The OF Blog: New Interview with Tobias Buckell

Sunday, November 02, 2008

New Interview with Tobias Buckell

Ever since I read Crystal Rain two years ago, I have paid close attention to Caribbean-born author Tobias Buckell's stories. I have read each of his three published novels to date (and I hope to have a review up in the very near future of his third Xenowealth Series novel, Sly Mongoose) and a couple of his short stories and I have enjoyed each and every one of them. Part of this enjoyment comes from Buckell's ability to weave in thematic elements, - post-colonialism, how humans tend to categorize and demonize other groups that differ from them in some form or fashion, among others - almost seamlessly into a concise, fast-moving story.

Although I have assisted in two previous interviews with Buckell, this is the first time I have done a full, solo interview with him directly. Hopefully, the questions here will build upon those earlier interviews and provide readers with even more information to consider.

You recently published your third novel, Sly Mongoose. How would you describe for someone new to your work how the three novels fit together?

Well, each novel is a bit of a jigsaw piece, with each novel illuminating a new world and some new characters. As a result, hopefully, they're very easy to slide into regardless of where you start with my books.

When pressed further, I describe Crystal Rain as a Caribbean Steampunk novel, Ragamuffin as Caribbean Space Opera, and Sly Mongoose is something of a mashup of the two above, with its low-tech floating cities that feature more crude tech, that exist side by side with very high technology speculation.

What about the zombies? I have seen many of the early reviews refer to how you came at that horror staple from a new perspective. How did you come to decide to include zombies in Sly Mongoose?

They are a horror staple, but I think I was riffing on Peter Watts. He had hard SF vampire in a novel, and I thought I'd better get the jump. I was also thinking a lot about what a techno-democracy might look like, vaguely zombie-ish, with it's inhabitants following the will of the group. The zombie collective intelligence became a foil for the techno-democracies in the book, a more extreme and depersonalized example.

If you read Slashdot with any regularity, for a long time whenever a new piece of computing hardware came out, the refrain was always "but can I make a Beowulf cluster with it?" This referring to parallel computing: hooking lots of tiny computers up together to make one big one.

When I thought about how I could use zombies in a novel that was SF, I thought "but can I make a Beowulf cluster with them?" The answer is in the book.

So in a sense it would be fair to say that the zombies are symbols for a social polity that has lost much in the way of individualism and individual personality?

I'd be willing to go on record for that, yeah :-) Though, there is still just this 'zombies are scary-cool, how can I make them work in a new way for a story and still get to play with some of the tropes of a zombie attack.'

In a previous interview, you talked about how it was your intent to explore the effects of violent conflict on bystanders. What sorts of conflict can one expect to see in Sly Mongoose?

I tend to feature some big explosions, clashes, and the sort. Sly Mongoose is no exception when I get around to featuring floating cities going up against each other, with hordes of fighting blimps buzzing around between them. But amidst that backdrop I really tried to show the consequences of people's actions, particularly with Pepper's decision in the first chapter to crash into one of the floating cities. The debris that falls off destroys a life, and Pepper ends up having to face up to that.

Would it be fair to say that some of these "consequences" that you mention deal not just with specific character action, but might also be a commentary of sorts on how humans have treated each other over the years? I recall a conversation between Timas and Skizzit that seemed to touch upon this.

Timas and Skizzit have a go around. Are you responsible for the acts of your forefathers? Does sin run in blood? What effect does history have on today? Consequences do ripple on down through history, and yet, there is justifiable frustration from some that they are held accountable to their ancestor's actions. On the other hand, failing to recognize that someone else has been genuinely affected by ancestor activity, while you benefited, and not understanding the frustration, means that you'll likely continue to add tension to those consequences.

It's a very complex area, I tried to show the genuine consequences on all sides.

Although I'm certain it wasn't your intent to explore this (especially since the book was written prior to the present events), but could one make the case that this discussion that Timas and Skizzit have mirrors closely the fault lines in societies such as that of the United States, with its spotted history in regards to the treatment of various ethnic groups?

