November 1, 2017

Soap Plots

There are certain kind of stories where the goal is to create drama, but not so much that you’d have to change characters, locations, or even relationship dynamics. I’ve come to start thinking of these as “soap plots,” in that the goal is to complicate the characters’ lives while avoiding any overall story change. (The origin of the term, of course, comes from soap operas.)

This is different from a story that is about dramatic relationships – who slept with who, who had whose baby in secret, and so on. While these might be stories that are featured in “soaps,” if the plot causes the story to change on any macro scale – new location, new conflicts, new themes, new characters, etc. – then it is not, by definition, a soap plot.

Poldark on PBS is the most recent one of these. PBS Masterpiece shows seem prone to these plots: while being ostensibly about the changing times, Downton Abbey steadfastly refused to change much, and resorted to ludicrous legal complications (rape, dead rapists who died under strange circumstances, ex-wives who died under strange circumstances, and so on) to keep the character relationships exactly where they are. The overall experience was a lot of stuff going on, and yet nothing was happening. The choices do not matter, which means there are no stakes.

Poldark is similar in that it keeps throwing obstacles in the way of the characters to maintain a lot of the same dynamics. Though the story is based on a book series, and thus has to keep to some character mixups, there are times that the characters make intentionally stupid choices just to maintain status quo.

One show that found (or was forced to find) a way around this is Halt and Catch Fire, which essentially built a whole new show every season, skipping forward in time to find that a lot of the character dynamics had totally changed and telling a whole new story. Mad Men and The Wire figured out the same methodology. It’s a device that acts as a service for the writer probably even more than the reader: by totally eliminating the option to do the same old same old, you’re forced to innovate.

May 3, 2017

Five years.

In case you were not aware, CITY OF MIRACLES came out this Tuesday.

It’s a very long time coming. My records show I wrote the first page of CITY OF STAIRS on April 30 of 2012.

When I did that, my son looked like this:

Now, almost five years to the day later, he looks like this:

It is very odd to have a project that tracks time in such a fashion. Children function like clocks, when it comes to time on a larger scale: by changing so rapidly, they let you know that, even though it feels like I wrote STAIRS just last month, it was actually a very long time ago indeed.

Things change. That’s what I write about a bit over here on Unbound Worlds, on my feelings about finishing a series.

Writing this book was a tremendously odd experience. I’ve had an idea of what would happen for over three years now. Three years is a very long time to shut the windows, lock the doors, put out the lights, and say goodbye. Almost half the lifespan of this series, writing-wise, was spent devoted to its ending.

But I did not completely understand how it would end until I was about a quarter of the way in to Miracles. I was in a hotel room, alone and missing my family, and I found a song I liked, and I listened to it over and over and over again. Specifically, I liked how the song was about a singer promising a girl that he would stay, and be with her; and though the words sound like he means it, there’s a sudden, slight dip into a minor key in the refrain, right at the words, “for a while.”

And then you know he’s lying to her. He doesn’t want to leave, but he’s going to. It’s a subtle yet deeply fatalistic moment.

And it was as I listened to this song that I realized I knew how the book was supposed to end. In fact, I’d always known, but hadn’t wanted to admit it. It was a surprisingly unpleasant and surreal experience. It was a bit like waking up one morning and filling out a lot of insurance paper work, and writing a lot of letters to be mailed, and taking care of your business, and then putting on your nice clothes and getting in the car, and it’s only once you’re on the road that you suddenly realize that you are, in fact, about to commit suicide, and have actually been planning this for a very long time, but have hidden your own intentions for yourself just to be polite about it.

That is an odd way of putting it. But it captures some of the truth of that feeling.

Those who have already finished the song will probably find some of the song’s words familiar.

January 19, 2017

Obama Cunctator

I have heard this comparison before, but it’s worth repeating here.

In a lot of ways, Obama is America’s Fabius Maximus.

Back in the old days, before Julius Caesar and whatnot, the Roman military was super, super macho. You just advanced on the enemy and pounded the shit out of them until they surrendered. And this worked pretty great for a pretty long time, because there were a lot of Romans, they were well trained, and they just kept coming.

But then Hannibal Barca came along and crossed the Alps. And Hannibal was not stupid. Hannibal never committed to a pitched battle he didn’t think he could win. He evaded and evaded the Romans until he had them where he wanted them – and then he kicked the everliving shit out of them.

Because the Romans always thought they could win. Always. They were the Romans. Winning was what they did. They were the big winners, every time. And because they always thought that, they kept losing to Hannibal.

Hannibal almost took Rome itself. The Romans, desperate, appointed Fabius Maximus as their dictator. And Fabius did things very differently.

Fabius fought like Hannibal. He evaded pitched battles, and he fought conservatively, trying to contain Hannibal’s forces and drag them into a long, slow war of attrition, exhausting them over time, because Hannibal had no easy access to more reinforcements. He’d crossed the Alps. He was stuck here. You just had to avoid another devastating battle.

This is where “Fabian Warfare” comes from – you don’t fight the enemy. You exhaust them, picking them off one by one and disrupting their operations until they don’t want to fight anymore. It takes the calm, long view of leadership, rather than the immediate, short-term view of battles.

This worked quite well. For a while.

Because the Romans FUCKING HATED IT.

This wasn’t macho! This wasn’t brave! This wasn’t Roman! This was cowardly. They started calling Fabius “Cunctator” – meaning “lingerer” – out of sheer disdain for his leadership. (It didn’t help that Fabius also had internal political enemies undermining every single thing they did.)

Tired of this, the Romans brashly dismissed Fabius. They installed new leadership, who would fight the old way, the Roman way, and Make Rome Great Again.

The Romans then met Hannibal at the Battle of Cannae – and their whole army got absolutely, completely annihilated. Cannae is, to this day, generally considered to be the single greatest defeat in Roman history, and one of the worst military losses of all time. Hannibal and Cannae would go on to haunt the minds of Romans for generations.

After that, Fabius’s conservatism and his caution didn’t look so bad. The term “Cunctator” stopped being an insult and became a phrase of respect.

So here we are. A cautious, conservative leader who takes the reins in a period of great turmoil; a leader who focuses on the long term and refuses to commit to immediate fights; a leader who doesn’t react quickly enough to internal political enemies undermining his efforts; a leader whose style and character is disdained and discarded in exchange for a new style of tough, masculine leadership, the old way of doing things.

Obama Cunctator. And many a Cannae await us.

January 9, 2017

If I’d written the prequels

I saw Rogue One over the weekend, and while I found it overall pretty enjoyable, one thing it did was reignite a longstanding desire I’ve had to scribble down some thoughts. 

Everyone has a hobby story in their brain. Often these are fan versions of other stories – alterations and fixes you’d like to make to a story that you really like, but you’d like even more if they’d done this instead of that, and so on. It’s like building a model of a historic plane, but altering it just a little bit so it wouldn’t have crashed.

