This looks like low output, which, well, it is. BUT, that’s because publishing schedules mean that most of what I wrote will come out next year. According to 4thewords.com*, I wrote nearly 500,000 words this year. That represents a VR game (Brass Tactics), a half dozen short stories, and close to three novels, including The Fated Sky, which is the sequel to The Calculating Stars. (I’m taking a break from copy-edits on those, as I type.)
I also wrote two novels for fun, because I’m apparently odd. Or a writer, which is much the same thing. Apprehension (SF thriller) and The Dragon Question (Hitchcockian Fantasy).
Coming up in 2018, you can look for my short stories in F&SF (“Milliner’s Assassin” and “The Phobos Experience”) and “Artisanal Trucking” in Asimov’s.
*PS, I also like 4thewords.com a bunch, and I think it is might be eligible for SFWA’s new Nebula game writing award, but even if it isn’t, you should still check it out if you’re a writer. (And this is my referral code BUCGG84743)
If you’d like to gift my books this holiday season (perhaps even to yourself!) you can order signed copies from Volumes Bookcafe and they will be shipped right to you! This is actually true all year long, this is just a reminder for the holidays.
I’m also happy to personalize them, but you’ll need to order personalized copies by midnight, Dec 16 for them to get to you by Christmas.
A meteor decimates the U.S. government and paves the way for a climate cataclysm that will eventually render the earth inhospitable to humanity. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated timeline in the earth’s efforts to colonize space, as well as an unprecedented opportunity for a much larger share of humanity to take part.
One of these new entrants in the space race is Elma York, whose experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too—aside from some pesky barriers like thousands of years of history and a host of expectations about the proper place of the fairer sex. And yet, Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions may not stand a chance.
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, but could the International Aerospace Coalition ever stand the thought of putting a woman on such a potentially dangerous mission? Could Elma knowingly take the place of other astronauts who have been overlooked because of their race? And could she really leave behind her husband and the chance to start a family? This gripping look at the real conflicts behind a fantastical space race will put a new spin on our visions of what might have been.
Carrie Ann DiRisio is joining us today with her novel Brooding YA Hero: Becoming a Main Character (Almost) as Awesome as Me. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Have you ever wished you could receive a little guidance from your favorite book boyfriend? Ever dreamed of being the Chosen One in a YA novel? Want to know all the secrets of surviving the dreaded plot twist?
Or maybe you’re just really confused about what “opal-tinted, luminous cerulean orbs” actually are?
Well, popular Twitter personality @broodingYAhero is here to help as he tackles the final frontier in his media dominance: writing a book. Join Broody McHottiepants as he attempts to pen Brooding YA Hero: Becoming a Main Character (Almost) as Awesome as Me, a “self-help” guide (with activities–you always need activities) that lovingly pokes fun at the YA tropes that we roll our eyes at, but secretly love.
As his nefarious ex, Blondie DeMeani, attempts to thwart him at every turn, Broody overcomes to detail, among other topics, how to choose your genre, how to keep your love interest engaged (while maintaining lead character status), his secret formula for guaranteed love triangle success, and how to make sure you secure that sequel, all while keeping his hair perfectly coiffed and never breaking a sweat.
What’s Carrie’s favorite bit?
CARRIE ANN DiRISIO
One of my favorite things about being an aunt is getting to shop for picture books. I adore their lush, vivid way of storytelling, and often end up with a stack for myself too. Of course, since I write young adult fiction, I never thought I’d have a chance to work with an illustrator. That all changed with one very quirky book. My debut, BROODING YA HERO: Becoming a Main Character (Almost) as Awesome as Me is equal parts fourth-wall-breaking satire, tongue in cheek narrative, and illustrated activity book.
Which means… PICTURES!
The main character is Broody McHottiepants, the archetype character you’ve seen in a thousand works (and in his personal, viral, twitter, @BroodingYAhero). Broody has been told by his author that he’s been in too many books, and needs to take a break. Instead, Broody decides to… star in his own book!
The illustrator of the book is Linnea Gear, who is also the creator of the popular fantasy webcomic, DISSENT.
My favorite bit of the whole book is Broody’s family tree, which shows off all the fictional characters, archetypes, and role models both he, the fictional character, and the literary device, developed from. That may sound pretty meta, but trust me, Linnea’s art makes it all beautifully clear.
Linnea’s ability to capture emotions and personality has always entranced me, and I think in the family tree, it’s really highlighted. I sent her simple one word notes, such as “a supermodel” and she spun those into beautiful images. Each character has so much personality that they leap off the page, (or in the case of the clumsy ancestor, stumble.)
The process of creating this was fun too, I brainstormed types of characters/famous public domain characters who might be said to be in Broody’s “bloodline” and then, Linnea sent some sample sketches. We pingponged ideas to end up with this awesome final product.
