Doug Johnstone’s The Shape Between Us has an alien land in Scotland, adding to the large number of alien landings whose story is shaped by where they land, and who finds them.
ET lands in Modesto California, since it is a story about Spielberg’s childhood. Superman in Smallville, Kansas, for his Jewish creators wanted him to be an immigrant but raised by an all American family.
I have often mused on how Pilot, Cory’s mother, might have landed somewhere else, and the infinite stories that flowed from that. To write is to choose.
Contains mild spoilers for Our Child of The Stars and Our Child of Two Worlds – spelling out some things not spelled out before.
Cory’s mother, the Pilot, flies Forager Ship Four towards a lush world of green and blue and white. A world of war, a world of summer and winter. Her son Little Blue Frog is unconscious, and her best friend and her child are already dead. Her body is wracked with pain, she cannot shake off the pain from the wounds of so many deaths. She knows she is alone dying.
Behind her, the huge colony ship tries a desperate move. It launches one of its engines into the swarm of alien machines and detonates it…
A swarm of murderous alien machines heads for Earth, dragging a meteor as a shield. What havoc it could wreak… Can she, dare she, destroy them as they fall?
This is a primitive planet, gripped by the psychosis that violence is an appropriate response to feeling beings. She may need to hide. Where on that world does she land…?
In the beginning, was a small New England town. The characters were American, except for the small purple boy with a heart of gold and a dreadful secret. His adoptive mother named him Cory. The characters and the setting existed before there was thought of anything as fancy as a book or two. I had a short story that obeyed Aristotle’s unities – a few characters, and the whole action in one place and on one day.
What if Pilot, dying, bereaved, not wholly rational, had landed somewhere else?
Fellow writers challenged me why I did not move the setting – set it in the country I knew from experience, perhaps the Meteor striking somewhere in Somerset with an improbable name like Abbot’s Balcony or Fester St James, with the Ship down in the Bristol Channel. A story set in the UK in 1969, where the times were a changing too. I was a little younger than Cory is, not remembering the Moon Landings but I did remember Apollo 13.
How different the flavour of the book would have been! Maybe I should have written a book of optimism and starry-eyed hope about Britain…
In part I set it in Amber Grove, New York, because that was as exotic as I felt up to – and because the characters came as liberal North-Eastern Americans and weren’t up for changing.
Where does Cory land and who finds him first?
Infinite books spread out. In many, Pilot’s gamble fails and Cory dies. Where there is no medical attention, his death is all but certain. In many, the authorities learn of the boy, and in every one of those he becomes a plaything of the powerful. How many governments would rush to tell the world and how many to keep him a secret? How many keep him tucked away as Molly feared, like a lab rat? How many see him first as a person?
Perhaps some of these stories are not too dreadful for him. Maybe even in an unkind world and for cynical reasons, those around him are still kind. If the President’s scientific advisor Dr Pfeiffer gets hold of him… he’s an ambitious and conceited Cold-Warrior but a kind and almost indulgent father. Many options will be nightmares for Cory and for me thinking of them.
Of course, Cory is not human. He has ways to flee captivity, before his powers are known. Afterwards I see little chance.
Look at an equal area map of the world. Look how much is Russia, China and their satellites. Look how much of it is Africa. Imagine Cory on the Serengeti, laughing at elephants, or staring at the blazing stars in longing… not knowing which star is home.
Imagine Cory’s first Earth winter – sledding in Alberta with other children, or skating a frozen pond in some Communist dacha… He does not like the stern men who come, but the Grandmothers are kind.
He might have learned Danish or Igbo or Minnan or one of the countless tongues of Papua New Guinea.
He could have fallen into a hot war… into ignorant or criminal hands…
Cory is a child who has known nothing but love. He will be a challenge to all of us, our systems and our hypocrisies, wherever he lands. What would Harold Wilson have done, or Pierre Trudeau? Indira Gandhi or Seretse Khama? How quickly the great powers would move on a lesser power – with threats and bribes.
Cory in Japan, Cory among the Amish, Cory bought and sold…
Alien ships tend to deposit their precious cargo in rural places – not just because there is more rural to land in, but for plot convenience. Imagine the Ship being seen over a city. Imagine trying to hide him in a Brazilian favela, or Manhattan. But even cities have possibilities.
