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 and second instalments of our conversation, Nate talked about world-building, map-making, piracy, capitalism, and what it’s like to “play with other people’s toys”, writing for a licensed franchise.
In today’s final part, Nate talks about the seductions of fantasy, escaping a career in financial journalism, and finding satisfaction in more mundane genres.
Are there any fictional worlds which have seduced you, until you found something dark about them which you had to question or critique?
Loads – but the easiest answer to this is Tolkien. If anyone so much as says, “Orcs are a bit racist, aren’t they?” – Tolkien’s orcs being black-skinned generic enemies – then people swarm from all over social media to defend him. Now, it’s not like Tolkien invented this. Soldiers in the Iliad are described just as Tolkien describes orcs; they’re dehumanized so they can be slaughtered.
But say any of this online and you’ll start a huge argument, and not just against racists debating in bad faith, but against Tolkien fans who genuinely think the man was of good character and didn’t intend it as any sort of racism. I can see where they’re coming from. Indeed, I am a huge Tolkien fan, and I think he was probably a lovely bloke.I certainly don’t believe he was a Lovecraft figure, spouting virulent bigotry – butt that doesn’t mean his work isn’t racist.
Racism, very often, isn’t something intentional. Growing up white, it’s often invisible, and it takes work to learn first how to see it, and then to avoid kneejerk defensiveness. So, if you can see racist ideas coming through in a work, or being propped up by it, supported by it, then the work is, as they say, problematic.
That doesn’t mean it’s bad work, or that Tolkien was a bad man, or that we shouldn’t read Lord of the Rings; it just means that when we go into that world, we should reflect on what has gone into the ideas present, such as the representation of orcs.
There’s a recurring theme of dehumanization here: the repressive regime by which the world of Schneider Wrack operates; questions of authority in empire and natural history; the Necrons and Orks of your 40k work; even the pirates who have been outlawed from all humanity by maritime law.
It comes back to your time as a financial journalist; the financial sector can easily be accused of reducing humanity to numbers on a spreadsheet. Is that world also a “small planet” of sorts?
It’s a fantasy world, yes. I don’t regret any of the ten years I spent in financial journalism; it was a relentless monster safari. Prior to COVID-19, I actually helped run a business-themed LARP (Live Action Role Play) at the Feral Vector games festival in Yorkshire, with David Hayward, Thryn Henderson and Adam Dixon. We’d go out into the woods and play at being businessmen, improvising props from twigs and rocks.
Networking events… crikey. Just being among five hundred drunk leasing professionals, all trying to sell each other software, and having to write about that coherently the next day – that sharpened the mind.
That said, I met many completely reasonable people, who all happened to be holding together something monstrous through playing by shared rules. Within that system, there are still monsters, of course. They’re fewer than many people cynically believe, but unfortunately they tend to set the rules.
It’s the same issue as with the police: perhaps not all cops are bastards, on a personal level. But even the decent good-hearted ones are holding a flawed and hurtful system together. Systemically, then, they’re bastards, even if we love them as humans. It’s tricky.
Everything I’ve read by you jabs at this notion that we can treat some people or creatures as if they don’t matter; and it also pokes at the complicity of those of us who think we’re somehow not part of the system which causes such hurt. In Small Planets, there’s a back and forth between your imaginary author Floyd and his editor Eliza which brings this tension to life.
You escaped the system you were part of by conjuring a portal of your own; the infamous Twitter thread Daniel Barker’s Birthday, where you took an acquaintance’s plaintive comment about not getting enough birthday messages and extrapolated it into this dystopian vision of an eternal birthday fuelling this absurd totalitarian regime.
You almost did to Daniel Barker what happened to those pirates of the 18th century, creating a fantasy version of a real person which ultimately came to life in its own right.
I’m so lucky he became my friend, rather than being terrified!
Not only was that vision celebrated in a real-world party – people attending dressed up as figures from your writing – but it also led to your first book deal, and your current career as a writer. It was an escape route into a world of your own devising.