I have no doubt that the Star Wars prequels are a hobby story in other people’s brains. Rarely have we seen so much potential totally squandered. Since Rogue One stirred this up in me, I figured I’d go ahead put down my own thoughts about how, if I had the chance, I’d have totally rewritten the series – specifically in regards to the character arc of Anakin Skywalker, who is basically the whole reason the prequels existed, and maybe one of the key reasons they fail so miserably.


 The first thing we have to acknowledge is that the prequels were, in essence, pre-destined to be dark.

They had to be. There was no other way to do it. They were inevitably going to be about the corruption of a great person, the genocide and death of a venerated monastic order, and the emergence of a brutal, monstrous, fascistic regime. In a lot of ways, the pre-New Hope Star Wars mythos functions like so many religious myths – things were good once, but then things went awry, the gods failed, and now the world is marred.

This makes it a difficult story to examine from the very outset – gods and saints and legends work so well in stories told second hand, but fare poorer when examined up close. It is very hard to make both the human being and legend work at once without either losing any of their credulity or luster.

The best source material for this kind of thing, then, are stories like Paradise Lost and Greek tragedy. Inhuman stories about human things.

In other words, basically the polar opposite of a gosh-wow kiddie space cartoon, one that practically could have been written by a nine year old.

Anyways. Moving on.

Episode One

I won’t bore you with the beat by beat specifics of how the story should work – which Galactic Republic trade law inspired what diplomatic crisis, and so on – so I’ll get to the point: generally, the protagonist of the prequels feels like it should have been Obi-Wan, acting as the audience’s surrogate as he first experiences Anakin come into his life, comes to love him like a brother, and watches, puzzled, frustrated, and torn as his friend turns into something he doesn’t understand. To start the series off, I’d have kept Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon going to Tatooine and discovering Anakin as a slave child there.

But everything about this Anakin would be very different – because, you know, this is a slave child we’re talking about here. This is an aspect of Anakin’s life that goes almost completely unexplored in the prequels. This kid likely had a horrible life before the Jedi showed up. What kind of person does that make?


I remember watching Looper years back, which features a traumatized, moody young boy who’s a mechanical genius and also has special powers – but his personality and these powers combine in a manner to make him both totally terrifying and also genuinely heartbreaking. You can see he can’t control who he is or what he does. He’s at the mercy of his nature, and the circumstances that have forged him. I think I would have written a young Anakin Skywalker much closer to this than the cheery young boy in the movie, who seems only mildly inconvenienced by his bondage.

I’d have probably bumped his age up some, to twelve or thirteen, just so the audience can watch what I’m about to put him through without feeling horrified. In this version in my head, Anakin is a slave child who is owned by a particularly brutal owner who has realized both the boy’s incredible mechanical prowess, and his unusual Force powers.

In order to make the boy work for him, he is not only holding Anakin’s mother hostage – he also uses a magnetized restraint system in case Anakin tries to use his nascent Force abilities: if Anakin tries anything, his owner hits a button, and magnetic shackles on his wrists and ankles rip the boy backwards into a large, mechanical metal shell that the owner always keeps close by. The shell would look a like an iron maiden, and the shackles fling young Anakin into this device, which would then slam shut, completely sealing him in. This shell restrains Anakin and keeps his owner protected from the boy’s underdeveloped abilities – and while Anakin is trapped in the shell, his owner whispers threats about the things he’ll do to Anakin’s mother if he ever tries anything again.

This is, in my head, how we and Obi-Wan Kenobe would first see Anakin Skywalker: a young boy, trapped in a metal shell, raging and furious and frightened, peering through a tiny slit at these new arrivals. And this shell, of course, would look vaguely like the final Vader suit, at least in profile.

Anakin’s owner extracts a hefty price from the shipwrecked Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan in exchange for forcing Anakin to fix their spacecraft. The two immediately realize the boy’s incredible powers, and then have to debate what to do about him. (It goes without saying that I would cut the immaculate conception and mitochondria bullshit.) They eventually take him, and I’d pencil in (this is one of those points in outlining where you write “some bullshit happens”) that they take his mother with him, though they make him understand that if he wants to become a Jedi, he’ll have to leave her behind. This causes a great deal of torment in the young man.

Anyways, Anakin is now with the Jedi, and he has a super big problem with them that would form the foundation of his eventual corruption – if the Jedi are so great, why do they permit planets like Tatooine to have, you know, slavery? If they can do anything, why can’t they fix everyone’s problems? Qui-Gon and Yoda would try to explain to him that power has consequences: the more you use it to force your will on the world, the easier it becomes to do so over and over again, until you’re forcing your will onto someone who doesn’t deserve it – if anyone does.

To Anakin, who’s suffered for years and grown up deeply traumatized, that answer naturally sounds like bullshit. They try to explain to him that their power is different – the more powerful you are, the greater the temptation and consequences. But, again, he remains unconvinced.

Then episode one draws to a close. I will be frank and say I don’t know what the hell the overarching plot is, really. My general idea is that Palpatine wants to essentially mount a false flag Sith uprising in order to push the Republic into embracing fascism under his rule. There’s a million ways to do that, with the main question being – how is Anakin at all important to how that goes down? I barely recall the logic from the prequels in this regard, so, hey, let’s forget it and continue on with the vague outlining.

Episode Two

Another thing I can barely recall from the prequels is Amidala’s character – as in, who she is and what she wants. I think it’s smart to pair Anakin with a strong, political woman in the series – mostly because then you have a perspective into the political stuff going on in the Republic as well as the Jedi fun. I suspect I’d try and make her a passionate idealist, much like Anakin is at the beginning, someone who favors active interventionism in planetary affairs rather than conservative caution – she’d absolutely be down with making some planets free their slaves and end their regrettable practices. Anakin, who would be steadily growing disaffected with the Jedi Order’s tendency toward reticence and balance, would be drawn to her like a flame.

Speaking of which, I’d completely skip Anakin as gawky teenager, and in Episode Two I’d jump directly to him being closer to thirty – a fully grown man, in other words. In the period between Ep One and Two, Anakin would have evolved into a fearsome, accomplished Jedi warrior, one who is famous and beloved among the Republic but increasingly criticized among the Jedi Order. Anakin is a for-reals Man of Action, and tends to act boldly, risk his own life – even suicidally so – and he’s much more in keeping with the tall, brooding, weapon-of-mass destruction we see in Darth Vader later. The other Jedi respect his abilities, but worry about his total indifference to his own well-being, thinking him somewhat mad. I imagine a Fassbender or a Tom Hardy type as Anakin (Fassbender is probably way overused for the fallen hero type) rather than some kid. While Anakin himself is totally indifferent to his popularity, the Jedi are unnerved with how common citizens are reacting to him, and his influence among the younger Jedi.

