A Journey through Navajo Country with Douglas Preston, Author of Blasphemy
In 1992, I took a month-long journey on horseback around the Navajo Reservation. Starting at Navajo Mountain in Utah, my wife, daughter, and I retraced the mythological route taken by a Navajo deity during the creation of the world. We had five horses, two for packing and three for riding. We camped in the desert, found water and grass where we could, and slept under the stars. The reservation is huge—almost 25,000 square miles—and we traveled through some of the most isolated places in America, where many of the Navajos we encountered spoke no English and practiced their traditional way of life.
Along the way, we began to hear of an extraordinary prophecy circulating among the people living in the remotest part of the reservation, the Lukachukai Mountains. I finally met a medicine man willing to talk about it in detail. While I don’t normally believe in revelation, prophecy, and other such claptrap, this prophecy had the ring of truth to it. It was not ‘illogical.’
The medicine man said that about a hundred and fifty years ago, Americans first arrived among the Navajos, asking questions about the Anasazi ruins that dotted the Navajo landscape. In the not too distant future, he said, a new people would come among the Navajos, asking questions about the ruins of the Bilagaana, the white people, scattered about the Navajo landscape.
The ruins of the white man? What ruins?
The ruins, he said, that would be left after the white people destroyed themselves.
I asked how they—I mean we—would destroy ourselves?
That’s when he told me the prophecy. I was shocked and surprised at its specificity and connection to current developments in the field of artificial intelligence. I later described the prophecy to one of my favorite science fiction writers, Gregory Benford, who said: “Well, I think that could happen. It might take a hundred years for the danger to become real, for that particular effect to kick in—but yes, it’s plausible.”
I promised the medicine man I would not put the specifics of the prophecy in writing—Navajos believe that important knowledge should only be passed down orally. Suffice to say, that was the idea that got me started on the long road to my novel, Blasphemy.
One of my favorite scenes in Blasphemy takes place when the assistant director of the project, Kate Mercer, meets a traditional Navajo medicine man, Nelson Begay, who is leading a protest against the supercollider. She describes the latest theory of the Big Bang to him, and he in turn explains the Navajo version of creation to her. After a rather pointed exchange, they are both forced to admit that their respective versions of creation each have “origin problems.”
Blasphemy tells the story of an epic clash between religion and science, but it also explores, on a more subtle level, the ways religious people and scientists are seeking the ultimate truth in a confusing and inexplicable universe. And despite all claims to the contrary, and all attempts by well-meaning people to paper over unpleasant truths, science and religion are in deadly conflict. That is the ultimate message of Blasphemy.
I’m going to send a copy of Blasphemy to my medicine man friend. If he writes back, I’ll let you know what he had to say.
Blasphemy (A Forge hardcover; 0-765-311054, $25.95) by bestselling author Douglas Preston will be available on January 8, 2008. Click here to watch a short video interview with the author and learn more about this book.
An Interview with David Weber
Religion vs. innovation and technology is a significant theme in Off Armageddon Reef. Why did you decide to use this potentially incendiary topic? How do you equate it to what’s happening in our world today?
If you take a look at the main body of my writing, you’ll see that religion and personal decision-making and choices have always been major elements of my stories. My own religious beliefs are strong, and I think that may make me more comfortable using religious elements—negative and positive alike—in my writing. It’s obvious that I see technology as a liberating force, although (like religion) there’s always a Darth Vader dark side waiting for the unwary. Perhaps because of that, I don’t see the question of religion versus innovation and technology as particularly incendiary. The conflict between innovation and religion, I believe, results primarily from collisions between innovation and exclusionary religion. That doesn’t mean there aren’t legitimate religious and moral concerns where specific areas of innovation or types of research are concerned. What’s happening on Safehold in the novels reflects the conflict between zealotry and faith-based reason. Between an ideology (in this case, a religious one) which enshrines control and authoritarianism; the renunciation of personal responsibility to think, judge, and make informed choices and live with the consequences. I think that in an era of “postmodernism” and relativism, human beings—including, perhaps, my readers–sense the need, like Archimedes, for a place to stand, a moral basis of inviolable core principles, if they truly hope to move the world.
Off Armageddon Reef is the launch of an epic new series. Can readers new to your work enjoy it as a stand-alone novel? How does Off Armageddon Reef relate to your other novels, including your wildly popular Honor Harrington series?
I think that Off Armageddon Reef can be quite satisfying read as a stand-alone novel, although, obviously, I think it will be even more satisfying as one element in an ongoing series. Readers of my other novels, like the Honor Harrington books, are going to find some familiar themes and story elements. I don’t know that anyone can produce the number of books that I’ve produced without having familiar elements surface in different guises. I believe that the strongest attraction for the majority of my readers is that my protagonists are decision makers, choice makers, and responsibility takers. They are the sort of people all of us, I think, both want to see in our leaders and would like to be on a personal level. And I think some readers probably see characters like Honor or Nimue and the choices they make as a sort of escape from—or an antidote for, perhaps—the cynicism which envelops so much of our own society at this particular historical juncture.
