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Tag: time travel

A Look at The Quantum Magician with Derek Künsken

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!

The Quantum Magician is published by Solaris books and is available for sale online and at major book retailers like Amazon and Chapters.

Kelly Robson Talks about “Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach”

The cover of Kelly Robson's novella "Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach", showing the main character, Minh, standing in a river. Kelly Robson is an award-winning short fiction writer. In 2017, she was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. She was awarded the 2016 Aurora Award for best short story, and has been a finalist for the Nebula, World Fantasy, Theodore Sturgeon, and Sunburst awards.

Her latest novella, Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach was just published by Tor earlier this week, and I was fortunate enough to get an ARC to read beforehand. Lucky Peach may be a shorter work, but this story about a set of environmental specialists in the 23rd century who have been sent back in time to research the ecology of ancient Mesopotamia is a surprisingly hefty examination of ethics, generational strife, and the effects of climate change. Plus, I tore through it in the space of less than 24 hours, so how’s that for an endorsement?

Robson was kind enough to chat with me over Twitter DMs for an hour earlier today, so this interview is hot off the presses. Let’s dive in!

(Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)


Me: So, one of the things I found really interesting about Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is how the first two parts of chapter 1 really prime the reader to expect a huge, violent conflict — but by the end, the forms of conflict you actually see are completely different. Was that something you wanted to analyze going in, or did that emerge more organically?

Kelly Robson: I knew before I began the first draft that I wanted to have that structure — with a few paragraphs from King Shulgi’s point of view at the beginning of each chapter. And the reason is — really nerdy.

Oh?

When I was a kid, I imprinted on the novelization of Battlestar Galactica’s (original version) The Gun on Ice Planet Zero — which had that kind of structure. And I loved it so much. So I wanted to use the same structure — it’s like sprinkling candy in between the chapters. And because my main character Minh isn’t really interested in history, I wanted to be able to show what’s going on in Mesopotamia. Does that make sense?

Yes, totally. Part way through the book, I checked Wikipedia and learned Shulgi was an actual historical figure!

He’s so cool.

The wiki entry was pretty sparse about him, beyond the fact that he ruled for a while and was near the beginning of his particular dynasty. What made you decide on him versus any other Mesopotamian king?

I chose Shulgi first, because as far as we know, which isn’t much, his kingship was pretty stable, long lasting, and comparatively enlightened. And because Shulgi was actually a proven athlete, which is a detail that is rather telling. He was famous in his day for running a marathon to preside in a religious ceremony in two places on one holy day. Something like 200 kilometers. Impressive achievement of physical conditioning — especially for someone who must have had a lot of other demands on his time.

200 KILOMETERS?!

Yeah! But apparently long distance marathoners can actually do that.

Damn. I thought that was still out of reach even for contemporary athletes.

So this is something charismatic leaders do to seal their mystique — perform a feat that people consider impossible. That makes them special. It’s a public relations stunt. So I thought, Shulgi, you’re an interesting person! You’re the king for me 😀

And the thing is that the time travel point you chose is pretty early in his reign. It fits in pretty well with TERN’s statements that time travel doesn’t fundamentally affect the timeline. But in the end, we don’t learn enough to know whether that’s true or not. [Note: TERN is the agency that controls access to time travel in the story.]

We don’t know it’s true. Even Fabian — the project’s tactical historian — doesn’t know if it’s true. He just believes what the physicists tell him. But yes, as the writer, I can tell you that time travel doesn’t affect the timeline. I’m not interested in paradoxes.

The big question is, can you really say that what you do in the past doesn’t matter?

And that’s totally the kind of question only Kiki would ask.

Kiki is the moral conscience of the book. And she asks this kind of question because she’s not jaded. She believes in truth, goodness, and justice.

Yes! I remember thinking throughout that I was in complete agreement with her throughout the book.

