Thursday, December 27, 2018

Alex White and A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy

After I had spoken with Alex White not too long ago about A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe (edge, not end!), I was thrilled to have them back on the show to talk about the sequel, A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy.

We pick up the story at the point where the Salvagers, as Alex calls their main characters, have gotten a legendary warship and revealed a horrible conspiracy. The Salvagers are now famous... and then they get accused of being crisis actors. Alex pointed out that it wouldn't have been possible to write this kind of plot before the last few years; it's become more plausible now that people are familiar with these exact arguments.

Alex designed a conspiracy cult, and in our conversation they told me they wanted something more toxic-masculine for it, but the universe they've created leans hard into ridding itself of stereotypes, so that wasn't sustainable. Initially, though, the idea for the cultists came from college-age boys from wealthy families, before in the writing process they became representative of everyone.

At this point our heroes are off the grid enough, and rich enough, that they can go after the cult and expose its activities.

Alex described a nationalistic air about the cultists, who are linked with a "money mill" which creates money for the bad guys. The plot of this book therefore revolves around secret infiltration, heists and galas. Yes, the gala includes masks. There's a space station called "Masquerade" where you can maintain anonymity for business dealings, and people there wear masks all the time. There are only five thousand masks - designed to look like animals - and if you want to go there, you are required to have one. In addition to the masks, people wear holographic cloaks and their voices are changed so as to hide any gender. (When I asked, Alex said it was not very much like Canto Bight from Star Wars because it's not a casino.) In the station at Masquerade, everyone's apartment is sovereign territory, so there isn't much violence in public, but there's murder in the apartments. One of the masks has flaming antlers dripping with gold medallions - I loved that description. Alex described it as sumptuously lavish and borderline ridiculous. The point of conspicuous consumption is to lord it over other people.

In A Bad Deal..., the main characters go all over the galaxy, and they get to spend enough time in the places they go for the visits to be more than superficial. There's a lot of exploration of the possibilities of the galaxy. They go to the center of galactic finance, also. In that center, there are IGF accounts, which are bank accounts you can access if you have the password, without need to identify yourself.

Paul asked how Alex avoids the one-biome problem, where main characters must visit so many places that each place tends to be constituted with only a single type of climate. Alex told us they reject that idea completely, and also the recurring pattern where every place only has one type of people. It's too easy to fall into shorthand for describing other races. If there's a large planet, it's assumed to have every biome. If there's a large population, it's assumed to be very diverse. The exceptions are hot worlds and ice worlds.

Alex says, "I know the rules and I break them."

Fast travel in this galaxy is accomplished through the use of jump gates. Incorrectly plotting your course will kill you. Very few civilian ships have a jump drive, because they are so expensive. Alex has invented a fuel used for jump drives called "eidolon crystal," which is made of solid magic. It's "the oil of this universe." It's graded on purity, and you have to use the correct size crystal. Alex based this system on the system used for diamond grading, which they learned about long ago when they received a VHS from Tiffany and Co. about how to know diamonds.

Alex says, "Unlike diamonds, eidolon crystals are actually rare."

Jump gates are controlled by a neutral cartel. The cartel's control of the gates can't be broken because if you try to stop them, they just cut you off from all gates. The cartel gets rich from tolls - and in book 1, paying the tolls was difficult for our heroes, but this time, they are rich and can go where they like. Alex said that they estimate the cost is something like the cost of putting a MAERSK container on a ship. In their view, if you come up with a real world analog, it's more plausible and you don't have to work as hard. (I agree.) Some major industry players have regular accounts with the gate cartel. There are a lot of possible stories about the gate cartel which haven't yet been told.

Paul asked Alex what other things they want to write. Alex said the next couple of books are ready, but they would really like to write about side characters like Checo de Santos, who has the sculptor's mark, a magic power that allows them to pull on their own bones and flesh to change their appearance or that of others. Checo would definitely have a side business in plastic surgery. Because the marks develop very early, around age 2, Checo probably has no memory of what their face is supposed to look like. There is a group called The Fixers, and if you contract with them, they agree to rescue you from whatever heinous circumstances you find yourself in. Checo themselves drifts around without an institution to protect them.

It is not possible to have the same mark as a family member.

We asked Alex about their process for deciding how technology and magic mix. They said they loved JRPGs when they were young, and these games have no difficulty integrating magic and technology. It's part of their fundamental premise that such things would coexist. Alex wanted magic that was scientifically usable. Much like science, people will use it even if they don't fully understand it.

There were a few serious rules, such as Watt's law from electrical engineering, that Alex used.

There is a lot of consistency in the system. Alex says they want the rules to be so clear that readers can guess what will happen on a page just before they write it... but not too early. They say that a good mystery makes you feel like you solved it about 5 pages before you are handed the solution. They hate it, by contrast, when "Merlin-style" magic stuff happens randomly, or when magic is based on the idea that a person might not be trying hard enough yet. Alex doesn't like the idea that there might be limitless ability to convert will into magic power.

Paul asked what works have magic systems that Alex likes. They said role-playing games, because they like systematic magic. They described trying to read Dragonlance as an adult, and finding the turn-based language there overly systematic. Paul described it as "you can see the dice rolls" on the page. Alex called it "the book I needed in middle school."

Alex really likes to explore the practical aspect of magic. They say, for example, that the arsonist's mark is not very useful. You might get stuck in the military, but even there, it's not super-useful to throw fireballs. Magic doesn't get busted out every ten minutes, either. When you're young, you want to magic up the place. But Alex compares it to how adults typically don't climb stairs for no reason.

Some forms of magic are inherently unethical. There's no good way to torture and kill.

Amplification technology can magnify magic power. Suddenly the fireball you can cast becomes huge. They describe the differences between magical marks as creating a caste system. Some marks are worth lots of money. Datamancy, which allows you to instantly correlate and get answers from any database, can get you rich. Even within the group of people who possess the same mark, there is diversity, as in other social groups. There are lots of common, easily recognizable marks. You only get one type of mark, and having no mark (called Arcana dystotia) is vanishingly rare. People are spiritual about their magic, and afraid of losing it.

There is a type of gas that suppresses magic effects. People are scared of getting caught in it and losing their power permanently.

Alex compared magic to a sense of smell. We don't think about smell but we smell things all the time. "Now imagine you use your smell to authorize your bank account." The magic is used as a form of biometric identification, because your mark is as unique as your handwriting, even if you have the same mark as someone else. It literally involves writing. You focus magic in your fingertips and write something. Technically, you could write with your feet, or through a prosthetic. In the future of this universe, machines can also help you cast magic.

Alex says they're working on the end of Book 3 right now. There are some very wacky ramifications of all the magic! It's fun to explore the logical limits of the system. The magic system is fairly mature because they developed it while working on the Gearheart podcast.

Alex, thank you so much for coming on the show! It was a pleasure to hear all your ideas, and we can't wait to hear about your next book.