Do you feel our universe has its quota of rabble-rousers? If you do, you and Erin Hoffman will have to agree to disagree, because Hoffman is of the opinion that we’re not quite up to speed on that score — and she has some experience in the rabble-rousing field of things, in her former guise as “ea_spouse,” who called out one of the top video game firms for its labor practices. How does that belief feed into Sword of Fire and Sea, her debut novel? In this Big Idea, Hoffman explains how a capacity for contention helped her to view the world in a new way — and build her novel to reflect that.
My big idea is one that’s occasionally gotten me into hot water over the years, and surely will again in the future:
The world needs more troublemakers.
I never set out to be a troublemaker. I was actually a distressingly well-behaved kid. In 2005, in the midst of the fallout from the ea_spouse blog, and all of the news coverage, the mountain of war stories, and the lawyers, my father (who had just suffered a heart attack that same November) said, “You’re what the Navy calls a ‘shit disturber’.”
In addition to the general stress of being a rather shy person (not to mention still young in my game career) thrust into the strange and disturbing world of media quotes, labor organizers, and industry power players, this revelation clashed with my personal identity. I had never been a troublemaker — had I?
Then I remembered that the first time I had ever cursed in front of my father (who abhors profanity) was when I found out I wasn’t allowed to try out for Pop Warner football. (I was a blocker during recess and regularly knocked down the boys.) And that I once called the editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper an Orwellian newspeaker in a letter-to-the-editor about marching band politics.
So in a way “ea_spouse” represented the flowering of seeds planted in my childhood, maybe not guaranteed to have bloomed, but unsurprising in the hothouse environment of the aggressive, youth-consuming, capitalistic-in-the-bad-ways games industry. And whether I like it or not, it fundamentally — and probably permanently — changed the way the outside world saw me, and the way I saw myself. Over the next few years, I became obsessed with hidden truths, and the responsibility involved in uncovering them. I read a lot of Philip K. Dick — a far throw from where I’d started in genre fiction, among the whimsical fantasies of Xanth and Pern, where the endings are usually happy ones — and Douglas Hofstadter, and eventually Oliver Sacks and V. S. Ramachandran. I was fascinated, almost against my human desire for peace and happiness, with the way that our perceptions of reality actually influence the reality that we experience, and the realities of the people around us.
Sword of Fire and Sea is a contemplation of shit-disturbing dressed up in elemental magic and fantastical creatures. Vidarian, the main character, is destined to be torn between the weight of his family legacy — of the “real” world as he knows it — and the hidden world of Andovar’s history, which is rife with uncomfortable truths and grey ethical spaces. It is full of love, because that’s the only way I know how to write, but it circles inexorably around the fundamental question of whether an individual has the right to break down a system when they think that the system is wrong.
I haven’t really talked about this dimension of the book before — it’s a little inside baseball, maybe — but I know it’s an important one. And of course at heart I am a storyteller, and I won’t show all my cards — but I thought that the Whatever audience would be one of the most receptive, the most engaged, in this notion of liminal spaces, of the slipperiness of truth. And about how very hard it is to discover and stand behind truth in a complex world that grows ever more complex over time.
I think that all fiction is ultimately of and about its time, and that our time is one of rapidly accelerating complexity, and massive, unknowable systems. As our civilizations become more complex and more intertwined, they achieve a kind of sentience, and that’s a pretty scary thing. An ex-Wall Street programmer recently told me that 60% of trading today is now done by machine algorithms. We have already seen how corporations conspire to act in their own self-interest independent even of the people who compose them — because this is how they are designed. And increasingly, the critical issue of our time is the challenge of retaining individual power in the face of these intelligent super-structures, which react and subsume us before we even realize that they are a threat. But most systems are actually remarkably poor at predicting and dealing with individual troublemakers (so far, anyway!).
If I have a mission as a writer, it is to tell stories like this, to navigate like the old existentialists through thorny philosophical problems. That’s one side of it, anyway. The other side is an old-fashioned love of Treasure Island and zany Jack Chalker-esque fantasy worlds. So what I hope I’ve reached is a balance, kind of like Michael Ende achieved in The Neverending Story (the book, not the movie, though RIP Artax 4ever), where in the imagery and world events there are important universals being played with, but the story itself remains king.
One of the keys to this, for me at least, is short novels, which are rare in fantasy these days. As a reader I love the 250 page length. I want to get in, get euphoric, and get out, without getting bogged down in lengthy genealogy records or endless hikes across Mordor. I’m putting my chips on not being the only one who feels this way, and how it pays out remains to be seen. I know that this short-book-with-crazy-ideas is an unusual sell for epic fantasy, which is perhaps how I wind up with a fantasy novel blurbed by Allen Steele. (Either that, or Allen’s just a really nice guy.)
Like the search for truth in reality, the search in writing is a long one — lifelong or more. But I hope this is a good start, and I’d be honored if any of you read it and sent me your thoughts. What we have against the system of systems is mainly each other.