I’m named after both grandmothers, Mary Elois Jackson and Virginia Robinette “Robby” Harrison. Growing up, Robby always introduced me as “Mary Robinette” because she was so proud that I was named after her. Everyone on Dad’s side of the family called me that. Hi. Did I mention that we’re Southern?
I loved it. I loved being Mary Robinette.
It’s a beautiful name, but more than that, it ties me to both grandmothers and Robinette, in particular, gives me a link to my heritage. Robby was named after her father, George Robinette Walker, who was named after the minister who married his parents. There’s this family story embedded in my name.
Double-barrelled first names are a very Southern thing to do. We also had Edie Ruth and Martha Carol. To me, these names seemed normal.
I would attempt to introduce myself as Mary Robinette outside the family and gave up sometime in college because everyone heard it as a first and last name. It was tiring to have my first interaction with people be an exercise in correcting them on my name. Mind you, this is with two names that are really easy for Anglophone speakers.
I gave up. By the time my husband met me, I was just “Mary.”
Very occasionally, I would meet someone who would ask if I preferred “Mary” or “Mary Robinette” and I would always equivocate to “whichever is easier.”
My grandmother’s generation has passed. The number of people who naturally call me Mary Robinette is dwindling. I miss my grandmother. I miss my name.
There is also a practical side to this. People attempt to attach Robinette to my surname, which is incorrect. Just to be super-super clear, Robinette is not my maiden name. The problem with this is two-fold. The first is that it shelves my books in the wrong part of the store. It puts my reservations in the wrong place in a registry. It makes my airline tickets impossible to use <–Yes. This has happened.
The second problem is that the assumption that Robinette is my maiden name is entirely gendered. Kim Stanley Robinson? Orson Scott Card? Robert Jackson Bennett? All of those middle names are also surnames and none of them gets tossed into the surname field. There are people who have the opposite problem, which is that they have a double-barrelled surname. Ask Patrick Nielsen Hayden what having two unhyphenated last names is like.
I once approached a registration desk at a conference, got my badge, and someone had hyphenated Robinette and Kowal. I asked for a new badge. The person behind the desk said, “I was told, very clearly, that it gets a hyphen.”
I’m like… it’s my name.
Maybe avoid making assumptions about names. When in doubt, ask the person and for God’s sake, don’t correct them.
Earlier this year, during a conversation about pronouns, I suddenly realized that I could just tell people that I prefer Mary Robinette. It’s like curb cuts for names. A curb cut in a sidewalk is there to make a sidewalk easier for someone who is in a mobility device like a wheelchair or a scooter. It’s not there for me. But it makes my life so much easier when I have a rolling suitcase.
The discussion about pronouns isn’t there for me, but it makes it so much easier for me to know how to correct people on my name. And in turn, asking people to pay attention to my Anglophone-friendly double-barrelled name makes conversational space for people whose names have been shoved to the margins for their entire lives.
For people who now need to reprogram their brains about what to call me, you don’t have to apologize to me every time you slip. I understand, really. I’m having to reprogram myself after decades of cutting half of my name off. Just correct and keep going.
So, in answer to your question. “Yes, please, I prefer Mary Robinette.”
Cesar Torres is joining us today to talk about his novel 9 Lords of Night. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Manhattan is about to be slammed by a Nor’easter in October, and just as the snow begins to fall, a killer begins his hunt. He writes symbols on his victims and removes their hearts. He quickly earns a nickname: The Night Drinker. Nestor Buñuel is the best NYPD detective to investigate the case, which will be his last before retirement. But this is unlike any case he has worked before. Buñuel becomes a pawn in the hands of this ritualistic killer, who is driven to evil by a long-lost movie called 9 Lords of Night, a powerful film rumored to be the work of both a genius and madman. This new thriller from the mind of author Cesar Torres is a descent into a surreal nightmare, in which detective Buñuel moves toward a destiny that he can’t escape.
9 Lords of Night is the exciting sequel to 13 Secret Cities, and the second volume in Cesar Torres’ Coil Series, in which powerful beings from another dimension begin to enter our reality.
What’s Cesar’s favorite bit?
My favorite bit of 9 Lords of Night is the aviary scene:
The sculpture repeated the word “nocturnal” once, twice, and then over and over, elongating Nestor’s sampled voice like taffy, until it became a series of pleasant notes. The sculpture dropped these notes into the rhythm of the sounds around her, and suddenly the melody generated by the room became a deeper, more complex composition. Her body emitted music, as if every part of her skin were a high-end sampler, synthesizer and stereo speaker.
“Do you have a name?” Nestor said.
“My name is Atl, which translates roughly to water. I am named after a symbolic representation of Xiuhtehcutli, the god of fire. Nice to meet you.”
“Nestor. My name is Nestor.”
Atl emitted a series of musical clicks and chirps. Her skin faded from neon green to dark brown, and then she fell silent. Nestor was still holding in his breath; this machine was sublime, like a sunset.
In my novel, Nestor Buñuel, a weathered trans police detective and Felix Calvo, a queer academic, have joined forces to help investigate the serial murder of a woman of color, but their collaboration has none of the glamour we may expect from a typical thriller. Nestor does not get along very well with Felix, and though they have a lot of their own queerness and Hispanic heritage in common, they each feel distant and isolated from each other. And yet, both men are part of a murder investigation that gets weirder and darker with each new twist. Nestor and Felix are almost trapped in this destiny, in the way that characters from ancient Greek plays and myths were forever bound to a particular outcome.
I have so much love for my two main characters Felix and Nestor, no matter how their anxieties, phobias and flaws bubble to the surface. It’s thanks to them that the novel can take the reader on a journey that defies expectations. We think we will be reading a classic police procedural in the first third of the book, but soon, we discover that 9 Lords of Night is meant to go into deeper places of the heart, where our notions about gender, race, police surveillance and even AI converge.
The aviary scene is my favorite bit, because it stands out in contrast against the scenes of police work, forensics and criminal investigation. I love the gritty stuff, but I also love scenes of strangeness and beauty. By this point in the novel, the darkness and brutality of the murders in this book are weighing on the reader, but the scene inside the Aviary points to a new place where the novel will go: It’s a place where imagination can galvanize the detective story together with historical data, cinema and science fiction. It’s an alchemical moment.
Cesar Torres is a novelist, filmmaker and fashion designer. In 2014, his novel 13 Secret Cities put him on the map as a genre-defying fantasist. He is also the author of the How to Kill a Superhero book series, a saga comprised of four novels that has become a cult sensation among queer and gay men. He writes that series under the pen name Pablo Greene, who is known for his queer superhero cosplays. Cesar directed Beyond Built, a documentary about the world-famous bodybuilding gym Quads. He is currently writing the third book in his Coil series, and launching a new fall line for his brand of fitness wear LED Queens. For more info visit cesartorres.me.
Nancy Kress is joining us today with her novel Terran Tomorrow. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Nancy Kress returns with Terran Tomorrow, the final book in the thrilling hard science fiction trilogy based on the Nebula Award–winning novella Yesterday’s Kin.
The diplomatic mission from Earth to World ended in disaster, as the Earth scientists discovered that the Worlders were not the scientifically advanced culture they believed. Though they brought a limited quantity of the vaccine against the deadly spore cloud, there was no way to make enough to vaccinate more than a few dozen. The Earth scientists, and surviving diplomats, fled back to Earth.
But once home, after the twenty-eight-year gap caused by the space ship transit, they find an Earth changed almost beyond recognition. In the aftermath of the spore cloud plague, the human race has been reduced to only a few million isolated survivors. The knowledge brought back by Marianne Jenner and her staff may not be enough to turn the tide of ongoing biological warfare.
