“I might as well go into space, I thought; it would be little different from trying to cope with your intellectual flights.”
-Allan Weiss – Heaven and Earth (in Tesseracts Nine. Edge, Calgary, 2005)
“I might as well go into space, I thought; it would be little different from trying to cope with your intellectual flights.”
-Allan Weiss – Heaven and Earth (in Tesseracts Nine. Edge, Calgary, 2005)
An interview with Holly Bennett by Derek Newman-Stille
It is always exciting to meet an author who lives in the same town as I do, so I was really pleased to come across Holly Bennett’s name when I was searching for new authors on Kobo, and then to find out that she also lives in Peterborough. I was very pleased that she was willing to do an interview here on Speculating Canada. If you have an interest in Teen Fiction, music, Peterborough, the role of fantasy writing to open up new ideas, ghosts, character development, or myth, I think you will enjoy hearing Holly Bennett’s insights.
Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell readers a little bit about yourself?
Holly Bennett: Oh dear. I’m sort of embarrassingly average, really. I grew up in Montreal, came to Peterborough to go to Trent, and turned into one of those Trent alumni who stay — we are legion. I did live in Toronto for a while after graduating, but came back to Peterborough in search of a cheaper, saner lifestyle, mainly so we could afford to have kids.
Career-wise, I started out in non-profit work, doing research and program development with various Aboriginal organizations (my undergrad degree’s in Native Studies, and I studied Adult Education at OISE). Then a couple of years after moving back to Peterborough I lucked into a home-based job as an assistant editor at Today’s Parent. I loved the work, and discovered I am pretty damn good at it, and have made my living as an editor and non-fiction writer ever since.
I didn’t turn my hand to fiction until I was past 40. Don’t ask me why I waited so long, or what suddenly put it into my head to try. It seems like I transformed over the course of about a year from being sure I didn’t have the imagination to write fiction to being completely addicted to it.
Spec Can: Why is the supernatural so popular in Young Adult fiction at the moment? What is the appeal of the supernatural for teens?
Holly Bennett: I think it’s the same appeal as for adults, really. The supernatural — or let’s broaden that out to fantasy in general — it’s the appeal of what lurks at the edges of things, I suppose. The yearning for the expansive possibilities of the supernatural and the fear of its dark face are very primal, I think. It allows us to play with the idea, “What if the rules and constraints we think we operate under didn’t apply?” At the same time, fantasy stories allow us to grapple with huge issues— questions of good and evil, oppression and freedom, terror and courage—in a kind of “safe” way. We know it’s not real, so that frees us to dive into things that might be too painful or threatening in ‘real life.’
I do think the ‘quest’ nature of many fantasy stories is very well-suited to this age group. It’s the mythic journey of the young adult, really. So it resonates with kids who are starting to imagine and test themselves as young adults.
Spec Can: What are some of the key differences in writing characters for YA than for adult fiction?
Holly Bennett: Well, publishers will tell you the main characters in YA must be young people themselves. I’ve broken that rule fairly often myself, and so have many others. I think it’s a rule that’s easier to break in the fantasy genre, but I do think you need to create characters that teens can identify with and/or think about how to draw them into the world you have created. Another way to look at it is, are your characters dealing with issues that teens can relate to? The classic mytho-fantasy themes are pretty ageless: readers of any age (if they like the genre) can relate to them, even if the character is older. But if that character is feeling bored and depressed by his retirement, or trying to come to terms with a marriage gone stale, then no, that’s not going to captivate many young readers.
For audiences of any age, the characters have to feel authentic, real, rounded. Teens aren’t drawn to cardboard stereotypes anymore than adults are. What is often different is the pace of the writing. You don’t have a lot of room for descriptions of anything, including characters, so the characters have to unfold, to a large extent, through their actions and the plot.
Spec Can: What myths of the magical do you draw on when you write?
Holly Bennett: I’ve been especially drawn to the Irish Celtic myths — two of my novels are retelling/embellishments of old Irish stories that date back to the Iron Age, which I found really resonated richly for me. But I find I also borrow quite a bit from some of the spiritual ideas and practices I learned back in Native Studies at Trent — in the Warrior’s Daughter for example Luaine attends a kind of sweat lodge ceremony, and she also does a version of a dream fast. The Celts did have some kind of sauna or sweat lodge, and they did have the “bed of dreams” I described in the book, but we don’t have much knowledge about their ceremonies or practices. I drew on aboriginal ceremonies I’ve attended when imagining what actually happened.
