6:3: Interview: Tobias S. Buckell

6:3: Interview: Tobias S. Buckell

Tobias S. Buckell was born in the Caribbean and now lives in Ohio. He’s sold more than thirty short stories and published two novels: Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin, which came out this July. His blog can be found at tobiasbuckell.com.

Sean: Why did you choose reading as a pastime? What led you to read and write speculative fiction in particular?

Tobias: I grew up in the Caribbean on a boat. It’s a very off-the-grid sort of experience, and I’m one of the few people around my generation I know of who grew up without TV for the most part. My mother was also a single parent, she really pushed reading as early as she could as it worked as a great babysitter. Once I got to reading novels at 5 or 6 I would settle in for hours at a time.

SM: How Travis McGee.

TB: Yeah. I loved John D. McDonald’s books growing up. I imagined that I ever lived in the states I would find a dock in Ft. Lauderdale, not on a houseboat but a regular yacht like the one I was growing up. But environments like that always bump you into a cast of characters that are fascinating with wild backgrounds and stories. People who leave the normal 48 states to live on boats, or who have always been living on boats, are always interesting people.

SM: Aside from young kids destined to become science fiction writers, what sorts of people and do they appear in some form in your books and stories?

TB: I don’t know if they appear as such in a whole form, but fragments of them show up here and there. Certainly the wandering spaceship types map well to wandering yachts people.

SM: What is the origin of the terms Ragamuffin and mongoose-men?

TB: The origins are somewhat negative, actually. Ragamuffin is a self applied ingroup term for Jamaican youngsters. Some etymology I’ve seen suggests it comes from the British using it to describe Jamaicans as urchins, as a slur. If it was a slur, which I suspect so, it has now been reclaimed in the Caribbean to describe tough young Caribbean people. A friend of mine calls it roughly analogous to the urban American term ‘hood rat’ which is a term in the process of being reclaimed by urban youth in some areas. In my first book, as ragamuffins are often associated with lawlessness, I thought having them be the historical police for of my Caribbean descended people on another planet would be another unique way of reclaiming and playing with the word and its multiple meanings for both English and Caribbean creole speakers.

Mongoose-men is a word only I am playing with reclaiming. It’s a word with a particularly complex history for Grenada. I was doing research into the revolution of ’79 leading up to the US Invasion. I was born for the ‘revo’ and parts of the invasion are some of my first memories and experiences as a child. I wanted some context, and while digging around, I found out that there was allegedly a secret police unit that may have been up to no good working for the communist government. These people were tagged ‘mongoose-men’ by people on the island. I thought the phrase for a special forces type group was too good not to use. I had a lot of reservations about it, don’t get me wrong, but I finally decided to risk reusing that darker piece of history for something more positive.

SM: You appear to have not only an interest in reclaiming, but a solid sense of linguistics; for example, you play with the evolution of language in isolated communities and obscene words forged from a group’s most charged act (bleeding.) Where did you develop such a sense?

TB: You’re doing the favor of making me look far smarter than I am with that question. I guess this comes back down to my background. I remember people on yachts speaking German, French and Italian who came into harbors in Grenada so that got me exposed and interested in the various languages out there.

My first major cultural conflict was about language. I was standing on a dock near another kid. We’re peeing off the side, as kids will do on pier in a boatyard. He pointed at the water and said ‘vasa.’ I pointed and said ‘water.’ There was a bit of an escalation, us yelling it louder and louder back and forth, each unwilling to redefine our understanding of the world. The cultural exchange ended with me, I’m ashamed to admit, pushing him into the water.

But that’s not the fundamental interest I have in language. In the Caribbean language has been taken and remixed, mashed up, and adapted into a Creole. It’s not just an accent, but there are Africanate grammar structures that are still evident, with English and even some Old English words still there.

My teachers, and western adults around me, often labeled this ‘bad English.’ I ascribed to that a little bit as a kid, but reading James Herriot blew that out of the water. Who the hell could call any Caribbean Creole bad English but then not go after Cockney, Yorkshire or Scottish accents?

In order to fit in as a kid, I held the ability to flip between Creole at times and a full British accent at others. When I moved to the US Virgin Islands, I dropped almost all traces of British from my accent without even realizing. I also adapted to the ‘milder’ Creole.

