Automatons, Wyrms, and Dead Men: A Conversation with Elizabeth Bear
Shrugging off the shackles of the familiar and stepping into a brand-new world, the fantasy genre pulls you deep into elsewhere. Anything is possible—a metal creature can have a message, a dead man can talk, and ice-wyrms can rule the mountains.
Elizabeth Bear’s new novel A Stone in the Skull, kicks off a new series set in a world she first explored in her Eternal Sky universe. The Gage is a brass automaton created by a wizard. He is carrying a message from a powerful sorcerer to the leader of the Lotus Kingdom. A Dead Man is his protector and friend. Together they cross the Steles of the Sky and walk right into conflict.
Author of numerous poetry, essays, short fiction, and novels, Elizabeth Bear has won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, Locus, Theodore Sturgeon, Hugo, Audie, and numerous other accolades for her writing. A Stone in the Skull is out from Tor Books, October 10th.
What was it about the world you explored in your Eternal Sky trilogy that pulled you back in?
Well, I intentionally set out to create a really vast world, and one with a sense of history and actual change. I find that too often when reading epic fantasy, I come away with a sense of a world that has existed for only a few thousand years, perhaps, and in which technology and social change haven’t really had any effect. So, the world of the Eternal Sky is in a very direct way a reaction against that sense that this fantasy world is the middle of Europe; it’s been the 11th century here for a thousand years, and maybe there’s some uncharted steppes or barbarian lands off to the East and an ocean West and some fur-wearing piratical Northerners with long mustaches . . . but we don’t really talk much about those places except as a source of threats.
I wanted a place with a deep time, and with a real sense of scope, and also the unusual aspect of being a fantasy world where the very land and heavens do, in fact, reflect the gods and political realities of the people living under them.
The Eternal Sky has some very old cities, but kingdoms and empires and nation-states rise and fall around them, borders cross them, technology changes over time—and there are some ancient mysteries under the land.
Do you find it is easier to jump back into a world you’ve already created to find more stories or to build up an idea from scratch?
Established worlds have a lot of foundational work done, which automatically makes it easier. I can concentrate more on plot and character development and less on inventing a world. Of course, in The Stone in the Skull, I’ve jumped half a large continent away from where we were in the previous trilogy set in the Eternal Sky world . . . so a lot of things are different.
You’ve written numerous novels and short stories in a variety of genres. What does your writing process look like? Do you find yourself working in a similar way for each story or does your process change depending on the project?
Well, I do like changing genres—and crossing genres—because, as I tell people, I have a short attention span. Also, I spent my formative years reading and thinking of science fiction and fantasy as one genre, so the marketing categories within that umbrella all seem to be there for reader convenience, so you can find what you feel like reading today.
It’s all fiction that’s concerned with asking “what if” questions, and that’s what I love.
My writing process is pretty chaotic. I got some good advice early on, which was to avoid tying my process to any rituals that might be hard to maintain under different circumstances. I’ve always been pretty good at working under varying conditions—whether it be a hotel room, a coffee shop, or (my preferred location) my own home. I have a bunch of workspaces set up around the house that I can move between, which is useful, too.
Since I’m not a parent and I’m married to another writer, I get to claim whatever space I currently need for working, and so does he. It’s very convenient for both of us.
My story construction process is predicated on the idea that there are no rules, just a toolbox full of techniques that work more or less well in any given application. If one thing isn’t working, I try a different tack. I will handwrite in a notebook, or on scrap paper, or I will type away at the computer. If I can’t make the plot work for me, I try to come at the conflict from a thematic or character development angle. I try to ask what a scene is doing, structurally, if I’m having a hard time writing it from the perspective of what action happens in it.
I’m pretty pragmatic, and I try not to get really attached to the idea that there is one way I must tell stories—I’m for whatever gets the job done, preferably in the most elegant fashion available.
A Stone in the Skull eschews a lot of classical fantasy tropes. Was this something deliberate or did this grow out of the writing and what inspired the story?
