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Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Myke Cole
    by Darrell Schweitzer

Myke Cole is a solidly-built, muscular man with an undeniable "military bearing," which can be readily explained by the background described below. Your fleeting first thought upon meeting him might be "I'm glad he's on our side," but as soon as he cracks a smile, you realize he's one of us, a fan of science fiction, comics, gaming, the whole works. I met him first when he showed up at the house of the late George Scithers to read slush for Weird Tales (which I co-edited with George). We bought Myke's first story. Since then he has published much more, most notably the Shadow Ops series of novels from Ace, which have come close to inventing a new genre of military fantasy.

SCHWEITZER: So, tell our readers something about your background, who you are, where you come from, your education and real-life career outside of writing.

COLE: I'm most known for my career in intelligence, the military and law enforcement. I started out in intelligence during the post 9/11 furor when the country went collectively mad and started allowing "Private Military Contractors" (read: Mercenaries) to do all sorts of jobs that had previously been reserved for government officials and uniformed personnel. I was trained at a private boot camp known as "The Crucible" (it's still in business - and did two tours in Iraq in this status. I began to sour on profit-driven armed service after my second tour, and secured a position as a federal intelligence officer (read: Spy) with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) where I did one more tour in Iraq for which I received the Secretary of Defense's Global War on Terrorism Medal and the Joint Service Commendation Medal from Admiral McRaven, the head of U.S. Special Forces. After a few years with DIA, I got a management gig at the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI). By this time I was starting to sour on the intelligence mission. It is the mission of intelligence to break the laws and steal the property of other countries, and while I understand that this is sometimes necessary, it is also nasty, and I didn't want to do it anymore. I promised myself that if I ever got a book deal, I would quit the business and move to Brooklyn to be a writer, and that's exactly what happened.

During my civilian career in intel, I also served as a reservist with the U.S. Coast Guard, which I left (reluctantly, but I was souring on the U.S. military mission as well) just last month. I loved my time in the guard, where I led the law enforcement and search-and-rescue boat squadron in New York City. The focus of my unit was life-saving, rather than life-taking (you could think of us as patrol cops and an ambulance combined), and that made all the difference for me. It's only been a month and I already miss it like hell. I currently do specialized work for a large metropolitan police force.

Other than that, it's the standard nerd fare: I'm a huge comic book, F/SF reader, and gamer. I grew up on D&D, Lovecraft, Tolkien and Orson Scott Card, much as I imagine you and many of your readers did. I'm a frustrated academic who never pursued real scholarship because I wanted to make money. I have dreamed of being a fantasy writer all my life, and I still can't believe I'm actually doing it, three years after going pro.

SCHWEITZER: How do you think the editorial work you did (for Weird Tales) influenced the beginning of your career? Did it, at the very least, enable you to avoid some of the obvious errors you saw over and over again in the slush pile?

COLE: I always get a tear in my eye when I remember my time at Weird Tales. I would drive the three hours from DC to George Scithers' house at 123 Crooked Lane, and we would spend the day in his basement crunching slush. George had such an unbridled enthusiasm for the fan scene, joyous and infectious, and it couldn't help but lift your mood. I have spent my entire life in very dark fields, where everything is draped in serious cloth and weighted down with gravitas. I see the worst humanity has to offer. Many don't know that George was also an army officer, so he spoke my language, but he never let it interfere with his first love - genre. I needed that contact. When George moved to Maryland, he contacted me a few times and asked me to visit, and I always put it off, being busy. I knew he was there, and I missed him. I just always assumed there would be time.

There wasn't. I know it isn't the question you asked, but thinking about Weird Tales always makes me want to remind people to tell those around them how much they love them, and to make time to see them. Life can be uncertain. Tempus fugit, memento mori.

