Rjurik Davidson Interviews Ben Peek
Rjurik Davidson is the author of the novel, Unwrapped Sky, recently released by Tor in the US and UK. A novel that SciFiNow noted “can go toe-to-toe with China Miéville’s best,” and was noted as an “ambitious debut,” by Pop Mythology, it is set in the ancient city of Caeli-Amur. The novel follows three characters – a philosopher assassin, a bureaucrat, and a seditionist – as they are caught in the political and social upheaval of the city.
Davidson currently divides his time between Australia and Finland with his partner. He is also the author of the collection the Library of Forgotten Books, and is an associate editor for Overland. His award winning short fiction has appeared in a number of venues, including the Time Travellers Almanac, Tor.com, Aurealis, and various editions of Year’s Best anthologies. You can find him at rjurik.com and twitter.com/RjurikDavidson.
Ben Peek is the author of the upcoming novel, The Godless, to be released by Tor in the UK and St. Martins in the US. Early reviews have praised its worldbuilding and complexity of characterisation, with Publishers Weekly going on to say that “readers fond of open-ended epic fantasies set in vivid, and occasionally lurid, worlds will find it right up their alley.” Set in a world in which the gods have died in a great war and their corpses lie on the ground, the book follows a young cartographer’s apprentice, a saboteur, and a strange man adorned with charms, as they are drawn into a war they want no part of.
Peek currently lives in Australia with his partner, the photographer Nikilyn Nevins. Critically acclaimed and controversial in his home country, he is the author of Black Sheep, Twenty-Six Lies/One Truth, Above/Below with Stephanie Campisi, and most recently, Dead Americans and Other Stories. He has written a psychogeography pamphlet, an autobiographical comic, and reviews. His short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Polyphony, Leviathan, Steampunk Revolution, Nightmare Magazine, and various Year’s Best anthologies. He can be found at theurbansprawlproject.com and twitter.com/nosubstance.
Now on to the interview!
Rjurik Davidson: So, about eighteen months ago we sat in a little park near the Rocks in Sydney, and you told me about The Godless, which I thought sounded great. Many things have changed since then, and we’ve both remarked that after some years of writing, it’s surreal to have a book out which quite a few people are reading. What are some of your reflections about that journey?
Ben Peek: Yeah, if I remember right I was coming to the end of The Godless at around that time. I had maybe a few thousand words left, if you can believe it.
Since then, it has been a bit surreal. The whole thing just occasionally has me sit back and sorta go, “Shit, man,” y’know? I guess it isn’t that surprising: I had burned out in the previous years and thought my prospects were pretty dim when it came to my writing career. At the time we sat in the park, I suspect I was really only finishing the book because I was so close to the end and my girlfriend was pretty supportive about the whole thing. I don’t know that I ever thought I would sell it, much less find another agent, and regain all the ground that the GFC (global financial crisis) had cost me. But here I am, and that is all—all that struggle is a memory I try not to pretend is anything than what it was: a difficult time.
Since then…well, I have been living in the pre-published book world for about a year now, and that is a nice bubble to live in. The future is unknown. It could be anything. It is starting to be broken up now that the book is being sent out in ARCS and people are reading about it. It is probably for the best. Being a writer is, in a large part, about how your work connects with the reader, and the conversation you begin with people via your work. But I reckon I will miss that polite bubble. How were you when Unwrapped Sky got to that point?
Rjurik Davidson: Well, Unwrapped Sky came out a couple of months ago, and so there have been a whole bunch of reviews and interviews, far more than anything I’d written previously, of course. Like you, I’d been writing for a long time – stories, draft novels, a lot of non-fiction, work-for-hire – in the long dark night of the little-known freelancer. Then a book comes out in the US and the UK and Australia. One moment, nobody’s reading you, then they are and you are aware of competing voices saying strangely opposing things. Reviews can vary wildly, and that – if you read them – can be disorienting. People take such different approaches. Some are basically blogs, others are more professional, but across the spectrum there are those who like a book and those who don’t, and sometimes they say directly opposing things: This is well-written/this is poorly written; The characters are thin/the characters are fully realised. One of my most retweeted tweets around that time was: “Don’t take very good or very bad reviews too seriously: both are bad for your soul.”