So am I 😀

It’s a question we come up against in our post-colonial world. How do you go to someone else’s world, use it for your own purposes, and not do violence to the people there? You can’t.

Though I do wonder if you can delve into the generational relationships between Minh’s cohorts and Kiki’s cohorts. Kiki says that her generation is moving away because Minh’s generation has becme too self-centred. But we don’t see a lot of that outside of Kiki’s own perspective.

Minh’s generation, in Calgary and the other habs, are basically not willing to retire. They’re mostly rugged individualists and workaholics. They believe that they are the only people who can be trusted to do the important jobs. That means that with the economic contraction that time travel has created for the above-ground habs, that there are few opportunities for young people. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

In a way, it’s all an illusion. The habs have universal basic income. Nobody has to work. But people like to work! They like to know their time is well spent and valuable. Kiki yearns to do important work. Kiki and her generation don’t want to feel their potential is going to waste.

But if there’s UBI, I’m not sure how that plays into the fact that debt, and banks, play such a large part in Minh’s decisions. As for the modern-day parallels, I totally see those.

Yup. So in this world — and this is implied, not delved into — economic competition, investment, and debt happens between the Habs, Hives, and Hells (basically these are all city-states). Personal debt is a function of accounting that allows you to access luxuries or easier/quicker access to some services, or more personal living space in your city.

So, Kiki is in debt because she’s young. Minh isn’t because she’s been working for 60 years. But Minh’s type of expertise isn’t valued by the Bank of Calgary, so she’s not comparatively rich.

Ah, so it’s not actually a representation of money per se, but really a representation of privilege (for which money is a pretty good proxy).

Totally. What the banks really want is to have people whose expertise is sought out by other cities, then they can trade that person’s time for economic advantage.

I find it really interesting, though, that all things considered, Minh’s goals are incredibly valuable — long term ecological rehabilitation. So in one sense her refusal to retire is greed, but in another sense it’s a form of selflessness.

Yes — she has spent her whole life pursuing her passion, and you don’t retire from that. She did try — she became a professor who helped establish the University of Tuktoyaktuk and started teaching others to do what she does, but that venture collapsed when time travel was invented.

I worked for environmental scientists for 15 years, and what they really like — what’s easiest for them — is to do all the work themselves. Having to work with other people on a project is so much more work than doing it all themselves.

And they HATE mentoring people. Too much work! They’d rather work for 20 hours a day than wrangle other people to do the same work in less time. If they do it all themselves, then they know it’s all done right — or they way they think is right, anyway.

And thus Kiki’s choice to change her body to get on the mission.

Such a bad decision, Kiki! But you know, when I was 23, I would have done exactly the same thing.

I like how her choice is shown to be a painful one, but not a limiting one, ultimately.

It’s not limiting, but there would be social consequences if she ever wants to go back to Jasper, to be with her generation.

From your perspective, would you say that the society of Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is more or less ableist than ours?

Overall the world is much less ableist than ours. In the habs, the above-ground cities where the plague babies are the dominant social group, it’s much less ableist. Some of the other cities — the Hives and Hells — would be slightly more ableist than the Habs.

I believe the future includes disabled people. Some people write the future like everyone’s going to be physically perfect, and that’s just not realistic. There will always be disabled people, and their contributions are just as valuable as anyone else’s.

And in the future, the ways in which people can adapt to different levels of ability will be far beyond what we can probably think of today. As you show with Minh’s prostheses, and also Kiki’s.

Totally. Which is the same right now. People can use prostheses to be extra-human — jump higher, run faster. Little difference between a prosthetic leg and a snowboard, really.

Are there any plague babies at TERN? Because I wonder if the cavalier way the time travellers treat past human lives is a manifestation of an overall lack of compassion or understanding of the value of human life, no matter the form or time it takes.

Right. No, there’s no plague babies at TERN. TERN is the time travel division of CEERD, which is an economic think tank, and they’re a bit insular. They’re not a hive, hab, or hell, but an independent economic unit kind of like a university, which leases living space from other habs, hives, and hells. They’re kind of like venture capitalists.