I would keep Qui-Gon dying in the first episode, as well as a too-young Obi-Wan agreeing to become Anakin’s master, and this is where the Greek Tragedy stuff comes in. Obi-Wan is naturally a little miffed by how his student has rapidly outstripped him in but a handful of years. The two are much closer to being competitive brothers than a master and a subordinate, and since the two are closely bound by their experiencing Qui-Gon’s death, their feelings about each other are deeply complicated. They love each other, and help one another achieve great things, but they don’t understand each other.

Each man is envious of the other – Anakin envies Obi-Wan’s respect among the Jedi, his political power, and his maturity; Obi-Wan envies Anakin’s raw power, brash populism, and confidence. Anakin finds himself bewildered by how Obi-Wan’s pacifism keeps earning the respect of the elites; Obi-Wan is frustrated by how Anakin’s impetuous derring-do makes him a populist hero. Anakin is also quietly furious that he hasn’t been made a Jedi Knight yet, despite being, you know, a badass – but this is because he still can’t accept the Jedi’s sense of restraint. Why not go into cities and free the slaves? Why not act, why not be bold? There’d be a bit of Hotspur/Prince Hal going on here, in other words.

No, Percy, thou art but dust, and food for worms

No, Percy, thou art but dust, and food for worms


Things get even worse when the two are assigned to help Padme on whatever the hell she has going on in Episode Two. (I would junk the “Jedi can’t get married” thing.) It’s clear that both men are attracted to her, and a sort of love triangle evolves here. Since I’d be drawing from Greek tragedy here, it would be easy to amp up the brotherly love Castor/Pollux angle on Obi-Wan and Anakin until you’re a little, “Uhhh, are they sure it’s Padme they’re attracted to?” but I’m pretty sure Lucas wouldn’t have let me do that. Or any of this.

Again, the usual stuff is happening with the emperor in the background. At some point, Anakin’s mother gets captured or imperiled by the bad guys, perhaps aboard a giant spaceship, and a massive space battle ensues. Anakin and Obi-Wan board the burning craft, and are forced to decide whether they’re going to save Padme and Anakin’s mother, or fulfill Some Important Jedi or Republic Mission or Whatever. Obi-Wan chooses the Mission, whereas Anakin chooses to save Padme and his mother. Unfortunately, he is only able to save Padme, and his mother is murdered. The bad guys then think they have Anakin cornered – imagine the hold of a failing, burning ship where fifty to a hundred soldiers are all pointing weapons right at his head. But then Anakin, enraged and grieving, shows the full extent of his powers – and uses the Force to snap all of their necks at once. Everyone in the room with him except Padme is suddenly dead in an instant.

Padme is the only witness to this act. Since she’s grateful that he saved her, and she witnessed the murder of his mother, she understands what he’s going through, comforts him in his grief, and keeps his secret.

As Episode Two draws to a close, Anakin becomes a Jedi Knight for his conduct in the battle, though only he and Padme understand what he really did, since the bodies were destroyed as the ship crashed. Obi-Wan’s misgivings about Anakin increase, and Anakin blames Obi-Wan’s commitment to the Jedi sense of balance for his mother’s death. The two find themselves not only drawing apart, but actively opposing one another. Padme and Anakin, meanwhile, begin having an affair, and the Clone Wars begin. (Again, For Presumably Very Good Reasons that I won’t bother thinking too much about here. Though one thing I would definitely change is make the bad guys the Clone Troopers are fighting actual alive people rather than robots, to reduce the whole video game feel and make the war have actual stakes.)

Episode Three

In Episode Three, Anakin is closer to forty years old, and Obi-Wan several years older than that. (Again, I can’t emphasize enough how much these need to be mature actors playing mature roles here.) Palpatine is now actively courting Anakin’s favor, eager to use the Jedi’s populist power to sway the Republic. Anakin – who finds himself more and more frustrated with the obstructionist Jedi – is an eager participant, but Padme is not on board with the idealistic-zeal-thing anymore. Though she was once as passionate as Anakin about intervening in planetary life, she senses that she’s let the genie out of the bottle, and sees that all this populism and fear is drawing the Republic into a dark place. She finds herself identifying much more with Obi-Wan than Anakin, her lover. Anakin suspects something, but he’s not quite sure what’s going on.

Padme, of course, eventually becomes pregnant, and confides not in Anakin but in Obi-Wan. She knows it’s twins, and is increasingly worried about Anakin. She tries to confess what she saw Anakin do – killing a hundred people at once – but can’t bring herself to betray him. While this is going on, she and Obi-Wan begin to suspect that Palpatine is up to no good, and she goes to the Council to tell them their suspicions while Obi-Wan goes to Mustafar to investigate something that Palpatine has going on there. (Maybe the Death Star plans? Sure, why not.)

Things draw to a head on the Galactic stage. Palpatine uses manufactured excuses to increase aggression abroad with the Clone Troopers, to the objection of the Jedi Council – an objection that is deeply unpopular with the public. At one critical battle, the Jedi – who have begun to suspect what Palpatin is – are reluctant to send in reinforcements, to the fury of Anakin, who’s leading the assault. The battle is a failure, and he goes to Palpatine about it, just as Padme and the Jedi Council are confronting him about being a Sith.

Palpatine easily convinces Anakin, who has grown to detest the Jedi, that his old masters and comrades are trying to seize power, and a massive battle commences, in which Anakin delivers an absolutely brutal, murderous beatdown to about twenty Jedi single-handedly, though he’s gravely injured in the fighting by Yoda. Anakin, who now believes Padme has cheated on him with Obi-Wan, grievously injures her in a fit of rage, unaware than she is pregnant with his children. Yoda quits the battle to save Padme and try to keep her and her unborn children alive, though Anakin believes her to be dead.

Anakin, recovering from his wounds with the help of Palpatine, goes to Mustafar to stop Obi-Wan, whom Palpatine has convinced him is trying to sabotage the Republic. Anakin confronts Obi-Wan on the lava planet, screaming and ranting about how Obi-Wan and the Jedi have betrayed him from the beginning, how they’ve never tried to fix anything, claiming that it’s Obi-Wan’s fault that he killed Padme. Obi-Wan, grieved to hear about Padme’s death, implores Anakin to stop this, saying that his rage will destroy him and everything he loves. Anakin, still wounded, engages him in battle, and Obi-Wan kicks the ever-living shit out of him, cutting off his arm and whatnot, though Anakin just keeps coming. Obi-Wan finally subdues him, though, and refrains from killing him. Obi-Wan damages whatever it is that Palpatine had going on on Mustafar, and though it delays the Emperor’s plans, everyone knows it hasn’t stopped the Empire that’s coming.

