Interview with Steven Erikson

The Malazan Book of the Fallen series and novels are like most fantasy works not only inspired by ancient history. The use of explosive devices by a Malazan sapper or the capitalistic theme of the Letherii Empire have of course not much to do with classic antiquity.  For the sake of the congres’ theme the focus of this interview will be on antiquity and more  specifically the ancient Greeks and Romans. This does not mean that remarks about influences from other cultures or time era’s are not welcome. Because the lore of the Malazan world is so rich I will only be able to cover a small part of it.  Speaking about the lore, it might be interesting to remember or teach our readers that the background and narrative foundation of the series was invented when both writers were playing roleplaying games in the 80’s. What started as part of a game grew out to be one of the most impressing and complex fictional universes of the fantasy genre. Both authors will be given the same questions so that the readers can comparise and reflect abouter the answers.

Steven Erikson

What kind of role did ancient history or classical culture play in your youth? Did it inspire you later on as a writer?

ERIKSON:  My undergraduate degree involved a major in anthropology (archaeology, physical anthropology and cultural anthropology) with minors in History and Classical Studies.  When I graduated I had a working knowledge of human history from the emergence of hominids through to the fall of Constantinople (alas, I retain only fragments of that knowledge).  From my first year at university, my summer work was in archaeology, working on various sites (and this side of my profession as an archaeologist continued for eighteen years).

Ancient history played a fundamental role in my development as a writer, although this was not immediately evident in my early writing, as I was writing contemporary short fiction (albeit with a recurring archaeologist character: my first published book was a story cycle called ‘A Ruin of Feathers’ which recounted a young Canadian archaeologist travelling through Central America in the early ‘80s).  The impact of my learning in the Classics, Byzantine and medieval European history, was multifaceted.  On the one hand, recorded historical events offered fertile ground for extracting plot-lines that could, with a little work, be transplanted into a fantasy setting.  Such events provided a pseudo-historical framework for the Malazan world, creating a foundation upon which we could build the lives of our characters.  In this effort we were rapacious and almost random in the selection of historical, real-world events. In many respects, we were less interested in the specific details of recorded history; rather, we sought out places that could serve to fuel our imaginations.  It was as much an exploration of the gaps in history as it was anything else – the great acts of resolve and courage that went unseen, or the crimes that went un-witnessed.  With the sensibility of archaeologists working through the detritus of fundamentally destroyed (Native American) cultures, we were profoundly conscious of the losses that accompany the rise and fall of all cultures and civilizations.  This added a melancholy to our sense of history.

Beyond plotlines, ancient history offered us something else, and that was a sense of observing, with occasional bemusement, the written confessions from people of another time, and through that touching something of the ‘otherness’ that exists in the distant past.  While there is a fair argument to be made for asserting that people have not changed much since the species first emerged, one is also invited into an imaginary foray, seeking to understand long-abandoned belief systems (turns out, not so long-abandoned after all) and world-views, most of which offer up something decidedly exotic and evocative.

Overlaying all of this was our grounding in the theory of social evolution, as promulgated by cultural anthropologists; wherein we saw all things as existing in transition, even as the more stolid elements of society fought a continuous campaign to resist such changes.  The Neo-Marxist framework was in full effect at the time in the field of cultural anthropology, and while I recall resisting some of its tenets, many remained viable and, to my mind, still do so today.  Over time, I found it possible to extract the ‘progressive’ assumptions to such theories, and to simply observe them as processes of transformation, products of adaptation and necessity.  By extension, as archaeologists we were witness to many cultures that failed in those periods of transition, which in turn led us to ask ‘why?’

The final influence that occurs to me, now, has to do with language; with the nature of story-telling, historical recounting of events, and the blending of fiction and nonfiction in primary texts produced in the Classical era.  History as propaganda; history as revisionism; history as myth and manifest destiny: and how often all these things centered on personages – great heroes and leaders, and their enemies.  Language plays games with tyranny, and no civilization’s history is immune to that.  This is, perhaps, addressing the subject in a psychological context: as writers we have a natural fascination for what goes on in an author’s or historian’s mind, when they composed their works.

