William C. Tracy is joining us today to talk about his novel The Seeds of Dissolution. Here’s the book’s description:
On a bright August day, the sun disappears.
Sam van Oen barely escapes freezing to death in his house, as his watch stops and fire ceases to burn. He is pulled into the Nether—a nexus between ten alien cultures—where he meets Rilan and Origon, two maji who can control the musical foundation of the universe. While coping with anxiety attacks prompted by his new surroundings, Sam must learn to hear and change the Symphony, and thus reality, in order to discover what happened to his home.
But more freezing voids like the one that started his journey are appearing, and Sam’s chances of getting back are fading. The Assembly of Species is threatening to dissolve and the maji are being attacked by those they protect, while rumors grow of an ancient, shape-changing species of assassins, returning to wage war.
The Dissolution is coming.
What’s William’s favorite bit?
WILLIAM C. TRACY
First off: the sales pitch. I’m funding The Seeds of Dissolution through a Kickstarter project, not to help write the story, but in order to bring more art, maps, and other extras into the printed book. I love finding illustrations in the novels I read, and I wanted to do the same with what I write. So please check it out and help me bring this story to life!
Now, my real favorite bit. The more I write, the more I appreciate putting diverse people and philosophies into my stories. This will be my first full novel in the Dissolutionverse, though it’s also one of the oldest stories I’ve written. When rewriting this novel to bring it up to date with my novellas, I was struck by how much it was a “white boy becomes the chosen one” story. It still is, to some extent, but I’ve made an effort to diversify my stories, in order to learn about the different sorts of people I’ve encountered. I’ve written about this before, in the Favorite Bit posts for my previous novellas, Tuning the Symphony and Merchants and Maji.
In The Seeds of Dissolution, Sam (the aforementioned white boy protagonist) now has fairly strong panic attacks based on social situations and new environments. I have not had panic attacks myself, which meant I needed to do a lot of research and talk with people who do have social anxiety. I didn’t want to make it something superficial that was cured by magic. It’s a part of Sam and he has to cope with it. In the process, I was able to recognize those times when I was afraid to speak in front of others, or go to new places. We all have anxiety at some point, and talking to those people who have to deal with it all the time taught me a great deal. Even though he has anxiety issues, Sam is still very loyal to close friends. He wants to connect with others, even if he is prevented at times by his mental state.
This leads to the other change for this character. Sam is bi/pansexual. This, I think, has actually been a long time coming. His attraction(s) in this book were originally one person, then female, then male, then two people. I could never get the dynamic right between Sam and the love interest until I realized Sam is not constrained by the person’s gender, and once this happened, the relation between the three characters started to come together. There are of course still some pitfalls and surprises in their relationship, but I’ll let you read about it, as it’s pretty central to the main story!
Working with people who don’t identify as male or female helped me to make the species of the Great Assembly more diverse. When designing an alien species, there’s no real reason for having two genders rather than more or less, and a lot of people on Earth already don’t fit into those parameters. One of my beta readers is non-binary, and helped me to flesh out the ten species of the Dissolutionverse considerably. One species now has three genders, another has four, and another reproduces asexually. Every addition has only made me more interested in writing these stories and learning about these people.
One of my favorite characters is named Hand Dancer, who is a member of the Lobhl, a species who communicates only with their hands. In-universe, bringing them into the Great Assembly of species caused many to balk at the changes needed to ease communication, and even 50 cycles later, the species is rarely seen. The species is also gender fluid by nature, conforming to a gender by need and mental state rather than biology. I love describing Hand Dancer’s communication, especially since the story takes place in a giant crystal that translates between species! Here’s a few short excerpt to show what I mean:
<Forgive our intrusion, Councilor,> Hand Dancer signed. Origon watched the large and expressive hands twirl through the sentence. The six fingers and two thumbs on each hand curved and twisted in a different direction, and both hands were heavily tattooed. It was disconcerting talking to a Lobhl. Most of the time, Origon could ignore how the Nether changed speech so others’ words were in his native language in his head, but the Lobhl communicated almost entirely with their hands. There were no facial expressions, and the bald creatures didn’t even have a crest to signal with. The meaning appeared directly in Origon’s mind, as if Hand Dancer had said the words a moment before and Origon was remembering them. It made him want to itch something, though he didn’t know what.
<As I seem to be included, may I ask what is going on?> Origon started, and saw the others do the same. How they could hear the signing when they weren’t looking at the Lobhl, like a cough in an echoing building, was beyond him. He would never fully understand the Nether.
Hand Dancer listened for a moment as well, in him, a stretching of thumbs. Then his hands moved again. <I must be female during this task, for concentration.>
I’ve had a lot of fun while writing The Seeds of Dissolution because I’ve gotten to talk to people from different backgrounds, genders and sexualities, and different mental states. I hope it has added more realism into my world, and made my characters more interesting.
Please take a look at the Kickstarter for The Seeds of Dissolution. There are a lot of great backer rewards, with chances to buy original artwork, be tuckerized in the story, get maps, buttons, and pins, and get an extra short story, just for backers. See you around the Dissolutionverse!
William C. Tracy is a North Carolina native and a lifelong fan of science fiction and fantasy. He has two self-published novellas available: Tuning the Symphony, and Merchants and Maji, both set in his Dissolutionverse. The Kickstarter for the first novel, The Seeds of Dissolution, will run in August/September 2017.
He also has a masters in mechanical engineering, and has both designed and operated heavy construction machinery. He has trained in Wado-Ryu karate since 2003, and runs his own dojo in Raleigh. He is an avid video and board gamer, a reader, and of course, a writer. He and his wife also cosplay, and he has appeared as Tenzin, Jafar, and in several steampunk outfits.
In his spare time, he wrangles three cats and a bald guinea pig, and his wife wrangles him (not an easy task). They both enjoy putting their pets in cute little costumes and making them cosplay for the annual Christmas card.
Somehow with all the travel I’ve been doing, I finished a 12,500 word fantasy story. I’m looking for five to ten beta readers. Just comment on my site to raise your hand.
Here’s the teaser.
If Evina waited much longer it would be full dark, and the tavern would almost certainly have a godforsaken bard by then. As if that weren’t bad enough, by the pricking of the hair along her arms, there had to be at least five wizards in easy walking distance. No surprise, really, after King Redinado’s proclamation. That’s what brought her to the capital, after all.
A pair of drunk men staggered out of the door, golden oil light spilling out onto the rutted city street. They wandered away, singing a ditty about a wench with hair the color of the moon. But not that song, thank the Blind Man.
She swallowed trying to dislodge the knot in her throat. If she couldn’t even walk into a tavern, how the hell did she think she was going to survive the quest to become a King’s Wizard? Blind Man… all she wanted to do was survive. She could give a rotten fig about working for the King.
Ivan Ewert is joining us today with his omnibus, Famished: The Gentlemen Ghouls Omnibus. Here’s the publisher’s description:
It’s the driving force behind survival.
The Velander bloodline carries an ancient secret: power and immortality. But that power requires a key to unlock: human flesh. Gordon Velander finds himself an unwilling participant in a play for survival – but he won’t be powerless for long.
It’s the driving force behind passion.
The Gentleman Ghouls have survived for centuries due to cunning and careful planning but their world in unraveling. Gordon has vowed to take the Ghouls down no matter what, but he’s fighting a war—both within and without. The Ghouls, on the other hand, are not waiting patiently for the end to come.
It’s the driving force behind revenge.
With the Farm and the Commons destroyed, the Ranch is the last outpost of the Ghouls. With the bitter end in sight, Gordon must face his greatest challenge yet—claiming his own fate as other forces make their moves.
Revenge is sweet.
Passion is fulfilling.
But survival trump all.
This rural horror omnibus of cannibals, dark pacts, and ancient power by Ivan Ewert contains three novels: Famished: The Farm, Famished: The Commons, and Famished: The Ranch, and features two new short stories.
What’s Ivan’s favorite bit?
My favorite bit of the entire Famished: The Gentleman Ghouls Omnibus?
Writing dialogue for my ‘demons’.
Orobias, Carreau and the others have mouths full of beehives, all sweetness and summer and danger. They’re very different from one another, with personalities which remain consistent through the work even if their physical forms and goals alter with the times.
Orobias is one of the few constants of the trilogy; Gordon Velander’s constant companion and literal lifeline for a good portion of the story. While he began as a half-embodied voice, I always knew more or less how he ‘looked’ in his natural state. The contrast between his sweet sing-song method of speech and his grotesque appearance comes from an early fascination with Goetia, where it seemed many demons spoke in flowery and pleasing terms despite their inherent wickedness and bestiality.
Carreau appears far less often, but is always a driving force behind Orobias’ actions and motivations, again a nod to the Goetic hierarchy which informs my otherworld. I knew immediately that I wanted his voice to be more focused and direct, to sound more like a modern-day character than a supernatural entity. Still, when he goes into the physical pleasures of our world, my inner editor stops on all fronts and allows him to rhapsodize for as long as he wants.
Carreau, in many ways, takes my inner hedonist and gives him the strong and liberated voice my Midwestern upbringing frowns upon. Orobias, on the other hand, is a patchwork of many little voices in my head that sing and tweet and sob and sulk throughout the day.
As such, unlike the rest of my writing, I never struggle for their words. They just croon out into my ears and I write precisely what they say. There’s never a moment of sitting on my hands, trying to figure out how they would respond to another character’s observations or a change in their situation. In many ways, because they’ve been in my head so long, they’re more real than the human characters I have to poke and prod at.
Editing the demons is … harder. Killing my darlings is never so difficult as when I’m trying to wrestle Orobias to the ground when he turns philosophical, or to take a plate of food away from Carreau in order to move along the plot. Often it’s the very last thing I do in edits, saving it for the final moment, hopeful that I can trim elsewhere as needed to give them center stage just a little bit longer.
Of course, that’s precisely WHY we kill our darlings. If the books were a buddy movie featuring the two of them – Fear and Loathing in Gehenna – I could take all the time and delicious words I wanted to. One of my admitted flaws, though, is privileging talk over action and philosophy over motivation. Being aware of that lets me cut through the worst excesses of my favorite bits, with a little help from my beta readers and editors.
