The University of Chicago magazine Web site has the transcript of an interview with me about A Darkling Sea. Enjoy!
. . . as Mandrake the Magician used to say.
Kinetic fantasy author Max Gladstone wrote an interesting post about "Magic Systems and the Wizardsroman" on his own blog. He's interested in the connections between story and How Magic Works (that is, how the fictional magic operates within a fantasy story), and it started me thinking about the same subject.
Gladstone very cogently pointed out that different stories use different styles of magic, but I'd like to go a little deeper under the hood and look at why that should be the case. Why don't all fantasies just crib from real-life occultists like Aleister Crowley and his imitators, or the practices of historical witches as described in the Malleus Maleficarum? Or, if those are too boring, just change the names of spells from the Dungeons and Dragons rules. Instead, each author spends a huge amount of effort inventing a new magical mechanic, like the metal-based sorcery Brandon Sanderson created in his Mistborn series. Or invests time and study to learn about an obscure real-world magic tradition, the way Niven and Barnes did for Dream Park.
Here's the secret: fantasy stories aren't about magic, they're about people. Which means the magic in a fantasy story has to affect the characters and their interactions. If the magic is an innate ability (as in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels) then that automatically creates a tension between those who can and those who can't do magic. Even among Rowling's wizards, the central conflict is over their attitude toward the unpowered "Muggles."
Conversely, if anyone can learn magic, then the focus of the story is what it costs to learn it (as in H.P. Lovecraft's fiction, where the use of supernatural power invariably corrupts and dehumanizes the users), or on the social controls needed to regulate magic (as in Charles Stross's "Laundry" series and most other "occult cop" fiction).
Done right, the specifics of magic become part of the theme of the story. In Rowling's books, magic requires both innate talent and extensive training — the ideal set-up for a story about special wizard kids at school. If magic wasn't an inborn talent, poor Harry would never get called to Hogwarts, and if it didn't require training he wouldn't need to spend seven books studying there.
Circling back to Mr. Gladstone's essay, I'd like to venture the opinion that the rules of magic matter to the reader only to the extent that they matter to the characters. If doing magic requires elaborate ritual and precise actions, then the author should spell out what needs doing and why (or at least suggest it). Conversely, a story of people doing magic through sheer force of will or wild free-form inspiration will necessarily have a more chaotic feel. Like the characters, the reader can't quite be sure when magic is happening or who's doing it.
What about historical magic? That's the sort of thing I enjoy: name-checks of dudes like Apollonius of Tyana, John Dee, and the Comte de Saint-Germain; recognizable magical workings and paraphenalia, and a sense that even the nicest wizards may be damning themselves in their pursuit of supernatural power. How does that fit into a fantasy story?
Well, "tourism" is a worthwhile element of any fantastic fiction. A science fiction novel with a weird enough setting can coast on that for a considerable distance, and a well-done fantasy can keep the reader entertained with glimpses of real-life magical beliefs in their proper historical context. Or an author with knowledge of a mystical tradition unfamiliar to most readers can get a lot of mileage out of showing off that knowledge. Obviously the key here is that all these things must be done in an entertaining manner, which of course is easier said than done.
Historical magic also lets the author come to grips with real-world issues — and perhaps debunk popular misconceptions. One can even examine hard philosophical or theological questions: is it even possible to be a "good wizard" in an explicitly Christian context? What happens to a genuinely good person who trafficks with genuinely evil spirits? How to reconcile different faiths?
To sum up, then, the magic in a fantasy story has to serve the needs of the story. One can either custom-design it to fit the story one wishes to tell, or seek out the story possibilities in a pre-existing set of magical beliefs. The same applies to roleplaying games: the magic rules should fit the kind of game you're trying to design. If you want fast-moving action, then spells should be showy and easy to cast; if you want subtle intrigue then they should be complex and hard to detect.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some fantasy story ideas I need to jot down.
The Book Event at Towne Book Center in Collegeville, Pennsylvania is set for this Saturday, April 5, at 3 p.m. Originally scheduled for early February, this Event had to get moved because of heavy snow. But now that the weather has improved from Utterly Horrid to Merely Unpleasant, the Event is back on! Come see me, Brian Staveley, and Ramona Wheeler talk about our books, sign copies, and read selections for the entertainment of good Pennsylvanians.
Also: another review of Darkling Sea, from Right Fans. (Spoiler: they liked it.)