There are some stories it is perhaps not mine to tell. I have a secret wish, where a kind and strong-minded widow with children of her own takes him in. She has a small circle who know their place, how people like them exist under a ration of tolerance, who know how to keep their mouths shut. Her son is a hothead, a loudmouth who renounced the name she gave him for an African name, but he is smart and he knows people on both sides of the law. Her older daughter is sleeping with a white slacker, connected to the seedier bits of youth culture. She would use those connections, and her church. The youngest daughter would love Cory in this story as much as she does in mine.
Somehow the wheel turns, and Cory is taken in by Diane Alexander… a teacher, a Black woman, a widow, head of one of the few Black families in Amber Grove. Molly, her crazy friend and neighbour would soon find out, and help with this bewitching child, but Diane would be Earth Mom.
Maybe when the big money comes calling, the film will follow that story instead.
SciFiEtc Weekend SFW XIV was well organised, friendly and entertaining – and a bit bonkers. It describes itself as a SFFH weekend or a Geek Camp or a party. They were kind enough to invite me and Sarah and we had a great time. And I got to play Just A Minute with Nina Wadia.
I am struck by the difficulty of describing SFW both to people who go to other SFFH ‘conventions’ and those who lump them all together.
What they have in common is assembling people who are enthusiasts for the fantastic – people who have different tastes in books, shows, films, T-shirts, and art can still recognise a common ‘geekium’.
There are common elements
-lots of people cosplaying – wearing elaborate costumes. This makes me feel ‘I am with my people’ even if I don’t do it myself.
-talks, interviews, panel discussions, Q+As.
-different interests reflected particularly in the bigger events– film, TV, books, comics, games.
-entertainment of various forms – from folk music to rap, from standup to puppet theatre – all with some SFFH references
-guests who are working in the field, or who stay involved despite their professional life having moved on. So sometimes actors from series in the 70s 80s and 90s.
These events can be overwhelming or small and focused, they can be commercial and hardnosed, or run so much for the fans that they put off commercial and professional attendees.
SFW had the wonderful thing common to many enthusiasms that ‘everyone here treats this incredibly seriously’ but also with a firm core of ‘of course we don’t take ourselves too seriously’. In fact, never trust any group of people who aren’t happy to laugh at themselves.
It put a lot of emphasis on the entertainment – we were in a holiday camp. Guests like me in the Writer strand were treated as important but also expected to be accessible to the other attendees. For example, I was delighted to be given an hour where I went round six tables of 6-8 people and talked with them for ten minutes each.
I had an intelligent interview with Bryony Pearce (author in several genres) and Q+A – a panel discussion on fandom such as how far do fans own a topic and is that always good – numerous slots selling my books and talking about what was on people’s minds and…
And I got to Play Just A Minute with Nina Wadia. It was a riot.
So Nina Wadia was there because she was in the Sandman TV series, which is very big, and was a first timer at any SFFH event. She was lovely and hilarious – and I’m not sure she was expecting the friendly warmth and enthusiasm and minor insanity she got.
Just a Minute was played as a full contact sport – like all these things you are singing for your supper and so we tried to give the audience entertainment. Nina, briefed on the rules only as we entered the stage but well able to stage a tantrum where required, me – listened to the game as a child – and author Bryony Pearce and actor Chase Masterton who are convention regulars and utterly ruthless players but charming and delightful with it! I got plenty of laughs, which was a relief – sometimes my being funny mode doesn’t switch on. The result depended more on whose buzzer was working than anything else.
It was all great and people seemed interested. I don’t think I got snappy, although I did have to disagree with the person who thought it was ‘a shame’ no one read Asimov any more.
All the artists had the option to meet up for dinner which meant we got to know each other better.. Extrovert mode takes it out of me and a quiet night was appreciated. Shout out in particular to Anna Stephens (prolific author and fanfic advocate), and Simon Kurt Unsworth (horror writer and calm voice of reason on panels) and Benjamin his son and also a horror writer/collaborator. And Sam and David and Matt from Area 51 and everyone else who worked on making it happen.
My two novels are suitable for strong readers aged 12+.
I don’t consider them to be Young Adult Novels.
