Kameron Hurley's bug-infused debut novel God's War [reviewed here] has just been released by Night Shade Books and it left me wanting to dig a bit further. God's War had quite a rocky road to publication as I first heard about the book more than 2 years ago. Hurley has been publishing short stories for more than a decade including “Genderbending At the Madhattered.,” which is worth the read just based on the title alone. Read on to learn more about bugpunk, boxing, and the New Weird influences on God's War.
MH: Thanks for agreeing to this interview.
KAMERON: Thanks for the invite!
MH: The tag word most associated with your debut God's War is "bugpunk," which springs all sorts of nasty ideas to mind. How would you describe God's War to unsuspecting readers?
KAMERON: The people in God’s War power the world with bugs. Some of that really is as nasty as it sounds, which, for me, was part of the fun of doing it. It’s not just about peppering a book with giant bugs, it’s about looking at ways you can use insects to save lives and keep the lights on. Literally.
I lived in Durban, South Africa for a year and a half where bugs were just a way of life. I’d wake up with cockroaches on my pillow, and watch nests of bugs swarm out from under the tub in the bathroom, and clots of gnats and flying cockroaches gather around lights. Sometimes the freak-out factor of bugs makes us forget how useful they can be, though. The more bugs I dealt with, the more fascinated I became with stories of what different species could do. Simple things like honey as an antibiotic, wasps that can sniff out explosives, and maggots for cleaning out wounds. I took that a step further and went, “What if people could actually control, manipulate, and breed bugs to perform high technology tasks like power vehicles, facilitate long-distance communications, and create massive weapons of war? And on what kind of a world would they have to resort to doing something like this?”
When I tried describing how the tech in the God’s War world worked, the “bugpunk” description was the first to come to mind. It kinda stuck.
MH: God's War has something of a sorted past. You originally sold it to another publisher only to have the whole publishing implosion of 2008 pull the carpet out from under you and two years later you sold it to Night Shade. You've already recounted the story of the cancellation, but I'm curious about how this all effected the book. Did the book change a lot from what you were originally going to publish and the version Night Shade released?
KAMERON: Not really. Night Shade had copyeditor Marty Halpern look it over, and I added in some changes from the copyedits I received from the prior publisher just before it got dropped. I maybe took out half a dozen paragraphs – mostly repetitive stuff - fixed some logical inconsistencies, and cut a bunch of commas. That’s pretty much it. We’d already finished all the heavy editing and were about to go to print when the plug got pulled at the original publisher. It was less work for Night Shade and for me – it was great to not have to deal with the push/pull in different directions from different publishers. The best part is that for the sequel, Infidel (also acquired by Night Shade), I'll be working with Juliet Ulman in her freelance editing capacity. Juliet was the editor who initially acquired God's War at the first publisher, and now she gets to work on the series for Night Shade. Funny how things work out.
MH: I can definitely see why Juliet wanted to publish you originally, especially given her work with Felix Gilman, Jeff VanderMeer, and Alan Campbell. She was building quite the New Weird cadre over at Spectra. With God's War you've created a world where women generally rule and most men take a back seat role all done through the lens of a world heavily influenced by Muslim beliefs. What brought about this direction?
KAMERON: The primary holy book I put together for use in Nasheen, Chenja, and as the first of two holy books in Tirhan in God’s War is a mishmash of many beliefs from many religions. I wanted to be clear that these were people who came from many backgrounds, but who found a few common beliefs to unite them – in the case of these countries, Islam was certainly a big influence, as was the Old Testament.
Someone once asked me if I felt that religion was the greatest threat to the equality of women in society. I said that religion isn’t inherently a threat to anything at all – it’s our interpretation of it that’s the problem. People forget that the Bible says slavery and incest are OK, too. That’s something that’s simply not emphasized anymore (whereas when owning slaves was considered OK in this country, the Bible was used to reinforce the morality of that practice). So why do we still see so many religious leaders emphasizing the misogynist stuff? They don’t have to. They can reinterpret it, or ignore it, or put it in context.
And that was the part that interested me. How could I build a world heavily steeped in old-world patriarchal religious influences (all of the major Old Testament-inspired tomes have some far-future society on this planet, which are explored more in books two and three) that turned into a matriarchy, like Nasheen? Or a more egalitarian society, like Tirhan? Or a whacked-out gender separatist playground like Mhoria?
The Quran gave women at the time many, many more rights than they were afforded in the time prior to the teachings of the book. Until the 20th century, women generally had fewer restrictions under Islamic law than they did under Western law. I knew that in a book that had heavy Islamic influences, I could build a strong case for a feminist society… if the conditions in that society were just right.
And the Old Testament, well… that had lots of blood, bodies, and an angry, jealous God, which was perfect for the resource-strapped desert in God’s War that everyone was fighting for. There’s very good reason, historically, to create a bloodthirsty god in a place with lots of people and few resources. Then what I did was posit a world where the people doing the interpreting of the religious books were women. What would they choose to ignore, and what would they choose to emphasize? So I built a world based on what we see as heavily patriarchal religious systems and had them reinterpreted to bring about a powerful matriarchy.
As for why... well, because it was a cool exercise in "What if?"
MH: Besides being a writer you've also dabbled in boxing, which is used prominently in God's War in a few places. Did a lot of your personal experiences with boxing make it in?
KAMERON: I never boxed with any kind of actual professionalism, and certainly not to the extent that Nyx does. I took boxing classes on and off in Chicago for about four years at POW Martial Arts, which is a great mixed martial arts gym downtown. At the height of it, I was taking maybe two boxing/mixed martial arts classes a week and jogging 4-6 miles a week. Nothing serious - just fun. So there’s some actual knowledge in there, sure – I know the basics, and I have a decent right hook – but I never seriously sparred.
Primarily, what I took away from the experience was this incredible realization that my body was really, really good at something. Namely, hitting things very hard. Women often have the opposite pressures as men when it comes to physicality. We’re supposed to be small and soft, and I was always big and mouthy. I always felt like I wasn’t really good for anything, physically, as we’re still taught that a woman’s worth is generally measured in her adherence to a very narrow sort of femininity.
But the first time I punched a 200 lb standing bag and it fell over, I was in awe of my own physical power. “Oh,” I thought, “THIS is why it’s cool to be big and scary!”
That’s when I started lifting weights, and reveling in my body’s own personal power instead of hiding under too-big shirts and layers of flannel.
It’s that experience of personal power that I think gets translated into the books, particularly during the boxing scenes. Nasheenian women are all very aware of their physical power.
MH: I always enjoy a good kick boxing class. There is something about being able to kick the hell out of something without someone giving you an odd look that feels so good. Personal power does seem to be a theme that runs throughout without it feeling like girl power. These are certainly some tough ladies, but you've blurred the line of sex and sexuality a lot with God's War. How have your travels around the world influenced the story? In some ways is this your version of showing culture clash just on a planetary scale?
KAMERON: For the record, I despise the term “girl power.” I think “power” should cover it. Thing is, saying women and power together sounds too scary, I think. So it becomes infantilized, and women exerting power becomes the more innocuous sounding, “girl power.”
Bah. I like worlds with powerful people, in worlds where “people” really does include women.
Anyway, I recommend a lot of traveling to new writers, especially young writers. I’d been putting words on paper since I was 12, but a lot of it sounded the same as everything else. There’s something about stepping into a place that doesn’t have all the same cultural biases as you do to make you really open up your eyes to how things can be different. I remember the first time I lived in a different city when I was 18, just a five hour or so drive from my hometown, and I thought it was wickedly weird that the libraries were open on Sundays. People looked at me like I was nuts when I told them how weird this was. I didn’t realize until then just how sheltered I’d been. Sure, my family had traveled a lot, but we stuck to safe places like Reno, Las Vegas, Disneyworld, etc. Very scripted fantasy places. I still have a fondness for scripted fantasy, but living in Alaska for a couple of years and South Africa for a year and a half helped wake me up. There’s nothing like the constant threat of freezing to death or getting shot outside after dark to make you realize how fragile and wonderful life is. I’ve also traveled all around Europe, and spent a couple of weeks in New Zealand. I’m planning to get to Cairo this year and make another trip to South Africa for a friend’s wedding. I love to travel. I like what it teaches me about myself and all of my cultural baggage. You can’t hope to figure out all your baggage unless you recognize it first.
But the traveling by itself wouldn’t have had as much effect on my writing, I think, if I hadn’t also chosen to major in history. My graduate thesis looked at how the African National Congress used propaganda to encourage women to join its ranks during the war against Apartheid in South Africa. I have done a lot of reading and writing about conflict, and the role of women in conflict, from South Africa, Rwanda, Iran, Germany in WWII, ancient Babylonia and Assyria, and of course, here in the U.S. It very much interests me how we justify the oppression of – and violence against - other people, whether it’s because of their perceived race, sex, class, or beliefs. Time and again, you’ll see religion and science used to justify existing biases. We tend to emphasize evidence that supports our existing beliefs, and ignore evidence that refutes it. You see this all the time in the media. They’ll go so far as to print studies that haven’t even been peer reviewed yet, just because they make everybody feel better about their biases (it’s likely not surprising that I find psychology pretty fascinating as well).
So yes, the God’s War world did become a playground of a sort for hashing out how these sorts of conflicts might play out differently somewhere else, some when else, among distinctly different cultures with wildly different social mores.
MH: Your taste in personal reading seems to tend to the dark and New Weird stuff. God's War does seem to be a cross section of Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and a little Horror as well. Were you aiming for something in the New Weird camp? The line between science and magic seems very blurred in the world of God's War between the Magicians who seem like scientists one moment and miracle workers the next with the whole bugtech development.
KAMERON: I’ve always liked a lot of elements of dark fantasy, and how magic and science are simply a matter of how much understanding one has of how the world works. That probably comes from reading too much Gene Wolfe.
