Sunday, December 6, 2009

6 + 1 Interview: Ken Scholes

Ken Scholes is one of the best new speculative fiction talents this decade. The first two volumes of his five-book The Psalms of Isaak appeared just this year: Lamentation (February) and Canticle (October). Find out more at his website by clicking here. (Disclosure: Tor sent me a free advanced reader copy of Canticle; I bought my own copy of Lamentation.)

Lobster & Canary: You've located the missing sections of Rufello's Book of Specifications ... what might those include?

Ken Scholes: Schematics for mechoservitors, drawings of metal wings, sketches of the prototype Ship that Sailed the Moon from the Czarist Lunar Expedition.

L & C: Several reviewers have called Lamentation and Canticle a hybrid of science fiction and fantasy. The lobster and the canary won't let genre analysis get in the way of a damned good story, but we are interested in your take on literary classification. Incidentally, we applaud the references to Elric, Solomon Cane, and the Gray Mouser in Canticle's dedication... and the spirit of Jack Vance that you gently invoke.

Ken: Thank you. Oddly enough, I've read very little Vance though I suppose that makes the invocation more powerful. Since writing Lamentation I've been urged by many to tackle his Dying Earth stories...after I finish the series. But those mentioned in the dedication are certainly mighty influences, along with the characters and worlds of Cordwainer Smith and Frank Herbert.

I think literary classification is largely to help booksellers know where to place a book on a shelf so that readers can find it. With The Psalms of Isaak, I'm really not trying to write to a particular genre. I'm just telling the story of the people in that world and how their lives were changed by the unfolding events. I know that's discombobulated some because those expecting epic fantasy are surprised by the robots and those expecting science fiction are surprised by the magick.

L & C: Your plot so far is a masterwork of intricacy, bluff and double-bluff, truly a "Whymer's Maze." Like the Bene Gesserit with their breeding program in Dune and the science of psychohistory in Foundation, some power appears to be controlling the fates of individuals and destiny of nations. Even more subtle, some (like Vlad Li Tam) may be less in control than they (and the reader) originally thought. Talk to us about the role of free will and personal choice in The Psalms of Isaak.

Ken: I think it's certainly a key exploration in the series for me. Along with the intentional manipulation of both environment and people to preserve and protect the leftovers of humanity in a world that's seen cataclysm after cataclysm. In this series, I'm also exploring the duality of our propensity for self-destruction and our tenacious will to adapt and survive...and the lengths that people will go to in order to protect what they believe in or destroy what they fear.

L & C: The story after two volumes is a grim one: it starts with the destruction of an entire city, and continues through betrayal, torture, warfare, suicide and so on. Many malicious acts, yet no character is wholly or simply Malice Incarnate... unlike the "dark lords" and their ilk in countless fantasy novels. The lobster & the canary see your work as something far more nuanced and much more thought-provoking, an attempt to grapple with serious issues of morality, the nature of evil, theodicy. (As Gandalf remarks, even Sauron was not evil in the beginning.) Tell us more about motivation, morality and the use of power in The Psalms of Isaak.

Ken: I appreciate your kind words. I'm not sure that I started out intentionally grappling with these things -- it's largely been beneath the surface and surprising me as it shows up. But I think these are natural explorations for many of us in the wake of 9/11. I think villains often see themselves as guardians, patriots, messiahs and heroes...and truly, I'm not certain that the concept of villains and heroes is much more than perspective in many instances, though certainly not in all instances.

I think we're critters who like to attach labels to things and to people and that sometimes it's simpler to ascribe good to what we love and evil to what we are afraid of, disagree with or do not understand. But Real Life is more complex than that. I'm not suggesting that there isn't good and evil but I'm suggesting that often we attach that judgment without necessarily asking ourselves all of the hard questions about how our perceived enemy in turn perceives us.

Particularly in this series, I've created a society of survivors who have evolved a morality that emphasizes survival at all costs with the ends justifying the means. I think you're correct that many books in our genre have more clearly delineated lines of good and evil and I suspect that's appealing because at the core of us, we wish it were that simple and when we read for escape and entertainment, we want to escape into a world that makes more sense than the one we live in. However, I think by exploring these concepts in fiction it can give us a safe sandbox to explore different thoughts and feelings and ideally still be entertained and feel as if we're participating in a good story.

L & C: Another facet of your work's complexity is the learning the characters undergo, often quite painfully. The lobster & the canary see The Psalms as a crossing of medieval mystery plays and Pilgrim's Progress with The Sorrows of Young Werther, laced with the practical, rooted wisdom that Le Guin gives us in the Earthsea cycle. Share with us a sense of the trajectory (the path of Bildung, if you will) for the major characters in the next three novels.

Ken: I think character growth, particularly through conflict, is an important part of storytelling. The trajectory for all of the characters is that they will change, stretch, and grow as they adapt to new lives and new roles after the Desolation of Windwir. The details may shift a little but I have most of it in mind. I try to keep my characters all on the dual journey of internal conflict brought about as they stand or fall against the external conflict they encounter along the way.

L & C: Bravo for the special mention of the cover art in your introduction! We fully agree that the covers by Greg Manchess capture the somber mood and dramatic tension of the story. Will you be working with Greg on the final three covers? Hmmm, we wonder if Irene Gallo (Tor's art director) might consider a special illustrated volume or some kind of Scholes-Manchess collaboration in web format.

Ken: Irene is brilliant at what she does. And I'm deeply impressed with Greg's work in general and specifically with my covers. I really have little say in that and truly don't feel I need to. I did have some unexpected input into the second cover (which can be read about in an article at but that's pretty rare and I really trust Tor and Greg to figure out the best art to catch a potential reader's eye. My job is to write books.

I'd love to work with Greg on other projects if that opportunity comes up and I would love to see an illustrated edition someday. But for now, I just can't wait to see what he dreams up for Antiphon's cover.

L & C: Your turn to ask the lobster & the canary a question!

Ken: If you were going to interview one of the main characters in the series who would it be and what questions would you ask? And I'll throw in a second question: Is there a minor player in the series that you'd like to see and hear more from?

L & C: We're still pondering these two good questions...the lobster has one idea, the canary another (another two or three actually, as is his wont, being more mercurial)...we'll reconcile water and air, posting our joint response as a coda shortly.

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