Back with Yoda, it becomes clear that though Padme is alive, she’s also brain dead. Using their advanced scientific technology, they can keep her body alive long enough for her to bear her (probably very premature) children, but she dies upon childbirth. While they go through this process, artificially sustaining her life while she dies giving birth to her children, it cuts back and forth between another, darker birth as Palpatine reforges Anakin’s scarred, mangled body into Darth Vader. Palpatine claims that the Jedi tried to seize power from him, and that Anakin Skywalker died defending him – this inspires the Republic and the military to betray and assassinate the Jedi Order, with Darth Vader taking his place at the Emperor’s side.

Anakin, bitter, wounded, grieving, and furious, completely gives in to Palpatine’s influence. He ends the prequels much as he started – trapped inside of a metal shell, obeying the brutal, malicious whims of a cruel master. The difference is that though he was once a slave, and fought for freedom and equality, he is now the oppressor, and is a tool of the slavers. He has abandoned everything he believes in, and thinks he has destroyed everything he loved, and he becomes the monstrous weapon of mass destruction we all know and (somewhat) love.


Anyways. That’s how I’d do it. If I could do it, that is. I think there’s a lot to the idea of Anakin acting as a bit of a Lucifer in this story – he is a product of the world, he understands the nature of good and evil in this universe, and this is what leads him to reject the divine detachment of the Jedi Council. He’s a creature of impulse and desire, of strength and brute passion, rather than a moody child. His complaints about the world are very real, and his reactions to the Jedi’s precautions are justified to his perspective, though they spin out of control.

This would be contrasted with Obi-Wan, who grows steadily more cerebral and removed as the series goes on, perceiving the larger moral arc of the Force. The two contrast and compliment each other – one perceives, the other acts; one looks inward, the other outward. This helps them accomplish great things together, but their worldviews grow further and further apart until they’re no longer speaking the same language. At this point, Anakin becomes a bit like Hercules, always seeing snakes around him and murdering those he loves.

And that’s the aspect that I think works for him and translates most easily into Vader. The Anakin of the prequels we know is not a strong person. He whines. He pouts. He is angry, but somehow he is not deserving of this anger, even though the story gives him very good reasons to be angry – a slave ascended to monk, and then to general and commander, before finally evolving into an oppressor. This figure would not be a spoiled, refined brat, I believe. He would be a scarred thing, a wounded animal trying to veil his injuries behind the decorum and rites of an enigmatic religion, wishing to be the sort of person who would prevent the pains he’s suffered from ever being inflicted on another, before finally surrendering to his darkest impulses. He feels in his heart he does not belong in this world of elites and royalty. And then, like many who have been abused and lived lives of fear, he comes to respect the only thing that has dominated his life since he was a child – strength, power, and pain.

November 22, 2016

CITY OF MIRACLES US cover launch

I’m very pleased to bring you the official US cover for CITY OF MIRACLES, which will be released May 2nd of 2017!

This will be the final installment of THE DIVINE CITIES series, starring everyone’s favorite Dreyling murder machine, Sigrud. It’s readable as a standalone, just like the other books, but it’s highly recommended that you read the previous ones first.

City of Miracles_Final

Revenge. It’s something Sigrud je Harkvaldsson is very, very good at. Maybe the only thing.

So when he learns that his oldest friend and ally, former Prime Minister Shara Komayd, has been assassinated, he knows exactly what to do—and that no mortal force can stop him from meting out the suffering Shara’s killers deserve.

Yet as Sigrud pursues his quarry with his customary terrifying efficiency, he begins to fear that this battle is an unwinnable one. Because discovering the truth behind Shara’s death will require him to take up arms in a secret, decades-long war, face down an angry young god, and unravel the last mysteries of Bulikov, the city of miracles itself. And—perhaps most daunting of all—finally face the truth about his own cursed existence.

You can preorder it on Amazon at this link here. I’ll have information about the UK edition available shortly.

In addition to this fun stuff, I also have some great new character portraits of characters from the series by the tremendously talented Chanh Quach!

Sergeant Major Pandey from CITY OF BLADES:


General Lalith Biswal from CITY OF BLADES:


Foreign Affairs Minister Vinya Komayd from CITY OF STAIRS – and, to a lesser extent, CITY OF MIRACLES:


And, last but not least, a character you’ll be seeing a lot more of in CITY OF MIRACLES:


You can view all of Chanh Quach’s DIVINE CITIES artwork here.

October 11, 2016

NYCC 2016

If you’d like to see me and my beady, dead eyes at the panel we had on worldbuilding at NYCC, you may do so here.

October 3, 2016

The dangers of a confident message

People compare stories to all kinds of things, but the one I repeatedly come home to is this: writing a story is an experiment. Specifically, it is an experiment to discover what you, the author, really believe.

This isn’t as stupid as it sounds. As Neil Gaiman put it, “I write to figure out what I think about things.” And while it might seem odd that people might not know what they think or feel or believe, there are countless bias tests you can do to discover that all of your decisions and estimations and convictions are affected by influences around you, and some are more visible than others.

So, sure. I write to write a fun story, to entertain myself, to put myself in difficult situations and then try to think my way out of them. But I also write as an experiment to test my beliefs and try to figure out where they’re weak or where they’re strong.

In a way, the method I use to write my stories is the same way I was taught to write essays.

You take an assertion about the world. You explain that assertion. Then you rigorously challenge it, and discuss more or less with yourself how those challenges hold up. Then, at the end, you revisit your assertion, and you see how your assertion has changed in the face of these challenges.

The problem comes in when your assertion hasn’t changed at all: if your assertion is completely and totally triumphant, in other words. If that’s the case, then… Well. It makes for some very boring reading.

Because an essay – or a story – is a discussion that takes the audience on a journey to some kind of revelation. That revelation doesn’t have to be all that revelatory – “A mother’s love profoundly shapes a child’s life,” is not especially new or unique, but if this was one of the revelations a story arrived at, I wouldn’t begrudge it much. But it has to go somewhere. The narrative must progress and change, moving forward toward some kind of epiphany, great or small.

But this progress is nullified if you’re basically returning to your original assertion unchanged and unharmed.

In essence – no one wants to read a book in which the writer thoroughly confirms that their worldview is completely right, thank you very much.

Doubt and ambiguity and complications are in many ways the cores of the human experience. To write a story in which your beliefs and your assertions defeat all doubts and are unambiguously correct is a surefire ticket to a lethally boring story. Reading that would be like sitting in a long car ride with a particularly self-righteous relative who’s revisiting all of their personal grudges at length and reiterating how they were in the right every time.

The problem comes when you feel your assertion is unimpeachably right and cannot be challenged. And some assertions are absolutely like this.

For example, racism is bad. But the statement that racism is bad is not interesting. And a story that interrogates racism and finds it to be bad is not going to be an interesting story.

