Three Parts Dead, which followed the adventures of a necromancer named Tara Abernathy who finds herself dealing with messy magical contract law in the wake of a God’s death, was one of my favorite fantasy novels of 2012. Now, the author (disclosure: my college friend) Max Gladstone, is back with his second book set in the same fictional universe, Two Serpents Rise, published today. This time, his hero Caleb Altemoc is a magical consultant, whose boss, an incredibly powerful but slightly depressed gay skeleton named the Red King, has sent him in to get the demons out of his city’s reservoirs.
Gladstone and I sat down for a conversation about the magical system he’s built, what economic development has in common with magic, and the challenges of writing characters who aren’t like yourself–including writing in the noir tradition while avoiding the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trap. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
In Three Parts Dead, your characters were effectively magical lawyers. In Two Serpents Rise, they’re management consultants. These aren’t normally ways we see characters interacting with magic. I was wondering if you could speak a bit to your magical system, and to the way characters deal with as a resource and an engine of business.
The concepts behind the world first gelled back in 2008, during the financial collapse. I was fresh back from a few years in China, and I had a first-hand view as the economy tumbled into a wood-chipper and little wet bits of economy ended up everywhere. I wandered around my wife’s law school, and watched the news, and saw the immense amount of fear the crash inspired—and yet for all the billions of dollars that vanished overnight, there was no physical damage, no smoking crater. We stood in the aftermath of a war on a spiritual plane, of a Time War. And these immense immortal immaterial ‘persons’ that lived or died based on confidence, they started to look a lot like a certain kind of pagan-meets-D&D god. All the tools that kept recurring in the narrative of the collapse—contracts and their manipulation, predictive algorithms, pledges made against expectations of future glory, the exchange of value for goods and services—they all have fantasy analogues, sometimes quite literally. Chapter 11 bankruptcy, with its cutting up and rewiring of dead or almost-dead stuff, looks a lot like necromancy. So the magic system springs out of our modern context, and bears the same relationship to the traditional magic system as the world of the books bears to the western European “standard fantasy setting,” and let’s take a moment to think about how weird it is that such a thing exists. If real demons actually did trade in real souls, wouldn’t they want to convert them into CDOs?
Recently, just in the last few days, I’ve been thinking about this in another way. Magic in the great secondary-world fantasy novels isn’t just an add-on; it stands in for or replaces some aspect of the world. Magic in Tolkein sort of replaces political and moral authority: Aragorn is king because magic, if Sauron gets the Ring he wins Middle Earth regardless of what happens on the map. In C.S. Lewis (both the Space Trilogy and Narnia) magic stands in for religion. In LeGuin it stands in for a lot of things, chief among them knowledge. That’s an elevated set of comparisons to use, and I don’t mean to say I’m on that level—but in my books, magic is standing in for the economy.
Interesting. Do you think magical systems have tended to be stand in for higher-level abstracts like knowledge or power because authors think that things like the economy are grubby and mundane? I have to admit, it felt like you gave those subjects a grandeur they don’t normally have in the present day.
Thank you! I think global economics has always been grand and weird, but it’s easier to see it now than it was in the past. The world has always been connected—British domestic demand for tea led to a hunger for trade with China, which meant the British needed something China wanted other than raw specie, which led to wholesale promotion of opium, which led to widespread addiction which led to Chinese bans of opium which in turn led to the Opium wars which in turn destabilized Chinese society which in turn… and so it goes, simple choices changing the destiny of nations and the world—but due to 19th century information transfer technology the causes and effects of things weren’t always clear to average citizens who weren’t caught in the teeth of the machine. Now, we watch collapse and development and transformation happen in real time, globally, at a scale that often eclipses individual decision-makers.
To put it another way: the smartphone in my pocket relies on rare earths pulled out of a (likely horribly unsafe) mine on the other side of the planet. That miner’s labor produced a rare commodity that, when properly set amid a mystic pattern of gold and metal on silicon, gives me magical powers. Our everyday planet’s much weirder and bigger than we pretend. We live in a world of strange, powerful, and often oppressive magics, and if fantasy’s good for anything it must be to talk about how that magic works.