It’s been said that you challenge current gender roles in your novels. This is certainly true in Off Armageddon Reef. What are your reasons for returning to this theme?
I think I’m probably attracted to “challenging current gender roles” because of all of the strong women I’ve known in my life, beginning with my mother and certainly including my wife, Sharon. I never set out to challenge any gender roles as a deliberate marketing point. I happen to prefer strong, competent people who are willing to take chances for the things they believe in (even when they’re not necessarily the things I might believe in), regardless of whether they’re male or female. I do take a certain pleasure in juxtaposing “traditional” roles and duties, but if you really look at most of my science fiction—Off Armageddon Reef is something of an exception in this respect, although that begins changing in the second and subsequent volumes of the series—you’ll see that it’s not so much a case of challenging gender roles as it is of simply ignoring them.
I’ve always had a problem with far-future science fiction in which current gender roles or social disputes are presented without change from our present-day ideological battlefields. If you’re going to build a far-distant literary future, then you have to explain to the reader why nothing has changed in the last several centuries of your future society’s historical experience. As I’ve said at more than one science fiction convention, my view is that if we’re on the right track where gender equality is concerned (and I think we are) by the time of someone like Honor Harrington—or Nimue Alban—it’s going to be a done deal. And it’s also going to be a purely historical issue for mainstream societies, about on a par with our own concern over Pharaoh’s foreign policy towards the Hittites. So that’s the way I structured Honor Harrington’s society, and Nimue Alban’s birth society. And if you do that, then almost by definition you appear to be “challenging” gender roles in that you’ve pretty much eliminated them entirely from consideration whether “challenging” them was what you set out to do in the first place or not.
Technological advancement poses grave danger in Off Armageddon Reef. Could this storyline be compared to the target our technologically advanced country has become today?
With one glaring exception, I certainly didn’t set out to draw a deliberate parallel between our own country’s technological advancement and the dangers—internal and/external—it faces. As I said above, I have strong religious beliefs of my own, but as I’ve pointed out in my books, no one has a monopoly on fanaticism, and that’s the one parallel I’ve deliberately and consciously set out to draw. Organized religion, and its opponents, have a long history of producing fanatics. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that up until the last few centuries religion produced more fanatics than anything else. In the Western experience, particularly, I think that political and economic ideologies have had a tendency to displace religious fanaticism to a large degree, although some people seem to feel that a religious basis is necessary for true fanaticism to exist. I think we forget the power of fanaticism at our own risk. In fact, up until the last few years, we had pretty much forgotten the power of fanaticism . . . and have yet to discover the full cost of that forgetfulness. The collision of human belief structures is the greatest underlying cause for human conflict, and there are, unfortunately, times when, with the best intentions in the world, it’s impossible to coexist peaceably with someone else’s belief structure. For coexistence to be possible, both sides have to believe that it’s not only possible, but desirable, and that, alas, is not always the case.
At this particular time, the United States is the poster child for a technological-industrial society. The basic social blueprint for the US, ideologically speaking, is based on the values of Western humanism, which have been hugely influenced by Judeo-Christian religious teachings. Those humanist values, with their emphasis on the individual and on freedom of conscience, are anathema to those who fear secularization. When you combine that fear of secularization with the wealth, power, and fervent faith in technology and science which are so much a part of the United States’ image today, it’s inevitable that we should become the “Great Satan.” If I were a practitioner of conservative Islam today, I know that I would be horrified by what I saw bearing down on my religion and my society from the United States and Europe. And I would also be aware that the West’s economic and industrial success would be dreadfully seductive to those who do not enjoy an equal level of success, and that the possibility of similar secular success must inevitably fragment the cohesiveness of my own theocratic view of how the world is supposed to be organized to the glory of God.
Right there, I believe, you have the core causes for what’s happening in the world today and the reason that so many on both sides believe that true coexistence simply isn’t possible. Which, in a somewhat roundabout way, brings me back to the situation I’ve created on Safehold. I don’t propose to turn this series into a polemical argument about what we ought to be doing in our own specific, actual situation. Obviously, the options and alternatives for my fictional characters are going to be quite different from the constraints we face in the actual world. But the mindsets which create the constraints we face are something I want to examine, turn around, maybe even “illuminate” (to use the artsy term) in the process of writing what I hope will be an enjoyable action story.
David Weber’s Off Armageddon Reef (0-7653-5397-0, $7.99 / $9.99 CAN) was released from Tor in January.
