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Matt Ruff: Lovecraft Country

Matthew Theron Ruff was born September 8, 1965 in New York. He attended Cornell University, where he studied English. His senior thesis became first novel Fool on the Hill (1988), a fantasy set at the college, and a Mythopoeic and Crawford Award nominee. He has been a full-time writer ever since.

Second book Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy (1997) was a satirical SF novel, and established Ruff’s pattern of never writing the same kind of novel twice. Tiptree Memorial Award winner Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls (2003) is a literary novel about two people with multiple personalities, but has a very SFnal sensibility. Campbell Memorial Award finalist Bad Monkeys (2007) was heavily influenced by the works of Philip K. Dick. Sidewise Award finalist The Mirage (2012) is an alternate history that flips the balance of power between the US and the Middle East.

His latest book, Lovecraft Country, (currently a World Fantasy Award finalist) is a mosaic novel about a black family in the 1950s confronting supernatural terrors alongside real-life racism; it is in development as a TV series at HBO. He lives in Seattle WA with his wife Lisa Gold, married 1998.

 

Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘At some point I started telling people I decided to become a writer when I was five years old, but really I don’t remember – I just always wanted to do this. I don’t know if I knew the word ‘novelist’ back then, but my interest was always specifically in long-form fiction. When I was younger a lot of people still had this idea that you begin by writing short stories and work your way up to novels. But I was always naturally a long-form guy, so I basically spent my childhood and adolescence teaching myself how to do that. My early efforts as a kid were like soap operas. They didn’t have structure – I would just start telling a story until I got bored with it, and then stop and start something else.”

*

‘‘Sometime in my early teens I took a run at doing a fantasy novel and came very close to finishing it. It was a horrible amateurish Tolkien-derived thing, but it did actually have a recognizable plot. I had started to achieve almost the structure of a novel, and what finally pushed me over the edge was that my parents were both de­vout Lutherans – my dad a Lutheran minister and hospital chaplain, my mother a missionary’s daughter. I realized around age 14 or 15 I probably wasn’t going to stay in the church. Partly as a way of telling my parents, I wrote this novel called The Gospel According to St. Thomas, which is a somewhat autobiographical story about a Lu­theran minister’s son who grapples with losing his faith. I don’t know that it was a very good book, but because it was about something I cared about, I actually finished it. That was the book that showed me I could actually do a novel-length project and get it done.

‘‘So I’d written this book to break the news to my parents about my loss of faith, but then my mom did the mom thing where she was cleaning my room and found the manuscript and read it with­out telling me. I had been all prepared for a big fight about me leaving the church. She just let it drop in passing, ‘I read your book, and it was pretty good.’ Nothing beyond that. I was really mad for a while. I’d built up this whole scene in my head that didn’t happen. Afterwards I thought it was just as well. The book had done its job. I got my message across, and demonstrated to myself that I could finish a project if I wanted it badly enough. From there, it was a matter of working my way up to writing a book I could actually sell.”

*

‘‘Lovecraft is interesting because if you’d asked me 30 years ago, I would have said he’s somebody whose imitators I liked better than him. I said the same thing about Phillip K. Dick for a while as well. My problem wasn’t actually the racism in Lovecraft, which I wasn’t as sen­sitive to when I was younger. It was there, but it was in so much other stuff too that I didn’t necessarily see it as noteworthy, if that makes sense. If you were reading a lot of science fiction and fantasy back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, there was just so much racist background noise I think you tune a lot of that out. At least, I tuned a lot of it out, and a lot of other folks who did the same get very annoyed when it’s brought to their at­tention now and they’re not allowed to tune it out anymore. Lovecraft’s prose style didn’t work for me, so I liked more contemporary authors who took the creepy elements and the Elder Gods, but wrote in a more modern style. Going back now, I have more of an appreciation for the way Lovecraft writes. There are things that still don’t quite work – he’ll never use one word when a dozen will do – but I can appreciate more what he got right. He gives great dread. He’s a master at building anticipation that something bad is going to happen. He’s the kind of writer that if the monster appears at all, it’s going to be in the last paragraph, so the whole thing is anticipation of the moment where everything’s going to go wrong, and you’re screaming at the characters who are choosing to put themselves in dangerous situations. At The Mountains of Madness is a perfect example. ‘Why are you messing around in these ruins, guys? You know what’s going to happen.’ That’s part of what Lovecraft gets right, and a lot of those elements work perfectly well without the racism.”

*

‘‘With Lovecraft Country, I wanted to do something kind of like The X-Files, where you have this recurring cast of characters having a series of paranormal adventures. The default with a story like that is to have it be about some sort of government agency, traditionally mostly white characters, but I wanted to open it up and do something different. I hit on this idea of instead of Mulder and Scully being white FBI agents, having it be about a black family who own a travel agency in the 1950s. The agency publishes a magazine called The Safe Negro Travel Guide, which is inspired by real travel guides like The Negro Motorist Green Book that helped black tourists find safe accommoda­tions during the Jim Crow era.

“Starting from that premise, I wanted to take some of my favorite science fiction, fantasy, and horror tropes and see how those stories changed if you put a black character at the center. Take some people who might love science fiction themselves, but felt excluded from it like they were excluded from every other part of culture in the 1950s, and make them the stars. That was the core idea. Lovecraft came into it through the back door, because I wanted a thematic bridge between the paranormal horrors and the more mundane horrors of life in the 1950s. Lovecraft was kinda perfect for that because he was both an iconic horror writer and an outspoken white supremacist. That’s where the title came from. Lovecraft Country is both the paranormal land­scape where monsters live, and white America, where monsters live. Which is worse? Which is the bigger threat to safety and sanity? That’s a core question the novel deals with a lot. The real-world horror almost always wins out. That wasn’t a huge surprise to me. What was good about it was that the dual level horror adds a richness you wouldn’t get with straight fantasy, or straight realism, alone. Having to constantly deal with these real-life hazards at least prepares the characters for the supernatural ones. It’s not like their lives haven’t been threatened before, it’s not like they haven’t found themselves in these mind-numbing situations before – it’s just the specifics are a little different this time. And, of course, my protagonists are also nerds, so they have the genre savvy to deal with ghosts and warlocks and eldritch horrors.”

*

‘‘I’m not normally a sequel guy, but this book is kind of an exception. I could do a lot more with these characters, and I think I might like to carry the story forward. That’s going to depend on how that fits in with HBO’s plans and their schedule. I’m not a fast writer, and I don’t necessarily want to end up in the position George R.R. Martin is in, where the books lag behind the TV show. I’ll have to see – I’ve got some other ideas for novels, too. At the time of this conversation, I’m still reeling from the news that the HBO series is a thing. I’ve got some time to figure out what I’m doing next.

‘‘I’ve been very lucky in my writing career in that I’ve always been able to pick my next proj­ect. I’ve always had a publishing house willing to let me go there. I’ve never been told, ‘You have to do this’ or ‘You can’t do this.’ They’ve been up for whatever. I owe a lot to Morgan En­trekin, who bought Fool on the Hill for Atlantic Monthly Press. Fool on the Hill could have been published as a straight genre novel, or as a liter­ary novel. The initial concept cover art looked very much like a straight-up fantasy novel, but Morgan vetoed that and made them go back to the drawing board. His thinking was, ‘Fantasy fans are going to find this book no matter what it looks like, so we want a cover that’s ambiguous enough that people who think they don’t like fantasy will pick it up too.’ Some years later I was talking to Charles de Lint about this and he said, ‘You’re very lucky you didn’t get stuck with the unicorn on the cover.’ It was a very savvy marketing move, and it meant I wasn’t typecast as writing fantasy. I was able to do Sewer, Gas & Electric next, which was more science fiction satire, and then Set This House in Order, which is mainstream with a science fictional tempera­ment, I guess. Every time I’ve been able to do what is technically a different genre, but they’re all Matt Ruff novels.’’

 

Karin Tidbeck: Language Matters

Karin Margareta Tidbeck was born April 6, 1977, in Stockholm, Sweden, and grew up in the suburbs. She briefly attended university before dropping out. She worked at various jobs, including in a bookshop, and just before she turned 30, enrolled in a three-year arts program. She attended the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Workshop in 2010.

Her debut collection Vem är Arvid Pekon? (2010) appeared in Sweden. First English-language collection Jagannath was published in 2012, including translated stories from Vem är Arvid Pekon? alongside newer material; it won the Crawford Award for best first fantasy, was a World Fantasy Award finalist, and made the Tiptree Award honor list. Debut novel Amatka was published in Sweden in 2012 and appeared in English in 2017.

Tidbeck lives in Malmö, Sweden, where she works as a freelance writer, creative writing instructor, and translator.

 

Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘My novel Amatka is about people colonizing a world that responds to language. Matter is literally controlled by language. It’s about what happens to a community when they try to survive in a world like this, what kind of order they build, how the situation controls their language, and what it does to their mindsets. It’s about revolt­ing against that order. It’s about the power of names, the power of language, and also about how poetry can upset the order of things.”

*

‘‘The premise, to me, might not be science fiction at all. It may look like science fiction, but it might as well be portal fiction or weird fiction in a science fiction jumpsuit. But to be honest, I’m not too eager or bothered to categorize it as any genre. That’s up to the reader. I’m fine with them categorizing it as science fiction, or fantasy, or weird fiction, or surrealism.”

*

‘‘I don’t think about the reader when I write. I tell the story that needs to be told. I don’t think about how the reader is going to react. I basically tell the stories that go on in my head. It’s a very organic process. I’ll find a scene, or a word, or a sentence, and explore that – sort of walk around it, sniff it, trying to figure out how it works. That’s how most of my stories develop. I do a lot of automatic writ­ing. I’ll just start writing nonsense. After a while something comes up – an image, a sentence, a scene, or the basic plot for a story. There’s only one instance where that didn’t happen, where I had a sentence pop up in my head unbid­den, which was the beginning of a story called ‘Beatrice’. I was walking down the street and a voice whispered in my head that a doctor fell in love with an airship. I had to go home and figure out what that was all about.

