We’re very excited to have novelist and short story writer Seth Dickinson here with us today. Most recently, Seth is the author of the short stories Kumara, Anna Saves Them All, and Sekhmet the Dying Gnosis: A Computation and the novel The Traitor Baru Cormorant (my review here), set to be published September 15th by Tor. Seth writes humorous and intriguing posts on his blog.
And, of course, we have a copy of The Traitor Baru Cormorant for one lucky commenter with a US/Canadian address.
Kevin Wei: First, I just want to say congratulations on your debut novel — it’s a fantastic piece of work with many strengths set to be published by Tor in two weeks. So, congrats! Since I know you primarily as a short-story author, what were some of the most significant challenges or differences for you between writing those shorter works and writing The Traitor Baru Cormorant?
Seth Dickinson: Thanks! I’m so glad you liked it.
As I moved from short stories to novels, I had to teach myself to relax a little. Short stories require you to get every word right — you can’t afford a wasted sentence or a stylistic misstep. Your prose-level writing should reflect the big concerns of the piece, and vice versa.
I knew I wanted to hit that same quality target in this novel, but at first I was hung up on the idea that I had to get all my sentences right on the first go. Eventually, I learned that I could do good work in drafts, and I didn’t have to be perfectionist on my first pass.
It’s really rewarding to see that some of my favorite scenes only came together late in editing.
All the work you put into editing seems to have paid off, especially when it comes to our protagonist Baru Cormorant! Let’s talk about her for a minute. There’s a process in the first few chapters of The Traitor Baru Cormorant where we’re provided an inside look at the subtle, insidious style of conquest that the Masquerade, the sort of evil empire and antagonist in the story, prefers to deploy — economic subjugation and educational indoctrination. I know you cover these concepts in your recent interview with Tor.com, particularly when you mentioned the “double consciousness” that Baru has to develop in order to stay true to herself. However, I think there’s this period in her childhood, when she’s still attending the Masquerade school, where Baru discovers a large gap between what she’s learning and what her mother and fathers taught her, which causes a vast internal conflict within her. How did you approach this early portion of the plot, and when does Baru begin to develop her double consciousness, to stabilize internally, and to find her own sense of identity?
My reading of the text isn’t necessarily more authoritative than anyone else’s. But here’s what I think:
In part it happens for basic psychological reasons: like all the other Taranoki children in the school, Baru’s targeted by the Masquerade indoctrination process. She and her classmates are cut off from their families, moved into a strange environment, disindividuated, taught that the outside world is unclean and unsafe, made dependent on their teachers, and finally encouraged to denounce their friends and family — severing their existing social ties so they see the Masquerade as their family surrogate. This is a tragically effective process, but it’s not irreversible, and it’s not universal. Baru’s already clever and power-oriented, and on some level she knows what’s happening.
The biggest conflict Baru faces is the realization that her parents don’t know everything! Baru wants to know why the Masquerade came to Taranoke, instead of the other way around, and she wants to know what makes the Masquerade so powerful. Her mother can’t answer that. It seems like the Masquerade can. She looks to them for understanding.
Before anything else, we learn that Baru loves understanding, and that love is entangled with her love of her parents. She says “understanding gave her power over things.” When the Masquerade seems to offer greater understanding, Baru’s torn between her parents and Farrier, her Masquerade patron. She even gets into arguments with her mother about the correct way to resist the Masquerade.
Baru’s self-identity crystallizes as she realizes that the Masquerade violates bodily autonomy. She knows, in a very fundamental way, that the body shouldn’t be regulated or colonized by an outside force — and indeed her first practical rebellion is a defense of cousin Lao’s bodily autonomy. (Perhaps Farrier arranged it as a test. Perhaps not.) This forces Baru to confront the fact that the Masquerade’s knowledge and power is not the same as moral authority. They might be powerful, but they’re not good.
Baru’s self-identity changes over the story, but she stays fixed on her deepest principles — the power of knowledge, moral and physical freedom, and a basic belief in common human dignity. At the same time, part of Baru’s deepest conflict is her fear that her moral objectives are just camouflage for an amoral pursuit of power and knowledge. I leave the decision on that front to the reader!
You mentioned earlier how you fit prose into a larger scale of writing. One of the most striking aspects about your novel for me was the prose. The subtext, the foreshadowing, and even just your style served to install a powerful rhetorical and emotional element in The Traitor Baru Cormorant, and I noticed that you provided some insight into your editing process at your blog. In general, how much focus do you put on prose and these types of micro-level details, and how much of your editing process consists of perfecting your style?
I love to focus on prose!
Prose is the basic element of storytelling, the fundament of the narrative. In a crazy, unattainable, ideal world, every single sentence would be perfectly customized to represent the conflict and tone of the story it lives in.
