Discussing the Wisdom of Crowds with Joe Abercrombie

With The Wisdom of Crowds being released this week, Gollancz gave me the opportunity to interview Joe Abercrombie about the influences for The Age of Madness and Bayaz, the risks of putting new characters into a world fans already love, and what the author can’t wait to see in this epic age of televised SFF.

[GdM] The Age of Madness has strong themes of rebellion and instability. How much of an impact did current world events across your home in the UK and the US influence the writing of this latest trilogy?

Well . . . certainly some, I guess. Everyone who writes fantasy (and everyone who reads it) are people living in the real world, so I don’t think you can escape, or would particularly want to escape, being influenced by everything that’s going on around you, and your opinions and attitudes naturally find their way out in what you write.

That said, I started writing this trilogy way back in 2015 and the decision to set it during the early stages of an industrial revolution, then a social revolution, went back a fair bit further than that. So a certain amount of social turmoil was baked into the concept and that was part of the appeal for me – there’s a lot of conflict and drama inherent in the period and the setting – rich against poor, tradition against innovation, monarchy against democracy. That we seem to have entered our own little political and cultural age of madness in the UK and US since I started writing it was to some degree coincidental. I think the political mood certainly had an impact. But at the same time I found I’d written about a few things – riots, corruption, statue toppling – that then became major issues in the news and the writing became almost a little too on the nose. So if anything real events gave me an opportunity to reconsider and refine some of what I’d written, rather than inspiring me to do it in the first place.

[GdM] When writing The Age of Madness, did you see advancing the age of the setting and the generation of characters as a risk? What made you want to take that leap?

I guess every book feels like a bit of a risk to some extent – you’re always wondering whether readers will like new characters and new approaches – and there are definitely some fantasy readers who are very attached to their medieval worlds and start to get a bit uncomfortable as things turn more modern, even if the mindsets of many of the characters in classic fantasy are very modern. But I don’t think you can worry too much over what any imagined group of readers might think – apart from anything else it’s almost impossible to anticipate what people actually will end up liking or objecting to – so you’ve really got to write to your own taste if you’re going to produce anything worthwhile. And I don’t want to write in a world that feels static or to endlessly come back to the same characters. You have to move things forward, keep things fresh, keep yourself interested and challenged. A reader might spend a week or two with a book and be keen for more. A writer spends years with it, and more often than not is ready to move on afterwards.

[GdM] What were the periods and places in history you drew your influence from for this trilogy?

The Wisdom of Crowds by Joe AbercrombieChiefly the early industrial revolution in the UK and Europe, so during the period of water-power, as the steam engine is starting to appear, and society is being recast at break-neck pace by innovations not just in the technical realm but the financial and social ones. But then later by the French and Russian revolutions, as you will probably see more than ever in the Wisdom of Crowds…

[GdM] How does it feel to have—and how difficult is it to write—your characters aging? And, not to be too cheeky, but when I met you in Sydney you were actually a bit of a unit, so how much of the aches and pains are based on lived experience?

Well I’ve often said Glokta grew partly out of the experience of being laid up for a couple of weeks with a bad back, so most things are to some degree drawn out of lived experience – albeit exaggerated, overstated, refined to an intense point. I actually enjoy the characters aging and changing and making way for a new generation. It’s all part of a world that’s constantly developing. The brash young turks of the past become the parents and great statesmen of the present (if they survive), and the the myths and cautionary tales of the future.

[GdM] Bayaz is one of the most believable villains in contemporary dark fantasy: introduced as a wise father figure, he is revealed to be a power-hungry manipulator of the worst kind. What influences inspired this character and his ongoing role in your novels?

Mostly Gandalf. Though also Merlin and Belgarath and host of other irrascible but goodly wizardly mentors throughout fantasy. Bayaz is their dark reflection, I guess. In the edition of Lord of the Rings I read (often) as a kid, there was a foreword by Tolkien where he answered the question of whether the book was an allegory for the world wars by saying, if it had been, Gandalf would have used the ring. And I thought right then that would make a very interesting variation. In a world without absolute good, without an unchallengeable divine mission, Gandalf very quickly becomes quite a terrifying figure – a near-immortal, enigmatic manipulator without doubt or scruple when it comes to achieving his ends, plus a combination of huge power and a short fuse. He’s already a pretty terrifying figure if you’re an orc, after all…

[GdM] As a huge fan of short stories, Sharp Ends is one of my favourite books ever. Do you have plans for any further short works to help fill out the backstories of your characters?

There actually already are three that were written to go in some special editions of the three Age of Madness books, and I’ve written a fourth more considerable one – they’re going to be bound together into an illustrated novella by Subterranean Press in September 2022. It’s called The Great Change, and other Lies.

[GdM] Why the fuck aren’t we watching season 3 of a First Law TV series by now?

Ha. Well that is a long tale that shall be told at some time, I daresay, but probably not today…

[GdM] On your blog you mentioned you’re a mere 35K words into a new project. Are you able to give us any detail about the setting, story, or characters in the new book you’re writing?

I think I’m about 100k in now but still less than half way through, so I really failed to stick to my planned word count yet again with this one. It’s both familiar in some ways and a radical departure in others. It features a group of mismatched extremely messed-up heroes/villains on a morally ambiguous quest. But it takes place in a slightly ridiculous version of our own world packed with magic, monsters, and shoddy research.

[GdM] You’ve previously spoken about being really into text-based adventures as a kid. Has this lockdown given you an opportunity to get into some old-school text-based gaming with your family or some of your friends online (eg. through a MMORPG)?

I certainly did lose many hours on text-based adventures as a kid, but then that’s what there was at the time. The world has since given us Total War, so I can instead spend thousands of hours playing that.

[GdM] What are the three bits of SFF in any medium that you’re looking forward to most?

Interesting question – I must admit that I don’t consume very much fantasy in written form, I tend to find it too close to what I do, and it’s difficult to turn off the analytic side of my brain and lose myself in it like I did before I was a writer. On the TV side, what I’ve seen of Foundation looks pretty spectacular, and far enough from the books that whether or not they have much in common starts to be a bit of a moot point, plus I’m a big fan of Jared Harris. I am curious to see what the Lord of the Rings TV show ends up like, given the colossal amount of money spent on it, and my long-standing love of Middle Earth, though I really worry when they make anything like that from such limited source material – their chances of really capturing Tolkien’s tone AND making something that works for a modern audience seem slim, but I live in hope. On the gaming side, I’ve always loved Dark Souls so what I’ve seen of Elden Ring has me very excited.

Read The Wisdom of Crowds by Joe Abercrombie

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Adrian Collins

Adrian Collins runs Grimdark Magazine and loves anything to do with telling darker stories. Doesn't matter the format, or when it was published or produced--just give him a grim story told in a dark world by a morally grey protagonist and this bloke's in his happy place. Add in a barrel aged stout to sip on after a cheeky body surf under the Australian sun, and that's his heaven.