A few of the reviews have made me go back to Unwrapped Sky and look at it again. I’ve done that, and whatever its flaws, I’m glad I wrote it. I wanted to write a book which was original, rich, and multi-layered. I wanted people to read something they weren’t likely to have read before. As you know, the book is about the beginning of a revolution in a fantastical city a bit like ancient Rome and a bit like an industrial city at the beginning of the 20th century. The combinations there are my own interests, but I think there aren’t many books quite like it.
Still, reading some of the reviews, I’ve found myself thinking, “Maybe I should have just written something more – typical.” You know: an adventure story, sympathetic characters (goodies and baddies), and so on. But I’m glad I didn’t. Maybe I’ll do something more like that in the future.
In your case, The Godless features an Asian female as a main character. That’s pretty rare, I’d say. You’ve always been interested in the question of race. Was that one of the ways you wanted to stretch the genre?
Ben Peek: I suspect that the genre will do whatever it wants with or without me, regardless of my opinion on it. But—well, for an author, I have always believed that fiction represents your worldview, you politics, you ideologies. Even writing deliberately against your beliefs is still an act of belief, for writing is an act of intimacy. There are lot of layers to it, layers that a self-aware author can play with and subvert, but you can only do that with a degree of self-awareness.
As an act, reading is quite similar, and its intimacy—the intimacy of literature is why so many people fear it. A reader will find worldviews, beliefs, etc., to respond to in a text, and their response to the work will be formed by their own complex relationship with their self, the author’s text, and the world.
Anyhow, all of that was just a complex way of saying that, for The Godless, I wanted to take my particular worldviews into the constructed world of a fantasy novel, and my particular view of the world is that we live in a multicultural, diverse world. We all live on the planet, we all share its land, and we are all striving towards equality. Well, okay, not all of us are doing that. I don’t why there are people all out their claiming that “the multicultural experiment,” has failed, but I’m not too concerned with those people. Nor should anyone, really.
But still, the multicultural worldview of a fantasy novel came with its own set of problems. In my first drafts, I based Ayae on southeast Asian appearance. I described her in the opening pages as being ‘Asiatic’ and I was taken to task for pretty rapidly. There is no Asia in my book, after all, so it’s not fair to say that Ayae is actually Asian. Rather, she is from a country called Sooia. She is a child refugee from there, an orphan who has grown up in the predominantly white mountain city of Mireea, and her relationship with her race, her culture is filtered through that.
Race is not wholly defined by the colour of your skin, after all, and all the diverse, different elements that make up an individual and culture all find themselves in characterisation, and I worked hard to bring that in as well. In the end, a reader will decide if I did a good job or not on it, and they will decide if the world their experience is multicultural, but the intent, at least from an authorial point of view, was to do so.
To return to that intimacy of the author and his/her work that I mentioned before, I must admit, I saw a lot of you in Unwrapped Sky, in the revolution storyline, the social theorists, and the thematic interplay between violence and its consequences.
Rjurik Davidson: Unwrapped Sky was a kind of psychic clearing: the book I had to write, to get a lot of stuff out of me. That’s certainly true of the revolution in the novel. In particular, the moral questions in the book continue to plague me: how do we make the world better when that world tries to foreclose the possibility?
Back in 1962, John F. Kennedy once said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” I find that particularly ironic, considering he was pursuing a war in Vietnam – but there’s a lot of truth to the statement. That’s the situation in Caeli-Amur (and was the situation around the Middle East not so long ago). The House system in Caeli-Amur is fundamentally unjust, but is incapable of changing. The tragedy is that those who are trying to change things are forced into morally ambiguous actions. It’s something that tends to be true in the real world too, sadly.
It’s certainly true of all three of my characters: the seditionist Maximilian, the philosopher-assassin Kata, and the apparatchik Boris. In their own way, they’re all trying to make things better. All of them are caught in their own views of the world. All of them do bad things, though for good reasons (mostly). Of course, not to act in an unjust situation is also to morally compromise yourself. If you just say, “I’m going to retire to the country and raise ducks”, you are in effect simply supporting the status quo. You’ll be able to avoid the direct consequences of your actions, but if you’re honest, you know that you’re just allowing the state of the world to roll on unchallenged. That’s the situation many of us find ourselves in nowadays. I think morally – and politically – these are the contours of our greatest dilemma today. I tried to get at some of this stuff in Caeli-Amur. In the end, it’s pretty clear who the good guys and the bad guys are, and I think you have to come at a position in real life that says, “These are the people we should support despite what they are forced to do.”