What’s Nancy’s favorite bit?
My favorite bit in Terran Tomorrow is something that doesn’t even appear in the novel: zebras. In this future, post-apocalyptic California, there are no zebras. Actually, there never were zebras in California. Paradoxically, that’s what lets me have so much fun playing with the idea of zebras. I love me a useful metaphor.
In the late 1940’s, Dr. Theodore Woodward, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, instructed his interns diagnosing patients to consider common diseases before exotic ones: “When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras.” But science fiction writers don’t diagnose patients; they create startling futures (if they’re not startling in some way, nobody reads the book.)
Science fiction is always about zebras.
The first time they turn up in Terran Tomorrow, Dr. Zack McKay is sparring with his colleague, Toni Steffens. Both are geneticists trying, without much success, to find a way to counteract a bird-born, weaponized virus that, along with the rest of a deadly war, has reduced Earth’s population to a fraction. The survivors are still at war, both with the microbe-contaminated environment and with a strong terrorist group called New America. Much of the book takes place in a shielded military base in California. Seven hundred diverse people live under capable commanders who are doing their best to both preserve life and to aid the scientists who are its only hope. Zack has zebras on his mind:
As Zack finally reached Decon in Lab Dome, Toni Steffens’s voice sounded in his earplant. “Did you succeed?”
“No. Didn’t try.”
“Then you owe me another five dollars. Why didn’t you try? It’s a serious bet.”
“Zebras,” Zack said. Let that shut her up for a while.
Zack and his colleague had a long-standing bet: Who could get one of Colonel Jenner’s elite squad of soldiers, whom Toni referred to as the Praetorian Guard, to say something, anything, as they escorted scientists to and from Lab Dome. So far, Zack owed Toni $345, which was a problem in an “economy” that didn’t use money. Toni was good at getting the soldiers to break silence, usually by provoking them to outrage. Zack did not do outrage, but he enjoyed hers. Usually.
She appeared in the doorway of the esuit room just beyond Decon, a plain woman in her forties, dressed in ancient jeans grown a little tight and a top of flexible brown plastic fabric, the only cloth that the the 3-D printer, running out of polymers, was still able to produce. “Zebras?”
“Caitlin was drawing them at breakfast.”
“And how does a four-year-old even know about ungulates not found within a thousand miles of what used to be California?”
“From a picture book on her tablet. Toni, what was that Latin you quoted yesterday for Occam’s razor?”
“’Numquam ponenda est pluritas sine necessitate. Frusta fit per plura, quod potest fieri per pauciora.’ It means—”
“I know what it means. The simplest explanation that fits the facts is usually correct.”
“Not exactly. A literal translation—”
“Ill-educated barbarian. So you think we’re looking for a zebra when the hoof beats we’re hearing are from a simple horse?”
“No. I think we’re looking at horses when we might need a zebra.”
One of the pleasures of introducing a metaphor is that you can play with it throughout the novel. Terran Tomorrow is the third book in the Yesterday’s Kin trilogy, which began with aliens who arrive on Earth to warn us about a spore cloud drifting through space toward Earth. The first shock is that these are not aliens at all, but rather humans taken from Earth 140,000 years ago. Since then, their and our evolutionary paths have diverged slightly (140,000 years is not long enough for much diversion). The two cultural paths, however, shaped by environment and genes, have been radically different. In the second book, If Tomorrow Comes, a small group of humans travel to the alien planet, World. In Terran Tomorrow, a group of Terrans and Worlders return to Earth. Nobody is expecting them; they have been gone for twenty-eight years and have long been presumed lost. But here they are, to disbelief and consternation: “Well,” Toni says, “a zebra after all.”
More zebras, unexpected and game-changing events, turn up in the microbial world. Perhaps they aren’t unexpected for microbes, which promiscuously exchange genes, adapt constantly to new environments, and can produce a new and often mutated generations every twenty minutes. But these particular mutations and adaptations are unexpected to the geneticists at Monterey Dome. The first one stuns Zack: “Hoofbeats drummed across his brain. Zebra.” The second one even more so:
There. She had named it, the elephant in the room. Humanity bifurcating. If the changes in neural structure or efficiency were permanent and also inheritable, the human race was on its way to becoming two species.
Not an elephant in the room. A swamp’s worth of dinosaurs. Or—
An entire herd of zebras.
Elephants, dinosaurs, zebras—a bit zoo-ey, but perhaps appropriate for a book that concerns saving the environment and the mammalian life dependent on it. Characters in Terran Tomorrow have decidedly different ideas about how to do this. Colin Jenner, green farmer, wants sustainable ecology, no matter the price. Colonel Jason Jenner, commander of Monterey Base, sees mostly military solutions. The genetic researchers, Marianne Jenner and Zack McKay and Toni Steffens, put their desperate hope in science.
But only an extreme solution will work, a desperate gamble that can change the entire situation. In his non-fiction bestseller, statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb evoked a different animal to embody the idea of an improbable event that upends all theories and changes the entire game: The Black Swan.
Nancy Kress is the author of thirty-four books, including twenty-six novels, four collections of short stories, and three books on writing. Her work has won six Nebulas, two Hugos, a Sturgeon, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Her most recent work is TERRAN TOMORROW (Tor), the final book in her YESTERDAY’S KIN trilogy. Kress’s fiction has been translated into Swedish, Danish, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Polish, Croatian, Chinese, Lithuanian, Romanian, Japanese, Korean, Hebrew, Russian, and Klingon, none of which she can read. In addition to writing, Kress often teaches at various venues around the country and abroad, including a visiting lectureship at the University of Leipzig, a 2017 writing class in Beijing, and the annual intensive workshop TaosToolbox. Kress lives in Seattle with her husband, writer Jack Skillingstead, and Cosette, the world’s most spoiled toy poodle.
Alexandra Rowland is joining us today with her debut novel A Conspiracy of Truths. Here’s the publisher’s description:
A wrongfully imprisoned storyteller spins stories from his jail cell that just might have the power to save him—and take down his jailers too.
Arrested on accusations of witchcraft and treason, Chant finds himself trapped in a cold, filthy jail cell in a foreign land. With only his advocate, the unhelpful and uninterested Consanza, he quickly finds himself cast as a bargaining chip in a brewing battle between the five rulers of this small, backwards, and petty nation.
Or, at least, that’s how he would tell the story.
In truth, Chant has little idea of what is happening outside the walls of his cell, but he must quickly start to unravel the puzzle of his imprisonment before they execute him for his alleged crimes. But Chant is no witch—he is a member of a rare and obscure order of wandering storytellers. With no country to call his home, and no people to claim as his own, all Chant has is his wits and his apprentice, a lad more interested in wooing handsome shepherds than learning the ways of the world.
And yet, he has one great power: his stories in the ears of the rulers determined to prosecute him for betraying a nation he knows next to nothing about. The tales he tells will topple the Queens of Nuryevet and just maybe, save his life.
What is Alexandra’s favorite bit?
“I didn’t miss him, mind you. Not at all. I was just rather pleased to know he wasn’t dead[. . .] My heart was behaving rather oddly—felt all light, like a soap bubble. Not because I was happy to see Ylfing. I was probably having a heart attack at that moment, that’s all.”
