Aug 122017

With my wonderful father Doug Palmer after the Hugo ceremony.

Last night I was overjoyed and overwhelmed to receive the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer at the Hugo Awards ceremony at Worldcon 75 here in Helsinki, Finland. I was so overwhelmed by this warmest of possible welcomes to the field that I mounted the stage crying too hard to actually read my speech. I also mounted the stage with difficulty, leaning heavily on my cane. Here is a transcription of the speech I ended up giving, which I want to follow with a few comments. You can see a video of the speech here.

Thank you very much. I have a speech here but I actually can’t see it. I can think of no higher honor than having a welcome like this to this community. This… we all work so hard on other worlds, on creating them, on reading them, and discussing them, and while we do so we’re also working equally hard on this world and making it the best world we possibly can. I have a list with me of people to thank, but I can’t read it. These tears are three quarters joy, but one quarter pain. This speech wasn’t supposed to be about invisible disability, but I’m afraid it really has to be now. I have been living with invisible disability for many years and… and there are very cruel people in the world for which reason I have been for more than ten years not public about this, and I’m terrified to be at this point, but at this point I have to. I also know that there are many many more kind and warm and wonderful people in this world who are part of the team and being excellent people, so, if anyone out there is living with disability or loves someone who has, please never let that make you give up doing what you want or working towards making life more good or making the world a more fabulous place.

I have never discussed my invisible disability in public before, so I want to add a little more detail here for those who must have questions. In my case, the pain comes and goes, often affecting me mildly or not at all, so many of you have seen me singing on stage, or in the classroom, or speaking at a conference with no sign of any pain, but sometimes, as last night, the pain sets in ferociously, too much to hide.

As is often the case with this kind of invisible and intermittent disability, the cause of mine is complicated: for me it’s a combination of Crohn’s Disease (an autoimmune disorder primarily affecting the digestive system), plus P.C.O.S., and some other factors for which I continue to undergo testing. These conditions cause a variety of problems, including inflammation, swelling, and periodic spasms in my lower abdomen. Over the years, this has damaged the muscles of my pelvis. The damaged area can go into spasm at any moment, causing severe pain and difficulty walking, as happened last night. Sometimes the pain is gentle enough that I don’t even notice it. Sometimes it’s medium, so I can walk with a cane and work with effort but get tired easily. Sometimes it is too severe to let me walk or work at all. And once in a while it’s so severe that, without special breathing exercises, I can’t not scream. All medications powerful enough to deal with the stronger forms of the pain also make me extremely sleepy or out-of-it, too much to work, or teach, or give a speech at a Hugo ceremony. So last night, I faced the choice between revealing this to a large public, or turning down the invitation to go receive the honor that means so much to me. So I chose to go to the podium.

I had not discussed this in public before because being public about disability (especially for women) so often results in attacks from the uglier sides of the internet, a dangerous extra stress while I’m working hard to manage my symptoms. I have been open about my disability with my students and colleagues at the University of Chicago, every one of whom has been nothing but outstandingly supportive. In fact, much of the strength which helped me get through last night came from the earlier experience of discussing my disability with my students this past year when I had to explain that I might miss class for surgery. Their outpouring of warmth and support was truly beautiful, but I was also awed by how eager they were to discuss the larger issue of invisible disability, and to hear about how I’ve worked to balance my projects and career with my medical realities, a type of challenge which affects so many of us, and many of them. Thinking of their kindness helped me keep my courage up last night, when having an attack at such a public moment made it impossible to avoid having this same conversation in a much more public and therefore scary space.

I was first diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in 2004, in the third year of my Ph.D. studies at Harvard. My first attack came suddenly, with no warning signs, on the morning I was supposed to have administered the final exam for one of my very first classes. Thanks to good medical care, and careful control of what I eat, the condition went into remission and was mostly dormant for several years, but it took a bad turn in autumn 2012, and another very bad turn in October 2015, which is when the pelvic damage reached its present level. From October 2015 through June 2017, almost half my days were “pain days,” i.e. days I am in too much pain to do anything but lie down. If I’m strong enough to, I usually watch Shakespeare DVDs, my way of at least doing some primary source research on Renaissance history even when I’m too weak to read or type.

Despite my disability, I have managed, over the past few years, to accomplish many things: publishing award-winning academic articles and my book on Lucretius in the Renaissance, securing a tenure track job at the  University of Chicago, composing and recording CDs of my music, and publishing science fiction novels which have now received the warmest welcome to the field I could imagine: the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, the Compton Crook award for best first novel, and finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Novel. But the nasty flare-up that ate so much of 2015-2017 is the real reason that I haven’t posted to this blog much recently, and that the new Sassafrass CD still isn’t done, and that I didn’t do a “blog tour” for the release of my second novel, and that book four Terra Ignota still isn’t done, and that, for the first time, I’ve had to pull out of some academic publications I’d promised to be part of, and turn down invitations that my younger self could never imagine turning down. With more and more opportunities opening before me, one of the hardest parts of living with this disability is learning to say ‘no’ to good and worthwhile things because I need to save those extra days, not for projects, but for pain.

