David Walton is the author of Quintessence (which I highly recommend) and Terminal Mind, which won the 2008 Philip K. Dick Award for best paperback science-fiction novel that year. David recently took some time out to answer some of my questions and to let us know what he is currently working on. More information can also be found at his website. One commenter will win a hardback copy of Quintessence.
Bill Capossere: Why did you set Quintessence in the sixteenth century? What about the time period attracted you or made you think it fertile ground for a fantasy novel?
David Walton: The sixteenth century was a remarkable time. It was the age of exploration, when European sailors were taking dangerous voyages to discover new lands and people, as well as the very beginning of the modern era of science, when an experimental approach to discovering truth was just starting to challenge the reliance on authority and superstition. Copernicus died in this century, and Galileo was born. For a fantasy novel exploring the conflict between scientific and religious modes of thought, it was the perfect time period to write about.
As you say, we see the scientific process coming into shape and how these characters start to feel their way toward theories we take for granted today — atoms, natural selection and adaptation, etc. — even as the theories are informed by the characters’ views on religion. Did you have any concerns some readers might be bothered by the action being “interrupted” by a bunch of folks sitting around debating natural philosophy and religion?
This was certainly intentional, and I’m glad it came across. Religion was much more central to thought and public debate in the sixteenth century than it was today, and practically all of the scientists and philosophers of that time in Europe retained some flavor of Christianity in their thinking. In the same way that evolution is debated on religious grounds today, the idea that the sun revolved around the Earth or that matter was composed of atoms met similar resistance. (Galileo’s difficulty with the Catholic church being the most well-known example.) Early readers of Quintessence have reported that, far from interrupting the action, these debates were some of their favorite parts of the book. I think that’s because they are crucial to the characters’ choices and relationships, not just academic contemplations. They may seem a little crazy to us, but to a sixteenth century man, accepting atomism might very well prompt religious persecution, accusations of demon worship, and alienation from family members. As someone who wrestled for years to reconcile my Christian beliefs with my love of science, I know how personal and significant such debates can be.
Along those same lines, I’m often surprised at how often religion is ignored or played down in fantasy, especially as so much is set in a quasi-medieval world where in our history it was literally nearly all-important. Any ideas on why religion is sometimes deemphasized? Did you have any concerns about having it play such a central role in this novel, especially as you’re referencing real-world, still existent religions? Not to mention real-world contemporary issues, where people are, as you say, trying to reconcile religion and science, such as the ongoing debate about where a god fits into a belief in evolution.
I think religion is deemphasized in modern fantasy because it’s deemphasized in our modern lives. Where religion does appear in fantasy literature, it often follows the stereotype of benighted religious zealots attacking an enlightened modern thinker. In Quintessence, I’ve tried to portray both sides realistically, because I can personally identify both with a perspective that takes religion seriously and one that acknowledges the compelling logic of a scientific approach. I think it’s much more interesting in a novel when these two perspectives come into conflict, not between two stereotyped groups of people, but within the mind of a single conflicted character. Although it is an adventure story, not an essay, I hope the novel will contribute in its own way to the ongoing public debate between religion and science. (I’ve written a fair amount on my blog about this subject.)
What sort of research, if much, did you do in terms of the real-life historical figures or into areas such as alchemy, early science, the explorations into anatomy of the time, and so on? Was there any little tidbit you discovered that you loved learning, whether it made it into the book or not?
I did a lot of research, partly just because I found the time period so fascinating. A lot of the ideas that my characters grapple with (heliocentrism, atomism, blood circulation, a dynamic geological history for the Earth) were hotly debated topics at the time. The historical people mentioned in the book are accurately portrayed, except where the fanciful nature of the island and quintessence alters them. (This altering effect will increase in the sequel, in which quintessence is brought back to Europe.) Queen Mary I, though she plays only a small role in the book, is a remarkable and tragic figure. Thrown aside by her father in her youth, she came back to take his throne amidst widespread popular support. She started well enough, but an unpopular marriage and childlessness (including two mysterious false pregnancies, from which no baby ever came) turned her bitter and ruthless, and she died six years after she took the throne. Mary and her more famous sister, Elizabeth, will figure significantly in the sequel.
With regard to those historical parallels, there’s a pretty clear one between the arrival of Sinclair’s group on Horizon and the European arrival in the New World. How far did you want to take that? How explicit did you want it to be? Again, did you have any concerns about a plot line that could very easily have turned heavily didactic or predictable?
Unlike the science and religion angle, I wasn’t trying to say anything explicit with this parallel. The European arrival in the New World was all about imperialism and the exploitation of local peoples, and that’s not the story I was trying to tell. The manticores are not meant to parallel the American Indians or any other race of indigenous humans, although clearly some of the conflicts they face with the arriving Europeans are similar. Instead, I was telling the story of a struggle to find a solution to death, and the moral choices and dilemmas encountered by the characters in that process.
I noticed that many of your characters are haunted by their dead — a dead father, a dead son/brother, dead daughters, an entire dead family — and this haunting colors their personalities, their actions, their motivations. Can you speak to that a bit — your choice to have that as a connecting thread, how you employed it in characterization or plot?
