the written world: of murderbots and time wars

in the last month i’ve read martha wells’ Murderbot Diaries (consisting of four separate novellas: All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, Exit Strategy) and amal el-mohtar and max gladstone’s standalone novella, This Is How You Lose the Time War, which is a long-winded way of saying i’ve been terribly spoiled with effortlessly good writing and faultless pacing. i’ve been staying up too late, smiling into the gentle glow of my kindle, thinking how did they do that?

they’re extremely different stories: Murderbot is the harrassed, sarcastic inner-narration of a security robot gone rogue, hitch-hiking through the galaxy in search of purpose and belonging; Time War is a series of love letters between two time-traveling agents on opposite sides of an endless war. Wells is sharp and practical, often funny (“the way murderbots fight is we throw ourselves at the target and try to kill the shit out of it”); El-Mohtar and Gladstone are poetic, mystic, indulgent, full of urgency and longing (“have you ever had a hunger that whetted itself on what you fed it, sharpened so keen and bright that it might split you open, break a new thing out?”).

but both stories work, wonderfully. both of them make me want to shake them gently by the shoulders, listening for the rattle of prose and sentence structure, the machinery that makes them tick. or maybe i want to brew tea with their pages and divine lessons from their dregs.

if i did, i might come out with something like:

lesson #1: novellas require tunnel-vision and self-control.

reading novellas on a kindle is disorienting. you come to the end of them, bam, at roughly the time you’re expecting to sink into the murky middle of a novel. they’re short. sometimes they feel rushed, like novels stuffed into too-small suits; sometimes they feel slow, like short stories wearing grown-up clothes.

but these were all goldilocks books (just right). they had character arcs. they had beginnings and middles and ends. they had loose ends but not too many. they were all under 40,000 words. how?

tunnel vision, i figure. they cared about one thing—Murderbot finding its place, Red and Blue falling in love—and told everything else to fuck off. we don’t know the history of the far-future corporation that built Murderbot; we don’t know how and when the time war started. we just know how Blue feels when she reads Red’s words in her tea, and that Murderbot prefers the made-up people in her space-operas to the real thing. so if you’re going to write a novella, maybe decide what the thing is you care about, and care about it as hard as you can.

lesson #2: you don’t need an idea that’s never been done before. you need an idea that’s never been done before by you.

artificially intelligent fighting machines who eventually attain independence and personhood is not a new thing in sci-fi. neither are time-traveling agents fighting for alternate futures. but Murderbot and Time War both felt fresh, exciting, smart, unlike-other-books, uniquely and precisely themselves. (isn’t that the real trick of great books? that they know exactly what they’re about, down to the last semi-colon).

i think a lot of writers, and maybe especially genre writers, live in terror of unoriginality. you’re supposed to write new planets and unseen horizons! invent gods and languages! go boldly where no book has gone before!!

but like—what a weird measuring stick that is. as if readers carry around checklists of tropes and deduct points for every familiar plot or character (when, in reality, they often do the opposite). god knows i’m not advocating for stasis in subject or form, but surely mere newness isn’t the real measure of a book’s worth. these authors brought something new to some fairly un-new ideas—they brought their specific passions and perspectives, their curiosities and sympathies, their queerness and immigrant-ness and subversiveness. they brought themselves.

so maybe, i don’t know, write your vampire romance. your young-girl-becomes-a-knight, your fae-folk, your retold-mythology, your cinderella story, even your zombie apocalypse. (actually i just read a zombie book that was, no joke, totally unlike anything i’ve seen. eat your heart out, clarkesworld submission guidelines). so long as you bring your whole self to it.

other reading

some other things i have loved/am loving:

  • daniel ortberg’s aggressive reaction to finishing his book is relatable as shit: “Sorry for saying fuck you but sometimes my joy at finishing things I’ve been dragging out becomes wildly hostile. This is part of my process and you have to respect it.” I Finished Writing My Book So You Can Go Straight To Hell.

  • rebecca roanhorse’s Storm of Locusts. did you like Trail of Lightning? good. then you will like the sequel.

  • amal el-mohtar has an article in the guardian that is just so damn smart and good: “Every time we recover a female author, scientist, doctor, activist, every time we affirm that black people lived in medieval Europe, that queer people have always existed and often led happy lives, we change history – not the past, crucially, but history, our story about the past, our narratives and paradigms. And as we change history, we change the future.” Why Are There So Many New Books about Time-Traveling Lesbians?

  • kathleen jennings’ Flyaway, a forthcoming novella from tor.com, is so good??? i’m not even done, but i have that hairs-on-end, skin-prickle feeling i got the first time i read We Have Always Lived in the Castle. holy shit.

    news

so: my first novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, comes out September 10th in the US, September 12th in the UK, from Orbit/Redhook. you can: read the first chapter here, find it on goodreads, and/or pre-order it at indiebound, amazon, or barnes & noble.

i’m doing one of reddit’s ask me anythings on September 10th at 10:00 on r/books. also, if you’re anywhere near louisville, kentucky, i’m doing a launch event at carmichael’s books on frankfort ave., on september 12th at 7:00PM. or if you’re near berea, kentucky, i’m reading and signing at our dearly beloved local library on september 14th, 4:00-6:00 PM.