Spark of Life: Jessica Reisman on SUBSTRATE PHANTOMS

If you’re like me, the phrase “Orpheus myth in space” gets your immediate attention. Here’s Jessica Reisman to tell us about the spark that brought Substrate Phantoms to life!

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cover to SUBSTRATE PHANTOMS by Jessica ReismanSubstrate Phantoms had a long road to publication, so I’ve had to cast my mind back to remember the original writing and when the fire seemed to catch. I already had my far future science fiction universe, the Aggregate, in which I’ve had several stories and my first novel (so long ago now that Substrate gets to be a new debut), and had been playing around with the idea of the Orpheus myth in space, a kind of ‘don’t look back’ when a character is fleeing a space station, trying to save a loved one.

That was all very well, but things weren’t really taking any compelling shape. It was with the haunting of the space station that the first sign of heat flared up. A kind of film reel unfurled in my mind, of powerful images and feelings having to do with the intersection of technology and futurity with superstition and our need for the kind of possibility inherent in the more inward, arcane, and irrational side of our natures. Where these elements—often set in opposition—cross is a deep vein of story for me.

It was a pretty potent unfurling of image and feeling, that film reel. It had what felt like the whole story—and more—within it. My writing process is what we sometimes call “organic.” The initial phase of image, feeling, and story arc is like a seed for me, a tiny, dense ball of potential in which the story exists. To maul the metaphor, note-making, research, background work, and world building are all preparing the ground, planting, and fertilizing; the actual searching march of words onto page is when the growth begins and the story stretches toward its shape.

So there was the spark of the haunted space station—a usefully compelling elevator pitch, but what now? I think it leapt into full conflagration when I found the opening of the first chapter:

Revelation deck rested currently in station shadow, spangled in reflections off the solar collectors. Long glimmers cut through the high dim space in a slow dance. Revelation deck was a big space with open gridwork, gridwork being the bones of station superstructure hidden on other decks. Tall viewports and a lack of adult traffic made it a favorite haunt of station kids, four of whom sat clustered under a twenty-foot span of the grid arch. Likely there was someplace they were supposed to be, and strict regulations said they shouldn’t be there, but it was a regulation never enforced.

Jhinsei, two-thirds of the way through sitting a shift at the automated shuttle monitors, liked the murmur of voices. He had been such a kid himself, not too many years past, listening to tales on Revelation; besides, they lessened the loneliness of the cavernous deck.

Revelation deck, far future space station, kids telling stories, future and past: it makes friction for me and, voila, sparks!

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From the cover copy:

The space station Termagenti—hub of commerce, culture, and civilization—may be haunted. Dangerous power surges, inexplicable energy manifestations, and strange accidents plague the station. Even after generations of exploring deep space, humanity has yet to encounter another race, and yet, some believe that what is troubling the station may be an alien life form.

Jhinsei and his operations team crawl throughout the station, one of many close-knit working groups that keep Termagenti operational. After an unexplained and deadly mishap takes his team from him, Jhinsei finds himself—for lack of a better word—haunted by his dead teammates. In fact, they may not be alone in taking up residence in his brain. He may have picked up a ghost—an alien intelligence that is using him to flee its dying ship. As Jhinsei struggles to understand what is happening to his sanity, inquisitive and dangerous members of the station’s managing oligarchy begin to take an increasingly focused interest in him.

Haunted by his past and the increasing urgent presence of another within his mind, Jhinsei flees the station for the nearby planet Ash, where he undertakes an exploration that will redefine friend, foe, self, and other. With Substrate Phantoms, Jessica Reisman offers an evocative and thought-provoking story of first contact, where who we are is questioned as much as who they might be.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indigo | Publisher

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Jessica Reisman’s stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. A three-time Michener Fellow, she has been writing her own brand of literary science fiction and fantasy for many years. Jessica has lived in Philadelphia, parts of Florida, California, and Maine, and been employed as a house painter, blueberry raker, art house film projectionist, glass artist’s assistant, English tutor, teaching assistant, and editor, among other things. She dropped out of high school and now has a master’s degree. She makes her home in Austin, Texas, where well-groomed cats, family, and good friends grace her life with their company. Find out more at her site.

Catching up on New Worlds

I’ve been very remiss in linking to my New Worlds posts over on the Book View Cafe blog (brought to you by my lovely Patreon backers). Here’s the full lineup to date:

If that stuff looks good to you, please consider becoming a backer!

