I’m proud and honored to be interviewing today the incomparable SF author, John C. Wright. He’s the author of several brilliant page-turning novels, including the Nebula Award Nominee Orphans of Chaos, and his latest book, the amazing Count To A Trillion, which starts a brand-new trilogy for him and I feel is destined to be nominated for (and possibly win) one or more of these awards: Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell. Who knows? Maybe he’ll go for the Trifecta.
And now, SF fans, let’s get on with the questions!
Douglas R. Cobb: Thanks for agreeing to do this interview with me, John! I’ve been looking forward to it for some time now, having had a chance to correspond with you a little and get to know you better.
For my first question, as I also asked Neal Asher, I wondered if you got any SF books under the Christmas tree this year, or gave any; and, if so, what were they?
John C. Wright: I am afraid I have reached the age where all my favorite science fiction authors are dead, and will be coming out with no new books forever, with the notable exceptions of Gene Wolfe and Tim Powers. I got two books by Cardinal Ratzinger this Christmas, and I gave the wife two romance novels.
I am anxious to ask you some questions about your latest novel, Count To A Trillion, but first I’ll ask you a couple of questions about Orphans of Chaos, the first installment of your Chronicles of Chaos series.
I really like your take on the traditional theme of orphans who succeed despite their upbringing and the attempts of others to see them fail. The first-person narrator, Amelia Armstrong Windrose can see in four dimensions; Victor can control the molecular arrangement of matter; Vanity can find secret passageways where none previously existed; Colin is a psychic; and Quentin is a warlock. They are also something much more, but I won’t ask you to reveal what.
Did you think up each character and write down their histories and attributes before you ever began writing the novel, or did ideas come to you as you wrote it? How long did it take you to write it and see it through to publication?
Actually, I made up the laws of nature first, then made up the scenery, then rummaged through the attic of my mind for characters from previous stories and ideas to jury-rig into place, or steal from the public domain. Their backgrounds, what is now the material in Chapter Two, was something I invented last of all and wrote last. I wrote it in about nine months, and since I had a working relationship with Tor Books, the publisher of my previous novels, I did not need to shop for a market. The story started as an idea for an Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game. Indeed, when I wrote the first page, I had not yet decided if I were writing a story for publication or background information to pass out to players to use in deciding their character concepts.
Orphans of Chaos and the entire series could be thought of as YA literature, or as adult SF. Did this cause you any trouble getting a company to publish it? How would you describe what category it falls into, if any besides SF or Urban Fantasy, perhaps?
It cannot be thought of as YA literature, since it is not sexually explicit and perverse enough, although, perhaps, in one scene it comes close. It was not written with any but an adult audience in mind. I had no trouble whatsoever getting my publisher to publish it.
It is not science fiction, since it contains elements of fantasy and magic. Nor is it urban fantasy, since that requires a leather clad teen vampire huntress to appear, or something as lyrical as the work of Charles de Lint, which my poor wordsmithing does not approach. Nor is it high fantasy, which requires elves, nor sword and sorcery, which requires barbarians.
The only genre I can think of where a group of teen heroes join forces, one of whom is a psychic, another a robot, another a fourth-dimensional girl, and another is a magician, is a superhero comic book. ORPHANS OF CHAOS is in the same genre as TEEN TITANS or YOUNG JUSTICE.
I am kidding. Almost. The story is a cheap ripoff of, er, um, I mean a loving homage to Roger Zelazny’s Amber books. If you can tell me what genrethose are, I can tell you what genre mine are.
One of Amelia’s quirks is her obsession with the famous female aviator, Amelia Earhart. How does that play into the plot of Orphans of Chaos?
The children were each told to select their own names. Being raised on the confines of an old school, and not allowed to set one toe off the grounds, Amelia was obsessed with escape, and of seeing all the wide and wonderful places she imagined must be beyond. She took her name from the celebrated aviatrix, Amelia Earhart, and from that compass rose which decorates maps, and points to infinity in each direction. Like her namesake, Amelia dreams of flight.
I won’t ask you to get into details to any great extent, John, but could you give the readers of my blog an idea about the real reason why the orphans are at the Academy they find themselves in, and why they can’t seem to remember their pasts?
They are not human beings. The orphanage is not an orphanage at all, but a prison. They are much older, very much older, than their appearance and their memories would indicate.
There’s so much more I could ask you about the series, but for now, let’s get on to questions related to your latest SF extravaganza, Count To A Trillion.
The main character of Count To A Trillion is Menelaus Montrose. The novel is set in America, but in a future period after the country’s collapse, brought about by various things like terrible economic conditions, the Japanese Winter, and the rise of the technologies and scientific advances of other countries. The government of the USA is still struggling to hang on and maintain itself, but we’ve basically fallen to the status of a Third World nation.