This was a natural choice, since the central idea of the book was a quest to find a way to prevent or reverse death. I wanted my characters to be driven to this quest by their own pasts and prior failures. Each of the major characters experiences this differently, however, from Christopher Sinclair, who rages at God and fears death above all things, to Stephen Parris, who is haunted by his inability to cure his son and is driven to the quest out of love for others (and his own sense of inadequacy and powerlessness).
I thought the island’s flora and fauna made for a wonderfully original eco-system, one that felt both fantastical and wholly rational. How much fun did you have in coming up with all those creatures/plants and how diligent were you in trying to keep it as a rational eco-system — with clearly drawn food chains/webs, prey that had evolved to defend against predators and predators that had adapted to kill prey?
I wrote this after watching all of David Attenborough’s wonderful animal documentaries (Planet Earth, The Life of Mammals, Life in Cold Blood, The Life of Birds) and reading several books about evolution and zoology. I definitely intended to portray an ecosystem that, though fantastical, followed all the rules of natural selection and biodiversity. It was a lot of fun to imagine, and I’m glad some of that fun passed down to you as a reader!
It did! In fact, I didn’t find much to complain about in my review of Quintessence; one of my very few nitpicks was that I thought it could have used an extra 50 pages or so (something I almost never say) to slow down at the end, which felt a little rushed (feel free to slap down the premise). I was just curious if, like many authors do, you pared the book down substantially from original drafts. And if so, if you might tell us a little of what was cut.
Thanks! Actually, no, there was very little that I trimmed out of the original. I have a full-time job and six (soon to be seven) children at home, so I’ve learned to be very precise and deliberate with my writing. I don’t have time to write 200,000 words and pare it down to 100, or it would take me too many years to finish a book!
The book ends so that a reader could be fully satisfied with it as a stand-alone novel, but I’m glad to hear you’re already working on a sequel. Can you share a bit more about that?
Yes, there is certainly a sequel, which I am working on right now. It’s called Quintessence Star, and it continues the story both on the island and in Europe, as more of the island’s secrets are discovered, and quintessence starts to have an impact on life and politics back home. You can expect more fantastical creatures, more debates over science and philosophy, a new star in the sky that drives people mad, and the magic of quintessence tossed into the boiling political cauldron of Europe.
Beyond Quintessence Star, what other works are coming down the pipeline?
I just finished a near-future SF thriller called Superposition. It’s a quantum physics mind-bender with the kind of reality-twisting feel of films like Inception or The Prestige. The main character, on trial for murder, must prove his innocence and save his family from a quantum creature that can alter reality. It’s difficult for the characters (and the reader!) to figure out what is really true when reality might change at any time. This is, in some ways, a quite different book from Quintessence, but I think readers will find that if they liked Quintessence, they will find a lot to like in this one as well.
My most recent read is a wonderful book called Ironskin, a debut novel by Tina Connolly, that was just released in October. It’s an alternate history like Quintessence, but it takes place during the aftermath of World War I in England. Only instead of Germany, this Great War was fought against the Fey, a delightfully sinister presence lurking under the story and driving its conflict. The language is rich, the setting evocative, and the story filled with tension and brilliant extrapolations of the book’s subtle magic. I highly recommend it.
Outside the genre, I like to read science books and scientist biographies, especially those that show how the scientific discoveries being made affected the people and culture of the time period. Dava Sobel is a good writer in this vein, and I enjoyed Stealing God’s Thunder, by Philip Dray. I also appreciate murder mysteries by writers like John Sandford and Michael Connelly.
Finally, a question I always like to ask is if you can recall for us one or two of those magical moments of response to a particular scene in a book or two — those sort of “shiver moments” that make one fall in love with the magic of reading all over again or that we carry with us for years afterward.
I definitely know the moments you mean. I remember them from my childhood, reading the surprise revelations in Asimov‘s FOUNDATION books, the end of Arthur C. Clarke‘s Rendezvous with Rama, and the conclusion of Ender’s Game. John Steinbeck‘s novels work that way for me, too, with The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice And Men standing out for their shiveryness (if I can coin a word). Probably the most shivery moment I can remember, however, was in the book called My Name Is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok. It’s a fascinating story about a young Hasidic Jew who becomes an artist — something completely unacceptable in his religious community. It’s full of family conflict, religious struggle, and an artistic ability that’s almost magical (though this is not a fantasy book). The narrative tension builds up to him painting this masterpiece, something he’s pouring his soul into, though the reader doesn’t know what is actually on the painting. You don’t think the author can actually reveal it either, because it’s built up so much to be this incredible thing. When he finally does tell you, though, it’s so good, so right and perfect, and ties in so much of the family struggle and angst of the book, that it meets all expectations created by the build up… and gave me shivers all up and down my spine. If I can ever deliver a “shiver moment” like that, I will have reached authorial heaven.
Thanks for reading and for your great questions!
Thanks, David! Readers, comment below for a chance to win a hardback copy of Quintessence. The winner will be announced in the comments, so either check back in about 10 days, or check the little box.