Ashley and Leslie Saunders are joining us with their novel The Rule of One. Here’s the publisher’s description:
In their world, telling the truth has become the most dangerous crime of all.
In the near-future United States, a one-child policy is ruthlessly enforced. Everyone follows the Rule of One. But Ava Goodwin, daughter of the head of the Texas Family Planning Division, has a secret—one her mother died to keep and her father has helped to hide for her entire life.
She has an identical twin sister, Mira.
For eighteen years Ava and Mira have lived as one, trading places day after day, maintaining an interchangeable existence down to the most telling detail. But when their charade is exposed, their worst nightmare begins. Now they must leave behind the father they love and fight for their lives.
Branded as traitors, hunted as fugitives, and pushed to discover just how far they’ll go in order to stay alive, Ava and Mira rush headlong into a terrifying unknown.
What are their favorite bits?
Steely-vented hummingbird (Amazilia saucerrottei), perched on verbena plant, Costa Rica, July
“Resist much, obey little;
Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved;
Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city, of this earth, ever
afterward resumes its liberty.”
Ashley and I bought Walt Whitman’s Leave of Grass when we were studying abroad in Paris. We devoured the poetry then put it in our bookshelf and thought no more of it. Fast forward years later when we first started writing the story of the Rule of One. We divide our novel into four parts, and in earlier versions of our manuscript we put quotes before each one. We were researching impactful, thought-provoking quotes when we came across the Walt Whitman poem “Caution”. The words hit us like a lightening bolt. They were a warning, an urging, a call to arms. The poem was written in the late 1800s but it felt like the words could have been written today. We knew we had to use the poem in some way for our storyline and as we further developed our outline we knew we found the perfect usage for such bold, meaningful words.
We made the poem the words of Ava and Mira’s rebellion.
In a militarized, surveilled world, these words are criminal, illegal. Impossible. Twin sisters Ava and Mira are not supposed to exist. Mira is an illegal second child living in a one-child policy America. When the governor’s son discovers their secret the sisters are forced to go on the run, embarking on a cross-country journey of discovery. When they’re on the road the sisters learn of Whitman’s words inside a journal their father left for them. Will they take the words to heart and resist? Or will they obey? We had great fun using 19th century poetry to inspire a futuristic rebellion.
“The government may always be watching, but they do not always see.”
That is one of my favorite lines of the whole book. Government surveillance in our future United States is at an all-time high- citizen’s every move is monitored and tracked. We were challenged with how in such a restricted world where families can only have one child, a family could get away with having twins. Ava, the eldest twin, is the only one to have a microchip. She is the face of the sisters, the character they both play.
However, Mira can game the system because she has identical features as Ava. She can fake out the Facial Recognition System, so she’s allowed to go to school every other day. A key to the sisters’ success: people see what they expect to see. Twins haven’t been detected in the United States in generations- no one has the slightest idea that Ava could possibly be hiding such a massive secret as having an illegal twin sister. Every time someone sees Mira at school they see Ava, because that is what they expect to see.
Privacy is a huge issue in our current generation and it will only get worse as technology continues to advance. I hope that the government’s iron-clad authority in The Rule of One does not become our future reality.
Hailing from the suburbs of Dallas, Texas, Ashley Saunders and Leslie Saunders are award-winning filmmakers and twin sisters who honed their love of storytelling at The University of Texas at Austin. While researching The Rule of One, they fell in love with America’s national parks, traveling the path of Ava and Mira. The sisters can currently be found with their Boston terriers in sunny Los Angeles, exploring hiking trails and drinking entirely too much yerba mate. Visit them at www.thesaunderssisters.com or follow them on Instagram @saunderssisters.
Peter James is joining us today with his novel Absolute Proof. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Investigative reporter Ross Hunter nearly didn’t answer the phone call that would change his life – and possibly the world – for ever.
‘I’d just like to assure you I’m not a nutcase, Mr Hunter. My name is Dr Harry F. Cook. I know this is going to sound strange, but I’ve recently been given absolute proof of God’s existence – and I’ve been advised there is a writer, a respected journalist called Ross Hunter, who could help me to get taken seriously.’
What would it take to prove the existence of God? And what would be the consequences?
This question and its answer lie at the heart of Absolute Proof, an international thriller from bestselling author Peter James.
The false faith of a billionaire evangelist, the life’s work of a famous atheist, and the credibility of each of the world’s major religions are all under threat. If Ross Hunter can survive long enough to present the evidence . . .
What’s Peter James’s favorite bit?
My favourite bit of my novel Absolute Proof, is Chapter Eight, in which my central character, investigative journalist Ross Hunter, gets the phone call that I did actually get out of the blue, one afternoon, that resulted in this book, the one I am most excited about of everything I’ve written.
Almost 30 years ago, back in 1989, the phone rang, one afternoon. An elderly sounding gentleman asked if I was Peter James, the author. Hesitantly, I said I was.
‘Thank God I’ve found you!’ he replied. ‘I’ve called every Peter James in the phone book in the South of England, it’s taken me two weeks. My name is Harry Nixon, I assure you I’m not a lunatic, I’m a retired academic, and was a pilot in Coastal Command during the War. This may sound extraordinary, but I’ve been given absolute proof of God’s existence, and I’ve been told, on the highest authority, that you are the man to help me get taken seriously.’
If it wasn’t for the fact that he sounded so genuinely sincere, I might have hung up on him, but there was just something about this that intrigued the writer in me. ‘May I ask who exactly recommended me?’
‘Well I’m sure it will sound strange, but I can assure you it was a representative of God. Please hear me out.’
He was right, it sounded mighty strange and far-fetched. But I let him continue.
He told me he lived in the Midlands and that his wife, also a former academic, had recently passed away from cancer. Before she died, they made a pact that he would go to a medium to attempt to communicate with her, as proof of life beyond death. Some while after her death, he dutifully did this, but instead of a communication from his wife, a male claiming to be a representative of God came through.
He told Harry Nixon that God was extremely concerned about the state of the world, and felt that if mankind could have faith in Him reaffirmed, it would help steer us back onto an even keel. As proof of his bona fides, God’s representative had given him three pieces of information no one on earth knew, all of them in the form of compass coordinates: The first was the precise location of the tomb of Akhenaten, uncle of Tutankhamun and the first monotheist of the pharos. The second was the location of the Holy Grail. And the third was the location of the Ark of the Covenant.
I asked him if he had checked any of these out and he replied, excitedly, that he had indeed. ‘I can’t tell you any more over the phone, Mr James, I need to come and see you. I’m going to need four days of your time.’
I told him that was a pretty big ask! I said I could spare him half an hour for a cup of tea and if he could convince me we needed longer, we’d take it from there. We made an arrangement for him to come down the following week, at 4pm. I thought that would be a safe time, as my wife would be home from work at 5.30, and if he had me in headlock, she’d be able to assist!
On the nanosecond of 4pm the following Tuesday, the doorbell rang.
Standing there was a man in his seventies, holding a large attaché case, who had the air of a retired bank manager. He was dressed in a neat suit, with matching tie and handkerchief and looked at me with sad, rheumy eyes. ‘Thank you for seeing me, Mr James,’ he said, shaking my hand and holding my gaze. ‘You and I have to save the world.’
‘Yep, well, I’ll do my best, I replied.
I made him a cup of tea and sat down with him in the living room. ‘So where do we start?’ I asked him.
He opened his case and removed a manuscript, hundreds of pages thick, bound with an elastic band. ‘We start with you reading this, please.’
I glanced at it, it looked about 1,000 pages long, typed with the pages covered in handwritten annotations. ‘Sure,’ I said, ‘Leave it with me.’
He shook his head. ‘I cannot let this out of my sight – this was channeled to me directly from God, through his representative.’
‘So Mr Nixon, you are going to sit there, in that chair, watching me sitting here, reading it all the way through until I’ve finished?’
‘This would take me four days!’
Excitedly he retorted, ‘See, I told you so!’
I replied that either he took a massive leap of faith and left it with me, or he took it back home with him after his cuppa, but there was no way he was going to sit in my home for four days! ‘And, before anything else, could he now answer my question over the phone about whether he had checked out any of the coordinates.
He replied he had indeed. Using his skills learned as a pilot in the War, he now had, so far, the precise location of the lost tomb of Akhenaten in the Valley of the Kings, and the precise location of the Holy Grail. The Holy Grail, he told me, was at Chalice Well in Glastonbury. I’d never heard of this place, but I subsequently discovered this wasn’t too far-fetched a scenario. Long a holy and mystical site, there is some evidence that Joseph of Arimithea bought the Holy Grail – the chalice used at the Last Supper and to collect Christ’s blood when he was on the cross to Glastonbury and hid it at Chalice Well.
‘I’ve been dowsing and metal detecting there, and there is something under the ground in the exact position I’ve been given,’ Harry said. ‘Chalice Well is run by a group of trustees – I’ve approached them asking permission to do an archaeological dig at this location but they won’t take me seriously. But, Mr James, I am sure they would take you seriously.’
