Robert Jackson Bennett returns for a record-setting fifth interview with Fantasy Literature. He sat down with Bill and Marion to talk about his new release Foundryside, the first in his brand new THE FOUNDERS TRILOGY. Three commenters (U.S. only) chosen at random will receive a free copy of Foundryside.
Bill and Marion: Your last work, THE DIVINE CITIES trilogy, received a slew of critical acclaim, including a Hugo nomination for Best Series. Did that affect at all your decision to make FOUNDERS TRILOGY a multiple book series? In any case, can you tell us a little bit about the conceptual and structural differences between a stand-alone and a multi-book story and if/how it affects your writing process?
Robert Jackson Bennett: No, not really. THE DIVINE CITIES was about change, but it was also about recovering from change. THE FOUNDERS TRILOGY will be about change as it occurs to a civilization: how an innovation or an advantage evolves, and creates a static power structure; how that power structure is disrupted via further innovation, and how the power players struggle for control; and finally, how the innovation and power struggles can lead to conflicts where progress can either deliver humanity to a better future, or destroy it.
Is it fair to say that one of the faces Foundryside wears is that of a heist novel? If so, can you talk about your choosing that form and your ease or difficulty in working within that genre?
I’d say so. I initially conceived of this story as a far-future cyberpunk story, but as I thought about the technology, I realized it was much closer to magic than it was to actually plausible tech. (There was a lot of AI hype at the time.) I realized that the cyberpunk structure actually works quite well in somewhat-urban fantasy (a terminology I just invented): you’ve got your massively powerful institutions, your political struggles, your underground strivers, and the fight to capture knowledge.
Early on in the book, the magic system is described this way: “The entire theory of scriving relied on the idea that you could convince an object to behave like something it wasn’t.” It seemed to me that this was a central metaphor behind the book’s exploration of power in general as well as one of its more specific applications—slavery, drawing a parallel to how the oppressor through various methods seeks to “convince” the oppressed (seen by the oppressor as mere objects) that they are slaves, to “convince” them of their powerlessness (not glossing over the brutal physicality of some methods). We even get a character that is both person and object, seemingly doubling down on the metaphor. Is that a reading you can live with, and can you speak (whether the above is correct or not) to your examination of power and slavery (literal and otherwise) in the novel?
Yes, I’d say so. My feeling is that civilization is a structure, or a process, that takes a human being and turns them into something they are not naturally inclined to be. This can be a good thing (it can make us not be vengeful, animalistic murderers) or it can be a bad thing (it can force us into slavery, abuse, or other drudgeries).
Whether or not your civilization chooses the good route or the bad route is largely dependent on the distribution of power, I suspect. If a handful of people who are totally insulated from consequences have all the power, there’s no reason not to use your civilization to turn lots of people into slaves – you won’t ever see them, and no one will ever yell at you about it, or threaten you.
If power is more distributed, and the power brokers are more vulnerable, they start thinking, “Gee, maybe we ought to use our society and economy to deliver tangible benefits to everyone, so there’s not a revolution and we all get guillotined.”
In Foundryside, and I suspect in most of life, technology plays a huge role in how that evolves. Technology, of course, is the result of a confluence of many huge facets – your society, your resources, your economy, your knowledge bases, and so on. The sort of technology you make, and the way you wield it, is an expression of your civilizational values.
Sticking to magic for a moment, In Foundryside, you also openly compare magic to coding. It’s also presented in somewhat unusual fashion as a collaborative and expanding body of applicable technology woven into the economic threads of society, as well as its day-to-day mundane necessities, as opposed to what we typically get — a static body of traditional lore wielded by lone practitioners (often grey-bearded crusty old men) who stand outside society (and certainly don’t dirty their hands with its day to day needs like housing or potable water). Can you tell us a little more about the specific link to coding as well as about your concept of magic more generally in this series?
This all started because I began wondering about what magic really was in fantasy stories. You say a word, you make a gesture, and the world changes – but why? Why that word, why that one gesture? This was never much explained.
So I began thinking that magic is just a form of instructions you have to feed to reality in order to convince it to change. But reality wouldn’t be easily convinced – reality has momentum, it wants to stay as it is. It is stupid, in a way. So I decided you had to give it very specific, careful instructions, where you defined certain actions or phenomena so that reality would understand what you were trying to tell it to do.
And it was then that I realized that it was basically coding. So if you squint, you can see a lot of our own current troubles and concerns with tech showing up in Foundryside.
Going back to power, it’s expressed via legitimate (political) power, centralized/consolidated power via the Houses, and independent power via the Scrappers. Can you talk about your exploration of the theme in its various aspects and conflicts?
