Interview with Kameron Hurley (THE WORLDBREAKER SAGA)
Kameron Hurley is the award-winning author of The Worldbreaker Saga, comprising The Mirror Empire (2014), Empire Ascendent (2015) and now the final volume The Broken Heavens (2020) is out with Angry Robot. The Worldbreaker Saga is a dizzyingly inventive work of epic Fantasy, bringing together parallel universes, sentient plants and star magic whilst critiquing colonialism and exploring ideas around gender. She has written feminist space opera The Stars Are Legion (2017), military SF The Light Brigade (2019) and the bugpunk trilogy the Bel Dame Apocrypha, God’s War (2010), Infidel (2011) and Rapture (2012). She is also well known for her nonfiction writing, collected in The Geek Feminist Revolution (2016).
Kameron was kind enough to talk to The Fantasy Hive about her latest novel and her writing career.
Your latest novel, The Broken Heavens, is the concluding part of the Worldbreaker Saga and is out this month from Angry Robot. Would you be able to tell us a bit about it?
The Broken Heavens is the final book in the Worldbreaker trilogy, which follows the stories of five very different people thrust to the center of an ancient recurring event where multiple versions of other worlds try to annihilate each other. There’s sentient plants, and star magic, and polyamorous matriarchies, and epic battles for control of the single world that is destined to survive the event.
The Worldbreaker Saga is incredibly complex, with parallel universes, magic derived from stars and sentient plants. Where did the idea for this come from? How challenging was it to tie everything up satisfyingly in only three volumes?
I’ve been working on various versions of this world since I was nineteen or twenty, so it took a long time to develop and refine. I’m a huge fan of the “alternate universe” episodes that various pieces of science fiction television create, and I enjoyed the first couple of seasons of Fringe, which gave me an easy comp title for the series when I was pitching it. Thematically, the idea that the bad guys are “us” and we are fighting ourselves was a very juicy idea, to me. I loved how it added further complexity to the morality of the story.
When my agent approached me about this project, I told her I had originally envisioned it to be fifteen books; a sprawling, Wheel of Time-esque type of project, which I figured I could do it in five books if I really focused. She was like, “That’s nice, but you need to do it in three books.” She was, as ever, right. Even my initial contract was only for two books. If the first book performed well, they would be willing to look at a third, but a trilogy was not a guaranteed thing. Wrapping it all up in a way that both I and readers would find satisfying took a huge amount of work.
The Worldbreaker Saga deals with gender in interesting ways. The Dhai recognise five genders, the Saiduan three, and the Dorinah two. But you also have characters like Taigan, a Saiduan whose gender identity doesn’t fit in any of those. Was this something you were particularly interested in exploring when you wrote the books?
I study gender presentation and conceptions of gender throughout history, so yes, this was a topic I was very interested in. Many existing cultures and older cultures have had more than one gender – and also conceived of “proper” gender roles for men and women VERY differently than we do today- and I wanted to look at some other ways that societies might conceptualize gender.
With the relationship between the Dhai and the Saiduan, who used to enslave them, there’s a lot of exploration of colonialism and the legacy of violence. Is this something you feel epic fantasy could be exploring more of?
Older fantasy tends to explore these issues as background to the machinations of the characters, but we’re seeing an increase in modern fiction that does feature those who have been enslaved/colonized front and center and makes them the heroes of the story instead of the ones acted upon or supportive of the heroes. There’s always room for more, of course, but it’s certainly a theme I see more of as the genre broadens.
You’ve also written the Bel Dame Apocrypha, starting with God’s War, which features matriarchal societies with Islamic elements. You’ve referred to it as ‘bugpunk’ because of all the weird insect technology. What inspired this particular combination of ideas?
When I shopped that novel, most of the rejections that came back said something to the effect of “We don’t know how to market this. It’s not science fiction. It’s not fantasy. It’s not urban fantasy. It’s not space opera. What is it?” So I decided to make up a genre that described it: bugpunk!
