable. It thrives in human-made environments.
I wanted contrast for the secondary source creature, so I chose the sea anemone. The anemone’s radial symmetry introduces creepiness to the rotrap because the feature is utterly alien on land. Admittedly, I was also attracted to an evolutionary function here: creatures like sea stars are thought to have once been bilaterally symmetrical, and they eventually evolved to become radially symmetrical.
If sea stars can do it, why can’t mice?
The transformation began with sitting the mouse on its hindquarters and treating it like an upright tube, with a digestive tract down the middle. I migrated the mouse’s hind limbs to a position near the fore limbs, giving it the appearance of having four arms distributed evenly around its head. Like a sea anemone, the waving arms grab nearby insects and push them into the rotrap’s mouth.
I included the anemone’s sedentary feature. Many sea anemone tend to stay rooted in one place for long periods of time. Rooting a land animal required a mechanism, a method of predator evasion or defense, and a way to reckon with a digestive system that suddenly had no outlet.
The obvious solution to creating a rooting mechanism was to use the tail. The rotrap’s tail developed branches and the root hairs that can work themselves into a substrate. In this case, the substrate is the vertical masonry of the cooling towers of defunct nuclear power plants.
This nuclear vertical brick environment solves the problem of predation. Being rooted high up on a wall allows the rotrap to evade non-winged predators. Living in a highly radioactive environment helps them escape most others. (This environment does not, however, affect the proliferation of various insects that feed the rotrap.)
As for the plugged up digestive tract? I simply made it a two-way street—whatever goes down gets digested, and then the waste comes right back up again.
Shawn Sheehy is the award-winning creator of Welcome to the Neighborwood. Passionate about pop-up books, he works sculpturally with the book format and presents workshops on pop-up engineering across the country. He lives in Chicago.
Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law are joining us today to talk about their anthology Shades Within Us: Tales of Migrations and Fractured Borders. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Journey with twenty-one speculative fiction authors through the fractured borders of human migration to examine the dreams, struggles, and triumphs of those who choose–or are forced–to leave home and familiar places.
An American father shields his son from Irish discrimination. A Chinese foreign student wrestles to safeguard her family at the expense of her soul. A college graduate is displaced by technology. A Nigerian high school student chooses between revenge and redemption. A bureaucrat parses the mystery of Taiwanese time travellers. A defeated alien struggles to assimilate into human culture. A Czechoslovakian actress confronts the German WWII invasion. A child crosses an invisible border wall. And many more.
Stories that transcend borders, generations, and cultures. Each is a glimpse into our human need in face of change: to hold fast to home, to tradition, to family; and yet to reach out, to strive for a better life.
Featuring Original Stories by Vanessa Cardui, Elsie Chapman, Kate Heartfield, S.L. Huang, Tyler Keevil, Matthew Kressel, Rich Larson, Tonya Liburd, Karin Lowachee, Seanan McGuire, Brent Nichols, Julie NovÁkovÁ, Heather Osborne, Sarah Raughley, Alex Shvartsman, Amanda Sun, Jeremy Szal, Hayden Trenholm, Liz Westbrook-Trenholm, Christie Yant & Alvaro Zinos-Amaro.
What are their favorite bits?
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” — George R.R. Martin (A Dance With Dragons)
Stories provide a glimpse into other lives. That’s why it was such a gift to have the opportunity to work with the stories in Shades Within Us: Tales of Migrations and Fractured Borders: to catch a glimmer of this range of experiences of moving across, through and within our fractured world. The voices brought me inside the characters, allowing me to walk in their footsteps for brief moments. Moments made significant by wings of poetry.
It is simple to say there are sacrifices demanded by migration, even a willingly chosen journey. But here in S.L. Huang’s Devouring Tongues is how a language student, desperate to escape a precarious political situation, faces the cost of her choices:
“Your parents quietly disapprove of the way the government forced you to learn Mandarin, but you’re secretly and shamefully grateful. Mandarin gives you half of Asia. And English gives you the world. Teochew gives you nothing. Redundant. Useless. But your eyes still prickle and blur, and you wish you could remember the names of your mother’s houseplants.”
A moment. A memory.
Sometimes the struggle to free one’s self from an intolerable situation involves running a gauntlet through Hell. The rhythms of the poetry become guttural for Superfreak from Tonya Liburd:
“‘Yo. Yo.’ Danielle’s hands clamped together, sweaty. Someone seemed to have smelt the new on her and come picking for a fight. ‘Yo, fucking bitch.’ A kick thumped the back of the sofa for emphasis. ‘Yo.'”
