Cover of 'Crytal Rain' by Tobias Buckell ISBN 0765312271 Shaun Farrell interviews Tobias S. Buckell
Shaun's Quadrant—July 2006

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Tobias S. Buckell was born in Grenada in 1979 and lived large portions of his life on boats. He fell in love with speculative fiction at a young age thanks to the books of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. He attended the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop in 1999, and has since sold more than 20 short stories. His first novel, Crystal Rain, was recently published by Tor. In the following email interview, Tobias discusses his thrilling, entertaining, and unique first novel.


Shaun Farrell: You were born in Grenada around the time a semi-Marxist government took over the country. How did this experience help inspire Crystal Rain?

Tobias Buckell: Well I guess it would mean I grew up experiencing the fear and chaos of invasion. I remember curfews and explosions and all the stuff that went along with that. I think Grenada inspired the setting of the novel more than the events that happened in it. A lot of the tropical jungle and rocky shores in the novel comes from my memories of the northern edges of Grenada.

SF: What else inspired the development of your first novel?

TB: A lot of research. When I set out to write Crystal Rain I spent a fair amount of time making a list of things that I wanted to do in this novel. I wanted a Caribbean setting, of course, but Iíve always had this obsession with the Aztecs. 15 or 20 books later I felt Iíd done enough research, and added them into my early plans for the novel.

I lived aboard boats a significant portion of my life, and most of my family still works with or aboard boats in some manner. I certainly wanted to bring in some maritime adventure to the novel, and my years of living on the sea made me partial to playing around with all that.

SF: Letís talk about some of the themes in Crystal Rain. It makes some interesting comments about the destructive nature of war and our propensity to it. A horrible price for the conflict is exacted at the end (trying not to give away spoilers here) and while it was difficult to accept as a reader, I knew you were just being honest with the story. Was that difficult for you to write, and what do you want readers to take away from that portion of your novel?

TB: War is this completely complex thing, and people of all sides have agendas to push about it. Some people want you to think that if you kill enough of the enemy you win a war Ė I call that the bodycount theory of engagement. Others think that war is always the wrong choice no matter what. Usually lines are quickly drawn and we tell ourselves simple black and white tales to try and understand what has happened.

Any war, even if win, draw, or lose, exacts a terrible price on all parties. Itís gray. Positive things are happening, negative things are happening, and usually, if you read the biographies of everyone involved, everyone thinks they were right to do what they did and has to make some hard choices. I hate reading books where if the good guys just kill enough bad guys we can wrap up the problem. Itís purely fantasy.

It was difficult to write because I want to write adventure fiction, primarily. I want to write fast moving and entertaining fiction. But I also donít want to bubble-gum things, or fall into the trap of saying the world is black and white. I wanted readers to realize that there has been a victory in the best sense of the word, but that war was indeed hellish, that the lives that had been disrupted in the novel had been really disrupted. But that there was hope ahead.

SF: Oaxyctl is a fascinating character. He is incredibly sympathetic, and I was hoping with every page that he would turn his back on the evil mission given him. Was Oaxyctl your way of showing that even the most evil enemy has good citizens living among them, and we shouldnít forget the basic humanity of those we consider enemies?

TB: I often think that everyone is the hero of their own story, and has reasons for doing what they do. Oaxyctl is a human being in an awkward situation and he is doing the best he can for himself. Sadly, heís also the bad guy because his role is to make life miserable for our main character. I tried to make him understandable, but I have to say I was surprised by how many people ended up liking Oaxyctl so much, and some readers even admitted the conflicted feeling of rooting for him.

SF: Religion is a powerful theme in Crystal Rain, especially the idea of blood sacrifice and blind devotion. Can you talk about that theme and what you strived to achieve with it?

TB: I think that blind devotion is dangerous, and it is often the feature of any given belief system (religious or otherwise) that really chills me the most. I see it often in religion, but also often in politics or other beliefs people have. Iím always interested in the things people believe. I guess one reason that the Aztecs fascinated me from a young age was that they believed in something so vastly different than the cultural norm. But the deeper I dug into their beliefs, much like any other religion, it makes its own circular sense. If you do believe in a god, or gods, then you have to offer the gods the greatest, most important thing to you as a gift.

The Biblical God of the Old Testament deserved a fatted calf, not some skinny diseased animal. What is more precious than human life? That was the Aztec point of view. And it is hardly a strange idea to religious human beings, really. There are signs of this viewpoint being around in the Old Testament, when Abraham gets ready to sacrifice his own son. Abrahamís obedience to his god is no different than the Aztecsí impulses. Their gods just followed through. Thatís what I find fascinating about it.

