Author Interview: Max Gladstone

Max Gladstone is one of my favorite writers working today, and if you haven’t read his Craft Sequence books, I highly suggest you look into them. The newest, Ruin of Angelswas released earlier this week, and it is fabulous. Today, Max Gladstone’s here to talk about Ruin of Angels, categorizing genres, and Terry Pratchett.

31433704Can you tell us a bit about your new release, Ruin of Angels?

Kai, the banker-priestess hero of Full Fathom Five, comes to Agdel Lex, where the God Wars started, on a business trip. But she makes time to see her estranged sister Ley while she’s there—and everything goes wrong. Ley ends up on the run, wanted for a murder she most definitely committed, and Kai has to figure out what happened, and what, if anything, she can do to help. Without getting herself killed, or worse.

(It can get a lot worse than killed. This is the Craft Sequence, after all. Death’s a good start.)

This is a book about sisters, friends, lovers—all the different sorts of family. It’s about the aftermath of a war. It’s about mapping, and history, and scars, and faith, and a train heist, and necromancy, and giant hive-mind squid, and quests, and what it takes to be a priest.

And it’s about pride. We like to think we know what’s going on—what our sister’s thinking, what sort of stories we’d find if we walked down that alley, what’s good and what’s bad, what’s possible and what’s not. We so rarely know. That doesn’t mean knowing isn’t possible—just that it’s difficult. We have to get beyond the simple stories we tell about each other to make our lives easier. We have to listen. And we have to be brave enough to say what we mean.

Whenever I try to explain the world of the Craft Sequence to friends and family, I inevitably end up waving my hands in the air and shouting, “Magical lawyers!” When people ask  what you write, how do you answer?

You’re not alone! The answer changes depending on who asks the question. I wrote a whole blog post about this, which people can look up, but here’s some shorthand.

For most people: the Craft books are fantasy novels set in a world that has our sort of society, and our sorts of problems, rather than feudal society and feudal problems. A junior necromancer, still trying to pay off her student loans, fights to save a city after the god who runs the power plant dies. Ancient wizards sit on the boards of international corporations. Gods have shareholders’ committees.

13539191Fantasy nerd version: The Craft books take democratic government, corruption, bankruptcy, financial crisis, colonialism and imperialism, climate change, resource collapse, and a host of other modern challenges, as the ground of fantasy—in the same way so much traditional fantasy grounds itself in the struggles of monarchies, and the hunger for a rightful king. Why shouldn’t we have a fantasy that helps us think about the shit we’re going through right now?

Lawyer version: If you could shed your own blood and pass through an eldritch ritual to make document review easier, would you? Of course you would. Here. Read Three Parts Dead.

Reading the Craft Sequence, I love seeing how it connects to our own, modern world. And Ruin of Angels seems to be introducing a whole new connection: space exploration. Are you planning on melding fantasy with science fiction as the series moves forward?

Yes and no. No, and also yes! I mean, *mimes taking a drag*, like, what is science fiction, really, you know?

Some people say it’s a question of setting. If there are spaceships, it’s science fiction. If elves, fantasy. There are no elves in the Craft Sequence, for whatever that’s worth. But: if you have elves on a spaceship, what then?

Some people say it’s a question of contiguity. Science fiction is fiction that could happen, given a series of stepwise transformations of the world we live in right now, while fantasy involves counterfactuals. We could build spaceships. (We have built spaceships!) Elves don’t exist. So, if there are elves on your spaceship, it’s a fantasy spaceship. But aliens might exist—hell, you can even handwave an anthropomorphic principle that makes it likely for human-ish aliens to exist. And some of those humanoid aliens might look sort of elvish. So, Vulcans, who are just elves on a spaceship: totally logical. Science fiction.

