Covering Science Fiction and Fantasy

There's a new cover for SONG OF ALL SONGS!
There’s a new cover for Song of All Songs!

I know you’ve heard over and over that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. It’s a way of telling us not to judge people or situations on appearance. But with respect to actual books, people judge them by their covers every single day! The cover is how an author begins to tell their story, instantly setting up the reader to expect romance, thriller, cozy mystery, science fiction, fantasy, etc. The cover is a promise to the reader.
 
I reached the painful conclusion that the original cover for Song of All Songs promised too much “fantasy” and not enough “science fiction.” So I’ve changed it—commissioned a new cover that more faithfully promises what the story can fulfill.

Sometimes an author doesn’t fully understand what genre they’re writing until they’ve finished the story. This is especially problematic for anything within the category often termed “SFF”—science fiction/fantasy. When the author is an anthropologist, it gets even more fraught! 

In many nonwestern cultures, there is neither “science” nor “magic,” and neither of those terms is especially relevant to the cultures I write in my EarthCycles books. There’s only what is. What works. When you write a story set in such a world, what genre does it belong to? 

As I delved more deeply into the question of genres and sub-genres, I realized that all of my favorite books and writers can be encompassed within one (or both) of the sub-genres called “soft science fiction” or “science fantasy”—1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, almost everything Ursula LeGuin wrote, and my latest favorite—Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon. 

I’m hopeful that my new cover—and in fact the entire set of covers for the EarthCycles trilogy—will more faithfully communicate to readers what kind of story they can expect to find inside.

It’s not pure fantasy (as the original cover may have signaled), although it checks many of the boxes of what constitutes fantasy literature. The story’s setting in Earth’s far, far future is a critical departure from most fantasy tales, which tend to take place in the distant past. Most importantly—there’s no magic! There’s more than a touch of mysticism, but those who engage in it don’t call it magic. Of course…all of this depends on how you define magic

The story is also not classic science fiction—there are no spaceships or extraterrestrials, no super-duper technology. The story is firmly grounded on a post-apocalyptic planet Earth, where much of our familiar 21st-century technology has been lost. The fact that some of the operational principles aren’t what purists might classify as science makes no difference—within the context of the story, these things are facts of life. Reality. Not magic. The focus on social evolution and social relations places the story in the sub-genre of “soft science fiction,” so called because of its reliance on the “soft sciences” such as psychology, sociology, political science…and anthropology? Well, there’s another conundrum: Anthropology studies culture, society, political systems, language, religion, but also genetics and evolution and technology. You did know I have a PhD in anthropology, right?
 
I hope you love the new covers as much as I do. If you want a sneak peek at the cover for book two—Book of All Time—click HERE. It’s coming in August! 
 
And just in case you haven’t read Song of All Songs yet (what are you waiting for??) watch Goodreads for a special giveaway, going on the entire month of June!

How I Got Here

Today I was looking at this newest piece of fiction I’ve written and I asked myself, “Where did that even come from? How did I get to a place where I would think such a story into existence?” And then I remembered this poem that I wrote back in 2003.

When I look back
And try to see how I’ve come
To where I am today
I recognize a few landmarks
But there is
No path.

I have slipped through the forest
Sans machete
With only
Glimpses of the mountaintop
The slant of the sun
The moon between the branches
For guidance.

I have crossed a few paths
Maybe walked at the edges
Of some fairly well-trodden roads
From time to time.
But it is impossible to tell
Where I’ve come from or
How I’ve gotten here from
Wherever I began.
There is
No path.   (4/18/03)

Get your signed copy of Song of All Songs from Malvern Books and join my book launch on Friday, August 28!

Also available on Kindle!

A Moment of Magic

Once in a great while, life offers up moments of unforgettable magic. Facebook gave me this image today and in doing so gave me back a moment of magic from 2010.

The photo looks down from the slopes of Gangri Thökar, on a path leading up to Shugseb Ani Gompa in central Tibet. I was on a pilgrimage with Dechen Yeshe Wangmo and we’d arrived later than we planned at the base of the mountain. A number of our group opted to engage in brief prayers and then head back into Lhasa for a hot supper and welcome rest. The rest of us headed up the mountainside.

This was one of the pilgrimage sites that had strong personal significance for me. My teacher in Nepal, Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche, had been a student of an important abbess at Shugseb, the yogini Jetsunma Chönyi Zangmo (1852–1953).

It was late in the day as I made my way up the mountainside, and I soon lagged behind the younger and fitter members of our group, whose destination was a cave near the mountain’s summit associated with one of Tibet’s most revered scholars, Longchen Rabjam. We’d been told that the cave was currently occupied by Dudjom Yangsi, recognized as the reincarnation of another important figure in my teacher’s lineage.

Breathless as the mountain air thinned, I eventually gave up trying to keep my group in view. I stopped to rest and when I looked over my shoulder, the luminous valley took my breath away. I snapped a photo.

I finally reached the nunnery and began wandering among its buildings, unsure what to do next. The rest of my group were long gone, and I knew that this was as far up the mountain as I would go. I found a small structure that housed a huge prayer wheel and I went inside, circling the wheel as I turned it, chanting the guru mantra.