The narrator of A CONSPIRACY OF TRUTHS is a crotchety, opinionated old man called Chant, a wandering mendicant storyteller who has been arrested on charges of witchcraft and, in the first scene, accidentally indicts himself as a potential spy. For the first one hundred and thirty-three pages of the book, he is locked in a cold, isolated jail cell awaiting the results of that trial with nothing to do but complain and no visitors except his lawyer, and during this time he regularly assures the reader that:
1) his apprentice, Ylfing, is an idiot, and
2) he doesn’t miss him at all. Really. Really he doesn’t. Not even a little bit. In fact, Chant hardly even thinks about him, and he certainly doesn’t worry about him. (Unfortunately, being a debut author means your publisher just can’t splurge on book-printing technology like “ten-foot-tall letters of fire that spring from the page to spell out L I A R.” Such a shame, because this would have been a good place for it.)
All first-person narrators should be considered, to some degree, unreliable because all people are unreliable. None of us gives a perfectly objective report of the events that happen to us—and Chant definitely doesn’t. Sometimes he lies on purpose; sometimes he lies accidentally, simply because he hasn’t interrogated his own biases and preconceived notions. This (paired with the vibrancy of his opinions and the staunchness of his intent to inflict them on the world around him) is one of several reasons he was so much giddy fun to write, and this scene in particular, where he’s reunited with the apprentice he tooooooootally isn’t even a little bit fond of, who isn’t at all like a much-beloved nephew or grandson, is the first moment we truly and clearly see how much Chant might be misrepresenting himself and his feelings.
Ylfing as a character is something of a foil to Chant—where Chant is grouchy and sharp-tongued and prickly, Ylfing is a cinnamon roll of a human: soft and sweet and warm, effortlessly kind and good (and smart, and insightful, and well-suited to the profession to which he’s apprenticed). For all his gruff bluster, Chant values that softness—he sees worth in the way Ylfing runs at the world with his arms outstretched and the doors of his heart flung wide open. That’s part of the profession, after all: opening yourself up to embrace the whole world. Ylfing is better at it than Chant is.
The scene of their reunion is a moment where Chant, a master storyteller, tells a story that fails. He tries to dissemble about the depth of his affection, and… can’t quite bring himself to be convincing about it.
We learn who we are by the way we respond to the people around us, as if each person holds up a mirror to reflect a small piece of ourselves, and we assemble our self-image from the patchwork of those reflections. The long-awaited arrival of Ylfing (one of the last characters to join the cast) influences how we think of Chant more than any other person in the book – for the first time, we see Chant interacting with someone who knows him, who loves him, and that gives us a wildly different perspective than we have gotten before in the book. Chant says, a little later on: “For all my apprentice is a genuine idiot, I’ll allow he can spot a soft heart from a mile off. Or perhaps it’s just that hearts soften after he spots them.” Chant’s, at least, certainly does, and that says as much (or more) about him as it does about Ylfing.
So that’s my favorite bit: The introduction of Ylfing! He’s a candle that illuminates some of Chant’s much deeper complexities, he introduces a paradigm shift in how the reader perceives Chant’s representation of himself, and… Well, to be honest, he’s my favorite child. I mean look at him– he’s a golden retriever puppy. He’s a cinnamon roll. He’s kind and genuine and adorable, and hearts soften after he spots them — five bucks says yours will too.
Alexandra Rowland is a fantasy author, game monitor at an escape room company, and occasional bespoke seamstress under the stern supervision of her feline quality control manager. She holds a degree in world literature, mythology, and folklore from Truman State University, and she is a host of the literary podcast, Be the Serpent. Find her at www.alexandrarowland.net or on Twitter as @_alexrowland.
I collect etiquette books and ran across this little gem recently.
What is one of the most common errors people make when speaking to a writer?
The woman who goes up to a writer at a cocktail party and tells him how she has always wanted to write but just hasn’t had the time, as though it were as simple as making a hairdresser appointment. . . . Also the person who asks, “Is it true that everyone has a book in him?” Normally the writer is polite and mutters something nice and then must stand on one foot and then another with a hot martini and soggy onion listening to her life story.
–Excerpt from Practical Etiquette for the Modern Man
Mary Lou Munson, 1964
(When I said I would announce this October 1st, I actually meant November. November 1st. Yes.)
Did you see all of the wonderful entries for the Lady Astronaut Fan Art Contest? Picking was ridiculously hard, but I’ve managed to narrow it down. And by narrow it down, I mean that I decided to have some ties and add a category.
First up, the new category: Grand, Grand Prize, which comes with everything the Grand Prize did, plus an official licensing deal! Ariela from Geek Calligraphy made a glorious Lady Astronaut Nouveau print. I liked it so much that we made a deal and now it’s official merchandise that you can get for yourself! Here’s mine, with strategic placement.
On to our regularly scheduled winners!
In third place, winning an IAC insignia patch is Clara’s beautiful calligraphic title. 23K gold, gouache, and bleedproof white. I love the visible polar ice caps on Mars and the flames of the rocket!
For second place, we actually have a tie. Because I make the rules.
First is Deana’s wonderful Chocolate Chess pie. The link includes a recipe, so you can make your own! And I say “chess pie” but let’s be clear, that this entry goes all out on the details. Note the martini, which everyone drinks or wants to drink, constantly in these novels. For those who’ve read The Fated Sky, note the radishes. Note the Challah. And the notebook with spirals and Fibonacci sequences and calculations. So very, very much to love.
Tied with that are Bethany’s Astronaut Trading Cards, which were a real thing in the 1960’s. All the card numbers are primes, which is a perfect touch. There are 4, so be sure to click through.
Both of our second place winners will get an IAC insignia patch, plus they will each become a character in a Lady Astronaut story or novel.
And now, a drumroll please!
For the grand prize, receiving an IAC insignia patch, tuckerization, plus audiobooks of The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky:
Todd printed “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” on actual punchcards, and made a beautiful box to store them! Here’s what he says about the process:
The box is made of maple and cedar (I like how the cedar striping makes on think of the landscape of Mars). It measures 4″ x 8.5″ x 1.5″. The NASA logo on top is metal (actually a lapel pin) as is the clasp and hinges. Inside are 27 antique IBM punchcards from the 1950s that had the text of the story printed on them. I used a 1950s period IBM font for the text and I like the ways the punchcard holes interact with it.
Congratulations to all the winners!
Thank you. Thank you all so much. One of my favorite things about being an author is seeing stories that I tell myself come to life outside of my head. Each entry was an absolute gift. Watching them come in gave me such joy.
So as a small token of my gratitude, everyone who entered the contest will receive a Lady Astronaut Club kit with a membership card, stickers, postcards, and a LAC pin. (Look for an email from Alyshondra asking for your mailing address.)
Here’s the Pinterest page with all the entries, as well as costumes. If you create or see other Lady Astronaut fan art, please tag me in it!
Aliette de Bodard is joining us today with her novella In The Vanishers’ Palace. Here’s the publisher’s description:
From the award-winning author of the Dominion of the Fallen series comes a dark retelling of Beauty and the Beast.
In a ruined, devastated world, where the earth is poisoned and beings of nightmares roam the land…
A woman, betrayed, terrified, sold into indenture to pay her village’s debts and struggling to survive in a spirit world.
A dragon, among the last of her kind, cold and aloof but desperately trying to make a difference.
When failed scholar Yên is sold to Vu Côn, one of the last dragons walking the earth, she expects to be tortured or killed for Vu Côn’s amusement.
But Vu Côn, it turns out, has a use for Yên: she needs a scholar to tutor her two unruly children. She takes Yên back to her home, a vast, vertiginous palace-prison where every door can lead to death. Vu Côn seems stern and unbending, but as the days pass Yên comes to see her kinder and caring side. She finds herself dangerously attracted to the dragon who is her master and jailer. In the end, Yên will have to decide where her own happiness lies—and whether it will survive the revelation of Vu Côn’s dark, unspeakable secrets…
What’s Aliette’s favorite bit?
