Here is my interview with Tobias S. Buckell. After reading three of his novels I think it’s about time. We went off on some interesting tangents, so I hope you enjoy. Here you go:Thanks for doing this interview with me. First, tell us a little about yourself: who you are, where you came from, and why you started writing (for fun and then seriously).
I’m Tobias S. Buckell. I was born on Grenada in 1979, moved to the US and British Virgin Islands when I was about 9, and moved to the US when I was 16. I really got writing when I was in high school, right around when reading novels in class stops being cute and starts being something you get in trouble for. I started writing them instead of taking notes. I started submitting short stories when I was 15. I sold my first professional short story to the magazine Science Fiction Age when I was 19.
Speaking of publishing and writing seriously, can you talk a bit about your first experiences with submitting and rejections? Did you take rejection well or was it something you had to grow used to?
I submitted my first short story to the Writers of the Future contest when I was about 15. When the story came back rejected I was surprised I’d been rejected, I had thought the story rocked and was miles better than anything I’d ever written before: it was actually a fully completed piece! So I wrote another story and sent it in. And that came back as well.
What happened was that I got determined to succeed the more I got told ‘no.’ It wasn’t that I took it well; it was that I hardened and resolved to keep at it. Four years later, as a sophomore in college, I sat down and hardened my resolve even further. While reading some self improvement books I was struck by the idea of focusing on goals that you could achieve. I couldn’t snap my fingers and be published. But I could focus on the building blocks leading up to it. So I resolved to get 100+ rejections a year, which meant I had to submit a certain number of stories a month, and write a certain number of stories a month (2-3, it turned out).
Once I passed 100 rejections I stopped paying attention to them. They were just notches toward a goal.
Sly Mongoose, your newest novel, is, on the surface, about zombies in space, but looking beyond the coolness of that very idea, it is a novel that shows governments making poor and, perhaps, evil decisions out of fear and sacrificing innocent lives to achieve a goal. It also challenges your characters–and even your readers–by bringing back old enemies, but presenting them in a different light, a light which examines the complexities of your invented future in which humanity still isn’t invincible. Why do you think that we find these things–governments making mistakes, fallen enemies becoming loose allies, etc.–not only fascinating, but entertaining (looking both from the eyes of a reader and a writer)?
Well, even benign decisions by governments have incredible consequences, so I certainly enjoy showing that off. The fallen enemies thing, I think you’re referring to the ‘Azteca’, is my attempt to show a slow evolution of the civilization there. The religion and government are almost treated like a character over a 3 book arc. They go from sacrificing people to living gods, to deciding that maybe gods aren’t visible but something more hazy and distant, and maybe agrarian offerings are better.
This is something that really took me by surprise actually. I remember
absolutely hating the Azteca in Crystal Rain, but in Sly Mongoose you made me forget that at one point they were doing mass human sacrifices to appease their “gods”. This will sound strange, considering what it actually means to be human, but you made them “feel” more human. And that’s something I think is really present within your work: this discussion of humanity. Your human cultures and human characters are all so diverse, each saying something about what it is to be human. What about the definition of what it is to be human do you think so occupies us as a species and how would you say your novels deal with issues of human-ness?
Well, I love humanity and all its complications and quirks. I always hope that some of that comes through. Even when we’re in our darkest hours, there are always these amazing stories that come through. So I am trying to show the complexities and evolution of a society with the Azteca as they continuously adapt to externalities and to moderate forces from within. The Tolteca who migrate to Capitol City in Crystal Rain embody that, and their vision is the one that is blossoming as times goes by in these books, though in Sly there is some penance almost being done, though that societal penance, which makes sense if you have read all 3 books, is completely unfair to the individual, Timas, who didn’t do those things in the past.
One of the enemies in your novels are the Satraps. At first they come off as being on the bad side of things, but, as with many of your “bad guys,” they move into that gray area of things, with motivations that make sense, but that still makes our skin crawl. Can you talk a little about your bad guys? Do you feel that you developed them to act as opposing forces to your heroes or in conjunction with you heroes, or did they “come of age” on their own?
