Haves and Have Nots in Epic Fantasy

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In Last First Snow, Max Gladstone writes about Craft, a code of law powerful enough to shape reality. A Craftsperson can throw fire and live forever as a kick-ass skeleton, but, more vitally, they can work with invisible power, people power, as tangibly as flame or stone. They can make contracts between the will of the people and the power of the elite.

In The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Seth Dickinson introduces us to the Masquerade. They’re a thalassocracy, an empire whose power comes from sea strength and trade,. They don’t have much history, or much territory, or much of an army. But they’re good at navigation, chemistry, bureaucracy, sanitation, and building schools. They’re like an octopus—soft, dependent on camouflage and cunning.

In some ways, these novels couldn’t be more different. The truth is, they share a common foundation: they’re books about power and change; about the Haves and the Have-nots; about uprisings and revolutions; and about the struggle between those wishing to preserve the status quo, and those desperate to make a better world.

Naturally, we had to lock the brains behind these books in a room together, just to see what would happen.

MAX: Let’s start with empires, shall we? Evil empires are no stranger to fantasy, but they tend to be shown as invading Others to be resisted (like The Dark Lord Sauron) or as universally derided military conquerors (like the Galactic Empire in Star Wars—we never see staunch Imperialists outside the Imp Navy).

The Traitor Baru Cormorant doesn’t lack for swordfights and invasions—but the Masquerade deploys subtler tools of empire, too. What led you down this road? What were you trying to accomplish?

SETH: I think I write about that kind of subtle force for the same reason you do! (That’s a guess. You’ll have to confirm or deny.) I want to write about how we got to now. I want to say something about the world by stepping outside it. And the scary powers in our world right now aren’t fighters or brute invaders—or at least not those alone.

We know it’s bad to conquer and pillage. When we see the Palpatine dissolving the senate or Sauron binding all will to his own, we feel contempt, and hate, and pity, too, because we know they’ll lose. And that’s kind of boring, right? As people, we have a set of tools for resisting the Outgroup. We know how to hate the other team, the faceless bad guys. We’re ready for them. In a way they’re not the real danger any more.

MAX: The notion of the Dark Lord on his Dark Throne is sort of an ideological technology, isn’t it, that helps us resist external threats. But that technology doesn’t work so well without a clear Outgroup!

SETH: Sauron began his career as a councilor of the arts, the Lord of Gifts. That’s what interests and frightens me: not the horde or the legion coming to rule by the sword, but the gift-giver, the developer, whose promises are so good and so true you can’t fight them without feeling like you’ve passed up a chance to be happy. That’s the scary kind of nemesis, not the used car salesman or the fraud, but the true believer who’s got a plan to make you better and a moral framework to explain why it’s necessary.

That’s the scary kind because we can never be sure it’s not us. How do you fight something camouflaged as everything you want?

I see three kinds of power, I guess. The first is the power to change how we act, by killing us or imprisoning us if we disobey. That’s an easy power to get.

The second is the power to change what we choose. Setting prices, teaching us what we should want, levying taxes, constructing moral codes. Lately, this has become the dominant force in the world, and it’s the kind of power the Masquerade has, a sort of hegemonic colonial Don Draper. It’s a nice power to have, because you can use it to aim the first power.

And the third power, the power we’ve just started to be frightened of, is the power to change how we choose. To go into the body or mind and alter the faculties we use to understand and decide.

SETH: Max, you wrote a book in which a huge power, Red King Consolidated, essentially decides to buy out an old neighborhood, the Skittersill, and gentrify it. Red King has effectively unlimited resources. But the people in that neighborhood say no. So I have two questions for you: how cool is this kind of conflict, how compelling, where both sides want the best, but their ideas of Good are incompatible? And second, do you think the people of the Skittersill are at the mercy of Red King’s desire to be good, or do the little folks have real, meaningful power against the big guy? Is democratic process an agreeable illusion, or is there something about Red King’s power that needs the consent of the governed?

MAX: How cool? I think those sorts of conflicts are, in fiction, the coolest, and in real life the trickiest, most vicious, and most important. But I might frame it in a slightly different way—they’re conflicts between people with different ideas about what’s Good, yes, but I feel their conflicting notions of Good are actually an epiphenomenon of conflicts between the different languages they use to describe the world. Which makes compromise much harder, since it’s damn difficult for people with different languages to even make sense of one another’s positions.