In this novel, that means sharp, cutting, disciplined prose, taut with power and dynamism, interrupted by bursts of raw emotion. We’re in Baru’s point of view — our prose should reflect how she works.
In psychology we talk about doing things intentionally versus automatically. It’s really, really hard to fuss over all your prose intentionally — you can feel this as a developing writer, like an optical illusion: you actually feel that you’re getting worse as your critical sense outstrips your abilities. But it is possible to intentionally cultivate technique, which eventually becomes automatic instinct, and then that becomes part of everything you write.
I learn prose style by studying writers I admire, and by reading my work aloud. I practice imitation of specific sentence structures and word choices until they become part of my instinctive toolkit. Even on my first pass through a story, I’m trying for those perfect sentences, because they’re the joy of it, right? I can’t take any satisfaction from work unless the prose is appealing.
And then, yes, I read over it again and again, looking for sentences that’ve gone too far, testing the rhythm, searching for places I can find a sharper word or a more telling detail. Prose is great!
So the Masquerade makes a claim to bring “civilization” to the world (readers, check out an excerpt from the Handbook of Manumission), and it does so in a moral framework that brings together select forms of discrimination, eugenics, and heteronormativity. Is there any historical background you can give us as to how this framework emerged? What methods did the Masquerade use to enforce this framework in newly acquired lands?
Yes! Again, what a great question.
I think many fantasy worlds default to modern-looking oppression, which to me is a failure of imagination and rigor. Yes, oppression derives from basic psychological traits of the human animal, but different societies have different axes of oppression.
At the same time, I knew I wanted to write about challenges we face in the modern world. So I had to set up our modern axes of intersecting oppression, such as racism, homophobia, and misogyny… without suggesting they were universal inevitabilities.
I decided the answer was to build a society that a) made it clear these oppressions were the product of a historical moment and b) arrived at them by a different route.
Falcrest-the-region, which gave birth to the Masquerade, is a mid-sized and quite racially diverse landmass that runs mostly east-west. The climate’s tempestuous, but fertile, and the east/west axis means the same crops and animals work well in a lot of places. In recent historical time, Falcrest was ruled by a feudal monarchy, which was both a rival and a client of the southern Oriati nations (in complicated realpolitik ways).
I can’t tell you everything, but Falcrest’s dynasty was overthrown by a series of bloody uprisings against the royal line. The technocrats came out on top, giving birth to the Empire of Masks: a nominally egalitarian, middle-class, educated society which inherited Oriati scientific and philosophical sophistication, Stakhieczi engineering, Maia expansionism, Belthyc pragmatic mysticism, and their own nautical tradition. In the mix was a deep phobia of royalty and a deep belief in the power of heredity — the revolutionaries attributed the royal line’s power and decay to their breeding.
The great figures of the early revolution, including the Oriati tactician Iro Mave (much erased in later Falcresti history), understood the value of ideology and education as social technologies. They built their power on the academies, which were useful for indoctrination and good at producing technological and scientific innovation. One of their very earliest was practical chemistry and hygiene, which led them to the study of biology.
And here in the early steps of their scientific development they came to think they’d made a shattering discovery, which I will leave to your imagination and induction — but which left them with the belief that experience becomes heredity: that how we act is passed on to our children.
Here you can see some of the origins, or at least the rationale, for all of their oppressive policy. They treat queer people and those with unconventional families as a threat to the population, because they believe those behaviors are inherited. You can imagine the particular hatred and erasure targeted at the bisexual.
Their misogyny stems from their belief that the sexes have specialized purposes — that women are excellent mathematicians, abstract thinkers, planners, navigators, and administrators, because they’ve evolved to invest in the long term welfare of their children, while men are concrete thinkers, passionate orators, emotional leaders, and more suited to the crude work of the moment. (And you must remember that all this is, in part, rationalization for existing cultural prejudice.)
And their racial ideology, ah, that most devastating lie: the Falcresti ‘race’, like any other, is a social construct, but the Falcresti in particular have convinced each other that the diverse peoples of the Falcrest region are one distinct race, because that’s useful to their national narrative. They believe that eugenics can work quickly and efficaciously, and they’re set on isolating the specialized purposes of the races around the Ashen Sea. There’s an entire section of the Metademe in Falcrest devoted to keeping the definition of ‘a Falcresti’ updated.
The Masquerade people have been able to spread their ideology by offering sweet poison. Their techniques of hygiene, irrigation, manufacture, and inoculation are a huge economic boon to the victim, and once the door is open the Masquerade can establish schools, compromise the economy, exploit internal politics, and slither their way into local hegemony. They offer a gift and hide the hook.
Only once has the Masquerade had to resort to open war — that was the Armada War, their effort to knock the Oriati federations back to their continental territory and claim control of the Ashen Sea. The Masquerade is terrified of standing armies, since they don’t want to be overthrown by their own troops.