I don’t have a problem with Young Adult Novels – I have read a good number which are as good as anything not labelled YA and indeed, address issues which are not often enough addressed in mainstream work. Famously the Hunger Games attacked class, poverty, and state inspired violence glorified on TV at a time when many adult novels were on much less political themes. I might write a YA novel.
The wikipedia entry for YA genre is good but to my mind does not go far enough.
“Young adult fiction (YA) is a category of fiction written for readers from 12 to 18 years of age. While the genre is primarily targeted at adolescents, approximately half of YA readers are adults.
The subject matter and genres of YA correlate with the age and experience of the protagonist. The genres available in YA are expansive and include most of those found in adult fiction. Common themes related to YA include friendship, first love, relationships, and identity. Stories that focus on the specific challenges of youth are sometimes referred to as problem novels or coming-of-age novels.
Young adult fiction was developed to soften the transition between children’s novels and adult literature.” (In fact, ‘juvenile novels’ were a thing long before the YA term existed..)
For me, A YA novel usually has one or more teenagers as the **main** protagonist, and contains in some measure that teenager working out themselves and their relationships with world. My work covers the following main characters
Gene and Molly start the book in their twenties
Cory an alien is a child in the first book and early adolescent towards the end of the second book – although exact matching with his species is difficult.
Dr Pfeiffer, an adult well into his professional career, at least his late forties.
An alien adult.
So I don’t mind Young Adults reading my books, I hope they do. But I don’t see it is a specific YA book written at least half for that audience. Hope that makes sense.
In previous writing, I used music sometimes to set mood, or to give my writing energy, or to daydream. With Our Child of the Stars, the music marched in, expecting a bigger role. Here’s how the music changed the book.
It came to me… A scene was small town America, the end of the Sixties, and fall sunlight lit up her patchwork quilt of bright leaves. Molly was sewing her son Cory’s Halloween costume against the clock, and she’d had to lock him out of the room to get it done. How Molly and Gene loved him, and how they feared for his safety. Only a handful of people knew that Cory existed.
Music was playing on a record player… Molly’s favourite singer, a specific image of a folk singer with long dark hair. It took me weeks to figure out it was Joan Baez singing Farewell Angelina – an elusive song of love and loss.
“… the LP worn from years of enjoyment. Joan Baez filled the house with music, that extraordinary voice making mournful love to the air so the whole house became sad and beautiful.”
Molly’s favourite singer – that had to mean something. I knew far more of Baez’s CV than her work. I soaked myself in her music and many others known and new to me. Baez was and is a musician who uses her talent to fight injustice with beauty… a focused anger and compassion from that era of bright promise, and endless war.
Music became more important as I wrote the book. Gene always had a guitar I think but the music grew and he became more of a musician. Molly remembers their marriage day.
“Gene stood grinning in his best suit, with the flower in his lapel crooked. He was the one for her. The people they loved had come to support them and neither of them tripped over the words. Then off to dance, to his choices and hers: ‘Stop! in the Name of Love’, the Temptations and the Supremes. Peter, Paul and Mary, the Byrds, the Beatles and the Stones.”
The one song cited is ironic, foreshadowing. The beautiful marriage enters stormy waters – tragedy, depression, alcoholism. Gene strays but how far? I played those songs and others about broken hearts, as I decided, how far could he go and the marriage still be healable. Again, the choice of song was unconscious but sharp in its meaning. Gene Stops! He changes his mind at the motel door…
In American Pie McLean shows as so many did the growing disenchantment at the end of the Sixties, entering the Seventies. You cannot understand the time without seeing how many people did not have flowers in their hair. The majority of young people voted for Nixon in 1972. Unpicking this, and hearing other voices from that era, helped me understand. It flowed naturally to me that Molly and Gene had friends they disagreed with – they would find decency in unexpected places.
The Meteor brought fire and destruction, and a wounded boy – the only survivor of a tragedy in space – a boy they call Cory. He learns English and Earth music with enormous enthusiasm. Cory fizzes – he is childhood turned up to 11 – eager to learn, make friends, and explore – he brings delight back into Gene and Molly’s life. Yet he finds Earth’s cruelties are challenging – his world has no war, no starvation.
It was important to me that he did not look human and that we should overcome our prejudices. He is traumatised by the loss of his mother and his friends. In the early weeks, he adopts Where Have All The Flowers Gone as a ritual song of letting go his dead mother and the many others of his kind who died. For him it becomes a night-time song to remember and heal.