Soon I realized I was not alone. An elderly nun had entered. I greeted her in Tibetan and she smiled warmly and gestured for me to sit with her on one of the benches alongside the prayer wheel. Communicating in a patchwork of simple Tibetan and simple English augmented by a lot of gestures, I think I finally succeeded in telling her that my teacher had once studied here under the Shugseb Jetsunma (whose full name I didn’t even know at the time). She told me that she was called Ani Dawa. “Dawa” is Tibetan for “moon.” She offered me tea and tsampa, which I gladly accepted. We sat together for a while longer.

I had no idea when my friends from the mountaintop would be coming down, nor where I might encounter them. Maybe they’d already passed back through! I decided to take my leave and go back down the mountain alone.

It was dark by this time and I had no flashlight. But there was a full moon. So I was accompanied down the mountain by my friend dawa as I continued chanting the guru mantra.

When Facebook offered me this memory today, I felt the need to experience the magic again, to let myself remember this special moment in my life’s journey. As a scientist, I often shy away from magic, unwilling let it just be what it is without asking all the hard questions. I’m trying to tell myself to stop being that way. Sometimes it’s okay to let the circumstantial confluence of symbols and circumstance move me. Sometimes it’s okay to call it magic.

I also did a little more research online and discovered a new biography of Jetsunma Chönyi Zangmo, whose early associations with Nepal surprised me. I learned that her birth name was Chonga Lhamo (co lnga lha mo), which translates as “Goddess of the Fifteenth.” The biographer speculated that her name had something to do with the fifteenth day of the Tibetan calendar. It’s a lunar calendar, and the fifteenth is the full moon day.

First Pre-Publication Review!

I arrived home after three wonderful weeks in Bali to find this pre-publication review of my upcoming novel! Thank you, Claire Villarreal!

Not Knowing weaves past and present, dream and waking life together for a ride you won’t want to end–and once you finish it, you might still be finding yourself absorbed in the characters and their growth. Meg Fitzellen, anthropologist and rationalist, confronts a recent trauma during an archeological dig in Belize only to uncover deeper and darker secrets from her more distant past. Uncanny dreams, occasional flashbacks, and some old-fashioned fortune telling compel her at last to face the emotional fallout of events she’s long buried in a hidden drawer of her mind. Once all the secrets are out, Meg finds liberation not just from emotional baggage but also from an overly materialistic worldview that kept her from living in the magic of reality.

Donna Birdwell has a talent for evocative prose, lush settings, and dark secrets her characters must face as they grow into themselves, as well as moments of soaring ecstasy. Grab some coffee, put aside a weekend, and treat yourself to this expedition into a magical vision of reality.

Pre-order the Kindle version of Not Knowing now, or get the paperback at my official launch event at Malvern Books on July 20!

Writers & Anthropologists

“Writers are even worse than anthropologists when it comes to taking notes on human behavior,” Meg thinks, as she watches Seth surreptitiously photographing people and making notes on his phone as they travel on an overcrowded bus from Belmopan to Belize City.

I am both a writer and an anthropologist, and creating characters I’d like to know in real life is one of the great pleasures of writing. I love my characters in my new book, NOT KNOWING. Yes, even the difficult ones.

Meg Fitzellen is a troubled but dedicated archaeologist, firmly committed to science but pursued by things she can’t explain. Magic? Surely not! Her husband, Seth, is a science fiction writer, wrestling with questions of time as his own fictional characters, the Timecrypters, shuttle from past to future and back again. Meg’s best friend Indra is a mycologist whose dissertation research focused on the psilocybin mushroom. And then there’s Pacál, the troublesome undergraduate who is the son of famous archaeologists and who may know more about Meg’s past than she would like to believe. There are also two parrots that really ought to be included in the cast of characters…

You can meet all of these and a few more when NOT KNOWING is released on July 20. Pre-order the Kindle version now, or come get a copy of the paperback at my release party at Malvern Books!

Flow

I woke up this morning thinking about flow, about how awareness of flow, synchronization with flow, has been so important to life on our planet. Flow is profoundly present in cultures like the Balinese – the flow of water, the flow of light-energy (east/west), the flow of winds, the lunar flow of tides. We are water beings, light beings, wind beings. How have we in the modern West become so immured to flow?

So many sacred places around the world have to do with water (sacred springs, streams, rivers), or with the energy of celestial movement, with high places and low, with crossroads and confluence. The Balinese are deeply sensitive to their orientation within the flows in their world. Everything is kaja (toward Mount Agung – the active volcano that is the highest point on the island) or kelod (away from Agung) and concurrently kangin (east) or kauh (west). I want to know how it would feel to be like that, to be satisfied that I know where I am without Siri or Google Maps. To know which way is up, how the water and earth and heavens move (and me in it) and for that to be enough. Instead I often feel like a fish trapped in an overcrowded and stagnant pond, waiting to be fed.

Like Meg in my novel, I am sometimes troubled by what people call “magic.” This isn’t magic. It’s just flow. It’s real. It’s possible. It’s everywhere.