Friday, February 29, 2008


Jungle Fever 2: Primal Fury

(via) This is a trailer for an upcoming New Zealand TV series about "a puppet secret agent and the women he loves."

A monkey puppet, no less.

What else could you possibly need to know?


Cybermancy Incorporated

Last week, I sold my last copy of the out-of-print POD title, Cybermancy Incorporated, the first of the Bonaventure-Carmody sequence. The book has been unavailable since Clockwork Storybook folded a few years ago, but I still had a few copies left over, and have sold them to anyone who wrote to me asking for a copy. Now all I have left is my personal copy, and another that I've marked up pretty thoroughly.

Sooner or later, I'm sure, I'll succeed in tricking some publisher into reprinting the thing, but even then, it wouldn't be this same text. The Bonaventure-Carmody characters started out as part of the shared world of San Cibola in the Clockwork Storybook days, but as they made the transition for the webzine to the novels published by Pyr and Solaris, they got tweaked a bit, moving away from the urban fantasy environment of San Cibola and into a more science fictional world (though admittedly a pulpish one). So the version of this novel that eventually gets reprinted will be one that takes place in some other alternate universe out in the Myriad, with revisions and changes here and there. No longer set in San Cibola, but in Recondito, California, most of the plot will be the same, but there's be some significant differences.

Since I won't be printing this version of the story again, and there's still people who are interested in reading it, even after the last copies have been sold, I've decided to do a little experiment. Bill Williams of Lone Star Press has been working with e-book vendor Wowio for a while now, and raving about the experience. And in the past months, a lot of old CWSB titles have appeared in the Wowio offerings.

Now, Cybermancy Incorporated is added to the list. All of the titles on Wowio are ad-supported PDFs available for free download, so you need only create an account to download it, gratis. If you've ever had any interest in checking out the book, or are curious to find out more about the Carmody and Bonaventure families featured in Here, There & Everywhere, Paragaea: A Planetary Romance, Set the Seas on Fire, and the forthcoming End of the Century, here's your chance.


Set Some More Seas on Fire

Over on the Solaris editors' blog, designer Darius Hinks has posted the new cover for the forthcoming mmpb edition of Set the Seas on Fire.

I think he's done a kick-ass job, don't you?


Lost Lost

Okay, if you're not watching Lost, I pity you. Last night's episode, "The Constant," was pure-quill science fiction, and recast much of what we've learned in the last three seasons in a new light. The "sickness" Rousseau talked about? Desmond's premonitions? And his time-slip back to 1996, right after the EMP explosion that destroyed the Swan? And the reasons for Desmond's court-martial for "not following orders" in the first place? Mmm...

And if I had to place a bet, I'd say that Minkowski wasn't slipping to his personal past, but to the future. So watch for him to turn up in a scene with a Ferris wheel in a flashforward with one of the Oceanic Six. But what does it mean that he dies in the "past," before ever getting there? (And why has Faraday not been allowed to talk to Minkowski since coming to the island? Mmmm...)

Spending a lot of time last night on Lostpedia after watching the episode, refreshing my memory about all kinds of little bits and pieces from the first three seasons that I'd missed, I found two bits of video that I'd never seen before.

First, and most relevant to last night's episode, is the Orchid Orientation Video, which was released last year as a teaser for the current season. It suggests an explanation for the polar bear in Tunisia, and a different application of the timeslip effect that's messing with Desmond.

Next up is the "Sri Lanka video," from the alternate reality game The Lost Experience. In it a younger Alvar Hanso explains the significance of the Numbers. (And if it's canonical, it might squash my theory that it's the remnants of the Dharma Initiative that are in charge of the freighter.)

And of less earth-shattering significance, but mildly amusing, is a commercial for Apollo Bars, which I don't think we've seen anyone eat on the show in a while.

Thursday, February 28, 2008


Cover Envy

George Mann isn't just an editor and anthologist, he's also a damned fine writer. Check out the draft cover for his forthcoming title from Snow Books, The Affinity Bridge.

That is an enormous pile of awesome.

It's a rousing steampunk tale of "Crown investigator Sir Newbury and his astonishingly proficient assistant Miss Hobbes," due out this fall. I can't wait!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Lost - What Will Happen Next? (revisited)

It's been a few weeks since we last saw what will happen next on Lost. So now what?


Car Wars

Whenever the subject of rpgs comes up (that's role playing games for the few of you who might not be geeks like me), I always point to Steve Jackson's Car Wars, a game a played a lot when I was in high school. And invariably, I get smiles and nods from gamers who were around in the 80s. (Holly Black, in fact, gave me a high five in response, which seemed to put her firmly in the pro-Car Wars camp.) Even so, it's been years since I've played the thing, much less seen a copy of it.

Imagine my delight yesterday when io9 did a piece on the game, with some commentary about the game play and a few choice images.

And a bit of googling this morning shows me that there's an online archive of issues of Autoduel Quarterly, which came out regularly as a kind of supplement to the game. I have no idea whatever became of my issues of ADQ, so this makes for an interesting little bit of nostalgia.

Any body else have fond Car Wars memories?


New Blog Review

Paul "Jvstin" Weimer has reviewed The Dragon's Nine Sons on his blog, and overall seems to have enjoyed it.
In addition, Roberson does a great job showing the natures of our protagonists, both in their personalities and in their backstories. The gambler/thief, the prankster, the murderers (although we come to understand why they killed), the pacifist...yes, they are clearly archetypes that you have seen before, but they are well drawn, with a good amount of tension between such very different characters. And these character traits pay off throughout the novel. Roberson understands Chekhov's Law very well.

Overall, I am quite happy with the read and enjoyed it. There are a number of other stories set in the Celestial Empire (one or two of which I have read already). Given my taste for Alternate History, I intend to seek the others out and read them, too.
To address Paul's challenge about a novel from the Mexica point of view, I've actually been toying with a plot that would be entitled The House of Darkness, that I might set up in a forthcoming novella, "The Embroidered Guard." One thing I didn't get across as well as I'd intended with D9S is that we're only seeing the Aztecs here from the Chinese perspective, and that there are all sorts of things about Mexic culture that the soldiers aren't noticing or understanding. (Aside from the whole blood-sacrifice-of-innocents thing, in fact, there's actually a lot to like about the Mexica.) I'll try harder next time!


