Interview with Steven Erikson

15 min read

Steven Erikson’s, author of the widely acclaimed The Malazan Book of The Fallen series, newest novel Rejoice: A Knife to the Heart sees him delve into deconstruction of the particular niche of science fiction – First Contact. It is a fresh take on the old genre and presents some daring and provoking concepts. You can read our review on This interview started with a single question at London ComicCon and continued in the following exchange of emails.

Alex Khlopenko: Are you afraid of what is happening in the world?

Steven Erikson: I try to take the long view.  It’s what keeps me sane.  So, I will come at your question from a number of different angles.  In the long run – the kind of run that spans the lifetimes of civilizations – you can map out cycles that oscillate from what could be called politically left and politically right, although politics is only the sharp end of something much larger and more profound.  In the broadest sense, human civilization is the arena for a clash of world-views.  Those world-views can be parsed using any of a host of themes: spiritualism versus materialism, individualism versus collectivism, cultural identity and nationalism versus the unfettered to-and-fro of ideas and ideologies; and each of these can then be examined via more specific concepts (for example, spiritualism embedding humanity within the framework of nature [or not] versus the material world seen as a resource and therefore justifying full exploitation, although even these are not clear-cut distinctions).  As you can see, it’s complex and interconnected. 

Okay, that’s the theoretical side, and as such it sets out the framework, but the reality is usually so messy that it can be difficult to stand back and think critically in those terms.  I could, for example, observe that the period in which I personally grew up (end of the Baby Boom, post WWII era in the Western Hemisphere) can now be seen as constituting an aberration.  It was the period of increasing social welfare, general prosperity and opportunity, a steady and fairly wide rising of the standards of living, and all of this against a backdrop of growing social unrest (the ‘Sixties), the birth of environmentalism, the hard-won rights of minorities, and a handful of proxy conflicts between the dominant empires of the time (Soviet and American).  Tumultuous to be sure, but also optimistic regarding the future (see Star Trek, Original Series).  As it turned out, the cynicism and disenchantment that followed was well-earned (presidential assassinations, Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War). 

Obviously, entire books have been written about all of this and to fully explicate my assertion would take up too much time and space in this venue.  The upshot is, following that period, the moral authority of those who govern us, police us, and indeed protect us, has been steadily diminishing, and for the first time since the last world war, the generation now approaching adulthood will be entering a world that is worse than that of their parents; one where infrastructure is failing, the social safety net is in tatters, the divide between the haves and the have-nots is widening, and that general sense of optimism, well-being, and faith in our fellow human beings, has and continues to take a beating.

Tyrants always fall.  Tyrannies always fail.

Looking back on it, one could argue that the aberrant generation fed us all a lie, but I refuse to be that cynical.  Instead, I see the steady degradation as one born of ideology (the neoliberal economic ethos, if you like), wherein cold-heartedness and cruelty emerge from the elevation and sanctification of individuality and individual freedom over that of social or collective well-being, a world in which the destitute are to be stepped over (or tear-gassed) rather than given a helping hand.

But back to the long run.  Tyrants always fall.  Tyrannies always fail.  Ideologies eat their own young.  Shit hits the fan and people, countless people, suffer.  Yoda nailed it, but hey, Star Wars is just a fantasy, right?

AK: The idea of post-scarcity society is not exactly new – you yourself mention Ian M. Banks multiple times, ­­but the underlying assumption that we, humans, at this particular point in our history, are unable to change anything to save themselves\ourselves without an alien intervention is frighteningly fresh. Do you think we are already past the point of no return?

SE:  As a global civilization caught in the inevitable end-game of its own success?  Yes.  We need one of two things: an explicit and overwhelming alien intervention, or a revolution of thought that recognises the immediate necessity of expanding off this planet, because we’re killing it.  And there’s no point in pointing fingers: this is a global tide that has so many historical precedents among past, now dead, civilizations, that one could argue convincingly that our species is fatally flawed, destined to self-destruct – although in the past not so much as to trigger our planet-wide extinction.  But that regionality is mostly gone: when modern civilization goes down, I fear even the most remote tribes of the Amazon won’t survive.

