On Google Street View, and maps, and why they matter

Some of my favorite books in all the world have, in their frontmatter, a map of the places described in the text. I hold out hope that maybe one day mine might do the same; it is a peculiar kind of intimacy, a visual understanding between author and reader — now you have this place in your head, as it is in mine, we share an awareness of place and landscape, of objects in space. Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy, Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch, Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings — all of them preface the story with the setting.

Maps have a lot of psychological resonance: they represent a way for humans to describe their surroundings and, in doing so, to claim some kind of ownership and sovereignty. The arc of modern history can be seen in the successive changes in our maps of the world, through the movement of borders and the names that come and go. An alien civilization could piece together a very great deal about humanity by simply going through our maps.

I have said that I could not write the things I write without the enormous felicity of being able to see the places I am using to tell my story, without having to physically travel there. Google Maps allowed me to work out where my characters would be going and what routes they would take; Google Street View made it possible for me to see what they would be seeing on the way. With GSV I could see into the British Museum and the Palais Garnier in enormous depth and detail, all from the comfort of home. I didn’t even have to put on pants, let alone shell out huge sums for plane tickets and request access to parts of buildings that aren’t open to the public. When research is this easy and accessible, it seems irresponsible not to do it.

The number of hours I spent clicking my way through London and Paris and New York for the Greta series was not recorded, but it’s a lot, and perhaps a third of the information I racked up ever made it into the books themselves. There was one memorable sequence wherein I had to do a bunch of research to track down the actual location of a house I’d seen on an image search and find it on GSV, along with ancient gelatin-silver photographs of the interior from the Museum of the City of New York, which took most of an afternoon. Cross-referencing surface images of Paris with the old maps of the catacombs in order to find a plausible location for Corvin’s lair near enough to the Palais Garnier required some effort (and a lot of layering maps on top of one another via Photoshop). There is a whole chunk of text that never made it into Strange Practice explaining Stephen Halethorpe’s route through London’s sewers from Crouch End south toward the deep-level shelter, which was exhaustively researched via a) online “draining” forums for sewer exploration enthusiasts and b) a 1930s-era London Council map of the sewer system. I’m still proud of that one, even if it was very definitely Too Much Information.

After Strange Practice and Dreadful Company were finished, I went through and marked all the significant locations on two maps, one for each book, and because I want to give readers that shared sense of place and setting I have now uploaded these to my Administrative Ephemera page. I hope they give people as much pleasure as they gave me in the making. For Grave Importance — well, the map is rather larger and less precise, but I may do it anyway, because it is fun. And because it does, in fact, matter.

site housekeeping

The navigation bar was getting a little ridiculous, so I tidied it up and moved the various non-authorial sections into a new page, Art & Design. You can now access Varney recaps, art books that need to happen, logos for imaginary organizations, and photos all in one handy features section.

Coming soon: freelance editing services! Yes, I, that person, who has a goddamn fountain pen devoted to red ink and who carries a red sharpie at all times, can comb through your manuscript (and offer a variety of types of service including line edits, structural edits, proofreading, and formatting). You give me cash money, I edit you manuscript, at reasonable rates plus an introductory discount.

Also, if you liked the stuff I published this year, you can nominate me for the Campbell Award for Best New Author, and for Nebula and/or Hugo Awards for “The Utmost Bound” and DREADFUL COMPANY!

SO IT'S AWARDS SEASON (AND MY LAST YEAR OF CAMPBELL ELIGIBILITY)...

I’ve been writing books since I was eleven or so, but the first thing I ever had professionally published in my life was STRANGE PRACTICE, Greta Helsing 1, back in 2017. Which means I’m still eligible for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer this year, along with the Hugos and Nebulas.

2018 has been a dumpster fire of a year in terms of politics but not too shabby for me in terms of publication; my first-ever short story, “The Utmost Bound,” came out in Uncanny issue 20 and Greta Helsing 2, DREADFUL COMPANY, dropped at the end of July. I’m enormously proud of both of them, for quite different reasons.

“The Utmost Bound” is a story I’ve been wanting to write ever since I got a good look at the Soviet Venera images (Don P. Mitchell’s website has all the information you could want; see also the stitched-together and colored versions of Venera-13 and -14’s images, giving you a horribly ordinary view of a landscape that is effectively hell). It’s also a story I’ve been wanting to write ever since I read M.P. Shiel’s “The Dark Lot of One Saul,” a tale that impressed much-younger me with its enormous crushing inevitability, the narrator’s awareness that they were trapped by vast and implacable natural forces, that escape was utterly impossible, that it was only a matter of time — and, also, of course, a story I’ve been wanting to write ever since I read Sturgeon’s “The Man who Lost the Sea.” That narrator’s dying cry and the imagined last words of my own doomed cosmonaut are vastly disparate, but there is an echo there which I so very much enjoyed exploring.