It was. I’d given up any ambition of writing professionally in my teens. I was diagnosed with ADHD last year, for context, and historically I’d always struggled with motivating myself to sit and write anything. I have endless admiration for people who are compelled to write every day; my compulsion isn’t strong enough to overcome the aversion to actually doing the thing, which is why it helps to have commissions and deadlines. Fear of failure gives me a reason to work like a devil!
Prior to Daniel Barker’s Birthday, I’d never been able to create something long out of nothing. I had these big ideas, feelings, atmospheres, concepts, but no story; just the clothes a story wears, very important but not enough in themselves.
The pathetic reason I haven’t read so much great writing is, as I said earlier, because it’s not sugar-coated in the fantastical. Now I have gotten a little older, and I do turn to these more mundane settings, I find that the story under the clothes is often quite spectacular – but the clothes still matter.
With the Daniel Barker story, it started with a character joke: “What if it was my friend’s birthday all the time? What if that’s all there was?” We talked about maps growing as you walk through them, and that certainly happened on this occasion. It was written 140 characters at a time, and the setting grew as a consequence of my endlessly having to find my way out of the narrative hole I’d dug myself in with the previous tweet. I was determined to keep digging until I got to the other side of the planet.
Every bit of work I have been approached to do has come, through some causal chain, from that story. It’s lovely – the best professional outcome I could ever have hoped for. It got me out of editing the trade journal for the debt collection industry, which is what I was doing in 2016, and that was a dark place to be.
To take that metaphor of “the clothes a story wears”, you really like spectacular fashion, but then you dress ordinary people in it. The characters might be ones who could have featured in a Wodehouse novel, but they can’t be drably clothed. It’s not khakis from the Gap, it’s nothing off the peg.
Is there anyone or anything from outside of that dramatic fashion world, those fantastic genres, which has appealed to you?
It might be natural to think that magical realism would be my way into the real, but in fact I find it intellectually intimidating. That’s a legacy from the bad blood of my time as a literature student, I suspect.
My most vivid memory of a jaunt outside of the fantastic came from an incredible summer in the early 2010s where my dad, recently retired, got really into John Grisham. He got excessively into John Grisham, and chain-read all of Grisham’s novels.
He encouraged me to read them again and again, but I rejected them; “They’re formulaic books about lawyers, Dad, I don’t want to read your John Grisham.”
Every time I visited, he would be singing the praises of John Grisham! Eventually, I forgot to pack a book when visiting him, and so I caved and I read some. I wolfed it all down – I read all of them. Brilliant!
They are Olympic gymnasts in grey cardigans, to push that metaphor of clothing and fiction. Astonishing human stories in the dullest of garb. At the other end of the literary spectrum – say, very dry hard science fiction – you might have property solicitors in fetish wear. But Grisham is the exact opposite.
Those books are just perfectly crafted. They’re not saying anything incredibly deep about the human condition, but they’re superb stories. My dad was an abstract painter – another world which I find intellectually intimidating – but he was the least pretentious man on the planet. He’d take me to the National Gallery, and I’d get frustrated at my inability to see what he was seeing in various artworks, to understand what he could find in them, and he’d just say: “Does it look nice?”
“Yeah,” I’d say.
“Well then, it’s done its job,” he’d say. “You’ve understood the art.”
That’s pretty much my attitude to writing, genre, canonicity, and literary sophistication too. “If it feels good, it is good” isn’t necessarily a great principle to live by, but by and large it works for art.
I’m reminded of Desmond Bagley’s book The Enemy: a straight down-the-line 70s Alistair Maclean-type thriller which throws you with a surprising downer ending and becomes something less workmanlike, more meditative. Definitely a gymnast in a cardy.
I only read it because I was stuck in a grandparent’s house with nothing but what was on their shelves, yet tucked away in this old airport novel I found this strange poignancy.
Isn’t it funny, the things you discover when there’s no choice? That’s where you find some of the real treasure. That’s how I found Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships, after all.
A 700-page sequel to a Victorian novel probably wasn’t my ideal choice of reading, but it was what was in the library, and it changed everything for me.
That’s the last part of my chat with Nate Crowley – who you can find on Twitter as @FrogCroakley. Catch up on the first and second parts of this conversation here, and you can find his new book Notes from Small Planets here.