Just Under the Threshold: A Conversation with Adrian Tchaikovsky
Adrian Tchaikovsky, né Adrian Czajkowski, was born in Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire. He studied zoology and psychology at the University of Reading. In the mid-nineties, he paid the bills working with the Legal Aid Board, and via on-the-job training became a legal executive, eventually specializing in debt collection, litigation, and landlord/tenant law.
At eighteen, Tchaikovsky discovered the Dragonlance books of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. He had been an avid role-playing gamer and saw the titles as someone’s Dungeons & Dragons campaigns rendered into fiction. Naturally, he was inspired to follow suit. In 2008, Tor UK began publishing his Shadows of the Apt series, beginning with Empire in Black and Gold. The series is comprised of ten novels, ending with 2014’s Seal of the Worm, plus numerous short stories. 2015 saw the publication of Guns of the Dawn as well as Children of Time.
Beforehand, Tchaikovsky had been noticed by the Gemmell Awards’ voters, and he’d received a BFA nomination for short story “Family Business,” but Children of Time landed him an Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. By the end of 2018, his books were earning enough that he could write full time.
To date, Tchaikovsky has more than twenty-five books out (upwards of thirty-five if we’re including novellas) and a lot more on the way. Among many awards nominations and accolades, he won a 2017 BFA for Best Fantasy Novel for The Tiger and the Wolf, as well as a 2019 BSFA for Best Novel for Children of Time sequel, Children of Ruin. In 2019, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of the arts by the University of Lincoln.
Besides the above, Tchaikovsky has experience with acting as well as stage fighting, and has trained at Leeds Armouries in historical combat. He has cited numerous influences, including Gene Wolfe, China Miéville, Mary Gentle, Steven Erikson, and more, not to mention (at least, recently) Doctor Who. Diana Wynne Jones is one of his greatest early influences. Growing up, he admired David Attenborough and Gerald Durrell, and the Natural History Museum was one of his favorite places.
It’s well-documented that you are a role-playing game enthusiast. What is the key to finding inspiration in gaming but transforming that inspiration into a story that works?
For me, there are a couple of really useful skills that tabletop role-playing teaches, especially if you run a lot of games. Firstly, there’s the business of building immersive and robust worlds. I’ve never really run games set in “default” worlds, preferring to create my own, and players give a world a far rougher road-testing than a reader will do. The writer can decide where the reader goes and what they see. Players go off-piste with distressing regularity, and they are also far more keyed to pick up on inconsistencies they can exploit. Hence, if you’re making a world for a game, you build it to be lived in, not just seen at a discreet distance. That, in turn, makes for a world that feels more real. The second key skill is the ability to create and inhabit a character quickly. As a games master you often have to put forward a constantly rotating cast of characters that, in the moments when they’ve got the spotlight, need to seem real, consistent, and at home in the world. That becomes really useful when dealing with a book with a large cast. Making even minor roles feel real on the page is invaluable if you want people to engage with the fiction.
Empire in Black and Gold was published in 2008, but ISFDB lists your first publication as 1996, as well as noting short fiction posted to your site in 2008. Wikipedia mentions a fifteen-year journey to publication. What was breaking in for you, how did it happen?
Wow. Feels creepily like there have been private detectives prying into my dodgy past! So back in 1996 I did in fact write some short stories for a tiny magazine called Xenos. Payment was in copies of the magazine only, one of those kinds of deals. They ran an annual competition, and I came runner-up several times, and at last, in the early 2000s I think, I actually won it—cash prize and everything. Except the magazine folded immediately before that story would have been printed and hence, I ended up with neither print copy, win, nor money. That was demoralizing, frankly.
The story, if people are interested, was “The Roar of the Crowd,” and it was eventually published in NewCon Press’ collection Feast and Famine. It represents the first really decent piece of writing I ever pulled off. It was all a bit of a blow at the time, to be brutally honest. I had thought I was on the cusp of getting somewhere, and then . . . nothing. Nothing for years. Books rejected or just falling into the great void that was publishing responses at the time.
I’d set myself a threshold of age thirty-five after which I’d just give the whole thing up as a bad job. With that approaching, I decided to go for something truly special as a swan song and resurrected the Insect-kinden world of my university RPGs, which had so much detail to it and which I knew so well. I wrote the first four books of Shadows of the Apt before I submitted the first because I wanted to get that plot arc done, and I knew I’d give up if book one got rejected. And it did get rejected, quite a lot, but Simon Kavanagh of the Mic Cheetham agency liked it, and he eventually fast-talked Tor UK into taking it on. I shook hands with Simon about a week before my thirty-fifth birthday.
