The Big Idea: Katherine Addison

The worlds of fantasy offer up ample space for the imagination to play… but do they also and simultaneously constrict those same imaginations? Author Katherine Addison fears they might, and when it came to her novel The Goblin Emperor, Addison decided on a new world with a difference. She’s here to explain how, and why.


By the time you finish writing a novel, it’s frequently somewhere between difficult and impossible to remember how you started, but in the case of The Goblin Emperor, I remember exactly: I wanted to write a story with both elves and airships. Because there was no reason I couldn’t, and it seemed like an awesome idea.

Once I’d thought of airships, it was inevitable that I would think of the Hindenburg. Although I love and write science fiction and fantasy–and don’t want to stop!–down at the bottom of my heart, in the darkness among the spiders and ghouls, I’m a horror writer. I tend to be interested in how things go wrong, and I’m drawn to catastrophe.

Everything else in the book came from that first decision to combine elves and airships and catastrophe and trying to think through the ramifications of each subsequent domino as it tipped to knock the domino behind it. As a part of this process, I found myself thinking a lot about science and technology and the conflicted relationship epic fantasy has with both of them.

By “epic fantasy,” I mean what Tolkien called “secondary-world fantasy” (which is a better name, but much more awkward): fantasies that take place entirely in made-up worlds with no reference to the real world at all. Tolkien himself is a prime example, and the genre continues to thrive. To give you some living practitioners, just off the top of my head: Kate Elliott, David Anthony Durham, Martha Wells, Scott Lynch, N. K. Jemisin, Laurie Marks, Ellen Kushner, Saladin Ahmed.

I love this genre and have since I was very small, but I do find its attitude towards science and technology frustrating. Somewhere along the line, we got it into our heads that any society with magic would, for some reason, stop advancing somewhere shy of the Industrial Revolution. The implicit (or explicit) assumption often seems to be that magic trumps gunpowder, like some weird game of Rock Paper Scissors. Or there’s been some sort of giant mysterious cataclysm that destroyed all the technology and (apparently) made everybody stupid. And we’ve all been brainwashed by Tolkien into believing that only evil people have (or want) technological advancements past the Spinning Jenny, and that a nostalgic pastoral technology-rejecting Arcadia is obviously better than, oh, I dunno, flush toilets. Or flashlights. Or fire alarms.

So we end up, most often, in some stagnated Hollywood version of “The Dark Ages” with castles and people in robes and no interest in science–because magic!–and the most technology you’ll see is maybe a catapult. Diana Wynne Jones’ brilliant Tough Guide to Fantasyland skewers this cobbled-together mess of assumptions and lazy thinking like it was a shish-kebab. The very fact that she could do so tells you just how codified this generic fantasy setting has become and how many writers use it.

The thing is, this set of assumptions and valuations becomes a cage. So even if you’re trying to write a society that has both magic and technology, it can be really hard to remember that the cage door isn’t actually closed. I had to keep reminding myself as I was writing The Goblin Emperor that technological progress is not bad, that scientific inquiry is awesome, that I wasn’t violating any genuine taboos by having steamships and factories and astronomers and clockmakers and gas lamps. And the enormous steam-powered drawbridge that the characters spend the whole book arguing about.

I don’t deny the appeal of a pastoral world, one without air-pollution or global warming or oil spills, and I think fantasy does provide a much-needed outlet for that craving of the imagination. I don’t want to do away with that. But fantasy can do so much more. There are so many other ways to imagine our relationship with scientific and technological progress than this Manichean either-or we’ve saddled ourselves with. I would love to see fantasy, as a genre, explore that, instead of cowering in the cage we’ve built ourselves, as it gets smaller and smaller every year.

As well as being a wicked satirist, Diana Wynne Jones was a brilliant fantasist (a propos of this discussion, I believe she was the author who introduced me to the radical idea that you could have magic and trains in the same world). In her short story, “The Sage of Theare,” set in a world hemmed about with rules and restrictions and lists, the anarchic Sage of Dissolution chalks this slogan on a wall: “IF RULES MAKE A FRAMEWORK FOR THE MIND TO CLIMB ABOUT IN, WHY SHOULD THE MIND NOT CLIMB RIGHT OUT, SAYS THE SAGE OF DISSOLUTION.”

