I’ve been reading and revisiting the fiction of Peter Watts this month. I knew I’d be doing a review of Echopraxia, see, so I decided to take a look back at Starfish via the Tor.com “That Was Awesome” series. Peter and I are friends now, and we’ve even been published in the same Polish magazine. But I didn’t know him back in 2000 or so, when his first book came out and I reviewed it for Locus. The look back tells about how my not-entirely-positive review sparked our friendship. I won’t cover the same ground here. Instead, I give you the Cliff’s Notes: both books are excellent, but the newer one is better. Both will reward every second you spend on them. And if you want a taste first, try this Tor.com free short, which is a tie-in to Echopraxia. It’s called The Colonel.
Guesting today on the site is D.B. Jackson, also known as David B. Coe, the award-winning author of more than a dozen fantasy novels. His first two books as D.B. Jackson, the Revolutionary War era urban fantasies, Thieftaker and Thieves’ Quarry, volumes I and II of the Thieftaker Chronicles, are both available from Tor Books in hardcover and paperback. The third volume, A Plunder of Souls, has recently been released in hardcover. The fourth Thieftaker novel, Dead Man’s Reach, is in production and will be out in the summer of 2015. D.B. lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.
I come from a family of readers, and so, perhaps not too surprisingly, I also come from a family of writers. But the thing is, neither my father nor my mother was a writer; on the other hand all four of us kids have written professionally in some capacity, which is pretty remarkable. The common denominator for all of us was books. My parents’ house was filled with them; every shelf overflowed with paperbacks and hardcovers, novels and biographies. When I reached a certain age — maybe I was eight — my father set up my own set of bookshelves in my room, fixing brackets to the wall so that I could adjust the shelves as I needed. He had done the same thing for my three older siblings before me. It was a rite of passage in our house.
My parents instilled in all of us a reverence for the written word. They didn’t spoil us; they limited gifts of candy or toys to our birthdays and Christmas. But they were always willing to buy us books. Always. And the truth is, I’m much the same way with my kids.
I didn’t read a lot of fantasy or science fiction early on, though eventually, with the help of a camp counsellor, I stumbled upon my first novel in the genre that would dominate my adult life. And I’ll get to that in a moment. But the first reading influences I remember were pretty standard kid fare. There were a series of books that I absolutely loved titled _____ Do the Strangest Things. Birds Do the Strangest Things, Fish Do the Strangest Things, Insects Do the Strangest Things, etc. They were essentially the written, kid-friendly equivalent of a David Attenborough nature special. I couldn’t get enough of them. I read every one of them, and then read them again. And again.
Though I remain a dedicated nature enthusiast, I don’t write natural history, and so it would be easy to assume that these books had little influence on my writing career. But I believe they had a much greater impact on me than one might imagine. They fed a deeply rooted intellectual curiosity and taught me — as my parents hoped they would — that books held answers, not only to all the questions swirling around in my young brain, but also to those questions I hadn’t yet thought to ask. I don’t think it’s too great a stretch to say that these books, and others like them, started me down the path to academia, which, in turn, steered me toward my writing career.
The other books that I remember gobbling up in my youth were the Hardy Boys mysteries written under the name Franklin W. Dixon. These were the Grosset and Dunlap re-imaginings of the series published initially in 1959 and popular through the 1960s and 1970s (which is when I was reading them). They weren’t great literature, they weren’t terribly challenging as kids’ reading went. But they were enormously fun. If Birds Do the Strangest Things, satisfied my burgeoning curiosity, these books fed my craving for adventure, danger, thrills — all the things my comfortable suburban childhood lacked.
And so, by the time I went off to sleep away camp for the summer as an eleven year-old, I was primed for a new kind of book that would be both engaging and exciting enough to allow me to move on from the Hardy Boys, which I was already starting to outgrow. Enter The Hobbit.
I didn’t actually encounter the book that summer. Instead, I tried out for a dramatized version of Tolkien’s novel. I had already discovered early in the summer that I had a flair for drama (no one who knows me now will be at all surprised) and when the opportunity came to audition for this newest production, I took full advantage. Yes, I was cast as Bilbo Baggins. It helped that I was short for my age . . .
I fell in love with the story, and more I was fascinated by the world revealed to me by the script. Elves, dwarves, wizards, dragons — what was not to love. It had never occurred to me that there were books like this waiting to be read; I certainly never dreamed that there were similar books written for adults that would allow me to pursue my new-found fascination with magical stories well past my childhood. But when the summer was over, I found the novel version of The Hobbit and devoured it. Then I read The Lord of the Rings, and after that Ursula LeGuin’s EarthSea Trilogy. By then, I was hooked on fantasy, and I have been ever since.
But I think it bears repeating that I’m not an author because of Tolkien. I wrote my first “book” when I was six; writing stories was always my favorite school activity. My early experiences with fantasy didn’t set me on the road to a career as a fantasy author; the sheer act of reading had taken care of that long before. The environment created by my parents and their exuberant love of all things book were the most formative forces in my childhood.
It would be pretty easy to imagine my own kids rebelling against my love of reading, which my wife shares. “Dad’s an author? Great. Hand me the remote.” But early on they discovered the same thing I did: Books are treasure boxes; they just beg to be opened. Their favorites have been the Magic Tree House and the Magic School Bus, Harry Potter and most recently the Hunger Games books. To be honest, I don’t care what titles they’re drawn to — as long as they’re reading, I’m happy. Sounds like something my Mom and Dad would have said.
David blogs, is active on Facebook and Goodreads, and Tweets. Give him some love here in comments or go forth and beard him in his lairs.
Here it is–the cover of my upcoming June novel, Child of a Hidden Sea. The artist’s name is Karla Ortiz and her blog’s here.
The text from the book jacket reads:
One minute, twenty-four-year-old Sophie Hansa is in a San Francisco alley trying to save the life of the aunt she has never known. The next, she finds herself flung into the warm and salty waters of an unfamiliar world. Glowing moths fall to the waves around her, and the sleek bodies of unseen fish glide against her submerged ankles.
The world is Stormwrack, a series of island nations with a variety of cultures and economies—and a language Sophie has never heard.
Sophie doesn’t know it yet, but she has just stepped into a political firestorm, and a conspiracy that could destroy a world she has just discovered…her world, where everyone seems to know who she is, and where she is forbidden to stay.
But Sophie is stubborn, and smart, and refuses to be cast adrift by people who don’t know her and yet wish her gone. With the help of a new-found sister, and a ship’s captain who would rather she had never arrived, she must navigate the shoals of the highly charged politics of Stormwrack, and win the right to decide for herself whether she stays in this wondrous world…or is doomed to exile.
One of the exercises I run past my “Creating Universes, Building Worlds” group is to start a piece and, within five paragraphs, establish the speculative subgenre–fantasy, horror, cyberpunk, hardSF, whatever.
Then I have them rewrite the same fragment in a different genre.
It always yields interesting results, and something that’s pretty consistent, from class to class, is that few people tackle horror and many of those submissions are less in your face, less out-and-out unabashedly horror, less easy to identify than the fantasy, the dystopian near-future SF, the time travel, and the space opera.
I was reminded of this today when I read “each thing I show you is a piece of my death,” by Gemma Files and Stephen J. Barringer, because by the time I hit the word canker, I’m not in any doubt. And from there the authors just dial it up:
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
–The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, William Shakespeare.
Somewhere, out beyond the too-often-unmapped intersection of known and forgotten, there’s a hole through which the dead crawl back up to this world: A crack, a crevasse, a deep, dark cave. It splits the earth’s crust like a canker, sore lips thrust wide to divulge some even sorer mouth beneath–tongueless, toothless, depthless.
The hole gapes, always open. It has no proper sense of proportion. It is rude and rough, rank and raw. When it breathes out it exhales nothing but poison, pure decay, so bad that people can smell it for miles around, even in their dreams.
Through this hole, the dead come out face-first and down, crawling like worms. They grind their mouths into cold dirt, forcing a lifetime’s unsaid words back inside again. As though the one thing their long, arduous journey home has taught them is that they have nothing left worth saying, after all.
Because the dead come up naked, they are always cold. Because they come up empty, they are always hungry. Because they come up lost, they are always angry. Because they come up blind, eyes shut tight against the light that hurts them so, they are difficult to see, unless sought by those who–for one reason, or another–already have a fairly good idea of where to start looking.
It’s a great story, if you’re looking for a creepy read.
Here’s the annual list of everything I read last year. It’s a new low, numerically–between the move and a couple other things, I wasn’t in the right headspace. I did read a fair number of short stories, but I often forgot to record them. A few made it to their own list, though, at the bottom. Of those, my favorite was the John Chu story
The best novel for me, this year, was Hild, by Nicola Griffith. You probably remember that I reviewed it, here.
1. Best American Science and Nature Writing, edited by Dan Ariely and Tim Folger
2. Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
3. The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondatje
4. The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey
5. Suspect Identities: A history of fingerprinting and criminal identification by Simon A. Cole
6. The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime that Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars, by Paul Collins
7. Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World, by Matthew Goodman
8. The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg
9. Black Rubber Dress, by Lauren Henderson
10. The Given Sacrifice, by S.M. Stirling
11. The Summer of Dead Toys, by Antonio Hill
12. Hild, by Nicola Griffith
13. The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History, by John M. Barry
14. The Voices In-Between, by Charlene Challenger
15. Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn
16. The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes
17. Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
2 student novels, plus partials
“About Fairies,” Pat Murphy
“The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere,” John Chu
“Running of the Bulls” by Harry Turtledove
“Brimstone and Marmalade,” by Aaron Corwin,
“Dormanna,” by Gene Wolfe
“House of Dreams“, by Michael Swanwick