Your work set in the Apt universe spans a decade of publishing. Looking at the entire body of shorter fiction and novels, what are some of your favorite story moments or ideas? What do you love most about these books and stories?
There are plenty of moments I still think back on very fondly. Che’s story arc in The Scarab Path is, I think, when my writing style finally stabilizes, and it’s also my first good shot at detailed romance and personal relationships. The aerial fighting in Blood of the Mantis, Salute the Dark and, especially The Air War was good enough to be complimented by an actual fighter pilot, so that must count for something. And to be honest, War Master’s Gate, book nine, is just a solid emotional roller coaster. It’s got it all, honestly. The student revolt, in particular, still gets me. Some of the stories are also amongst my best work. “Sword and Circle,” that I wrote for the Gemmell-based anthology Legends, is a particular favorite. And what I like most about the series as a whole is the world. I still mean to go back there some time. There are so many stories still to be told.
Are there specific ways that you feel you’ve changed as a writer since Empire in Black and Gold? And to what do you attribute those changes?
It would be surprising if I hadn’t. It’s hard to know, speaking from the inside, but I think I’ve become more comfortable as a writer—both stylistically and just with my place in the genre. And because I’m otherwise still just as subject to insecurities and worries as I always was, that knowledge means I feel I can take more risks with what I write. My early writing is very straight, tonally. More recently, I’ve felt I have the luxury to experiment with theme and tone—which results in work like One Day All This Will Be Yours, which has an irreverence toward time travel tropes that I likely wouldn’t have dared to try before. I can write books that take a poke at current politics. I can write about something like a civilization of hyper-evolved spiders, which—let me tell you—seemed like a hell of a punt at the time. I was a modestly successful fantasy author whose long-suffering publisher was going to let them put out this weird spider SF book before I got back to the swords stuff. And of course, it went very differently, and now it’s almost exactly the opposite way ’round.
As to where the changes came from, they came from time and my reading and all the many fine writers I’ve met and interacted with in the intervening time. We’re always learning, and I’ve been very blessed in the company I’ve had around to teach me.
Right out the gate you received a Gemmell Award nomination, and you remained on awards radars, landing your first win with the 2016 Clarke Award. What, for you, was the impact of that attention?
I mean . . . Yes, War Master’s Gate got short listed for the Gemmells, but if that was straight out of the gate then my horse kind of meandered around for quite a while before remembering what its legs were for. I kind of feel that I was creeping around the periphery of the British Fantasy Awards for a bit.
I had a short story nominated, and then Guns of the Dawn was short listed the year before I actually won with The Tiger and the Wolf (Guns remains one of my personal favorites, and it never quite got the traction I felt it deserved). That was after Children of Time and the Clarkes, of course, and honestly if there’s a single lightning bolt event that made me, it’s that. On the back of the short listing alone, people started discovering what had, before then, been a fairly overlooked book, and then it just snowballed. Abruptly I was on a lot of radars that I’d never really figured on before, at least in the UK.
You are known for combining cool ideas with effective pacing, while also tying narratives to characters, and grounding stories in meaningful themes. But, in your recent interview at Just Geeking By, you said, “There are a lot of writers I like who are doing stuff that I feel that I can’t do.” What are the things you struggle with in writing; what are the things you haven’t figured out how to do yet, and how do you navigate those elements?
There are writers whose style I can only envy. I think prose style is a deeply personal thing. You can always learn but there are limits. Peter S. Beagle, Anna Smith Spark, K. J. Bishop, to take just three examples: writers who have a grasp of the language that’s working at a level I can only aspire to. There are writers whose sheer erudition I’m in awe of, too. People who have an understanding of their subject, and the ability to bring it to life on the page, that is wonderful to me—Adam Roberts is a good example, or Gene Wolfe. There are authors who are just able to create worlds I know I’d never come up with but that I can absolutely appreciate and enjoy. Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, or Jeff VanderMeer’s work; N. K. Jemisin or Ann Leckie.
I’m profoundly grateful that all these things are true because these are the writers I enjoy most for exactly that reason. In my own work, that old worldbuilding bug is often both my strength and my weakness. I’m good at making the words, but I always want to show my working to the reader, to take them on a tour of all the salient points of my creation in ways that obstruct the actual plot and leave the characters waiting around and tapping their feet. My editors and agent still pick me up on that kind of detour, and I still routinely have to prune out a lot of doubtless fascinating but basically unnecessary material.
Science fiction authors often write stories that are deliberately in conversation with titles they have read, addressing or challenging the ideas of other authors. In your Tor.com interview last year, you mention that One Day All This Will Be Yours—out this year—is taking on Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder. Are any of your other newer titles connected to or taking on other stories?
One Day All This Will Be Yours isn’t a direct poke at the Bradbury, but A Sound of Thunder (as one of the most famous time travel stories out there) definitely features in its DNA and gets at least one direct reference in the text. Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself is in there too, and a great many other time travel stories, because when you want to write a story about the absolute worst time traveler ever, you need to know what the field looks like! For the true completionist, One Day All This Will Be Yours is also building on a couple of my own earlier stories, including “The Mouse Ran Down” and “2144 and All That,” which first introduce some of the time travel mechanics One Day All This Will Be Yours relies on. I think all fiction is in dialogue with its predecessors, though—and is richer for it. Otherwise, you’re just triumphantly unveiling your new invention for going round and round on an axle while everyone else zooms past in their Ferraris.
Bear Head, of course, is a sequel to Dogs of War, which has some definite DNA from The Island of Dr. Moreau in it (and a deliberate nod), whereas the ursine sequel, in touching on Mars colonization, is looking at a very popular subject for current science fiction—see prior work by Weir, Newman, and Morden to name but three. The Expert System books owe a lot to past stories about post-tech societies and planetary colonization. They are very much my own takes, dealing with the sort of themes I like in my own way, but they are nonetheless part of a long tradition going back to very early science fiction.
I’ve seen you describe One Day All This Will Be Yours as nearly full-on comedy, with a protagonist who knows he’s a terrible person. Some consider humor to be particularly tricky to write. Is writing comedy something that, in a way, you’ve been working up toward, or developing?
Good lord yes, humor is tricky to write. Some writers have a natural handle on it, but I am not one of those. As I mentioned above, it’s taken me quite a while to dare to try to be funny in books, and it seems to have come off. I definitely feel I have a slider on my writing style that goes from deadpan (Shadows of the Apt, say), to full on hijinks (One Day), and I could probably plot most of my work fairly easily on that scale. My first experiment with something intentionally lighter was Spiderlight, a serial novel eventually published in one volume by Tor.com. Since then, I’ve had a go at writing serious fantasy where a fairly bleak subject matter is married with a wry, light tone in Redemption’s Blade, and that seemed to work well. (It’s also not uncommon for a particular flavor of bleak fantasy—Abercrombie, Lynch, and Parker have definitely beat that trail ahead of me.) The Overton window on humor has definitely shifted for me over time. I’m more comfortable with using humor as a standard tool in my serious prose now, because once you’ve got it in your kit, it’s a very useful way of inflating or defusing tension, adding or taking off an edge, or fleshing out a character economically.
What is your favorite thing about this book, what do you want readers to know about it?
One Day All This Will Be Yours is all about the narrator, the aforementioned Worst Time Traveler. It’s a first-person account, and he knows what he’s done and just how bad he is. And he gets up to a lot of irresponsible stuff with a timeline that, frankly, has already been damaged so badly by the time war that nothing he does can really make things worse. I don’t want to spoil it, but there’s a set piece in the middle of the book where he and a rival go head-to-head that still makes me chuckle. And involves Hitler, who comes out of it just as badly as he deserves. Basically, a lot of the book is poking fun at the time travel narrative where it’s possible to go back in time and somehow not disrupt all of future history the moment you set foot on the ground and breathe the air.
You did narration for this one, and you did narration for Walking to Aldebaran. Has reading and performing your work led to insights or different perspectives with your narratives?
The narration came about because I was enjoying myself reading sections of Aldebaran at conventions. It’s another first-person narrative, which means it’s not massively demanding to narrate, but that I could really get into the character of poor luckless Gary Rendell, lost astronaut. After that I did Made Things for Tor.com, which was tougher because it’s third person and I had to do a variety of voices, but I think I just about got away with it. One Day All This Will Be Yours was an absolute joy to read, for the aforementioned reason that the narrator is simultaneously sympathetic and an irredeemable bounder. I think you certainly learn a few technical points when you’re reading your own work, one of which is that my very common habit of coining a new concept in a book by just using an existing word with a capital letter makes for terrible audio.