What impact did studying archaeology and anthropology at college have for your further career as an author?

ERIKSON:  As I recall, it was our backgrounds in anthropology and archaeology that led us to a rejection of many of the standard tropes of epic fantasy.  Simply put, the fictional worlds presented by fantasy authors, often made no sense.  Cultures seemed randomly placed, the necessities of survival glossed over or ignored.  Geography was presented as a static and indeed, passive force.  The reverberations or ripples that travel through a landscape – the history of the cultures that had gone before, and the nature of the memories that survive, were often presented in a simplistic fashion, if acknowledged at all.  Furthermore, it often seemed the case in epic fantasy worlds, that technology itself was at a standstill (typically, the argument was that magic supplanted technology, but if nothing is so clear-cut in our world, why should it be on any other world?).  In other words, there was no sense of history, as a record of cultural change.  Cultures were fixed, their positions set in aspic, and the only dynamic force at work began with the heroes on Page 1.

We sought something else in our fiction: a sense of layers of history both recalled and forgotten, twisted and subverted, much as it exists in our world.  Accordingly, memories are confused, surviving elements are virtually random, and the psychology and sense of place among the players in our tales, is always predicated on that incomplete, but functioning, sense of place.

I make no claim of saying we were the first to do this: what I recall of those early days (as beginning writers) exists now in my mind as a time of high emotion – frustration, ambition, determination, resistance.  We were not published writers.  We were young, but finding the tracks of our ambitions with steps both uncertain and dogged.  The works that inspired us (Glen Cook comes to mind) were not counted among the giants of fantasy literature (and sadly, still aren’t, although they should be); and to us they marked a kind of divergence, away from the standard tropes of epic fantasy, and we wanted to build on what these quietly revolutionary fantasy writers were up to.

Returning to your question, on a more practical level, we both spent our summers immersed in the wilds of nature, knee-deep in the remnants of lost cultures.  What better setting for feeding the imagination?

Do you think that the past is a handy tool for creating new fictive (hi)stories?

ERIKSON:  To a certain extent, it is essential.  The future is ultimately unknowable.  The present is mostly meaningless; and for both future and present, only the past can offer up any kind of context.  Without context, the human condition is inexplicable, un-explorable, incomprehensible.

But there’s also a meta answer to this question, with respect to epic fantasy and its relationship with the real world (it does exist in other genres, of course, historical fiction coming to mind).  Whether conscious of it or not, every author writing an epic fantasy novel is engaged in a dialogue with the real world, and since the real world changes, so too does the nature of this dialogue.  It is no great challenge to look back through the history of the genre and see how the ‘timeless’ tales were each created in a context of ‘reality’ that directly impacted on the invented world and the stories in them.

What’s interesting here, for me, is how the sense of the past, as perceived by the author, shapes the fictional work, and more to the point, directs that meta dialogue between fantasy and real world.  We carry our sensibilities with us and this can have a profound effect.  If, for example, the author’s inspiration and sense of the past is framed in terms of nostalgia, we get Lord of the Rings.  If, on the other hand, an author’s sense of the past is one of confusion, trauma and disenchantment, we get Glen Cook’s The Black Company.

My dialogue and my sensibilities of the past (personal and cultural) are essential aspects to my work in the Malazan series, and I am sure Ian Esslemont would say much the same.

How important do you consider the historical background is for your fans. What is it that draws most of  your readers:  a good storyline or  the pleasure to discover an entire world in which all events of the narrative unfold?

ERIKSON:  The truth is, it’s never easy for an author to answer such questions.  From the author’s perspective, it’s down to story: to characters and their lives.  Everything else is there to provide a sense of authenticity.  I don’t expect all my readers to have degrees in history, and in any case, both Cam (Ian Esslemont) and I made a point of disengaging what we took from Earth history and reordering it to defy easy correlation.  Often, we worked directly against Earth-bound expectations and prejudices regarding cultures (part of that dialogue), and we extended this to the very language we used.

