Love, Psychology, Empire, and Playlists: Highlights of Seth Dickinson’s Reddit AMA

Upon beginning his Reddit AMA, The Traitor Baru Cormorant author Seth Dickinson certainly brought a lot of talking points: He’s 26 and a social psychologist; he loves games, having written for Destiny and created many a house rule for the Battlestar Galactica board game; and of course, there’s the polarizing but compelling character of Baru Cormorant herself. The AMA mostly stayed around those three points, though there were some amusing side threads (like the Misery List), and we discovered that his favorite adjective is “terrible.” (“It’s so good!”)

Dickinson also shared the original query letter for his novel, fielded feels, exhaustively explained his worldbuilding ethos, and looked ahead to writing the sequel and where Baru would go next. Check out the highlights!


First Things First—The Feels

Kameron Hurley: Why do you hate happiness, Seth? Why? Why?

SD: I learned from the best, Kameron. From the best at worst.


Original Queries

Like Ann Leckie recently did, Dickinson shared his original query letter for The Traitor Baru Cormorant. And, similar to the Ancillary Justice query, the final version is very similar to what he original pitched:

Baru Cormorant will pay any price to liberate her world – even if it makes her a monster.

When the Empire of Masks conquers her island home and murders one of her fathers, Baru makes a vow: I will never be powerless again. She’ll swallow her hate, join the Empire’s civil service, and claw her way high enough to set her people free.

Suspicious of her loyalty, the Masquerade exiles her to an accountant’s post in distant Aurdwynn, a snakepit of informants and seditious dukes. Targeted for death by the uncomfortably intriguing rebel duchess Tain Hu, Baru fears a more intimate disaster – if her colleagues discover her sexuality, she’ll be jailed and mutilated.

But Baru is a savant in games of power, ruthless enough to make herself sick. Armed with ink, lies, and one dubiously loyal secretary, she arranges a sweeping power play – a win-or-die double-cross gambit with empire as the prize. Survive it, and she’ll save her home…but the cost will be appalling. Her dream of liberation might make her a tyrant. And if she’s so very clever – why was she fool enough to fall in love?

THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT is a 110,000-word epic fantasy novel, a standalone geopolitical tragedy with room for sequels. I selected your agency, and you in particular, for your work with fantasy luminaries Jim Butcher, Cherie Priest, and (a personal favorite) Elizabeth Bear. I hope that Baru will contribute to the fantasy genre’s engagement with colonialism, oppression, and empire.

Over the past two years, my short fiction has appeared in nearly every major science fiction and fantasy market, including Analog, Asimov’s Online, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I am the winner of the 2011 Dell Magazines Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Science Fiction.


Non-Medieval Epic Fantasy

Redditor volcanomouse was very curious about the setting of Traitor Baru:

I’d love to hear more about your decision to write epic fantasy in a non-medieval setting. Do you do a lot of reading about real-world history? If so, what’s your favorite Interesting Fact from your research?

Dickinson gave a doozy of an answer:

I did a lot of specific, targeted research for this book. I’m going to say some stuff now that you might think is craaaazy but it’s all true, you have to believe me!

There’s no way to say this without sounding like a bit of a prick. I had a broad, uh, metatextual map for this novel when I started. On top of being an entertaining, fast-paced, character-driven thriller, I also think of the book as a series of covert operations. Baru is deployed into some stock fantasy stories to subvert them and take them over.

So I needed Baru to begin in a place that didn’t fit in a stock fantasy story — thus Taranoke, which is an island society with a social structure and economy that doesn’t fit in stock fantasy. They practice group families and partible paternity; they have active trade connections, cultural exchange, and scientific practice, whereas the ugly stereotype ‘islanders’ are insulated and hedonic. I tried to make Taranoke not quite like any one society on Earth.

Then Baru is deployed to Aurdwynn, which is superficially much closer to the stock Ye Medieval Fantasy setting. There are squabbling Dukes in a feudal economy. There are serfs, trees, mountains, wolves, knights on horses, and bad winters. Baru’s inserted into this feudal power-game narrative. Familiar, right?

But here too Baru discovers (as I discovered!) that everything’s way more complicated. If you read up on Thomas Cromwell, or Admiral Keumalahayati, or the problem of landlords in pre-colonial India, or the Joseon Wars, or Chinese history, or the epic of Sundiata Keita — man, history is so crazy, so full of absolutely unbelievable events and people. Even inside the constraints of ‘feudal system’ there’s so much happening. Your problem quickly becomes not ‘I need some inspiration’ but ‘oh my god, how will I ever write anything as crazy as real life?’

