The Big Idea: Peter Orullian
Posted on April 12, 2011 Posted by John Scalzi 22 Comments
Choices, motivations, and the unintended consequences thereof — heady stuff for any novel, much less a series. In The Unremembered, the debut fantasy novel from Peter Orullian, which is in itself the first novel in a six book series, each of these things is considered, and weighed, and tested before being put into practice. Orullian is here to explain why it all matters, for the book and beyond.
Who atones for a savior? Put aside your personal views on religion for a moment, and think about that question. Of course, the first thing that you must assume is that a savior or messiah figure would need such help. Some creeds won’t suffer the thought. But in the context of a fantasy novel, it was one of the germinating Big Ideas that led to The Unremembered.
I like to explore motivation, choice, and consequence. They seem to me like a set of pipes that run out from the heart and mind and right back in, often siphoning back a rather damaging bile. But, if I tax the metaphor, a few things result from this potentially toxic return flow: we gain wisdom, sometimes grow inured, sometimes perish. Of course, happiness may result, too; I’m not a complete sadist.
But as I got rolling with the book, my thoughts about one person redeeming another or maybe many others—ya know, standing up to be counted—began to shift, and that’s where things got challenging and interesting. See, because people fail. And if someone is relying on you, and your limitations or unwillingness become the reason they suffer . . . well, that just sucks. It’s where the pain lives, and it’s where I felt the book begin to grow past the tropes of fantasy. Not by trope avoidance; I don’t care about that. Since, if you’ve been paying attention, trope-avoidance is the new trope. But rather, this idea of failing someone (and again, maybe failing many) got inside me. No, that’s not right, either. It’s more like through the writing, and in retrospect, I acknowledged a fear of my own. I don’t write for self-therapy, and I’m certainly no iconoclast. Nor have I any agenda. Still, as I told the story of people (and even gods) whose help was needed and who could not or would not be able to offer that help . . . it took my book in a direction I had not anticipated.
That all sounds rather deep. Maybe. But it’s not like I was writing a thesis. It’s just that the adventure of the book seemed to me a rather thin skein if the choices along the way weren’t at least sometimes complicated, filled with ambiguity. It’s like playing with that old saw: “Doing the right thing for the wrong reason.” That’s interesting stuff. As is the inverse: “Doing the wrong thing for the right reason.”
And it’s not as though this was all conscious and deliberate as I sat in my chair, writing. It really has more to do with my intention (which I uploaded into my subconscious and then promptly forgot) that choices must matter, for good or ill.
Which then dovetails nicely with another of the Big Ideas that I believe, and hope, has shaped The Unremembered. And that’s this: Some choices have the power and opportunity to touch two eternities. What I mean by that is perhaps best related in an example given by Dan Simmons, who first introduced me to this notion, albeit slightly different. He said (and I’m paraphrasing), that a good teacher can touch eternity . . . but so can a bad one. Dan used to be an educator, so he knows the score here. I’ve never forgotten that. And as I’ve dallied with the notion over the years, it has occurred to me that some choices—depending on which way we choose—may have two separate and ultimate ends. I love (and frankly tremble at) this idea.
Now a life—even that of a character in a fantasy novel—could get painfully doctrinaire or just flat boring if every decision carried such weight. I had no interest in that. On the other hand, I did want to explore how some of those “throw away” decisions a character makes all the time might have ripple-effects they can’t fully appreciate. And two stripes of such decisions occurred to me: the innocent, seemingly harmless choice that eventuates in all kinds of badness; and the absence of action, omission.
And then this idea, for me, kind of turned the whole thing to eleven: What might happen if all this stuff were restored to the character, all these choices—their consequence, the harm, the joy, the disappointment, the shame, the hope? That’s savior stuff, isn’t it? I don’t mean with a capital “S.” More, say, in the philosophical sense. And in The Unremembered, specifically, my creation myth holds that the gods have decidedly abandoned the world.
That abandonment, that decision to withdraw, influenced how I developed and wrote about the world of my book. Regardless the reasons of these absent gods, you can imagine the underlying potential for hopelessness. That became a fun challenge, and it wound up presenting me some opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Because after all is said and done (and as maudlin as it’s going to sound), I want my stories to be about hope. But I don’t think you get there by writing platitudes. At least, that’s not the route I took. Instead, the road I traveled (avoiding spoilers here) showed my characters having to do heartbreaking things, which—if I’ve done my job—are moments of darkness that make hope shine the brighter.
Oooh, I almost waxed poetic there. My point is just that there’s disappointment, sometimes accidental, sometimes intentional. And then, you know, how do my characters make that right? If they’re even aware. If they even care. There’s war, of course, suffering by the sword. There’s also a quieter brand of suffering as a consequence of disappointment, when a hero (a savior) fails someone personally. Are they, afterward, even a hero? Who atones for that guy?
My job was to make the painful decisions of my characters seem credible, necessary, even when they cause you to want to smack our heroes around some. But mostly, the big idea became the willingness to put everything at risk for a friend, and I wound up feeling kinda good about that.
The Unremembered: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Find other media and stories relating to the novel. Follow Peter Orullian on Twitter.
Looks good, you have my interest sparked!
I have been looking forward to your book since I saw your interview with Brandon Sanderson. I like how you ask alot of questions that others do not. I also liked your interview with Daniel Abraham. That is a very cleaver way to market yourself. You came off as very intelligent and well informed in your interviews. You clearly read the books and spent time thinking up new and original questions.
Then I looked at your website and now I have read your post. I like the ideas you are putting forth. Most fantasy novels pay lip service to consequences and making mistakes, but don’t really mean it. I look forward to reading your book.