Tuesday, February 26, 2008


Tarsem Singh's The Fall

How have I never heard of this before now?!


Smoke Monster

I didn't have a particularly good evening yesterday, for a variety of reasons, and this morning wasn't much better. There's always silver linings off over the horizon, though, right?

The following bit of NSFW silliness cheered me up a little bit, though. Maybe it'll do the same for you.

(There's naughty language right from the beginning, so don't say I didn't warn you.)


New(ish) Review

Locus Online has posted the full text of Russell Letson's review of The Dragon's Nine Sons, from which I quoted before.



Nokia Morph

Okay, I'm ready for the future now. Here's a six minute presentation video for Nokia's "Morph" concept, an extremely pie-in-the-sky take on possible applications of nanotechnology in communications. I don't anticipate being able to pick this up from the shopping mall kiosk anytime in the foreseeable future, but wouldn't it be cool if we could?

Monday, February 25, 2008


New Review

Paul Di Filippo has reviewed Dragon's Nine Sons for Sci Fi Weekly, and while he has a few issues with the book, the review ends on a more-or-less positive note:
But within this straitjacket of plot, Roberson inserts as many telling and spicy details of his alternate history as he can, and he delivers a good measure of military suspense. You won't regret accompanying the Nine Sons on their one-way mission.


Thursday, February 21, 2008


Tattoo Display

Sean Williams sends this little bit of awesomeness. Behold, the tattoo display...

The basis of the 2x4-inch "Digital Tattoo Interface" is a Bluetooth device made of thin, flexible silicon and silicone. It´s inserted through a small incision as a tightly rolled tube, and then it unfurls beneath the skin to align between skin and muscle. Through the same incision, two small tubes on the device are attached to an artery and a vein to allow the blood to flow to a coin-sized blood fuel cell that converts glucose and oxygen to electricity. After blood flows in from the artery to the fuel cell, it flows out again through the vein.

On both the top and bottom surfaces of the display is a matching matrix of field-producing pixels. The top surface also enables touch-screen control through the skin. Instead of ink, the display uses tiny microscopic spheres, somewhat similar to tattoo ink. A field-sensitive material in the spheres changes their color from clear to black, aligned with the matrix fields.

The tattoo display communicates wirelessly to other Bluetooth devices - both in the outside world and within the same body. Although the device is always on (as long as your blood´s flowing), the display can be turned off and on by pushing a small dot on the skin. When the phone rings, for example, an individual turns the display on, and "the tattoo comes to life as a digital video of the caller," Mielke explains. When the call ends, the tattoo disappears.
Subcutaneous touch-screen tattoos. Okay, that's the future...

(Cat Sparks pointed out in email that a character in Ian McDonald's Brasyl had a computer tattooed on her skin, which I'd forgotten until Cat mentioned it. Which only serves to make this press release that much cooler, I think.)


New Review

Over on the Solaris blog I learn that The Dragon's Nine Sons has been reviewed in this month's issue of Deathray, a damned sexy UK genre magazine. They seem to have liked it:
"The plot’s Dirty Dozen aspects gives Roberson a hook on which to hang his unfamiliar world. The alternate universe is convincing and well thought out. Although the story is told from the viewpoint of Chinese Celestial Empire characters, it’s actually the Mexic Dominion that comes across as more interesting, because it’s almost as much a mystery to the viewpoint characters. As a result, the audience convincingly shares their apprehension and surprise. It’s clear that Roberson has done his historical and cultural research as well as his astrophysics... All the science is well handled and very detailed; this is proper military SF... The pace is just right—not too slow, not breakneck—and the story flows very nicely, never short of dramatic developments of interesting surprises... Highly recommended.”


Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Missing Pages

If, like me, you're looking forward to checking out Immortal Iron Fist: Orson Randall and the Green Mist Of Death #1, in stores today, you might be interested to know that there are a few extra pages that won't be found in the book. Writer Matt Fraction explains...
The book is an Iron Fist stand-alone oneshot that fills the publishing gap in the main book's schedule, and a minor narrative gap that explains how one character became a secret good guy. It's a cul-de-sac story, it's a one-off opportunity to have some fun outside of the main book as it goes rocketing to its finish; best of all, it stars Orson Randall, the Golden Age Iron Fist.

The book is very much an homage/tribute/celebration of golden age adventure books. While writing it, I tried to get it to 40 pages, so that the first page of each chapter could be a golden age-style splash. Alas, it didn't come to be, but I had written those over-the-top splash pages anyway.

I thought I'd reprint them here since, hell, they're already written and they make *ME* laugh...
It's a shame that these couldn't be squeezed in. They're a great little bit of metafictional wackiness, since each "splash," as Fraction describes them, is conceived as being ripped from the pages of a fictitious Golden Age comic. There would have been Shadu: Magical Tales Of Mystery #26 ("The Green Mist Murders at Midnight!"), Cowgirls At War #111 ("When the Cowgirls Captured the Confederate...!"), Gothic Terror #244 ("Frankenstein and Son!"), and Heavy Jungle Action #1,731 ("The Final Fate of Phineas Randall!").

Check out complete panel descriptions and text captions at the link above. And when you read your very own copy of Orson Randall and the Green Mist Of Death, you can simply imagine that all of these fictional covers are slotted in between the chapters. That's what I'll be doing, at any rate...


New Review

There's a review of The Dragon's Nine Sons in the latest issue of Hub Magazine, a UK-based free weekly PDF genre magazine, delivered by e-mail. (How's that for a string of modifiers on the humble word "magazine"?) The reviewer seems to have liked it, over all.
Chris Roberson's novel is a good page-turning read that feels shorter than it actually is, despite needing a bit more editing in a couple of places: I don't need reminding about decisions and events from two chapters ago - I haven't forgotten!

That notwithstanding, the challenges faced by the prisoners as they struggle to complete their mission are engaging and involving. Captain Zhuan and Bannerman Yao, the two main protagonists, are reasonably complex characters and their mission is as much about redemption for past (in)actions as it is about completing the mission for their Emperor.