AK: It’s not hard to recognize the prototypes behind the world leaders and media personalities depicted in the book. Were the President of Russia and US and the rest more of a plot device to anchor the narrative, or you aimed at a more complex and realistic depiction of people leading the humanity?

SE:  I was less interested in creating a complex, realistic depiction of these leaders (what do I know about leading a country?) than I was exploring the idea of seeing what people who have devoted their lives to power do when all that power is taken away.  When the game is over and the jig is up.  As such, these fictional leaders in the novel became representative of everyone else, which is why there are characters from all social strata in the novel.  The only difference between the abusive husband and a thug on a throne is simply a matter of scale.  It’s a matter of creating parallel stories, one for each major character, in which only the themes converge.

AK: Anyone who read Malazan Book of the Fallen would immediately recognize your style – an ambitious number of POVs, a lot of characters meditating on human nature and other complex philosophical matters, people’s different perception of change. How different did it feel writing “Rejoice” from writing fantasy and Malazan in particular?

SE:  Very.  Rejoice is a mimetic novel and was therefore much easier to write than a fantasy novel.  I could both relax and expand my word-choice, without being on constant guard to maintain an anachronistic lexicon.  I didn’t need to invent entire cultures and their extended histories; I didn’t need to infuse the world with magic or a pantheon of gods along with demons, dragons and other non-human sentients, and most of all, I didn’t need to convince the reader of the authenticity of the setting and all its myriad details.  If I mention New York City, the reader knows about New York City.  If I mention Darujhistan, the reader knows squat, at least until I start describing it.  It’s a huge difference and in mimetic, contemporary fiction, most of the pressure is off when it comes to world-building (although it can be argued that all fiction world-builds; the distinction is one of degrees), which in turn allows the writer to focus on other things in the story.  Not to say you can’t focus on such things in an epic fantasy.  You can, but you need to build the world in addition to that, and that takes a lot of work.

AK: What parts of the novel were the most difficult to work on?

SE:  I can’t think of anything I found difficult in terms of scenes or characters or even plot (what little plot there is).  This novel is a thought-experiment, and accordingly, the only challenge was in following it to its grisly conclusion, sparing no-one.  It’s interesting to observe the polarisation of opinion now that the novel’s been out for a month or so: the one-star reviews versus the four or five-star reviews seem to parse on the basis of political leanings, which I’ve found somewhat surprising on one level, and sadly unsurprising on another.  It’s curious that even the question of ‘what if’ can trigger extreme reactions; that the notion of an end to violence can actually make some people angry.  What is it they would defend regarding violence?  If I do a follow-up novel, I think I’ll need to explore that question.

AK: I always wondered if the opposite was true – that it could be substantially harder to pull them off. When you write something that resembles reality, one way or another, there will be people putting it under scrutiny to find errors in how you describe the smallest details, say – the roof of UN New York HQ, as opposed to second-world novels where it is harder to criticize you because those are your rules. Sounds like it’s not true in your case?

SE:  These days, a few moments’ research can fix any consistency problems, although having said that, I usually couldn’t be bothered on matter such as the roof of the UN building in New York.  Although I did do a fair bit of research on both the Chinese and the Russian space programs, as well as the hierarchy and responsibilities within the UN.

AK: You gave shout-outs to numerous real authors in Rejoice. Do you think SFF writers would be the perfect representative of the human race before aliens? Whom would you choose among the living authors to take on that role?

