Catherynne M. Valente is here today with her novel Space Opera. Here is the publisher’s description:
A century ago, the Sentience Wars tore the galaxy apart and nearly ended the entire concept of intelligent space-faring life. In the aftermath, a curious tradition was invented—something to cheer up everyone who was left and bring the shattered worlds together in the spirit of peace, unity, and understanding.
Once every cycle, the great galactic civilizations gather for the Metagalactic Grand Prix—part gladiatorial contest, part beauty pageant, part concert extravaganza, and part continuation of the wars of the past. Species far and wide compete in feats of song, dance and/or whatever facsimile of these can be performed by various creatures who may or may not possess, in the traditional sense, feet, mouths, larynxes, or faces. And if a new species should wish to be counted among the high and the mighty, if a new planet has produced some savage group of animals, machines, or algae that claim to be, against all odds, sentient?
Well, then they will have to compete. And if they fail? Sudden extermination for their entire species.
This year, though, humankind has discovered the enormous universe. And while they expected to discover a grand drama of diplomacy, gunships, wormholes, and stoic councils of aliens, they have instead found glitter, lipstick, and electric guitars. Mankind will not get to fight for its destiny—they must sing.
Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes have been chosen to represent their planet on the greatest stage in the galaxy. And the fate of Earth lies in their ability to rock
What’s Catherynne’s favorite bit?
CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE
It was so hard to pick a bit for this piece! Space Opera was so much fun to write, so far out of my comfort zone that I was constantly on my toes and dancing on the edge of disaster or awesomeness, (and I rarely knew which), that most of the bits are my favorite bits. I got to write about all the parts of Eurovision that I love, mushed together with all the alien species I could think of and a few more on top of that, along with poking a bit of fun at a lot of tropes in alien invasion and military SF and wrap it all up in my love of pop music and glam rock. Choosing one part out of everything I got to do in one relatively short book is torture!
But there’s this one part near the beginning of the third act. I hadn’t planned it this way. It was one of those things that pops into your head and you think: “Uh oh. This is either the funniest thing I’ve ever written or incredibly, deeply stupid.”
Our heroes, two members of the former chart-topping band Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, have made it all the way across the known galaxy to a tiny planet called Litost, where they will have to compete musically in the Metagalactic Grand Prix in order to prove that humanity is, despite all appearances, sentient and worthy of not being blown up in order to protect the rest of spacefaring civilization from our worse instincts. But before the big performance, they have to make it through the universe’s most dangerous meet-and-greet, in which almost every representative of every species is trying to undermine and/or possibly assassinate everyone else with a smile on their faces and a cocktail in their hands or various other appendages.
A species of intelligent computer programs called the 321 takes corporeal form every year into order to rock out at the Grand Prix, and this year decided to scan Earth’s archives for a physical representation of cooperative, harmless, friendly technology. Something that won’t freak out the newbies, something that will make them feel comfortable and at home and positively disposed toward a civilization very unlike the many other organic creatures milling and swilling around Litost. And they found something. Something so subservient and cheerful and helpful that it could never make anyone feel the least bit afraid or nervous or even irritated.
They found Clippy.
So I got to write an extended bar fight scene which includes a seven-foot tall shimmering silver googly-eyed version of Clippy the Word Processing Assistant yelling about galactic domination and bellowing at our hapless humans that they look like they’re trying to get themselves killed and would they like some help with that, while red pandas, zombies, living mountains, and telepathic sea squirts wreck the place all around them. It’s completely absurd and completely delightful, and I’m absurdly delighted with it. It is one of the funniest things I’ve ever written, and it is incredibly, deeply stupid, and I’m not sorry about either.
Coming up with about a hundred alien rock band and interstellar pop song names was pretty great, too. I finally justified the number of times I’ve said “New band name!” in conversation.
Catherynne M. Valente is the acclaimed author of The Glass Town Game, and a New York Times bestselling author of fantasy and science fiction novels, short stories, and poetry. She has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards, and has won the Locus and Andre Norton award. She lives on a small island off the coast of Maine with her partner, two dogs, one enormous cat, a less enormous cat, six chickens, a red accordion, an uncompleted master’s degree, a roomful of yarn, a spinning wheel with ulterior motives, a cupboard of jam and pickles, a bookshelf full of folktales, an industrial torch, and an Oxford English Dictionary. Visit her at CatherynneMValente.com.
R J Theodore is joining us today to talk about her novel Flotsam. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Captain Talis just wants to keep her airship crew from starving, and maybe scrape up enough cash for some badly needed repairs. When an anonymous client offers a small fortune to root through a pile of atmospheric wreckage, it seems like an easy payday. The job yields an ancient ring, a forbidden secret, and a host of deadly enemies.
Now on the run from cultists with powerful allies, Talis needs to unload the ring as quickly as possible. Her desperate search for a buyer and the fallout from her discovery leads to a planetary battle between a secret society, alien forces, and even the gods themselves.
What’s R J’s favorite bit?
R J THEODORE
The writing process is full of pitfalls. Even after writers get a handle on structure and characterization and themes (and and and), there are other hidden traps to fall into. Becoming as surefooted as a sailor on an unforgiving sea is part of the process. But the lessons come with pain, and the topics aren’t all as objective as grammar and spelling.
In writing my first novel, FLOTSAM, I learned not to back down. That there’s enough fiction out there for heteronormative white dudes and in wanting to tell my story and get other people to love it, I am willing to sacrifice the classic genre audience if I am going to reach the people I want to connect with.
White males have dominated the genre, even if they don’t dominate the audience. There’s been an acceptable level of James Bond-esque machismo to Science Fiction and Fantasy and even in 2018, when we all know the world is broader, bigger, and better with many voices and perspectives, writers of commercial genre fiction tend to weave the truths of non-white, non-binary, non-male characters in between that traditional view of the world. To bury representation so it can’t be seen unless someone wants to. When an author steps out of line (GSM representation in Chuck Wendig’s Star Wars Aftermath trilogy comes to mind), they open themselves to a flood of unfiltered animosity and toxic masculinity. It could break a person. It could ruin a career.
We shouldn’t have to sneak it in, to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. As if representation needs forgiveness! As if there isn’t a crowd of readers looking for us to be brave and bold with such representation, as brave and bold as they are to live it every damned day. We haven’t even scratched the surface of voices that need to be heard.
As a writer, we know our characters represent real people, and yet there’s the tendency to mute them when they stand up to do the most good. Because our careers ride on it. Because the opinions of critics ride on it. Because Amazon algorithms reward numbers, not bravery. Because if the book doesn’t sell, we’re done. It’s also bullshit.
Add imposter syndrome to that. The feeling that nothing we do will be right or good or embraced, the desire to back off and play it safe, or to hide if we can’t please all the people all the time.
Heaps and heaps of bullshit to fall upon the shoulders of a timid, first-time writer.
So the advice to write broadly? To stay in line lest my career end before it begins? To be commercially viable, the next big thing, but not by taking risks or trying something different?
