Matthew Stover Interview
Matthew Stover has written twelve novels–four Star Wars novels, including the novelization of Revenge of the Sith, two Bronze Age historical fantasies named Iron Dawn and Jericho Moon, and the Acts of Caine series. The fourth book in the series, Caine’s Law, came out last April. On May 27th, Orbit Books is releasing the series digitally in the UK and elsewhere. Stover graciously agreed to an interview about the series.
For the people who haven’t read your books, describe the concept behind the Acts of Caine.
Put as simply as I can, the underlying concept of the Acts of Caine is that worlds in the various veins of Middle-Earth, Nehwon, the Land, Midkemia and Greyhawk are real – that they are, in fact, parallel dimensions of Earth.
Roughly two hundred years from now, the authoritarian rulers of a dystopic Earth use technology to access one of these fantasy worlds. Earth calls it Overworld; its inhabitants, in their various tongues, call it simply Home. The masters of Earth use this access to send specially trained actors to Overworld, where they take on more-or-less traditional fantasy personas and have adventures for the entertainment of Earth’s oppressed masses – SFnal reality TV meets the Roman Games, if you will. The adventures these actors have are as real as the producers can make them; the actors’ opponents (and victims) are real people, who really bleed and really die, all without ever knowing their pain and death is, to the people of Earth, merely entertainment. Sometimes the actors die too – part of the appeal of your favorite actor’s adventures is that each one may be his or her last.
The Acts of Caine center on the end of the career of the most popular actor in the history of the genre, and what he does in his subsequent retirement. His name is Hari Michaelson, but nobody cares about that; his fans only care about his character. He plays Caine, legendary assassin, unstoppable warrior and an all-around blood-drunk sociopath with serious anger issues. If you think of Caine as the ultimate combination of James Bond and Wolverine, you’ll have the idea.
Caine can be these things because he is, in a sense, at least partly imaginary – he’s a character, specifically created to channel the impotent rage of Earth’s underclasses into regularly-scheduled catharsis. But Hari Michaelson is only a man. And after playing Caine for twenty years, he’s started to lose sight of where the man ends and the character begins . . .
Speaking of Middle-Earth, Nehwon, and the rest being parallel, Overworld as a setting is a collection of tropes from earlier works of fantasy writers, subverted as much as possible. It’s also filled with homages to fantasy greats. Why did you choose to make it reference other works to such an extent?
Well, Nehwon always was explicitly a parallel universe. Not only do Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have an early adventure set in Tyre (“Adept’s Gambit”), they come across a Lost Earthman in one of their ocean-going adventures, though I disremember which.
The tropes of the Overworld setting weren’t drawn from specific writers so much as from the vast morass of cookie-cutter fantasy from the 70s and 80s. Part of the inspiration for Heroes Die was to see if I could take a checklist of fantasy clichés – Lost Earthman, Master Swordsman, Action Girl, Cunning Rogue, Thieves’ Guild, magic sword, magic wand, invisibility, elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls and ogres, fairies, Evil Wizard/Dark Lord, etc., etc., etc. (I think the only thing I left out was talking animals) – and use them in a way that didn’t suck.
Hari’s Earth is caste-based and corporate-run. What did you do to extrapolate issues in the present into such a bleak future?
I paid attention.
The Acts of Caine series is rare in that each book in the series, while following the same characters and being speculative fiction, changes genre drastically. What interests you about genre?
Genre, for me as a writer, is largely irrelevant – which is something I recognize that my publishers, and some of my readers, can find frustrating. When I have a story I want to tell, I go after it with every tool at my disposal. I don’t really pay attention to what genre a story might fall into until I’m done (speaking of genre in the narrative sense, not in the marketing category sense, you understand; my Star Wars books, for example, are all filed in the marketing category SF Media Tie-ins, but in narrative genres they range from light adventure to epic tragedy). I’ll get into the distinction between trope-defined genre and narrative-defined genre below.
(Please bear in mind that the following names are representative samples only.)
The books I grew up reading were mostly (in the trope-defined sense) science fiction, fantasy and mystery/detective/crime. It’s only chance I started selling heroic fantasies before crime thrillers. The books I most enjoy now are those from Great Novelists who, if they were working today, would very likely be considered genre writers (i.e., Hemingway, Conrad, and Kipling, among others – hell, even Twain would be tagged by the book chains as a “regional humorist”) as well as the greats from my two favorite literary ghettoes (i.e. Chandler, Hammet, Rex Stout, Tolkien, Heinlein, Leiber, Zelazny and Donaldson), as well as their inheritors like James Crumley, John Scalzi and Scott Lynch. All of these writers employ a variety of narrative strategies, which means that reading their stuff gives me ideas on different – and often better – ways to tell my own stories.
