Snapshot 2012: Jay Kristoff

australian speculative fiction snapshot 2012 logoJAY Kristoff is a Perth-born, Melbourne-based author. His first trilogy, The Lotus War, was purchased by Tor in the three-way auction by US publishing houses in 2011. He is as surprised about it as you are. The first instalment, Stormdancer, is set to be published in September in the US, UK and Australia.

He can be found shuffling about aimlessly and frightening the children at www.jaykristoff.com.


What attracted you to the Japanese-style setting for Stormdancer? And then that dollop of steampunk? An interesting mix!
Steampunk came first. I thought the steampunk genre was a cool place to explore the idea of a destructive techonology –- I loved cyberpunk as a kid, loved the mood of decline combined with the theme of the machine as an ‘enemy’. And that’s a well-trodden alleyway in the realm of futuristic sci-fi, but historic sci-fi tends to look at the past through rose-tinted goggles and see the advent of the machine age as a ticket to a land of wonders. So I liked the idea of destroying that perception, bringing back that nihilistic ‘punk’ element for which steampunk is named but so often overlooks.

Thing is, the traditional stomping grounds of steampunk (Victorian England and colonial America) have been done, and done very well. I don’t like the idea of repeating someone else. There were some incredible cultures on this planet at the time when Victoria and Albert were knocking boots, and I’ve been a fan of Japanese film and fiction since forever, and it seemed like combining the two might lead me somewhere interesting. Plus, you know, chainsaw katanas…


In what ways has your penchant for role-playing games informed your writing?
I never really considered it until recently, but when I think about it, I’ve been building worlds since I was 12 years old. It starts with grid maps and random pluckings from the Monstrous Compendium (‘Heh, THIS will fuck ’em!’), but I think anyone who’s spent any time being the game master knows how cool it can be to create a living, breathing world, people it with memorable characters and watch players get lost in it. I think that is writing, in a very real sense — the same discipline you use to create an exciting game world is the same as the one you use to create the world in a novel.

A couple of the fundamental world-building ideas in Stormdancer came directly from the last Pathfinder game I ran. So apparently you can learn some important life skills sitting in dimly lit rooms with your buddies rolling polyhedral dice. Who knew.


On your blog you say you don’t believe in happy endings. Why is that?
Victory without sacrifice feels cheap to me. If I read a book or see a film in which all that was required to beat the Big Bad Guy was a little sleight of hand or some sharp-shooting, I feel cheated. I want to be afraid for the characters I love. When I’m in a book or film, I want to know not everyone I love is going to make it out alive, or intact, because to my mind, that makes me love them more. And I’m not talking about pathos for pathos’ sake. I’m talking about the death of Wash in Serenity, or Lin being rendered brain dead by the slake moth in Perdido Street Station — that kind of thing. Characters feel more real and tangible and alive to me when I know they could be gone at any moment, because that’s what real life is like. Triumph means more when it’s purchased with the things heroes hold dear.

I want my readers crying even as they’re cheering.


What Australian works have you loved recently?
I read The Music of Razors by Cameron Rogers last year, and simply put, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read in my life. Capital A ‘amazing’. I also scammed a copy of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak from my lovely Aus publishers at Pan-MacMillan (ah, freebies) a couple of weeks back, and I’m loving it so far.

What have been some of the biggest changes in Australian speculative fiction in the past two years?
Truthfully, I’m not really part of the scene, so I can’t really speak to that one. I do think we live in very tumultuous times in publishing — the advent of e-books, the rise of Amazon and the impact that’s having on publishers and brick-and-mortar stores. Long-standing publishers are shedding entire floors in NY city. Audiences are changing, and what’s expected of you as an author is changing.

But ultimately, it’s still all about the words. Write the right words, and everything else will follow. That’s the beauty of it.

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THIS interview was conducted as part of the 2012 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction. We’re blogging interviews from 1-8 June and archiving them at Australian Speculative Fiction in Focus. You can read interviews at:

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Snapshot 2012: Russell Blackford

australian speculative fiction snapshot 2012 logoAFTER many years in Melbourne, Sydney-born Russell Blackford has returned to Newcastle with wife Jenny, where he grew up. He has a law degree from the University of Melbourne and a Ph.D in philosophy from Monash University and an Eng. Lit. Ph.D from Newcastle Uni. He’s now a conjoint lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle.