How about capturing the cockiness, the wisdom and limited perspective of youth by Kate Heartfield in Gilbert Tong’s Life List:
“Dad was still clinging, then, to the idea that one day, Canada would let us live there. That’s why he was always trying to get me to speak Kiribati. He was afraid, once I became a Canadian, I’d lose my culture. I thought anyone who was not a fool would know we had a lot bigger things to be afraid of.”
The loss of family observed by Heather Osborne’s From the Shoals of Broken Cities:
“His mother vanished overnight, a slim presence carefully sweeping up after herself.”
And the sweetness of new discovery and new culture in Habitat from Christie Yant:
“Marcel found the stall where he’d once bought her a flower garland. She laughed as he set one on her head, and they ate festival food and drank festival wine, which made them giddy. As they grew braver, they told each other stories. Later that evening beside a fountain, under strings of twinkling lights, with the scent of spring blossoms and sound of stringed instruments on the air, he kissed her.”
These, and so many more. Sweet. Powerful. Captivating. Words that capture a feeling, a moment. You are there. Underlying observations of who we are and the borders we are impelled to cross; and the lyrical voices that tell these stories: these are my favorite bits.
LUCAS K. LAW
How many of us stay in one place from birth to death? I think it is obvious that most of us, if not all, have moved or relocated at least once—whether by choice or through force. This move could be across town, continent, or ocean. It is not just a physical migration but also a migration of soul, mind, and spirit. Our journey does not begin or end when we find a new place; it is the series of experiences, challenges, and reflections—personal or shared—along the way, that make us who we are or what we become.
I see fragments of myself in each of the stories in Shades Within Us, from an immigrant to a person caught between two worlds, from dealing with a particular norm to accepting the uniqueness in each other, from facing discrimination to finding acceptance. Each story reflects the importance of history and storytelling; the importance of communicating and connecting through one’s own art, whatever that may be. And that is my favorite bit. Why?
Stories allow us to probe or reflect on our own history more deeply.
A few weeks ago, I asked my father, “Why do you keep mentioning the name of that remote fishing village?” He answered, “I lived there until my late teens.”
Boy, it was a revelation. I didn’t know that his family fled the city during WWII. I always assumed that he grew up in the city because he was born there and that was where most of his relatives were during the Japanese occupation. And, country life wasn’t in his blood.
I knew my mother grew up in the remote areas of Malaysia; for that reason, I assumed my father was talking about her fishing village all these years. This bit of information changed my perception of my father’s life. But it also gave me an entry to probe further into his childhood years. Suddenly, all the dots connected and made sense—the things he did and the reasons behind them.
In her WWII story, Screen in Silver, Love in Colour, Mirror in Black-and-White, Julie Nováková pins down the importance of connecting with our own histories:
“Other souls can become a part of our own. They do it every day quite naturally, just by reminding us of what has been and what should be. Tracking down our histories doesn’t steal our soul; it enriches it.”
Tracking down our histories—personal or cultural—understanding and living them, expressing and sharing them: this is art; this is story.
We are all artists. We all have histories and stories; and we all have the ability within us to create and express them: writing, cooking, painting, photographing, gardening. But if we worry that we are not good enough, we don’t have the right tools, or no one is interested, we can end up in a state of paralysis, and the art within us withers. So, when the time is right, be not afraid to share your story in whatever medium you are comfortable with. Seanan McGuire captures this in Remember the Green:
“Then I reach down, deep down, into the part of me that’s always in the green, where the green grows. The world can go as grey as it likes. I’ll still know the green.”
Remember your histories, your migrations; connect with, and share them. As Eric Choi and Gillian Clinton write in their Introduction to Shades Within Us:
“It is more important than ever to try and imagine futures that are optimistic and beautiful.”
Susan Forest is an award-winning author and editor of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. She has published over 25 short stories in Canadian and international publications. Bursts of Fire, the first in her seven-book epic fantasy adventure saga Addicted to Heaven, is not only her long-nurtured tale of rollicking adventure, but also an opportunity—one she appreciates—for an examination of the complex world of addictions. There is no family today that has not been touched by the heartache, stigma, struggles—and the often-unrecognized courage and hope—that underpin the illness of addiction. This motif is one Susan is humbled to explore with the aspiration of provoking dialogue, and the recognition of—and respect for—those whose battles are ongoing.
Lucas K. Law is a Malaysian-born freelance editor and published author who divides his time and heart between Calgary and Qualicum Beach. With Susan Forest, he co-edits Aurora (Canadian SF&F) Award-winning Strangers Among Us, The Sum of Us, and Shades Within Us. Lucas is the co-editor of Where the Stars Rise with Derwin Mak.
Ashley and Leslie Saunders are joining us with their novel The Rule of One. Here’s the publisher’s description:
In their world, telling the truth has become the most dangerous crime of all.