The action on board Xolotl at times needs a bit of polishing, but the description of the Mexica – the first time most of the characters have come face-to-face with the culture - is excellent. Seen entirely from the Chinese' point of view, the Mexica civilization is barbaric, based on human sacrifice, with haemoglobin sensors built needlessly into important equipment.


All-in-all, it's well worth a read.




This weekend, I'll be a program participant at Con DFW in in Richardson, TX (that's just generally "Dallas" for you nonlocals). And as usual for this kind of convention, I'll be sounding off about all sorts of topics I'm only vaguely informed about, hungry for attention and laughs.

Here's where I can be found:

Friday 5 pm Panel Room 3 (Mesquite)
I Want to Make a Movie! The Ins and Outs of Independent Film
Hosted by Aaron Allston, John Davis, Kevin Hopkins and Chris Roberson
Industry pros discuss what it really takes these days to make your own movie. The good news – it’s easier than ever before. The bad news – you are not the first person to realize this.

Saturday 11 am Panel Room 3 (Mesquite)
Books into Movies
Hosted by Peter Beagle, John Davis, Tom Monteleone, Thomas M. Wagner, and Chris Roberson
Books and movies are very different media with their own separate language and translating one to the other successfully is no mean feat. Industry pros discuss what works and what doesn’t. Are there any movies that are shining examples of good translation? What can writers do to see their work turned into film? Hang on for a one hour crash course on what it takes to turn books into movies.

Saturday 1 pm Panel Room 4 (Pecan)
Understanding Today Through Tomorrow: Science Fiction as Literature
Hosted by Scott Cupp, Frances May, Chris Roberson and T.M. Wagner
Academia, by and large, doesn’t think much of science fiction. Mostly regarded as disposable populist trash, is it possible that science fiction could be more? Of course it is. And this panel will try to prove that very proposition.

Saturday 5 pm Panel Room 3 (Mesquite)
Pop Culture Explosion
Hosted by Glenn Yeffeth and Chris Roberson
Join these two as they discuss pop culture in modern society. What has been considered pop culture, what is it now, and what direction is it taking into the future?

Sunday 11 am Panel Room 1 (Sunflower – Main Programming)
Characters You Don’t Forget
Hosted by Peter Beagle, Paul Black, Linda Donahue, Chris Roberson and Glenn R. Sixbury
Industry pros discuss the subtle art of building memorable characters. How do you coax readers to care about your characters? What sabotages that interest? And in the end, are there any rules to building great characters?

Sunday 1 pm Panel Room 2 (Rose/Magnolia)
The Phantom Returns: Pulp Fiction for Modern Writers
Hosted by Aaron Allston, Scott Cupp, and Chris Roberson
Industry pros discuss pulp fiction and its countless modern revivals. What is pulp fiction anyway? And what makes it so great that it seems unable to die?

When not otherwise scheduled to blather at the front of conference rooms, I'll most likely be wandering around the dealers room or art show, at least until the hotel bar opens. And then...?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


House of Mystery

I've known about this forthcoming comic for a while, but couldn't talk about it until it was solicited. And now it has been, so now I can.

Behold, House of Mystery!

Written by Matthew Sturges & Bill Willingham
Art by Luca Rossi
Cover by Sam Weber
Variant cover by Bernie Wrightson

Matthew Sturges, writer of the Eisner-nominated JACK OF FABLES, and his JACK co-writer Bill Willingham, proudly unlock the doors to the HOUSE OF MYSTERY, a new ongoing series that reinvents a classic DC Comics concept. HOUSE OF MYSTERY focuses on five characters trapped in a supernatural bar, trying to solve the mystery of how and why they're imprisoned there. Each one has a terrible past they'd like to forget, and with no books, newspapers or TV allowed in the House, they face an eternity of boredom. But stories become the new currency, and fortunately, the House attracts only the finest storytellers.

In addition to the ongoing trials and struggles of the five unfortunate souls trapped within the HOUSE OF MYSTERY, illustrated by superstar artist Luca Rossi, each issue in the first storyline also includes a short tale, as told by one of the customers, written by Willingham and illustrated by a host of fine guest artists, including two-time Eisner Award nominee Ross Campbell (WATERBABY, Wet Moon), SANDMAN fan favorite and multiple Eisner winner Jill Thompson, and classic horror artist Bernie Wrightson, whose first published work was in House of Mystery #179. This series is topped off with ethereal, jaw-dropping covers from Sam Weber (The New Yorker, The New York Times, Time Magazine)and a stunning variant cover by Wrightson on the debut issue.

"This is a book where you can have a pirate, a psychic detective, a spaceman, a French romantic poet and an NYU film student sitting at a table having a beer together. It's a writer's dream come true." - Matthew Sturges

"Let's be perfectly clear: There isn't just one mystery in the new House of Mystery. It's actually chock-full of mysteries, all of which will be thrilling and exciting as they unfold over the course of the series." - Bill Willingham

Retailers please note: This issue will ship with two covers. For every 10 copies of the Standard Edition (with a cover by Sam Weber), retailers may order one copy of the Variant Edition (with a cover by Bernie Wrightson). Please see the Previews Order Form for more information.
On sale May 7 o 32 pg, FC, $2.99 US o MATURE READERS
How awesome is that? You're going to want to check this out, come May.


Why I love Immortal Iron Fist

Want to know why I love The Immortal Iron Fist? Check out the title to issue #15, due out in May '08.

Pencils & Cover by KHARI EVANS
TALES OF THE IRON FIST! When we last saw Bei Bang-Wen, he was leaping to what seemed to be a certain death off the top of the Taku Forts -- would you believe us if we told you that was only the beginning? Join us as we take a look at another one of the fabulous Iron Fists of years past and his legendary legacy in “The Story of the Iron Fist Bei Bang-Wen -- The Perfect Strategy Mind and his Miraculous Travels to the Dark Continent, and What Mysteries of the World and of the Self that He Learned There (1827-1860)” By Matt Fraction and Khari Evans!
32 PGS./Rated T+ …$2.99
How awesome is that? I'm going to repeat it, just to bring it home: “The Story of the Iron Fist Bei Bang-Wen -- The Perfect Strategy Mind and his Miraculous Travels to the Dark Continent, and What Mysteries of the World and of the Self that He Learned There (1827-1860)”.