Ivan Ewert was born in Chicago, Illinois, and has never wandered far afield. He has deep roots in the American Midwest, finding a sense of both belonging and terror within the endless surburban labyrinths, deep north woods, tangled city streets and boundless prairie skies. The land and the cycles of the year both speak to him and inform his writing; which revolves around the strange, the beautiful, the delicious and the unseen.
His work has previously appeared in the award-winning anthology Grants Pass, as well as in Close Encounters of the Human Kind, Human Tales, Space Tramps: Full-Throttle Space Tales and Beasts Within 3: Oceans Unleashed, while his culinary writing has appeared in Alimentum: The Literature of Food. An early treatment of Famished, then named Vorare, as well as separate works titled Solstice and Idolwood, appeared in the e-zine The Edge of Propinquity from 2006 to 2011. He was the sole author to span all six years of that publication.
FAMISHED: THE FARM is his first published novel.
Ivan wears a number of creative hats professionally, including graphic design and acting. He is currently working as voice talent on a lyric proposal to the Poetry Foundation, and appeared as himself alongside his family in the award-winning documentary The Suicide Tourist. He designed the book jacket for Industry Talk: An Insider’s Look at Writing RPGs and Editing Anthologies, as well as logos for Timid Pirate Publishing and such performing companies as Sage Studio, Lucy’s Café, and the Inhabit Theatre.
In previous lives, he has worked as an audio engineer, a purchasing agent, a songwriter, a tarot reader, a project manager and, for a remarkably short stint, an accountant. In his spare time, Ivan occupies himself with reading, gaming, and assisting with the jewelry design firm Triskele Moon Studios. He currently lives near the Illinois-Wisconsin border with his wife of thirteen auspicious years and a rather terrifying collection of condiments and cookbooks.
Beth Cato is joining us today with her novel Call of Fire. Here’s the publisher’s description:
When an earthquake devastates San Francisco in an alternate 1906, the influx of geomantic energy nearly consumes Ingrid Carmichael. Bruised but alive, the young geomancer flees the city with her friends, Cy, Lee, and Fenris. She is desperate to escape Ambassador Blum, the cunning and dangerous bureaucrat who wants to use Ingrid’s formidable powers to help the Unified Pacific—the confederation of the United States and Japan—achieve world domination. To stop them, Ingrid must learn more about the god-like magic she inherited from her estranged father.
When Lee and Fenris are kidnapped in Portland, Ingrid and Cy are forced to ally themselves with another Ambassador from the Unified Pacific: the powerful and mysterious Theodore Roosevelt. But even his influence may not be enough to save them when they reach Seattle, where the magnificent peak of Mount Rainier looms. Discovering more about herself and her abilities, Ingrid is all too aware that she may prove to be the fuse to light the long-dormant volcano . . . and a war that will sweep the world.
What’s Beth’s favorite bit?
One of the things I love about fairy tales and mythology is how karma plays an integral role in shaping a character. The shepherd girl saves a beast from a hunter’s trap, and later when the girl needs help the most, the creature is there to save her in turn. It’s the sort of pay-it-forward gratitude that I wish was more evident in our daily lives.
In my first series, The Clockwork Dagger, I played with this concept by bringing in my own version of gremlins–misshapen constructs of magic and science that were hideously cute. My heroine helps one particular gremlin who plays a major part in her life from then on.
I didn’t have anything gremlin-like in the first book of my new series, Breath of Earth. The setting is darker and delves into some heady matters of racism and sexism. As I outlined my second book, Call of Fire, I had a scene where my heroine, Ingrid, needed to escape a particularly nasty antagonist. I debated having her use her geomancy powers in some way, then realized she could utilize another super power instead: kindness.
I thought of fairy tales and decided the fae could be my answer. Fantastic creatures are very much part of this world, from unicorns to selkies to ghosts, so it only seemed right for Ingrid to meet some new being. I decided to go with a new unique take on sylphs.
Like the gremlins in my other series, the sylphs in Call of Fire didn’t simply want a brief appearance. Oh no. They wanted to take over part of the plot of that book as well as the next. I was happy to oblige.
Without delving into spoiler territory, I can say that my sylphs are rather like large gray moths with humanoid bodies. They originate from the California Sierra Nevada range, and I establish them as a unique invasive species that are well adapted to the New World. They can turn invisible, though their low buzzing noise can give them away. Also, they love, love, LOVE sweets.
That gave me a chance to play around with another favorite subject of mine: baked goods. I run a food blog called Bready or Not and I am known for bringing deliciously evil cookies to conventions. Since my books’ world features an America with a heavy fusion of Japanese culture, I brought real Meiji-era pastries like an-pan and jamu-pan into the story. (Imagine tender yeast rolls stuffed with yummy fillings.) Using these baked goods gave me a chance to develop my setting in a new way and geek-out over scrummy foods, all while following actual fairy lore regarding their affection for confections.
I want Breath of Earth and Call of Fire to enlighten readers about real incidents and attitudes at the start of the 20th century, but my books are entertainment, too. My sylphs introduce some much-needed whimsy amid my dark alt-history. I hope that my readers enjoy them as I much as I did!
Nebula-nominated Beth Cato is the author of the Clockwork Dagger duology and the new Blood of Earth Trilogy from Harper Voyager. Her newest novel is CALL OF FIRE. She’s a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cat. Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.
Mindy Klasky is joining us today with her anthology Nevertheless, She Persisted. Here’s the publisher’s description:
“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Those were the words of Mitch McConnell after he banned Senator Elizabeth Warren from speaking on the floor of the United States Senate. In reaction to the bitter partisanship in Trump’s United States of America, nineteen Book View Café authors celebrate women who persist through tales of triumph—in the past, present, future, and other worlds.
From the halls of Ancient Greece to the vast space between stars, each story illustrates tenacity as women overcome challenges—from society, from beloved family and friends, and even from their own fears. These strong heroines explore the humor and tragedy of persistence in stories that range from romance to historical fiction, from fantasy to science fiction.
From tale to tale, every woman stands firm: a light against the darkness.
Table of Contents:
“Daughter of Necessity” by Marie Brennan
“Sisters” by Leah Cutter
“Unmasking the Ancient Light” by Deborah J. Ross
“Alea Iacta Est” by Marissa Doyle
“How Best to Serve” from A Call to Arms by P.G. Nagle
“After Eden” by Gillian Polack
“Reset” by Sara Stamey
“A Very, Wary Christmas” by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel
“Making Love” by Brenda Clough
“Den of Iniquity” by Irene Radford
“Digger Lady” by Amy Sterling Casil
“Tumbling Blocks” by Mindy Klasky
“The Purge” by Jennifer Stevenson
“If It Ain’t Broke” by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff
“Chataqua” by Nancy Jane Moore
“Bearing Shadows” by Dave Smeds
“In Search of Laria” by Doranna Durgin
“Tax Season” by Judith Tarr
“Little Faces” by Vonda N. McIntyre
What’s Mindy’s favorite bit?
Before February 8, 2017, I’d never considered editing an anthology. But on that date Senator Elizabeth Warren entered her showdown with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, leading to the now-famous statement: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Within hours of hearing those words, I knew I needed to pull together the best stories I could, illustrating the theme of persistence. And I knew I’d reach out to my fellow authors in the Book View Café publishing co-operative to provide those tales.
BVC has fifty-two members. We’re all traditionally published authors who’ve turned to self-publishing (at least part of the time.) Our membership spans at least four decades. We’ve got the usual mix of strong personalities that anyone finds in a community of writers. Every member has iron-clad views of what makes a good story.
Now, I’m used to working with strong-willed people. I used to manage a staff of three dozen librarians, supporting more than a thousand lawyers in fifteen domestic and international offices. Along the way, I learned that folks create amazing things when they’re pointed in a general direction and given unlimited support.
So, I announced my theme. I set a deadline. I told the co-op that I was interested in any stories they had on the theme of persistence—whether those tales were set in the past, present, future, or other worlds. Some authors pushed me to be more specific. Others offered up two or three stories, unsure that they would hit my mark. One author worked through six different drafts of her story, polishing, clarifying, driving home her points.
Ultimately, we ended up with nineteen stories. One draws on the earliest epic to survive in concrete form—The Odyssey. Another spins out a tale set in a distant galaxy, where not-human females struggle to create and to lead and to love. My own story is set in a not-too-distant future, where a young woman fights the religious beliefs that have been pounded into her since infancy, struggling to define her position as an independent, thinking person.
So, that’s my favorite bit: the vast range of the stories in Nevertheless, She Persisted. We have nineteen writers. We have nineteen settings. Nineteen protagonists, women fighting to do what’s right. Nineteen visions of persistence.
When I first conceived of the anthology, I’d envisioned a number of political stories—outright responses to Senator Warren’s stand. In the end, I ended up with something bigger. Something broader. Something that provides more mirrors and angles and lenses into what humans are, how we think, why we strive. And that’s worth being a favorite
Nevertheless, She Persisted is available as a print book at:
USA Today bestselling author Mindy Klasky learned to read when her parents shoved a book in her hands and told her she could travel anywhere through stories. As a writer, Mindy has traveled through various genres, including light paranormal, hot contemporary romance, and traditional fantasy. In her spare time, Mindy knits, quilts, and tries to tame her to-be-read shelf.
Cheryl Low is joining us today with her novel Vanity in Dust. Here’s the publisher’s description:
In the Realm there are whispers. Whispers that the city used to be a different place. That before the Queen ruled there was a sky beyond the clouds and a world beyond their streets. Vaun Dray Fen never knew that world. Born a prince without a purpose in a Realm ruled by lavish indulgence, unrelenting greed, and vicious hierarchy, he never knew a time before the Queen’s dust drugged the city. Everything is poisoned to distract and dull the senses, even the tea and pastries. And yet, after more than a century, his own magic is beginning to wake. The beautiful veneer of the Realm is cracking. Those who would defy the Queen turn their eyes to Vaun, and the dust saturating the Realm. From the carnivorous pixies in the shadows to the wolves in the streets, Vaun thought he knew all the dangers of his city. But when whispers of treason bring down the fury of the Queen, he’ll have to race to save the lives and souls of those he loves.