That’s interesting, because I was definitely thinking of a lot of the tropes of sword-and-sorcery while constructing it! Two threatened queens, a masterless mercenary with a past . . . The Gage and the Dead Man are, a little bit, my Fritz Leiber homage. I wanted a bantering relationship between them, like Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and some of that first-half-of-the-20th-century-wandering-heroes dynamic.
It is pretty devoid of farm boys with a secret lineage, I will admit, though there is a gnomic sorcerer or two! And a perfectly good ice-drake!
I was definitely trying to stay away from the classical fantasy tropes of the world-spanning battle between good and evil, at least. This is a trilogy much more about humans and human politics and economics—there’s a war brewing as the book starts, but it has to do with a poorly planned succession and a militaristic border state with poor access to natural resources much more than ideology—and their interaction with the natural world. Which can be a pretty terrifying thing even in our world, and when you add magic and the possibility of angry gods into it . . . well, then, even more so!
The story strikes a balance between feeling enormous in scope yet a very personal journey for each character. Was it hard to find this balance?
Gosh, yes! I worked extremely hard to try to stay very centered in the heads of the four protagonists as they move through a gigantic world. I love the cover art I was given so much, in part because I feel like it demonstrates that contrast so well—the Dead Man in a snowy waste, facing down the above-mentioned ice-drake in an obviously tremendously mismatched battle. The world is very big, and these characters are very small. They’re just folks, really, even if they’re folks that have accidentally blundered into a big chunk of history.
These people have their big concerns—what’s happening on a geopolitical and geological scale—but they have their personal demons too: loneliness and isolation; a quest for a place to belong; a feeling of being inadequate to an enormous task; the grief of having been widowed.
The gods don’t stop playing chess on the board where you’re standing just because you had a terrible day at work.
The Gage is one of the most intriguing characters in the novel. What is it about automatons that inspired you? Are there other metal humans in film or literature that inspired it?
I have always been fascinated by automatons and metal and stone people and people who are in some way literally inside a shell—I think because it concretizes (terrible pun) the feeling of alienation that I think everyone has sometimes, of being physically separated from the world and other people by an impermeable membrane. Sometimes, that armor is a blessing; sometimes it’s a curse. As a kid, one of my favorite superheroes was Marvel’s Thing, Ben Grimm, who was a guy who got involuntarily encased in a rocky skin through irradiation, because comic book radiation is great.
I think if I had to say what the direct antecedents of the Gage were, one would be L. Frank Baum’s Tin Woodman—the book version, who has a very macabre origin. Gages are constructed in a similar fashion to how the Tin Woodman was made; a Wizard takes apart a human being bit by bit, replacing each bit with machinery. Eventually, the entire person has been replaced and an automaton is created.
But because this is a world where magic works, of course, the resultant Gage has the memories of the human being it has replaced. Even though no physical part of that human being remains.
I also drew some inspiration from Paul Chadwick’s graphic novel Concrete, which is an examination of the same trope as The Thing, with a more realistic bent (if that even has meaning in the context of superhero comics) and a focus on how Concrete’s enormous, heavy stone body places restrictions on him just as it grants him extraordinary powers.
The cultures, societies, and even the names in A Stone in the Skull feel deeply rooted within the world. How has your training as an anthropologist influenced this novel?
I can’t escape my training as an anthropologist! Because the first thing they do when you start studying anthropology is do everything possible to get you to question your own cultural assumptions and defaults, and then you can never quite be comfortable and unselfconscious again.
So, it totally influences the way I construct cultures, and how I try to reveal them to the reader. Nobody’s culture looks exotic to them from the inside. It’s homey. When I’m writing from the point of view of somebody who grew up in a fantasy or science fictional setting, I try to make the reader feel at home in that world, rather than making it seem strange to them.
Some of that involves putting a lot of thought into things like justice systems and economics, and trying to make sure that people’s cultural patterns and expectations don’t just default to middle-class white American value systems for no particularly good reason.
A complete world comes with its own myths, legends, and religions. The world you’ve created for this novel is no different. Did you research various real world spiritual beliefs for this novel?