What I have done, what I am doing, I am not doing alone. I have had so many kinds of help from so many people. They were who my speech last night was supposed to be about, because if there is a triumph here, it is the triumph of what can happen when a community of warm, generous people come together. So there was a long list of people I was planning to thank in my speech. I have incredibly supportive parents, Doug and Laura Palmer — thanks to them, I’ve never had to doubt that, when I need help, it will be there. That feeling of safety is invaluable.  I also have incredibly supportive housemates Michael Mellas, Lauren Schiller, and Jonathan Sneed, who step up to take care of me when I’m incapacitated, and remind me to take my meds, and often notice before I do when I’m too weak and need to rest, and mean that I never have to push past my limits the way I would if I were alone. I have other friends who’ve helped in so many ways: Carl Engle-Laird, Lila Garrott, Irina Greenman, Jo Walton, and so many more. I have supportive communities:  my college science fiction clubs, Double Star at Bryn Mawr and HRSFA at Harvard, my childhood local convention Balticon, and the broader science fiction fan community and filk community. I have the numerous convention staff, liaisons, and friends who have known about my condition for years and been my “spotters” in case I had flare-ups at conventions, and who have kindly honored my request to keep it private. I have colleagues and administrators at my university who instantly rose to the occasion when I brought my condition to their attention, and let me know that if at any time I felt I could no longer handle my teaching duties, they could put things in place to relieve me within 24 hours. I have a team of the best doctors in the world at the University of Chicago Hospitals. (At the risk of making this even more political, I have the larger team who went to bat for America’s health care this year, and preserved the protections without which I could not afford the medications which are finally making my pain days less frequent, and my teaching and writing possible.)

As an author, I’ve had a world class team, too. My agents, Amy Boggs and Cameron McClure, put their all into both disseminating the books and protecting them. My editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, always does everything he can to give me the flexibility I need, and his indispensable assistant, Anita Okoye, makes the process run on time. My publicist, Diana Griffin, gets the word out that the book exists, without which it would never reach the readers who are the most important part of all this. My amazing cover artist Victor Mosquera whose covers keep stunning me every time I look at them again. Other friends at Tor and help with advice and insights: Miriam Weinberg, Irene Gallo, Teresa Nielsen Hayden. My UK publishing team at Head of Zeus is also fantastic and I can’t wait to do more projects with them.

Nothing means more to me than the opportunity to pay it forward, to build on the immense generosity of everyone who has helped and given me so much, and to give back, through my teaching, my books, my blogging, every conversation, every day. So above all, I want everyone to know that everything I’ve produced, and everything I will produce during my life, living with this condition, is the fruit of the gifts of kindness, large and small, that I have received from so many, many people. Thank you.

Jul 072017

I want to share an essay today, one of the most personal things I’ve ever written, and one of those I’m proudest of. It’s about how I sold my first novel.

I’ve been stunned since I learned Too Like the Lightning is a finalist for the Best Novel Hugo. This really is the highest honor I can imagine, my work being recognized as one of the most valuable contributions to the community of conversation which drives us forward through speculation about other worlds to touching and creating them, both here on Earth and out among the stars. The community where the Great Conversation thrives. While I always intended to contribute to that conversation, I never expected this kind of reception for a very difficult and intentionally uncomfortable book, one which I had imagined as finding an excited but niche audience, never a large one.  I haven’t known what to say other than “Thank you!” but a common “Thank you!” feels mismatched, like paying the same 50¢ at a rock shop for a shiny hematite one week and the Philosopher’s Stone the next.  And I’ve also been swamped with final exams, colliding deadlines, three European conferences, research travel, illness, editing book 3, preparing a new project on the History of Censorship (more on that later), all the usual time-eating co-conspirators that make it easy to put off anything difficult.  And it is difficult to figure out how to write a world-sized thank-you to match this world-sized joy.

But I think one appropriate thank-you is to share this essay.  I wrote it for Shannon Page for her brilliant collection The Usual Path to Publication (Book View Café, 2016), which contains 27 different authors’ stories about how we sold our first novels. The volume’s variety succeeds in showing what it set out to, that there is no “usual path,” no consistent method, no one piece of advice that always helps on the path that no two people ever walk the same way. I suspect I’m not the only contributor to the collection who found that the story that came out, when I tried to tell it, was so personal, so saturated with the most intense emotion, that I was more than a little nervous sharing it at first. But I also think telling the story means even more now that it has a Hugo nomination at the end of it, and a Campbell nomination, and the Tiptree Honors List, and the Compton Crook Award.  Because I grew up in Maryland, so I’ve seen the Compton Crook Award given out to a Best First Novel in the genre every year at since I was a little girl, every time thinking “Maybe someday it will be me?”  So this is how I got to Someday.