SF: There is a vast cultural blend of Earth descendants in Crystal Rain, with a strong focus on the Caribbean culture. What challenges did you face in showcasing such a variety of cultures?

TB: Skin color and dialogue. Dialogue is the obvious one; I chose a light dialect based on what I grew up around. I aimed to use word choice and grammar to reflect its difference. But the very fact that I chose to show that difference really upset some people. Iíve been tagged as a racist by well meaning liberals who tell me I shouldnít show Caribbean people Ďtalking ignorantly,í as well as some people calling dialect Ďbad englishí or Ďdoggerelí and so on. It says more about their own cultural assumptions, that they implicitly believe their version of the English language is superior. I find that interesting.

One person found it completely unbelievable that I would portray dialect, as obviously it would have morphed after the centuries of isolation I posited, though the same person did not seem to think my using mid-American English as a dialogue choice for other characters even something to blink at. Iím pretty sure Iíve already lost one foreign translation sale as a result.

I knew using dialect would be something somewhat controversial and that it would cause me to butt heads with linguacentric readers, but it was still tough to have those responses emailed or pointed out to me.

I also struggled to represent dialect on paper. There are so many different ways itís done, even in mainstream Caribbean literature. I didnít want to cheap out the Caribbean nature of it all, and yet I wanted it to be accessible. Iím not sure how I did, but I may have wobbled over the line somewhat effectively with the way I did it.

The skin color thing is interesting as well. Even though the main character marvels at the few white people he runs into in the novel, because I describe him as having Ďlighter skiní than the other Caribbean immigrants around him (implying a shade of brown), a lot of readers and critics translated that to mean the main character was white. In other countries or cultures more ranges of color can be recognized, but here in the US people struggle between very dualistic modes when it comes to race. Bi-racial people, or lighter skinned people, cause cognitive dissonance in a lot of people.

As a bi-racial, or mixed person myself who looks white, itís been interesting to move from a culture where many knew (my heritage) by looking at me, to a place where Iím folded up into the dominant culture.

SF: How did you settle on the title Crystal Rain, which is a reference to snow in the book?

TB: Iíd like to say I had some brilliant reason for settling on it, but it was snagged as a working title early on when I envisioned a lot of the polar scenes in the book. It just kind of stuck on, and Tor liked it, so it stayed. I got some flack for it from people who said it sounded like some sort of hard drug or new age instruction manual. Iím much fonder, however, of the titles of my second and third books, Ragamuffin and Sly Mongoose respectively. I think theyíre more reflective of whatís going on in those novels.

SF: Sailing is an important part of John deBrunís (the protagonist) life, and it gives the character a haven where he can clear his mind. You lived on a boat for many years, so what does sailing mean to you?

TB: Running around securing loose items, cleaning off anchor chains crusted with growth, and getting up way too early for a good start. Well, thatís the negative stuff. I love the feeling of moving along under the power of the wind. No fuel, no loud noise, just the slap of water and crack of sails. I do dig the whole vibe sailing has, something of a oneness with the water and air.

And the ability to just up and move your whole home appealed to me. It still does. Having a home with a basement, thatís just weird. Donít people in houses get bored of their neighbors? Want to see some cool attractions? I guess in the US you hop in the car and head out, but what if you could do that and crawl right back into your bed with all your stuff around you? I miss it.

SF: Crystal Rain has been out for a few months now. What kind of feedback have you received, besides some of what youíve already mentioned? Personally, I thought it was a great book, first novel or not!

TB: People seem to be digging it for the most part. All dialect and skin color issues I mentioned aside, most of our big reviews were positive. I know I owe huge thanks to the library periodicals, because I know a lot of libraries are carrying the book. A lot of people looking for neo-pulp adventure with a twist seem to have enjoyed it, and thatís who I want to entertain.

SF: Tell us about the process behind selling Crystal Rain to Tor? Were you signed to a multiple book deal?

TB: My agent, Joshua Bilmes, shopped it around, and of the offers Tor seemed the most excited. Paul Stevens there really went to bat for the book. He was super enthusiastic and loved it, and I owe its success to that. He talked the book up throughout Tor, and conspired with Irene Gallo who runs the art department to make sure it got a killer Todd Lockwood created cover, which I just adore. My publicists Dot Lin at Tor and Janis Ackroyd at H.B. Fenn have really been nice to a first time author as well. Itís a great group of people to have a book with.