In the near-future United States, a one-child policy is ruthlessly enforced. Everyone follows the Rule of One. But Ava Goodwin, daughter of the head of the Texas Family Planning Division, has a secret—one her mother died to keep and her father has helped to hide for her entire life.
She has an identical twin sister, Mira.
For eighteen years Ava and Mira have lived as one, trading places day after day, maintaining an interchangeable existence down to the most telling detail. But when their charade is exposed, their worst nightmare begins. Now they must leave behind the father they love and fight for their lives.
Branded as traitors, hunted as fugitives, and pushed to discover just how far they’ll go in order to stay alive, Ava and Mira rush headlong into a terrifying unknown.
What are their favorite bits?
Steely-vented hummingbird (Amazilia saucerrottei), perched on verbena plant, Costa Rica, July
“Resist much, obey little;
Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved;
Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city, of this earth, ever
afterward resumes its liberty.”
Ashley and I bought Walt Whitman’s Leave of Grass when we were studying abroad in Paris. We devoured the poetry then put it in our bookshelf and thought no more of it. Fast forward years later when we first started writing the story of the Rule of One. We divide our novel into four parts, and in earlier versions of our manuscript we put quotes before each one. We were researching impactful, thought-provoking quotes when we came across the Walt Whitman poem “Caution”. The words hit us like a lightening bolt. They were a warning, an urging, a call to arms. The poem was written in the late 1800s but it felt like the words could have been written today. We knew we had to use the poem in some way for our storyline and as we further developed our outline we knew we found the perfect usage for such bold, meaningful words.
We made the poem the words of Ava and Mira’s rebellion.
In a militarized, surveilled world, these words are criminal, illegal. Impossible. Twin sisters Ava and Mira are not supposed to exist. Mira is an illegal second child living in a one-child policy America. When the governor’s son discovers their secret the sisters are forced to go on the run, embarking on a cross-country journey of discovery. When they’re on the road the sisters learn of Whitman’s words inside a journal their father left for them. Will they take the words to heart and resist? Or will they obey? We had great fun using 19th century poetry to inspire a futuristic rebellion.
“The government may always be watching, but they do not always see.”
That is one of my favorite lines of the whole book. Government surveillance in our future United States is at an all-time high- citizen’s every move is monitored and tracked. We were challenged with how in such a restricted world where families can only have one child, a family could get away with having twins. Ava, the eldest twin, is the only one to have a microchip. She is the face of the sisters, the character they both play.
However, Mira can game the system because she has identical features as Ava. She can fake out the Facial Recognition System, so she’s allowed to go to school every other day. A key to the sisters’ success: people see what they expect to see. Twins haven’t been detected in the United States in generations- no one has the slightest idea that Ava could possibly be hiding such a massive secret as having an illegal twin sister. Every time someone sees Mira at school they see Ava, because that is what they expect to see.
Privacy is a huge issue in our current generation and it will only get worse as technology continues to advance. I hope that the government’s iron-clad authority in The Rule of One does not become our future reality.
Hailing from the suburbs of Dallas, Texas, Ashley Saunders and Leslie Saunders are award-winning filmmakers and twin sisters who honed their love of storytelling at The University of Texas at Austin. While researching The Rule of One, they fell in love with America’s national parks, traveling the path of Ava and Mira. The sisters can currently be found with their Boston terriers in sunny Los Angeles, exploring hiking trails and drinking entirely too much yerba mate. Visit them at www.thesaunderssisters.com or follow them on Instagram @saunderssisters.
Peter James is joining us today with his novel Absolute Proof. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Investigative reporter Ross Hunter nearly didn’t answer the phone call that would change his life – and possibly the world – for ever.
‘I’d just like to assure you I’m not a nutcase, Mr Hunter. My name is Dr Harry F. Cook. I know this is going to sound strange, but I’ve recently been given absolute proof of God’s existence – and I’ve been advised there is a writer, a respected journalist called Ross Hunter, who could help me to get taken seriously.’
What would it take to prove the existence of God? And what would be the consequences?
This question and its answer lie at the heart of Absolute Proof, an international thriller from bestselling author Peter James.
The false faith of a billionaire evangelist, the life’s work of a famous atheist, and the credibility of each of the world’s major religions are all under threat. If Ross Hunter can survive long enough to present the evidence . . .
What’s Peter James’s favorite bit?
My favourite bit of my novel Absolute Proof, is Chapter Eight, in which my central character, investigative journalist Ross Hunter, gets the phone call that I did actually get out of the blue, one afternoon, that resulted in this book, the one I am most excited about of everything I’ve written.
Almost 30 years ago, back in 1989, the phone rang, one afternoon. An elderly sounding gentleman asked if I was Peter James, the author. Hesitantly, I said I was.
