“Great Black Wave” is set in Afghanistan during another war in a future that feels so near, it may as well be today. Without spoiling too much, it’s easy to see this as a timely commentary on uninvited outsiders inserting themselves into a private conflict and making the situation so much worse. What inspired the story?
It’s funny; stories never seem to start from the kind of place you’d expect them to. In this case, “Great Black Wave” began with the ending, and nothing like its final form. All of the wider context, the bomb disposal team, the robot, the Afghanistan setting, grew out of that. In that sense—and I suppose this is always the case to some extent—the particular themes and background were a combination of pragmatism and my own preoccupations. A bomb disposal robot and rural Afghanistan as a location were an interesting way into the tale I wanted to tell; but in turn they offered an opportunity to look through a different lens at the subject of one culture forcibly intervening in the affairs of another with predictably disastrous results.
This is an interesting horror story in that the speculative element must compete with, or complement, very real horrors soldiers and civilians live with every day. Did you hope the ending would seem so strangely optimistic? Or at least not as dark as one might expect?
It is a strangely optimistic ending, isn’t it? I certainly didn’t plan it that way. I think that’s something that grew out of the research; it’s hard to come away from any reading on the subject of conflict in the so-called Greater Middle East with a sense of optimism, and Afghanistan in particular has suffered such extraordinary and sustained levels of violence over the decades. So I suppose that by the time I got to the end of “Great Black Wave,” the notion of a threat that nevertheless would bring peace and equality didn’t seem quite as awful as it might have otherwise.
The setting is so vivid and the military details seem realistic, but readers’ impressions of Afghanistan have also been shaped by news, television, and films, which shockingly may not be the best representations! Have you been to Afghanistan or have any combat experience—or did you consult anyone who has? How did you research this story to get it to feel authentic?
I have a little bit of insider knowledge in that I worked for the Ministry of Defence for a number of years, but mostly my research consisted of reading Bomb Hunters by Sean Rayment to get a feel for what being on a bomb disposal team was like, and sections of Jason Burke’s On the Road to Kandahar for general atmosphere. That, and a fair bit of hunting around on the internet; sometimes just scouring photos can be a great way into a setting.
As I read “Great Black Wave,” I had the podcast Serial in the back of my mind; season two, which recently ended, has been about Bowe Bergdahl and his capture by the Taliban. Have you been following the podcast or the case?
I’m not familiar with either, I’m afraid. I’m shamefully ignorant of current affairs; I don’t watch TV or read the news, so I tend to be the last one to hear about anything!
You have been incredibly prolific in the last decade, beginning with a flurry of short story sales in 2007, and publishing consistently and fluidly across different genres and formats. Can you talk about your path to publication? How long had you been writing before your first sale, and did something change or “click” that led to such a strong debut?
I think that when you’re writing seriously, things are always changing and clicking. You’re always challenging yourself, and sometimes those challenges pay off and you level up a little bit. Certainly, it’s easy to look back over the last few years and see a series of plateaus, where I figured something new out and got noticeably better all of a sudden. If there was a shift all those years ago, though, it was perhaps more to do with admitting that I wanted to write genre fiction, and that I didn’t need to feel bad about that; I’d wasted a few years in noodling at would-be literary things that I never dared send off. But much more even than that, I think it was to do with deciding that writing was what I wanted to do, and that I was ready to put in the time and work to make that happen.
For the last year, you’ve been subjecting yourself to anime from the 1990s and blogging about the experience. (I’m hoping you’ll eventually get to one of my favorite shows, The Irresponsible Captain Tylor!) What has most surprised you about this experiment? Have you discovered any new favorites? And has any of it seeped into or influenced your own fiction?
The Irresponsible Captain Tylor is on my wanted list!
I think that if one thing has surprised me, it’s how much anime developed within a single decade. It’s quite extraordinary the way the medium flourished and developed in such a relatively tiny period, and the way that animation techniques advanced.
I’ve discovered many new favourites, but I don’t want to discourage people too much from reading the blog posts! So I’ll just mention Armitage III, which has become something of a comfort watch, if only for Hiroyuki Namba’s brilliant soundtrack, and Orguss 02, which is a real under-seen classic that’s not too hard to find.
As for influences, absolutely. Though I haven’t been blogging about it so much, I’ve also been catching up on the last decade and a half of anime, and altogether that’s been having a big effect on the work I’ve been producing over the last few months. Hopefully, it mostly shows through in subtle ways that maybe only I would spot, but it’s definitely there.
What other work do you have out now or forthcoming?
In terms of recent stuff, my debut novella Patchwerk came out at the start of the year from Tor.com, and soon after that there was my first collection of short fiction, The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories; that’s mostly horror and dark fantasy, so anyone who enjoyed “Great Black Wave” might want to give it a look. Coming up, and if all goes to plan, the back end of the year should see the release of my fourth novel, as well as at least one issue of mine and Anthony Summey’s comic book miniseries, C21st Gods, due from Rosarium.
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