Interview with Nate Crowley, Part 1: First worlds, imaginary maps

In the final weeks of 2020, I spoke with the writer Nate Crowley, videogames journalist and author of works including The Death and Life of Schneider Wrack, 100 Best Video Games (That Never Existed), tie-in fiction for the Warhammer 40k universe, and the infamous Twitter thread Daniel Barker’s Birthday.

Nate’s new book, Notes from Small Planets, is a fictional travel guide which takes the reader through nine archetypal worlds of fantasy and science fiction, poking fun at well-worn tropes and questioning some of the assumptions which underpin the lands of make-believe. In our conversation, Nate and i talked about world-building, map-making, gateways to fantasy, and the political choices woven through genre fiction.

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What were the first fictional worlds that you fell into? I know that elsewhere you’ve mentioned Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships, which itself was playing with H.G. Wells’ existing universe from The Time Machine. What made that your gateway to fantasy and science fiction?

It was what was in the library! I was at the later end of primary school, around ten years old, and just getting into science fiction; I’d read a couple of the old Timothy Zahn Star Wars books, which were belters. 

Dad was a big sci-fi reader and he pointed out The Time Ships to me in the library: “Have you seen this? It says it’s the authorized sequel to The Time Machine.” I’d heard of the H.G. Wells, thought I’d give Baxter a go, and read it in the mornings before school. 

Worldbuilding is Baxter’s big strength. I don’t think he’s the best character writer, but there’s no measure of disrespect in that; his worlds have such character and atmosphere of their own. 

The Time Ships was wild, offering a Victorian vision of time travel; what we’d now call steampunk, only without the dreadful twee cogs-and-top-hats baggage. The book’s shenanigans turn around Plattnerite, the strange mineral that makes Wells’ time machine work: the scenarios it conjures up on its traipse across time and space include a moon which has been giga-industrialized by Morlocks living on it for 250,000 years; a Morlock-built Dyson Sphere; a First World War that has gone on for a century; and a civilisation, created by First World War soldiers marooned in the Triassic, which continues advancing for 200 million years. 

As a first novel-length work of science fiction beyond Star Wars to read? It kicked my mind out of a window.

Like Notes from Small Planets, like the gates which link the settings of your Schneider Wrack books, already there’s a fascination with the portal to elsewhere – to multiple elsewheres.

I’m greedy; I like to be able to play with multiple settings in one book. Why create one setting when you can create nine? It’s one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed The Mandalorian so much, I’d say it was the only Star Wars story to excite me in decades. I really like the way it forages around at ground level with relatively ordinary people, constantly jumping from planet to planet. Because hundreds of millions aren’t being invested in the production, you’re not trying to get your money’s worth from the three planets per film you’re served in the big Star Wars movies.

With Notes from Small Planets, Harper Voyager asked if I was interested in doing something with fantasy maps. The thought process behind my pitch was that the interesting thing about these maps is cliché. All clichés exist for a reason, and by looking hard at them, you can find out a lot about people’s collective imagination. 

I decided the best way to do a map-based satire was to look at whole generic territories from the perspective of a travel guide. You’re not just knocking Tolkien for having mountains at right angles, when geology doesn’t work that way; you’re going deeper into the notion of a whole fake Lonely Planet for genre worlds.

Your first Schneider Wrack book opens with a map of the ship on which it’s mostly set, right on the first page.

I drew that map of the ship, the Tavuto, at the end of writing The Sea Hates A Coward. I did it out of pure bloody-minded determination that my first published work would have a map at the front. That the ship was big enough to merit a map seemed almost like a joke in itself. 

However, while I was writing the Schneider Wrack novellas, I’d been drawing maps all along. 

Map of the Tavuto from The Sea Hates A Coward, by Nate Crowley

What I really love doing as a writer is taking a single concept and then extrapolating every potential practical consequence that I can from that. Quite often that leads to really interesting confluences of factors that you wouldn’t initially think of; however, the other side of this approach to worldbuilding is that I’m obsessive about fixing my own plot holes.

Editors find me a complete nightmare at times, because I will obsess for ages about figuring out the mechanics of something to make sure it is internally consistent. It’s not that it has to be realistic; I don’t think I’m ever going to be a hard sci-fi writer, but it has to make sense – down to the most petty details.

I did loads of maps for the locations in the Schneider Wrack books, and spent ages figuring out, for example, if the gates which allow travel between worlds are in water, what direction would the river flow in? Would all the water empty from one world to another? I worked out a ridiculous set of riverine maps that would allow the setting to make sense. They’re lost now and really of no use to anyone but me – but they satisfied me that the fluid mechanics of it all worked.

The reason why I write is that I want to vomit unfettered imaginings into the written word. I love things of inconceivable scale and strangeness. But this becomes a complete pain when you’re trying to make them all fit and work with each other. 

Does the map-making happen in parallel with the storytelling?

Yes! I come up with them when I need them.

Neill Cameron and I were talking recently about Stephen Briggs’ map of Terry Pratchett’s fictional city Ankh-Morpork. Briggs tried to make sense of Pratchett’s geography and  found that even though Pratchett himself had never mapped the city, he did have a consistent vision of its territory which he was kind of reading off the inside of his eyelids as he wrote.

That’s no surprise to me at all. One of the luxuries of having a setting as well-visited as Ankh-Morpork is that you can get to know it well. As an author you get to know a fictional place, just as you get to know your characters.

A lot of people who are struggling with their own storytelling find they accumulate thousands of words on the background setting but don’t know how to turn it into a story. You need characters to make it work; it comes back to that extrapolation thing. What you need to do is work out someone who could exist in that setting, work out what they do, and then work out a problem that they could encounter in their everyday lives, one that’s particular to that setting.

Once you’ve got an idea of who they are, it’s just like playing Dungeons & Dragons. You’ve got an idea of how they might respond to a problem, what ramifications that might cause, how that might bring them into the orbit of other people, what problems they might have, and it all snowballs from there. 

We might not be speaking about a map in a strict geographic sense, but as an author getting to know a place you’ve created, you’ll still be mapping the concepts within a setting and how they are related.

It’s strangely relevant to the business of scenario planning: looking ahead to the contextual factors which might change your environment in the future, thinking about how they could play out in different intensities and combinations, then thinking about how those factors would redraw the map of your own relationships in each scenario – adding or removing actors, changing the quality or value or meaning of those relationships. 

If you were working on the future of firefighting, you might examine big structural and systemic factors, climate change, the economy, social values, technological change. You’d think about how they might play off one another, then ask in each scenario: what would a firefighter do in that world? Where and how would fires arise? How would they be equipped and trained, who would pay for them?

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In the next instalment, Nate talks about playing with other people’s toys in the Warhammer 40k setting, transplanting Jeeves and Wooster to a future of cosmic war, piracy, politics, and his time as a financial journalist. Find more from Nate on Twitter, where he’s @FrogCroakley.

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