So if you’re finding yourself writing one of these stories, in which your worldview is being totally confirmed and your assertion is unimpeachably right, and you know it’d be a moral wrong to suggest otherwise – then I find it often helps to broaden or narrow your assertion: to make the question either bigger or smaller in some regard, or at the very least complicate it somehow.

For example, rather than write a story whose thesis examines that racism is bad, you could complicate it into a scenario like:

The discriminatory zoning practices in [NAME CITY HERE] have inarguably harmed the Asian-American community and helped perpetuate racism – but after a new cultural movement emerges among the younger generations, it suddenly becomes popular to reside in historically Asian-American neighborhoods on the West Coast.

Is this new cultural movement a victory over racism? Is it just racism in another form? How do the Asian-American residents respond to this movement and its effect on their neighborhoods and way of life? What elements are admirable, and what elements regrettable or outright despicable? What is gained and what is lost? And how is this conflict emblematic of our national struggles to come to terms with our own troubled history, and integrate with a historically marginalized group of Americans?

That’s something I basically just pulled out of my ass. But you can see the ambiguities there – these aren’t easy questions. And they shouldn’t be. Your experiment should be difficult.

If I wrote this story – and I, being who I am, wouldn’t at all feel experienced or accomplished enough to do so – I’d probably look at it from the point of view of two Asian-American characters, one of which embraces this cultural movement, while the other fights it. Both would have their beliefs about this movement challenged in some fashion during the story. Their decisions on how to proceed after this challenge would decide the rest of their stories.

And if, at the end of the story, I felt completely convinced about my conclusions, then, to be honest, I probably did it wrong. Like, if I, Robert Bennett, write my story and find I feel I’ve got some completely concrete and unassailable convictions about how to approach and think about the developing race issues in America… Like, I’d have to be an idiot. I’d be mad to be so completely confident about such a complex and difficult thing. To tie things up so simply and so completely would be a disservice to the subject matter.

But that’s the point, frequently. You write to find out what you think about things. But it’s a very human thing to meditate and realize that your feelings are far more complicated than you initially thought. Yet that’s what makes the story – or experiment, or discussion – worthwhile.

May 9, 2016

Thoughts on Prop 1, and the future of transportation

Long, super wonky blog post coming. Be forewarned.

I. The Proposition

Uber and Lyft – ridesharing companies – and the city of Austin have been having fights for a long time.

Ridesharing companies, if you’re unaware, are app companies in which private users download the app, become “contractor” drivers for the app company, and the app then connects the contractor driver with people who need a ride.

The problem the city of Austin has is that ridesharing companies do their own background checks, using a social security number and other information. The city of Austin’s issue is that they have little insight into who, exactly, is driving its citizens around. Ridesharing is about getting into a stranger’s car – the city of Austin wanted more control over that.

In December of 2015, the Austin City Council passed a law requiring the city to do fingerprinting background checks. Uber and Lyft were incensed, because this incurs more fees on them and threatens their driver “pipeline,” in which drivers become contractors. Uber and Lyft then put together enough political support to hold a general election on Proposition 1. If passed, Prop 1 would have repealed the fingerprint requirement, along with other, much more reasonable regulations such as marking your car as an Uber or Lyft car, or not being allowed to block lanes, etc.

Those little details add up. Though this initially seems to be about fingerprint background checks and so on, a lot of this was about Uber and Lyft rejecting any interference from local government whatsoever.

Everyone assumed Prop 1 would sail through. Uber has been phenomenally successful at negotiating with local governments, even the Mayor of New York. If a politician stands in its way, then the next time an Uber user opens their app, the first thing they’ll see is a reminder to vote, and how to vote. To stand in the way of Uber is to stand in the way of the future.

But Austin disagreed. Austin voted down Prop 1 by a 10 digit margin. To make matters even more bonkers, Uber and Lyft spent an inconceivable about of money on the campaign – it was the most expensive campaign in Austin history. To quote the Austin-American Statesman:

It was spending on a scale that had never been seen in Austin politics, as Uber and Lyft singlehandedly funded the pro-Prop 1 campaign group, Ridesharing Works for Austin, to the tune of $8.6 million, campaign finance reports showed. That’s more than seven times the previous record of $1.2 million, which was set by Adler in his 2014 mayoral campaign.

“You can elect governors in other states for that much money,” Butts said. “We set an example for the rest of the nation: Stand up to these guys.”

Butt’s anti-Prop 1 campaign, which raised less than $200,000, was outspent nearly 50 to 1.

On average, Uber and Lyft spent $223.15 for each of the 38,539 votes they received.

The cost of a fingerprint-based background check is $40.

It’s that last bit that’s the kicker.

Uber and Lyft could have paid for the background checks several times over, if they wanted to. If they had the funds to mount this campaign, then they had the funds to work with local government regulations.

This was never about fingerprint background checks. It wasn’t about blocking lanes or drunk driving deaths or any of the noise that’s come out of this campaign. What this was about was which path has more legitimacy: public government or private companies.

II. Transportation: The Lifeblood of a City

I have unusually strong feelings about transportation and urban design. Part of this is because I think doing it right means making a city accessible and vibrant.

Transportation dictates the fabric and structure of a city in ways that few other things do. How people get from one place to another dictates what sort of home you live in, what sort of job you work, what sort of childcare you can get, and so on and so on.

Think of it like a living organism, wherein resources have to be transported from one facet to another. Some creatures have open circulatory systems, in which the organs are bathed in blood; others have closed circulatory systems, wherein the blood is contained at all times within vessels. Both systems do the same thing – they get nutrients from point A to point B  – but the way that they do it dictates a lot about how the creature itself works, and what it can do.

Our cities are built around cars. Cars are our default mode of travel – not trains, not bikes, not subways, not by foot – so every aspect of the city must be built to accommodate cars. This is for a lot of reasons. One is that our cities are newer, built in an age where it was easy to put water and energy wherever you wanted it, whereas older cities were built around water and other concise points, so a dense, centralized transportation system made sense.

We didn’t have those in the south and in the west. So we went with cars.

But cars have had a lot of side effects.

Freeways and highways are not dense. They require a lot of lanes and a lot of room. This means you have to get rid of a big chunk of your city to accommodate them. Check out these overhead photos of downtown cities from the 1950s to now to see how highways have excised huge pieces of urban fabric.

Cars also inevitably lead to traffic. And traffic leads to more roads, which leads to more traffic. In essence, roads do not cure traffic: they cause it. Umpteen studies have come to this conclusion.

Cars also make us fat and lazy. We don’t want to walk to the store or to school anymore, but walking is what we’ve evolved to do as a species. That’s bad.

