The Big Idea: Brandon Crilly
Look, up in the sky! It’s not a bird, or a plane, it’s… squid gods? Author Brandon Crilly gives us a look inside his newest novel, Catalyst, and what it means to have faith; especially in something you can see.
When I was a kid, I grew up with two very different family branches. My dad’s side: devout Catholic. My mom’s side: Christmas meant presents and turkey. Since my dad was the rebel of his side, I grew up given the choice to decide my faith (or not), leading to a very observational relationship with both religion and spirituality.
I flirt a bit more with the latter every year, and faith has always fascinated me. Why people believe what they do. The signs people look for. How they explain phenomena when it feels like more than luck or coincidence (something I experience more and more). Where and why people disagree on matters of faith.
On Aelda, where Catalyst takes place, both religion and belief are complicated by the gods coasting across the sky at some point every week. Aelda was about to burst open at its core until the Aspects arrived (that would be the giant squids on the cover!) and encased the world in an atmospheric bubble so that life could go on. The Fracture and Salvation, most people call it centuries later, and that’s about the only thing people can agree on. I love epic fantasy that features gods, like Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen or Hanrahan’s Black Iron Legacy, but I knew I didn’t want gods that occupy specific roles in a pantheon where everyone knows who they are, what they represent, and which ones you can trust or not.
Early in my worldbuilding, I envisioned the Aspects as four parts of a separate whole, working in tandem like a collective. Presence. Hidden. Vital. Catalyst. Though they connect telepathically to people on the ground, offering a sliver of their power to a select few, there’s never a real conversation – more an exchange of feelings and impressions. Which meant thinking carefully about how that would affect belief systems and organized religion over time, and a lot of fun coming up with different interpretations of what the Aspects embody, based on geographic location, culture, history and more. Someone might pray to the Presence as Passage for a safe journey via windship; or maybe they believe the Catalyst as Protector is more responsible for that. I’ve got a chart dotted with interpretations that never get mentioned in the book, simply from having fun tweaking meanings to be just different enough that it would make sense for some group to be worshipping them somewhere.
Dreaming up interpretations for your squid gods is a blast, but I also needed ground rules and structure for Aelda’s religion(s). One of the reasons I lean more spiritual than religious is because the “organized” part of religion never connected with me, so I also had to be very conscious of my bias when building what essentially became a theocracy – or maybe more akin to Europe pre-Reformation, where rulers ran their realms but still listened when the Pope spoke. Aelda’s Highest Voices operate on a pretty simple principle: when the gods are literally responsible for holding your world together, it’s best not to accidentally insult them. Not every interpretation can be sanctioned, then, and the Highest Voices wouldn’t see that as repression, but as pragmatism for the good of humanity’s continued survival. I’m sure you’re already thinking how that conceit is ripe for various kinds of conflict, since naturally people are still going to question the higher powers and want to practice their own interpretations, trusting that the Aspects are too benevolent to let the world finish exploding because no one can agree on what They think.
I tend to deepen my worldbuilding after coming up with my core characters, and luckily (or tactically – thanks, subconscious!) their goals and motivations dovetailed nicely with this theocratic world of orbital gods and interpretive religion. My shifting relationship with elements of faith shows up in different places, whether it’s people grappling with their spirituality, or questioning the status quo, or debating beliefs and interpretations. Much like how every Catholic has a different perspective on God, I wanted my characters to all have different perspectives on both the Aspects and the Highest Voices, either based on their personal experiences with either or the political and social circumstances where they live.
But the final piece I needed for myself was to not make Catalyst a heavy book. I’m a hopepunk author at heart, and part of that is deliberately injecting fun throughout, sometimes when characters poke at each other about matters of faith. People looking up at an Aspect passing overhead and thinking, Can’t you just be straightforward with us, for once? Maybe? Please?
Naturally, no one expects the Aspects to answer. But even if they did, I wouldn’t count on it making things easier…