The Key to the Kingdom, or, How I Sold Too Like the Lightning.

by Ada Palmer, 2016

Some people say revenge is living well –
I’ve found it sometimes works to go away
And be more awesome. Let him sit alone,
To watch your wildfires leaping as you play.

-Jo Walton, “Advice to Loki” 2013.

The midpoint first, then the primordial darkness, then the ever after.

It was 2011 (remember, this is the creation myth of a book that won’t come out until 2016).  I was in Florence, sitting in the top of a 13th century tower between Dante’s house and my favorite gelato place (extra relevant in an un-air-conditioned August!), and talking to Jo Walton about whether or not I should start a blog.  It was the beginning of a year in Florence, a postdoctoral research fellowship at the Villa I Tatti, Harvard’s institute for Italian Renaissance studies.  Life as a Renaissance historian had granted me long stays in Florence twice before, once on a student Fulbright, and once taking a shift as I Tatti’s resident grad student mascot (#1 duty, be introduced to rich donors and look bright-eyed and promising).  During my earlier stays I had written a series of e-mails describing my Italian experiences, and sent them to a list of friends and family.  The list grew over time as the recipients recommended them to more distant cousins and acquaintances, until I had nearly a hundred people on my list.  In fact, those e-mails were how I knew Jo.  One of my then-roommates, Lila Garrott (a poet, author, book reviewer, and now editor at Strange Horizons) had posted a few of what, in neoclassical style, I called my “Ex Urbe” e-mails on LiveJournal, where Jo had enjoyed them.  In 2008 Jo had invited Lila and the rest of our eclectic household to visit her for Farthing Party in Montreal.  Jo was with me in Italy that August because the question “Do you want to come stay in my apartment in a 13th century tower in Florence?” has one correct answer.  “I wonder if it would be less work to just post them on a blog,” I said, overwhelmed by trying to assemble the new list of people who had asked to receive my e-mails.  Jo looked at me very seriously.  “If you make a blog, I’ll send the link to Patrick Nielsen Hayden.”

I did make a blog.  (This blog.)

In three months, it was in the sidebar of Making Light.

In six months, Patrick asked Jo if the author of this ExUrbe blog had written any fiction.

In two years (almost to the day, August 2013) Patrick bought Too Like the Lightning.

My appetite to see my fiction in print had been overwhelming since elementary school, and I vividly remember the thrill of standing on tiptoe to watch my first typed story (a single paragraph, about blue-and-silver alien raccoons) crawl its way out of the astounding new dot matrix printer at Dad’s office.  I had begun a novel by fourth grade, three by tenth, and I devoured summer writing courses, of which the courses on essay writing (Johns Hopkins) and prose poetry (Interlochen) proved far more valuable than the fiction ones.  I remember once thinking to myself at fifteen, bored during a school convocation, that if I hadn’t published a novel by twenty-five then… the end is vague.  Then I should give up?  Then I was a failure?  Then I should curse the heavens?  It was my first serious college writing mentor Hal Holiday who helped me understand how absurd that was.  He made me cry in his office, with my first-ever B on a paper. I didn’t understand what I’d done wrong.  “Writing is a long apprenticeship,” he said.  I hadn’t done anything wrong, but writing well—not well for your age group, but well in an absolute sense—was hard to achieve.  It took real time.  Spending every childhood summer and weekend writing, taking every summer writing course, those were good steps, they helped, but they were a beginning.  I finished my first novel draft that year, flipped back to page one, and started writing it all over again.

In 2002, at twenty-one and with Mom to stuff the envelopes, I sent my (totally-rewritten) first novel-length manuscript winging its optimistic way to slush piles at agencies and publishers.  I sometimes think, if we could harvest the emotional energy in all the fat manila query envelopes aspiring writers entrust to the post office every day, we could move planets.  I have a folder of rejection letters from that first volley, and, looking over them now, I can see the good signs in them, the peppering of personalized notes, praise and encouragement among the form letters.  I didn’t understand then how many queries editors, agents and interns read, how generous it was for them to sacrifice precious seconds to write these extra lines (thank you!), but it did a lot to keep me going.  And in the back of the folder I always kept a printout of Ursula Le Guin sharing a very grim rejection letter she received for The Left Hand of Darkness, with her note “This is included to cheer up anybody who just got a rejection letter. Hang in there!”  Thank you.  After eight months of agonizing suspense, and the sporadic gut-punch of rejections, that first volley got me an agent.  She was not an F&SF specialist, but was game to try, and spent the next years doggedly marketing what neither of us realized was an unsaleably long fantasy novel.

I don’t remember where I received the wisdom that it’s better to go on and write Book 1 of a new series rather than write Book 2 of a series when you haven’t sold Book 1 yet.  Wherever I got it from, I obeyed it, and soon my plucky agent was shopping two series, then three.  Despite loving to sleep in, I followed the old advice and wrote in the morning, every day, an hour or two, giving my best hours to fiction and the rest of the day to the demands of grad school, and thereby wrote close to a million words of fiction over seven years.  Looking over those practice projects now, I can see my writing improve with each, the sentences, the pace, the plot.  Every paragraph was a step in that long apprenticeship.  The wait stretched on—three years, four—and it hurt—the growing, gnawing appetite.  Sometimes I would lie awake at night just from the pain of wanting something so much.  But I had an agent, and that gave me confidence, and comfort.

