On an Adventure to Xenowealth with Tobias Buckell – Interview
Crystal Rain really caught me at just the right time. When you are not only on these publicity lists but also a comic book guy you are exposed to covers on a daily basis but when I pulled the Crystal Rain galley out of the mail some 2 years ago the cover just spoke to me in a way that a lot of SF doesn’t.
It’s not to say I don’t enjoy what other SF is saying but you look at Crystal Rain and it says you’re going for a ride — or beware, there be adventure here.
I wrote a review of Crystal Rain when it came out and as we stand now — only a couple years later — Buckell recently saw published his third novel, Sly Mongoose, and has garnered Nebula and Prometheus Award nominations (for his second novel, Ragamuffin) for best novel while also being nominated for the Campbell recognizing the Best New Writer.
Today we have Tobias Buckell as we talk Sly Mongoose, Optimistic SF, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.
Jay — Sly Mongoose is the third stand-alone book in what is a bit of a mosaic-sequence of yours with Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin. For the uninitiated, I was wondering if you’d indulge us and let us know the core concept that connects these books.
Tobias Buckell — They share a broad background of being all set in the ‘Forty Eight worlds,’ as established by the alien Satrapy, where humanity is a player on the fringe of the developed universe. There are some recurring characters, and the slowly changing historical backdrop is also in the background of each of these novels.
Jay — From reading your work they all have that stand-alone quality. Can you tell me why it seems to have been very important to you to maintain that. Is it due to a short story background and simply finding connectors to a larger view?
Tobias Buckell — It’s simply a result of my own preferences as a reader. I’ve found that if I come into a series that is a mosaic, I can easily commit to snagging as much of the backlist as I can, but without worrying about a penalty for reading them out of order as I am able to find them.
Jay — Pepper once again returns in Sly Mongoose. I always viewed him as the that last ‘piece’ of spice that makes that Tobias-goodness just right. Was this a character always meant to be this recurring figure in your fiction or did this possibility occur during or in the aftermath of Crystal Rain?
Tobias Buckell — He started out in some of my short fiction. He’s an agent of chaos, so to speak. So bringing him into my novels was an easy choice. People really respond to the character, which has been interesting.
Jay — I always get the feeling that with Pepper no matter what the backdrop, be it a jungle adventure, a space opera, or on exotic islands that we are seeing a Leonesque Western figure — is there any truth to that and are you a fan?
Tobias Buckell — There is truth to it and I am a fan of Leone. A huge fan. Not only do I have the soundtracks, but most of the movies in my library. They had a huge impact on me as a kid. I recently stunned an audience by saying that as a kid I read almost as many Westerns as SF/F novels growing up in the Caribbean.
The Wild West was as alien and exotic to someone living on an island as anything. In college I was into the Kurosawa films as well, as I started researching and following back where Leone and those cats were getting their inspiration from.
Jay — Pepper is the reader’s living continuity but in Sly Mongoose Timas is very much the heart of the novel. Tell me what Timas represented to you that had to be tackled or examined in this novel in terms of his role/occupation and what he does to fulfill that role.
Tobias Buckell — I guess I was examining how the decisions of forefathers affects later generations, quite literally. Hence, the choices made by the people who ordered the ground suits show a focus only on their own needs, not down the road. Timas bears the weight of all those decisions in a literal sense.
As a writer you always look for something to literalize things, so using the bulimia and pressure to be thin allowed me show the impact of Yatapek’s history on a living person.
Jay — When I first read your fiction I was rather delighted that I was reading SF that not only dealt with issues of government, slavery, and other social issues (and as you note above how science exerts on all of it) that an adult reader could enjoy and be challenged with, but also this is a high accessible adventure and more importantly highly accessible science fiction.
I’ve always found myself going back to a post I saw John Scalzi did some years ago regarding the lack of entry-SF and I was wondering as a new writer yourself, writing SF for perhaps the largest publisher of its kind and an admitted fan of Clarke and Heinlein at a young age — what are your thoughts on the matter?