Menelaus is a Texan, a very gifted and highly intelligent person with an expertise in math. He’s also a fan of a cartoon series from the past called Asymptote, which is reminiscent in many ways of the original Star Trek series.
Where you (Are you) a Star Trek fan? As an aside, I had the good fortune of meeting Leonard Nimoy (Spock) once, in Illinois, when he appeared in the play One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Also, what is it about the future depicted in Asymptote that Menelaus wants so badly to help make become a reality?
I am indeed a Star Trek fan, perhaps too much so, if such a thing can be imagined. My ambition is to be as much like a Vulcan as human nature allows, and never to deviate from the path of purest and strictest logic. Such a path is odd indeed, since it leads to strange, may I say, non-Euclidean places much different from what Gene Roddenberry might have expected.
The future depicted in “Asymptote” was optimistic and transhuman: a story about overcoming limitations, including all moral limitations. In the depressed and depressing era in which Menelaus Montrose finds himself, the reminder of past glories and the promise of future glories is like wine.
I know that you are not a Darwinist, from both having read the novel and having written emails to you; but, Menelaus’s mother, who is very strict, believes in it, and that Menelaus’s fate is to become a soldier and fight in a war. Menelaus wants to prove his mother wrong.
Why do you think that some people have received the impression that you are a Darwinist, and could you tell the readers of What’s New In Book Reviews what makes Menelaus a successful lawyer (NOTE: by this, I’m not referring to his skills in arguing cases, but to something else) previous to his journey into space?
John C. Wright: The word ‘Darwinist’ is ambiguous.
Correctly speaking “Darwinism” means the biological theory that new species emerge from old by descent through modification caused by natural selective breeding, that theory is neither questioned, nor even mentioned, in the novel.
Incorrectly speaking “Darwinism” is often used by clods who have not read Darwin to means the abortive moral theory that treating one’s fellow man like breeding livestock serves the race, and that no higher principles have a claim on the conscience, that is the moral theory Montrose abhors. This theory is more correctly called Pseudo-Darwinism, Social Darwinism, Nietzscheanism, or Naziism. Montrose, as a small child, does not make this distinction. I assume readers are more discriminating.
Montrose’s mother actually says that boys are made for fighting wars and girls are made for mourning after them, and she gives an evolutionary color to the claim, saying that this was what nature selected the sexes to do. The quote comes from Andrew Johnson’s biography, whose mother said a similar harsh thing, but without the science fictional Darwinian metaphor.
I do not think any reader could possibly have received that impression that the author was a Darwinist from a book where the hero in the first chapter vows a solemn vow to oppose the philosophy.
Menelaus was not a successful lawyer previous to his journey into space. In the corrupt practices of those days, legal battles often were resolved ‘out of court’ by a pistol duel. Montrose, a mathematical prodigy, worked as an apprentice for a weaponsmith, and learned the tricks of how to program the anti-bullet bullets each pistol fired as escorts to its payload advantageously.
He was also bold and cold-nerved enough to meet in the cool of dawn with adversaries and stare down the barrel of a pistol without losing his nerve. He was ‘successful’ if it can be called that, insofar as he was not dead. The scene opens on the day he loses his nerve, perhaps due to a growing conscience or a failing fortitude.
What is it about an alien artifact called the Monument that makes Menelaus want to go to any length to reach it and see it?
The artifact is a small moon, orbiting a star 50 lightyears hence, and covered over every inch with hieroglyphs of some mathematical and symbolic logical notation. It is an attempt at first contact. The only language the Monument Builders have in common with whatever race of unknown history, prehistory, psychology, and biology as may encounter their handiwork is science, math, logic. We all occupy the same universe, after all. Hence, before even beginning the contact message, the message must establish a common language, which mean, to list all the laws of nature, including laws of nature unknown, as yet, to man, such as the relationship between mind and body, the rule of entropy and thought, the logic which underpins logic, and so on. The math is too complex for the humans to comprehend: the Monument was something created by an artificial intelligence the size of many Dyson Spheres occupying a globular cluster to communicate with another intelligence like itself. They regard biological life the way we regard sperm cells, merely as a transitional stage in the evolution of inanimate matter to self-aware matter. When the humans attempt to understand what Man Was Not Meant to Know, things go badly. At first.
Why did you decide to make most of the other scientific members of Menelaus’s spaceship be from India or of Hispanic descent?
To give a sense of the weight of history. No Spaniard at the time of the Armada, when she was the crown and glory of the world, would have imagined the modern state, where a single sneak attack by a band less numerous than the crew of a pirate ship would topple a government. No British subject of Queen Victoria, on whose empire no sun set, would have imagined the desolation of the government of Clement Atlee. I merely postulated a time in the future when the powers of the biowar-maimed Northern Hemisphere powers were weak, and South America and the Indian subcontinent were strong.
And I postulated one other thing. The nation state is a recent invention. Before that, kingships were the norm, and before that, Imperium, and before that, the City State. Each are based on a different theory of the nature of the group to which the man belongs, and what are his duties toward it. Here, I assume linguistic identity, an Hispanosphere or Indosphere, form the basic unit of social loyalty, rather than the nation state. This is not because I think it desirable or even likely, but because I think it unique. At least, I know of no other SF author who has speculated along the lines of that particular extrapolation.
Upon returning from the Monument, 150 years have passed. I won’t ask you, again, to go into much details about this aspect of the plot; but could you say who has now become the dictator of the Earth (NOTE: The description that Tor/Forge includes in review copies of Count To A Trillion calls this person a dictator)?
No one. His title is Nobilissimus, and he is the head of an advisory body, called the Advocacy, which rules a complex coalition of various member powers and organizations. However, this advisory body also happens to be the survivors of the expedition to the Diamond Star, and the monopolists controlling the world’s supply of Contraterrene which they there mined, and the Hermeticists controlling the secrets of extraterrestrial and posthuman superscience they discovered by translating, or having translated for them, of the first few acres of alien notation.
Count To A Trillion depicts an apocalyptic time in our future, but there is hope for a much better one to come. That’s another thing I liked about the novel.
Why did you chose to end it with a cliffhanger, though? It may be
self-explanatory, I guess, in that the reason most books/movies/TV series do is to make you want to continue reading/watching what happens next. Would you say that is a big part of the reason why?
I ended on a cliffhanger to whet the readers’ appetite for the sequel.
It’s been great interviewing you and hearing you discuss your novels, John! I have one more question, or combo question, for you–yes, the dreaded “future plans” one–are you working on the next book in the series yet, or have you been to busy with other things and possibly promoting Count To A Trillion? Do you have ideas what the second novel’s title will be, and could you
give an idea what will happen next?
The next two books in the series are, as of this moment, written, and the one after that is three chapters written. The next book is called THE HERMETIC MILLENNIA; the third is called THE JUDGE OF AGES, and the fourth is as yet untitled. Whether the fourth will be one larger volume or split into two remains to be seen.
The first volume ends with the desperate flight into space of the artificial posthuman being, Rania Grimaldi, whose DNA includes patterns found in the alien Monument. She goes to plead for the freedom and salvation of mankind with the masters of the master-races of the Hyades star cluster, who own the Earth. These remote beings have their seat outside the galaxy in the globular cluster at M3. Due to the disaster which surrounds her departure, Menelaus Montrose, her husband, is left behind and with him is the mission to maintain human civilization in a condition such that, should the Authority at M3 declare man free and equal to the Hyades, man would be deserving of the honor. The irony is that, in a slower-than-lightspeed polity stretching across tens of thousands of lightyears, interstellar agreements and laws must maintain their force and effect for tens of thousands of years, far longer than any institution designed by man can last.
In brief, in order for the verdict of the remote power at M3 to free mankind, mankind must achieve and maintain a star-faring civilization, which means, retain memory and continuity across all the time that a star-voyage would take, the time it takes to count to a trillion, tens of thousands of years. Menelaus Montrose is the inventor of the world’s longterm suspended animation facilities, called tombs, and he must preserve, nay, he must evolve mankind up to the level needed to make his absent wife’s dream come true, and her voyage not be in vain. He must evolve man to be free.
His enemy, Blackie Del Azarchel, who also controls the secret of mathematical analysis of the vectors of history, seeks a mutually incompatible end: he thinks mankind’s only hope for survival is to be the serfs of some higher power, the way wolves in the stone ages became hounds and dogs, and therefore the allies and pets of the superbeings called man. He must evolve mankind to be the perfect
Both men possess superhuman intelligence and an ability to manipulate the predicted paths of history; both are in love with Rania; both are avowed to destroy the other. And both wait thousands of years for their plans to bear fruit.
The volume I am writing now takes place on a grander scale again, with hundreds of thousands of years rather than merely thousands taking place between the events of the great duel between these two towering men, whose role not just his human, nor just in galactic history, grows to ever wider and wider extent.
At each step, a deeper purpose behind the Monument secrets, and a deeper purpose behind the history of the universe, becomes clear.
Thanks once again, John, for doing this interview with me! You and your wife are both very gifted authors, and I wish you both the best! Also, to the readers of What’s New In Book Reviews, I wnat to wish you all a Happy New Year, and I highly recommend you read Count To A Trillion and the other novels of John C. Wright and L. Jagi Lamplighter.
–Douglas R. Cobb–