Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Podcast No. 11: Alex London Discusses Pen Names, Gay Characters, and the 'Dystopia' Label

This week’s podcast was an experiment. Rather than record the conversation with author Alex London over Skype, I decided to take the subway to Brooklyn and meet with him face-to-face in a coffee shop. I found it liberating to be unchained from an Internet connection, which has been known to fail mid-conversation, but the price of having a barista nearby is boisterous background noise.

London’s novels about class conflict, debt, and rebellion are set in a dark future. A significant portion of Proxy takes place in a city where the poorest citizens dwell in a violent shantytown known as the Valve while the wealthy thrive in well-guarded neighborhoods of private speedways, luxury homes, and high-tech toys. The sequel, Guardian, is set in a crumbling Detroit exponentially more decrepit than the Motor City of today.

As London explains, the horrors of the Valve are his “futuristic re-imagining” of slums outside of Nairobi, which he witnessed while researching one of his non-fiction books, One Day the Soldiers Came, about children affected by armed conflict. “For a lot of children all over the world caught up in wars and poverty and natural disaster … dystopia is not some kind of fantasy but the day-to-day reality of how they are living,” he tells me.

Although the books portray a grim future, the publisher avoids the word "dystopia" in its marketing of Proxy and Guardian. “They call it a ‘futuristic thriller,’” London says. The marketing department also shies away from the science fiction tag, fearing it's too narrow. But London says he embraces the label. “Science fiction for me implies … an awareness of possibility.”

London himself is brimming with possibility. For one thing, he writes under three names. Proxy and Guardian, which are aimed at young adults, bear the name Alex London. But as Charles London, he’s published adult non-fiction about war and the survival of beleaguered Jewish communities around the world. And as C. Alexander London, he continues to write for middle-grade readers about real-life war experiences and fantastical adventures involving squids and dragons.

Like any good science fiction writer, London seeks to push boundaries. Proxy explores what would happen if wealthy transgressors rigged a system of debt and credit to avoid punishment for their crimes and instead made the poor (known as proxies) receive the punishment instead. London also pushes cultural boundaries: Proxy and Guardian’s main character, Syd, is gay, which makes him unusual as the star of a science fiction series geared for young adults. As a result, London has received an outpouring of fan mail from young people seeking advice. “It’s been very touching to see kids who might not otherwise be drawn to explicitly queer books … find their way to Proxy,” he says. Because the books are primarily thrillers, some kids, especially those living in conservative communities, feel safer reading them than gay-themed books that focus on romance or coming out, he explains.

“I’ve been getting letters from a lot of actually straight boys writing about their friends and wondering how they can be better allies. Those are my favorite,” London says.

Related links:
Spoiler alerts:
  • From 18:45 to 22:16 we discuss some aspects of Syd's love life that those who haven't read Proxy and Guardian may prefer to skip.
  • From 33:12 to 34:00 we discuss the science behind a key plot point integral to the resolution of Proxy.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Time Lapse: Circus Tent

For the book I'm writing, I want to describe how a circus tent is dismantled and I found this lovely time-lapse of a circus tent being erected. The music is pretty too.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Podcast No. 10: Astronomy & Astrology in "How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky"

My 10th New Books podcast is live. It's with Lydia Netzer, who kept my laughing as we discussed her second novel, How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky. Here's my write-up for the podcast:

Astronomy and astrology once went hand in hand: people studied the location and motion of celestial bodies in order to make astrological predictions.

In the 17th century, the paths of these two disciplines forked so that today astronomy is a well-established science while astrology is allowed as close to the word “science” as the suffix “pseudo-” allows.

Lydia Netzer, in How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky, tries to turn back the clock, inventing a world where astronomy and astrology harmonize once again. The novel centers on two best friends (both astrologers), who conspire to raise their children (both astronomers) so that when they encounter each other as adults, they fall hopelessly in love.

All this takes place in the shadow of the Toledo Institute of Astronomy, a “world renowned Mecca of learning and culture” that’s as fanciful as Netzer's fictional Toledo, a city where “astronomers and mathematicians walk arm in arm down the street and discuss philosophy and cosmology,” she explains in New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

For Netzer, writing is an opportunity to explore every cranny of her imagination. “Every time you write a book, you go into your kitchen and get everything you made, every dish in the oven, everything in the refrigerator, bring it all out, put it on the table because you might not get the chance to write another one, and you just want to say everything you can possibly say,” she says. “Holding back for me is a big mistake.”  

Among the many topics Netzer addresses in the interview are lucid dreaming, which figures prominently in the novel. While her protagonists gain mastery over their dreams, Netzer, in her own life, has met with less success. "One time ... I was able to move a crate of lettuce closer to me in a dream grocery store, which was incredibly disappointing as an outcome. 'Oh, you've managed to control your subconscious, and all you're going to do is make it easier to buy produce.'"

