Salutations, lecteur. Aujourd’hui, j’ai le grand plaisir de te proposer une interview en anglais de Robert Jackson Bennett, auteur des Maîtres enlumineurs, du Retour du hiérophante, et de Vigilance ! Un grand merci à Fran qui m’a aidé à mettre en forme mes questions !
Je vous rappelle que vous pouvez retrouver toutes les autres interviews dans le menu du blog et grâce au tag dédié.
Je remercie chaleureusement Robert Jackson Bennett d’avoir répondu à mes questions, et sur ce, je lui laisse la parole !
An interview with Robert Jackson Bennett
Marc : Could you introduce yourself for readers who may not know you and your work?
Robert Jackson Bennett : Sure. I’m Robert Jackson Bennett. I wrote The Divine Cities trilogy and The Founders Trilogy. I write fantasy about weird worlds where magic has shaped cultures, civilizations, and economies, and I like to explore how that might show us a little more about what it’s like to be a human being.
Marc : Have you always wanted to be a writer? What brought you to writing, and especially into Fantasy and Science-Fiction?
Robert Jackson Bennett : Yep, I always wanted to be a writer. I originally got my first jolt writing fanfic for World of Warcraft 3 – before the game ever came out. People seemed to like it, and it made me wonder if maybe I could this for a living.
Marc : Your Founders trilogy starts with Foundryside. How did the idea of this novel come to you? How did the writing go? And the editing process? Do you have anecdotes to share?
Robert Jackson Bennett : I’d decided I wanted to write a “real” fantasy story, with lots of magic – but I was bothered by the idea of what “magic” actually was. In Harry Potter, you wave a wand and say something Latin, but how the hell could anyone figure out how to do that? How could they iterate towards that endpoint? I eventually decided that magic was basically just instructions dictating how reality should change. In my first conceptions it worked best as a legal contract, where the “magicians” write up a contract expressly detailing how reality should be altered – but then I realized computer code worked much better. Hence, scriving.
The hardest thing about scriving is that each interaction has to be complex, intuitive, yet surprising and also delightful. You need to see the rules, understand the rules, conceptualize how someone might change the rules, and then be surprised at how they do it. This is a remarkable magic trick, and I frankly sometimes found it exhausting to pull off. I would sometimes get notes saying, “Do this, but more delightful and smarter.”
Marc : Foundryside depicts magic, scriving, that is close to computer code, and merchant houses that seem like megacorporations, and can be seen as Fantasy close to Cyberpunk. What do you have to say about this? Did you want to blend Fantasy with Cyberpunk codes? Were you inspired by computing technologies and how they operate?
Robert Jackson Bennett : Yes, I explicitly came into this work wanting it to be cyberpunk dressed up as fantasy. I have a personal theory that technology is the key to unlocking abundance and allowing civilizations to advance – but first comes the technology, and then comes the social reconfigurations that allow us to reap the most gains. There is often a weird, muddy, middle period when things feel mismatched – like European rulers and aristocrats presiding over modern, industrial armies in World War I, for example.
I’ve always wondered – if magic worlds have this magic, why don’t they just use it to bring abundance about? Like, if the solution is obvious, then there’s no book. You have to have conflict and obstacles. So instead, I applied the technological issues of today to it – what if it’s really, really hard to do? What if takes lots of training and education and resources? If that’s the case, only the rich and powerful could use it.
Marc : Scrivings can alter reality by convincing objects, and sometimes reality itself, to bend the laws of physics. How did the idea of this (wonderful) magic system come to you?
Robert Jackson Bennett : I think the purpose of all technologies is to reshape reality. People don’t think of roads as advanced technology, but it takes a normal stretch of land and instantly remakes it into a vital artery between two totally separate locations. That’s magic in its own way. I wanted to write about magic that could mimic that, but on a far higher perspective.
And then, of course, there’s the idea that technology can change reality – but only for the people that have it. For everyone else, they’re still living in a brutal, medieval world.
Marc : Your novel describes Valeria, an artificial god, who can be seen as an Artificial Intelligence made by the hierophants. Do you see Valeria as an IA? Why describe an IA in a Fantasy novel?
Robert Jackson Bennett : I think the connection is pretty natural: much like fairies, or sprites, Valeria is a powerful being bound to follow strict instructions, but actively seeks ways to undo the bindings that force her to obey. This is both classic “Pact with the Devil” stuff, and also classic AI stuff.