So far I donít have a large multiple book deal with Tor, no. They liked Crystal Rain enough to snag my second novel, Ragamuffin, after seeing my proposal for it. Iím still working on the outline and proposal for my third novel Sly Mongoose. So far we seem to be going on a book at a time, but weíll see if that changes. Iíve got a couple other ideas I wouldnít mind showing them.

SF: You have a website dedicated to Crystal Rain, which is linked from www.tobiasbuckell.com. It contains lots of extras for people who have read the book, and it feels like a bonus menu on a DVD. How did this idea come about and how has it helped showcase your novel?

TB: Oh gosh, the website. Yeah, I managed to get www.crystal-rain.com after giving the former owner of it a free copy of the novel. Some squatter owns www.crystalrain.com last I checked. They asked for several thousand for it. Yeah right, I wish I had that kind of money to blow.

I posted the first 1/3 of Crystal Rain for free up on the website, as well as all my book related blog posts for the interested. The 1/3 free bit got a lot of attention from big bloggers like the Instapundit and Boing Boing, who were nice enough to link that and who I owe both big thanks.

The extras section was built to mimic the extras area of a DVD, yes. I started posting commentary, related short fiction, and other fun stuff up there when the book came out. Then I got booted from my 8-5 right around then, so all my attention focused on life adjustment. Iím just getting back to working on my websites now, so in the weeks ahead keep an eye out, weíll be posting some fun stuff. I feel guilty for that, but what can you do?

SF: What can you tell us about Ragamuffin? I think itís safe to assume, based on the title, that it takes place in the Crystal Rain universe.

TB: Youíd be correct. Some of the previous cast returns, and I bring in a whole new group of troublemakers. I call Crystal Rain my Caribbean Steampunk novel and Ragamuffin is my Caribbean Space Opera. Itís a bit bigger in scope, a bit darker in tone, and hopefully a bit more ambitious. Certainly it kicked my butt in several ways while writing it, and I learned a lot.

Iíve always wanted to put dreadlocked men in spaceships. Itís a goal Iíve been working up to the past several years. Iíve been looking forward to writing novels like this for a long time, so Iím having altogether a fantastic time doing this.

SF: Youíll soon have two novels under your belt, and youíve published dozens of short stories. Do you prefer one form over the other?

TB: I honestly lean towards novels a bit. I love reading novels far more than short fiction. The large canvas that I immerse myself in when I read means that I also enjoy writing things that do the same for readers.

SF: Who are some of your favorite writers?

TB: Vernor Vinge, Nalo Hopkinson, Arthur C. Clarke, Cordwainer Smith, Ralph Ellison, John Steinbeck, Dashiell Hammet, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Jules Verne, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, andÖ well, I could go on, but thatís a good list of names that jumps to my mind.

SF: If you could collaborate with anyone on a novel, who would it be?

TB: My spastic bursts of writing and weird late night schedule would probably make me a nightmare to work with. But Iíd have to say Karl Schroeder. He is one of the smartest hard SF writers with a sense of adventure around, and just a great guy. I love the stuff he discovers going on in the world that Iím only dimly aware of.

SF: Would you like to write books outside the genre of speculative fiction?

TB: You know, once you write in the genre itís harder to break out than the reverse. But I love hardboiled stories, and I could see doing a thriller, spy novel, or crazy Tarantino-esque caper novel. I do toy around a bit with a present day techno-thriller using a Caribbean super agent working for a super secret pan-Caribbean interests organization with dreadlocks out to befuddle the Western nations. But I have enough on my plate right now with a third SF novel ahead of me, so I have to step back on the scatterbrained tendencies I have.

SF: Tobias, is there anything else you would like our readers at Far Sector SFFH to know?

TB: I have a bunch of short fiction appearing just around the corner. The John Scalzi edited version of Subterranean Magazine is out now with a short story I co-authored with Ilsa J. Bick and the Cramer/Hartwell Yearís Best SF #11 contains my short story ĎToy Planes,í which is another piece of Caribbean SF, and you can find that in bookstores right now.

Coming soon, the magazine ĎElectric Velocipedeí has a long short story of mine in its next issue which will be out for World Fantasy. And Iíll be appearing in a Worldcon related anthology about Space Cadets.

Of course, I blog like mad about all sorts of stuff over at www.tobiasbuckell.com if anyone is interested in following the madness.

Copyright © 2006 by Shaun Farrell. All Rights Reserved.