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 the first part of our conversation, Nate and I talked about world-building, map-making, gateways to fantasy, and the political choices woven through genre fiction. In today’s instalment, we talk about piracy, capitalism, empire, and what it’s like to “play with other people’s toys” in franchises such as Warhammer 40k.
You’ve written stories for the Warhammer 40k franchise, where you’re playing with someone else’s toybox.
Your novella Severed is written from the perspective of these ancient skeletal robotic creatures in the 40k universe called Necrons; you’ve referred to them before as “Terminators with dementia”.
That book almost has two layers of worldbuilding: one is that you’re making something unusually poignant from these villainous figures created for a tabletop wargame; the other is that one of your Necron characters is himself lost in a world of his own imagining, where he and his comrades are still flesh and blood rather than machines.
What’s it like playing with worlds within worlds?
I love writing in the 40k universe, and not just because of my teenage affection for the setting. It’s extrapolation, again; a universe of such scale, offering space opera in the literal sense. I’ll qualify that. To me, opera is storytelling that is too big to be delivered in sensible dialogue. It’s passionate, balls-to-the-wall, turned-up-to-eleven bellowing! And that’s 40k.
The fascination for me is using that setting, a world of unfathomable cosmic war, as a place to simulate ordinary, relatable thought processes. Even if you’re a being of godlike power, you still have some kind of inner life, like all of us. How do you make sense of it? How do you cope?
Severed is very much a story of how two people learn to cope with this awful fate of being a Necron. These creatures are so tragic!
If I’m honest, I’d found them very dull until I looked into them; just death-robots with a faint Egyptian theme, right?
But then the Black Library’s Nick Kyme said to me, “Have you thought about how sad they are?” These are people who traded mortality for power at the expense of their souls – or at least, that’s their understanding of it. Severed explores how literal, or metaphorical, that truth might actually be.
You’ve talked about this novella and its characters in terms of the Jeeves and Wooster dynamic; the wayward gentleman and his incredibly competent servant.
Wodehouse has this intricate, almost fantastical world where it’s always essentially 1930s England; each country house could be its own “small planet”. He’s also playing a game of extrapolation in some ways: “How much trouble can Bertie get into from the simple premise of going to retrieve a cow-creamer jug for his aunt?”
Are you a fan? How did you come to import Jeeves and Wooster into a sci-fi setting of endless cosmic war?
I just imported the dynamic – I’m not into comedies of manners… if that is the appropriate term here? Stories about incredibly posh people, basically. Wodehouse’s work is clearly very clever, very funny stuff – the set dressing just isn’t to my taste. I think the character archetypes which it has spawned are incredibly potent, however, and that’s what I lifted.
What is about the set dressing of sci-fi and fantasy that appeals to you?
I just… feel things very strongly! I have a passionate taste in music, too; my favourite artist is Devin Townsend, an utter prog lord who has been extraordinarily prolific and produced everything from almost unlistenably heavy, raw metal alongside material that borders on country and western. It’s genius, and it’s all so much larger than life. That’s always where my imagination has wanted to sit.
What was your first glimpse of Schneider Wrack’s world?
I was very stoned in 2005, working at the London Aquarium – not stoned on duty, this was after work! (Just in case my employer from fifteen years ago wants to do me for that). The point is, I was around marine creatures a lot – they’re a perennial fascination for me.
On this particular night, I started to imagine: what if one of those old transatlantic cable-laying boats just went out into the Atlantic and… kept going. They’d have thought they were off course but, no, they were just advancing into an endless sea. It was a reverse version of Stephen King’s The Mist, something from our world leaking into another, an infinite plane of pure, frigid grey North Atlantic hostility, expanded to an endless horizon.
It’s a vision of Hell, which many years later became the setting for a zombie book which the publishers Rebellion asked me to pitch. I wasn’t that excited at first; like the Necrons, zombies felt rather played out to me – but it boiled down to finding a horror story of some kind. I came back to that image of the Atlantic going on forever.
I took that and thought, “What would be the worst thing to happen in this hellish ocean waste? Being stuck there. How could that happen? You’ve been sent there whaling. Humans love to exploit resources and you can imagine that after the initial horrific discovery, we’d then massively rush to loot it for all it was worth. So I thought about twentieth-century whaling and the exponential growth of the Russian whaling fleets, and what would have happened if they never ran out of whales,” and so forth.
So you end up with city-sized factory ships of the kind I mapped for the opening page of The Sea Hates A Coward, and then you think: “Who would crew these things? Well, you’d get prisoners to do it, as no-one would do it willingly. What would be the bleakest version of that? If you got political prisoners who had been executed and brought back to life to do the task.”