Meanwhile I was working on my Ph.D.  The single best thing that ever happened to my writing—looking at the novel I was working on at the time you can see the very chapter break where it happened, like lightning struck and *ZAP!* the prose was finally good—was in 2005, when I had to cut down my 20,000 word dissertation prospectus into a 7,000 word conference paper.  Without knowing it, I had stumbled on “Half and Half Again,” as it’s called by people I know in journalism, a training exercise in which you go through the agony of cutting an old work down to half length, then half of that, learning to spot the chaff and bloat in your own work, and how to make it tight and powerful.  Lightning.  I published other things—my first academic article, blog pieces for Tokyopop about manga & cosplay, a Random Superpower Generator for Maple Leaf Games, but none of them eased the wanting.  I also learned more about the world of genre publishing, from going to conventions and chatting with author friends made through Lila, and through my science fiction clubs, HRSFA (the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Society), and Double Star (at Bryn Mawr College).  F&SF specialist agent Donald Maass spoke to us at Vericon, a great little con HRSFA runs at Harvard every year, and I learned from his talk about the field, the extreme oversupply of submissions, the challenges of length and salability.  I had queried Donald Maass (unsuccessfully) way back in 2002, but in 2006, with my writing much improved, preparing to begin a new series which I felt in my gut was leap above the others (and eventually became the Terra Ignota series), I decided to break off my relationship with my first agent (with much gratitude and good will) and to try fresh to get a new agent at a major F&SF specialist agency.

I finished the first draft of Too Like the Lightning (Book 1 of Terra Ignota) in 2008, my penultimate year of graduate school.  Between 2002 and 2008, plump manila envelopes had evolved into instantaneous e-queries, and my generic cover letters had acquired the varnish of name-dropping.  I had recommendations from random people in the publishing world (Walter Isaacson, Priscilla Painton) whom I had met through Harvard.  And, while my first 2002 volley had showered queries on dozens of doorsteps (many quite inappropriate), I sent Too Like the Lightning to only one press in 2008, my great hope: Tor.  The more I learned about the world of genre publishing, the clearer it became that Tor was one of the only (if not the only) press that had the stability and resources to gamble on a big, fat science fiction series (four long books!) by a first time author, books which were dense and highbrow, and totally not similar to anything—trends are a safe investment; oddities are a gamble.  Plus, I had an ‘in’.  There were people at Tor who were friends of friends, alumni and associates of both Bryn Mawr and Harvard, some of whom knew my Double Star and HRSFA connections.  (Yes, I tried nepotism for all it was worth, anyone would—I still lay awake at nights, just wanting.)

After another year of lying awake and wanting (and finishing my Ph.D., and facing the academic job market, which in 2009 had just entered its sudden death spiral), a Tor contact told me (I think at Readercon?) that the book had advanced from the “slush” pile to the “shows promise” pile.  This was good news, but an un-agented manuscript, which the editor knows has been sent to no other press, can stew in that pile forever.  That November I queried Donald Maass, hoping a kind word from Tor would help me get an agent, and that a good agent might prod along the literary glacier.  I even got a Harvard-made mainstream publishing contact to e-mail Donald Maass with his endorsement to accompany my query.  (Roll for nepotism!  Did it achieve anything?  Not really!)  On December 31st, I received an e-mail from Donald apologizing for losing my query and getting back to me so late (apologizing for a delay of only 2 months!  Such professionalism!  Such sanity!) and saying he loved the beginning of the book, and was eager to read the whole thing.  I sent it right away.  I waited.  I shopped other, older projects with a YA agent recommended by a friend (no luck).  I published other things—more academic articles, critical essays, introductions to manga and anime releases.  I stayed up nights.  Sometimes it was so bad I couldn’t go into a bookstore without feeling sick to my stomach.  In November 2010 (a full year after Donald had asked for the book) Amy Boggs, then a fairly new member of the Donald Maass Agency, wrote to say that Donald—swamped by unspecified and mysterious stuff—had passed the book on to her, and she loved it.  We finalized the contract by early December, and Amy started shopping the book around in the beginning of 2011.

That spring I received my I Tatti Fellowship, and that summer I sat in a tower in Florence with Jo Walton, contemplating a blog.  Jo had talked to me about Patrick Nielsen Hayden, though I also knew of him from other sources; legends of such titans echo far through our little magic kingdom.