That, right there, is one surefire way to goodbye depression, if you ask me.


Captain Britain and MI:13

One of the best superhero comics of recent years was Paul Cornell's Wisdom, a Marvel miniseries that sadly too few people saw (now available in a sexy tpb edition).

The good news, though, is that Paul is back, with a new title featuring many of the same characters. Equally good is the news that the art chores will be handled by Leonard Kirk, he of Agents of Atlas fame. The even better news is that the new title is ongoing!

CBR has a piece about the new book up, and will be running profiles of the book's characters all next week. I'm already sold, but if you need convincing, go check it out!

Monday, February 18, 2008



I'm a little bit obsessed with maps. Have been since I was a kid. I remember tacking up the fold-out maps from National Geographic to the wall, making careful notes in spiral notebooks, marking spots of interest with pushpins, linking them with bits of string. I've always had globes--reproductions of antiques, false-color elevation globes of other planets, you name it.

I use maps a lot in my writing, too. My shelves are stuff with modern atlases, historical atlases, even books on antique atlases and maps, books on mapmaking and mapmakers, etc. And from time to time, I've made my own maps, to help get my head around a particular setting for a story.

This is the first map I made of Paragaea, when I first started working on Akalina's story, a bunch of years ago. As I've said before (or at least hinted broadly), I used C.R. Scotese's "Pangaea Ultima" as a staring position for what a posthistorical Earth might look like, and went from there.

Not that pretty, but it got the job done, and helped serve as the basis for the version that Ellisa Mitchell did for the Pyr edition.

Next is a map I used in writing Iron Jaw and Hummingbird. I've had a few globes and maps of Mars I've used over the years, consulting a table that lists the Celestial Empire names for the various bits of geography, but this was the first time I found it necessary to put together an actual map. Using the MOLA topographical map as my starting position, I just desaturated the image and layered the text labels on top.

Now, obviously, both of these are pretty quick and dirty, for my eyes only and just to get the job done. But from time to time, particularly when working on things like the epic fantasy that keeps percolating, I get the itch to do something a little more elaborate, a little more for public consumption.

And then I see things like this, and I wonder why I should bother. Because whatever I do, D.M. Cornish will have me beat all hollow.

Just check out his map of the "Half-Continent", the setting for his Monster Blood Tattoo series, about which I've raved before.

How awesome is that? The detail maps in the appendices of Foundling, the first book in the series, were a revelation, and one of the main reasons I picked up the book in the first place. But to see how rich and developed they were even as the book was coming together under Cornish's hand is humbling.

I'm now in the process of finishing Three Unbroken, for which I'm making heavy use of a globe of Mars based on the same MOLA map I mentioned above, and using what little free time I can find to noodle with the world of Avani, the setting for my epic fantasy. Having blocked out the broad strokes of the current political climate, the various cultures involved in the story and their general histories, I'm soon to start thinking about the geography beyond the purely notional sketches I've already got in my head. Who knows? Maybe I'll be inspired by Cornish's example to do something really robust this time around.


New Blood & Thunder Review

Paul Lappen has reviewed Mark Finn's Blood & Thunder for the good people at the Midwest Book Review.
Anyone who has ever picked up a pulp magazine, or who knows REH as more than just the creator of Conan, will love this book, as I did. While Howard's books are still in print, Howard's life has fallen into obscurity. This book does a really good job of remedying that situation.


Congratulations, Sean Williams!

Congratulations are due to Sean Williams, who is on the 2008 Ditmar Awards shortlist for Saturn Returns (Orbit and Ace) in the Best Novel category, and Cenotaxis (MonkeyBrain Books, naturally) in Best Novella/Novelette. Hurray, Sean!

Friday, February 15, 2008



Hey, you know what's awesome?


io9 has a whole lot of Tron trivia, if you're interested.

Thursday, February 14, 2008


Brasyl: An Appreciation

Over on his blog, In the Plane of the Ecliptic, the indefatigable Jetse de Vries shares an incredibly insightful analysis of Ian McDonald's Brasyl, my pick for the Best Novel Hugo. Brasyl was hands down the best book I read last year, as I've mentioned before, and Jetse does a far better job of explaining what makes it so awesome than I could have done.


Voyage in Icaria

Thumbing through a book on maps last night I stumbled upon an odd bit of Texas history. And as someone who one taught Texas history, it came as something of a surprise that I'd never heard of it before.
In 1848 French immigrants established the Icarian colony at a Texas location that is as yet unverified, although some sources place it near the site of present-day Justin and fifteen miles north of Fort Worth. The first cabin and sheds may have been constructed near the confluence of Denton and Oliver creeks. The colonists held claim to 10,240 acres platted in checkerboard fashion. Little information is available on the community itself. Icaria never became a viable, permanent settlement, and no more than seventy inhabitants participated in the communal experiment at any given time. The colony survived less than a year. From beginning to end, the project was characterized by poor planning, opposition within the Icarian movement, inadequate financing, deception at several levels, debilitating physical hardships, and human tragedy.

The French socialist Étienne Cabetqv organized the Icarian experiment in Texas. In 1839 he published a novel, Voyage en Icarie, which set forth his concepts of utopian communalism. A centralized state that provided complete freedom and material wealth characterized Cabet's fictional paradise. In Icaria everyone would share abundant wealth on an equal basis, and all private property and capital would be abolished. Cabet's ideas became so popular that he soon found himself at the head of one of the most influential socialist movements in France in the tumultuous decade of the 1840s. From May 1847 until February 1848, Cabet concentrated his efforts on establishing a communal experiment in Texas. Deviating from his fictional utopia of Icarie, he organized the commune as an investment adventure that required an original contribution of 600 francs for each participant and gave Cabet dictatorial powers. He called for 10,000 to 20,000 immigrants and predicted that the venture would ultimately attract a million participants. Subsequently, he negotiated a contract with the Peters Land Company for what was announced to the public as a million acres of land in Texas.
There's more on the Icarian commune here, and even more at the National Icarian Heritage site, but long story short, it didn't end well. But a French novelist creating a utopian commune in the wilds of north Texas, less than an hour's drive from where I grew up? Who knew?

