One can’t set a course without a map. A ship’s navigator seeks to map a world already inhabited in order to find a space for their ship’s passengers to settle. In doing so, they find their course altered as the world and their place in it changes.
Fiction and Excerpts 
To celebrate the launch of Machina, a new story about the race to build the robots and AI that will take us to Mars, from Serial Box, Machina co-authors Fran Wilde (The Bone Universe, The Gemworld), Malka Older (The Centenal Cycle), Martha Wells (Murderbot Diaries), and Curtis Chen (Waypoint Kangaroo) sat down with Naomi Kritzer (Catfishing on Catnet) and Max Gladstone (The Empress of Forever, The Craft Sequence) for a Tor.com Roundtable to talk about AI as it appears in fiction, fact, and in our dreams for the future.
Time travel has long been considered science fiction, while appearing in both science fiction and fantasy. The truth is, time travel’s grandfather paradoxes, forking plotlines, and shiny, spinning parts—from Hermoine’s Time Turner, to H.G. Wells’ time machine, to wormholes (thank you, Sliders)—grace both genres, posing inevitable challenges to our understanding of the narrative arc.
Meantime, portal narratives are often considered fantasy, and so-named because they send their characters to another location—often a secondary world (like Narnia). But one could, if one were so inclined, argue that the fourth dimension—time—is also a valid option for transit between different places.
With this consideration, time travel and portal narratives are at least related, sharing characteristics like being transported, and returned, to a different dimension or world.
Series: Five Books About…
Many writers keep journals. I’m one of them. I use journals to plot and plan (books, I promise, not murders), to figure out what I’m thinking about a particular topic or on a particular day, to remember what I’ve seen, or to look more deeply at what I’m experiencing, especially as I travel. Later on, I’ll go back through these journals and develop ideas into stories, essays, and more.
I’ve written previously about gravity being monstrous. Above the clouds, gravity is that unreasonable force always waiting for someone to make a mistake.
When thinking about monsters for Updraft, I wanted to explore variety and opposites. Not all monsters take a quasi-human form, not all devour (though some of the great ones do). I looked at how monsters occur—whether from the dark corners of our subconscious, or from a darker side of our conscience. My research built a catalogue of characteristics that began with Grendel’s startling appearances and his mother’s grief in Beowulf, and reached all the way to black holes out at the wobbly edge of space. I did a lot of reading.
What questions do SFF authors ask themselves when creating a futurescape, and what worldbuilding considerations do they make? Tor.com has assembled a roundtable of authors with exciting new books out this year to give you a look behind the scenes of their writing processes. We asked them several questions to start with, and then gave them control of the table to ask their own questions. Their replies are as varied as their work, and their worlds.
Participating today are Peng Shepherd (The Book of M), Malka Older (Infomocracy / The Centenal Cycle), Tade Thompson (Rosewater, The Murders of Molly Southbourne), Lauren C. Teffeau (Implanted), and Mike Chen (Here and Now and Then).
I recently finished another great boat-centric book that contained the hallmarks of modern action-adventure fantasy: shipwrecks, monsters, intrigue, heroes, a complicated good guy, evil-smashing, regrets, and a happy ending. Turns out, the book is among the oldest tales in Western literature. The very title sometimes causes memories of high school requirements to surface. Yet The Odyssey—especially this latest version—still rings true beside our modern marvels (see what I did there).
I’ll say it again: Emily Wilson’s new translation of Homer’s Odyssey (Norton, 2017) is vastly different from the version I read in high school. Where I remember the ominous drone of Pope’s version of the invocation—
“The man for wisdom’s various arts renown’d,
Long exercised in woes, O Muse! resound,”
—Wilson’s Odyssey begins as it means to continue, in uncomplicated, flowing English that feels exciting again, … and right for our time: “Tell me about a complicated man.”
I, like many other readers, was immediately delighted by this shift, and any lingering high school-related dread fell away as the adventure took over. When Dr. Wilson spoke about her five-year translation journey into the epic poem last month at The Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia, I made a point of going and then peppered the University of Pennsylvania professor, Yale PhD, classics editor, literary theorist, and translator of works from Euripides to Homer with a whole stack of questions, covering everything from poetry to prose, translation and re-envisioning, to superheroes modern and past.
In literature, magic is often grouped into three main categories—illusion (sleight of hand), spells and alterations of reality (paranormal), and the fantastic—and thus hidden there. Meantime, the word “magic” can itself shift from noun to verb to adjective and back again, an utterance repeatedly revealed as having a transformative property all its own.
I say “hidden” and “revealed” because the divvying up of magic into component parts keeps the whole of its complex nature somewhat safe from discovery. The act of defining magic becomes a way of constraining it, and of protecting it—and us. In some ways, magic becomes its own protective ward against wanting something so powerful that it can alter reality in the nick of time—shazaam!—so that we might use it to save the things we love.
Math, on the other hand. Math is different.
When author Max Gladstone first read Updraft, he contacted me, saying “You know, there’s no magic in your book, only engineering.”
He had no idea how much I was going to use that phrase. I think I owe him lunch or something.
But he was exactly right, except that he was also wrong. There IS magic in the Bone Universe series—all the way through from Updraft to Horizon. And—from the bridges to the wings and more, to the understanding of the wind around the towers—the magic is all engineering.
Series: Five Books About…
Last week, in the Thomas Jefferson Building auditorium at the Library of Congress, the newest U.S. Poet laureate, Tracy K. Smith, gave her inaugural reading.
Why am I writing about this on Tor.com, you might ask? Read on, friends. Smith has nerd cred to spare.
In grade school, Smith says she found poetry’s meter and rhyme scheme “akin to magic.” (from her memoir, Ordinary Light.) Sure sure, you say. Everyone tosses “magic” around. And the literary world in general sometimes seems to want nothing to do with science fiction, except to play with the shiny bits. But wait, there’s more…
As I gleefully watched my Bone Universe come to life through Tommy Arnold’s stunning art over the past three years, I’ve noticed both small details and bigger themes—from wing architecture to landscape to color choices.
With the series’ conclusion this fall (September 26th—and, hey! you can preorder your copy of Horizon now!), one of the things I wanted most to do was to talk with Tommy and Tor’s Creative Director, Irene Gallo, about their processes and how they went about making this series resonate visually.
Luckily, they were happy to oblige.
A fair number of my stories feature science or technology, even when they’re fantasy. About my first novel, Updraft, my friend Max Gladstone said, “There’s no magic in this book. It’s all engineering.” He was right… and a little wrong (sorry, Max!). There is magic in Updraft, and it’s all engineering.
Because the Bone Universe series — which began with Updraft in 2015 — concludes with Horizon this September, I’m thinking a lot about engineering and how it appears in science fiction and fantasy. For Tor.com, I assembled a roundtable of SF author-engineers and analysts. I also pulled one of the engineering consultants for the Bone Universe series into the discussion. Today, Hugo-Award winner John Chu, Nebula- and Locus-award winner Aliette de Bodard, short story author A.T. Greenblatt, and short story author, editor, and 2017 debut novelist Nicky Drayden join New Zealand-based naval architect and marine engineer (aka: my sister) Susan Lake for a roundtable on engineering in science fiction and fantasy. Here we go:
After the dust settles, the City of living bones begins to die, and more trouble brews beneath the clouds in Fran Wilde’s Cloudbound, the stirring companion to Updraft. Available September 27th from Tor Books.
When Kirit Densira left her home tower for the skies, she gave up many things: her beloved family, her known way of life, and her dreams of flying as a trader for her tower. Kirit set her City upside down, and fomented a massive rebellion at the Spire, to the good of the towers—but months later, everything has fallen to pieces.
With the Towers in disarray, without a governing body or any defense against the dangers lurking in the clouds, daily life is full of terror and strife. Nat, Kirit’s wing-brother, sets out to be a hero in his own way—sitting on the new Council to cast votes protecting Tower-born, and exploring lower tiers to find more materials to repair the struggling City.
But what he finds down-tier is more secrets–and now Nat will have to decide who to trust, and how to trust himself without losing those he holds most dear, before a dangerous myth raises a surprisingly realistic threat to the crippled City…
Once upon a time (cough, August 6, 2013, actually), Tor.com published “I Hate Boats,” by Carl Engle-Laird. Carl’s gone on to brilliant things, but I still want to argue with him about the post, and especially this sentence in particular: “Whenever my beloved protagonists get on a boat, I groan, put the book on the table, and pace around the room muttering angrily to myself, alarming friends and loved ones.”
Carl, now that you’re a big-deal editor at Tor.com, I’m finally ready to tell you that I feel exactly the opposite way. I love boats, and when I see one in a book, I feel a lot of hope. I grew up sailing on the Chesapeake Bay, reading nautical histories, and what I want in my fiction is a boat that feels real and suits the plot. When a book takes me over water, I’m eagerly looking for the most seaworthy craft.
I had a fantastic time guest posting at Sleeps With Monsters last fall. So much so that I badgered Liz to let me back through security for another round. This time, I wanted to step away from language and take a different tack: to look at one of my favorite television shows from the past season—The Expanse—and specifically at the women on the show.
One of my favorite things about The Expanse (and there are quite a few, because I love my space opera, and I’ve worn treads in BSG, The 100 [with two glaring exceptions] and Farscape) is the plurality of women in major roles on the show. Naomi Nagata on the Canterbury and Rocinante, Chrisjen Avasarala on Earth, Octavia Muss and Captain Shaddid in the Belt. All have deep backstories, active involvement in the show’s trajectory, and solid character arcs that weave dramatic threads throughout the plot—often independent of arcs relating to the primary male characters. ::fistpump:: Even Captain Yao on the Mars battleship and Elise Holden on the homestead, two secondary characters, feel strongly depicted and multi-layered. And of course, there’s Juliette Mao, the show’s… well, I have a theory about what and who Julie Mao is, but I’ll leave it to the end.
Series: Sleeps With Monsters
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