ALIETTE DE BODARD
My favorite bit of In The Vanishers’ Palace is the fruit, or rather the flirting that happens around a basket of fruit.
Let’s rewind a little. In the Vanishers’ Palace is a dark retelling of Beauty and the Beast where they’re both women and the Beast is a dragon, a river spirit who can shapeshift into human shape. It’s inspired by Vietnamese folklore and fairytales and set in a ruined and ravaged world where nothing grows anymore. Beauty is Yên, a failed scholar who is sold to Vu Côn, the dragon character, and taken to Vu Côn’s palace to tutor her two teenage children. Yên and Vu Côn find themselves slowly falling for each other in spite of everything that should separate them…
I’m a big food person and a big believer in food as comfort, so obviously that looms large in the narration. In the book, at one point, Yên meets a malevolent creature and finds refuge in Vu Côn’s bedroom (for maximum embarrassment!). Vu Côn wants to comfort her (and to flirt with Yên as well, to whom she’s attracted to): she hits on the idea of using magic to make a basket of fruit. And not just any fruit, but the beautiful and plump fruit from before the breaking of the world.
“Here. You need some comfort.” Vu Côn must have seen Yên’s face. “This is what they were, before the Vanishers poisoned the world. Mangosteen. Rambutan. Carambola. Dragon fruit. Breast-milk fruit. Mango. No fungus. No rot.” She sat down again, the basket in her lap. She picked out a tight, almost perfectly round shape, red as a bleeding heart and with rough, gritty skin.
(I did make sure to include my favourite fruits in the basket, obviously! Rambutan is the BEST).
Of course, it doesn’t go according to plan. The most obvious issue is of consent, since Yên is still Vu Côn’s servant and prisoner at this stage: the book itself is deeply concerned with consent, which was problematic in the original version of Beauty and the Beast, and I wanted to make sure respect and mutual consent was on the table from the start.
A less obvious one is that I originally wrote the scene the wrong way: Vu Côn proffers the fruit, Yên is entranced but embarrassed, they kiss. And I wasn’t happy about it: my subconscious kept insisting something was wrong. I thought it was the kiss, but then I realized that the problem was Yên. Unlike Vu Côn who is centuries old, Yên grew up in the broken world. She has stories and legends to remind her that things weren’t always this way; but what she doesn’t have is a real notion of how fruit tasted. She’s not entranced: she’s afraid, and unsettled, because the fruit taste weird to her. They aren’t rotted on the tree, or stunted, or covered in lichen and fungus that radically alter their taste. The fruit are a comfort to Vu Côn because she grew up with them; to Yên they’re just weird food.
So we have this reaction instead:
It tasted sweet. Too sweet, an almost-sickening explosion of juice and soft flesh in Yên’s mouth. No grit, no soothing harshness. She made a face. “Elder aunt—”
And then they still do get around to kissing, because embarrassing forbidden kisses are such a good way to keep the plot going!
Aliette de Bodard lives in Paris, and writes speculative fiction: her short stories have garnered her two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award and two British Science Fiction Association Awards. She is the author of the Dominion of the Fallen series, set in a turn-of-the-century Paris devastated by a magical war, which comprises The House of Shattered Wings (2015 British Science Fiction Association Award), and its standalone sequel The House of Binding Thorns (2017 European Science Fiction Society Achievement Award). Her latest is In the Vanishers’ Palace (https://aliettedebodard.com/bibliography/novels/in-the-vanishers-palace/ ), a dark retelling of Beauty and the Beast where they are both women and the Beast is a dragon.
Beth Cato is joining us to talk about her novel Roar of Sky. Here is the publisher’s description:
In this stunning conclusion to the acclaimed Blood of Earth trilogy—a thrilling alternate history laced with earth magic, fantastic creatures, and steampunk elements—geomancer Ingrid must find a way to use her extraordinary abilities to save her world from the woman hell-bent on destroying it.
Thanks to her geomantic magic, Ingrid has successfully eluded Ambassador Blum, the power-hungry kitsune who seeks to achieve world domination for the Unified Pacific. But using her abilities has taken its toll: Ingrid’s body has been left severely weakened, and she must remain on the run with her friends Cy and Fenris.
Hoping to learn more about her magical roots and the strength her bloodline carries, Ingrid makes her way across the Pacific to Hawaii, home to the ancient volcano goddess Madam Pele. What she discovers in this paradise is not at all what she expects—and perhaps exactly what she needs.
But Ambassador Blum comes from the same world of old magic and mythic power. And if Ingrid cannot defeat her once and for all, she knows Blum will use that power to take the lives of everyone she holds dear before escalating a war that will rip the world to pieces.
What’s Beth’s favorite bit?
I’m a total history geek. The alternate history 1906 of my Blood of Earth trilogy has given me ample opportunity to dig into dusty old library discards, skim century-old magazines, and to Google away endless hours.
The first book in the series, Breath of Earth, rewrites the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire with a fantastical twist of geomancy and incredible creatures. The second book, Call of Fire, takes my characters to the Pacific Northwest, where slumbering volcanoes might awaken in a cranky mood.
An advantage I had in researching these two books is that had I lived near or in the locales I was writing about. However, as I started the outline for the trilogy finale, Roar of Sky, I realized I didn’t have that advantage. I needed to begin that book in the Hawaiian Islands, the Big Island in particular.
Therefore, in the name of research, I had to make a great sacrifice of time and money and travel to Hawaii. Oh darn.
It’s easy to joke about this being the best tax write-off ever, but there was no denying it was a work trip. I dragged my husband out of bed at 5 o’clock every morning, at the latest, to hike and explore before the sun was even up. I’d read extensively to prepare for our trip–not just modern travel guides, but century-old travelogues by writers like Mark Twain and Isabella Lucy Bird. I didn’t bother to pack a swimsuit; instead, I brought portable emergency kits in case we stumbled on dry lava (a’a is some wickedly sharp stuff) and collapsible hiking sticks.
The Halema’uma’u Trail at Volcanoes National Park topped my wish list. A century ago, nighttime visitors traveled on horseback down a heavily forested series of switchbacks to the crater floor, where the journey continued on foot across the old lava flats to the shores of Halema’uma’u. This is the lava lake long-regarded as the home of Madame Pele, goddess of volcanoes. Back then, visitors played at the very edge of the lava. They singed postcards to mail as souvenirs and tossed coins in the molten flow to see how quickly they would melt.
Safety standards are a bit higher now. We took the trail by foot from Volcano House, a famous hotel right on the rim, and followed steep switchbacks and moss-lined holloways to the dried lava basin below. This may sound corny, but the experience didn’t simply feel informational at that point, but emotional. Spiritual. I’ve lived with my characters since 2013 and spent hundreds of hours with them in their world. Now I was walking in Ingrid’s and Cy’s footsteps. I was giddy and babbling, taking pictures of everything, rattling off historical trivia. My husband, bless him, smiled and nodded.
At the bottom, we stepped from thick rainforest onto swells of dried black lava. Far across the field of the rippled yet smooth pahoehoe flow, we could see the plume of Halema’uma’u. Signs forbade us from going further due to the toxic fumes. Even so, I was thrilled to stand there, to feel the strangely hollow tap of lava underfoot, to take in the reality of a place I’d studied by book for months.
