Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Reading the text: Tobias Buckell

Posted by Randolph Carter on June 12, 2009

sly mongoose coverAuthor website:

Tobias Buckell Online

Could you take a minute and explain what Sly Mongoose is about?

Well, Sly Mongoose is the third book I’ve written, and it’s about a Venus-like world called Chilo. The interesting thing about a Venusian world is that although the surface is crazy hot, and the pressure crushing, at 100,000 feet up the temperature is tolerable, the pressure standard. Due to the density and lack of oxygen, air is more buoyant on a Venusian world. So if you take a mile wide sphere, plunk a city in it, just putting the amount of air in it needed for people to breathe would create a giant floating city. With that in mind I created a novel to explore that environment: floating cities, factions, people being lowered to the ground in giant bug-like pressure suits to mine materials. Then the entire world is threatened by outside invasion!

What was the process like in getting your first book published?

My first book, Crystal Rain, came about when I met my current agent, Joshua Bilmes at a science fiction convention. My short stories in various anthologies and magazines had gotten me some attention, and he’d asked if I was working on a novel. I told him I had a few chapters and an outline written about a Caribbean-settled world that had lost contact with the rest of the universe after a war facing down an invasion of re-created Aztecs ruled by aliens posing as gods. He thought it sounded crazy enough he wanted to see the outline and chapters, and when I sent them to him he really dug the whole setup and told me if I wrote the whole book he’d try and sell it for me.

Were you a big reader as a child/young adult? What were some of your favorite books and/or authors growing up?

I was a big reader, almost a book a day through junior high and high school. I’d read anything that fell in my path. I got into reading SF/F in particular after reading Arthur C. Clarke at 7 or so: Childhood’s End just blew my mind.

I used to read westerns, mysteries, children’s adventure, that sort of thing. I loved Clive Cussler because I grew up on a boat in the Caribbean, so nautical adventure was always really awesome. I think I’ve read every Horatio Hornblower book.

Would you mind talking a little bit about your literary influences?

The cyberpunk writers (William Gibson, Bruce Sterling) had a big impact on me in high school. It was science fiction that acknowledged more than just white collar scientists and suburban audience type stuff, they were street-savvy and aware of the fact that the third world and other environments existed. Sterling’s Islands in The Net really got me wanting to write SF/F because it was set in Grenada, Africa and India. It felt very global, and other than Arthur C. Clarke, who often used a lot of global characters and South Pacific settings, I hadn’t felt like science fiction was interested in people or places like that.

crystal rainAre you or have you ever been a gamer? What has your gaming experience been like (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

I don’t do board or pen and paper RPGs. I do like console games (I lost 2 weeks of my life playing the original Civilization, so I don’t play games like that either) that I can play quickly and get back out of. So my tastes tend toward things like HALO, Left 4 Dead, and first person shooters like that, racing simulators and so on. I keep looking at EVE Online and wanting to play, it looks like the kind of game I’d like, but I know I’d spend too much time on it and never get anything done (like those 2 weeks of Civ).

Have you ever ventured into online worlds? If so, please explain what that experience has been like.

I spent some time wandering around Second Life, made a couple friends there, did an interview on Second Life TV, which was really cool. I like some of the opportunities in SL to do things like maybe host a virtual con, or a virtual writer’s workshop or class. But finding locations and doing the administrative stuff is always too much for me! Eventually I had a lot of freelance work and novel deadlines to hit, so I pulled back from it.

Would you say that your gaming experience has had any effect on you as a writer? Please explain.

I don’t know about the mechanics, but certainly it had a big affect on my career. My friend Josh Smith talked me into buying an Xbox 360 after my PS2 died so I could play Halo with him over Xbox live. I got pretty addicted, so that when Bungie was looking for a new writer to try their hand and bringing something to the Halo universe, and they were intrigued by the kick ass action and fun of my novels, when I flew out to Bungie HQ I wasn’t just there as an author, but someone who’d spent many hours getting my lame ass sniped and tea bagged online just like any other first timer trying to get his feet wet.

To be serious, I’d played through the games and knew what was going on, and really loved the background concept for Halo, so I arrived with some ideas about stories I thought would be fun to write in the Halo universe. It was easy to be enthusiastic and have fun writing that book, and since it put me on the New York Times bestseller list, I can say that playing video games had a big impact on my writing :-)

Do you hear that mom?

Grind is a term used frequently in gaming vernacular referring to something that is rather repetitive or unpleasant that one engages in in order to progress in the game. Would you say there is grinding in the writing process? Please explain.

Oh of course, particularly in the middle of a book you’re just putting your nose down and getting through it. People look at you and say ‘oh, but you’re doing what you love!’ But sometimes you end up feeling like a goldfarmer in China (and the wages on some fiction isn’t that far off) instead of someone enjoying the MMORPG just for the heck of it.

A lot of stuff changes when it’s wage-earning, even if you like it. Driving a car around on the weekend and picking up your friends is fun-cool-relaxing. Being a cabdriver is just… work. Unless you’re Jason Statham. In which case it’s frigging explosive awesomeness.

By contrast, what would you say is one of the most rewarding things about being a writer?

For me it’s coming up with the initial ideas, worlds, cool stuff. When I’m in the ‘cool-shit’ phase of putting a novel or story together I’m very chipper. So many possibilities and connections and neat creative things happen at this stage.

Would you have any words of advice for the would-be-writers out there?

The biggest part of the word writer is the word ‘write.’ Get thou ass in chair and start typing. I read a couple books recently that pointed out the 10,000 hour principle: that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become reallragamuffiny good at something (baseball, playing a violin, etc), and it’s something people have studied. So if you want to get good at writing, there’s no substitute for practice.

You wake up to a world where Sly Mongoose has been made into an MMO. What race and class would you play and why?

New Anegada Mongoose-men: they have the weapons and kick ass all over the galaxy.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer/reader audience?

I blow up just as much shit in my average novel as any other videogame, and I have a bigger special effects budget ;-)

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