Fundamentally, that’s what I want to say. These unwritten rules are a cage, and there is no reason we should not climb right out.

And that’s my Big Idea.


The Goblin Emperor: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

21 Comments on “The Big Idea: Katherine Addison”

  1. Here’s what I want to do with fantasy– get rid of magic. It’s a crutch and an interference. We need more stuff like Peter Dickinson’s The Blue Hawk.

    I have to acknowledge, though, that most people think I am strange…..

  2. I can see how sharks with lasers would be better with magic.
    Aside: ‘The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump’ by Turtledove features why a magic universe might have no tech-It’s the magical critters. Salamanders liking to lay eggs gunpowder sort of thing.

  3. I read and reviewed The Goblin Emperor, so if anyone here is even mildly interested about the book after hearing the idea behind it you should check it out. It’s very good.

    Having read the book it was nice to see Katherine Addison’s thought process about pushing the boundaries of epic fantasy. The Goblin Emperor has some old fantasy tropes but those are few and far between and she puts her own spin on them. The characters were memorable, the plot was interesting and of course the world-building was fantastic. You can’t ask for more.

    Basically, it’s just a really good book and I can’t recommend it enough for anyone who loves fantasy.

  4. Diana was the one who showed me you can have guns and gods in the same story. I am looking forward to The Goblin Emperor.

  5. Doug Daniel @9:11:

    If you want fantasy without magic, look for Guy Gavriel Kay‘s work. Aside from the Fionavar Tapestry, his fantasy worlds have either very little or no magic.

    Elves and locomotives coexist in Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter.

  6. I’ve read The Goblin Emperor and LOVED IT. I’ll mention 3 quick non-spoiling reasons why in the hope I can encourage everyone to read it.

    1) The main character is hugely sympathetic. Sympathy isn’t necessary to make me want to read a book; I don’t need to like the MC, only be interested in what they are doing. But in this case I found the MC so appealing that it was almost painful how much I wanted him to find some/any way to not be buried under an impossible situation.

    2) the world-building is intricate and delightful, so well worked out that it is a pleasure to watch it unfold.

    3) it’s much harder to write a successful court intrigue story (imho) than to use violence, murder, mayhem, etc to gallop a plot along. This novel explores court intrigue beautifully.

  7. Oof I was going to go out tonight but now all I want to do is go home and read this. Been waiting for so long!

  8. I got this yesterday! It has been on my must by list since i first heard about it – while it was still being written.

    I keep getting excited when i see it on top ten anticipated lists

  9. My thoughts are, if you’re on a made-up world, a) what planet are we on? b) if Earth, like Tolkies ancient ‘Middle Earth’, then creatures from Earth mythology are fine. If we are on a different planet, leave ‘goblins’ and ‘elves’ behind. Unless you’re screwing with the Earth-human space colonists who have invaded, ala Poul Anderson’s “The Queen of Air and Darkness.”

    Wouldn’t a different planet have ‘alien’ analogues to elves and goblins?

    Then again, elves and goblins as aliens transported to ancient Earth, that would work. Hmmm…

  10. Your post sold me. I like how familiar you are with fantasy and your citing tolkein and other books shows you really like the genre. That is very impressive to me. I also think your cover is kind of funny in a cool way. Alot of the Big Idea posts really are not very good. They wander on and don’t really get to the topic of ‘why I would want to read your book and what is it about’. This was one of the best Big Idea posts I have read. I come here primarily for the book posts to look for new authors so I have read all of the Big Idea posts going back several years.

    Ill read this book. I have a long reading list and I don’t go real fast, so it may be a while before I buy it. Looks like a good one to audio. Ill check to see if its on audio. With summer coming, I like to listen to audio books when I take walks or ride my bike. Gets me off my butt.