Basically, CEERD really likes playing economic games with other city states. And they play to win. So yes, you nailed it. Compassion and understanding of the value of human life? Not a priority for CEERD. Which is the essence of evil, really.

So in a way, it’s almost like the members of the time travel crew represent a spectrum of morality. From Fabian being the worst, to Minh, to Hamid, to Kiki.

Interesting! Yeah. Totally. Hamid’s off the scale, though. All he cares about is animals. 😀

He’d have loved memes and cat gifs. 😛

YES!

Moving back towards Shulgi, was he one of the major seeds of Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, or did he get fitted in further along in the creative process?

Shulgi was the seed. There was a Mesopotamia exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum, and it was fascinating. Alyx and I went about five times. One of the items they had there, from the British Museum, was a statue of a king carrying weapons which were specifically meant for killing monsters. Alyx and I were fascinated, because…

Imagine you’re this king, you have your monster-killing weapons, and your job is to kill monsters — keep the kingdom safe! But you’ve NEVER seen a monster! What do you think about it???

This was the seed for the whole story. What does this king think when no monsters show up? And what if monsters come and they’re not monsters at all?

Lucky Peach also hit a particular button for me, which is trying to explain modern technology to ancient people if time travel existed. Like, would you be able to explain a combustion engine or electricity to Julius Caesar?

Or even weather systems? You wouldn’t have the vocabulary.

Oh my god, yeah.

And if you tried to paraphrase to explain, it would sound all mystical.

Yes! “Electricity is lightning, but bottled in wires.”

“The air is more dense” “How can air be dense?” “Well, molecules…” “What??”

“The warm air is less strong than the cold air.” “That’s just dumb.”

Oh man. It’d be hard.

I think that about wraps it up,  but I do have one final question: In honour of Pi Day, what is your favourite flavour of pie?

PEACH! 🍑


And that’s that! This chat was a delight, and I appreciate Kelly’s time. You can learn more about Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach on Tor’s website.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes: Time Travel, a Serial Killer, and the Girl Who Lived

shining_girls_coverTitle: The Shining Girls
Author: Lauren Beukes
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Rating: 4 out of 5
Format: eBook
How I got it: I bought a copy off of Kobo a loooong while back.

Glowgirl. Alice. Margot. Mysha. Kirby. Catherine. Jin-Sook. Willie. Zora.

A dancer. A carnival show worker. An underground abortionist. A budding scientist. A college student. A painter. An optimistic housing worker. An architect. A WW2-era welder with 4 kids.

Curtis Harper, a Depression-era drifter in Chicago, stumbles across a house on skid row that can shift through time. The House can communicate — and what it wants is to harvest the potential that shines out of these women. Why? Curtis doesn’t know. He just decides to follow orders, and he’s willing to link these murders together through significant items that the victims carry. Thus, a baseball card owned by one woman is found on the body of another one murdered decades before, and so on — a chain of death spanning through time, with Curtis as its unholy maker.

Kirby Mazrachi was destined to be just another link in that chain — just another life full of vitality and potential reaped to fulfill some twisted plan.

But she survived.

Now, in the early 90s, she’s committed to identifying her attacker and seeing if there were other women out there who met the fate she was lucky enough to escape.

The Shining Girls is a grim book full of lives that are truncated, broken, or just warped. And yet, it’s compelling as hell. This is a book I’ve been intending to read for quite a while, but it was only when I was waiting in a hospital emergency room that I looked over what was loaded on my Kobo and saw that this was sitting there still unread. (I was in the emergency room because I had spilled freshly boiled water on my hand while attempting to brew some tea. I got a white blistery burn on my thumb about an inch long. Second-degree burns are awesome!)