Tobias Buckell — I like high octane adventure. I mean, those deeper things make the work meaningful to me in a big way, but I miss the days of 60–80,000 word novels that were just a punch to the gut in the way they arrowed through to the end, but that still contained a great deal of depth on follow up reads.
As for accessible or not, I think Sly Mongoose and Crystal Rain reach for that, Ragamuffin was a bit more of my salute to pure Space Opera and might not be as much a gateway novel.
Jay — I’ve read about where you got the initial idea for the setting of the Sly Mongoose — a lecture by a NASA scientist — and I’ve always enjoyed how you write what Science Fiction novels but never inundate readers like myself who love reading Science Fiction but not so much when the story becomes a technical manual.
You take ‘real’ Science and apply it to fiction, and I was wondering if this a preference of yours as well or is there a ‘hard’ Science Fiction novel in your future?
Tobias Buckell — I’m not sure about ‘hard’ SF, but the reason I love writing about the future, even in a high adventure space opera like my last two books, the reason I’m intrigued by SF is that it explores the impact of Science on humanity via fiction, and I like to continue holding that torch up in my fiction.
So the concepts I toy with (the lamina in Ragamuffin, techno-democracy and the setting of Sly Mongoose) often are braided in amongst the adventure. If I can combine science with high concept adventure (like the scene in Ragamuffin where Nashara shoots everyone down the weightless center of a space station: it is a fun adventure piece that allowed me to find an excuse to give someone a gatling gun for hard SF reasons) I’m happy.
Jay — I don’t want to say “like me” but I’m a person around your age that experienced some amount of travel at an early age. While I guess it’s obvious that environment affects the content of a writer, I was wondering if you think travel and experience at all spurned you to write in the first place?
Tobias Buckell — I think it deepens my writing a bit, but to be honest, writing came about more due to the fact that I lived without TV on a boat with a single mother. She taught me to read young to get me out of her hair. I started reading novels when I was very young.
I’m also ADD. In high school, my constant reading of novels during class stopped being cute. Teachers started taking my books away. So I started doodling and writing snippets of novels during class. Turned out I liked doing that so much I started writing whole short stories, and the idea that I might become a writer stopped being an idle ‘wouldn’t it be cool?’ fantasy and suddenly turned into my goal in life.
Jay — You were born in Grenada. Was your family around for the Coard Coup. Do you remember that?
Tobias Buckell — I was born during the revolution, I was 4 during the US Intervention/Invasion (depending on your POV) and they make up my early memories: not being allowed near windows, hushed adults, explosions, seeing paratroopers pop out of planes overhead, etc.
Jay — I tend to not really have opinions on book covers as while certainly there are those I admire and some I don’t, rarely even the former doesn’t really have that spark of synergy with content.
When I see your covers displayed pre-release I now think to myself “that’s a Toby Buckell cover”. I was wondering how much input do you have on that aspect as there seems to be this very pulp/adventure sensibility?
Tobias Buckell — Authors tend not to have too much input on the covers. Fortunately, when asked for chapters and accompanying information from Tor’s great art director, Irene Gallo, for this book, I had the perfect chapter ready (that moment when Pepper sees the attack on Yatapek begin) that I thought would encapsulate a lot of the novel’s themes and sent it along. Irene and my editor agreed and sent that to Todd Lockwood, who’s the artist that did Crystal Rain, Ragamuffin, and Sly Mongoose’s covers.
Jay — Your collection, Tides from the New World, is being published by Wyrm publishing. What are readers going to find within the collection in terms of Xenowealth stories, and content we haven’t seen before?
Tobias Buckell — The only story that’ll be new is a Fantasy piece called ‘Something in The Rock.’ Everything else has been published before, though with stories scattered between various magazines and anthologies, I’m looking forward to seeing all these stories in one volume.
Jay — You wrote a Halo novel. I interviewed Jeff VanderMeer recently and he talked about some of the differences in writing his own fiction and writing a Predator novel. I was wondering how your approach was different, and while doing it if you found that a different approach was necessary or not to begin with.