Eventually he agreed to leave the manuscript with me, and trundled off into the night. I settled down to start reading – and after about twenty minutes I began to lose the will to live. I was wading through page after page of religious tracts, new age diatribes, and barely legible annotations.
I might have simply returned the manuscript to him the next day, were it not for an extraordinary thing that happened and was to change everything.
By sheer coincidence, the following day I had to go to Bristol to do a BBC radio interview for my then latest novel. When we finished the interview, I carried on chatting for some minutes with the very bright and delightful presenter. Suddenly, out of the blue, she mentioned Chalice Well.
Coincidences have always fascinated me, and her words send a ripple of excitement through me. Twenty-four hours earlier I’d never heard of the place – and now it was twice in two days. ‘What do you know about Chalice Well?’ I asked her.
‘Quite a bit – my uncle’s a trustee,’ she replied.
Astonished and very excited now I told her the story of my encounter with Harry Nixon. She said she would ask her uncle what he knew about the man. I left, feeling very strange – not exactly the chosen one but I had the feeling something was going on, and phoned a good friend of mine, Dominic Walker, who at that time was the Bishop of Reading (he went on to become Bishop of Monmouth and is now retired). I asked if I could come and talk to him.
I should add that Dominic had always struck me as a very modern thinking clergyman, coming from a no-nonsense family – his father was a doctor, his mother a nurse – and he has a brilliant intellect. Over lunch a couple of days later, I told him the story and asked him what he thought.
He thought about it very carefully and said, ‘I think I would want something more than just three sets of compass coordinates to give me proof of God. I would want to see something that defies the laws of physics of the universe – in other words a miracle, and it would need to be a pretty spectacular one.’
‘OK,’ I replied. ‘If someone could deliver that, what then?’
‘You know what I really think if someone could deliver that? I think they would be assassinated. Because whose God would it actually be? You have all the different factions of the Anglican, Catholic, Judaic, Islamic, Hindu, Sikh and all the other monotheist religions in utter disarray. How would China view it or Russia? Would either of them want a higher power usurping their authority? What would the impact actually be on the world?’
As I left, I punched the air with excitement, as I realized I had my story right there! A thriller about a man on the path to discovering absolute proof of God’s existence, up against those who want to stop him, and those who want ownership of it….
Peter James is a UK No. 1 bestselling author, best known for writing crime and thriller novels, and the creator of the much-loved Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. With a total of 13 Sunday Times No. 1s under his belt, he has achieved global book sales of over 19 million copies to date, and has been translated into 37 languages.
Synonymous with plot-twisting page-turners, Peter has garnered an army of loyal fans throughout his storytelling career – which also included stints writing for TV and producing films. He has won over 40 awards for his work, including the WHSmith Best Crime Author of All Time Award, Crime Writers’ Association Diamond Dagger and a BAFTA nomination for The Merchant of Venice starring Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons for which he was an Executive Producer. Many of Peter’s novels have been adapted for film, TV and stage.
His new book Absolute Proof – a stand-alone thriller – which was published by Pan Macmillan on 4th October 2018.
Sherylyn and Karen Dunstall, writing together as S. K. Dunstall, are joining us today to talk about their book Stars Uncharted. Here’s the publisher’s description:
In this rip-roaring space opera, a ragtag band of explorers are out to make the biggest score in the galaxy.
On this space jump, no one is who they seem . . .
Captain Hammond Roystan is a simple cargo runner who has stumbled across the find of a lifetime: the Hassim, a disabled exploration ship–and its valuable record of unexplored worlds.
His junior engineer, Josune Arriola, said her last assignment was in the uncharted rim. But she is decked out in high-level bioware that belies her humble backstory.
A renowned body-modification artist, Nika Rik Terri has run afoul of clients who will not take no for an answer. She has to flee off-world, and she is dragging along a rookie modder, who seems all too experienced in weapons and war . . .
Together this mismatched crew will end up on one ship, hurtling through the lawless reaches of deep space with Roystan at the helm. Trailed by nefarious company men, they will race to find the most famous lost world of all–and riches beyond their wildest dreams . . .
What is their favorite bit?
S. K. DUNSTALL
Our method of writing together involves a lot of talking. Sure, we might say one of us writes the first draft and the other then does the heavy bulk of rewriting, but it’s not that simple in real life. One of us does write a first draft, but the other writer follows, accepting or rejecting changes, editing the edits.
As we write, we talk about what’s happened in the piece that’s just been written, and what’s going to happen next. We call ourselves pantsers because we don’t use a formal plot outline, but having talked it out, we generally know what’s going to happen just before we start writing it.
Those talks are more than just about what’s happening in the next bit of writing. Sometimes we talk about plot, or setting. Sometimes we talk about character. We often go off on a tangent and talk out little mini-stories about the characters.
Some of those mini stories make it into the book. Most don’t.
We didn’t realise for a long time that we were creating character backstory.
We created a lot of backstory in the characters in Stars Uncharted. It was fun to talk out how the individual characters would work. Particularly Nika.
Nika Rik Terri is a body modder. That’s the equivalent of a modern-day plastic surgeon crossed with a doctor crossed with an artist. She makes people beautiful for living. She’s a perfectionist. She’s a craftsman. She’s acknowledged as one of the finest modders of her day.
So much so that young Bertram Snowshoe (aka Snow), who’s on the run with her, idolises Nika Rik Terri, and mentions her all the time. Which gets embarrassing, given Nika is on the run and is now calling herself Nika James. But we digress.
Most people would call Nika obsessed. She thinks about body modding every waking minute of her day; she thinks about the people she meets in terms of what she would do to their body to make them look better.
There’s a throwaway line early in the novel—at least, we thought it was a throwaway line when we wrote it—describing her ex-boyfriend’s old boss.
“Please, call me Leonard.” He smiled, showing beautiful white teeth. Samson Sa, of SaStudio, was meticulous about teeth.
We got a lot of mileage out of that line. So many verbal skits came out of it and helped us build Nika’s character.
There are only a handful of body modders in Nika’s class. One of them is Samson Sa, of SaStudio. Nika never says outright, in the story, that she has a professional rivalry with Samson Sa, but in the backstory we created she most certainly does.
So every time she sees SaStudio’s trademark teeth it makes her grind her own teeth a little, as it were.
As we told more backstory, the teeth (and a square jaw) kept popping up in the story, because all our bad guys went to the same body modder. Samson Sa. It became an in-joke.
Late in the book our ragtag band of explorers are captured. There’s an incident around a genemod machine, which leads to Nika saying,
“If you wanted cutting-edge mods you should have come to my studio. Instead, you went to SaStudio and got perfect teeth and a square jaw.”
Benedict stiffened. “How do you know where I got my mods done?”
“Samson Sa,” Nika said to Snow. “He’s obsessed with teeth.” He probably had bad teeth as a child. “And he loves a square jaw. What you see there is classic SaStudio. It’s like a signature.”
Snow looked at Benedict. Benedict looked at Nika. Both were a little open mouthed.
“What you’re aiming for, Snow, are mods so unique no one knows who did them. And every season you come up with a different look. Go ahead, have a closer look. I’ll watch the temperature.”
Snow shrugged apologetically and declined to go closer. “She does it to everyone,” he told Benedict.
Nika’s obsession with body modding, and creating perfect bodies is not something that we would normally write as a preference, but it was fun trying to keep her in character. Keeping that obsession and writing through how she would view the world and the people in it, although irritating at times, was one of our favourite bits.
Not only that, it shows perfectly Snow’s and Nika’s relationship.
S. K. Dunstall is the pen name for Sherylyn and Karen Dunstall, sisters who live in Melbourne, Australia. They are the national best-selling authors of the Linesman series, including Linesman, Alliance, and Confluence.
Their new book, Stars Uncharted, came out on 14 August 2018, published by Ace Books.
Lawrence M. Schoen is joining us today to talk about his novel The Moons of Barsk. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Pizlo, the lonely young outcast and physically-challenged Fant, is now a teenager. He still believes he hears voices from the planet’s moons, imparting secret knowledge to him alone. And so embarks on a dangerous voyage to learn the truth behind the messages. His quest will catapult him offworld for second time in his short life, and reveal things the galaxy isn’t yet ready to know.
Elsewhere, Barsk’s Senator Jorl, who can speak with the dead, navigates galactic politics as Barsk’s unwelcome representative, and digs even deeper into the past than ever before to discover new truths of his own.
What’s Lawrence’s favorite bit?
LAWRENCE M. SCHOEN
One of the problems with sequels is that you worry that you’ve used up all the cool bits in the first book, all the fancy magic or splendid gadgets or awesome concepts. The first book had anthropomorphic elephants (in space!), a drug for speaking to the dead, a plot to destroy an entire race and their planet, and a long dead politician manipulating society centuries from beyond the grave. It was a lot to take in, and I wanted book two to be even better, so I went looking for ways to build on what I’d already done, but expanding in new directions at the same time.