How would you describe the moral set-up of The Godless? Do you think about such things when you write, or do you just follow the narrative?
Ben Peek: Truthfully, it’s a bit of a mix. The moral set up is tied strongly to the characters and they either slam against the narrative or the narrative slams against them. I work out which way it breaks and who or what it breaks when it does, like a good, polite author.
As for what the moral set up of the book is…well, beyond the attention to a view of equality for worldbuilding, I made a couple of choices that allowed me to build a morality in the text. The first choice was the death of the gods—well, the living death, really. They exist in a position of time that is both dying and dead. But I originally began with the idea of writing an atheist novel. In part, I thought I’d try because gods are such a big part of the fantasy toolkit. Tons and tons of novels have the gods interacting, or picking servants and sending them to interact, which is actually pretty cool, and can allow for a really diverse set of interactions between mortality and immortality, as well as morals. Ultimately, I take a different spin on that, where the power of the gods, their divinity, is leaking into the world and changing things, but my first thought was actually straight out atheism.
Partly, I was motivated because I find the response of people have to atheism endlessly fascinating. In the last presidential election in the States, there was a poll taken in which people were asked if they would vote for an atheist president, and it was like, 54% yes, 43% no and, like, what do that 43% of people think an atheist will do? We had an openly atheist Prime Minister in Australia recently, and all she did was sell out equality for homosexuals and fund chaplains in schools to secure her party room power, so Americans should have no fear of the status quo being upset by an atheist president if that is anything to go on. Fear doesn’t quite work like that, though, and so originally, I wanted to explore how morals emerges in a godless world.
Like I said, I couldn’t really hold the atheist line, though. Mostly, I just found it difficult to do with the bodies of gods lying on the world. My original plan was to have it as a world that embraced the concept of nothing after death because god was dead, to quote the famous philosopher, but all my design took me in a different direction, so I followed the lines of where it was taking me. In the end, the book and the world itself settled into a more agnostic approach, which is really much more in keeping with my own world view. I like to think that a sense of the world and universe is essentially unknowable to people and that only through endless questioning and thought and research can we reach a place of knowing. A lot of that informs the characters and world of the book, I think. It goes back to that definition from Thomas Henry Huxley who, in the late 1800s, identified the pursuit of answers as being a large part of agnosticism, of never accepting what you are told.
Did you ever have that interplay emerge while writing Unwrapped Sky?
Rjurik Davidson: Well, it’s interesting, because a novel may propose certain views of the world, but it does so in the form of the novel. So there’s always a tension there, because the narrative often wants to head in certain directions, but they might be directions which I’m not always comfortable with. Partly that’s the effect that ideology has on us, in general.
We live in certain times, with certain ideas floating around us: the most obvious are racism, sexism, individualism, but there is an entire complex besides. These notions fix themselves into our unconscious, which then deploys them when we write, and so there’s always a danger of ending up with certain clichéd narratives, certain stereotypical characters: the damsel in distress; the noble savage; the ‘good’ and worthy hero (i.e. saviour), and so on. There are a good many writers who don’t think about this tension at all, and so they end up regurgitating those very ideas. When you raise this with them, they reply, “Why do you want to get political? It’s just a story.” I try to avoid that position.
In Unwrapped Sky I tried to cut across those stereotypes as much as I could. I tried to make the character who is the most obvious candidate for a ‘hero’ – Maximilian – into a pretty flawed guy. I was hoping that would serve as a critique of the idea of heroes in general, though it’s up to the readers to decide whether it works or not. It was interesting to try to keep that story on track and not let it slide down into the messianic thing which fantasy often falls into: the farm-boy rises to become the noble true-born king. I didn’t plot the novel too much in advance, so I needed to keep this kind of thing in mind.