There is a fresco by Perugino in the Sistine Chapel, which shows St. Peter, in a beautiful neoclassical square, receiving the Keys to Heaven from Christ, with a group of apostles and others gathered around to watch.  It’s a deeply tender moment, Peter’s awe at the sight of the divinity which is also the friend he loves so much.  But I can never see it without imagining the next panel of the comic book, where Christ has gone back to Heaven, and Peter is left in the square holding these enormous gold and silver keys, and everyone is standing around awkwardly, trying not to stare, and someone sidles up saying, “So… can I get you a cup of coffee?”  You can’t put them down, that’s the thing, once you have the keys to Heaven, no one on Earth can forget it, not for an instant.  And that’s very much what it’s like being an acquiring editor (I’ve described this to Patrick, he agrees), because you have the Keys to the Kingdom, and people around you—at conventions, at talks, online—want it so much.  So much they lie awake at night.  There are infinite horror stories about editors being harassed and chased at cons, having manuscripts shoved under bathroom stall doors, repeated e-mails which get weirder and more desperate.  So, from childhood (picture me scrawny and eleven, following Dad and Uncle Bill to a Doctor Who convention, with my boy-short bright blonde hair, dressed as the Peter Davison Doctor) I had it drilled into me that you should never approach and bother an editor (or published author) about your manuscript.  Q&A when they were on panels was OK, but outside that sphere verboten!  In fact, I had met Patrick at Farthing Party back in 2008, but, knowing who he was, I was an emotional wreck just being near him, racked between the Scylla of my desire and the Charybdis of the taboo, so I spent much of the weekend actively hiding around corners and behind pillars to avoid looking at him.  But Jo knew I had a manuscript, and passed it on to Patrick for me in spring of 2012 when he asked her if the author of ExUrbe had written any fiction.

And I waited.  And I lay awake at night.  On a trip to New Orleans, an editor friend of Jo’s told a story about a query which had taken twelve years to be accepted, which actually made me throw up.  I tried to start another novel series, but I couldn’t.  Terra Ignota meant too much to me, so I broke my own law and wrote Book 2.  And Book 3.  So many heartfelt eggs in that basket.  Amy had occasional non-news for me, and I was overseeing the publication of my first nonfiction book, the academic history Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance, which will hopefully (knock all the wood you can!) get me tenure here at the magnificent I-dare-you-to-prove-it’s-not-Hogwarts University of Chicago.  (Where I teach history of magic. Really.)  I had submitted the monograph proposal to Harvard University Press way back in 2009.  Given the infamous snail’s pace of academic publishing, I often thought of Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance and Too Like the Lightning as twins fighting to see which would be the first to make it out.  But Tor, wonderful, infuriating, experimental, ambitious, field-shaping Tor, is slower.

In March 2013, Jo reported to me that Patrick had said positive things to her about the first page of Too Like the Lightning.  One page down, 333 to go.  That spring and summer were the madness of producing and recording my two hour close harmony a cappella Viking stage musical Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok, and its demands were exhaustion enough to let me mostly sleep.  As August came along, Patrick told Jo to tell me (in our surrealist game of telephone) that he and Teresa wanted to have dinner with me at Worldcon in San Antonio, and I should have my answer then.  This was more than a year after Patrick had asked for the manuscript, and five years after I had first submitted it to Tor.

I was working a booth at that Worldcon, an outreach display for the Texas A&M University Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, which has one of the world’s great science fiction collections, an impregnable treasure vault full of rare pulps, fanzines, first editions, and the archived papers of authors from Star Trek scriptwriters, to George R.R. Martin, to (now) me.  (Are you a writer? Do you have random papers and notes from old projects cluttering your house?  Cushing’s awesome librarians totally want to take your clutter, index it, and preserve it for posterity!  Win-win!).  The first morning of Worldcon, I was walking through the dealer’s room on my way to our booth, when Jo Walton gestured me over to the table where she was doing a signing.  I gestured back that I didn’t want to interrupt the people who were waiting patiently in line, but she flailed emphatically, so I came.  She told me that Patrick told her to tell me “Yes.”  I remember hugging, and crying, and intense crying, and gasping out a vague apology to the guy who was in the front of the line, but he said “It’s OK, it’s clearly important.”  Jo smiled at him and said, “She’s just sold her first novel!”  A keen, satisfied, brightness entered his face, like when you taste an unexpectedly excellent sour candy, and he said, “So, it does happen.”

Most of the rest of the San Antonio Worldcon is lost in the mists of bliss amnesia.  I remember staggering back to the Cushing booth all puffy and red-faced, and struggling to communicate to my colleague Todd Samuelson that I was OK, just overhappy from yes! Yes! YES!  I remember I couldn’t find my phone to text my dear friend Carl Engle-Laird (a HRSFA alum, who was then a new editorial assistant, and sharing my suspense) so I borrowed a phone from Lauren Schiller (my singing partner and roommate of 10+ years), only I couldn’t see through my tears, so the message came out all garbled and full of typos and r5and0m nuMB4rs.  I was on a panel right after that, with Lila Garrott (whose online connections had been so instrumental in all this), and I had no time to break the news before the panel, so I just typed it on my then-recovered cell phone and set it on the table in front of us: “Patrick said yes.”  Lila glowed.