The Moons of Barsk occurs about six years after the first book. Our protagonist Pizlo, an adolescent who has been marked as an Abomination. He’s considered to be invisible by all “right-thinking people” and he’s only had two adults to talk to him, teach him, raise him. Fortunately, throughout his young life he’s conversed with the world around him, chatting with trees and clouds, even the moons that orbit Barsk. Poised on the brink of adulthood, he’s coming to understand that these voices are actually a manifestation of a more powerful gift: Pizlo is a precog. The voices are a metaphor his mind invented to make sense of his visions.
As part of Pizlo’s education, learns to use the drug for speaking to the dead and with converse the Archetype of Man, an ancient artificial intelligence and repository of all of humanity’s stories. It’s an imperfect system, as a boy who is shunned by his own world is instructed by the ghost of a machine that knows nothing of that world. But it does give rise to my favorite bit: After years of myths and tales and epics, Pizlo has an insight that all the stories are the same story. Frustrated, he confronts his teacher and rewrites his understanding of the universe.
“All your stories! They’re all the same.”
“That’s false, Pizlo. They involve different heroes performing different actions in different settings for different purposes—”
“At a meta-level, they’re all the same!”
“Oh, yes, that is true. As we discussed, there are patterns that repeat throughout all of human history and storytelling, that resonate for all people, but even so differences—”
“And at a meta-meta-level?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.”
“Every story, they’re all about what you would call the ‘human condition,’ aren’t they?”
“How could they not? They are human stories.”
“Yeah. Not the long dead race of humans. They’re everyone’s stories. Humans and Fant and Marmo and Brady and . . . and . . . everyone. It’s all one story. It’s the story of us and what it means to be that.”
“Yes, Pizlo. Every story is a way of glimpsing a different facet of who we are.”
“But that’s not just true of your stories, is it?”
“Again, I apologize. I am not following your questions.”
“Stories aren’t just fiction,” he said.
“No, you’re mistaken. Stories, by definition, are constructed. They may be based upon actual events, or inspired in some way, but through the vehicle of metaphor they—”
Pizlo waved him to silence with his trunk. “No, I’m not. Don’t start in again with metaphor. You’re wrong. Everything we do is a story, whether anyone tells it or not. And because all the stories are the same story, so is everything we do. Everyone that’s ever lived, everyone that’s drawing breath right now, and even all who will be born sometime in the future, we’re all living a story. The same story.”
“Ah. I understand you now. Yes. And, it should not surprise you that I have stories about this too.”
“About pointlessness? About futility? About asking what the value of anything is?”
“Many such stories,” said the Archetype of Man. “The concepts of nothingness, of oblivion and uselessness are a popular subset of stories.”
“But if it’s all the same story, then the story about predestination is also the story of free will. Living and death. Joy and love and hatred and fear and indifference. Each of those stories is the same story like every story. Nothing matters because everything is everything.”
“Yes. Except . . .”
Pizlo froze. “Tell me,” he whispered.
“You have invoked story, and meta-story, and meta-meta-story.”
“What lies beyond that?”
“Nothing!” Pizlo shouted. “Nothing exists beyond because everything is everything else.”
“What if you’re wrong?”
“Even if everything is story, the fact that you can conceive such a state demands that you have rejected that there can be anything that isn’t. But, to make such an observation, you first must have the concept of something that isn’t. Which means you’re wrong. Which means that story isn’t like all the rest. But it has to be. But it can’t be. Paradox.”
“A self-contradictory statement.”
“You’re saying that yes, because everything is everything else, then everything is pointless. Except if that’s so, then saying so requires the existence of something that isn’t, or how could we know? Except then the first thing isn’t possible. Paradox.”
“I don’t think I have anything left to teach you, Pizlo. Many more stories, surely, but nothing that will inform the person you are.”
“Yeah. But . . . thank you. Truly.”
“What will you do?”
“That’s the question, isn’t it? Because it doesn’t matter, but it’s also the only thing that ever could. Paradox.”
This sets the stage for Pizlo to write his personal Hero’s Journey: the Abomination from a race that is reviled by the rest of the galaxy, a young man who can see the future but nonetheless believes he can change it.
It’s my favorite bit because Pizlo shows us something quite profound: knowing the future doesn’t mean you necessarily understand it, and understanding the future doesn’t guarantee you actually know it. And either way, or both, you have to go on. Because that’s what heroes do.
LAWRENCE M. SCHOEN holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and is a certified hypnotist. He’s also one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Klingon language, and the publisher of a speculative fiction small press, Paper Golem. His debut novel Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard won the Coyotl Award for Best Novel, and his latest is the sequel The Moons of Barsk. Schoen has been a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award, the Hugo Award, and the Nebula Award. Lawrence lives near Philadelphia.
Drew Williams is joining us today with his novel The Stars Now Unclaimed. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Jane Kamali is an agent for the Justified. Her mission: to recruit children with miraculous gifts in the hope that they might prevent the Pulse from once again sending countless worlds back to the dark ages.
Hot on her trail is the Pax–a collection of fascist zealots who believe they are the rightful rulers of the galaxy and who remain untouched by the Pulse.
Now Jane, a handful of comrades from her past, and a telekinetic girl called Esa must fight their way through a galaxy full of dangerous conflicts, remnants of ancient technology, and other hidden dangers.
And that’s just the beginning . . .
What’s Drew’s favorite bit?
“Fuck you,” she murmured, the words gentle, almost astonished. “Fuck your sorry.”
That’s it; that’s my favorite line from The Stars Now Unclaimed. As far as I’m concerned, if a character is funny, that means the reader likes them more and cares more about what happens to them – so my characters have a tendency to converse in rapid-fire bursts of wordplay and sarcasm. Every once in a while, though, those defenses get stripped away, and you’re left with the true nature of the characters, and in this particular case, that true nature was ‘in pain’.
The line comes at almost the exact midpoint of the novel, where Jane Kamali, our protagonist, has just revealed her own culpability in the great catastrophe that has befallen the universe. It was kind of a ‘live or die’ moment as I was writing the novel: I had to find a way to let these disparate characters react naturally to this new, horrible information, to react in a way that fit with who they’d been before they learned this, while at the same time not alienating them from each other so much that they wouldn’t be able to come together and stop the threat the entire novel was focused around.
The initial genesis of The Stars Now Unclaimed was my lifelong obsession with the atomic bomb, an obsession more with the decision to drop it, rather than the ramifications – both purposeful and unexpected – of its use. My favorite quote in the world is the (possibly apocryphal) exchange between Robert J. Oppenheimer and Kenneth Bainbridge, immediately after the first successful test of the Manhattan Project:
Oppenheimer (quoting from the Baghavad Gita): ‘I have become Death, destroyer of worlds’.
Bainbridge: ‘Yeah, we’re all sons of bitches now’.
Both men knew the force they were about to unleash upon the world might ultimately have more destructive repercussions than the entire war it had been built to stop, but they – and General Eisenhower, and President Truman, whose quote ‘the buck stops here’ is given entirely new meaning in the context of the bomb – decided to move forward anyway, and the rest, as they say, is history.
I decided to set The Stars Now Unclaimed in a sort of post-apocalyptic space opera setting – I got to play with fancy toys like spaceships and sarcastic AI, whilst also getting down into the dirt and the ruin of post-apocalyptic desperation – but that conversation between Oppenheimer and Bainbridge was always in the back of my mind: an apocalypse starts somewhere, after all. Someone made the decision to do this to the galaxy, even if this wasn’t their intention. And the things we don’t intend sometimes have significantly more far-reaching consequences than those we do; none of us can see all ends.
One of my characters, in particular – an AI called ‘Preacher’, who speaks the above quote – was given reason to be especially bitter about the apocalypse: it had doomed her people to a kind of slow-motion genocide, no technology was left to create more of her species. So when she learns of Jane’s role in the unintended destruction of her entire species – when Jane, somewhat fumblingly, tries to justify what she did, why the decision was made, how it was carried out – the above line is her response. She doesn’t care why it happened, why her people are slowly vanishing from the universe: it truly doesn’t matter. There’s nothing at all Jane could say, to defend what the Preacher sees as the indefensible.
I didn’t expect the Preacher to say those words. I went into the scene with the mentality of ‘let’s just see how she reacts’; I’d expected rage, maybe, a kind of fury that would test the other characters. Instead, I got grief, and despair. The Preacher had been looking for an answer as to why her people were dying, and when she found it, it was no universal truth, no ‘there was a reason after all’: it was just people, trying to do something good, and fucking up despite it. Jane apologizes, and she means it, because she never intended for the apocalypse to happen – to go back to the metaphor of the atomic bomb, she meant to detonate a single weapon over Hiroshima (still a difficult moral decision in and of itself), not to set the entire planet’s atmosphere on fire.