SE:  I do.  I don’t consider myself a Science Fiction writer, but I have met plenty and yes, I’d be more confident with them taking point on a First Contact event than anyone else.  SF writers have devoted their lives to considering humanity in a much broader context: one within a future where the concept of non-human civilizations demands close examination.  Another vital trait is that SF writers have learned to think outside the box; in other words, they are not as confined to a particular set of assumptions about the way things have to be, politically, economically, culturally.  They understand that, potentially, with alien contact, all the rules change; and anyone determined to impose strictly human Earth-based paradigms on the rest of the galaxy, is being an idiot.  Finally, a well-honed imagination is another way of saying intellectual flexibility: the capacity to fully step outside oneself, and to step back to see humanity and the planet as a single entity, rather than based on national identity or religious affiliation, etc.  That’s the kind of people I’d want speaking for me.  I mean, can you think of a single politician or leader of a country you’d want to speak for all of us?  I can’t.

AK: Have you already had a discussion whether “Rejoice” is post-modern or post-structuralist?

SE:  Can’t say I have.  Have you?  If so, what’s your take? Having said that, after a little consideration, there are certainly elements of both with this novel (and yes, you could say the same for the Malazan Book of the Fallen).  Deconstructing the First Contact subgenre of SF seemed to have been a beginning point for writing the novel, after all.

AK: I always considered pinning postmodernism and poststructuralism against each other as defeating the inherent purpose of both. After a couple of readings, the lasting impression is that there is definitely a lot of both in the book. The text is absolutely self-aware of its genre and the history of the genre, of its tropes, characters, and clichés – it’s hard to get more postmodern than that. Yet, I feel that Rejoice is leaning more into deconstruction – of the First Contact genre itself and of bigger concepts that are usually presented as binary (e.g violence, peace, invasions, self-defence). Lastly, switching between POVs of people “in power” and “common” people reminded me of Foucault’s concept (I hope it was his concept and I’m not mixing things up) of “hidden voices” so that the story is not limited to the narrative of the “powerful”.

SE:  I agree with you that the two concepts needn’t be seen as adversarial, or that the presence of one negates the presence of the other.  I see it more as a sliding scale: the postmodern approach takes as given the analytical eye of deconstruction; the poststructuralist approach seeks to underscore that self-same deconstruction.  To me it’s always more interesting to play one off the other: since both approaches are inherently self-reflective, what happens when you use them to make a hall of mirrors, in which select elements are so positioned to create an infinite cascade?  I really went after that in my novella, Crack’d Pot Trail.  Typically, nobody noticed.

I’m not a fan of limiting narrative to the powerful.  There is something about that sets my teeth on edge.  Do I really care if the warrior prince is sleeping with his sister when there’s ten thousand corpses on the battlefield and, presumably, thirty thousand people — spouses and children — grieving over their loss?  It’s one thing for people in power to treat their citizens as pawns; it’s quite another for an author to do the same.

AK: It became obvious lately that we’re somewhat stuck – instead of progress humans got gadgets. We got the same ideas of capitalism, centralized democracy, powerful leaders set on repeat for years. Would deconstructing everything – democracy, literature, economics, – like you did with First Contact genre, would it lead to this “revolution of thought”?

SE:  I think it would.  But bear in mind that we’re a conservative species (actually, all species are conservative): we will hold onto what’s familiar even when it’s wrong, or destructive, or short-sighted, or all of the above (see offshore fishing practises employed by fleets from Iceland, Portugal, Holland, etc).  In other words, we might have to be dragged kicking and screaming from our habits and ways of seeing the world, and even from our ways of thinking.  Back in my D&D days, the GM used to have what we called the ‘Slap of Reason,’ which was a kind of final warning from the GM that a player was about to do something utterly stupid and probably fatal.  I do sense that our species needs the same.  Now, that might already be coming, via Climate Change, but even there, it would have to be something catastrophic (Kim Stanley Robinson’s brilliant novel, New York, 2130, shows our impressive capacity to adapt even when every coastal city is under water; in other words, not even that flooding was enough to trigger any revolution of thought).  And anything that catastrophic could in fact bring it all down.  It’s a bit of a tightrope we’re on at the moment.

AK: Should we expect a sequel?

SE:  I think so.