In Ohio as I went to college my accent again shifted to match what I heard most around me (except I keep softer ‘ah’ sounds in ‘aunt,’ and ‘France’ for example). But I took a linguistics course and began reading a ton about how languages shift as different cultures and groups interact and repurpose language. So vowel sounds shift over time, and words are simplified, I tried to add some of that to the fiction.

SM: What led to using an Aztec-analogue society?

TB: You know, when I was a kid I still remember to this day the first time the history teacher unveiled the concept that there were these dudes that freaking ripped out other people’s hearts and sacrificed them live to their gods. And they just glossed over this and moved on.

As a kid, this was morbidly interesting and, to put it mildly, scary. And the older I got, the more I read about religious practices in the ancient world, the more weirded out I got. Yeah the Aztecs make perfect boogeymen, but the more you read about their personal/religious rationalizations, the weirder. The idea of needing blood to keep your world going around is nothing new, the Aztecs just took it very, very seriously.

But it also let me examine a huge issue I wanted to explore, which is the entire issue of following religious dogma. As a kid, and still today, the decision that Abraham makes to sacrifice his son to god on the mountain is no different than the one Aztecs made every time they had a sacrifice. I wanted to give a character Abraham’s choice: asked to do something morally wrong by a god. What would you do? Most of my readers, religious and not, love the character of Oaxyctl, who is asked to do just this to the book’s hero, making him the villain. But like any religious person, Oaxyctl believes that anything a god asks is moral. Or is it? His solution and struggle to this made him a very interesting character, I get a lot of fan mail about him.

SM: What kind of fan mail do you get?

TB: Well, being so webified, I get fan-email! I also note that a lot of fans are turning to writing up reviews on blogs or in forums, which they then drop me a note of via email. Some are direct emails from various people of all sorts who enjoyed the book. A fair amount of it is from people of diverse backgrounds, happy to see a lot of fun being had with the tropes that got them to fall in love with the genre, but with a more diverse cast than usual.

SM: Were you raised in any specific religion? Are you religious? Some scientists, science fiction writers, and science fiction fans (by no means all) perceive that religion and science are mutually exclusive, and though you’ve incorporated religion into your universe, the only gods are aliens. Is this indicative of your viewpoint?

TB: I was raised mainly in Church of Christ congregations by my mother for a while, due to their missionary presence in the Caribbean. Anglicanism was widespread as well, I was in a few Anglican churches growing up, and went to an Anglican private school in the US Virgin Islands. As for me personally, I made the mistake of being an avaricious reader and reading the bible cover to cover several times. I also read a lot of other religious texts and was around Rastafarians, Hindi, and Islamic believers when young. It struck me that everyone was so convinced they were right, but had such varying beliefs that I became a generalist (maybe they’re all somehow right and digging at a higher truth) as a kid. By the time I was in college I decided being an agreeable atheist was a more honest approach.

As for the only gods being alien in this book, it was more of my attempt to fictionalize the Abraham dilemma, one of my biggest hangups. In Sunday school it was always taught that Abraham was a hero for obeying god when god asks him to kill his son as a sacrifice, obedience being one of these qualities that seems to come with religion. But I have a problem with the fact that if what a god tells you is moral, then all you have to do is believe that a god is telling you to do something to believe its moral. In my own mental world as a kid, realizing that my parents considered a potential child murderer a hero and actively was being taught this by adults at lessons, was truly disturbing. Yeah god spares Isaac’s life at the last second, but as Jesus pointed out, it’s not the act, it’s making the mental decision to act that makes you criminal.

So my character Oaxyctl, then, is given a direct order by what he believes is a god to capture, torture, and maybe kill a decent human being. He then has to struggle with following a god’s commands or being apostate. Not surprising to me is that I do get a lot of readers, of all religions, saying they identified with Oaxyctl quite a bit.

SM: In Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin, humanity has made it into space, but unlike much of science fiction, we are treated as inferior by every other alien race. What impulse(s) led to this conceit?

TB: Looking at the age of exploration pretty much shows you what happens whenever a group meets with a technological variance this behavior commences. Traditionally in SF we assume a couple things, that either humans will be the superior group making first contact, or that we’re plucky enough that human spirit will overcome a technological inbalance.