Everyone has a sense of history: not as a subject to be studied, but as living beings, and it is this sense that we aim to tap into, on a personal level.  Naturally, what we’re up to doesn’t grab everybody.  Readers look for different things in the stories they read: every novel is self-selecting in terms of its audience.

The religious sphere in the Malazan world seems to be greatly inspired by the ancient

Roman and Greek religions. Gods and humans for example aren’t that different from each other except for the great powers that divinities have at their disposal. The gods are described as individuals  who are prone to the same feelings, strengths and weaknesses as men. This makes them fearful beings because the slightest whim is enough for them to act in destructive way. They also often don’t care about the religious intentions which lay behind the worshipping of their believers as long as they are being worshipped. There are few dogma’s.   As in ancient Greek and Roman  religions there exists a category of beings between gods and the common mortal which you call ‘ascendants’.  They are much like the heroes of classic mythology and literature, who are destined for great deeds. Their paths are often full of the kind of hardship and evil worthy of a classic tragedy. 

There are of course also differences with these ancient religions. The existence of a defined priest caste in the Malazan world is one of them. Rites and religious acts don’t play as an important role as in the classical cultures.   The will of religious communities seems to have a great influence upon the deeds and personality of a god. Their beliefs and prayers determine how a god is acting even if it is against his will. The seagod Mael for example loathes the fact he can’t always behave as he would like to because of his worshippers.  Could you comment  or add something to these remarks?

ERIKSON: This area, to my mind, lies at the heart of the inspiration we took from the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, in creating the Malazan world.  It was the fascinating interplay of chthonic and Olympian belief systems in the Classical era that formed the basis of the Malazan religions; and from this we generated much of the conflict presented in our series (and in the role-playing games that preceded it).  On one level, characters dealing with extant, physical gods (all as capricious as Zeus and company) are faced with a battle of wills – and free will is central to the series’ conflicts, but the issue, as you say, goes both ways; while on another level, the characters reflect the human condition of reconciliation with an indifferent, capricious Nature.  The elevation of characters to ‘ascendancy’ reflects, partly, a modern take, in its meritocratic implications; but also, and perhaps more mundanely, ascendancy also reflect the role-playing origins of the world, as we played characters who reached godhood during the many years of gaming.

As for the chthonic element, well, this appealed to our anthropological backgrounds, and our fascination with primitives forms of magic, animism, sympathetic magic, and so on.  But also, the fact that your average ancient Greek seems to have reconciled the two levels of faith (the chthonic being one of modest appeasement, while the Olympian one serving a less certain but perhaps more complicated function) offered a curious answer to the disconnect of competing beliefs.  It all seemed so … practical, and pragmatic, and that appealed to us.

Incidentally, it also offered us two levels to magic use in the Malazan world, which allowed us to keep things mysterious and not locked-in, with respect to the ‘rules’ of magic.

The relationship between worshipers and their gods in the Malazan world probably reflects, to some extent, that dialogue with the real world I mentioned earlier, as (at least in the West), a crisis of faith has been an endemic force in modern history.  The disengagement of faith with morality has turned out to be a messy affair.  Add to this the subversion of belief systems to serve secular ambitions (whether they be in the nature of repression or overt threat, often in the context of tyranny).  This was the stew in the real world (it should be obvious by now, that we never saw epic fantasy as pure escapism.  That form of dialogue seems founded on denial, and denial interested neither of us), and something of that heady flavour no doubt seeped into the basic conflicts recounted in the Malazan world.

Lastly, the Malazan series is infused with the artistic precepts of tragedy.  In many respects, and for myself, my Malazan novels are more tragedies with fantastical elements that fantasies with tragic elements, and for all that I unabashedly look back to Homer (and, intellectually, the views of Aristotle on tragedy’s cathartic value).

Are there any other (ancient) religions on which you based your own creations? Ancient Egyptian or Eastern religions for example?

ERIKSON:  Well, we stole from everywhere.  Cam has more knowledge of the Eastern stuff than I do, and no doubt he will speak to that in his response.