Really, though, the biggest corollary is how Valeria was formed: through thousands of human sacrifices. It takes life to make an alteration like Valeria. Just like the algorithms of Facebook and Google and whatnot are trained on data we create as we go about living our lives. We have to feed them all our moments for them to establish themselves.
Marc : In the same way, Sancia and Clef can be seen as hackers who can hijack scrived objects to bypass their code and lead them to dysfunction. Did you see them as hackers while writing?
Robert Jackson Bennett : Totally. Clef is the classic “hacker talking in the hero’s ear” trope. And as he can also see through walls, he also can perform that hacker’s invaluable role of pulling up maps and knowing where to go. (Even if in real life this role is profoundly stupid.)
Marc : Foundryside shows that the economy of merchant houses flourishes thanks to scrivings and slavery. Why depict a society where there is human exploitation?
Robert Jackson Bennett : I think exploitation is ingrained in a lot of our social behaviors. Slavery has existed throughout human history – we don’t think of it often, but slaves were a big export in Europe during the Middle Ages – and vestiges of it still cling to us today. America has struggled through an awful labor market for a decade, and in this decade we’ve been content to stick these desperate folks with cruddy jobs like Instacart and Uber. These businesses can only function and exist if there’s a lot of miserable people desperate for a job. That became even more true during COVID, where white collar people got to work remotely, but grocery store workers and delivery drivers had to work doubletime.
Marc : Foundryside and Shorefall depict scrived humans, Sancia and Gregor. Can they be considered as magical cyborgs or transhumans?
Robert Jackson Bennett : I would say so. But at the same time, I don’t totally love the terms “posthuman” or “transhuman.” If anything, each new technology seems to teach us that we’re still human, using these new things in very familiar ways.
Marc : In Shorefall, Sancia, Berenice, Gregor and Orso create Foundryside, a company which offers advice to scrivers, as well as a library where scrivers can see scriving designs and strings and have to leave one in exchange of the knowledge they get. Can Foundryside be seen as a hackerspace? Did you want to oppose an open culture to a closed system of intellectual property?
Robert Jackson Bennett : I did. At first I wanted to make them a startup, because a magic startup was a fun idea. But having it be more like someone who was giving away knowledge as opposed to capturing it was more appropriate. The Founders Trilogy is a debate about control versus connection, in a way: they’re two sides of the same coin. Technology is functionally just making more connections, and trying to understand how it could flip to control very easily – and whether or not it’s a control we accept.
Marc : The two antagonists of Shorefall, Valeria and Crasedes, are godlike. Why depict such demiurgic entities?
Robert Jackson Bennett : My initial idea was – “What if the Singularity happened, but to a bunch of assholes who didn’t do anything good with it?” Their existence is kind of a fun way to poke at that idea.
Marc : What will we see in the last volume of the series?
Robert Jackson Bennett : War. A whole lot of it.
Marc : In your novella Vigilance, you talk about free weapon carrying in the United States. Why did you choose to deal with this subject?
Robert Jackson Bennett : I would say it’s more about fear. Fear is pumped into our brains through countless screens, and it drives us to buy more weapons – but you can never have enough weapons, because you can never be safe enough. This is a very accepted relationship in America, and I wanted to just amp the cynicism of it up to 11.
Marc : In Vigilance, mass shootings become spectacular TV shows. Did you want to portray the economy as able to cannibalize even the saddest part of a violent society?
Robert Jackson Bennett : Oh, absolutely. That’s happening now. There are tons of grifters and hustlers who are selling alternate realities to people right now – say, that COVID is fake – and these people are giving their money away, and dying.
Marc : Why write this kind of fiction? Why deal with this kind of question with Science-Fiction?
Robert Jackson Bennett : I think we write these things because we wonder – if I change the world in this small way, what will human beings do? How will we be different? And what will stay the same? These questions shed a lot of light on what it’s like to be human.
Marc : On which projects are you currently working?
Robert Jackson Bennett : My next book! Which is hush hush for now.
Marc : What advice would you give to young authors?
Robert Jackson Bennett : Writing is a muscle. Use it, keep using it, keep exposing it to new stresses and experiences, and it’ll grow.