The Preacher hears that apology, acknowledges it, and doesn’t care. Because she has her own pain to deal with, her own shock to process, and that’s too big for her to move beyond in that moment, and who can blame her? ‘Fuck you. Fuck your sorry.’ That doesn’t mean Jane was wrong to attempt to apologize, and it doesn’t mean the Preacher was wrong to reject it. Like I said about unintended consequences above: sometimes the things we try to do, and fail in, say more about who we are than where we succeed.
So anyway: that’s my favorite bit. Two people, trying to find a way around the wrong one of them has done, and in that moment, failing. It just feels more honest, somehow.
DREW WILLIAMS has been a bookseller in Birmingham, Alabama since he was sixteen years old, when he got the job because he came in looking for work on a day when someone else had just quit. Outside of arguing with his coworkers about whether Moby Dick is brilliant (nope) or terrible (that one), his favorite part of the job is discovering new authors and sharing them with his customers.
Michael J. Martinez is joining us today to talk about his novel MJ-12: Endgame. Here’s the publisher’s description:
A Cold War fought by superhuman agents reaches a boiling point in the thrilling finale to the MAJESTIC-12 historical thriller/superhero mash-up series from Michael J. Martinez.
Josef Stalin is dead. In the aftermath, the Soviet Union is thrown into crisis, giving former secret police chief Laverentiy Beria exactly the opening he needs. Beria’s plan is to secretly place his country’s Variants―ordinary people mysteriously embued with strange, superhuman powers―into the very highest levels of leadership, where he can use them to stage a government coup and seize control of the USSR.
America’s response comes from its intelligence communities, including the American Variants recruited for the top-secret MAJESTIC-12 program, who are suddenly thrown into their most dangerous and important assignment yet. From the halls of the Kremlin to the battlefields of Korea, superpowered covert agents face off to determine the future of the planet―a future their very existence may ultimately threaten.
What’s Michael’s favorite bit?
MICHAEL J. MARTINEZ
Three novels into a series, one ends up racking up quite a few favorite bits. It’s my work, after all, so I should hope I like it! And there’s a lot I really like about MJ-12: Endgame, from the way the characters have grown and developed, how things unfolded to bring the series to a satisfying…wait for it…endgame.
But one of the running themes in the story is how these characters – normal people suddenly gifted with extraordinary abilities and pressed into service as covert agents – deal with the “gifts” they’ve been given. In this book, superpowers come with trade-offs, and some of them are pretty severe.
Frank Lodge has the ability to absorb the skills and knowledge from people at the moment of their deaths – but must also contend with memory and personalities. Maggie Dubinsky can manipulate emotions, but at the cost of her own stability. Only technological “null-generators” can interfere with their abilities, and also cut them off from the side effects.
How they deal with all this has evolved differently for each person. For example, take this conversation between Frank and Maggie as they walk through a Moscow park undercover:
“Don’t you shut it off now and then? I do. If the voices are particularly rambunctious, I’ll flip on a generator for a few hours just to get some peace and quiet,” Frank said.
“You do that?” Maggie asked, eyebrows raised. “Don’t you feel strange without them?”
Frank just shrugged. “It’s nice. There’s no running commentary in my head. No analysis of every little thing I do. No opinions on how to cook a goddamned egg, or whether I’m doing enough weights at the gym, or arguments between voices on what’s the most authentic way to eat caviar with tea.”
“Yeah, just now at the hotel. Apparently, you can either serve it on half a boiled egg, or on bread with butter. If they weren’t just disembodied voices attached to random memories, I’d swear the people in my head would’ve ended up in a fist fight.”
Frank thought that would make Maggie laugh, but she just shook her head. “All that company with you, all the time. You’re never lonely. That’s something.”
“Wish I were sometimes,” Frank said. “That’s why I use the null generator, just to get some alone time. You don’t ever use one?”
“Hell, no,” she said, looking alarmed. “I’d feel . . . blind. Scared. I wouldn’t know how people were feeling, what they’d be likely to do.”
“You mean exactly how the rest of us live our lives?” Frank asked. “I have no idea how people are feeling except for what they say or how they look.”
“Most people hide it well,” Maggie replied, clutching Frank’s hand a little tighter as they walked, part of their married couple ruse, an old tradecraft habit. Their Russian tails likely already had a brief on them anyway. “But under the surface, they carry around so much anger. Disappointment. Lust. Sadness. All of it. That shit builds up and you never know when one of ’em is just gonna pop. The average person is just a stupid, instinctual, emotional powder keg ready to blow. All they need is the right push. And I don’t wanna be around when that happens.”
“You sound like you really don’t like people anymore,” Frank said quietly.
“People are shit, Frank. They really are. In the end, they’re just fight or flight, pleasure and pain. Everything else is just window-dressing to cover up the fact that they’re animals.”
So that’s my favorite bit in MJ-12: Endgame, and perhaps in the entire series. I like that as these powers have grown to be part of these characters, their attitudes and perspectives have changed dramatically – and maybe not necessarily for the better.
Michael J. Martinez is the author of the Daedalus trilogy of Napoleonic era space opera adventures as well as the MAJESTIC-12 series of superpowered spy-fi thrillers. He likes mashing genres together, obviously. His short fiction has appeared in Unidentified Funny Objects 4, Cthulhu Fhtagn!, Geeky Giving and The Endless Ages Anthology for Vampire: The Masquerade. He recently moved to Los Angeles and already misses rain and cold weather, but is otherwise thriving. He can be found online at michaeljmartinez.net and on Twitter at @mikemartinez72.
Andrea Phillips is joining us today to talk about Season 4 of the serial fiction Bookburners, written with Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Brian Francis Slattery, and Mur Lafferty. Here’s a description:
Everything in the Bookburners’ lives falls into two categories: Before London and After London. Before London, things were strange, sure, but After London . . . “strange” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Magic is everywhere—and the Bookburners can only be in one place at a time.
What’s Andrea’s favorite bit?
Love is wonderful, isn’t it? It’s wonderful unless you’re a main character in a story. But when you are in a story, if you and your beloved get together any time before the last act… that’s pretty bad news for you and your chance things are going to go well and smoothly. Odds are strong that tragedy is coming your way, self-inflicted or otherwise.
That’s because you just don’t see healthy long-term romantic relationships in media very often (though it bears noting that our hostess Mary Robinette Kowal does write them, and brilliantly!) In large part, healthy relationships are inherently less dramatically exciting. Calm adults rationally talking through their problems and coming to a reasonable compromise makes a great world to live in, but it’s pretty boring to read about.
So in order to make a relationship feel exciting, all of the writer’s focus is often on getting the couple together — how many TV shows have had near-infinite seasons of will-they-or-won’t-they? And then, if the story doesn’t end at a first kiss or a wedding, we tend to fixate on the kinds of stories where it’s easiest to find continuing dramatic tension: external events that come between our lovers. Fights and breakups. Pasts coming back to haunt them, misplaced jealousy and trust issues, cheating, betrayal, ignoring each other’s needs or priorities. It’s high drama, and it’s exciting to read, to be sure. But it’s not… healthy.
Unfortunately, this can have a detrimental effect on the real world, too. There’s strong evidence that the way the world is portrayed in media has a strong effect on our own behaviors. Think about how the Hollywood smoking ban affected smoking rates, and how looking at Photoshop-thin fashion models makes girls more likely to fall into body dysmorphia and disordered eating. And so modeling how a healthy relationship should work is important, simply to maintain and reinforce our cultural understanding that such a thing even exists.
With that in mind, the Bookburners team was dead set on writing the Sal/Grace romance as a solid, healthy relationship going into Season 4. Sal is a veteran police detective, and Grace is a woman cursed in 1920s Shanghai to only live when the candle bound to her life force is burning. They’ve worked together on the Vatican’s black ops magic suppression team for years, and now their partnership has grown deeper.
The strength of this partnership was important to all of the writing team, not least because we love these characters and we want them to be happy. They were always meant to be together. But nobody’s interested a boring story. So what do you do? Introduce external complications that test the strength of the relationship? Just cut off that thread so the dynamic between those two characters remains static and dull for the rest of the series, however long that might be?
Ugh. Terrible options all around.
The good news, though, is that this is a false choice. In reality, a healthy relationship is like a symphony, with tension constantly arising and resolving. And on the Bookburners team, we pass the thread from one writer to another, like a melody passing through each instrument in turn.
The Grace/Sal relationship has been a slow burn, even if it was destined from page 1. Now that we’ve arrived at that moment, we planned extensively for how to move ahead with this relationship, because we did want it to be healthy. But we also wanted it to be dynamic and compelling.
That brings me to my favorite part of this season. At the end of episode 7, Wax, there’s a moment where Sal is worried because Grace has been unhappy lately — not with her; there’s no fear for the relationship there. But Grace has been frustrated with some of the unromantic parts of life, like doing the laundry. Unlike most of us, Grace hasn’t had to deal with the tedium of maintaining a life for years; she’s been a weapon, woken only when it’s time for her to punch something.
Now, though, she’s choosing to live like a person again, at the cost of shortening the amount of life she has left. And Sal is worried for her, wondering if Grace shouldn’t go back to sleeping through the boring parts.
