Derek Künsken writes science fiction, fantasy, and, sometimes accidentally, horror. After publishing shorter works in many different markets, this month marks his novel-length debut with The Quantum Magician, a sci-fi heist story set in the far future involving time travel, wormholes, space battles, political intrigue, and even a little bit of romance.
Derek was kind enough to send me a copy of his book before its release this month and let me pick his brain after reading it. Here’s a brief look at the wider world in which his novel is set. Thanks for your great answers, Derek!
Note: The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Me: The Quantum Magician takes part in the same universe as stories you’ve published previously. For those who aren’t familiar with them, what stories are they, and where can people read them? How does the book tie into this shared universe?
Derek Künsken: I’m a big fan of the way many of the stories of Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter are parts of the same world, allowing those authors to explore a much larger cut of time and space. I modelled my universe after theirs. In chronological order, here are most of the stories:
- 2100: Events introducing the vacuum-living skates living around a pulsar in the novelette Schools of Clay, Asimov’s Magazine, February 2014, also available in Rich Horton’s Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2015 Edition, and in audio at Starship Sofa
- 2215: Events on Venus in the novelette Persephone Descending, from Analog Magazine, Nov, 2014, available in The Year’s Best Military SF and Space Opera from Baen, or in audio at Starship Sofa
- 2255: Events on Venus and the formation of the Congregate in the novel The House of Styx, in press, Oct, 2020 [projected publication date]
- 2325: Events introducing the Homo eridanus in the short story Beneath Sunlit Shallows, from Asimov’s Magazine, Jun, 2008
- 2350: Events at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom in the novelette Water and Diamond, in Asimov’s Magazine, Nov/Dec 2018
- 2475: Events introducing the Sub-Saharan Union in the novella Pollen from a Future Harvest, in Asimov’s Magazine, July, 2015
- 2515: Events of the novel The Quantum Magician, from Solaris Books and soon in audio from Recorded Books and previously available in Analog issues Jan/Feb – May/Jun 2018
- 2515: Events of the novel The Quantum Garden, from Solaris Books, Oct 2019
- 2720: Events of the far future of the Congregate and the Anglo-Spanish Plutocracy in the novelette Flight From the Ages, from Asimov’s Magazine Apr/May 2016
One of the things I find really interesting about the setting is how the conglomerates that control policy and trade have relationships that are roughly analogous to colonial periods, and how the whole motivation behind the heist – for the Sub Saharan Union to end its client/patron relationship with the francophone Conglomerate — is pretty explicitly a decolonization story. Is that something you were hoping to tie into the work when you started writing it?
DK: Yes, but perhaps my thinking wasn’t so explicitly reflective of history. I wasn’t so much thinking of the international power and wealth imbalances of the past, but of the ones we will make in the future. Regardless of what current international law says, the first nations into space will get first pick of space resources, and the second nations into space will get second pick, etc. The solar system is big, but there are strategic positions and monopolies to be had that will magnify imbalances. The rich and technologically advanced countries will be first and become richer, and poorer nations will, if they are lucky, be allowed into the solar system by the rich nations.
The patronage relationships I showed in The Quantum Magician are one way these imbalances may play out, and resentments they might generate aren’t hard to imagine. History has some repeating themes, even future histories, unfortunately.
The Puppets in your story are a group of people who have been genetically engineered to feel subservient towards another particular group of people, and to feel religious awe in their presence. Where did that idea come from? The way that their culture plays out, and how the Puppets rationalize a relationship that, to outside observers, seems incredibly abusive and warped, is really unusual. (And frankly, also somewhat unsettling.)
DK: Haha. Sorry. I keep apologizing to readers for the Puppets! The name “the Puppets” was kicking around my head for a long time with no definition and no place in any narrative. When I started pulling together the elements of The Quantum Magician (a con, a quantum man, the deep divers, the Congregate and the Sub-Saharan Union, the stable wormholes), I had room to create more, and so the Puppets started coming into focus, partly with my reading on microbiomes, on some research on the neurology of religious experience and on religious cults.
Thinking as a former biologist, I thought of what would be needed to make a slave species, and what kind of people would commit that crime against humanity. We have cults and extreme religions in the present day, where a ruling class oppresses an underclass and I wanted to explore that dynamic. The Rise of the Puppets was an important part though, so that the Puppets would be protagonists in the story, morally compromised, but morally complex.
Let’s talk Easter eggs! I noticed a few, like the fact that one of Belisarius’s aliases is Juan Caceres, and the fact that Trenholm disease, a fictional malady in the story, shares a name with Hayden Trenholm. But what others are there?
DK: Easter eggs! I’m surprised you found Juan Caceres! I occasionally used the name Juan Caceres myself when I was living in Bogotá. He was the trickster hero of my fantasy story “Juan Caceres in the Zapatero’s Workshop” and there’s a con man called Juan Caceres in the 2200s of my universe who was edited out, but I’ll add him back somewhere because tricksters always come back!
Some Ottawa readers may know the Westbook in Westbrook Station, and the relationship to the Trenholm virus. Will Gander also assumes the name Geoff Kaltwasser as part of the con. If you have the occasion, you might want to ask Geoff Gander where the name Kaltwasser comes from.
Close readers will also notice that Vincent Stills, the Homo eridanus has the same name as Vincent, the protagonist of “Beneath Sunlit Shallows”. That’s deliberate and I can’t wait for readers to notice in later novels and stories that the mongrels have really peculiar naming customs, very much related to their history and the middle finger they give the world. More than a few of the Anglo-Spanish names are from places I’ve visited in Colombia and Honduras, and the Congregate names are often from Gaspésie in eastern Québec, although those get foregrounded a lot more in The House of Styx. There are other Easter eggs too, but they take more digging 🙂
The Homo quantus are an unusual creation – a group of people who have been genetically modified to go into a savant-like state conducive to observing quantum events and identifying unusual patterns. Where did this idea come from? I especially love the idea of the electroplaques!
DK: Thank you! I’ve wondered about what quantum perceptions and thinking might be, as long as I’ve understood the basics of quantum theory. In 2013 or 2014, I was reading Stephen Baxter’s collection Vacuum Diagrams and it contained a short story about a quantum man. I was impressed, but also inspired to do my own take on it.
In designing someone who might be able to have quantum perceptions though, the biggest challenge was figuring out how to avoid quantum collapse due to human or conscious observation. One interpretation of quantum theory (not a dominant one) contends that consciousness itself is partly responsible for the collapse of quantum phenomena into what we see and experience. So I felt that in science fictional terms, trying to knock out consciousness might be a way to explore this kind of world, to have the Homo quantus offshoot of humanity to be truly alien, moreso even that the Puppets who are behaviorally and morally alien, or the mongrels who are physically and environmentally alien.
Will there be sequels to The Quantum Magician, or future books set in the same universe?
DK: Yes! They haven’t been publicized yet, but I’ve already delivered The Quantum Garden to Solaris Books, which stars most of the characters from the first book. And we’re negotiating on the sale of The House of Styx, the first novel in a duology that is set about 250 years before the events in The Quantum Magician, and is set in the clouds of Venus and details the very humble beginnings of the interstellar post-Québécois empire that we see as the Congregate in The Quantum Magician and The Quantum Garden. I have some thoughts on one or two novels after The Quantum Garden, but haven’t started outlining yet.
And that’s that!