Later, I wished I’d plotted a lot more, but in truth, I don’t really like plotting too much. I feel like it sucks the life out of the writing if I overdo it. Of course, it means that later I have to deal with all kinds of plot-problems.
How about The Godless – was there one place where you thought, “Damn it, I’ve written myself into a hole?” or as in my case, “Damn it, not again.”
Ben Peek: No, not really. I mean, I’m a big rewriter. To me, that’s where real writing happens – I’m like that film director who never wants to leave the editing suite – and every pause is a moment to go back and edit and rewrite. It’s not until a vague sense of loathing overtakes me whenever I look over something again that I leave it alone. But I found when you work like I do, in an endless series of edits and rewrites, that you tend not to get stuck too much. The first push through a problematic piece might be shit, but each time I return to it, it gets more refined and defined, and then the book goes into edits, and it begins again. Julie Crisp – my editor at Tor – will probably tell you the email horror that it is to get rambling, pointless emails from me about changes, but we’ve all got a way we work, I guess.
Like you, I’m not really much of a plotter. I’m not real fond of the term pantser—it makes me think of kids at school ripping each others’ pants down—but I don’t really do that, either (and I don’t do it to kids ‘cause, y’know, kids). I do have some points to hit when I sit down to write. Event A happens here. Event D there. That sort of thing. A lot of the joy of writing a book is discovering the connective tissue for the two elements. About the most difficult thing that came from that was often making sure the narratives match up together.
I have three points of view that I weave together throughout the book, different to how you did it in Unwrapped Sky—whereas for your three characters, you went, if I remember right, two to three chapters of one point of view and then another, repeating it until the end; on my part, however, I just weaved the voices back and forth amongst each other, cutting between PoV and PoV for overlapping to heighten juxtaposition and all such things that come with that. So quite often, the hardest part was when a large event took place, and I had to weave all three around it. A problem, I suspect, that you also encountered in the latter parts of your novel when characters begin to interact with each other?
Rjurik Davidson: Yes. I wrote sequences of about four chapters for each individual character, which ended up the length of a long short story. Once the three points of view were interacting it became a logistical challenge. Luckily, in the next novel, The Stars Askew, the three characters spend more time apart, so there wasn’t so much interaction between them.
Two of the characters are away from Caeli-Amur for long periods of time. One is in Varenis, the great Imperial metropolis to the north. So while a lot of people seem to like Caeli-Amur, I’m keen to see what they think of Varenis, which is gargantuan and monolithic. A second character is in the wilderness for a fair bit too. I needed to get out of Caeli-Amur anyway, to give the story room to breathe, but also to expand the scope. In The Stars Askew the contradiction between Varenis and Caeli-Amur is becoming more acute. The third book, The Dark Sun, will see that contradiction wrapped up. It will also see more jokes – dark ones.
The Godless also has a different kind of scope to your earlier work, say 26 Lies/One Truth, or Black Sheep. It’s also perhaps not so experimental, but it’s still definitely your style. How did you find those shifts in scope and approach?
Ben Peek: The Dark Sun is a sweet title. Can I steal it? You can have my title for a third book—it is on the blank card, here.
As for the shifts in scope and approach, it wasn’t as much as you would think it was. Twenty-Six Lies/One Truth is what people consider to be the most experimental of my books, because of the narrative shifts between non-fiction, autobiography, and a comic, but structurally speaking, it’s not any different to the structure I use for The Godless, where I shift between Ayae, Zaifyr and Bueralan. There’s perhaps less anal, perhaps less swearing, and, well, let’s be honest, perhaps slightly more sword fighting, but the structural underpinning of the two books is not as radically different as you might first imagine.
The trick as an author, however, is to bring your audience with you from book to book. I have a great amount of time for my readers, especially those who have followed me from those first, inept steps of Black Sheep and through Twenty-Six Lies/One Truth, Above/Below and Dead Americans. I want them to feel that this big, crazy fantasy world I have as a playground is as rewarding for them as it is to me as an author, and as rewarding as the previous stuff. So I made sure that the structural work is still there, the level of prose is still as good as I can make it, and the ideas and themes that have motivated me for a couple of decades now are still present in the book. If they were especially fond of the Red Sun pieces, then they will find the Children series a sister to that work. But just as there is a whole lot of stuff here for the readers who have come before, there’s a whole lot here for a new reader, as well s the joy of digging through the body of my work, and looking for the links and the stains and the growth.