Just like how scriving allows the knowledge brokers to set the rules of reality, the dense conglomeration of power inevitably allows them to also set the rules of their society. They get to choose which laws affect who and how they affect them. There really is no independent power in Tevanne, because the Scrappers are functionally criminals who have to work in sewers and basements to survive from day to day. This is the end result of incredibly concentrated power: whoever I like is a decent citizen, and whoever I don’t like is a fugitive, and that’s that.
It’s hard not to read Foundryside as an often biting critique of modern society. As when a character notes the stunning difference in living conditions between two areas separated by only a small distance, or when another, referencing slavery, admits “provided we get our sugar, coffee, and whatever else on time, we couldn’t care less about what goes on out there” (replace sugar and coffee with smartphones and clothes and the parallel is even more clear). How important is this sort of built-in critique to you in writing your story, and how do you balance it to find the sweet spot between being so oblique it goes unnoticed and so didactic it overwhelms the story?
I try to write fantasy that is within spitting distance of our own issues and concerns, but has enough ornamentation on it that you don’t immediately apply your prior biases to it.
For example, in America, we have a lot of preconceived notions about slavery, and the issue isn’t as morally clear as one might think. However, add a magic system and some foreign names, and suddenly your thinking about the morals of slavery changes significantly. This is sort of the point of social or satirical fiction, for me: it is a simulated environment in which a lot of the variables have shifted slightly, allowing the reader (or the writer) to parse out their actual moral positions on the conflict currently playing out in society.
Speaking of the modern, the language of Foundryside is dynamic. Some words, like “campo” for instance, or even “lorica” carry an older, more formal flavor, while “rig” has a slangy tone to it – even while it perfectly fits its usage. How did you develop the language for the Founders trilogy? Do you have a goal for the language?
I wanted it to feel like the early Renaissance Mediterranean, but I also wanted to inject some aspects of the industrial revolution into it to make it feel close to but still removed from the general structure of modern life. The elements that are new and technological have more informal slang applied, because those are the new elements that are pushing the society beyond the older landmarks.
At one point a character says, “I didn’t think it would be like this . . . We all genuinely thought we were going to make the world a better place. End poverty. End slavery . . . rise above all the ugly human things that held the world back.” Given that the character bemoans what has happened while standing in a sewer — all his high-minded ideals having literally gone to shit — this seems a pretty bleak commentary on the power of systems and the corrupting influence of power even on the well-intentioned. Is it all we can do to constantly stay on guard, to fight the same battle time and again, bringing in new players to take on the old ones whose desire for change become an inevitable defense of “tradition”?
In essence. Progress occurs because of competition and vulnerability. Once a new entrant succeeds, they become an an incumbent – they now have an investment in maintaining the status quo. As such, they usually try to do all they can to eliminate their competition and their vulnerabilities. So there’s a brief burst of progress, followed by a period – sometimes a long period, depending on how entrenched things get – of stagnation.
If you do not have new technologies or new players in the game who can offer new values, there is no vulnerability that is usually the direct cause of actual human progress.
Moving on to the characters, all of them are fascinating, but Orso carried a trickster vibe to me. He reminded me a bit of Silenus inThe Troupe, a person with his own agenda, who doesn’t conceal his self-interest and yet is, or can be, a helpful force (if not actually a “force for good”). How did this intriguing character come about?
That’s a good correlation, one I hadn’t realized before. I had initially thought of Orso as much more of a shrewd power-broker in earlier versions of the story – sort of the Talleyrand of the series as the French Revolution evolved around him. I would say he is a person who came into the scriving game with ideals and aspirations, only to have those thoroughly beat out of him over the years.
However, though he is now amoral and condescending, he is still a brilliant person who is perpetually focused on change – and change can be bad, but it also offers opportunities for good. He is very aware that the current arrangement in Tevanne is suffocating change and innovation, so though he’s a person of power within the Tevanni elite, he slowly gravitates to becoming an enemy of everything they stand for, and comes to risk it all to try to scramble the way Tevanne works.
Speaking of similarities to earlier characters, as with the DIVINE CITIES trilogy, several of Foundryside’s characters are survivors of trauma, are “broken” in some fashion, to borrow a word one of the characters uses. They’ve chosen different paths in response — a single-minded focus on personal survival or a single-minded focus on societal reform, but both pay the price of alienation and isolation. Is there something that draws you as a writer in particular to these sorts of characters as protagonists?