And that’s somewhat true. Arawaks were pretty easy-going folk. They literally don’t exist. Caribs were demonized for being violent cannibals (early state propaganda efforts), but that’s because they didn’t conveniently roll over, but fought the Europeans for every island until they were cordoned off into a few reservations, but managed to survive. The assumption that humans would win entirely against a technologically superior group through some plucky trick that puts them on top of the foodchain is a bit of a reach. But making exterminating us enough of a hassle that the race survives in some form, that seems doable looking at historical analogues, but it would be a tough line.

SM: The term ‘Emancipation’ carries substantial historical baggage. Why did you choose this term?

TB: Partly for all that baggage. Just taking a person out of direct bondage, slavery, doesn’t mean a magic wand has been waved and everything has been equalized and is okay or better. I posit that humans in the past have had a tougher go of it than in Ragamuffin, but that they have a long way to go yet.

SM: That is not a very common attitude, especially among science fiction writers and readers who assume (and never explore) a future lacunae during which ethnicity and gender cease to be charged terms, or even dividers between superior and inferior. I’ve even heard some writers choose to use aliens as a mask for discussing ethnic, racial, and sexual issues. How would you characterize the current state of science fiction with respect to racial and ethnic issues?

TB: I guess it isn’t common. I always think that when SF/F writers move first to using aliens as the other that it’s dangerous. Dangerous because it makes the other REALLY other. Let’s make scary-weird aliens stand in for black people? I love writing SF because you CAN use tools like that to decontextualize baggage. But on the flip side, using aliens like that has made us lazy. I think its an overused tool now, and it’s time to maybe engage those issues a bit more honestly. Because here’s the thing, when aliens are being played as others, there are still very few humans who are non-caucasian in that crew. What happened to all the non-white people? Have they just not been allowed to leave the planet? Do they even exist? Some SF watches and reads like there was a massive genocide on the planet that wiped out all non-white people, if you really get down to it. It’s kind of spooky.

SM: Why is science fiction, which has all of the past, present and future to play with, so reticent to tackle issues of race, ethnicity and color?

TB: I imagine it’s because many authors are petrified of making a mistake and being labeled as racist, or prejudiced. It’s like being called a Nazi. Why take the risk, they imagine, when they can just dodge the whole issue. Some authors probably don’t even think of it.

Other authors are convinced that having characters of color in the main narrative will prevent you from selling books. I’ve seen this repeated online and on some panels by authors, often with a shrug and a “it’s not my fault, it’s just the way it is” statement.

What’s funny is that some writers talk about wanting their writing to be read down through the ages, or at least in a couple decades. I’m laughing because the US Census has run some scenarios showing that the US will be increasingly diverse, not less, with almost half the nation being non-caucasian within thirty years or so. That’s your audience.

SM: Except the science fiction audience is overwhelmingly Caucasian. Is that likely to change?

TB: By about 2030 the US Census says the US will possibly be about 50% caucasian and 50% everyone else. If SF/F is still about and only for Caucasians it is fast tracking itself into irrelevancy for a significant part of the population.

SM: On your blog, you encourage the writing characters of different races and ethnicities even by white writers. What writers, genre or otherwise, write well about issues of race, ethnicity and color?

TB: I recommend it because the world is a multi-colored and multi-ethnic one, so the future will be one. A future that has none of that feels… a bit drab to me. I encourage it because how can we be SF writers, talking about things that have yet to come, the alien, the near-unintelligible, but then our writers say they can’t do something like get into the head of an already existing human that just happens to have a slightly different background or skin color?

Some of my favorite genre writers do this. Ian McDonald in River of Gods. Bruce Sterling in Islands in the Net. Kathleen Ann Goonan’s novels feature a diverse cast. Arthur C. Clarke did feature a couple novels with non-caucasian major characters, and often featured a truly global cast (think 2001/2010, which had computer programmer Dr. R. Chandra, go Clarke, but then in the movies, he becomes a white dude. Boo Hollywood). Neil Gaiman earned a great deal of respect with me in Anansi Boys for doing it with a deft touch in the background. Paolo Bacigalupi’s stuff is great too. They’re there.