Which in the case of Black Sheep, look, I was young…
Changing things up a bit: what would you say were your literary touchstones for Unwrapped Sky and the world of Caeli-Amur?
Rjurik Davidson: You can have The Dark Sun as a title, as long as you write the book. We could pretend I was dead. It could be like the last of Robert Jordan’s books, the ones written by Brandon Sanderson. I look forward to hearing how you go, sifting through my incomprehensible notes.
Ben Peek: Maybe I could convince Sanderson to write them while pretending to be me while I’m pretending to be you going through your leftover notes in your pretend death?
Rjurik Davidson: But more seriously, literary touchstones are one of those things which are sometimes tricky to pin down. I can pull out a bunch which I think Unwrapped Sky is influenced by, or in dialogue with (one of the great things about SF is the way it works a bit like jazz, with writers in ongoing dialogue with each other). But there are probably many which find their way subtly into the book too. But hell, let’s give it a go.
The ‘feel’ of the book was first suggested to me by Samuel R. Delany’s The Einstein Intersection, though truth be told, I can’t recall too much about Delany’s book, and I think Unwrapped Sky is a lot darker. But there was something about the use of classical mythology and science which got transmuted in Unwrapped Sky. Then there’s the moral approach of the existentialists – Sartre, De Beauvoir. The idea that we have choice, but not necessarily in the conditions we have chosen. That attempt to keep a moral vector to one’s life, in a troubled world that doesn’t really allow pure morality, interests me.
We all face those decisions all the time, on minor scales and major ones. Our clothes and computers are made in awful sweatshops, we burn energy without a second thought, we drive cars instead of ride bicycles. How to negotiate those things is a major problem for us all, though in Unwrapped Sky it’s on a much more political and obvious plane: do the ends justify the means? What are you prepared to do in order to change things for the better? How do you know if it actually will result in improvements and not in something worse?
You probably also see the influence of Victor Serge’s work in Unwrapped Sky, though this comes out in the next book The Stars Askew, much more clearly. But before I make it sound too highbrow, you know, there are probably a lot of other influences too, writers from the 1960s SF scene, the weird writers of the 30s (Lovecraft, Howard) who I read as a teenager, some of the realists like Zola, James Ellroy’s crime fiction. There all in there in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. How about literary touchstones for The Godless?
Ben Peek: Nothing real elaborate. I mostly reached back to all the fantasy I’d read as a teenager, and took stock of what I liked, and what I did not. I was a big fan of the Weis and Hickman Death Gate Cycle and I suspect the ruined world I made had its first moments of birth back then. I sorta recall it falling away in the last two books of the series—there were seven—and the last one especially, as if the ambition of the project got out of control, but yeah, big fan.
I liked the brutality of the early David Gemmell books, as well. The early Drenai novels like Legend, Waylander, King Beyond the Gate, all were really cool to my teenage self. Of course, Gemmell was an awful stylist in terms of prose and the characterisation he employed throughout his career was particularly one note, but I can still remember this scene in Legend, where Druss, the ‘legend’ of the book, has died, and his body is being kept by the enemy, so his allies climb down from their walls and walk into the funeral the enemy are holding for him. It was an impressionable youth, really, in all the wrong ways for literature.
However, I was interested in your use of the existentialists. It’s one of the really sweet things of Unwrapped Sky, the way they’re buried throughout the text and arise here and there—will we see more of that in the next book, as well?
Rjurik Davidson: The Stars Askew is a little different as a novel. For long sections it takes us out of the oppressive atmosphere of Caeli-Amur, to the vast Imperial city of Varenis, and the wilderness. There’s a lot more air to breathe. The influences are still roughly the same – Delany and Ballard’s ruined cities – but I think you could add more genre fantasy in as well. There’s a bit more Robert E. Howard, Tolkien, and maybe even some of the 80s pulpy writers like David Eddings or Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman. I connected a little more with what I liked as a teenager, I suppose. And there are more jokes – dark ones, still.