I’ll probably get crucified for this, and yeah, it doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of the book (I hope) but…who the f*ck designed this cover?? I’m NOT wrong…it totally sucks. If I was Peter I’d perform aggravated homicide on the art director who grafted such an unimaginative, visual cliche onto something I sweated balls to write. Like they say, you never get a second chance to make a great first impression.
Funny how that goes, Hal, I really love that cover. Would pick up the book based on it, at least for a reading test.
You know what, the author almost always has nothing to do with the cover art. Positively or negatively, let’s not get into a discussion of it here. It’s a derail.
@Carina Uh huh. You must read-test a LOTTA books then. I bet I couldn’t bench press the number of books in Borders’ fantasy section with virtually identical covers, if there WERE any Borders.
Sorry, John. I know you’re right. I just find it frustrating that authors have so little control over the design and marketing of their products.
Cover or not I have bought probably half of the books that John has featured on the Big Idea and while some are better than others I have never thrown it down (or the Kindle equivalent now) is disgust at the poor writing. Hope this is on Kindle..
When I first read Hal Jay Greene’s comment, I thought — Dude! Fucking harsh! But… then I scrolled back up and looked at the cover. And while I don’t think it totally sucks, it definitely sucks enough to detract from what sounds like a great book. It’s cliche and lame and radical in its utter lack of radicalness (yes, I know that’s not a real word, but you get it). But I digress. I originally wanted to say that what struck me most about what sounds like a very compelling and thought-provoking book are the parallels to parenting/parenthood and the responsibilities, obligations and endless fucking (often surprising, bewildering, and not revealed until years later on some therapist’s couch) consequences that come with the toughest job you’ll ever love. We often take on the roll of parent with joy and enthusiasm… and somewhere along the way, the burden becomes so heavy because the stakes are so damn high. Don’t we all frequently withdraw on some level? Don’t we withhold occasionally when we have nothing left to give and we’re merely trying to sustain ourselves to get to the next day, which we hope will be easier or less demanding? How much of ourselves do we sacrifice to raise these little beings? How much of ourselves SHOULD we sacrifice? Can we ever get it back? It’s like that great paraphrase you have about teachers… but it’s like we’re before a classroom every minute of the day. You never know which thing you said or did was heard or seen or internalized and how much weight it’s going to carry, how much sway it will hold. Your fuckups and your moments of grace. It is exhausting to ponder. Being a parent can feel godlike, and it can also make you feel damned, because we know that we REALLY DON’T KNOW the price we or our children will eventually pay when and if we fail. Worse still, we often only know in retrospect what those failures actually were. And none of us are perfect. But is that a good enough excuse? I see both my toxins and my… whatever the opposite of toxins are (haven’t had enough caffeine yet to access my full vocabulary this morning) flow out towards my children and come back to me in an endless loop. Sometimes the flow is fast and obvious, other times it takes a while to swing back my way and kick me in the ass. EVERY SINGLE DAY as a parent is another lesson — hell, several lessons — in actions and consequences, as well as in-action and omissions… Our list of “things I did badly” are as long as “things I should’ve done but didn’t.” In any case, cover art aside, I’ll still read your book because it sounds great. Now I’ll go get some more caffeine.
It’s on Kindle and I’ve already pulled the sample. Thanks, Peter (and John, of course)!
I love the cover, cliché or not it’s simply beautiful. When I first saw it, weeks ago, it peaked my interest. But then I read the cover text and my interest waned … now that was cliché.
Since then I’ve read more about the book (and the writer) and I was doubting again. This piece sealed the deal however, and now The Unremembered has a firm spot on my tbr list.
Dude, the ENTIRE book is available on Amazon. And for FREE!? I just spent the last hour reading it, going to speed read through it for the next couple of hours. I think Amazon messed up. LOOK INSIDE is supposed to be only a few pages. This one has ALL seventy-nine chapters available for reading. Like, huh!? That said, it’s a damn book book. It starts off with a pretty cool chase . . . Peter is going to be pissed when he hears about this screwup. But then again, he just got himself a new reader. Me.
Why can’t the ebooks look this good? I’m sick of reading these ugly html books, you know the ebooks priced 40 cents higher than the paperback.
Sorry, Peter. I’ll buy the paperback . . .
ah, pages 660-669 are no included in this preview. this is a damn good marketing idea. i’m already 100 pages invested into the book . . .
Good Lord people, it’s a book. You’re not marrying it. Can we quit harping on the price and cover as if they’re huge matters of life or death? And DWH – you love the book, but are too cheap to spend less than $20? Sigh…
If you want to sample Peter’s work in this world (aside from the preview), he has a couple of short stories on tor.com.
Well, I’m sold. That sounds amazing.
I’m in. Cover art, story, story behind the story. Sold.
I’ll give this book a try–thanks!
Tor.com has an excerpt posted if anyone cares to sample it that way. Also included there are links to three other Peter Orullian stories.
Don’t be so quick to judge. I’m an expat living in South Korea. Hardcovers here are crazy expensive here, the Korean Won like 20% undervalued. I read the first 200 pages, loving it. I WILL buy the paperback when I get back to Vancouver, Canada.
Okay, I stand corrected. I just looked it up at the bookstore in Itaewon. $24.00. SOLD. I assumed it would be like $35.00. Oh, well. Check out the comments on the front cover . . .
Peter…that was wonderful. My copy’s ordered. And Congrats!!
Heads up: Tor.com is giving away 5 copies of The Unremembered. Deadline to enter is noonish ET on monday, April 18.