It was also an opportunity to write the kind of hard SF I particularly love to read, given how many times I’ve read and re-read Carrying the Fire and Liftoff and Last Man on the Moon and Apollo 13; I’m the kind of space nerd who was utterly gleeful at getting to include a reference to the CUVMS described by Michael Collins as “the official NASA-approved procedure for going potty in space.” I just really love the history of spaceflight, and getting to play with that and horror at the same time was a plain and simple joy.

I Here’s the opening of the story:

… and this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
—Tennyson

The check-in chime in his headset: on time, annoyingly on time, as usual, waking him as they came around the curve of Venus. “Aphrodite-1, this is Honolulu, do you read?”

Faint washes of static through the words, three months of interplanetary travel and a scant handful of minutes away by radio wave. Again: “Aphrodite-1, Honolulu, do you read? Over.”

“Hi, Hawaii,” said McBride, pushing the headset mike a little further from his mouth. He was used to the delay by now, the measured pauses in conversation while the signal made its way across twenty-five million miles of nothingness. At first it had been disconcerting; now he barely even noticed. “Weather okay down there?”

“Just dandy, since you ask, Commander, but it’s time for the morning report. How’s Little Buddy doing?”

McBride yawned and keyed up the monitors, one by one, waking them into life: you didn’t waste juice out here on instruments you weren’t actually using. The cabin lights dimmed slightly as the displays came on line. “Little Buddy’s reet and complete at last report,” he said, scanning the data, and typed in the downlink command to send Honolulu everything the rover had been up to since the previous infodump transmission. “There you go. Still trundling west over Lakshmi Planum as we speak. Temperature’s—let’s see—still holding at 469 C, pressure 93, no significant changes in atmospheric makeup. Yellow sky. Ugly as shit.”

Honolulu laughed, a tinny little sound, rasping with distance. “Keep your personal aesthetic impressions out of the record, Commander. Okay. We want you to go north today—there’s a couple of anomalies we’d like to get a closer look at. Stand by for transmission of coordinates.”

You can read the whole story here.

The second thing of mine that came out in 2018, DREADFUL COMPANY, was definitely the hardest of the Helsing trilogy to write, and that’s why I’m particularly proud of it: there was a lot of work and despair and horror and excitement and moments of inspiration that went into book two, and what it ended up being is something I am pleased with. The fact that it was so damn hard to write makes the achievement slightly more of a thing, in my mind, than it would have been had it come out smoothly in one go. I got to explore stories and locations I haven’t played with in twenty years: I spent two weeks in Paris at 18 on the student-exchange AP French trip and by the end of that time I was dreaming in French, which was both bizarre and exciting, and I fell desperately in love with the city itself. It was very satisfying to get to revisit the Palais Garnier via Google Street View, a thing 18-year-old me could not possibly have imagined.

You can read the first three chapters of DREADFUL COMPANY on the Orbit website — there are also links to the hard copy, audiobook, and ebook from various retailers.

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If you like my stuff, you can nominate me for the Campbell Award for Best New Author, and for Nebula and/or Hugo Awards for “The Utmost Bound” and DREADFUL COMPANY.

Thanks as always for reading, and for your consideration!

"Van Horne! Pneumatic transit! I can't believe it's still here!", or In the NYC City Hall Subway Station At Long Last

So I’ve always loved the underground, even as a child: going down into the dark places in the earth and coming out again a slightly different person felt natural, felt correct. I loved mines and I loved subways and tunnels dug underneath water — and I have also always loved the abandoned. If I had any guts at all, and the potential consequences were not so dire, I would absolutely be urbexing all over the damn place; as it is I have to look longingly at derelict and fascinating structures and wonder what’s inside.

There are some places underground that are well-known to people like me as a kind of prize achievement, something longed-for, a wonderful addition to a collection. The deep-level shelters under certain London Underground stations, for example: I still hold out hope that just maybe I’ll be able to see inside one myself, after having spent so long writing about horrors hiding in those tunnels and shafts. It’s much, much easier to visit the Paris catacombs, and that I plan to do when I eventually make enough money and time to go back to France for a holiday. But the crown jewel of underground exploration in New York is the old City Hall subway station, and today I got to go down there and omg omg omg.