The Satraps in this novel are lifted entirely from my reading Rudyard Kipling. They believe in Kipling’s ‘White Man’s Burden,’ a rationalization that once the colonizing nation had invaded and taken over another nation’s resources (both geographical and human), that they would justify it by saying it was a paternal need: the invaded civilization was childlike and needed this other nation to do all that and be steward.
When India was granted independence its one-ship Navy was laughed at by the British and it was theorized that the country would never stand on its own. Now India has a large Navy, is a world player, and a lot of people’s jobs are over there. The Kipling follower then points to a given country in Africa that failed as a way of showing that national paternalism should be continued. But the thing is, you can’t predict who’ll fail and who’ll succeed. That’s the whole thorny issue about self determination that sucks: people self determine wrong things.
In my books the Satraps have taken humanity and added it to their collection of races that they guide and patronize. Humanity is not allowed to determine certain technologies for its own good. It’s kept in check. And the Satraps point out that if humans are given freedom they’ll fight and many of them will screw it up.
And in Sly Mongoose, that is exactly what is happening. Some humans have a pretty rocking society set up (New Anegada, the Aeolian Cities) and others don’t and are making horrible choices. But they’re free to make their choices.
Would you say, then, that both sides of colonialism are fundamentally flawed? Perhaps the colonizer’s presence is sometimes necessary, but that the colonizer rarely approaches the situation in a time of necessity; and the colonized might demand freedom, and rightly, when perhaps complete freedom results in instability? Your Humans and Satraps, for example, are fighting against one another for control, one relying on its “genetic” need to be in control of its own destiny and the other relying on controlling another’s destiny to produce stability, which humans, unfortunately, seem to lack–the Satraps, of course, do have logical reasons for their need to control. In the end, though, your Satraps (or at least one of them) and one segment of humanity are perhaps forced to realized their own faults in order to work together for a common goal. (I hope this one makes sense; that’s a doozy to put together.)
I just cannot wrap my head around a situation where a colonizer’s presence is necessary. I don’t see it historically. Do you have examples in mind?
Actually, I can’t, although I imagine there has to be an example out there somewhere. The problem with colonizing, from my perspective, is not just that the colonizer never should have been there, but that after having been there and establishing “order”–which is usually a positive sort of order for the colonizer, and a negative one for the colonized, a lot of the time due to racial differences and almost always because of cultural differences where European cultures clash with indigenous cultures due to the European’s inability to accept differences often as a result of stern religious beliefs–their presence becomes “necessary”, in the most negative way possible, in order to maintain that order. We’ve seen too many examples where the colonizer left the colonized on their own, and shortly after chaos ran its course. The same happens with forced installments of democracy, where nations that have never had that sort of “order” before are suddenly struck with conflicting views on how things should go, some wanting to return to traditional values of government–using “government” loosely here–some wanting to maintain the democracy that was initially installed, and others wanting to take control for themselves, which seems to quite often be dictatorial in nature. True, the colonizer should never have been there, but once the colonizer is there, it’s almost impossible to restore the colonized to their original state, which was likely much more stable than the state they will be left in when the colonizer skips town. True, there are probably a few instances in which the colonizer left and all was well, or eventually became well, but even Australia has its issues and only until recently was willing to acknowledge publicly–its government, I mean–that it was wrong in its treatment of the aboriginals, which seems a major disservice to a people that considers themselves to be a rather forward thinking nation to begin with. Of course, I suppose you could say that Australia never became a nation ruled by the colonized. So, when I think of the flaws of colonialism, I think about what happens to the colony after the colonizer leaves, and how that influences and affects what happens in the immediate and far future. I don’t believe that the colonizer is actually necessary in the sense that the colonized must have them there or else they’ll never be taken seriously. I think one of the worst things that the colonizer can do–aside from raping the land of the colonized and its people–is to leave without having a slow transitional period. The abruptness of picking up shop and moving elsewhere is traumatic for a nation now left with mixed feelings, mixed messages, and mixed understandings of government, especially considering all the types of manipulation enacted by the colonized during their reign. The problem is I didn’t mean any of this in my original question, but was relating it to Sly Mongoose where the Satraps had taken control of Mankind, or colonized them if you will, for a very real and logical purpose because of what they knew was going on elsewhere in the universe. True, their understanding of the situation led them to commit wrongs, to violate a species’ right to govern itself, and there certainly were other ways they could have gone about it, but they chose the path that seemed the most logical and the humans just didn’t like that—
Ah, yes, but if you look at the book, it’s what the Satraps are *giving* as the reason, and it’s only from their POV. In other words, they’re justifying something with reasons that we’re not given an objective POV on. In fact the Satraps aren’t even sure what side they’re on; they’re as out to lunch as anyone else. But I do gray things a lot, by mentioning even worse Satraps exist in the universe and so on.
—perhaps a little more research on Earth’s own history with colonization could have given them the information they needed to avoid their own near-extinction. But, after having beaten the Satraps, broken their rule and restored order to themselves, mankind is now faced with a decision of its own on what to do about a threat that is worse than the Satraps. Without the Satraps, mankind will likely never be able to effectively govern itself because it doesn’t have the knowledge or understanding on how to operate the technologies provided by the colonizer, so in a way the Satraps become necessary, for entirely different purposes. Pepper and his pals don’t like it–and what human would?–but a decision had to be made that went beyond history.
Yeah, that makes sense. Hard choices have to be made. But the Satraps also decided to deny these things to humans, destroying things as they realized they were failing to remain on top. They could have chosen instead to enable and assist, but their own dogma prevents it.
All interesting stuff. The part of the problem is that I’m making some of this up, so it doesn’t map 1 to 1 on past colonial situations, although if you read the history of Haiti becoming independent and its interactions with France and the US you’ll see where I get a lot of my material.
Let’s switch modes a little and talk about religion in your work. In Crystal Rain you had the Azteca, who were basically the Aztecs, minus the “a”, human sacrifice and all. They reappear in Sly Mongoose, but in a far different position than they were before, since their “gods” had been exposed as frauds in Crystal Rain. Would you mind talking about religion in your work and how it might have shaped your world and your characters? What makes religion such a compelling theme or subject, both in your work and fiction in general (in your opinion of course)?
Religion is a big part of the human experience. One of the ways in which SF/F is valuable is that by saying ‘what if’ we can duck some of the baggage someone has about a certain issue by letting them slip into a story. For me in Crystal Rain there were two things I was trying to wrap my head around.
The first was that as a young kid you’re learning history, and the teacher mentions that the Mexica practiced human sacrifice… and then moves on. As a kid I was like ‘woah, woah, hold on a sec, they did what?’ But all my attempts to get people to explain to me the reasoning behind it, in a way that made sense, failed. Until I was reading some old translations and came across a conversation where one Mexica explains to a Spaniard that it’s not that they didn’t value human life, it was that a human life is the most valuable thing there is. If you read the bible, it asks for gifts for gods, and what is the most precious gift? A life. I read that and though ‘well that makes an odd sort of sense.’ It’s not something I *agree* with, but there is a reasoning there. I wanted to show some of that.
The second thing is that I’ve always found the biblical story of Isaac to be morally repulsive, even when I was kid and going to church. Here’s a dude, Abraham, who’s asked by god to sacrifice his son. So with a heavy heart he goes and gets ready to do it. And he’s committed, until god basically says ‘just kidding, I was testing you. Here’s a ram, sacrifice that instead.’ And Abraham is held up in Sunday school as a *great man.* Basically what I took away from that was that if my parents heard god tell them to kill me, as good Christians, they were going to be all over that.
This bugged me.
It still does. Because it basically from my point of view it puts lie to the idea of a personal guiding morality, because morality becomes ‘whatever my god commands me.’ That’s easily perverted into ‘whatever I think my god commands me’ (which is a problem for people who hear voices) and ‘whatever someone who claims to represent my god commands me.’
(As a complete aside, when I took biblical literature courses in college and reread the Old Testament I was fascinated to realize that sacrificing first born children to put in the cornerstone of buildings. It ties directly into my Mexica human sacrifice fascination.)