‘‘I don’t write metaphors. Swedish mainstream readers really want to see my work as a metaphor, because that’s how they learned to read speculative fiction. It has to be a metaphor for something else. But I don’t write metaphors. I write ideas. What you see is what you get, pretty much. I wonder if that’s a way for readers to keep their dignity. They can say, ‘I’m reading this because it’s a metaphor,’ because they can’t say, ‘I’m reading this because it’s science fiction.’ ”

*

‘‘I worked at a science fiction bookstore in Stockholm, and I would read Locus during my lunch break. I read about Clarion at UC San Diego, and started fantasizing about going to Clarion, and about being published and seeing my books in the store. I decided to become better at English, and also took a creative writing course for one year. It was a mainstream writing course and they didn’t really understand speculative fiction, so they weren’t very encouraging. I abandoned that and took other day jobs and wrote some stuff on the side. I wrote a lot of characters and plot lines for various live-action roleplaying games. Then when I was 29, I realized that I had to make a serious attempt at becoming a writer. I moved to the south of Sweden, where I went to an arts college and studied creative writing for three years. They were very encouraging. I had one teacher who was a Lovecraft fan who helped me developed my skills.”

*

‘‘One of the most important reading experiences I had was with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, which I started reading when I was 15. That was a formative experience, it really was. Him and Ursula K. Le Guin, obviously. I read Kafka when I was ten. I was the odd kid in the class. We were doing book presentations in the fourth grade, and I brought in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. The other kids had no idea what that was. I didn’t read Borges a lot, because I thought he was too long-winded, and I had trouble parsing his sentences. I just didn’t get into his prose, but then I was reading Swedish translations of his work. I read a lot of Forteana, and also Robert Anton Wilson. I read a couple of books by Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and The Divine Invasion. I also devoured H.P. Lovecraft’s works. Lovecraft is an extremely problematic writer, but what I think I took away from him was the concept of madness and reality, the sensation that our reality is just a thin shell, and behind that shell, things move, things that we cannot understand, that we cannot conceive of. I read Solaris, but that’s the only Lem I read, and I can’t say he’s a huge influence – I read it pretty late. I think what might have had more influ­ence on me was Tchaikovsky’s version of Solaris. Speaking of Tarkovsky, there’s also his adaptation of the Strugatsky brothers’ Stalker.”

*

‘‘I just finished another novel, which is with my agent right now, so I can’t really talk about it. It has a multiverse, so let’s just call it a weird dark fantasy novel. You could call it portal fantasy, or you could call it weird fiction. I think that, much like Amatka, it’s difficult to categorize. I will not cater to the audience. I write what’s in my head and then it’s up to the reader to categorize it. I don’t own the text anymore. It belongs to the reader. That goes partly back to me writing for LARPs, because what you do there is create the story or the character and hand it over to someone who does what they want with it, they improvise and make it their own. I’m used to the idea of creating some­thing and giving it to someone else. It’s what I do in my fiction. Once I’ve create it, it doesn’t belong to me anymore. It’s graduated. It’s interesting when readers try to figure out what my motivations are, because, as far as I’m concerned, my motivations don’t matter anymore.’’

 

Cory Doctorow: Demon-Haunted World

Cheating is a given.

Inspectors certify that gas-station pumps are pumping unadulter­ated fuel and accurately reporting the count, and they put tamper-evident seals on the pumps that will alert them to attempts by station owners to fiddle the pumps in their favor. Same for voting machines, cash registers, and the scales at your grocery store.

The basic theory of cheating is to assume that the cheater is ‘‘rational’’ and won’t spend more to cheat than they could make from the scam: the cost of cheating is the risk of getting caught, multiplied by the cost of the punishment (fines, reputational dam­age), added to the technical expense associated with breaking the anti-cheat mechanisms.

Software changes the theory. Software – whose basic underlying mechanism is ‘‘If this happens, then do this, otherwise do that’’ – allows cheaters to be a lot more subtle, and thus harder to catch. Software can say, ‘‘If there’s a chance I’m undergoing inspection, then be totally honest – but cheat the rest of the time.’’

This presents profound challenges to our current regulatory model: Vegas slot machines could detect their location and if they believe that they are any­where near the Nevada Gaming Commission’s testing labs, run an honest payout. The rest of the time, they could get up to all sorts of penny-shaving shenanigans that add up to millions at scale for the casino owners or the slot-machine vendors (or both).

Even when these systems don’t overtly cheat, software lets them tilt the balance away from humans and towards corporations. The Nevada Gaming Commission sets the payout schedule for slot machines, but it doesn’t regulate the losses. This allows slot machine vendors to tune their machines so that a losing spin is much more likely to look like a ‘‘near miss’’ (lemon and two cherries, paying zero; three cherries pays a jackpot). The machine looks like it’s doing the same thing with a win or a loss, but losses are actually fine-tuned performances of near-win designed to confound your intuition about how close victory might be.

Software makes for a much more dangerous set of cheats, though. It’s one thing to be cheated by a merchant’s equipment: there are only so many merchants, and to operate a business, they have to submit themselves to spot inspections and undercover audits by secret shoppers.

But what happens when the things you own start to cheat you? The most famous version of this is Volkswagen’s Dieselgate scandal, which has cost the company billions (and counting): Volkswagen engineered several models of its diesel vehicles to detect when the engine was undergoing emissions testing and to tilt the engines’ performance in favor of low emis­sions (which also meant more fuel consumption). The rest of the time, the engines defaulted to a much more polluting mode that also yielded better gas mileage. Thus the cars were able to be certified as low-emissions by regulators and as high efficiency by reviewers and owners – having their cake and eating it too.

Dieselgate killed people, but the cheating in the Dieselgate scandal was still aimed at government inspectors. The next level of cheating comes when systems try to fool independent researchers.

A celebrated recent example of this came with the Wannacry ransomware epidemic. Wannacry is an old piece of malicious software, and it uses a variety of vectors to find and infect vulnerable hosts; once it takes root, Wannacry encrypts all its victims’ files, and demands a Bitcoin ransom in exchange for the decryption key. In early summer 2017, Wannacry had a resurgence after it was harnessed to a leaked NSA cyberweapon that made it much more virulent.

But within days of that resurgence, Wannacry was stopped dead in its tracks, thanks to the discovery and deployment of a ‘‘killswitch’’ built into the software. When Wannacry took over a new computer, the first thing it did is check to see whether it could get an answer when it tried to open a web-session to . If there was a web-server at that address, Wannacry ceased all operations. By registering this domain and standing up a web-server that answered to it, a security researcher was able to turn off Wannacry, everywhere in the world, all at once.

A casual observer may be puzzled by this kill switch. Why would a crimi­nal put such a thing in their software? The answer is: to cheat.

The greatest risk to a program like Wannacry is that a security researcher will be able to trick it into infecting a computer under the researcher’s control, a ‘‘honey pot’’ system that is actually a virtual machine – a computer program pretending to be a computer. Virtual machines are under their owners’ perfect control: everything the malicious software does within them can be inspected. Researchers use virtual machines like cyberpunk villains use VR: to trap their prey in a virtual world that is subjec­tively indistinguishable from objective reality, an Inception-style ruse that puts the malware under the researcher’s omnipotent microscope.

These head-in-a-jar virtual machines are often configured to pretend to be the entire internet as well. When the malware caught within them tries to reach a distant web-server, the researcher answers on that server’s behalf, to see if they can trick the malware into attempting to communicate with its master and so reveal its secrets.

Wannacry’s author tried to give their software the ability to distinguish a honey-pot from the real world. If the software’s attempt to contact the nonexistent domain was successful, then the software knew that it was trapped in a re­searcher’s lab where all queries were duly answered in an attempt to draw it out. If Wannacry got an answer from , it folded into a protective, encrypted foetal position and refused to uncurl. Registering the domain and standing up a web-server there tricked every new Wannacry infection in the world into thinking that it was running on a honey-pot system, so they all stopped working.

Wannacry was a precursor to a new kind of cheating: cheating the in­dependent investigator, rather than the government. Imagine that the next Dieselgate doesn’t attempt to trick the almighty pollution regulator (who has the power to visit billions in fines upon the cheater): instead, it tries to trick the reviewers, attempting to determine if it’s landed on a Car and Driver test-lot, and then switching into a high-pollution, high-fuel-efficiency mode. The rest of the time, it switches back to its default state: polluting less, burning more diesel.

This is already happening. MSI and Asus – two prominent vendors of computer graphics cards – have been repeatedly caught shipping hardware to reviewers whose software had been sped way, way up (‘‘overclocked’’) over the safe operating speed. These cards will run blazingly fast for the duration of the review process and a little while longer, before burning out and being rendered useless – but that will be long after the reviewers return them to the manufacturer. The reviewers advise their readers that these are much faster than competing cards, and readers shell out top dollar and wonder why they can’t match the performance they’ve read about in the reviews.

The cheating can be closer to home than that.

You’ve probably heard stories of inkjet cartridges that under-report their fill-levels, demanding that you throw them away and replace them while there’s still plenty of (precious and overpriced) ink inside of them. But that’s just for starters. In 2015, HP pushed a fake security update to millions of Officejet owners, which showed up as a routine, ‘‘You must update your soft­ware’’ notification on their printers’ screens. Running that update installed a new, secret feature in your printer, with a long fuse. After six months’ wait, the infected printers all checked to see whether their ink cartridges had been refilled, or manufactured by third parties, and to refuse to print with any ink that HP hadn’t given its corporate blessing to.

