Shall we start from the most predictable, still unavoidable question? Your debut novel got a lot of buzz well before the official release but you know, here in Italy we are quite far from the center of the empire, so, please, introduce yourself to our readers.
Hi! I’m Seth Dickinson, author of The Traitor Baru Cormorant. I studied social neuroscience at NYU, worked on the lore and universe of Bungie Studios’ Destiny, and helped develop the open-source space opera Blue Planet. This is my first book. Very excited to be here!
You started your career writing short stories, then you signed with Tor Books for three novels. How does it feel, being in “major league”? Is this shift from short fiction to longer forms an unavoidable step in the career of a SFF writer?
I don’t think it’s unavoidable at all — there are writers like Ted Chiang or Rachel Swirsky who’ve built shining careers in short fiction, novellas, and novelettes. And you have writers like Kij Johnson or Catherynne Valente who do great work in both! In some ways, the competition in short fiction is even more intense. There’s a lot of short fiction published, but very little of it actually gets read, and what does catch fire often comes from the really superb writers in the field.
But I’m glad to be working in novels! A short story is like an assassination, right? You have to find your target, hit it, and get out. There’s beauty in that. But a novel lets you dig deeper. Novels are wonderful for looking at how something works — a person, a world, an idea.
The story of Baru surely felt that way. It was the perfect murder as a short story and now as a novel the reader can linger for 400 pages with such a fascinating protagonist who kills it.
It is quite common this process in SFF genre. How did it work for Baru? Were you asked to expand the story or did you feel you were not done with Baru, her world and her story?
No one asked me to expand it, no, but I knew I wanted to write a book and this story called to me. The short story felt like the midpoint of something interesting, didn’t it? I wanted to understand how Baru Cormorant and Tain Hu had come to this place. What drove Baru? What made her capable of these choices?
And I wanted to write a book about an argument I saw happening around me. People would say, these fantasy stories, they can’t have women or people of color or queer people as the protagonists, because ‘realistically’ these people would be facing so much oppression they couldn’t act to drive a story. And I hated that argument, because never mind the argument about realism – even in a very oppressive fictional world, these people still have stories to tell. They still act. They resist, and they also have lives beyond their own resistance.
I chose to write about a woman facing every kind of oppression. I wanted to explore how she changed that system, and how the system changed her.
Yes, Baru is surely a great example in this controversial topic. Last october Aliette De Bodard was in Italy and she said that as a female, not caucasian SFF writer she perceives a change in the right direction, but it is still a maddening slow process.
Baru is the absolute protagonist of a story that is heavily influenced by her decisions and yet she is the young woman, a queer person and a member of a minority. Moreover, the novel never sounds “politically corrected” because Baru is only one of the female characters oppressed by the Masquerade trying to do the very same thing. This story could have been told by the point of view of Xate Yara or duchess Nayauru, not to mention Tain Hu.
Aliette is great! If you haven’t read House of Shattered Wings you should. And yes, the change is frustratingly slow, especially because it’s not some kind of revolutionary leap to include a ‘diverse’ cast. All folks want is to see people like them pop up in fiction about as often as they pop up in real life. That’s not special treatment: that’s normalization. It’s just removing a clear statistical skew.
I’ve seen some people say that ‘normalization’ is a better term than ‘diversity’, because it expresses the desire to make fiction look like the real world, not a small part of that world. I don’t know if it’ll ever catch on, because it’s not a very charismatic word, but hey. It’s a thought.
For that reason I don’t put much stock in the term ‘political correctness’. I’ve never met anyone who can really define what it is. We’re all uncomfortable with certain things, right? We’re offended if someone insults our parents or tells us we’re weak. We all agree that some things are worth getting angry over. But there are also some things we don’t agree on, and when someone else is offended by something we’re not, we call it ‘political correctness.’ I don’t think it’s surprising that people get hurt when they see things that make them feel excluded from the world.
I’m so excited that you felt the story could’ve worked form Xate Yawa’s perspective, or Nayauru’s! I totally agree. I wanted the story to happen from Baru’s point of view, but to feel like it could happen from someone else’s perspective and still be interesting — whether that’s a Duchess, a soldier on the front lines, one of the Clarified, or even a veiled character like Apparitor. It’s part of writing a story about intrigue. You want the reader to wonder what’s going on in everyone’s hand.
I feel oh so strongly that it’s possible to tell a great, exciting story with any kind of lead character. So I try to always make the right choice for the story. Baru has one perspective on oppression and how to fix it; other women and queer people in the story have different opinions. There are elements of the story that are influenced by Baru’s race, or gender, or sexual orientation, and there are elements that would’ve played exactly the same if she were, say, just like me.
