Monday, April 20, 2015

An interview with John Wright (author of the "Eschaton Sequence" series)

I recently had the opportunity to ask some questions to John C. Wright, author of the "Eschaton Sequence", a series that includes "Count to a Trillion" and the newly released "Architech of Aeons", extremely inventive sci-fi books, some of which I already reviewed earlier a review link is provided at the bottom of this page). John was kind enough to answer a few challenging questions about his work, and I am delighted to share the interview with all of you...


SFB. What inspired you to write a space opera series? 

JCW. Love and ambition.
The simple, juvenile, absurd and unabashed wonder of E.E. Doc Smith and his many imitators are beloved to me. I like the gigantic scale, the Wagnerian thunder, the action, the destruction of planets, men like gods engaged in Ragnarok. What Mr Smith did in his Skylark books, and, later, more successfully in his Lensmen books, is put across something of the sense of the real scale on which astronomical events take place. In his plot-writing he was careful to build each act of the drama onto a larger and larger stage as the action ramped up, first planetary, then interplanetary, then interstellar, then intergalactic, and so on.
More to the point, Olaf Stapledon in his book STARMAKER likewise places his action on an ever increasing scale, the early timelines in his book going by year, the later by century, and then by millennium, eventually reaching to the Eschaton, the end of time itself.
My ambition was to see if I could pen a hard science fiction story on the same ever rising geometric scale, running from the current day to the end of the universe, using nothing know known to current science or solemnly speculated by current scientists (such as the negative mass particle which appears in VINDICATION OF MAN, the next volume in the series).  There is no faster than light drive, no time travel, no psionics in my universe. For a man to go from here to Andromeda galaxy, at two and a half million light years away, takes two and a half million years earth-time.
Moreover, I have been so awed at the real astronomical marvels real astronomers have discovered, that I swore a great vow never to invent a marvel when I wanted to impress the reader with the wonder of the universe. Example: A diamond weighing 10 billion trillion trillion carats is at the heart of a dead white dwarf star fifty lightyears from Sol form the central plot point of the first volume in the series.
Example: Mira is a giant Mira is a red giant star 300 lightyears away at the end of its life, moving fast enough (291,000 miles per hour) to create a tail of material behind it 13 light-years long. This is mentioned in passing in the current volume.
Example: Andromeda and Milky Way are going to collide in a few billion years. This comes up in the final volume.

SFB. In what ways would you say The Architect of Aeons differs from the previous books in the series?

JCW. Since I conceived of the story as a unit, merely broken into several volumes due to its length, this is an impossible question to answer. It is like asking a playwright in what way Act III differs from Act II and Act I.
ARCHITECT takes place on a larger stage – the action is interstellar rather than (in the prior volume) interplanetary -- and covers more time than the previous volumes, it grants the characters additional depth and development (since Blackie and Montrose are forced, despite their mutual hatred, to work together) and the first major information about the Hyades aliens and their remote inhuman purposes for enslaving the human race come onstage.

SFB. Your main characters, Montrose and del Azarchel, are both friends and rivals and are in love with the same woman. How do you balance this dynamic between characters? Do you think Rania affected significantly the course of the story?

JCW. A puzzling question, one which I am at a loss to answer. I am not sure what you mean by 'balance' nor by 'dynamic'. The hero and villain cooperate when a greater impending threat forces them to do so, and otherwise they seek to murder each other honorably, according to the custom of the Code Duello, the code of duels, of their home century and culture. Each character acts according to his own interior logic as established by his past upbringing and future ambitions.
Rania is the main plot driver of the story. It is her decision that shapes all history both for Earth and for the Milky Way, and for the local Virgo Cluster.  For better or worse, the Lorenz contraction of her protected starfaring means that character suffers only a few decades of passing time while events on Earth continue onward for sixty six millennia, and so her time onstage is remarkably limited.

SFB. Who are your main inspirations and key reference authors in sci-fi?

JCW. Only inferior authors have inspirations: genius robs. In this case, I have robbed ideas, themes, names, and situations from E.E. Doc Smith and Olaf Stapledon.

SFB. What can readers expect regarding the end of the novel? Will there be twists and turns?

JCW. This novel is not the last. It is merely the fourth in a projected six volume series.
My story concerns a cosmic mystery, and, naturally, the essence of mystery is that the ending when it comes be logical in hindsight yet unexpected in foresight.

SFB. What is the most challenging aspect of writing a multi-part story? And the most rewarding one?

JCW. The most challenging aspect to me as an author is persuading reviewers that it is one story, meant to be read as a whole, not six separate stories with six different beginnings, midpoints, and endings. Reviewers unfortunately are required by the needs of publication and marketing to review each volume as it comes out, and render a judgment on each sixth separately.
There is greater difficulty than a short story in maintain a consistent character voice, thematic elements, plot continuity and props.  My file of notes is longer. Just the five timelines, each on a different scale, take up a score of pages.
One gaff I made, for example, is that in one book I listed the weight of Montrose's firearm (six pounds) as the weight of his dueling armor (forty pounds). It is slips like that which annoy readers. They more easily creep into the text in larger stories.
Even Homer nods because Homer write things the size of the ILIAD and the ODYSSEY .
The reward is, of course, that a truly massive canvass gives a wild imagination plenty of elbow room to create something of like magnitude. Readers enjoying the story can submerge into the imaginary cosmos for longer than a short story or a novel: it is the difference between swimming in a lake versus swimming in the sea.