My time editing taught me less about craft, and more about numbers and the inherent callousness of the business. Every time I sat down to tackle the slush pile, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of manuscripts. We would work in that warm, comfy basement for 12 hours sometimes (laughing and joking the whole while), and it wasn't nearly enough time to give any manuscript more than a cursory read (we're talking the first couple of paragraphs before putting it down, unless those couple of paragraphs absolutely blew me away). The lesson here was this: George and I were fans, passionate genre advocates, and dedicated to finding exciting new voices in the field. Even with all that, the volume of submissions was just too massive to be anything other than utterly callous. If it didn't grab us, it got rejected. We didn't have time to be nice. We didn't have the bandwidth to take more time. The task bent me around it, shaped me into the kind of editor that I'd most feared as an aspiring writer. As manuscript after manuscript went by, the hard lesson was drilled in: It wasn't enough to be good. It wasn't even enough to be great. You had to be the best. Your writing had to be sublime.

We have a saying in the guard that I intend to have tattooed around my forearm once I finish the current quarter-sleeve I'm working on: "The sea doesn't care about you." This sounds cruel, but it isn't. Clear observation of reality and sympathy aren't at odds, and there isn't a zero sum game here. I feel for every aspirant, and absolutely sympathize with how tough it is to both break in, and to maintain momentum once you do. But working at Weird Tales taught me one thing and that is this: that once you've tipped your hat to the challenge, there's nothing more to do other than the work. It is the only thing that ever makes a difference.

SCHWEITZER: So, we can't help but notice that a good deal of what gets published is somewhat less than sublime when you actually see it on the printed page. Much of it falls into the "this is kind of okay, I guess we could publish it" category. Do you think there's some distortion here, in the sense that after a day of reading awful slush, a more or less competent story suddenly looks brilliant?

COLE: I think that art is subjective. Art is . . . art, not science. I just saw the highly acclaimed film Under the Skin starring Scarlett Johansson. This is one of the most critically praised SF films ever, and named by many critics as the best film of 2014. I absolutely hated it. Not normal hate. Not just, "I'd rather not see this," but "DEAR GOD WHAT IS THIS CATASTROPHE DOING TO MY BRAIN?" For a long time after, I was really upset with myself. If I so violently disagreed with so many reputable people, didn't that mean that I was clueless? That I had poor taste? That I didn't understand what made a great story?

But after I'd had some time to think on it, I realized that this is just the way it is with a subjective discipline. I just finished Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, and didn't enjoy it because I felt his gorgeous prose obscured a clear narrative. I don't like Neil Gaiman's prose, but love his comic books. I am not blind to the fact that I'm swimming against the current with both of those positions.

Our appreciation for a work of art is also dependent on who we are at the time we read it. Our lens changes with experience, and the same work may affect us in different ways. If I'd read Something Wicked as a 14 year old, I might have loved it, because it's essentially a kind of manic bildungsroman about early adolescence. Who knows what I'll think if I read it again at age 70?

This is why I get annoyed when people say that 50 Shades of Gray or Twilight are "bad" books. I certainly didn't like 50 Shades, but who the hell am I to say that it's bad? Art is like sex, if it isn't hurting anyone, you've no call to cast aspersions at it.

SCHWEITZER: So, tell me how the Shadow Ops series started. That's been your big breakthrough so far, it would seem.

COLE: Nerds do the same thing everywhere we go - asking the "what if?" questions that are the core of genre fiction. I was working at the Pentagon at the time, and I was amazed by how tightly regulated everything was. There was a rule for everything, from how to brush your teeth, to how to write an email. I realized that this was necessary. Billions of dollars in taxpayer resources and the power of deadly force cannot be subject to the whim of individuals. But humans aren't binary. We are chaotic and unpredictable, and that's the best of us. There's no way a web of rules, no matter how complex, can do justice by every single special case. We see this in our own criminal justice system. I don't know much, but I know this: There is no way any government would ever allow anything powerful enough to unseat it to exist, unless it was tightly held and regulated. This is certainly what would happen if magic existed. The recent showdown over Net Neutrality is a great example of this. People don't allow powerful things to just exist on their own with open/free use for all. Someone, sooner or later, usually the government, will step in to take ownership.