    John: Please let Katherine post a Big Idea for her next book also. I know you like to switch up and let different authors post. I dont think too many authors get multiple big idea posts which I really like. However, This one was very well written. Might be a good idea to post a link to this Big Idea post so authors can see how to write a quality one.

    This really was an excellent post.

  11. Then again, elves and goblins as aliens transported to ancient Earth, that would work.

    May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile, for example. As the name implies it involves time travel, but it’s one way from a human society substantially more advanced than our own; but everyone who travels to the distant past can only bring with them what they can carry, and what they find when they arrive… well, I pretty much spoilered the first couple chapters by mentioning the series in response to this sentence. Sometimes you can’t discuss something at all without spoilering at least some parts.

    The “elves” and “goblins” (they have other names in-series) do have a considerable amount of technology of their own, though.

    I love this genre and have since I was very small, but I do find its attitude towards science and technology frustrating. Somewhere along the line, we got it into our heads that any society with magic would, for some reason, stop advancing somewhere shy of the Industrial Revolution.

    I found this point a bit odd coming right after the mention of Kate Elliott, since her most recent series simultaneously justifies and averts the trope. Justifies, in that some mages are actively trying to suppress technology as a subversive threat to their power base and because they fear it may attract the attention of dangerous supernatural beings; averts, in that technological progress continues underground and at the margins, contributing to a major political conflict in which the main characters eventually become embroiled.

    I think Tolkien’s technophobia cast a long shadow over fantasy, but the field is outgrowing it. In fantasy settings with multiple races/species, it’s fairly common now for at least one race to have a talent for technology (sometimes it’s humans, and sometimes someone like dwarves or goblins are even *more* technological than humans).

    This post is probably long enough without getting into Magitek (when technology actually incorporates magic), but see the TV Tropes page by that name for a longer discussion than you probably have time to read.

    P.S. And then there’s all those series set in multiverses that may have some technological worlds, some magical worlds, and some with mixes of both, with various justifications for why things stay on their own sides of the lines — or they don’t, and the work explores the ramifications. The main character of _Finder_ has a friend who is an elven mechanic, for example.

  12. I would love to see fantasy, as a genre, explore that, instead of cowering in the cage we’ve built ourselves, as it gets smaller and smaller every year.

    Oh, wow. I … don’t think fantasy is cowering in cage, actually?

    I can’t think of a tired fantasy cliche that writers in the genre haven’t upended, subverted, made new again and strange.

    And this particular cliche … doesn’t even seem all that cliche? Thank you for acknowledging Diana Wynne Jones as a counter-example; she was a wonderful and imaginative writer of fantasy. But there are numerous other examples (including one of the biggest cod-mediaeval fantasy blockbusters of the past couple of decades, which is a bog-standard “farmboy becomes king, defeats dark lord because prophecy” story that features the invention of the cannon and the steam engine), not to mention a well-established sub-genre specifically devoted to foregrounding the very technologies you mention.

    I realize that you are probably aware of the existence of steampunk, and that most of what I’m objecting to is pitch rhetoric/hyperbole. It’s just a special peeve of mine that so many fantasy novels are promoted with “You’re probably used to fantasies that [Unfair slam of the genre at large, blah blah blah Tolkien] but THIS NOVEL…”

    Sorry to run on so uncharitably. I read your previous series, and I do hope the The Goblin Emperor is a success for you.

  13. I downloaded this book based on the blog post and consider it money well spent. Although I sometimes found tracking the names and characters difficult because of the unusual spellings (I wonder if the hardcopy comes the scoresheet), I thought the use of technology was an addition to the story, not a gratuitous “hey look at me I’ve written about steam punk elves” type of thing.

    All in all, it was a very enjoyable read, and I will be adding Katherine to my watch list.

  14. This is one heck of a good book. I stayed up past midnight to finish it– and I spent today re-reading parts of it. I will be pressing it on family and friends in the future.

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