Another problem is that cars allow you to self-sort. Don’t like your neighbors? You can live in one part of the city and drive in to work. As this excellent Collectors Weekly, piece explores, in the 1950s workplaces began to resemble utopic campuses, removed from urban realities, with severe consequences:

Mozingo’s concept of a separatist landscape builds off the ideas of geographer Allan Pred, who describes how our daily path through the built environment is a major influence on our culture and values. “If you live in a typical suburban place,” Mozingo explains, “you get in your car and drive to work by yourself, then stay in your office for the entire day seeing only other colleagues, and then drive back home alone. You’re basically only interested in improving highways and your office building.” Even as big tech touts its green credentials, the offices for Apple, Facebook, Google, and their ilk are inundated with parking, discreetly hidden below ground like their savvy mid-century forebears, encouraging employees to continue their solo commutes.

Today, this segregation isn’t only aided by architecture—it’s also a function of the tech-enabled lifestyle, with its endless array of on-demand services and delivery apps that limit interactions with people of differing views and backgrounds (exposure that would likely serve to increase tolerance). A protective bubble of affluence also reduces the need for civic engagement: If you always rely on ride-hailing apps, why would you care if the sidewalk gets cleaned or repaired?

This last piece that really speaks to how the car divorces the citizen from interest in their city. This disinterest often disproportionately punishes the poor and minorities, who inevitably take a large brunt of the pain from throwing up these huge highways. The US Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, is very candid about the damage highways did to his community as a child. And here in Austin, it’s well-known that I-35 was built to cordon off the part of the city populated by black and Latino populations.

That’s one element that feels the most disturbing about highways. Once a highway is up, it becomes repellent to foot traffic – the natural mode of transportation for the human body. The idea of crossing that street is repellent, if not impossible. Growing up in Houston, it felt like we were marooned on a tiny postage stamp of property, with churning seas of cars around us. Leaving the island was hazardous to your health.

Cars are the privatization of transportation, delivering massive control of the city to the whims of the consumer. And this has hurt us in a lot of ways.

So this is one piece of the puzzle: the car culture, fueled by resource abundance as well as private companies arguing for infrastructure that rewarded their products, favored private forces over public ones, leading to a total divorce from the idea of an urban community. You stopped caring about your city – you only cared about the parts you drove through.

The suburbs have not been altogether good for us. Some economists even advocate that if we want economic growth, we should empty the suburbs altogether.

That’s one aspect. The other aspect is that cities are our future – both in how people want to live, and how we, as a species, will fight against climate change.

III. Cities Are the Future – If We Get to Have One, That Is

The more space you need to do something, the more energy it takes. That’s easy to understand. Cleaning a giant house is harder than cleaning a small one. Sending products through a giant factory is far more resource exhausting than sending them through a small one.

What’s very odd about our current cities, though, is that a lot of that space is empty. Suburbia has a hell of a lot of parking lots, highways, and lawns – space that goes unused for large parts of the day, but must be both traversed and maintained.

So urban density matters. It’s fairly good, then, that more and more people in the United States want to move to dense urban areas. This trend isn’t restricted to America. The World Health Organization says that urban growth is skyrocketing around the world.

How much can urban density help the climate? Here’s an idea: San Francisco just voted to require solar panels on every new roof – but the carbon those panels would offset is just a fraction compared to what would be saved if they changed their zoning to allow denser housing.

And mayors in the United States are the ones who are really leading the fight for climate change. The state and federal level is bogged down in denialism, but urban, educated areas know that climate change is real, and are preparing for it.

Cities are the real front where progress can be made. Cities don’t need federal or state approval to decarbonize. Hell, Miami’s mayor knows the city is doomed, even if the Florida governor and legislature refuses to admit it.

The thing to remember here, then, is that this requires civic engagement. It requires both citizens getting involved, and giving cities power.

You want more density, more walkability, more public transportation? That means more city authority and regulation.

You want to fight climate change, decarbonize, or prepare for the effects of global warming? That means more city authority and regulation.

What’s odd is that there is one part of the solution that both cities and the Silicon Valley ridesharing companies agree is coming. But to make it work, and to make it work right, means a lot of planning, and a lot of regulation. I’m referring, here, to fully automatic vehicles, or FAVs.

IV. No One in the Driver’s Seat

A lot of people disagree on when self-driving cars will hit the street. Some say five years, or ten years. Others, like Costa Samaras with RAND, say it will likely be 30 years for 1% of the vehicles on the road to be FAVs. Chris Urmson, the head of Google’s self-driving car program, recently changed up Google’s PR gospel and said some cities will see FAVs in 5 years, and others in 30.

But everyone agrees that they are indeed coming. Lyft just partnered with GM to test a line of self-driving taxis with real passengers. It’s a huge opportunity.

Why is it a huge opportunity? Because cars are a shitty thing to own. Consider this data from Zack Kanter:

Industry experts think that consumers will be slow to purchase autonomous cars – while this may be true, it is a mistake to assume that this will impede the transition. Morgan Stanley’s research shows that cars are driven just 4% of the time,5 which is an astonishing waste considering that the average cost of car ownership is nearly $9,000 per year.6 Next to a house, an automobile is the second most expensive asset that most people will ever buy – it is no surprise that ride sharing services like Uber and car sharing services like Zipcar are quickly gaining popularity as an alternative to car ownership. It is now more economical to use a ride sharing service if you live in a city and drive less than 10,000 miles per year.7

Imagine doing anything else during your car ride rather than driving: playing with your kid, watching a movie, answering email, reading a book. People will want this.

It can also help us densify cities. Imagine all the parking spaces, all the lots, all the garages, all the extra lanes we have to allow each individual person to essentially pilot their own room around town. We could take those and devote them to any other purpose than car storage, and it would be better. Not to mention that, if we use electric FAVs rather than Internal Combustion Engines, it will hugely, hugely cut greenhouse gas emissions.

But this will have considerable fallout, and some of it could be quite bad. Alex Rubalcava lays out some key issues with self-driving cars here:

More importantly, the cost in attention associated with transportation will drop to nearly zero. The average American could shift some of the 5.5 hours of television watched per day into the car, and end up with vastly more personal time once freed from the need to pay attention to the road. This possibility has led many people to predict that AVs could enable further suburban sprawl as the costs of transportation fall. A person who moves to a more distant exurb but commutes via a PSAV will pay less money for transportation, have more time for entertainment, and will also pay lower, exurban prices for their housing. It will be an irresistible combination, and it will be just one of many ways that VMT (vehicle miles traveled) will ratchet upwards once each marginal mile loses its cost in dollars and attention.

In other words, electric FAVs will make driving so inexpensive and easy to tolerate that people will drive more. That means more sprawl, more congestion – especially if people start using FAVs not to carry people, but items. Imagine ordering anything in the world, and a little robot drives it to your door. Now imagine the roads filled with such robots.

How can we avoid this future? How can we make sure that the innovation of FAVs leads to the best results for everyone?