He’s a philosopher, a literary critic and sometimes a creative writer specialising in fantasy and science fiction. His books include a trilogy of novels for the Terminator franchise, collectively known as Terminator 2: The New John Connor Chronicles. He also wrote a thriller, Kong Reborn, which is modern-day sequel to the original 1933 King Kong movie, and the much-reprinted fantasy story, set at the time of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, ‘The Sword of God’.

He has also been active in the Australian science fiction community for well over 30 years, including ‘a fair bit of work’ in convention programming.

His most recent books are 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We are Atheists (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), edited with Udo Schuklenk, and, just off the presses, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), which deals with many of the hot-button issues that arise when religion and politics meet. He’s currently working on two new books: 50 Great Myths About Atheism (Wiley-Blackwell, co-authored with Udo), and Humanity Enhanced (MIT Press).

Russell’s also editor-in-chief of an online peer-reviewed journal, The Journal of Evolution and Technology, and a columnist with the magazine Free Inquiry.

Russell is online at www.russellblackford.com, runs personal blog Metamagician and the Hellfire Club and blogs in a more philosophical way at Talking Philosophy.


Has science fiction driven your academic interest in ethics and humanity, or has your interest in those areas steered you towards science fiction — is science fiction the ideal ‘text’ for talking about gods, identities and being ‘more human than human’?

Really, I can’t make that kind of distinction. My interests in all these things are entangled and they date back to primary school. Also, I think there’s something more fundamental going on, which is my sense of the mutability of human cultures, something I’ve felt in my bones for as long as I can recall. I’ve always had a just-slightly-alienated, semi-anthropological attitude to my own society and its mores, folkways and default outlook. Perhaps my socialisation didn’t ‘take; in the way it was supposed to (actually, I suspect that this is true of many people who are involved in science fiction). In my essay, ‘Unbelievable!’, in 50 Voices of Disbelief, I talk a bit about this in relation to religion: at a very early age, I rejected the religious beliefs around me, largely on the basis that I saw Christianity as just the mythology of our time and place, something that would not seem plausible in, say, a couple of thousand years … any more than classical mythology seems plausible to us. As I describe in ‘Unbelievable!’, I did return to Christianity for a period in my teens, but once again it didn’t take. And just as well.

My love of ancient cultures, and their mythologies, and my love of speculation about the future are of a piece with this, and so is my scepticism about a lot of moralising and traditional moral rules. I have certain core values that drive me -– political freedom, compassion for suffering, the life of reason -– but I also have this very strong resistance to what seem to me culture-bound and largely arbitrary restrictions on what humanity might become (hence the ‘more than human’ part of your question), and on how, in the here and now, individuals might flourish.


Do you ever find it difficult balancing the academic mantle with the fan who just wants to say ‘Hulk, smash — hell yes’?

Nah, that’s fine. I love adventure movies and comics, and always have. I’m very fond of many of the great characters that have become, by now, a kind of twenty-first-century syncretic mythology, albeit not one that any sane person believes literally. In particular, I loved the new Avengers movie –- until it got too long and (I thought) too lacking in tension and felt danger. I found much to love simply because of the movie’s interpretations of the characters. Hulk, Black Widow, Thor, Loki, Iron Man, etc, were portrayed in ways that kept bringing that choked-up feeling to me, with moments that were just so recognisable and ‘right’.

None of that cuts across my work as a philosopher, but what probably would cut across it would be trying to write these characters, and create those character beats, myself. I’ve had some minor success with media tie-in work, and I thought I did a pretty good job with The Terminator in particular. I could probably write the main Avengers or X-Men characters -– I understand and love them as much as almost anyone. The problem is that creative writing demands (for me) a certain obsessive mind-set. If I were writing stories involving the Hulk, say, or, say, Doctor Doom, I’d be wandering around constantly imagining what it might be like to be inside the heads of those characters, thinking about how they would perceive, explain to themselves, and react to what’s going on. Hopefully this wouldn’t show through in my overt behaviour! But it would crowd out the level of obsession that I also need in order to do philosophy well.

Enjoying what other people do with those characters is fine –- it’s all fun. In fact, it’s very pleasing to see the characters done properly.


Damn it, Russell, when are you going to write cyberpunk again?
That’s a hard one -– again, to do this well I’d need to be totally obsessed with it. That’s the big problem with me and creative writing, and why I don’t do as much as I’d ideally like.