Well, given all of that, let’s talk about your head corporate honcho, who is a depressed gay animate skeleton. Tell me where the Red King comes from, because he’s fascinating.
Can we insert [laughter] here, a la that Jonathan Lethem interview? Because that’s a great question. The King in Red was a name-check in Three Parts Dead, one of the great Craftsmen (necromantic wizard folks) who fought in the God Wars about sixty years before the story starts. He used to be an unholy holy terror, a continent-splitting rebel sorcerer type of guy. He fought against gods who were repressing the human study of magic, won, kicked them out of his city, only to discover that the gods provided a lot of basic services that people still needed to get from somewhere. So he became the head of the local utility.
There’s a bit of heavy-hangs-the-head in the Red King—he’s functionally immortal, because he has too many obligations to die. He lost someone very important to him at the beginning of the Wars, but victory and power haven’t brought him back. At the same time, he’s very good at what he does, and genuinely cares about the city he’s freed from what he sees as divine tyranny. Like any of us, though, he has personal blind spots and obsessions that sometimes make it difficult to care for the things he loves.
Also he rides a giant flying lizard, because giant flying lizards are cool.
What about the decision to make him gay or bisexual? I thought that was intriguing, given how straight the corporate world is.
When I’m writing a new character, especially in a fantasy, I try really hard to reject the idea that ol’ straight white normally-abled cis Max is the Default Norm Human. It’s just not true. I hard about who my characters are and what they could be, demographically speaking, and then build those character traits into the story. The King in Red’s sexuality (he is gay) has been part of the character since he became more than a few words on a page in Three Parts Dead, and it ties into his motivations for rebellion back in the God Wars. In the story, his relationship with his dead lover also betrays a tender side to him, and undercuts the “everything was better back in the old days” story that some of the other characters try to spin. (And that some folks try to spin in our world!) Everything wasn’t better, not for everyone.
And there’s a little bit of good old Star Trek wish-fulfillment at play too, I confess, in depicting a world where who a person chooses to sleep with presents much less of a barrier to success, where who cares if you’re gay so long as you can raise more zombies to do your bidding than the other guy. Or gal.
That makes sense. And certainly much of the novel is built around the idea that magic doesn’t make a whole lot of things easier, including your relationship with your family. Caleb has a fairly instrumental relationship to the Craft, while for his father, it’s part of his larger schema of worship, and that’s certainly part of what’s driven them apart.
Exactly! Power and money and magic put extra spin, extra pressure, on already-complicated relationships between people. Nothing makes anything any easier—life always gets back to bucket work, to interpersonal progress. Caleb and his father have a complicated relationship, and their disagreements about the Craft provide a new axis for complication. For Caleb’s dad Temoc, the world’s magic is divine, the subject of a relationship. For Caleb and his friends, the world’s magic is an object of use.
Aztec religious practice and dogma were a significant inspiration for Two Serpents Rise, right? Did those conflicts play out in Aztec theology at all?
Aztec and Mayan iconographies and myth were pretty big inspirations, though I did take off in my own directions with a lot of stuff. I think this conflict is more of a conflict between a modern sort of post-enlightenment worldview, very subject-object, and the older subject-subject approach. The Aztec myth of Nanahuatzin shows the world beginning in self-sacrifice: Nanahuatzin burns himself up in a fire and becomes the sun. Other gods sacrifice themselves and become elements of the world. Sacrifice—of humans sometimes but mostly of animals, plants, and one’s own blood—allows human beings to participate in the constant re-creation of the world, and the sacrificed things become deities too. (Interestingly, as far as I know there isn’t much evidence that the Aztecs engaged in more ritual killing than the average ancient civilization. But it was a big part of their iconography and myth.)
For Temoc, sacrifice is about participating in that grand cycle, about forming a relationship with gods. For Caleb, it’s a dude with a knife and someone else on the pointy end. And each is blind to the problems the other one has with their world view.
It also speaks, to a certain extent, to how well they’re able to fit into society, doesn’t it? Caleb can pass, but because Temoc can’t, he’s searching for some sort of grander experience.
Right. For Temoc, the city around him is an abomination, and a reminder of everything he and the human race have lost. For Caleb, it’s home, and he knows a great shawarma place around the corner. But Caleb’s way of seeing the world has its own limitations—he’s dealing with a decent amount of that old late 20s existential uncertainty in the book.
