Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Reading the text: Sean McMullen

Posted by Randolph Carter on June 17, 2009

souls in the great machineAuthor website:

Could you take a minute (is it possible in a minute?) and explain what your Greatwinter series is about?

The Australia of two thousand years in the future is in a rather regressed, post-apocalyptic condition, and is ruled by a caste of psychopathic librarians. They are aided by a human-powered computer consisting of two thousand slaves computing on abacus frames, and they communicate by a signal tower internet, supplemented by a railway network of pedal and wind powered trains. These Dragon Librarians settle disputes by duels with flintlock pistols, but their rule is actually quite responsible and benign. This stable – if authoritarian – society is thrown into disarray when an ancient orbital climate-machine activates itself, and the librarians must revive some other ancient technologies to counter the threat.

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

Very complicated. I decided that I would show off what was in my planned books by getting bits published as short stories. One day Peter McNamara, a friend of mine who had a small press, came to town on business. After dinner I suggested he could sleep in my study instead of looking for a hotel. He asked if I had any new stories to read. I give him several, including the Greatwinter stories The Eyes of the Green Lancer, and Destroyer of Illusions. The next morning he announced over breakfast that he wanted to publish the stories in a collection. Call to the Edge came out in April 1992, one year to the day after that breakfast.

Call to the Edge was very well received and made a profit, so Peter asked if I had a novel in the works. I had what was to become Souls in the Great Machine under development. The first half was already finished and was the length Peter was looking for, so in 1994 he published it as Voices in the Light. The second half came out as Mirrorsun Rising in 1995, then I merged and rewrote them completely, and sold them to Tor as Souls in the Great Machine. As you can see, quite a convoluted process.

Where do you happen to find inspiration for your work?

Everywhere, and I never stop looking. To me the finer points of medieval chivalry and leading edge hard science are equally interesting, and my bedtime reading includes science, romance, mathematics and folklore. In The Measure of Eternity I had the invention of zero and arithmetic progressions as the centrepiece of a 3rd Century love story. Voice of Steel and Tower of Wings were hard SF but had medieval settings. The idea for the Calculor in Souls in the Great Machine came from working in a large, Victorian-Gothic library, and noticing that its functions resembled a computer’s operating system. From this, my human-powered computer, the Calculor, was born. I actually wrote a simulation for the Calculor on a Vax 11/780. It worked. I like my stuff to be realistic, even though it’s pretty weird. The Dragon Librarians? Hey, I’ve been one.

Trying to improve the boring bits in a novel can be a highly productive source of inspiration too. Back in 2003 I had a novel under way that involved a lot of walking, with not much going on. Terry Pratchett and I had been corresponding about the value of hands-on research, so I decided to dress up in 12th Century clothes, chainmail and footwear, load myself up with food, water, shield, battleaxe, bow and arrows, then trek in the Strezleki Desert in midsummer. I’ll never forget the expressions of disbelief and even fear on the faces of the outback police patrolmen who stopped to check on me. When I reached a tourist resort, one lady reached out and touched me as I walked past, presumably to make sure I was real. Overall, I learned that coping with extreme hardship can be very funny, which was quite a surprising outcome. The boring bits in the novel I was writing, Glass Dragons, suddenly became very humourous bits.

Sometimes, just sometimes, I have to force my imagination. The Spiral Briar required a medieval steam engine, so I literally sat down and thought, drew, calculated and scratched my head until I managed to devise a new type of steam engine – one that was within reach of medieval technology. I then tested a model in the bathtub, and it worked. I do not force my imagination very often, however, that’s way too hard. Most of the time I just start writing on some theme, then my subconscious throws up all sorts of cool ideas and forces me to rewrite everything. I sometimes wonder what goes on in my subconscious, but it’s probably safer not to know.

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

When I was very young I played drafts, chess, and various paper-based games that we made up in class when the teachers were not looking. When computer games came along, I played some of the early shoot-em-up games while installing them for my daughter. Then my daughter got so far ahead of me with PC systems that I was no longer needed …

When I play at anything, I like it real. I was once a member of a metal weapons medieval re-enactment group called the New Varengian Guard – and I have scars to prove it. I remember going to my first tournament with real fears of being seriously injured, and you don’t get that from board or computer games. After that I joined the SCA for a couple of years, where I fought in various tournaments, and scored yet more injuries. I have a photo of a bruise about as big as a medium sized dinner plate on my leg after one tournament – which I’d actually won. Sometimes the SCA people would set up games scenarios, but they would be live games with real fighting in real forests. Once I was half of an armed troll in a night-time SCA quest – three legs, two heads, one shield, two swords, and a serious attitude problem. We killed an awful lot of heroes that night.

It’s not as if I don’t like computer-based games, it’s more that I work full time in a rather demanding technical job, I get all the fighting I can handle with my karate students, and then I am also effectively a full-time author. Playing games would be really great, just like getting enough sleep at night or maintaining a Facebook site would be great, but I just don’t have the time. There is also the problem of realism. Allow me to expand on that.

When I was writing Eyes of the Calculor I decided that I wanted to really get the feeling of air combat. My central character had done a few hours in a biplane, and was about to go solo in a rocket fighter. I decided that if I had just as much to lose as the character, it would add more realism to the writing. I had flown a couple of hours in a real Tiger Moth, so we had that much in common. I got out my daughter’s copy of Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, studied the manual for the Me 163 rocket fighter for a couple of days, then decided that I would try a solo flight. If I “lived” through my first flight, then my character would live. If I “died”, well, I was playing for keeps, so my character would have to die too. This was at a very important moment in the book, and killing him would have involved major disruptions.

I waited until I was alone in the house, set up the simulator on my PC, studied the maps that came with the simulator, scanned the manual one last time, then called up the Me 163. I selected the training option, set the flaps and opened the throttle all the way. A couple of seconds later I was in the air, travelling somewhere in excess of 450 mph, and had not yet cleared the airbase. I was already sweating with fear. I decided that I was unlikely to get into trouble if I climbed steeply, burned all my fuel, then glided down again. I climbed at an unbelievable rate for a minute or so, then noticed some black dots in the distance and decided they were target balloons. I steered for them – and they shot at me and put holes in my windshield! They were B–17s, I had apparently selected the wrong simulator option. I shot back. Every shot missed. Then I noticed the fighter escort!

I knew that nothing in the sky could climb as fast as what I was flying, so I continued to climb. I ran out of fuel, but by then I was furious with the guys in the B-17s for putting holes in my windshield. It was all totally irrational. Even in an unpowered dive the Me163 is faster than most fighters, so I decided to dive on the bombers and their escort. I looked around. I could not see them. I could not see the airbase either. Familiar landmarks were also totally absent. I began to descend in an ever-widening spiral, I was sure this tactic would eventually take me over the airbase. It did not. Well, that was cool, I could always bail out. No go. By the time I decided to bail out I was too low.

Remember my pact with myself? If I “died” in the game, my character died. It was highly inconvenient for my character to die at that part of the book, and would have involved months of rewriting. By now I was sweating profusely, and my heart rate was way up. I lined up a road as I lost height. The road suddenly veered away sharply. I was unable to bank sharply enough to follow it. I now decided that if I came down in a field I might have a chance, so I kept the nose up and hung just above stall speed as I dropped. Suddenly everything stopped abruptly and a message came up that I had crash-landed and should report back to my commanding officer – and that was as far as I read. I was alive! I ran up and down through the house yelling that I was alive, waving my arms in the air and laughing hysterically.

Later, when I had calmed down, I wrote the scene where the young pilots land after the air battle, then proceed to run about being hysterically stupid to celebrate being alive. At a more strategic level, my character survived, so he could go on to live happily ever after with the lead girl at the end of the book.

What does this say about me and games? Games have to be like real life for me, because having the option of clicking Start Again and coming back to life makes it all a bit boring. If I drop my guard at karate it really hurts. That is definitely not boring, and it forces me to take it seriously, so I still do karate every week.

Were you a big reader growing up? What were some of your favorite authors/titles?

Oh yes, I read science, literature, history, everything. My father was a civil engineer, one brother worked in industrial electronics, the other was into sport, and my mother really loved the literary classics, so all of that turned me into a very romantic reader who also did a bit of surfing, had a radio telescope, and built rockets (The neighbours were so happy when I joined a schoolboy rock band and stopped landing rockets on their roofs). In literature, I tended to read everything at first, whether it was H.G. Wells or Thomas Hardy, but as a teenager I moved to half SF and half everything else. In the 70s I discovered humourous authors like George Macdonald Fraser, Harry Harrison and Sprague de Camp, and I realised that ultra-serious fiction was not my style. Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz had a tremendous impact on me, because I really love sweeping historical vistas, arcane texts, and a blend of science and medieval settings. Harlan Ellison’s short stories taught me a lot about getting maximum impact from the minimum number of words, and Douglas Adams taught me loads about pace. I was writing my own stories by the time cyberpunk came along, so Sterling and Gibson influenced me as a beginner. I did not discover Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman until the 1990s, which was a pity because I really like what they do.

Seeing how you write primarily in the science fiction genre, would you mind sharing some of your literary influences?

eye of the calculorI have covered a bit of this already, so just bear the forgoing in mind and read on. Wells and Verne were early influences, but I found the romance novels pretty appealing as well. Really intense short fiction became one of my favourite forms, whether it was printed or in series form like the Outer Limits or Out of the Unknown. In the 70s I discovered fantasy just as the big fantasy boom was getting under way. I read a lot of medieval classics about then, which strengthened my liking for romance. One of my favourite literary lines of all time is from the Fifteenth Century, when a young knight is forced to marry a woman about four times his age: “Alas, take all my goods but let my body go!” (Chaucer, The Wyfe of Bath’s Tale). With all that in my background, I am now equally at home with The Lord of the Rings, Ringworld, or Discworld.

It is probably worth mentioning that playing in bands and being a singer influenced my writing considerably. On stage, you have the audience in front of you and there is nowhere to hide, so that makes you very much aware of what you are supposed to be doing. When I write, I am always aware that the words are for an audience, even though the audience is not in front of me. We writers are entertainers, whether we want to admit it or not.

I only discovered Neil Gaiman’s work about the time my first book was released, which is annoying because he has a touch of droll weirdness that is very much my style. I met him at a convention in Adelaide in 1992, and I’d bought one of his Sandman collections to check what he was writing. I liked it so much that I bought them all. He was writing the novelisation of Neverwhere when I saw him again in Perth in 1996, and I was really swept away by that mixture of magic and steampunk in both the book and TV series.

No new authors currently grab my attention, but I have found movies like Sin City, V for Vendetta, Franklyn and Beowulf very engaging. Maybe I am moving away from the printed word to the visual. Maybe we all are.

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.

Not for me. I do feel a lot of frustration, because I’ll have something almost finished, then think of a better way of doing it and have to do a rewrite, but that’s a too-many-ideas problem, rather than grind. The most unpleasant aspect of writing for me is finding time to do it. In spite of appearances and output, I am only an amateur writer. I have a tenured, full time, highly technical job in the sciences. The harder the recession bites, the more work I get, and my leave allocation is so far into credit it’s a joke. That certainly puts the squeeze on writing time.

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

Seeing my characters and stories become real for other people. At a signing in the US a guy told me that the Greatwinter books were all that kept him sane during his tour of duty in Iraq, because it gave him such a great place to escape to. That sort reaction is sensational for me as the creator … although the idea of my books keeping someone sane rather than the other way around is a bit puzzling.

What are you currently working on in the fiction department?

A story about an absolutely stable planet with a pure oxygen atmosphere, an uninhabited, planet-wide city that plays music, and no life. After that comes a story about witch hunts and climate change. In the background is a steampunkish novel following on from The Spiral Briar. I’m also doing some TV script work for a science fiction doco.

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

To quote from the X-Files, trust nobody. By that I mean every published author has their own unique path into print, so following standard advice, or even trying to do it like someone else means it will probably not work for you. Try to do what Terry Pratchett did, and you find that the fantasy market is no longer what it was when The Colour of Magic was published. Follow Neil Gaiman’s example, and you soon discover that the comics market that he made his name in is totally different – partly because he helped change it. You have to find your own voice and write things that you love writing, otherwise you will not be able to go on. Write stories that you love, rather than selling your soul to write supermarket fiction about … er … tall dark vampire princes in long blue cloaks who fall in love with goatherd girls with special powers. Lastly, be very, very persistent, never give up, and never stop. Of course, if you are writing what you love, that will not be a problem.

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

miocene arrowThe aviad race, and the Dragon Librarian class, no doubt of that at all. They are stylish, clever and elegant, which is a desirable way to be. As one reviewer said about Souls in the Great Machine: “Full of psychopathic librarians who fall in love and murder each other in duels at the slightest provocation. Recommended.” The Dragon Librarians also wear such really cool, Goth uniforms, and that is very much my style. I have a whole collection of black military jackets with gold buttons that I wear on the motorcycle, and my girlfriend wears long black coats and black gloves. It makes the commute in to work a bit like being in some Goth steampunk novel. It also makes people a bit uneasy in elevators, committee meetings and seminars.

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

Never buy a book you think you won’t like just because marketing people say it’s cool. They have probably not even read it.

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