But Grace has a speech that I’m tremendously proud of: she tells a story about a bottle of perfume she’d once had, that she kept saving for a special occasion that ultimately never arrived. And she doesn’t want to do that with Sal. Grace wants to be there all the time, even for the boring parts, because what they have is too precious to miss out on any moment of it.
It’s easy to be in love in the quick, flame-hot days of limerence. But a healthy relationship is what blossoms after that, on every day that you do laundry, or agree to have what your partner wants for dinner even though you don’t like it very much; every discussion about a thermostat or a difficult relative or a misbehaving pet or child. Love is what happens on every day that you choose to be together. Even — especially — on the days when it’s not very exciting.
Shannon Eichorn is joining us today with her novel Rights of Use. Here is the description:
In the 1960s, Project Blue Book assured America that no aliens visited its amber waves or shining seas.
Thirty years later, Project Black Book knows better and has the flying saucers to prove it, but they still can’t stop the body-possessing Kemtewet from scooping their pick of young women from Earth to host an alien queen.
Sarah Anderson yearned for an escape from her new life in Pennsylvania, but not for this: being kidnapped by aliens and faced with a choice between having a Kemtewet queen erase her brain or sharing her body with a Gertewet insurgent. Unless the Air Force can rescue her in time, it’s either death or a chance to make a difference in the galaxy. With Sarah, the Gertewet have one last shot to end the Kemtewet Empire and free billions of humans subject to their body markets.
In a war over consent, only some things are black and white.
What’s Shannon’s favorite bit?
I have an obsession with alien symbionts.
It started with Stargate. Or maybe it started when I was growing up as an only child. Or maybe it started when I was bullied.
I love the idea of having that constant companion, that implicit ally in every bit of pettiness in daily life. “No, you’re not overreacting. This is a problem.” I like the idea of being paired up with someone older and wiser who can take a step back from the emotions of the moment and call me out. “You can lay off the road rage, Shannon. Tailgating them is unsafe and not going to help anything.” I daydream about having a second perspective available the instant I need it. “You have to make this snap decision for the first time. Here are the implications you don’t know about yet.”
I’ve been writing about body-possessing aliens for fifteen years. As I’ve been revising and polishing the first book in a series, my favorite bit, hands down, is the implantation scene. When I started revising, this was the core thing that kept me from skipping the series beginning: when Vinnet and her host first meet. I especially love it after all the revisions. I love how immediate the host’s fear comes across, and how it shines in the last draft. Even more, I love the situation. Vinnet is a sentient, intelligent, compassionate creature desperate to get her potential host’s permission before implanting herself, but she has no ears and no mouth. She can’t speak or listen. This whole scene is how to be responsible and seek consent when all the odds are against you. Because that’s what good guys do, even when they’re body-possessing aliens and taking over hosts is a fact of day-to-day life.
I love this scene for how it fits in the overall book. This is the end of the world for the new host. It’s been one trauma after another, and to her, this is surely how she’ll die. But because she meets Vinnet and takes on this symbiont, she gets empowered to fight the oppression that brought her here, both as an individual and in conjunction with her entire planet. As a side effect, it even assuages the loneliness she dealt with before she was kidnapped.
Every time I read it, this scene and this book are a touchstone for me to remember that a lot of good can come out of “end of the world” crises. It just takes a long time to see it.
Shannon Eichorn is a scifi writer and aerospace engineer in Cleveland, Ohio. She received her Bachelor of Science in Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering from Case Western Reserve University in 2012. During the day, she works in aerospace testing but has also written service instructions for turbofan engines, taught horseback riding at a summer camp, and supported supersonic wind tunnel testing. She is a 2005 graduate of the Alpha Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Workshop for Young Writers.
James Patrick Kelly is joining us today with his short story collection The Promise of Space and Other Stories. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Hugo and Nebula Award-winner James Patrick Kelly may offer the “Promise of Space,” but he delivers so much more. The sixteen stories included in this collection demonstrate the versatility of the author as a visionary and science fiction as a genre. Exploring Directed Intelligence, space opera, and shared sensory perception, he paints vivid pictures of startling futures and fantastic landscapes. And while Kelly pushes the boundaries of technology, his focus remains always on character, giving these speculative tales of loyalty and betrayal, love and desire, the human touch . . .
What’s James’s favorite bit?
JAMES PATRICK KELLY
My favorite bit of my new short story collection, The Promise of Space, is actually a statistic. Of the sixteen stories in the table of contents, all published in the last decade, thirteen are narrated from a woman’s point of view. So? Compare that to my first collection, Think Like A Dinosaur, which came out in 1990. Just six of the fourteen stories in that book are in the point of view of a woman. Am I proud of this statistic? Well, sort of, although I’m not looking for a medal or claiming any kind of literary breakthrough. I’m well aware that when a woman publishes a persuasive male point of view, nobody is standing by with a microphone and videocam to document it. Women have been writing men since science fiction was invented. Hello, Mary Shelley!
Of course, back in sf’s so-called Golden Age, when sf was run as a boys’ club, some particularly ignorant chauvinists in our genre insisted that women couldn’t create convincing male characters. Period. End of discussion. But those were the Bad Old Days. When I first started publishing, I believed that we’d moved on from the debate about whether men can write women or whether women can write men. Now my mind has changed. I don’t think we’re there yet and maybe we shouldn’t be. I’ve observed recently that the heat of the debate has cooled and has shifted into an interesting and more nuanced conversation. One that I believe is worth pursuing.
Whether or not my thirteen women are convincing is for you to judge. All I can say is that I try my hardest to get them right. I confess that it is the externals that often flummox me. Like clothes. Shoes. Hairstyles. I remember once taking the better part of a day to figure out how to describe a manicure, having never experienced what seemed to me, as I wrote, to be a particularly gratifying experience.
For the more essential and serious aspects of characterization, I can only draw upon my own experience. I was a stay-at-home dad before that become commonplace and was usually the only dad in the company of moms. The years of my daughter’s childhood helped me redefine who I was and how I related to the world. In 1989, when Maura was nine, I wrote this in an introduction to a chapbook, “Feminism may well be remembered as the most important contribution of the Twentieth Century. Yes, more important than all the high tech: cybernetics, space exploration, nuclear physics, or biotechnology. In the next few decades, it has the potential to transform the fundamental structure of human culture.” And so it has, even as the transformations continue. With the arrogance of youth, I thought myself a feminist back then, but now I realize that I can only aspire to be a feminist. These days, I feel the weight of my examined and as yet unexamined prejudices about sex and gender, baggage from growing up male in the Fifties and early Sixties. So I worry about what you think of my thirteen women. I worry a lot.
Which brings me back to my collection and the conversation about men writing women. I needed to write an original story for The Promise of Space and for reasons that remain mysterious to me, I decided to write about a highly intelligent fembot programmed to serve the sexual needs of a rich man. Not a particularly original idea, but the twist was that her master wasn’t interested in her and she was thus sexually frustrated. In the opening sections of “Yukui!” we see how enthusiastic she is about her skeevy role as a dependent intelligence and sexual plaything. I’d hoped that the intent of the author was made plain when her antagonist, a woman, tells her:
“’Intelligent servitude is a terrible institution,’ the lifeguide said. ‘You don’t realize it, but your sidekick programming is a kind of insanity.’”
The story’s ending, in my opinion, is upbeat and feminist. You can judge for yourself, since it was just reprinted in Clarkesworld. But when I workshopped it before sending it off to my editor, Sean Wallace, at Prime, the women in my group had some hard words for me. I realized that I had not made my intent plain enough. Okay, that’s what rewrite is for. But one workshop comment has been spinning in my mind ever since. A very smart woman said, “This story wouldn’t be so hard to take if a woman had written it.”
Flash forward a few months. I did a reading at the monthly Fantastic Fiction series at the renowned KGB literary bar in New York, hosted by Ellen Datlow and Matt Kressel. The final version of “Yukui!” is just 3500 words long, the perfect length for KGB. So I read it. The book wasn’t out then and this was the first time anyone had ever read or heard the rewrite. I was a little nervous, but apparently the revised ending worked and the audience seemed happy enough. But as I read those opening sections, I picked out a couple of women, strangers to me, who were listening intently with what I took to be troubled looks on their faces. After the reading, there was some time for mingling. I worked the room toward the two women, finally plopping down at their table. “Did I pull it off?” I asked. They knew exactly what I was talking about and one of those very interesting conversations ensued. They allowed as how I won them over at the end but that they were very uncomfortable for most of the story. And then one of them said, “It would have been different if you were a woman.”
And, you know, I think she was right. I absolutely get it.
Should it have made a difference? I don’t know, but that’s a conversation I’d really like to start. However, if you don’t mind, I think it best if I just listen to what other people have to say.