(And if you don't think that this is going to turn up in a story, sooner or later, you might think again.)


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Is there any chance at all that this might be good?

And couldn't that title be a few words shorter?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Bigfoot and Wildboy

For no reason whatsoever, I give you the intro to Sid & Marty Krofft's Bigfoot and Wildboy.

Honestly, a feral orphan and bigfoot, together fighting injustice. What could be better than that?


History Repurposed

I've just received my contributor copies of the 254 issue of Vector Magazine, the "critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association." The issue is devoted to alternate histories, and I was asked to do a piece on the origins of the Celestial Empire. For the benefit of those who aren't members of BSFA and might be interested in seeing what I came up with, here's the essay as it appears in the issue:

History Repurposed – The Celestial Empire stories
by Chris Roberson

The Celestial Empire began, as all good things must, in a hotel bar.

At the 2001 World Fantasy Convention in Montreal, anthologist and editor Lou Anders invited me to submit a story to his Live Without a Net. On the flight home, I outlined a story entitled “O One,” which featured a conflation of an incident from Richard Feynman’s autobiography Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! with the story of John Henry and the steam engine, set in an alternate history heavily inspired by Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. In the story the emperor of a China which rules the entire world and who now wishes to conquer the heavens is visited by an inventor from Britain who has come to demonstrate his steam-powered difference engine. The story ultimately appeared in the anthology, and went on to be nominated for a World Fantasy Award and to win a Sidewise Award.

The following year, in another hotel bar at another convention, Lou asked me if I’d consider writing another story in the same world, and asked if I knew what happened next. I had no idea whatsoever, but of course wasn’t about to admit to that, so I simply told him that the Chinese went to Mars and found the Aztecs there waiting for them.

Committed to writing the new story, though, I had my work cut out for me. In the story of the British inventor and the emperor, China had really been little more than a cultural idiom, a backdrop against which the story could play out. I hadn’t devoted any time to considering how China might rise to world dominance, what sort of divergence might allow for such a thing to happen, nor what the rest of the world beyond the walls of the Forbidden City might be like. Faced with the prospect of writing more stories in that world, though, I had to start making definite what had simply been suggested before.

I have a background in the study of history. Though my major at the University of Texas was in English literature, my minor was in history, and for a time after graduating I taught history to the middle school-aged children of migrant laborers in the Rio Grande Valley, a stone’s throw from the Mexican border. History has been an avocation of mine ever since, along with the study of science, and consequently I have a fairly wide selection of sources in my personal library. Raiding these, I gradually pieced together an eleven century-long history of this Chinese dominated world, diverging from our own in the early days of the fifteen century, which I had come to call the Celestial Empire.

In the years since I’ve slowly filled in the gaps in that history, writing a dozen or so short stories, a novella, and three novels in the sequence. As the world has developed, I find that the stories of the Celestial Empire fall into one of three basic types, three different strategies which I employ to repurpose history for my own ends. That first story, “O One,” in essence encapsulates all three in the way it translates a historical event from one context and idiom to another, suggests a divergence from “real” history, and transposes an individual or their story from one context to another.

The first strategy used in the Celestial Empire stories is what I usually call “translation.” These are stories in which a historical event from our timeline is translated into a different historical context and cultural idiom. Aside from the particulars about setting, language, and culture, these are fairly faithful accounts, with characters and events closely mirroring their historical counterparts.

For example, the story “Gold Mountain” details the story of immigrant workers from North America (here called “Vinlanders”) who are brought to China to help construct an orbital elevator called the Bridge of Heaven, which rises from an immense artificial structure called Gold Mountain. Despite the somewhat exotic nature of their work, everything else about the immigrants’ journey—the hardships they endure, the economically depressed circumstances they left behind, and the kind of prejudice and stigmatizing they experience in their new home—were drawn whole-cloth from historical accounts of Chinese immigrants in the American west in the 19th century, taking part in the Gold Rush or helping to construct the transcontinental railroad.

Similarly, in the novella “The Voyage of Night Shining White,” I retell the real-life events that befell the crew of the Soviet submarine K-19 in the summer of 1961 in the North Atlantic, but instead using the Chinese crew of an atomic powered spacecraft that’s part of an interplanetary Treasure Fleet bound for Mars.

Part of the interest for me in these types of “translations” is the way in which a historical event, shorn of its context, can be reexamined from a novel prospective without prejudice or preconception. Readers can approach the story of the crew struggling against the odds in “The Voyage of Night Shining White” without being reminded that these are members of the Soviet military, at the time inimical to the majority of the English-speaking world. Or a reader of European descent can approach the privations endured by the immigrants in “Gold Mountain” without the potentially distancing effect of the different cultural imperatives and standards Qing-era Imperial China.

Of course, it is in the details and the setting that history is often at its most interesting, so I would never dream of shearing events of their proper context in every instance. In fact, in the second strategy it is the context which is itself the point of the stories, in large part.

This second strategy is employed in stories in which I tell a story about a particular moment in history, presented as faithfully as possible in its original context and idiom, but with subtle changes resulting from an earlier divergence from our history.

Probably the best example of this tactic is the story “Fire in the Lake,” a murder mystery which takes place in the fifteen century within the Forbidden City in the last days of the Yongle Emperor. A reader who approaches this story without a fairly detailed knowledge of the lines of Chinese imperial succession would likely read this as nothing more than a straight historical detective story. In fact, this is the point at which the history of the Celestial Empire diverges from our own, as the outcome of the murder investigation here leads to a different successor taking the throne than happened in our own history, and the clear implication is that the course of Chinese history from this point onwards will differ from that followed in actual fact.