After Jo’s signing, we found Patrick in the concessions area, and there ensued perhaps the most absurd conversation I shall ever have.  I was still paralyzed by the aftereffects of Scylla and Charybdis, so shy and overwhelmed that I could barely force myself to look directly at the legendary Patrick.  But Patrick is himself a naturally shy person, and skittish after so many years carrying the Keys to Heaven, so he couldn’t look at me either.  And there we were, both trying to hide behind Jo (who is a head shorter than both of us), unable to make eye contact while trying to talk about how we wanted to work together for the rest of our careers.  That was when I started to see the absurd flip side of it: all the while that I had been terrified of approaching this incredibly important editor who had power over everything I ever wanted, in his world I had been the intimidating one, this distant Harvard Ph.D., with all these impressive publications, this learned and authoritative tone on my blog, and I had everything he wanted, great science fiction that it would be a pleasure to publish.  In Settlers of Catan terms, I had bricks, he had wood, but we were so mutually overwhelmed neither of us could get the words out: “Shall we make this road?”  We had dinner with Jo and Teresa at one of those Brazilian Barbeque places, where they hunt the great beasts of the plains and serve them to you on spits carried by excessively statuesque young men—at least that’s what Jo says, because bliss amnesia has erased everything except a vague memory of asparagus and a beige tablecloth.  I remember Patrick said he and Teresa wanted to audition to edit and shape my career.  Audition?  I would have begged!

Patrick took me to the Tor party that weekend.  I know he introduced me to Tom Doherty and fifty other genre VIPs, but I genuinely don’t remember a thing except recognizing Liz Gorinsky from a distance by her hair.  Patrick forgot to give me his business card, so I almost left without the ability to contact him.  It took three weeks to stop feeling like a dream.  No, that’s not true—it still feels like a dream.  I signed the four book contract by crackling firelight, huddling over the hearthstone during the power outage caused by a New Year’s blizzard, which absolutely feels like a dream.  I have a release date now (that took two years), and cover art (same), and the Advanced Bound Manuscript in front of me (well, a defective ABM missing the last three chapters—oops!), and I have a fantastic recording of Patrick—the Patrick—playing guitar with me while I sing my ode to fandom’s support of space exploration “Somebody Will” (super ultra win condition!).  But I still feel prepared to wake up tomorrow, back in my old bedroom, and discover it was all a dream.  Maybe there will always be that edge of doubt, the scar of how intensely I worried that the door might never open.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  But if it did open for me, it wasn’t because I kept pounding on the gate with the same desperate query.  And it wasn’t the favor-trading, or the Harvard connections, or my attempts at nepotism, or even (honestly) my agent (though she’s done so many great things for me then and since).  It was that I set forth to be more awesome.  I kept honing my craft, starting new projects better than the last, producing other works, articles, music, essays, research, the blog.  I made my fire burn bright in the dark.  People do see.

From The Usual Path to Publication, ed. Shannon Page, Book View Café, 2016.
May 062016

TooLikeLightning_coverHello, friends & readers.  This is a quick update to share links to a couple short essays I’ve written for other blogs.

My first science fiction novel Too Like the Lightning comes out very soon now, May 10th!  Initial reviews and reactions have been extremely enthusiastic, and these days Twitter sometimes feels like a surreal dream, with authors I’ve admired deeply for years gushing over… me?  (Karl Schroeder: “most exciting SF future I’ve encountered in years.” Ken Liu: “reflective, analytical, smart, beautiful.” Max Gladstone: “I’m kind of in love with this book.” Fran Wilde: “Too Like the Lightning = AMAZEBALLS! GET! READ!”)

In honor of the occasion (and to help pre-orders & first week sales which can do so much for a new author!) I’ve been asked to write a bunch of short guest blog pieces which I hope you’ll enjoy.  You can also read the first four chapters up on

On SF Signal I have talked “Middle Future Science Fiction” i.e.  SF set later than near future but while the majority of human culture is still on Earth, and why I think this is an exciting and new space for speculative fiction. Take-home quote: “We have many ways to talk about the End of History, so many that talking about the Future of History is now the novelty.”

On the Tor/Forge publisher blog meanwhile I have a piece on “World Building like a Historian” about how my historical training helps me build a future which is rooted, not only in the present, but in the past.  Take-home quote: “All humanity’s presents have been full of the past, for as long as there has been a historical record. So if there’s one safe bet we can make about the future, it’s that it will be full of the past too.”

Ten or so more guest blog pieces will be going up over the next weeks, many of which I’m very proud of, and I’ll gather and post links here. Meanwhile reviews on Barnes & NobleFantasy Literature and Romantic Times (<=best ever plot summary!) do a much better job describing the book than I can manage.