Spec Can: What is the role of the outsider in your work? How do you bring ideas of diversity into your work?
Holly Bennett: It’s funny, I’ve never set out to write about outsiders but I see I very often do bring in characters who are “outside” in some way, and I seem to become quite attached to them too! Dirk, in The Bonemende, was my first outsider character, and he started out as a simple plot device. Then Gabrielle brought him home, and the second book was really spurred on by my need to explore his experience.
Outsiders do play a special role, don’t they? They bring a different perspective, a way of looking at the dominant culture and people that helps the readers see more complexity and shades of grey. In The Bonemender, the Greffaires are just “the bad guys” until we meet Dirk.
I think another form of the Outsider is the Outcast. That was a really dominant theme in Shapeshifter, where Sive is forced to leave not only her world but her human form. Thinking about the loneliness of that experience, the struggle to adapt and yet still hold on to who you are, was very moving for me. And there are so many real, contemporary human experiences that would be in some way like Sive’s. I think of the experience of refugees, of the homeless, so many others.
Spec Can: Do your characters ever take you to places that you didn’t intend to go? Do they take on personalities of their own?
Holly Bennett: Oh yes. I think this is my very favourite part of writing, and also sometimes the scariest. At a certain point, if you’ve really gotten to know your characters and developed them adequately, they do seem to take on a life of their own. And now you can’t just make them do what you want them to do; they have to do what they would do, given who you’ve turned them into.
This happened with my very first novel, The Bonemender. I looked down at my computer screen and saw that Féolan had just decided to travel over the mountains into Greffaire territory, and I had not planned that at all. My first thought was, “Oh crap. Now I have to come up with a whole new country, and a whole new subplot.” But it was absolutely the right thing, both for Féolan and in terms of keeping the story interesting.
I don’t mean to suggest that as a writer you end up at the mercy of your characters. It’s more that as the characters develop and change, the story has to kind of adjust itself around them.
Spec Can: Your novel Redwing follows the lives of musicians. What role can music play in literature? What appealed to you about writing about musicians?
Holly Bennett: Some of my favourite books are infused with music. Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier, is so full of music Tim O’Brien made an album of it. It’s tricky, because music is not going to speak to everyone, especially described in print! But music can give a strong sensory, emotional context, and it can also evoke a certain culture, history or personality.
It’s amazing, really, that I haven’t written about musicians earlier, considering I’m the only one in my family who doesn’t play. At a certain period of our family life, it wasn’t unheard of to have four instruments going at once, and not together—from traditional Irish fiddle to black metal guitar. So it’s been an important backdrop to my life for a long time.
Spec Can: In Redwing the ghost of Rowan’s sister forms an ever present voice, preserving him from danger the same as she did while she was alive. How do ideas about ghosts and haunting add to the human experience? What do haunting narratives teach us?
Holly Bennett: I think we have a real yearning for ghosts, along with the fear. Somehow even people who firmly reject the notion of an afterlife are attracted to the thought that the people we love could still exist in some form, or even communicate with us. It’s a very seductive thought.
I think because of that shared desire — who hasn’t thought, “if only my Dad could see this” or “I wish I could talk to Grandma now”?— the idea of ghosts can seem more “possible” than some fantasy elements. I’m attracted to these supernatural or fantasy elements that seem like they could be possible; we know there are many things about our natural world that we still don’t understand or perhaps even know about, so why couldn’t there be the Second Sight or a genetic mutation that enhances telepathy or a spirit energy that remains after death? To me, these ideas are more intriguing than magic swords or invisibility cloaks.
Spec Can: As a Peterborough author, how have you found this area as a place to create a writing community, and how has this place influenced your writing?
Holly Bennett: I confess I’m kind of a solitary writer. I tell myself from time to time that I should join a writing group, that it would be fun and make me a better writer, but the fact is I don’t like to share writing-in-progress. I just don’t. I do have some people I consider my “writing buddies” and at least one of them is here in Peterborough but they tend to be scattered about.
However, I do believe living in Peterborough has helped me write. First, the thriving arts community here is simply encouraging — all kinds of people I know, of all ages, are making different kinds of art. Second, living here gives me more time and mental space to do the writing. Because we could live cheaper here, I was able to work four days a week instead of 100% full-time and that was a fantastic gift.