Or is it? Plenty of spaceships in science fiction go faster than light. It’s really hard for non-physicists, myself included, to wrap their heads around just how much that’s a problem in physics-as-she-is-spoken-now. The light speed barrier isn’t a speed limit in the “you were doing 95 in a 65 zone” sense. It’s a limit in a mathematical sense. Light speed (in modern physics, as I understand it, I am not a physicist) is the speed of propagation of causality. If you’re breaking it, you’re traveling in time. More of a mindscrew: light itself is moving at infinite speed from its own perspective. Want to cross a galaxy in milliseconds of subjective time? We can do that. In conventional physics. As you approach lightspeed, distance compresses. But from the outside world’s perspective, you’ll still be moving at (a substantial fraction of) c.

It’s not just FTL that’s a problem. FTL is just a big, obvious problem.

But our physics could be wrong. Hell, anything could be happening outside our limited frame of reference. Iain M Banks’ Culture novels are taking place somewhere else in the galaxy, and have been for the last thousand years or so. Ursula K LeGuin’s Hainish books are similarly happening elsewhere; Earth is just one experiment.

Wait a second. Maybe it’s the middle initial thing that makes the difference! Well, I’m not planning on publishing any Craft books as Max W Gladstone, so you’re fine.

What I’m trying to say is, science fiction and fantasy are at least two of the poles of our fictional space, and the lines of force between them define the field where we play and tell our stories. (The House of Life and the House of the Dead, for the Zelazny geeks out there.) They’re not parted by a bright line. And, like a magnetic field, the story space they create goes on forever.

What I’ve done in the Craft stories is posit a world with slightly different physics, a world where some things that are metaphorical for us are physical realities. I worked this change through a history of a world with cultures very much like ours. And, like ours, it has a future—a range of futures, really, from collapse to transcendence, that it’s trying to choose between.

16148208Ruin of Angels reintroduces some old characters and adds some new ones. Who was your favorite to write this time around?

I love all my children, but Zeddig’s merry band were particularly fun to write, because they’re types of characters I haven’t dealt with before in the Craft Sequence. In some ways Zeddig, Raymet, and Gal are as close to a D&D-typical adventuring party as we’ve seen in Sequence, but that’s not what appeals to me about them. Rather, they’re outside the crushing high power globetrotting game most of our other protagonists play, or have played. Zeddig and Raymet are lapsed academics who’ve turned to a novel, risky income stream. Gal’s… complicated, and she’s trying to put her past behind her. They’re all living on the fringes, having friends, getting drunk, playing games, running jobs, and trying to build a life, and a world, less beholden to the great powers of their time.

Ruin of Angels plays a lot with ideas of history and colonized people trying to hold on to their own history, despite the colonizers efforts to erase it. Are there any parts of history that you wish more people knew about?

There are so many exciting and interesting parts of history—but I think most people, myself included, and especially white folks in America (like me), would do well to learn more about their own history, and the history of the space where they live. We do a lot of papering over, with pat narratives: “This was a problem once! Good thing it’s not any more!” And that’s dangerous.

Recently I saw—I promise this is relevant—a long post on Reddit by a young man who’d bought a house with his father, and renovated it. The kitchen ceiling had a ceiling fan, which was weird, and a drop ceiling, which was weird, and looked a bit low, which was also weird. So, during renovations, they opened the ceiling. They found, not one ceiling that had been covered over, but three layers of ceiling, each with their own serious issues. The worst that I remember was the final ceiling, which had a recessed light fixture, long hidden by layers of renovation—but the wires that ran to it were still live.

That kind of shit starts fires, and people die. That’s what Faulkner’s Absolom, Absolom is all about; that’s kind of what Whitehead’s Underground Railroad is about, too, though it starts with the live wire and shows the layers of ceiling built, one by one. If we want to live in a place that won’t kill us, we have to do the archaeology. We have to learn our history back to the studs, and find the live wires, find the things that will kill us. And then, you know, we have to fix the problems.

26114222Ruin of Angels marks some changes for the series. No more numbered titles, a new cover design, moving to Tor.com! What can you tell us about the series’ new look?