It turns out that this book is the perfect accompaniment for the kind of sleep-deprived haze that results when waiting to see an overworked, equally sleep-deprived ER nurse. The story meshed well with the insomniac stress buzz of the evening.

This is partly due to the relentless lurching between different time periods. Beukes has mastered the storytelling maxim of “get in late, get out early” — show only what you need to show. Each scene in The Shining Girls is a master class in presenting only the essence of a specific moment.

This economy of prose is particularly impressive when you realize that the storyline isn’t truly linear. The most linear progression of plot happens from Curtis’s point of view, when he stumbles upon the House and decides to obey its wishes by killing each Shining Girl in a specific order. He leapfrogs across time, and the injuries and fetish objects he collects help orient the reader during the time jumps. When did Curtis take the childhood toy from Jin-Sook? In the early 90s. When did he give the same toy to Kirby as a child? In the mid 70s. Curtis also uses the dog bite he incurred during the attack on Kirby in the mid-80s as an alibi for a different murder when he jumps back to the 50s. The tactile/visual information associated with each incident allows us to keep our thinking straight.

Beukes is also amazing at writing interactions where characters reveal the conflicting impulses behind their actions that we all experience, even when we try to present a smooth exterior to the world. Here’s a masterful example, taken from the scene where Curtis attempts to kill Kirby:

But he’s not done yet. She groans and tries to twist away before the tip of the blade even touches her skin. He pats her shoulder, grinning savagely, his hair plastered down and sweaty from the exertion. “Scream louder, sweetheart,” he says hoarsely. His breath smells like caramel. “Maybe someone will hear you.”

He slides the knife home and twists it across. She screams as loudly as she can, the sound muffled by the  ball, and instantly despises herself for obeying him. And then grateful that he let her. Which makes the shame worse. She can’t help it. Her body is a separate animal to her mind, which is a shameful, bargaining thing, willing to do anything to make it stop. Anything to live. Please, God.

The characters are also extremely rich, even when they’re not interacting with anyone. Kirby is determined and resourceful, and she becomes a newspaper intern so she can do historical research to see if the MO of her attacker follows any historical pattern. Thus, Curtis’s attempt to kill her sows the seeds of his own destruction.

And Curtis himself? He’s an ugly piece of work. Instead of a smirking mastermind leading cops on a cat-and-mouse chase, Curtis is a loser, a man unaware of how his own habits give him away to his victims. It’s even implied that the House may not want him to kill these women — that his actions are just his interpretation of what the House shows him:

“Shut up,” he says. The boy looks like he might burst into tears. He stares, lip trembling, and then bolts into the crowd. Harper barely notices. He is tracing his fingertip over the lines drawn between the stars, transfixed. Big Dipper. Little Dipper. Ursa Major. Orion with his belt and sword. But they could just as easily be something else if you connected the dots differently. And who is to say that is a bear or a warrior at all? It damn well doesn’t look that way to him. There are patterns because we try to find them. A desperate attempt at order because we can’t face the terror that it might all be random. He feels undone by the revelation. He has the sensation of losing his footing, as if the whole damn world is stuttering.

The violent acts depicted here are meant for us to sympathize with the victims: instead of the loving glorification of a woman’s broken and bloody body, we see these women attempt to fight back, and mourn the loss of their potential when they fail. You like seeing women fridged? I can hear Beukes ask. Fine. But it will cost you.

Despite this, there are still some elements of The Shining Girls that nag at me. By the end of the book, we never understand what the House’s purpose is and where it came from. I recognize that this is the way it needs to be, that any sort of origin story we can think up for the House obliterates whatever dread it evokes when we think about its presence. However, I still feel a certain need for closure.

I’m also not a huge fan of the presence of causality loops in a time-travel narrative — they just make my mind feel like a moebius strip.

In the end, The Shining Girls is a twisty, gritty, bloody little book with a propulsive plot and a disconcerting coffee-buzz sensation to it. I’m glad I read it, though I doubt it’s a world I’d want to return to.

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