That experience feels even more poignant now with recent events on Kilauea. In May, a series of fissures opened up in the Puna district to the east, draining Halema’uma’u and causing a massive collapse of the surrounding lava fields and cliff. By massive, I mean the lake is now a 1,500-foot pit with no molten lava visible. Repeated large earthquakes damaged the incredible Jagger Museum on the rim. The Halema’uma’u Trail down the cliff was blocked by enormous boulders. Volcanic activity decreased as the summer went on, and Volcanoes National Park has recently reopened to a limited degree.
In Roar of Sky I describe the lava lake as it was a century ago, much larger than during my visit in January 2017. As I wrote, I wondered if readers would believe it all: that tourists ventured across the treacherous terrain at night and roasted hot dogs over bubbling lava. Now, I can’t help but shake my head in awe after nature’s most recent show.
I hope that someday I can return and take in the changes for myself. For now, I know with certainty that the Big Island is one of my favorite places to read about in history, and to write about, and to visit. I only hope I did it some justice in Roar of Sky.
Nebula-nominated Beth Cato is the author of the Clockwork Dagger duology and the new Blood of Earth Trilogy from Harper Voyager. She’s a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cats. Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.
Gene Doucette is joining us today to talk about his novel The Spaceship Next Door. Here’s the publisher’s description:
When a spaceship lands in Sorrow Falls, a lovable and fearless small-town girl is the planet’s only hope for survival
Three years ago, a spaceship landed in an open field in the quiet mill town of Sorrow Falls, Massachusetts. It never opened its doors, and for all that time, the townspeople have wondered why the ship landed there, and what—or who—could be inside.
Then one day a government operative—posing as a journalist—arrives in town, asking questions. He discovers sixteen-year-old Annie Collins, one of the ship’s closest neighbors and a local fixture known throughout the town, who has some of the answers.
As a matter of fact, Annie Collins might be the most important person on the planet. She just doesn’t know it.
What’s Gene’s favorite bit?
I’ve been trying to work out the best way to answer the question before me—can I describe my favorite bit from The Spaceship Next Door—for a while now.
It’s a surprisingly difficult thing to answer, although not because I don’t have a favorite bit. The problem is that to talk about the plot of The Spaceship Next Door means dealing with a ton of spoilers. Telling someone who hasn’t already read the book what my favorite part is means giving away a lot of the plot first.
Here’s what I mean. One of my favorite bits is a dialogue regarding the nature of the aliens, but I can’t tell you who had that conversation, or where, or what I even mean by the nature of the aliens without wrecking the whole book for you.
As it is, you’ve just learned that there are aliens, which isn’t readily available news. I mean, okay, It’s implied. A spaceship does land in a small town, and then three years go by in which nothing happens. Since the events in the book—save for the first chapter—all take place after that three years has passed, it’s fair to assume that something does eventually happen, because otherwise I’d have framed the book as “and then nothing happens, ever.” It’s also not a leap to assume that when that something happens, it involves aliens, because again, there’s a spaceship, and it landed. On top of that, nobody’s exactly made a secret of the fact that this is a First Contact story. We sort of advertised it that way.
But: there are aliens, and maybe you didn’t know that.
There are plenty of other good bits though, including bits that are spoiler-free enough to talk about. One scene in particular is… well, it’s all of chapter three, and it’s also the scene I picked for auditions when I was casting potential readers for the audiobook, because I consider it the best representation of all the elements of the book that a narrator would have to get right.
(Side note: because of this, I’ve heard the chapter read back to me over forty times. I’m not saying this drove me insane, but I can still hear it sometimes, late at night.)
It’s an important scene, because it’s when the two main characters—or at least the two most significant—meet for the first time, in a diner. Those two characters are: a government analyst and certified intelligent-person, Edgar Somerville; and a sixteen-year old local named Annie Collins. Ed and Annie are in the middle of everything that follows, up to and including (minor spoiler) possibly saving the world.
So that’s what makes the scene important. What makes it fun, and why I like it so much, is that in the course of about five minutes, Ed discovers that the sixteen-year old who has just sat down across from him may just be the cleverest person he’s ever met. Basically, she talks rings around him, and he’s a pretty smart guy. Annie pulls off a dizzying series of accurate deductions about who Ed is and why he’s in town, and she does it almost effortlessly, to the degree that even if Ed refuses to confirm anything, it’s nearly impossible to deny that she’s correct about all of it. It’s impressive enough that when Ed later offers her a job, it seems like a perfectly sensible decision.
In the next chapter, an army general asks Ed if he told Annie anything confidential, and even if Ed can scarcely believe the general would question Ed’s ability keep information to himself, he also sort of understands why this would be a valid question.
Finally, from a writing perspective, getting Annie’s character right was critical to the entire story. Annie is a clever-but-otherwise-ordinary sixteen-year old, and by the end of the book she [huge spoiler deleted] while relying entirely on her wits. It’s important for Ed and the residents of Sorrow Falls to appreciate how clever she is, but the reader has to buy into it too. The dialogue scene in chapter three between Annie and Ed establishes that, and makes everything that follows work.
Also—and maybe this is only important to me—it’s a really funny scene.
Gene Doucette is the best-selling author of the fantasy series Immortal and The Immortal Chronicles, and sci-fi thrillers Fixer and Unfiction. He is also a humorist, award-winning screenwriter and playwright. He lives in Cambridge, MA with his wife.
Mark A. Altman is joining us today to talk about So Say We All: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Battlestar Galactica, written with Edward Gross. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Four decades after its groundbreaking debut, Battlestar Galactica―both the 1978 original and its 2004 reimagining have captured the hearts of two generations of fans. What began as a three-hour made for TV movie inspired by the blockbuster success of Star Wars followed by a single season of legendary episodes, was transformed into one of the most critically acclaimed and beloved series in television history. And gathered exclusively in this volume are the incredible untold stories of both shows―as well as the much-maligned Galactica 1980.
For the first time ever, you will learn the unbelievable true story of forty years of Battlestar Galactica as told by the teams that created a television legend in the words of over a hundred cast, creators, crew, critics and executives who were there and brought it all to life. So Say We All!
What is Mark’s favorite bit?
MARK A. ALTMAN
I HATE THE EIGHTIES
The quest to discover why Galactica 1980 sucked so bad
Ed Gross and I have been writing these oral histories of legendary genre shows for a few years now starting with The Fifty Year Mission which chronicled the five-decade long saga of Star Trek to our more recent volume on Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel, Slayers & Vampires. So when it came time to write So Say We All, the complete, uncensored oral history of Battlestar Galactica, we were faced with a conundrum. We were not only going to cover the original 1978 series, which is loved and loathed in equal measure by viewers, as well as the justly-lauded 2004 re-imagination, but clearly couldn’t avoid covering one of the most infamous and maligned series in television history, Galactica 1980.
Along with such 70’s laughingstocks as Supertrain, essentially about an atomic powered Love Boat on train tracks and Manimal, in which its protagonist played by Simon McCorkindale can literally transform into various beasties, Galactica 1980 was one of the most utterly derided series of that era of television. Call it anti-peak TV if you will. A lot of that antipathy had to with the fact that the original Battlestar Galactica was cancelled after only one season by ABC despite pretty solid ratings, but was super pricey, but maintained a loyal coterie of obsessed fans. Remember, this was decades before Netflix and so ABC realizing they had made a mistake, attempted to quickly remedy their error by bringing the series back in a cheaper and more kid-friendly variety.