We shall overcome keeps turning up– a song of many roots – fashioned by a Black preacher, then a song of the labour movement, then civil rights and the opposition to war… Gene plays it to Cory when they first meet because it’s a party piece and Gene has run through the obvious children’s songs. It’s a song Baez also sings for a very serious purpose at a crucial point in the book. I found writing about the Sixties was also writing about the challenges of our time.
Gene and Molly wrangle about Gene’s passion for science fiction and support for space travel – Molly thinks caring for people on earth should take priority. Of course, the irony is, Gene’s ‘stupid space stories’ turn out to have a purpose. I loved the humour and anger in Gill Scott-Heron’s performance piece, Whitey’s On the Moon – it didn’t end up in the final edit but there’s a taste of in Molly’s argument under a full moon.
Many of the songs across the two books are ones I invented, as artists respond to the events that do not happen in our version of history. In Our Child of Two Worlds, the family face bigger dangers, and everything they take for granted is under threat. For if Cory’s people come and take him away, they will break Molly’s heart.
The world is both beautiful and sometimes unforgiving – humanity rises to love and loyalty and courage and compassion, yet we add to the inevitable darkness too. Yet we have hope and humour and music. Our Child of the Stars (and Our Child of Two Worlds) make a single story about family, friendship and what we owe each other – how love grabs us and makes us vulnerable – about how love in all its forms has a price. This ordinary and extraordinary family make a song of hope about how things could be.
Joan Baez – “Farewell Angelina”
Joan Baez “We Shall Overcome” (at the March on Washington with MLK)
Palmers Green Author Stephen Cox has his second book out in paperback on 13 October. It’s also the tenth anniversary of committing to being a writer.
Our Child of the Stars and now Our Child of Two Worlds combine family drama in 1960s USA with new takes on a few classic SF ideas. A childless couple adopt an orphaned alien and try to keep him safe – against peril on Earth and in space.
Saturday 15 October, 7pm All Good Bookshop. 35 Turnpike Lane, Wood Green, London, N8 0EP. There’s some wine and snacks but do BYOB. Stephen will reading, doing Q+A and talking on Tigger or Eeyore? – ten years getting publishing. RSVP appreciated. BTW you can order from the bookshop and Stephen will sign and dedicate where asked
There is an online launch Monday 17th Oct at 7pm on Zoom – similar to above. All welcome but email firstname.lastname@example.org for Zoom link. Stephen does talks to groups.
ENFIELD TOWN SIGNING
If you just want to grab Stephen to sign a copy, Enfield Waterstones Church Street are planning a just-turn-up signing 12-2pm Sat 15th.
Our Child of the Stars was praised by the Guardian, Grazia, FT, the Mail and LA Times. (“…a wonderfully emotional, heart-warming journey of what it really means to be a parent” – LA Times).
The sequel, Our Child of Two Worlds has won similar praise. “Riveting, compelling, and emotionally charged: a page turner I loved” “watch and be dazzled”
Les Murray wrote a great poem about shorts, as in trousers, but I am talking about short stories.
Short stories provide a superb form for fiction, and I’ve written a good many. An intriguing story can be done in a few words – flash fiction is often more like poetry – or they can sprawl to 10000.
I believe an idea, or a set-up, has a natural best length. Your story seed might grow to be a rabbit hutch, a shed, a house, or a cathedral.
It is one reason why all the speculative genres are keen on the short form. You might feel 2-5000 words is enough to float the imaginative challenge.
One of my stories (Winged) postulated a society where a small number of people – apparently at random – grow wings in adolescence. The winged can fly, are stronger in various physical ways, and much more charismatic. This fast-tracks them into the elite of politics, the civil service, and media. The story combined the prompt ‘what if coming out immediately moved you into the elite’ with the human idea of ‘what happens to a school friendship when one friend receives a massive leg-up in life through chance’.
Some great ideas don’t need much development. Winged will never be a novel. I am perfectly capable of developing a credible working society around this, and of writing a novel about male friendship. I just didn’t feel I had to do this particular work, this particular way.
