Welcome to my worlds!

I'm James Maxey, author of fantasy and science fiction. My novels include the science fantasy Bitterwood Saga (4 books) the Dragon Apocalypse Saga (4 books), numerous superhero novels including Nobody Gets the Girl and the Lawless series, the steampunk Oz sequel Bad Wizard, and my short story collections, There is No Wheel and Jagged Gate. This website is focused exclusively on writing. At my second blog, Jawbone of an Ass, I ramble through any random topic that springs to mind, occasionally touching on religion and politics and other subjects polite people are sensible enough not to discuss in public. If you'd like to get monthly updates on new releases, as well as preview chapters and free short stories, join my newsletter!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Choosing What Novel to Write: Part Four

Today, the two most likely candidates for my next novel.

Cherry Red Rocket Ship: About a century from now, the world has been transformed by contact with the Thardexians, a race of alien shape-shifters who are unfailingly benign and generous in sharing their technology. They stay off Earth, since they're environmentally conscientious enough not to alter our biosphere to their liking. Mars, however, is a perfectly viable planet not being used, so they've built big domed cities there to thardaform into pleasant environments. They don't need the whole planet, so they've shared their tech so that humans can also settle the planet. In fact, humans have now colonized several Jovian and Saturnian moons, as well as our own moon, and have ambitious plans to cool Venus and make it viable for colonization.

Trade with the Thardexians is mostly intellectual property, with the Thardexians being especially interested in cultural imports. They love bluegrass, ice cream, Bollywood movies, and Russian novels. The one thing they have a problem with is coffee. And the problem is they can't get enough of it. Thardexians love the stuff. I gives them a high that makes crack seem tame. So high, in fact, that coffee addicts abandon their duties and forget their morals and generally lose interest in anything beyond where they're going to get their next cup of coffee.

So, of course, the Thardexian have convinced the governments of earth to outlaw the production and consumption of coffee if the want to continue having trade relations with them. And, of course, a huge organized crime black market has arisen to grow and smuggle coffee, both to the Thardexians and to earthies who can't live without the stuff.

The novel follows Remy, a young coffee smuggler who gets pulled over by the cops while smuggling half a pound of coffee beans. In a panic, he swallows the bag of beans he's carrying. The cops had only pulled him over for a busted nav signal, and would have let him go with just a ticket if he hadn't thrown up beans all over their uniforms.

Now, Remy's in jail and he knows his days are numbered. The cops doped him up on truth endorphins and he's spilled his guts, both literally and figuratively. The head honcho of the local drug cartel has a zero tolerance policy for snitches. Talk to the cops, and he'll twist off your head. Which he can do easily, since he's a twelve foot tall cyborg gorilla veteran of the moon wars named Space Gorilla Max.

Remy has to get out of town. In fact, he needs to get off the planet, even out of the solar system if he wants to avoid having his head mounted about SGM's fireplace. So, when he's released from jail due to a computer error, he races to the nearest spaceport and hotwires the first rocket ship he sees--the bright cherry red chrome bedecked pimp rocket that belongs to Space Gorilla Max. He takes it to Mars to see his old girlfriend, Suzanne, a female thardexian with a coffee problem who broke up with him when she started her twelve step program. Apparently, her sponsor felt that dating a coffee smuggler wasn't conducive to her remaining clean. Remy is hoping Suzanne will help him get to Thardex, far beyond Space Gorilla Max's reach. Grand adventure ensues as they romp around the solar system, with both gorilla goons and law enforcement in hot pursuit. Lots of quirky characters and settings, lots of madcap humor, tons of action sequences.

I really want to write this book. I think it would be fun to write and fun to read. Playful, with a (hopefully) interesting political edge, and a chance to comment on just about any cultural element I have an opinion on. Also, I really want to infuse the book with a retro SF aesthetic, where the spaceships all have tailfins and people go hiking in Mars in shorts, a tank top, and a big glass dome over their heads. Oh, and did I mention that the Thardexians shape shift to psychically appeal to humans? So that Suzanne is a busty blue-skinned vixen who dresses in silver bikinis and high heels? I want a cover on this thing that would have been at home on any SF magazine published in 1933.

The arguments against writing it: Retro SF is going to be a really tough pitch to a mainstream publisher. I can't point to a successful book published in the last ten years and say, "See? There's a market for this." My last project, Cut Up Girl, is probably an even harder pitch. There aren't a lot of hit superhero novels, and female superhero projects are such a tough sell they can't even get a Wonder Woman movie made.  Cut Up Girl is an awesome novel, and I still have hope that a publisher might recognize the awesome and take a gamble on it, but I wrote it mainly because I wanted to read it, and have enough artistic integrity to commit to a project from time to time without regard for whether or not it can sell. But do I have enough artistic integrity to do this twice in a row? Or should I focus on something slightly more commercial for my next undertaking?

Shooting Star: First, that's a very tentative title. The story would share the premise with my short story "To the East, a Bright Star." A few centuries ago, a rogue brown star passed along the edge of our solar system, disrupting the Oort Cloud. For a long time, nothing happened. Then, a few years back, every other day astronomers announced the discovery of a new comet. Some days, dozens of comets were found. Soon it became obvious that something bad was going to happen. A whole storm of comets was heading our way. With luck, none would hit us.

We weren't lucky. A relatively small one impacted with Antartica. This melted much of the ice sheet, raising sea levels 50 feet in under a month and overloading the atmosphere with water vapor creating an accelerating greenhouse effect, so that temps have risen on average ten degrees in under a decade.

In the midst of all this disaster, the governments of earth have proven pretty effective in managing the crisis. The greatest minds of humanity now work together to keep mankind safe and fed, and for the most part there's a spirit of social cohesiveness, a sense of hope that we can all get through this by working together.

