Throwback Thursdays: Steven Brust on Animals, People, and Vlad Taltos

Welcome to Throwback Thursdays on the Tor/Forge blog! Every other week, we’re delving into our newsletter archives and sharing some of our favorite posts.

Vlad Taltos is back in Steven Brust’s Hawk! In the November 2007 Tor Newsletter, author Steven Brust talked about the characters—and the animals they’re similar to—he’s created over the years. Be sure to check back in every other week for more!

Hawk by Steven BrustBy Steven Brust

Why is it that I put animals in my books, or, more particularly, put in people with some sort of symbolic relationship to an animal? Is it because, in human history and pre-history so many people identified themselves with animals? No, that’s the justification, not the reason.

Is it so I can explore the animal nature within us all? Yeah, right, whatever.

Is it that it makes it easier to explore what it really means to be human? No, but if the New York Review of Books ever interviews me, that’s what I’ll say.

No, it’s so I can make fun of my friends without them knowing about it.

In the world in which the Vlad Taltos novel is set, the population is divided into what are called Great Houses, each named for an animal. Some of these animals are familiar to us all, some are made up, and some are familiar but altered. In truth, all human beings are a delightful mix of personality traits, some of which can appear dominant at various times depending on circumstances. In fiction, particularly fantasy, I get to exaggerate characteristics and make animal comparisons, and when I need to, make up the animal—all for the pleasure of laughing at my friends. I love this business.

Like, that guy who cares just a bit too much about money? Orca. The one with the temper? Dragon. The manipulative bastard? Yendi. The guy with ethics but no principles? Jhereg. The one who would cut off an arm rather than be rude? Issola. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had hours of fun figuring out which House all of my friends belong in.

My latest Vlad Taltos novel—out in paperback this month—is called Dzur. A dzur is your typical big, nasty cat. The people who identify with it are of the House of Heroes.

What, exactly, do I mean by “hero?” I’m not talking about real heroes, because real heroes only happen where character meets circumstance. Nor am I talking about people who constantly look for situations where they can show off their courage—they aren’t heroes, they’re adrenaline junkies. By “hero,” in this context, I mean someone who always goes in with the odds against him—in fact, who only goes in when the odds are against him. Sounds good, right?

You know them. At a party, he’s the one who won’t venture an opinion unless he’s pretty sure everyone in the room is on the other side. On the highway, he’s the ones zipping down the empty lane that’s about to vanish for construction, expecting you to let him in. On the internet—Oh, lord. Don’t get me started. Yeah, these are the guys who have raised being unpopular to an art form. One of my dearest friends is a Dzur. He sometimes refers to himself as Captain Social Suicide. Need I say more?

So, yeah, anyway. Those guys. They’re annoying as hell, but in stories they’re kinda fun.

This article is originally from the November 2007 Tor newsletter. Sign up for the Tor newsletter now, and get similar content in your inbox every month!

Six-Guns and Serial Killers

Shotgun Arcana by R. S. Belcher

By R. S. Belcher

Like the song goes, “My heroes have always been cowboys.” But another archetypal American figure plays a pretty big role in my new novel, The Shotgun Arcana: the serial killer. In the novel, I had the perverse pleasure of getting to play around with a literal army of psycho-killers—a cult of murders and cannibals, called the Teeth of Cain.

I looked into some bloody back alleys of America’s history to see what kind of real-world serial killers I could use for inspiration. As usual, history didn’t disappoint.

There’s the “Servant Girl Annihilator”, or the Austin Axe murderer, if you prefer. He was active in Austin Texas from 1884 to 1885, three years prior to the Jack the Ripper Murders in London. He was never caught and there are some serial killer experts (yes, there are such folk) who make a case that the Annihilator may also be the Whitechapel Ripper, traveling the world perfecting his bloody craft.

There are the Harpe Brothers, 18th century mountain men who killed for pleasure, or at the slightest provocation, even murdering a baby for crying too much. Many historians consider the “bloody Harpes” America’s first serial killers. The brutal pair were the inspiration for characters in Lois McMaster Bujold’s novel, The Sharing Knife: Passages and are featured in Manly Wade Wellman’s novel, The Voice of the Mountain.

Queho, a member of the Paiute tribe, who is considered Nevada’s first serial killer, eluded authorities for decades. Queho had Native American and Caucasion victims and took trophies from some of his kills, wearing the badge, number 896, that he took from the chest of a deputy he killed. The badge was found pinned to Queho’s mummified corpse when miners discovered his body in a cave in 1940, bringing the 30-years manhunt for him to a close.

John Johnston, better known as “Liver-eatin’ Johnston” was a mountain man who pursued a vendetta for over 25 years against the Crow Nation for the murder of his wife and child. Johnston lived up to his nickname, eating the livers of his victims—a grave insult to the Crow, who believe that the liver is necessary for the transition to the afterlife. The Crow hunted him for years and sent war parties to kill Johnston, calling him, Dapiek Absaroka (“Killer of Crows”). The folklore around Johnston claims he murdered and scalped over 300 Crow warriors. The number is considered by many historians to be inflated.

The Bender Family is another example of American history and mythology blurring. The Benders were German immigrant saloon-keepers in Kansas who routinely murdered their patrons and buried them in the garden behind the establishment. A guest for the night would be wined, dined, and entertained…and then usually dispatched by the eldest son with a sledge hammer. If that proved ineffective, the stunned victim was pulled through a hidden trap door in the saloon floor and their throat slit by the Benders’ daughter, Kate—a self-described psychic. The whole clan vanished before they could be caught—becoming part of western folklore, maybe even shaping urban legend.

Some of these historic killers appear in The Shotgun Arcana to make trouble for my dysfunctional little family of anti-heroes. They have different names and back stories, but they are based on real people, well, real legends, anyway. There are quite a few more salty dogs I didn’t even have a chance to elaborate on. I leave it to the diligent reader, and scholar of disturbing history, to sort the bettermost from the balderdash. Have fun.

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Making The Accidental Highwayman Videos

The Accidental Highwayman by Ben Tripp

Reprinted with permission by Ben Tripp

This is what happens when a writer gets his hands on after effects.

In Los Angeles, everybody knows somebody who makes movies or television. Ben Tripp worked in the movie business for a long time, and his wife Corinne Marrinan Tripp makes documentary films and television. So he knows people. Talented, versatile people who make the magic happen. You might imagine that when Tor Teen approached him about making a book trailer for The Accidental Highwayman, Ben’s first instinct would be to turn to this tremendous pool of talent.

You would imagine wrong, of course. Instead, Ben set about making the trailer single-handedly. Then he got carried away and made three more. Along the way the scale of the task got completely out of hand, and the great Buz Carter was enlisted to assist in the shooting. Then it was back to the desk to begin compositing, titles, and building the sound. Here are a few interesting aspects of these miniature productions.

ben-study-vid-green-screen-original

All live action shots were performed in front of a green screen, at different times of day so that the lighting would match the backgrounds. In Los Angeles everyone has a green screen in their garage somewhere. This one was pinned to the ceiling or tacked to the back of Ben’s house. Here we see an interior shot of the ukulero performing.

ben-tripp-study

The backgrounds were composed in Photoshop; this study is what Ben wishes his office looked like. In fact he does not own a hippo skull or a bust of Voltaire and there is no stolen Vermeer over his mantelpiece. His real office doesn’t even have a mantelpiece in it. But the black-and-white portrait of his wife (next to the window) does in fact hang near his desk.


Below is a screen capture of what a home movie studio looks like these days: a whole lot of layers on a computer screen.

after-effects-compositing-ben-in-study

Not everything could be achieved digitally, of course. Stock footage of sheep and a large papier-mâché giant’s head were involved, too. Ben’s love of all crafts shows here in sculpture; he also sewed the rest of the giant costume.

Originally his French Bulldog Roscoe, who is the model for Demon in the book, was to appear in the videos. But he had recently had back surgery, was underweight and partially shaved, and looked like an uncooked Thanksgiving turkey. So he did not appear in the videos.

Read more about The Accidental Highwayman and Ben Tripp at his website, kitbristol.com.

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From the Archives: Unexpected Dangers

Dangerous Women edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

Written by Brandon Sanderson

What makes a woman dangerous? Well, what makes a person dangerous?

To me, the best kind of danger—which is, in a way, also the worst kind—is unexpected. It’s that twisted kind of dangerous that takes something familiar and safe and reveals it as something deadly. Wolves are frightening. To me, a loyal pet going mad and killing a child is ten times more terrifying.

For the Dangerous Women anthology, I wanted to find a way to express this unexpected sort of danger. I didn’t want a lean, professional assassin or a warrior in her prime, dangerous though those characters might be. I wanted something closer to home, a blend of the expected and unexpected. That is where I found Silence Montane.

The first name is one I ran across while reading puritan names. It was the second piece of the puzzle, as it raised questions. Who names their daughter Silence, and what does it imply? What is it like to grow up with this name? The answers built into the concept of a stout pioneer woman who ran an inn on the frontier, drawing the seediest criminals the land had to offer. She’d then track them after they left her inn and murder them for their bounties.

Familiar, yet unexpected. Kindly, yet deadly. The story turned out better than I could have hoped, and I’m thrilled to have had the chance—and the prompting—to write it.

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My Friend, Jay Lake

Ken Scholes Copyright Liz Ness
By Ken Scholes

This issue of Talebones runs both a little longer and a little shorter on quality than the last.

Those were the first of Jay Lake’s words I ever read. My third publication had just come out and I’d succumbed to the writerly pull toward Googling one’s self. I paused here. “A little shorter on quality than the last.” That made me a bit nervous but then I kept reading….

One story, Ken Scholes’ “Edward Bear and the Very Long Walk,” brought me a sense of finality so strong I had to lay down the magazine and wipe my eyes.

What followed was my first ever rave review and I was so moved by it that once I wiped my eyes I tracked down that reviewer and sent him a thank you note. He responded with prompt cheer and more high praise for the story.

Not long after, I learned that Jay lived in the Northwest and was going to be at Norwescon. So while I was there, standing in line at a restaurant, I mentioned to Patrick Swenson (the editor of Talebones at the time) that Jay Lake was supposedly at the con and I really wanted to meet him. Patrick laughed and pointed to a crazily dressed, somewhat loud fellow behind us in line. “That’s him there.”

It was a match made in heaven. Or maybe a match lit in hell. It was one of those rare “just add imagination” instant friendships. Our muses got on well. So did our senses of humor. And as we got to know each other—and as I settled into the Portland area—we started hanging out more and more. For most of a decade, we ate lunch together weekly at the Barley Mill on Hawthorne. I do not know how many tons of Cajunized tatertots we ate, chased with an ocean of iced tea, over the years. He inspired—or dared, or cajoled, or solicited for anthologies—at least a third of my short story inventory. He dared me to take two of those short stories and bend them into Lamentation and the rest of the Psalms of Isaak. My checkered past as a former boy preacher fascinated him and he frequently referred to me as his spiritual director though we shared a very similar worldview as secular humanists. Though to be honest, most of his spiritual direction involved me offering advice and a listening ear around his love life. Still, I liked the title and was happy to be there for him.

He was one my closest friends.

Jay died two months ago after a long, hard, losing battle with cancer. Before he went, the internet exploded with testimonies of love and pictures of Jay out in the world being himself. It was an outpouring from our tribe the likes of which I’ve never been so close to before in my life. But I get why.

Jay loved people and spent himself for them. He helped a lot of writers find their way, find their voice, find markets and he entertained the masses with his words and with his playful way in the world. And he lived transparently, letting the world see him at his best and his worst. He even made his cancer an open book, inviting others to experience it through him and find something they needed—a connection to him, encouragement in their own illness or the illnesses of their loved ones, a sense of perspective. He cared and he did what he could do to help others along the way. And he told amazing stories. Turned loose with a blank page, Jay would fill it up out of the depths of who he was and, as his mojo increased with practice, he’d find a home for his words out in the world.

I’m still coming up out of the fog of this loss. It hit me differently—harder even—than some of the others I’ve faced over the last several years. The idea that he’s gone is unfathomable to me and my memories of him live everywhere. His books are in my den. Photos he took of my daughters hang on my hallway walls. And then of course, there’s the more direct contact. More than memory, something like time travel. Jay, in 2008, when he was first diagnosed…wrote me a letter.

It arrived last week.

I guess I checked out, the letter begins. Sorry, buddy. I love you.

There was more…logistics around writing stuff and funeral arrangements, things already nailed down in conversations over his six year fight with cancer. And then he closed asking me to keep an eye on his daughter and to love my wife and all my kids, both literary and human.

They surely won’t be the last words I read of Jay’s, but they are his last words to me and after I wiped my eyes from that sense of finality, I put the letter into my treasure box, high on the treasure shelf in the Den of Ken. It lives there now with my letters from Ray Bradbury and James Stewart and the other mementos I’ve picked up along the way.

There will never be another Jay Lake.

Oh, I miss my friend.

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Missing Jay Lake

JA Pitts copyright Janna Silverstein
By J. A. Pitts

I lost one of my very best friends recently and the hole it has left in my life has yet to close. It will take a while, I’m sure, due to the nature of the friendship and the powerful connection we had.

I’m a writer. I’ve been one nearly all my life. I remember falling in love with story from my very first memories. Jay Lake was a consummate story teller, whether on his blog, his short stories, his novels, or just over the phone. That was the first thing that clicked between us: craft and story. We shared a language, a secret mission, a vocation, and an obsession. We wanted to change the world with our words. And Jay was further along that highway than I, but there were plenty of times that we stopped and shared directions—where he would ensure I knew of the speed traps and the rough roads ahead. That was his gift, a willingness to share his life in all its raging glory, with anyone who needed a boost or a guide.

I’ve always had an image in my head of an open field with snow covered mountains in the distance. With this as a backdrop, I imagine my two best friends—Ken Scholes and Jay Lake—and me, with giant feathered Icarus wings straining upward in an achingly blue sky, wings beating toward the sun. Jay is in the far lead, his arms outstretched and his long hair flowing behind him as he dares to breach the heavens. Next is Ken, leaded boots falling away from him as his wings dip in a strong pull to thrust him skyward… and me, on the ground, struggling with the bootstraps, my wings poised and ready once I understand how to lose the artificial weights that kept me pinned to the earth.

This was a metaphor for our writing careers. Jay had already learned to stretch his wings and soar above the clouds by the time I’d met him. He knew what he wanted and despite the demons we all battle, had found his voice and was pushing as hard as his wings could go to get above the rim of the world and into the stars.

I always admired that about him. Now, don’t get me wrong, he struggled like the rest of us, but it was his clear vision, his dedication, and his driving passion that allowed me to love him.

Jay had given up much in his life to further his writing—everything from television to board games—expending every available moment on his blog, his relationships, and most of all, his stories. He was a man who did what he had to to provide for his family and yet found ample time to pursue his dreams.

And what dreams they were—clowns and spaceships, lost children and clockwork men. He had an imagination unfettered by social fear or societal expectations. If you’ve never heard him read one of his own works, you have missed a visceral experience. Whether it was barbecue in the old west with Satan himself, or the creepy and terrifying Goat Cutter, Jay had a way of pulling the strings of our fears and our loves and showing them back to us, like a still beating heart in the tight fist of his storytelling.

Everything he did shone with the light of his passion. He was a prolific writer, blogging and writing millions upon millions of words in his lifetime. I never understood how he had the time or even the brain space to put that many words down on the written page in a given time. His example pushed me to hone my skills, dedicate precious time to learning craft, practicing the hard things and generally reaching into the heart of the void to bring forth characters and stories that have altered lives.

And isn’t that the most glorious aspect of it all? Hell, I miss him and can’t say that I’ll never stop being surprised to find him gone from my life, but I also know he touched a lot of people. His words and his love have changed lives across the world, and that is exactly the dream he sought to fulfill.

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Jay Lake In Memoriam

Locus Magazine
Written by Liza Groen Trombi, Editor-in-Chief of Locus Magazine

Jay Lake was something of a wonder in the genre community. He was an incredibly prolific writer, with a wild imagination and a versatile talent that allowed him to range freely in his fiction. He was also one of the most vibrant and generous people I’ve ever known.

His conversations were like his fiction, full of sundry, rich, and engrossing details about life. He told stories about his past adventures, his work, his daughter, of whom he was so proud and for whom he worked so hard. He would talk late into the night and had no inhibitions about telling the private and entertaining details of his life. He was passionate about the things he believed in, but he also tried to find wisdom in the world around him and that made him a kind friend and counsel. He befriended people easily and made clear efforts to “pay it forward” to the science fiction community.

As to his writing… In the short time from his first publication in 2001 till his death in 2014, he published ten novels, five collections, and over 300 short stories, with his first novel, Rocket Science, coming out in 2005. I remember Jay telling me once that while writing he always held the whole story inside his head—beginning to end. He described building that capacity to contain story from when he was first starting to write, working up from short stories to novelettes and novellas, and when he finally could hold a whole novel in his head, he seemed unstoppable. Even after being diagnosed with cancer in 2008, he kept up a mighty pace. The first year he had chemotherapy, he wrote about a quarter-million words, despite painful and disconcerting disruptions to his ability to write. His final work, which, unfinished, will undoubtedly never see print, was a massive space opera trilogy, the Sunspin series, planned at over 600,000 words with 11 points of view and 25 significant characters, broken into three books each in three parts. In 2011, he told me, “Essentially I’m writing nine 60- to 80,000-word novels… What I’m really doing is giving cancer the bird.”

He left us a legacy of intimate details of his fight against the cancer that finally killed him, blogging about his experiences with cancer treatment and writing stories about grief and sickness. He and friends crowdfunded to have his entire genome sequenced, and then he made the data available to the public, the first time that has ever been done, in hopes that the information might help future cancer research. He openly described online the rollercoaster his life turned into once his mortality was brought close, to bring understanding to people who had never experienced cancer. An entire generation of the SF community watched his struggle with cancer on his blog and were brought closer together because of it.

Our friendship’s native habitat was at conventions; as a result it has not fully sunk in for me that I won’t have any more long, late-night conversations with him, or run into him at a party, or be swept into a crowd of laughing people in a hallway with him at the center. We’ve all seen a huge outpouring of affection and remembrance for Jay since his death, but his work as a SF writer, as an anthologist, an essayist, his contributions to the field, and the impact he had on the community will not go away. His works will live on and be read, and we will remember this exemplary writer and friend who lived his life fully and left us a legacy of story. Vale, Jay.

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Throwback Thursdays: Why the Future Never Gets the SF Right

Welcome to Throwback Thursdays on the Tor/Forge blog! Every other week, we’re delving into our newsletter archives and sharing some of our favorite posts.

In the January 2012 Tor Newsletter, author Michael Flynn examined the problem of science and technology in far-future sci-fi. He decided, in his own words, “to put a banana in the tailpipe of the engine of progress,” in order to make the world he created more recognizable to those of us here in the present. He explains how the world of his Spiral Arm series works in this blast from the past. Be sure to check back in every other week for more!

In the Lion's Mouth by Michael FlynnBy Michael Flynn

The problem with near-future science fiction is that the fiction is over-taken by events. My novel Firestar, recently re-issued by Tor, concerns the near “future” of 1999-2010 and the hot scoop is that things didn’t work out that way. Some of it, sure, including, alas, the predicted recession. But Serbia is no longer the Bad Boy of the Balkans (nor are the Balkans the Place to Keep an Eye On) and we don’t have regularly-scheduled ballistic transport or single-stage to orbit or… However, anyone who thinks the main basic function of SF is to commit journalism on the future will be perennially disappointed.

The problem with far-future science fiction, like the Spiral Arm series (In the Lion’s Mouth, Jan 2012) is different. We can no more imagine the world of seven thousand years to come than Sumerian peasants could imagine Manhattan. But we need to keep it intelligible. What we imagine of the far future is no more likely to be accurate than Sumerian tales of crossing the sky in flaming chariots. Rockets, maybe; but not flaming chariots.

Yet “the accelerating pace of change” is such a cliché that we might ask, “What if it isn’t? After all, for most of human history, change has been minimal. Our Sumerian peasant would find life among the today’s Marsh Arabs full of wonders—iron tools!—but not incomprehensible.

So to keep the Spiral Arm intelligible to modern “Sumerians,” I decided to put a banana in the tailpipe of the engine of progress. There is precedent.

Science and technology need not go hand in hand. China achieved a high technology without developing natural science. And scattered individuals in ancient Hellas and medieval Islam pursued a personal interest in natural philosophy without applying it to “base mechanics.” Only in the Latin West did a passion for technological innovation develop alongside an institutionalized interest in investigating Nature.

The Scientific Revolution combined them. No more was Nature to be studied simply to grasp and appreciate its Beauty. Its purpose would henceforth be to invent Useful Stuff and extend man’s Dominion over Nature. Science, in short, changed from Art Appreciation to Engineering.

Nothing like this happened in China, thought Joseph Needham, because the Chinese lacked a concept of the universe as a created artifact, and therefore had no expectation of a rational order waiting to be discovered. Other historians have linked the stillbirths of science to a persistent belief in the Great Year and “eternal returns.” The ancients—Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Aztecs, Mayans, Hindus, et al.—extrapolated from the cycles of the sun, the seasons, the heavens to an endlessly repeating universe, destroyed and reborn whenever the planets returned to some “original” configuration.

But this belief proved fatal to science. If an eternal and uncreated universe repeats itself endlessly, then whatever can happen has happened, again and again, and the natural laws we discover are only transient configurations of particles eternally in motion. Wait a while. They’ll change.

This is the outlook I superimposed on Spiral Arm society. Scientific progress stopped long ago. Techs apply “the Wisdom of the Ancients” by rote, recite the prayers (formulas) to be followed, but have lost all sense that these things are ordered by deeper principles.

Can it happen? The endless universe has been making a comeback courtesy of Hegel and his disciples: Schelling, Engels, Nietzsche, et al. Even scientists imagine multiverses and endlessly repeated Big Bangs. And—OMG!!!—the Mayan Long Count is ending!!!!

This article is originally from the January 2012 Tor newsletter. Sign up for the Tor newsletter now, and get similar content in your inbox every month!

Throwback Thursdays: A Look Back at My Weird, Cool Life

Welcome to Throwback Thursdays on the Tor/Forge blog! Every other week, we’re delving into our newsletter archives and sharing some of our favorite posts.

In December of 2011, Rudy Rucker’s autobiography Nested Scrolls was published. In it, Rucker revealed his true-life adventures as a mathematician, transrealist author, punk rocker, and computer hacker. In this essay, from the Tor Newsletter, Rucker shared some important moments from his past, and explained how he decided to structure his autobiography. We hope you enjoy this blast from the past, and be sure to check back in every other week for more!

Nested Scrolls by Rudy Rucker

By Rudy Rucker

The thing I like about a novel is that it’s not a list of dates and events. Not like an encyclopedia entry. A novel is all about characterization and description and conversation, about action and vignettes. I decided to structure my autobiography, Nested Scrolls, like that.

This is a picture of me in my senior year at college. At that time I had the idea that Army-issue-style transparent glasses frames were cool. My roommate and I were writing things on the walls.

Plot? Well, a real life doesn’t have a plot that’s as clear as a novel’s.  But, as a writer, I can think about my life’s structure, about the story arc. And I’d like to know what it was all about. In writing my autobiography, I came up with a few ideas.

The picture below shows me with a “magic door” in Big Sur, California in 2008. I depict this a portal to a parallel world in my novel, Mathematicians in Love.

You might say that I searched for ultimate reality, and I found contentment in creativity. I tried to scale the heights of science, and I found my calling in mathematics and in science fiction. You don’t have to break the bank of the Absolute. Learning your craft can be enough.

This picture shows me as the singer of the Dead Pigs punk rock band in Lynchburg, Virginia, 1982. This was a time when I was still drinking and smoking pot. But eventually I found a way to stop. Once you’re in your forties, Jack Kerouac and Edgar Allen Poe aren’t good role models. They died in their forties.

Here I am with my daughter Georgia in 1973. In some ways I like children better than grown-ups. Their minds are more open, less encumbered. As a youth, I was a loner. But then I found love and became a family man. I’ve spent a lot of time with my wife and our three children over the years. And now we have grandchildren. New saplings coming up as the old trees tumble down.

Here I am selling prints at the Westercon in Pasadena, 2010. I’ve taken up painting as a hobby. It’s a lot harder, at least for me, to sell a print or a painting than a story or a book! I’ve had a number of careers. Initially I was a math professor—math always came easy for me. Nothing to memorize! Then I took up writing, really that’s my core career. But, even with thirty-odd books out, writing doesn’t pay very much.

So I spent the last twenty years working as a computer science professor in Silicon Valley. Riding the wave. It was a blast. And eventually I even got good at teaching, mutating from a rebel to a somewhat helpful professor.

Whatever I did, I never stopped seeing the world in my own special way, and I never stopped looking for new ways to share my thoughts.

This article is originally from the December 2011 Tor newsletter. Sign up for the Tor newsletter now, and get similar content in your inbox every month!

The Cool Idea

The Ultra Thin Man by Patrick Swenson

Written by Patrick Swenson

I’m supposed to avoid “how I got my idea” topics for this post, but I’m still going to mention ideas. I’m mentioning ideas because the heart of science fiction is the idea. Science fiction is the genre of cool ideas. It’s all about the awe and sense of wonder.

That’s what brought me into science fiction. As a young boy, it was Victor Appleton’s Tom Swift and His [Insert Cool Idea Here], and it was Star Trek and Twilight Zone. In junior high, it was Frank Herbert’s Dune. In high school it was Ursula K. LeGuin, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein. It was Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In college, it was Philip K. Dick and Joan Vinge, and a hundred other writers. I read all the Hugo Winners collections, and I was awed, and I wondered…

The Ultra Thin Man is my first published novel, but I’ve been writing a long time. By the time I read Dune, my love of SF had me believing I couldn’t write anything else. When I read SF, I explored the writers of the Golden Age, the inward journeys of the New Wave, and I was taken in. You know the phrase the willing suspension of disbelief? Yeah. I was totally willing.

I found out that the willing suspension of disbelief meant that as a writer of SF I was allowed a few “gimmees.” You know what I mean: Warp speed and faster-than-light travel. Blasters and diabolical galaxy-shattering weapons. Indeed, The Ultra Thin Man has some gimmees. My main character carries a blaster that’s never described. Humans and aliens alike get from one colony world to another via the “jump slot,” and I don’t describe it in any great detail, other than one instance from a pilot’s point of view, prepping a shuttle for departure. The Ultra Thin Man pays homage to the days of the pulp novel. When people ask me what kind of book The Ultra Thin Man is, I tell them it’s an SF noir mystery thriller Golden Age space opera. Well, kinda.

When I started the book, I was in the dark. I had a title. I had characters unraveling mysteries for a living. I put gigantic obstacles in their way. I introduced a galaxy-shattering threat, with very few leads, and I told them, “You’re the detectives. You figure it out.” When I wrote the book, I experienced the same awe and sense of wonder I felt when I read SF, because I was along for the ride, enjoying the plot twists and nodding in appreciation at the cool ideas. Eventually I discovered the truths these characters were searching for amidst the backdrop of the Union of Worlds.

Some science fiction is magic, really, and that’s okay, because I like story. I don’t need to analyze it. I want to find out what characters will do when antagonists bar their way. I want to learn something worth knowing. I want to explore the interrelationships between humans and technology. I’m not much of a science geek, but some of what I read about new or future science makes my head spin (in a good way). SF opens new horizons for my thinking. Suggests possibilities. I become better acquainted with my own world and culture.

But. I also read for pure entertainment and escapism. Story is king, characters are in charge, but sometimes, I just want to be wowed by cool ideas.

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