In the original recipe version, the Battlestar Galactica, the sole surviving Colonial battle ship, basically an aircraft carrier in space, had been searching for earth after fleeing an interstellar genocide which destroyed most of the human race after an attack by the evil Cylons. The entire series is predicated on finding a new home: the shining planet known of earth, somewhere across the cosmos. In Galactica 1980, our heroes (or what’s left of them) finally find earth – in the teaser, in a voiceover. And it gets worse from there, all the characters from the original series are pretty much gone, with the exception of beloved Alpo pitchman, Lorne Greene, and instead a new ensemble of characters is introduced (all the actors ABC wanted, but Glen Larson passed on for the original series) along with a group of super-powered kids, the Super Scouts. And thus a series which began with a big-budget splash about Pearl Harbor in space with a terrific ensemble, stunning visual effects from John Dykstra, whose previous project was a little sci-fi space opera called Star Wars, and a bridge set that literally cost over one million dollars back in 1978 was reduced to a show about precocious kids with super-powers and two wacky Colonial Warriors who were fish out of water and mis-used earth colloquialisms. Neither which made for great comedy or drama.
Such was our dilemma in writing So Say We All. We knew exactly how to cover the original series, the Rodney Dangerfield of sci-fi, and certainly Ronald D. Moore’s magnificent re-imagining from 2004, but how the hell do you cover Galactica 1980, a series so misguided that the commercials advertising it at the time showed a massive Cylon attack on Hollywood only to be revealed as a simulation of what could happen if the malevolent metal marauders ever reached earth? Glad you asked. So fasten your seatbelts because it’s going to be a bumpy night.
So here’s the deal and the god’s honest truth. I admit it. I did a very perfunctory job on the first draft of this chapter. My attentions were turned elsewhere and so I relied on the few quotes I already had banked and a number of witty bon mots disparaging the series from cast and critics and that was that. When I read through the first draft of the manuscript to our book, I realized this just wouldn’t do. Yes, this was an awful series. Yes, it pales in comparison to the bookends of the 1978 and 2004 series, but I realized that no one had ever explored this series in any depth nor was anyone likely to do so anytime in the future. If the final epitaph was to be written on the doomed series, it was up to me to do it.
And so for the first time in my writing career, which spans books, movies and television, I hit delete and literally started over from scratch. I put on my Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe/Columbo fedora and began to interview more writers, producers and actors. I did more research and so a new chapter was born. Perhaps my favorite chapter of any of the oral histories we ever wrote. I wanted to find out how a series made it to air that was this bad… and why. And did the people who made it know what they were making at the time? It resonated for me in a very personal way having worked in television and movies for nearly twenty years myself and having worked on shows that I thought were great that no one ever watched and other shows and movies for which we had the best of intentions that turned out terribly. Writing about Galactica 1980 for this book was a fascinating adventure and I was truly sorry when it was over. There was one living cast member who simply wouldn’t return my calls, but for the most part, I was able to get everyone I wanted; writers, producers and cast, and they were candid, funny and thoughtful, none moreso than the delightful Allan Cole, one of the show’s story editor’s who may hate the series more than anyone on earth and is a raconteur and storyteller of the first order who basically got blackmailed into working on it. I may hate Galactica 1980, but I sure do love this chapter on the making of the series.
Mark A. Altman is co-author of So Say We All with Ed Gross, the complete, uncensored oral history of Battlestar Galactica, from Tor Books. In addition, he is also a writer/producer for television including such hit series as The Librarians, Agent X, Castle and many more and also co-author with Gross of The Fifty-Year Mission for St. Martin’s Press, an oral history of 50 years of Star Trek.
Peter Tieryas is joining us today to talk about his novel Mecha Samurai Empire. Here’s the publisher’s description:
The Man in the High Castle meets Pacific Rim in this action-packed alternate history novel from the award-winning author of United States of Japan. Germany and Japan won WWII and control the U.S., and a young man has one dream: to become a mecha pilot.
Makoto Fujimoto grew up in California, but with a difference–his California is part of the United States of Japan. After Germany and Japan won WWII, the United States fell under their control. Growing up in this world, Mac plays portical games, haphazardly studies for the Imperial Exam, and dreams of becoming a mecha pilot. Only problem: Mac’s grades are terrible. His only hope is to pass the military exam and get into the prestigious mecha pilot training program at Berkeley Military Academy.
When his friend Hideki’s plan to game the test goes horribly wrong, Mac washes out of the military exam too. Perhaps he can achieve his dream by becoming a civilian pilot. But with tensions rising between the United States of Japan and Nazi Germany and rumors of collaborators and traitors abounding, Mac will have to stay alive long enough first…
What’s Peter’s favorite bit?
I love trying new restaurants and exploring new cuisines, and because of that, I’m always curious what people eat in the worlds I read and write about. But I know my tastes are weird. Just the other day, I had Thai yellow curry with Korean kimchee, a croissant, raw garlic, and Chinese-style dumplings. The day before, I had nacho-styled fries with ramen and peanut butter and jam for dinner, which made my wife comment wryly on my strange palette. I like trying new combinations and sharing them with friends, sacrilegious as it may seem for the foodie puritans of the worlds.
Mecha was my chance to share the weird cookbook of the United States of Japan.
Mecha Samurai Empire is a very different book from United States of Japan. USJ focused on the tragedies of WWII on the Pacific side and was a dark mystery following a member of the thought police and a government censor through an authoritarian system. Mecha is about five cadets who are aspiring to be mecha pilots and revolves around their time at school, preparing for examinations, and learning about the history of their world. Of course, every study session and simulation test means the cadets need good food to recharge their juices.
The five protagonists end up at the top mecha academy in the USJ. This allowed me to draw on my own university memories attending Berkeley, many of which were intertwined with food. My entire budget for a month, aside from rent, was $200 which included books, extracurricular activities, and food. It wasn’t much, so I used to strategize how to split one meal into three. I’d scour for coupons, find the best deals, and hit up a pizza joint for $1 slices on special sales days. My favorite places were La Burrita and the restaurants in what locals called the “Asian Ghetto.” Sit-down diners were generally too expensive for my budget. But all that fineagling led to creative approaches to sate my hunger. Which is why for me, food is such an important part of not just my life, but that of my characters.
In my worldbuilding, one of the first questions I ask about each character is, what are their favorite and least favorite foods? Why? What does it tell us about their personality? Whether it’s a passion for sausages, or unusual concoctions blending five cuisines to completely awesome vegetarian meals, each of them has preferences and proclivities that go hand in hand with who they are.
One of my favorite scenes was when one of the cadets, Mac, goes to a restaurant with his friend, Griselda, who’s an exchange student from the German Americas. They visit a genre-themed restaurant in Dallas Tokai after escaping from a big fight and enter the spiritual/divinaton section. But the meal becomes a pretext for both to ponder the deeper threat of a looming Nazi-USJ conflict:
We take off our shoes and are given slippers (servers take away our shoes and store them until the end of the meal).
Several waiters dressed as magic and divination specialists bow to welcome us. One says to me, “Your spiritual outcast looks foggy,” while to Griselda he says, “There is much conflict and confusion in your path.”
“So vague as to mean anything,” Griselda says to me, as we both take our seats.
I leave the food choices to her and go to use the bathroom. I stare in the mirror and see my eye has swollen. It looks like the entire side of my head has a bulbous mass popping out of it. I wonder about the question she asked: What if we do go to war with the Nazis? How would our friendship change? Even thinking about it gives me a headache as I can’t bear the thought of our being on opposing sides. I wash my eye before heading back to our table.
One of the onmyoji brings out a covered plate on a tray. He uses his fingers, does a chant in Japanese, and suddenly, the plate cover floats away.