What’s Cheryl’s favorite bit?
Vanity in Dust is a product of obsessive creation. It’s a world I built at first for my own imagination to play in, later spiraling into the Crowns and Ash series. I love this world. It’s a magical city set apart from everything else with the Queen’s tower at its heart, surrounded by an upper-class of lavish comfort and excess and unaging beauty, spreading out into the less fabulous buildings of the Main and then from there into the lower ends of the city, abandoned and forgotten. Beyond that there is only a graveyard of ash, reaching outward and rising up into the barren edges of the world they know.
The sky is forever filled with clouds and most of the citizens have long since forgotten the existence of stars or the color of the sky. Their magic has become a product, refined and sold back to them by the Queen, and so long as they buy and consume it without questions—she allows them to go on in this endless cycle of parties and empty scandals. Of course, that can’t go on forever.
The city thrives on its drug of choice, dust. I love dust! In the shadows of the city live pixies, beautiful but vicious little creatures that will gladly lick the residue of magic from the bricks of the streets or gnaw it from the flesh of citizens. Factories out in the ash lure in pixies with rooms full of magic, letting the little beasts eat and eat until they’re so fat that their frail wings can no longer lift them from the ground. And then they’re strung up on lines and roasted into tiny, magic rich, statues of their former selves—later ground down into the dust that saturates everything from tea to pastries to cigarettes in the upper end of the city.
They make an appearance in the first scene of the book, always present at the edges of darkness.
The scratching, fluttering sound of wings smacking against brick drew his gaze to the corner of the rooftop. One of the lamps had gone out, something that never happened above the Low, and the shadow there swelled with pixies.
Ferrin shuffled two steps closer and peered into the moving darkness. The nasty insects shifted about wildly, bumping into the wall and each other, grappling for space closer to him at the edge of the shadow. They stared back with nearly human eyes to match their nearly human, though miniature, bodies. In his dusted state, Ferrin was tempted to reach out to them, but then one smiled. Thin lips parted to expose rows of needle teeth and he twisted back. Sobering even just a fraction was enough to have him returning to the party inside, closing the door sharply behind him and drowning in the volume of the warehouse once more.
I love scary-cute things! And the pixies are just that. Pretty but terrible and always eager to get a bite out of anyone that steps into the shadows. I’m not even sure how I first came up with the dust, if it was the pixies first or the other way around, but it became this driving force of the world. True addicts are called dusters, often found rumpled in teahouses in a dust stupor, watching smoke gather against the ceilings. Even the main character, Vaun, is prone to over indulge and loses time to blackouts.
Dust saturates the Realm and the story and, I promise, the pixies make more appearances than just the opening scene.
Cheryl Low was born and raised in California only to later chase her romantic lead around the globe to the north of Sweden. When not writing, reading, at the gym, or on adventure, she is likely to be found eating candy and watching horror flicks. She loves sugar in almost all its magnificent forms, craft projects though she does not follow directions, baking without adhering to recipes, notebooks of all sorts, and comfy chairs.
Brian Francis Slattery is joining us today to talk about the serial, Bookburners Season Three. Here’s the publisher’s description:
The world as we know it is under siege. The Bookburners are stretched thin trying to control an influx of magic—and they don’t have much support from the Vatican. Can they overcome their history and band together to protect humanity from an increasing magical threat? Or will it destroy them, like it has destroyed everything else in its path?
What’s Brian’s favorite bit?
BRIAN FRANCIS SLATTERY
My favorite bit about Season Three of Bookburners isn’t a particular moment (though there are many moments I love) or a particular character (I love them all), but an idea that ended up driving the arc of the whole season, from episode to episode.
In this season, we broke something we couldn’t fix.
Bookburners, written by Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty, Andrea Phillips, and me, is about a team — Sal, a detective; Menchú, a priest; Grace, a fierce fighter; Liam, a tech guy; and Asanti, an archivist — who work for a secret society trying to save the world from being taken over by magic. They go on adventures all over the world battling monsters, solving puzzles, finding magic and locking it down.
Without giving all kinds of things away, in the previous two seasons, among the adventures we explored the flaws and the tensions within our characters and within the secret society, stretching things out pretty far sometimes. Our characters didn’t always like each other, or who they were working for. The society they were working for didn’t always like them. Our team members sometimes questioned the usefulness of the mission. Characters changed. But somewhere in there was the assumption that the Big Things would return more or less to the way they were. The basic premise would stay intact.
Not this season.
We decided early on in hashing out the story for Season Three that Something Magic Would Happen that would be irreversible. The people on our team would at last face something that they couldn’t contain and conceal afterward. As we finished with the basic arc of the story, and then outlined individual episodes, and then wrote them, figuring out on a human scale what the effects of that Something Magic That Happens might be, we discovered that our simple initial decision created a thousand little ripples throughout the story. It meant that our characters at last said and did things they couldn’t take back. Some of the tensions among them, and between them and the society belonged to, stretched until they broke.
And for me, that meant Sal, Menchú, Grace, Liam, and Asanti all got to be as true to themselves as they had ever been. As a team, they learned what was driving them apart—and what was holding them together. It was a thrill to write, and not only because I got to return to Central America in my mind, a place that left an indelible impression on me that I tried my best to do right by when it came time to represent it. It was also because we could let our characters cut loose. So this season has not just my favorite bit, but most of my favorite stuff in it in Bookburners so far. It’s stuff that you could say we’ve been building toward since the beginning, a few years ago, when we were first getting to know Sal and company, and learning what they could do.
Plus, we got to transform an entire city into a completely different place. Forever.
In early September, us writers are getting together to figure out what happens next year. I’ve enjoyed the heck out of collaborating with Max, Margaret, Andrea, and Mur from the start, but I’m looking forward to this season even more than the past three. We know our characters so much better than we used to, and have quite a rich past to draw on. But in a lot of ways it feels completely new, as our characters move into an unstable future, for themselves and for the world. I can’t wait to see what happens.
Brian Francis Slattery is the author of Spaceman Blues, Liberation, Lost Everything, and The Family Hightower. Lost Everything won the Philip K. Dick Award in 2012. He’s the arts and culture editor for the New Haven Independent, and editor for the New Haven Review, and a freelance editor for a few not-so-secret public policy think tanks. Bookburners, which he wrote with Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, and Mur Lafferty, is available from Serial Box. Find more at www.serialbox.com.
Tal M. Klein is joining us today with his novel The Punch Escrow. Here’s the publisher’s description:
It’s the year 2147. Advancements in nanotechnology have enabled us to control aging. We’ve genetically engineered mosquitoes to feast on carbon fumes instead of blood, ending air pollution. And teleportation has become the ideal mode of transportation, offered exclusively by International Transport—a secretive firm headquartered in New York City. Their slogan: Departure, Arrival… Delight!
Joel Byram is an average twenty-second century guy. He spends his days training artificial-intelligence engines to act more human, jamming out to 1980’s new wave music and trying to salvage his deteriorating marriage. He’s pretty much an everyday guy with everyday problems—until he’s accidentally duplicated while teleporting. Now Joel must outsmart the shadowy organization that controls teleportation, outrun the religious sect out to destroy it, and find a way to get back to the woman he loves in a world that now has two of him.
What’s Tal’s favorite bit?
TAL M. KLEIN
My favorite bits in The Punch Escrow are my protagonist’s day job and how he gets compensated for it. Joel Byram is a salter. No, this doesn’t mean he spends his days harvesting salt from ancient water beds. In the mid-22nd century, an age where almost all things are connected and semi-sentient, salters spent their days enriching the cognitive algorithms of artificially intelligent things — making them more human-like. A salter’s workday consists of engaging with various apps in uniquely human ways that can’t be synthesized. Every time the salter’s gambit isn’t anticipated by an app, that app gets “smarter” by adding the unanticipated random logic set to its code, and the salter gets paid. If it sounds like people in the future making a good living by being smartasses to apps, you’re pretty much right on the money. In Joel’s field success is gamified. One rises through the ranks based on the quality of their accepted salts. The Mine, where Joel works, keeps track of salt acceptance ratios on a public leaderboard. The better one’s ratio, the more desirable they are, and the more money they make.
Speaking of money, I don’t think we can change the way people work without evolving the way they get paid. In The Punch Escrow we get to see one plausible outcome for the evolution of currency. Chits are the elastic global block-chain cryptocurrencies that underpin The Punch Escrow’s global economy. I’m attracted to cryptocurrencies because they’re democratized. I believe this makes them less likely to fail and more likely to be secure. I think their adoption could make most current forms of financial crime obsolete. The value of a chit isn’t fixed, it’s an algorithm. For example, a local municipality’s food chits might be valued at 0.8x (or 80 percent) of the standard chit rate in order to discount for local economic conditions and keep everyone fed. The idea being that the “price” of something in The Punch Escrow’s version of the future is moving target based on real-time demand, the wealth of the procurer, and the percentage of the procurer’s wealth that the procurement transaction represented. I believe such an algorithm may be the key to ensuring nobody could manipulate the market beyond its natural elasticity.
I like the ideas of salting and chits not only because they paint a non-dystopian future in which computers and people have healthy, symbiotic relationships, but also because they open the door to the notion that employment and commerce can continue to thrive in a world of autonomic intelligent things.
I constantly hear worries of people concerned about the impact of automation on jobs; robots in factories, self-driving vehicles, those sorts of things. I don’t mean to discount those concerns, nor the caveats of Neo-Luddites. I just happen to be a pragmatist. There’s a romantic quality to the notion of destroying computers, machines, and weapons. But that’s not going to happen because progress follows the path of least resistance. Therefore, in the future I imagined for The Punch Escrow, society continues to progress at its current technological pace forward. Human labor evolves in lockstep with the technology it spawns, thus as old jobs and business models become redundant and extinct, new jobs come to market. I choose to believe we don’t paint ourselves in a corner. The future isn’t a utopia or a dystopia, it’s a place where we live and work differently than we do today.