I hope that people love Baru because she’s Baru. I hope that I could write another woman from Taranoke who loved other women, ticking all the same demographic checkboxes, and yet make her completely different and intriguing for her own reasons.
I am not sure about readers loving Baru. For me it was love at first sight, but other readers described her as more than your average unlikeable character, almost unbearable in her selfish attempt to fight Falcrest, no matter what. As for myself, it is quite scary but I felt so close to her exactly because in the end she took all the selfish and hypocritical choices I would in her situation. Not that I really believe to be able to handle such a never-ending paranoia nightmare as well as Baru, not really. Did you expect this kind of reaction, some readers finding the main protagonist unpleasant?
You’re right, ‘love’ is the wrong word. I should say that I hope readers find Baru compelling because she’s Baru. Protagonists don’t need to be likable. They need to be compelling: they need to make the reader care about what happens to them, whether it’s a wish to see them happy, or a wish to see them burn, or simple curiosity about how they turn out.
I do challenge the idea that characters have to be likable. Achilles isn’t very likable: he’s a selfish, sulking prima donna who treats Hector dishonorably. Signy Mallory in Downbelow Station is a rapist and a military tyrant. Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall is determined, competent, and morally flexible, but you wouldn’t ever want to risk making his acquaintance. But all these characters are enormously compelling. They compel us to keep reading. They have the power to hold our attention. Their acts and relationships are worth our time.
So yes, I did expect that many readers would find Baru unlikable! Like so many things in the book, she’s intended to provoke argument. Is she a hero or a villain? Are her tactics necessary, or monstrous? Is she motivated by the pursuit of power, or liberation?
I do hope readers find Baru compelling. I cannot argue with a reader who says ‘I couldn’t read her, I was repelled and wanted to stop being in her head.’ That’s okay. Not all stories fit all people! If they did, we would all read the same books, and the problem of how to write a good story would be solved.
Let’s talk about money: they say it is always about money, in the end. It is really unsual to follow an accountant as the leading character of a fantasy book. Usually in “the chosen one vs the evil empire” plot the protagonist is a warrior, a rebel prince, a common young person with an hidden gift. Baru is an accountant and the whole novel feels like a study of how economy is the key to understand and influence the world, even a fictional, fantasy one. It sounds more realistic than the average fantasy novel and yet a more genuine development of conventional fantasy topoi. And thrilling, even when Baru is often far away from the actual battlefield. Why did you chose this fantasy “Guns, Germs and Steel” approach?
It’s an algorithm for putting importance on things. ‘I care about this. I’ll spend more money on it.’ ‘I worked hard at this. I want more money for it.’ It’s the only algorithm we have that works, because it doesn’t require much central control: it allows everyone to use their own information to choose what they value.
So in a sense, money’s the scoring system for our world. In theory, you do things other people value and you get money. You spend money to get things you value.
I’ve always been fascinated by the study of victory. Who wins? Why? What qualifies as ‘winning’? Is violence a good way to ‘win’, in the historical sense? How do you make ideas that endure? Do you fight and conquer, do you trade and study, do you preach and convert?
For a long time I was focused on the tactical level of victory. Could something small change something huge? You know the poem: for want of a nail, the horse was lost, for want of a horse the king was lost, for want of a king the battle was lost, for want of a battle the kingdom was lost. Could a civilization’s success spring out of something tiny, like a particular tactic in battle?
But you need to get the nail and the horse and the king to the battle. You need a lot of mechanisms working to domesticate horses, build a feudal class, summon and provision an army for battle, and find someone to fight. What if a civilization’s success is mostly driven by huge factors, as in Guns, Germs and Steel? Their bureaucracy, their immune systems, their cash crops and work animals, even their ideology?
And their money — isn’t that an incredible idea! That by improving the abstract system people use to assign value, you can make your civilization more efficient and powerful, without ever altering how many people or resources you actually control?
I chose Baru as a protagonist, with her gift for understanding systems, because she could understand the connections between the small and the huge. She sees the small affecting the large and the huge living in the small. One of my favorite scenes in the whole book occurs in the great battle at the end, when Baru sees a flight of rocket arrows falling on a phalanx line made out of troops from many duchies.
And she instinctively sees how the different fighting styles, economic policies, and histories of the duchies come together to determine who lives and who dies.
In the silent fight against the Empire, one of the tactical weakness of Baru is the lack of knowledge and deep understanding (on a social, cultural, political and economic level) of the small portion of Empire that she was sent in to fully exploit this handful of ducheries for her own purposes. To Baru’s disappointment, she is sent to Aurdwynn, far from the heart of Masquerade Empire. Readers and Baru have only a very general idea of how the Empire is structured. Unlike recent, popular books like The Empire Radch Trilogy by Ann Leckie and The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard, in this novel the Empire does not seem to be a fictionalized version of an historical one. It felt more like a mixture of the most effective, deadly, successful features from very powerful empires of the past. How did you created the unbeatable system of Falcrest? Did you work only on an abstract level (answering the question of how should be made the most powerful, oppressive colonial Empire) or did you take inspiration from History, too?
For example to me and other italian readers, Aurdwynn remembered a lot Italy during Reinaissence: a region with a great number of micro nations focused to fight one against each other for power, religion and honor, failing to see the great danger of bigger empires beyond their borders (France, Germany, Austria), ready to seize the territories weakened by never ending conflicts with neighbors.
Italy’s a great connection to make. People today often forget that Italy hasn’t been one united power for its whole history! It’s easy for us to treat the modern idea of the nation-state as something that’s been around forever. And people also forget that our modern ideas of race are pretty new too. Until the mid-20th century, Americans or Australians probably wouldn’t have thought of Italians as ‘white’. These things change. And that leads me to Falcrest. You’re right — I tried really hard to avoid fictionalizing any one historical empire (just as with the other civilizations in Baru’s world, who aren’t supposed to read like any one single place on Earth). I don’t know if I think the Imperial Radch is necessarily a fictionalized version of an ancient empire, but I haven’t read the later Ancillary books yet, and I suppose it’s beside the point.
I knew that I wanted an empire that wasn’t very good at soldiers. I was interested in soft power: trade, trickery, finance, chemistry, astronomy, seacraft, psychological and ideological control. An empire that could win by giving people what they wanted and then threatening to take it away. So the Masquerade couldn’t have a large population, or a lot of armies, or a history of dominion.
So I tried to give them tricks I thought would be effective. Rather than having more swords, they’d be healthier, faster, richer, and have more trade to offer. Efficient bureaucracy, a tradition of education and civil service, a scientific interest in how to organize labor and logistics. Smoke and pyrotechnics. Soap! Germ theory! Good sails! Good dentists! They’re not an interesting antagonist if they’re good at everything, so I tried to give them a compelling set of strengths and weaknesses. I checked history for plausibility and inspiration, of course, which is where the Masquerade gets some of its flashier tricks like rocket-propelled arrows and torpedoes. (The next book will feature crazier stuff from world history, including naturally occurring nuclear reactors.)
I was still in college when the 2007 financial collapse hit, and I suppose it struck me that there was this web of power running beneath our lives, altering the course of entire nations — and none of us really knew how it worked. The Masquerade represents that power.
It’s cool to me that one of the Masquerade’s best warfare tactics is just to leave and say ‘see how you like it without us!’
Oh — right, and the issue of race, who’s defined as ‘white’! One of the Masquerade’s advantages is that it has a unifying ideology of progress, cleanliness, and right behavior. They’re very good at tactically defining groups of people: ‘we are Falcresti, we believe in hygiene, you are from Taranoke, you need our help’. So in a sense, their greatest technological advantage is an ideological one. They know how to tell people who they are, and make them believe it.
As a reader, sometimes I find that interviews to writers about new releases are good introduction to books but they lack of the information I really want after reading them. Or I am just really, really curious. Either way, I’d like to ask you a couple of questions clearly labelled as SPOILER. So, from now, spoilers are allowed.
I noticed that the first reaction after finish “The Traitor Baru Cormorant” is “oh, I saw it coming! / I did not!”. The first secret of Baru, her queerness, is quite clear from the very beginning. The second one I thought it was meant to be guessed by the reader. The ending can be even more powerful, because you know what is going to happen it is hard to imagine the extreme consequences. In contrast, other readers say that understanding what was about to happen created an emotional distance from the story, resulting less powerful than expected.
Stating the existence of an untold secret a great challenge for a writer: what do you think about the outcome? Did you want the reader to solve the enigma, did you consciously give enough material to try to guess or is it just a case of readers evolving their own theories about writer’s intent on the base of mere perception?
I wanted the reader to be able to guess, but I didn’t want every reader to get it. The hope was to strew all the clues out in plain sight and leave it up to you! Baru was offered a deal: did she take it? What were the terms? What is she constantly worrying about? When she talks about her objectives, her needs for victory, exactly what are they? If you think about these questions you might figure out her plan. Or if you just trust her to do exactly as she’s said she’ll do, all along.
And, with luck, the ending would work whether or not you’d seen it coming.
It’s not going to play perfectly for everyone. But I like the ambigrammatic effect of it, the possibility that you’ll have a different emotional experience depending on whether you predicted the outcome or not. Does that answer the question well enough? Is there anything more I can say? I like specific questions about the book!
You answered pretty well. Maybe you can tell us more about a major, intriguing development of Baru’s character that is introduced at the very end of the story: she is now maimed not only on a psychological level, but also on a physical one. As everything concerning Baru, her wound is complex and tricky: she is not exactly blind, but she can not perceive everything on her right side, like one of the patients in Oliver Sacks’ “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales”. Again, not the typical disablement in a fantastical narration, but in Baru’s own word, “it doesn’t mean anything at all. But is’s so elegant”. Why did you decide to have this unexpected development after the climax? Will the lack of vision of the right side change Baru’s personality (brain emispheres have very distinctive functions)? Is there a connection with the symbolic value of the dichotomy left/right?
I was so excited by the importance this detail might have in the next book. It surely makes Baru weaker, but also more unpredictable than ever!
It’s going to be awesome in the next book. Hemilateral neglect strikes every patient differently, so I have a lot of room to make Baru’s particular condition work for her story. And it will pose challenges! Reading, for instance, becomes more difficult if you’re accidentally skipping all the right-hand pages. And what if the disorder spreads into dreams and memories? What if you can’t remember the right side of your life? How do you cope with that?
Hemineglect was one of the very first things I knew would happen in the story, because it’s such a perfect physical incarnation of the conflict. Baru’s at risk of losing herself in all the masks she wears. Splitting her world in half makes her wonder: what did I lose over there? What secrets did I lock away from myself?
But it also opens her to the possibility of emotional development. In the next book, Baru’s greatest fear is intimacy and connection. She believes that anyone she gets close to will be turned against her. If she’s betrayed friends, lovers, and comrades, how can she ever trust friendship, love, and camaraderie again?
But hemineglect has some curious properties. It’s possible to know by instinct what’s happening on the blind side, even if you’re not consciously aware of it. This is called blindsight, and it happens subconsciously. Baru has to learn to trust herself and her feelings in order to recover some part of her missing half— just as she has to learn to trust people and value her own emotions again.
As for the question of hemineglect changing Baru’s personality…I think it’d betray the reader to just change her with one stroke of a hammer, but Baru will have to learn and cope, and she may end up taking some radical steps to conceal or address her condition.
Well, I can not refrain myself from asking you something about the next novel. Judging from your last tweets it is quite a delicate moment right now, but I hope you can anticipate us a little about the second volume. I really hope to see Falcrest…at least the left side of it!
The next novel will indeed take us to Falcrest, as well as Oriati Mbo (the big nation to the south of Falcrest, and their last major rival). The first book was a very focused, emotionally narrow story — a scalpel about ruthlessness and isolation. So in the second book, Baru has to face her worst fears: love, trust, friendship, and getting too close to people she’s afraid she’ll have to lose. Once you’ve betrayed everything, can you come back? Can you ever trust again?
You can find a lot of clues by reading the letters at the end of the first book. The involvement of Oriati privateers in the Aurdwynn rebellion drives Falcrest and Oriati Mbo towards a new Armada War—imagine the Cuban Missile Crisis, hundreds of years earlier. As Baru tries to exploit the tension to complete her mission, her schemes collide with those of her fellow cryptarchs, each an equal and a huge threat.
The tension draws in Baru’s old Navy friend Aminata, her second cousin Lao, and an Oriati laman named Tau-indi Bosoka. Together they confront Falcrest’s eugenics program, the intrigues of Parliament and the Throne, the mystery of the ocean to the east, and the threat of total civiliational collapse in a whirlwind of plague, war, beetles, and cancer.
This book has been a lot harder to write than the first, not just because it’s more complex but because I want it to have more range. I want joy, friendship, and hope as well as treachery, calculation, and despair.
The letters at the end of the first book were so teasing, yes, I re-read them a couple of times searching for clues. Wow! That was an amazing preview (and thumbs up for all the positive feelings…Baru really needs them!). I can not wait to read this, even more now.
I think it is time for the last question. Even in this interview you proved to be a very keen reader of the genre as well as a writer, so I’d like to ask you what titles would you recommend to italian readers who are searching for good SFF books recently published.
I’ve fallen off my reading lately, since I’ve been writing so much — but from this year I’d happily recommend
RADIANCE by Catherynne Valente,
UPROOTED by Naomi Novik,
SORCERER TO THE CROWN by Zen Cho,
GRACE OF KINGS by Ken Liu,
THE FIFTH SEASON by N. K. Jemisin,
HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS by Aliette de Bodard, and
EMPIRE ASCENDANT by Kameron Hurley. I’m sure the moment I send this email I’ll remember more!