The Egyptian example, however, is a curious one.  Ancestor worship occurs in the Malazan world, but nowhere to the extent of ancient Egypt; but even there, I personally admit to some skepticism regarding present-day interpretations from the discipline of Egyptology.  I recall watching some show relating excavations of a pre-Dynastic site wherein a local king was buried with all his servants, counselors, slaves, priests, etc; and of course the explanation was that the king needed his staff when in the underworld.  A more Machiavellian interpretation immediately occurred to me: what better way to insure the loyalty of your advisors than taking them all with you?  I’ll go out on a limb and suggest here that both factors were probably in play.  The official justification was steeped in religious terms; the practical reasons weren’t mentioned at all.

If I’m right, then this dynamic strikes me as a more realistic way of looking back on ancient civilizations and their religious practices.  Even ritual has a pragmatic function, replete with mundane necessities, mostly involving power and social control.  Fear need not have a god’s face, but it helps.

The pantheon also has a lot of common characteristics with antiquity’s religions. The distinction between Elder and Younger gods is one of them for example. Hood, the god of death, is very much like the god Hades/Pluto. His somber personality  and realm reminds me a lot of the ancient god of the dead. Krul (elder god) and his creation of the warrens makes me think of Ouranos (also an elder god) who created the universe.

Without doubt, we liked the notion of Titans, Lapiths, the old being torn down by the new; and we also liked some other origin myths for other gods (Vanir and Aesir, etc).  This underscored, in the novels, our push for a world that has changed and continues to change.  Things are replaced, things are forgotten.  The past is destroyed again and again, but each time imperfectly.  One effect of this interest was to infuse the Malazan world with plenty of mystery.

How important was the Roman empire as an inspirational framework for the  Malazan, Letherii and First empires.  Which elements of  Roman political, economical and military institutions and history were projected upon these realms? Are there any other historical empires, kingdoms, republics…you’ve looked at for the creation of fictional political entities?

ERIKSON:  In our push away from the standard tropes of epic fantasy, we made a point of discarding the feudal, Medieval Europe model for our fantasy world.  This left us open to choose as inspiration other periods and other civilizations.  Because much of the gaming was founded on military and political themes, and we had characters forging an empire; and because we had invoked gaming rules not allowing plate armour in the knightly fashion, the obvious choice was that of Rome.  Having said that, we only extracted what we liked from that Roman model.  Of course, ‘liked’ doesn’t necessarily mean the ‘good’ or virtuous stuff: it was more of a case of what we thought was cool, and functional, and evocative.

The Malazan Empire (which is the central force for the series, although only indirectly so in later volumes) was structured on the Roman imperial style: personality based (but no senate! And no Republican past legacy!), heavy on the military, and in terms of territorial expansion, both relentless and devious in its treatment of enemies.  Divide and conquer, subjugation and pacification of conquered territories through an infusion of wealth, law and order, and making full use of existing hierarchies, all played into the Malazan form of conquest and expansion, and all belong to the Roman imperial ethos.  Having said that, some of the worst elements of the Roman model also played a role in our gaming sessions, and in the novels.  The personality cult among commanders in the armies, for example, posing a political threat to the Emperor (or Empress), was a theme we played with again and again.

There are, however, some notable deviations: while the Malazan military was inspired by the Romans, it also drew from more modern martial theories (in particular the US model for marines, Rangers and special forces, where individual initiative is encouraged, and where the chain of command is not too rigid).  And where the problem of isolation and logistics plagued the Roman expansion, the Malazans had recourse to magic.

Nonetheless, some basic tenets of successful military expansion and the control and pacification of conquered territories, via the building of military-grade roads, the opening up of trade, the imposition of a proper justice system – all part of the Roman system – seemed logical and efficacious solutions to the building of an empire.  Of course the Romans were not entirely unique in employing such methods, but then, they did it very well.

So, we drew a lot from the Roman model of empire-building, warts and all, and plunged our characters into the mess, where politics and war were the driving forces of change.  What made the gaming so interesting was the manner in which the players were thrown challenges in terms of logistics, theory and practice, when it came to running an empire.  When Cam and I were doing the solo gaming (just him and me, with one of us ‘running’ the campaign and alternating in that role), the gamed world reflected that singular, one-person-every-solution characteristic, curiously reflecting that of megalomaniacal tyrants (and this amused us no end, and often we just played it up in the gaming sessions).  While, in sessions involving groups of players, the issues of command, logistics, etc, often descended into chaos.  And that, too, was amusing.