Is there some tension between the city and the countryside in the background here? I know that was an issue for Tara in Three Parts Dead.
Now that you mention it, there is, though I’d never thought about it like that before. Caleb’s a city boy, but his mother’s an anthropologist and took him on some of her trips out into the desert around the city—which left Caleb with a very strong sense of the divide between a subsistence hunter-gatherer lifestyle and the one he enjoys. Also, one big sequence in the book is a trip up to the north, into the wilderness, which reveals some aspects of both Caleb and his partner-rival-friend Mal that each tends to keep hidden in the city. Since the city’s so central in this story, leaving it is a magical initiatory act. For Tara, her initiation was entering the city. The divide’s important for both books, though. Whether country or city is magical-initiation-land depends on the perspective of the characters.
So magic, as part of its stand-in for economics, is an engine of development?
Certainly! Which is actually true in our world as well—there’s this great book by the anthropologist Michael Taussig called The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America, about how the introduction of capitalist labor-relations in some South American communities led to a mystical interpretation of capitalism as a sort of dark magic—people could sell their soul to make money breed, for example, and people could use money-magic to make themselves or others work harder on plantations. Pretty creepy stuff. Since magic in the Craft world stands in for economics broadly, it also stands in for development economics. I’d love to write a book about the development economics of the Craft.
You need a novel about a nerdy Craft economist who finds love with a fellow graduate student!
Yes! And then they stop global economic collapse, or a currency disaster, or expose Craft-Enron or something! Or maybe they just struggle to get tenure.
I love it. Next book, in the hopper!
I want to talk about Mal a little ibt, because she was the one stumbling block for me. To a certain extent, we’re just seeing her from Caleb’s perspective, and she’s got a bit of manic pixie dream girl going on for him. Were you trying to get at some of the gap between the Mal Caleb sees and the Mal who is actually real?
Yes. Caleb has a pretty limited perspective on Mal. He keeps expecting her to be something she’s not—first he projects onto her this damsel-in-distress sort of image, which doesn’t fit. Then he projects this sort of courtship dance, which also doesn’t work because she has her own life going on. They get pretty close to understanding one another on their way up to Seven Leaf Lake, only for Caleb to completely blow it in terms of empathy. Then he tries again, and it almost works, but by that point it’s too late to change anything important about the outcome of their relationship.
Meanwhile, from Mal’s perspective, she’s living her life, and this guy keeps coming into it with his own goals and objectives and sense of who she is, even though he really doesn’t know anything at all. She starts off trying to keep him away, then grows to the point where she understands his limitations and really does have affection for him—only by that point it’s too late for both of them.
I try to suggest that in the gaps—in Mal’s reactions to things Caleb says, and in the very few shots we get from her POV. But I couldn’t feature her POV too deeply given the structure of the book, which means the readers’ perspective on who she is ends up very colored by Caleb’s perception of her.
This is one thing, I think, that’s easier to do in film or TV—to have characters with conflicting interiority without the reader needing to see inside their heads constantly. I _hope_ that on rereads, a reader will be able to piece together Mal’s inner monologue from her reactions and the stories she tells about herself, once the full truth is known—but I dunno.
That’s got to be a tricky balance, as a writer.
It’s rough! And it’s part of the reason that I think the noir genre (and Two Serpents Rise has its roots in noir) has such a rep for having a problem with women. Structurally, old-school noir sticks with a single character in first person or very close third. So if Phillip Marlowe has this very stunted view of women, then the reader interprets the world as being full of stunted women. I’m not claiming Chandler _doesn’t_ have a problem with women, certainly Marlowe isn’t very sympathetic to them—but if we could turn around and inhabit, say, Vivian Rutlidge’s viewpoint in The Big Sleep, god, let alone Carmen’s, we’d have very different perspectives on the characters than Marlowe’s. Juggling POV with characters who have their own secrets and internal lives, you run the risk of having people look like cyphers who really have consistent motivations.
All of which is to say I was trying something tricky with Mal’s portrayal, and while I hope it worked okay, it’s possible that it didn’t. I look forward to hearing peoples’ perspectives on that.