SFB. In this book, Montrose and del Azarchel try to map out a future that stretches beyond millennia. Is it hard as an author to think on such a scale yourself? 

JCW. If it difficult to write on this scale, I am unaware of it. One gets a sense of how much changes in human life in such magnitudes of time by looking at the past, and extrapolating accordingly.
It is certainly fun for me. I hope for the readers as well, but one must direct that question to them.

SFB. What is the most rewarding aspect of writing this type of novel where you are allowed to imagine what the future will be like and create worlds? What is most challenging?

JCW. All science fiction writers, even the least imaginative, imagines the future and creates worlds.
The most rewarding aspect and the most challenging aspect are one and the same: a science fiction writer has to perform all the same tasks as a mainstream, muggle writer, an invent plot, characters, theme, setting, props, dialog. But then there is one task , the crucial task, which the mainstream writer must avoid at all costs and the science fiction writer must embrace at all costs. Our world must be different from the visible world of the reader, the here-and-now. Even writers of historical drama cannot invent new periods of history, but writers of alternate history must, or else they are not writing alternate history. Likewise, science fiction must either take place in another time and place outside the known world and current year, or an element from the outside must intrude in.
Because we invent new universes beyond the known universe each and every time we do this, the science fiction writer invites the reader to observe the basic and fundamental truths of the universe by comparing it to his imaginary universe where at least one fundamental is different. Even something as lighthearted as STAR WARS cannot help but do this: by introducing talking mechanical men, the reader cannot help but wonder what makes humans human. In the wire-fu cyberpunk yarn THE MATRIX, deep questions about the nature of truth and reality float to the surface.
No matter how profound books like GONE WITH THE WIND or WAR AND PEACE might be, they cannot address the question of whether machines have souls or whether reality is objective because no alternative to our current reality can be addressed. On that level, even the most juvenile and shallow issue of MACHINE MAN comics penned by Jack 'King' Kirby or the most mature and majestic prose penned by blind Milton in PARADISE LOST, because these deal with nonhuman robots or superhuman angels, must address issues more fundamental than the deepest issues pondered by Tolstoy, Hemmingway, Steinbeck and the other luminaries of this mundane world.


PS: The fourth installment, "The Architect of Aeons", has been released on April 20, 2015. I will review it at a later time.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Judge of Ages

John C Wright
Tor, 2014 (a review copy was gently provided to me by Tor)
Size: Average (my paperback proof copy has 380 pages, but final version might differ)
Theme: Evolution
Narrative: third-person
Main character: Menelaus Montrose
Recommended minimum age: Young Adult
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: LIKELY

As the third book in the “Count to a Trillion” series, this is the sequel and the mandatory companion to “The Hermetic Millennia”. It picks up straight from the end of the previous book and continues narrating the story of Montrose, the “judge of ages”, awake from his hibernation slumber in order to deal with a major threat to his tombs system, which have been raided and are being plundered. Still unrecognized by his captors, he continues to attempt to regain some control over the tombs’ security systems, working together with a myriad of thawed people from different epochs along the last ten millennia. As expected, the pace and style are the same as the 2 previous installments in the series. The story continues being very one-dimensional. But in this book, it seemed to me that the author does a better job grabbing the attention of the reader and keeping him motivated to find out how the story will develop.

I have to say I enjoyed this book more than the previous one (and in fact, more than the first one as well). This was due to two aspects: first, there is more action and story development and less chatter (the latter being the worst aspect of this series), and second, the author comes up with a feasible way near the end of the book to explain a lot of the events which had only been hinted at. John Wright clearly has a tremendous imagination, which is the strong feature of this series. The described events are as imaginative as compelling, although a little bit too ambitious in scope and magnitude which renders this future scenario very hard to accept even in the realm of sci-fi. Unfortunately, there is still one major flaw persisting from the previous book: despite the fact that the characters are from different races and lived hundreds or thousands of years apart, many of them apparently (and unbelievably, in my opinion) share a peculiar sense of humor. I also have trouble accepting that a post-human as Montrose can exhibit brilliant projections on some issues and total lack of insight on others. But his weird sense of humor (and of some of the cast around him) was really what put me off the most while reading the novel.

I’m actually eager to read the final novel in the series, since I have the feeling it will either be a very good caper, or a monumental failure. Time will tell, but I’m really keeping my fingers crossed for the former.

Related work:

This book is the sequel to “The Hermetic Millennia” and should not be read before the first 2 books. A fourth and final book in the series has just come out.