A book signing with Steven Erikson

Steven EriksonI reviewed the Malazan Book of the Fallen last year — it is one of the very finest Fantasy series, in my opinion. I met Steven Erikson today during a book signing at Borderlands Books in San Francisco. Sadly, there were enough people in the audience who had not read all first five volumes that he read from Memories of Ice rather than from the final manuscript of the sixth volume, The Bonehunters (due out in February 2006) that he carries with him on his Palm PDA.

Tor Books has acquired the rights to the series for the US market. They have already published the first three volumes, and are expected to catch up with the British publishers by the eighth or so. The cover art on the Bantam British edition is better though. The publishing industry has an adage, “mugs sell mags”, and the US covers have more figurative illustrations, sometimes unhappily so, as with the slightly cheesy cover of Memories of Ice

Erikson described the genesis of the series and Malazan universe in a series of literary role-playing games with fellow archeologist Ian Cameron Esslemont, author of Night of Knives, a novel set in the same universe, also the first in a series. He mentioned he is also working on a series of six novelettes featuring the psychopathic necromancers Bauchelain and Korbal Broach (whom he managed to work into Memories of Ice), from the point of view of their long-suffering manservant. The novelettes will be, in Erikson’s own words, “more over the top”. The first two, Blood Follows and The Healthy Dead have already been published (even if Amazon incorrectly claims the latter not available yet), the third one is coming shortly.

When asked whether he was planning on extending the series beyond the planned ten volumes, he mentioned he had the outline of all ten almost from the very beginning (keep in mind it took him 8 years to get The Gardens of the Moon published, and that only happened after he moved to England). There is still a lot of room for spontaneity — as he puts it, if the author is bored when writing the actual books because he put too much effort in preparatory notes, the readers are likely to be bored as well. Erikson also committed to giving “payback” to his readers for sticking with the story (sounds ominous, doesn’t it?), with some snide remarks referring to Robert Jordan’s ever-lengthening Wheel of Time series. The anecdote he mentioned was that of a 75 year old woman who was asking a bookseller when the next installment by Jordan would be published, because she was afraid she might die before that series was completed… In all fairness, Jordan has announced the next volume will be the last, bringing closure to long-suffering fans.

I asked him about the whole extinction of magic as a moral imperative angle, and he indicated the later volumes in the decalogue would bear on the issue. He also said he is in no way endorsing imperialism (Deadhouse Gates is in part inspired from events in the British Empire’s oppression of India and Afghanistan). I also mentioned how difficult I found the abrupt transition introduced by volume 5, Midnight Tides. He agreed, but it was required by the 10-volume story arc, and postponing it would only make things worse. Among other matters, we will read more of the Forkrul Assail, whom he describes as the nastiest of the four founding races.

As a final note, I have been to book signings with Raymond Feist, Robert Jordan and Steven Erikson, and I am always amazed by the inconsiderate people who come with cartons full of books to sign, presumably to make them more collectible and valuable. The value in these events is in meeting the authors and interacting with them, not in giving them tennis elbow for financial gain.

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2 Responses to A book signing with Steven Erikson

  1. Mike says:

    I was just curious as to whether you had finished the series, and if so, what your final impressions were. You made a point about the moral imperative of the extinction of magic. Perhaps you could flesh that out somewhat? I know in your earlier review you noted that a world of magic implies an idealist world-view. And the latter creates a space for brutality.

    Personally, I think most of the real, existing brutality in our world is not caused by idealist worldviews (although these may justify it), but by very material interests. Washington created the Taliban to combat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Or as Billy Bragg sang of the war in Iraq, “it’s about the price of oil.”

    But, speaking of the literature, fantasy, itself, as a genre, is built on an idealist worldview, to the extent that the writer is projecting a world based on a theoretical and metaphysical construct, which can, of course, correspond more or less, to reality. Fantasy writers like Guy Gavriel Kay and China Mieville come close to approximating a historical/materialist basis for their worlds or spoofing (Mieville) the fantastic.

    As for the Malazan books, I’ve just started reading them (I’m up to Deadhouse, but I read Memories of Ice second). My initial impression was that Erickson was quite militaristic and imperialist. That was my first impression when I started watching Battlestar Galactica (the newer series, with Olmos). I was wrong on B.G., and I can see that I was wrong with Malazan, as well!

    • majid says:

      Excellent questions. Yes, I finished the series (it does get weaker towards the end, and the conclusion is not very satisfying).

      I use the term “Idealism” with a capital I to refer to the metaphysic philosophy espoused by Hegel, among others, which eventually led to Marxism, not in the common sense of “one that places ideals before practical considerations”. If you believe there is no such thing as objective reality governed by physical law, and that reality, or more modestly human nature, can be remade and perfected by sheer force of will, then a whole slew of horrors will eventually ensue since those who oppose you must perforce be wicked and to be eliminated.

      Idealism is quite widespread in its watered-down wishful-thinking popular versions, e.g. Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking” or Rhonda Byrne’s “The Secret”. There are also those minds deformed by a long practice of marketing, public relations or spin doctoring (motto: “perception is reality”), e.g. Karl Rove as quoted by Ron Suskind:

      The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

      Wars are ultimately driven by self-interest, but we cannot discount the role of hubris and self-righteousness.

      As for the Malazan series, there are other themes that develop later in the series, such as cycles of environmental devastation that lead to genocide and civilizational collapse (very Jared Diamond-esque). Erikson does not have military experience, but was influenced by writers like Glen Cook who have. He overestimates the ability of cunning leaders to achieve their objectives despite bureaucratic inertia, corruption, incompetence and the other vagaries of human nature, but I suppose that is part and parcel of the willing suspension of disbelief required by the genre. L. E. Modesitt is much less sanguine about the exercise of power and its limitations.

      As for the extinction of magic, what I envision is that if the universe is Idealist, i.e. follows the consensus of what people believe, there could be powerful magicians who realize that ultimately the capricious and lawless nature of non-objective reality is just as much a threat as any other form of anarchy. If they had the moral resolve to resist the temptation of power (a huge if), they could cooperate over time to turn Idealism against itself and bootstrap an ordered world where no-one believes in magic and therefore it loses its power to physical law. Another take on this is Larry Niven’s “The Magic Goes Away”, where magic is a non-renewable resource, but I don’t think he thought hard enough about the implications of the mere possibility of magic on the nature of reality.

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