Conversely, when I wrote the short story that launched Cory into the world, it was obvious I was tilling fertile ground. Family. An outside eye on humanity. Loving difference. A kid in terrible danger. The issue was not – can this grow into a novel? It was, is it two novels or three?
With short stories you can try out ideas, and forms, and settings – try them as a writer and try them as a reader. You can finish the piece with the end of the world, the transcendence of humanity, or the Second Coming. You get in when you need to and leave before you outstay your welcome.
Short stories allow you to taste someone’s work. I’m unlikely to finish a novel with a truly terrible chapter but if a short story doesn’t work for you, you haven’t wasted a day.
I am intrigued by novellas. 20-40k allows substantial room for character, world, and plot development.
Coming soon a new story in the Coryverse (the world of Our Child of the Stars and Our Child of Two Worlds) and in due course a new taster story to the world of my Work in Progress.
I may share with you the real solution to the Princes in the Tower; a charming enigmatic elegy; a sweet superhero love story; a provocative post-apocalyptic tale; and the only story I have ever written inspired by a scientific research paper.
“A compelling story of love, family, and hope, Stephen Cox skilfully continues the story of Cory, the alien child who became the beloved son of Molly and Gene in Our Child of the Stars. Cory is torn between where he came from and his life on Earth. Heart-warmingly beautiful, Our Child of Two Worlds is not to be missed.”
Barbara Conrey, USA Today Bestselling author of Nowhere Near Goodbye
“Like the best SF, Our Child of Two Worlds is about us, at our best and worst, and how we respond to the best and the worst in others. Cory’s people are from a very different, almost Utopian seeming culture and – as in one of Swift’s novels – we’re judged by that comparison, Cory himself noting it even as his love for his adopted parents and his friends burns bright. Are we worth saving, if we seem willing to destroy ourselves anyway?
“Once again, Stephen Cox has created a novel that strikes at the heart of family. The novel, I think, can be seen as an examination of how complicated family interactions can be. How infuriating blood relatives are. How difficult marriage can be even when both people are on the same page, wanting the same things. How hard it is when what is best for your child most definitely isn’t best for you. Throw in some aliens and the threat of the extinction of the Earth and those themes are stretched to their limits.”
“Stephen Cox writes beautifully and fills his characters with warmth and self-questioning. I love the incidental characters who debate whether Cory is a hoax. There’s the drama surrounding Molly’s family. There are tensions that play out on an intimate scale against the massive context of aliens, space travel, the potential end of the world. It works brilliantly.”
(Edited to add: the film was pretty poor all round.)
A new Firestarter movie is the third screen adapation of Stephen King’s novel. I’m going to see it, because I have a weird affection for the book, and it was a curious influence on Our Child of the Stars.
I found out yesterday that SF critic Brian Aldiss agreed with me that Firestarter was a better book than Carrie, which is some support.
Some influences are chosen – for example I knew the arrival of the Meteor would resonate with Smallville, the Superman origin story yet of my creation. There’s also some unconscious Firestarter influence in that both it and my work use the ‘sweet child, terrible power’ trope and both have a family with a special child fleeing unaccountable government forces across the north-eastern US. The clever ending of King’s novel was also an influence on how my first book resolves.
Zack Efron will play Charlie’s Dad, Andy in the new film and if he wants to play Gene in the film of Our Child of the Stars, our people should talk.
I have a section on the cool new book website http://www.shepherd.com. It allows authors to share their books and promote them with five books by other people on a relevant theme. There are various other developing features – check it out. I feature Our Child of the Stars because if you like the first, you will buy the second, right?
Writers must be careful handing out great power, as it can wreck the sense of peril. In Our Child of the Stars, Cory is innocent, enormously kind, engaging, and lovable. He brings his new family into many dangers. One power is first used to save his parents, not understanding the terrible harm it will do. His empathy makes it horrific to use and he is frightened of it. It becomes an absolute last resort.
The list has five strong candidates, and one at least was a direct inspiration for my books. I think there are several newer books from more diverse backgrounds, and I am building a broader list. TV and film have some classics – Eleven in Stranger Things for example. I welcome examples that are
(ii) CHILDREN or naïve childlike teens
I have had so many suggestions where (i) BAD (ii) TEENAGERS with (iii) WELL KNOWN AND WIDELY AVAILABLE powers are suggested.