An Interview with Seth Dickinson

Last Updated on February 14, 2024

Seth Dickinson first astounded (and broke the hearts of) readers when they burst onto the scene with their 2015 debut novel, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, a fiery and unapologetic look at imperialism, rebellion and the sacrifices an islander savant must give to reclaim their conquered home. They then followed this up with two sequels, before shifting to sci-fi for their upcoming novel, Exordia.  Much like their fantasy novels, it’s an absolutely fascinating tale, and ponders the psychology of violence, along with the hard choices we make and justify to ourselves.

Seth was kind enough to sit down with us at Grimdark Magazine and answer some questions we had for them, ranging from their thoughts on that theme of violence, to literary inspirations and what they’re working on next…

Exordia[GdM] Like The Traitor Baru Cormorant, your book Exordia was a short story before it became a novel. In this case, Anna Saves Them All. Can you tell me a little about how you came up with the idea?

[SD] I’m afraid the answer is extremely unsexy: I just kept rewriting a childhood idea for many years until I got something I liked.

When I was in high school I wrote a Lego Bionicle fanfiction where the Bionicle world was invaded by aliens, and one of the aliens defected to the Lego side to help them fight back against her people. I thought she was a pretty cool character, because I was fifteen, so everything seemed pretty cool.

Once I was older, trying to get serious about writing, I rewrote that story set in the real world, with a human cast instead of the Bionicle action figures. That was the first novel I finished as an adult. But although it was important practice, it wasn’t good enough to submit, so I trunked it. It had almost all the characters who’d end up in Exordia — Anna, Ssrin, Erik, Clayton, Aixue, Iruvage. And it had a couple key scenes, like Anna’s childhood backstory. This would’ve been around…2011, I think?

Over the next few years I sold some short stories, and I thought, maybe I could pull out a scene from that trunk novel and get a good short story out of it. I often think of short stories as the climaxes of novels, the bit where the really key crisis happens. It worked for the Morrigan stories in Clarkesworld—they weren’t from a novel, but they were based on video game mods I’d written. And it worked here too! So that became “Anna Saves Them All” in Shimmer.

Advance a couple years. I’d done a stint at Bungie and published my first novel, I was severely fucking depressed, I was looking for something fun to write to help get around block on my second Baru Cormorant novel. Tor.com was publishing a lot of novellas at the time and I thought that I could rewrite the trunk novel as a series of novellas, telling the same story but with each novella focusing on one of the major characters — Anna to introduce things, Erik to narrate the initial military action, Clayton to reveal the espionage and doublecrossing, Aixue to dig into the science of the alien artifact, and back to Anna to conclude the story. The multi-novella strategy has worked out for some other authors (Martha Wells in particular) but when I finally submitted EXORDIA I think they immediately offered to buy it as a whole book. There was never a plan to do a multi-part release. But you can see where the cliffhangers would’ve been — and if you don’t like the pacing in the later parts of EXORDIA you might even wish I’d stuck with the ‘series of novellas’ format, because it really put a premium on tight pacing and single perspective character work.

After this Tor sat on the book for a few years, and while that was frustrating, it was really helpful in some respects. By the time the book got moving again I’d had time to get cold feet about my treatment of Kurdish culture and go do better research. So the book really took on its final form in 2021 and 2022, as I went back and layered in a lot more detail about the reality of life in Kurdistan and the aftermath of the genocide there. I ended up spending a few thousand dollars out of pocket on expert readers to really nail the background and authenticity of a few of the characters.

[GdM] I’ve read both Exordia and Anna Saves Them All, and there’s one noticeable difference in the latter—Clayton hasn’t existed yet, or Davoud. How did you come up with both characters?

[SD] Clayton always existed! So did Davoud, I believe, though I’d have to go back and look. But they existed in the trunk novel. and when I adapted that into “Anna Saves Them All” I just cut them to simplify things. I believe Erik and Aixue exist only as radio voices in that story? It’s pretty much the Anna and Ssrin show.