‘Thank God I’ve found you!’ he replied. ‘I’ve called every Peter James in the phone book in the South of England, it’s taken me two weeks. My name is Harry Nixon, I assure you I’m not a lunatic, I’m a retired academic, and was a pilot in Coastal Command during the War. This may sound extraordinary, but I’ve been given absolute proof of God’s existence, and I’ve been told, on the highest authority, that you are the man to help me get taken seriously.’
If it wasn’t for the fact that he sounded so genuinely sincere, I might have hung up on him, but there was just something about this that intrigued the writer in me. ‘May I ask who exactly recommended me?’
‘Well I’m sure it will sound strange, but I can assure you it was a representative of God. Please hear me out.’
He was right, it sounded mighty strange and far-fetched. But I let him continue.
He told me he lived in the Midlands and that his wife, also a former academic, had recently passed away from cancer. Before she died, they made a pact that he would go to a medium to attempt to communicate with her, as proof of life beyond death. Some while after her death, he dutifully did this, but instead of a communication from his wife, a male claiming to be a representative of God came through.
He told Harry Nixon that God was extremely concerned about the state of the world, and felt that if mankind could have faith in Him reaffirmed, it would help steer us back onto an even keel. As proof of his bona fides, God’s representative had given him three pieces of information no one on earth knew, all of them in the form of compass coordinates: The first was the precise location of the tomb of Akhenaten, uncle of Tutankhamun and the first monotheist of the pharos. The second was the location of the Holy Grail. And the third was the location of the Ark of the Covenant.
I asked him if he had checked any of these out and he replied, excitedly, that he had indeed. ‘I can’t tell you any more over the phone, Mr James, I need to come and see you. I’m going to need four days of your time.’
I told him that was a pretty big ask! I said I could spare him half an hour for a cup of tea and if he could convince me we needed longer, we’d take it from there. We made an arrangement for him to come down the following week, at 4pm. I thought that would be a safe time, as my wife would be home from work at 5.30, and if he had me in headlock, she’d be able to assist!
On the nanosecond of 4pm the following Tuesday, the doorbell rang.
Standing there was a man in his seventies, holding a large attaché case, who had the air of a retired bank manager. He was dressed in a neat suit, with matching tie and handkerchief and looked at me with sad, rheumy eyes. ‘Thank you for seeing me, Mr James,’ he said, shaking my hand and holding my gaze. ‘You and I have to save the world.’
‘Yep, well, I’ll do my best, I replied.
I made him a cup of tea and sat down with him in the living room. ‘So where do we start?’ I asked him.
He opened his case and removed a manuscript, hundreds of pages thick, bound with an elastic band. ‘We start with you reading this, please.’
I glanced at it, it looked about 1,000 pages long, typed with the pages covered in handwritten annotations. ‘Sure,’ I said, ‘Leave it with me.’
He shook his head. ‘I cannot let this out of my sight – this was channeled to me directly from God, through his representative.’
‘So Mr Nixon, you are going to sit there, in that chair, watching me sitting here, reading it all the way through until I’ve finished?’
‘This would take me four days!’
Excitedly he retorted, ‘See, I told you so!’
I replied that either he took a massive leap of faith and left it with me, or he took it back home with him after his cuppa, but there was no way he was going to sit in my home for four days! ‘And, before anything else, could he now answer my question over the phone about whether he had checked out any of the coordinates.
He replied he had indeed. Using his skills learned as a pilot in the War, he now had, so far, the precise location of the lost tomb of Akhenaten in the Valley of the Kings, and the precise location of the Holy Grail. The Holy Grail, he told me, was at Chalice Well in Glastonbury. I’d never heard of this place, but I subsequently discovered this wasn’t too far-fetched a scenario. Long a holy and mystical site, there is some evidence that Joseph of Arimithea bought the Holy Grail – the chalice used at the Last Supper and to collect Christ’s blood when he was on the cross to Glastonbury and hid it at Chalice Well.
‘I’ve been dowsing and metal detecting there, and there is something under the ground in the exact position I’ve been given,’ Harry said. ‘Chalice Well is run by a group of trustees – I’ve approached them asking permission to do an archaeological dig at this location but they won’t take me seriously. But, Mr James, I am sure they would take you seriously.’
Eventually he agreed to leave the manuscript with me, and trundled off into the night. I settled down to start reading – and after about twenty minutes I began to lose the will to live. I was wading through page after page of religious tracts, new age diatribes, and barely legible annotations.
I might have simply returned the manuscript to him the next day, were it not for an extraordinary thing that happened and was to change everything.