The cyberpunk style, or sub-genre, or whatever we call it, is a good fit for someone like me. I can feel the allure, as well as the obvious downsides, of the classic 1980s cyberpunk futures. It all fits in with my slightly alienated perspective on my own society and its various pretensions. Right now, though, I’m not sure when I’m likely to return to writing fiction. It will only be when I’m ready to give it that sort of obsessive involvement … and at the moment I’m obsessively involved with writing non-fiction books, which (for me) is a very different mind-set. I expect it will happen, though. I have a lot of stuff to get out of my system right now, but who knows what the future will bring?

If I’ve learned one thing in my life, it’s that I’ve got to get whatever ideas are in my head out of there and onto the paper or the screen. There’s never any worry about the ideas drying up as long as I keep doing that.

But what wants to get down onto the screen at the moment isn’t cyberpunk-style fiction. Alas.


What Australian works have you loved recently?
I tend to be behind with my reading of Australian science fiction and fantasy. Suffice to say that we have some exciting talents currently in the mix -– to name just one, a writer who has been exceptionally impressive of late has been Tansy Rayner Roberts.


What have been some of the biggest changes in Australian speculative fiction in the past two years since Aussiecon 4?
I doubt that it’s possible to draw conclusions about changes over a period of only two years. You need a longer timeline to see whether a trend is permanent or what impact a breakthrough might ultimately have. At the moment, one thing that strikes me is the very high quality work in fantasy and horror from a number of relatively new female writers -– Tansy Rayner Roberts again, Alison Goodman … the list would actually get rather long –- but this situation has been developing for some time now. Let’s say two decades.

You see some other things when you step back. For example, one obvious change over the past few years, though perhaps not all that remarked upon within Australia, is the successful return to the sf genre of Damien Broderick, who has placed multiple stories in year’s best anthologies of late. Good things keep happening.

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THIS interview was conducted as part of the 2012 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction. We’re blogging interviews from 1-8 June and archiving them at Australian Speculative Fiction in Focus. You can read interviews at:

Dead Red Heart and More Scary Kisses: books with bite!

more scary kisses cover

Here is the cover of More Scary Kisses, Ticonderoga’s anthology of paranormal romance stories due out in April. The table of contents is here.

And Ticonderoga’s Australian-themed vampire anthology, Dead Red Heart, has had its table of contents announced, and it’s a monster: 32 yarns, more than 130,000 words, due out towards the end of April.

I hope this means both will hit the shelf in time for Swancon, Perth’s annual spec fic convention which this year is also the national science fiction convention.

It’s particularly exciting to have a couple of stories coming out this year after such a long hiatus.

after the rain ebook edition

There’s also a story of mine, a cyberpunk one just in contrast to the New Orleans hot-and-sweaty of MSK and cane-and-dust vampire action of DRH, in Fablecroft’s forthcoming After the Rain anthology, also due out in time for Swancon. A special e-edition of ATR is available with proceeds going to the Queensland flood appeal. More than $1200 has been raised so far. Awesome!

For me, after the rain should probably be after the drought, it’s been so long since I’ve written a short story. But last year, after much kicking around and failing to succeed with novel-length manuscripts, my subconscious apparently found a window for some short stuff. Dark Prints Press’s Surviving the End anthology started the ball rolling — that book’s due out in 2012, and I quite like the story of mine in it: a dirty, post-apocalyptic Australian Gulf-country yarn.

I’m back in drought mode, now, but it sure feels affirming to have been able to dredge out some yarns!

Neuromancer, Henry and Madigan

neuromancer by william gibsonHenry Hoey Hobsonmadigan mine by kirstyn mcdermott

Something old, something new, something cool …

Neuromancer, by William Gibson, blew my socks off when I first read it. It came out in 1984, helped forge the cyberpunk movement and threw a few words into our technical lexicon. It still rocks. A sweet moment: reading this masterpiece of cyber intrigue and corporate shenanigans with Billy Idol’s Cyberpunk album drowning out the worst of the commuting interference. I love Gibson’s style, his flawed characters, his requirement that the reader keep up, his depictions of cyberspace and razorgirls, the plot twists and stinging conclusion — all of it, really.

Today I rolled another yarn, putting that commute to good use: a brand new story from Chris Bongers, a Brisbane writer who’s in the zone with her first book getting attention from the Children’s Book Council, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Henry Hoey Hobson does too. Chris sent it down as a nod, one I was proud to receive — it seems my penchant for using a coffin as an ice box at our Halloween parties has made an impression! In the Twilight age, it might be easy to think the Fright Night-style cover indicates yet another slipstreaming YA love-in-the-dark affair, but thankfully, it ain’t so. Chris grew up in the central west of Queensland and that dry, larrikin humour is tickling under the surface of this book, an affecting tale of a young fellah and his mum trying to cut it in the big smoke. It’s a yarn about family and fitting in and acceptance, the voice is spot-on, and the Addams Family elements made my day. The details of the Brisbane launch are here.