So I created a character who has a god (what he’s been told all his life is one, at least) ask him to do something that the character morally doesn’t really want to do. But since whatever a god commands *is* moral, he undertakes his task. The character Oaxyctl is ostensibly the villain, but it’s more the belief structures and traditions that entrap that are. He’s been given an Abrahamic choice.
And that’s how I figured out how present the Mexica beliefs to my readers, by using some of those biblical hooks, as the basic religious impulses are similar when you dig underneath.
And with that statement I’ll probably piss a lot of people off, but it’s not a condemnation of either belief system for me, just a fascination with how and why they tick.
I’ve always been curious about the Caribbean aspects of your fiction. You’ve gone from showing us a single planet with a heavy Caribbean flare, to a large collection of planets and open space with that same heaviness. How did you come up with this very different view of the future?
Well for one that’s where I grew up, and I was always felt a bit left out of the genre. I mean, the Caribbean was influencing music, and other elements of pop culture. Why not genre work? I saw some rastas in William Gibson’s early novels and Bruce Sterling set a third of Islands in The Net in Grenada. So I figured I’d fix their mistakes of not going full force and write books Caribbean dudes where the main characters! I also was spurred on in part by a couple conversations I’ve heard around genre circles by some people who don’t believe people who’re not from the Western world have the technical capacity or wherewithal to ever get into space.
Say what? North Korea is well on its way to having manned space missions and it’s not exactly a first world country. This seems like an elitist idea, as if “we”, the chosen first worlders, are the only ones that could ever rise up to get to space. It’s not that far out there to think that countries that are still developing might get their own space programs, is it?
If private space initiatives and the cost of access comes down, it wouldn’t be surprising. It’s like condemning a developing world nation for having airplane travel. I think at heart it’s an elitist reaction, and it’s one I react against.
One of the interesting things about your work, and something that I find pretty amazing when an author can do it right, is the use of dialect. Some of your characters speak with that Caribbean twang (if that is the right word) and yet it’s easy to read and seems to flow nicely. How hard was it trying to work this into your fiction? Did it make Crystal Rain a tough sell with publishers or were you concerned about it when shopping it around?
Oh, I still get hate mail for the dialect! It’s hard to pull off, and I worked hard, on three passes, to make it as easy to read for non-dialect speakers as possible. It was a tough sell, yes, and I still get a lot of readers who say ‘I just read and loved Crystal Rain, but when it was described to me I thought ‘oh that doesn’t sound like fun.” A lot of people say it takes 50 pages or so, then something clicks and they’re in. It’s not for everyone, I know, but I’m excited to bring it to the genre.
Did dialect take a lot of time and research to develop or did you have a fairly decent grasp of it considering your history in the Caribbean?
Most of it was my just trying to replicate what I heard growing up on the page. I drafted Crystal Rain three or four times with an ear toward making it easier for Americans. No phonetic spelling, just a few new words, and mainly some grammar tweaks by the time I was done. There are some heavier and thicker first drafts. Even Crystal Rain upsets some people though.
Some people don’t think there is much, if any, world building in science fiction, yet your works have clearly shown a lot of effort in terms of coming up with plausible technologies and cultures. Can you talk a bit about world building, both for your Ragamuffin Universe and in general? Do you think you do just as much world building as fantasy writers?
I really throw myself into it as much as I can. I spent a lot of time while writing Ragamuffin reading about laying data over reality, geo-data, that sort of stuff, which influences the concept of lamina in the book. I did my best to show zero gravity inside the spaceships, instead of magically having characters walk about, and zero gravity actually plays a plot point in one over-the-top action scene, which even though everyone finds to be quite action oriented, has its origins in my creating a spreadsheet with calculations in it. Plug in a person’s weight, the weight of their bullets, rate of fire, and I can tell you how fast they can propel themselves in zero gravity by firing a gun.