HP is an egregious cheater, and this kind of cheating is in the DNA of any company that makes its living selling consumables or service at extremely high markups – they do their business at war with their customers. The better the deal their customers get, the worse the deal is for the manufacturer, and so these products treat customers as enemies, untrusted parties who must be tricked or coerced into installing new versions of the manufacturer’s software (like the iTunes and Kindle ‘‘updates’’ that have removed features the products were sold with) and using only the manufacturer’s chosen consumables.

The mobile phone industry has long been at war with its customers. When phones were controlled primarily by carriers, they were designed to prevent customers from changing networks without buying a new phone, raising the cost on taking your busi­ness elsewhere. Apple wrested control back to itself, producing a phone that was locked primarily to its app store, so that the only way to sell software to an iPhone user was to give up 30% of the lifetime revenue that customer generated through the app. Carriers adapted custom versions of Android to lock customers to their networks with shovelware apps that couldn’t be removed from the home-screen and app store lock-in that forced customers to buy apps through their phone company.

What began with printers and spread to phones is coming to everything: this kind of technology has proliferated to smart thermostats (no apps that let you turn your AC cooler when the power company dials it up a couple degrees), tractors (no buying your parts from third-party companies), cars (no taking your GM to an independent mechanic), and many categories besides.

All these forms of cheating treat the owner of the device as an enemy of the company that made or sold it, to be thwarted, tricked, or forced into con­ducting their affairs in the best interest of the com­pany’s shareholders. To do this, they run programs and processes that attempt to hide themselves and their nature from their owners, and proxies for their owners (like reviewers and researchers).

Increasingly, cheating devices behave differ­ently depending on who is looking at them. When they believe themselves to be under close scrutiny, their behavior reverts to a more respectable, less egregious standard.

This is a shocking and ghastly turn of affairs, one that takes us back to the dark ages. Before the Englightenment, before the scientific method and its peer review, science was done by alchemists, who worked in secret.

Alchemists – like all humans – are mediocre lab-technicians. Without peer reviewers around to point out the flaws in their experiments, alchemists compounded their human frailty with bad experi­mental design. As a result, an alchemist might find that the same experiment would produce a ‘‘differ­ent outcome’’ every time.

In reality, the experiments lacked sufficient con­trols. But again, in the absence of a peer reviewer, alchemists were doomed to think up their own explanations for this mysterious variability in the natural world, and doomed again to have the self-serving logic of hubris infect these explanations.

That’s how alchemists came to believe that the world was haunted, that God, or the Devil, didn’t want them to understand the world. That the world actually rearranged itself when they weren’t looking to hide its workings from them. Angels punished them for trying to fly to the Sun. Devils tricked them when they tried to know the glory of God – indeed, Marcelo Rinesi from The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies called modern computer science ‘‘applied demonology.’’

In the 21st century, we have come full circle. Non-human life forms – limited liability corpo­rations – are infecting the underpinnings of our ‘‘smart’’ homes and cities with devices that obey a different physics depending on who is using them and what they believe to be true about their surroundings.

What’s worse, 20th century law puts its thumb on the scales for these 21st century demons. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (1986) makes it a crime, with jail-time, to violate a company’s terms of service. Logging into a website under a fake ID to see if it behaves differently depending on who it is talking to is thus a potential felony, provided that doing so is banned in the small-print clickthrough agreement when you sign up.

Then there’s section 1201 of the Digital Millen­nium Copyright Act (1998), which makes it a felony to bypass the software controls access to a copy­righted work. Since all software is copyrightable, and since every smart gadget contains software, this allows manufacturers to threaten jail-terms for anyone who modifies their tractors to accept third-party carburetors (just add a software-based check to ensure that the part came from John Deere and not a rival), or changes their phone to accept an independent app store, or downloads some code to let them choose generic insulin for their implanted insulin pump.

The software in gadgets makes it very tempting indeed to fill them with pernicious demons, but these laws criminalize trying to exorcise those demons.

There’s some movement on this. A suit brought by the ACLU attempts to carve some legal exemp­tions for researchers out of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Another suit brought by the Electronic Frontier Foundation seeks to invalidate Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Getting rid of these laws is the first step towards restoring the order in which things you own treat you as their master, but it’s just the start. There must be anti-trust enforcement with the death penalty – corporate dissolution – for companies that are caught cheating. When the risk of getting caught is low, then increasing penalties are the best hedge against bad action. The alternative is toasters that won’t accept third-party bread and dishwashers that won’t wash unauthorized dishes.

Making better computers won’t solve the world’s problems, but none of the world’s problems are ours to solve for so long as the computers we rely on are sneaking around behind our backs, treating us as their enemies.


Series Author Spotlight On:
Janny Wurts, Wars of Light and Shadow

Janny Wurts has authored 19 novels, a short fiction collection, and 33 contributions to anthologies. Titles include the War of Light and Shadow series; standalones To Ride Hell’s Chasm, Master of White Storm, and Sorcerer’s Legacy; the Cycle of Fire trilogy; and the collaborative Empire trilogy with Raymond E. Feist.

Her paintings have been featured in NASA’s 25th Anniversary exhibit, Delaware Art Museum, Canton Art Museum, and Hayden Planetarium in NYC, and have received two Chesley Awards and three Best of Show at World Fantasy Conventions.

She lives in Florida with three cats and two horses, rides with Peace River K9 Search and Rescue, and enjoys offshore sailing, traditional music, and bagpiping.

The tenth book in the Wars of Light and Shadows series, Destiny’s Conflict, will be out soon, 24 years after the first. Tell us about the series and the structure of the ‘‘Arcs.’’

When the storyline was conceived, decades before the first volume’s release, I was young, ambitious, and neck deep in research to support the foundations of an epic concept, including the nuances of weapons and tactics. Then I saw the docudrama, Culloden, filmed in stark black and white, with Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite rebellion so ‘’celebrated’’ in ballads and literature stripped down to horrific, unvarnished facts. The shock of that viewing, set against the reading I’d done, forever an­nihilated the heroic trope of a killing war based on a cause. The shine on the myth became utterly stripped. Textbook presentations of history, the narrow presentation of the daily news, literature, movies, and particularly fantasy literature perniciously oversimplify good and evil. The righteous battle for a grandiose cause does not exist, and the ‘‘good’’ side does not prevail when the outcome rests upon brute force turned to slaughter.

My personal fury re-sharpened the Wars of Light and Shadow with intent to shatter the fallacy. All conflict has multi-faceted angles of view. From the outset, this series embraces that stance, its thrust aimed to rebut the glorifica­tion of history as written by the victor, and to rend the veil that elevates war as a broad-scale solution. The arc structure begins by setting the stage through the eyes of two half-brothers with different backgrounds, one a musician and solitary mystic, and the other the gifted son of a king. Their divergent natures become set at odds by the Mistwraith they aimed to subdue. The second phase enlarges the span of the conflict as their individual characters shape their re­sponses as dedicated enemies, and how that influence shapes their followers. The third arc opens up the arena to world view and defines the moral high ground of all of the factions involved, and the fourth dives beneath the sur­face into the mysteries of the world itself. The final arc (and last volume, now underway in draft) will orchestrate the series finale and bring the Mistwraith’s origins to conclusion. This graduated expansion alters the readers’ journey profoundly, each arc unveiling a wider perspective by breaking the precon­ceived frames of assumption. One by one, all of the traditional fantasy concepts are blown away, reversed, or replaced, revising all that has gone before until the viewpoint reshapes the setting and ventures beyond the world we thought we knew.

Did you have the whole series planned from the start?

The scope of the story demanded exten­sive planning to grapple with the layers of development. Cultures that seem familiar or parallel to ours at the outset are in fact oth­er, shaped by the nature of the world itself, which imposes unique restrictions on how humanity fits into the larger picture. This is not a ‘‘linear’’ story, or one with vast sprawl and diversity, but instead is deliberately self-contained in order to spiral upward in van­tage, redefining itself with each volume. Each installment lays the groundwork for a mid-point twist, then converges into an explosive finale with no cliffhangers. In theory each book self stands, but while some have taken the plunge in mid-series and managed to thrive, encountering the books out of sequence requires patience and use of the glossary. These are slow build books, not straight­forward, with nuances intertwined with the unreliable or narrowed views of the characters themselves. The story unveils itself without pause to explain, and entry from the middle will shift the focus of the unified expe­rience. Not all of the details will emerge with one pass, anyway, so even though the brute punch from the most dramatic reveals may be lessened, the ongoing growth of the characters and the world are profound enough that a look backward will still upset the reader’s sup­positions.

What particular advantages or pleasures does working in the same universe offer you as a writer?

Depth and scope, above everything, combined with the relentless challenge of driving creativity to surpass itself. Imagination has to be pushed, and invention must shatter expectations, again and again, to keep building tension. Secondary characters can be devel­oped to the same degree as a central protagonist, and deeper themes can be lifted and layered into a truly multi-dimensional tapestry. Wars of Light and Shadow does not diverge to evoke surprise, but constantly redefines itself. Every char­acter grows and evolves. The world view dives beneath surface features, until its unearthly nature intersects with the narrative as significantly as the major events. Additionally, the format grants room for life perspective. I’m not the same writer I was in my twenties when I originated the ideas. The series’ ex­ecution has spanned four decades, whose inevitable maturation of perspective infuses the story itself.