If magic existed, that's exactly what would happen to it. And if I was going to explore the bureaucracy that would grow up to regulate magic, and the people impacted by that infrastructure, the military was the best place to do it.

SCHWEITZER: For one thing, I think you might be exaggerating that Under the Skin is one of the most critically acclaimed SF films of all time. I confess I had never heard of it. The Wikipedia synopsis does not make it sound at all interesting. I note that its nomination in the category of Best Limited Release/Direct-to-Video film for the prestigious Fangoria Chainsaw Award is listed as "pending," but it did not exactly get any Oscars. But seriously, this may be a case where the film had more appeal to people who are ignorant of SF than the genre audience. Either that or they are just hot for Scarlett Johansson.

Sure, art is subjective, but there must be some standards somewhere.

COLE: That's a slippery slope. No hard metrical "standard" for excellence in the arts has ever been found, despite art being pretty much as old as human sentience. The judgment of art remains hopelessly and utterly subjective, and I really view it as my personal responsibility not to judge it. I'm more than happy to offer my opinion, but I never say that a thing is "good" or "bad." This is true of my own work. I think it's vitally important that there is no "wrong" way to read a novel. A person takes from a story what they take from a story. Once you've written something and released it into the world, you surrender control of the experience to the audience. And all experiences are valid.

SCHWEITZER: As for the Shadow Ops series, you are doubtless one of the first people exploring the military approach to the supernatural. Well, one does think of that outfit Riley worked for on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but you go into more detail. How would the rigidities of the military approach (a regulation for everything) work when applied to something as unpredictable and nebulous as magic?

COLE: It's sometimes said that I've created a new subgenre in military fantasy, but the truth is that there are a lot of other authors who have been doing it before me (and better). Naomi Novik's Temeraire series (if you haven't read it, you must, it's fantastic) imagines the Napoleonic wars fought with a dragon-mounted aerial corps. The protagonist is a Navy Captain who winds up lateralling into air service, and it is most definitely a very, very military story. Another good example is The Heroes, by Joe Abercrombie, which was a major influence in my third novel, Breach Zone. The Heroes is a minute dissection of a single battle, taking place over just a few days. The conflict and the belligerents are the heart of the story, it is most definitely organized warfare, and it is most definitely a fantasy.

I think I might be able to lay claim to the idea of contemporary military fantasy, but Weston Ochse's SEAL Team 666 came out just a few months after Control Point. With publication dates that close together, you know that the ideas were conceived separately. It takes waaaay too long to get a book to market to say that mine influenced his. Tom Doyle now has American Craftsmen, and Ian Tregellis has done a few books for Tor mining a similar vein. And that's all fine. It's a big tent. The more, the merrier.

As for the second part of your question, the idea of structure and rote is largely a myth, even in the military. The old adage "no plan survives contact with the enemy" is an extremely inadequate way of describing the military's inability to bring order to chaos. We have a rule for absolutely everything, and many of them are patently ridiculous in the face of the sheer variety of possible scenarios. A great example of this is the intelligence community's approach to information classification. The disclosure of secret information would cause "serious" damage to national security. The disclosure of top secret information would cause "exceptionally grave" damage. What does that even mean? Who decides what's serious and what's exceptionally grave? How do you measure it? Where's the line? The answer is: nobody knows. It's as subjective as our opinions on art.

So much of military regulation is aimed at making people feel more comfortable with uncertainty without actually reducing uncertainty. This is the paradox I tried to capture in my depiction of magical regulations.

SCHWEITZER: What do you look for in a good military story? What tells you right away that this author knows what he/she is talking about? What are the common mistakes?

COLE: I recently wrote a blog post on this very topic here - I believe very strongly that military engagements and militaries impact all segments of society. War affects far more noncombatants than it does combatants, and has tectonic impacts to cultures, economies, and the physical environment. Nobody owns the military experience, and your experience is every bit as "military" as mine is. The only difference is perspective.