Tal M. Klein was born in Israel, grew up in New York, and currently lives in Detroit with his wife and two daughters. When his daughter Iris was five years old, she wrote a book called I’m a Bunch of Dinosaurs that went on to become one of the most successful children’s book projects on Kickstarter —something that Tal explained to Iris by telling her, “your book made lots of kids happy.” Iris then asked Tal, “Daddy, why don’t you write book that makes lots of grownups happy?” Tal mulled this over for a few years, and eventually wrote his first book, The Punch Escrow. It won the Inkshares Geek & Sundry Hard Science Fiction Publishing contest, and will be the first book published on Inkshares’ Geek & Sundry imprint.
Adam Christopher is joining us today with his novel Killing Is My Business. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Another golden morning in a seedy town, and a new memory tape and assignment for intrepid PI-turned-hitman―and last robot left in working order―Raymond Electromatic. But his skills may be rustier than he remembered in Killing Is My Business, the latest in Christopher’s robot noir oeuvre, hot on the heels of the acclaimed Made to Kill.
What’s Adam’s favorite bit?
Ray Electromatic, eponymous hero of the Ray Electromatic Mysteries – if hero is the right way to describe a robot who pretends to be a private detective when he’s really a paid assassin – has a problem.
Actually, that’s not strictly true – Ray Electromatic has lots of problems. A six-foot-something-else bronzed titanium titan, clad, like any half-decent private dick, in overcoat and hat, Ray’s biggest issue is his memory. He only has twenty-four hours of it, tucked away in a little reel-to-reel tape behind his chest panel. When the tape is up, he heads home to the office and the tape is switched to a new one under the supervision of his boss, a room-sized supercomputer called Ada.
Which means Ray doesn’t remember a damn thing about what he’s done – the perfect cover for a hit-robot, but quite often Ray wishes he had a clue or two about what he’s been up to in Hollywood, California, 1965. It doesn’t help that he doesn’t quite trust Ada, either, and then there’s the shady federal agents and the even shadier private contractors from thrice-shady International Automatics to watch out for.
So sure. Ray Electromatic has problems, but he is – or was – a detective, so once he starts leaving himself clues about what’s going on, he’s in his element. Because if the dirty little operation that he and Ada run is in danger of discovery, well, he needs to know what’s going on so he can protect them both.
But Ray’s other problem, the one that would keep him up at night if he didn’t have to switch off, is that he thinks he’s human.
Okay, that’s not strictly true either. Ray knows he is a robot. But in this glorious and far-distant sci-fi future of 1965, Ray’s creator, the perhaps-not-so-mysteriously-deceased Professor Thornton, realized that the secret to true artificial intelligence was to use a template based on a human mind as the spark of creation. So Ray Electromatic is, in a way, Professor Thornton – not a duplicate or a clone, but an AI that shares some of his creator’s personality and tastes and even (although this isn’t supposed to happen) memories. Ray is his own robot, and he knows all about the template, and he absolutely knows he is a robot and not a human being, but that doesn’t stop him… well, thinking about things.
My favorite bit of Killing is my Business, the second Ray Electromatic Mystery, is in chapter one. Here, Ray is staking out his next target – Vaughan Delaney, a planner for the city of Los Angeles. Ray doesn’t know why Delaney has to die and he doesn’t care – Ada gets the jobs, he carries them out – but in the three weeks he spends watching Delaney’s office, Ray has time to consider the lives of the human beings around him. He watches them go to work, he watches them go home. He even gets some very human urges:
It was a busy street and the office got a lot of foot traffic, some of which even stopped to admire the car that was the same color as a fire engine parked right outside the door. Back on my side of the street there was a drugstore down on the corner that got a lot of foot traffic too. I watched people come and go and some of those people were carrying brown paper bags. Some people went inside and stayed there, sitting on stools at the bench inside the front window as they drank coffee and ate sandwiches.
I watched them a while longer and then I thought I’d quite like a sandwich and a coffee to pass the time. I didn’t need to sit and watch the building. Vaughan Delaney’s schedule was as regular as the oscillators in my primary transformer. I had time to spare.
I got out of the car and stood on the sidewalk for a moment, one hand on the driver’s door, looking over at the office building. A sandwich and a coffee still felt like a great idea. It was the kind of thing you got when you spent a lot of time waiting and watching. It helped pass the time, like smoking and talking about baseball with the boys and making your own flies for fly-fishing.
Of course, I had no need for a coffee or a sandwich. If I walked down to the drugstore and went inside and bought one of each I wouldn’t have any use for them on account of the fact that I didn’t eat or drink.
I was a robot.
And still as I stood there in the street the faint memory of the taste of fresh hot coffee tickled the back of my circuits. An echo of another life, maybe. A life that didn’t belong to me but that belonged to my creator, Professor Thornton.
A coffee and a sandwich would be a real waste, but maybe the drugstore could sell me something else. Maybe I could get a magazine. A magazine or a paperback book. That sounded fun. I had two hours to kill before I followed the target on his weekly jaunt around the City of Angels.
That’s Ray’s problem. He’s a robot who sometimes feels like a human, but he can’t do a thing about it, and he’s not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but what he does know is that even if he feels this way each and every day he won’t remember a blind thing about it, thanks to his limited memory tape.
I like Ray. He’s very good at what he does but he’s flawed and he’s uncertain about a lot of things. There’s an air of melancholy about him. He’s the last robot in the world, and he knows it, and sometimes he dreams of another life that wasn’t his.
And then he gets on with the job, because he’s a professional – another echo from Professor Thornton’s template.
Adam Christopher’s debut novel Empire State was SciFiNow’s Book of the Year and a Financial Times Book of the Year. The author of Made To Kill, Standard Hollywood Depravity and Killing Is My Business, Adam’s other novels include Seven Wonders, The Age Atomic and The Burning Dark. Adam has also written the official tie-in novels for the hit CBS television show Elementary, and the award-winning Dishonored video game franchise, and with Chuck Wendig, wrote The Shield for Dark Circle/Archie Comics. Adam is also a contributor to the Star Wars: From A Certain Point Of View 40th anniversary anthology.
Born in New Zealand, Adam has lived in Great Britain since 2006.
Josie Langdon leaned back from her microscope and rolled her neck to ease the kinks. After days spent staring at slides, her eyes strained to refocus on the university lab around her.
“How’s it going?” Stan Kozelka leaned against the lab door; his grin peeked out from his full beard. Of the other grad students, Stan was the only one who never harassed her. She was not sure he knew who her father had been.
Josie shrugged. “Larvae are still dying. They won’t kick into pupae phase.”
“Ah.” He crossed his arms and tilted his head, straggly hair falling into his eyes. “And you?”
The corner of her mouth turned up wryly. “Also dying.”
Stan winced. “That’s no good.”
“My own fault. I could’ve picked another topic for my master’s, but noooooo…” She groaned as she pulled a slide out of the microscope tray. “I don’t want to think about mosquitoes ever again.”
“Have you talked to Professor Hadley?”
“Not yet. She’ll say, ‘I told you so.'” Josie spun on her seat, turning her back on him. “I was so sure that if I knew the original mechanism and I had the gene map, I could repair the damage my– the West Nile Intervention introduced.”
“At least you pinpointed the damage.”
“Yeah.” She sighed and looked at the floor. “I know, I just–I wanted…”
“It doesn’t matter.” Josie tugged on her hair. “I can’t make girls. It’s still nothing but boys, boys, boys. It’s driving me crazy.”
“Is it…?” He stopped and Josie waited for the inevitable question about her father. The question about why she researched mosquitoes. The question Stan had never asked. He cleared his throat. “There’s a group of us going to the Alibi. Want to come?”
Josie let the tension out of her with a sigh. “Sure.” She turned the light off on the microscope, and put her slides away. “The Alibi is always fun.”
The summer the mosquitoes died began as the best one in Josie Langdon’s childhood. As she dived through the sprinkler in the front yard, the cold water sparkled as if someone had hung a beaded curtain upside down. She gasped with laughter, then turned and jumped through the curtain again.
“Hey, Jo-bug!” Her dad walked up the sidewalk, home early from work.
“Daddy!” She ran to meet him, dancing as the hot concrete steamed against her feet. He towered between her and the sun and made a small spot of shade for her to stand in.
Not minding that she dripped with water from the sprinkler, her dad picked her up and swung her around. She shrieked with laughter.
“Frank?” Josie’s mom came out on the porch. “What are you doing home?”
“We got the results from the release.” He grinned. “It’s unbelievable. The modified Toxorhynchites is going after males of the other genera, so—”
Josie’s mom laughed. “Frank, slow down I’m not getting all of that.”
He pulled her close and kissed her on the forehead. “Sorry, I’m so darn excited. MetroCorp sprayed to kill most of the mosquitoes, then we made an über-male from a type of mosquito that naturally attacks and kills other mosquitoes. So our modified one is not only breeding with the mosquitoes that carry the West Nile virus, it’s attacking and killing the other types of mosquitoes too.”
“Does that mean no more mosquitoes, Daddy?”
He swooped Josie up and swung her around again. He smelled nice, like her grandmother’s rum cake. “They won’t all go away, but it’ll mean a lot less bites for you, Jo-bug.”
The tinny sound of the ice cream truck echoed down the street, as the recorded electric music played the same eight measures of “This Old Man” over and over and over.
“Hey!” Her dad set her down. “Who wants an ice cream to celebrate?” He was already waving at the ice cream man and pulling his wallet out of his pocket.
Josie got an orange push-up. She remembered that.
The Alibi always reeked of smoke. Even though no one had lit up for years, the smell had soaked into the velvet paintings and the straw mats covering the walls. Tiki-kitsch grinned at Josie from every corner of the place.
The other biology students wandered over to the karaoke lounge and one of them wailed through a rendition of “Easy Money.”
Stan winced and twisted his gin and tonic in its circle of condensation. He had splurged on an actual lime and the smooth green rind sparkled among the ice. “The crazy thing is that on these camping trips, I have a hard time finding tadpoles because of all the fish that used to eat mosquito larvae.”
“That’s just it.” Josie laid her hand on the table and leaned forward. “I mean, as early as the mid-aughts, Glausewitz warned about the environmental imbalance. MetroCorp released them anyway.”