Tobias Buckell — The approach was pretty straightforward and similar to my regular writing, to be honest. One reason the folks at Bungie seemed to be interested in having me try a Halo novel was that they liked my adventure focused novels, so I wasn’t changing gears to write even more adventure! Add in that I didn’t have to invent a whole new universe to play in, it made the process actually a bit smoother than normal.
Jay — Tell me something about this Van VerMeer guy we don’t find out in Sly Mongoose.
Tobias Buckell — One imagines the hermit goes on tinkering with his floating straandbeests until acidic mushrooms begin growing on his floating platform, and he’s found dead under suspicious circumstances.
Jay — There are 48 worlds in your Xenowealth. If you have one to spare and not populate yourself, what world from other Science Fiction or Fantasy works do you like to think might be hidden among those worlds?
Tobias Buckell — If I could steal any world from our genre, it’d be a toss up between Arrakis or Trantor.
Jay — Ah! Two seats of power of two classic SF novels/universes though very different from, each other. Why these two?
Tobias Buckell — I think Trantor is fascinating because it posited the planet-wide city with only a small central park near the emperor’s palace, it’s such an eyeball kick that once you get it you can’t unget it.
Asimov’s city planets just dominated the Foundation books for me. In fact, after reading Foundation at 6, the only thing that stuck with me was the giant planet city. When I was in high school I picked up Foundation again, thinking I was reading it for the first time, and realized that I wasn’t halfway through as all this deja vu kept hitting me. It’s an iconic SF setting. But what it is an extrapolation of what we know about a current trend.
Dune’s Arrakis is the other because it’s the look at how ecology effects our world. Both Arrakis and Trantor are the seats of power, because of what they are. It made me think about how environment effects power and history and people.
Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel read like an SF/F novel to me because many of the concepts in it can be found in the way these settings dominate those two SF/F novels.
Jay — I’m currently conducting a interview with Jetse de Vries regarding his call for more hope inspired, optimistic, SF and the recent announcement of his Shine anthology.
Being a relatively new writer and one that — I think — examines all sides of a decisions but still keeps that upbeat adventure feel to your work. Do you have thoughts on the observation of SF maybe being to bleak currently?
Tobias Buckell — Writing Utopia in fiction is hard for two reasons. One, once you’ve written one, it’s hard to come back to it to write more, because you’ve already written it out of your system. Secondly, a cracking good read depends on conflict, and that usually makes utopian/optimistic stuff a little less natural. The moment you specify a decayed city of the future, you have all this potential for things to go wrong. If the city is humming along fine, there’s less large drama.
Is current SF grimmer than it’s ever been? I think a great deal of SF has been ‘if this goes on’ and warning stories. Look at the major prevalence of nuclear-oriented fiction during the so called happy ‘golden age.’
I reread anthologies from that period, and just as many stories assumed we’d go through a major nuclear war as assumed we’d go off into gosh-wow nifty future in space with engineers at the helm. I find that most SF/F of today assumes some crazy shit is coming down the pipe, but we’ll weather it somehow.
It also depends on your outlook. I remember reading cyberpunk and finding it refreshingly optimistic for me: it featured developing world nations finding their place in the power structure of the world, and blue collar street types engaging in the future. I was shocked to find that a lot of older American SF readers find it bleak and depressing, until I realized that they wanted a white collar hero: engineer, professor, etc. I don’t think cyberpunk implied that the suburbs were dead, just that they were irrelevant to where future culture and mashup technology were being born.
Cyberpunk just changed who was being looked at and celebrated: the street, not the upper offices and academic halls. As a blue collar background kind of guy, by high school I had met few people who’d come from high academia or science. But I recognized the street-wise tech gurus of that cyberpunk and its later spin offs in my friends who were rewiring cars with computers to run complicated AV setups for drug dealers, or yachtsmen who were wiring their laptops into ham radios to create email servers way off the grid.
Jay — What do you know about Yertle the Turtle today that you didn’t know before?
Tobias Buckell — That is me. I was a phone-a-friend for a friend of mine, Heidi, for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. The question was which Dr. Seuss character was modeled after Hitler, and I revealed on national TV my complete lack of Dr. Seuss knowledge. The only time I’ve regretted the fact that I moved quickly on from early readers to novels as a young kid.