I love it. This series is many things; Chris McGrath’s style was a perfect fit for the urban fantasy thriller aspect of the Craft Sequence, and Goni Montes is bringing out its full, fiery epic fantasy elements, which fits beautifully with RUIN, and with where we’re going.

I’ve been thinking of the new books as “The Craft Sequence: Season Two.” Four Roads Cross tied together thematic and character threads from the previous books; it resolved a lot of issues, and those five stand as a set. Moving forward, we’re… well, we’re moving forward. The books will be more international. They’ll be more causally linked. I don’t think I’ll be jumping around in time as much. I have a story I want to tell through to the end. And the flexibility of format Tor.com offers, focusing on novellas, will give me all the tools and freedom I need to make that happen.

I read another interview where you talked about being inspired by Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, where each book has its own plot but takes place in the same world with shared characters. Beyond structure, would you say the series has had any other influences on your own work? Also, what’s your favorite Discworld book?

Pratchett’s devoted and furious work on society and social systems, and story, helped shaped me. Stories, in Pratchett, are the foundations of the world—but stories can sicken people, twist them. They grow toxic, destructive, imprisoning. Stories make people do horrible things because the stories tell them they should, or that it’s okay. But if we have no stories, the sun’s just a ball of burning gas, and we’re all just atoms anyway. Stories heal, and free, and stories kill, and stories trap. Pratchett resists moralizing, but again and again through his books, people solve problems by seeing beyond the limits of simple stories—by paying attention to the world as it is, to people as they are, to primary knowledge rather than received wisdom, and using that experience to tell different, deeper, better stories. And he told stories about that process—big, beautiful, funny, true stories. Alongside LeGuin, and L’Engle, and McKinley, and Dunnett, and Raskin, and Zelazny, and the pantheon of older artists whose names don’t need to be repeated here, I think I’ll be learning from Pratchett forever.

As for my favorite book—that’s an impossible question and you know it. The Guards series is my favorite, but I keep coming back to Hogfather. Because Susan is the best, because every Christmas gives me an occasion for a reread, because children need stories that tell them monsters can be beaten (and we’re all children on the inside), and because of that moment on the cliff.

You’ve written in a lot of different formats, from novels and short stories to interactive games and Serial Box stories. Is there any format you’d still like to try?
I’m excited about visual storytelling—I’m looking forward to trying my hand at screenwriting, and at comics work, soon.

Beyond Ruin of Angels, do you have any releases we should be watching out for? Projects you’re working on? I’ve heard rumors of a novella co-written with Amal El-Mohtar…

HehehehehmwamwaMUAHAHAHAHAHAHA

I mean, no, no, nothing to see here, please move along.

But watch the skies.


About the Author

Max Gladstone5_15selectMax Gladstone has been thrown from a horse in Mongolia and nominated twice for the John W Campbell Best New Writer Award. Tor Books published FOUR ROADS CROSS, the fifth novel in Max’s Craft Sequence (preceded by THREE PARTS DEAD, TWO SERPENTS RISE, FULL FATHOM FIVE, and LAST FIRST SNOW) in July 2016. Max’s game CHOICE OF THE DEATHLESS was nominated for a XYZZY Award, and FULL FATHOM FIVE was nominated for the Lambda Award. His short fiction has appeared on Tor.com and in Uncanny Magazine.  His most recent project is the globetrotting urban fantasy serial BOOKBURNERS, available in ebook and audio from Serial Box, and in print from Saga Press.

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Tammy says:

    Fabulous interview! I’m starting Ruin of Angels next:-)

  2. Fantastic answer to the question re: blending sci-fi and fantasy, I just found myself nodding along to a lot of the points. Really excited to see what this could mean for the future of Craft Sequence.

    1. I thought this was a pretty great interview in general. I’m also really excited to see where the Craft Sequence will go — it sounds like he has a master plan that involves everything coming together in some epic way.

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