It’s tough for me to write a protagonist that isn’t somewhat broken. For me, the personal evolution in a story is realizing how you are flawed, what your true values are, and what you should do to make yourself whole – or at least try to make yourself whole. The character must carry some degree of conflict within themselves, which induces stress and fractures – a brokenness.
I suppose the other option is to write a whole, unbroken protagonist whose journey is to witness, consider, and judge the brokenness of others, like Marge from Fargo. That’s an option. But it’s hard to spin a trilogy out that.
Looking beyond the book, I ran across your review of a quiet British TV show called the Detectorists on your blog. It sounds fascinating. How did you find it? That leads to the next question; who or what is inspiring you these days? What are you reading/viewing?
I read a lot of nonfiction, and I listen to a lot of audiobooks of nonfiction, and a lot of podcasts. The real world is fascinating – and, as of right now, very terrifying. It offers abundant material for the grim-minded.
I found Detectorists because my wife and I have a fondness for quiet British television. I read the description, recognized the stars, and immediately told my wife, “This sounds like the most British show ever.” I was not disappointed.
And back to Foundryside for our final question: is there anything you can tell us about book two?
The big bad shows up in a big way.
For a chance to receive a free copy of RBJ’s Foundryside, please comment below. U.S. participants only.
Great interview. I’m looking forward to picking this up. I just bought the Divine Cities trilogy on Amazon a couple of weeks ago and am looking forward to starting my first RJB book.
Just started City of Miracles on Tuesday and trying to finish it soon so I can start Foundryside! Can’t wait to check it out!
So excited for the new book!
I think all three of you will really enjoy it!
I have heard nothing but positive reviews for this one. Sounds great.
I read this in ebook from Net Galley, and would love a print copy. The Divine Cities was remarkable, and while Foundryside didn’t start out as strong, by the end of the book I was hoping the second one was ready to read immediately.
I loved the Divine Cities Trilogy and I suspect I’d love this one too.
I’ve heard awesome things about this new book!
In a way, the magic described sounds almost like the flip side of the methods the people in Amatka use to make objects stay what they’re supposed to be, so reality doesn’t deliquesce into an undifferentiated mass of gray goo. Creating wealth is out of the question in that Twilight Zonish world.
Looking forward to Foundryside. Are Bennett’s earlier (pre-Divine Cities) novels as wonderful?
Oooh, the idea of it being the inverse of the process in AMATKA… that’s interesting. Since, w/o creating spoilers, in Bennett’s world it’s possible for some entities to, um, negotiate with reality, I’m going to say yes, it is the opposite.
I think THE DIVINE CITIES books are wonderful.
Have you read any of his older ones, like American Elsewhere, Mr. Shivers, or The Troupe? I’m wondering if I should go back and check them out. Obviously the blurbs didn’t appeal to me when they first came out. But, really, most book descriptions don’t sound appealing to me these days–am unsure if it’s poor marketing or just a bad case of “Not THAT type of story again!”
Yes. Mr. Shivers was the first book of his I read; Terry Weyna introduced me to it.
I’ve put in links to the reviews FYI:
The Troupe: https://fantasyliterature.com/reviews/the-troupe/
American Elsewhere: https://fantasyliterature.com/reviews/american-elsewhere/
Sounds great, looking forward to it!
I loved the Divine Cities and can’t wait to read this!!!
Excellent interview. I love the idea of the coding aspect integrated into a fantasy novel. Very creative and imaginative.
Thanks for such a great interview!
I saw the notes he added on Goodreads; great stuff.
Yeah, i think it’s awesome that he released these notes on the day of the book’s release, and they don’t give away much of the plot if you read them before the book. It’s a cool insight into the author’s creative process.
“Foundryside” sounds great, maybe a bit steampunk. –I see he refers to its “cyberpunk” element. Maybe it can be both!
John, because there are gadgets and engineering, I think it can be read as steampunk. Ultimately, it’s its own thing.
Thanks for the interview, and the giveaway!
I’ve always appreciated how fantasy and science fiction allow writers to comment on reality from a distance of one remove that helps their message come across.
Mike Voss, Miriam, and John Smith, if you live in the USA, you each win a copy of FOUNDRYSIDE!
Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!
I have sent an email reply to the fantasyliterature address, so I hope that works! Thank you!
Yep, it worked just fine.
Already received my copy – a nice First Edition hardcover! Kudos to Penguin/Random House and Fanlit for a great giveaway!
Reading this now, and so far it is realy GOOD!!Congratulations to those that won.
Finally wrapped up my reading of FOUNDRYSIDE and posted ***** to Goodreads! Bring on some more, Mr Bennett!
I think it’s a fascinating new series.