To a somewhat lesser extent “Thy Saffron Wings” employs this strategy, here used to offer a view on cultural influence. The story centers around the historical figure of Sir Robert Anstruther, a nobleman who came to London with King James after the death of Elizabeth I. Unlike the historical Sir Robert, though, the character in the story is dispatched to the docks to escort the first ambassador from the Chinese emperor to the British court, who has lately been in Italy reading the work of Galileo and looking over Leonardo da Vinci’s designs. At the story’s end, before the ambassador unveils the latest Chinese innovation, a rocket-propelled glider, the characters join the audience of William Shakespeare’s new play, “Prestre Johan,” about the legendary figure’s visit to the court of the Great Chan, which serves to show the cultural influence the Chinese have already had by in Europe by this stage in the alternate history.

In a history that ultimately diverges so widely from our own, this strategy can be of somewhat limited use, since after a certain point the world of the Celestial Empire resembles our own so little that such stories aren’t really possible. It is, of course, a matter of subjective opinion, but those alternate histories that resonate most with me as a reader, and the type that I try to create in my own fiction, are those which recognize that small changes can lead to considerable effects. Stories in which alternate histories that diverged from our own centuries or even millennia ago still had an Adolph Hitler ruling over 20th century Germany, or a John F. Kennedy presiding over a mid-century United States, may well be well-intentioned (and well-written) counterfactuals, presenting the world as different than it is, but as a student of history I find it difficult to accept them as rigorously conceived alternate histories. The more time passes after the point of divergence in a well-conceived alternate history, then, the greater the degree of difference with our own history. But in those first decades following the divergence the changes are of a more subtle character, and its here that I can make the most of presenting our history in a more faithful manner. For stories set further along in the alternate history, though, taking place in a quite changed world, a different strategy is needed.

This third strategy is what I call “transpositions,” and is almost a blending of the previous two. In these stories, characters based on historical figures from one context and idiom are transposed into another, and made the central player in a historical event transposed from yet another.

A good example is my story “Red Hands, Black Hands.” The main character, Song Haugu, is a thinly-veiled portrait of the French novelist George Sands. She affects male dress, smokes tobacco, has a complicated relationship with the consumptive composer and musician Pan Xo (which, if written in the Western-style of “given name first, family name second” fashion would be Xo Pan, pronounced something like “show pan”), and is the writer of popular fictions but yearns to write something more meaningful. This character is deposited into a city which is the cultural hub of a terraformed Mars some centuries into the future of this alternate history, on which political tensions and adverse economic conditions in the rural areas have created widespread insurrection, inspired by the Red Turban and Boxer Rebellions of Imperial China.

A perhaps somewhat less exotic example is my story “Metal Dragon Year,” in which the fourteenth century Muslim explorer Ibn Battuta is reimagined as a Muslim engineer who emigrates from North Africa to a technologically advanced China to work on the first manned space launch. The story takes place during a cold war between the Chinese and the Aztecs, who are also working on their own space program but who are not above employing espionage to gain an advantage. Against this backdrop a crew of taikonauts are killed in an analog of the Apollo One disaster, and the engineer learns that a friend is not all that he seems.

These “transposition” stories tend to approach history from an almost post-modernist perspective, to use the term in its architectural sense, treating the past as a reservoir of characters, concepts, and settings to mix and match as the story requires. Here the impulse is not to examine history itself, as such, but to use elements from history as props, furniture, and set dressing for another story entirely. The historical elements themselves, though, serve as models for different way of viewing the world, such as George Sands providing a model for a woman acting at odds with the traditional gender roles of her society. If the reader is unfamiliar with the relevant history upon which I’m drawing, their enjoyment of the story is not impaired in the slightest, and in fact I often don’t include overt “signposts” pointing the reader in those directions, but those who are familiar with the sources will hopefully appreciate additional layers of meaning.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that there are Celestial Empire stories which fall outside of this taxonomy. Typically, those types of stories repurpose fiction in the same way that stories of these three types repurpose history, while employing a strategy of transposition to help flesh out the background and setting. For example my forthcoming young adult novel Iron Jaw and Hummingbird features a character who is equal parts George Bernard Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle and Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, making her way through a terraformed Mars and getting embroiled in an armed uprising that commingles aspects of the White Lotus Rebellion and the later Boxers. Or the story “The Dragon King of the Eastern Sea,” which imagines what form something like Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics might take in a Confucian-based society. Or the novel The Dragon’s Nine Sons, which might fairly be termed a kind of response to the film The Dirty Dozen transposed into a war in space, with the Aztecs playing the part of the Nazis.

As the Celestial Empire sequence grows, and the alternate history is gradually filled in, though, I’m confident that I will continue to employ these three strategies, and to experiment with different variations and approaches. At present I’m at work on a novel, Three Unbroken, which is the story of a war between the Chinese and the Aztecs for control of Mars. Employing my translation strategy from a somewhat different perspective, the novel is conceived as a history of a war that never was written in the style of historian Stephen Ambrose (of Band of Brothers and Citizen Soldiers fame), with incidents drawn heavily from the historical accounts of Allied soldiers, sailors, and aviators in World War II, but instead told through the eyes of characters from a Chinese-dominated history in sixty-four chapters, one for each of the hexagrams of the I Ching. Three Unbroken had its genesis over drinks at a convention when my editor at Solaris, George Mann, asked me for a Celestial Empire project that might be serialized in installments online. As all good things must, then, this latest project too began in a hotel bar.

Timeline of the Celestial Empire Stories

1424 “Fire in the Lake” , Subterranean, Fall 2007
1611 “Thy Saffron Wings, Postscripts (forthcoming)
1712 “The Sky is Large and the Earth Small”, Asimov’s, July 2007
1924 “O One”, Live Without a Net (Roc, June 2003)
1940 “Metal Dragon Year”, Interzone #213
1962-2024 “Gold Mountain”, Poscripts #5 (and in Dozois’s 2006 YBSF)
2024 “The Voyage of Night Shining White”, stand-alone novella from PS Publishing (and in Best Short Novels: 2007)
2051 “Line of Dichotomy”, chapbook and in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction: Volume 2 (Solaris, 2008)
2052 The Dragon's Nine Sons (Solaris, 2008)
2052-2053 Three Unbroken (Solaris, 2009; serialized online 2007-2008)
2305 “Red Hands, Black Hands”, Asimov's, December, 2004
2515 Iron Jaw and Hummingbird (Viking, 2008)
2650 “Dragon King of the Eastern Sea”, We Think, Therefore We Are (DAW, 2008)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008



I'm in the final stages of pre-production on my story, "Edison's Frankenstein," and at the point of outlining where I work out what's going to be in every paragraph, and make sure that all of the information is revealed at the right time. This is also the point at which I check all my facts, make sure I've got the period details right, and research any setting-specific vocabulary. This usually involves a fair bit of Googling, a healthy dose of the Oxford English Dictionary, and general poking around.