You run into this kind of problem a lot arguing with people who know shreds of economics: one side will present a first-principles argument that, for example, rent controls decrease the availability of housing, given certain assumptions. But that argument ignores, say, the value of a coherent multigenerational community over one where people are moving all the time, or the point that moving is really difficult and expensive for poorer people. Those claims get glossed over as “externalities”—beside the point. That might be intentional malice, but it might just as easily be because those issues are hard to quantify, and mess up the math.

Then, when people argue in defense of their homes, they get the math shoved in their faces! “Do you want people on the streets?”

SETH: So what’s the root of the problem? And how does this intellectual disagreement figure into your action-packed, very human book?

MAX: The more complete a worldview, it seems to me, the less people who operate within that worldview can, let’s not even go so far as to say “understand”—often they can’t even accurately represent statements made by people outside it. So, in Last First Snow, the Craftsmen of Red King Consolidated are these very powerful wizard types who view everything in the world as a sort of negotiation—either deals between equal parties, or subject-object relationships. The people of the Skittersill have a number of different languages. Those who believe in the old gods, most of whom are dead, have a very I-Thou view of the world; some are community-focused; some want to fight for the guy or gal next to them; some just want to fight. Getting all these people talking to one another is an enormous challenge.

(I wonder, apropos of basically nothing, if this is the reason why the US revolution had a more-or-less stable endgame: many US elites still held power after the revolution, and their visions of a “good society” were relatively compatible, or at least were framed in compatible language. Which, of course, led to horrors in its own right, since that compatible language had some pretty enormous holes.)

SETH: So what about democratic process? If he’s immortal and nearly divine, why does the Red King need the consent of the governed?

MAX: As to your second question—the little folks do have real, meaningful power, both in this story and, I think, in the world. Part of the story the King in Red tells himself and his people, is that his rule is good, that his actions are justified, that he’s the Hero. When people organize and fight back, his confidence in that story suffers; while he can likely win any military conflict, his victory will be Pyrrhic by the very fact that it is a victory. The harsher the fight, the more vicious the crackdown, the more the Hero Story suffers, the more the civic religion breaks—and if the King in Red, or any leviathan, descends to war against his subjects, he’s lost. That said, things still look pretty bleak for the little folk in this scenario. Then again, there are other forms of power that won’t bend to the King in Red, quite. Manuscripts don’t burn, even if poets do; ideas are (sort of) bulletproof, even if idealists aren’t; peoples last longer than individual oppressors; gods are damned difficult to kill, and have a tendency to rise again.

But your third form of power makes me nervous about resisters’ long term chances for success—by manipulating access to information, by restricting the sorts of thoughts that can be expressed in public and the sort of associations that can be formed, by muddying up notions of truth and accuracy with astroturfing, official harassment, and targeted scorn, modern empires can make, and increasingly are making, ideological resistance very difficult (but not impossible!). The Traitor Baru Cormorant spends a lot of time framing problems of resistance and revolution. How do people stand up against a totalizing power? How do we resist the Lord of Gifts?

SETH: Right! How do you save yourself from the Lord of Gifts? Especially if you decide the only way to win is to claim the Lord’s power by working for him?

Let me grab what you said about languages, because damn that’s good. That’s a big struggle in life, right? We’re all looking for a code to live by, a set of rules that’s both compassionate to others and good at defending us from those who want to prey. And when we have that code, we kind of etch it into our eyeballs. We use it to organize our thoughts. We can’t easily step out of it, into someone else’s.

So when the protesters and the Red King Consolidated people try to negotiate in Last First Snow, the struggle isn’t just about material differences. They are, at first, deaf to each others’ languages.

The King in Red and his Craftspeople, they know the story. We killed the gods, stopped human sacrifice, and we Made Things Better. And we did it using a set of rules—contract, market, government, Craft. Why won’t you get on board with our rules? Don’t you understand our world-logic is an engine for improving lives? And for the protesters in the Skittersill, the story is, Man, we live here. Don’t you get that? You can triple property values, you can build casinos, but we won’t be living here to see it. You’ll take our Skittersill just the way you took our gods.

We probably sound like big nerds writing Novels of Ideas. But man, this stuff hurts. It gets inside a character’s head and tears them up.

MAX: Speaking of that: how can Baru stay sane (or insane), and keep thinking outside the Masquarde’s worldview? Talk to me, Mister Dickinson, about Qualms.

SETH: The Masquerade swallowed up Baru’s home just the way Red King wants to swallow up the Skittersill. And the Masquerade has designed its world-logic to seduce and dissolve all the logic inside it. Baru can’t resist it. She’s curious, she wants to learn Masquerade science, and deep down she’s so ambitious that she wants Masquerade power too. But Baru also wants to tear the Masquerade apart and save her home.

