Today we welcome Kameron Hurley, the author of THE WORLDBREAKER SAGA, published by Angry Robot Books. The first two volumes are The Mirror Empire and Empire Ascendant, with a third, The Broken Heavens, expected to see publication in August 2017. Hurley’s saga deals with race, gender, sex roles, war, survival, slavery, genocide and many other hot topics in the context of war between and countries and between alternate worlds, with a number of philosophical issues raised along the way. We discuss the difficulty of writing about more than two genders, moral choices, and the challenge of writing about numerous societies and races and their counterparts in an alternate universe.

One lucky (and random) commenter with a U.S. address will win a copy of both The Mirror Empire and Empire Ascendant.

Bill Capossere: In terms of writing with the different genders you employ, how difficult did you find it to break out of your own “mind box”? Did you ever find yourself backsliding, write a passage, and then look at it later and think, “this is just the same old-same old binary thinking” before making it more closely fit your intent? Did you have an overarching concept or did you come up with a different-gendered way of looking at something as the situations arose? Did you find this becoming any easier as you progressed from book one to book two?

Kameron Hurley: Oh, sure, all the time. I’m a product of this culture just like everyone else. Strangely enough, one of the thingsAuthor Kameron Hurley that a lot of people don’t get about the third gender in Saiduan is that it’s not actually a neutral gender – it’s a third gender. I tried to make that clear in the text, but it’s interesting that people have assumed it’s a neutral gender, or an “in-between” gender, as if that’s easier for us to wrap our heads around.

Similarly with the Dhai, employing five genders but only using three pronouns (he/she/they) and then nodding to the fact that there are two kinds of “he” and two kids of “she” is still sinking in for some folks. My biggest challenge in this book was not so much creating a multiplicity of genders but doing it in a way that still made the book interesting and readable. The reality is that the ways these characters all think of themselves should feel a little strange to us. I had one reader say that they felt like aliens, which was a bit extreme, I think, but when you’re working within societies that not only have five genders, but even the two that seem like we understand them are constructed in totally new ways that we don’t recognize, and they’ve also got a consent-based culture , well, that’s mind-boggling to some folks.

I love making people think about these things. I certainly ended up thinking a lot about it as I wrote it.

Terry Weyna: Your gender-bending doesn’t stop with introducing additional genders to the binary manner in which most of us see the world, even as science suggests that we’re not truly binary. You also switch up sex roles, turning women into brutal aggressors who treat their husbands like playthings in at least one of the cultures you present. The rape of males by females occurs more than once. Do you see gender entirely as a matter of nurture, not nature? Does biology have any effect on our behavior surrounding sex, in your view? Why have we not seen a culture on Earth in which the treatment of men by women widely mirrors the behavior you set forth by the likes of General Zezili? Finally, there has been a lot of talk lately about the use of rape as a plot device, and whether that is appropriate. What consideration did you give to the use of rape in your novels in light of these objections, if any?

I’m happy to continue to let readers debate this one. Let’s just say I’ve been very interested in the conversations that have resulted around this, and the assumptions about “gender-swapping” in a society like Dorinah with very different ideas than ours about what it means to be male, female, or something else.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsBill: The moral choices made in THE WORLDBREAKER SAGA are varied and complex, especially with the question “What will you do to survive?” with that “you” being defined differently by various characters: some see it as personal survival, some with regard to the survival of only those they love and know, and others with regard to a wider, more abstract (though not unlimited) survival of one’s “people.” Can you talk to this theme’s presentation a bit (or take issue with the idea of it being a theme) — was there an early purposeful, organized means of showing this spectrum of concern for who survives or did it arise naturally through character and plot?

“What will you sacrifice to survive?” was always the central theme of the series. If we’re asked to become everything we hate, to go against all of our morals and all the things we believe make us who we are in order to survive, is it really worth our survival? I come from a culture that says survival at all costs is absolutely vital, to the point where you’ll see these colonization stories and stories of the post-apocalypse where it’s just assumed that the sole man and woman left living must breed for the cause. Joanna Russ wrote a book that punches back at that idea called We Who Are About To, and it’s one of my favorite “fuck you” novels of all time.

I’m very interested in exploring what happens to a pacifist society when it’s faced with annihilation – not every society in history has believed that going on, no matter what, is worth it. I wondered what mine would choose – to fight, to die, to give up, to split their community into fighters and pacifists, to throw themselves into the sea. Will they become everything they hate, just to survive? Or is there another way out?

I worked from the beginning of the novel to introduce this theme, and simply made it a running thing throughout. Characters are always asked to give up something else, something new, to kill the ones they love, to give up on a moral stance, every step of the way. How they react to that makes the book.

Bill: THE WORLDBREAKER SAGA throws a lot of characters, a lot of POVs, a lot of plotlines, settings, and hidden motivations at the reader. A few questions in that regard. How did you yourself keep it all organized? Did these complications grow in the telling or, on the contrary, did you begin with more and end up streamlining and how did you make those decisions? And finally, did you have any concerns about your audience with respect to the complexity and if so, did you take any concrete steps to try and ameliorate potential difficulties?

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsI have a wiki for the whole series, which my assistant updates. I also made a character chart that shows relationships between people.

Was there worry about the complexity of the series? Sure. But Steven Erikson’s MALAZAN BOOK OF THE FALLEN is massively complex, and has sold loads of copies. I trust and believe in readers to figure stuff out.

Terry: Life is cheap and death easy to come by in THE WORLDBREAKER SAGA. Is your plant life based on actual plants, writ large (as, for instance, with the giant pitcher plant that captures and poisons one character in The Mirror Empire)? Similarly, is your political turmoil based on any particular incidence of Earth’s history, or current events? (The world does not seem to lack sources of inspiration for a story of violence, unfortunately — though of course, so far as we know, there’s no parallel world trying to break through!) Despite the fact that the deaths in your book are imaginary, was writing about so much death ever difficult emotionally?

I took a great deal of inspiration for the plants from real carnivorous plants – pitcher plants, bladder traps, Venus flytraps, corkscrew plants, and a host of others. I imagined them larger, and deadlier, and added semi-sentience and some very nasty ways of pollinating.

My background is in the history of resistance movements, so I’ve done a lot of research into war and genocide, from Rwanda and the Holocaust to Cambodia and the Armenian genocide. I also spent a lot of time reading through South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee archives. History is full awful things people have done to each other, all of them far, far worse than any one writer could make up on their own.

Terry: Well, after discussing death and genocide, this seems like a frivolous question, but life does have a tendency to go on here in the United States no matter what’s happening abroad, doesn’t it? It’s our tradition at Fantasy Literature to ask those we interview to share a recipe for a favorite drink with us. It can be either alcoholic or non-alcoholic — just something you love. What’s your favorite tipple?

I drink scotch neat. That said, I ensure it’s a really good scotch I’m drinking neat, and my favorites are Laphroaig and Talisker.

Kameron, thanks for spending time with us!

Readers, remember to leave a comment in the section below for a chance to win a copy of both The Mirror Empire and Empire Ascendant (U.S. addresses only, please).


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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  • Terry Weyna

    TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She reads all day long as an insurance coverage attorney, and in all her spare time as a reviewer, critic and writer. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, two rambunctious cats, and an enormous library.

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