Friday, August 24, 2018

Alex White and A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe

I loved our discussion with Alex White. Alex's new book, A Big Ship at the End of the Universe, came out on June 26th, so it's already available for you to check out!

It's about a race-car driver who has had to give up racing after witnessing a murder, and a washed-up treasure hunter who go to hunt down a treasure ship at the edge of the universe.

Alex says the thing that makes this universe distinctive is that there's magic: everybody has a single spell they can do that they are born with. There are all kinds of possible spells. Some have to do with fire, some with shadows, some with teleporting, etc. Not all are extremely powerful. Alex says it's like how people are generally born with legs, but not all of us run marathons. Some spells are as simple as "you can make anything glow." Destructive magics are not very useful on a daily basis. As Alex says, "You can throw a fireball, but why?" Some of the magics are hyper-useful. The one called the "mechanist's mark" means you can psychically interface with machines. This power is possessed by all race-car drivers because you would not really be able to compete if you didn't have it.

The character of Boots Ellsworth, the treasure-hunter, was born without the organ that allows spellcasting. In this world, it is functionally a disability. She requires custom technology to allow things like inputting passwords non-magically. We talked about how it was similar to the way N.K. Jemisin's books hypothesize an organ that allows orogeny (the sessapinae). Alex said it was a change suggested by their editor. This organ is called the cardioid because it creates a heart-shaped bloom of magic in the brain. It was named after the heart-shaped pickup pattern of a microphone.

Alex thinks a lot about the question of disability because their son is disabled, and their spouse suffers from MS. They observe that society creates disability by not creating appropriate accommodations that can allow everyone to access everything. When you have the right assistive technology, you can do whatever you need to do. In the society they have created in A Big Ship, 1 in 5 million people lack the cardioid organ, which means the problem is so rare that the society generally doesn't think about the possibility of this problem.

The protagonist of their novel Every Mountain Made Low also has a disability. Loxley is autistic and lives in a dystopian Birmingham, Alabama. She is undiagnosed because no doctors would bother to come around to do the job.

The character Blue from Alien: the Cold Forge has a late-stage terminal disease that resembles ALS. She uses a telepresence robot with a direct brain interface. The book asks questions about how you would survive a xenomorph outbreak if you had limited mobility. Would other people save you? What kind of morality do we associate with rescuing the healthy? Blue doesn't just want to survive, she wants to cure herself.

Alex explains that their goal in storytelling is to "sell you a twinkie and feed you a steak." They like to hide a moral or political issue inside something that's fun. There are also queer issues in Alien: The Cold Forge, with a canonically queer protagonist.

Returning to Loxley, we talked about the setting in which she lives. It's called The Hole, and resembles an early 1900's Birmingham, with magic and a lot of mining. Alex says, "All of my settings are kind of exacerbated. I just kind of turn it up." Strip mining and coal mining have turned Birmingham into a crater with nine "steps," something like Dante's nine circles. The forge and foundry are located on the ninth level. The poor live down in the crater close to the forge, while the rich live up in Edgewood, where you can see the surrounding farmland. Loxley herself lives on the seventh level, where she works as an apothecary, gardens, sells weed, anything to make a buck. The country is run by a group called "The Consortium," which is something like the Edison and Westinghouse corporations. The general technology level is around 1980's, and there's a communist cold war, but nothing newer than a teletype.

Loxley has community members but only one true friend. When that friend is murdered, she wants revenge. Alex strives for a feeling of the South in the book, including its racial tensions, code-switching, and economic disparities. People end up screwing each other over for something that is "frankly not that great." Loxley is a medium, but Alex is careful not to connect this with her autism. All of the women in her family have been mediums, but not all have autism. Ghosts don't communicate with the living, but they can put them in danger. They only stick around while the body is rotting, and don't stray far from their corpses. Loxley realizes her friend has been killed when she encounters her friend's ghost. Then she learns that Edgewood people were involved. Loxley has severe social anxiety and sensory processing issues, and is afraid of guns. She will have to make friends and experiment with new things in order to achieve the revenge she desires.

Alex says they don't like characters who are always the best at everything. Loxley can garden and play violin. They joke that they want to see booksellers create an Autistic Gothic Horror section in stores. They like characters with a bit of Southern flair, and didn't like how Firefly treated Southerners.

I asked Alex about their research sources, and much of the material comes from their life experiences and those of their friends. This includes attitudes toward autistic people that they've seen growing up with their child. They say, "the cultural baggage we drag around we assume is the right way to be." This gets translated into things like Loxley's boss telling her how to live, saying "I know a spinster who will police you," and robbing the vulnerable of their agency. Even looking people in the eye is cultural and not universal.

I asked them also about their research sources for A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe. They said the magic/tech blends were influenced by recent games, and that Cowboy Bebop had influenced some of the action sequence writing. They asked, "what is the worst goofy thing that can go wrong?" That's the first question they ask, they say, when writing an action sequence. They told us about their podcast, The Gearheart, and said that this novel was a spiritual successor to the podcast, occurring 800 years later. Alex spent a lot of time running D&D there and getting to know the world.

One thing Alex said was important was that all the planets could not be monocultural. The fact that so many fantasy races (such as those in D&D) end up being racist caricatures is a real problem. If you took a goblin with goblin characteristics and made him a human, "you'd have a scandal on your hands."

One thing Alex said they didn't really ask in this particular book is "How racist do you make everybody?" They told us that they chose to lean into "my voice is not really needed there as a white guy" for this particular setting. "If I imagine an entirely new setting, would I imagine black people on the bottom again? That would be crappy," they point out. "Let other people write about that; they will do a better job than I will."

Alex explained that they also completely normalized LGBTQ in the setting. They said, "I don't see how we could get that far in the future without dealing with it."

Your magic spell in the Big Ship universe has a role in determining your place in society, as when all the drivers have the mechanist's mark because others can't compete. Someone with the hotelier's mark can clean anything, and have it smell vaguely nostalgic to the person who uses it. This is really useful for medical or high-tech manufacturing. There are lots and lots of different types of magical marks. There is a lot of variation also along he gradient of power. Someone with the arsonist's mark might be able to throw a big fireball if they are very powerful, or even create a star... but on the low end, they might be able to keep warm, or light a cigarette.

They chose the word "marks" because the magic spells are glyphs traced with the fingers. The size of the glyph added to the power of the caster determines the strength of the effect.

Interestingly, the closer you are to someone genetically, the less likely you are to have the same mark. Everyone knows this. You don't know what spell someone can cast until they cast it. The sculptor's mark allows people to change their own shape. Some people use it to make themselves unnaturally beautiful and make lots of money. People of the shieldmaster's mark inevitably go into the military.

I asked Alex whether they were planning to write more books in this universe, and they said, "As many as they will let me sell." Right now there are three. They say it could be satisfying with five.

Alex makes music in their spare time, and likes making soundtracks for their books. The Gearheart podcast has its own soundtrack. Look online for the tracks that accompany Every Mountain Made Low and A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe.

Alex, thank you so much for coming on the show! Everyone, go look for these books!



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