So how does Baru stay herself? How does she, for instance, remain a woman attracted to women while serving a power that ordinates heterosexuality? How does she believe in bodily autonomy while working for a colonial empire that wants to use Lamarckian eugenics, surgery, and conditioning to write its laws straight into flesh?

For a lot of our characters, in both our books, the answer is double consciousness. You split yourself.

You asked about Qualms. They’re little capsules of Masquerade philosophy, designed to help you be a good citizen. For example, the Hierarchic Qualm explains that you’re guiltless for anything you do in service to the Masquerade, just the way a hand bears no responsibility for obeying the brain.

But the rebels and seditionaries that Baru meets have started writing their own Qualms to help them survive, resist, and endure. Baru likes the Traitor’s Qualm, which is a story about why it may be better to comply and collaborate now in the name of resistance later.

I tried to bring this double consciousness into every part of The Traitor Baru Cormorant, and it was often really tricky. Baru knows, without any doubt or uncertainty, that she’s attracted to women. But if she expresses it, she’ll face horrifying mutilation. So she teaches herself to deny what she feels—only that’s impossible, so she finds loopholes in her own discipline, like using her home culture’s markers of attractiveness (grace, mastery, confidence) to check people out, rather than Masquerade norms of body shape.

I wrestled with this a lot: trying to make the narrative ignore everything Baru would ignore, but trying to flag that intentional ignorance too. There were situations where I wanted to say, ‘this is revolting, this is beyond atrocity, scream and rage!’ But I knew Baru would think, ‘this is regrettable, this is uncomfortable, but I cannot fix it now, and I will not dwell on it, or risk breaching my own defenses.’ Or she would think, ‘this makes me happy, and I want it, but I cannot afford it now.’

MAX: Sounds like a psychological finger trap—difficult, if not impossible, to negotiate a path forward.

SETH: Everyone’s always finding a way to resist. Like the good Fury Road said, sooner or later someone pushes back. I wanted to write this novel to say, look, even in a really screwed-up oppressive society full of institutional violence and smug horror, the people at the bottom are going to fight. No matter how dark and sadistic you make their circumstances, they’ll find a way to choose resistance. Defiance.

And the Masquerade knows it. They know they win not by beating you up until you obey, not by breaking you, but by convincing you to choose obedience even with no external coercion present—and convincing you to like it.

So that’s how Baru stays Baru: with calculated double consciousness. She’s the perfect Imperial savant, the instrument of Masquerade rule. She’s the traitor who’ll behead the whole sick system too. All at once.

SETH: What about Temoc? I want to hear about the pain of Temoc, last of the Eagle Knights, a man who saw his entire faith torn down around him, a man who lives as a father and a husband and a good citizen in a city ruled by his worst enemy—but still finds a way to practice worship. How does Temoc experience double consciousness? And what happens when he meets Elayne?

MAX: Gah, that is a killer point about double consciousness. Both our books focus on societies and people in the teeth of a dilemma—how do we survive in oppressive, powerful systems? How do we resist them? How do we break them? Especially the practice of double consciousness reads as loyalty, to the power system.

Okay, I’m about to make this conversation even nerdier as if that were possible by making a roleplaying game analogy. This utterly bonkers tabletop RPG called RIFTS features two kinds of damage, normal damage—like, the hit points people have and the damage folks do with pistols and fists—and “mega-damage,” which is the kind of damage rockets do, and the kind of damage resistance tanks and dragons have. This distinction’s a formal way for the GM to rule, Okay, let’s be honest, your sling shot will never hurt that aircraft carrier.

Personal resistance can feel futile because societies do their damnedest to present themselves as mega-damage structures. Throw yourself against the machine and you’ll just end up crushed in the gears. Okay, military resistance doesn’t work, we think, so let’s fight sneakily. Let’s pretend to be loyal. But since the society wants loyalists, it’s built to encourage and support that behavior, and the more loyal you are the more you support the myth of the society’s invincibility. At what point do people practicing double-consciousness or subtle resistance become indistinguishable from collaborators? Someone who played along with an evil system with an eye toward breaking it once she was in a position of power—how would we judge that person if she happened to die before reaching her objective?

SETH: I think that brings us nicely to Temoc. He’s a guy who worries that he’s supporting the system just by trying to live a peaceful family life. That he’s collaborating by neglecting to use his power.

MAX: Right!