And, for a bonus: I’ve been neglecting the Dice Tales community on Imzy, but I put up a new post today ranting about how combat-oriented rules can screw over plot.

your chance is coming to ASK ME ANYTHING

Ladies and gentlebeings! Have you ever wanted to ask me a question? About anything?

Your chance is coming!

Tomorrow, May 18th, at 11 a.m. Pacific time (6 p.m. UTC), I’ll be running an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit’s r/books. This is timed to coincide with the end of the Memoirs of Lady Trent, of course, but it being an AMA, we’re hardly limited to that topic; you can ask me questions about Patreon, karate, photography, roleplaying games, fanfiction, music, cats, travel, my favorite fruit, why I always wear my hair in a braid, or anything else that strikes your fancy. So prep your questions, and two days from now, let ’em fly!

Reddit AMA announcement

Spark of Life: Juliet McKenna on THE SHADOW HISTORIES OF THE RIVER KINGDOMS

Spark of Life is a chance for authors to talk about a key moment when the story came to life: a character did something unexpected, the world acquired new depth, or the plot took a perfect but unforeseen turn. For more details, go here.

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Juliet McKenna, The Shadow Histories of the River Kingdoms

This Must Be Kept A Secret

After four series and fifteen novels, I’m familiar with that electrifying moment when a story comes alive, when the interaction of people, places and plot generates an internal momentum to drive the narrative, often in unexpected directions. It can be a wild ride. It’s always exhilarating.

My experience with the stories in The Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom was very different. This new fantasy world started with one short story for an anthology called “Imaginary Friends”. What if a lonely child’s imaginary companion proved to be a threat? not a consolation? What would make this significant? It would be, if that child was important. So I devised the tale of Princess Kemeti discovering that her imaginary friend can step out of the Unreal World. Worse, he threatens to break free of her control. That’s some challenge for a nine year old.

So far, so good, for a single story. Then I realised something about the magical environment I’d just created, where dreams, longing and other emotions can call something or someone into existence in a parallel world. The possibilities were limitless, and if those creations could cross over into day-to- day reality, so was the potential for confusion and for dangerous situations. More stories floated through my own imagination. But that wasn’t the ‘spark of life’ moment.

That came when I realised this magic would have to be kept a secret. Except, how could that possibly be done? If someone’s dreams of a unicorn could send one trotting down a street? Unicorns get noticed. Apparently inexplicable things get noticed by the authorities, religious, political, whoever. Once those in power worked out what was happening, they’d see that same limitless potential for chaos that I had. Then they would go one step further. They’d realise the uses they could make of such magic, as well as the ways their enemies could abuse it. What would this mean for the River Kingdom which I’d sketched into the background of Kemeti’s story?

More than that, something so powerful would have to be kept a secret. But how do you keep something so unpredictable hidden? By watching and waiting and concealing every manifestation as quickly as possible. By assessing anyone and everyone who proves to have this uncanny magical talent. By enlisting those powerful enough to be of use, whatever their character or their background might be. When the stakes are so high, that’s going to be an offer these people would be very unwise to refuse. But that’s okay if we’re the good guys, right? The ends can justify the means…

That’s it. That’s the spark. This tension, this challenge, the inherent instability, which will drive more stories, novellas and novels set in this world.

cover art for THE SHADOW HISTORIES OF THE RIVER KINGDOMS by Juliet McKenna

Juliet E McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds, UK. Loving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels, from The Thief’s Gamble which began The Tales of Einarinn in 1999, to Defiant Peaks concluding The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. In between novels, she writes diverse shorter fiction, ranging from stories for themed anthologies such as Alien Artifacts and Fight Like A Girl through to forays in dark fantasy and steampunk with Challoner, Murray and Balfour: Monster Hunters at Law.

Currently exploring new opportunities in digital publishing, she’s re-issued her backlist as ebooks in association with Wizard’s Tower Press as well as bringing out original fiction. Most recently, Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom offers readers a wholly new and different fantasy world to explore. Learn more about all of this at www.julietemckenna.com and find her on Twitter @JulietEMcKenna

Spark of Life: Aliette de Bodard on THE HOUSE OF BINDING THORNS

Aliette de Bodard’s latest book, The House of Binding Thorns, is the second book in the Dominion of the Fallen series, which began with The House of Shattered Wings. What’s the point at which the book came to life for her?

