5 QUESTIONS: Seth Dickinson, author of The Traitor
Who faces our dreaded 5 Questions this week? None other than the fabulous Seth Dickinson, who's radical and moving debut The Traitor is out today in paperback! You can read an extract right here.
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1. What’s your ‘elevator pitch’ for The Traitor?
Game of Thrones meets Guns, Germs, and Steel! Or, if you're feeling a little more daring, Wolf Hall meets Code Name Verity.
The Traitor (The Traitor Baru Cormorant in the US) is the story of a young woman from a conquered island who decides the only way to liberate her home is to join the conquerors' civil service, prove herself as an Imperial agent, work her way to the top, and tear them down from within.
Unfortunately, her conquerors decide to test her loyalty and talent — by sending her to another conquered province and asking her to destroy the rebellion there. And she starts falling for the woman leading the rebellion.
2. Baru Cormorant is a fantastically complex character – how did you go about creating her?
That's very hard to answer without spoilers!
The first thing I knew about the story — before setting, plot, anything — was 'this is a story about a woman who's played a particular role and suffered a particular wound'. I began with the ending, and then I had to ask myself: who would play this role? Who would make these choices?
I am always fascinated by the tension between deontology (doing what's right no matter what, simply because it's right) and utilitarian tactics (doing what's necessary to reach a goal, because the goal is right). Baru is an extreme utilitarian. She'll do whatever's necessary to achieve her objective.
But she's not (despite what many people tell her!) a sociopath. She cares a lot and she constantly has to armor herself against that caring. Her mission to move within a hostile culture means she can't help but internalize some of what that culture tells her. That's dangerous and painful.
I've said before that it's a novel about the cutting edge between subversion and complicity. Baru's the incarnation of that struggle.
3. Acceptance vs. oppression is a major theme of the novel – why did you want to explore that in particular?
It's crucial to me. I need to answer these questions. How do you live ethically in a world dominated by unfair systems? How do you convince the world you're worth something? How do you exist under the threat of violent retaliation for stepping out of your social role?
It's crucial to the writing community and to the world. We need to answer these questions.
I was a social psychologist until I left my PhD program. We (meaning my lab, and other labs working on the same topic) built computer simulations of police shootings and ran thousands of people through them. We discovered that everyone is infected with some degree of automatic racial prejudice.
I think the infrastructure of oppression is deeply entangled with our cognitive architecture. We can't even get people to agree on the existence of problems that should be glaringly obvious in the statistics.
I think human minds operate in reverse, usually. We have beliefs and we manipulate the facts to fit. Fiction is a tool to alter that flow.
4. What’s your favourite piece of single pop culture, and why? (Film, TV, game etc)
Haha, all right, let's go way out there. I'm hugely invested in an obscure 1999 space sim called FreeSpace 2. You play as an anonymous fighter pilot caught between an interstellar civil war and an apocalyptic alien incursion.
The first reason I love it is narrative. It's a total subversion of the Independence Day mytharc — it contains an 'aliens arrive, we band together, we find their weakness' story, but then it shows you the awful asymbolic truth of humanity's insignificance. And the story trusts the player absolutely to figure out what's happening. Huge conspiracies clatter along above your head, inaccessible to a rank-and-file pilot...but if you pay careful attention you can deduce what's going on.
I also love it because Volition, the developers, gave us the source code! So we've been able to improve the engine and use it to tell our own stories for nearly twenty years.
5. What are you working on at the moment? Any teasers?
I'm working on a sequel called The Monster Baru Cormorant, which is going to complicate and challenge some of the conclusions of the first book. How do societies use narratives to control us? Once you're accustomed to awful things happening all the time, can you ever take your armor off and accept trust? Is it possible to conduct revolutionary change without courting chaos and purge?
The sequel opens with the Ashen Sea on the edge of a kind of fantasy Cuban Missile Crisis over the Oriati actions during the first book.
I've also done a side novel called Exordia, a space opera about a woman who meets an alien in Central Park and gets caught up in a war to reprogram the objective morality of the universe. Here are the current chapter names!
ACT 1: SERENDURE
Chapter One: Anna's New Roommate (Is From Outer Space)
Chapter Two: Smoking Weed With Ssrin
Chapter Three: Shoot Your Boyfriend In The Face
ACT 2: PALADIN
K+ 147:55:31 The Crash
The Aviator's Diary
ACT 3: RATH
File 1: What The Fuck Did I Just Do
File 2: What the Hell Do We Do Now
File 3: This Can't Be Happening
ACT 4: THE BATTLE OF BLACKBIRD
ACT 5: EARTH
A bonus question from Rjurik Davidson: Have you ever regretted writing something into a story or novel (an event, a character, a line)? If so, why? If not, why not?
Ah, that's a hard question. Give me a few years! I'm young and my first book's just come out. I need some space and time before I can say.