The Big Idea: Alan DeNiro

Are you prepared for a Scythian invasion? If your answer is some variation of “Bwuh?” then congratulations, you are like most people, who wouldn’t know a Scythian from Parthian, or indeed if either were people, or, say, a type of insect or breed of sheep. And this would also make you suited to live in the world of Alan DeNiro’s novel Total Oblivion, More or Less, in which there is, in fact, a Scythian invasion, just one of a number of invasions, and modern day go-along-to-get-along types suddenly have to deal with the fact the world has changed in strange and incomprehensible ways.

And how do these folks deal with all this sudden incomprehensibility? As DeNiro now explains: Perhaps differently than you might imagine.


In a recent study by National Geographic, 63 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds couldn’t find Iraq on a map. In a multiple choice question asking whether Indonesia, Armenia, South Africa or India had a Muslim majority population, about half said “India.” This type of illiteracy (or aliteracy) creates its own “realm of the fantastic” in everyday life–so what happens when people who know little about the world around them are confronted with, say, Scythians swooping down on their town?

Total Oblivion, More or Less is a novel in which Scythians and other ancient European tribes have invaded America from the north. Modern technology soon stops working, and a counterinvasion from a mysterious Empire to the south has led to constant warfare between the two factions. With a devastating wasp-born plague, and a mass uprooting of the local people, most Americans find their normal lives radically different in a few short months. The narrator, a 16-year-old girl named Macy, has to travel down the Mississippi with her dysfunctional family from a refugee camp in Minnesota; her father is supposed to have a teaching job awaiting him in St. Louis. The landscape and river have undergone a radical transformation, however, both geologically and culturally, which makes the journey fraught with peril.

One of the big ideas that let me launch into these waters is that of oblivion, a deep forgetfulness that comes over everyone in the novel like a fog. No one really knows why all of these changes have occurred, and on a macro-level no one is particularly interested in finding out why some dogs have been given the capacity for speech, or why the Imperial capital, Nueva Roma, suddenly sprung up on an island in the Gulf of Mexico overnight.

At times, Macy seems to be the only one at all concerned about the changes going on around her, or is willing to ask why things have changed so much. Most of the people she interacts with don’t really have the time or the energy to deal with the existential questions of why, exactly, the Mississippi River has achieved oceanic depths that allow the traversal of a submarine (which may or may not be from the Byzantine Empire–but anyway, that’s another story) and why Macy can see giant megaliths on the horizon in Iowa. At times she asks pointed questions that are rebuffed. There isn’t an easily determined causality–things just happen in an eternal present that most people accept without too much fuss.

I wanted to use this “unknowing” as the basis for the narrative structure; it was also an attempt at a different type of worldbuilding for me. Rather than construct a solid structure with a carefully worked out geographical compendium, the novel is more constructed like a sand castle close to the shore, with waves occasionally streaming around it and changing the contours of the structure. Moreover, the oblivion in our current American culture becomes one of the backdrops for the novel’s arc.

These various oblivions presented a few opportunities as well as challenges in telling this story. For one, I could keep it close to the vest with my protagonist and freed me from having to do a larger quest to “solve” the problems of the world. Macy is mostly trying to keep her sanity and family intact–and even though she is one of the few characters around who has curiosity about the melding of the ancient and the contemporary, she too has an understandable focus on the here and now–she and her family, after all, are fleeing for their lives down the Mississippi River. Even if there was some kind of larger plot point of, say, a time travel portal open in Saskatchewan, which the Scythians are streaming through (which there isn’t!), Macy wouldn’t exactly have the werewithal to go on a grand quest to make things go “back to normal.” Conversely, this required being as true to Macy’s voice as humanly possible–her observations of all of the crazy things going on around her are (except for very short bridging sections between the main chapters) what the reader has to go on–not only in a storytelling sense but an emotional one as well.

In the popular lexicon, the phrase “total oblivion” has come to mean “absolute destruction,” and in a very real sense that is true in the novel. However, the “more or less” in the title, perhaps, gives a glimmer of hope. Most people in the novel are able to adapt–and despite the terror and chaos that Macy experiences, she has the freedom to construct her own history the best she can.


Total Oblivion, More or Less: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt from the novel. Visit Alan DeNiro’s blog. Follow him on Twitter. Learn about Scythians.

23 Comments on “The Big Idea: Alan DeNiro”

  1. Scythian invasion? That is awesome! At first I thought you might mean something else, and were merely borrowing the name, but you mean actual Scythians, which has bumped this book near to the top of my list.
    The historian in me wants to ask what kind of Scythians, but then, I can see how that is not exactly relevant to the plot and this whole idea of oblivion.

  2. I think this story is the kind of thing sf and fantasy literature need–marvels without pat explanations. This one goes on my list.