And while I do encourage this gently via my blog, I prefer leading by example. I have worked hard to portray a complex and multi-ethnic future in the novels, and my hope is that it will show other people that it can be done and be a lot of fun and feature adventure, explosions, and wonder.

SM: You do have write with a ‘sense of wonder’, and yet your novels and stories are also political, in the sense of incorporating the issues above. Is it difficult to strike a balance? Do you worry that with all the gosh-wow scenes that readers might miss the diversity issues?

TB: You know, I’m not trying to hammer people over the head with this whole diversity thing, it’s more an attempt to redress the casting that has traditionally been done. The sense of wonder is what drew me to SF/F in the first place. I think of literature as the dreams of humanity: humanity processing where it’s been, where it is, what’s happening to it. SF/F is like the imagination of humanity, what we might be, what could have been, what may be. I always want that to ensnare people, because it is what made me fall in love with the genre, and it’s what I can’t get out of other genres.

SM: The ship in which the grounation occurs is the Cornell West. Are you a fan?

TB: Yeah, I get a big kick out of him. I thought the least I could do was offer up a small piece of homage.

SM: He was also in one of the Matrix movies.

TB: I missed that.

SM: Not only are we inferior, but rather than banding together (another common trope), at least two groups of humans – the Azteca and Hongguo – betray our race. The Azteca practice human sacrifice and the Hongguo enforce the Benevolent Satrapy’s will; and though they do so willingly (though neurological ‘programming’ is possible) they are sympathetic characters. What thought processes or research led to these groups – were there historical, mythical, or anthropological precedents? – and how did you manage to balance their traitorous behavior with that of the need to treat them as fully fleshed out characters?

TB: Rarely does an entire group of people in the various tribes of humanity stand as one. Had England won the war against the states in 1776, Benedict Arnold would be a national hero who helped put down seditious rebels. These things are often matters of perspective, and in the book the Hongguo are certainly willing collaborators. From their point of view they’re trying to help humanity stay alive by insulating it from the nastier alien races and policing humanity. Right now there are people in countries assisting the U.S. and their fellow countrymen regard them as traitors. Are they? It always depends on how history fleshes out. The Hongguo, I think, were good guys for a long time, trying to prove to technologically superior aliens that humans could play nice in their place. Certainly I feel a lot of sympathy for people who have to make a choice, and neither choice is going to be a good one. Fight as rebels in what is surely going to be a losing fight, adopt terrorist tactics, or collaborate with the enemy and assure some form of survival, moral compromises come out of all three of those options.

SM: Along those lines, you write characters who are deeply flawed. One heroic figure commits torture. (At least, we assume he does since we don’t actually see it.) Another faces the choice of either betraying a friend or saving a people, but you also mix in a desire for personal power. Is it difficult to write morally ambiguous characters?

TB: I have to reach a bit harder. It’s easier to write the simple, the black and white. Someone’s the villain, someone’s the hero.

Partly, again, my life gives me an interesting background to examine this. I grew up in Grenada while it was being invaded by the US. I know some of the reasons the Grenadians had for the revolution: a desire for better infrastructure, pay, education, life in general. Many people’s lives under post-colonial Westernism, an economic dominance of the island by outsiders, sucked so bad they were desperate to try anything else, many of them. And for various reasons the revolution went south, so the invasion comes. Who’s the bad guy? The soldier who is Grenadian, some guy hoping for a better life and future, the US soldier hoping to prevent another Cuba and who’s just following orders. It’s a mess. Finding the easy bad guy is tough.

SM: Further, while you use several science fiction tropes (aliens, spaceships, wormholes, and so forth) you ‘violate’ some of the traditional accompanying narrative structures. A major character dies, but not for some grand martyrdom. An egomaniacal freedom fighter spouts cliches. Humans are not united (there’s no Federation or Galactic Council or some other damn thing) even after defining a common enemy, but split along ideological lines; and for the reader, neither side is particularly in the wrong. How do you manage to balance moral ambiguity with the hero/villain dichotomy implicit in so much genre material?