James Patrick Kelly has won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards; his fiction has been translated into twenty-one languages. His most recent story collections were this year’s The Promise of Space from Prime Books and Masters of Science Fiction: James Patrick Kelly published by Centipede Press in 2016. His most recent novel, Mother Go, was published in 2017 as an Audible original audiobook on Audible.com. He writes a column on the internet for Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and is on the faculty of the Stonecoast Creative Writing MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine.
Matt Mikalatos is joining us today to talk about his novel The Crescent Stone. Here’s the publisher’s description:
A young woman with a deadly lung disease . . .
A young man with a tragic past . . .
A land where the sun never sets but darkness still creeps in . . .
Madeline Oliver has never wanted for anything, but now she would give anything just to breathe. Jason Wu skates through life on jokes, but when a tragedy leaves him guilt-stricken, he promises to tell only the truth, no matter the price. When a mysterious stranger name Hanali appears to Madeline and offers to heal her in exchange for one year of service to his people, Madeline and Jason are swept into a strange land where they don’t know the rules and where their decisions carry consequences that reach farther than they could ever guess.
What’s Matt’s Favorite Bit?
I have some favorite bits I can’t share because of spoilers, like a twist that comes late in the book but that I already set out in plain sight from early in the novel, or the secret world of unicorns that’s revealed in a battle scene. But I can share about a favorite bit that became a central part of the book, and that’s the oath taken by Jason Wu to tell the truth no matter what.
Jason has a terrible trauma in his recent past that he feels responsible for… something he lied about contributed to what happened. So he makes a decision to never lie again.
A character who never lies and is also a seventeen year old, it turns out, brings a lot of humor to the story as well as constantly complicating the plot. Jason can’t stop himself, whether it’s telling everyone about his high school principal’s toupee or explaining his plans in detail to the bad guys.
Here’s a scene where we see Jason’s truth-telling causing some future problems. Jason’s friend, David, sneaks him into the dungeons to meet one of the Scim — a captured warrior in a centuries old war:
“I’m Wu Song,” Jason said. “That’s my real name.”
The Scim chortled. “Truth teller, are you?” Its voice was like gravel spilt on concrete.
Jason’s eyebrows rose. “Yes.”
“We Scim say only three tell the truth: prophets, story-tellers, and fools. Which are you?”
Jason considered this question. “Probably fool.”
“Ha!” The Scim straightened, seeming suddenly interested. “I will trade you, truth for truth. I am called Break Bones.”
Hmmm. Interesting. “I am called Jason.”
Break Bones smiled, opening his wide, frog-like mouth to reveal jagged and uneven teeth that were each the size of Jason’s pinky. “Why do you come to the Sunlit Lands?”
“To protect my friend,” Jason said. He thought about his answer for a moment. “And to lay to rest old ghosts. And you?”
The Scim stood and shook its chains. “To shatter the sun and bring five hundred years of darkness and terror to the Elenil and all who befriend them. To crush skulls and break necks. To build a temple of bleached bones that reaches to the great dome of the heavens. To humiliate every Elenil before their death, then tear down the works of their hands, stone by stone, beam by beam, brick by brick. Only then shall I rest.”
“Huh,” Jason said. “I guess that’s why they call you Break Bones.”
“The fountains will run with blood. The city walls will be shelves for their heads.”
“Better make a priority list, because if you tear down all their bricks and then try to use the walls as shelves, you’re going to have to rebuild the walls again. It’s a lot of work.”
“You mock me,” Break Bones said, his voice low. “The Scim are not fond of mockery, Wu Song.”
Jason cocked his head. “Is anyone fond of mockery?”
“I think you’re ticking him off,” David said.
“It’s a legitimate question,” Jason replied, watching the Scim.
Break Bone’s chest was heaving, his breath coming in staccato pants. “Humans. Are you even allowed in this prison?”
“We should go,” Kekoa said. “I think you get the point. The Scim are terrible monsters.”
“No,” Jason said, answering the Scim. “We snuck in.”
Break Bone laughed, and the horrible sound of it filled the dungeon. “I like you, Wu Song. When I am free from this place I will honor you with a violent death. I will not humiliate you with captivity.”
“That’s nice,” Jason said. “Though I might prefer humiliation.”
Break Bones grunted, flashing his broken yellow smile. “What is the name of your friend? The one who is under your protection?”
“Don’t tell him,” David said.
Kekoa grabbed Jason’s arm and pulled him toward the door.
“Madeline,” Jason said. “Madeline Oliver.”
Break Bones wrapped his right arm into the chains holding him fast. “On the night I bring the darkness to you, I will come with her lifeless body, so you will know.” He slammed his arm forward, and dust puffed out of the wall where the chain was anchored. He yanked again, and the chain rattled, coming free. “So you will know you failed!” Break Bones roared, pulling the chain nearly all the way out. A distant trumpet sounded, and there was the sound of feet on the stone stairway.
As you might imagine, Madeline isn’t pleased to learn that Jason shared her name with a violent prisoner hidden beneath the city. Of course he tells her, because he always tells the truth.
Jason is part prophet and part comic relief. He ignores social niceties and his own safety to say what he thinks no matter what comes, and it creates a character who becomes equal parts charming and exasperating.
So there’s my favorite bit! Jason Wu, truth teller! I know you’ll love him, too.
Yay! New book! The Fated Sky released today and while normally on My Favorite Bit, we have the author talk, I decided to invite my assistant and first reader, Alyshondra, to talk about her favorite bit. My thinking is that it will give you a little bit of an insight into how a first reader can shape a novel. Also… honestly, it’s one of my favorite bits, too.
Here’s the traditional publisher’s description:
Mary Robinette Kowal continues the grand sweep of alternate history begun 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 there’s a lot riding on whoever the International Aerospace Coalition decides to send on this historic—but potentially very dangerous—mission. Could Elma really leave behind her husband and the chance to start a family to spend several years traveling to Mars? With the Civil Rights movement taking hold all over Earth, will the astronaut pool ever be allowed to catch up, and will these brave men and women of all races be treated equitably when they get there? 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.
What’s Alyshondra’s favorite bit?
I did a lot of beta reading for Mary Robinette before we got to know each other in person. I had already done The Calculating Stars and half of The Fated Sky before we met up at LTUE in Utah. We were talking in a small group, and I was working on a Star Wars/Hamilton cross stitch to keep my hands busy and my anxiety at bay. As part of the conversation, she asked me a lot of questions: How did I design them? What materials were usually required? How long did it normally take? I thought that she was just being Good Hostess Mary Robinette, interested in her guests.
A few weeks later, Mary Robinette sent out a new chapter for The Fated Sky, and I read this:
She had her needlepoint out, and it was far enough along now that you could recognize Orion in the star field. Florence tucked the needle into a corner. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“I brought you some pie.” I sent the baggie spinning across the mod to her.
Florence snatched it out of the air with a grin. “You are my favorite person.”
“Right now.” She winked. “Keep plying me with your pie . . .”
It turned out that I had been talking to Researching Writer Mary Robinette, looking for a hobby for one of her astronauts. When you are on a long journey–whether by car, plane or rocket ship–it helps to have something to do. You need something to (sorry not sorry) ground you, something that you do for your own joy. On a rocket, every ounce of cargo counts, so it’s important that it be something lightweight. Elma bakes, Terrazas does radio plays, and after Mary met me, Florence does needlework. Later, Mary Robinette asked me to design the actual pattern.
“In my head, what she’s doing is a star chart. It’s a gift for Elma, because she had such trouble with stars during training. It’d be on the same blue fabric as the flight suits, because there is a lot of extra floating (ha) around.”
I decided that the star chart Florence used is what the sky looked like from Kansas City on October 19, 1962. That’s the day that the Mars mission launched, ten and a half years after the Meteor strikes DC. No one in Kansas City would have seen the sky, though – the clouds from the Meteor would still have been ever-present. To Florence, that makes this view of the stars even more precious.
Here’s one of the charts I used:
And here’s the final result:
Florence cares about details, so most stars are represented with their correct colors, the background stars are relatively accurate, and the quarter moon from that night is shown as well. The visual binary of Mizar and Alcor (in the asterism of the Big Dipper) is one of my favorite things to tell people about, so she included that too. She does indulge in a little artist’s prerogative: the Moon (in Gemini), Mars, and the North Star are all in their proper places, but are larger than life. Mars is circled – here’s where we’re going! As a little dig at Elma, Alkaid (the last star in the Big Dipper) is circled too. You’ll see why when you read The Fated Sky.
Look, when I read that first line about needlepoint, I actually flailed. Think Kermit the Frog-style squealing and flapping my hands–the whole nine yards. The Lady Astronaut Universe is so precisely what I want out of my fiction. It sometimes feels like Mary Robinette is writing them *specifically for me*, and I can’t believe that I’ve gotten to influence some small part of the final product.
MRK again! So, this is one of my favorite bits, too and it exists because I know Alyshondra. There are lots of little touches throughout the books that come directly from interacting with other people. Writers often get asked, “where do your ideas come from” and they come from moments like this. They come from being curious and interested in other people. The writer is a filter, but the ideas are all around us.
Also, the cross-stitch is beautiful, right?
