Thursday, January 30, 2014

Myke Cole and BREACH ZONE: A "Dive into Worldbuilding!" Google+ Hangout Report with VIDEO

We had a great time at our specially scheduled hangout. Myke Cole treated us to many stories and insights into his books and his worldbuilding.

I started by asking him to describe his latest book, third in the trilogy consisting of Control Point, Fortress Frontier, and Breach Zone, to our guests. He told us that Peter V. Brett describes it as "Black Hawk Down meets the X Men." In the third book, the US government's heavy regulation of magic breaks down and leads to an invasion of New York City. He says he's proud of how the three books differ from each other: different main characters, and differences, in how people view themselves and interact. Myke considers character interaction to be very important (and I agree!).

He told us how he considers this trilogy a kind of exploration of people's reaction to unadulterated power. He cited Max Weber's statement that governments have a monopoly on the use of force. The argument is that we don't speed because we might get pulled over, might have to pay a fine, and we have to pay a fine because we could potentially have violence or death visited on us as the ultimate penalty. He cited Somalia and Afghanistan as places where the government's ability to use force is exceeded by that of the population, and where that has become a serious problem.

Thus, in his books where magic has returned to the world, it becomes the "new nuke" and directly challenges this force dominance relationship. Myke sees the extensive rules surrounding the military and behavior within it to be necessary because its members possess deadly force power, and thus must be predictable and controlled. When people refer to military members as "machines," it is often pejorative, but that quality is by design. As he sees it, a war band values heroism, but a modern military values professionalism.

The background of his trilogy is quite similar to the story of tragic terrorist events, in that the advent of magic leads to disasters, and then to outcry and overreaction, the demand to "make us safe." Then of course there comes discontent with a world of restrictions.

I then asked Myke how much of his vast knowledge of the military actually makes it onto the page. He spoke about how valuable the writer's workshop Viable Paradise had been for him, but as with most kinds of training (even spy training!), it's hard to know how much of the information imparted will be vitally important and really be what the learner needs. In a large heap of "good" there will be a small piece of "precious," but you never know when you will find it. He also mentioned a friend's father who built model ships, and made sure to put 1/16 scale hams in the fridge in the mess hall on a deck that people would never see when the model was completed. Writers do a lot of work that nobody sees. You can have vast amounts of knowledge, but only a small amount makes it onto the page. Myke says that he also has to balance 2 sets of reader expectations and 2 audiences. Some readers come in with an expectation of a particular attitude toward the military, an expectation of a particular type of gender depiction, and an expectation of lots of detail about military hardware. Other readers are alienated by military jargon. He wants to make sure he appeals to those readers, and so he estimates that 75% of the military stuff doesn't make it onto the page. There are also things that he didn't put on the page that his readers, including his agent, asked him to explain. These include things like specifying that ROE stands for Rules of Engagement.

Myke spoke about his frustration with people's assumptions about military people being heroes and kickass etc. based on superficial expecttations. Myke's main character from Control Point, Oscar Britton, was criticized by many readers for being a person who struggled with his situation, and a "screwup."However, Myke emphasized that membership in the military does not diminish one's humanity, and that portraying that was important to him even if it violated reader expectations. He says "You have to take risks." He believes in following his own vision, even if it means taking unpopular positions, and he has even had disagreements with his agent, though he admires his agent's instincts greatly. He decided to weave together two narratives in two time periods, rather than keeping it chrono-linear, and he felt it worked best in the end.

I asked him about his interactions with fans, in particular the contest he had for fans to come up with new covens and insignias for them, and asked how much influence his fans had had on the way his world developed through the three books. He felt that his readers had helped him by crowdsourcing some aspects of the world's complexity. He cited his experience fighting in Iraq as something that really increased his awareness of the complexity of the world. He was sent to capture and kill specific people, and there was a certain demonization that went with that in order to make the job doable, but though the people he was sent for were Sunni Muslims, he was also shot at by Shi'a who had nothing to do with the people he was looking for. Then of course, there were some quietist Shi'a and some non-quietist. There were political complexities, and varying attitudes toward Americans. The understanding he came to about the complexity of the situation was part of his realization that he didn't want to be part of this conflict. He also feels that a fictional world has to be as complicated as ours or it's not believable. However, such a world (like ours) can only be handled in short narrative bits. This is one reason why he appreciated his fans' help in expanding it.

Reggie Lutz asked Myke if he has ever worked in collaboration, given his sense of being in charge of his work. He said he's considered it but it makes him nervous. There are certain kinds of things where he digs in his heels. I mentioned my own experience with collaboration and talked about how important it was to establish expectations up front about the different collaborators' contributions.

At the end of the hangout we talked a bit about his forthcoming book, Gemini Cell, which is different yet again from the trilogy he's published, being set in an earlier time when magic is first coming into the world. He also said it has no epigraphs, which differentiates it from the other books. He is a guy who always likes to be doing something new and exciting, and he felt that Breach Zone could not easily be followed chronologically, since it was definitely the grand finale of the trilogy

Thanks again to Myke for coming and sharing his world and his insights. If you would like to hear his thoughts in more detail, here is the video:


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