That’s why Aurdwynn has this lively collision of multiple cultures, with different family structures and beliefs coexisting in one country. The whole nation’s a scar or a monument (depending who you ask) to the historical forces that shaped it. And I try to bring that same complexity and heterodoxy to all the other cultures around the Ashen Sea.

If you break away from the telephone game of writing stories based on stories, you’ll find yourself staggered by how narrow our view of the past can be.

I guess that’s the interesting fact I want to cite: the world was connected and alive long before globalization. There was never a place where nobody was changing anyone else.

I also love the fact that the Koreans were using multiple rocket launchers in the 1590s. Totally stole those.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant Seth Dickinson UK coverHe later expounded on how to create complexity in your fictional world without overexplaining:

I think you can imply the true complexity of the world. (Implication is, I think, also the best way to create a sense of wonder, or horror, or really any kind of scale — you want people to feel like the story is too big to fit in their skull.)

One way to do that is to mention pieces of history and culture, in passing, that don’t bear on the story — trade routes, books, songs, distant lands. This is hard to pull off adroitly, because it has to feel natural, and it can’t be confusing.

Another is to permit the story to intersect briefly with other stories! You meet someone who’s clearly on her own journey, dealing with her own problems, and you show the reader just enough for them to understand that ah, yes, the world is alive and full of other things happening.

If you read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which is set in late medieval England, she’s really really good at implying this vast, moving, dynamic world even though the whole story’s just set in a small chunk of England.


Real-World Influences

When asked in a separate thread if any empires from our universe inspired the Empire of Masks, Dickinson responded:

That’s an awesome question! I actually consciously tried to avoid drawing inspiration from any one place. It’s impossible to avoid all real-world influence, of course, but I don’t want the peoples or places of Baru’s world to map easily to ours.

Taranoke has influence from the Amazon Basin, Madagascar, Hawaii, Polynesia, Earthsea, Crete, and a bunch of places that aren’t islands at all.


The Best Exchange from the AMA

megazver: Who are the top five authors on your Misery List?

SD: Oh, interesting! Do you mean their ability to evoke misery in me?

Then I would say

1) David Brin. Startide Rising absolutely destroyed me as a kid! Those poor dolphins. And then he never wrote a sequel that told us what happened to Creideki and Hikahi and the rest!

2) Connie Willis. Doomsday Book, I cried in public.

3) Elizabeth Wein. Code Name Verity. It hurt so good.

4) Okay, I haven’t read him in a LONG time, so I don’t know if he holds up. But A. A. Attanasio’s Last Legends of Earth kept tearing characters apart across space and time and I could barely stand it.

5) Toni Morrison :(

megazver: I was thinking “authors you are so really enthusiastic about, you’d chain them in a cellar and chop off their leg”.

But you probably gave the more interesting answer.


The Science of Your Characters

Dickinson mentioned at the start of the AMA that he works as a clinical psychologist, so wishforagiraffe asked:

How much has your work as a social psychologist impacted your writing? What’s different for you, when writing for video games vs novels vs short stories?

Even if you’re not a social psychologist, Dickinson’s answer makes for keen writing advice:

My social psych work impacted my writing deeply. I came to understand how self-deceptive the human mind can be. What we experience as ‘consciousness’ is just an executive summary, without access to a lot of the deeper mechanics of the brain.

This means that we can hold beliefs and preferences without knowing we hold them, even if they alter our behavior. That’s crazy and scary!

I try to reflect this in my writing by forcing characters to confront their own blind spots and unexamined mistakes. Then, I hope, readers will look critically at everything the character says and does — searching for the words they’re communicating, but which aren’t explicitly written on the page. I want the negative space of things left unsaid to contribute to the character and plot.

Video game writing requires responsiveness and iteration. Design constraints change, behaviors and animations get reworked. You absolutely cannot be precious. And you need to build flex and ambiguity into your fiction, so that later writers can grab onto your work, reinterpret it, and shape it to fix the changing needs of a game that’s responding as much to design and market needs as to the writing team.


A Question for You!

Dickinson turned the tables by asking his readers to ponder his question:

I want to ask all of YOU — let’s say you’ve been evicted from our universe. You get to move to any one fictional universe. Which one do you choose? Why?

(You’re randomly assigned an identity and social status when you arrive.)

brainstrain91 came back with…

The Culture universe (Iain M. Banks). Because, as long as you don’t get involved in Special Circumstances shenanigans, you get to live for as long as you want in a high tech utopia.

Their attitude toward gender and sexuality and stuff is pretty awesome, too.

…and Dickinson responded:

Yeah, this is always my default when I can’t think of anything clever. My only fear is that it’s possible you’ll end up somewhere TRULY awful, like in a simulated hell, or on the wrong end of the Affront…


Love and Playlists

Redditor hannawars ferried questions from her friends:

I have a question from my friend Noella first: “How do you think we as Americans think about and portray love, and how does love feature in your book? Do you play around with themes and ideas of love in your writing?”

