This is an interview with the Norwegian SFF writer, Berit Ellingsen, about her latest book, A Tale of Truths. The interview was conducted via Google Doc in June 2020.
Gautam Bhatia: Okay, I need to start by asking you—can you tell the future?! There is a pandemic in your novel, of all things!
Berit Ellingsen: There is indeed a pandemic in A Tale Of Truths, and I had definitely not expected the book to come out in the middle of one! It’s a little unnerving to see.
I enjoy trying to analyze what the future might bring, as in my near future novels Not Dark Yet and Now We Can See The Moon. But I wrote the pandemic into A Tale Of Truths because of the past, not the future. I wrote the story some years after the swine flu and with that small pandemic in mind.
As a graduate student of biology many years ago, I worked alongside virologists, and every week they would print out the latest virus news and post it on a board in the hallway. These reports always said a new pandemic was a question of when, not if, so I’ve kept an eye on virus news since then. When the new coronavirus started to spread, I realized we would have a global pandemic.
The night I fully realized that was one of the worst nights I’ve ever had. I lost a lot of sleep and at the same time it was hard to talk about, because most people didn’t think it would happen. I would definitely not want to be Cassandra.
GB: The title of your novel—A Tale of Truths—reminded me of Philip K. Dick’s novel, The Penultimate Truth. The Penultimate Truth is set in a future world in which a small set of people persuade most of the world to stay in cramped underground caverns, by telling them that the surface of the earth is radioactive.
After I finished A Tale of Truths, the comparison felt even starker: from the scientist trying to persuade a skeptical public about the truth of the heliocentric model to the question of the true state of affairs in the city of Spiral, truth—and the construction of illusion resembling truth—is a central theme in your work. Could you tell us a little bit more about how you perceive truth, illusion, and the interaction between the two, in your speculative fiction?
BE: The title hints at the mix of truth and illusion in the story. Tales are fiction and not true, thus “a tale of truths” is a bit of a contradiction. As we see today, the same story can be true for some people while being fiction to others.
Since Spiral is a very stratified society, I imagined that each level had their own truths, with the ruler at the top deciding the official truths. That’s why Dame Logan is so eager to seek an audience with the king to persuade him to make her discovery the official truth for the whole city-state. This is also why she holds the lecture for her colleagues at the university, despite having been kicked out years ago, and why she stole the royal planet models when she was younger, and constructed the orrery to visualize her discovery for other people.
As a scientist, Dame Logan’s highest goal is to seek truth and communicate it, despite her personal preferences and inconveniences. But even she knows that the lower tiers will have their own truths, as told by myth, and the stage play about the lady knight and the sun. On the other hand, the rulers and top tiers have their truths too, which are more difficult to see and change, and Dame Logan does not intend to challenge those.
When the heliocentric model of the solar system was first presented in Europe in the 1500s, it was a deeply altering idea, not only for science, but for society as a whole. I wanted the societal reactions in A Tale Of Truths to be less strong, as I didn’t want the book to be about a philosophical-religious conflict from history. That would have made the book a completely different story.
GB: A lot of the action in the book takes place in the city of Spiral, a city built of layers like a seashell, and where different levels are strictly arranged according to hierarchy. When I first read the description of Spiral, I recalled Minas Tirith, the White City, in The Lord of the Rings. A key distinction (for me) is that Tolkien deliberately wrote issues of class out of his novel, while for you, they are central. What do you think of the way in which a large part of traditional fantasy has been blind to how the class composition of society structures fundamental conflict—and is that something that influences your own writing?
BE: I love fantasy cities, and Tolkien’s Minas Tirith and Gondolin are some of the most beautiful and fascinating places in all of fantasy literature. Norwegian folk tales have stories about a fabled golden city shimmering on the horizon, called Soria Moria, and I suspect Tolkien was aware of such tales.
I’ve always thought class was an unspoken part of societies such as Minas Tirith, since it’s stratified with artisan, merchant, noble tiers etc. But Tolkien was very subtle about it, and he could 'afford' to be, because his imaginary societies are internally stable, with little class conflict. That’s very interesting, because in his lifetime, his society and the world went through enormous changes.
In the works of other traditional fantasy authors that were alive at the same time, such as C.S. Lewis, Fritz Leiber and Robert E. Howard, class isn’t that much of an issue either—maybe because these writers viewed their own societies as being very stable, or because class conflict in fantasy literature is a modern idea.
I think it’s okay to be subtle about politics in literature, as it can really put off some readers and make the work seem outdated, if done in a heavy handed way. That said, some of the strongest speculative works in fiction, such as 1984 and Brave New World, are overtly political—but maybe not partisan, one way or the other.
A Tale Of Truths was inspired by European Baroque and Rococo eras, and thus a very stratified society seemed appropriate, with a little bit of class conflict. I was also inspired by the Japanese Heian and Feudal era, which had maybe even more minutely stratified societies than 1600s Europe.
GB: Can you tell us a little more about these Norwegian folk tales that shaped your novel—and the Norwegian speculative fiction tradition, in general?
BE: Norwegian folk tales were first collected by folklorists Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe in the 1840s. The two were inspired by the Brothers Grimm and their collection of traditional folk tales in Germany. The folk tales in Asbjørnsen and Moe’s collection are still famous today, and very much used. The book is gifted to children and new parents, and used in traditional as well as in popular culture. Everyone in Norway knows at least one folk tale and how they end. You can find some of them here.
I read these fairy tales when I was little, and also received a book of less famous folk tales from the north of Norway. These were much darker and scarier than the tales in Asbjørnsen and Moe’s collection, but have probably been as influential. I did try and put some of the traditional atmosphere and folk tale-like sense into A Tale Of Truths, and it’s maybe most prominent in the first chapters set in the north.
We are so lucky to have stories from a historical period, that is popular with speculative fiction. The Viking sagas, their written account of history, their proverbs of wisdom, and their visions of the apocalypse, are very fascinating to read today. Because the old Norse language and modern Norwegian is still quite similar, it’s a little like reading the Viking bards’ words directly, which is amazing to reflect upon. There are even short accounts from pre-Viking eras, hewn in stone and written in runic alphabet or pictographs. Such stones and artifacts are still found today, which is also amazing.
Today, speculative fiction is a very small part of publishing in Norway. I can’t even think of a single magazine or fanzine that publishes fiction, and most of what is being written is probably self-published online (creative writing is not offered in Norwegian universities and colleges, and there are no student literary magazines).
The most well-known Norwegian speculative authors are Jon Bing, Tor-Åge Bringsværd and Thore Hansen. In the 70s and 80s they translated some of the classical science fiction by Asimov, