Tor.com content by

Joe M. McDermott

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Fiction and Excerpts [1]

The Fortress at the End of Time

|| Connected by ansible, humanity has spread across galaxies and fought a war against an enemy that remains a mystery. At the edge of human space sits the Citadel—a relic of the war and a listening station for the enemy's return. For a young Ensign Aldo, fresh from the academy and newly cloned across the ansible line, it's a prison from which he may never escape.

Village of the Dead: Five Ways of Reading An American Cemetery

The big literary book of the season, it seems, is the much-acclaimed Lincoln on the Bardo, by the much-acclaimed literary SF-nalist George Saunders. In this text, all of the action happens among the dead that accumulate around the cemetery where they are buried. These stubborn ghosts often refuse to acknowledge that they are even dead, referring to their coffins as their “sick-box” and await the time they heal and emerge from their “illness.”

This text has been widely reviewed (including at Tor.com) and the most striking element to me, when I read the text, was this seemingly unique way of approaching the narrative of life through the cemetery, and the ghosts, therein. The dead place resembles a neighborhood, and the ghosts who may not have known each other in life form friendships, talk to each other, tell each other the stories of their lives. The dead are more alive than when they were alive, for they are closer to their sense of self, separated from the realities of the world that bound them up into cages of pain and suffering and injustice. Their madness, if they are truly, deeply unhinged, is able to be more purely present in death than was permitted in life. Their love, if they are truly, deeply loving, is exacerbated by the absence of their beloveds—either friends or family. I was reminded, deeply, of a classic of American poetry, The Spoon River Anthology.

The way cultures imagine death says a great deal about the culture in life. There exists a consistent narrative that pops up in American media of a “little village of the dead” that allows individuals to continue conscious existence inside the walls of their cemetery, unable to impact the world at large directly, but speaking to the truth of their self, honed down to an essence, regardless. This conception has appeared over and over again in our books and stories. Here are just five examples, beginning at the edges of the idea, up to and including the ubiquitous midwestern bardo of the Spoon River.

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Small Lives, Epic Scope: Alan Moore’s Jerusalem

Compress 1200 pages into 1200 words at your own peril; I shall do my best to explicate the joys and occasional frustrations of reading Jerusalem, Alan Moore’s symphony to Northampton.

Imagine an exhibition about a single place, a hundred artists walking and painting in Monet’s garden, selecting portraits for an exhibition. And, after that exhibition a story is told about each painting, connected by the shared narrative fest of the space. Now, scatter these painters through time, and after death. The stir of a single life’s impetus becomes entwined with the movement of wind and grass and architecture.

This is not Monet’s garden, though.

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Never Discount the Farmboy: The Labor of Food

In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!

I have a lot of fruit trees on my little, suburban lot. It’s a postage stamp lot, and packed in as tight as can be are six citrus trees, two pomegranates, two pears, two plums, two peaches, a jujube, three grapevines, a barbados cherry, two olive trees, a loquat, an elderberry, passionfruit vines, blackberries, raspberry… Let me think. I think that’s most of them. Papayas come and go, as well as other annual fruits and vegetables, and I love to draw bees and butterflies with flowers and herbs, but when I think of my garden, the first thing I think about is the lemon tree next to my front door that blooms in the spring and hands me hundreds of golden jewels in the dark days of winter.

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Five Video Games With Sudden But Inevitable Betrayals

My novel, The Fortress at the End of Time, is about a betrayal. It is not a secret or a twist or a surprise. In fact, it is revealed within the first few paragraphs. I am in the habit of writing betrayals or twists in this fashion because I feel that, too often, books are not an ideal form for a sudden or unexpected twist. The format does not, to me, create an ideal space for a sudden reversal similar to what we see on screen. Even on screen, twists are generally more about the big reveal, itself, than whatever that thing revealed may or may not symbolize or indicate to the larger purpose of the narrative. The momentum of the story, and the meaning of the story, is moving in a direction, after all. A sudden shift in the flow is jarring, and breaks the wall of narrative expectations. Attention span is so fragile, and books are so easy to put down. They require a level of concentration that no other artistic medium I know demands.

The jarring aspect is why, I feel, video games are a better place for this technique (when used sparingly!). Some of my favorite dusty, musty old video games contain a sudden twist that breaks the narrative flow just so. The hypnosis of gaming, the repetitive acts and actions, leads gamers into a sort of haze of muscle memory. When betrayal comes, a twist of the plot—again, only if well done—breaks the momentum of the narrative and forces the player to think about events in the game, and the actions they’ve been virtually doing. It works because the player is part of the narrative, not distant from it.

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Series: Five Books About…

The Fortress at the End of Time

Captain Ronaldo Aldo has committed an unforgivable crime. He will ask for forgiveness all the same: from you, from God, even from himself.

Connected by ansible, humanity has spread across galaxies and fought a war against an enemy that remains a mystery. At the edge of human space sits the Citadel—a relic of the war and a listening station for the enemy’s return. For a young Ensign Aldo, fresh from the academy and newly cloned across the ansible line, it’s a prison from which he may never escape.

Deplorable work conditions and deafening silence from the blackness of space have left morale on the station low and tensions high. Aldo’s only hope of transcending his station, and cloning a piece of his soul somewhere new is both his triumph and his terrible crime.

The Fortress at the End of Time is a new science fiction novel from Joe M. McDermott, available now from Tor.com Publishing.

[Read an Excerpt]