  3. I am intrigued by this book. Read the first chapter that is available and liked the connection with Macy and can’t wait to see how the book climaxes and resolves some of the ideas outlined.

    One can easily connect the themes of this book with today and the past; I also see this book being relevant 40 years from today. I will be picking this book up and adding it to my “must read line”

  4. As long as this isn’t “A South Carolina Beauty Queen In [Scythian King’s] Court” I’m sold. This is a great big idea.

    I’m not saying I don’t like the stories where young heroes literally rise up and tear off the shackles oppressing humanity, because I do. But, this sounds like a refreshing take on the alien/horde/eschaton invasion plotline. Like Huck Finn or Grapes of Wrath mainlining SF.

    Also, it doesn’t hurt that you got a sweet cover.

  5. Look, Scalzi – you keep publishing these Big Idea pieces, and just about every single one of them looks fascinating… but I don’t have enough time to read all of them! You’re doing serious damage to my psyche here! Clearly there is only one solution to this problem: I must find a way to slow down time so I can squeeze in all this reading.

  6. This sounds very cool–I love the thematic link of how no one knows *why* anything’s happened to today–and I will have to add “Total Oblivion” to my list.

  7. Damn, another “Big Idea” book goes into my shopping cart over at Amazon. Thanks, John, for always presenting me with must-reads, both those written by yourself and those written by other writers. My family loves you, too, since they share the reading bounty.

  8. This book caught my eye when I was home from school (which happens to be in Minnesota) for ‘winter break’ (quite literally– that is a very bright orange) and I ended up buying it. It was definitely worth it– though the post-apocalypse thing is big right now (The Road, 2012, The Book of Eli, just to name a few movies off the top of my head), this was a different take on it (Earth collapsing/blowing up/being eaten by its own weather patterns vs. historical tribes attacking…), which was quite enjoyable.
    Great Big Idea :^)

  9. Interesting approach, I suppose. It’s certainly true that some stories spend a little too much time explaining and fixing rather than showing people who aren’t young gods saving the world.
    Reminds me of an anime that came out in Japan recently called “Tokyo Magnitude 8.0.” Unlike the ever-popular disaster movie, there’s no scientists saving the world or nuking asteroids. All you know is that there’s an earthquake chasing 8.0 (on one scale or another) hitting Tokyo. It’s just two kids and a stranger they meet trying to get back home. Nothing so exotic as Scythians invading from Canada (or wherever). (Those guys were more north of the Parthians, correct?)

  10. Alan,

    As a fellow Alan I must ask, do the Alans show up in the book? :)

    More seriously, have you read SM Stirlings Dies the Fire and the follow on books? Sounds to me like you have a different look at The Change in your work. A gentler Change, but still a calamitous Change all things considered.

    For curatoria @#5

    The Parthians (an Iranian clan) are the ones who got the credit for the parthian shot. I suspect they picked it up from somebody else. It may have been the Scythians via their successors, the Sarmatians. Central Eurasian nomads are known to have used the parthian shot, with the Huns (once a Sarmatian subject tribe) using it to good effect in their conquest of modern day European Russia and the Sarmatian trading empire. That prelude to their invasion of Central and Western Europe and the Roman Empire.

  11. @Alan #14

    Thanks for such a concise and useful summary.

    Remembering it was called the Parthian shot would have given me a clue! A little learning is the problem here. I have hazy memories of learning about these different groups during a Classics degree 20 years ago but I was really more interested in what was going on in Rome itself and so obviously wasn’t paying proper attention.

    I love Whatever for just this reason. Come for Sci Fi, leave with ancient history!

  12. I have just bought this and Patrick Lee’s book (as ebooks) on the strength of the postings here – I would likely have missed them both otherwise – so chalk up 2 more sales to the “Scalzi effect”.

  13. Found this book in the Staff Recommendation display at the local indy bookstore. I grabbed it and did a happy dance because it’s mine now. Mine, mine, mine!

  14. Thanks to John, first of all, for the Big Idea invite. Greatly and humbly appreciated.

    @14: The Alans do indeed make an appearance! Along with Goths (not goths).

    @19: It’s funny you mention that, the cover artist based that silhouette on the description in the book. It turned out to look pretty much like one of our dogs, a Carolina Dog.

    Happy reading, everyone!


  15. Well then! Scythians! And an Empire that has to be Rome (who fought several of these Steppe peoples, if not the Scythians specifically). As soon as the words “a mysterious Empire” were mentioned, I knew it was Roman in origin (after all, the Byzantines are simply the continuation of the Roman Empire). This looks excellent.

  16. Just got it, and read it in one sitting. (Voice in head- Uh, you do have to go to work tomorrow. Me- Stop whining, there’s only 50 pages to go!) Like LIAR, this is a book I’m going to have to read again to get the bits I missed in my mad dash to the finish line. I love Macy- her voice is what really makes the book.

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