God’s War won the Golden Tentacle Kitschies Award for best debut, and was nominated for the Clarke Award and the BSFA Award. What was that like as a reaction to your first published novel?
Certainly it was a big boost to my ego, the first time out. Especially considering how many publishers initially passed on it or later cancelled the contract. I had some hope that the genre as a whole would shift soon. And it has! Though certainly not quickly enough for those books to make me a comfortable living. They still roll along with a nice cult following though.
By this stage in your career you’ve written two complete trilogies and two standalone novels. Do you always know whether a story will take up a single book or become a series when you start writing it?
I generally plan it out. It can be difficult to sell related books unless you have something that hits the publishing zeitgeist at just the right moment. It needs to be something powerful that editors know they can easily present to sales teams and get buy-in. My stuff still tends to be a bit… weirder, though I’m getting better at pitching my work and developing stronger literary structures. Certainly my last few books have done very well. The irony is, of course, the two that did best… were conceived as standalone novels!
Your work frequently engages with the messiness of embodiment, particularly strongly in The Stars Are Legion, which is full of bodily fluids and weird pregnancies. Is this an important aspect of the human experience which we don’t see that often in genre fiction?
I’ve always had a contentious relationship with my body, as has everyone who is constantly reminded that they have one, whether through many gross bodily reminders or through issues related to chronic illness and disability. Older science fiction tends to posit a less messy world, one bereft of gooey bodies and emotions, one built on pure logic. But relying on pure logic to move minds is a myth. Human beings don’t make decisions based on logic. They make them based on emotions, and then back them up with logic. If it’s relevant to the story, my characters have all sorts of ailments, from urinary tract infections to grievous wounds that impact their everyday lives. I want to portray the messiness of being human. It can be easy to ignore our bodies until something doesn’t “work” the way we think it should.
Your work frequently combines elements from SF, fantasy and horror. Do you feel genre boundaries are there to be played with?
Not really. I understand that genre categories primarily exist as marketing categories. “If you liked book X you might like this other book in the same section!” But as we know as readers, genre markers tend to be very broad as well. I aspire to write “Kameron Hurley books” and cultivate a readership that’s interested in many of the same things I am; creating an even more niche marketing category inside the categories!
I write what interests me, and that means I draw from within many genres, not just science fiction, fantasy, and horror, but literary fiction, mysteries, and thrillers too. All of these contain tropes and structures that can help me tell stories in the best way possible.
You’ve talked frankly about the business side of writing, both in your Locus column and on your twitter and blog. Do you feel demystifying this side of the publishing business is important?
I do. I know many new writers believe that their first book will 1) sell right away 2) for a lot of money 3) and they don’t think about taxes. The financial and business side of writing isn’t taught in those creative writing courses. There’s this assumption that if you just write great books everything else will work out. While there may be some examples of that happening… they are few and far between. Most writers I know who do this full time are either very savvy business people or have very savvy business people in their lives, like a spouse, who manages the money, health insurance, and household.
If you think about writing novels as being a working class job, like being a fry cook, a janitor, or working as wait staff, then the money part will be about on par with your expectations. But if you expect to make a middle class or upper middle class living right out the gate, you might end up feeling like a failure. And it’s not a failure! Writing and publishing books that move people is a great achievement. It’s important not to let the realities of the business part take that joy away from you.
What’s next for Kameron Hurley?
I have a science fiction thriller, LOSING GRAVITY, coming out from Saga Press next year. I describe it as “Killing Eve meets Die Hard, in space.” That’s my feverish bit of work right now. I also plan on publishing another short story collection next year, as my work for subscribers over on Patreon has me writing a short story every month, which gives me a lot of material to choose from!
After that, I’d like to get back into writing some series work again, either a Weird 80’s murder mystery, series of pulp novellas, or an epic political fantasy. Maybe all three!
Thank you Kameron Hurley for talking with us!