Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 46
The Gaunt of Dennis Mallory
by Scott M. Roberts
by Nathaniel Lee
The Machine in My Mind
by James Maxey
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
At the Picture Show: Extended Cut
Imitation of self
by Chris Bellamy
Vintage Fiction
The Angelus Guns
by Max Gladstone

Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Max Gladstone
    by Lawrence M. Schoen

Max Gladstone studied Chinese at Yale University, graduated, and went on to work in China as a teacher and translator. His short fiction once earned him a finalist spot in the Writers of the Future competition and he's been twice nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Max's novel, Three Parts Dead, the first volume in the Craft Sequence, was published by Tor Books in 2012, with subsequent books, Two Serpents Rise and Full Fathom Five, coming out in each of the following years. That sequence of his Craft Sequence continues this month, with the release of Last First Snow, the fourth book.

SCHOEN: Let's start with your background, because while few enough people graduate Yale, fewer still take that degree and go off to China with it. That strikes me as an obvious crossroads for you. What brought you to that point, and where did it subsequently take you on the road to where you now find yourself?

GLADSTONE: When I was a kid I took from my parents' bookshelf a retelling of the Chinese classic A Journey to the West -- a picaresque fantasy story about a Buddhist monk and four monstrous, magical martial artist disciples traveling from China to India. Journey to the West was one of my gateways into fantastical literature, and as I grew up, my love of that book grew into a fascination with Chinese martial arts and philosophy, and then with the Chinese language. At the same time I started studying international relations and diplomacy, with an eye toward a possible career -- so when I graduated from college I took a fellowship that would bring me to China, where I could polish my language skills. I learned so much living abroad -- I met people I never would have met otherwise, I saw and did things which I'd have never seen or done if I hadn't been where I was, when I was.

But setting aside all the vital and invaluable personal development stuff, my stay in Anhui province was vital woodshedding time. I'd been writing all my life -- fantasy and science fiction, mostly, but mysteries too -- but while I lived in Xiuning, I could make time to write. I wrote three novels in those two years, started thinking about querying, and learned a great deal about the craft.

SCHOEN: You've described your Craft Sequence as a "post-industrial fantasy land where you have gods with shareholders' committees and wizards with pinstriped suits and corporate magic being played out on an intercontinental scale." And I want to come back to that in a moment because I find that an exceedingly compelling metaphor for a fantasy. But before we do I'd like you to say a few words about a related perspective that it makes possible, particularly in view of the requirement that a good fantasy should include a coherent and balanced magic system. I'm referring of course to what you've called the "Magical One Percent." Explain what you mean by that, and further, why we don't see an Occupy Alt Coulumb in your first book, or is that what's happening in Dresediel Lex in the second book?

GLADSTONE: Oh, certainly! I'm fascinated by the question of how a recognizable fantasy world looks for people who aren't the destined heroes or magic users or whatever. Say there's actual magical power in your world. If it's not evenly distributed, how does that change society? (If it is evenly distributed, how does that change society?) How do people without access to magic feel about people who do have access to it? If magic's a facet of your subcreation, what does it feel like to know that there's a whole realm of experience which you're denied? A whole form of power you'll never have?

Building my world, I asked -- what is magic? It's a way of viewing the world, and a way of changing the world. It's fungible, basically -- we talk about magical power as being equally applicable to solving one problem as another. It flows, it moves. It obeys certain rules, and if you know these rules, you can control magic, within limits, though if you're careless, magic will start to control you. In sufficient quantities, it can act on its own, or seem to. We've developed languages for relating to this sort of entity -- the languages of law and finance. The more I thought about the issue, the more convinced I grew that I could use magic to shine a light on law and finance, and vice versa.

As for Occupy -- each book has focused on a different facet of the issues surrounding law, capital, and society. Three Parts Dead, my first book, turns on loyalty and faith -- and on interdependence between people and organizations, while the fourth book, Last First Snow, shows what happens when the will of the citizens and the will of the Deathless Kings who rule Dresediel Lex collide. There's your Occupy, if you're looking for one.

SCHOEN: Okay, returning to that metaphor, unless I completely missed it in my review of your background, you're not a "corporate business guy." How then did you choose to take that as the lens through which to view this universe? And why? And while you're answering those related questions, feel free to reveal what you are drawing on to pull it off so well?

GLADSTONE: I'm not that guy -- or, I've only ever been that guy briefly -- but I have friends and relatives who are or have been that guy (or gal). I've spent a lot of time trying to understand what they do, who they are, and how they think. Because I'm an enormous nerd, when I reach for analogies to help put into context the stories my friends tell me, I come up with analogies from fantasy and science fiction -- and then I cackle madly, because those analogies feel like excellent story fodder.

So: some of the authenticity, such as it is, comes from the horse's mouth. Some of it comes from tons of research. Some of it comes from imagining people very like my friends as wizards. And some of it's just that I love people in suits.

SCHOEN: Let's go back to a very basic question: When did you realize you wanted to be a writer? Can you recall a proximal event, a specific book, or a particular author that awakened this desire in you?

GLADSTONE: A writer? No. I was writing before I had words to put on the page -- before I knew what words were, my parents found me making little vertical and horizontal marks within the lines of their notebooks. I wrote my first story when I could barely hold a pencil. We have photocopies. The story was about a boy kidnapped by pirates. I think I spelled Pirates "PRTS"

But there was one moment -- I wrote a book in high school, the longest thing I'd ever written up till that point -- heck, still the longest thing I've ever written. It was intended as a huge crossover event for what amounts to a forum roleplaying community I was involved in at the time. I wrote this mammoth thing, about 260,000 words, in a year, and finished on the same day I started, after an all-night pizza and Sun Drop binge. And then -- well. I felt amazing. I thought: I'll never be able to publish this. There were too many characters other people had invented, there was too much of the game setting present. But I'd done it, and I'd done it well. Everyone in the game was hanging on each new installment. Well, I thought, damn. I did it once. I can do it again. I could make a career out of this!