AK: What advice would you give to people who want to make our world a better place (or at least not as awful as it is now)?

SE:  Most of the stress upon human civilization comes from the top down.  In other words, whatever hegemony you want to define consists of those who profit the most from the status quo, and given their access to power, they are both the rule-makers and the rule-breakers, which effectively makes them immune to those consequences of that status quo that lead to suffering, destitution, and violence.  This is what Rejoice, A Knife to the Heart, is all about: taking that power away from that hegemony, then sitting back to see what happens.

Those who rule (politically, economically, etc) are engaged in an ongoing campaign to distract and divide the general population (and for much of that general population world-wide, the first and most powerful distraction is the necessity to feed oneself and one’s own family, usually within a structure that traps them in a lifelong cycle of struggle; for others, that distraction can be the entertainment industry, or ideological, as in racism, nationalism, and so on).  The endless list of ‘enemies’ being paraded before us encourages the divisiveness.  But it’s all a shell-game, and let’s be honest, it’s much easier to demonise equally-disenfranchised peoples (refugees, minorities, the unemployed) than it is that faceless, remote, above-the-law hegemony who you couldn’t even get to even if you tried.  So, we continue to lash out at what’s within reach, and these days there’s a lot of encouragement in that direction.  From the top down (oh, and why is that?).

All of this deepens that sense of disenfranchisement, and with it, a sense of despair to go along with fear (of the other), anger, desperation and helplessness, which in turn invites militancy and the (false) lure of authoritarianism (the Great Leader).

Divisiveness weakens us (and by ‘us’ I mean all of us not in the hegemony; all of us who do not feel in control of, well, anything).  So, do you want to make the world a better place?  Say ‘hi’ to your neighbour.  Open your arms to refugees who have lost everything.  Call to account those in power: reward honesty and integrity; and see those in power who seek to divide as the enemies to your country and all that it stands for.  Be human and humane; be compassionate; be inclusive – sure, nothing new here.  It’s all been said before and because of that, it’s easy to give up, to raise the draw-bridges and settle in to the singular task of protecting and defending your own and to hell with anyone else.  Anarchy, in other words.

Most civilizations that fall go through an initial period of anarchy.  Is it possible to pull back, to resist the tide?  I don’t know.  The historical precedent isn’t good. 

Most civilizations that fall go through an initial period of anarchy.  Is it possible to pull back, to resist the tide?  I don’t know.  The historical precedent isn’t good.  Everything I’ve said above on this subject could have been said of the Roman Empire.  Or the Mayan Empire.  Or any of a dozen civilizations.  Am I therefore speaking only on behalf of empires, each one born of conquest and subjugation and colonialism?  Emphatically not.  But we’ve not yet reached a stage of global identity; we’re still stuck with nations and borders, with a host of ideologies not one of which is sufficiently internally secure enough to not see competing ideologies as anything other than existential threats – this, I feel, is a crucial point: every ideologue taking up violence to defend that ideology is in fact demonstrating a crisis of faith in that ideology.  Feel secure in your world-view?  Fine, then live it.  Unless your ideology involves oppressing or subjugating (or killing) other people, no-one’s going to stop you: but in turn let others live theirs.  No harm, no foul.

But no, I’m not that naïve to think that’s possible under the circumstances.  It is in itself an ideal. More to the point, many ideologies are fundamentally defined as hostile to other ideologies, and are therefore founded upon the suppression of dissent, said suppression including violence.  To my mind, this de-legitimises them right off the bat.  But that’s just my opinion.  Any belief that demands silence from those who would challenge it, isn’t worth much to my mind.

In other words, I don’t have any answers to your question beyond that feeble list of doing-good offered up earlier.  One thing I will say, however.  Every day I see acts of kindness.  Gestures of humanity.  They’re mostly small, almost inconsequential.  But they do encourage me. 

I guess that’ll have to do.

“Rejoice, A Knife to the Heart” is available in stores and on Amazon.

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