Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Money That Cuts Like a Sword - Seth Dickinson

We live in a time of accidental conspiracy.

Our fate — your fate, my fate, the destiny of everyone we love and all those we detest — is ruled by a global network of money, politics, and violence. This power surrounds us at all times. It influences our choices. Sometimes it topples entire nations. No one really understands how this system works, even though it would vanish overnight if we stopped operating it.

That system has the capability to annihilate itself in just a few hours of nuclear exchange. That's pretty crazy, if you think about it. And it's more crazy that the stability of the system depends, in part, on that threat.

We live on a suspension bridge, kept up by tension in the cables — and one of the cables is extinction.

It sounds fantastic, doesn't it? Almost supernatural. Forces beyond any mortal mind shape our lives! But we're constantly nonplussed. The global economy crashes and we sigh: oh, not again.

Somehow, we've made the daemon that runs our lives...kind of boring.

We need to make it exciting! We need to be thrilled and engaged. If we don't care about how the world works, we'll never fix it. But good luck trying to get addicted to articles about collateralized debt obligations or gerrymandering.

Enter fantasy!

Enter The Traitor Baru Cormorant, my debut novel: the tale of a brilliant young woman trying to rip apart an empire from the inside. Baru's frozen out of military and political power. She has to complete her mission without an army or a voice in government — at least until she can build her own army, and her own shadow government.

I wanted to write a fantasy about powerful, brilliant people battling for world domination. I wanted them to wield incomprehensible might — the power to alter millions of lives with one perfect, subtle incantation.

So I made Baru an accountant. She runs a bank. Kind of a weird choice for a book I'm trying to sell as an action-packed thriller, right?

I can't stand boring books. So I knew I had to solve a big problem. How do we make economics and politics as exciting as a swordfight, a battle against pirates, or open war? The book has all these things, but I wanted it to feel taut and thrilling even when Baru was behind a desk. The banking schemes and political maneuvers had to feel as lively, dangerous, and compelling as a duel to the death.

A good fight scene requires only two things, dear reader: rules and stakes. Rules so that we know how the fighters can win and lose. Die Hard works because we know that John McClane will get hurt if he steps on broken glass — and die if he gets shot. But Superman fighting Zod in Man of Steel doesn't work, because we have no idea how many super-punches it takes to kill Superman or Zod. It's all just noise and light.

And we need stakes, so that we care about who wins. When Ellen Ripley goes back to rescue Newt in Aliens, we care, because we want her to save her surrogate daughter! When Iron Man fights Thor in The Avengers, we...don't really care. It's violence without stakes or consequence. They get over it with a few quips.

And the clearer the rules, the sharper the stakes (not higher, mind, but sharper), the more we care! This is what's hard about writing thrilling economics. When Jaime Lannister gets his hand chopped off, we understand deep down what that means. We know he can't swordfight any more, and we know that it hurts. We know he'll be maimed for the rest of his life. Physical action is intuitively exciting, because we already know the rules and stakes.

But if Baru decides to lower the interest rate...who cares? So it's easier to borrow money. Yawn. Maybe a peasant can pay for a new horse, and avoid bankruptcy. But we've never met that peasant. We don't care. And what is an interest rate, anyway?

If you want to write thrilling economics and engaging politics, you need rules and stakes. You need the reader to understand, intuitively and without effort, what could go wrong — just like they do when someone picks up a knife by the blade. And you need a reason to care if something goes wrong.

So here's my advice, readers and writers:

We already know the rules of politics and economics, just like we know to be scared of that knife. What hurts us, in our day-to-day lives? We're not scared of swords. We're afraid of shame. We're afraid of disappointing the people who're counting on us. We're afraid of injustice — being robbed, exploited, or used. We're afraid of being alone.

Economics is the art of what people want, and how they get it. Politics is the art of convincing people to do what needs to be done. When you lose a money game, you get robbed, exploited, and used. When you lose a political gambit, you let down your supporters and shame yourself in front of everyone. Your dreams wither. Maybe you're imprisoned, or exiled, or executed by drowning. Maybe you just live a ruined life.

And if you're Baru, a deep-cover agent reporting to nobody but herself, on a life-long mission to liberate your home, then you're already so alone.

Before any swordfights, heists, cavalry charges, or exploding ships, Baru's best weapon is a pen and a sharp mind. She tracks movement and glances at parties, to map secret alliances. She detects treason in the back pages of secret ledgers. She exploits her own tax system to fund a rebel army. If she's discovered, she'll be drowned for treason and doom her parents to a life of slavery. Rules and stakes! 

In the end, a story is all about people. You don't need to explain the relationship between the money supply, inflation, and price levels — you just need to explain why someone in your story cares about it. 

If a reader loves a character, they'll follow her into anything. Even tax codes. 

Fantasy is powerful. When the Dark Lord invades with an army of ugly orcs, we know we should be afraid. But the world isn't threatened by a Dark Lord these days. It's threatened by the very daemon that made us so rich and powerful.

We need to claim that daemon's incomprehensible power for ourselves! We need to understand a bit of how the world works, and work and vote and labor to make it better. That's why I wrote a fantasy about a young woman who understands money and politics as well as she understands treachery and war — because she cares about the things we need to care about.

The Traitor/The Traitor Baru Cormorant is available to purchase/preorder from all good online retailers and bricks and mortar stores. You can check out some links here at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Booktopia, and Book Depository. More information can also be found here at Pan Macmillan for Australian residents. 

We here at Smash Dragons had the opportunity to read this a few weeks ago, and damn we were impressed. A truly magnificent entry in the genre, and a must read for all speculative fiction fans!

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