Here on Ex Urbe, with readers who know me well through my essays and travels, I can describe it a different way.  I’ve poured myself into this book. This is the real thing, the centerpiece.  You’ve seen my essays here.  You’ve seen my love of craftsmanship, and rhetoric, of playful structures and framing twists, describing a stick in water as the “antagonist” or suddenly letting Descartes stray into a dialog with Socrates.  You’ve also seen the depth of my empathy, my Machiavelli series which so many readers have written in to say moved them to tears, and moved me to tears too as I wrote it.  I love essay writing, and history writing, but every bit of skill I have at it, every hour I’ve put in, I’ve put in for the novels.  “Writing is a long apprenticeship.”  That was the best and most important piece of advice I got from my favorite writing professor when I started college.  He was right, and I took him seriously, wrote every morning for two hours before breakfast, did extra drafts beyond what class required, spent my summers and my breaks taking more writing classes.  Hours and hours and hours.  I love writing nonfiction, and I love writing essays, but it was these stories, the ones I wanted to tell in the novels which kept the fire burning through a long, long apprenticeship.  Too Like the Lightning isn’t an easy book and it’s not for everyone.  It takes a lot of concentration, reading with your brain at your best.   It takes skill at reading genre fiction, at picking out the puzzle pieces of world building and piecing them together, which can be difficult if you aren’t used to reading in the genre.  It takes patience as you watch very complicated things play out as fast as I could make them when you need to know so much to understand.  It takes trust as the narrator and narrative take twists or show idiosyncrasies whose true purpose may not be clear until the end (or until the next book, which comes in December).  I hate spoilers, and hate recommendations that give half the story away, and believe strongly that the very best recommendation is simply “You’ll like it, trust me” from a friend who knows me very well.  So I’m not going to talk about the plot and themes and characters, since Romantic Times does that much that better than I can.  I will just say that this book may be for you, if you like philosophy, and history, and challenging books that really stretch your mind, and new ideas about society and culture, and my essays here are a good sample.  But you have to enjoy and be able to handle challenging world building.  And above all you have to be willing to trust me, the author, that all the threads will come together, and that in the end the tapestry will be beautiful, the kind of tapestry I can only weave if you give me four books, 700,000 words, a lot more time and trust than I have with my essays here. I will absolutely keep writing essays for Ex Urbe (no worries there!), but if you have enjoyed them, then you may enjoy the real work they were practice for.  It comes out in five days; hard to believe it’s real.

Meanwhile, the primary reason it’s been so very long since I wrote a proper Ex Urbe entry is simple: a fire at the end of February drove me from my home. Happily no family members (or books!) were harmed, but the complications of temporary quarters, construction and insurance have eaten the few hours research that already consumed by research and preparing for the book launch.  I’m still struggling my way out from under the to-do mountain that has caused, but as I make my way out Ex Urbe is starting to get toward the top of the pile again, and I’m really, deeply looking forward to finishing the essay I did manage to start in February before fire became more than a metaphor.  Meanwhile I’ll post here when new guest blog pieces go up.  And I’ll try to write another little piece next week to share my feelings when the day comes.  May 10th.  Five days.  So many, many years… five days!

Too Like the Lightning is available through Powell’sBarnes & Noble (also on nook), Amazon, Kobo, Indiebound, Goodreads, and your own wonderful local bookstore which is always great to support!

Meanwhile, for general human edification, here are some photos of fascinating plants with cards explaining their interesting historic uses, which I got to see at the botanical gardens in Sydney Australia, where I was for a conference last month.  (Did I mention I’ve been overwhelmingly busy?)










Sep 242015

too like CoverAt long last, my forthcoming novel Too Like the Lightning has a cover!  You can see it, and the first teaser description of the book, on So I thought I would share a few author’s thoughts on what it feels like to have a cover.

It’s an amazing, numinous feeling seeing the world I created materialize into a visual, quasi-real in such a different way.  Of course, authors generally have no control over the cover art, which is something I have known for a long time, so I spent years preparing myself for a terrible cover. I even picked out the scene from the book which I thought would make the worst possible cover, making it look pulpy and the wrong genre, so that, if I imagined that cover, anything would be better. At one point my wonderful housemates even made a terrible CG mockup of the terrible cover, which I still treasure as a mouse pad, my long preparation bracing myself for the worst. (I will not post that image since it’s a spoiler, but it’s so bad!)  It has made me smile and wince for many years.

The real one, executed by Victor Mosquera, is wonderful.

When my editor said he thought the covers for the Terra Ignota series should be cityscapes, a different city on each of the four books, I was overjoyed. It was perfect. (And not only because if there are no characters pictured on the cover so they can’t look wrong.) Just as this blog is called “Ex Urbe” (From the City) because so much of what I look at is the culture and complexity of cities, and the identities, histories, peoples and events they shape, so this novel series focuses a lot on cities, especially the different global capitals which reflect the cultural and political developments which are the heart of this science-fictional world.