She also discusses the various iterations of How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky, including a first draft without dialogue. "It was terrible, and I don't have that draft anymore. Thankfully a very kind friend helped me to not share it with anyone else."

Other topics she tackles include the mysteries of memory, the differences between first and second novels, homeschooling, and much more.

Related Links

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Introducing a New Logo for the New Books in Sci Fi Podcast

Today we launched a new logo for New Books in Science Fiction & Fantasy. It was designed by my friend Michael Thibodeau, a brilliant graphic designer and artist of the internet experience. Although you shouldn't judge a podcast by its logo (or a book by its cover, of course), I think this logo does a great job of visually conveying what the podcast offers--namely, fresh ideas, exciting conversation, and fun.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

A Shrewdness of Apes? What a Trip!

Just now I Googled the word to describe a group of goats and was delighted to see that at the top of several lists of collective nouns is the word "shrewdness" for a group of apes. Who knew?

If I try to use that word, few but an expert in collective nouns (like the folks from the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center who've compiled this list or the clever people at a site called Hints and Things who've put together this one) would know what I mean. Oh, and maybe the owners of a modern art gallery and an "acoustic/electric trio from Richmond, Virginia" would understand too. But that's it!

Still, I love that the word is so complimentary to apes.

By the way, goats gather in a flock, herd, tribe or trip. Trip? Another wonderfully weird word.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Podcast No. 9: Fiction that Shapes Science

For my ninth podcast as host of New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy, I chatted with Kathryn Cramer, co-editor of the anthology Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future.

Cramer and collaborators Ed Finn and Neal Stephenson invited writers to contribute science fiction to the collection that "actually addresses problems and tries to solve them," Cramer says.

In other words, the anthology aspires to maximize one of science fiction’s abiding strengths: its ability to test concepts, both technological and social, without spending vast sums on research and development.

In tooling around the internet, I found a bunch of examples of old fiction that appeared to foresee future technology. For instance, Jules Verne’s novel From the Earth to the Moon appears to foresee Apollo 11 and Mark Twain’s short story From the 'London Times' of 1904 describes something akin to television or maybe even the internet.

The editors and writers behind Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future think many science fiction writers in recent years have lost their way. As evidence, they point to the proliferation of what Cramer calls "tired dystopias." Rather than provide "cautionary tales that show us what to avoid," she explains in the New Books interview, these novels use "dystopias as furniture"—backdrops for a plot centered on a central character’s adventures.

Cramer used the term "neo-Gernsbackian" and thereby introduced me to a historical figure I feel I should have known: Hugo Gernsback, who published the first science fiction magazine.

For more about the ideas behind Hieroglyph, check out the Project Hieroglyph website and listen to Cramer and collaborators in this Google Talk.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Covering New Ground

It's always gratifying when one of my New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy interviews probes a fresh angle. I hope they all do, of course, but it's hard to be certain without reading every interview the author has done previously--which is something I'd never do because I don't have the time or, frankly, the interest. If I read lots of other interviews beforehand, I might lose my momentum, especially if it looked like all the big questions had already been answered. In any event, I received confirmation there was something fresh in my New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy interview with Brian Staveley. He noted yesterday in a Facebook post about this week's interview: "We covered some ground that I hadn't discussed in interviews before." Nice to hear. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

What Does it Take to be an Emperor?

What does it take to be an emperor?

That question is at the heart of Brian Staveley’s debut novel The Emperor's Blades. In this first of a projected trilogy, Staveley focuses on three siblings. They are the children of the assassinated emperor of Annur, a descendant of the Goddess of Fire whose irises look like flames. Kaden, the designated heir, has spent the last eight years training in far off mountains with monks. He’s physically strong and he’s learned to withstand deprivation. He’s also an expert at drawing pictures, capturing images perfectly in his memory and suffering the abuse of his never-satisfied teachers without complaint.

But is he ready to take on the responsibilities of emperor, a position that will require him to hold together alliances, manage a large-scale bureaucracy, and foster the admiration of citizens on two continents? In his interview on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Staveley describes the three types of tension that power good storytelling: psychological, social, and environmental. “If you’re writing a mountaineering story,” he explains, “the psychological tension might be one character’s fear of heights, and the social tension might be that two of the characters on the expedition hate each other, and then the environmental tension would be that there are constant avalanches trying to destroy them. And I think the stories I like … combine all three of those.”

Staveley also discusses how his experiences teaching ancient history, world religion and comparative philosophy to high school students helped him with world-building, his method for keeping track of his numerous characters and storylines (lots and lots of Word files), and the difficult task his characters face of separating myth from historical fact.

Staveley’s vision is enormous. Not only is The Emperor’s Blades itself intricate and multi-layered, but the author had originally envisioned writing seven books. His editor at Tor limited him to three, and Staveley expects to wrap up the series (known as the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne) with the final installment in 2016. But with four books on the chopping block, readers can expect eventually to hear more about the world in which these events take places.

 “The world is a large place,” he says. “There are always other stories to tell.”