TB: I’m always trying to find the fun in those tropes (inscrutable aliens, big spaceships) but turn them to flip them around a bit. I guess I want the tropes to come off as believable, deep down, even as you’re experiencing the wild fun. For example, the scene from Ragamuffin where the heroine is carrying a 50 pound minigun is patently the sort of ridiculous thing you always see on covers. But miniguns have so much freaking recoil they’ll knock you on your ass (Jesse Ventura in that famous Predator scene had to be strapped and braced to a support structure to fire the gun). So instead, you start thinking about how to make this something a human being would really have to be using. The cheap trick would have just been to have her pick up a minigun and shoot the bad guys with it. The cool upside down thing is to have her use it to propel herself down the center of space station where there is no gravity. I don’t know if I always succeed in turning things upside down, but whenever I can take a trope and twist it like that, I get a huge rush.

SM: And it’s on the cover.

TB: Yeah, how cool is that? I was really blown away that we got it right on the cover.

SM: I can’t recall reading any space opera (is Ragamuffin space opera?) where the substantial financial burden of owning and maintaining spaceships dictates that the Ragamuffin and Hongguo harass one another, but rarely risk full combat. Was there a historical or biological analogue, or a logical or scientific reasoning, or was there another impulse?

TB: I would call Ragamuffin a space opera, certainly. War is a very expensive, even for well funded states. For more cobbled together groups, it is devastating, so even casual piracy is something that needs some financial sense behind it. When ships fought each other, even in the days of sail, which Space Opera often tries to imitate, the trick was often to capture a prize and bring it back to your side. Complete annihilation is newsworthy and looks great on the screen, but even after devastation, the ships captured would be patched back up. That aspect I think would continue to hold true, as a spaceship. This holds even further true for independent owner/operators, which the Ragamuffin crews are. Much like well armed traders (who could be privateers at times), privately owned warships and well owned trade ships were always aware of the economics of it all.

SM: Following up on a previous question, while the Ragamuffin are labeled pirates, they never commit a single act of piracy. Is there a message in this labeling, or is it another example of your linguistic facility?

TB: They never self-identify as pirates, you’ll notice. The appellation is given to them by their enemies. Naming something is powerful. The country I live in, the USA, calls rebels in other countries who fight against a country the US doesn’t like Freedom Fighters, and those who fight against countries the US likes, are terrorists. Never forget that Washington and his allies in Revolutionary America were called rebels by the English. So it goes. The Ragamuffins may toy with the illegal side of things, but they’re far from pirates.

SM: Ragamuffin contains an exciting but unusual chase scene in an orbital habitat backed up by hard physics. How did you construct this scene? Are there any hard science science fiction novels you admire?

TB: I admire the hard SF writers who have the technical skill and genius to pull off the big ideas that they do. I love, loved Arthur C. Clarke growing up, as well as Robert Forward and others. The fact that I could contribute a bit of a hard SF scene, one that I hadn’t seen done before, was a particularly point of pride for me in this book. It was my favorite scene to write.

SM: In your first novel, a continent hangs in the balance (to coin a phrase.) In your sophomore outing, the survival of all of humanity is at stake. What next?

TB: Hah, there’s nowhere to go but down from here now, right? In the second novel the survival of aliens and their place in the galaxy are at stake, that would be the larger piece. This third novel is my lighter-than-air novel. Set on a Venusian planet, in the air with floating cities, airship battles, and zombies. Again, I’m riffing off many of the tropes and pulp I do so love and admire. In Crystal Rain we looked at one planet in this panoply I created, Ragamuffin toured you around it’s periphery, and in Sly Mongoose, number three, we’ll pull back down to a whole new planet and linger there. So far I’ve had the most fun writing this third one.

SM: Why?

TB: I can’t put a finger on it. I think I’m just enjoying the setting, the elements I want to use just fall into place easier in this book.

SM: For better or worse, you’ve been labeled a Young Turk. Do you see any similar concerns, motifs, interests, etc among your generation, for want of a better word, of writers?

TB: I wish I were intelligent enough to point out a singular motif. I think that will be for readers and critics to nail down for sure. My instinct is that many of us are certainly doing our best to capture a lot of gosh wow fun. I think of Jay Lake’s clockwork punk, and Chris Roberson’s high space opera fun, or Scalzi’s revisioned military SF. Someone said neo-pulp, and I like the sound of that. But the truth is so many of us are doing so many different things. It’s a tremendous time to be reading right now, there is an explosion of cool talent writing in the field right now.

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