You missed a more noticeable difference though — in “Anna Saves Them All”, Blackbird is Ssrin’s ship. In EXORDIA (the final novel) it’s something much stranger. Earlier drafts of the story struggled to really explain what the aliens were looking for on Earth, and at some point in the drafting process I decided to move Ssrin’s introduction much earlier and make Blackbird into…the thing it is now.

[GdM] Exordia’s set in 2013—a decade later, so much has happened that it’s almost become a period piece of sorts. Were there difficulties in writing this, e.g. slang, tech?

[SD] The timeframe is fixed by the need for Anna to experience the Anfal genocide as a kid old enough to grip a pistol. That means she’s got to be born in the early 1980s. Then when the story rolls around we need to be in the late Obama administration for a lot of the themes to land — and hell, when I wrote the first draft of this novel we were in the Obama administration, and 2013 was just a couple years in the past.

I think setting it in 2013 made things easier more than it made things more difficult. 2013 is pretty well documented. It’s easy to figure out what pop culture the characters would be aware of and what hadn’t been produced yet. It’s easy to know who was working in what position at the White House, or where military forces were deployed. There are a couple anachronisms that slipped through—curious if anyone can spot them!

While I was writing this book set in Kurdistan, America fucked over the Kurds in Syria quite badly. We have a habit of fucking over the Kurds.

[GdM] A recurring theme in Exordia is violence—from the violent trauma of Anna’s childhood, to US foreign policy, the human response to the unknown and even the cornerstone of Khai cultural interaction. What was the thinking behind including that psychology of violence in Exordia?

[SD] I wanted to write about it. I think it’s important to think about the ethics of violence. My life as an American is built on a scaffold of violent intervention in other parts of the world. I don’t think that should go unexamined. Things that make people unhappy are often discursively marked as grim or otherwise undesirable to read about. There’s a push towards emotional comfort and safety in stories that makes me want to push back. It’s our willingness to look away from discomfort that lets a lot of evil persist. Like the Obama drone strikes—those were an attempt to sanitize and rationalize America’s existing assassination program. The administration to fit everything together into a nice clean ‘disposition matrix’ that would programmatize and euphemize the moral burden of killing people. I think we have to be deeply suspicious of that part of us which says “the people in charge have it figured out, they’ve got it under control, it’s not my problem and I don’t need to think about it.”

The book also argues that an encounter with the truly alien is likely to read as violent to a human mind, because humans can only exist safely in a narrow range of physical and mental conditions. A genuinely alien being, one that doesn’t share our environmental needs or our general psychology, may seem habitually violent to us simply because its own environment and behaviors are incompatible with human norms. And I don’t mean, “oh, the alien exhales cyanide”—I mean an alien’s basic conception of individual rights. It might, like the khai in EXORDIA, have evolved with the expectation that social systems are organized on the basis of mutually threatened violence, where the basic question of a relationship is not “Will you do unto me as you would have me do unto you?” but “Can you do anything to stop me?”

Or it might have evolved in an environment without successful predation, where almost all free resources are locked up in massive biosystems that compete by optimizing their ability to capture energy and out-reproduce their rivals. An encounter between two of these systems might lead to one outcompeting and starving the other, unless the other can produce a specialized resource for the encroaching rival, accepting a symbiotic role in exchange for continued survival. First contact between one of these alien systems and humans would read to us like an aggressive conquest—the alien expanding aggressively, taking away what we need to live, unless constantly fed some kind of useful tribute. Even machine probes designed by an alien intelligence in this mode might seem aggressive, because their idea of morality would be based on productivity, not individual identity, as a metric of worth. It’s not that the aliens ‘don’t understand the harm they’re doing’ — they just don’t see sucking up all the available free resources as harm. What kind of living thing doesn’t capture all available energy at maximum competitive efficiency? No living thing of moral worth.