Maybe, though the precedents I was drawing from for inspiration were hundreds of years older. These conflicts play out amongst people and time over and over again over various lines.

In many of the reviews of Sly Mongoose that I have read, it seemed much of the focus was on the opener with Pepper. Who are some of the more "obscure" characters in Sly Mongoose that you believe readers might want to notice more?

I really loved writing Katerina. She was spunky and in control of her life, and remains pretty calm and centered throughout the book. I wanted to write her POV into the book, but it would have dragged the opening down that I wanted, so I made the heavy choice of keeping only to two POVs in this book. But she embodied the promise of techno-democracy and a sense of maturity that came with.

I guess it's political, but in much the same way that being alive makes on a political creature. The nature of democracy is complex, messy, and full of compromise. It's slow. And that understandably gets people upset. That's why dictators are so appealing, they offer fulfillment to a faction. Some democracies in the past have even voted dictators in, and in parts of the world right now democratic reforms are being pushed back by newly franchised middle classers because democracy is messy, slow, and the people are getting sick of constant compromise. I guess I wanted to explore some of that.

You can see Pepper's frustration with this when he constantly tries to goad people into action, and when he considers starting a revolt just so he can get stuff done.

I wrote my favorite piece of political dialogue in this, though, even though my politics are centrist and I resist current politics speechifying and don't really feel aligned to modern US politics.
That's when Katerina and Timas discuss the nature of techno-democracy, and why people should invest in running a government themselves, without a class of professional politicians.

I remember thinking when I read Ragamuffin that there was a sense of frustration being expressed about political blocs and the corruptive influences that delegated power could have on such groups as the League.

It isn't frustration, but more a realization that when people engage in 'ends justifies means' politicking they end up corrupting themselves. The revolution always starts with the best of intentions, but then complications ensue. For the good of the revolution, hard measures are taken, which lead to authoritarian measures. The League begins as a freedom movement, but gets bogged down in its hatred of aliens and its desire for all humans to be under one banner. By Sly Mongoose, they're willing to attack other humans for their unwillingness to accede to their policy, and have lost complete sight of what it was that got them started.

You were nominated for a Prometheus Award some months ago for Ragamuffin. Since the Prometheus Award honors "libertarian fiction," how much would you say that some of your stories' themes would resonate with libertarians or other political/social groups?

I think the idea of voluntary and random techno-democracy might make Sly Mongoose worth the read for people, though I'm not espousing anything, just playing around with ideas.

You recently signed on to write a Halo tie-in novel that will be published in the near future. Some fans and writers have expressed mixed feelings regarding those who write in "shared universes."

I try to avoid religious arguments of faith about what is quality and what is not, other than to point out I work in SF/F, and have been hounded by people about writing 'real literature' because I chose the genre. Now some SF/F fans claim I'm not writing 'real SF/F.' Whatever. I didn't take on writing a HALO book for the money, there's not much money in writing fiction, to be honest. I make far more writing non-fiction: writing copy, cleaning works up, and writing articles. I took on the HALO book because I play an inordinate amount of HALO and dig on the universe a great deal.

Since going fulltime I've been offered some media tie in work, but I've turned it down because it hasn't been in areas that I geek out in (and to be honest once, even though it was a property I liked, I did turn down a piece of work because of a laughably small amount of money and no royalty).

When my wife heard I was considering the HALO book she knew I'd take it, just based on the fact I dug the game so much.

There are a handful of other properties that I love. If someone from Marvel called and said: could you do an X-man novel, I'd quite literally swoon. It's no different for my generation than someone playing in Shakespeare's worlds. Or fantasy novels and their obsessive Tolkien retreads. When you love something, it's fun to play there.

How did you approach writing a tie-in novel and what are your thoughts regarding the differences between writing in a shared universe and writing in one of your own creation?

It's not too different than writing a third book in a series, like I did for Sly Mongoose. You have to pay attention to what came before, keep good notes.

Since Halo: The Cole Protocol is coming out in late November, how would you describe the basic storyline for readers, particularly those who might be unfamiliar with the Halo universe?

