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Science Fiction & Fantasy

My Favorite Kind of Story

Amber Lynn Natusch, the author of Unborn, gives us a deeper look into her newest novel.  91du7hlHaBL._SL1500_

I love the urban fantasy genre. Always have. Always will. It's where my head lives and dreams; that wonderful place where fact meets fiction, then injects the supernatural. And it’s where my writing career started, spinning tales of other worldly characters masquerading as humans in a small seacoast town in New Hampshire. The success of that series, Caged, afforded me more time to write and wonder about all the other things that could occur in that world I had created. Darker things. Grittier things. Things that caused me to lose sleep on more than one occasion.

And that is how my latest novel Unborn came to be. The new story quickly evolved into the seedy cousin of Caged, with the two series connected by a group of half-brother immortals found in both storylines. The Patronus Ceteri were born and bred for the sole purpose of maintaining the balance between the human world and the not-so-human one. That task proves especially difficult in the sinister city of Detroit, which is plagued by a particular brand of supernatural known for its ability to infest and destroy all it comes into contact with.

Complicating their job even further is the appearance of a raven-haired enigma from the Underworld named Khara.

Not your typical leading lady, Khara brings an unusual voice to the urban fantasy world. Where most first-person protagonists are either sarcastic and sassy or too badass for their own good, she has a dark ambivalence that is easily understood once her back-story comes to light. How sassy can someone be when they've been raised in the depravity of the Underworld? Her brutal honesty, literal assessments, and naïve ways create a curious blend of ancient immortal and coming-of-age female.

Khara’s voice has been a real challenge for me. I'm far from formal and suffer from an unhealthy dose of sarcasm and sass myself, which is probably why I have an easier time writing the protagonist of Caged. But the challenge of translating Khara's thoughts to page has been far more entertaining than I ever thought it could be. She's funny in an unfunny, straight-shooting way. I have totally laughed out loud during some of the most serious scenes in the book because her take on events comes out so deadpan yet accurate that I just can't contain it. It's especially comical when she takes the hardened warriors of the PC by surprise, which is no easy task, I can assure you.

And they aren't the only ones affected by Khara’s atypical attitude. Oz, the disgruntled fallen angel who resides with the brothers of the PC, has hard edges and bad boy tendencies that typically make women flock to him. His confidence is not unwarranted, but Khara sees through his antics and proves to be the challenge he's never encountered. The fact that she finds him utterly repellent only fuels his behaviors further. Their banter is poignant and comedic, aggressive and, at times, surprisingly tender. He picks at her controlled exterior while she strips away his hubris, creating an adversarial yet strangely romantic tension. And, although the sequel, Unseen, is already complete, I'm not one hundred percent sure myself where their story will go over the course of the series. But I do know the Unborn series promises to be a wild ride of suspense, mystery, deceit, and discovery. My favorite kind of story.


A World Where Mankind Makes Its Own Magic

81PkxfMcfaL._SL1500_Charlie N. Holmberg, author of "The Paper Magician", discusses the makings of her alternate early 20th century England, where magicians cast spells through man-made materials.

For The Paper Magician, I created an alternate 1902 England where people have learned how to cast magic through man-made materials, such as paper, glass, rubber, fire, plastic, and human flesh (since we’re all technically man-made, right?). If it’s not man-made, it isn’t castable—this means things like naturally formed glass or fire are useless when it comes to magic.

The upside to man-made magic is that anyone can (legally) become a magician, so long as they survive the required coursework. In the world of The Paper Magician, the most prolific school for magician training is London’s Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined. Once enrolled, and assuming you can pay the steep 15,000-pounds-per-year tuition, you have a maximum of three years to graduate. If you can’t master the classes in three years, you’re given a black mark as an aspiring magician, as well as a lifetime of student loans to repay. If you do graduate, you’re sent to apprentice under a practicing magician in your field for anywhere from two to six years, after which you undergo a magician’s test and, hopefully, pass with flying colors. Otherwise, it’s back to trade school.

The downside to the magic is that each magic user can only choose one material to bond to. In the case of my protagonist, Ceony, once she bonds to paper, she’s stuck enchanting paper for the rest of her life. (This puts a rather large chip in her previously made plans to enchant jewelry and bullets as a Smelter.) Unfortunately, the bulk of Tagis Praff graduates see paper Folding as rather, well, lackluster (Ceony included), and therefore England hosts only twelve Folders. Someone’s got to get those numbers up, and to Ceony’s dismay, that person happens to be the one assigning her apprenticeship.

The adaptation of this magic into society has also advanced a few bits of technology for the time period. Automobiles are fairly commonplace, and telegraphs are in general use, though electricity and telephones are still relatively new. The widespread use of magic has also played a role in civil rights, allowing women more freedom within the economy and government.

When not in London or on the outskirts of Foulness Island (how great of a name is that? Granted, it’s named for its birds, but still), The Paper Magician takes place in the five-inch-by-three-inch space of a man’s still-beating heart, and only somewhat metaphorically. Each chamber of the heart reveals a different aspect of Magician Emery Thane, and while the memories it holds are intangible, the danger is very, very real.

An Insider’s Look at the Hugo Awards

81tlROx52UL._SL1500_Greg Bear, author of over 25 books, which have been translated into 17 languages, has won science fiction’s highest honors and is considered the natural heir to Arthur C. Clarke. The recipient of two Hugos and four Nebulas for his fiction, he has been called “the best working writer of hard science fiction” by The Science Fiction Encyclopedia.

The Hugo Awards is a milestone event each year in the world of science fiction. I encourage fans to go—it’s a meeting of like minds that can’t help but be fun. My favorite Hugo ceremony (and also my last!) was in Brighton in 1987. Astrid and I had traveled with our infant son Erik to England where we were wined and dined and thoroughly charmed by the convention, the pros, the fans, the locals. All good. One of the highlights was a marathon dinner with my editor and writers at Brighton, including Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who spoke English haltingly, and Doris Lessing with her son Peter, who spoke Russian and of course English. Followed amazing conversations about science fiction and its intent, satire, social criticism, and genre vs. literary expectations.

 During the Hugo ceremonies that year, I planned on bringing Erik up with me for my speech if I won—and Jim Burns beat me to it by bringing up his daughter to accept his award! I did pick up a rocket, to my delight—and brought Erik with me to turn the ceremony into a double baby event. Later, a party at the Aldisses’ beautiful home in Oxford introduced us to British jazz musicians who were excellent. All in all, a lively and wonderful set of memories!

A Life of His Own

51mSmjVaHNLRichard Phillips discusses the unplanned path that turned one of his secondary Rho Agenda characters into the protagonist for three new novels.

What makes a hero?  For Jack Gregory it’s a serial killer’s soul.

As I was writing my Rho Agenda trilogy, one of my secondary characters took on a life of his own, acquiring a much more important role in the trilogy than I had originally envisioned. By the publication of Wormhole, my third Rho Agenda novel, many of my readers wanted to know more about how Jack ‘The Ripper’ Gregory came to be the mysterious killer they had come to know.   Based upon that outpouring of interest, I signed a second deal with 47North to write three Rho Agenda prequel novels featuring Jack Gregory. 

What does this say about my writing style?  Yes, you’ve guessed it.  As opposed to a detailed outliner, I’m a notorious pantser who loves to add the odd bit of scene detail, such as a broken manikin in a dark store-front window.  But then I can’t resist looking deeper inside that store to see if there is anything else in there that might spill out to impact my story.  It’s not that I don’t structure each story ahead of time, but each one evolves during the telling, and that evolution brings forth new life.

In the case of the aforementioned Jack Gregory, I needed a tough NSA agent to help my young Rho Agenda protagonists survive the turmoil they had accidently unleashed on themselves and on the world.  What I ended up with was much more than that, a killer with a mysterious something extra along for the ride.

In designing the three prequel novels that introduce Jack Gregory, I wanted each one to be an independent thriller as opposed to a trilogy.  However, it was also important to have a multi-book arc that reveals the true nature of the alien being that comes to share Jack’s mind and that shows Jack’s struggles against the insanity that threatens to consume him.  Once Dead is the opening salvo in this internal war and is scheduled for release on August 19th, 2014.

While it is fairly common for authors to write books about an interesting secondary character, one of the more unusual instances of this can be seen in Orson Scott Card’s great novel, Ender’s Shadow, which retells Ender’s Game from Bean’s perspective rather than Ender’s.  But the retelling of a tale from a second perspective is something best left to the hands of master craftsmen like Card.  That said, I encourage all of you other pantsers out there, and even you hard core outliners, to step through the dark storefronts in your mind and explore the hidden stories of the secondary characters who populate your worlds.  You might just discover a novel idea.

Q&A: Ramez Naam with Madeline Ashby

Ramez Naam (author of "Nexus") and Madeline Ashby (author of "vN") engage in a Q&A session revealing insights on past experiences and how it shaped their writing. 81HTJYIXvKL._SL1500_

Ramez: Madeline, you’ve written incredibly mind-bending novels like vN about a world full of both humans and self-replicating robots. Your protagonist, Amy, is a little robot girl who eats her own robot grandmother and absorbs her mind! Are there things happening today that inspired these ideas?

Madeline: Thanks! I think Amy's arc was inspired by fairy tale, especially the older version of Little Red Riding Hood wherein the Wolf entices Red to consume the morsels of her granny's corpse he simply couldn't finish. But I drew on contemporary technology for the construction of the self-replicating humanoids themselves: they have hollow titanium bones with graphene memory coral inside, plus carbon nanotube muscle under polymer-doped memristors embedded in a silicone "skin." All of those elements I drew from materials science research. They're all possible. Technically.

My question to you: Your novels focus on what it's like to share minds with other people, which is a really stressful idea for me, because I can't imagine how I would focus on anything or get anything done. Do you think sharing minds would be measurably different from endlessly refreshing Facebook?

Ramez: Heh. That’s right.  In Nexus and Crux, a technology you can swallow can link people’s minds. Most of my readers are pretty excited about this idea. But some legitimately have concerns. If it was like Facebook always on, with no way to turn it off, I think it would drive me mad!

In the books, though, it’s not quite like that. There’s more ability – though not a perfect ability – to choose what you send and receive. The idea of the Nexus technology itself is based on real science going on now. We have brain implants that restore sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and have let paralyzed men and women control robot limbs by thought. We’ve even had one scientist use his thoughts to control the limbs of another scientist a mile away.  The conflict in the books is that the technology is an illegal drug, used in the past for terror attacks. So there’s a War on Drugs/War on Terror angle that somewhat eerily presaged the NSA / Snowden scandal that’s come to light over the past year.

Back to you:  A lot of people are worried today that robots are going to take all the jobs. Does that keep you up at night?

Madeline: No. It doesn't worry me. At all. If I were worried about artificial intelligences taking all the jobs, I'd be worried about stuff like algorithmic day trading and traffic sculpting, or the way so much of basic surveillance and security protocol has been outsourced to unconscious, non-sentient intelligences. Really, I'm more concerned about the economy in general, and the systematic eradication of the middle class. The inability of most people my age to buy a home or have a family has less to do with robots and more to do with social and tax policies that benefit the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

I'll throw in a random one, too: one component of vN is the Cascadia earthquake, a devastating quake that essentially liquefies downtown Seattle. I wrote it because I used to live in Seattle, but you still live there. Do you ever worry about the big one?


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Frightening Science Fiction­ – Or a Cautionary Tale?

51LZd6PoQcLThomas Waite, author of the newly released Lethal Code, shares with us that while his novel about a massive cyber war against the United States is fiction, the scariest part is that it could actually happen.

Unknown terrorists launch a cyber attack of unimaginable proportions on the United States. They take over the nation’s most vital computer systems, shutting down the country’s power grid, but not before the cyber terrorists infiltrate top-secret networks at the Pentagon and White House, along with scores of others. Unprecedented death and destruction follow. These cowards with codes produce a horrifying death toll, take control of the nation’s nuclear arsenal, and place another nuclear bomb in a backpack on a bus full of children headed to New York City. The race is on, with both professionals and everyday citizens risking everything they hold dear to defend themselves and fight this invisible invasion.

Sounds like dystopian science fiction, right? Don’t be so sure.

I’ve spent most of my life in the technology field. My first novel, Terminal Value, was a cyber sleuthing, murder mystery about a start-up mobile computing company and a large information technology services firm about to go public. In recent years, I’ve been involved with cyber security companies, which naturally had me researching and reading a lot about cyber attacks and cyber warfare. What I found was frightening.

The truth is that most of the technologies, cyber attack vulnerabilities, and cyber war scenarios in Lethal Code are based on facts. There are well-documented examples of cyber attacks by China, Russia, North Korea, Israel, the U.S., and other countries. Power, water, fuel, communications, and transportation infrastructure are all vulnerable to disruption. Not only has our federal government admitted that the electric power grid is susceptible to cyber warfare, but even the non-profit North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), which oversees all of the interconnected power systems of the contiguous United States, Canada and a portion of Mexico, has issued a public notice that the grid is not adequately protected.

One of the most seminal books I read was Richard Clarke’s non-fiction book, Cyber War (written with Robert Knake). Clarke has served in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, who appointed him as National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counterterrorism. Citing numerous examples, the book makes a very convincing case that although the U.S. pioneered the technology behind cyber warfare, our outdated thinking, policies, and strategies make us vulnerable to losing any cyber contest with a hostile nation.

Similarly, Leon Panetta, the former Secretary of Defense and Director of the CIA who oversaw the U.S. military operation that led to Osama bin Laden’s death, said in a speech in 2012 that our current situation has left us open to “an attack that would paralyze and shock the nation…” He then added his most chilling note of all: “Before September 11, 2001, the warning signs were there. We weren’t organized. We weren’t ready and we suffered terribly for that lack of attention. We cannot let that happen again. This is a pre-9/11 moment.”

As much as I want to entertain my readers, it’s important to note that Lethal Code is not just a fast-paced cyber thriller; it is a cautionary tale for a public largely unaware of a potential cyber war of cataclysmic proportions from an unseen enemy.



Meet George R.R. Martin at Comic-Con International: San Diego

51t3ZoRpTBLOn Sunday, July 27, 12:30pm – 1:30pm, author George R.R. Martin will be at the ComiXology booth #2547 to promote and sign copies of The Hedge Knight: The Graphic Novel (A Game of Thrones), published by Jet City Comics. Signing is limited to 200 copies, given away free, first-come, first-serve. Guests may bring up to one additional copy of The Hedge Knight or its sequel, The Sworn Sword (please note that Mr. Martin will not be signing any other books). The Hedge Knight and The Sworn Sword will also be available for purchase in limited supply at Forbidden Planet’s Titan Booth #5537.

The Man In Two Worlds

91-fHqP6OEL._SL1500_Ben H Winters, author of World of Trouble, shares with us how he went from writing mystery novels to being a sci-fi author.

A confession, science-fiction fans: I entered your world unintentionally. 

Like an astronaut crashing on an unknown planet, I was an accidental science-fiction author—although in truth I was an accidental mystery author first.

A bunch of years ago I wrote a novel for kids called The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman. I thought it was just a funny book about a teacher with a secret. 

But then folks said: “Hey! Great mystery novel!” 

I liked that. I liked being a mystery writer. I like mysteries. And so I wrote a novel for adults about a detective solving crimes that no one else cares about. To make it interesting, I came up with a very good reason  to why no one else cares: because Earth is on a collision course with a massive asteroid and civilization is about to end.

And then folks said: “Hey! Great science-fiction novel!” 

And so here I am, the “Man in Two Worlds”. The Last Policeman won the Edgar Award, for mystery writing, and then its sequel Countdown Citywon the Philip K. Dick Award, for science-fiction writing. 

Theoretically one could quibble with both designations and insist that the novels (including the third volume, World of Trouble, which comes out today) are more properly categorized as speculative fiction, the sci-fi subgenre that imagines and examines a hypothetical alteration in human history. Some of my favorite novels inhabit this category, especially Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and some of the best works by the aforementioned Philip K. Dick—I am particularly smitten with The Man in the High Castle

But, listen, I refuse to decide one way or another. I’d be a fool! First of all, like all writers, I want as many readers as possible: I want science-fiction readers, I want mystery readers, I want your Great-Aunt Judy who usually prefers romances but will go ahead and give this one a try because she likes the look of the cover. 

The other reason I refuse to decide is because one of the exhilarating things about this job is that you never really know what’s going to happen next, including what you yourself will come up with tomorrow. (Did I say exhilarating? I meant terrifying.) I could declare myself an Official Science-Fiction Writer, or an Official Mystery Writer, and then have a whiz-bang idea for a story about pirates, or one about a love affair, or one about this renegade zoo keeper who kidnaps these orangutans and—hey! Don’t steal my zookeeper idea, dude. 

Ira Levin is one of my all-time favorites, because he wrote Broadway thrillers and he wrote creepy horror and he wrote speculative fiction and he wrote about robots. He had good ideas and he went where they went. That’s my mission statement: to come up with good ideas and follow them, to whatever distant star I crash-land on next. 

Alien Invasions

OutoftheblackEvan Curry, author of the upcoming book, Out of the Black, from his popular Odyssey One series, discusses the idea of an Alien invasion on earth.

The words invoke imagery from a hundred movies and books, from War of the Worlds to Independence Day and beyond. In the Odyssey series I play with the common tropes of the genre, twisting some and just enjoying others, but the common question has a tendency to remain… Even if we accept the central premise, is any of it really possible? Why would aliens bother with us anyway? More importantly, for a military science fiction writer like myself at least, could we beat them back? Could we win?

Better minds than mine have given it a lot of through, including the US Military if rumors hold some truth to them, but it always seems to boil down to us poor humans having something the big scary aliens want. Alright, that makes sense on the surface, so what could we have? Air? Water? Gold or other precious metals?

No, none of those make sense. Any space faring culture would more easily acquire those in space at any asteroid belt, out in the Oort Cloud, or any of a thousand other possibilities. So why invade? Two possibilities make sense, a lot of sense.

First, Aliens may want or need our Biosphere. Air, Water, even food can easily be manufactured or sourced from accessible resources in space but the complicated linking of everything that makes up the world we live on may be the rarest of the rare. It may also be essential to life, not just as we know it, but as the universe understands it.

We like to say that we humans are star stuff, and that’s very true.  The seeds of life, whether you believe abiogenesis or creationism, came from the heavens above. The process through which we evolved here on Earth may end in wildly different places on another world, but that starting point may well remain a constant. DNA, the habitable zone, and the basic rules for all life as we know it could be universal.

So for those invaders, Earth would be a jewel floating in an eternal desert. Priceless, and worth having at any cost.

No matter how advanced these aliens are, however, they would be fighting at a sore disadvantage. Earth is our home, we evolved here, and we know all its secrets. Alright, we know some of its secrets.  Our supply lines would be short, we could easily hide and strike from the shadows, and generally make it very expensive to try to hold the planet. They could easily take it, any species capable of getting here is going to walk right over us in the initial invasion, but we could make it unbelievably expensive to hold.

They couldn’t just wipe us out, that would almost certainly destroy the biosphere that attracted them. Hell, we’re doing a great job of that just by accident, so believe it or not the Earth’s biosphere is incredibly fragile in the short term. Certainly, it would recover, but that could take decades or centuries and presumably our uninvited guests want to move in now. Against such a foe, our best defense might be putting a nuclear gun to our own heads and trying to out crazy them. We’re pretty good at that, just check the history of the cold war.

So, yes, we could probably beat back such an invasion by hook or by crook.

The second possibility? Oh yes, them. Well, if the Earth is ever invaded by a species that doesn’t need our biosphere… we lose. We will never see such an enemy coming, they would hold all the cards, and wiping us out would simply be good security. 

Faster Than Light Space Invasions and The Age of Sail

51PJs02-byLVaughn Heppner, author of Alien Shores, discusses the correlation between intergalactic invasions and the Age of Sail.

I think the best model to understanding future faster-than-light space invasions is the Age of Sail.

In those days, the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French and English built worldwide empires. The heart to each of their territories was the cannon-armed sailing ship, the caravel, carrack and galleon. In relation to the time and space of their milieu, my argument is that sailing ships are remarkably similar to what most novelists imagine future starships would be like.

Voyages took weeks, sometimes months. In an intergalactic empire, trips from one star system to another would likely take just as  long. Even with a warp drive, crossing a vast expanse like the Orion Arm would be a daunting adventure.

In the age of sail, a message traveled as fast as a ship or as fast as a horseman could carry a letter. Unless some magical system is employed, the same would be true in an interstellar empire. As an aside, I wrote about one such magical system in Strotium-90. Telepathic twins on two different worlds became the only instantaneous communication line society possessed between star systems. How fast would thought travel? Faster than anything else was my answer.

In any case, the speed of communication given the long travel times becomes critical. The age of sail provides us with a clue as to how events would unfold in a galactic empire under attack.

In all likelihood, an invading fleet would not have quick communication with its homeworld. Just as an English naval commander off India became a law unto himself, so would a space admiral be. He would have to make drastic, interstellar-shattering decisions without being able to phone home for advice or new instructions. He also wouldn’t have access to quick reinforcements. To win, he has to use what he’s hauled with him these many weeks.

In the same way, the defending viceroy of an intergalactic empire would have tremendous power and authority. It could take weeks, maybe months to send a report to the emperor and receive a reply. Decisions would need to be made immediately.

These days, the idea of being cut off is difficult for us to comprehend in our guts. We’re used to cellphones and instant TV coverage or internet footage. The loneliness of leaving everything behind and entering a star system with who knows what kind of surprises in store could make for a terrifying journey. It might also make invaders cautious until they’ve sent in scouts. Once a catastrophe strikes a starship or a fleet far from home, the situation could become dire indeed.

In my latest novel, Alien Shores, the hero struggles to know what to do once disaster has struck. The aliens in the Fenris System—230 light years from Earth—pose a terrible threat to humanity. If the hero fails to commandeer a Teleship to reach home, there’s no way to warn mankind of the approaching danger. An alien fleet might gather and attack the solar system with as much surprise as Native Americans felt upon seeing Christopher Columbus’ sailing ships off their shores.

On Earth in our day, we’ve radically shrunk travel time and communication lag. Intergalactic empires and their invasion would dramatically expand both, perhaps to an even greater extent than humanity experienced in the age of sail. To understand what the future has in store, a close study of those days might reveal what it would be like with an empire among the stars.