Griselda claps as they place the food on the table. She explains, “They dip the Wagyu beef in special panko and soy sauce, and they fry it for thirty seconds at 180 degrees.” She cuts it open. “It’s pink in the middle, just perfect. This miso soup uses this fresh aka dashi the chef makes every morning. The dashi stock here isn’t the powder kind, but it’s boiled with just the right amount of Katsuobushi, so the umami balance is spot on.”
The beef is super tender. When she asks how it is, I tell her, “I love it.”
I’ve never had a miso soup that is this rich with flavor, especially with the dried tuna from the Katsuobushi. The tofu practically melts in my mouth. We eat in silence, relishing the meal. The onmyoji brings out two mugs full of beer.
“This is for lightweights,” Griselda says. “Kanpai!”
“Prost!” I reply, as our cups clash.
I take a sip. It tastes bitter, and I don’t like it at all. But when I look over, Griselda’s drunk almost half her cup. I force myself to drink a quarter before I have to stop.
“How is it?”
“Good,” I say.
I was expecting to be drunk with my first sip, but it doesn’t have a noticeable impact. Griselda is already finished with her drink. “Don’t let me pressure you, but, uh, hurry up.”
Two mugs later, I’m too full to drink any more. I still don’t feel anything until I stand up. I feel dizzy and stumble. Griselda catches me, laughing.
“I feel like the whole planet is spinning around me,” I tell her.
“That’s what I thought the first time too. Does beer put me in tune with the planet? But actually, it’s because alcohol thins your blood and creates a distortion in your cupula.”
“Your reality is distorted because chemicals inside your ear are going crazy.”
Amidst all the changes and distortions of the alternate history of Mecha Samurai Empire, my hope is that food is a common connection for readers in our own reality with their universe.
One final cool coincidence from the original book; I wrote about a tempura shrimp burger, which was my version of mixing two loves, tempura shrimp and hamburgers. I was pleasantly surprised when the Japanese chain restaurant, Mos Burger, recently came out with a tempura shrimp burger. Tweets about the connection between USJ and the shrimp burger went viral in Japan and at a recent conference in which I was a guest of honor, they actually served tempura shrimp burgers. Other famous authors have presciently predicted fascinating trends in science through their fiction. I am happy to have predicted the shrimp tempura burger! Now I just need to go back to Japan to try it!
Peter Tieryas is the author of Mecha Samurai Empire and United States of Japan, which won Japan’s top SF award, the Seiun. He’s written for Kotaku, S-F Magazine, Tor.com, and ZYZZYVA. He’s also been a technical writer for LucasArts, a VFX artist at Sony, and currently works in feature animation.
Mary Robinette will be at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference from Oct 18-21, 2018, in Surrey, BC, Canada. Tickets here.
Here’s where to find her there!
Thursday, October 18
Master Class – Emotional Realities: Using Specificity to Make Your Work Vivid (requires additional ticket)
9:30am – 12:45 pm
Emotion is one of the trickiest tools on the writer’s workbench. Ignore it, and the most well-plotted scene ends up flat and forgettable. Use it with too heavy a hand, and a scene meant to be moving can tip over into melodrama. Wield it well, and it can elevate a book from merely “good” to “memorable”—the kind of book whose characters and story linger in a reader’s mind and heart long after they have turned the final page. What it often comes down to is specificity. From aspects of personality to setting to language, choosing the right details is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug In this workshop, we look at how to use language, character, and pacing to create vivid emotional realities.
Friday, October 19
Stressing Your Characters 2:15pm – 3:30pm
Everyone has multiple facets of their personality. Some of the most difficult decisions a character has to face are internal, such as the tug between work and family. Even if external circumstances are the catalyst, the conflict comes when a character feels like they will fail in some way. In this workshop, we look at how to pry at the parts of your character’s self-identity in order to create gut-wrenching conflicts.
World building: all writers do it! You may not write SFF, or maybe you do. Either way, you still build the world of your novel as you write. Our panelists discuss their own experiences with world building and how you can strengthen your own so your readers can disappear into your story, away from the real world for awhile.
No Prep Writing: How to use story structure to guide your instincts 10:00am – 11:15am
In this workshop, we’ll take a look at story structure, not with an eye to planning out a story ahead of time, but for helping guide your choices as you write. By thinking consciously about the job of each part of a story, a writer can avoid going down dead-ends and keep their story on track — even without an outline.
SiWC Idol 2:15pm-3:30pm
A perennial SiWC favourite!
Attendees who want to turn in the first page of their manuscript at the front of the room in the minutes before the session. These are selected at random to read to our panel of agents. When they’d stop reading if the page was a submission, they raise their hands. Two hands, and the reading stops. Then you get to hear why they would – or wouldn’t! – stop.
Presenters: Jennifer Chen Tran, Bess Cozby, Annie Hwang, Nephele Tempest, Mary Robinette Kowal moderating
5:30pm – 7:00pm
Come meet Mary Robinette and the other authors and get your books signed!
Sunday, Oct 21
Writing as Rewriting 11:30am – 12:45pm
You’ve finished the first draft of your novel, but where do you go from here? Join the Whisky Chicks for a discussion of their varied approaches to the process, proving that even at the revision stage, there’s no one way to write. From the use of beta readers for feedback, through the different levels of editing, learn how to turn your draft into a polished manuscript ready to send out into the world.
Presenters: Elizabeth Boyle, Mary Robinette Kowal, Nephele Tempest moderating
Cheryl Low is joining us today to talk about her new book Detox In Letters, the second book in the Crowns & Ash series. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Welcome to the Realm, where magic is your drug, your poison, and your only hope.
An illness is spreading through the city, marking the sick in mysterious letters scrawled across their skin. What is first thought to be madness reveals itself to be an awakening as residents rediscover themselves, their pasts, and their long-forgotten magic… things the Queen wants to remain buried. Things she will sacrifice her own children to suppress.
Mercy has never been a staple of the Realm. Treachery, blood, and magic steeps the city as the rebel leader, Red, seeks to topple the Tower, Princess Fay eyes her mother’s throne, and Prince Vaun must decide whether to submit to his mother’s terrible demand.
What’s Cheryl’s favorite bit?
Detox in Letters is the second book of the Crowns & Ash Series and it was a delight to write! After setting up the world and the characters in the first book, this was where I really had the chance to dig in to the meat of the Realm and start the characters on their personal evolutions.
Fay Dray Fen is my favorite bit of Detox in Letters. She monopolized almost all of my favorite scenes in this book. She’s the princess of the Realm, completely rejected and ignored by her mother, but the single most powerful character outside the Queen’s Tower. She built her reputation into a legend, inspiring both adoration and fear from her people, but throughout the first book, she was still playing her role as princess and following the rules. She was bitter and spiteful. But, in a city where power makes the rules, her cage was very much her own construction.
Detox in Letters picks up almost six years after Vanity in Dust and Fay takes a much more active, antagonistic role against the Queen. As a princess of the Realm, she has almost no one above her and, recognizing the flaws of her city, she starts taking steps toward change. She devours information, tests her strength, and eyes the throne.
Even when the Queen takes notice, first warning and eventually attacking Fay for her disobedience and treason, the princess sees it all as a sign of her own strength and her mother’s waning power.
Rage rippled through her, surprise cutting to the bone. A hundred screams rang out, hands pulling at her waist but unable to move her from the monster’s path.
