Welcome to my Q&A session with Steven Erikson. Steven is here to share some details about his new science-fiction novel Rejoice. Erikson paints a picture of a world where an alien AI governs our species in an attempt to save planet earth and avoid our extinction. I am eager to read this epic novel but until then I had the excellent opportunity to ask SE for some more details about this ambitious narrative. I say this every time but this is one of the best Q&As I have had on this blog. Great answers, fantastic insights and plenty of personal detail. Good stuff! Enjoy the questions and keep an eye out for my review in the coming weeks.
18.10.2018 / Gollancz / Science Fiction / Paperback / 432pp / 978-1473223806
About Steven Erikson
Steven Erikson is an archaeologist and anthropologist and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His Malazan Book of the Fallen series, including The Crippled God, Dust of Dreams, Toll the Hounds and Reaper’s Gale, have met with widespread international acclaim and established him as a major voice in the world of fantasy fiction. He lives in Canada.
An astonishing, provocative, beautifully written and startlingly visionary novel of first contact from a key genre writer. From the bestselling author of the epic Malazan Book of the Fallen, comes a story of mankind’s first contact and a warning about our future.
An alien AI has been sent to the solar system as representative of three advanced species. Its mission is to save the Earth’s ecosystem – and the biggest threat to that is humanity. But we are also part of the system, so the AI must make a choice. Should it save mankind or wipe it out? Are we worth it?
The AI is all-powerful, and might as well be a god. So it sets up some conditions. Violence is now impossible. Large-scale destruction of natural resources is impossible. Food and water will be provided for those who really, truly need them. You can’t even bully someone on the internet any more. The old way of doing things is gone. But a certain thin-skinned US president, among others, is still wedded to late-stage capitalism. Can we adapt? Can we prove ourselves worthy? And are we prepared to give up free will for a world without violence?
And above it all, on a hidden spaceship, one woman watches. A science fiction writer, she was abducted from the middle of the street in broad daylight. She is the only person the AI will talk to. And she must make a decision.
Q & A with Steven Erikson
Thank you Steven for taking some time to answer a few questions about your new novel, Rejoice. Could you give us your own personal overview of what we should expect within your book?
SE: There is a statement that precedes the story:
There is not and never has been an extraterrestrial presence on Earth.
It is important for you to keep believing that.
This is why.
While at first blush that statement may seem somewhat coy, it actually encapsulates my take not just on the novel itself, but one the idea of First Contact in general. Now that I think on it, I maybe should have repeated that statement at the novel’s end. Oh well, for readers who read Rejoice, once you’re done, go back and re-read the above statement. You’ll see what I mean.
What was your initial inspiration for Rejoice and its alien influences?
SE: I like the notion of ‘alien influences.’ Who knows, huh? More prosaically, I think the first SF First Contact novel I read was either Roger Zelazny’s Doorways in the Sand or Patrick Tilley’s Fade Out. Either way, I acquired a fascination for the subject. Also, as a fan of Star Trek since its original airing (yeah, I’m that old), I always had a problem with the Prime Directive – the principle that advanced star-faring civilizations should take a hand’s off approach to nascent civilizations – and of course, so did Captain Kirk! One needs to accept the historical context for that hand’s off notion, the Sixties being a period of intense analysis of the horrors attending colonialism and first contact between cultures with disparate technological levels of development – our terrestrial track record kinda sucks. So, the idea was more or less ‘the road to hell is paved by the best of intentions,’ so we’re better off keeping our distance (in that far-off increasingly-unlikely future when we’re exploring other planets).
I object to that principle on many levels, the first being that if we haven’t learned from our past mistakes, our species has no place in the depths of the galaxy to begin with. And this one observation in particular leads me to the conviction that any space-faring civilization will have reached a technical and, more importantly, an ethical level of development that managing an intervention on an alien species (us) on the brink of global self-destruction is not only desirable, but morally incumbent. And that to do nothing but observe such destruction is in itself tantamount to genocide.
That said, I’ve read plenty of First Contact novels that tackle this premise directly, but more often than not the contact is either adversarial or (usually for dramatic purposes) not quite as benign as it first seems. Makes for good stories to be sure, but it wasn’t what I wanted with this novel.
Can you give us some details about what style of Science-Fiction you explore within Rejoice?
SE: As much as I may personally cringe at the description, you could classify Rejoice as Speculative Fiction (I cringe because all fiction is speculative), or perhaps Social SF, if such a subcategory even exists, since it’s less about them than it is about us. Nor am I looking to wow people with hard science or technical details. First Contact sets the premise. Then the specific nature of the contact establishes the base rules. Once that is done, the rest of the novel is about the human response, since that’s what I was most interested in.
Is there a particular character or element in Rejoice that you especially enjoyed writing about?