My new novel, FLOTSAM, is my first offering to the world. I wrote it with the usual dreams of seeing it on shelves in bookstores and of seeing a movie poster hang in a theater lobby someday. I wrote it with the dream of connecting with readers who would love it. But in my newness, I began to make missteps. I confused “my readers” with “all readers.” If I thought I could do something to make my audience wider, I was willing to do it. And when I didn’t know what to do, I looked for advice from people who said they knew.
And this was my mindset when I received counsel to remove my aliens’ non-binary, non-English pronouns to make the “broader” audience (read: heteronormative dudes) more comfortable. I argued against it, and my stand was dismissively waved off with “do what you want, but I’d stop reading a book whose author included them.” I couldn’t imagine a more horrible fate for my book. I imagined the mouths of my readers curling at the corners. A physical manifestation of distaste.
To my immediate shame, I took the advice.
The Yu’Nyun of FLOTSAM have no regard for gender. They do not have monogamous relationships, and love is not tied to reproductive systems. They breed in petri dishes and care far more about adherence to social structure and their own beliefs. In fear of alienating readers, who might put the book down when they reached their first xe or xist, I thought perhaps it would not be so bad to strip out those non-binary pronouns. It wasn’t about gender anyway, right? They were aliens, weren’t they? It was my creation, and I had a responsibility to do what I could to help my book succeed, didn’t I?
Based on how I managed the edits, though, I think my subconscious defied the revision. I didn’t erase their identities and cleanly break from the original intent I had for the Yu’Nyun. Instead I subconsciously wove in a breadcrumb trail that led this back to bite me later. I described the complex system of class-based pronouns from the aliens in my novel, in more detail than ever, cementing them into the story. I then exposited via the attitude of my protagonist that the identities were difficult, confusing, and uncomfortable – all the things I had been told they were – and should be disregarded in favor of choosing gender normative pronouns. Against their wishes. I wrote in thin, weak excuses for her behavior. The gender-assigning equivalent of “I’m not racist, but…”
I hated it. It felt wrong. It felt wrong to my character, too. It was not in her character, and the sentences I wrote to explain the decision away were shameful and unconvincing. My advance readers caught the disparity straight away, including Mary Robinette Kowal and a Netgalley reviewer named Abi, whose feedback drew our attention back to the issue. I am so eternally grateful for these readers who helped correct this issue by expressing deep reservations about it. As a writer, I am expected to express myself well, yet I cannot appropriately convey the roiling feeling in my head and gut that plagued me as a result of the identity suppression being uncovered and brought to light again. Not because my malfeasance was “exposed” but because we were so far down the path to publication that it might be too late to correct it. That the book might go to print as-is, and that I would have to live with knowing it could have been more and wasn’t, could have done more and didn’t.
Thankfully, Parvus Press stands by their authors. It was important to me, and so they stopped production to give the matter due attention. I was given not just their blessing, but their support to use my troublesome and uncomfortable pronouns throughout the text.
In a blog post looking back on Parvus’s second year in business, Colin Coyle wrote “[Saving money or doing the right thing] isn’t a choice. Always do the right thing. Always.”
Yeah, he was talking about FLOTSAM. I can’t express enough gratitude to Colin and the whole Parvus team for addressing this issue with decency and transparency. That roiling feeling in my gut evaporated when I explained where the problem originated, and he asked me, so matter of factly, “Do you really consider [heteronormative white dudes] to be your audience?”
No. No I do not. They’re welcome, of course. But I’ll not bend my pen nibs to their whims at the expense of people whose opinions do matter to me.
Always do the right thing. You know what that is. Represent it in your writing. Don’t sneak it in. Don’t wait until you’re successful and famous, safely assured your career will not be broken by your rebellious streak.
R J THEODORE is hellbent on keeping herself busy. Seriously folks, if she has two spare minutes to rub together at the end of the day, she invents a new project with which to occupy them.
She lives in New England with her family, enjoys design, illustration, podcasting, binging on many forms of visual and written media, napping with her cats, and cooking. She is passionate about art and coffee.
Book One of the Peridot Shift series (Parvus Press), FLOTSAM is Theodore’s debut science fiction novel and is available in print, digital, and audio from Parvus Press.
Rowenna Miller is joining us today to talk about her novel Torn. Here’s the publisher’s description:
TORN is the first book in an enchanting debut fantasy series featuring a seamstress who stitches magic into clothing, and the mounting political uprising that forces her to choose between her family and her ambitions, for fans of The Queen of the Tearling.
In a time of revolution, everyone must take a side.
Sophie, a dressmaker and charm caster, has lifted her family out of poverty with a hard-won reputation for beautiful ball gowns and discreetly embroidered spells. A commission from the royal family could secure her future — and thrust her into a dangerous new world.
Revolution is brewing. As Sophie’s brother, Kristos, rises to prominence in the growing anti-monarchist movement, it is only a matter of time before their fortunes collide.
When the unrest erupts into violence, she and Kristos are drawn into a deadly magical plot. Sophie is torn — between her family and her future.
What’s Rowenna’s favorite bit?
When we study history, we have both the benefit and the giant blind spot of knowing how it turned out. The choices historical people made end up cast in the light of the outcomes of conflict or change, and we often ascribe motivations to individuals and entire groups that only emerge as clear and discreet after the dust has settled. When it comes to revolution, we often face an even bigger blind spot—those who opposed change must have sided ethically and ideologically with “the establishment,” right?
When I began writing Torn, I knew one thing pretty confidently about my protagonist, Sophie. Though she was sympathetic to the problems the revolutionaries in her community were responding to, she was also deeply (and understandably) averse to change, having sacrificed and fought to achieve her goals of owning a business. Revolution means change. So I found myself exploring an unfolding revolution through the lens of a protagonist whose motivations are far more nuanced than “pro” or “anti” revolt—she is motivated by her professional success, by her family, and by her community more than she is motivated by ideals. She isn’t willing to risk what she loves on a dodgy gamble.
And the revolution itself—more than a dodgy gamble, it’s a morally questionable endeavor to begin with. Some members, like Sophie’s brother Kristos, are ideologically motivated. Others are motivated by anger and seem out for a kind of reversal of status that could end with something like the French Revolution’s Terror. And the nobility they’re railing against isn’t entirely corrupt—the system, which, though grossly unjust, keeps the peace, and most of the individuals, though grossly privileged, care about their country and its people. As it becomes increasingly obvious to all involved that violence is very likely necessary in establishing a fairer system based on new ideology, the question of how much death (and whose) is a fair price for change nags Sophie…and doesn’t seem to bother some of the people it perhaps should.