I hope all that was interesting!
Wow, that was a fantastic history lesson! Aside from the prose, I was also very impressed with the wealth of detailed world building and diverse cultures and settings contained within The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Were there any specific historical, philosophical, scientific inspirations you drew from? And to follow up on that, were there any moments in your writing process where you found yourself a little stuck and looking to these sources for ideas?
I have this block of inspirations I’ve used in a few interviews — let me drop it on you and then try to think of a few more.
Cognitive psychology. Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars. Fantasy’s neglect of the Islamic Golden Age, the Indian Ocean trade system, and other dynamic, vital sections of history. Code Name Verity, indirectly — I hadn’t read it yet but people kept talking to me about it. Partible paternity in Amazon Basin societies. Naval warfare between Japan and Korea. The ugly history of eugenic ideology. Admiral Keumalahayati. 1984. Online discussion about who was and wasn’t allowed to be the protagonist of an epic fantasy novel, because some people would, it was said, be ‘too oppressed to do anything.’ Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen of Attolia. C. J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station. Civilization IV, but not V. Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. Everyone at the Alpha workshop who talked about making things hurt more. Yoon Ha Lee. Sundiata Keita. We Have Always Fought, by Kameron Hurley.
Before the book began, I read a lot of history and nonfiction, looking for inspiration. But once I was in the story, most of my inspiration came from the characters. Whenever I needed to know what happened next, I’d put a few people together and see how their agendas collided.
That’s a very varied list! Some of the major themes in The Traitor Baru Cormorant are economics and finance. I think you do some rather clever things with these themes, especially in the context of the larger ideological framework of the Baru’s world. It’s also quite ironic that Baru finds herself using the very tools of the conqueror, and in a land of the conquered, no less! So let me ask a bit of a counterfactual question – were there any other promising methods of resistance you can envision Baru using? Any other ways the plot could have turned out?
Thank you for calling me clever! And yes, that irony is a deep deep conflict, right? Because sure, you know the tools work — but you also know where those tools lead, and if you use them, are you doomed to end up there too?
I think Baru had other options, advanced to her by the characters around her. I think Baru disdains tactics like solidarity, community organization, nonviolent resistance, and other forms of soft power. I can’t see Baru as we know her having chosen them — but Baru can change.
Could the plot have turned out some other way? I did game out a bunch of different endings, yes, because I wanted to be sure I nailed the finale. I chose the ending that I felt best satisfied the power, agency, and unbreakable resolve of the central characters — while also letting them express their own codes of honor, trust, and loyalty.
But that’s not to say I’m not interested in some of the other stories! I can’t wait to read the fanfic.
And finally, we’ll close out our interview with some short questions:
First — and this is one that I know all your fans and readers are dying to know the answer to — any plans for a sequel?
Yes! And that leads directly from the last question. The next book will force Baru to confront many things she’s isolated herself from, like community, solidarity, family, and unconditional trust. And it will test Baru’s talents against people who are as cunning as her and far more experienced.
This is something I’ve said about it, which you might find interesting:
“The naval battle off Treatymont triggers tension between Falcrest and Oriati Mbo, and a second Armada War looms — kind of a fantasy Cuban Missile Crisis. The tension draws in Baru’s old friend Aminata, Baru’s second cousin Lao, and a laman named Tau-indi Bosoka, who’s one of the Oriati Federal Princes. Together they confront Falcrest’s monstrous ideologies, the many colorful characters in Parliament and the Throne, and the threat of total civilizational collapse in a whirlwind of plague, war, beetles, and cancer.”
Second, something that has been bothering me ever since I finished The Traitor Baru Cormorant a weeks ago: do you pronounce Taranoke “tar-a-noh-key” or “tar-a-nohk?”
Pronunciations are up to the reader — but I say TARE-a-noke, last syllable rhymes with joke.
And finally, an enquiry that’s become customary here at Fantasy Literature. Do you have a signature drink or favorite beverage? Hot, cold, sweet, bitter, non-alcoholic or not, anything goes! And if you do, does it have any special significance or remind you of The Traitor Baru Cormorant in any way?
I am mad for Scotch. I’ve forfeited pay on some freelance jobs in favor of bottles of Scotch. I like smoky scotches like Laphroiag and seashore stuff like Talisker. Baru shares my love of the good whiskey, although in her world it’s called Grendlake.
Thank you for having me! It was an honor. I hope you’re well, and the same to all your readers!
Thank you, Seth, for spending time with us here at Fantasy Literature. We can’t wait to see what you’ll be writing next, short story or novel-wise, and best of luck to you in the future!
Readers, we have a copy of The Traitor Baru Cormorant to give to one lucky commenter with a US/Canadian address, so comment away!