The Big Idea: Ian Tregillis

Author Ian Tregillis had an interesting challenge while working on his debut alt-history/fantasy novel Bitter Seeds: dealing with a character in the book who knew where the story was going better than he did. How does a character — a creature of the author’s own mind — end up having that sort of power? I knew you were going to ask that. So here’s Tregillis to explain how that happened, and how he worked with such a perspicacious character.


When people ask me where Bitter Seeds came from, I tell them to blame Tom Cruise and Lord Mountbatten.

There’s a scene in the movie Minority Report (I know, I know…) that was, for me, one of those wonderful but all too rare moments when science fiction sidles up, whispers in your ear, and breaks your head.  (Minor spoilers follow in the rest of this paragraph.)  Our Hero, Tom Cruise, is on the run from Bad Guys.  But he has at his side a lady who just happens to see the future.  By using her precognition, she tells him exactly what to do, and when to do it, so they can make a clean getaway.

I loved that scene. It blew me away.  But the movie didn’t take it far enough.  I started to wonder… What if, instead of thinking 30 seconds ahead, the precog had been thinking 30 YEARS ahead?  And hey, while we’re at it, what if she were a sociopath, too?  (You know, just for fun.)

The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that accurate precognition should be an unbeatable superpower.  I could be wrong, but that’s how it seems to me.  I’m not talking about vague premonitions, or the kind of clairvoyance that comes with plot-preserving ambiguity.  None of this “fog of possible futures” stuff for me.  No, sir.  I wanted a precog who could see as far as she wanted and understood what she saw.

So that’s how Gretel was born.  But I didn’t want to tell a story about her.  Not directly.  I wanted to tell the story of the poor bastard stuck trying to deal with her.

How do you fight somebody who has all of her contingency plans in place — every “t” crossed and every “i” dotted, down to the very last detail — years before you even know she’s your enemy?  That’s an easy question, because you can’t.  Best case scenario?  She makes you her puppet.  Worst case scenario?  Well… it’s pretty bad.

Once I had the idea for Gretel and her adversary, I needed a setting.  The second major influence on Bitter Seeds (or first, chronologically) was a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction, so-obviously-insane-it-must-be-brilliant piece of World War 2 trivia called Project Habakkuk.  During the darkest days of the Battle of the Atlantic, when Nazi wolf-packs were ripping apart Allied shipping convoys, the Admiralty seriously considered building ships out of ice.  Not just any ships, either: they envisioned aircraft carriers in the form of immense powered icebergs.  (The American television show Mythbusters did a segment on this.)  Lord Mountbatten was a proponent of the project.

After reading about this, I couldn’t dispel that image of vast bergships plying the North Atlantic.  What if Project Habakkuk had worked?  What if it threatened to destroy Germany’s control of the seas?  What would the Third Reich do?  Well, obviously, they would send a pyrokinetic spy to sabotage the icy shipyards.  And what if the ships didn’t rely on refrigeration plants to prevent melting, but instead contained imprisoned elemental spirits?

Well, the ice ship never made the final cut in my trilogy.  But it became the springboard that launched the whole concept: Nazi supermen on one side, British warlocks on the other.  With a sociopathic precog traipsing about in the background.

Setting the story during the war was a gutsy move.  I’m not a historian, amateur or professional, and World War II pretty much defined the 20th century.  I’d always been interested in the period, but I quickly discovered there’s a big difference between casual interest and writing as if I knew something.  I tried my best to learn what I had to know, but there were nights when I looked at the constantly growing pile of research materials and wanted to give up.

But the hardest part of writing Bitter Seeds (and the sequels) was plotting around Gretel.  Every single thing she says or does (or doesn’t say, or doesn’t do) comes about because of her knowledge of the future.  Which meant I had to know the second and third books of this trilogy in painful detail before I could begin to write Bitter Seeds.

There were times when I wondered if I’d made Gretel too powerful.  She is, after all, the one character who knows (almost) everything I know about the trilogy.  It’s a little bit odd, writing a character who continually threatens to blow up the book from inside.  Hell, sometimes she knew things before I knew them.  It was eerie.

The plotting challenge, combined with the research requirements, made this a meatier project than I’d been aiming for.  This is not a project I would have recommended to myself if it hadn’t fallen in my lap.

In fact, if I’m being brutally honest with myself, I was even too naïve to realize the story wouldn’t fit comfortably in a single book.  I’d honestly thought it would make a standalone novel. (When I look back on those days, I just sigh and shake my head.  What in the world was wrong with me?)  But as soon as I started kicking this concept around with some of my pals — and I mean, literally, within minutes — they convinced me it was a trilogy.  And they were right.

Of course, the story changed in the telling.  Because of Gretel.


Bitter Seeds: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (pdf link). Visit Ian Tregillis’ blog.

36 Comments on “The Big Idea: Ian Tregillis”

  1. “accurate precognition should be an unbeatable superpower. ”

    Also, unbearable. I couldn’t imagine.

    Gretel sounds pure evil. I must read.

  2. Gretel sounds like a WWII version of Paul Atreides or better yet, his sandtrout-morphed offspring. Pure awesomesauce. I will have to check out this book!

  3. “I wanted a precog who could see as far as she wanted and understood what she saw”

    I read the link(thanks very gritty imagery) and still wondered about the “understand” part. Seeing a scene in the future does not normally give context only at best implies it. Does your Super Precog actually have future omniscience?

    Besides I always thought that the back lots of Hollywood would seriously mess up any future sight based on visuals.

  4. I love your concept! I’ve never bought a book because of a Big Idea piece before, but I’m marking yours down, and if it gets decent enough reviews I’ll buy it.

  5. interesting concept for the most part. not necessarily my cuppa, but if done just right a sociopathic precog could be a fun character to watch develop over the course of a trilogy.

  6. Re: Latasha @ 5: Pretty much this. But it’s a danger I’ve learned to embrace and look forward to, despite my list of to-reads has grown at a terrifying right.
    As for the book itself, I look forward to seeing if the precog is pulled off even as half as interestingly as promised.

  7. Sounds very good. Will defintely pick it up.

    As an aside, with a sociopath precog like Gretel, one should hope that she can be directed against your enemies (or more accurately, directs herself against your enemies) as you’re toast otherwise.

  8. I agree with Josh – I like the cover as much as anything I read about the book.

  9. pedantic moment: The admirality was considering using pykrete, not ice. A little sawdust makes a big difference.

  10. I’ve always thought that that much precognition would inspire a body to great, huge, mindboggling apathy.

    That said, I think I love Gretel already. Bring on the creepy evil!

  11. That much precognition would create a cthuloid entity, not a mere sociopath. Assuming that the precognition occurred sometime after it was born of course. In the case of a newborn with that much precognition it would never advance to more than a vegetable given all of the conflicting stimuli.

  12. According to the link, the book takes place in 1939 (which would be before the invasion of Indochina), so I’m guessing that the Pacific Theater doesn’t fit in at all (although given the use of magic by the Brits and superpowers by the Germans, I’d love to know the nature of warcraft between China and Japan at the same time).

  13. Adam Lipkin, thanks for the information. And yeah, I do hope there’s something about what’s going on in the rest of the world . . .

  14. Wouldn’t a precog have to actually know to look for a specific thing in the future? Wouldn’t that preclude them from being omniscient? I mean that the character could do a “future check” on everyone they meet but that would seem quite time consuming.

    Or is the idea that the precog would be checking everyday from now to eternity during their “precog visions”? Although, when would they find the time and wouldn’t a person get confused about the order of events?

    Just some random thoughts that might actually limit the real benefit of being able to accurately predict the future.

  15. Oops, I should have used a different name and say that I’m a different Bryan from the one that wrote before.

  16. Very interesting, might actually have to get this one! @Stan at 16: pykrete may be coming to an observatory near you, if you live at Dome C in Antarctica.

  17. Wasn’t the idea of a precog this powerful already done years ago by Mike Resnick in the Soothsayer trilogy? Admittedly it was set in the far future in Resnick’s Inner Frontier instead of WWII, but the premise for the character seems the same. Penelope Bailey’s precognition was so powerful that she was able to change possible outcomes with almost no effort.

  18. Wow. An honest-to-goodness blow-my-socks-off Big Idea. So getting this if I can find it.

  19. @25 Mike Resnick’s Penelope Bailey was the very first thing I thought about when I read this, too. She colored the way I see all the precogs – all other superpowers seem kind of lame compared to that. The way everything went exactly the way she planned – to the very end.

  20. This sounds VERY VERY interesting. Someone want to send one to the mysteriouse Oriente? I’m tired of shopping Amazon…

  21. @11 and 12

    Yes, bananasfk did not say it in a nice way, but how do you write about this Big Idea and not mention Man in the High Castle, particularly when you have a mention of the film version of “Minority Report” as an inspiration.

  22. If you were an all powerful pre-cog, it would make sense to be a sociopath. You aren’t on the same level as everyone else and can manipulate them with ease. I like that much better than the tortured hero with supernatural powers storyline.

  23. While we’re on the subject, let’s go even further back to Paul Atreides in Dune. He saw the future mapped out clearly up until the end of the second book – even blind, he knew everything that would happen so clearly that he didn’t need eyes to function. Being the messiah did make him a bit of a megalomaniac.

  24. Yes, and I immediately thought of Resnick also. Dune, too, but Ian did say “not this fog of possible futures”.

    However, neither Penelope nor Paul [nor his children] were sociopaths. I find the sociopath angle intriguing.

    By the way, this is my frequently invoked “God need not be omnipotent, if he were omniscient” thesis.

    Absolutely chilling cover. Dynamite kudos to the artist.


  25. JJ:

    Paul was not a sociopath, but he was a megalomaniac – and his son Leto turned out to be even worse.

    However, Penelope Bailey definitely WAS a sociopath. She killed anyone that got in her way, starting with her own parents when she was a small child. And she got worse as she got older.

  26. finished Bitter Seeds earlier this week… now I’m just biting my fingernails until book 2 comes out. grrrr… I’m not a patient person.

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