“Be fair. No one thought the über-male would be this effective.”
Josie sat back in her seat. Couldn’t there be one person who treated her normally? “You don’t have to protect me.”
She stared at her amber beer. “You’ve never made a crack about my dad and his ‘Frankenskeeter’, but you don’t have to protect my feelings.”
“Josie.” His brows twisted upward. “I’m not interested in your father. I’m interested in you.”
Josie looked away, suddenly warm. “Oh.” She slid her fingers down the pint glass, wiping the beads of moisture away.
Stan was quiet for a long time. Josie took a sip of her beer and looked towards the karaoke stage. “Easy Money” wrapped up his song and another grad student bounded toward the mike.
Stan cleared his throat. “So, um… have you thought about looking for egg floats from before the West Nile Intervention?”
“Yeah.” Josie pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes. “Me, and every other entomologist.”
“Then, you wouldn’t be interested in looking for egg floats while I catch frogs I guess?” He picked up his gin and tonic and sipped it, looking over the rim of the glass at her.
“Marsh lands won’t help. I mean, yeah, Aedes vexans laid their eggs in flood regions, but the idea of trying to find a place where it hasn’t flooded for the past…” In her head, she counted the years since the West Nile Incident. “Seven years?”
“Going to the mountains.” Stan took another sip. “They’ve got flash-flood warnings, if you’re interested in that sort of thing…” His eyes hooded into a studied nonchalance, as if he did not care which way she answered. He set the gin and tonic down carefully in the condensation ring, and did not look at her, but twisted the glass on the table. “Want to come?”
Josie almost said there was no point; mosquito floats were the size of a grain of rice and every entomologist in the world had already looked for them. Then her heart tripped. Stan already knew that.
He was asking her out.
It was a crazy biologist’s kind of date, but after months of uncertain flirting, she would take any move at all. “Sure. The mountains would be great.”
Stan looked up and smiled. “Good.”
Josie felt a flood of warmth and hoped she had not blushed.
In her memory of the autumn, Josie stood in her bedroom while her dad sat on her bed looking through her notebook. Each spiral bound page had a chart carefully drawn on it with line after line of sightings. Purple Martins, Starlings, Sparrows, Blue Herons… one Bald Eagle–the date she saw them, where she saw them, how many she saw.
She tugged on her scout uniform and straightened the banner of badges across her chest.
“Nice work, Jo-bug.”
He flipped backwards through the book. “You’ve taken bird-watching a lot more seriously this year.”
She frowned. “No I haven’t.”
“Well.” He held up a page from the previous year. “You didn’t record nearly as many birds last year.”
“There weren’t as many.”
“Josie.” He tilted his chin down and looked out from under his eyebrows. He glanced at the book and then back at her. “They should have told me at the lab if there was a higher bird-count this year.” He flipped through the pages again. “Are you sure about these?”
Josie remembered nodding as she pointed out the window; three hummingbirds flirted with the feeder. The year before she had only seen one.
Stan slept in the passenger seat of his car while Josie took her turn at the wheel. As the road rolled past, Josie stared out the window at the fields covered with netting. Flocks of birds swarmed, dipping and wheeling over the nets as they looked for any opening to enter. Beneath the nets, protected swarms of bees pollinated each sheltered flower.
She counted the links of the broken chain in her mind. No larvae? Fish that ate mosquito larvae eat other water bugs and tadpoles, which meant fewer frogs; fewer frogs meant more moths, flies and wasps. No larvae? No adult mosquitoes to spread avian viruses. Birds multiply over the land consuming the plentiful crops. The famine, which should have helped keep the birds’ population from exploding, had never happened thanks to those crops, and the sheer amount of food people threw away.
A dark blur flew across the road. A crow. It smacked into her windshield and bounced over the car. Josie shrieked and then laughed.
Stan jumped in his seat. “What?”
“I’m sorry.” A cloud of feathers fluttered after them. “I hit a bird.”
“No worries.” Stan eased his seat forward. “You’ve got a nice laugh.”
She glanced at him, but he was staring out the window at the fields. His cheekbone made a crisp line under his eye, before disappearing into his beard. Josie wondered if his beard was soft.
Why was the silence suddenly awkward?
Stan pointed to a rest-area sign. “Want me to drive?”
Josie nodded. “That’d be great.”
She eased the car off the interstate, into the parking lot of the rest area. Pigeons, crows and sparrows perched on picnic tables eating leftovers from the truckers and families passing through.
When Josie got out of the car, she bent over to stretch her tight muscles. A layer of ashy droppings covered the ground under every tree and the branches seemed to blossom with wings.
Under a sign that read ‘Don’t Feed the Birds’, a little boy scattered breadcrumbs for ducks while his mother watched.
“Crazy…” Josie snorted, and shook her head.
“Oh.” She shrugged. “I just saw The Birds for the first time.”
“The remake?” Josie could tell Stan was watching her, but she kept stretching.
“No, the original. Hitchcock.”
“Whew.” Stan wiped his brow with mock relief. “Thought I was going to have to take you back to the university.” He shuddered. “Hitchcock remakes…”
She grinned and nodded to the boy feeding the ducks. “I was thinking the movie must have been scarier before.”
In the edge of her vision, Stan shook his head. “I was a kid when it happened.”
“Me too.” She thought of her father. “All those diseases people were afraid of catching, and they were the major thing keeping the bird population in check.”
“Wonder what Hitchcock would say?”
“I told you so, probably.”
Stan laughed, rich and deep, bouncing through an octave. The corners of his eyes wrinkled, and his teeth shone from his beard.
Josie held out the keys, grinning. Their hands touched as he took them; he had calluses on the tips of his fingers.
For a moment, he stood close and she could see herself reflected in his eyes.
Stan wet his lips. “We should get going.” He turned around and got in the car.
Josie closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She let it out carefully as she opened her eyes. “Right.” Her voice was too small. “Let’s go.”
The summer after the mosquitoes died, Josie’s family piled out of the car as the horizon ate the sun and last orange glow escaped the western sky. Other families hurried to the stadium for the fireworks display.
Josie bounced anxiously from one foot to the other while her mom dug for the mosquito repellant.
“We don’t need that.” Her dad came around the car and shook his head.
“With her allergy, it doesn’t hurt to be safe,” her mom said.
“She won’t get bitten.” He looked at Josie. “Mosquitoes giving you any trouble, Jo-bug?”
“Nope.” Josie held out her arms. Mosquitoes used to leave giant welts on her arms and legs, on her neck, on her back, on anything the mosquitoes could reach. And the welts had itched for weeks. So, she knew, one hundred percent certain, no mosquitoes had touched her. “Not one.”
“You said they wouldn’t all die.” Her mom shook the can of spray.
“Numbers are lower than we thought.” He shrugged. “Think of it like a field test.”
“Josie is not a guinea pig!”
Josie stopped bouncing to stare at her parents. Her mom took Josie’s dad by the arm and pulled him to the side.
“Look! If you don’t trust me–” Josie’s dad held up his hands, as if he were pushing something away and walked off.
Josie stood very still as her mom came back with tension straining the lines of her face. “Well, Josie,” she chirped, “Let’s make sure you’re safe tonight.”
She shook the can of mosquito repellant and sprayed the white mist against Josie’s arms and legs. The fog chilled her despite the July heat.
She remembered shivering as she looked for her dad.
Stan had borrowed a friend’s mountain cabin, which sat on a hill close to the creek he wanted to check. The creek meandered down the mountain and then into a pond trapped between walls of earth and rock. Logs cut off its escape down the channel and gave refuge to a family of beavers.
Below the beaver’s pond, the sides of the mountain narrowed, forcing the water to trickle in a thin brook with tiny still pools nestling among the rocks. Stan had spent the last hour fishing in each pool with a small aquarium net as he looked for tadpoles.
Thunder rumbled overhead.
Josie looked up at the blue sky peeking through the canopy of leaves. “Should we head back?”
Stan glanced at his spattered and mud-stained clothes. He stood in one of the shallow pools below the beavers’ dam, wet to mid-thigh despite his rubber boots. “I don’t mind getting wet, if you don’t.”
Her shirt stuck to her back with perspiration. “I think it’s too late for me.” She looked back at the sky.
“Any worries about flash floods?”
Stan hesitated and tapped the aquarium net against his hand. “Let me get a few more tadpoles and we can go.”
The first drops fell on the pool, making gentle rings on its surface. Then the sky opened. Sheets of rain plastered Josie’s hair to her head in seconds.
“So much for that plan.” Stan had to shout over the sound of rain hitting the pond. He held his net out. “Think I can catch them falling out of the sky?”
She tilted her head back and laughed. Her shirt clung to her like a second skin. Josie raised her arms to the liquid sky, knowing it did nice things for her body; it lifted her breasts and made her waist look long and narrow. When she lowered her arms, Stan was watching her, the net forgotten in his hands.
Four beavers dove past them, scampering up the side of the hills that held the creek. She and Stan turned to watch the animals claw their way up the hill. Their flat tails left a line in the mud.
Stan understood before she did. “The dam.” He threw the net down and grabbed Josie’s hand.
She splashed after him. Under the driving percussion of the rain, she heard a low rumble. A wall of water rushed into the pond and the dam groaned. Stan pushed her up the side of the hill. She scrambled, her feet sliding in the mud. He clawed up next to her.
The dam broke.
The water splashed up the sides hungrily and grabbed for Josie. Stan held tight to her. She pressed her face against the earth, clinging to it as the water surged below her.
The water pushed the logs in front of it and roared away from them. They climbed higher, scrambling over the edge of the embankment. In minutes, the pond emptied, leaving only a channel of water cutting through the mud. Breathless, Josie lay facedown at the top of the hill. Stan sat beside her, his hand resting on her back.
She rolled over to let the rain wash the mud from her face. Stan studied her, his face open and exposed to the worry beneath. Josie sat up. She leaned close, put her hand on his thigh, and kissed him.
His beard was soft.
Josie sat in the back seat of her parents’ car at the end of the summer. She was hot. She wanted to go home. Her mom and dad stood outside, talking with a man in overalls. He shook his head and gestured to the field behind him where blueberry bushes squatted beneath the weight of birds. Other cars slowed at the U-Pick sign, and then drove past.
Her family had done that at three other fields.
Josie leaned her head back and looked at the ceiling of the car. If she let her eyes unfocus, the tiny holes in the ceiling liner moved and made the ceiling look farther away than it was.
She focused and unfocused her eyes. Far, near. Far.
Her dad yelled.
Josie jumped and craned her neck to see. She could hear the angry tone of his voice, but not the words. He thumped his chest and pointed at the field covered with birds. The farmer spat and walked away.
Josie’s breath skittered in her chest. Her dad stood next to the field, his shoulders bent. Then he picked up a rock and threw it at the birds. They swarmed up in a dark cloud and settled again on the bushes as if they had always been there.
He shook as though he were laughing.
Josie’s mom put her arm around him and rocked him, like she did when Josie skinned her knee. They stood for a long moment before turning to walk back to the car.
When they opened the doors, Josie leaned forward to ask what had happened. She stopped with her mouth still open.
Her dad’s cheeks were wet.
“Let’s go home.” Her mom touched his hand lightly.
Putting his hands on the wheel, he nodded. “Okay.” He looked over his shoulder and tried to smile at Josie. “Sorry, Jo-bug. No blueberries this year.” He looked forward at the writhing field. “You were right about the bird-count.”
She remembered that. He had said she was right.
Stan lay on the cabin’s bed with his head thrown back and one arm over his eyes. Josie ran her fingers through the hair on his chest. He wrinkled his nose and turned to smile at her.
Reaching up, Stan traced the line of her jaw with his finger. Ran it up her cheek and back down her nose, lightly. Her skin tingled with a trail of his touch.
“You’re a remarkable woman, Josie Langdon.”
She kissed his palm. “Why do you say that?”
He stroked her hair as he considered her. “Everything you went through as a kid and you’re still so… vital.”
“Vital?” Her mouth twisted, as she deliberately ignored the first part. “Interesting compliment.”
Stan laughed deep in his chest. “I’m not good at compliments.” He hesitated, and then smiled bashfully. “I have a confession to make.”
She held her breath.
“I–When you came to the university, when I met you I…”
“I googled you.” He plucked at the sheets. “I feel weird about it now, but I wanted to know everything about you, and I figured people had pestered you enough. I didn’t want to be one more person who quizzed you.”
The stillness melted out of her and she rolled on top of him. Her hair shrouded their faces. “Stan. You can ask me anything you want.” She grinned. “Or do you know everything already?”
He pulled her down and kissed her. “What’s your favorite color?”
“Food?” He took her thumb in his mouth.
“Ahi tuna, lightly seared.”
“Movie, but answer carefully.” He brushed the inside of her wrist with his lips. “This could be a deal-breaker.”
“Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast,” Josie gasped as he nibbled her elbow.
He ran his hand down her spine and traced tingling circles in the small of her back. “Interesting choice.”
His hand stopped. A single vertical crease appeared between his eyebrows. “What’s the question you hate the most?”
Without hesitation she said, “How did I feel when my father killed himself?”
Stan wrapped his arms around her and pulled her tightly to him. She buried her face in his shoulder, letting him smooth her hair with his hands. The roughness of his voice surprised her. “Are people idiots?”
“Yes,” she said.
Stan’s sudden laugh vibrated through her breastbone, rumbling in her ear. She slid to the side, her sweat-damp skin clinging to him, and giggled as the tension broke inside her.
Stan rolled onto his elbow and kissed her again. “If I call the school and tell them the flood washed the road out, will you stay longer?”
“Good.” He laid his hand on her leg and smiled at her. “Then the only other question is, ‘How do you want to spend the rest of the week?'”
Josie pulled him closer. “You already know the answer.”
Josie leaned against her bedroom door with her knees pulled tight to her chest. She could hear her parents fighting. She held her breath as she listened.
Her dad shouted. “No, I will not calm down!”
Murmuring incomprehensibly in the background, her mother answered him.
“I can’t find any! They’re all dead. Do you get that? They’re dead! I can’t undo the damage. I can make plenty of boys in the lab, but the girls die in larvae. Nothing but boys, boys, boys.”
His laughter cut through Josie’s door.
“Yes, siree. I built what they asked for. Look at that.” Her dad paused, and then shouted, his voice tearing from his throat. “Go on! Look at it!”
Silence. Josie closed her eyes and prayed for the quiet to continue.
“Langdon’s Frankenskeeter.” His voice sounded too jolly. “I’m on the front page of the newspaper! Why? Because I did what they fucking asked me to do!” He laughed and laughed and choked on sobs. The raw, angry cries hurled themselves at Josie. She plugged her ears and wept.
Josie remembered crying until her throat hurt.
The sunset slid through the trees and gilded Stan’s car. In their cages, the frogs chorused as if singing of pond and stream. Josie handed a cage to Stan and scratched her arm while he stowed it. Wrapping her arms around his waist, she stood on her toes to kiss the nape of his neck.
“Ah, Josie.” He sighed and leaned back against her.
She rested her head against his shoulder. “I don’t want to go back.”
In the evening sun, his body radiated heat and comfort. Josie squeezed him tightly. She could see his cheek wrinkling with a smile. He brushed his fingertips along her forearms and looked down.
“Wow.” He traced a circle on the back of her wrist with his finger. Her skin prickled where he touched.
“Where’d you get that?”
“What?” Josie released him and pulled her arms back. On her right wrist was an angry red welt. It itched. Josie sucked in the moist air. “Oh my god.” Her knees felt weak.
“Josie?” Stan took her hands and bent down to look in her eyes. “Are you okay?”
She looked up. “That’s a mosquito bite.”
Stan grabbed her shoulders, his eyes huge. “Are you serious?”
The itch drove through her memories. “I was allergic to them when I was a kid. Nothing else did this.”
“But they’re extinct.”
“Aedes vexans laid desiccation resistant eggs in places that were infrequently flooded. The eggs could be dormant for years. They pupate within four to five days of egg hatch.”
“The beavers’ dam?”
Josie scratched her arm and slowly grinned. Stan laughed and swooped her off the ground. He spun her round, the trees twirling dizzily past. Josie shrieked with laughter. He set her on the ground and kissed her.
“I want to see if I can catch her.” She kissed him back and bounced on her toes. “She might be the only one.”
“What’s the good of that?”
“I can make boys in the lab.”
“What if it’s not a her?”
Josie scratched the welt on her arm. “Boy mosquitoes are vegetarians.”
Stan threw his head back and hooted. He kissed her again and ran to the cabin, shouting over his shoulder. “I’ll grab a specimen jar!”
Josie could hear him throwing cabinet doors open as she turned in a circle with her eyes closed, listening for the whine of a mosquito. Josie whispered, “I found them, Daddy.”
Stan leapt out of the cabin and dumped a jar of tadpoles into a salad bowl. He dried the jar out with his shirt and held it out to her, beaming. “Aren’t you glad you came?”
Josie pushed the jar to the side and slid her arms around his waist. “I’ve been glad for a week.” She tilted her head up to kiss the tip of his nose. “Remember that.”
Kay Kenyon is joining us today with her novel At the Table of Wolves. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy meets X-Men in a classic British espionage story. A young woman must go undercover and use her superpowers to discover a secret Nazi plot and stop an invasion of England.
In 1936, there are paranormal abilities that have slowly seeped into the world, brought to the surface by the suffering of the Great War. The research to weaponize these abilities in England has lagged behind Germany, but now it’s underway at an ultra-secret site called Monkton Hall.
Kim Tavistock, a woman with the talent of the spill—drawing out truths that people most wish to hide—is among the test subjects at the facility. When she wins the confidence of caseworker Owen Cherwell, she is recruited to a mission to expose the head of Monkton Hall—who is believed to be a German spy.
As she infiltrates the upper-crust circles of some of England’s fascist sympathizers, she encounters dangerous opponents, including the charismatic Nazi officer Erich von Ritter, and discovers a plan to invade England. No one believes an invasion of the island nation is possible, not Whitehall, not even England’s Secret Intelligence Service. Unfortunately, they are wrong, and only one woman, without connections or training, wielding her talent of the spill and her gift for espionage, can stop it.
What’s Kay’s favorite bit?
Kim Tavistock is on an undercover mission to find a spy among the English gentry. She is a guest at a grand English home along with a handsome German, supposedly a businessman, Erich von Ritter.
In this scene, Kim Tavistock, an animal lover, has rushed out into a rain storm to retrieve two puppies who bolted from the house. The maid will be blamed, but their escape was really Kim’s fault. The puppies belong to Georgi, her unpleasant hostess for the weekend. Kim and von Ritter have looked for the puppies in a gazebo on a spit in the river near the house. Now they are stranded by the rising water.
One of the things they discuss is how the recent outbreak of paranormal abilities–called the bloom–will affect world affairs. During this scene, Kim hears from von Ritter a strange word: chorister, that becomes her first clue to an operation that threatens England.
I love this scene because it is the first time that Kim is alone with the man who will become her adversary, an elegant and charismatic German spy. The scene foreshadows their future relationship: fraught with tension and tinged with attraction despite their opposition and the stakes of the game.
“We can wade across,” Kim said.
Von Ritter shook his head. “No. The river is too fast. It is rising even as speak.” The spit was a torrent, a second arm of the river.
“I suggest we wait it out,” he said. “The river was to crest this morning. Give it an hour.” He reached into the pocket of his suit and retrieved a cigarette case. He snapped it open, and offered her one.
Using his lighter, he lit her cigarette, then his own. “I am afraid Georgi is forming up a firing squad. Your maid is done for.”
She inhaled the smoke with a rush of pleasure. “But the puppies will come home full of mud, having had an adventure.”
“All the worse, if they had fun,” he said, smiling.
“I suppose you’re right.” Clotted fog rolled down the river, enclosing them in whiteness. “It’s freezing out here.”
“Take my coat.” He unbelted his trench coat.
“You’ll be cold,” she protested but, cigarette dangling from her lips, she shrugged into the trench coat. As they sat on the bench, Von Ritter draped the slicker over both of them, and with his arm around her shoulders, warmth returned. She was acutely aware of their shoulders touching, the intimacy of the shared garment.
They smoked, listening to the river rushing by. Von Ritter seemed content to enjoy his cigarette. But silence was against her purpose.
“How do you happen to know Georgi?” Kim asked.
“We met in Bonn when she was on holiday and by chance we were both on the same train down the Rhone Gorge.” He turned to regard her. “Are you warm enough? Here, come closer, or we will never make it to luncheon.”
“I thought you said one hour,” she chided, but sidled in to him. Heat radiated beneath the rain coat, but whether it came from him or was a flush of her own, she could not tell.
He went on, “Georgi has the German viewpoint. Very forward-thinking, unlike some of your countrymen.”
“I can’t pretend to agree.”
“No, I should not like you to pretend.”
“Is the water rising?” she asked, trying to see the spit through the gazebo door.
“I cannot tell from here. I would have to get up from our snug nest to see,” he said good-naturedly.
From far in the distance, someone was calling for the dogs.
After a few minutes, Kim ventured, “There may be a war. Your country and mine.”
“It need not come to that.” He adjusted his arm around her shoulder. “Lean in to me. For warmth. It does no harm until we are enemies.”
It was only sharing a rain slicker in a storm, and even if he was a Nazi, he could hardly be motivated to throw her in the river.
“We do not need a war of arms. It is rather a war of ideas,” he said. “We are on the eve of a great change, Miss Tavistock. The bloom. It has changed everything. It is a new regime, hovering so close we do not think to look up to see it envelop us.”
The rain crackled on the gazebo roof, streaming down off the eaves. “We don’t know what it will really mean for any of us,” she said.
“It means that great men will rise.”
“It means that great leaders will become prophets of change. We have such a man in Germany.” He glanced sideways at her. “Whatever you may think of us.” He flicked his cigarette into the river. “In this country you have no great men. Churchill is a nineteenth century throwback, still yearning for empire. The bloom has brought us to a new level. Men of high Talent who direct destinies. Choristers, if you will.”
He paused as a gust of wind brought a torrent of staccato pattering on the roof. “A figure of speech.”
“Such an interesting word.”
“Yes, as though we’re all singing the same song.” She added, trying for an ironic tone, “Deutschland Uber Alles.”
“Perhaps. But a chorister will bring you down.”
She had not heard the word before, and thought that perhaps he had used the wrong English word. “Do you mean Hitler? He is a chorister?”
“No. One of your own,” he said.
He stared at the river. “I did not think you were so interested in politics, Miss Tavistock.”
“Well, I’m interested in most things.”
“Ah, the reporter. Saving animals. It is all very noble.” He separated from their embrace to turn to look her at her. “You would have made a good German.”
She met his dark gaze, wanting to appear friendly, but not in a way that would arouse suspicion. “I think not.”
Kay Kenyon is the author of thirteen science fiction and fantasy novels as well as numerous short stories. Her work has been shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick, Endeavour, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and twice for the American Library Association Reading List awards. Her latest work, from Saga Press, is At the Table of Wolves. Publishers Weekly called it “A superb adventure, worthy to launch a distinguished historical fantasy series.” Book 2 in the Dark Talents novels, Serpent in the Heather, will be published in April, 2018. The audio edition will be out on August 15. Kay is a founding member of the Write on the River conference in Wenatchee, WA where she lives with her husband Tom and her tabby cat, Winston.
Michael F. Haspil is joining us today with his novel Graveyard Shift. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Alex Menkaure, former pharaoh and mummy, and his vampire partner, Marcus, born in ancient Rome, are vice cops in a special Miami police unit. They fight to keep the streets safe from criminal vampires, shape-shifters, bootleg blood-dealers, and anti-vampire vigilantes.
When poisoned artificial blood drives vampires to murder, the city threatens to tear itself apart. Only an unlikely alliance with former opponents can give Alex and Marcus a fighting chance against an ancient vampire conspiracy.
If they succeed, they’ll be pariahs, hunted by everyone. If they fail, the result will be a race-war bloodier than any the world has ever seen.
What’s Michael’s favorite bit?
MICHAEL F. HASPIL
Mummies. Ancient Egypt. From a young age, the allure and antiquity of olden Kemet fascinated me. Regrettably, much of my attention was due to the fun stories tied to the pseudoscientific — Von Daniken and the like. Don’t even get me started about Stargate. As I write this, a set of Anubis Jaffa armor stands behind me, no joke.
I’ve also had a fascination with the builder of the third largest pyramid at Giza. Think of those pyramids and try to name them. There’s the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops), the Pyramid of Khafre (Chephren), and there’s the third pyramid, the Pyramid of Menkaure (Mykerinos) which people usually forget.
Menkaure was the penultimate pharaoh in the fourth dynasty of the Old Kingdom. Herodotus sings his praises as a good and just ruler. I had it in my head to write a historical fantasy story that would tell of his reign and maybe why it was short. That required significantly more Egyptological research to tell the tale properly. I had my work cut out for me. So I shelved the project for a time.
When I set out to write GRAVEYARD SHIFT, I knew I wanted the protagonist to be a kind of vampire hunter people hadn’t seen before. The old trope of vampire’s disdaining sunlight became my clue. Why not a character who worshipped the sun? Not simply for religious reasons, but because he drew power and protection from it. Menkaure immediately jumped to the forefront and my mind filled in the story about how he became a mummy and how he came to find himself in modern-day Miami, passing for human and working as a detective.
There was one problem. In most stories concerning reanimated mummies, they are creatures of evil, willing to sacrifice everyday humans to whatever cause they follow. I wanted Menkaure to be a hero, perhaps not in the traditional sense, but certainly not a movie monster. Then I remembered an old story by Edgar Allen Poe. Some Words With A Mummy is a satirical take on the Victorian practice of throwing mummy unwrapping parties. Poe pokes fun at the supposed sophistication of his era. Poe’s mummy is extremely different. He’s a person who wakes up after a prolonged sleep. He has a drink and some conversation and doesn’t curse anyone or hurl sandstorms at cities.
That showed me the way to Menkaure’s character. He’s an ancient king. Like Shelley’s Ozymandias, his throne, his subjects, his monuments, and his nation lie in ruined antiquity too horrible to contemplate. Menkaure atones for sins he believes he committed more than forty-five hundred years ago. He is jaded and tired and numb to the atrocities of the contemporary world.
My favorite bit? Broken as he is, he’s still a king somewhat reluctantly serving his subjects. He’s a good guy willing to stand between the darkness and the light as humanity’s guardian against primordial evil. And that’s why I love him.
Michael F. Haspil is a geeky engineer and nerdy artist. The art of storytelling called to him from a young age and he has plied his craft over many years and through diverse media. He has written original stories for as long as he can remember and has dabbled in many genres. However, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror have whispered directly to his soul. An avid gamer, he serves as a panelist on the popular “The Long War” webcasts and podcasts, which specializes in Warhammer 40,000 strategy, tactics, and stories. Graveyard Shift is his first novel. Find him online at michaelhaspil.com or @michaelhaspil.
Nancy Kress is joining us today with her novel Tomorrow’s Kin. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Tomorrow’s Kin is the first volume in and all new hard science fiction trilogy by Nancy Kress based on the Nebula Award-winning Yesterday’s Kin.
The aliens have arrived… they’ve landed their Embassy ship on a platform in New York Harbor, and will only speak with the United Nations. They say that their world is so different from Earth, in terms of gravity and atmosphere, that they cannot leave their ship. The population of Earth has erupted in fear and speculation.
One day Dr. Marianne Jenner, an obscure scientist working with the human genome, receives an invitation that she cannot refuse. The Secret Service arrives at her college to escort her to New York, for she has been invited, along with the Secretary General of the UN and a few other ambassadors, to visit the alien Embassy.
The truth is about to be revealed. Earth’s most elite scientists have ten months to prevent a disaster—and not everyone is willing to wait.
What’s Nancy’s favorite bit?
When I ask the writers I know if they like their early published work, I get various answers. Some do; some don’t; some wince. I’m a wincer about at least three of my earliest novels. When fans at conventions bring me the worst of them to be signed, I write on the flyleaf, “Please read something else!”
All of which points up the fact that over time, tastes change. Mine, yours, the reading public’s. I liked my dreadful book (and no, I’m not saying which one it is) when I wrote it, decades ago. Tastes in characters change, too. Once, until she became a cliched joke, “the scientist’s beautiful daughter” was a mainstay of SF. So was the comic minority sidekick and the rock-jawed starship captain.
What is now fashionable—even obligatory—is the kick-ass heroine. Katniss Everdean. Rey in Star Wars. Arya Stark. Breq of Ancillary Justice. Furiosa. Wonder Woman. And practically every single story I see from writing students when I teach. The kick-ass heroine is admirable. I admire her. She fights with swords or bows or finely honed martial arts. She commands magic. She defeats oppressors, saves medieval kingdoms and interplanetary empires, annihilates anyone stupid enough to lay a hand on her.
My protagonist is not a kick-ass heroine.
Marianne Jenner, of my new novel Tomorrow’s Kin (Tor), is smart, persistent, idealistic. She is also in late middle-age, has never been in a physical fight in her life, does not own a weapon and doesn’t want to. At the first whiff of danger, she sensibly hires a bodyguard. Scientist, grandmother, social activist, she is a sexual being (yes, at over 50!) with sometimes terrible taste in lovers. She is made vulnerable by her love for her difficult children and gifted grandchildren. Marianne affects large events, including an epidemic, an ecological collapse, and a global war, but not from carrying out a grand design. She has no grand design. She does the best she can with the various messes she finds, some of which she created herself. Like most of the rest of us, much of the time.
Marianne isn’t, of course, the only major character in the novel, which extends the story of my Nebula-winning novella “Yesterday’s Kin” ten more years. There is Jonah Stubbs, the colorful and profane entrepreneur of a privately built starship. There is Colin, five years old and able to hear in untrasonic and infrasonic ranges inaudible to “normal” humans. There is Sissy, exuberant assistant to Marianne, and her handsome, weapons-expert boyfriend, Tim. There are scientists trying to build a starship from alien physics, Americans bent on mayhem, and Russians bent on revenge. There are a very lot of dead mice, the result of an unexpected and disastrous ecological collapse. Here is Marianne, waiting to go on stage to give a pro-space speech:
Marianne stood in a small storage room somewhere in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at the University of Notre Dame, waiting to go on stage and staring at eight mice.