You can look up the history of City Hall at the New York Museum of Transit; ground was broken in 1900 and the city’s first subway train departed City Hall station in 1904. It was closed at the end of 1945 for several reasons, one of them being that the longer trains of the latter day had trouble navigating the tight radius of the City Hall loop. It’s still used as a turnaround for the 6, and while we were there several trains squealed and shrieked their way around the curve — some of them containing passengers staring in awe, or possibly just surprise.

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The tour we took is arranged through the museum, and you have to sign up several months in advance and cross your fingers you got there before the list was full. It was fantastic. I’ve been on countless guided tours of various stately homes or ancient fortresses and this was one of the best I can remember; our guide was not only incredibly informative but also wry and funny and engaging, and obviously loved her job.

She told us all about the first underground attempt at people-moving, Alfred Beach’s Pneumatic Transit, which never got anywhere beyond a demonstration tunnel with a car shuttling back and forth — I’ve researched it myself, to some considerable extent, because I’ve been fascinated with the Beach project ever since I first encountered it in Ghostbusters II. Remember the abandoned Van Horne station Ray finds under the street, the one containing a river of shimmery pink psychomagnetheric slime? That’s a conflation of the Beach Pneumatic Transit and City Hall station, and the Ghostbusters fan in me as well as the underground history enthusiast was internally jumping up and down and yelling in glee.

I’ve put a few photos up of the station and the wonderful undulating arches of the City Hall entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge station, which is where we emerged. I fell in love with the city pretty much the first night I spent in it with my future wife, and I keep falling. Every time I come here it’s like being accepted into a huge, vast, incredibly complex living thing, a corpuscle in some unknowable circulatory system, and the more I see of it the more I love it. Visiting this station was an enormous gift, and I’m so grateful — and also still so goddamn stoked I GOT TO SEE THE GHOSTBUSTERS STATION AAAAH.

Nobody ever accused me of dignity, after all.

Unrelated to Varney the Vampire: Research Boner Time, Aviation Edition

So one of the things I love to do most in all the world, other than lie around reading books, is doing research for stuff I’m interested in. Right now I’m writing a novella about practical necromancy and air crash investigation, and therefore there is a lot of research being done at the moment.

And despite the ongoing dumpster fire that is reality — look around, look around, to see how lucky we are to be alive right now in a world where you can access practically any damn thing on the internet, at once, without even having to get up and go anywhere, or even put on pants. For example, I needed to know what route a fictional flight from Reagan National to Eppley Field in Omaha would take, and at first I started out going “welp, let’s find the navigational waypoints and imagine what route might be the most sensible between them,” before finding the most wonderful site I’ve encountered in ages, called iFlightPlanner. Which does what it says on the tin.

It shows you all the charts for the United States. There are a lot, and you have to look up how to read them, but that’s not difficult: the FAA has kindly provided a guide. The charts and the custom flight plan showed me all sorts of things I needed to know, such as roughly how long it would take from the point where the flight was handed off from one air traffic control center to its scheduled landing. If I’d needed to include the actual ATC transcript of the handoff I could have done that too, because there are lots of places around the internet where people ask questions about this and have answers provided. In this case it was reddit, but there are others.

And this is only one aspect of one project. The internet is an absolute treasure trove of information, readily available in incredibly useful ways (for the most part). When I was writing STRANGE PRACTICE and DREADFUL COMPANY, I used Google Street View heavily to give myself an accurate picture of what routes people would take to get from here to there, what landmarks they would encounter, what views they would see — because I can’t personally nip over to London or Paris for a fact-finding mission, lacking Ruthven’s cash flow. I could have worked out the routes with an ordinary map, but I wouldn’t have known what my characters would see on the way, and therefore wouldn’t be able to describe it, and I won’t write something I’m not pretty sure I can get right.

Which, of course, makes me That Person regarding other people’s research habits. It drives me nuts when people don’t bother to do any, and it almost drives me more nuts when the person has done a little bit of research but either completely misunderstood what they’ve read or failed to read any further, thus setting themselves up for great big glaring factual errors. The metric for this type of fail is the Dan Brown Scale of Did Not Do the Research, upon which Brown himself scores an eleven.

My point is that the internet is an enormous resource for writers — and because it’s such a vast repository of information and it is generally so easy to access, there is no excuse for not doing your due diligence. Back in the Cretaceous we had to rely on interlibrary loan and long hours in uncomfortable library carrels cramming information into our eyeballs: these days you can get very nearly anything you damn well please delivered directly.

Go forth and learn cool things!

(If you’re interested, here’s the flight plan and a closeup of the chart to give you an idea of what they look like. Ignore the groundspeed; I just needed to know the route.)

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