Before the God Wars, the city of Dresediel Lex was the center of an advanced civilization with an imperial religion that practiced, among many other things, human sacrifice. At the empire’s core stood the Eagle Knights, a caste of warrior-priests who wielded the power of the gods on the field of battle; as a coming-of-age ritual, each Eagle Knight was ritually scarred with glyphs allowing them to channel the gods’ might. Temoc’s the flower of that tradition: a man built on a different model from other men, a huge, implacable paladin.

But then the God Wars came. Dresediel Lex fought the emergent Craftsmen hard, and lost harder. Most of the central gods of the old pantheon died in battle; some survived, broken; still others remain, reduced to whispers in the desert. Temoc was a young man when that happened. He fought in the final battles of the war, and almost died. When he could not save his people or his gods, he fell to pieces—and, over decades, put himself back together again. (Such gods, or godlings, as remain, have granted him unnaturally long life. They don’t have many followers any more, and try to take care of those that endure.) He fell in love. He and his wife had a child. And he’s trying to rebuild his faith, in the shadow of the Craftsmen’s regime, in a modern world where human sacrifice isn’t allowed, and ritually scarring your child looks like abuse.

Temoc has tried to convince his followers, and those gods that survive, to accept a ritualized version of the old practices, and has reworked his theology to compensate. But he lives in the Skittersill, and when his people take to the streets to protect their homes, he follows them, to serve and protect them.

SETH: What does that mean, exactly? How far do you go to serve and protect? When do you step back and say, I can’t help you with this, even though I have the power?

MAX: Temoc wants to be a good man, a good husband, a good father, a good priest, but these all mean different things in the modern world than they did when he grew up. He’s trying to help his community—but he believes, at once, that military resistance is futile, and that military resistance may be the only possibly effective form. He wants to be a good father—but his models for good fatherhood include ritual scarification and preparing your son for a life of religious war, which aren’t acceptable in the society he inhabits.

And then he meets Elayne Kevarian, the Craftswoman responsible for the Skittersill rezoning process. She invites Temoc to lead the Skittersill movement to the table, so they can negotiate with the King in Red. Negotiating with the man (okay, skeletal wizard king) who killed his gods, to protect his people—is that collaboration? Is it resistance? When does one become the other? And when do you have to throw your own body into the gears of the machine and just hope that motherfucker jams?

That last question interests me a lot—because, right, the funny thing about megadamage social structures is that they’re just stories after all, and we can come up with other ones. Ingsoc is a myth perpetuated by folk with guns—but myths are glass cannons, as vulnerable as they are powerful. They can change. They can be broken, and reinvented.

MAX: The imperial lie is that the empire (1) was inevitable, and (2) will last forever, and (3) there’s nothing you can do about it.

SETH: I think the possibility of change—of falsifying this lie—is at the heart of both our stories.

Big problems feel permanent. Sexism, racism, homophobia, they feel like they’ve always been this way. I think that’s why so many books use them as background texture—because we have a hard time imagining our world without them. We default to oppressions that look like now.

But these problems happened for a reason! They’re contingent on a set of historical events. They change over time. Prejudice and power can be built in different ways.

That’s something I love about Last First Snow, how the problems of Dresediel Lex today are clearly a historical moment, and we can see how they emerged from the past, which had its own problems and inequities. History’s not purely directional, right? Some things get better. Some things get worse. A storm blows in and suddenly everyone acts like sacrifice has always been taboo.

It’s such a tricky line to walk. Trying to write about huge conflicts, massive suffering, deep personal tragedy—Kopil lost the man he loved, Baru loses a father, Temoc lost his world and his gods—in a way that says ‘look, these things are huge and hard, and maybe we can’t win right now, but don’t give up hope. Everything changes.’

SETH: You love action scenes, I can tell. How do you make sure that your action feels like an essential part of the story? How does one punch serve the character’s arc and the themes of the setting?

MAX: I love action for its own sake—for me, it’s so much fun to write—but if I can be a nerd about it for a second, one of the reasons for my love is that action’s pure embodied cognition. People make decisions in a rapid tempo with enormous consequences, and slam into the edges of their own ethics and physical and emotional capacity. Fistfights and sex are applied philosophy, or philosophy’s abstracted fistfights and sex. For me, good action must be revelatory, bringing people and ideas into fast-paced conflict. Otherwise it’s just marshmallow fluff—nice in small doses but cloying.

MAX: If it’s not too much of a spoiler—the Masquerade council’s code names are just so delicious. Where are they coming from?

SETH: You get to pick your name when you join. Because most of the millions of people you rule aren’t quite sure you exist, you need a name that’s good to whisper. It needs to carry a little hope, a little awe, and a little dread. And it should say something about what you do for the Masquerade. After all, you’re the ultimate civil servant. You gave up everything to be here.