SE: Pretty much all of it, once the scenario was set up. The question of what people would do when all their worst impulses have been shut down, when even those aspects of human behaviour that we assert to be necessary to survival (aggression, competition, territoriality), are denied to us. What defines us as a species? Is it the primacy of the individual or the primacy of the collective? How does each person define her or himself and what assumptions hide beneath that definition? What about Free Will and self-determination? It’s curious that the last two notions, in human society, are dictated by a person’s age (level of maturity and cognitive development): a child has less free will and a limited application of self-determination, precisely because they’re not yet ready for them, and so for their own safety, we don’t let them do dangerous things or engage in risky behaviour. What happens when ET concludes that we as a species still have not grown up enough to be doing what we’re doing? When our hand gets a gentle slap and we’re sent to the corner? These are the things that I enjoyed exploring in the novel, in particular the various flavours of indignation (but not in a judgemental way: I had and have great sympathy for each and every character in the novel).
What sort of challenges did you face when writing about intelligent aliens and their approach on our world?
SE: I began with the belief (my own) that space is not scarce in resources: in fact, the very opposite, once you master FTL travel (or even instantaneous travel, via something like quantum tunnelling). Accordingly, ET would be a post-scarcity civilization, and that sets up an absolute opposition to the human condition. We are driven by scarcity, not just in our exploration and exploitation of the world, but in our foundational belief systems as they apply to economics, social hierarchy, order and power (politics). Everything we do is defined by what we have, don’t have; what we need, what we want, what’s within reach and what isn’t.
So, ET’s approach to First Contact will be from a position utterly indifferent to our politics, our economics, our nations and borders, the works. In many ways, that makes the ET mindset the most alien mindset possible. To ET, most of the issues consuming us down here on the surface are parochial, provincial, and inherently destructive besides.
This in turn helped define the nature of the contact itself, wherein ET simply ignores all of the above, deeming them irrelevant sideshows.
How does it feel to be described as a major voice in fantasy and science-fiction?
SE: Even were I to accept that statement (which I don’t), such voices seem to have very little efficacy. It’s the writer’s dilemma. Why do we write? What’s our place in society? What’s our function or purpose? Mere entertainment? I hope not. But, what’s left? Nothing that could be said hasn’t already been said, and yet our seemingly headlong plunge into extinction continues. That said, I have hope and I suppose I write fiction as my way of fighting despair, and if that fiction can do the same for a few readers, that’s not such a bad thing, is it?
Had you always wanted to become an author/writer?
SE: No. I wanted to be an illustrator. I wanted to be a palaeontologist. I wanted to command a starship. I wanted to do an archaeological survey of Mars. I also wanted super powers. I dispensed with all these options about a year ago.
Are there any authors that you look up to as a writer that has helped shape your work?
SE: More than I can count. I grew up reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, Andre Norton, Leigh Brackett, Brian Stableford, Zelazny, Donaldson, LeGuin, Howard. I suspect that every story I’ve ever read has helped shaped my work.
How long did it take you to plan and write Rejoice compared to your other novels?
SE: I’ve probably had the notion of writing a First Contact novel for twenty or so years. While I maintain that fantasy is the most difficult genre to write (given the demands of true world-building), I’ve probably put more thinking into the preparation of this one novel than I have in any others. Or that’s how it seems. My research into ufology and all its related spin-offs (ancient astronauts, etc) was intense and possibly monomaniacal: I determined to remain uncommitted regardless of the evidence being presented, and so approached the subject with an open mind, as if to say: okay, convince me. But that statement cuts both ways: convince me that ET is visiting us … and convince me that ET isn’t visiting us. By applying the same level of scepticism to both sides of the debate, I freed up the evidence as much as I could, and I could then look at the substance behind the debunkers (answer: not much substance at all, just opinion hiding behind a pseudointellectual façade).
That said, the field is quite the rabbit hole. One of its primary problems is obfuscation, and the jury’s out as to who the main culprits are in the sowing of so much confusion and misinformation. After all, such obfuscation can serve either master (nothing there vs. cover-up) with equal facility.
Writing the novel was simply the execution of a long-fomented intention: to conduct a thought experiment based on First Contact. Because the story is mostly mimetic, it was infinitely easier to write compared to Epic Fantasy, and I think some of the joy I was experiencing in writing the book shows through here and there. To be utterly relaxed in the writing of a novel is the writer’s dream. Rarely achieved, but when it happens, you know it.
Can you tell us in five words what writing means to you?
SE: A harder way of avoiding work you’ll never find. Nine words, sorry. But then, I never ever achieve the desired word-count. Ask anyone!
Did you take the time to celebrate the conclusion of writing your book and its release?
SE: Not really. Time’s running out with every year that passes. In many ways, I am having too much fun to take time out to celebrate.
Have you got a hobby/activity you do to wind down from all the work and writing?
SE: These days? I track developments in ufology and anomalous archaeology. I blame the novel.
Finally, have you read a book/article recently that you would personally recommend to
the readers of this post?
SE: The first three novels by SF author Becky Chambers. Terrific stuff.
Thank you Steven for that brilliant Q&A. Like I said before, this was a quality question and answer session. SE has a lot to say about his new novel and it made me want to read the story more than ever. I hope this post manages to entice plenty of other readers to give it a go too. I have been neglecting science-fiction for too long! I need to throw myself back into the genre and this will be the perfect opportunity. I hope you enjoyed the Q&A. I will have a review out in the next few weeks.