While I did write the new Halo novel, as one writes all SF, so that it wouldn't leave new readers out in the cold, it is mainly aimed at Halo fans, so the following description would make more sense to anyone who's familiar with it. In Halo: The Cole Protocol I got to flesh out 'Gray Team,' a team of super soldiers clad in powered armor, who go behind the enemy lines of the Covenant, a group of theocratic aliens bent on wiping out humanity. Explosions and mayhem ensue...

You recently participated in the Metatropolis audio anthology. What was your role in that project and what can you tell readers/listeners to expect from your story there?

John Scalzi approached me, along with Jay Lake, Elizabeth Bear, and Karl Schroeder to each write a novella that would revolve around a shared setting for Audible. Other than setting deadlines, our brainstorming the idea was a pretty democratic thing, with Karl tossing out lots of cool ideas that we decided to run with. I'd written a story with Karl for Fast Forward 2 about near future environmental concerns, and it was cool to revisit this stuff. The story is a glimpse at a possible near-future Detroit, and a bunch of urban reclaimers who're trying to reform the city using flash mobs.

Sounds like a fascinating story! Was your approach toward writing an audio story any different than how you would approach a story intended to be read and not heard?

I faced two challenges here, when I set out to write this novella. One, I'd never written a novella. The closest in length I'd ever come was about half this story's length. Second, it was going to be audio, as you note. I decided to write the story in first person, which I've never done before. This was because in doing some experimenting with the first paragraphs, it sounded more natural to have a first person narrator doing the audio bit than third. This also then allowed me to finesse the info-dumps that come in a science fiction story by putting them in the character's 'voice' and not having it impact the flow of the story. Lastly, since I wasn't sure how the plot or pacing on a novella would work out, and I was worried about too much plot existing, writing it this way allowed me to compress bits with a narrator's summary in the event that things wound on too long. All of this was so that pace and flow would come across more naturally.

Lastly, the whole story was read aloud as I wrote it, section by section, so I could get a sense of what the delivery would be like.

Also, is there any chance of the Metatropolis anthology being released as a traditional book in the near future?

It's audio only for now.

Are there any other fiction projects on the horizon about which readers might be curious?

While it'll be hard for me to top 2008, with 2 books, the audio anthology, and a slew of short story sales, I am still on contract with Tor for 2 more novels.

Those two novels, are both planned on being part of the Xenowealth series or might one or both be set in other milieus?

We have ideas for both directions, we'll see how Sly Mongoose does and what the big picture looks like and make a call.

As someone who's been blogging for years, what sorts of effects, positive and negative alike, have you seen develop in your writing career as a result of you maintaining an online presence?

I've made a lot of friends, and acquired new readers. I've gotten work from it, as people are aware of who I am. I doubt I'd be making a living writing right now if it wasn't for it.

Over the past century, there have been many "trends" or "movements" in SF/F, such as the pulp writers, New Wave, Cyberpunk, Steampunk, and New Weird among others. Have you seen any sort of new "scene" developing in the field recently and if so, what are its characteristics or authors involved in creating such a "scene"?

We seem to be going through a bit of a Cambrian explosion here. The number of titles on the shelves have exploded, and as a result there are a lot of new subgenres being tried out. It's really been a heady decade, I think, with an amazing wealth of new fiction exploding onto the scene. Whether it settles down into any one sort of pattern, or this trend reverses, I don't know, but any 'movement' that people have called out over the last 10 years has just been one of a large number of other movements. It's chaotic out there, and what comes out of that fertile mess will be interesting, I think.

Again, thanks so much for agreeing to do this interview, Tobias.

No problem. Thanks for interviewing me!


Anonymous said...

As an aside, Amazon does have a listing for a new Buckell book called The Duppy Conqueror in 2009.

Lsrry said...

Yes, but since Buckell didn't give a firm date on it, I didn't want to speculate, since I think he hasn't had much time to work on writing it after taking on the Halo project. I hope to see it in 2009, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were delayed to 2010.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Larry. Great interview! We had really a perfect timing.:D

Lsrry said...

Thanks, Jacques! And yes, it seems we did :D

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