They were, of course, dead. These eight, however, looked unnervingly lifelike, superb examples of the taxidermist’s art. Why were they here, meeting her gaze with their shiny lifeless eyes from behind the glass of a tiered display case? Had they been moved to this unlikely venue from another building, to sit among cardboard cartons and discouraged-looking mops, because someone could no longer bear to be reminded of what had been lost?
Sissy Tate, Marianne’s assistant, stuck her head into the room. “Ten minutes, Marianne. Are those mice? Wow, it’s stuffy in here.”
“No windows. What about the—”
“They should have put you in the green room! Or at least a dressing room!” Sissy shook her frizzy cherry-red curls, which leaped around her head as if electrified. Two weeks ago the curls had been the same rich brown as her skin. Today’s sweater, purple covered with tiny mirrors, glittered.
Marianne said, “There’s a concert setting up in the big hall. No space.”
“That’s not the reason and we both know it. But at least you don’t have to worry about the storm—this one is going to miss South Bend. No problem.” Sissy’s head disappeared, and Marianne went back to contemplating mice.
Eight representatives of what had been the world’s most common herbivore, now existing nowhere in the world except for a few sealed labs.
Mus musculus and Mus domesticus, their pointed snouts and scaly tails familiar to anyone who ever baited a mousetrap or worked in a laboratory.
A deer mouse and a white-footed mouse, almost twins, looking like refugees from a Disney cartoon.
On the second glass shelf, the shaggy, short-tailed meadow vole and its cousin, the woodland vole.
A bog lemming, its lips drawn back to show the grooves on its upper incisors.
And finally, a jumping mouse, looking lopsided with its huge hind feet and short forelimbs.
“Hey,” Marianne said to the jumping mouse, of which no specimens had been saved. “Sorry you’re extinct.”
“You talking to a mouse?” a deep voice said behind her.
Marianne turned to Tim. “No, I was not talking to the mice,” she said with what she hoped was dignity.
Marianne is my favorite bit.
Other older women protagonists do exist: Kij Johnson’s Velitt Boe (“The Dream-Quest of Velitt Boe”), Ursula LeGuin’s Yoss (“Betrayals”), more. But not many more. Does science fiction have room for more such protagonists: not young, female, cerebral rather than physical, armed with nothing more than intelligence and a fierce determination to influence for good, rather than to conquer for good?
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. Much of her work concerns genetic engineering. 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 and a recent writing class in Beijing. Kress lives in Seattle with her husband, writer Jack Skillingstead, and Cosette, the world’s most spoiled toy poodle.
Andrew Neil Gray and J.S. Herbison are joining us today to talk about their novella The Ghost Line. Here’s the publisher’s description:
The Ghost Line is a haunting science fiction story about the Titanic of the stars by debut authors Andrew Neil Gray and J. S. Herbison that Lawrence M. Schoen calls “a delicious rush of the future and the past.”
The Martian Queen was the Titanic of the stars before it was decommissioned, set to drift back and forth between Earth and Mars on the off-chance that reclaiming it ever became profitable for the owners. For Saga and her husband Michel the cruise ship represents a massive payday. Hacking and stealing the ship could earn them enough to settle down, have children, and pay for the treatments to save Saga’s mother’s life.
But the Martian Queen is much more than their employer has told them. In the twenty years since it was abandoned, something strange and dangerous has come to reside in the decadent vessel. Saga feels herself being drawn into a spider’s web, and must navigate the traps and lures of an awakening intelligence if she wants to go home again.
What’s Andrew and J.S.’s favorite bit?
ANDREW NEIL GRAY & J.S. HERBISON
After we’d completed the first draft of The Ghost Line, we printed it out, cut it into scenes and taped it to the picture rail in our dining room. It covered half the room and stayed there for weeks as we pushed and pulled at the story, leading to questions from visitors. More than once we found friends of our children standing transfixed, trying to read our scribbled edits and sticky notes and work out what these odd adults were up to.
As we read through the first complete draft, posted to the wall, we realized there was a hole at the center of the book. So we filled it with an ice rink.
Saga, the protagonist, is invited to the rink by their pilot, Gregor, after receiving some upsetting news. It’s a moment of kindness from a character who’s previously been gruff and unapproachable. We realized the scene could do several things: humanize Gregor, who risked being a stereotypical hard-drinking Russian, provide some foreshadowing for events to come, and finally show off our unique setting.
The Martian Queen is a luxury space liner created for the Earth/Mars run, mothballed for years, but still impressive. She’s a character herself in the novella. There’s a magnificent foyer, a fancy dining room, two casinos. But these are not uncommon. We needed something special, something that would really stand out. So we created the recreation ring: a circular multi-purpose space that spans the entire circumference of the passenger section of the ship, which itself is spun to provide artificial gravity while underway.
They entered a dim vestibule. There was a second set of doors ahead, and Gregor motioned to her to continue. She walked out into winter. He joined her as she gaped at the scene. They could almost have been outside on Earth. Snowflakes drifted down from a pale sky above. She could make out the shapes of white hills and trees in the distance. Before them, a glassy surface.
“Here.” Gregor handed her a jacket and motioned to a bench by the side of the doors. Several pairs of skates lay there, unlaced.
Saga’s breath plumed like smoke.
She turned to Gregor. “How?”
“It is normally pool with small beach.” Gregor zipped his own jacket and sat down on the bench. “You could swim laps of ship, see water above, make faces.” He pulled an exaggerated expression of surprise and wonder, pointing upward. “Look, it doesn’t fall on us!”
Saga glanced at the skates. “You froze the pool.”
Gregor smiled. “There is winter setting. You and Michel are not only ones who can make hacks. You and I, we are northern people, no? This is a little like home.”
Things get a lot worse after this. There are creepy, dark moments to come as the entities that have taken up residence on the Martian Queen on her long, empty voyage make themselves known. There’s drama and death and strange transformations. But when we were thinking about ‘our favorite bit’ we both came up with the ice rink scene. It’s a moment of playfulness and wonder and the comfort of home. A sense of the truly exotic — ice-skating in space — but also an activity we enjoy every winter.
ANDREW NEIL GRAY and J. S. HERBISON are partners in life as well as in writing. The Ghost Line is their first fiction collaboration, but won’t be their last: a novel is also in the works. They have also collaborated in the creation of two humans and preside over a small empire of chickens, raspberries and dandelions on Canada’s West Coast. You can find Andrew Neil Gray at http://andrewneilgray.com and @andrewneilgray on Twitter. You can find J. S. Herbison at http://jsherbison.com.
Wendy N Wagner is joining us today with her novel An Oath of Dogs. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Kate Standish has been on the forest-world of Huginn less than a week and she’s already pretty sure her new company murdered her boss. But the little town of mill workers and farmers is more worried about eco-terrorism and a series of attacks by the bizarre, sentient dogs of this planet, than a death most people would like to believe is an accident. That is, until Kate’s investigation uncovers a conspiracy which threatens them all.
Sure, a few intrepid wrigglers may have crept onboard Leif Erikson’s longboats; a cocoon or two may have clung to the soles of other forgotten European settlers—but the point is that of all the earthworm varieties living in the United States, more than 33% are as foreign to the Western Hemisphere as the Mona Lisa. The green forests of the Pacific Northwest, where I call home, was devoid of those pink, wiggly little critters that I love to see in my garden.
In a vegetable garden or a field full of browsing ruminants, an earthworm is useful thing. It swallows pieces of soil and rotting debris, digesting the bacteria it finds and expelling humic acid-rich casings (poop, for those of you who don’t speak garden-ese). Its movement through the earth carries organic material from the surface of the soil into deeper layers, feeding and oxygenating soil microbes who in turn nurture the plants around them. The food plants I grow are benefited by the work of the earthworm—just as, above the soil, they are benefited by pollinators like bees, butterflies, and beetles. Plants do not grow by themselves.
Needless to say, I spend a lot of time trying to encouraging plant allies in my own garden. I’m a composting fiend, always hoping to add beneficial bacteria to my veggie beds. I’ve planted hundreds of pollinator-attracting plants. I’ve established mushroom beds around my cherry tree. I’ve even purchased freeze-dried mycorrhizal soil inoculants that claim to help establish plant-friendly fungal and bacterial communities. I’d do just about anything to make the soil in my garden better for the plants I want to eat.
That’s why my favorite bit about An Oath of Dogs are all the little soil creatures I’ve managed to sneak onto the page. Hepzibah, a character whose diary gives us a taste of early colonial life, is incredibly focused on building good soil. European settlers in North America had no idea their plants had evolved to thrive in the presence of European soil organisms that were rare or unavailabe in the New World—that may be part of the reason their farms took so long to establish. But in the last fifty years or so, our understanding of plant and soil communities has flourished. With a better grasp of soil science, my colonists brought bales of compost and boxes of butterflies on their trip into space. They knew that people who need to eat need to encourage plant allies in their fields.
But never forget that every part of an ecosystem is connected. When we add new creatures to make it easier to grow something we like to eat, we can cause unexpected disasters. Today, scientists studying forest soils blame imported earthworms for erosion—and maybe even global warming. The honeybees Europeans brought to the U.S. helped wipe out native bee populations, leading up to the pollinator crisis we face four hundred years later. The ways we grow our food have vast effects on the ecosystems around us. And who knows what adding Earth organisms to a extraterrestrial environment will do?
That’s the question at the heart of my book, and it’s all wrapped up in my favorite stuff: soil science. I like to think of it as the dirty bits.
Wendy N. Wagner is a full-time science fiction and fantasy nerd. Her first two novels, Skinwalkers and Starspawn, are set in the world of the Pathfinder role-playing game, and she has written over thirty short stories about monsters, heroes, and unsettling stuff. An avid gamer and gardener, she lives in Portland, Oregon, with her very understanding family.
(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, […]