On the more literary side, as I mentioned, the work of Victor Serge is pretty influential. Serge was a Franco-Russian radical who went to Russia after the 1917 revolution. He took part in the attempts to build a democratic socialism, and spent a lot of time trying to stop the abuses which were taking place there. He was later an opponent of Stalinism and ended up in exile, writing a series of interesting novels and a fascinating memoir. If you want to understand those times, I think he’s one of the essential writers.
The title comes from a poem of his, which is quoted at the beginning of the novel. I wrote a related story some years ago called “Night With the Stars Askew”, published in a Ticonderoga anthology called Worker’s Paradise. It’s one of my own favourites and the new novel shares the same themes. In the short story, Serge himself is a character, but he’s a holographic, computer-generated version – a simulacrum of Serge. I hope if I get a collection together soon (as I’ve quite a few uncollected stories now), it will get a tiny bit of attention. Do the upcoming novels in The Godless world move across different thematic – and fictional – terrain?
Ben Peek: Yeah, in the new book, there are two new countries, Yeflam and Ooila.
Allow me a little sideways jaunt here—I promise it’s relevant—but did you see that Gary Oldman interview in Playboy a few weeks ago? It picked up media traction because he spoke against political correctness; claimed Mel Gibson was just talking ‘bout things we all thought privately about Jews running Hollywood, and so on and so forth. I believe he also lamented the ability to call women he didn’t like fucking cunts. It was…a sad thing to read. Like, I mean, Oldman can be great, and I really loved him in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But I dunno, a new Apes movie and suddenly he’s channelling Charlton Heston or some shit. Soon he’ll be leading NRA conventions into towns that have just had school shootings.
But any way, the reason I’m bringing it up here is because he was basically saying political correctness had gone too far, and it was ruining life, and we were on the way to hell in a handcart, and so on and so forth. And I thought, dude, how can you be an actor and believe that? Surely you see how important language is, how it constructs the world around us, and how when you say shit like Jews run Hollywood, you actually create an narrative through your words so you end up giving it weight and legitimacy through your authority, even though it’s untrue.
It sounds left field to link it to fantasy books, but a lot of that point about how language works connects to the worldbuilding we engage in the books. I’ve tried to be aware of it as I go throughout my career, and especially here, as I create new countries and new societies. As a creator, you want them to be diverse, and you also don’t want them to be furthering these racist clichés that exist in our world. In the fantasy novel, the author is the authority, and if you give legitimacy to the false, it will bleed between your fantasy world and real world on the narratives you create.
An easy example of it is women in fantasy fiction. There’s this belief that all women did in ye old times was get f***ed and pump out children, but history is full of examples of women who were hugely different. The Trung Sisters out of Vietnam, Queen Zenobia from Syria, and so on and so forth. But every time we create a society in fantasy fiction where we deny that and then justify it by saying, well, in history women were married off by thirteen and pumping out kids while men made the world, just as it is in my narrative here that I wrote, then we give truth to that argument. It works the same way with people of colour, people who are gay, or trans, or just not straight, and as authors, I think we have to be careful of what we let our authority and our narratives endorse.
In a way, I know I am returning to that earlier topic where I mentioned about how you worldbuild with equality in mind, and when I made my two new countries, I did it with an eye on the fallacies that are being built up inside fantasy fiction, and tried to deliberately step aside from it. Like with everything else I create, readers will decide if I did it well or badly—and the truth is, I can do everything well or badly despite my best intentions—but that’s the creation mind that underlies everything that I introduce and do in the books, and which will, I hope, continue as I go into the next books.
Anyhow, complete rant in there I guess, so moving on – you, I understand, have two new novels on the go. The Dark Sun, which is the final for this series, but also The Red Earth, something entirely different?
Rjurik Davidson: Yes, before I answer your question, I wanted to add this: In her TV series Meet the Romans, Mary Beard found the tomb of a woman who lived with two men as lovers. When she died the two men went their separate ways. It’s a great story, partly because it goes so strongly against the grain of our sense of women as property in Ancient Rome (though of course they were that too). It’s an interesting question that I’ve thought about a lot, recently: in a fantasy world, if you represent a particular oppression, how do you make sure you aren’t endorsing it?
So in a world where women are subjects (and subject to such things as sexual violence) how do you make it a critique not a celebration? An alternative approach would be to try to write a fantasy world as a kind of utopia, where there are certain groups who are not marginalised, even if they are in our world. The feminist fantasy utopia, the trans fantasy utopia, the race/ethnicity fantasy utopia. It’s not the approach I used in Unwrapped Sky, but there are some of those out there. I’m sure there’s room for more.
To answer your question, though, I’m working on a steampunk novel set in Australia. The novel is an outgrowth of a story I did some years back, “Int. Morgue. Night.”, in which Australia still has an inland sea. As a result, the megafauna of the Pleistocene era still exist. There are giant lizards, huge diprotodons (giant wombats, basically – check them out online), marsupial lions (scary-looking things!). There are also some of the usual steampunk trappings to go along with it: hansom cabs, automatons, steam technology.
The story features a suffragette librarian and a burned out detective. The 1890s were a fascinating time in Australia. The Gold Rush had turned Melbourne into one of the most dynamic (and technological) cities in the world. It featured a number of great ‘Victorian Skyscrapers’, some of the tallest buildings in the world. But a depression had struck, and there was also great social turmoil, including a huge strike wave of 1890. There were spiritualists, bomb-throwing anarchists, vegetarianism, utopian socialist groups who set up rural communes (the most famous group left to set up a utopia in Paraguay). So that’s the background of the novel. It’s steampunk, but I’d like to think it’s surprising and different. It’s also a little less dark than the Caeli-Amur books. It has more jokes – not so dark, this time. And it has quite a bit of adventure.
Do you have plans for after the trilogy?
Ben Peek: Before I hit our final bit here, I’ll just loop back, and say, I don’t think you need the utopian approach hugely. I probably think that because when I think of utopia approaches, I think it leads you down a different set of narrative demands, but everyone will be different in that regards.
Rather, I think you have to develop an awareness of what is happening in your false world, and its inspirations, links, etc., with the real world. It is not a problem to present persecution, or to create a society in which, to use our example of women, females are subjugated and kept in oppressive conditions. Don’t be afraid as an author. If you want to do that, do it. Just be aware of it as you do it. It falls to the author to understand and acknowledge that there are very real examples of women in terrible situations, and the author’s authority—and their privilege that is drawn from their power in the creator of the text they present—puts them in a position where they have to navigate a series of consequences and representations. There will be people who disagree on that, naturally, and say it is not needed, and it is simply bullshit, but in the end, and that’s fine.
It is readers who make the choice if they go with the author who is aware or who isn’t, and they who will make the choice if they’re offended or not by the text, just as they will decide if they take the essence of your work back with them into the real world—if they take what you have written into conversation with them. We’re all lucky as authors if the latter happens and there is no set of rules to ensure one or the other does or does not take place.
As for after I’ve finished the trilogy? I don’t know. It will depend, I think, on how The Godless—how the series—does. I’ve made this big, crazy world and I’m not quite ready to let it go. I’d like to stay and kick round for a while longer. But that said, I have another fantasy series about democracies I’d like to roll with, and I’d welcome the chance to get The Red Sun novel I wrote into print. Doing Dead Americans and Other Stories and writing a couple of new Red Sun pieces—“Upon the Body” which will be in Nightmare Magazine soon and “In the Broken City”, which was in Shimmer—gave me a taste for it again.
I have an idea for a mercenary set of novels which I think would be cool. My partner and I are working on A Year in the City, our huge mosaic magic realist book about Sydney. I wrote it and she’s taking photos for it, and then there’s a huge layout thing we have to do, so don’t expect it any time soon. I also have this idea for a Dead Americans novel about Orson Welles. So there’s lots of ideas. Lots of energy. But if enough people dig this series though, then hey, it’s buy the ticket, take the ride: more fantasy in this world with these characters as they soak up my headspace.
We would like to thank Ben Peek and Rjurik Davidson for sharing this interview with us. You can learn more about their novels on their websites (Ben Peek and Rjurik Davidson) or follow them on Twitter (Ben Peek and Rjurik Davidson).