I don't look for good military stories, I just look for good stories. The things that people fret the most over: gear specifications, issues of rank, protocol and uniform, how orders are issued and followed, are almost always the things that matter the least and are the most easily forgiven. Stories are, in the end, about people, and getting the people right in their all their intricacies is the most critical part of storytelling, military or otherwise.

SCHWEITZER: By way of the military and magic, allegedly some years ago the military was studying psi, to see if clairvoyants could locate Russian missiles or whatever. If any of that actually worked, that would be military magic, wouldn't it? Do you ever hear of anyone taking that sort of thing seriously?

COLE: If I did, it would have been classified, and to discuss it publicly would mean jail time.

It's funny, when I first wrote Latent (what later became Control Point) I originally had Mentamancy as a magical school. It allowed what we traditionally term "psionic" powers (the ability to read minds and control thoughts). I wound up abandoning it, as it was so powerful that it completely upset my plot. Characters couldn't plot and scheme when they could read one another's minds, and conflict was utterly sapped when all you had to do was just plant a suggestion to control behavior.

Jeff Vandermeer does this very well with his treatment of hypnosis to create an unreliable narrator in his Southern Reach trilogy. I couldn't pull it off in my own work.

SCHWEITZER: On a somewhat different matter, there are a lot of complaints these days that the SF publishing industry is plowing the same furrows over and over again, selling books to the same readers, rather than reaching out to newer - and younger - ones. I know you have some ideas about how to correct this. Care to expand on that?

COLE: Actually, my ideas for reaching out to newer and younger readers is more in the arena of fan-run cons, which I see as sclerotic and aging out. These ideas aren't new: The first is the current hard drive toward transforming cons from an old-boys club that tolerated sexual harassment into a safe space for all attendees. The second is moving away from the old panel model, in which 4-5 (and sometimes, unfortunately, more) "pros" in the field sit at a table and discuss some obscure topic with questions at the end. There will always be a place for this, but it has less and less appeal to younger audiences, and it's critical that new ways to engage fandom be found.

The best example of this are the cons that are doing well (growing attendance, greater national and international recognition as a genre focal point) - namely: the Comic Cons and DragonCon. I'd argue that Confusion in Detroit is an example of a fan run con that is doing well, and I think a large part of this is due to the corporate sponsorship from Subterranean Press.

All of these cons have one thing in common: They offer alternatives to the old panel model. Panels are still a part of what they do, but it's just a part, and lots of the panels move off the simple discussion/Q&A format - like Sam Sykes' Author Batsu game at PHXCC, or the Author D&D Game at Confusion, or the huge and vibrant show floors at the Comic Cons. I saw a panel led/audience participation Cards Against Humanity game that I thought was absolutely brilliant. Careful curation and attention to detail in programming and a focus on getting guests who are relevant to what is currently hot in genre is super important. Too many of the older fan-run cons have their focus fixed firmly in the rearview. Some attention to the classics will always have a place, but it's not going to attract newer and more vibrant audiences.

As for publishing, I think it's doing what it can contentwise. I think the current crop of editors is working hard to find new and vital voices, and commissioning works with different tones. The whole "grimdark" movement that I've found so captivating is a product of a hunger for bleaker, more "honest" fantasy take. I also think that the closer integration of different storytelling mediums (film, TV, videogames and literature) is benefitting all. It's a great time for the genre creatively.

But that doesn't change the fact that publishing is getting its ass handed to it from a business perspective. The problem in publishing is all in the business model, in how they organize and work and sell their product, not in the product itself. The insistence on DRM, the failure to sell digital copies direct to audiences, the wacky idea of digital "territory," the failure to provide digital licenses free with paper copies of books, the list goes on and on and on. The fact remains that publishers are large, corporate entities, and big ships turn slowly. There are a lot of great people working hard to adapt publishing to changes in audience/marketplace, but it takes time. I just hope it happens fast enough to keep the industry vital.