Fay’s fingers sank into rough fur, pressing into muscle until she felt the shape of bones. How dare it turn on her? How dare the Queen? She twisted her hands and a loud snap rang in her ears. A breath gushed across her cheek and a spray of blood wet her skin, flecking her hair. The weight of the wolf hung from the grip she had on its throat, suddenly very real. Its hind legs and tail went limp, dragging on the floor. The mighty head hung to one side, dangling as though only flesh and fur kept it attached.
She swung her arm down, just as quickly as she had brought it up, and threw the body to the floor. It landed in a heap, no longer the Queen’s ghostly thief of souls, but a very real, very solid beast at her feet. It had changed when she grabbed it, just before she killed it. She had killed a wolf.
The others growled, skirting along the side of the room but watching her uneasily. The tools of the Queen did not know what to make of a victim that refused to die.
Her mother had tried to kill her.
Fay clicked her teeth and stepped around the dead monster, toward the rest of the pack. They fled. They had a soul to bring back to the Queen tonight, but it wasn’t hers. It would never be hers.
Silence clung to the room, all eyes upon her. They gawked, minds reeling, unsure whether to lay their gaze upon the dead beast at her back or the princess that had killed it. And then the thunder above rumbled again and the wild patter of rain beat down against the rooftop, sweeping them into a rise of voices and footfalls as guests climbed down from tables.
Fay walked away from the wolf, waves of guests edging into the space she abandoned to get a closer look. They parted for her in the hall, all the way to the door.
“Wait!” Vaun called from her back, but she didn’t stop.
The doorman faltered at her advance, his throat bobbing when he swallowed and his shoulders pressing back under the weight of duty. He opened the doors because she showed no sign of stopping. The sound of the storm rolled in through the entrance, rain beating a violent melody outside.
“Fay!” Vaun caught her arm just as she reached the threshold, skirts swaying when his grip brought her to a stop. He grabbed her other arm, too, just above the elbow, holding her back to his chest with the dark night ahead of them. “You can’t go out. It’s raining. Everyone will see,” he whispered near her ear.
She considered shoving him away but the worry in his voice reminded her heart that it did not need a mother’s love. Instead, she turned just enough to look back at him. His face was no less pretty for all the dread and worry gathered there.
“Maybe the wolf went mad,” her brother speculated in an act of desperation. “She’s losing control. It could have slipped the leash.”
She touched his hand on her arm to peel away his hold. He let go. “Don’t fret, little prince.” Fay smiled as the shock and anger wore off. She had killed a wolf. “Everything has changed.”
CHERYL LOW might be a dragon with a habit of destroying heroes, lounging in piles of shiny treasure, and abducting royals—a job she fell into after a short, failed attempt at being a mermaid. She can’t swim and eventually the other mermaids figured it out. She can, though, breathe fire and crush bones, so being a dragon suited her just fine.
…Or she might be a woman with a very active imagination, no desire to be outdoors, and more notebooks than she’ll ever know what to do with.
Find out by following her on social media @cherylwlow or check her webpage, CherylLow.com. The answer might surprise you! But it probably won’t.
Shawn Sheehy is joining us today with his post-apocolyptic pop up book, Beyond the Sixth Extinction. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Elaborate pop-ups feature some wonderfully creepy creatures that just might dominate the ecosystem — and be essential to our planet’s survival — in an eerily realistic future world.
Whether or not we know it, the sixth global extinction is already underway, propelled not by a meteor but by human activity on Earth. Take a long step forward into the year 4847 with the help of stunning pop-ups portraying eight fantastical creatures, along with spreads and flaps presenting details about each one. Paper engineer Shawn Sheehy envisions the aftermath of extinction as a flourishing ecosystem centered around fictional creatures that could evolve from existing organisms. Promising high appeal for curious kids and science fiction fans of all ages — and plenty of food for discussion in and out of a classroom — this evolutionary extravaganza offers a timeline of the six extinction events in Earth’s history, a “field guide” to each creature, a diagram of species relationships, a habitat map of the (imagined) ruins of Chicago, and an illuminating author’s note.
What’s Shawn’s favorite bit?
There is no cute in “Beyond the Sixth Extinction.” There are no puppies, pandas or chipmunks. Creatures such as these fail to fit the profile (with the possible exception of puppies; see below) of organisms that might endure into the fifth millennium. Cute has poor prospects for survival.
These creatures also fail to fit my aesthetic profile for the near future.
Science fiction writers either imagine things they would like to see come true (transponders—flip phones), or they imagine things that they don’t want to see come true (insert any post-apocalyptic scenario here.) Place me solidly in the second camp. Imagining a creepy future helps me to engender communal affection and a sense of conservation for the diversity and wonder of the wild world— a world that, sadly, is rapidly vanishing.
So. I creep it up.
While I was in the idea generating stages of BT6X, I stumbled across a useful passage in Stephen Jay Gould’s “Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History.” He comments on how much more popular radial symmetry was as a body form in the earth’s past. He directs our attention to the fossil evidence of these creatures found in the Burgess Shale.
Contemporary examples of creatures with radial body form symmetry include sea stars and sea anemones. Humans tend to be much more familiar with bilateral symmetry, since that is what we exhibit—as well as ALL OTHER TERRESTRIAL ANIMALS. Crazy, huh? Being radial evidently only works in the water.
I leaned a bit on radial symmetry in creating the creatures in BT6X. I leaned heavily on juxtaposition—taking features of two different creatures and whipping them up in a blender. For most of my creatures, there is a primary source in the juxtaposition; essentially, the 21st-century creature from which the 49th-century version evolved. The secondary source creature lends characteristics that make the primary creature more alien.
The rotrap (an elision of “roach” and “trap”) in BT6X is a solid example of this birthing-in-a-blender approach. The primary source creature is the common house mouse. The mouse, incidentally, readily fits the profile for a creature that will survive the sixth extinction. It is omnivorous— a trait that depends on a certain intelligence. It is adaptable. It thrives in human-made environments.
I wanted contrast for the secondary source creature, so I chose the sea anemone. The anemone’s radial symmetry introduces creepiness to the rotrap because the feature is utterly alien on land. Admittedly, I was also attracted to an evolutionary function here: creatures like sea stars are thought to have once been bilaterally symmetrical, and they eventually evolved to become radially symmetrical.
If sea stars can do it, why can’t mice?
The transformation began with sitting the mouse on its hindquarters and treating it like an upright tube, with a digestive tract down the middle. I migrated the mouse’s hind limbs to a position near the fore limbs, giving it the appearance of having four arms distributed evenly around its head. Like a sea anemone, the waving arms grab nearby insects and push them into the rotrap’s mouth.
I included the anemone’s sedentary feature. Many sea anemone tend to stay rooted in one place for long periods of time. Rooting a land animal required a mechanism, a method of predator evasion or defense, and a way to reckon with a digestive system that suddenly had no outlet.
The obvious solution to creating a rooting mechanism was to use the tail. The rotrap’s tail developed branches and the root hairs that can work themselves into a substrate. In this case, the substrate is the vertical masonry of the cooling towers of defunct nuclear power plants.
This nuclear vertical brick environment solves the problem of predation. Being rooted high up on a wall allows the rotrap to evade non-winged predators. Living in a highly radioactive environment helps them escape most others. (This environment does not, however, affect the proliferation of various insects that feed the rotrap.)
As for the plugged up digestive tract? I simply made it a two-way street—whatever goes down gets digested, and then the waste comes right back up again.
Shawn Sheehy is the award-winning creator of Welcome to the Neighborwood. Passionate about pop-up books, he works sculpturally with the book format and presents workshops on pop-up engineering across the country. He lives in Chicago.
(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, […]