By sheer coincidence, the following day I had to go to Bristol to do a BBC radio interview for my then latest novel. When we finished the interview, I carried on chatting for some minutes with the very bright and delightful presenter. Suddenly, out of the blue, she mentioned Chalice Well.
Coincidences have always fascinated me, and her words send a ripple of excitement through me. Twenty-four hours earlier I’d never heard of the place – and now it was twice in two days. ‘What do you know about Chalice Well?’ I asked her.
‘Quite a bit – my uncle’s a trustee,’ she replied.
Astonished and very excited now I told her the story of my encounter with Harry Nixon. She said she would ask her uncle what he knew about the man. I left, feeling very strange – not exactly the chosen one but I had the feeling something was going on, and phoned a good friend of mine, Dominic Walker, who at that time was the Bishop of Reading (he went on to become Bishop of Monmouth and is now retired). I asked if I could come and talk to him.
I should add that Dominic had always struck me as a very modern thinking clergyman, coming from a no-nonsense family – his father was a doctor, his mother a nurse – and he has a brilliant intellect. Over lunch a couple of days later, I told him the story and asked him what he thought.
He thought about it very carefully and said, ‘I think I would want something more than just three sets of compass coordinates to give me proof of God. I would want to see something that defies the laws of physics of the universe – in other words a miracle, and it would need to be a pretty spectacular one.’
‘OK,’ I replied. ‘If someone could deliver that, what then?’
‘You know what I really think if someone could deliver that? I think they would be assassinated. Because whose God would it actually be? You have all the different factions of the Anglican, Catholic, Judaic, Islamic, Hindu, Sikh and all the other monotheist religions in utter disarray. How would China view it or Russia? Would either of them want a higher power usurping their authority? What would the impact actually be on the world?’
As I left, I punched the air with excitement, as I realized I had my story right there! A thriller about a man on the path to discovering absolute proof of God’s existence, up against those who want to stop him, and those who want ownership of it….
Peter James is a UK No. 1 bestselling author, best known for writing crime and thriller novels, and the creator of the much-loved Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. With a total of 13 Sunday Times No. 1s under his belt, he has achieved global book sales of over 19 million copies to date, and has been translated into 37 languages.
Synonymous with plot-twisting page-turners, Peter has garnered an army of loyal fans throughout his storytelling career – which also included stints writing for TV and producing films. He has won over 40 awards for his work, including the WHSmith Best Crime Author of All Time Award, Crime Writers’ Association Diamond Dagger and a BAFTA nomination for The Merchant of Venice starring Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons for which he was an Executive Producer. Many of Peter’s novels have been adapted for film, TV and stage.
His new book Absolute Proof – a stand-alone thriller – which was published by Pan Macmillan on 4th October 2018.
Sherylyn and Karen Dunstall, writing together as S. K. Dunstall, are joining us today to talk about their book Stars Uncharted. Here’s the publisher’s description:
In this rip-roaring space opera, a ragtag band of explorers are out to make the biggest score in the galaxy.
On this space jump, no one is who they seem . . .
Captain Hammond Roystan is a simple cargo runner who has stumbled across the find of a lifetime: the Hassim, a disabled exploration ship–and its valuable record of unexplored worlds.
His junior engineer, Josune Arriola, said her last assignment was in the uncharted rim. But she is decked out in high-level bioware that belies her humble backstory.
A renowned body-modification artist, Nika Rik Terri has run afoul of clients who will not take no for an answer. She has to flee off-world, and she is dragging along a rookie modder, who seems all too experienced in weapons and war . . .
Together this mismatched crew will end up on one ship, hurtling through the lawless reaches of deep space with Roystan at the helm. Trailed by nefarious company men, they will race to find the most famous lost world of all–and riches beyond their wildest dreams . . .
What is their favorite bit?
S. K. DUNSTALL
Our method of writing together involves a lot of talking. Sure, we might say one of us writes the first draft and the other then does the heavy bulk of rewriting, but it’s not that simple in real life. One of us does write a first draft, but the other writer follows, accepting or rejecting changes, editing the edits.
As we write, we talk about what’s happened in the piece that’s just been written, and what’s going to happen next. We call ourselves pantsers because we don’t use a formal plot outline, but having talked it out, we generally know what’s going to happen just before we start writing it.
Those talks are more than just about what’s happening in the next bit of writing. Sometimes we talk about plot, or setting. Sometimes we talk about character. We often go off on a tangent and talk out little mini-stories about the characters.
Some of those mini stories make it into the book. Most don’t.
We didn’t realise for a long time that we were creating character backstory.
We created a lot of backstory in the characters in Stars Uncharted. It was fun to talk out how the individual characters would work. Particularly Nika.
Nika Rik Terri is a body modder. That’s the equivalent of a modern-day plastic surgeon crossed with a doctor crossed with an artist. She makes people beautiful for living. She’s a perfectionist. She’s a craftsman. She’s acknowledged as one of the finest modders of her day.
So much so that young Bertram Snowshoe (aka Snow), who’s on the run with her, idolises Nika Rik Terri, and mentions her all the time. Which gets embarrassing, given Nika is on the run and is now calling herself Nika James. But we digress.
Most people would call Nika obsessed. She thinks about body modding every waking minute of her day; she thinks about the people she meets in terms of what she would do to their body to make them look better.
There’s a throwaway line early in the novel—at least, we thought it was a throwaway line when we wrote it—describing her ex-boyfriend’s old boss.
“Please, call me Leonard.” He smiled, showing beautiful white teeth. Samson Sa, of SaStudio, was meticulous about teeth.
We got a lot of mileage out of that line. So many verbal skits came out of it and helped us build Nika’s character.
There are only a handful of body modders in Nika’s class. One of them is Samson Sa, of SaStudio. Nika never says outright, in the story, that she has a professional rivalry with Samson Sa, but in the backstory we created she most certainly does.
So every time she sees SaStudio’s trademark teeth it makes her grind her own teeth a little, as it were.
As we told more backstory, the teeth (and a square jaw) kept popping up in the story, because all our bad guys went to the same body modder. Samson Sa. It became an in-joke.
Late in the book our ragtag band of explorers are captured. There’s an incident around a genemod machine, which leads to Nika saying,
“If you wanted cutting-edge mods you should have come to my studio. Instead, you went to SaStudio and got perfect teeth and a square jaw.”
Benedict stiffened. “How do you know where I got my mods done?”
“Samson Sa,” Nika said to Snow. “He’s obsessed with teeth.” He probably had bad teeth as a child. “And he loves a square jaw. What you see there is classic SaStudio. It’s like a signature.”
Snow looked at Benedict. Benedict looked at Nika. Both were a little open mouthed.
“What you’re aiming for, Snow, are mods so unique no one knows who did them. And every season you come up with a different look. Go ahead, have a closer look. I’ll watch the temperature.”
Snow shrugged apologetically and declined to go closer. “She does it to everyone,” he told Benedict.
Nika’s obsession with body modding, and creating perfect bodies is not something that we would normally write as a preference, but it was fun trying to keep her in character. Keeping that obsession and writing through how she would view the world and the people in it, although irritating at times, was one of our favourite bits.
Not only that, it shows perfectly Snow’s and Nika’s relationship.
S. K. Dunstall is the pen name for Sherylyn and Karen Dunstall, sisters who live in Melbourne, Australia. They are the national best-selling authors of the Linesman series, including Linesman, Alliance, and Confluence.
Their new book, Stars Uncharted, came out on 14 August 2018, published by Ace Books.
Lawrence M. Schoen is joining us today to talk about his novel The Moons of Barsk. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Pizlo, the lonely young outcast and physically-challenged Fant, is now a teenager. He still believes he hears voices from the planet’s moons, imparting secret knowledge to him alone. And so embarks on a dangerous voyage to learn the truth behind the messages. His quest will catapult him offworld for second time in his short life, and reveal things the galaxy isn’t yet ready to know.
Elsewhere, Barsk’s Senator Jorl, who can speak with the dead, navigates galactic politics as Barsk’s unwelcome representative, and digs even deeper into the past than ever before to discover new truths of his own.
What’s Lawrence’s favorite bit?
LAWRENCE M. SCHOEN
One of the problems with sequels is that you worry that you’ve used up all the cool bits in the first book, all the fancy magic or splendid gadgets or awesome concepts. The first book had anthropomorphic elephants (in space!), a drug for speaking to the dead, a plot to destroy an entire race and their planet, and a long dead politician manipulating society centuries from beyond the grave. It was a lot to take in, and I wanted book two to be even better, so I went looking for ways to build on what I’d already done, but expanding in new directions at the same time.
The Moons of Barsk occurs about six years after the first book. Our protagonist Pizlo, an adolescent who has been marked as an Abomination. He’s considered to be invisible by all “right-thinking people” and he’s only had two adults to talk to him, teach him, raise him. Fortunately, throughout his young life he’s conversed with the world around him, chatting with trees and clouds, even the moons that orbit Barsk. Poised on the brink of adulthood, he’s coming to understand that these voices are actually a manifestation of a more powerful gift: Pizlo is a precog. The voices are a metaphor his mind invented to make sense of his visions.