I’ve said in the recent past that you and John Scalzi are part of a movement to bring back a lot of the high-flying adventure and excitement that made science fiction so fantastic during the Golden Age and the couple of decades immediately following it. This is most likely not intentional, but have you at all been influenced by science fiction from way back when and can you think of any other authors who are perhaps doing much the same with their own work?
Karl Schroeder is doing some very fun, over-the-top stuff with his Sun of Suns series. Everyone has to read Karl Schroeder! I do love the aesthetic of the golden age pulp. I’m a huge fan of space opera, myself. And even though I’m 29, I actually read a lot of 1950s era SF in reprint anthologies and just random books. I think a ripping good read is something may have gotten lost in the mix, and it’s one reason that for a while I’d stopped reading SF/F and was getting all my genre work from the YA shelves. Those 60,000 word novels were straight arrows, no diversions, with lots of stuff happening in rapid sequence, which just got me psyched to lean my own novels out a lot and discard with a lot of the extraneous feature creep in order to give a dragster-like run.
Any YA titles you are particularly fond of? (I’m thinking of Scott Westerfeld at the moment)
Philip Reeves Hungry City Chronicles, particular Mortal Engines is one of my favorites. Nancy Farmer’s House of the Scorpion was one awesome piece of SF/F. Pratchett’s Wee Free Men. Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy. The Abhorsen series by Garth Nix. Pullman’s His Dark Materials. The Redwall books.
That’s just off the top of my head.
Additionally, do you feel that the future of science fiction is as grim as some say? What do you think are some things that could help science fiction grow and survive as humanity catches up to it technologically?
Science Fiction is following the mode of a lot of other pop culture, it’s fracturing into a large number of niches in an attempt to cater to more aesthetic ranges. If paying too close attention, it may be alarming. But on a large scale, I think it’s a bit of a Cambrian explosion where we’re trying a lot of different things right now. It’s really interesting to me.
It’s well know that you were influenced by your life in the Caribbean and Caribbean culture. Were you at all influenced by the literature either from Caribbean authors or other authors writing about the Caribbean? If so, how, and are there any particular works you are most fond of?
A lot of oral culture. The stories of Anancy, legends, superstitions, retellings of past historical events stuck with me more than particular authors. I’m not a huge fan of V.S. Naipul, which is probably heresy in some quarters, but I feel like he left the islands and sits at home abroad and rags on them in his fiction, though he’s a good writer. Junot Diaz just wrote a wonderful book. Nalo Hopkinson rocks, or course! Edwidge Danticat, Jamaica Kincaid, Kamau Brathwaite, Derek Walcott, and Jean Rhys (Wide Sargasso Sea) are some other names that pop to my tongue.
You’ve written three novels set in the same universe–Crystal Rain, Ragamuffin, and now Sly Mongoose–and have recently announced that you’re writing a novel for the Halo game series. What are some not-so-obvious differences between writing novels that expand upon your own universe and novels that expand upon someone else’s universe? Do you find yourself restricted by either type?
Well, 3 books into a set of books exploring the universe I’ve set up here and I have to work around a set of constraints, so it’s not really all that new. Writing the Halo book does mean I have to pay attention to what came before and other people do get the final say on what I can and can’t do, but if you are playing the games (like I do) and have read the books, you know from the get go what you can and can’t do, so it’s not that big of a deal.
What other projects do you have coming up, or planned, etc.? Can you tell us a little about these?
John Scalzi, Elizabeth Bear, Jay Lake, Karl Schroeder and I did a project called Metatropolis for Audible.com that will be coming out in a couple months. Five novellas, all riffing off a world building jam session we did via email about the future of cities. I think that will be something to check out, some very interesting stories came out that.
What would be one piece of advice you’d give to new writers out there (a golden rule if you will)?
My golden rule is that the biggest part of the word ‘writer’ is the word ‘write.’ Too few people want to have written, and to be a writer, but not spend the hours a day needed to get there. Including me, some days. But it takes practice and commitment to keep at it.
Now for a silly question: If you were to turn your universe from a serious one to a comedic one (a la Douglas Adams), what silly thing would you do?
I’m stumped, to be honest. I’d take suggestions!