And here we are.

SCHOEN: Many writers struggle with the question of "where to start their story," and the best advice I've ever heard comes from writing westerns: start with having just shot the sheriff. You've created this fresh and riveting world filled with ancient gods and powerful mages, pinstripe suits and briefcases notwithstanding. But why did you start your stories at that point? Will we ever see the Gods War, or the events that led up to them, or the centuries of existence that preceded that? Or does even positing those kinds of questions ensure you wouldn't end up with a contemporary world that's as close to ours as you've written?

GLADSTONE: I really like that advice -- lean into a moment of inflection in the world (which is another way of saying "community" of course). That's very much what I've done with the Craft Sequence, though it may not look that way at first glance: at the beginning of Three Parts Dead we meet a world tenuously balanced between gods and the human Craftsmen who killed deities to gain their power. The world's papered over the old battles with a new peace. People try not to talk about the bad old days. But the bad old days are right there, if you go looking -- in memories and beneath the surface of the modern age. And in the first few sentences of Three Parts Dead, the paper rips. In each book following, that fragile world system's upset in its own way -- and in each one, it could change drastically for the worse. Last First Snow shows an even more tenuous moment, earlier in the peace, when too many people still bear the scars of war.

I'm not going to rule out our catching glimpses of the God Wars, or even returning to it. But I also feel the God Wars are most impressively depicted in the effect they've had on the world, and on our characters. We don't need to see the war that ended the Age of Legends, in the Wheel of Time; we don't need to see the Time War, though once in a while the Doctor Who showrunners have to show us something because of the limits of television. The God Wars were big, and vicious. They almost broke everything. You want to see them? Look into any Craftswoman's eyes. Walk glassed deserts at night and hear the ghosts of old gods wail.

As for pushing earlier -- who knows? Maybe. The Craft Sequence has the most to say about a modern setting, I think, but I might come up with some crazy idea that works better four hundred years ago!

SCHOEN: The books of the Craft Sequence provide a soapbox for you to inspire your readers to reflect on philosophy and religion, what it means to have faith, to say nothing of the burden of free will. How much of this are you willing to confess was deliberate and intentional, and how much will you insist is just a projection on my part?

GLADSTONE: Hah! I'll confess that most of it's intentional. I'm a theology and religion nut from way back; I grew up reading that work, and I think it's vital. Setting aside all questions of whether one does or does not believe, in this very reductive sense, in a Supreme Being or a bunch of Supreme Beings -- myth and faith are ancient, and advanced technologies developed to support human communities, to make sense of ourselves, to celebrate life and defend against death. They are enormous, powerful tools, and many of us, regardless of whether we define ourselves as people of faith, have only the foggiest idea how to use them. Culturally, these days, with religion, I think we're often at the level of Neanderthals taking shelter from the storm in a crashed, fully functional, starship. Yes, it keeps the rain off, but it could do so much more! And sometimes we're a lot worse -- sometimes we're those same Neanderthals warming our dinner on a fuel rod.

And some people -- nowhere near enough -- can sail the stars.

But fiction is not a pulpit. I feel like giving the fiction a moral would be too simplistic, too easy. Instead, I try to give my characters a complicated and detailed language for discussing religion, theology, and faith. (Which isn't much of a reach, since gods and religions are lived, critical issues for most of my characters!) Then, at least, they have interesting arguments.

SCHOEN: As a fantasist, what, if any, responsibility do you think you owe your readers? Are you trying to just tell a good tale? Provide an engrossing escape? Inspire? Lecture? Or is all of this just a means to expiate your own sins that we know nothing about? And, segueing off of those questions, what do you think that writers of science fiction and fantasy should be writing nowadays? Where would you, both as writer and reader, like to see the genre going?

GLADSTONE: I think we should be using the language of fantasy to write about the deeply weird, beautiful, and terrifying world in which we live, without having to pretend this planet's normal. We have death robots in our skies and palantírs in our pockets, and we use the palantírs to look at pictures of other people's cats. Very, very few folks I know can explain to their parents what they do for a living. Some new horror comes to light on the news and friends say, "Yeah, I almost worked on that project." We're encoding data in photons, we're peering back to the earliest billionth-seconds of the universe through a lens made out of explosions, and we're strangling people on the street in broad daylight. What language do we have for this world, if not the language of fantasy and horror?

SCHOEN: Despite the wishes of your editor and agent, I imagine you have an endgame in mind for this series. Assuming you've thought beyond that point, what would you like to next turn your efforts toward? Is there a standalone novel in the wings waiting for your attention, or perhaps another series? Do you see yourself staying in Fantasy, or will you apply your talents to Science Fiction novels as well?

GLADSTONE: Hah! I actually finished a first draft of a standalone novel just a couple weeks ago, a book that I'm thinking of as kind of On the Road meets The Amber Chronicles. And then I've signed on for a Pathfinder novel for next year. I'm trying to do all this without breaking stride on the Craft Sequence, where I still have a lot of work to do -- but I am scheming about the post-Sequence time, in the grim darkness of the far future. I haven't done proper SF in a long while. It'd be neat to see what I could do there.

SCHOEN: I'll be looking forward to it! Thanks, Max.

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