I want to thank Holly Bennett for being willing to share some of her insights here on Speculating Canada and hope that we get a chance to hear from her again. If you haven’t yet had a chance to explore Ms. Bennett’s work, you can check out her website at http://www.hollybennett.net/ . There is also a review of her novel Redwing on Speculating Canada at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/27/haunting-lullabies/
“Everything’s got a voice. You just have to learn how to hear it.”
-Charles de Lint – Pal o’ Mine In The Very Best of Charles de Lint.
A review of Charles de Lint’s The Painted Boy (Viking, 2010)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Charles de Lint often takes his readers into the hidden parts of the world and brings attention to the things that people ignore in the world around them, whether that be the fantastic side of the world and the potential for a magical viewpoint or attention to those within our society that are often ignored such as the homeless, or those on the social fringes. In The Painted Boy, de Lint takes on gangs, a part of our society that most people prefer to ignore and pretend doesn’t exist outside of the media excitement over violent attacks (and then they are only noted at a distance). De Lint reminds readers that they do exist and that kids in gangs have a reason for being in them that can’t be gotten rid of just by punitive actions – rather, we need to look at the social issues that give rise to gangs: poverty, feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness, racism, exclusion, social ideas of masculinity, a society that celebrates violence.
James Li is a Chinese-American teen who, at the age of 11 had a tattoo suddenly appear on his back; a tattoo of a dragon that meant that his life had changed and that the weight of traditions that he knew nothing about had come down on him. He is sent out into the world at age 17 to discover himself and find the dragon within him (literally since he is a dragon shape shifter). When he arrives in Santo del Vado Viejo, he is instantly pursued by gangs who think that he is part of a rival gang infringing on their territory. But he is the fundamental opposite of the gang mentality, though bears enough similarities to contain a social commentary on gangs.
Like gang members, James Li’s body is marked with his particular group affiliation (the dragon), he has had a strict regimen of control, loyalty has been bred into him as an essential part of his being, he could be killed by those in charge if he disobeys the authorities in place, dragons are territorial so he embodies a sense of place much as gang turf does, his body contains a potential for rage and violence. But his role shows the fallacy of the claims that the gangs make. They are not actually loyal as the dragon is, they are afraid of those in control. The gang leaders will kill those under them from a sociopathic whim, whereas the dragons will only kill of one of their members becomes a threat to others. The gangs aren’t actually part of their turf, they don’t respect it or the people on it – they control it with fear. James holds a distorted mirror up to the gangs, illustrating that they are hollow and that all of the values and ideas of belonging that they claim are shallow and without substance. Gangs don’t protect or guard anything despite their claims to protect their members, where James as a dragon is the literal embodiment of protection. De Lint evokes the history of the dragon in China as a protector of emperors, but notes that over the years as empires have fallen, dragons have become guardians of places, linked to the spirit of the place and guarding over locations. They protect spaces, but aren’t lords over a territory.
De Lint’s interest in place is common to many of his stories; featuring various genius loci (spirits of place) and focussing on the distinctiveness of landscapes (even urban landscapes) as having both distinctive physical but also spiritual features. By creating a figure who is a shape-shifting dragon, de Lint brings extra attention to ideas of space and place. James Li has to connect with the embodiment of the spirit of his new town in order to drive the gangs and drug lords out and protect his new home. But he also has to acknowledge the distinctiveness of his new home and learn about how to deal with the social issues that have become embedded in this place such as fear, poverty, threatening notions of masculinity, general disrespect for others, and the realities of a community in threat. De Lint doesn’t create a magical cure that fixes the society, but rather requires James to find himself within his new community and acknowledge and work on notions of changing social issues gradually. James is required to create friends, acknowledge the community around him (both human and supernatural) in order to prevent him from becoming like the previous gang leaders of the place, who weren’t really attached to it or its communities but viewed it instead as a territory to be controlled. When his dragon threatens to consume him and destroy the city he is supposed to protect, it is only through the collective efforts of the community of friends he has made getting together to have a concert and the rhythmic beat of the music that holds the collective heartbeat of the community that brings him back to himself. He learns that he cannot guard a place from a distance, but rather has to be part of it, to have connections to the people around him and to care for them. Here de Lint once again contrasts James to the gangs – whereas the gangs have a false community based on fear, James is able to establish a community based on mutual respect, cooperation and the desire for collective well-being.
Key figures in this change in society are the lesser cousins – shape-shifting supernatural beings who are generally seen as weaker. Despite being self depreciating, the weaker spiritual powers are the ones who gather people together, who create connections and open pathways of communication. The Painted Boy acknowledges the importance of all members of a community in creating a society and that the under-represented often have a key role that is ignored by a society that focusses on the ‘big’ powers.
Despite being one of those big powers because of his dragon heritage and supernatural abilities, James considers himself a social outsider, a kid who wants to learn and above all else wants to belong. He faces the struggle of wanting to fit in and be normal, while simultaneously wanting to be unique and special. He is in a war with himself both through his desire to lead a normal human life and his need to fulfill a destiny that has been inscribed onto him.
To read more about Charles de Lint, you can visit his website at http://www.sfsite.com/charlesdelint/ and can read more about The Painted Boy at http://www.sfsite.com/charlesdelint/painted-desc01.htm .
Holly Bennett is a fantasy author living in the same city as I, Peterborough Ontario, and I was excited to find another author in the same area. She is primarily an author of Young Adult fiction, and it is great to get the perspective of a Canadian YA author since many of the authors I have interviewed write primarily adult fiction.
In a very typically Peterborough way, I first encountered Holly through her books and only later discovered that we knew many of the same people. Peterborough is one of those strange towns where even if you think you may not know someone, odds are that you have a connection to them – the perfect space to inspire fantasy writing because the unusual just seems to happen here.
In our upcoming interview on Wednesday January 30th, Holly Bennett discusses her transformation from being a non-fiction writer to suddenly developing the confidence to write fiction, the appeal of fantasy to our society, the difference in writing fantasy for teens versus fantasy for adults, the ability of fantasy to deal with social issues, the role of the mythic, the power of music, hauntings from the past, and the strength of characters to wrestle the plot away from author and make their story their own.
Here are a few teasers from our upcoming interview:
Holly Bennett: “I didn’t turn my hand to fiction until I was past 40. Don’t ask me why I waited so long, or what suddenly put it into my head to try. It seems like I transformed over the course of about a year from being sure I didn’t have the imagination to write fiction to being completely addicted to it.”
Holly Bennett: “The yearning for the expansive possibilities of the supernatural and the fear of its dark face are very primal, I think. It allows us to play with the idea, ‘What if the rules and constraints we think we operate under didn’t apply?’”
Holly Bennett: “For audiences of any age, the characters have to feel authentic, real, rounded. Teens aren’t drawn to cardboard stereotypes anymore than adults are.”
Holly Bennett: “It’s funny, I’ve never set out to write about outsiders but I see I very often do bring in characters who are “outside” in some way, and I seem to become quite attached to them too!”
Holly Bennett: “Outsiders do play a special role, don’t they? They bring a different perspective, a way of looking at the dominant culture and people that helps the readers see more complexity and shades of grey.”
Holly Bennett: “At a certain point, if you’ve really gotten to know your characters and developed them adequately, they do seem to take on a life of their own. And now you can’t just make them do what you want them to do; they have to do what they would do, given who you’ve turned them into.”
Holly Bennett: “Music can give a strong sensory, emotional context, and it can also evoke a certain culture, history or personality.”
Holly Bennett: “I think we have a real yearning for ghosts, along with the fear.”
Check out Speculating Canada on Wednesday January 30 to see the full interview with Holly Bennett. You can check out my review of her book Redwing at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/12/27/haunting-lullabies/ if you haven’t had a chance to read it yet. You can also explore her website to find out more about her at http://www.hollybennett.net/ .
A review of Claude Lalumiere’s The Door To Lost Pages (ChiZine Publications, 2011)
By Derek Newman-Stille
In The Door To Lost Pages, Claude Lalumiere once again shows his ability to add a hint of the mythic to the underpinnings of reality and challenge the hegemony of the real by suggesting that there is more to the world than what we deem to be real. Lalumiere creates the ideal bookstore, the one that every person who has been a social outsider dreams about, a place to escape from the humdrum world around them and find a place to belong and a place that acknowledges that reality itself may be more diverse than mainstream society accepts or portrays it to be.
Lost Pages is the ideal bookstore for those who have been cast as “weird” to find themselves. It captures the ability of bookstores to create a place of escape and comfort for many of us who are social outsiders. Lost Pages is a place OF the strange and FOR the strange. It is a physical embodiment of the fringe, existing on the edge of reality and changeable, only really noticed by those who need it. Lalumiere illustrates that stories and myths themselves are places of belonging, as uncomfortable, weird, and simultaneously homey as the people who read them. The space between words is one where one can discover a place of belonging, discover one self, and be able to be comfortable and even revel in being weird, different, socially abject.
As with many of his stories, Lalumiere’s The Door To Lost Pages evokes in the reader a desire to question that reality is just what we see or make of it. He plays with intersections of multiple realities, duplicates, changeable worlds, and diversity of perception. He acknowledges that for a world of diverse people, the way we see the world, the way we define reality, is itself diverse, multiple, and changeable. We do live in a world of multiple realities and every person has their own reality, their own way of viewing the world and we neither can nor do see what others see, but we need to learn to try.
Claude Lalumiere evokes the dreaming mind, the subconscious, unconscious, superconscious, and the semi-permeable barrier between dream and reality becomes the space between one page and the next.
Mr. Rogers is the author of the supernatural noir Felix Renn series, weird westerns, and general horror literature. He has published novels such as SuperNOIRtural Tales, Deadstock, and Every House is Haunted. I conducted a previous written interview with Mr. Rogers on Speculating Canada at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/interview-with-ian-rogers/ that you can check out.
In our upcoming interview, Mr. Rogers and I discuss how local Peterborough events inspire his stories, the difference between the urban environment and the rural when it comes to inspiring him to write stories, the terror that can be embodied by the woods, haunting and place, and his own fears and how they inspire his written work.
Check out the audio file of our interview on Speculating Canada this Saturday, January 26th.
An Interview With Karl Schroeder
by Derek Newman-Stille
Karl Schroeder is the author of several novels including “The Claus Effect”, “Ventus”, “Permanence”, and The Virga Series. In the following interview, much as in his fiction writing, Mr. Schroeder asks his readers the tough questions, calling on them to question their limited views of reality and helping readers realise that they have a role in making the world a better place. He calls on us to think about a possible future in which humanity develops better decision-making capacities. I hope that you find this interview as enlightening as I did.
Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell readers a little bit about yourself?
Karl Schroeder: I’m an author and futurist based in Toronto, though I was born and raised in the prairies. My family comes from the same southern Manitoba Mennonite community that A.E. van Vogt came from. In 2011 I acquired a Master’s degree in Strategic Foresight and Innovation; as well as writing SF, I consult about technology and social futures for clients such as the provincial and federal governments, and the military.
Spec Can: Do you characters ever take you to places you didn’t intend to go? Do they take on personalities of their own?
Karl Schroeder: No, and yes within limits. If you’re writing novels of character, then letting your heroes and villains take on lives of their own is good. If you’re writing any other kind of story, character, like setting, plot and style, is subordinate to what you’re trying to communicate. Characters should seem real to the reader, just as the settings and situations you write about should seem real; but there’s no advantage in them seeming real to you.
As with everything else to do with writing fiction, you must remember that it’s not a sign of success if you get swept away by your own storytelling; that’s actually a sign of poor discipline. If your characters are taking on lives of their own, you’re too close to them and need to step back to objectively assess whether they’re properly serving the story you’re trying to tell. If they are, then great. If they’re not, then you probably need to rein them in.
This probably sounds cold and heartless to beginning writers who feel that there’s something romantic about writing. The fact is, you want your readers to feel the romance of storytelling, but it’s utterly unnecessary—and often counterproductive—if you do.
Spec Can: What inspired you to write Speculative Fiction?
Karl Schroeder: No one thing; there was no Damascus Road moment that made me a writer. Above all, it was my family, and specific incidents when I was growing up.
My mother published a couple of novels when I was very young, so I grew up with these in the bookshelf. Becoming a writer was obviously a viable option. My brothers and sister also inspired me at different times with their creativity and the possibilities of storytelling.
To give just one example of the many small events that pushed me into being a writer: when I was about eleven my dad brought home a big roll of brown wrapping paper from work. My brother and I unrolled this on the basement floor and began covering it with doodles, art—and cartoons. From there I started filling notebooks with short graphic novels, and after a couple of years of that, began writing in prose. I started my first novel when I was fourteen, and I finished my first one when I was seventeen.
Spec Can: In what ways does your Canadian identity influence your writing?
Karl Schroeder: I’m sure there’s lots of ways that being a Canadian influences me, but somehow the question seems odd. Do we ask American authors how being American influences their writing? Or British authors how being English influences them?
One clear discovery I’ve made is that I was never influenced by certain key authors who loom large in the reminiscences of some American SF writers that I know. I never read Heinlein, for instance. –I tried. His attitudes and politics were too alien to me, even at age fifteen, for me to feel comfortable in his stories. On the other hand, I was avidly reading Stanislaw Lem at that time, so I never missed Heinlein.
Nowadays, my Canadian identity—like my Mennonite background—probably shines through most in my attitudes toward violence as a valid political tool. I.e., it isn’t one. I do write ripping pirate yarns, such as the Virga books, but those are cartoonish in their depictions of war. When I’m serious—as in books such as Lady of Mazes or the forthcoming Lockstep—I am careful to present nonviolent paths to resolving conflict as the superior option.
Spec Can: What do you see as distinct about Canadian Speculative Fiction?
Karl Schroeder: The fact that it asks itself what makes it distinct.
Spec Can: What role can Speculative Fiction have in changing the way people think about the world around them?
Karl Schroeder: We spend much of our lives programming ourselves to react automatically rather than to think. It’s faster, costs less energy. Part of that process involves the ossification of our basic categories: man/woman, human/nonhuman. SF deliberately blurs these categories in order to almost literally wake us up. It’s strangemaking, which is a very valuable capacity, especially in the present situation when the world needs innovative new solutions to some pretty dire problems. It’s not that SF presents, or even can present, the solutions to big issues like global warming or global poverty; it’s that it helps educate us in the kind of thinking that can lead to them.
It’s important to know that the style of thinking SF promotes isn’t limited to science fiction. If you read current thinkers such as Timothy Morton, for instance, you’ll encounter the same strangemaking process, but highly honed for specific purposes and politically and socially pertinent.
Spec Can: Your work alternates between various Speculative genres. Is it tough to alternate between genres? Are these genre categories that separate?
Karl Schroeder: Genre is a marketing tool. I don’t think in terms of genre, only about what ideas I want to communicate (or strange-make). This determines the kind of story it’s going to be. I’d say the only reason that my novels have, to date, all been science fiction, is that I’ve had particular things to say that SF is optimized for.
I could simultaneously write a hard SF novel and a fantasy epic, without the stories interfering in any way with one another.
Spec Can: What can Speculative Fiction do that “realist” fiction can’t?
Karl Schroeder: Describe the real world.
Realism, in literature, painting, and science, is just the rule of the lowest common denominator. It’s not actually a successful stance in science, for instance; strictly realist approaches to quantum mechanics fall into paradox pretty quickly. Realism achieves some stability in understanding the world by simply discarding 99% of all the available data (whether that be measurements, opinions, or political stances). That’s what the muggles do in the Harry Potter stories: it’s not actually that they lack some magical gene or other that wizards have (like the midichlorians in Star Wars); it’s that they literally can’t see the magical in the world around them. They only think about, and therefore can only see, those things they’ve decided are ‘real.’ What’s that saying? “If all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” That’s muggle thinking. (And by the way, having the Force be created by midichlorians makes the Star Wars universe a very muggle place.)
In contrast, there’s some very interesting philosophy these days that goes way beyond realism to engage with both science and society in new ways. Bruno Latour is a good one to read for this: his Irreductions presents the idea that everything, from atoms to Santa Claus, is equally real: nothing can be reduced to anything else… and, anything can be reduced to anything else (if you’re willing to put in the work to connect them). As an artist, that’s much more like the world I live in than any realist world.
Spec Can: You collaborated with David Nickle in writing The Claus Effect. What is it like to collaborate with another author? What were some of the benefits and drawbacks?
Karl Schroeder: Collaboration is easy, with the right person. Also, attitude is everything. David and I wrote The Claus Effect for fun and we weren’t under contract. The deadline was tight, though: three days, because we were doing it for the Three-Day Novel Contest, which was held over labour day weekend. That explains some of the zany energy in the book, because parts of it were written at 3:00 a.m. on some very questionable formulas of caffeine and sugar.
Spec Can: In The Claus Effect, you tackle the issue of over-consumption around the holidays. What inspired you to write about the figure of Santa Claus and, in particular, the concept of greed surrounding the holidays?
Karl Schroeder: Oh, Lord, there was no cunning calculation to this! We were just both sick and tired of the overcommercialization of the holidays, and Santa is the perfect symbol. Anyway, anything precious gets distorted when filtered through David’s mix-master of an imagination; it didn’t take us long to come up with our present vision of Santa once we turned our attention to him. Maybe a minute.