It can be a trap, though. For example, I spent nearly a full hour today trying to figure out if an Algerian Berber in the 1890s would have conceivably have been wearing a fez, and if so, what he would have called it. A tarboosh? A checheya? Something else?

A full hour, folks, and I couldn't find a definitive answer. So what's my solution? Just avoid mentioning his damned hat and get on with it...

Monday, February 11, 2008


Phoo Action

I'm really looking forward to this. A forthcoming BBC pilot for a series based on Jamie Hewlett's Get the Freebies.

There's more at the shows MySpace page. If you're in the UK, you can check it out tomorrow night. If you live elsewhere, perhaps magic torrent fairies will somehow slip it under your pillow while you're sleeping...

Friday, February 08, 2008


Extraordinary Engines

As I've mentioned before, I'm eagerly anticipating Nick Gevers's forthcoming steampunk anthology, Extraordinary Engines. And now it has cover and solicitation copy, even!

From The Golden Compass to online communities like Brass Goggles, Steampunk’s mix of retro Victoriana and modern technology is the hottest trend in science fiction.

Extraordinary Engines: The Definitive Steampunk Anthology brings together original stories by the foremost writers of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Edited by Nick Gevers, this collection includes Stephen Baxter, Eric Brown, Paul Di Filippo, Hal Duncan, Jeffrey Ford, Jay Lake, Ian R Macleod, Michael Moorcock, Robert Reed, Lucius Shepard, Brian Stableford, Jeff VanderMeer and more.
I'm very, very much hoping to be "...and puppet show" in this one. I'm right now elbow-deep in my own submission, "Edison's Frankenstein," which has occupied my every waking thought the last week or so, and has been tickling at the back of my head for a couple of years now. As much as I love the steampunk subgenre, I've realized that I've actually written in it only rarely, and this story and "Death on the Crosstime Express" (which will be in Lou Anders's Sideways in Crime) are the only two that fit squarely into the category (though an argument could be made that a great many of the Celestial Empire stories are steampunk, however much they lack the "flavor" one normally associated with the subgenre).

Thursday, February 07, 2008


Space Game

Bill Muldron has done another "guess the game name" for Electronic Gaming Monthly, in which the names of video games are hidden in the image, rhebus-style. (There are also a lot of non-game related cameos from sf film and TV, to make matters more complicated.)

How many game names can you spot?


Six Word Memoirs

Thanks to Paul Di Filippo for this one. BBC Radio 4 has a story about Smith Magazine's "Six Words" memoirs, in which readers are invited to sum up their lives in just six words, inspired by Hemingway's famous six-word story.

Can you sum up your life in just six words? Mine came to me immediately, without even having to stop and think about it.

"Georgia's dad--Allison's husband--writes books."

How about you nice people? Anyone care to take a stab?


Ode to a Ford

(via) This is just wacky. A little musical interlude, with all of the instruments crafted from a newly-minted Ford Focus.


The Saga of the Space Cowboy

Do you know Dan Meth's "Meth Minute" series of animated shorts? Do you love it? Well, you're about to...

Here's how Meth explains the latest entry in the series
This week's Meth Minute was written when I was a kid. For real. In 8th grade, I drew what I thought was a "graphic novel" (you can read it in about 20 minutes) about a cowboy who lives on the moon and saves the universe. It was meant to be a dark and gritty epic adventure but most people mistook it for intentional comedy. Recently some friends were reading it and laughing so I decided to turn it into a Meth Minute cartoon.

I decided to cast my friend Ben Marra as the title character because everyone who knows him is so taken with his voice, cadence, and mannerisms. I figured that if you want a cartoon character to be funny and likeable, you should just get a person who everyone finds funny and likeable to play him. I gave Ben the comic book to read and then recorded him discussing the adventures of Space Cowboy in first person.
And here it is, The Saga of the Space Cowboy...

Wednesday, February 06, 2008



I'm taking a few days off from finishing Three Unbroken to work on "Edison's Frankenstein," my submission to Nick Gevers's steampunk-themed Extraordinary Engines. I disappeared down a research rabbit-hole today, researching some little bits and pieces to do with the setting, and fleshing out the story's viewpoint character. Yesterday the story was one kind of thing, and this morning I thought, "Mmm, what if the main character was actually this guy, instead?" I typed three names into Google, and came up for air six hours later, having printed out hundreds of pages of PDFs I'd turned up on Google books, and having scribbled countless pages worth of notes in a little spiralbound notebook. Now, the story has turned into another thing entirely.

I don't know if this happens to other writers. I'm sure it does. There's this strange, vertiginous moment when you find a whole rash of terrific detail, and think "There must be some kind of way to work this into the story." And for a while, it looks like it's not going to hang together, and that there's no way to get it all to cohere. And then, all of the sudden, you find the keystone, the little bit of information that makes it all fit.

That was what today was like, for me. Weird side trips into the history of Algeria, ethnographic stuff about the Kabyles, page after page of guidebooks from the 1893 world's fair, more stuff about Kabylian culture, back to street maps of turn-of-the century Chicago, and on and on. All of these great little bits of thing that weren't a story yet, but could be parts of a story if I could figure out how they all fit together. And then...

The keystone.

It won't make much sense until the story is written, accepted (hopefully!), published, and read, but all I can say at this point I cannot tell you what a shock and relief it was to discover, as I did a short while ago, that in 1893 the Muslim holy month of Ramadan fell in the weeks just prior to the opening of the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago.

Thank you, Islamic lunar calendar!