The Terra Ignota books take place in 2454, so some of its cities are present day capitals which I extrapolate forward, asking what Paris or Alexandria will be like in 400 years. Others are new cities founded as results of social, political and technological changes. This first cover shows the city where the action begins, Cielo de Pajaros, a “spectacle city” in Chile, built onto a mountainside overlooking the Pacific coast. The illustration has absolutely captured the idea of the city, built for people who want to enjoy the vista of sea and stone and sky, and the hundreds of thousands of wild birds which are encouraged to live around the city by “flower trenches” which run between each of the layered tiers of the city, and are seeded with native plants that encourage birds to feed and nest. The sheer, cliff-like surface shown here is even steeper than I had imagined, but I like it because it makes it instantly clear how intimately the city is bound to the flying cars we see coming in to land. These cars make it possible for cities like this to rise in areas that could never be reached by land, and for a teeming metropolis to leave the wilderness around it un-scarred, without roads, rail lines or shipyards, since the arteries which connect this city to the rest of civilization need nothing but air. Before I saw this illustration I had not visualized the cars and birds flocking together, but it’s perfect, a feeling of an exciting, technologically-sophisticated future with flying cars and high-tech cities, but also with birds and waves and sunrise, warm inviting colors, air and sea spray.  A healthy future, and an Earth which advanced but still familiar, and welcoming.  Positive.  I think that is what I like most about the cover, the fact that the mood is right, suggesting a science-fictional future which is beautiful and positive.

Everyone involved in publishing this book–editors, agent, publicists, author friends–constantly complains that the book is impossible to pitch.  Describing the skeleton of the plot doesn’t work because it leaves you with the wrong impression of what the style will be; describing the style leaves you with the wrong impression of what kind of story it will be.  “It’s not like anything” is a frequent refrain when people try to come up with books to compare it to.  My agent Amy Boggs told me that, when she was first reading the manuscript, she felt a little smug because all the other agents at her agency were complaining that they were drowning in dystopian submissions, and reading dystopia after dystopia after post-apocalyptic dystopia was a real downer, so she got to gloat saying “I’m reading this nice utopian book!”  And it is utopian in some sense.  I’ve also caught my editor on panels about the state of the genre, when he was asked about the super-popularity of dystopian and post-apocalyptic stuff which is saturating the field, saying with some excitement that he’s going to publish this great series set in an exciting, good future with utopian things going on.  It made me smile.  However, I myself am very careful about how I apply the words “utopia” or “utopian” to this book, since it’s definitely not supposed to be a perfect future.  But it is a good future.  And, for me, “utopia” and “utopian” are not quite the same.

I should say that I love dystopia as a genre (my first term paper way back in middle school was on 1984, Brave New World and We), and when I discuss it in analysis I always try to distinguish between what I call “a dystopia” and what I call “a dystopian work”.  For me (these are my own idiosyncratic terms) a “dystopia” means a work that is about its terrifying future, more about the world than it is about the people in it, who serve as portals for us to see the world, and a dystopia–for me–generally also means a story in which the characters are living in the world but powerless to change it.  In contrast I call “dystopian” works which are using a dark future setting as a background for a story which really is focused on the characters and their actions, and where the characters end up leading a revolution, or an exodus, or a counter-strike, or escape to a different non-dystopian place, or all the other ways of using dystopian elements as a tool for a wide variety of stories in which the world itself is not the protagonist, the way it was for Orwell, Huxley and Zamyatin.

So, similarly, when I talk about a “utopia”–a work intending to depict an ideal future–that is not quite the same as a work which is “utopian” i.e. addressing the idea of utopia, and using utopian positive elements in its future building, while still focusing on people, characters and events, and exploring or critiquing the positive future it depicts, rather than recommending it.  2454 as I imagine it is not a utopia.  There are many flaws and uncomfortable elements.  For example, as you can learn from the reveal (and the first page of the book) there is censorship, a very uncomfortable (and traditionally dystopian) element for an Earth future to have. But there are flying cars, and robot trash-collectors, and low crime rates, and spectacular cities, and awesome jobs, and high-tech fashions, and cool new family structures, and all sorts of things which are, if not perfect, a bit better than 2015, just as 2015 is a bit better than 1915, and a lot better than 1515.  It is using utopia and commenting on utopia without being a utopia.  But in our tendency to slot futures into different familiar categories (dystopian, cyberpunk, golden age, post-apocalyptic, space opera, eco-catastrophic, post-scarcity decadence…) it can be difficult to articulate what this future is like.  It isn’t those.

That is why I think the cover is so excellent, the mood, the feel of it: warm with a bit of shadow, inviting, airy and numinous but also concrete, futuristic but integrated with the familiar realities of Earth.  A future where humanity has done pretty well, botched some things but solved some others, created a lot of exciting innovations worth exploring, and has lots more still to do.

So, thank you, Tor, and Victor Mosquera, and Irene Gallo, and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, for creating a picture which finally pitches Terra Ignota in a way that makes it feel like the books actually feel, when all the rest of us have failed!

The book comes out May 10th 2016, and you can pre-order it from Powell’s, from Barnes & Noble (also on nook), from Amazon, through Kobo, or you can use Indiebound or Goodreads to find independent bookstores to order it for you.

Here is the cover at full size: