Joining us today to answer a few questions is Kameron Hurley, author of the Bel Dame Apocrypha. Her first novel, God’s War, won the 2011 Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award for best début, and was shortlisted for the 2012 Nebula Award for best novel. Let me note for the record? The subsequent novels of this particularly vivid, imaginative, and violent trilogy, 2011’s Infidel and 2012’s Rapture, are even better than the first instalment.
Yes, I like them a lot. And I think if you like your science fiction brutal, character-driven and morally complex—oh, and somewhat on the feminist side—there are good odds you might like them too.
Now, to the questions:
LB: So. Your main character, Nyx. The planet of Umayma. The incredibly visceral brutality of the world of the Bel Dame Apocrypha both in its people and its physical geography. What led you to write books like this?
KH: I’ve always been interested in the politics of war. War is one of those things that the longer I studied it, the more illogical it seemed. The immediate losses and impact on human psychology are vast and long-reaching. But human beings don’t make decisions based on logic. If you remove the part of our brains responsible for emotions and our logical functions remain intact, we cannot actually make decisions.
When we go to war for resources, we find it necessary to create emotional reasons that it’s a good idea. We tend to find it more palatable if we tell ourselves we’re murdering others to “protect our freedom” than “to get their oil.” It helps us all feel better in the morning, as freedom has a far more emotional pull than a natural resource. Very few tangible, real-world things get any rise in us unless we attach them to an emotional feeling. My day job is sales and marketing, and I also see this again and again in peddling products. One bread is as good as any other, unless you have created an emotional attachment to a certain brand (which often occurs in childhood, and is why so many $$ are targeted at marketing brands to children). I wanted to create a world that was believably at war for centuries, even through a few decades-long ceasefires. So what I created was a resource-strapped world, one where people would go to war for resources, but justify those wars with religious and philosophical differences. There’s a belief that the old story of Cain and Abel is actually a metaphor for the war between herding vs. farming societies in our early history. Wars over good land were discussed and justified using stories that evoked tangible emotions.
It also so happens I grew up reading a lot of bloody Old Testament Bible stories as a child. The world of the Old Testament was one of a bloody, angry, jealous god. Pairing those stories with stories of ancient Assyria– where they piled up people’s heads and testicles post-invasion—made for a very visceral bloody desert setting. The word bel dame, which I use as the term for my government assassins in the books, is actually a riff on the term beldam, an ancient Hebrew word that means, loosely, “blood avenger,” and was used in reference to a person who hunted down and collected the blood debt a murderer owed to the family of a person they murdered back in biblical times (more on bloody biblical law in the book, Homicide in the Biblical World.) To create the religions in the world, I spent a lot of time researching ancient Islam and early Christianity and some Judaism and Hinduism. As a far-future world, it needed to feel like it may have roots in ours, but be a totally unique society; a society that could not exist anywhere else. Like the people in the world, their beliefs also needed to be impacted by the resource-poor world and its strange properties. People who survived in this kind of world would also need to have a harder edge. People who survived and thrived would need to be ever scarier.
KH: When I was at Clarion, Geoff Ryman told me he found a story of mine personally offensive and said it suffered from a “failure of the imagination.” This led to a dialogue about how writers are responsible for the images they put onto the page, and how we, as creators, need to be aware of how our works are being read in the context of everything else being created and consumed around us. I took this responsibility very seriously, and it’s something I think about a lot when I’m writing.
I started writing God’s War knowing that I wanted to write about real people on a resource-strapped planet at perpetual war. I was also interested in learning more about the Abrahamic religions, including Islam. In an effort to do this responsibly, I spent about five or six years doing an enormous amount of research, and did my best to paint a world at war that could have been at war no matter the religious beliefs of its inhabitants. That said, a desert setting with two countries at war where primarily Persian and Arabic names and words are used is going to be problematic no matter how much work and thought you put into it as an outsider, because the work has to be read in the context of current media biases and portrayals of the Middle East, Islam, and Arab Americans here in the U.S. My inspiration may have been the Iran/Iraq war, and exploring how outside interests prolonged such conflicts (the U.S. is very good at this), but I met a lot of readers who admitted to me that they had hesitated to read it because they feared I’d simply written another “terrorists in space” novel (of which there have been a disturbing number).
For the most part, God’s War has been well received, and most of those who’d feared a “terrorists in space” novel ended up being among the book’s biggest fans. I can’t change the preconceived notions a reader brings to a work, but I can do my best to be aware of, address, and subvert tropes and expectations that readers may have as best I can and hope I don’t screw it up too much.
How well I achieved that, however, is not up to me. That’s up to readers. You do the best you can, and then you let it go. You don’t own it anymore, so I don’t know that it really matters what an author “feels” about how readers interpret a text. Hopefully, like me, other writers read and appreciate the feedback—good, bad, angry, indifferent—and use it to write better stories going forward.
LB: Do you consider yourself influenced by any other writers in the SFF field?
KH: Writers tend to be big readers, and I’m no exception (I’m always leery of writers who claim they don’t read anymore. What?). I grew up a fan of fat epic fantasy novels of the Jordan and Martin variety—with a particular passion for Gene Wolfe—but in my early twenties I started to branch out into weird fiction in a big way. That started with folks like China Miéville, Jeff VanderMeer, Angela Carter, and KJ Bishop. Rupert Thomson and Christopher Priest certainly also had an impact, and more recently, I’ve become a fan of Joe Abercrombie, Tim Akers, and Octavia Butler and Lauren Beukes.
But of course I don’t think you can look at what I write without knowing how big an impact Joanna Russ had on me. I think I’ve read most everything she’s ever written. I like Ursula Le Guin as well, but mostly for her nonfiction. Her most interesting work, for me, was The Dispossessed, if only because she managed to posit a resource-strapped world without war where people’s success relied on their ability to cooperate as opposed to dominate (something I’m playing with in my next book). Russ was always more relatable to me, because I connected with her anger. As for Golden Age SF writers, I enjoy a lot of Frank Herbert’s more obscure stuff, as well as Zelazny and Bester. Other folks, like Nicola Griffith, Mary Renault, Margaret Atwood, and Sarah Waters are also fast favorites. New writers like Genevieve Valentine and Ian Tregillis have done some really excellent stuff as well that helps keep me on my toes. I think it’s important to keep reading widely throughout your career, because you are constantly finding stuff that excites and challenges you.
LB: Do you think Joanna Russ’s anger remains important for the SFF field?
KH: I think anger of any kind is valuable. It’s all about learning how to channel it. The worst thing we can do is get bored or complacent, or worse—supress our anger and then see it burst forth in unhealthy ways. What was eye-opening, to me, about Russ was that her anger was so incredibly stark and unapologetic. I’ve read a lot of explicitly feminist SF, but very little of it that’s as angry as hers, or, recently, as…big F Feminism. Sometimes I find myself wanting to differentiate between “big F” political and “little f” assumed feminism in fiction, if that makes any sense. Big F Feminism being explicitly aware of what it’s doing and how its worlds are seen in the context of everything else (lots of this in the 70’s and early 80’s), while little f feminism assumes the whole future/fantasy world is “equal” without particularly interesting itself in why or how it got that way or examining the repercussions of what that means in its societies (a lot more of this in the 90’s and aughts, where folks handed women swords and lasers and said that meant everyone was “equal” now).
I connected with Russ in my early twenties when I had just started realizing that the stuff I’d been fed about how women were all equal now and all the fighting was done was, in fact, a bunch of shit. It’s really easy to go around saying you’re equal to everyone right up until you have to succeed in a society where people’s treatment of you hinges on systematically reinforced notions of who you are and what you’re capable of achieving based on your gender. Hitting that wall isn’t insurmountable, especially considering I came from a background of relative privilege (being white, able-bodied, middle-class, and just a touch queer), but it wasn’t something I was prepared for. Russ made me aware that what I was feeling was anger, and completely legitimized that feeling for me. Whereas Le Guin’s characters might say, “Let us all quietly work together to nurture a more holistic and inclusionary society,” Russ’s characters would be like, “Fuck you and your false utopia built on forced child-bearing and rigid gender roles! I’ll murder every last one of you instead of nurturing your rape-babies!” the way her heroine did in We Who Are About To….
I can appreciate that kind of honest anger. It’s how male characters have been allowed to act for yonks.
LB: In the Bel Dame Apocrypha, many of your characters seem to distrust, dislike or even despise each other, even while they’re working together. It’s an unusual dynamic to find in science fiction—what influenced your choices here?
KH: I liked the idea of putting people together who had the maximum potential for tension and conflict, so it was a very deliberate choice. There’s actually a pretty long history of doing stuff like this, maybe more so in fantasy than SF—I spent a lot of time watching Firefly in preparation for creating Nyx’s team—and even old stuff like the first Dragonlance trilogy ratchets up some tension by forcing characters to work together who have every reason not to work together. A good traveling party isn’t necessarily one where everybody likes each other, but one where everybody complements each other. Half the fun of writing these books was figuring out why and how people who so obviously disliked each other kept working together.
You can see most of that obvious opposites thing with Nyx and Rhys in the first book. I wasn’t as savvy in my preparation of the rest of her team, though, as I was in the final book. I think that if I’d spent the time positioning my characters more complexly at odds with each other in the first book, I’d have better fleshed out those characters. For the third book, I had a whole list of “potential character conflicts” to mine throughout, as I sat down and worked out exactly the sort of traits, beliefs, and backgrounds the characters needed to have for maximum tension.
That said, most parties do end up liking or respecting one another at the end of an adventure in SF/F, and it’s true that you don’t see that as much in these books. Some of this, I think, has to do with Nyx’s character. She makes it very hard for people to like her—as soon as they start, she finds some way to put them off. I’ve talked before about how Nyx is kind of psychotic, as anybody who survived and thrived in this kind of situation would be, but I think very few authors actually take the fact of their characters’ deep damage to its logical conclusion.
A lot of people put a gun in a character’s hand and have them rip people’s hearts out, and then in the end they settle down and get married and go grocery shopping like normal people. With Nyx, I wanted to show how living a “normal” life for somebody who’s done and experienced what she has is almost impossible. It’s not nice, but it feels more real than having her cry in a corner, slap on some leather pants, and form a lasting commitment with actual humans. To achieve that after what she’s been through, you’d have to do a lot of hard emotional work, and I just don’t think she’s equipped to do that (and she certainly doesn’t live in a world that supports that). I think at some level, Nyx acknowledges that she’s monstrous. And so do the people around her.
Monsters are fascinating things to read about, and they’re useful to have around when you’re attacked by mutants or aliens or something—but you don’t want to take one home with you. I wouldn’t like to spend a lot of quality time with Conan, either.
LB: One final question. What are you working on now, and what should we expect from you in the medium-term future?
KH: I have a couple of projects I’m working on right now. The first is tentatively titled Forging the Mirror Darkly, and it’s a revision of a big fantasy epic featuring a scullery maid who can unmake worlds, a polyamorous portal mage, and a dancer-turned-assassin determined to survive a relentless genocidal campaign against their people. I’m doing some things in here with carnivorous plants and satellite-reliant magic that I’m finding quite delightful.
The other is a space opera titled Legion that’s about two families battling for control over a legion of cancerous worldships—which also features biotic witches and some really gooey womb tech. It’s a race to see which of these projects gets done first, though I get the impression after shopping the proposal to a couple of agents that the fantasy is going to be more marketable. We’ll see what folks think of them.
I’m not under contract right now, which on the one hand is very relaxing after the last couple years and change of vigorous marketing and promotion and writing, writing, writing, but I tend to work more efficiently under deadline. So it’ll be nice to have something more concrete at some point. We’ll see how it goes.
In the meantime, the UK version of God’s War is coming out from Del Rey UK in May. They’re doing a cover shoot with a model and everything, which has been a little bit surreal to follow from my end. I have a great editor over there and he’s kept me in the loop with how things are going. I look forward to seeing how the books do overseas. Fingers crossed, all that. If they do well, I wouldn’t rule out seeing more books set on Umayma in the future.
I should also have a story coming out in the anthology, Pandemonium: The Lowest Heaven edited by Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin in the Spring of 2013, barring disaster. I had best go finish that story now, actually!
I like to stay pretty busy—I have a fulltime day job as a copywriter, do some freelance copywriting, and agreed to teach a copywriting class this spring. I think some of that busy-ness is just me refilling my creative bucket. The Bel Dame Apocrypha wrung a lot out of me, and I need to get out there and collect some more rage, angst, and…bugs. Or flesh-eating plants. Or, something—whatever the next thing will be.
LB: Thank you, Kameron Hurley, for answering these questions. And I know that I, for one, look forward reading whatever comes next.