A Dancing Ape Inquiry

I'm reading Tim Powers's The Anubis Gates for the first time (in fact, it's the first Powers I've read), and really digging it so far. I'm only a quarter of the way through, but several times the narrative has mentioned the "Dancing Ape Madness" which struck London in the early 1800s. Obviously I'm expecting this to be addressed in the novel as things progress, but it got me wondering.

In Lawrence Miles's excellent The Adventuress of Henrietta Street, a Doctor Who franchise novel set in the 1780s London, there is a similar outbreak of ape-related business, with savage ape-creatures referred to in the popular press as "babewyns" terrorizing Londoners. The babewyns, of course, turn out to be apish nasties related to timespace-continuum hoodoo, that the Doctor eventually puts to right.

My first instinct was that Miles might have been inspired by Powers's book to include the London ape madness, but then it occurred to me that they might both be drawing on some older source, either a fictional reference or an urban legend from turn-of-the-19th-century London.

Does anyone have any insight on this one?


Locus reviews

My copy of the February '08 Locus Magazine arrived the other day, and I was surprised to find myself all over it.

First, there was Nick Gevers on my contribution to Interzone's December 2007 issue:
"Interzone has a good December issue led by the latest of Chris Roberson's Celestial Empire stories, "Metal Dragon Year." The setting is, again, an alternate Earth where Imperial China, buoyed by the great voyages of Zheng He, has become the dominant technological power, its only rival the Aztec kingdom. As the Chinese begin to develop their space programme, testing rockets under the direction of a gifted chief engineer who is also a devout Muslim, mysterious patterns of sabotage emerge, and someone has clearly been leaking information to the wrong people. Roberson quite movingly depicts his dutiful hero's struggles of vision and faith."
Then in the book reviews there was Russell Letson on The Dragon's Nine Sons, who after a fairly detailed summary of the plot summarizes thusly:
"The narrative voice and emotional stance of this book remind me strongly of L. Sprague de Camp--discursive, explanatory, and rather cool, even in the face of considerable unpleasantness (the Mexic weapons of choice are the liquid-magnesium-spitting "fire lance" and the obsidian-studded club, so close combat is anything but pretty). This removes much of the edginess of the dirty-dozen template, replacing it with the ironies of the ways in which the crewmembers' flaws contribute to their heroism. Here, as in The Voyage of Night Shining White, character, character relationships, and cultural background are at least as compelling as the melodramatic action in the foreground. In fact, those are the qualities that would have me return to this charming and oddly-retro-feeling alternate future."
And in his overview of The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume Two, Rich Horton lists my "The Line of Dichotomy," noting in a fairly value-neutral way that is is one of "the longest stories" in the anthology.

Finally, in his piece on Philip José Farmer, Gary K. Wolfe was kind enough to list me in the number of "writers who now cheerfully acknowledge their debt to Farmer", alongside Neil Gaiman, Allen Steel, Garth Nix, Mike Resnick, Joe R. Lansdale, and other such luminaries. Fine company to be in!

And if that wasn't enough, Gardner Dozois cited Sean Williams's Cenotaxis as one of the notable novellas of the year in his "2007 in Review" column, and Gevers also reviewed Kim Newman's Secret Files of the Diogenes Club, summing up by saying:
The Secret Files of the Diogenes Club is a strong collection, illuminating many fascinating corners of just one of Newman's several timelines. Densely spun, knowingly and knowledgeably narrated, its stories are among the better secret histories of recent years.
Both Cenotaxis and Secret Files of the Diogenes Club, likewise, end up in the New & Notable listings (as does Philip José Farmer and Danny Adams's The City Beyond Play, to which I supplied an introduction).

Add to that my goofy mug leering drunkenly out from the sidebar on the table of contents, and the half-page ad for Dragon's Nine Sons and Three Unbroken on page fourteen, and I am quite literally all over this issue.

How shallow does it make me, then, that I searched in vain for mentions of my writing in the "2007 Recommended Reading" essays? It's not enough that a story of mine is included in the list, but I have to be namechecked in someone's column, as well? Yeesh. You think I'd learn to be satisfied, once in a while...


Tuesday, February 05, 2008


Why did the chicken cross the road?

Why, oh why, was there not something like Nickelodeon Magazine when I was a kid? The above is Mike Mignola's contribution to the current "All Comics" issue, on stands now.


Meanwhile, at the League of Evil...

So look, I'll warn you now, I'm just going to link to a bunch of commercials in this post. So if you're offended by the idea of looking at advertisements, probably best to skip this one.

But these are really funny commercials. (This next one is my favorite.)

These have been online for a couple of months, it appears, but I first saw one last night in the moments before A Daily Show started. These are ads for a cellphone carrier named Net10, apparently, done by the ad agency Droga5. What's interesting to me is the way that they are clearly the descendants of the tongue-in-cheek Hanna-Barbera-derived spoofs of recent years, starting with Space Ghost Coast-to-Coast and continuing through The Brak Show and Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law.

But instead of remixing existing animation or characters, like those examples, this does something more like Robert Smiegel's TV Funhouse spots for SNL, creating new animation and "new" characters that just look like they were originally low-budget sixties and seventies Hanna-Barbera action cartoons.

Monday, February 04, 2008


Locus Magazine's Recommended Reading: 2007

Locus Magazine has posted their 2007 Recommended Reading, and "The Sky is Large and the Earth is Small" is included in the Novelette list. This is the third year that a Celestial Empire story has made the list ("Gold Mountain" in 2005, and "The Voyage of Night Shining White" in 2006).


New Review

The unflappable John Berlyne has reviewed The Dragon's Nine Sons for SFRevu, and while he ultimately isn't sold on the book, he says all sorts of nice things about me along the way. How many reviewers who don't care for the book in question take the time to stress that they remain a "huge fan" of the "supremely talented" author? Thanks, John!


Friday, February 01, 2008


"A GI Joe Adventure Team Novel!"

Check out the pure awesomeness of James Groman's entry for the Frederator Studios GI Joe-themed "Throwback Thursday" competition.

If only, right?

Check out Groman's blog for more awesomeness.

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