And from my friend Kena: “If you could make a playlist for The Traitor Baru Cormorant, what three songs would you put on it?”

Dickinson gamely responded:

Noella: I think Americans tend to write about love in a kind of narrow, romantic tradition, in which love burns bright and hot and devours everything else. There’s not as much attention paid to the sustainably awesome parts of love, like the long-term friendship and compassion, or love between nonromantic friends (with or without sex), or broader familial love beyond the nuclear family.

My writing, and this first book, tends to focus on the question of love in extreme moral circumstances — how to express love, respect, and caring in situations that simply don’t permit ordinary human values. But I am really interested in exploring more domestic, everyday relationships in future writing.

Kena: Here is one suggestion for a playlist!

1) that’s alright by laura mvula 2) cold war by janelle monae 3) paris is burning by st vincent

As an intermission I would also mix in the instrumentals from ‘Khyber Pass’ by Ministry


Redefining the Default

arzvi wanted to know what made Dickinson choose a woman as the hero; he gave not one reason, but many:

One answer is that I’m always consciously trying to alter my defaults, because I know my neural semantic associative network has been trained by culture to identify ‘straight white dude’ as the basic, unmarked, ‘no frills’ person. So I try to default to writing other kinds of people!

Another answer is that I’m more comfortable writing women. I feel like I can say more things, more precisely, with more confidence.

Yet another is that Baru was the right protagonist for this story. She helped tell me what the story would be, and the story helped tell me who she’d be. I knew I needed a protagonist who was targeted by many of the same problems that plague the real world — sexism, racism, homophobia. I knew I needed a protagonist who would look at those problems and say, okay, these are huge, but I have the capability to make a difference, and nothing can stop me. Not even my own qualms.

Isn’t that combination of words interesting? You don’t think of money, soap, ink, or compasses as dangerous weapons. I certainly don’t think of a story about them as exciting. But I wanted to write a taut, menacing, absolutely action-packed thriller about these secret powers, the power that comes before armies or laws. I hope I pulled it off!


The Requisite Zombie Apocalypse Question

Which three authors or industry professionals, lmaninja2 asked, would Dickinson choose for his zombie apocalypse survival team? Hand-specialized weapons necessary:

I would select /u/KameronHurley as zombie apocalypse team leader, because she would never let us give up, and I could trust her to unapologetically and instantly execute anyone infected, myself included. To this end she gets a captive bolt pistol.

I would select Kij Johnson as team scout. She is outrageously fit and judging by her stories she’s psychologically prepared for ALL KINDS of horrible things. I would give her a machete.

I would take my partner Gillian as team engineer. She is also outrageously athletic, and as an MIT grad and expert clothes-maker she could help us with shelter and simple machinery. I could also trust her to execute me (hopefully only if necessary). I would give her a baseball bat because they’re robust and effective.


Second Book Challenges

After meeting Dickinson at Sasquan, Court of Fives author Kate Elliott popped in to the AMA to follow up on their discussion on the difficulties of writing a second novel. A starstruck Dickinson answered,

You must know more about this than I do! The problem I’m having is that I don’t want to do the same thing again.

Specifically — I wrote this book, everyone seems to like it more or less as a piece of craft, and it succeeds by being focused, scalpel-sharp, driving, lonely, brutal. It’s a book about hard choices, loss, sacrifice. Giving up human connection in the name of the long war against injustice.

And everything’s part of that. The structure, the layout of the sentences, the pacing, the restricted POV — even, as you’ve pointed out ably with respect to other books, what the book chooses to ignore, its disregard for family and friendship. All this was deliberate choice to echo the themes. (Characters even challenge Baru on her contempt and disregard for parts of life, and how it will bite her.)

But I don’t want to do that again! I want to write a book that does what a sequel should do — it complicates the logic of the first installment, challenges it, makes it unfold and crane towards its own blindspots. I want more perspectives, I want characters who care about domestic life and small things, I want characters who would put friendship first or who see the world as dominated by kindness and compassion, not the calculus of power. And I want all these characters to challenge each other in complicated, emotional ways — even as they become necessary to each other too.

I did a draft that achieved that. A bunch of people learned to trust each other, heal their wounds, and make a home. But I lost all the pacing and drive. So I’m trying to figure out a way to unify the two…which is hard. Hopefully next go…

I just don’t want to let down all the people who’ve loved this first book. I want something with the same fire.

What a great question. Thank you for asking it!


You can read the rest of Dickinson’s AMA here!


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