The answer is through rigorous urban policy making. And while people might be torn about how much input the government should have about fingerprint background checks, very few would say that the government should have no say in robots tooling around on our streets with us.

V. Proposition 1 is the Start of the Fight for the Future

So that brings us full circle. And Prop 1 is all about this inherent conflict between how private interests want to make profits in cities, and how local government wants to make cities safe and livable.

Uber and Lyft never really cared about a fingerprint check. They could have paid for it several times over, considering the money they spent on the campaign. And other ridesharing organizations have made headway while complying with local regulations. It’s not impossible.

What Uber and Lyft wanted to do, and have always done, is send a message to cities: “Do it our way, or get nothing.”

There are a lot of reasons for why they’d want to do this. On the one hand, they’re startups, and require massive growth every year to succeed. This means doing everything you can to remove obstacles.

On the other hand, Uber and Lyft succeed mostly because they tiptoe around some very expensive regulations. Uber isn’t a transportation company, it’s a technology company. Its drivers aren’t employees, they’re independent contractors. It’s no surprise that, after all this, employment law is now one of the hottest legal areas to get into.

So Uber and Lyft succeed because they dodge some rules. Policy has yet to catch up to them. So to make sure policy never does catch up to them, or change any of those rules, they have to become so popular that the city finds them indispensable. “Keep the laws the way they are, because your population can’t live without us,” in other words.

In other words, they wish to grow so fast that they can leverage their popularity to depower urban planning in favor of private interests. Which has very bad effects.

I actually like ridesharing. I think it’s a good way to reduce cars and traffic and GHGs. I also think ridesharing is a compromised answer to a problem America has refused to acknowledge for the past 60 years: the refusal to build any public transportation infrastructure. The desire for easy transportation is there in America, and ridesharing is meeting those needs, albeit in a very compromised way that causes legal and jurisdictional problems that public transportation would likely avoid.

Ridesharing is convenient. It is cost effective. But we should be slow to become dependent on things that are convenient and handwave all the side-effects that come with it. That sort of attitude is essentially what’s caused climate change: fossil fuels were so cheap and so easy we just shrugged at the issues and kept going along with it. Then the companies and producers of such fossil fuels became so powerful the issue became that much harder to confront.

We have to think about the ramifications. Especially with climate change and FAVs on the horizon. Some convenient choices have gotten us to this place, where our cities sprawl out, punish the poor, are designed to make us obese, and belch carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

The only way to make sure those choices don’t harm us anymore is with more civic engagement, and with the city and private interests finding some kind of middle ground. Market economics produce excellent, innovative results, results cities need. But they should not dictate how a city works, or what a city is. Its citizens should do that.

But I’m not encouraged. For all their talk about local government and federal tyranny, the State of Texas is more than willing to overrule its cities when they make their own decisions. Senator Charles Schwertner of Georgetown has already called for legislation on the issue. I fully expect to see what happened to Denton also happen to Austin, and soon.

March 2, 2016

On revolutions

There are a hell of a lot of thinkpieces going up right now on Trump, and Sanders, and Cruz, and Hillary.

This isn’t one of those. I’m going to do my best to avoid mentioning those names.

There’s a lot of talk going on right now about ruling elites, about inequality, about corporate interests and super PACs. What’s pervasive right now is this concept of a giant, moneyed conspiracy oppressing the common American, stamping out opportunity and trying to throttle progress while it’s still in its crib.

That’s an exciting image. It makes you mad as hell. It upsets you, it makes you want to go out and do something.

But I actually don’t think that it’s the case. I don’t think that’s how it works. On the one hand, money doesn’t seem to actually buy elections. Super PACs actually seem to be mostly great at wasting money. Just look at Jeb Bush, who spent an inconceivable fortune for a handful of delegates in the GOP Primary. If money buys elections, the cost is more than even Jeb’s warchest could afford – or the current heir to the establishment throne, Marco Rubio.

But on the other hand, that’s not how American politics works. American politics is not structured as a top down organization, with a few elites making choices about us plebs down here on the ground – it is, sometimes very, very frustratingly, a bottom-up organization, with lots of tiers and stops and breaks in the chain.

So the questions I find myself wanting to ask people all the time these days is: who’s your state senator? Who’s your state representative? And did you vote for either of them? Did you vote in the primary for either of them? And did you vote in the midterms?

The reason I ask this stuff is that everyone knows that everyone’s sick of deadlock in Washington DC. But this deadlock is fueled by a handful of House Representatives (and Senators, but it’s the House that’s key) who have their districts drawn so their seats are completely safe, so they don’t need to act reasonable to ensure that they get re-elected.

Their actions and their policies are functionally irrelevant. Their election is automatic. Their districts have been drawn so that their core voters make up the majority. An impregnable fortress has been built around them.

But they didn’t build that fortress. Congressional districts are drawn by state legislatures. And if you aren’t aware, most state legislatures these days are controlled by the GOP – a historic number of them, in fact.

This took decades to establish. And it doesn’t look like it’s changing anytime soon.

Until that changes, congressional districts won’t change.

Until congressional districts change, DC deadlock will remain as contentious as ever.

As long as DC deadlock remains in place, things will not get better for America as a whole. They’ll likely get worse.

So yeah. Here we are.


I get kind of frustrated when I see all of this revolutionary rhetoric getting tossed about. Because in our heads, revolutions take place overnight. One day, the Girondists are still in charge of Paris – the next, the Tuileries Palace has been taken, and there’s a whole new gang in charge.

But if you really want a peaceful revolution in America, one election isn’t going to do it. This isn’t going to take place overnight. This is going to take years. Maybe decades. If you want to change the system, you’re going to have to do something that hasn’t happened a lot before: you’re gonna have to show up to vote. A lot. In a lot of little elections.

And yeah, there are absolutely obstacles in your way. And some of it is indeed money. Lots of state legislatures only pay their representatives a pittance, meaning only millionaires can afford to step into elected office.

And yes, those in power – usually moneyed people – have made voting hard on everyone else, ensuring a low turnout so that only those with vested interests (usually their interests) show up.

And yes, lots of corporate interests are financing campaigns at the state level. But it’s still a really, really small voting pool, since there’s such low voter turnout in these things.

So it can be done! You can indeed defy the odds. Just look at Eric Cantor.

Eric Cantor is the only house majority leader in American history to lose his seat in a primary. And the reason he lost is that the voting base got pissed at him, decided they wanted someone else, and then showed up to vote.

And it’s that last part that’s really important. They showed up to vote. In a midterm primary. Which is where candidates and incumbents are frequently weakest.

God, if there’s one word that puts voting Americans into a dull stupor, it’s the word “midterm.” So very, very few people vote in the midterms – especially the midterm primaries. That’s a hell of a lot of critical seats decided by wonks, zealots, or people who just didn’t have anything better to do at lunch. We get all razzed up about the presidential election, but it’s the primaries and all the other little elections that make a big difference.