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cover for House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de BodardI really dithered about where to start The House of Binding Thorns.

The book is a Gothic dark fantasy set in a decadent Paris set in the wake of a magical war: I knew pretty early on that it was going to be "opium war with dragons" and that it was going to involve politics, backstabbing and magical intrigues around an arranged marriage, but while I hammered out the basics of the plot pretty quickly, I couldn't get the entire thing to gel. It sounded fantastic on paper, but I tried and discarded several beginnings that didn't work.

One of the main characters, Madeleine, is a drug addict (to the opium analogue in this universe, a drug distilled from the ground bones of Fallen angels). I knew that her first chapter was going to involve her being forcibly weaned off the drug in unpleasant ways (since the magical faction she belongs to, House Hawthorn, is headed by a sadist and completely ruthless). But every attempt I made at opening in media res fell flat.

And then I realised I was having a twofold problem: the first was that opening on a character being tortured felt too over the top for me personally. The second was that opening in media res is a very tricky thing. It's too early for the reader to care about the characters that horrible things are happening to, so the writer needs to both get the reader to care and to keep everything else going at the same time, which is a lot of very hard juggling.

The usual fix to this is to open earlier, get the reader time to get attached to the characters, and then have things go pear-shaped. I realised that I could actually open later, after the weaning from the drug had already happened, and only allude to it in flashbacks. This solved both of my problems in one go. I could make the reader attached to a character recovering from trauma, and I also could leave the description of said trauma mostly to the reader's imagination– which I've always found to be more effective than graphic descriptions of violence.

I sat down, and wrote:

In the House of Hawthorn, all the days blurred and merged into one another, like teardrops sliding down a pane of glass. Madeleine couldn’t tell when she’d last slept, when she’d last eaten—though everything tasted of ashes and grit, as if the debris from the streets had been mixed with the fine food served on porcelain plates—couldn’t tell when she had last woken, tossing and turning and screaming, reaching for a safety that wasn’t there anymore.

And just like that, the character (and the book) came alive for me.

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cover art to The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de BodardAliette de Bodard writes speculative fiction: her short stories have garnered her two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award and two British Science Fiction Association Awards. She is the author of the Dominion of the Fallen series, set in a turn-of-the-century Paris devastated by a magical war, which comprises The House of Shattered Wings (2015 British Science Fiction Association Award, Locus Award finalist), and its standalone sequel The House of Binding Thorns (Ace, Gollancz). She lives in Paris. Visit her website or Twitter for more information.

This should haunt them until the end of time.

Last night my temper snapped. I pulled up the website for every single congressional representative from Texas who voted for the atrocity they call a healthcare bill and tweeted at them — I would have emailed, but none of the ones I tried accept emails from non-constituents — telling them that they are unfit to hold public office.

Why Texas? Because I was born and raised there, and still feel ties even though as of last September I’ve lived there less than half my life. It seemed like a good place to start with my rage. I originally meant to keep going, but after tweeting at twenty-four of the two hundred seventeen Republicans who greenlit a bill that might as well be labeled We Don’t Care If You Die, I was too sick at heart to continue.

When I say they are unfit to hold public office, I mean it. They should not be voted out; they should resign before the next election even rolls around. But since I doubt most of them have enough shame left to do the right thing and step down, it’s on the people of this country to make it happen at the next opportunity. Those two hundred seventeen people have completely lost sight of what it is to be an elected official. The ideas of representing their constituents, of serving the public good, of laboring to make our imperfect union a little more perfect? That’s long gone. Some of them have admitted they didn’t even read the bill before they voted in favor of it. The rest apparently read it and were okay with the monstrous cruelty it represents. Because it isn’t about governance anymore; it’s just a great big game of sportsball, and they wanted their side to score some points. They wanted to pass something. Anything. Didn’t even really matter what it was, so long as they could be seen achieving something, marking the world as their own by pissing all over it.

Never let them forget this. Some votes don’t really matter; this one did, even if the bill dies in the Senate as it deserves. This was evil. This is a bill that, if passed, would kill countless Americans, that would make us all sicker and weaker and more vulnerable. And they didn’t care. They cheered it on, because it’s their team, and that’s all that matters anymore.

The list of names is here. I thank the 193 Democrats who voted against it, and the 20 Republicans who appear to still have a conscience or a sense of duty.