This ambiguity was one of my favorite parts of the book, which led to writing characters who had to face these competing motivations and their own investment in their choices. Writing Sophie and Kristos and their not infrequent spats drew their fears and hopes and problematic plans into full relief. Neither had the monopoly on logical and empathetic arguments. Kristos was right that the nation needed change, but Sophie was also right that change meant serious risk for ordinary people like them. Other characters added more nuance—Theodor and Viola, nobles Sophie encounters in her expanding business, are not entirely unaware of their unjust privilege but truly believe they are using their wealth and power to benefit the country. Depending on one’s definition of benefit, perhaps they are—offering stability at the price of the common folks’ stagnation, but can a political system that doesn’t listen to or allow for participation by the majority of its citizens ever truly benefit them?
The complications on the simple goal of “doing what’s right” made writing these characters’ responses to revolutionary ideas, and eventually actions, one of my favorite parts of writing Torn.
Yet, running contrary to this ambiguity is the presence of the charm and curse magic Sophie utilizes. Present and visible only to practitioners like her, it’s quite literally light and dark, imbuing items she charms or curses with good or bad elements. This little twist challenges the idea of complete moral ambiguity—this is a world where good and bad literally exist in a physical sense, yet the people inhabiting the world, even those handling magic itself, are not any more capable than most of us in discerning it.
And that—the juxtaposition of real good and bad with people who make a wretched tangle of right and wrong—is my favorite bit!
RowennaMiller grew up in a log cabin in Indiana and still lives in the Midwest with her husband and daughters, where she teaches English composition, trespasses while hiking, and spends too much time researching and recreating historical textiles. TORN is her first novel.
A. E. Decker is joining us today to talk about her novel Into the Moonless Night, the third in the Moonfall Mayhem series. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Catch Starthorne has spent a lifetime running from the prophecy that names him as the one who will save the shifter race, but now that he has returned to his home in Clawcrags, he may have to face his destiny. Determined to slip through fate’s fingers, Catch sows confusion, making friends from foes, mixing up the occasional sleeping death potion, and matching wits with an overbearing lion-shifter, who appears to have plans of his own.
While Catch schemes, Ascot works to retrieve him with the help of a witch and a pair of madcap shifter rebels. But every attempt to reach him earns her fresh enemies and embroils her ever deeper in the conspiracies surrounding the prophecy. After five hundred years of repressed tension and social strife, the Clawcrags are ready to explode—and it sometimes seems someone’s working hard to see that they do!
What’s A. E. Decker’s favorite bit?
A. E. DECKER
A mist hung in the air. Through it, I could see a group of people gathered around a wharf by a canal. They talked animatedly amongst themselves as they unloaded crates. I approached, sensing some charged excitement about them, as if a longed-for event was finally about to unfold. One of the men turned around and spotted me. He was tall, with sharp features, wearing a long, faded red coat. “Hey,” he said. With a welcoming—if slightly devilish—smile, he embraced me.
And then I woke up.
Fortunately, this wasn’t the last scene of a novel, or I’d have thrown it against the wall. No, this was an actual dream. It was also my introduction to Starley Reftkin, who was to become my favorite bit of book three of the Moonfall Mayhem series, Into the Moonless Night.
I always knew Into the Moonless Night was going to involve a revolution. Its protagonist, Catch Starthorne, is a Smilodon-shifter who has labored his entire life under a prophecy that named him the savior of the shifter race. In his homeland of the Clawcrags, a person’s place in society is ordained by what type of animal one transforms into, with lion-shifters as leaders. Catch escaped the Clawcrags twenty-five years ago and has only now returned to confront the tensions threatening to tear his society apart.
So, Catch gets to play his part deconstructing the “Chosen One” trope. That’s well and good for him, but what about the shifters who actually had to live under their unjust system while he was away? What about the ones who decided to fight it?
That’s where Starley comes in. With panache.
With a small explosion of hay, a pale man vaulted from the barn loft, twisted mid-air, and caught the pulley one-handed. When he landed, it was on his feet, and with a second crossbow pointed directly at Savotte’s head. “Count the bolts again, leather-britches,” he called.
Cavall spun around. His shocked expression transformed into one of pure, distilled outrage. “Starley Reftkin!”
Grinning from ear-to-ear, the pale man bowed, sweeping back a tail of his faded red coat. Even his eyelashes were white, as were his arched brows. A somewhat long, pointed nose and a droll mouth gave a look of deviltry to his otherwise heart-shaped face. A red bandana kept his shoulder-length white hair out of his eyes.
Visibly grinding his teeth, Cavall cast a swift glare over his shoulder at Jolt. “I should’ve-”
Starley held up a finger in the most insolent gesture Ascot had ever seen. It stopped Cavall mid-sentence. Dipping into his pocket, crossbow never wavering, Starley came up with a small jar, undid the cork with his teeth, scooped up a finger-full of the salve inside, and rubbed it over his face.
“That’s better,” he said, recorking the jar. He squinted at the sun, murky gray eyes narrowing. “Brighter day than expected. I burn so easily. Right.” He tucked away the jar and waggled the crossbow. “Yes, Galen, yada, yada, you should’ve expected, whatsit. Doesn’t matter, now, does it? Because I twitch my finger, and Rainy has a fresh hole in her head. My comrade there can do likewise to you. So frankly, since we’re starting to look like some great whatsit-centipede-all lined up like this, why don’t you two step back and let us walk away with Starthorne?”
Starley is a fighter, and a revolutionary leader. But although I’m as big a fan of Les Miserables as the next person, I knew he was no Enjolras, even if he wore red. That devil-may-care grin I’d seen in my dream kept returning to me, even as other details faded. As I mused on him, pulling together the pieces of plot, it came to me that what made Starley different from your usual fearless rebel types was that he believed in his cause—justice, equal rights for shifters—enough not only to risk death for it, but also utter humiliation. I’d never seen that before. Revolutionary leaders are generally so serious and dignified.
“How much are you willing to risk?”
“Everything,” replied Starley instantly. “No joke. I don’t care if I die if it means getting a chance to live first. Hang it, all the ambitions, all the soddin’ dreams that die because of our system—the stupidity of it makes me want to bite my own arse.”
“Don’t challenge him to actually do that, because he will,” said Jolt.
He could do it, too. When I was still in the process of creating Starley, I realized that as a shifter rebel, I needed to assign him some kind of animal to transform into. I chose a weasel. One of the defining attributes of the Moonfall Mayhem series is that I try to bend standard tropes, and weasels have a dreadful reputation. Even the otherwise excellent Zootopia made its weasel character stereotypically sneaky and cowardly. In actual fact, weasels are tremendously brave little animals, devoted to their young, and possessing a number of clever tricks for catching prey. When I saw a YouTube video featuring a stoat doing a “weasel war dance” to mesmerize a rabbit, I knew I had to include the scene somehow.
But you’ll have to read Into the Moonless Night to find out exactly how I worked it in. Starley enters around page thirty-three. You can’t miss him. He’s the queer, albino, weasel-shifting revolutionary leader who just wants to help create a world where all people stand as equals.
Even if he has to bite his own arse to accomplish it.
He’s my favorite bit of Into the Moonless Night. I hope you enjoy making his acquaintance.
