The Big Idea: Erin Hoffman

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.


Sword of Fire and Sea: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s LiveJournal. Follow her on Twitter.


17 Comments on “The Big Idea: Erin Hoffman”

  1. I tend to gravitate away from sf/f with covers depicting aerodynamically challenged beasts, but I will make an exception in this case. Since ‘Repent, Harlequin!,Said the Tick-Tock Man’, I’ve been unable to resist a fictional troublemaker…

  2. One trouble with “the world needs more rabble-rousers” is that we have so many rabble-rousers who have completely irrational claims, or who are easily lead to blame victims etc.

  3. The sort of rabble rouser who says “Hey! You can’t treat people that way!” – that type, we need more of. Many more of.

    I hadn’t heard of ea_spouse before this, but am spreading the word about this book because of that story, as well as the one between the covers. :)

  4. My husband is a professor at a major university, and he works pretty much every hour that he’s awake. University professors don’t have anyone whose job it is to make sure that their workload is actually doable — they have neither a union nor professionally-trained managers, since deans are just professors who’ve been kicked upstairs — so at many universities, the workload actually ISN’T doable.

    My husband desperately needs some recreation, but most genre books are too long for him. I find it strangely amusing that it should be EASpouse who wrote a book that’s short enough that my husband might actually find the time to read it.

  5. I have a ridiculous tendency to read books in one sitting (like I’m afraid if I put the thing down, all the words I haven’t read will disappear?), so I REALLY LIKE novels under 300 pages. It makes standing up afterwords so much more possible.

  6. I love the cover art, but what’s up with the swordsman? Is he left-handed or does he prefer to use his sword as an XXL-sized dagger? *g*

  7. Swordsman is drawing left-handed into a two-handed grip. ;)

    “The truth is slippery.” Oh, really? Oh, my, is it, indeed. “The things we know that are not so.” took a giant bite out of my understanding of a relationship a couple of months ago, and I’m still just beginning to process it. How could I have been so blind?

  8. Swordsman has a badly designed hanger for his scabbard and is attempting to keep his sword from smacking him in the back of the knee every time he shifts his weight.

  9. I’m kind of amused (and puzzled) that several people are complaining about the swordsman but no one has yet complained about the woman wearing extremely impractical, see-through clothing.

    This book sounds intriguing but without a Kindle version (yet?) I can’t, alas, sample it and decide.

  10. I dont like short books, Especially when i pay the same for them as a long book. BUT. If i could get this book on kindle it would already be mine. The synopsis sold me on it. I’ll keep checking for it.

    @Kaitlyn when have you ever known a collection of male Nerds to complain about a scantily clad sorceress?

  11. The story does sound interesting…

    BUT… While the technical quality of the artwork is good, that cover would be an instant turn-off if I saw it in a book store. It is basically a bunch of fantasy cliches that appears to be designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator of fantasy readership. 1) The griffon, 2) the rugged hero, and 3) the scantily clad female who is 4) doing flashy fire magic.

    One or two of these cliches together might be forgive-able. But all four of them? Not appealing – to me at least.

  12. Am I the only one who is a little stunned at the obvious play on a Sword of Ice and Fire to get sales? I mean really? A Sword of Fire and Sea?

  13. Hi Sean. Googling for something else brought me back to this page, so thought I’d reply even though you’re unlikely to see it.

    The original title of the project, which I began in 2003, was “Of Fire and Sea”, to be followed by “All the Earth and Sky”. At that time I was dimly aware of GRRM but more of his short fiction than long. When I sold the trilogy my publisher thought that it needed a “fantasy noun” in the title so that it would be identifiable on a list of books as being distinctly fantasy — this kind of thing makes a big difference. I wasn’t crazy about the idea, but naming the trilogy “the chaos knight” fit the story so well, and so “Of Fire and Sea” became “Sword of Fire and Sea”, followed by “Lance of Earth and Sky” and finally “Shield of Sea and Space”. I’ve read the comparisons made to “Song of Ice and Fire”, but honestly the comparison never occurred to me at the time in part because I can’t hear George’s series title without immediately thinking of Robert Frost (whereas SOFAS makes me think more of Dragonlance, etc). I understand the comparison, but particularly the mainstream audience at this point is far more aware of “A Game of Thrones” (another great title, darn him) than the series title, I think.

    I don’t know if this explanation of the title’s evolution helps, but in case you were wondering if it was up to some maniacal executive fondling a waxed moustache and wondering how they could rip off GRRM, it manifestly was not. Given that the entire book revolves around elemental conflict, removing the “of fire and sea” origin would have been prohibitively difficult and disingenuous, and finding another fantasy noun that didn’t make me want to stab myself just to avoid having an “s-” word in the title to skirt ASOIAF seems a little ridiculous. Catchy titles are challenging; at the time I was more worried about stepping on Patricia McKillip’s “Heir of Sea and Fire”. No one much bothers me about that one I think because she is less well known at the moment than George.

    Also, for those interested in a kindle edition, it exists:

    And while I’m at it, thanks, everybody for the very kind comments above. Having a fantasy book published was something I’d dreamt about since I was about ten years old, so at the time of this blog post I was in a pretty mind-bent state, as well as extremely grateful both for the Big Idea and for all your comments.