I actually tried very hard to avoid borrowing too much from the real world! There is a monotheistic religion that bears some resemblance to the Abrahamic religions, for example, but it’s very different in many respects. (The most obvious one is that their God is personified as female, and so is Her prophet.) I did do a fair amount of research on the prehistoric civilizations of the Indus River Valley, which were quite advanced for their time but which we don’t know too much about, except in terms of their material culture. And basically, I tried to construct a civilization such as might have grown out of a culture like that one.
It’s not meant to reflect any existing culture of the Indian subcontinent, and definitely not to fictionalize any existing religion. I try very hard to avoid putting real religions of any sort into secondary-world fiction, unless it’s really unavoidable. (I’ve written two series based strongly in Norse mythology, for example, and it’s hard not to use the actual Nordic religions when you sort of need Freya or you’re borrowing heavily from the Poetic Eddas.)
You once described Science Fiction and Fantasy as “willing to break things, to test things, not to take anything for granted.” What did you want to break with A Stone in the Skull?
Well, that’s a big question!
I wanted to talk about assumptions about women in power, and how women hold power, and how women relate to other women around questions of social and political power. I wanted to show a group of people, all of whom have in some way suffered a tremendous loss, finding ways to absorb that loss, grieve it, and still manage to express agency and try to exert a positive, steering force on events that seem much huger and more terrible than they are.
I wanted to create a tremendous, spacious world and give it a sense of being haunted, of having a profound and sometimes terrible past, and a frightening and uncertain but maybe awe-filled future.
Having taught at Viable Paradise and Clarion West, what is the single best piece of advice you’ve been given and what advice can you give to aspiring authors?
The best piece of advice I ever got was from Charlie Finlay, C.C. Finlay, now the editor of F&SF, who told me once back in 2001 or so that there was “always room for excellence.”
By which he meant, the way to succeed as a writer is to be the very best version of you as a writer that you possibly can.
So that’s what I have striven for: to keep getting better with every project.
The best advice that I can give is this: there is no magic get-published button. The object is not to write one piece of fiction and polish it until it somehow sells. The goal is not “to sell a story.”
The goal is to learn the craft and art of writing fiction to the point where you as a writer can sit down every single time and write a good story. An ambitious failure, if it’s not a brilliant success.
Once you have those skills, the sales will follow.
What projects are you working on next?
I am in the final edits on a book called Ancestral Night, coming out from Gollancz in the UK and Saga in the US in early 2019. It’s a space-opera adventure with pirates, ragtag salvage operators, a giant alien praying mantis who is also a pretty good cop, and an A.I. that’s fond of twentieth-century American folk music.
I’ve also got a sequel to Karen Memory coming out next year. it’s called Stone Mad, and it’s either a very short novel or a really long novella. I have the copy-edited manuscript for that on my desk right now.
I have a short story in the new Gardner Dozois anthology, out October 10th. The anthology is called The Book of Swords, the story is called “The King’s Evil,” and it also stars the Gage and the Dead Man, on an ill-advised mission to retrieve an ancient king’s possibly cursed treasure. Because that never goes badly.
And, last but not least, I’m involved in an interactive storytelling experiment with the folks in the Hieroglyph Project at Arizona State University, where I will be constructing a bespoke science fiction story based on reader input!
What can readers expect from the upcoming Lotus Kingdom Novels?
Megafauna, politics, explosions, dragons, politics, armies, bizarre astronomy, more politics, some gunfights, treachery, true love, and a white elephant.
A literal white elephant.
What is your favorite memory from working as a stablehand?
This one gelding, Jake, who was a Polish warmblood and a practical joker. Horses actually do have a horsey sense of humor. He was a big rangy bay, and he liked to trip people while they were grooming him or working in his stall.
There’s no actual punchline to this story. You just have to imagine a 17-hand-tall horse with a hoof as big around as a soup bowl stealthily insinuating that hoof between your legs, or stepping on the very edge of your boot so carefully as not to catch your toes . . . and then laughing at you when you tried to move and fell down into a pile of sawdust and horse poop.
He got me more than once, too.