On the far end of the spectrum, imagine an alien that operates like a cellular slime mold, where individuals will come together into massive cooperative structures, sometimes displaying a suicidal level of altruism. These cooperators challenge our current evolutionary thinking, where cooperative behavior must ultimately reward the individual’s reproductive fitness in order to evolve. It’s hard for us to understand these outbursts of solidarity in microorganisms, never mind aliens! Imagine trying to communicate with an alien species that expects individual humans to join together into Eiffel Towers of cooperation. Lacking that capability, would we seem like we had any moral worth to them?

Underlying all this is a broader theme in my work, the question of whether violence is ultimately the Right Strategy in the universe—whether it’s possible to build a system which is cooperative, equitably helpful to all its contributors, resistant to outside attacks and proof against internal corruption and collapse. I really hope that is possible. I am not afraid of entropy but I am afraid of conquest and cancer, the two great threats to organized positive-sum systems.

[GdM] As far as I’m aware, Exordia is your first foray novel-wise into sci-fi, and to some extent sci-fi horror. Sphere is an obvious inspiration, as is the Southern Reach trilogy, but were there other books, other sci-fi media that inspired it?

[SD] I get this question a lot and every time I do my tiny brain shorts out and I just spit a random list of books that spring to mind. Uh let’s see. EON by Greg Bear, and I suppose THE FORGE OF GOD too, though it’s very depressing. Diane Duane’s Young Wizards books. SABRIEL by Garth Nix. Various short stories by Yoon Ha Lee. STARTIDE RISING by David Brin. This is the part of the list where I start thinking “oh God, I need to make sure my answer doesn’t make me seem like an asshole!” Technothriller writers who would probably make me sound like an asshole: Tom Clancy, Dale Brown. David Mace who is too criminally under-read to make me seem like an asshole, and who’s a much better technothriller writer than the two before him. INTERSTELLAR PIG by William Sleator, can’t forget Interstellar Pig. The Succession duology by Scott Westerfeld, RISEN EMPIRE and THE KILLING OF WORLDS. A Japanese novel, YUKIKAZE by Chohei Kambayashi.

Oh, my tiny brain is shorting out and I’ve listed just one woman—I know this makes me look awful—oh, Vonda McIntyre, I loved the alien Nemo in her STARFARERS books. KA Applegate, I didn’t read a lot of ANIMORPHS but I read a couple of the big alien-POV deluxe books and those must have influenced me. I always think about the way CJ Cherryh writes action but so far I’ve done a pretty bad job of internalizing it. God I’m a misogynist pig! A dozen women will spill out of my brain the moment I’m done with this interview.

It’s hard to name specific inspirations because this was a fun book, a book I very much wrote from my id, the horrible rotting compost pit at the bottom of my brain. It’s hard to strain that soup apart and figure out where it came from. That’s why there’s so much technical detail, I find that stuff incredibly compelling.

[GdM] From my perspective, it seems that you’re interested in exploring characters who’ve gone through massively traumatic experiences in their youth—first Baru, now Anna. Is it a conscious decision, or something that’s more ‘in hindsight’?

[SD] It’s not really about the trauma. for me. It’s about these characters growing around a kernel of moral commitment, the way an oyster grows a pearl around a speck of contamination, or a raindrop nucleates around a cloudseed. They spend the rest of their lives with a moral commitment to the logic of that first experience — Baru going into the residential school in order to learn why her island was colonized, Anna pulling that trigger under the circumstances I shall not spoil. All the later decisions they make are informed by that early decision.

“Isn’t that the definition of trauma?” you ask. Sure, but characters can also grow around a kernel of moral commitment that we’d see as positive — Erik’s intuition about Doing The Right Thing, Clayton’s attempts to think out the shape of a better world and work towards it, Aixue’s belief that truth can only be derived through mathematics, Chaya’s pragmatic attention to the needs of the moment and keeping people safe from themselves. These aren’t necessarily traumas, but they are moral cores.