As part of Pizlo’s education, learns to use the drug for speaking to the dead and with converse the Archetype of Man, an ancient artificial intelligence and repository of all of humanity’s stories. It’s an imperfect system, as a boy who is shunned by his own world is instructed by the ghost of a machine that knows nothing of that world. But it does give rise to my favorite bit: After years of myths and tales and epics, Pizlo has an insight that all the stories are the same story. Frustrated, he confronts his teacher and rewrites his understanding of the universe.
“All your stories! They’re all the same.”
“That’s false, Pizlo. They involve different heroes performing different actions in different settings for different purposes—”
“At a meta-level, they’re all the same!”
“Oh, yes, that is true. As we discussed, there are patterns that repeat throughout all of human history and storytelling, that resonate for all people, but even so differences—”
“And at a meta-meta-level?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.”
“Every story, they’re all about what you would call the ‘human condition,’ aren’t they?”
“How could they not? They are human stories.”
“Yeah. Not the long dead race of humans. They’re everyone’s stories. Humans and Fant and Marmo and Brady and . . . and . . . everyone. It’s all one story. It’s the story of us and what it means to be that.”
“Yes, Pizlo. Every story is a way of glimpsing a different facet of who we are.”
“But that’s not just true of your stories, is it?”
“Again, I apologize. I am not following your questions.”
“Stories aren’t just fiction,” he said.
“No, you’re mistaken. Stories, by definition, are constructed. They may be based upon actual events, or inspired in some way, but through the vehicle of metaphor they—”
Pizlo waved him to silence with his trunk. “No, I’m not. Don’t start in again with metaphor. You’re wrong. Everything we do is a story, whether anyone tells it or not. And because all the stories are the same story, so is everything we do. Everyone that’s ever lived, everyone that’s drawing breath right now, and even all who will be born sometime in the future, we’re all living a story. The same story.”
“Ah. I understand you now. Yes. And, it should not surprise you that I have stories about this too.”
“About pointlessness? About futility? About asking what the value of anything is?”
“Many such stories,” said the Archetype of Man. “The concepts of nothingness, of oblivion and uselessness are a popular subset of stories.”
“But if it’s all the same story, then the story about predestination is also the story of free will. Living and death. Joy and love and hatred and fear and indifference. Each of those stories is the same story like every story. Nothing matters because everything is everything.”
“Yes. Except . . .”
Pizlo froze. “Tell me,” he whispered.
“You have invoked story, and meta-story, and meta-meta-story.”
“What lies beyond that?”
“Nothing!” Pizlo shouted. “Nothing exists beyond because everything is everything else.”
“What if you’re wrong?”
“Even if everything is story, the fact that you can conceive such a state demands that you have rejected that there can be anything that isn’t. But, to make such an observation, you first must have the concept of something that isn’t. Which means you’re wrong. Which means that story isn’t like all the rest. But it has to be. But it can’t be. Paradox.”
“A self-contradictory statement.”
“You’re saying that yes, because everything is everything else, then everything is pointless. Except if that’s so, then saying so requires the existence of something that isn’t, or how could we know? Except then the first thing isn’t possible. Paradox.”
“I don’t think I have anything left to teach you, Pizlo. Many more stories, surely, but nothing that will inform the person you are.”
“Yeah. But . . . thank you. Truly.”
“What will you do?”
“That’s the question, isn’t it? Because it doesn’t matter, but it’s also the only thing that ever could. Paradox.”
This sets the stage for Pizlo to write his personal Hero’s Journey: the Abomination from a race that is reviled by the rest of the galaxy, a young man who can see the future but nonetheless believes he can change it.
It’s my favorite bit because Pizlo shows us something quite profound: knowing the future doesn’t mean you necessarily understand it, and understanding the future doesn’t guarantee you actually know it. And either way, or both, you have to go on. Because that’s what heroes do.
LAWRENCE M. SCHOEN holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and is a certified hypnotist. He’s also one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Klingon language, and the publisher of a speculative fiction small press, Paper Golem. His debut novel Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard won the Coyotl Award for Best Novel, and his latest is the sequel The Moons of Barsk. Schoen has been a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award, the Hugo Award, and the Nebula Award. Lawrence lives near Philadelphia.
Drew Williams is joining us today with his novel The Stars Now Unclaimed. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Jane Kamali is an agent for the Justified. Her mission: to recruit children with miraculous gifts in the hope that they might prevent the Pulse from once again sending countless worlds back to the dark ages.
Hot on her trail is the Pax–a collection of fascist zealots who believe they are the rightful rulers of the galaxy and who remain untouched by the Pulse.
Now Jane, a handful of comrades from her past, and a telekinetic girl called Esa must fight their way through a galaxy full of dangerous conflicts, remnants of ancient technology, and other hidden dangers.
And that’s just the beginning . . .
What’s Drew’s favorite bit?
“Fuck you,” she murmured, the words gentle, almost astonished. “Fuck your sorry.”