The image also works to help me demonstrate just what a Brooding Hero is. People might not follow the Twitter account, but they know of Gatsby or Heathcliff. Showing a literary family tree allows the funny concept to be more accessible by readers of all genres.
If the illustrations intrigue you, or you’re looking for a laugh, trust me, there’s a lot more in the book, which is available now wherever books are sold!
Carrie Ann DiRisio is a YA writer and creator of @BroodingYAHero. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA with one large fluffy cat, and is currently pursuing her masters in Digital Marketing, although her true dream is to become a Disney Villainess, complete with a really snazzy gown.
In addition to writing and plans for world domination, she also enjoys running, coffee, Krav Maga, and knitting.
Since I was little, this is the cake I request for my birthday. Mom mails one to me every year. We requested it for our wedding cake. This is the ur cake. This is the platonic ideal of cake.
2 sticks butter
3 c. sugar
3 c. plain flour
1 c. sour cream
1/4 tsp. baking soda
6 eggs separated
2 tsp. orange extract
2 tsp. lemon extract
Cream butter and sugar lightly. Add sour cream; mix soda, 1/2 c. flour and add; mix thoroughly. Add unbeaten egg yolks and remaining flour alternately. Lastly, beat whites light and fold them into other mixture — never beat them in.
Pour into funnel cake pan. Have bottom of pan covered with waxed paper and sides well greased. Bake in 325-degree oven for 1 1/4 hours. Never open door before this amount of time is up — then look. If cake needs more baking, do so.
Fonda Lee is joining us today to talk about her novel Jade City. Here’s the publisher’s description:
FAMILY IS DUTY. MAGIC IS POWER. HONOR IS EVERYTHING.
Jade is the lifeblood of the island of Kekon. It has been mined, traded, stolen, and killed for — and for centuries, honorable Green Bone warriors like the Kaul family have used it to enhance their magical abilities and defend the island from foreign invasion.
Now, the war is over and a new generation of Kauls vies for control of Kekon’s bustling capital city. They care about nothing but protecting their own, cornering the jade market, and defending the districts under their protection. Ancient tradition has little place in this rapidly changing nation.
When a powerful new drug emerges that lets anyone — even foreigners — wield jade, the simmering tension between the Kauls and the rival Ayt family erupts into open violence. The outcome of this clan war will determine the fate of all Green Bones — from their grandest patriarch to the lowliest motorcycle runner on the streets — and of Kekon itself.
What’s Fonda’s favorite bit?
There’s a quote I saw on the Internet once, of someone complaining, “Yoga is such bullshit. I’ve been doing it for six months and I can’t even breathe fire yet.” (You’re either a child of the ‘80s who played video games and is chuckling right now, or I just lost you in the opening paragraph.)
Don’t go yet! The point is, that sentiment is remarkably similar to what drove me, in part, to write Jade City. You see, I’m a martial artist who’s been practicing pretty regularly since I was a teenager. I’m also a big fan of martial arts movies. Granted, I’m no professional fighter—but even after years of training, I’ve never come close to being able to fly, run up walls, punch through concrete, or fight blindfolded. My instructors are far more accomplished than I am, but I haven’t seen them bust out any of those special abilities either. I understand that Superman has superpowers because he’s from Krypton and Iron Man has his suit, but the heroes of my favorite kung fu films were apparently ordinary human beings who simply trained really, really hard.
There are, indeed, people who are able to achieve incredible, seemingly impossible physical feats with extreme conditioning. Here’s a picture of a Shaolin monk balancing on two fingers. (Ouch!)
Even so, as a fantasy writer, I wanted a more codified explanation for the even more exceptional abilities in the wuxia movies, books, and comics I devoured. So I created one. I imagined a world in which a rare magic substance could grant incredible martial powers. It could’ve been anything—a potion, a metal, a plant—but I settled quickly on jade. Jade has been prized throughout thousands of years of Chinese history; referred to as the “Stone of Heaven,” it was a symbol of power and status and considered to be a substance that connected the earthly and divine realms. It was already figuratively magical—in my fictional world, I made it literally so.
However, just because I established the existence of magic jade, I wasn’t about to repudiate the reality that being an accomplished martial artist is first and foremost about dedication to hard practice. So the jade-adorned warriors in my story have to begin their training from a young age, not only to learn how to wield jade, but to withstand its harmful effects—which can, unfortunately, eventually make a person go insane and die.
So while I have so many favorite bits in Jade City, I am especially fond of the disciplines of jade magic martial arts—Lightness, Perception, Deflection, Strength, Steel, and Channeling. Pick up the book (it’s out now from Orbit) if you want to know more about what they are and witness them unleashed in bloody magic jade powered battles between rival family clans.
Fonda Leeis the author of the gangster fantasy saga Jade City (Orbit) and the award-winning young adult science fiction novels Zeroboxer (Flux) and Exo (Scholastic). Cross Fire, the sequel to Exo, releases in May 2018. Fonda is a recovering corporate strategist, a black belt martial artist, and an action movie aficionado. She loves a good Eggs Benedict. Born and raised in Canada, she now lives in Portland, Oregon. You can find Fonda online at www.fondalee.com and on Twitter @fondajlee.
Tracy Townsend is joining us today with her novel The Nine. Here’s the publisher’s description:
In the dark streets of Corma exists a book that writes itself, a book that some would kill for…
Black market courier Rowena Downshire is just trying to pay her mother’s freedom from debtor’s prison when an urgent and unexpected delivery leads her face to face with a creature out of nightmares. Rowena escapes with her life, but the strange book she was ordered to deliver is stolen.
The Alchemist knows things few men have lived to tell about, and when Rowena shows up on his doorstep, frightened and empty-handed, he knows better than to turn her away. What he discovers leads him to ask for help from the last man he wants to see—the former mercenary, Anselm Meteron.
Across town, Reverend Phillip Chalmers awakes in a cell, bloodied and bruised, facing a creature twice his size. Translating the stolen book may be his only hope for survival; however, he soon realizes the book may be a fabled text written by the Creator Himself, tracking the nine human subjects of His Grand Experiment. In the wrong hands, it could mean the end of humanity.
Rowena and her companions become the target of conspirators who seek to use the book for their own ends. But how can this unlikely team be sure who the enemy is when they can barely trust each other? And what will happen when the book reveals a secret no human was meant to know?
What’s Tracy’s favorite bit?
The Bulwer-Lytton version of how I started my debut fantasy, The Nine, would have me writing on a dark and stormy night. After all, it is a dark gaslamp fantasy, replete with corruption, conspiracy, and monstrous creatures of the night. But the truth is, I wrote the first scene of it on an unseasonably warm afternoon in March 2009, racing along in a burst of excitement that struck entirely without warning in between grading papers for an American literature class. (Muses are rude that way: untimely, even in their best moments.) I hacked away at the vision I’d had — a girl racing away from some dangerous scene, empty-handed, though she ought to have been carrying something, and bursting into an alchemist’s shop after dark. After a while, I sat back and stared at the pages I’d written. Who were these people, meeting by chance in a dusty old dispensary? What had the girl been running from, and what had she lost? Why had the man let her in after the shingle was turned, and why the wariness in his baritone voice? Not sure what I’d made — or if I’d made anything at all — I tucked the pages deep in my hard drive and before long forgot all about them.
Years later, I found that file by accident as I readied myself (on a properly cold and blustery October evening) for my first NaNoWriMo. I poked at the scene like a newly-discovered bruise, seemingly sprung from nothing. There was an ache somewhere inside it, an old, invisible pain throbbing toward its bones. I read the scene once. Twice. By the third time, I knew I was in love.
That first-written scene of The Nine is still in the book today, virtually unchanged. It’s in chapter ten, and it will always be my favorite bit.
Let’s set the scene.
Guttersnipe courier Rowena Downshire has just been robbed of an urgent, mysterious delivery and now faces with defiance and dread the man to whom the package was bound — the inscrutable Alchemist of Westgate Bridge. She’s battered and bloodied. There’s every reason to believe this failure will see her fired, thrown back out on the street or, even worse, back behind the bars of Oldtemple debtors’ prison.
She tries to apologize, but of course, it’s not that simple.
“What’s your name, girl?”
He grunted. “Family name?”
She considers, and finally answers. “Downshire, if it please you.”
“I can’t imagine what your name has to do with my pleasure, Rowena Downshire.”
I love this exchange because it’s where the characters taught me to see them for who they really are. Here I had two cagey, thick-skinned souls brought together by chance, their conversation a prowling, circling, wary engagement. They were wild animals crossing paths, taking only the most halting steps toward one another. They would probe each other’s wounds, bind them up, tear a few new ones, and maybe, just maybe, their scars would heal over properly. Just this once, as they never had before.
Every writer has certain pet subjects. There’s value in knowing when to lean in close to the story with them, letting your breath fog the windows of the edifice your words have built. I love unspoken things, and awkward beginnings, and unhealable wounds, and found families, and redemption arcs, and morally gray protagonists, and deadly, dark, competent people waiting for you to underestimate them. So of course I fell in love with these two. I could see where they were headed. I hoped they would let me come along. I longed to see what would happen to their glimmer of hope in an otherwise sooty setting.
The trouble with dark stories — with their twisty plots and crapsack universes and anti-heroism and all of that — is how many of them trade everything else away to make the darkness happen. Too many of them miss the point. Human beings tell stories because, sometimes, they are the only places where it feels safe to believe anymore. The world has taken something from each of us. A story is a writer’s promise to give something essential back. So are the people they give us in them.
“I can’t imagine what your name has to do with my pleasure,” the Alchemist tells Rowena. He’s not wrong. They find precious little pleasure in the journey that lies before them. But they do find each other.
Tracy Townsend holds a master’s degree in writing and rhetoric from DePaul University and a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from DePauw University, a source of regular consternation when proofreading her credentials. She is a past chair of the English Department at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, an elite public boarding school, where she currently teaches creative writing and science fiction and fantasy literature. She has been a martial arts instructor, a stage combat and accent coach, and a short-order cook for houses full of tired gamers. Now she lives in Bolingbrook, Illinois with two bumptious hounds, two remarkable children, and one very patient husband. Her debut novel, The Nine, is the first in the Thieves of Fate series, published by Pyr November 14, 2017. You can find her on Twitter at @TheStorymatic and on the web at www.tracytownsend.net.
Jim C. Hines is joining us today with his novel Terminal Alliance. Here’s the publisher’s description:
In his hilarious new sci-fi series, Jim C. Hines introduces the unlikely heroes that may just save the galaxy: a crew of space janitors.
The Krakau came to Earth to invite humanity into a growing alliance of sentient species. However, they happened to arrive after a mutated plague wiped out half the planet, turned the rest into shambling, near-unstoppable animals, and basically destroyed human civilization. You know—your standard apocalypse.
The Krakau’s first impulse was to turn around and go home. (After all, it’s hard to have diplomatic relations with mindless savages who eat your diplomats.) Their second impulse was to try to fix us. Now, a century later, human beings might not be what they once were, but at least they’re no longer trying to eat everyone. Mostly.
Marion “Mops” Adamopoulos is surprisingly bright (for a human). As a Lieutenant on the Earth Mercenary Corps Ship Pufferfish, she’s in charge of the Shipboard Hygiene and Sanitation team. When a bioweapon attack wipes out the Krakau command crew and reverts the rest of the humans to their feral state, only Mops and her team are left with their minds intact.
Escaping the attacking aliens—not to mention her shambling crewmates—is only the beginning. Sure, Mops and her team of space janitors and plumbers can clean the ship as well as anyone, but flying the damn thing is another matter.
As they struggle to keep the Pufferfish functioning and find a cure for their crew, they stumble onto a conspiracy that could threaten the entire alliance… a conspiracy born from the truth of what happened on Earth all those years ago.
What’s Jim’s favorite bit?
JIM C. HINES
Humans had pretty well wiped themselves out when the alien Krakau arrived on our planet. The Krakau took it upon themselves to rebuild the shambling, feral remnants of humanity the best they could.
At the time of Terminal Alliance, roughly ten thousand humans have been “restored,” meaning their intelligence is close to pre-apocalypse levels. But they’re not quite human like we are today. Their bodies have been changed both by the plague and by the Krakau cure, and…well, they’re just not the brightest species in the Alliance.
Marion “Mops” Adamopoulos and her Shipboard Hygiene and Sanitation team end up in command of their ship, the EMCS Pufferfish. In between learning how to fly the damn thing and fighting off alien attacks, they stop to grab a quick lunch. Or maybe dinner. They don’t really make a distinction. During this brief interlude, they end up talking about what it means to be human:
“They fixed us,” Kumar continued. “They give us jobs, purpose, even our culture. We call ourselves human, but are we? Or are we Krakau? Maybe we’re something in between. Krakuman?”
“I am not calling myself Krakuman,” snarled Wolf.
“Kumar has a point,” Mops said, before this could escalate further. “Intellect, creativity, reasoning…we consistently score lower on every test than pre-plague humans. Whatever humanity was before the plague, we’ve changed. But we are human.”
“How do you figure?” asked Kumar.
“Because we have to be.” Mops studied her team. They were exhausted. Anxious. Scared, though she doubted any of them would admit it Her team was trained to eradicate mold and fix clogged water filters, not battle Prodryan fighters. “Because we’re what’s left. Ten thousand or so reborn humans, with maybe a half billion surviving ferals back on Earth.”
Kumar frowned. “I’m not sure I follow your logic.”
“It’s not about logic.” Mops removed her empty food tube and used her thumb to wipe a single drop of gray sludge from the edge of her port. Her stomach felt bloated and hard, but the pressure would ease within an hour. “We were born of Earth. ‘Human’ is our word. Our history. Our connection to each other. Nobody gets to tell me I’m not human.” Her eyes sought Kumar’s. “Nobody else gets to tell us what that word means.”
I love this exchange. I love how the chaos of alien attacks and conspiracies forces them to reexamine their assumptions about everything, including who and what they are.
It’s not a question any of them have ever really faced. They were cured as adults, and have little memory of their life before. Their conversation here is reminiscent of a kid discovering their independence from their parents for the first time.
You know, if their parents were a bunch of alien squid.
The rest of the galaxy looks at humans as little better than animals, and they’re not entirely wrong. Our civilization pretty much destroyed itself, and now we’re mostly serving as soldiers for the Krakau Alliance. Savages who are one minuscule step up from beasts.
Mops and her team aren’t perfect. They’re not remotely qualified to fly a ship or fight hostile aliens or investigate a conspiracy. Everyone else in the galaxy would expect them to fail, and to fail catastrophically. Basically, they’re the underdogs, and they’ve always known it.
In Mops’ world, the word “human” has always carried an implicit sneer. To be human is to be inferior. But in this moment, their sense of who they are begins to shift. It’s not a Very Special Episode of Space Janitors where they discover they’re so much smarter and stronger than they thought, and all they had to do was Believe In Themselves. They’re still underdogs. They’re still completely in over their heads.
This is a moment of reclamation. Mops and the rest know they’re inferior in many ways. Now, for the first time, “human” is also a source of pride and strength. In some ways, that change is at the heart of the entire trilogy.
Well, that and jokes about alien plumbing.
If there’s one defining trait about humanity that holds true both now and in the future of the Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse trilogy, it’s that we just don’t know when to quit.
Jim C. Hines is the author of the Magic ex Libris series, the Princess series of fairy tale retellings, the humorous Goblin Quest trilogy, and the Fable Legends tie-in Blood of Heroes. His latest novel is Terminal Alliance, book one in the humorous science fiction Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse trilogy. His short fiction has appeared in more than 50 magazines and anthologies. He’s an active blogger, and won the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer. He lives in mid-Michigan with his family. You can find him at www.jimchines.com or on Twitter as @jimchines.
Character driven stories are a journey of self-discovery. They begin when a character is dissatisfied with an aspect of self and end when the character solidifies their self-definition. This can end in a positive or negative state. Either the character achieves the self-definition they were going for, or they recognize that they never will. Basically, they either like themselves at the end, or they don’t. Happy ending or tragedy.
Now, a lot of people think that, in order to have a character arc, you must have a deeply flawed character in order to give them room to grow. That is an option. But this is often really heavy-handed and can lead to fiction that feels flat or contrived.
Richard Baker is joining us today with his novel Valiant Dust. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Sikander Singh North has always had it easy―until he joined the crew of the Aquilan Commonwealth starship CSS Hector. As the ship’s new gunnery officer and only Kashmiri, he must constantly prove himself better than his Aquilan crewmates, even if he has to use his fists. When the Hector is called to help with a planetary uprising, he’ll have to earn his unit’s respect, find who’s arming the rebels, and deal with the headstrong daughter of the colonial ruler―all while dodging bullets.
Sikander’s military career is off to an explosive start―but only if he and CSS Hector can survive his first mission.
What’s Richard’s favorite bit?
My favorite bit of Valiant Dust is the Torpedo Mystery. It’s a secondary plot and it’s a little technical, but it’s the sort of problem that officers serving on ships “really” run across, and it drives some of the most personally challenging interactions Lieutenant Sikander North (my protagonist) faces during the story.
Let me provide a bit of non-spoilerish background: Sikander is the new gunnery officer of the Commonwealth star cruiser CSS Hector. As the gunnery officer, he’s the department head in charge of the ship’s weapons personnel. He answers to the ship’s XO, Commander Peter Chatburn, and the ship’s CO, Captain Elise Markham; he supervises three junior officers, each of whom leads a team of gunner’s mates or torpedo mates. One of these subordinates is Sublieutenant Angela Larkin, the ship’s torpedo officer. (This is pretty typical warship organization; the ships of the U.S. Navy today have similar personnel structures.)
Hector is armed with a mix of kinetic cannons (heavy railguns) and warp torpedoes—missiles that protect themselves from defensive fire by exiting normal space during their attack runs. Shortly after reporting aboard Hector, Sikander and his new team get the opportunity to conduct some live-fire exercises on the target range, during the course of which Hector loses a practice torpedo. It disappears into its warp bubble for its attack run and never returns to normal space.
That’s a serious problem for Sikander. It’s just not acceptable for a ship to lose a multi-million-dollar weapon, and his superiors want answers.
Figuring out why the torpedo failed becomes a significant headache for Sikander, because the torpedo itself is no longer available for inspection. Investigating the cause of the failure puts Sikander between Chatburn, an unforgiving XO who isn’t interested in “we don’t know” as an answer, and Larkin, a difficult subordinate who doesn’t seem to appreciate the seriousness of the situation. Worse yet, Sikander’s captain and his peers are watching to see how he responds to the challenge. It’s not his fault, but it is his problem.
The reason I’m so proud of the Torpedo Mystery is that it’s a great device for showing the reader what it’s like to be a mid-level officer on a warship. In the “real” world, officers are more than a battlestation; they lead teams of enlisted personnel that you don’t see on the bridge set. They’re managers and administrators as well as warfighters. One of the things I hoped to bring to Valiant Dust was a certain sense of, well, authenticity about what sort of things a lieutenant worried about in between furious battles and exotic adventures. There aren’t many SF stories that touch on things like maintenance records or logistics chains or an XO asking you why you’re taking weekends off when you haven’t yet solved a problem no one reasonably could be expected to solve. For just a few short scenes in Valiant Dust, you get to experience a less-than-glamorous but absolutely honest part of being a shipboard officer.
(A true story from my own service: One day while standing watch as officer of the deck, I was surprised to hear the pop-pop-pop of gunshots from the bridge wing. I stepped outside and discovered the captain with a .45, taking potshots at seagulls. Well, okay, it’s his ship, and if he wanted to sign out a pistol from the armory and give himself a few rounds for “training” I figured it wasn’t my place to protest. But shortly after I got off watch, I encountered my ship’s gunnery officer in a passageway. “Hey, Kurt,” I said. “Just so you know, the captain fired off a couple dozen pistol rounds on the bridge wing this morning.”
“You’re kidding,” Kurt said, gaping in astonishment. “Son of a —!”
You see, any time you expend ammunition on board a ship, you have to file something called an ATR, or ammo transaction report. It’s a form that requires several hours of painstaking work, even for something as minor as a few rounds of pistol ammo, and it’s up to the gunnery officer to fill it out. Oh, and it must be turned in within 24 hours. The captain’s idle interest in a little target practice had just wrecked the rest of Kurt’s day—and I’m sure the seagulls didn’t appreciate it either, although I didn’t see any get hit. ATRs are the sort of thing we like to gloss over when we’re writing stories about roaming the stars and meeting the enemy in furious battle. Sometimes, though, that’s what the job is.)
Okay, back to Sikander North and Valiant Dust. The Torpedo Mystery is a lot more interesting than filling out some timely paperwork, I promise. It’s a key obstacle in the path of Sikander’s success on board his new ship and a serious point of contention between him and his new team. Plus, the details of the mystery say some important things about the technology of the setting, military routine, and the readiness level of a star navy that hasn’t had to fight a war in a long time.
The process of solving the Torpedo Mystery winds up being pretty important to cementing Sikander’s place in Hector’s wardroom, and it even comes up again in the desperate space battle at the climax of the story. But it’s not the sort of problem I see in other military SF stories, which is why it’s my favorite bit of the story—or one of them, anyway.
A former United States Navy officer and a well-known game designer, Richard Baker is the author of thirteen novels, including the New York Times bestseller Condemnation and the highly acclaimed The Last Mythal trilogy. Valiant Dust marks his first original military sci-fi novel. Rich is a lifelong devotee of science fiction and fantasy, a history enthusiast (particularly military history), and an avid fan of games of all kinds. He lives in the Seattle area with his wife, Kim, and their daughters Alex and Hannah.
James Alan Gardner is joining us today with his novel All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Monsters are real.
But so are heroes.
Sparks are champions of weird science. Boasting capes and costumes and amazing super-powers that only make sense if you don’t think about them too hard, they fight an eternal battle for truth and justice . . . mostly.
Darklings are creatures of myth and magic: ghosts, vampires, were-beasts, and the like. Their very presence warps reality. Doors creak at their approach. Cobwebs gather where they linger.
Kim Lam is an ordinary college student until a freak scientific accident (what else?) transforms Kim and three housemates into Sparks―and drafts them into the never-ending war between the Light and Dark. They struggle to master their new abilities―and (of course) to design cool costumes and come up with great hero-names.
Turns out that “accident” was just the first salvo in a Mad Genius’s latest diabolical scheme. Now it’s up to four newbie heroes to save the day, before they even have a chance to figure out what their team’s name should be!
What’s Jim’s favorite bit?
JAMES ALAN GARDNER
SPOILER WARNING: This write-up discusses a pivotal moment in All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault. If you’re the sort of person who hates spoilers, buy the book and read it before continuing. (Better yet, buy two copies of the book. Or ten.)
While writing, I sometimes reach a point when I realize a character might do something unexpected. It often takes place when I’m writing a conversation; the chance phrasing of a line almost begs another character to reply with a big revelation or to take the action someplace I never imagined. Simple example: a character says, “We’re arguing like an old married couple,” and suddenly there’s a real possibility of the other person saying, “Well then why don’t we get married?” even though that’s far far away from anything in the story outline.
It’s a lovely scary moment. You sit on the cusp of blasting the story open with a single line, heading off into an unknown future…and all because an accidental turn of phrase.
This happened to me while writing All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, and now I think it’s my favorite bit.
To understand the moment, you’ll need some background. The narrator of All Those Explosions is Kim Lam, a university student majoring in geology. Back in high school, Kim was the girlfriend of a boy named Nicholas. Nicholas came from a wealthy family, and in the book’s version of Earth, most wealthy people pay millions to be changed into “Darklings” when they come of age. Darklings can be vampires, were-beasts, or the like…so basically, all the rich and powerful people in this world are semi-immortal monsters with supernatural powers.
Nicholas had to choose between staying with Kim or becoming a Darkling himself. He chose the Dark and ended up as a powerful ghost. Kim was devastated; even though several years have passed, the wounds haven’t totally healed.
In this version of Earth, Darklings aren’t the only people with inhuman powers. There are also superheroes, perhaps created by Fate as a counterbalance to the Dark. Four years after being dumped by Nicholas, Kim acquires superpowers thanks to a lab accident…and almost immediately, Kim encounters Nicholas again.
Like any good superhero, Kim wears a costume and a mask. There’s actually a reason for that—it turns out that if someone super puts on a special outfit and adopts a codename, the universe guarantees anonymity. Your fingerprints literally change when you put on the mask. So does your DNA, your voice, and anything else that might make you identifiable. It’s essentially magic: you absolutely can’t be recognized, even if your mask is a ridiculous little thing that shouldn’t disguise you at all.
But there’s a caveat. You can ruin your guaranteed anonymity if you’re careless or if you deliberately reveal your civilian identity to someone.
So that’s the set-up, established early in the book. Kim takes the hero-name Zircon (because to geology students, zircons are awesome!) and she wears a spiffy white costume. (By the way, for someone as fashion-challenged as I am, being forced to invent costumes for a whole bunch of superheroes is one of the hardest parts of the series.) As Zircon, Kim encounters Nicholas several times, but because of the mask he never recognizes her.
Then, about two-thirds through the book, they meet again while investigating an up-scale B&B built by Darklings. Unbeknownst to either Kim or Nicholas, the rooms are protected by magical privacy spells designed to prevent spying and theft. Nicholas, with his ghostly abilities, accidentally backs up through a wall and triggers the enchantment. It temporarily nullifies his powers and blasts him across the room into Kim. Kim isn’t hurt—when she’s Zircon, she’s as hard as a rock—but she’s bowled over and they both go down in a heap.
So far, this was all part of my plan: a “lying on top of each other” moment that would awaken Kim’s memories and feelings about Nicholas. I started to write the ensuing conversation as they lay nose to nose, and liked how the banter developed:
Nicholas: Ouch! You’re hard.
Kim: Isn’t that supposed to be my line?
But after a brief interlude, during which Kim struggles with her emotions at being in close contact with Nicholas again, he heaves himself off her and complains about being bruised because she’s “as hard as marble”.
I wrote this as a casual toss-off line. But Kim is a geology student and a long-time rockhound. Throughout the book, she’s constantly correcting people about details of mineralogy. And so, hardly even thinking about it, I had Kim retort,
“Don’t be insulting! Marble is only Hardness 3. Zircon is over 7.”
It was such a Kim thing to say: a dead giveaway that Zircon was actually Kim…as if the character wanted Nicholas to recognize her.
But did I really want Nicholas to know the truth? It would cause me a ton of headaches to handle the repercussions. In fact, for reasons I won’t go into, Kim’s life would be in serious danger if Nicholas realized she was Zircon. The rest of the book and the series would go much more smoothly and painlessly if I backspaced a few lines and stuck to my original plan.
I sat at the keyboard and stared at what I had written. I asked, “Am I really going to go there?” Into spontaneous terra incognita?
It’s exciting to be taken by surprise. And for a writer, it’s unwise to flee from excitement. So I kept that serendipitous upheaval, even though it’s sure to come back and haunt Kim and everyone else around her. It immediately necessitated changes to the plot, and it will have major repercussions for the series.
But that’s why I love what happens by chance. Sometimes you kill your darlings, and sometimes you let them kill you.
James Alan Gardner is a writer and editor who has published nine novels and numerous short stories. His work has won the Asimov’s Readers Choice Award, the Aurora award, and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, as well as being on the final ballot for the Hugo and Nebula. In his spare time, he teaches kung fu to six-year-olds.
It’s that time of year, when I once again participate in NaNoWriMo. For those of you who don’t know this, I’ve written all of my novels either during NaNo or using the NaNoWriMo model in another month.
This year, I’m writing a project for fun. It’s called The Dragon Question, and I’ve been describing it as “Alfred Hitchcock presents the Dragonriders of Pern.” I like having people read along as I go. Think of it like running clinical trials on a new drug. I’m testing to see if the story is producing the effect on my readers that I want it to. As such, I like having beta-readers who report their symptoms as they go along. Specifically:
Awesome! (Important, so I don’t ‘fix’ it accidentally)
That’s all I need, a report of your symptoms. You don’t have to try to diagnose the problem or provide a prescription to fix it. Just tell me how the story is playing.
Here’s the teaser of the first chapter.
The Dragon Question
A scream cut through the university Dracoviation Center. It echoed through the locker room and drowned out the tinny swing band playing on the transistor radio. Nelanie spun the direction of the sound, one riding boot still in her hand. The arena? Who else would be doing a late night practice ride?
A second scream ripped the air as if a woman were being murdered. Or someone had lost control of their dragon.
“Hellfire.” Nelanie snatched the first aid kit off the wall and sprinted toward the door to the arena. Her bobby sock slipped on the tile of the locker room floor. She slapped her hand against the locker to steady herself as a third wrenching scream echoed. Dropping her boot, Nelanie hurtled out the door onto the sawdust-covered main hall.
Up and down the hall, dragon snouts poked over their stalls, nostrils flared wide. What did they smell? Blood?
Nelanie ran down the hall. One of the fluorescent lights flickered in time with her pulse. Another scream.
A woman shouted, “Stop! Please stop plea–“
To sign up to be a beta-reader for The Dragon Question, just click on this handy link.
R.E. Stearns is joining us today with her book Barbary Station. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Two engineers hijack a spaceship to join some space pirates—only to discover the pirates are hiding from a malevolent AI. Now they have to outwit the AI if they want to join the pirate crew—and survive long enough to enjoy it.
Adda and Iridian are newly minted engineers, but aren’t able to find any work in a solar system ruined by economic collapse after an interplanetary war. Desperate for employment, they hijack a colony ship and plan to join a famed pirate crew living in luxury at Barbary Station, an abandoned shipbreaking station in deep space. But when they arrive there, nothing is as expected. The pirates aren’t living in luxury—they’re hiding in a makeshift base welded onto the station’s exterior hull. The artificial intelligence controlling the station’s security system has gone mad, trying to kill all station residents and shooting down any ship that attempts to leave—so there’s no way out. Adda and Iridian have one chance to earn a place on the pirate crew: destroy the artificial intelligence. The last engineer who went up against the AI met an untimely end, and the pirates are taking bets on how the newcomers will die. But Adda and Iridian plan to beat the odds.
There’s a glorious future in piracy…if only they can survive long enough.
What’s R.E. Stearns favorite bit?
R. E. STEARNS
Some questions are never answered. This is true in real life and in fiction. Living and working in the unknown, and solving the mysteries you can and documenting the details of those you can’t yet, makes the world an endlessly exciting place. That’s why I filled Barbary Station with mysteries.
Our heroines, Adda and Iridian, solve the first mystery they encounter within the first few chapters. Why didn’t the pirates react with more enthusiasm to the news that an entire hijacked colony ship was on its way to Barbary Station with Adda and Iridian at the helm? The answer: They had much bigger problems than where their next target ship was coming from.
The problem personified, after a fashion, is an artificial intelligence which has taken over the abandoned space station’s defense system. To escape, they’ll have to stop the AI from killing every human who meets its definition of a threat. Adda and Iridian have a lot of minor mysteries to solve if they want to survive: How is the AI choosing its targets? What weapons and drones are at its disposal? Is any place on the station truly safe?
The AI isn’t the only mysterious figure on Barbary Station. An emergency medical team who’ve been trapped there for years appear and disappear on biosensors for reasons understood only by them. The pirate crew our heroines came to the station to join might, or might not, have enemies among the refugee village in the docking bay. The AI has scared the remaining ship pilots so badly that they won’t help anybody else get away. Not letting the pirates onboard seems practical, but they don’t help the refugees either.
And then there’s the method that Adda uses to speak to the AIs. In this universe AIs are raised, not coded. Their learning algorithms are too complex to interact with on the level programmers today do. Instead, interaction is abstracted into a hallucinographic digital space, which makes interacting with the AI more like a lucid dream. Adda is constantly interpreting symbols her mind has constructed through a software bridge between herself and the AI, asking “What does it all mean?” Lives depend upon the answer.
Throughout the novel, Adda and Iridian are fighting to differentiate friend from foe, safety from illusion, conscious intention from thoughtless logic trees. I love the many mysteries entwined in this story, and I hope you do to.
R.E. Stearns wrote her first story on an Apple IIe computer and still kind of misses green text on a black screen. She went on to annoy all of her teachers by reading books while they lectured. Eventually she read and wrote enough to earn a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of Central Florida. She is hoping for an honorary doctorate. When not writing or working, R.E. Stearns reads, plays PC games, and references Internet memes in meatspace. She lives near Orlando, FL with her husband/computer engineer and a cat.
Ginger Stuyvesant, an American heiress living in London during World War I, is engaged to Captain Benjamin Harford, an intelligence officer. Ginger is a medium for the Spirit Corps, a special Spiritualist force. Each soldier heading for the front is conditioned to report to the mediums of the Spirit Corps when they die so the Corps […]