I’m also definitely influenced a lot by New Weird. It was while reading China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station in 2002 or so that I realized I really needed to up my game. Before that, I’d compared what I wrote to the classic fantasy I read and just couldn’t understand why I wasn’t getting published with any kind of consistency. I felt like my stuff was the same quality as a lot of what I read. What I didn’t realize is that, though there’s certainly a place for traditional fantasy and science fiction, just aping what everyone else does isn’t going to get you anywhere (and isn’t much fun, anyway). I think New Weird helped dig some of us out of the traditional fantasy rut. From there I started reading Jeff VanderMeer, Angela Carter, KJ Bishop, Kelley Link, Tim Akers, Christopher Priest, Nicola Griffith, Melvin Burgess, Geoff Ryman, Paul Park, and Carol Emshwiller (it’s likely not surprising that I’ve always been an avid fan of Joanna Russ). I also started reading more outside the genre, people who were really good at things I wasn’t, from Sarah Waters and Michael Cunningham to Stephen King ,Toni Morrison, Mary Renault, and Rupert Thomson.
The best advice I ever got as writer was from Geoff Ryman, who said to read a lot outside the genre and travel. Taking that advice to heart has definitely made a big difference in my writing.
MH: Great name checks all around. I just read one of Ryman's shorts in Brave New Worlds that really shocked me. Was God's War the first novel you wrote or are there some in the trunk?
KAMERON: Oh, hell no. God’s War is the 9th novel I’ve finished, and the third I’ve shopped. I sent around my first novel to publishers back in 2002, with no luck. In 2004 I shopped around another one, this time to agents. No luck there either, though lots of requests for partials and a couple of rewrite requests. Ultimately, nothing came of it. Like a lot of folks, I have a five book fantasy series in the trunk somewhere. I had a pretty long slog to publication, which is fairly common. I think it was Kevin J. Anderson who said that the key to becoming a successful author is persistence. Raw, enduring persistence.
MH: God's War is very much Nyx and Rhys story. What can we expect from the sequel Infidel? New character POVs? Is it still set for publication in December of this year?
KAMERON: Yup, Infidel is still on target for December of this year, last I heard. Hoping to have a book three (Babylon) come out the year after, but that depends entirely on how well these ones do (so goes the publishing biz).
The books are very much Nyx and Rhys’s story, and their little dance certainly fuels the series, for better or worse. You’ll see some of the same POV’s in Infidel, and some new characters, too. One of the most enjoyable parts of working on these books is collecting the ragtag mix of felons, mercenaries, mad folks, deserters, and addicts for each of Nyx’s jobs. She really knows how to pick `em.
Expect the world to get a lot bigger in Infidel, with trips abroad to countries like Ras Tieg and Tirhan, both of which get some passing mention in God’s War but are never really explored. They’ll be deadlier bugs, crazier shape shifting, and far bloodier rogue assassins.
MH: What's your grossest bug story?
Personal or anecdotal? My personal one is pretty tame. That’s waking up one night in Durban, South Africa to find a cockroach as big as my thumb staring at me right there on my pillow. At night, I’d listen to them skitter across the floor. They were big. The building owners were a bit corrupt, and the place wasn’t sprayed for bugs until about six months after I started living there when the building changed hands. I had a nest of baby cockroaches living underneath the tub, geckos living in all the cupboards, and no screens on any doors or windows. When they’d seriously fumigate a house that got infested, they’d cover over the whole thing in a giant plastic tarp. The entire house. Then pump the thing with poison. I guess once you had a serious infestation, that was the only way to get rid of it. The first time I saw a house covered in plastic, being pumped full of poison, it was kinda surreal.
As for anecdotal, I’ve always been partial to the stories of bugs laying eggs in flesh (most notably, the bot fly), and then bursting out in one big ooze of blood and pus. I’m using quite a lot of those in Babylon, which I find delightful.
MH: To go along with my other obsession what is your favorite type of hat?
KAMERON: I wear bandanas. I’m wearing one with skulls on it right now, actually. As for true hats, I don’t wear them much, but I’ve always been partial to Mickey ears (see aforementioned childhood involving too much scripted fantasy).
MH: What are two things most people don't know about you?
KAMERON: I collect and mod My Little Ponies and have a level 80 warrior in World of Warcraft. I’m a casual but enthusiastic gamer when not on writing deadlines or doing book research, and I have a fondness for games like DragonAge, Unreal Tournament, Bioshock, and of course, God of War. Bonus: on a good day, I can bench about 130 lbs. This would be a far greater number if all of these games came on the Kinect gaming platform. Them's the breaks.
MH: Nice. Is there anything you'd like to say in closing?
KAMERON: Thanks for the interview. I do love going on about history, words, and writing. If anybody wants to follow me in real time, I’m @KameronHurley on Twitter. I also write regularly for Night Shade’s new author group blog, The Night Bazaar and rant about books, politics, gender craziness, and history at my own place, kameronhurley.com. If you’re looking for more about God’s War, it has its own website, too: godswarbook.com
And I think that’s enough URL’s to keep anybody busy…. Thanks again!
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