That’s it; that’s my favorite line from The Stars Now Unclaimed. As far as I’m concerned, if a character is funny, that means the reader likes them more and cares more about what happens to them – so my characters have a tendency to converse in rapid-fire bursts of wordplay and sarcasm. Every once in a while, though, those defenses get stripped away, and you’re left with the true nature of the characters, and in this particular case, that true nature was ‘in pain’.
The line comes at almost the exact midpoint of the novel, where Jane Kamali, our protagonist, has just revealed her own culpability in the great catastrophe that has befallen the universe. It was kind of a ‘live or die’ moment as I was writing the novel: I had to find a way to let these disparate characters react naturally to this new, horrible information, to react in a way that fit with who they’d been before they learned this, while at the same time not alienating them from each other so much that they wouldn’t be able to come together and stop the threat the entire novel was focused around.
The initial genesis of The Stars Now Unclaimed was my lifelong obsession with the atomic bomb, an obsession more with the decision to drop it, rather than the ramifications – both purposeful and unexpected – of its use. My favorite quote in the world is the (possibly apocryphal) exchange between Robert J. Oppenheimer and Kenneth Bainbridge, immediately after the first successful test of the Manhattan Project:
Oppenheimer (quoting from the Baghavad Gita): ‘I have become Death, destroyer of worlds’.
Bainbridge: ‘Yeah, we’re all sons of bitches now’.
Both men knew the force they were about to unleash upon the world might ultimately have more destructive repercussions than the entire war it had been built to stop, but they – and General Eisenhower, and President Truman, whose quote ‘the buck stops here’ is given entirely new meaning in the context of the bomb – decided to move forward anyway, and the rest, as they say, is history.
I decided to set The Stars Now Unclaimed in a sort of post-apocalyptic space opera setting – I got to play with fancy toys like spaceships and sarcastic AI, whilst also getting down into the dirt and the ruin of post-apocalyptic desperation – but that conversation between Oppenheimer and Bainbridge was always in the back of my mind: an apocalypse starts somewhere, after all. Someone made the decision to do this to the galaxy, even if this wasn’t their intention. And the things we don’t intend sometimes have significantly more far-reaching consequences than those we do; none of us can see all ends.
One of my characters, in particular – an AI called ‘Preacher’, who speaks the above quote – was given reason to be especially bitter about the apocalypse: it had doomed her people to a kind of slow-motion genocide, no technology was left to create more of her species. So when she learns of Jane’s role in the unintended destruction of her entire species – when Jane, somewhat fumblingly, tries to justify what she did, why the decision was made, how it was carried out – the above line is her response. She doesn’t care why it happened, why her people are slowly vanishing from the universe: it truly doesn’t matter. There’s nothing at all Jane could say, to defend what the Preacher sees as the indefensible.
I didn’t expect the Preacher to say those words. I went into the scene with the mentality of ‘let’s just see how she reacts’; I’d expected rage, maybe, a kind of fury that would test the other characters. Instead, I got grief, and despair. The Preacher had been looking for an answer as to why her people were dying, and when she found it, it was no universal truth, no ‘there was a reason after all’: it was just people, trying to do something good, and fucking up despite it. Jane apologizes, and she means it, because she never intended for the apocalypse to happen – to go back to the metaphor of the atomic bomb, she meant to detonate a single weapon over Hiroshima (still a difficult moral decision in and of itself), not to set the entire planet’s atmosphere on fire.
The Preacher hears that apology, acknowledges it, and doesn’t care. Because she has her own pain to deal with, her own shock to process, and that’s too big for her to move beyond in that moment, and who can blame her? ‘Fuck you. Fuck your sorry.’ That doesn’t mean Jane was wrong to attempt to apologize, and it doesn’t mean the Preacher was wrong to reject it. Like I said about unintended consequences above: sometimes the things we try to do, and fail in, say more about who we are than where we succeed.
So anyway: that’s my favorite bit. Two people, trying to find a way around the wrong one of them has done, and in that moment, failing. It just feels more honest, somehow.
DREW WILLIAMS has been a bookseller in Birmingham, Alabama since he was sixteen years old, when he got the job because he came in looking for work on a day when someone else had just quit. Outside of arguing with his coworkers about whether Moby Dick is brilliant (nope) or terrible (that one), his favorite part of the job is discovering new authors and sharing them with his customers.
(Tor Books — August 21, 2018) Continuing the grand sweep of alternate history laid out in The Calculating Stars, The Fated Sky looks forward to 1961, when mankind is well-established on the moon and looking forward to its next step: journeying to, and eventually colonizing, Mars. Of course, the noted Lady Astronaut Elma York would like to go, […]