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[GUEST POST] Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, Authors of ILLUMINAE, on Ordinary Heroes

amiekaufmanAmie Kaufman is a New York Times bestselling author of young adult fiction. Her work has been published in fifteen countries, won the Aurealis Award for Best YA Novel, been named the Huffington Post’s best YA novel of the year, shortlisted for the Gold Inky Award and is in development for TV. Her first series, co-authored with Meagan Spooner, began with These Broken Stars, and her new series, co-authored with Jay Kristoff, will start this October with Illuminae. Raised in Australia and Ireland, Amie has degrees in history, literature, law and conflict resolution. She lives in Melbourne with her husband, their rescue dog, and an extremely large personal library.

jaykristoffJay Kristoff is a tragic nerd, but has spent the last ten years dumping expeez into his Intimidation stat, with the result that nobody is brave enough to say it to his face. He grew up in the second most isolated capital city on earth and fled at his earliest convenience, although he’s been known to trek back for weddings of the particularly nice and funerals of the particularly wealthy. He spent most of his formative years locked in his bedroom with piles of books, or gathered around dimly-lit tables rolling polyhedral dice. Being the holder of an Arts degree, he has no education to speak of.

His first trilogy, THE LOTUS WAR, is set to be published in over a dozen countries. The first installment, STORMDANCER, was critically acclaimed in Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, shortlisted for the Aurealis Award, and nominated for the David Gemmell Morningstar and Legend awards. The Lotus War novella THE LAST STORMDANCER won the 2014 Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Short Fiction. Jay’s new series, the SciFi thriller ILLUMINAE, which he co-authored with Amie Kaufman, is due for publication by Random House in October 2015. A new fantasy series, THE NEVERNIGHT CHRONICLE, commences with book 1, NEVERNIGHT, from St Martins Press/Thomas Dunne Books in 2016. He is as surprised about all this as you are. He is represented by Matt Bialer and Lindsay Ribar at Sanford J Greenburger Associates.

Jay is 6’7 and has approximately 13380 days to live. He abides in Melbourne with his secret agent kung-fu assassin wife, and the world’s laziest Jack Russell.

He does not believe in happy endings.

Ordinary Heroes

by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman

A character’s moral compass in a fantasy/sci-fi novel tends to determine their fate. Talk about plotting your character’s moral landscape and how it impacted their choices in the story.

We’re fascinated by the idea that characters in stories should get what they deserve. It’s important that by the time all’s said and done, in the joking words of Oscar Wilde, we can say that “the good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”

Except it’s not always what happens, in life or in fiction. Although it’s a neat idea—that ultimately we and our characters should be rewarded for the types of people we are, and the types of choices we make—the reality is usually messier. We don’t always get what we deserve, and we don’t always have a clear moral compass—but the latter, at least, can evolve over the course of a story’s arc.

Illuminae is a story about ordinary people, and ordinary teenagers in particular, caught up in a fight for their lives. They don’t volunteer to fight for the cause, let alone die for it. Their planet’s invaded, and as they flee the scene in limping refugee ships, they’re forced to keep on with the fight because the other side has big guns, and isn’t done chasing them yet. When we meet our protagonists—Kady and Ezra, both seventeen at the start of the book—they’re not fighting for any kind of justice. They’re scared teenagers who’d really like to stay alive. Their choices aren’t based on anything more than what might keep them breathing a little longer.

As the story unfolds, though, their view starts to broaden. They start to realize the scale of this thing that’s happening all around them—happening to them. They’ve witnessed the illegal use of bioweapons. They’ve witnessed the murder of thousands of citizens of their home planet. And if they don’t find a way to tell the universe what happened, they’ll simply vanish with a whimper, fading into the black. And then it will happen again, to others. As the story unfolds, new questions emerge: what are they willing to do, or to lose, to make sure the truth is told? What are they willing to sacrifice of themselves, to save those they love?

There’s no point beating around the bush: a lot of characters die in Illuminae. Some of them definitely don’t “deserve’ it—they’ve tried to do the right thing, or at least they’ve done nothing blameworthy. Some run screaming from death, some walk toward it with their eyes wide open, and a lucky few escape it entirely. What all of them have in common is that they’re caught up in a fight they didn’t start, but it’s a fight that doesn’t care whether they volunteered or not. And once they’re in that fight, there are choices to be made. We move from Oscar Wilde’s joke to the words of James Goldman, in the movie The Lion in Winter:

Geoffrey: “You chivalric fool. As if the way one fell down mattered.”

Richard: “When the fall is all there is, it matters.”

And so Kady and Ezra, and many others around them, have to decide how to fall down. One of the goals we had while writing was to ensure that Kady in particular, who carries the bulk of the action, didn’t become an overnight superhero. She starts out as a talented young hacker, and becomes more so after months of training. She starts out short and unathletic, and she doesn’t become a ninja after a handy training montage. She’s a nerd on a mission—when she can, she uses her wits. When she’s forced to run, jump and climb through a dying spaceship in a biosuit waaaay too big for her, she does it without much grace at all. But she gets it done.

The evolution of her moral compass was one of the most challenging and enjoyable parts of writing Illuminae. Kady begins the story as a high school student who isn’t without an ethical framework, but has never been required to exercise it strongly. That changes very quickly, and in a book where narrative and format are married together, we had the opportunity to examine what she does and what she chooses from multiple angles. The book is a dossier, compiled of emails, IMs, schematics, military files, security reports and more, and a large part of it is narrated by the ship’s artificial intelligence, AIDAN. And the place where AIDAN’s morality intersects with Kady’s is perhaps the most interesting junction in the book.

AIDAN’s mission is to protect the fleet, and it will pursue that mission at any cost. To it, actions are not right or wrong, and do not have a moral or ethical weight attached. They simply bring it closer to achieving its goals, or they thwart it. AIDAN is sometimes bewildered by Kady’s actions, or understands them and dismisses them for lack of efficiency. And just once or twice, AIDAN tries to catch an impossible glimpse of how it might feel, to have a compass in which morality, rather than efficacy, is true north.

AIDAN is a study in doing the wrong things for what are arguably the right reasons, and one of the most satisfying pieces of feedback we hear from readers is that just as they’re cheering some triumph of the computer’s, they remember something abhorrent it did just a short time earlier, and catch themselves, confused.

Because that’s the thing about life, and fiction. It’s often confusing, rarely clear. The right thing isn’t always rewarded, and sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s right at all. Sometimes, “right” depends on who you’re asking. We’re looking forward to exploring this question through the rest of the series, and if you read Illuminae, we hope you’ll enjoy chasing an answer with us.

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