Sunday, 14 February 2016

Jumping ahead a little from what I'd planned, I asked Adrian Tchaikovsky some questions about his Shadows of the Apt series. His website can be found at:, where he talks... well, sense most of the time. Displaying ATpublicity.jpg
Displaying ATpublicity.jpg

1)       Your work seems to have a consistent theme of magic versus technology. Is this intentional, or do your novels just evolve to reflect that theme?

I think I have a very keen sense of things past or failing: lost worlds, extinct species, fallen civilizations and ways of life. When I was a kid I felt the absence of dinosaurs and trilobites and the like very keenly. A passing or ebbing age of magic is not uncommon in fantasy, and it can be a very poignant thing, or it can be a very sinister thing – it’s good story fodder. One day I must write a book about a failing age of technology that’s being overrun by a new and energetic magic. Or something…

2)       In some places it seems like you use quite broad strokes with the kinden, was that intentional? Are there very specific groups like Trap Door Spider Kinden out there?

Bringing the kinden down to species level is one way madness lies. So, yes, the major kinden represent large groups of invertebrates, but you also see numerous sub-species (and there are more you don’t see that are definitely in there!). In Scarab Path, for example, there are leafcutter Ant-kinden, and there is a horribly unzoological thing with the Firefly-kinden being like Flies (rather than beetles). If you really squint there are tarantulas, orchid mantids… probably there are trap-door spiders, but they don’t play any part in the books because, by definition, they don’t get out much…

3)       I know the world span out of a roleplaying game you ran in the 1990s (Bug World, using GURPS), was the world fully established during that time or did you have to build new parts when you set about writing the novels?

A lot of the game world translated fairly well – especially the major geographical and political beats found in the first 4 books. If I remember the game properly, I did ramp the steampunkery of the Apt up quite a bit (and certainly the later innovations of the series are all new). Certainly all the kinden in the books were in my material for the game, the map is the same, and many of the characters first saw life on the tabletop.

4)       How did you go about deciding what technology to use and what it should look like? It sometimes feels like you've skipped over gunpowder, and at times I felt confused as to whether the Great Shotters were spring powered or not.

I had a few axioms, mostly to do with what energy sources or technologies worked better than the real world, and which worked worse. So there is a gunpowder analogue (which the Greatshotters use) but it’s not very efficient at a smaller scale, so the personal-level weapons are mechanically powered, first crossbows and then the air-power of snapbows. Conversely, clockwork is insanely good compared to the real world, and there’s a lot (in the Air War especially) about the trade off between wind-up engines and fuel engines, and flapping orthophers against prop-driven fixed-wing aircraft. And hopefully it all makes sense, but it is at least intended to be internally consistent throughout. Some of the tech is insect-inspired (hence the flapping-wing aircraft are generally the best, or the great Ear, which is based on anti-bat countermeasures that mantids have) but the kinden are ingenious little devils, so you see multiple solutions to problems, and indeed rogue solutions looking for problems to attack (especially in the defence of Collegium in Dragonfly Falling). The main point with the kinden’s tech is that they face essentially the same problems as humans have, but the rules of their toolkit are different and so their solutions differ as well.

5)       Do you plan to return to the World of the Apt in the future?

Definitely. Firstly there are going to be some short stories collections which will have a lot of new stuff, and also bring together most of the stories I’ve written for other outlets (such as my Gemmell-inspired Sword and Circle from Newcon’s Legend antho). I also fully intend to return to long-form fiction with the kinden when the inspiration strikes, but we’ve had 10 books together. That’s a long road, and I definitely want to go cross country for a while. If I do return to the kinden properly I’d also need to find a proper new entrypoint – it couldn’t just be a continuation of the same story because that cuts out readers who haven’t read all the others.

6)       Did you model the cultures in the novels on any in the real world?

The initial setup for the game, which carried over into the books, was Classical. The Lowlands are kind of a Greece analogue, with Collegium as Athens and the Ant cities as a handful of feuding Spartas. The Wasps are the Macedonians exploding out to conquer. The Spider satrapies are maybe-kind-of-Persia – vast and varied and very rich. Except that there is a distinct Chinese feel to the Commonweal, and then we get to Khanaphes which is a definite Pharaonic Egypt analogue in a kind of convergent evolution (the reasons make sense, but they’re nothing to do with the real world). As the plot gets going, there is a distinct echo-history of the 20th century going on, with obvious WWI and WWII equivalents – each one seen and solved through the kinden’s very different perspective.

7)       Do you have plans to return to the world and explore it further? Perhaps revealing other continents?

There’s an old LARP answer to questions about the setting: FOIP. “Find Out In Play.” In this case the only answer I can give is Find Out In Print.

8/) Who's your favourite character in the series?

Tough call. Many of the villains turned out to be the most fun to write. Thalric, for example, or Drephos the horribly amoral artificer. I also really liked writing for the “students” who turn up from Air War, Eujen, Straessa and the rest.

8)       Which volume is your favourite?

War Master’s Gate (book 9). It has some of the most emotive scenes in it, and it balances the magic and the tech side of things while previous books tend to focus on one or the other.

9)       What was the greatest challenge in creating the series?

Tempted to say “keeping it going for 10 books.” In Heirs of the Blade I hit a real plotting issue, as the book had quite a complex plot, and also need to tie off stuff from the previous books, and foreshadow some stuff from Air War, and getting all that in without crippling the book needed a lot of rewrites.

10)   The recent years have highlighted the importance of writing female characters well, do you find that's something you struggle with?

Well. I am a male writer. I have done my level best to write a large and varied selection of female characters from leads down to spear-carriers, and that seems to have worked – Che Maker in Shadows and Emily Marshwic in Guns of the Dawn both have their fans. As for whether I actually get it right, that’s the call of the individual reader.

11)   In the past you've said that you feel that fantasy novels have to start with combat now, and there's a lot of fighting in your work. Do you enjoy writing battles or would you prefer to focus on other areas?

I like writing fights, but I try to rein myself in because you can have too much of any given thing. A lot of fantasy-fiction is combat-heavy, so that works for many readers, but like all readers I’m working on more than that level – there’s the sweep of history, the politics, the magic, the romance. One advantage of a long series of long books is that you do get to fit all that in.

13) You've said in the past you're not a natural 'sit down and bang out 2000 words' writer, what's your creative process? Do you have any writing rituals?

Not rituals, but I plan the crap out of everything I write, and I try to keep the next scene churning in my mind until I get to sit down and write it, and that preparedness is how I get past my natural sloth.

14) What advice would you give to new fantasy writers?

Well, I have, what, 14 books out as of this month, plus novellas and shorts, and I honestly feel the genre is full of so many contradictions that it’s hard to give any advice or predict where the genre’s going to go next.

15) Who are your writing heroes?

Mary Gentle, Gene Wolfe, China Mieville, Mervyn Peake, Diane Wynne Jones, Peter S Beagle, Ursula le Guin.

16) What's your favourite novel?

Peter Beagle’s “The Folk of the Air.” It’s out of print and I’ve never met another soul who’s even heard of it, but it’s beautiful.

17) If you had to do an elevator pitch for a Shadows of the Apt TV series, what would you say?

Oh God, I hate elevator pitches. How about:

“It’s like Starship Troopers but the bugs are also the people.”

“Steampunk insect wars!”

“Like Lord of the Rings. With insects. Who are people. Like… Frodo is a boll weevil or something. And Aragorn is a – no, don’t look at me like that – he’s a person who’s a praying mantis and – oh, is this your floor?”

“You cannot possibly afford to make this and nobody would watch it.”