Which leads me to the other big news: Lucy Sussex (who has her own book launch coming up soon as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival — details TBC) is to launch Kirstyn McDermott’s Madigan Mine at the Carlton Library on August 2 at 7pm. The book is now officially out. Do come along if you can and help make a night of it. More details here.

Books of 2009

Thank goodness for December. After a tumultuous 2009, it’s nice to have a month to draw breath in, to hunker down and finally get that heart massage I’ve been yearning for.

I owe Chuck McKenzie a favour for getting the ball rolling, passing around an email touting for stories. The anthology died shortly after conception, but it was the rare instance this year when, by the time I’d read the announcement, I had an idea for a story. Two, in fact. I took them both on long leads for a walk in the park, and by the time I was headed for home, had settled on the one I was going to write. I sat down at the keyboard and, naturally, wrote the other one. It’s still not quite finished, and needs a serious going over, and may never see the light of day. Thing is, it happened, it’s there. The wheels were in motion for the first time in far too long.

They’ve kept turning, too. The result is a file featuring a hodge podge of scenes, all as rough as guts, some contradictory, most muddled, but there’s a narrative in there somewhere. It’s slowly emerging out of the mist.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the words have started to come as I’ve finally got back into reading. Writing’s a machine: you need words in to get words out. That’s my assessment, anyway.

So what words? A few of us were yakking the other day about our best reads of the year, and I was struggling to recall what I’d read, particularly in the fractured, then limbo, period of the year. Mostly review books, I think. I guess there’s a reason I don’t remember them, but then, memory’s a tricky thing.

I do remember enjoying Glenda Larke’s The Last Stormlord, an engaging fantasy set in a beautifully realised world of desert, drought and political intrigue. Peter M Ball’s novella Horn, an urban noir featuring a murderous unicorn on the sleazy side of town, whetted the appetite for a sequel. Angry Robot offerings Slights by Kaaron Warren and Moxyland by Lauren Beukes were head and shoulders above their packmates.

rewired post-cyberpunk anthology

And then there was the back-catalogue stuff. A copy of Rewired: The Post-cyberpunk anthology proved enjoyable and wide-ranging, from post-apocalyptic (How We Got In Town and Out Again) to post-human (The Wedding Album), obtusely technical (Lobsters) to poetically obtuse (Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City, possible a view or two too many), and two close to my heart thanks to their Mississippi River settings, Calorie Man and Two Dreams on Trains.

A revisiting of Stephen King’s On Writing and Kim Wilkins’ The Infernal (every bit as good as I remember it; and due for a new release, I believe) preceded two visions of life after the apocalypse, sans zombies: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. I thoroughly enjoyed both of these science fiction novels, so beautifully told in both language and structure. I stumbled early on in The Road while I adapted to McCarthy’s degeneration of punctuation and assault with sentence fragments, helping to set his scene. The structure was very clever, a series of vignettes, Polaroids of memories, the order not always clear, his protagonists unnamed as they stumble their way through the blighted landscape, living off scavenged goods and in fear of cannibalistic gangs. A world where trust and compassion are casualties of the need for survival. The last scenes left me a little cold, but that might be my cynicism asserting itself. Atwood’s yarn, in which a race of gene-spliced humans have inherited the world, overseen by a wonderfully depicted, mundane narrator with the inside track on the apocalypse, proved compelling from go to whoa.

Films and TV

true blood dvd series

Not a good year for the moving picture in Jason-land this year, due to a protracted absence from attending either the big or small screen. The few new release movies I’ve seen just haven’t impressed. From the sofa, I’ve been enjoying revisiting Battlestar Galactica, and catching up with True Blood, Dexter, Being Human and Dead Set. I hope the new Sherlock Holmes movie might give the year a kick in the tail.

Gigs

In no particular order, this lot rocked: Nine Inch Nails, Gary Numan, Amanda Palmer, Jeff Martin, Emilie Autumn. At a local level, Sunas, Tycho Brahe, Felinedown, Bridget Handley, Dandelion Wine, Wendy Rule and The Wretched Villains made an impression on the synapses.

Two albums released this year remain on rotation here in the office: The White LiesTo Lose My Life and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ It’s Blitz!. My retro buy of the year was Beautiful Day by defunct Brisbane duo Stringmansassy: just gorgeous.