On Sunday, March 30, I'll join Brian Staveley and Ramona Wheeler for another joint Book Event at Flights of Fantasy Books and Games in Albany, New York. It all happens at 2 p.m. and everyone is welcome.
If you haven't read enough interviews with me about A Darkling Sea, be sure to check out Andrew Liptak's piece for SF Signal, in which I reveal the Zeppelin Connection among other things. Because there's always a Zeppelin Connection.
A little housekeeping here.
I'll be a guest at Lunacon in Rye, New York this coming weekend (March 14-16). If you're in the area, come and hear me talk about games, time travel, and Gravity, among other topics. You can also hear some expert science discussion by Dr. Diane A. Kelly.
March 30 I'll join Brian Staveley and Ramona Wheeler at Flights of Fantasy in Albany, New York at 7 p.m. for readings, book signing, and questions.
If you still want to read more interviews about my book, here's one at the book 'blog My Bookish Ways.
. . . And here's an interview at Clarkesworld.
Despite having written a guest blog post about who I'd like to see in a movie version of A Darkling Sea, I'm pretty certain that it's one book which will never be filmed. As I pointed out in the blog post, it's about the most unfilmable novel ever written. Most of it takes place in pitch darkness, and half the main characters are giant lobster-things.
But, as I was dropping off to sleep one night recently, it came to me that A Darkling Sea would make a pretty awesome stage musical.Seriously! You wouldn't even need much of a set. Most of it would be black, or maybe very faintly blue-lit, with spotlights on the characters. The Ilmatarans can be giant puppets, with spotlit singers doing their dialog and musical numbers, à la The Lion King.
Picture it: we start off with a big rousing showstopper for Henri Kerlerec, setting him up as the center of the story. We give Broadtail a song about how much he wants to be accepted by the company of scholars. Kill off Henri while the Ilmatarans sing a reprise of his own song.
Romantic duet for Rob and Alicia as she lures him out of his self-imposed isolation. Then the Sholen arrive, with another big number about how much they care about protecting Ilmatar. Comic montage of them interviewing the humans. Alicia shows Tizhos the glowing bacteria.
Broadtail has his fight and trial. We end the act with a split number as the Ilmatarans of Broadtail's community sentence him to exile while the Sholen tell the humans they have to evacuate . . .
Am I crazy for thinking this could be great? Would any theater audience actually sit through a full-length show about singing lobsters on another planet?
There is this to consider: musical fans and science fiction fans look more and more alike with each passing year. They tend to be obsessive about certain works, have their own vocabulary of in-jokes and quotes, and often dress up oddly. As far as I know, there aren't conventions for musical fans (yet), and the SF fans don't have to make pilgrimage to New York and shell out $100 for a seat. A good science-fiction musical could effect a fandom merger.
If any aspiring songwriters want to take a crack at this, get in touch with me. It'll be great: we can use the old barn, and everyone will come!
As part of the process of letting readers know about my new book, I've been doing a lot of guest blogging. It's been fun, and I trust the 'blog-reading public aren't getting sick of hearing from me. Here's my 'blog tour, so far:
For the Tor/Forge 'blog I wrote about building Ilmatar.
For Lawrence Schoen's delectable Eating Authors series I wrote about lunch in New York.
For John Scalzi I explained The Big Idea behind my story.
For Sarah Hoyt I wrote about the radical notion at the heart of A Darkling Sea.
And for Fantasy Book Critic I explained some of the influences that fed into my book.
That's all of them for now, though I've banged out one or two others yet to appear. I kind of like guest-blogging. Not only does it give me the chance to share my thoughts with a different audience, but I'm also discovering new 'blogs and writers I enjoy reading.
A Darkling Sea is in the stores, on the shelves — and in the clutches of reviewers. They have been quite positive, though. We've already heard from the Big Three, but now various bloggers and free-lance critics are weighing in.
Annalee Newitz gave it a favorable review on NPR.
SF Crowsnest has a nice writeup by Kelly Jensen.
The Nerds Of A Feather 'blog has a "microreview" which is longer than most "full length" ones, also very thoughtful and positive.
Koeur's Book Reviews has some nice things to say.
And over at the Qwillery there's an interview.
So far, nobody's really had anything but praise, which is very gratifying. I suppose part of that is just the sheer volume of new books means reviewers don't have time to spend on the books they don't like — unless it's a bestseller or Big Book.
As always, the most important opinions are those of the readers.