Lastly, one of the themes that always interested us, was the clash of a dominant, expanding civilization running up against foreign opposition.  But we also played both sides of such conflicts, recognizing the virtues of both (and, to some extent, neither).  If we were ‘historians’ we played no favourites.

Leaving the gaming antecedents for the moment, if one looks at the rebellion that takes place in Seven Cities, a subcontinent conquered by the Malazan Empire, that opens my second novel, Deadhouse Gates, one might, depending on their slant, initially take the view of the residents of Seven Cities being freedom-fighters, flinging off the yoke of their oppressors.  And that view would be right, as far as it goes.  But, as is recounted in the novel, the liberation reveals what preceded the Malazan conquest: which was a collection of tyrannical despots savagely oppressing their own people, while descending into hedonistic anarchy.  In other words, there’s always two sides to such things.

The old cliché of history being written by the victors has a certain veracity, but for the purposes of fiction, of creating a fictional world, it is far less interesting than a stance where even in winning everyone loses.  As an example:  I recently picked up a book on Charlemagne (oh dear the writing style was profoundly dull, so I won’t name the author), and noted in passing a rather indifferent recounting of Charlemagne’s campaign of genocide against the Saxons in what is now Denmark.  All the primary sources are of course Carolingian and, naturally, infused with righteous fervour.  The Saxon side, as far as I know, is untold.  But as a writer, my interest immediately shifts to the Saxons, and a desire to redress the balance, and see the tale retold in unflinching terms.

In many respects, this is what Cam and I did, first in our gaming, and then in the novels we wrote.  We weren’t as much copying this world’s history, as taking a stab at revising it.

It is obvious that barbarians as the Toblakai and Barghast have an important place in the storylines. You often draw on the ancient literary theme of the noble but primitive or savage barbarian. It’s a theme you see recur in many cultures throughout history. Were there any particular sources which you had in mind while writing about these?

ERIKSON: You’ve got the wrong guy: at no time was I ever interested in offering up a Noble Savage.  Nor was/is Cam.  We know better than to romanticize ‘primitives.’  If there were periods of grace among humans, they existed due to the handy combination of low population and plenty of resources, but once populations rose in number and resources grew scarce, the trouble starts (such a period of grace seems to have existed in Neolithic Britain, for example, when agriculture and animal husbandry first took hold.  Settlements are not defensive [although, one might argue that the last groups of hunter/gatherers were not too pleased in their forest hideaways, as trees started falling and the game vanished]: it was only later that settlements become fortresses with ditches, walls and ramparts.  As for the Americas, the very earliest European accounts of contact reported large, settled populations and plenty of evidence of warfare [for Central America, read bloodthirsty tyranny].  The landscape was managed, from North America down to the Amazon.  But then somewhere around ninety percent of the New World’s humans all died in a wave of European diseases.  Subsequent visitors and settlers found empty villages, while unknown to them, in the heartland of North America, the bison population was climbing off the charts in the absence of their primary predators [humans]; and when explorers finally penetrated the interior plains, and saw millions of bison, they were in fact witness to an aberration, and the presence of wolves and plains bears was probably a recent influx as these carnivores filled the niche left by the humans [and this didn’t last long, since humans (Europeans) then migrated in and killed them all, again].

As an archaeologist working in the Canadian boreal forest and shield regions, and having looked long and hard at bison kill sites on the plains, I don’t hesitate in asserting that human behaviour is the same no matter what culture surrounds it.  We are a profligate species [I remain convinced that the advent of agriculture was not a choice freely made, but one of necessity once all the game had been killed off.  People ended up working harder, getting smaller and living shorter lives, and suffering new diseases, all with the rise of agriculture and sedentary living].  I have camped at modern wild-rice harvesting sites in the wilderness and found them piled high with plastic garbage – one might argue that modern Native Americans have lost their culture and are therefore no longer sensitive to any oneness with Nature, but then, as archaeologists, we’ve dug up refuse heaps that are thousands of years old – the only difference being the new ones are mostly inorganic as opposed to mostly organic]).

Sorry to go on like this, but one of the tropes of fantasy that annoyed us was the noble barbarian, and without question we addressed it in what we believed was a more realistic, less romanticized fashion, in the Malazan universe.  The first quarter of House of Chains, my fourth novel, evokes my take on the whole subject of the barbarian, and in so doing plays against the noble savage cliche, and cultural and moral relativism.

Having said that, resistance against civilization is not in itself a bad thing, and the character Karsa Orlong (a ‘barbarian’) evokes this argument throughout the series (and will get his own trilogy in a few years, since I’m not yet done with that debate).

How did you came up with the Tiste-races? Were you inspired by any historical cultures or religions?

ERIKSON:  I don’t think so.  Part of rejecting fantasy tropes meant not using Orcs, Dwarves, Elves, Hobbits, etc.  But there still exists a symbolic purpose to such ‘others,’ probably involving misshapen mirrors and the fascination of imperfect reflections on humanity, which the fantasy genre allows.

Which writers, philosophers and stories out of antiquity influenced you most?

ERIKSON:  The Iliad.  Gilgamesh.  Beowulf.  The Norse Sagas.  In each instance, the notion of humanity and its self-identification, all invoke a strange otherness, and the sensibilities are both familiar and strange, and all of this is simply wonderful.  My fascination begins with the forms of storytelling – the aims of the creators of such tales – right through to the cultural details recounted.  Also, I am drawn to the distinction between drama and melodrama (which we in modern times have blurred, to our cost), to the value of tragedy as an art form, and to the universality of the human condition, and the way it retains form even as those forms are distorted by time and the aforementioned otherness.

All of this formed the underlying framework to my novels in the Malazan series, making the essence of storytelling a central theme to the series.

Which other authors do you consider as inspirations for your writing?

ERIKSON:  I look to Glen Cook, Steve Donaldson, and Frank Herbert’s Dune as primary inspirations.  In terms of admiration, I look to Robin Hobb.  Those are the ‘genre’ writers.  I was also inspired by John Gardner’s Grendel, Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, DeLillo’s The Names, Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, O’Brian’s Going After Cacciato and Hasford’s The Short-Timers, Fraser’s Flashman series.  And for my very earliest readings, which instilled in me a love fantasy, I cite Edgar Rice Burroughs, R.E. Howard, Leigh Brackett, Karl Edward Wagner, Fritz Leiber.

You both have a lot of attention for poetry at the start of chapters or within the story lines. Where does this particular attention come from? Are there any poets from antiquity you admire?

ERIKSON: curiously, my fascination is with translations of ancient poems and texts, which may seem odd in that I possess no working knowledge of any extinct languages.  So what I look for is the variations taken by different translators, and read carefully their forewards and prefaces and footnotes.  I look for differences between translations, gleaning what I can of the thinking behind choices, things emphasized or not emphasized, and so on.

It’s a peculiar fascination, I know, but there it is.

As for the writing of the poems, I actually work from similar principles: I work as if I am translating.  But I also love the oral origins of poetry, and most of my poems work far better when spoken out loud, than they do on the page.  In fact, the rhythms when set on the page, line by line, are often wonky, even discordant.  I love that, and when challenged I can read any particular poem, and see comprehension hit my audience – where it did not exist on the page.

How did you proceed in working out the magic in the series?

ERIKSON: we worked from basic principle on usage: not a birth-right, but attained through hard-work and discipline.  We worked to make it a non-gender path to power, and then proposed that such a path would prevent the existence of sexism, of exclusionary hierarchies of power.

As for the mechanics of the magic itself, we left that fairly open, and so it remains.

Do you think there is a difference between the European and American fantasy public?

One could say that the classical culture or even more recent history tends to appear more ‘exotic’ to an American than a European. Do you think this is true?