COLE: DRM stands for Digital Rights Management, a system that "locks" an electronic file to a specific platform, preventing it from being copied and read on multiple devices. DRM supposedly keeps your Kindle eBook from being read on a device other than your Kindle or from being copied and distributed for free over the Internet.

The problem is that DRM doesn't work. Google "Crack DRM" and you will find hundreds of articles that tell you how to circumvent it in just a few simple steps. Despite this, publishers insist on cleaving to it, even though it patently violates consumer rights (when you buy something, you can do whatever the heck you want with it. It's yours), and has been shown to do nothing to stem illegal copying/distribution of copyrighted works.

SCHWEITZER: Is it such a good time for creativity right now? I see so many publishers turning out the same thing over and over again, distribution reduced to a monopoly through Barnes & Noble, and, worse yet, so many newer writers (some of them worthy) just giving up on the conventional publishing approach and opting for self-publication, as if the whole New York publishing scene is just an obstacle to be bypassed somehow. What I am afraid of is that the latter-day equivalent of The Left Hand of Darkness is going to wind up self-published and nobody will ever discover it.

COLE: I think it is a good time for creativity insofar as the democratization of content distribution through self-publishing means that there's a much wider range of work available. I recently read a WereHedgehog Erotica novel, and we all know what a sensation The Haunted Vagina turned out to be. Look, that stuff doesn't float my boat, but it does for some people, and it's great that there are distribution platforms to get this stuff out there so that the people who want it can find it and consume it.

But the downside of this is a poor signal-to-noise ratio. Curation is important, and it is really, really hard to separate wheat from chaff as the number of titles proliferate. Reader review systems that we have in Goodreads and on Amazon are notoriously unreliable (i.e. "the book arrived Tom Doyle now has American Craftsmen days after the shipping invoice said it would arrive - 1 star"), and a lot of self-published work is drek. Editors do sometimes functions as the notorious "gatekeepers" they're often accused of being, but the fact remains that they are, by and large, people with decades of experience spotting and massaging great stories and ensuring that the when you pick up a book under the Del Rey, Ace/Roc or Tor label, you've got a much better chance of reading a story that's going to be professional grade.

But not always. This is art, not science.

As for B&N, they're not a monopoly. They're part of a struggling brick and mortar infrastructure that is collapsing as the Internet changes the game. This isn't just true for bookstores, by the way. I recently decided to buy myself a pair of North-Face eTip gloves. After hitting three stores that were sold out, I just threw up my hands and ordered them online. Paid less, too.

My fear? My apocalypse scenario? That publishers and brick and mortar stores will go the way of the Dodo and that the book business will start to look like the music business: There'll be a very few major artists who are still backed by real money and enjoying immense popularity, and then a huge throng of struggling artists trying to self-publish and build a fanbase at the grassroots level via online distribution. The curation problem there will be really tough to solve. How do you find the good voices in the midst of all those choices? Right now, in music, it's really hard.

In the end, I try not to let it bug me. I focus on what I can control: I write the best books I can, publicize them the best I can, and keep my fingers crossed. To go down any other road is to embrace madness.

SCHWEITZER: What are you working on these days?

COLE: I've just turned in the manuscript for Javelin Rain, which will be my 5th published novel. It's the sequel to my Shadow Ops prequel/stand-alone, Gemini Cell, which just came out on January 27th.

I'm currently working on the 6th draft of The Fractured Girl, a "grimdark" medieval fantasy starring a 13-year-old gay, female protagonist. It's way outside my wheelhouse, and I'm really struggling to get it right, and it's critical that I do so. If I'm going to break out of the military typecast in which I find myself, I have to write a book that's going to take the doors off in another subgenre. That takes as long as it takes.

Lastly, I have a four-page treatment for Render, the working title of my 6th contracted novel, which I will be expanding into an outline soon. It's returning us to the timeline of Breach Zone, and following the story of an ancillary character from Fortress Frontier. I'm excited to get cracking on it.

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