Why I bought Chance Fortune and the Outlaws by Shane Berryhill
by Susan Chang, Senior Editor, Starscape and Tor Teen
When I was a kid, around ten or eleven years old, I loved reading superhero comics. My older brother had boxes full of comics—X-Men, Spider-Man, Batman, Superman—in plastic sleeves, neatly organized and catalogued. He was obsessive about them. And he wouldn’t let me read them because he claimed my hands were too dirty. (What can I say, I was a bit of a tomboy. I liked getting my hands dirty.) But once in a great while, after I’d nagged and pestered him for hours, and after making me scrub my hands, my brother would relent and let me read his comics—the less valuable ones, naturally. I loved them all, but my favorites were X-Men and the Legion of Super-Heroes. I adored reading about the adventures of female superheroes like Jean Grey and Saturn Girl. A year or two later, I started reading science fiction, fantasy, horror, and romances that I dug up at a dusty old used bookstore, and my comic book-reading gradually faded away.
My love for comics was rekindled back in the late 1990s, when I was an editor in the paperbacks department of HarperCollins Children’s Books, and one of my colleagues gave me Neil Gaiman’s The Season of Mists, Volume 4 of The Sandman. I devoured the rest of the series in quick order, before moving on to The Books of Magic, then Kurt Busiek’s AstroCity, and Alan Moore’s Watchmen and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
All this is why I was so intrigued when, in 2004, an agent sent me Chance Fortune and the Outlaws, a debut novel by a talented new writer named Shane Berryhill. The story is about a fourteen-year-old boy, Joshua Blevins, whose greatest dream is to go to superhero school. The only problem is, he doesn’t have any superpowers. This passage, early in the first chapter, hooked me:
Dear Mr. Blevins:
We regret to inform you that we are unable to approve your application. Burlington Academy is an institution dedicated to the training of young persons with extraordinary powers. We’re afraid that, as a normal human, the Academy has nothing to offer you.
Should anything change in regard to your normalcy, such as your obtaining superpowers by way of lab accident or exposure to unnatural radiation, please feel free to resubmit your application. Until then, best wishes in whatever human endeavors you pursue.
Xenoman, Ph.D., M.D.
Dean of Students and Member of The Board,
Burlington Academy for the Superhuman
Member, The Brotherhood of Heroes
The second paragraph, made me laugh out loud. I read the manuscript in one sitting, and immediately knew that I wanted to buy it. It was a comic book in prose form—and I mean that in the best possible sense. It’s both a gentle spoof and an affectionate homage to the comics I loved when I was a kid, filled with nonstop action, exciting battles, and even a little light romance. Reading it, I was transported back to the days when I used to sit around in my brother’s room reading comics. I knew the ten or eleven-year-old me would have absolutely loved this book.
Originally published in August 2006 in hardcover, Chance Fortune and the Outlaws got great reviews. It was chosen as a New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age selection, and was named to the Texas Library Association Lone Star Reading List. Starscape is now releasing Chance Fortune and the Outlaws in mass market paperback. Whether it’s for the ten-year-old comic book lover in you or for a ten-year-old you know, I hope you’ll give it a try. And if you like it, look for the sequel, Chance Fortune in the Shadow Zone, which should be out in the fall of 2008.
Shane Berryhill’s Chance Fortune and the Outlaws (0-7653-5354-7, $5.99 / $6.99 CAN) was released from Starscape in January.
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Author Chosen to Finish Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time® Series
Tor Books has announced that novelist Brandon Sanderson has been chosen to finish the final novel in Robert Jordan’s bestselling Wheel of Time fantasy series. Click here for more information.
Tor Books and Seven Seas Ink Joint Manga Venture
Tor Books partners with Seven Seas to form new manga imprint and announces publication of Afro Samurai, the basis for the hit Spike TV anime series. Click here for more information.
Chance Fortune and the Outlaws
by Shane Berryhill
A Long and Winding Road
by Win Blevins
The Sorcerers’ Plague
by David B. Coe
Lord of the Silent Kingdom
by Glen Cook
The Machiavelli Covenant
by Allan Folsom
Thunder of Time
by James F. David
by Jane Lindskold
Off Armageddon Reef
by David Weber
by Douglas Preston
Soldier of Sidon
by Gene Wolfe
Borne in Blood
by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
A conversation with John Scalzi, Scott Westerfeld, and Justine Larbalestier, Part 1
A conversation with John Scalzi, Scott Westerfeld, and Justine Larbalestier, Part 2
Spider Robinson discusses writing Variable Star, Part 1
Spider Robinson discusses writing Variable Star, Part 2
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First novels for the first month: ten recent debut novels from Tor
by Wayne Barlowe
The Wanderer’s Tale
by David Bilsborough
by Tobias S. Buckell
The Book of Joby
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The Genesis Code
by Christopher Forrest
by Warren Hammond
by Matthew Jarpe
The Outback Stars
by Sandra McDonald
Old Man’s War
by John Scalzi
by Brian Francis Slattery