A. E. Decker studied both English and colonial American history. She has worked as an ESL tutor, a tai chi instructor, and a doll-maker before turning to writing. In addition to the Moonfall Mayhem series published by World Weaver Press, her work has appeared in such venues as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Fireside Magazine, and numerous anthologies. She is a member of, and editor for, the Bethlehem Writers Group. Like all authors, she is owned by three cats.
Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz joins us today to talk about her narrative poetry collection How to Love the Empty Earth. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Vulnerable, beautiful and ultimately life-affirming, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s work reaches new heights in her revelatory seventh collection of poetry. Continuing in her tradition of engaging autobiographical work, How to Love the Empty Air explores what happens when the impossible becomes real―for better and for worse. Aptowicz’s journey to find happiness and home in her ever-shifting world sees her struggling in cities throughout America. When her luck changes―in love and in life―she can’t help but “tell the sun / tell the fields / tell the huge Texas sky…. / tell myself again and again until I believe it.” However, the upward trajectory of this new life is rocked by the sudden death of the poet’s mother. In the year that follows, Aptowicz battles the silencing power of grief with intimate poems burnished by loss and a hard-won humor, capturing the dance that all newly grieving must do between everyday living and the desire “to elope with this grief, / who is not your enemy, / this grief who maybe now is your best friend. / This grief, who is your husband, / the thing you curl into every night, / falling asleep in its arms…” As in her award-winning The Year of No Mistakes, Aptowicz counts her losses and her blessings, knowing how despite it all, life “ripples boundless, like electricity, like joy / like… laughter, irresistible and bright, / an impossible thing to contain.”
What’s Cristin’s favorite bit?
CRISTIN O’KEEFE APTOWICZ
My mother—as the best mothers always are—was my biggest fan. As a writer, this would manifest in a many ways: she was my pushiest editor (“You mean you haven’t finished the book yet? What’s taking so long!?”), my most aggressive Amazon reviewer (always the first to review, and always under her Amazon pseudonym “S. McGoo” lest her review be stricken from the site for sharing my last name!), and the most ardent spokesperson for my projects (she literally walked around with totes bags with my book covers printed on them, and “MY DAUGHTER’S BOOK” emblazoned, all caps, underneath). And as a poet, she was also a rich source of writing inspiration: a hilarious, uncompromising Philly broad whose loving intrusions into her daughter’s life were endlessly quotable.
When my mother unexpectedly passed away in May of 2015, I was devastated. She was my north star, the light I guided my life by, and to move through life without her seemed impossible. Of my five member family, she and I were the only true book lovers, consistently recommending books to each other that we knew the other would love, or which could be useful in helping us get through life’s latest hurtle. One of my clearest thoughts I remember after my mother’s death was wishing she could recommend me some books to help me deal with her loss!
Luckily, my friends in the writing community filled in the gap, and gifted me the books I needed: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, Dear Darkness by Kevin Young, the poetry anthology The Art of Losing edited by Kevin Young, and Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelson, among many, many others. Those books kept me afloat. And writing my own book about my experiences felt like giving back to the community of writers who held me together when it felt like my world was coming apart.
When I shared an early draft of my How to Love the Empty Air manuscript with one of my early editors, she gave me a note I wasn’t expecting: “I wish we had some more poems about your mother before she passed…”
The comment shocked me! Poems about my mother could be found throughout each of my previous six collections. The first poem in my first ever book was titled “Mother” even! But I knew what she meant. Readers coming to this book might never have read my previous collections, and before I talked about losing her, I needed to show them what made her so incredibly funny, and unique, and perfectly herself.
It was an interesting part of my grieving process to step away from my poems about her loss, and go back further in my writing, to the ones I had written before her death. My favorite of these is the poem “My Mother Wants to Know I’m Dead” (below) which was essentially a narrated transcription of an actual email my mother sent me shortly after I arrived at the Amy Clampitt House, a writing residency where I would be the soul occupant in snowy, rural Massachusetts.
The spirit of this poem feels so uniquely my mother: pushy, and blunt, and hilarious, but absolutely steeped in love. However, what I have learned in sharing this piece at readings is that this poem represents a lot of people’s mothers. Passive aggressive text messaging may in fact be the official preferred love language for 21st century mothers! And the joy this poem brings to people—who recognize themselves and their own mothers in it—warms my heart.
It also serves as proof that the joy that people bring to others doesn’t need to end with their deaths; as long as we remember them for how they truly, hilariously, and perfectly were, the joy they bring can be boundless.
My Mother Wants to Know if I’m Dead
ARE YOU DEAD? is the subject line of her email.
The text outlines the numerous ways she thinks
I could have died: slain by an axe-murderer, lifeless
on the side of a highway, choked to death by smoke
since I’m a city girl and likely didn’t realize you needed
to open the chimney flue before making a fire (and,
if I do happen to be alive, here’s a link to a YouTube
video on fireplace safety that I should watch). Mom
muses about the point of writing this email. If I am
already dead, which is what she suspects, I wouldn’t
be able to read it. And if I’m alive, what kind of daughter
am I not to write her own mother to let her know
that I’ve arrived at my fancy residency, safe and sound,
and then to immediately send pictures of everything,
like I promised her! If this was a crime show, she posits,
the detective might accuse her of sending this email
as a cover up for murder. How could she be the murderer,
if she wrote an email to her daughter asking if she was murdered?
her defense lawyers would argue at the trial. In fact,
now that she thinks of it, this email is the perfect alibi
for murdering me. And that is something I should
definitely keep in mind, if I don’t write her back
CRISTIN O’KEEFE APTOWICZ is the author of six previous books of poetry—Dear Future Boyfriend; Hot Teen Slut; Working Class Represent; Oh, Terrible Youth; Everything is Everything and The Year of No Mistakes— which are all currently available through Write Bloody Publishing. Her second collection of poetry, Hot Teen Slut, was recently optioned for a film adaption, and her sixth collection of poetry, The Year of No Mistakes, was named the Book of the Year for Poetry by the Writers’ League of Texas. Aptowicz is also the author of two nonfiction books: Words In Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam (Soft Skull Press), which U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins wrote “leaves no doubt that the slam poetry scene has achieved legitimacy and taken its rightful place on the map of contemporary literature”; and Dr Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine (Avery Books/Penguin), which spent three months on the New York Times Best Seller list. Recent awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Literature, the ArtsEDGE Writer-in-Residence position at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Amy Clampitt House Residency. When not on tour, Aptowicz lives and writes in Austin, TX, with her family.
Kelly Robson is joining us today to talk about her novel Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach. Here is the publisher’s description:
Discover a shifting history of adventure as humanity clashes over whether to repair their ruined planet or luxuriate in a less tainted past.
In 2267, Earth has just begun to recover from worldwide ecological disasters. Minh is part of the generation that first moved back up to the surface of the Earth from the underground hells, to reclaim humanity’s ancestral habitat. She’s spent her entire life restoring river ecosystems, but lately the kind of long-term restoration projects Minh works on have been stalled due to the invention of time travel. When she gets the opportunity take a team to 2000 BC to survey the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, she jumps at the chance to uncover the secrets of the shadowy think tank that controls time travel technology.