Shards of Earth is a space opera, beginning your new series, The Final Architecture. You’ve talked in other interviews about being able to cut loose with this one, and about getting to do new things, such as big starship battles. Are there aspects of this series that may surprise your longtime fans?
The Final Architecture was the first intentional series I’d had a crack at for an age. I’ve written sequels since The Hyena and the Hawk, but they were never an integral part of the plan when writing the first book. When you’re starting off with three books in the plan, that’s an exercise of a very different scale, and I’d forgotten just how much momentum you need to make it work. It was quite a shock to the system. I think my fans will find everything they’re looking for in the books—there are aliens and wild ideas, and if the science isn’t as nailed-down as, say, Children of Time, hopefully the SF concepts are still just as interesting. Those who haven’t gone back for my older work may not expect the sort of high-octane action I’m going for here. Shadows of the Apt has a lot of fights and chases compared to the more philosophical pace of Children of Time, for example, and I have absolutely allowed myself to go mad on space battles and the like in Shards of Earth, and just had a whole load of fun with it.
In Shards of Earth, Idris is an enhanced human, a war veteran with an unnaturally long life, and he and his crew discover signs of the return of the Architects: moon-sized beings who reshaped Earth (as well as other worlds). What is the heart of this story, and what excites you most about it?
I wanted to avoid a lot of the “predestined hero” business with Idris. In the middle of a hideously destructive and one-sided war he volunteered for an experimental procedure that killed ninety percent of its subjects, and he lived, and became a weapon that ended the war. Since then, he’s not aged and not slept and very much not wanted to be the focus of anyone’s attention. He isn’t your two-fisted space action hero. He’s basically made of vulnerability and weak spots and very reliant on his friends to bail him out. He’s also fantastically valuable to a variety of factions and concerns because of what his skills can accomplish, in peacetime and war. Idris is a small man trying to make himself smaller, and the Architects are very big—enough that although they’ve been gone for decades at the start of the book, humanity is still in their shadow.
And then there’s unspace, which is also very big, and horrible, and is the way you get from star to star quickly, except unless you go along certain preset corridors it destroys your mind, and going off those corridors is what Idris does. And it’s against that scale—the Architects, the monstrous loneliness and despair of unspace, that Idris is actually strong. He’s a contradiction, and that’s the heart of the story and the setting. Humanity (and the various human-scale aliens) against the unknowable.
Coming up, you have Elder Race due in November from Tordotcom Publishing, which is a blend of science fiction and fantasy. What is the heart Elder Race, what do you want readers to know about it?
Elder Race is really three stories twining together. There is a fantasy story: Lynesse, youngest daughter of the queen, must save her kingdom and her world from a demonic conqueror from elsewhere, and to do so she recruits the ancient sorcerer who once swore his services to her bloodline. There’s a science fiction story. Nyr, anthropologist second class from a starfaring civilization, finds himself in a profoundly unprofessional quandary when one of the subjects of his study turns up at his door demanding his aid. Lynesse lives in a world where magic is very real; Nyr has a scientific explanation for everything. Except, as they progress, maybe it’s not so clear-cut after all. Beyond that, though, Nyr has his own constant nemesis in his own inner demons. It’s a story of fighting enemies that aren’t necessarily conquerable with either storybook logic or scientific measures. Elder Race was one of those stories that arose from quite a tapestry of inspirations, but one of them is definitely the early Gene Wolfe story “Trip, Trap,” which also presents a story told from the point of view of a scientist and a “primitive” viewpoint, and obscures (with Wolfe’s usual deftness) just who has the right of what actually happened.
What else are you working on, what do you have coming up that we can look forward to?
Right now, I’m finishing up on the third and last book in The Final Architecture series, so I’m quite some way ahead. There should also be a third book in the Children of . . . series on its way at some point. Beyond that, there are two new novellas from Rebellion, each of which finishes off a kind of thematic trilogy. Ogres, which is likely early next year, goes with Ironclads and Firewalkers to look at some particularly dystopian futures. After that should come (my working title) And Put Away Childish Things, which follows Walking to Aldebaran and One Day All This Will Be Yours as a story of someone who ends up trapped in a particularly weird and isolated place. I’m hoping to be allowed to do the narration for Childish Things. And beyond that, I have finally crowbarred some space in my schedule to write an actual full-on fantasy novel for the first time since Redemption’s Blade.