But it can happen. If people get passionate enough, if they get devoted, if they get organized, they actually can make a difference. These local elections are frequently so small that it takes just a small, passionate group to get the job done.

Just look at one presidential candidate out there now – Ted Cruz. (Sorry, I had to mention one.) His senate seat was a total upset. He won it in the Republican midterm primary against Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst – a man with a lot of establishment cred and whole lot of money behind him. But Cruz’s supporters were passionate and organized, and they made it happen.

So can you.

This probably isn’t the answer you want. Revolutionary rhetoric is way more satisfying than hearing that you need to show up to vote in a marathon of myriad elections, many for candidates you likely have never heard of. But one solid rule I’ve found is that the more exciting the rhetoric is, the higher the odds that the problem being discussed isn’t nearly as simple or easy as it sounds.

The issue here is that the people who show up to vote at these elections are usually the people directly impacted by the offices being elected. IE, they get taxed or regulated. And the only thing that really gets taxed or regulated is money. So the people who are showing up to vote are the people making money. And they, like any voter, are voting their interests.

The people who aren’t showing up, on the whole, are the young, the poor, and the marginalized.

Some of this is by design. Some of it isn’t.

All of it can be overcome, though. If you just keep showing up.

The future doesn’t actually belong to the rich or the powerful, or to corporations. It belongs to the people who show up.

February 5, 2016

Soundscapes – CITY OF BLADES

So a while back I did a post on the sort of music I listened to while writing CITY OF STAIRS. I called it a “soundscape” because I guess I’m a 19 year old art student or something, I don’t know. But anyways, I thought I’d go ahead and do one of these for CITY OF BLADES, because that’s another book where I used very specific songs and moods to help me get inside scenes and write my way out of them.

Probably the biggest change here is that instead of a lot of Russian classical composers, BLADES has a lot more bluesy singer-songwriter music, lots of it country, especially Townes van Zandt. I guess this makes sense because BLADES takes place on an actual frontier, and Townes speaks to a lot of the fatalistic dread and regret that’s coursing through BLADES. And also there is just not that much classical about Mulaghesh.

But like STAIRS, I also take a lot of music from movies. Is that cheap? I guess, I don’t know. But I did it.

Anyways. Spoilers if you haven’t read the book.

Overall Inspiration

To get into the general mood for BLADES and try and access the overall atmosphere I wanted to make, I found myself listening to a few songs quite a bit.

The first is “Rake” by Townes Van Zandt. “Rake” is gendered male (obviously) but that sense of bitter regret as an elder figure looks back on their sinful youth has a lot of application to Mulaghesh. In addition, the barren, bleak atmosphere in this song is basically Voortyashtan in a bottle.

The next is “Lion’s Roar” by First Aid Kit, which is another bluesy song full of regret. First Aid Kit is an odd little duo – Swedish girls putting this woodsy, ethereal spin on blues and country. This is one of their most aggressive songs, contorted with violent acrimony. Suitable for Mulaghesh.

CITY OF BLADESfor all its darkness and musings on war, is still intended to be a pretty action-packed, fun book – or, rather, Mulaghesh is a pretty fun protagonist. A bluesy sort of song really works for her, and I found myself drawn to “Bottom of the River” by Delta Rae, a song my wife kept playing in the car on trips. If someone was to make a trailer for CITY OF BLADES, this would be the song for it: not only is the river imagery associated with death (appropriately enough), but it’s also a deeply foreboding song, with groans, moans, and sighs in the background. You feel like there’s an actual army out there in the countryside – though, for Mulaghesh herself, she needs to look seaward.

To continue that river imagery, I also found myself listening to “Lungs” by Townes quite a bit. “Seal the river at its mouth, take the water prisoner / Fill the sky with screams and cries, bathed in fiery answer” is just a hell of a line. Again, the dark, primitive, grim style of this song really suits Mulaghesh and Voortyashtan, and what she finds there.

Specific Scenes and Ideas

The Yellow March

When I was first writing CITY OF BLADES, I knew that Mulaghesh would meet up with Biswal, and what they had done during the Summer of Black Rivers would divide them – but I didn’t know what that was. Then one day I was cleaning the house, listening to music, and Ashokan Farewell came on, from Ken Burns’s The Civil War. (That series is, in my opinion, required watching for American citizens. But that’s just me.) And one thing that’s always fascinated me about the American Civil War is Sherman’s March to the Sea, when he burned half of George and South Carolina in a concerted attempt to break the spirits of the South. And was when I thought up the Yellow March.

Sherman himself is a figure I find compelling – he was fired from his job at the start of the war and almost considered insane solely because he said the Civil War would not be a quick, trifling of a war, but rather long, brutal, and bloody. His sentiments are all over CITY OF BLADES. A few of his quotes are:

“War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”

“Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster.”

“It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.”

You can find more here.

The City of Blades

I wanted Mulaghesh’s vision of the actual City of Blades to feel like a bad acid trip. I know if I’m ever tripping balls, I don’t want Ligeti anywhere near me.

The girl on the table

This was maybe the single most emotionally brutal scene to write. My wife was very mad at me that I did not tell her this was coming.

Queen of Grief

Nyman is an amazing composer, and this was my first entry into his work. The movie it’s from – Gattaca – is excellent (I don’t give a shit if the science is bad), and the song itself is loaded with a sense of fatalistic resignation, with the chords both repeating and seeming to methodically cascade. This piece applies greatly to the ending, where Mulaghesh and the others are trying to find their way out of what’s happened to them, to find a way forward into transformation. (This softer piano version is excellent, too.)

Defiant Love

“Sea ports are the staging places of better things”

There’s a bruised optimism to “Skeleton” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It’s a sense of just beginning to overcome some recent trauma – grief, perhaps, or a bad breakup, that first morning afterwards where you’re just beginning to feel like a real person again. I think this captures  Mulaghesh’s position at the end of CITY OF BLADES, this resolution to be someone different. Sigrud, of course, is emotionally ruined, and Shara is reconciling herself to the eventual death of her administration.

Everyone is looking at the future: Shara, to think about her life as a parent, and a life beyond the work that’s consumed everything she’s ever known since she was a child; Mulaghesh, resolved to becoming engaged again, and become something more than she is; and Sigrud, wondering if there’s a way forward at all.



Well, since I just finished CITY OF MIRACLES – the third and final entry in THE DIVINE CITIES – I’ve been listening to a lot of things. One song in particular.

MIRACLES has a lot of editing to go, so I can’t talk about its plot with any specific detail, since those details might change. And it’s still very soon to talk about.

All I can say is that the song I have been listening to, to capture the feeling of this book, is this:

It comes out in 2017.

I’ll keep you posted when I can say more.

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