What’s Kelly’s favorite bit?
Everyone who writes about time travel designs their rules and mechanics to suit themselves. Connie Willis’ academic time travelers embed themselves in the past, and Kage Baker’s Company time travelers operate like cold war spies. We all apply time travel with restrictions that serve the stories we want to tell, highlighting the aspects of time travel that most intrigue us.
I’m not particularly interested in paradoxes or altering the future by changing the past. My time travel is designed to be consequence-free. This is because what I like best about time travel — my favorite bit — is the ability to see how people really lived.
Like my characters Minh, Hamid, and Kiki, I would do anything to visit the past. But it wouldn’t be enough to just be able to visit just a few places. When I dream about time travelling, I want to be able to see it all. I want to see the past using the Google Earth of the future. And because I have no romantic ideas about danger being fun, I want to do it in perfect safety.
When Minh, Hamid, and Kiki land on a remote South Pacific island in 2024 BCE with Fabian, a professional historian, the first thing they do is launch satellites. Not only does this provide them with ambient power to run their tech, the satellites form a globe-spanning, high resolution remote sensing array that allows them to spy on people from a God’s eye view.
This is practical. Humans are dangerous, and they want to ensure that no past population members paddle up to the beach while they’re not looking. But the remote sensing is also part of their work. Minh, Hamid, and Kiki are ecological scientists running a past state assessment on the Mesopotamian trench. They’re spying for science.
Within a few hours of landing in the past, my time travelers can run population analyses, identify human settlements, and pinpoint agrarian and hunter-gatherer communities. For specific, pre-identified points of interest, the data from multiple satellites are combined to provide a tilt-shifted view of a ceremony atop the massive ziggurat of Ur, with an angle that allows them to see the faces of the participants. They gather data for climate analyses and scan the topography using LIDAR to build ecosystem models.
This is absolutely my favorite bit. The instant Minh hits the ground, she starts launching satellites. She’s got a project to run, and she’s fiercely competitive. She wants to show Fabian she’s in charge. She can’t start her work until the satellites are up and running, so she’s not going to waste any time. Before long, the satellites begin providing a global view, lighting up the continents with data. The whole world is at their fingertips, in a high resolution heads-up display, like Google Earth on steroids.
Now, if it were me, I’d stay on that nice, safe South Pacific island and revel in my god-like spy power. I’m a Google Street View junkie, and I can’t imagine anything better than a Street View of the remote past. But Minh, Hamid, and Kiki didn’t travel 4000 years in the past to sit around in safety. They take the first opportunity to get themselves into trouble.
Kelly Robson’s Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach is newly out from Tor.com Publishing. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Tor.com, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and multiple anthologies. In 2017, she was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her novella “Waters of Versailles” won the 2016 Aurora Award and was a finalist for both the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards. She has also been a finalist for the Sturgeon and Sunburst awards, and her stories have been included in numerous year’s best anthologies. She is a regular contributor to the Another Word column at Clarkesworld.
Kelly grew up in the foothills of the Canadian Rocky Mountains and competed in rodeos as a teenager. From 2008 to 2012, she was the wine columnist for Chatelaine, Canada’s largest women’s magazine. After many years in Vancouver, she and her wife, fellow SF writer A.M. Dellamonica, now live in Toronto.
Tristan Palmgren is joining us today with his novel Quietus. Here’s the publisher’s description:
A transdimensional anthropologist can’t keep herself from interfering with Earth’s darkest period of history in this brilliant science fiction debut
Niccoluccio, a young Florentine Carthusian monk, leads a devout life until the Black Death kills all of his brothers, leaving him alone and filled with doubt. Habidah, an anthropologist from another universe racked by plague, is overwhelmed by the suffering. Unable to maintain her observer neutrality, she saves Niccoluccio from the brink of death.
Habidah discovers that neither her home’s plague nor her assignment on Niccoluccio’s world are as she’s been led to believe. Suddenly the pair are drawn into a worlds-spanning conspiracy to topple an empire larger than the human imagination can contain.
What’s Tristan’s favorite bit?
Writing and reading history has always been difficult for me. It’s like reading prequels forever. I can’t erase what I know about the course of history. There’s not enough tension, and too much dramatic irony. As a reader, I have undeserved power over the read.
It’s not just knowing the events of history that spoil things for me, either. It’s our worldview: everything we know and think we know about things like the age of the Earth, astronomy, geology, religion, and more. I can pretend not to know these things, but that’s all it is: a pretense. It’s always there, and it’s always going to be a barrier to understanding a historical novel’s characters and their crises.
I wrote Quietus to foreground that problem. Dr Habidah Shen and her team of extradimensional anthropologists have come, for desperate reasons of their own, to Europe in the 1340s to witness the Black Death. Habidah knows her biases are a problem. She tries to, but can’t, surmount them.
Visual scanning didn’t reveal much besides a few flickering fires. Otherwise, Genoa was as solid black as the open wilderness. To Genoa’s inhabitants, the night must have seemed like a different world, cold and wild and dangerous. It was no wonder many of them believed that the plague spread most easily at night, carried on ill winds. Switching to infrared to pick a landing site felt like cheating.
The shuttle set down just inside the city walls, in an open square near a well. The moment she and Feliks set foot on soil, the ramp folded up. The shuttle vanished with a whisper and a suggestion of a shadow. A cold autumn breeze swept in.
Still thinking of the dark, Habidah turned her retinal infrared off. She wanted to see the world as the locals saw it. Her breath caught in her throat. She might as well have struck herself blind. She couldn’t even see Feliks. The world seemed so closed in around her. She only lasted a few seconds before she turned infrared on again.
My favorite bits of Quietus are those moments that twist the connection between the reader and the read. Habidah is able to do what so many of us history readers dream about: touch the past. When she comes across a dying monk, she cannot stop herself from helping him. Lying on a medical table, he grabs for her hand.
Gradually, Habidah let go. She told him, “I’m going to step out for just a moment and let your friends know where you are. I’ll be back.”
The monk, still holding up his hand, said nothing. Habidah wasn’t sure he’d heard her.
As she stepped through the doors, the monk told her, “Niccoluccio Caracciola.”
She halted on the other side, and looked back. Somehow he’d found the strength to crane his head. He was staring at her with quiet, taut desperation.
“Habidah Shen,” she managed to say before the doors shut.
Habidah is a reader. She studies this world in the same way that we readers try to get into the heads of characters in historical fiction. She uses empathy as a tool. She tries to understand Niccoluccio by placing herself in his position, trying to feel what he does.
But empathy is dangerous. Empathy is not objective.
In Quietus, that’s all right.
He started to step forward, and was stopped by the tug of Habidah’s arm. Only then did he seem to realize that he was still holding Habidah’s hand, and that Habidah wasn’t coming with him.
She said, “This is your home, not mine. I have another assignment in Marseilles.” She should have been there weeks ago. The plague’s late arrival in Genoa had delayed her. “My superiors don’t want me to get more involved. I’ve done too much already.”
“I can’t bring myself to pass the gates alone. I would rather wander the wilderness again.”
“You won’t be alone once you find your family. I don’t want to interfere.”
“You don’t need to interfere.”
The moon shone bright enough that Habidah didn’t need infrared to take stock of the fear in his eyes. “All right.” Only then did they let each others’ hands go.
She’s taken on a responsibility she’s not ready for. Through Niccoluccio, Habidah starts to see herself in ways she would rather not. While recovering from an injury with the aid of Habidah’s technology, Niccoluccio tells her:
“I feel fine now.”
“Only because our medicine has tricked you into feeling that way.”
His eyes flicked over himself, to the bruise creeping down his shoulder and the hollow curve of his stomach. If he hadn’t felt alienated from his body before, he would now. “Oh.”
Sometimes, she didn’t think he was sufficiently afraid of her and her people. There was certainly a lot to fear. More than she’d known.
She was more than an angel or agent of God, she realized. She’d become his confessor. When she’d taken him in, the last thing she had ever expected of him was unremitting trust.
There’s a lot of things I love about Quietus, but Habidah and Niccoluccio are the reason why I wrote it. They are by far my favorite part. Their relationship only gets more complicated, and fraught, from here.
Tristan Palmgren has been a clerk, a factory technician, a university lecturer, a cashier, a secretary, a retail manager, a rural coroner’s assistant. In his lives on parallel Earths, he has been an ant farm tycoon, funeral home enthusiast, professional con-artist impersonator, laser pointer chaser, and that guy who somehow landed a trademark for the word “Avuncular.” Jealous. He lives with his wife Teresa in Columbia, Missouri.
In the Calculating Stars, one of the characters is a Taiwanese woman*. I’ve described her as having a light Taiwanese accent and, being the 1950s, imagine that it would be British inflected. I am looking for a woman who is a native speaker to record some lines of dialogue for me that I can try to match for the audiobook.
While I have accent tapes to help, these are producing a generic accent.
I am happy to pay for the time required to record these. I don’t need clean recordings because these won’t air. They are purely for my use in locking down this voice for narration. I estimate it will take fifteen minutes to record them and I’m offering $40 for the recording.
In an ideal world, I’m looking for:
Taiwanese woman** with British inflected English
Soprano (because I tend to match tone when I’m mimicking)
Here are some sample lines. There are 8 pages like this. You would only be recording the lines in bold.
Helen read the numbers from my page, her faint Taiwanese accent coming out with her excitement. “Velocity: 2,350 meters per second. Angle of elevation: four minutes of arc. Altitude: 101.98 kilometers.” Her voice was shockingly high amid the tenors and baritones of Mission Control. – Helen wiped her eyes and looked over my shoulder. “Hello, Dr. York.” –
“Slide rules.” Helen folded her hands demurely in her lap. “And their uses.” –
“Speak for yourself.” Helen ran her hands down her flight suit, which accentuated her boyish figure. –
“How?” Helen leaned forward in her seat – Helen raised her hand, as if to remind us that she was from Taiwan. “He’ll counter with international cooperation.” I nodded. “We’ve got people at the IAC from Taiwan, Algeria, Spain, Brazil, France, Germany, Serbia, Haiti, the Congo . . .” Helen chimed in, “Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom . . .”
*If this were the main character, I would have turned the book down, even though I wrote it.
**I had mistakenly thought that I needed British inflected English, because I conflated language patterns. This is exactly why I want a native speaker.
Nancy Kress is joining us today to discuss her novel If Tomorrow Comes: Book 2 of the Yesterday’s Kin Trilogy. Here is the publisher’s description:
Ten years after the Aliens left Earth, humanity succeeds in building a ship, Friendship, to follow them home to Kindred. Aboard are a crew of scientists, diplomats, and a squad of Rangers to protect them. But when the Friendship arrives, they find nothing they expected. No interplanetary culture, no industrial base―and no cure for the spore disease.
A timeslip in the apparently instantaneous travel between worlds has occurred and far more than ten years have passed.
Once again scientists find themselves in a race against time to save humanity and their kind from a deadly virus while a clock of a different sort runs down on a military solution no less deadly to all. Amid devastation and plague come stories of heroism and sacrifice and of genetic destiny and free choice, with its implicit promise of conscious change.
What’s Nancy’s favorite bit?
Adulthood is hard. Getting there can be even harder.
My new novel, If Tomorrow Comes, is the sequel to last year’s Tomorrow’s Kin. Both books have large casts and multiple points of view (and I’m going to stop doing that because it’s so complicated. Stop it soon. With the very next book. Maybe.) If Tomorrow Comes includes several U.S. Rangers, a middle-aged female geneticist, a physician who doesn’t understand his own life, a worldful of humans brought to an alien planet 170,000 years ago whose social evolution took a much different path from Earth, and nine humans who have lived on World for a decade. Among those is thirteen-year-old Austin.
To write Austin, I drew on my own memories of being thirteen. Memory was aided by a diary I kept then, an incredibly embarrassing artifact that no one is ever going to see.
Austin is confused without knowing it. He yearns to do something splendid, something that will make the adults he admires stand in awe of him. He has no judgment about which adults to admire, and often picks the wrong ones. He believes some of what he’s told, but not all of it-and because he chooses what to believe on the basis of whether he likes the speaker, he ends up with ideas that don’t always match reality. Girls attract and terrify him, and he gets inappropriate crushes. He struggles with grand ideas, trying to comprehend the universe, as in this passage:
Austin Rhinehart sat under a makfruit tree in the back garden and tried to imagine himself dead.
Everything would disappear, all of World. But then he would disappear, too, so how would he know he was dead? He wouldn’t. Unless Old Mother Kee^la’s tales of another world after death were true and Austin would join his ancestors in endless dancing and feasting. But Austin wasn’t fond of dancing, and he didn’t have any ancestors on World for his lahk, because everyone in it had come from Earth, a place Austin didn’t remember. He’d been only three. Anyway, he didn’t believe Old Mother Kee^la’s tales. She wasn’t even his old Mother, only Graa^lok’s; Austin’s lahk was also missing old mothers.
And he wasn’t going to be dead. He was Terran, and thus immune to spore disease. But everyone else was going to be dead: his best friend Graa^lok and Old Mother Kee^la’ and the teachers at school and Tiklal, whom Austin was supposed to apprentice to when he turned fourteen in two months. Only by that time, Tiklal would be dead, along with nearly everyone else on World.
Steven-kal came down the curving steps from the house, mounted a bicycle, and glimpsed Austin. He said in English, “I greet you, Austin. Aren’t you supposed to be in school?”
“I greet you, Steven-kal. I was just going.”
Steven-kal looked pointedly at his watch. “You are supposed to be there.”
“I’m just going now.”