ERIKSON:  I see it this way: it’s all down to publishers.  In general (but by no means universally), US publishers tend to underestimate the sophistication of American readers: accordingly, they feed to low expectations and justify this by pointing fingers at sales figures, etc.  But that’s a self-serving, self-fulfilling process.  It’s just like school: expect more of your students and they’ll rise to the occasion.  Expect less and they’ll sink into the mire, with a sneer on their lips (funny how so many colleges and universities, caught up in money-making over education, are in fact dumbing down programs, presumably to get more students and therefore more money, and by doing so, stupidly de-value their own product.  It’s like runaway inflation but of education instead of currency.  So administrations ooh and ahh over the golden bullet they put in the gun, even as they jam the barrel to their temples and proceed to squeeze the trigger).

European publishers, on the whole, do not underestimate their readers (I speak only of the genres of fantasy and, perhaps, SF: I can’t speak to the drivel of confessional, self-help and cure-all books under which half the world is swamped).

Disciplines in the humanities such as history,  culture, Latin and Greek seem to lose more and more their place in today’s world. You can witness a slow, but steady downfall of the humanities in academic institutions.  Society is more interested in disciplines with a direct and more practical use. How do you feel about this? How do you think this originated and how can we stop this negative evolution?

ERIKSON: in my more despondent moments, I view this denigration of the humanities as a conscious attack on democracy: the last thing the powers-that-be need is an enlightened, skeptical, educated population: one that might interfere with their fucking us over.  When education devolves into a business, efficiency is determined in economic terms by technocrats who wouldn’t know a Classic text if it sat on their faces.  This is the School of Business crowd and their lack of a well-rounded education goes right back to education practices in secondary school, where specialization comes too early (there is an opposite effect, where students who specialize in the humanities often [turning up as journalists, columnists, etc] then display an appalling misunderstanding of science, which they disguise under scorn and skepticism].  Specialization should come as late as possible in education, as far as I’m concerned.  To be honest, one of the reasons we first moved back to Canada, when our son was eight or nine years old, was that we didn’t want him turning out as a blinkered idiot with savant genius in one thing and one thing only [am I slamming the British education system?  Yes, I am].  In Canada, then, our son got an education that included biology, geography, chemistry, physics, math, English, history, Spanish and music: and when he decided to shift his university plans from aeronautical engineering to archaeology at the last minute, well … no problem.  The young need to be free to change their minds until the last possible moment.  Finally, isn’t it the ‘cheap’ humanities that subsidizes the ‘expensive’ programs at universities and colleges?  Kill the humanities and you’ve killed the goose – no golden eggs for you anymore, sorry.

In my less despondent moments, I try not to think about it at all.

Do you believe literature and more specially the fantasy genre are media through which we can preserve for a part our (western) historical heritage?

ERIKSON:  Yes.  Epic fantasy is the trunk of literature’s tree, and not just Western Literature.  It’s the trunk of every literature, and the modern writers of epic fantasy are keeping the tradition alive: in many ways, we are the closest writers to the roots of civilization, and, surprise, we still find a few things worth saying.

But to beat this drum (for me) is directed mostly to an audience of scholars of the fantastic (and oh, they’re not listening, since as far as they seem to be concerned, among the perennial podium-holders anyway, epic fantasy hasn’t changed since Lord of the Rings).  So I’d best beat it elsewhere (and I do).

Do you think it’s true that many students at school don’t want to learn history while at the same time they are capable of reciting  huge chunks of fictional histories by heart? If you do, how would you explain this?

ERIKSON:  I would like to think those fictional histories are in fact sly translations of the universality implicit in texts of history.  As a fiction writer, there’s a lot of sleight of hand going on in what I’m up to.  And I wonder, is it the details of a history that matters, or is it what that history can illuminate about the human condition, and our relationship to the past?  While the Malazan series is a fictional history, really, it isn’t.  It’s a universal history, or, at least, so we intended it.

So, to all you historians, here’s a secret: we’re not your enemy, and in our own way, we’re fighting your fight.  Just don’t tell our fans.


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  1. Pingback: L’Antiquité gréco-latine aux sources de l’imaginaire contemporain : Fantasy, Fantastique et Science-Fiction | Les Plumes Asthmatiques

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