UPDATE! Want to make your own cross stitch? Kits and patterns are now on sale at Worldbuilders Market!
Michael Mammay is joining us today to talk about his novel Planetside. Here is the publisher’s description:
A seasoned military officer uncovers a deadly conspiracy on a distant, war-torn planet…
War heroes aren’t usually called out of semi-retirement and sent to the far reaches of the galaxy for a routine investigation. So when Colonel Carl Butler answers the call from an old and powerful friend, he knows it’s something big—and he’s not being told the whole story. A high councilor’s son has gone MIA out of Cappa Base, the space station orbiting a battle-ravaged planet. The young lieutenant had been wounded and evacuated—but there’s no record of him having ever arrived at hospital command.
The colonel quickly finds Cappa Base to be a labyrinth of dead ends and sabotage: the hospital commander stonewalls him, the Special Ops leader won’t come off the planet, witnesses go missing, radar data disappears, and that’s before he encounters the alien enemy. Butler has no choice but to drop down onto a hostile planet—because someone is using the war zone as a cover. The answers are there—Butler just has to make it back alive…
What’s Michael’s favorite bit?
My favorite bit of PLANETSIDE is a scene that cracked open the story for me. This might come as a shock (or not), but sometimes authors start writing novels without really knowing where they’re going. Or is that just me? I’m going to pretend that it’s a lot of us, so that I can continue to function, okay? Thanks. So there I was, cranking along and not completely sure where I was going with the story, and I sent the protagonist, Colonel Carl Butler, to meet with the commander of the hospital, Colonel Mary Elliot. Going into the scene, my intent was that Butler would go in, pull some macho BS, roll over the medical person and get the next piece of information he needed to continue his investigation.
A funny thing happened when I put them in a room together. Elliot wouldn’t have it. As the person who created her, nobody was more surprised than me.
Here’s how that imaginary conversation went:
Me: Okay, Elliot, Butler’s going to show up, you’re going to give him some trouble, then you’re going to give him a key piece of information about his investigation. Okay?
Elliot: It’s Doctor Elliot.
Elliot: You should refer to me as Doctor. Or Colonel, if you prefer.
Me: Yeah, sure. So about the scene…
Dr. Elliot: Yeah. About that. I don’t think so.
Dr. Elliot: I didn’t spend 25 years working my butt off to reach the highest levels of my profession just so that some asshole grunt could come in and push me around.
Me: But he needs that information…
Dr. Elliot: Guess he’s got a problem, then.
Me: Wait a damned minute. This is my book. I make the decisions.
Dr. Elliot: Do you?
Me: Okay. I hear you. What if you put him in his place, dress him down, and once he understands that it’s your scene, you give him the information?
Dr. Elliot: Counteroffer. What if I put him in his place, dress him down, and throw him out of my hospital?
And that’s what she did. She was supposed to be a bit character with one or two scenes, and instead she became a key piece of the story, all because she refused to be run over. The thing is, it made the story better, because it made things harder on Butler. Instead of giving him the information he needed, she thwarted him, and he had to search for another way. Any time you can make things harder on the protagonist, you’re probably making the story better.
But it had impact beyond just Butler. It informed the entire plot, because while I didn’t know it at the time, once she refused to give answers, she had to have a reason for not giving those answers. Clearly she had to be hiding something. Or not. But her confrontational manner certainly made it possible that she had something she wasn’t sharing. Or maybe she just didn’t care for Butler and his bull-in-a-china-shop antics. It didn’t really matter. Instead of closing her role with her passing information, it kept it open for future scenes. For me, the scenes with Butler and Elliot are some of my favorite in the book, and they never would have happened if she’d just done what I initially wanted her to do.
One of the most exciting parts about writing a book is when I figure out something about the plot that I didn’t know. At the time that scene happened, I really had no idea why Elliot was doing what she was doing. It just didn’t fit her character to roll over, so when I started writing the dialogue, she didn’t. I did figure it out later, and when I did, it changed the book into what it is today. If it sounds like I’m being a bit vague, that’s intentional. PLANETSIDE is a twisty book, and I don’t want to give too much away. I might have already told you too much!
Michael Mammay is a retired army officer and a graduate of the United States Military Academy. He has a masters degree in military history, and he is a veteran of Desert Storm, Somalia, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He lives with his family in Georgia, where he teaches English to high school boys, which is at least as challenging as combat.
Claire O’Dell is joining us today to talk about her novel A Study In Honor. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Set in a near future Washington, D.C., a clever, incisive, and fresh feminist twist on a classic literary icon—Sherlock Holmes—in which Dr. Janet Watson and covert agent Sara Holmes will use espionage, advanced technology, and the power of deduction to unmask a murderer targeting Civil War veterans.
Dr. Janet Watson knows firsthand the horrifying cost of a divided nation. While treating broken soldiers on the battlefields of the New Civil War, a sniper’s bullet shattered her arm and ended her career. Honorably discharged and struggling with the semi-functional mechanical arm that replaced the limb she lost, she returns to the nation’s capital, a bleak, edgy city in the throes of a fraught presidential election. Homeless and jobless, Watson is uncertain of the future when she meets another black and queer woman, Sara Holmes, a mysterious yet playfully challenging covert agent who offers the doctor a place to stay.
Watson’s readjustment to civilian life is complicated by the infuriating antics of her strange new roommate. But the tensions between them dissolve when Watson discovers that soldiers from the New Civil War have begun dying one by one—and that the deaths may be the tip of something far more dangerous, involving the pharmaceutical industry and even the looming election. Joining forces, Watson and Holmes embark on a thrilling investigation to solve the mystery—and secure justice for these fallen soldiers.
What’s Claire’s favorite bit?
When I was nine years old, my Aunt Marianne gave me a collection of stories about Sherlock Holmes. (Please note, my Aunt Marianne was an English teacher and had served in the Women’s Marine Corps during WWII. She was mighty. I miss her very much.)
It goes without saying that I read the book, as I read all the other books she gave me. And as many others have done, I imprinted on the mythos of the brilliant detective and his more ordinary friend. Fast forward to years later, when I decided to write a story about Watson and Holmes.
My Holmes is Sara Holmes, an independent agent for the FBI. My Watson is Dr. Janet Watson, a newly discharged army surgeon, wounded in America’s New Civil War. Their lives are nothing like two men in the Victorian Age, but I knew that a story about Watson and Holmes had to include that iconic scene when they first meet.
Instead of a chemistry lab, Janet meets Sara in the National Gallery of Art, in front of Dali’s Sacrament of the Last Supper:
I was no Christian, not these days. But, oh, those luminous colors. The images upon images. The small trickeries my teachers had pointed out that added layers of story to the most obvious and outermost one. It almost didn’t matter that the Son of Man, a child of Israel and the King of the Jews, was portrayed as a pale-skinned man with yellow hair.
Fuck it, I’m lying. It did matter, the same way it rankled when people–mostly white people–stared when I said I was a doctor, a surgeon, and a veteran of the wars. But I could still look beyond the unthinking bigotry of this particular artist, and the assumptions of his age, to the moment he portrayed, when Christ drank the wine and spoke of his body and his blood.
Then she catches sight of Sara herself:
She was tall and lean. Her complexion was the darkest brown I had ever seen, the angles of her face were sharp enough to cut, and she wore her hair in locs, arranged in a careless, complicated fashion wound around her head, then plaited and pinned, so they fell in a thick cascade down her back. The cant of her cheekbones, the almost imperceptible folds next to her eyes, spoke of East Asia, or certain nations in Africa. Of a world outside my own.
Janet’s friend makes the introductions:
We closed the distance between us, then both of us hesitated. I sensed a Rubicon before me, an array of choices wise or foolish. Gaius Julius Caesar had made his own choice in that matter and died. Or perhaps I was being fanciful.
Then Holmes reached out to me with a hand covered in lace. “You’ve come from the war in Oklahoma,” she said and clasped my hand in hers.
Claire O’Dell grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC, in the years of the Vietnam War and the Watergate Scandal. She attended high school just a few miles from the house where Mary Surratt once lived and where John Wilkes Booth conspired for Lincoln to die. All this might explain why she spent so much time in the history and political science departments at college. Claire currently lives in Manchester, CT with her family and two idiosyncratic cats.
Kate Alice Marshall is joining us today with her novel I Am Still Alive. Here’s the publisher’s description:
After: Jess is alone. Her cabin has burned to the ground. She knows if she doesn’t act fast, the cold will kill her before she has time to worry about food. But she is still alive—for now.
Before: Jess hadn’t seen her survivalist, off-the-grid dad in over a decade. But after a car crash killed her mother and left her injured, she was forced to move to his cabin in the remote Canadian wilderness. Just as Jess was beginning to get to know him, a secret from his past paid them a visit, leaving her father dead and Jess stranded.
After: With only her father’s dog for company, Jess must forage and hunt for food, build shelter, and keep herself warm. Some days it feels like the wild is out to destroy her, but she’s stronger than she ever imagined.