Looming over everything is the doomsday comet heading towards us. A big one, bigger than the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. Our one hope is to deflect it with a massive nuclear bombardment. Unfortunately, the halo of debris surrounding the core shreds the rockets sent to save us. Other rockets go up, including a last second attempt to guide a largish iron-nickel asteroid to collide with it and shatter it into less damaging chunks. But when this rocket crashes into the asteroid, killing the crew, the President must address the nation and tell them that deflecting the comet is no longer an option. Instead, plan B is a mandatory evacuation to underground bunkers where mankind will wait out the impending comet holocaust.

And in a dive bar in rural Arkansas, a truck driver empties his beer, wipes his mouth, stares at the screen where the President is still speaking, and says, loudly, "That's it. We're fucked." Then he pulls out a pistol and tries to rob the place. This is where the novel opens, and where we meet our protagonist, a young guy name Tony talks the driver out of the robbery, offering him some weed so he can chill out and get into a better head space.

Tony's known pretty much since he was a teenager the date he was going to die, since that's when astronomers announced the date the comet would strike earth unless it was deflected. He'd had a gut feeling that nothing would work. He doesn't intend to go live in some underground bunker like a prisoner fated never again to see the sun. Instead, the comet is predicted to strike just off what used to be the Outer Banks of North Carolina (now vanished beneath the rising waves). Tony's plan is to get to the coast and climb to the roof of the tallest building he can find on Day Zero and watch what is going to be the most spectacular, albeit brief, fireworks display anyone has ever seen.

The novel would be a journey across a nation falling apart. Tony has some people he'd like to see before the final day, and a few specific provisions he'd like to acquire to make his final moment of life something truly special. Along the way, does everything he can to help people, since he wants to reach the end with a clear conscience, knowing he did all he could to help his fellow men.

Even though civilization is unraveling, one important goal I'd have for this novel would be to write it with as little violence as possible. I think my current body of work reflects a broader cultural bias that adventure equals action and action equals violence. Every book I've written to date buys into this assumption. And, don't get me wrong, I love me some art based on this premise. Turning to my left, I've got a row of superhero graphic novels, easily two dozen of them, and I guarantee you there's not a one featuring a story where no one gets punched. I like me some fight scenes. And, I think I'm really good at writing them. Perhaps I'm misjudging my artistic strengths, but I think one of my strong points is that I write a mean fight. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any book I've written to date isn't built around a climax where the good guys win a physical confrontation with the bad guys.

Why? I've never hit a single person in my life since I was a kid, nor has anyone hit me. Violence just isn't part of my day to day life. Why do I continue building stories around it?

So, Shooting Star will have as little violence as possible, although given the setting I imagine it would be unrealistic that Tony won't encounter some violence. Still, the climax of the book won't be structured around a big fight scene. Nor will the climax of the book be structured around Tony "winning" or even surviving. The book instead will be about living life despite the inevitability of death. I think I touched upon my feelings about mortality in Burn Baby Burn, but Shooting Star would be built around the finite nature of any individual human life, and everything that results from that finite nature, be it kindness or cruelty, joy or despair, loneliness or camaraderie.

Arguments against writing Shooting Star: It's a much bigger break from my existing body of work than Cherry Red Rocket Ship. I don't think this is a novel I can pitch as a "fun read." I'm certain there will be humor, but the tone of the book would be much more serious. While the break down of civilization will give me opportunities to talk about modern culture, my intention would be to skip over trivia and grapple with Big Questions. And, yes, I'm aware of how easily it would be to slide down the slope of these Big Questions into a novel that is a pretentious, masturbatory slog of people giving long speeches about the meaning of life. No one wants to read that; I don't want to write that.

Could I sell this novel? Unlike the retro SF of CRRS, the near future of Shooting Star would be more at home in the modern bookstore. There are, like, a thousand successful novels built around great disasters and the collapse of modern civilization. I think this would be an easier pitch to a mainstream publisher, assuming I can pull it off well. Of course, that's something I have my doubts about. Can I write a novel where I'm not structuring it around what fight scene happens next?

There's also the question of what I owe my current readers. Presumably, the people reading my current books like all my elaborate fight scenes, and probably like the fact that, for the most part, my protagonists triumph in the end. Will they follow me into such a radically different storyline?

So, here are my two candidates. Cherry Red Rocket Ship makes my brain feel lively when I think about it, until I think about the fact that I'll probably never see it published. Shooting Star fills me with just a tiny bit of dread, but probably has a clearer path to publication, and has the potential to be a more enduring artistic statement. On the other hand, CRRS has a goddamn space gorilla. Christ almighty, I want to write about a space gorilla. But, on the other other hand, mortality. How can I call myself an artist if I don't at least try to grapple with such an imposing thematic foe?

Tomorrow: How I'm choosing between the two.


Mr. Cavin said...

Wow. I'm going to refrain from attempting any influence. But I have to admit, here are two ideas I did not expect to see stretched to novel length, and you've made an excellent (and exciting) case for both.

James Maxey said...

Greatshadow started life as a short story in the Blood and Devotion anthology, so it wouldn't be the first time I've taken a short story premise and expanded it to book length. CRRS was always a crazy amount of ideas stuffed into very few words, to the point that I didn't have much room for characterization. I think the characters are better developed in To the East a Bright Star, but there's a lot of world building questions I didn't spend much or any time developing. One big attraction of both ideas is I feel like my career has an imbalance of fantasy to science fiction. When I started my career, I really intended to focus on SF. I've since learned to appreciate fantasy more than I once did, but I'd really love to develop my SF skills now.

Christoph said...

Remy is hoping Suzanne will help him get to Thardex, far beyond Space Gorilla Max's reach. Grand adventure ensues as they romp around the ... gorillamax.blogspot.com