Epic fantasy that is resoundingly mythic is not time bound. We’ve had Tolk­ien and the full range of quest fantasy and folklore, and we have the rebel­lious rage of grimdark, the emerging voice of social dissonance ripping open society’s wounds to provoke insightful change, and countless heroes’ journeys portrayed through coming of age. But I’ve chosen to pursue an epic fantasy that can leap beyond the ground plowed by history and consensus opinion, and stretch into the realm of visionary evolution. Given the power to handle anything with the gloves off, and more, why not vault past trodden ground and grapple with extraordinarily ideas headlong? Take the baseline of belief, move all the markers, and throw in the richness of human nature, and epic fantasy becomes limitlessly capable of setting the stage for a radical range of alterna­tive thought. Opening with adult characters, then steering their story through a sequence of unveilings that land them, and the reader, into totally uncharted territory has become the challenge of a lifetime work. There are no signposted landmarks. Where Destiny’s Conflict delves into the nature of the mysteries driving the world of Athera, the concepts evoked are not for children. The sum of the whole cannot be neatly summarized, or crammed into a blurb. If I’ve succeeded, the delivery will kindle a firestorm of fresh possibility because the wonders and magic are extrapolated from the resonant properties of the electromagnetic spectrum, taken beyond what our science can quantify.

Why do you think readers enjoy series work so much?

If it’s because they enjoy the landscape of the familiar, then I’ve totally blown it, be­cause I’ve done my utmost to start with ap­parently classical elements and stretch them into a different mold. Readers seeking a re­turn to predictable elements won’t be allowed to retread the same ground. They can’t skim their way through a sequel that doesn’t flex prior assumptions and whiplash fixed views into an altered perspective. The character whose actions were reviled in one book is apt to become the one to root for in the next. A laudable strength in one circumstance can become the fatal flaw leading to downfall. Where some se­ries offer a comfort zone, this one tests and discards the boundaries.

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know? Upcoming work or other projects of note?

Newcomers to my writing might bear in mind that I never tackle the same idea twice, so I recom­mend choosing the entry point carefully. The Wars of Light and Shadow is, absolutely, jumping off the deep end of my career. The slow build and the complexity will not reward rushing, and the ham­mer will not drop straight out the gate. The shock and awe finish must emerge and develop. For read­ers coming off the Empire series, I’d advise start­ing with any of my earlier standalones, or To Ride Hell’s Chasm, which follow a simpler structure. Kick the tires with the excerpts on my website and see what fits.

I have short works related to Wars of Light and Shadow, usually done to illuminate some nuanced bit of back history that underpins the greater work. Over time, I hope to add more, then compile the massive backlog of artwork and cover paintings into a series compendium. Any artist can illustrate a book, but mortality allows only one shot at seeing how the author/artist envisioned it.

Looking beyond, I’ve got detailed outlines for a fourth volume in the Cycle of Fire, and a little seagoing fantasy that has four chapters written. It’s been said that a story is the gift of experience given to someone else, and in that regard, I have a var­ied backlog of hardcore pursuits to draw upon. I’d like to become that author who pulls no punches, delivering the sense of ‘‘being there’’ to a wilder­ness crisis, or the impact of surviving an offshore storm, or handling a difficult horse. Expect the genuine grit of reality woven through a balance of dark and light, with the full spectrum from sublime joy and to stark sorrow expressed through the hu­man condition. I suggest that the loss or destruction of hope is mankind’s ultimate enemy. Therein lies the common thread that directs my work. I take the stance that wanton descent into cynicism poses our ultimate defeat, an infectious attitude that poisons needful change and denies the goodness and resil­ience of the heart. I will use my pen and my imagi­nation, not to battle dark lords, or evil, or any other monster, but the despair we create from our failures and the shadows of our limited mind.


John Scalzi: Paying It Forward

John Michael Scalzi II was born May 10, 1969, and grew up in Southern California, going to school in Claremont. He graduated from the Webb School in 1987 and attended the University of Chicago, where he became editor-in-chief of the Chicago Maroon and graduated with a philosophy degree in 1991. He moved back to California, where he became the film critic and later a columnist for the Fresno Bee. In 1996 he relocated to Washington DC to work for AOL as an in-house editor. In 1998 he became a full-time freelance writer, doing work for corporate clients in addition to reviewing and writing fiction. Scalzi is also a prominent blogger, with popular personal site Whatever, at whatever.scalzi.com.

Scalzi’s first SF novel was Agent to the Stars, posted on his website as ‘‘shareware’’ in 1999 (and published in print in 2005). Second novel Old Man’s War appeared on his website in 2002, where it was read by editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who subsequently purchased it for Tor. The novel appeared in print in 2005 and was a Hugo Award finalist. Other novels set in the same universe include The Ghost Brigades (2006), The Lost Colony (2007), Hugo and Norton Award finalist Zoe’s Tale (2008), The Human Division (2013), and The End of All Things (2015), plus assorted stories and chapbooks.

His humorous SF novel Redshirts (2012) won a Hugo Award. Other novels include The Android’s Dream (2006); Fuzzy Nation (2011), an authorized ‘‘reboot’’ of H. Beam Piper’s classic Little Fuzzy (1962); and Campbell Memorial Award finalist Lock In (2015).

He recently signed a 13-book contract with Tor (for ten adult novels and three YA), beginning with The Collapsing Empire (2017), first in the Interdependency series.

Though not a prolific story writer, Scalzi has published a few short pieces, notably standalone novelette The Sagan Diary (2007) set in the Old Man’s War Universe; Sidewise Award nominee ‘‘Missives from Possible Futures #1: Alternate History Search Results’’ (2008); dark science fantasy novella The God Engines (2009), a Hugo and Nebula Award finalist; Hugo nominee ‘‘Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue’’ (2012); a novella in the Lock In universe, Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome (2014); and audio original novella The Dispatcher (2016).

Scalzi edited an issue of Subterranean magazine dedicated to ‘‘science fiction clichés’’ in 2006 and Hugo-nominated shared-world anthology METAtropolis in 2008. His non-fiction includes The Rough Guide to Money Online (2000), The Rough Guide to the Universe (2003), The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies (2005), and 24 Frames Into the Future: Scalzi on Science Fiction Film (2012). He also wrote the humorous Book of the Dumb series, beginning in 2003. Some of his blog posts have been compiled in You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop; Scalzi on Writing (2007), Hugo Award winner Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: Selected Writing, 1998-2008 (2008), and the forthcoming Don’t Live For Your Obituary.

Scalzi was nominated for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Awards in 2007 and 2008, winning the latter. He also won the Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2006. Scalzi was elected president of SFWA in 2010, and served three terms, stepping down in 2013. He lives in Bradford OH with his wife, Kristine Blauser Scalzi (married 1995), and their daughter Athena.

 

Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘I did read a lot of science fiction when I was a kid. In some ways, they like to say that the golden age of science fiction is 13, and to that extent I think there’s some validity to that snarky comment, that a lot of science fiction when you’re 13, 14, right in that area, things just expand your brain and it’s something you want to read a lot of. The funny thing is that when I wrote my first novel, Agent to the Stars, I flipped a coin between writing a science fiction novel and a mystery novel. If it had landed tails instead of heads I would’ve had a completely different career. Who knows how that would have worked. I read science fiction, mystery, and contemporary fiction, so I was widely read – though science fiction, along with mystery, was really the genre I read the most and was most comfortable with. Even as a kid, those two genres were the ones that felt like home. And non-fiction – I read a lot of journalism and columns and stuff like that. I was a journalist and a columnist before I was a novelist.

‘‘I spent a lot of time in libraries as a kid. My mom worked during the day. She was a single mom most of the time, so I had to go somewhere to keep myself busy, and I would go to the library. The first book of science fiction that I specifically remember was Farmer in the Sky by Robert Heinlein. That was my science fiction introduction. After that, others came rapidly: the Madeline L’Engle books, The Dark Is Rising series by Susan Cooper. I tried reading Dune when I was 11 or 12, and it was a little more than I could process at that particular age, so I read it a couple years later. I had grown enough that it made sense to me by then.”

*

‘‘I’m still in SFWA. I’m just not president anymore. I think it’s good for the board to rotate through people. One of the great things about science fiction and fantasy is, despite its occasional blowups, it really does have the ethos of ‘pay it forward.’ That is ingrained into the culture of SF and fantasy. I did my time as President of SFWA because it was an opportunity to affect things directly and to help others affect things directly. There are things I do personally, like the Big Idea feature on Whatever, that I do because I have a platform, and most of the people who come to read my site are readers of science fiction and fantasy, so why not help promote folks that do that? It’s a really easy thing for me to do it because it’s the writers themselves saying, ‘This is why my book is interesting.’ I just give them the platform.”

*

‘‘Everything comes around cyclically. Space opera is having a moment right now, and part of the reason is because there’s stuff there, and people were writ­ing it before there was a moment. That moment will go away, and people will still be writing it, because that’s what they want to write. I wrote Old Man’s War in 2005, and that was space opera-y. Maybe when it came out people were hankering for Hein­leinesque stuff and that filled that particular void, but none of that goes away. Science fiction and fantasy as a ‘super genre,’ incorporating both, is wide and diverse and pretty robust. There are always going to be people doing weird stuff. There are always go­ing to be people doing military science fiction, YA, epic fantasy, or urban fantasy, and there are always going to be people doing space opera. In the case of the Expanse, which I think is great, the two writers plugged away at those books because they thought it would be cool to do space opera. They were good at it. They benefited from Orbit doing a good job of marketing the series, and they benefited from it being turned into a TV series that gets a large amount of attention, both critically and commercially. But they also benefited from Old Man’s War coming out in 2005, they benefited from Ann Leckie winning every single award in the world for Ancillary Justice, they benefited probably indirectly but even so from Iain M. Banks, who was out there creating galaxy-spanning stuff, from Alastair Reynolds doing his thing, from David Weber and Peter Hamilton. All that stuff has been there the whole time, and when it spikes up like that, it’s great for everybody who’s been writing it, because we all benefit. But at the same time I don’t think they were doing it cynically – I think they were doing it because they love space opera.”

*

‘‘It’s not about what the writer intends – it’s what the reader sees. You can intend to write a book that has absolutely no political or social agenda at all, and somebody’s going to read it and interrogate the text from their own particular point of view. Despite your attempts to write a completely apolitical asocial thing, you can’t escape the fact that you are who you are, and you live in the culture you’re in, and you have some base-level assumptions, so they’re going to find things there to critique. Authors don’t have to do anything other than write a story. They can write a story and say, ‘I am going to be expressly polemical.’ Or they can say, ‘I’m not going to put any politics at all into it.’ Regardless of what you intend, who you are is going to come through. I have famously said that I don’t try to write one-to-one political parallels about what’s going on in the world today in my fiction because, among other things, the novels are universes. They run in a specific way, and the way they run doesn’t necessarily follow the broad brushstrokes of the real world. Nevertheless, I live in 2017. The issues of today are going to influence how I write, and who I am as a person will influence how I write. I don’t try to hammer people over the head. When I wrote Lock In, I never disclosed the gender of the main protagonist. We literally did not tell anybody about that before the book came out. I didn’t even tell my editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, when I submitted the manuscript. He only found out because I asked him, ‘What did you think of Chris?’ He said, ‘I think he’s a great character.’ I said, ‘Why do you think Chris is a he?’ He said, ‘You bastard.’ That was something that interested me. I didn’t necessarily call attention to it. I let people discover it. With Collapsing Empire, two of the three main characters are women. I don’t call attention to it, like, ‘Look at these strong women! I am a male author looking for cookies!’ I want to reflect what I see in my own world. I know so many strong capable, no-bullshit, no-compromise women in my own experience – starting with my own wife. It would be literally shameful for me not to represent that. Beyond that, you write the universes you want to see. I want to see a universe with women characters who are strong and capable and smart, and also women who are venal, incompetent, confused, or unhappy, just like in the real world. It’s easy for me to not put that in; I have defaults like everybody does, and I will default to dudes. I consciously make the effort to avoid that because I want a new norm. You don’t call attention to it – you just do it.”

*

‘‘For each new book, I try to do something new, to add a new tool to my toolbox. Sometimes it sounds really ridiculous. For Lock In, I didn’t use semico­lons. That seems silly, right? But I can discourse. I can use the semicolons to keep a sentence going for a full page. As a result, by forcing myself not to use semicolons, the sentences are dynamic and punchy and it changes the rhythm of that book. With Collapsing Empire I tried two things successfully, and one unsuccessfully. The unsuccessful thing was trying to write in a more ‘epic mode,’ something Herbertesque. That failed miserably because the rhythm of Herbert’s language was something I needed to work on more, but not in this particular novel. I needed to write some short stories in a Herbert mode, and take what I learned from there. That didn’t work. The other thing I did was very specifically matching the omniscient voice to the character. That is not something that I had done when I had third person material before. It was important to me because it really sets the tone. In the chapters about Kiva, the narrative voice is as profane and no-nonsense efficient as she is. In the chapters with Cardenia, the new Emperor, the narration is a lot calmer, a little more uncertain. It’s much more controlled. Not that Herbert’s narration was uncontrolled – it was simply so far up. He had a Guild Navigator’s-eye view of things. It was im­portant for me that you really know you’d switched from one character to another without having to go into first person, or that near-third-person viewpoint where you’re literally hovering over their shoulder. That kind of omniscient was something I had never done before, and I needed to try, so that I could have that tool in my toolbox later.”

*

‘‘You know the worst insult you can give a writer? Where you say they’ve become too big to edit. I’m mindful that I’m in a position where, to some extent, I don’t have anything left to prove. I’m a New York Times bestseller, I won a Hugo, I’m esteemed in my field. There are some people who hate me, but even that is a mark of accomplishment in a way. I don’t doubt my position in my field. I’m very comfortable. But comfort can lead to stagnation, and stagnation can lead to your downfall. I have a huge ego, and I think well of myself, so I have to be mindful that in fact I don’t know everything, and don’t become the arrogant mansplaining prick I could so easily become. Part of that is recognizing that for all my success and security, there’s more to do. More to do in writing, more to do as a participant in the field, and more to do in the community. The moment I decide, ‘This is it, here I am and you must deal with me,’ then everything shifts and becomes a completely different situation. It’s an internal battle. Defaulting to prickdom is super easy for me to do. ”

 

Justina Ireland: Dread Nation

Justina Ireland was born in French Camp CA, and grew up in San Bernadino and outside Sacramento. After graduating high school, she joined the Army, got married, and later settled in Pennsylvania with her husband. In addition to writing, she works as a supervisor in logistics for the Department of the Navy.

First novel Vengeance Bound, a YA fantasy about a girl with a psychic link to the Furies, appeared in 2013, followed by YA fantasy Promise of Shadows (2014). Her YA paranormal thriller Girl Reaper is being serialized online by fiction app INKLO. Middle-grade series Devil’s Pass has four books out in 2017: Evie Allen vs. the Quiz Bowl Zombies, Jeff Allen vs. the Time Suck Vampire, Tiffany Donovan vs. the Cookie Elves of Destruction, and Zach Lopez vs. the Unicorns of Doom. Her YA Civil War-era zombie novel Dread Nation is forthcoming, along with adult SF novel The Never and the Now.

With Troy L. Wiggins, Ireland co-edits FIYAH, a quarterly magazine of black speculative fiction launched earlier this year.

 

Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘If you never see yourself represented in media, do you exist? It feels very simplified when you put it that way, but for a long time as a child, I felt that way myself. I’m biracial. My mom is white, but there were a lot of years when I thought, ‘If I were born white, my life would be so much better.’ I could be a princess and I could go on magical adventures and do all these things that only white kids do. Occasionally a plucky redhead. But none of that is open to me because I’m a black girl who lives in a trailer park, right? As I got older, and especially as my daughter began reading books, I looked around at the media we have, and thought, ‘This is pretty fucking awful. This is like an apartheid of black people.’

‘‘This is right about the time I was starting to write, and N.K. Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms came out, and I lost my shit. I had heard nothing about it. I wasn’t really involved in adult SF/F online space, and I was only peripherally involved in YA. I had gone to the library and found this book, with this gorgeous cover that was very magical and sparkly. It was big, and I love big books, so I got it from the library. I couldn’t believe the main character was black. She’s clearly described as biracial. She talks about her hair, she talks about trying to fit in with her father’s white relatives who are very powerful. I was a third of the way through and I was like, ‘What? Did I miss something?’, and I went back and read it again. It was so exciting to see someone who first of all was biracial so they understood the competing of two worlds and navigating that, but second of all was just there to have a really hot sexy adventure. That book is sexy as hell and you can’t tell me it’s not – because everyone loves a pantheon. I was like, ‘oh my God this can be done?’ It was awesome.”

*

‘‘If you talk to authors of color, especially of young adult, not sci-fi, they’ll say, ‘Yeah, I did that too.’ Their first book on contract is all white main characters. I call that the Beyoncé method. Come in with Destiny’s Child, and then drop ‘Formation’ on their ass. There’s also this theory in young adult that you get one chance and if you don’t make it, then you’re out. I guess my career is over. I’m just going to talk about the shit nobody wants to talk about. Then I sold more books, so, I might as well keep talking about it. Publishing is the worst confluence of art and industry. We really want to make money, but here’s art, and here are industry forces. What does that do to people? A lot of people are struggling in the industry. They feel isolated and alone. You don’t get in with a group of friends and write together – you could, but writing is solitary, and people don’t like to talk about their failures. I think publishing makes us feel bad about our failures. If you go out on submission and your book doesn’t sell, you think, ‘But I was told once I had an agent my book was going to sell.’ It happens to everybody, though. We talk about the business side of struggle, sometimes, but not a lot, and we never talk about how we feel alienated, or like our stories aren’t embraced by the industry.”

*

‘‘I started writing after I had my daughter. Anytime you have that upheaval in your life, you step back and think, ‘What did I do?’ I knew I didn’t want to be just a mom. I’d seen enough other women go, ‘All right, my life is done, I’m a mom.’ I don’t want to do that. All these things I haven’t done, that I want to do, I have to do them, and writing was one of them. The first novel I wrote was a terrible book. It will never see the light of day. Then I finished the second book, and that was better. I got an agent, it went on submission, and it didn’t sell, but I still think it’s re­ally good. I will be serializing it on a new platform called INKLO. It’s called Girl Reaper. It’s about a girl who’s a reaper. I’m terrible at titles. Every time I have a book, the editor says, ‘Okay, about the title.’ I’m like, ‘You do what you need to.’ I hate titles so much. I wrote all the other words, but not those.

‘‘Dread Nation is about a zombie apocalypse during the Civil War, but it’s not really about the zombies, because a lot of the time, zombie novels lose the importance of zombies: they’re about an upheaval in society that makes you reevaluate your humanity. It’s about exploring people with their humanity stripped away. My novel follows a black girl on her journeys, trying to come to terms with this society where she knows the undead are not human. That is not humanity. But then, why is she also not human? How is she considered closer to livestock than to humans? It’s really about the idea of human­ity, and who gets to be human and who gets shunted to the side as the other.”

*

‘‘I grew up in California, where nobody’s itching to go out and shoot people. In Pennsylvania, it seems like a very honorable thing to do, to join the army, get out of your small town and serve your country. In California, that’s not something we do. Also, as a woman, why would you want that? It’s all sweaty dudes. They were right. My career was all sweaty dudes. But there’s something about being able to handle sweaty dudes – even in my day job, I am one of eight supervisors, one of only two women, and the only black woman there. I spend a lot of my time fighting with men. It’s not fighting just to fight, it’s fighting because I’m like, ‘You’re not going to treat me that way – you’re not going to talk to me that way.’ I have things to contribute, and you’re going to listen, especially since my job involves policy, a lot of times I’m telling people things they don’t want to hear.”

*

‘‘I think that’s what Fiyah is trying to do. We’re doing for oneself, but we want to get authors to participate. We also have a robust online community. We’re going to do Camp Nano, we did Nanowrimo for November, to get people together talking about writing, and to connect as a community. We also want them to go break down doors. I don’t want black authors just to submit to Fiyah. I want you to submit to all the venues. Our payment is token, we’re only paying $150 for a short story and $300 for a novella. I want you to go submit to Tor.com and Apex and Clarkesworld, and all those other venues considered to be the premier science fiction and fantasy publications. Until you’re comfortable getting there, send us your stuff. All of our rejections are personalized, and we talk about what works and what doesn’t. I’m really excited about it.’’

*

 

Kameron Hurley: Did “Being a Writer” Ever Mean… Just Writing?

I have spent an inordinate amount of time this year Being a Writer, and far less of it doing the writing part. Oh, the words get done. In fits and starts and large binge sessions, I squeeze out stories in a few days and large swaths of whatever novel is in progress over a week at a time.

But an increasing amount of my waking hours have been spent re­viewing contracts, answering e-mail, attending events, practicing speeches, going round-and-round with Hollywood people, asking about checks, recording podcasts, making videos for Patreon backers, printing chapbooks, weighing foreign rights deals, and playing at ‘‘being an au­thor’’ on the internet, which involves trying not to waste too much time there or say something stupid enough to result in an internet pile-on.

I got into this business because I enjoyed writing, but, increasingly, I look upon the whole endeavor as somewhat dreadful but necessary, like taking out the trash. ‘‘Being a writer’’ has never really meant writing one hundred percent of the time, but it sure was a great dream to have, as a kid. When you realize that once you get on the ‘‘being a writer’’ treadmill you’re expected to produce work on time and often, it can become a job as tedious as any other. I have deadlines every month for a short story and various rewards for fans who support my work on Patreon. Then I have the task of working to resell and repackage that work for other short story markets. I have inquiries to field about other types of work, offers to weigh, and – cur­rently – no fewer than three novel projects I’m working on, with a fourth I will be completing on spec next year after I clear out some of these outstanding pieces.

I don’t like the business of writing, though many people want to discuss it with me. I came to the understanding that being a writer means being a small business, not just writing, some time ago. But the last two years my responsibilities have picked up to such an extent that the seams are beginning to show. I have carefully stitched my life together to have a day job, a novel career, a freelancing life, and get some travel time in there to connect with colleagues at a few conventions every year. While you will hear early and often that it’s not at all required to go to in-person events, the fact is that the likelihood that you’ll be invited to more anthologies and considered for special invitation-only projects does in fact go up if you meet some folks in person and appear to be a real human who enjoys speaking to other humans. It’s been shown time and again that human beings enjoy doing business with people they like, not just people they consider talented. In-person events also remain the Holy Grail of sales teams everywhere, because selling something to someone in person is infinitely easier than selling it to a stranger. That said, for those of us who got into this because we preferred sitting around in the woods in the dark writing in blood under a strong bit of candlelight, the whole idea of speaking to humans as part of the writing process is, frankly, terrifying.

There was a point at which I realized that I didn’t just want to write, I wanted to be a writer – and those are, indeed, very different things. Many of us write for pleasure, for ourselves, for friends and family, for our children. We write in journals or in locked forums or listservs with limited audiences. Going out into the world with the intent of transforming that passion into a small business, however, is a very different enterprise. It’s scarier and more uncomfortable. I had to learn how to engage in small talk, and read contracts, and weigh long-term versus short-term goals and offers. Writing as a profession is one of the least romantic jobs out there; writing just to write still remains fairly sublime, in comparison.

I’ve been deep in work on the third and final book in my Worldbreaker Saga. I have been working sporadically on the book for some time, but only recently figured out the ending. Alas, by the time I figured it out, the book was already terribly late, and I found myself typing madly to try and make up for lost time. What I found, during this week-long rush, was that I had forgotten just how much fun it was to be truly immersed in a project. It had been so long since I’d taken time off my day job to just sit down and give myself over to the process that I had started to forget why I enjoyed writing in the first place. Instead, I’d been worried over contracts and offers and the state of various projects being pitched around. I had been delegating out admin work, responding to e-mail, drowning in mailing supplies for marketing swag, and desperately trying to figure out how to set up my mailing list drip campaign (now there’s a sexy writer phrase if ever there was one!).

None of that was writing a story, or a novel. It was the ancillary stuff that needed to be done in support of the occupation itself, in support of the business of writing.

I expect that there are other folks who are bet­ter at this balancing act, writers who can spend all day creating the perfect three-word phrase, but I’m not one of them. I wish I was. I want to spend more of my precious time with the words and story. I want to level up and become a better prose stylist. I want to continue to improve how I plot my novels and how I play with themes and language. But where would I find the time to write, as overwhelmed as I am in the business of being a writer?

We are admonished, often, in this business that you are only as relevant as your next book. You are always aware that the industry is look­ing behind you, always behind you, for the next great talent. Trying to be the best writer – the best stylist, the best plotter, the best deadline-maker – and the best at the writing business (and keep a day job with health insurance) is akin to asking every writer to be superhuman. It simply is not possible to juggle all of these tasks at once and do them excellently. It never was.

When I hear about the writing profession as practiced by many of my colleagues, I see a lot of the same patterns. The more successful a writer becomes, the less time they have to commit to writing. There’s more trav­eling, more wheel-spinning with various side projects, more contracts to read, more career strategy to hash out. I know I’m not the only writer who would happily retire to a cabin in the woods the moment I had a breakout novel. What strange circular logic is that… to dream of writing a novel so successful that you can be free to… take as long as you’d like writing another novel, without worrying about your career or health insurance or where your next contract is coming from.

I hear often from new writers who long to make a living writing that these are, of course, good problems to have. Yet I have written eight books, and the way things are looking here in the US, I will always have to have a day job so that I can keep my health insurance. I work very long days, 12 or 14 hours sometimes, and when I’m not typing for one job or another, I mainly just want to sleep. There is no bright brick road leading to the Emerald City after you publish that first or fifth or 15th novel. There’s no key to the writing house in the woods that cleans itself and does all your laundry. The laundry still piles up, and more besides.

There is, as ever, just this, your only reward: the work. The writing, the process, is the greatest joy and pleasure you will ever take from being in this business. So ensure you are spending as much time doing it as possible.

Perhaps I will today, too. Right after I finish this column….


Cory Doctorow: Bugging In

Cory Efram Doctorow was born July 17, 1971 in Toronto, Canada. He attended alternative schools and worked at SF specialty store Bakka Books, but dropped out of high school at 17 and briefly moved to Mexico to write. He dropped out of four universities in two years, and worked as a CD-ROM programmer, website designer, volunteer in Central America, CIO for a film company and an ad agency, founder of a software company, and finally began working for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil rights organization with an emphasis on technology. He married Alice Taylor in 2008, and they have a daughter.

Doctorow made his first semi-pro sale at 17, and his first professional story, ‘‘Craphound’’, appeared in Science Fiction Age in 1998. He attended Clarion in 1992, and has since been an instructor there. He won the Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1999, and novelette ‘‘0wnz0red’’ was nominated for a Nebula in 2004. ‘‘I, Robot’’ (2005) was a Hugo and British SF Award finalist, and won a Locus Award, as did ‘‘When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth’’ (2006) and ‘‘After the Siege’’ (2007).

First collection A Place So Foreign and Eight More (2003) won the Sunburst award in 2004, and more short work was collected Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present (2007) and With a Little Help (2010). PM Press published The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow (2011) as part of their Outspoken Authors series. Other stories were adapted as comics in Cory Doctorow’s Futuristic Tales of the Here and Now (2008).

Locus Award-winning first novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom appeared in 2003, followed by near-future SF Eastern Standard Tribe (2004) and urban fantasy Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (2005). His bestselling YA Little Brother (2008) won the Campbell Memorial Award, Prometheus Award, and Sunburst Award, and was shortlisted for the Hugo and Nebula Awards. It was also adapted as a stage play. YA sequel Homeland appeared in 2013, and a sequel for adults, Crypto Wars, is in progress. Other novels include Makers (2009), For the Win (an expansion of story ‘‘Anda’s Game’’), and Pirate Cinema (2012). His newest book is near-future optimistic SF Walkaway.

He has collaborated with Charles Stross on several stories, including ‘‘Unwirer’’, ‘‘Flowers from Al’’, and ‘‘Jury Service’’ and its sequel ‘‘Appeals Court’’, which formed the basis for novel The Rapture of the Nerds (2012). With Benjamin Rosenbaum he collaborated on Hugo and Nebula finalist ‘‘True Names’’ (2008). Graphic novel In Real Life, created with Jen Wang, appeared in 2014.

With Karl Schroeder he wrote non-fiction The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Science Fiction (2000), and some of his essays were collected in Content: Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright, and the Future of the Future (2008). Follow-up Context: Further Selected Essays on Productivity, Creativity, Parenting, and Politics in the 21st Century appeared in 2011. Business and creativity book Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free came out in 2014. He is a contributor to popular blog Boing Boing, ‘‘a directory of wonderful things,’’ and co-edited anthology Tesseracts Eleven with Holly Black (2007).

Doctorow was European Affairs Coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation until 2006, when he quit to write full time. He is a special consultant to the EFF now. He serves on the boards of various organizations related to technology and literature. He was named the 2006-2007 Canadian Fulbright Chair in Public Diplomacy at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, and did a one-year writing and teaching residency at USC (2006-07). He received an honorary doctorate in computer science from Open University, where he is a visiting professor. He is also an MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate. He lives in Burbank CA.

 

Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘Walkaway is an ‘optimistic disaster novel.’ It’s about people who, in a crisis, come together, rather than turning on each other. Its villains aren’t the people next door, who’ve secretly been waiting for civilization’s breakdown as an excuse to come and eat you, but the super-rich who are convinced that without the state and its police, the poors are coming to eat them.

‘‘In Walkaway, the economy has comprehensively broken down, and so has the planet. Climate refugees drift in huge, unstoppable numbers from place to place, seeking refuge. The world has no jobs for most people, because when robots do all the work, the forces of capital require a few foremen to boss the robots, and a few unemployed people mooching around the factory gates to threaten the supervisors with if they demand higher wages. Everyone else is surplus to requirements.

‘‘But just because you’re useless to the rich and powerful, it doesn’t follow that you’ll lie down in a ditch somewhere to take yourself off the game-board. The ‘useless’ people declare the system to be the problem and walk away from it, forming a kind of parallel, bohemian society that uses software and automated manufacturing techniques to build a post-scarcity world on the fringes of the terminal phase of late-stage capitalism.

‘‘This is harmless enough for the powers that be, so it’s a relatively stable relationship – until, that is, the scientists who’ve been working on a moonshot project to create practical immortality treatments for the 0.1% decide to take their work to the walkaways – then, as the rich figure out they’ll have to spend eternity with us, all out war breaks out.

‘‘It’s a book about the struggle between people who think other people are the problem (the rich) and people who think other people are the solution (everyone else).”

*

‘‘Awareness of self-deception is a tactic that’s deployed very usefully by a lot of people now. It’s at the core of things like cognitive behavioral therapy – the idea that you must become an empiricist of your emotions because your recollections of emotions are always tainted, so you have to write down your experiences and go back to see what actually happened. Do you remember the term Endless September? It’s from when AOL came on to the net, and suddenly new people were getting online all the time, who didn’t know how things worked. The onboarding process to your utopian project is always difficult. It’s a thing Burning Man is struggling with, and it’s a thing fandom is struggling with right now. We were just talking about what it’s like to go to a big media convention, a San Diego Comic-Con or something, and to what extent that’s a new culture, or it’s continuous with the old culture, or it’s preserving the best things or bringing in the worst things, or it’s overwhelming the old, or whatever. It’s a real problem, and there is a shibboleth, which is, ‘I don’t object to all these newcomers, but they’re coming in such numbers that they’re overwhelming our ability to assimilate them.’ This is what every xenophobe who voted for Brexit said, but you hear that lament in science fiction too, and you hear it even about such things as gender parity in the workplace.”

*

‘‘For me, I live by the aphorism, ‘fail better, fail faster.’ To double your success rate, triple your failure rate. What the walkaways figured out how to do is reduce the cost of failure, to make it cheaper to experiment with new ways of succeeding. One of the great bugaboos of the rationalist movement is loss aversion. There is another name for it, ‘the entitlement effect’: basically, people value something they have more than they would pay for it before they got it. How much is your IKEA furniture worth before and after you assemble it? People grossly overestimate the value of their furniture after they’ve assembled it, because having infused it with their labor and ownership, they feel an attachment to it that is not economically rational. Sunk cost is another great fallacy. You can offer somebody enough money to buy the furniture again, and pay somebody to assemble it, and they’ll turn you down, because now that they have it, they don’t want to lose it. That was the wisdom of Obama with Obamacare. He understood that Obamacare is not sustainable, that basically letting insurance companies set the price without any real limits means that the insurance companies will eventually price it out of the government’s ability to pay, but he also understood that once you give 22 million people healthcare, when the insurance companies blew it up, the people would then demand some other healthcare system be found. The idea of just going without healthcare, which was a thing that people were willing to put up with for decades, is something they’ll never go back to. Any politician who proposes that when Obamacare blows up that we replace it with nothing, as opposed to single payer – where it’s going to end up – that politician is dead in the water. ”

*

‘‘Getting back to the availability heuristic, what I want is for people to be able to vividly imagine that the heroism in the moment of disaster is to avert catastrophe by bugging in instead of bugging out. Because the heroic story, in a lot of traditional science-fiction, is that when disaster strikes, the hero runs to the hills. The hero bugs out of town, and defends a small group of people from the ravening hordes. It’s The Road. It’s John Wyndham. The reality is that power plants have been failing for a long time, and the people who ran to the hills during the blackout didn’t fix the power plant. It’s the people who ran to the power plant who fixed the power plant. Those are the heroes. I want to give people the intuition that what the right sort of person does is look after their neighbors, that’s what stops disasters from turning into catastrophes. I really want this book to be an intervention in the world. I want it to be something that’s easy to call to mind in the moment where your heart is thundering and things are going terribly wrong, to realize what you do in that situation is help out. Mr. Rogers said when there’s a disaster, Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ If you ever take a first aid class, 99% of that first aid class is the knowledge that everyone else is going to assume that someone else is going to take care of a problem, and the realization that the perfect person doing the perfect thing is less important than any person doing something. Even if you know a small amount about looking after someone, you should rush forward. Be prepared to get out of the way if someone says, ‘I’m a doctor,’ but rush forward.”

*

‘‘Later on this tour I’m going to stop at Reason Magazine, which is part of the Cato Institute. I’ve talked with those guys a lot before, and we have a lot in common, and a lot of places where we differ. Like with Occupy, I think you should never over-specify your values. Walkaway plants some flags that are unequivocal in terms of how I stand on some issues where I have deep and probably irreconcilable differences with some of my allied people in the libertarian camp. I speak as a guy who’s won three Prometheus Awards! I have a lot of respect for elements of libertarianism, but I also have some gaps. I don’t dispute that libertarianism works well, I dispute whether it fails better than collectivism. I think libertarianism has some really grotesque failure modes. This is what I’m planning to dig into when I talk to them. I keep having dialogues in my head where I try to Iron Man their best arguments and think about what my best arguments will be. Do you know the term ‘Iron Man?’ It’s the opposite of a Straw Man argument, so when you’re having a dispute with someone else, and you say, ‘Can we stop, and I’m going to tell you what I think your best argument is for your position, and you tell me if I have it right?’ It’s a way of advancing the debate beyond exploiting bugs in how the person has expressed themselves, and trying to come to common ground so that you can argue about substance. The one thing I love about libertarians is that they often overlap with the rationalist movement. Rationalism is not without its flaws, but it’s a very powerful force for improving the world.”

*

‘‘I’m working on a third Little Brother book now, for adults, called Crypto Wars. Paramount has the film rights to the first one. I’m doing some screenwriting for the first time. I’d always resisted screenwriting, because everything I’ve ever written that’s fiction has been published, and screenwriting is the last scene of Indiana Jones, over and over again, the most amazing thing anyone’s ever done, and it’s in a warehouse somewhere, and no one’s allowed to know it exists. My agent was able to cut a deal where even if no one turns this stuff into a movie, I could turn the writing into books and stories. Russ Galen is the agent. He’s amazing. He’s also the agent for Philip K. Dick, Norman Mailer, and Arthur C. Clarke, and there are a remarkable number of PKD and Arthur C. Clarke movies where he’s an executive producer, so he’s got a lot of experience. It’s through a media company I like, a fairly new one that’s done some incredible work, so I’m happy to be doing it. After that, I don’t know what I’ll do. I sell books after I’m finished, partly out of superstition that if I sell the book and can’t finish it, that would be a problem, but also because in general my career has just gone up, and the longer I wait to sell a book, the more I can get for it.’’

 

Sam J. Miller: A Better Power

Sam Joshua Miller was born February 7, 1979 in Hudson NY. He attended Rutgers University, where he studied cinema studies and Russian language and literature (and met his future husband).

Miller began publishing stories in ’zines and online in the early 2000s, and attended the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop in 2012. In recent years he’s published a slew of award-quality short fiction, including Shirley Jackson Award winner ‘‘57 Reasons for the Slate Quarry Suicides’’ (2013) and nominee ‘‘Angel, Monster, Man’’ (2016); Sturgeon and Nebula Awards finalist ‘‘We Are the Cloud’’ (2014); World Fantasy Award finalist ‘‘The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History’’ (2015); and Sturgeon, Shirley Jackson, and Nebula Awards finalist ‘‘Things with Beards’’ (2016).

His debut novel, YA The Art of Starving, came out this month (and is reviewed elsewhere in this issue). Blackfish City, an adult SF novel, is forthcoming.

Miller lives in New York City with his husband, and works as a community organizer for a homelessness organization.

 

Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘I’m the last in a long line of butchers. My father trained me as a butcher, he was a butcher, and so was his grandfather. We had a family butcher shop in Hudson NY, which went out of business when I was 16 or 17, when WalMart came to town. I’ve been a vegetarian since then. My butcher father dealt very well with the twin betrayals of me being gay and being a vegetarian. He found out about them within months of each other.

‘‘I’ve been writing and publishing fiction since about 2003, but usually in things with extremely small readerships, like ‘zines, or websites that died immediately or didn’t have much of a reach. I’ve always written speculative fiction, but not ex­clusively, and I didn’t focus on speculative fiction markets until I went to Clarion in 2012, which is when I started to get good, or at least better, I like to think. I made my first pro sale in 2013.”

*

‘‘The Art of Starving is my debut novel, but it’s also the seventh novel I’ve written. Like many people, I write a lot and don’t always sell the first thing I write. I had been trying and fail­ing to write a commercial novel. I was trying to write a novel that would sell, and that didn’t have a lot of cursing or gay sex, because there was a certain part of my brain that thought you couldn’t do that in YA. It helped that at Clarion my teachers Holly Black and Cassandra Clare said, ‘No, if you think there’s something you can’t do in YA, tell me what it is, and I’ll show you the book that does it already.’ I finally real­ized I should really not try to write the book I thought would sell – I should write the book that is my story, in the sense that it’s my experience, and the thing that I’ve been frightened of talking about, and the thing that involves putting myself out there and discussing things that are tough to discuss, and that I couldn’t have told without saying some things that many people prefer not to see on the page. When I decided to go there, that was the novel that came to life for me as a writer in a way my previous novels hadn’t.”

*

‘‘There is power that comes from violence, and there is power that comes from self-harm. I wish that wasn’t true. It’s just a reality for many people who’ve been brutalized or victimized or harmed, or who feel that they have no control over any aspect of their lives – the only control they have is how they control themselves. They can’t hurt the people who are bullying them, so they hurt themselves. Or they turn the violence outwards, and that becomes a source of power: hurting others as you have been hurt. I wanted to tell a story about how the power you get from self-harm is much less powerful or sustainable than the power you get from loving yourself, loving the people around you, and acknowledging that you are amazing and you don’t need to hurt yourself. You don’t need to make yourself look a certain way or act a certain way in order to be amazing. It’s a really hard place to get to, and a lot of adolescents and grown-ups have a hard time with that. For me it’s real, in the sense that the story I’m telling is about the journey to the power that comes from self-acceptance, and how that’s a better power. In the end, that’s the true source of power. Any other power is pretense, a fiction, or an act of destruction. There are people who don’t read the book as a dark science-fiction fantasy novel. For what it’s worth, that’s not me, but I think it’s a valid reading.”

*

‘‘I usually have a million different story molecules bouncing around in my brain, like a character who is awesome, or a speculative ability that’s awesome, or a setting that’s awesome, or a news story that I read six years ago, or a relation­ship between two people. They bounce around, and it isn’t until they start to link up that I find the story I was trying to write. I read this article about a journeyman fighter, which is a fighter whose job it is to lose. He’s a professional fighter, a very talented fighter, but somebody’s gotta lose so the other fighters can build up the records they need to become stars. Thinking about that, I wanted to write a story about that person, and he became one of the protagonists, because I wanted to know what that did to you, to lose for your job. It’s also more than that, because you are shaping these younger fighters, helping them, serving as their teacher, showing them how it works in a way that means that even though it’s not your destiny to be the super star, you have a part in that destiny. I had a bunch of different pieces I wanted to play with, and that ended up in the same sandbox.”

*

‘‘A lot of my early exposure to the genre was horror movies. My mom loved horror movies. She never let me see them, but she always watched them. But then she would fold and say ‘All right, we can see the movie that will give you nightmares.’ Then it would give me nightmares. I’ve always been fasci­nated by and drawn to the shit I wasn’t supposed to do or see, like I read every Stephen King book when I was 13 or 14. Ray Bradbury was the first science fiction writer that I fell in love with and got really excited about, but I also loved Alien. Even though I don’t write a ton of horror, I want to write about what scares me. That’s always been the thing that as a reader has excited me the most. I want to read about what scares me. I love Octavia Butler – she’s one of my favorite writers – because her work is about what scares me. It’s about the scary shit, and the scary shit is as much about racism and misogyny as it is evil body-hopping in the world. My way into fiction has always been through what I’m scared of.

‘‘I love activism narratives. I love narratives about fighting back. As much as I love reading about what scares me, I love reading about how we fight back. Finding out that the thing that seems immortal, invincible, is totally killable. The monster you think is immortal – you can put a stake through its heart. The systemic oppression that you think is bigger than you and impossible to fight – you can fight it. You may not win the way you want to win, or you might win and have a whole other set of problems, but the stories about fighting are something I’ve always gotten excited about. What am I not strong enough to fight against, but someone could be?”

*

‘‘I’m in this exciting and terrifying moment in my writer life where my book is about to come out and I can’t control it, and I can’t control who’s reading it. I got a one-star review on Goodreads and my whole day was ruined. It’s also interesting because with The Art of Starving I’m writing about some difficult stuff, and a lot of folks feel strongly about some of these issues. There was a level on which I wrote this book because I thought, ‘There aren’t a lot of male eating disorder narratives.’ I wanted to be like, ‘Look, young women are disproportionately hurt by patriarchy and body image tyranny, but they’re not the only ones affected.’ I wanted to be able to speak to people who are male, or female, or non-binary, or genderqueer, or whatever, but I also understand that people who have that experi­ence might not want to read a narrative about that. It might be triggering. It’s a tough thing, I get that, and I understand why someone who’s a survivor of those issues might not want to read it, but it was important to me.’’

 

Cory Doctorow: Be the First One to Not Do Something that No One Else Has Ever Not Thought of Doing Before

The legendary musician, producer, and weirdo Brian Eno has many notable accomplishments and high among them is the production of the ‘‘Oblique Strategies’’ deck, a deck of cards emblazoned with gnomic and hard-to-parse advice that is meant to shake your creative rut: ‘‘Fill every beat with something,’’ or ‘‘Infinitesimal gradations’’ or ‘‘Do nothing for as long as possible.’’

My favorite of these – first learned from Bruce Sterling – is ‘‘Be the first person to not do some­thing that no one else has ever thought of not doing before,’’ which I think of as being a bit like a lifestyle version of Jenga in which you remove something you’ve always assumed was vital and see whether everything falls over.

I first applied this advice most successfully to my 2008 novel Little Brother. Little Brother is a YA science fiction novel, which is to say it’s a pulp novel even by pulp novel standards. I don’t mean this to be pejorative. I love pulp novels, love their emphasis on plotting and stuff happening. As William Gibson told the Paris Review:

The only kind of ghetto arrogance I can summon up from being a science fiction writer is, I can do fucking plot. I can feel my links to Dashiell Hammett. If I meet some guy who subsists on teaching writing in colleges, and if there’s any kind of hostility, I think, I can do plot. I’ve still got wheels on my tractor. The great thing is when you’re doing the other stuff and you whip the plot into gear, then you know you’re driving something really weird.

In pulp novels, the plot is a vast and powerful engine that can pull a train containing anything or everything: subtle themes and obvious ones, light entertainment and brooding, thoughtful tales. But pulp stories live and die by their plots, and so whatever tale you’re pulling, it has to be in service to that all-powerful engine, even while the engine pulls along that tale.

That is how we got the curiosity known as the technothriller. Bruce Sterling defines this as ‘‘a science fiction novel with the President in it’’ but I’m using the term more broadly. Technothrillers are stories that hinge on the capabilities and constraints of the computers in them (be they the kind of computer you put in your pocket or the kind of computer you put in a Boeing 747 and then put your body inside of). But in the traditional technothriller, the capabilities and constraints of those computers are arbitrary, and they serve at the tyrannical discretion of the pulp author, who can add to them or subtract from them according to the demands of the story. Would your hero face higher tension if the computer could do something well-understood to be impossible? So mote be it. Is the story made more exciting if some widely known capability of computers didn’t exist? Wave the auctorial hand and make it vanish.

In Little Brother, I dispensed with this convention. I set out to write a technothriller in which the heroes’ challenges were designed around the real capabilities and constraints of computers – the plot turned on real computers, not imaginary and convenient ones. This spared the reader the need to expend their limited stores of suspension of disbelief on impossible computers and save it up for the parts of the story that mattered.

While that novel is sometimes criticized as being ‘‘esoteric,’’ I maintain that it has no more technical detail about real-world computers than, say, JK Rowling provides on the rules governing her imaginary magical system. The difference is that the real powers and limits of computers are broadly understood, and even for people who only vaguely understand them, a story that turns on these constraints takes on an urgency and immediacy that supercharges that big diesel, the pulp plotting engine.

Be the first person to not do something that no one else has ever thought of not doing before.

My newest novel is Walkaway, a novel for adults (that is to say, a novel that could conceivably get a teen librarian fired if handed to a kid without know­ing a little about that kid’s parents). Walkaway is also a novel that tries to remove a critical block from the Jenga tower of pulp plotting to see whether it stands up or falls to pieces.

Pulp stories, it is said, have two great themes: ‘‘man vs. nature’’ and ‘‘man vs. man.’’ But as any­one who loves a good dystopian tale knows, the canny pulp writer can have a two-for-one in the form of ‘‘man vs. nature vs. man’’: The earthquake knocked your house over and then your neighbors came over to eat you. Your basic Cormac McCarthy verse-verse-chorus.

In its own way, man-vs-man-vs-nature is every bit as much a fantasy as the technothriller’s impos­sible, plot-expedient computers. As Rebecca Solnit documented in her must-read history book A Paradise Built in Hell, disaster is not typically attended by a breakdown in the social order that lays bare the true bestial nature of your fellow human. Instead, these are moments in which people rise brilliantly to the occasion, digging their neighbors out of the rubble, rushing to give blood, opening their homes to strangers.

Of course, it’s easy to juice a story by ignoring this fact, converting disaster to catastrophe by pitting neighbor against neighbor, and this approach has the added bonus of pandering to the reader’s lurking (or overt) racism and classism – just make the baddies poor and/or brown.

But what if a story made the fact of humanity’s essential goodness the center of its conflict? What if, after a disaster, everyone wanted to help, but no one could agree on how to do so? What if the argument was not between enemies, but friends – what if the fundamental, irreconcilable differences were with people you loved, not people you hated?

As anyone who’s ever had a difficult Christmas dinner with family can attest, fighting with people you love is a lot harder than fighting with people you hate.

In Walkaway, I tell an ‘‘optimistic disaster story’’ in which the conflict arises from the differences between people of goodwill, people who like each other, people who want to make things better, but can’t quite agree on how.

Time will tell whether Walkaway reaches as many people as Little Brother has, but the early indications are good – and the early reviews seem to grope for this point: that a story where you don’t have to suspend your disbelief to imagine the conflict is one where the conflict itself feels much more immediate.



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