“See that you do.” He mounted his bicycle and pedaled off.
Fuck! Austin thought, borrowing a forbidden word from his mother’s vocabulary…. Austin hated all of them-not because they were unkind to him but because they had responsibility for him for another three years and nobody recognized that he, Austin, was already an adult and able to make his own decisions.
Well, they would learn that soon enough!
He smacked one fist into the opposite palm, which felt good so he did it again.
Austin is a mass of contradictions: prickly, smart, disdainful, heroic, childish one minute and mature the next. In short, he is like a lot of us were at thirteen.
In short, he is like a lot of us are now.
But unlike most of us, Austin’s choices and actions affect the fate of an entire planet, which is a lot to ask of a thirteen-year-old. World is about to encounter the spore cloud that, drifting through the galaxy, menaced Earth in Tomorrow’s Kin. The adults around him are working frantically, often at cross purposes, to prepare for that disaster. Austin, teaming up with the wrong people, has his own agenda to “help,” which puts him at cross-purposes with the cross-purposes.
Growing up isn’t usually this hard. However, both Austin’s situation and his personality made him a lot of fun to write. And when I finished the book, I actually missed him.
Nancy Kress is the author of thirty-three 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. Most recent works are Tomorrow’s Kin (Tor, 2017) and its sequel, If Tomorrow Comes (Tor, 2018). Kress’s work 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 semester as guest lecturer at the University of Leipzig, an intensive workshop in Beijing, and the annual two-week workshop Taos Toolbox, which she teaches with Walter Jon Williams. Kress lives in Seattle with her husband, writer Jack Skillingstead, and Cosette, the world’s most spoiled toy poodle.
Paolo Bacigalupi is here today to talk about his novel with Tobias Buckell, Tangled Lands. Here’s the publisher’s description:
From award-winning and New York Times bestselling authors Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell comes a fantasy novel told in four parts about a land crippled by the use of magic, and a tyrant who is trying to rebuild an empire—unless the people find a way to resist.
Khaim, The Blue City, is the last remaining city in a crumbled empire that overly relied upon magic until it became toxic. It is run by a tyrant known as The Jolly Mayor and his devious right hand, the last archmage in the world. Together they try to collect all the magic for themselves so they can control the citizens of the city. But when their decadence reaches new heights and begins to destroy the environment, the people stage an uprising to stop them.
In four interrelated parts, The Tangled Lands is an evocative and epic story of resistance and heroic sacrifice in the twisted remains surrounding the last great city of Khaim. Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell have created a fantasy for our times about a decadent and rotting empire facing environmental collapse from within—and yet hope emerges from unlikely places with women warriors and alchemical solutions.
What’s Paolo’s favorite bit?
My favorite bits of stories tend to be discovered objects, excavated mid-sentence, as much a surprise to me as (hopefully) to the reader. With THE TANGLED LANDS, Tobias Buckell and I created a world where magic has a price, but not a price the spellcaster pays personally. Whenever a person casts magic, a bit of bramble grows, fertilized by the release of magic into the world. Bramble, a thorny-vined menace that sprouts from roof beams and in farmer’s fields, is everywhere by the time THE TANGLED LANDS takes place—whole empires have been entombed under thickets of the stuff, and if someone touches it, they are stung quickly into an unending slumber, never to awaken again.
This initial idea of magic, it’s price, and the looming, ever-present bramble was fun for us to work with, to create this world where magic has a terrible price and yet there was *always* a good reason to use just a little more magic. It made for ethical conundrums and complicated moral moments. So of course we’re pleased with the general premise of the story, and the many people who live in the city of Khaim, trying to find a way to survive.
But for me, a story comes to life when the general premise becomes specific—personal. If bramble is everywhere, and people are always being stung by it, and always falling into unending slumber, well, what happens to them then? What happens to all those bodies? Do we keep them close and protect them? Do we toss them in the river, even though they’re only sleeping forever, and not actually dead? Do we sell them off to the soft-eyed men? (Ew.) Who has the money and time and attention to protect these bramble-kissed bodies from rats and roaches and dogs? Do we keep them in our homes or dump them on the streets?
These questions that arise end up forming the life of the story, and become my favorite bits. One of those, for me, takes place at a dinner party, where a wealthy merchant has been kissed by bramble, and yet everyone carries on, pretending that he has not been paralyzed into unending sleep. They dress him, they wash him, they wheel him out for dinner…
Mop remembered the patriarch presiding, artfully tied to his chair so the old man didn’t flop face first into each course as it was set before him.
Topaz jeweled straps had circled the patriarch’s forehead. More clasped his wrists. Another strap, barely glimpsed, around his chest and under his arms, threading through carefully tailored holes in the back of his dinner jacket where the servants could secure him to the chair. And all around him, Falizi guests ate and drank and toasted the patriarch, everyone pretending that he was one of the living.
Mop remembered the Falizi family’s embarrassment when a butterfly emerged, fluttering, from his ear.
I love this moment for how it underlines how badly the people of Khaim are adapting to their situation. That they go on, trying to pretend that everything isn’t wrong, even as things get worse and worse for them. And then a butterfly takes wing, and their artful pantomime of normalcy is shattered.
In any given story if you’re lucky, a number of these sorts of bits will emerge—unbidden, wild, strange—and they make the fabric of the story richer for their emergence. Sometimes bizarre, sometimes embarrassing, but if they’re good, they’re always a surprise, much like a butterfly popping out of a sleeping merchant’s ear to spice up an otherwise boring dinner party.
Paolo Bacigalupi is the New York Times bestselling author of The Windup Girl, Ship Breaker, The Drowned Cities, Zombie Baseball Beatdown, The Doubt Factory, The Water Knife, Plump Six and Other Stories, and The Tangled Lands. His writing has appeared in WIRED,High Country News, Salon, OnEarth Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. He has won the Michael L. Printz, Locus, Hugo, Nebula, Compton Crook, and John W. Campbell awards.
Sean Grigsby is joining us today with his novel Smoke Eaters. Here’s the publisher’s description:
When dragons rise from the earth, firefighters are humanity’s last line of defense, in this wild near-future fantasy.
Firefighter Cole Brannigan is on the verge of retirement after 30 years on the job, and a decade fighting dragons. But during his final fire call, he discovers he’s immune to dragon smoke. It’s such a rare power that he’s immediately conscripted into the elite dragon-fighting force known as the Smoke Eaters. Retirement cancelled, Brannigan is re-assigned as a lowly rookie, chafing under his superiors. So when he discovers a plot to take over the city’s government, he takes matters into his own hands. With hundreds of innocent civilians in the crosshairs, it’s up to Brannigan and his fellow Smoke Eaters to repel the dragon menace.
What’s Sean’s favorite bit?
I loved Ghostbusters as a kid.
Granted, I didn’t understand the adult humor and innuendos as a five-year-old, and seeing Dan Akroyd have his pants unzipped by an invisible specter was very confusing and likely subconsciously damaging to my young mind.
