The Big Idea: Greg van Eekhout
How does one get from Los Angeles to Ragnorak? If you said “take a left at Albuquerque,” you’ve watched too many Bugs Bunny cartoons, and also, you’re not Greg van Eekhout, the Nebula-nominated writer who is making his novel-length debut with Norse Code. Along with knowing how to write the sort of apocalyptic fantasy that reviewers love (“van Eekhout makes a successful leap to long fiction with this thrilling urban fantasy” — Publishers Weekly), van Eekhout knows exactly how to get from LA to the end of the world; interestingly, it starts with a detour through a movie theater.
GREG VAN EEKHOUT:
One of my earliest formative childhood experiences was being taken by my grandfather to see Earthquake in Sensurround. Sensurround was a theater sound technology that employed huge, low-frequency speakers to rattle the theater and scare the little crappers out of me. I lived in Los Angeles, and I fully expected an 8.0 to strike during the movie. My grandfather and I would stumble from the theater into dust-filmed air. We would pick our way through the rubble, and at home we would find my parents and brother and grandmother and toys, all crushed.
I wanted to see the movie again and again and again.
The tale of Ragnarok is the best story in Norse mythology. It tells us how the gods will perish and how we puny mortals will meet our ends. It’d make a really, really cool disaster movie. But Ragnarok’s not quite the end of everything. It’s more of a reboot, with a new world arising from the ashes of the old. Most of the gods won’t be there to see this new world, but a few will be, and they know they will be because a prophecy conveniently lays it all out. And that’s what I find interesting about Ragnarok: If you’re a god, you either know exactly how you’re going to die, or you know you’re going to live to preside over the next world, or, in the case of a few exceptions, your name got left out of the prophecy and you’ve got no right idea what’s going to happen to you. The category you fall into has got to impact your degree of enthusiasm for the destruction of everything and everyone around you.
Norse Code is largely about Hermod, one of the gods who doesn’t know if he’s going to be eaten by a giant wolf, or live to plant new lawn seed, or slip on a bar of soap and crack his head open and miss the whole thing. Opposing him are the gods who know they’re going to survive. After thousands of years of waiting, they’re getting impatient to move on from this old, sick world of ours. “Gee,” they think, “maybe we shouldn’t just wait for Ragnarok to get started. Maybe we should be more proactive. Maybe we should make it happen.”
It all may sound very cosmic, but it’s a fairly simple idea: If I were a god in that situation, what would I do? If you look at it that way, it’s a pretty human-level story.
Norse Code also has a science fictional idea at its core. Several years ago I read about a research project that used Y-chromosome data to link 0.5 percent of currently living males to the fecund and randy Genghis Khan. Bringing this back to Norse mythology, a key element of the Ragnarok story involves Odin’s private army, the Einherjar. These are the elite warriors who hang out in Valhalla and train for the final battle by beating the crap out of one another every day. You don’t have to be a descendent of Odin to join these guys, but it helps. So, if the Twilight of the Gods was approaching and I were tasked with recruiting Einherjar (as the valkyries are), I might start sampling DNA from the modern population to find traces of Odin’s lineage.
And that’s basically what Norse Code is about: Huge disasters, gods conspiring to speed things along, a minor god with an unknown future, and valkyries with biotech. There’s also a moon-eating wolf, and atomic tests in the South Pacific that wake up the Midgard Serpent, and talking ravens, and a resistance movement made up of Iowa farmers who resent being dead.
The real challenge of writing Norse Code, of course, was telling this big story without losing sight of the personal stories belonging to the characters living through it all. I hope readers of Norse Code will find more than big SFX and subwoofers, but the Sensurround is there for those who like that sort of thing.