Want to read swashbucking stories set on the high seas? Want Lovecraftian creatures to mess that swashbuckling up? Want, above all, to see multiple writers duke it out with feedback from devoted readers like you?
If your answer is “yes”, then what you want is Archipelago.
Archipelago is a historical fantasy serial with multiple new episodes appearing every month written by Charlotte Ashley, Kurt Hunt, and Andrew Leon Hudson. Imagine a blend of Moby Dick, Pirates of the Caribbean, Master & Commander and Game of Thrones — with Lovecraftian monsters lurking beneath the surface!
Archipelago isn’t just about storytelling, though. Readers will have the opportunity to influence events as the adventure develops, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes devastating. To take part, you can support the project through Kickstarter and Patreon.
And today I’ve got a special treat: an interview with Charlotte Ashley, one of Archipelago‘s creators and a noted spec-fic author in her own right, with stories published in F&SF, PodCastle, and more.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Me: The biggest thing that struck me about the Archipelago stories is how they’re set during the height of the colonial project between Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas, and how the discovery of this other world parallels the “discovery” of the New World. How is Archipelago hoping to navigate, and potentially subvert, that sort of setting?
Charlotte Ashley: It was definitely my intention to turn Europe’s colonial aspirations outward, into uninhabited territory. We start our story around 1600 which was very early in the colonial process. England, Portugal, Spain, and the Dutch had all started building settlements, but they hadn’t claimed ownership on the large scale they would 200 years later. People in Asia, the Americas, India, and Africa were still fairly autonomous. We wanted to nip that European invasion in the bud, so to speak, so that non-Western people had a chance to participate in the Archipelago as strong, unconquered nations.
I think “discovery” is synonymous with “conquest” in our history, and we’ll explore that, but I also wanted to be able to look at alternatives.
Me: Yes! I really wanted to write down “Age of Conquest” in my first question, but that phrase has so much baggage.
CA: Well, there IS so much baggage there. I don’t want to dodge or deny the historical realities of the colonial period, but I hope we can imagine the power relationships a little differently.
Me: I was really intrigued by the setting of your story in particular. I wasn’t aware of the Ajuran Sultanate as a political entity before this. Aside from the parallel world aspects of the Archipelago itself, is all the other history up to the start of the story played straight?
CA: Not entirely. We did play a little loose with plausible, rather than confirm-able, technologies and ideas — Umur’s prosthetic hands, for example. They are absolutely within the realm of what was achievable by the artisans of the Islamic Golden Age, but I don’t know of any confirmed prosthetics of this kind. [Umur is the main character of the Ajuran Sultanate storyline, which will go live on May 19th at Black Gate.]
Me: Are any of the main characters based on specific historical figures?
CA: In the storylines of Roanoke and the Summer Isles, definitely. My nation is less rooted in historical reality, for two reasons: one is that historical resources about the Ajuran Sultanate in English are few and far between. The other is that I wanted to avoid too badly mangling a history that isn’t mine, so I focus more on the new nation and culture of Al’Tahj, which follows a very different trajectory than real-life Mogadishu did.
Me: There are so many different ways I can see this playing out — like each storyline establishing its own nation state and essentially duking it out in a proxy war. And then there’s the whole Lovecraftian aspect to things. I imagine that whoever is an indigenous inhabitant of the Archipelago is going to have a very different mindset and physiology compared to humans.
CA: The natures of the Archipelago’s major inhabitants are still a mystery. 😉 But, yes. The first settlers of the Archipelago have mindsets which are, we hope, similar to “real” 17th century ones, so they imagine this colonization process will be very similar to the one on Earth — that humans, at the top of the food chain, can move in and strip-mine everything in the name of their kings or gods or whatever. But this isn’t Kansas. They will find that out soon enough!
The first Year’s plot is very much about how the Nations set themselves up in relation to one another, as they would back home. Plots, politics, battles, espionage, and so on. But the world is its own character that will become more pronounced in future Years.
Me: How far out have you planned things?
CA: Pretty far — but with the understanding that everything could change on a dime with reader input and our own inter-Nation conflicts! The big pieces are there, though, the inevitability. How our characters react and live within the bigger picture is much less clear.
Me: One thing I also notice about the setting is that the entry points to the Archipelago are so spread out – the Caribbean, the Atlantic Seaboard, and the Horn of Africa. Supposedly on the other side of the portal, these three points of contact are a lot closer together. How do you see that affecting international relations? Like, if you can hop to Al’Tahj from near Bermuda, that really changes the relevance of sea journeys like sailing past the tip of South Africa.
CA: The Archipelago portals are actually quite far apart, but people are drawn to people! As soon as there’s any kind of a civilization, that’s where we go. We can’t help it. But the Earth-side politics come into play as well. Control over a portal is a huge geopolitical issue.
Me: What pieces of the SF/fantasy canon do you think Archipelago is influenced by? Conversely, are there any that Archipelago is trying to respond to or subvert?
CA: I know Andrew looked to things like Master and Commander, but Kurt’s work has a much creepier feel.
For my part, I have to admit to beginning with a vague sense that I wanted a story that felt like The Pirates of Dark Water [a Hanna-Barbera cartoon] did when I was 11 years old. But I also very badly wanted to respond to the idea that “discovery” always seems to mean trampling all over whoever was there first. In SF/F, we haven’t lost that mindset yet. For my part, I wanted to write something with the over-the-top swashbuckling fun of John Carter of Mars, but with an awareness of the politics of claiming lands, discovering things that have always been there.
Me: I imagine that it’s going to be more complex, though, than a character suddenly having an epiphany that Colonialism Is Wrong And Bad.
CA: Yah, I’m not sure they will ever come to that, necessarily. If I’ve pulled it off (and I hope I have), nobody should be able to see the subtext.
Me: Back to a few questions about the process: Do you foresee other authors and cultures contributing to Archipelago in the future?
CA: Definitely! We intend to bring in guest writers, but it would also be nice to create a rich enough world to retire storylines, nations, or even writers and bring in new ones. The format allows for it — hopefully the readers will stick with us that long!
Me: How do you and the other two contributors coordinate your stories, and how is the reader input aspect going to affect that?
CA: Hm, big question. We write several months in advance and share our stories with each other, to make sure we’re on the same page and not contradicting anyone. We have a Wiki with characters, places, and permissions. We have rules about what we can and can’t use. But, ultimately, we’re committed to writing an agile story. You can’t get too attached to your plan — or even your characters — because something might happen to it that you didn’t count on. I think of it as an ongoing writing prompt. The readers, or the other writers, give me some criteria, and I have to write my episode to fit it. And for me, the more I am given to work in, the better!
I am, personally, so excited about Tuckerizations. I am gonna have so much fun with those.
Me: There’s both a Kickstarter campaign and a Patreon for Archipelago. Can readers support both, or is it better to do one over the other?
CA: They both offer totally separate things, but in a perfect world they support both. The core of the story will be offered through Patreon. The Kickstarter is more of an opportunity to taste – you get a world guide, some flash stories set in the world, some art, that sort of thing. That’s also where you can get Tuckerizations — but in order to READ the story you’re written into, you’ll need a Patreon subscription.
Me: Are there any final words you’d like to share with readers?
CA: Erm, gosh. Probably not. I talk endlessly! Despite all my blah blah about colonialism, this is some of the most fun I’ve had writing. I want this to be a joy, a ride. And it will be.
And that’s that! Charlotte is awesome, Archipelago sounds awesome, and you can support this project through both Kickstarter and Patreon. The Kickstarter campaign ends on May 31, so you’ve still got some time!