Anna points out in this book that massive trauma is just part of growing up in some places. What’s the difference between seeing a UFO and a Predator drone? The drone might kill you. What’s the difference between an alien invasion and an Iraqi genocide? The Iraqis use sarin instead of death rays, helicopters instead of saucers? You know why the Iraqis are trying to exterminate you, I guess. But maybe you don’t if you’re a child.

[GdM]How much research went into creating the story that became Exordia? Did you have to do anything particularly interesting to seek out sources?

[SD] I roved out in search of Kurdish knowledge and met a lot of colorful characters. As I mentioned above, I ended up spending a lot of money out of pocket for expert readers from various cultural perspectives — unfortunately publishers just can’t front the money for that kind of stuff on top of paying your advance. I consider it money well spent.

I also spent a lot of time doing science and military research, which involved talking to some vets, some gamers who play a lot of milsims with vets, some people who work in physics and atomic energy, and some science fiction writers whose fiction is close enough to physics and atomic energy to attract government scrutiny. Ken Burnside of Ad Astra Games helped me work out some big-picture nuclear strategy stuff for confronting invading aliens, he was a huge help. And a guy on a science fiction discord talked me through the math of a how a warp field would work in real life — there are some VERY cool (and frightening!) consequences which I haven’t seen science fiction grapple with yet. And no, I’m not talking about the time travel! There are some issues with using a warp drive to hover that can turn an innocent visit to your friend’s front lawn into an unscheduled asteroid impact.

I also had some great volunteer readers who I will not name without getting their permission first. But they made the book a lot better by sharing their own experiences and background.

[GdM] What’s some books, SF/F or nonfiction or otherwise, that you’d recommend?

[SD] Since I’ve mentioned a lot of fiction already I’m going to recommend three nonfiction books about how the world works in ways which do not seem intuitive to our 21st century brains. SEEING LIKE A STATE by James C. Scott, THE SECRET OF OUR SUCCESS by Joseph Henrich, and AN IMMENSE WORLD by Ed Yong, which is about animal senses — some of which exist all over nature but go basically unnoticed by humans, like surface wave communication. Of course, humans are animals, so it does go a bit into uncommon human senses, like echolocation.

AN IMMENSE WORLD has this great anecdote about a frog, I think it’s called a tungara frog. The tungara male calls to attract females, and it has the option to end its call with a funny noise called a ‘chuck’. The more chucks a male sticks on his call, the more the ladies like him — in fact female tungara frogs love chucks so much that if a male doesn’t chuck, females will body slam him until he does. But the chuck sound is also exactly dead center in the most sensitive auditory range of the local frog-eating bats. So you gotta chuck to fuck, but every time you chuck, you push your luck.

The other two are about the ways that human societies flourish and succeed, and how the human mind is not very good at understanding the ways human societies flourish and succeed.

[GdM] The book’s ending almost seems to set it up as a prequel of sorts. Is there an intention for a sequel later down the line?

[SD] On my part? Absolutely. On Tor.com’s part? We’ll see. I’ve got a lot more high school Bionicle fanfiction to rewrite!

[GdM] Lastly! For the curious fans—are you working on anything else? Totally not asking for a friend, first name M, last name Yself.

[SD] Quite a few things. Unfortunately many of them are under NDA! My day job with Unknown Worlds Entertainment is narrative design for an unannounced game in the Subnautica universe. I’m doing some work for hire for other IPs, which I really should be working on right now, but I am feckless and foolish and expert at self-sabotage.

And of course I’m going to write the last Baru Cormorant novel. I did one draft of it and didn’t like the result. It was too long and did not hit with the force I was looking for. I want to get it right, so it is taking a while, and things have gotten busy. But it is important to me to finish that story, to get it out of my head.

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Andrew

Andrew

Andrew can usually be found looking for the latest recommendation in sci-fi horror. They also enjoy the totally scary game called Pokémon, where the untold terror of having a shiny Pokémon flee is peak existential horror. They also like apples and communicating through the universal medium of cat memes. You can find them rambling on Bluesky at dansemothabre.bsky.social.

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