The point being that I didn’t set out to write each of the Acts of Caine as a different genre. They just came out that way, because that’s what the stories seemed to require. And, in fact, in trope-based terms, they’re all a pretty straightforward dual-world SFF hybrids, not unlike Piers Anthony’s Juxtaposition books. It’s only when you get into the narrative-based definitions that they’re different genres.
You’ve talked before about genre (in a SmartPop article, if I recall) and metathematic intent. Could you elaborate on that?
In a series of essays I wrote for the Smartpop books – in several, including The Halo Effect, So Say We All, Investigating CSI, and of course Star Wars on Trial [unabashed plugs] – I attempted to make the case that trope-based genre classification is inherently deceptive; for example, having starships and blasters doesn’t make Star Wars science fiction in any meaningful narrative sense, any more than having sailing ships and waterborne bandits makes Lord Jim a pirate novel.
By metathematic intent, I meant the underlying spine of the narrative the author is trying to present, divorced from specific tropes. It is entirely possible to write hard SF (solve the problem – or fail to solve it, if you’re, say, JG Ballard – by creative use of the central speculative technology) in which the central speculative technology is magic. Larry Niven did so, famously, in his Warlock/Magic Goes Away stories; Greg Keyes did so (more successfully, in my opinion) in his Age of Unreason tetralogy. China Miéville has been known to dabble in such pursuits as well. Star Wars, conversely, uses SF tropes to tell pure epic fantasy (journey into unknown lands to reach atonement with the father/self).
In these terms, Heroes Die is a hard SF romance, Blade of Tyshalle is epic fantasy tragedy, and Caine Black Knife is a hardboiled Bildungsroman.
Caine’s Law, on the other hand is . . . well, I actually don’t know. Epic soft SF fantasy multiple worlds time travel romance?
Why the decision to start the books at the end of Hari’s career, rather than showing us his earlier exploits? It certainly made for a sharp contrast with his younger self at the beginning of Caine Black Knife.
Because the end of his career is where he starts to interest me. All of the Young Caine material – “Zero” in Blade of Tyshalle, the “Then” sections of Caine Black Knife, Young Hari in “Scars and Scars” in Caine’s Law and my short story “In the Sorrows” – were interesting to write only in the context of who Caine will become.
Some of those earlier exploits may someday be published – but if they are, it will very likely be in a CBK-ish way. That is: woven into the full context of Caine’s life, rather than as delimited episodes.
The fantasy genre has shifted considerably since the publication of Heroes Die. Cynical protagonists with more overtly villainous tendencies are becoming more prevalent, with Joe Abercrombie, Richard Morgan, Mark Lawrence, R. Scott Bakker, and more. What do you think of the new wave of darker fantasy?
I like it. Though I don’t really care whether a story (or its hero) is dark or not. I only care whether it’s good.
One of the things that sets you high in the upper echelon of those authors is that violence in the Acts of Caine is both critique and catharsis. How has your martial arts training impacted the violence in your books?
I began my study of martial arts because I wanted more realism in depictions of personal combat, and hoped to write stories that would provide some. I wanted more realism in depictions of personal combat because I love fighting.
Seriously: I love it.
I love fictional fighting, from Prisoner of Zenda and Princess Bride swordplay to Golden Harvest kung fu. From the Rocky films and Cinderella Man to Emperor of the North and Misery. Yes, Misery. One of the greatest cinematic fights ever. Don’t believe me? Watch it again. Two incredibly well-drawn (and well-performed) characters stripped of everything except a primal lust to do each other harm. It’s fucking magic.
I also love combat sports of all varieties – participating (when I’m capable) as well as spectating. I love fighting so much that I’m not embarrassed about losing – though I’ve been careful to confine the vast bulk of my fighting to the sparring mat or the ring, where the consequences of losing are likely to be a great deal less severe. Though I suppose it’s both pointing out that the worst injuries I’ve ever taken in street fights were a few black eyes, whereas the sparring mat and the ring have left me with several scars and at least three varieties of permanent joint damage.
My love of fighting does, however, make writing seriously about it problematic. Because serious fiction is always about consequences, and the essence of my love of fighting boils down to the Zen-like liberation of spirit that comes from extreme focus on the necessities of the moment – when someone is trying to kick your head off or open your guts, you just don’t worry about anything else.
Here is a brief except from Caine’s interior monologue as he faces single combat against a superior opponent in Caine Black Knife:
I feel more than better. I feel incredible. Every problem I have ever had has just . . . evaporated.
My career. Torture. Death. Dad. All of it.
Everything. Anything. Don’t have one single problem in the world except living through the next twenty seconds. And that’s not a problem.
It’s nothing at all.
For Caine, combat is an art, but it’s also a drug: a dangerously addictive gateway to an altered state of consciousness. (Some artists contend that every art is a drug for its most serious practitioners, but that’s a discussion for a different kind of interview.) Anyone who has ever known an addict understands the damage addiction inflicts, not just on the addict themselves but on everyone who cares about them.
It’s a delicate balance. Like some drugs, combat is addictive because it offers an experience far more intense than everyday life. Also like many of those drugs, combat can be very, very bad for you in a variety of ways. And again like drugs, when combat becomes your everyday life, the effects are catastrophic for you, and everyone around you.
But, y’know, I love what I love. I just try to be clear-headed about the reality behind the fantasy.
I’m an unabashed t’Passe fan. Where did the inspiration for her come from?
It’s close enough to true to say she’s indirectly inspired by Nietzsche (the man himself, rather than his writings), especially in her prickly, combative style of rhetorical knife-fighting, as well as in her deliberate self-exile from a life that has disappointed her hopes and murdered her dreams.
Which other supporting characters do you wish you could write more of?
There is more to Faith Michaelson than I’ve had the chance to explore – let’s just say, she’s likely to become a bit of an unusual teenager. I’d like to do more with Raithe. I’d like to do more with Kierendal, as well as Toronnell, and the young Deliann and the whole scene at the pre-Heroes Die Exotic Love. I’ve become exceedingly fond of Angvasse Klaylock, and of Tyrklld Aeddhar.
And someday, if I can figure out the right way to do it, I’d like to write about the most important character who never actually appears in the novels: Hari’s mother. Her shadow hangs over Hari’s whole life, influencing every choice he’s made; she is in many ways a more powerful figure than even Duncan . . . which is why I have left her character for the reader to infer from the profound effect her life, and her death, has had on Duncan, Hari and Caine. Every time I have tried to bring her in directly, it seems to diminish her. As the horse-witch says: “She deserves a better story than I can give her.”
Describe your writing process.
I don’t seem to really have one. Once upon a time, I was a rigorous outliner, but over the last few years – perhaps due to my own neurological disorder, which can be described as a vastly less dire version of Duncan’s – I seem to have lost the ability to project a convincing plot that far into the future, not to mention the ability to choose in advance which scenes to detail and which to elide. (Some of it may also have to do with the experimental narrative strategies of Caine Black Knife and Caine’s Law, each of which nearly made my brain explode.)
The best description I can offer is that I spend a lot of time staring into space, imagining the next scene, and trying to imagine what effect it will have on the progress of the story. I also spend a lot of time imagining each scene from the point of view of every realized character in it (as opposed to walk-ons and extras), to make sure I understand their own reasons for being there and for doing what they do there (as opposed to my reasons for them being there and doing what they do). I have a pathological fear of idiot-plotting – that is, of writing a story where the characters act in service to plot requirements rather than to their own needs and desires.
An interesting side-effect of this is that when a character absolutely flat-out must do something specific in this scene to move the plot forward, I sometimes am forced to back-chain their development – revising earlier scenes, and sometimes even the character’s entire biography – to make sure that what they must do now is what they would do now, based on everything we have seen (and will see) of their nature and behavior. This is something I ran into a lot while writing the novelization for Revenge of the Sith, for example, because I didn’t have the liberty to alter the plot to suit my depictions of the characters . . . so I had to alter my depictions of the characters in ways that made the plot a logical outgrowth of their natures, needs and desires.
Beyond that, I just try to be clear.
What projects are you working on now?
I’m deep in the middle of a tie-in while still struggling to complete my very first contemporary hardboiled thriller. Beyond those, I have three fantasies in development: one a full-on epic in a fantasy cognate of Roman Britain, one a mystic superhero-flavored urban piece set in a modern-day suburb, and one whose premise and setting is classified, as I think it’s so much fun I don’t want anybody to beat me into print with one of their own.
Thank you for doing this.
Thanks for asking me. And for asking interesting questions.