Jess will survive. She has to. She knows who killed her father…and she wants revenge
What’s Kate’s favorite bit?
KATE ALICE MARSHALL
The first challenge in writing I AM STILL ALIVE was putting Jess in ever-increasing danger, designing setbacks and disasters to threaten her at every turn.
The second challenge was making sure I didn’t actually kill her.
The first half of the manuscript was written on a writing retreat in the mountains, surrounded by people with a talent for mayhem and more survival know-how than I will ever possess. Together we came up with obstacles and twists of fate, escalating and escalating until I had to call “definitely dead” and back up a few steps or provide some extra bit of advantage so Jess could squeak through our latest devilry still breathing.
This give and take led to one of my favorite scenes, one that I wrote toward with relish, knowing it was coming.
Jess, you see, has a rifle. In the few seconds she has to grab whatever she can find before her father’s cabin burns down, she also manages to secure a box of ammunition. So, though she isn’t very good at hunting, she can hunt, and she sets out to make good use of that gun and that ammunition. Bullet by bullet, she uses up what’s already in the rifle. And then she goes to reload it and realizes that she’s grabbed the wrong type of ammo. The other boxes are gone, destroyed in the fire that destroyed the cabin. Back to square one.
But, starving and desperate, she realizes those weren’t the only bullets. The day he was killed, she saw her father put a handful of ammunition in his jacket pocket.
And she knows where he’s buried.
When writing a survival story, the most important question to answer is: what is the character surviving for? The easy answer to that for Jess is revenge. Her father has been murdered. She wants to get back at the men responsible. But revenge and survival are at odds with each other—revenge is a self-destructive act, one that you don’t expect to emerge from whole. I knew that I needed something else to drive Jess—but I’d taken everything from her. Her parents, her home, any semblance of a normal life. That drive had to come purely from within. So the core of Jess’s character is this: she believes she is worthy of survival. She doesn’t fight for someone else, or for something outside of herself; she fights because she wants to stay alive and knows that is a righteous cause.
Jess’s journey to her father’s grave is the closest she ever comes to despair—to deciding that survival isn’t worth it, and that she isn’t strong enough to do what she needs to do. It comes at her lowest point, when every meager scrap of progress that she’s made has been taken from her.
In this scene, she gives up.
And she keeps going anyway.
That contradiction is at the heart of her success. And as dark as the scene is—and yes, it gets pretty gruesome—it’s also the heart of the story. The moment when she is forced to face in vivid, horrifying detail all she’s lost and all she’s suffered, unable to leave it buried any longer, and admit just how far she’s fallen, and just how close to failure she is.
Kate Alice Marshall started writing before she could hold a pen properly, and never stopped. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with a chaotic menagerie of pets and family members and ventures out in the summer to kayak and camp along the Puget Sound. Visit her online at katemarshallbooks.com and follow her on Twitter @kmarshallarts.
Over the last few years, Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas ran Kickstarters for the two-time Hugo Award-winning Uncanny Magazine Years One, Two, Three, and Four. We promised to bring you stunning cover art, passionate science fiction and fantasy fiction and poetry, gorgeous prose, and provocative nonfiction by writers from every conceivable background. Not to mention a fantastic Parsec Award-winning podcast featuring exclusive content. Through the hard work of our exceptional staff and contributors, Uncanny Magazine delivered on that promise. Stories from Uncanny Magazine have been finalists or winners of Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Awards!
This year, we’re also back with a new mission for the ranger corps: UNCANNY TV
Hosted and produced by Michi Trota and Matt Peters, Uncanny TV will be the launch of our community-based vid channel, featuring exclusive geeky content related to Uncanny and the Space Unicorn Ranger Corps community!
Matt Peters & Michi Trota will host a short (20-30 min) variety talk show, Uncanny Magazine-style: highlighting creators in SF/F working in a variety of art forms and projects, focusing on people building and nurturing their communities, particularly highlighting marginalized creators. They’ll talk about topics that can be serious, but the overall tone of the show will be to celebrate the things we enjoy and the people who make our communities good places to be in SF/F.
When I came onboard as a reader for Uncanny, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be a good fit. Obviously, that wasn’t my favorite bit.
I grew up loving sci-fi. My dad and I bonded over classic Star Trek and Star Wars and when he told me I could actually read books that furthered the story past what was on screen I was hooked. I read as much as I could by whomever I could. I’ve read so much sci-fi and fantasy growing up, I can’t even begin to tell you who all the authors were. At one point, if a book had a rocket ship on the cover and it was in stock at the library, that was good enough for me.
When Michi invited me to be a submissions editor for Uncanny, I was excited to begin. Suddenly, there was so much content flying at me at one time, I was overwhelmed. I panicked. I loved sci-fi, so this should be right up my alley, right? After talking to my wife, we came up with a great solution: we’d take turns reading submissions to each other as we played Tetris (Dolores joined Uncanny as a submissions editor soon after).
That’s where it finally clicked for me. A big part of the allure of Uncanny is the camaraderie. There’s a communal aspect. People just like me who grew up reading the same stories I love feel so passionate about them that they came up with their own. Maybe it was because they wanted to honor it. Maybe it was because they felt they could do it better. Maybe they just had something on their mind and staging it in a fantasy realm was just disconnected enough to be honest about their private dreams and desires.
Our true nature reveals itself when we think no one is watching. How incredibly brave to put that story to paper or keyboard and share it with the world on the off chance someone might find a kinship in what you created. Have you ever looked into someone’s eyes as they retell a story that they truly connect with? That driving, nervous energy… That is my favorite bit of Uncanny: the passion.
After four years as Uncanny Magazine’s Managing Editor, I thought it would be a lot harder to pick what my favorite bit about Uncanny is, but in fact, the answer was pretty easy: What I love the most about Uncanny is how its community shows me every day why stories, and who tells them, matters. The people I’ve met through Uncanny have made an incredible difference in my life, and collaborating with them in different ways has brought me so much joy, and has helped me to hone my own craft as a writer. The creativity, willingness to test boundaries, and passion for craft among creators and fans that I’ve encountered has been endlessly surprising. There are so many writers whose work I became introduced to because of Uncanny, and if all their stories, poems, and global working essay that I’ve added to my “to read” list physically manifested into an actual pile, I’d probably have been buried under it by now.
But what’s impressed and inspired me more than anything is the vibrant network of mutual support and admiration I’ve seen being continually built among creators and fans. The outpouring of joy and signal boosting whenever there’s a new release, whether it’s for an Uncanny issue or a novel or anthology, is one of the best things to see taking over my feeds on social media. And what really gets me, every time, is when someone shares a cool story about how something they made inspired someone else to create something completely unexpected. I have a friend who’s written songs based on stories and novels she’s fallen in love with. I know acrobats who craft their acts to tell superhero stories. I’ve seen fans honor creators with beautiful pieces of fanart, and who’ve taken a page from their favorite stories to build charity and activist organizations. These are people who are taking a deep and abiding love for SF/F and using it to enrich their lives and the lives of others, often for no other reason beyond just wanting to make a positive difference, no matter the scale.
Seeing just how varied and thriving the greater ecosystem of geeky creators actually can be has been a necessary balm, especially since the election. Finding a reason for joy and inspiration to create new stories, new kinds of art, new connections among strangers, is especially important in the face of oppression and rising fascism. When we can see others being creative rather than complacent, building bridges rather than walls, it makes a difference. It’s why I’m excited by the prospect of being able to take Uncanny’s mission of supporting gorgeous, experimental, passionate storytelling even further with Uncanny TV, and dive even deeper into more stories about why SF/F matters. And getting to do this with Matt Peters, a friend and colleague I enjoy collaborating with, and who has inspired me to do better in my own work? That’s definitely one of my favorite bits!
Uncanny TV Presenter Matt Peters is an enthusiast of all things nerdy. Matt has been a voice in the industry for several years through his website and podcast Since Last We Spoke. He’s contributed to various media outlets both print and digital and has been invited to speak on panels regarding diversity in geek spaces at C2E2 and Wizard World. Matt is also founder of Core/Demo, a belly dance charity event that supports cancer research. You can find him on Twitter @MightyInkMatt where he frequently geeks out over comics, video games, and pro-wrestling. His favorite color is orange and he’s fond of the number “13.”
Managing Editor/Uncanny TV Presenter Michi Trota is a two-time Hugo Award winner, and the first Filipina to win a Hugo Award. Michi is an essayist who has been published in The Book Smugglers, The Establishment, The Learned Fangirl, Invisible: An Anthology of Representation in SF/F, and Uncanny. She’s spoken at C2E2, the Chicago Humanities Festival, on NPR, and at universities and other organizations. Michi is a firespinner with the Raks Geek Fire+Bellydance troupe. She serves as president of the Chicago Nerd Social Club Board of Organizers and lives with her spouse and their two cats. Her secret mutant superpower is to make anyone hungry just by talking about food. Find her on Twitter @GeekMelange.
(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, […]