The rest of them?

Tie this millstone around their necks, and make them carry it for the rest of their lives. It’s the least they deserve.

the end of an era

Since Livejournal changed their terms of service and the mass exodus began, I haven’t had a single comment on the LJ versions of these posts. Accordingly, I am going to cancel and remove that blog. If you’re still reading via LJ, I suggest you transfer to one of these options:

* the WordPress original (you can subscribe via the widget in the sidebar or checking a tickybox when commenting on a post, or add it to an RSS reader like Feedly)
* the Dreamwidth mirror

I’ll be shutting down the LJ in a few days, so make your changes now!

Spark of Life: Alma Alexander on THE WERE CHRONICLES

Spark of Life is a chance for authors to talk about a key moment when the story came to life: a character did something unexpected, the world acquired new depth, or the plot took a perfect but unforeseen turn. For more details, go here.

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Alma Alexander, The Were Chronicles

It’s very easy to just follow comfortably in the ruts of a well-trodden road when it comes to telling a story – but every now and then something WILL happen to jolt you out of that and then all of a sudden it’s a bumpier ride but you’re out of the ruts and the view is spectacular out there. That’s largely what happened with the Were Chronicles, because two things collided here – the well trodden road of Were-creatures and their archetypes, and the never-quite-before-explored edge of just how the Were-creatures existed, what made them not-quite-human. And I turned back to my long-ago roots – I hold a MSc degree in Molecular Biology and Microbiology, and all of a sudden I had all this relevant knowledge I could draw on. And the story exploded on me. I suddenly had immensely alive characters who couldn’t wait to tell their stories, in their very distinctive voices, characters who lived and breathed and who were genetically Were-creatures but who were so achingly, vulnerably, totally *human* that they made me wince when bad things had to happen to them. For me, these three books – Random, Wolf and Shifter – are amongst the most vivid, most involving, and by far the most important books I may ever write.

a triptych of the three WERE CHRONICLES covers, by Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander’s life so far has prepared her very well for her chosen career. She was born in a country which no longer exists on the maps, has lived and worked in seven countries on four continents (and in cyberspace!), has climbed mountains, dived in coral reefs, flown small planes, swum with dolphins, touched two-thousand-year-old tiles in a gate out of Babylon. She is a novelist, anthologist and short story writer who currently shares her life between the Pacific Northwest of the USA (where she lives with her husband and two cats) and the wonderful fantasy worlds of her own imagination. You can find out more about Alma on her website, her Facebook page, on Twitter, or join her on her Patreon page.

Announcing . . . WHAT’S NEXT

Those of you who were at Borderlands on Saturday already heard this; now I reveal it to the rest of the world.

Many people have pleaded for the Memoirs of Lady Trent to continue. I have always responded by saying the series was planned to be five books from the start, that I had a set arc in mind that I wanted to tell, and that having brought that to a close, I am done.

That’s still true.

. . . but it doesn’t preclude other stories in that world.

I don’t have a good working title for this yet, but my next novel will be the story of Isabella’s granddaughter, rapacious private art collectors, black market antiquities smugglers, and the translation of a lost epic from the Draconean civilization. The book will be structured like a mosaic novel, interspersing segments of the epic with the lives of the people translating it, as recorded in diary entries, letters, newspaper articles, and more. So it will once again have the intellectual rigor of Lady Trent’s memoirs (this time aimed in a predominantly linguistic direction), the pulpy adventure of its time period (the antiquities market is a lot more colorful than you might think), and the meta-textual setup that lets the heroine’s voice come through so clearly. Plus, the epic will let me put on my folklorist hat with full panoply of ribbons and bells and run cackling down the streets make good use of my folklore background: my research right now consists of reading or re-reading the Mahabharata, Epic of Gilgamesh, Popol Vuh, and more.

This idea is literally less than two months old. At the Tucson Festival of Books in early March, someone asked me a question about other books set in the world of the Memoirs, and inspiration mugged me out of nowhere. Over the next couple of days it morphed around a bit until it arrived in this form, at which point I pitched it to my editor, saying, “I really think this is what I ought to be doing next.” She agreed, so here we are: setting a personal record for shortest time elapsed from “huh, there’s an idea” to “okay, let’s do this!”

So now you know. And now I need to go read the world’s collection of epics to gather material. 😀