I felt that was probably the most depressing thought I’d have all year; and so there was my premise!
A lot of your work digs at the grimmest aspects of today’s capitalism, from the world of Wrack to some of the imagined games in The 100 Best Video Games That Never Existed featuring call centres and hedge fund managers. You were a financial journalist for a time. Was writing about this zombie overfishing in your first book also an escape from that?
Yes. The Sea Hates A Coward is a massively political book, literally about workers seizing the means of production. The whole setting, and especially the second novella Grand Amazon, addresses the evolving relationship between people and nature. Ugh, I know that sounds glib, but it’s hard to find a better way to put it.
My degree was in the history of science, with a focus on the concept and culture of natural history; how the public at large understands the natural world, and how narratives about the natural world are created and shaped to suit political ends.
For example, the idea of hierarchical taxonomies, where you go from little blobs through worms and fish to lizards and all the way up to man, via the classic diagram of a chimp becoming a human. There’s an argument for saying that entire model of thinking is a prop for Victorian racism. The whole thing was about creating a structure where white man could stand erect at the top of it all – a ridiculous model of nature!
Really, the whole notion of evolution describes something dendritic with infinite branches, where everything exists on a continuous spectrum leading from one form to another; the concept of speciation is itself a convenient fiction. That’s not crank science either, ask any zoologist.
So, a lot of what I do digs under the surface of these hierarchies. And it’s not about simplistic, absolutist civilisation-bashing… but at the same time: overfishing’s horrendous!
There’s a critique of empire running through your work too. The closest we get to a hopeful vision of society is the pirate world of Notes from Small Planets, where the pirates refuse hierarchy and appoint one of their number each year to live in the Governor’s Mansion and bear the brunt of their activities. Is that pirate setting a happy twin to Wrack’s world?
Before I switched degree, I’d first studied English Literature – which I was terrible at, as I had no interest in realist settings, as we talked about earlier. Again, I do like the mundane, but it seems I need to be fed it with a sugar coating of near-unimaginable science fiction.
Anyway, one of the most interesting things I studied was the pirate craze of the 18th century, and ideas of utopias. Pirates, in that era, were caught up with by their own myths, which arose while they were still active.
There’s a lovely scene in Deadwood where Wild Bill Hickok is confronted with a Penny Dreadful account of his own life, and has a moment of profound hangog sadness that encapsulates the legend of the West catching up with reality.The same thing happened with pirates: people were writing fantastical things about pirates while they were going about their business, though the golden age of piracy in the 16th and 17th century had by then moved to the Indian Ocean. In London, people were wild for the pirates of the Caribbean!
Depending on who was writing them, pirates were either a coded stand-in for the external threat of Catholicism, or they were this utopian quasi-socialist ideal. There was a vision of pirates living a free, unfettered, cultured life that for all its lawlessness was actually more humane than anything Britain could put together. Pirates remain a wish-fulfilment thing for us; it’s one of the reasons I based a whole chapter on them. Floyd, the author within the book, even says: “I’m not sure why ‘Theft, but wet’ is a genre – but it is!”
It’s because pirates, as we know them, are nothing like the actual sea criminals of ages past. They’re this entire fiction of what we really want them to be. Now, not much of what I’m about to say made it into the final edition of Notes from Small Planets, but the one thing tempering the optimism of Spume, the pirate world, is the notion that Floyd’s copy has been heavily edited.
There are footnotes suggesting that Spume’s Council of Free Captains has rather heavy-handedly rewritten parts of Floyd’s text. Early on in the chapter, we’re told:
“Spume is currently in what the CFC calls the Platinum Age of Piracy: the delicate sustainability policy enshrined in the [Pirate’s] Code has been honoured, and while resource scarcity is still a concern, the increasingly efficient and responsible nature of Kraken-hunting and the development of an undersea salvage industry by the Skeleton Pirates are making life more comfortable all the time.”
In Notes, pirates declare themselves a new species – paranthropus peirates – because in a famous phrase from historic maritime law, they’d been labelled as hostes humanae generis – “enemies of all humanity”. So once everyone on the planet had become a pirate, they felt they needed a new designation.
But the reality of Spume is that “humans” are very much still around… and the irony is, they’re pirates. The CFC oversees just a small archipelago, on a sprawling water-world teeming with machine-gun-wielding nihilists,, who constantly raid the holdings of paranthropus peirates. What we see in the book is just a manicured sort of Disneyland, or at least that’s what’s implied…
Next time, in the final part of our interview, Nate talks about Tolkien, John Grisham, and the string of Tweets which created his own gateway to a life writing fiction. Find more from Nate on Twitter, where he’s @FrogCroakley.