Spec Can: What ideas of the mythic do you bring into your work? And what role can the mythic have for the modern Canadian audience?
Karl Schroeder: What we lack today is a mythic dimension of the real. There’s plenty of sense-of-wonder available from fantasy, but why should we have to escape reality in order to experience the mythic? Much of my work consists of examples of things that are perfectly possible, but as magical as anything you can find in fantasy. My world of Virga is an example: it’s a steampunk, gaslight environment complete with pirates and conspiracies, ancient monsters hiding in the forgotten corners of the world… and it’s a zero-gravity world where the hero rides around on a wingless jet engine with handlebars and a saddle on it. All perfectly possible.
Spec Can: What is the importance of imagination and a sense of wonder for our world?
Karl Schroeder: Everyone in the world today is caught between what they believe to be true, and what they know to be real. We’ve been taught that the real is not the realm of magic or of the imaginative. In fact, most of us are utterly incapable of reconciling what we believe to be true and what we know to be real. But if I said that for the most part, what I believe is true is also what know to be real; that for me, reality is the realm of the imaginative, and that magic and wonder dwell here with us and not in some separate realm… well, would you believe me?
Return again to Virga, and to the picture of Hayden Griffin arrowing through lemon-coloured skies on a wingless jet—or to Spire, a thousand-year-old, open-ended cylinder twelve miles wide rotating to provide gravity on its interior surface. Ancient, bits falling of it, holes in its surface known as airfalls, and strange isolated estates where ancient families enact eccentric rituals and shoot anyone who strays onto their decaying little patches of real estate… In the Virga books, the mythic dimension is explored by strictly obeying the rules of Newtonian physics. Spire is entirely at the mercy of Newton’s laws, which is what makes it so strange a place.
I wrote the Virga books to illustrate just how much novelty and wonder were still possible within science fiction with just what we knew a hundred years ago. The so-called ‘ordinary’ is an inexhaustible wellspring of wonder. To know that is to be comfortable living in this world.
Spec Can: What new technological advances most interest and excite (or frighten) you as an author of Speculative Fiction?
Karl Schroeder: There’s lots of technologies that are flashy, or might have this or that big effect on the world. Nuclear fusion, augmented reality, nanotech… yeah, they’re all great. But we don’t need them. There’s only one development that we need at this point in our history: better methods and systems for decision-making, both individual and collective.
We have all the technologies—all the tools and capabilities and understandings—to create a Utopia on Earth now. We can absolutely solve the problem of global warming, for instance; we even know how to reverse it with technologies we currently possess. What’s become abundantly clear in the past couple of decades is that the only thing we lack is the ability to make, and follow-through on, the right decisions. So much of my work right now is dedicated to asking what we need to do to get to such capabilities.
It’s ironic and sad that people within the science fiction community can imagine any future—ones where robots run amok, where nanotech eats the planet or biotech creates new species or aliens arrive… any future, except one in which humanity redesigns and improves its ability to govern itself. This is a ridiculous blind-spot, a very telling prejudice toward what we think is possible; it’s a remarkable and disappointing failure of our collective imagination. So that’s what I want to address in my new work.
Spec Can: Is there anything further that you would like to add to our interview, any ideas or thoughts to close our discussion?
Karl Schroeder: Let me deploy that old, inflammatory question: are you part of the solution, or part of the problem? Do you imagine or write a future where anything is possible except the invention of prostheses to compensate for the inadequacies of human decision-making? Does your worldbuilding encompass universes with star flight, robots and nanotech—yet accept royalty, corporations and bureaucracies as inevitable? Is Terminator your only model for computer-assisted decision making? Or are you tracking developments like dotmocracy, statistical demarchy, decision support software and the iPhone SuperPAC app? Because to those of us following such developments, the future looks entirely different than it does to mainstream SF—even, dare I say it, any SF of the present generation.
I’ll retract that statement when I’ve read a novel that shows how new governance systems and methods solve global warming.
I want to thank Karl Schroeder for being willing to do an interview here on Speculating Canada and for asking readers tough questions, and questions that need to be asked.
As an educator who uses Speculative Fiction as a way of helping students to question taken-for-granted notions, I, personally, really appreciated Mr. Schroeder’s interest and incredible ability to evoke questions in the minds of readers and help us to expand our worldview.