But the proton packs and laser traps! The different kinds of ghosts and seeing the boys in brown sliding down the pole before they jumped into Ecto-1 and sped down the streets of New York as their tangy sirens filled the air!
It’s probably what influenced me to become a firefighter. Yeah, that sounds weird to some of you, but look at it: the Ghostbusters live in a firehouse, they respond in a light-flashing, siren-wailing rig whenever they’re called, they wear heavy packs, and they fix problems by shooting streams at them.
A little Freudian, too, I guess.
It’s also what might have inspired me down the path of a speculative fiction writer. And this brings us to my favorite bit in my debut novel, Smoke Eaters. There are so many to choose from.
Sure, in a book that’s described as firefighters vs. dragons, you might expect me to talk about all the cool fire breathers or even the volatile corporate robots, but I want to talk about an aspect of the book you might not know at first glance.
In the book, wraiths are the ghosts of people killed by dragons, and they serve a very important purpose to their murderers.
When I first set out to write the book, I had an image of a wraith—much like the angry library ghost in the aforementioned film—floating across a barren, ash-covered landscape. I had no idea at the time what ghosts would have to do with dragons, but my creative philosophy is: go with it. And so I did.
My favorite bit in SMOKE EATERS is a scene where Cole Brannigan watches an instructional video out of Canada, starring the fictional mad scientist, Professor Poltergeist. The professor explains that wraiths serve as a way to protect the eggs dragons have laid in enormous ash piles.
The smoke eaters may be getting a good handle on how to dispatch a dragon, but when it comes to wraiths, their current standard operating procedure is: run!
But, without giving too much away, the wraiths are being used for a sinister purpose in drawing dragons to certain areas, effectively burning down the neighborhood. Brannigan knows something is up, and he doesn’t have long to find out who’s behind the ghostly arson.
Writing this book was a blast, and I’m happy I got to mix my career fire knowledge with the imagination of that five-year-old kid, whose parents had to reassure him no ghost would disrobe him in the middle of the night.
Tina LeCount Myers is joining us today with her novel The Song of All. Here’s the publisher’s description:
On the forbidding fringes of the tundra, where years are marked by seasons of snow, humans war with immortals in the name of their shared gods. Irjan, a human warrior, is ruthless and lethal, a legend among the Brethren of Hunters. But even legends grow tired and disillusioned.
Scarred and weary of bloodshed, Irjan turns his back on his oath and his calling to hide away and live a peaceful life as a farmer, husband, and father. But his past is not so easily left behind. When an ambitious village priest conspires with the vengeful comrades Irjan has forsaken, the fragile peace in the Northlands of Davvieana is at stake.
His bloody past revealed, Irjan’s present unravels as he faces an ultimatum: return to hunt the immortals or lose his child. But with his son’s life hanging in the balance, as Irjan follows the tracks through the dark and desolate snow-covered forests, it is not death he searches for, but life.
What’s Tina’s favorite bit?
TINA LECOUNT MYERS
One of my favorite parts of my fantasy novel is the science behind it. In fact, I started writing The Song of All after a debate with my husband about what distinguishes science fiction from fantasy. Let’s just say it was a robust discussion in which my husband made the point that science fiction presents what is possible based on science, while fantasy presents magic and the supernatural and is not based on science, a distinction I took umbrage with.
“What about quantum physics?” I asked. “What about dark matter and dark energy? Couldn’t they explain magic and metaphysical elements?”
“Fine,” he conceded, knowing I had watched more TedX and Neil deGrasse Tyson talks on YouTube than he had. “But there are no such things as elves.”
“But there could be,” I said.
Human evolution, even starting as late as Homo erectus, reflects substantial differences in morphology. Comparing Homo sapiens to the Neanderthals, Homo sapiens have keener eyesight, hearing, and sense of smell. Through natural selection, any number of potential phenotypes might evolve if those individuals are successful at surviving and passing on their genetics. Nothing precludes the evolution of an “elf.”
Later, as I rehashed the argument, I thought about how many cultures have elves as part of their mythology. I recalled the Finnish folktales my own grandparents told me as a child about spirits that lived in the far north, in Saamiland. I began to imagine just how these magical creatures might have evolved. And what started as research to prove my point unexpectedly ended up as a fantasy novel.
In The Song of All, the Jápmemeahttun (pronounced yahp.meh.mehah.toon) are my “elves.” They are distinct from the human Olmmoš (pronounced ol.mow.sh), having evolved over millennia of prehistory in isolation. While the two species have similar morphology, the Jápmemeahttun have developed some distinctive characteristics due to environmental and social pressures. One such characteristic is their unusual reproductive system. The Jápmemeahttun are protogyny sequential hermaphrodites, meaning they change sexes, in this case from female to male, a model that I borrowed from real life biological sciences.
Researchers suggest that sequential hermaphroditism occurs in nature when an individual animal reproduces most efficiently as one sex when younger, but as the other sex when older. Among invertebrates and vertebrates, there are many examples of sequential hermaphroditism, both protogyny (female to male) and protandry (male to female). The Clownfish switches from male to female. The Blackfin Goby fish can go both ways depending on need. The European common brown frog sometimes switches from female to male when the females are older, prolonging their lifetime reproductive success. But my favorite example is the wrasse because of the impassioned lecture my college biology professor gave on this fish.
After weeks of stunningly dry lectures, my introductory biology course had finally evolved from the cellular level to the topic of reproduction. My professor, who for those proceeding weeks had shown little enthusiasm for the material, began to explain with surprising animation the mating rituals of this small fish-the wrasse. With gusto, she described how when the dominant male of a school dies or as she put it “goes out for a cup of coffee”, the largest female will begin seducing the other females and develop male organs to become dominant in the school. She concluded with a cackle that, “There’s a reason why they’re called Sneaky Suckers.” Only she did not say Suckers.
Struck by my professor’s unexpected liveliness, I stopped taking notes and saw for the first time just how mind-blowing biological adaptations can be. Two decades later, when I started to write The Song of All, I remembered that moment of wonder and saw in evolution the possibility to write about magical creatures, using not only imagination, but also science to shape them.
As a species, the Jápmemeahttun are far more honorable in their courtship than the wrasse. They do not rely on duplicity to ensure that dominant genes are passed on. But like the wrasse, the Jápmemeahttun, as I envisioned them, are the result of natural selection. They adapted in response to their imagined world, just as species have on this planet. Evolution has created some pretty magical creatures in the Earth’s 4.5 billion years of existence: Pterodactyls, Duck-billed Platypuses, Human Beings. And numerous cultures acknowledge the existence of unseen supernatural beings. So, while I am willing to concede to the point that there is no scientific evidence of elves, I add the caveat, “Not yet.”
Tina LeCount Myers is a writer, artist, independent historian, and surfer. Born in Mexico to expat-bohemian parents, she grew up on Southern California tennis courts with a prophecy hanging over her head; her parents hoped she’d one day be an author. The Song of All is her debut novel.
(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, […]