In the Dragon’s Den: Interview with Steven Erikson Part 3
TCD: Picking this up again, we were talking about SF, and it and your love of absurd comedy masking some pretty pointed observations and satire brings me on to Willful Child 2: The Wrath of Betty (coming from Tor in October I believe). What can you tell us about it?
SE: Willful Child was a bit thin on the background universe. I mean, I didn’t really have time for that stuff. It just got in the way! It definitely got in Captain Hadrian’s way. But having set up the situation and the main characters, the second novel needed to bit more depth (depth, in fiction-writing terms, is what the characters have to wade through), which in turn meant more of the background information brought to the foreground, thus adding, er, depth.
So it’s a deep novel. Deeper. With more depth.
Anyway, my advance readers recoiled at first, since for some inexplicable reason my satire meter was cranked way over. It bears keeping in mind the fuel that powers satire. It’s a savage thing. As much as one may go for laughs on the surface (and interestingly, most of the reviews of Willful Child more or less got locked on that surface stuff, with only a couple exceptions that I’ve seen), it’s the vicious current beneath it that drives the impulse to write this kind of fiction.
In other words, I needed to be fed up in order to write these books. So, that inclines one to turn language into a weapon (and why not, we’ve weaponized everything else). The way I see it, satire can use a scalpel, or it can use a broadsword. It can also use both and everything in between, depending on the circumstances.
Curiously, if you look at some of the best satire, say, the stuff on television (The Simpsons, South Park, Family Guy), you can probably track how each series got more and more vicious as it went on. This ramping up may appear on the surface to be nothing more than the need to escalate the shock quotient (possibly in acknowledgement of the numbing effect of multiple shocks), but what I see in it is the growing desperation of the creators in their efforts to shake us all out of our apathy. And the more you fail, the angrier you get.
Wrath of Betty started out wielding not a scalpel, not a broadsword, but a flamethrower. I had to halt part way through to toss the weapon and run around stamping out fires. And then tone things down some. So it took a bit longer than the first book.
TCD: You have previously spoken about your life-long love (or should that be obsession) with all things Star Trek, given that love, how could you mercilessly lampoon it so?
SE: I mentioned earlier about my reading of the series progression from the original series through to Enterprise. Adding in the big screen re-boots, I think it’s possible to map a certain degradation of core themes. In terms of dramatic necessity, there was a valid argument to be made against Roddenberry’s desire with TNG to present a version of humanity where all its internal conflicts had been solved, particularly among the ship’s crew. Script-writers tore their hair out over the notion of ‘no conflict’ between the regulars. I think the subsequent series (especially TNG and Voyager) suffered because of these proscriptions. What made the original series so powerful was the dramatic tension between the three principals. It was good, it was healthy, to see Bones and Spock go at it tooth and nail, or Kirk defiant against either or both McCoy and Spock, or any of the three (and each had their turn) go off the rails. Made for good drama, and good drama is what engages us.
And yet, the original series had at its core the notion of an evolved humanity, one that had left behind racism (in particular), nationalism and most of the other divisive aspects characterizing Twentieth Century civilization. For whatever reason, with TNG, Roddenberry seemed to have confused that original core (of intrinsic optimism) with a homogenized, strangely zombie-like bridge crew, with the poor actors (and writers!) struggling to find something – anything – to sink their teeth into. The Happy Camper approach made for some of the dullest characters in the ST universe (Riker, Crusher, Troi, Chacotay, Paris) despite their potential.
What followed after Roddenberry’s departure was a re-visioning of the ST universe and the players in it (some of that re-visioning out of necessity) that effectively darkened that universe, made it more ambivalent.
But all of this was a response to the growing disenchantment of the decades in which these series were produced. A more brutal reality imposed itself upon the entertainment of that time, infusing it with more instances of treachery, distrust, official lies, entire alien civilizations being played, a whole subset of paranoia and cynicism (culminating near the end of DS9 and then throughout the Enterprise series).
So, given my clear love of the original series, what drove me to use it the way I did for the Willful Child series? I might have been in mourning for the loss of the core values of the original series. I might have been pissed off at its subsequent degradation at the hands of people with lesser, weaker visions of the future (ie, a future little different from the present, barring the trappings of technology and latex foreheads). I might have been profoundly disappointed in the reboot films, especially the horrendous second one. All of these things might have contributed to my impulse to deconstruct the original series, concentrating solely on its outdated social mores, tossing all the good stuff aside, and then running with those outdated absurdities of attitude (which, it turns out, aren’t quite as extinct as I’d like them to be), all in order to create a trainwreck of a satire. Yet one using, perhaps more directly, the same inclinations of every ST series after the first one: a crueller setting; cynical, corrupted authority; the sense that we don’t belong out there and haven’t earned our place in that galactic community (was there anything more self-righteous and hypocritical than the later renditions of Starfleet?).
I might have been considering all of that, at least until Hadrian himself insisted that there must be something more….
TCD: There are satirical themes and some pointed social commentary in a number of your novels, with Crack’d Pot Trail singling out literary critics and that oeuvre, but with Willful Child you seemed much more focused on SF fan culture and SF tropes and clichés. Is that fair to say?
SE: Hmm, I don’t know. Was I? I can’t recall if I ever went at some aspect of SF fandom (maybe in Wrath of Betty, but not the first novel). As for tropes and clichés, sure, but then, Star Trek established many of those, didn’t it? I suspect my ‘targets’ as such only tangentially touched on SF Fandom, insofar as there seems to exist a seriously un-reconstructed element of that fandom, longing for some glorious white-man’s paradise of the past, and really, how can you not mock the shit out of that group? Especially bearing in mind that so many of its members seem to have no sense of humour to begin with, I mean, an easier target one cannot imagine. Besides, they deserve mockery, even derision. Have you ever heard such whining from Real Men? Every whine, every squeal, further undermines their founding premise. How can you not laugh?
Mostly, I was attacking an attitude. I didn’t paint any faces on it.
TCD: I know a number of readers responded negatively to the character of Hadrian, seeing him as sexist and misogynist, how do you think of him?
SE: Referring to the mind-set discussed earlier, I’ll try tackling this another way which might make things a little bit clearer. By the time of DS9 and Enterprise, the Star Trek universe had been converted – reverted, even – to simply a more gadget-filled and expanded version of our present world. The original series was about us being better than who we now are; by DS9 and Enterprise, we were back to being how we are. Four hundred years of history had changed us not one whit. That idea depressed the hell out of me. Here, in one of the most influential creations in the past fifty years, that optimistic vision had been sold out (I think, barring outright cynicism, that the selling out had as much to do with not understanding how to create drama in the absence of our collective flaws, while maintaining interest via personal conflicts based on divergent opinions [which are not only necessary to our evolution, personally and culturally, but fundamentally different from the simplistic notion of ‘everybody getting along insanely well’]. The producers simply could not grasp the distinction, and therefore defaulted on the whole proposition of us ever being better than we were. Accordingly, this was a loss of faith and yes, maybe that reflected real-world sentiments, but ST was all about moving past those real-world attitudes, not wallowing in them.)
Captain Hadrian doesn’t want that ugly universe of what ST became. He wants his universe to be the original series ST universe, and is single-handedly setting out to make it so. Granted, he’s also brought along a few egregious attitudes from the ‘Sixties (and do recall, the original ST was attacking those attitudes, again and again), but those are just the character traits of a man desperate to get laid. Essentially and in fictional terms, he’s my vehicle for wanting a return to optimism regarding our future, and not just optimism, but that yearning for adventure that is the driving force behind our pioneering spirit.
The satirical side of things also relates, not too indirectly, to the compromising of the original series’ founding premise (that the future will see a better version of us) by subsequent producers within the ST franchise. They sold out and that has me pissed off.
That said, I look forward to the upcoming new series, with all the optimism I have no reason to feel.
TCD: Why do you think it is that some character flaws are acceptable in rounding out a character and others are unforgivable? By this I mean, we have untold hundreds of ‘heroic’ characters who are clearly psychopaths and sociopaths who quip as they kill, but they are forgiven their sins and loved by fans.
SE: No idea. I remember once, I was probably around eight or nine years old. I spent a summer riding my bike around Assiniboine Park in Winnipeg, wishing I could somehow acquire super-powers and if I did, why, I’d trash all the bullies in my school, and look cool doing it (so the girls would fawn, etc). You know, the kind of thing an eight or nine year old boy might fantasize about.
TCD: One of the joyous things in Willful Child are the weird and wonderful gadgets and weapons. In particular I loved the Insisteon. What can you tell us about the types of technology that you have in the series?
SE: Well, I make it up as I go along. That said, the Insisteon as a distance-transportation technology actually makes more sense that ST’s transporter (which would be impossible in terms of energy output and containment).
TCD: Do you have any plans for conventions and signings this coming year that you would like to tell us about?
SE: Uhm, a signing to accompany the launch of Fall of Light, but only in Victoria, at Bolen’s Books, May 24th (I think). Oh, and I’ll be attending my first ever Star Trek convention, in Las Vegas in August (which, if my secret identity is uncovered, might get me lynched). An event in October, in Oshawa, Ontario, via their Public Library. I’ll be doing a Google Live Chat at 6:00pm PST for Read for Pixels, September 23rd.
TCD: I know that last year you went to Emerald City Comic Con and Miscon, has that ignited your interest in attending more fan conventions?
SE: The comic-cons are different beasts from conventions. I enjoy both. As a general rule, if invited I’ll probably go, unless the timing is impossible or there’s conflicts to prior commitments.
TCD: You are also a regular attendee at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts, an academic conference, and I believe you are Guest of Honour there next year. Care to tell us a little about it?
SE: I make a point of never missing that conference. It’s not a convention or a comicon. It’s unique. I’ve been going now for years and it’s been interesting to see how the new blood is shaking things up, especially in the area of Epic Fantasy (next year’s theme, by the way). A great blend of writers and scholars who now feel like an extended family.
TCD: If a fan was to buy you a drink at a convention, what would it be?
SE: 16 yr Macallan, double, straight up, no ice.
TCD: Are you a coffee of tea man?
SE: coffee, decaf these days.
TCD: If you were going to have a dinner party with five of your characters, which five would you invite and why?
SE: Gothos, Hood, Raest, Gethol and the Captain. Together, we’ll compose an unending manifesto on the problem of civilization, and then get drunk.
TCD: And if the dinner party was held at someone else’s house would you invite anyone different?
SE: No, except we’ll get even drunker.
TCD: You mentioned previously that you and Esslemont wrote film and television scripts, do you have any plans to ever go back to any of that material?
SE: no time no time no time….
TCD: One last thing, on the subject of future plans, do you have any other projects that you want to mention?
SE: I’m working on a couple things for the summer, but I’m keeping them under wraps for the moment.
TCD: Well all that remains is for me to thank you, Steve, for agreeing to this and taking so much time out of your schedule to answer all these questions. Thanks again.
SE: Would you mind passing this little note here onto the Party of Five? I need breaking out, pronto.
[Parts 1 and 2 of this interview can be found here and here.]