I try to make all the names a little strange and a little hard to remember, for that rhyme of affordance. And I think of them as little jokes, too—the committee poking fun at itself. These people are the apex of Masquerade ideology, each an expert at what they do. They choose a name that boasts of their strengths and hints at their weaknesses.

SETH: Can I be a Warden, and how do you feel about them as a city police force?

MAX: You can totally be a Warden. Have a quicksilver face mask, a feathered serpent to ride, and a pension plan! I think they’re a pretty bad idea for a police force, all things considered—their masks and uniforms solve a problem that’s at best borderline-real, the notion that Batman needs to protect his identity from Criminal Reprisal, in exchange for totally ignoring real issues, like the need for mutual trust and respect between the police and their community, without which cops become an occupying military force. With masks and secret identities and dubious accountability, Wardens look less like community cops, and more like… well. Wardens. Their superpowers don’t help much, either.

MAX: How horrifically awesome is Purity Cartone? No, but really, though—how awesome?

SETH: Purity Cartone’s a ‘member’ of the Clarified, the Masquerade’s brave new people. He was raised from infancy in a psychological apparatus which taught him to take joy in applying his talents to the service of Imperial interests. So he’s an interesting puzzle for Baru, because he’s incredibly perceptive and intelligent, but he’s also open to manipulation—he wants to do everything he can to maximize the performance of Imperial operatives he works for. He has a set of indoctrinated rules, and if you’re clever, you can exploit those rules to game his behavior.

I think he’s super creepy. He represents a terrifying possibility—state indoctrination so successful that it creates alert, lively, intelligent people who are eager to do exactly what they’ve been taught. But to Baru he’s also fascinating, because she likes the idea of very smart people who want to obey her. And he’s an extremely expensive, high-investment asset.

What would be awesome is to see what happens to him when his conditioning starts to fray. I don’t believe the Masquerade understands psychology nearly as well as it would like to think.

SETH: If you could pick two of our characters to swap places, who would they be and why?

MAX: Two characters swapping places—oooooh. Wow. So many possibilities. I’d really like to see what sort of nonsense Elayne would get up to in your world, and what, god, maybe Xate Yawa would get up to in mine. Same question back at you!

SETH: God, Elayne would run rampant in Baru’s world. Even if her Craft doesn’t work in Baru’s reality, she has an arsenal of ideas that the Masquerade hasn’t developed yet. Her knowledge of contract law alone would be enough to carve out a fiefdom in the technocracy.

I would trade my Tain Hu for your Temoc. I think they face very similar struggles and make very similar choices in the end. My interest isn’t in what they’d do differently, but in what they’d do the same—I’d love to see where they made the same decisions, and where they diverged.

SETH: You’ve got an incredibly vivid place going in Dresediel Lex. I feel like I can taste it sometimes. But it’s also a city of structures—water, law, money, transit. You talked above about game systems. Do you think about Dresediel Lex in game logic?

MAX: I haven’t sat down to stat out Dresediel Lex for tabletop play, but I’ve done a lot of tabletop gaming in decades past, so I wouldn’t be surprised if those habits of mind percolated through—thinking about the society as a big set of interlocking systems which can be pushed, pulled, and twisted in various directions for dramatic effect. I am actually working on a piece of interactive fiction set in (or, really, around) Dresediel Lex, and that’s felt pretty organic, so maybe I’ve been thinking about it as a game longer than I was aware.

MAX: Any truth to the rumors you and Ken Liu are joining a no-holds-barred tournament being held by the IRS on Spider-Skull Island to determine the true Tax Fantasy Grand Master?

SETH: Ha! Ken, as a tax lawyer, has an immense advantage. Ken is also a beloved author, rightly painted in acclaim. But we can totally have an exhibition match for the Tax Fantasy belt. Taxes are a way to get people to give up part of their own dreams for the common good, so they’re, in a lot of ways, central to the problem of making good civilizations. More fiction about the tough work of making good civilization, I say.

MAX: What’s the adversary across the Mother of Storms?

SETH: There have been no expeditions across the ocean to the east, Max. The Mother of Storms is impassable. If you’ve heard otherwise, you’re the victim of seditious alarmism.

Of course, if we’re asking big questions…

SETH: Are the spiders between the stars going to come down out of the sky and devour the world?

MAX: Seth, Seth, Seth. Any reasonable Craftsperson would know better than to credit the eschatology of a backward faith. There’s absolutely no evidence of—static—beyond the borders of—static—and we’d certainly know by—static—if there were any risk of

**TRANSMISSION ENDS**

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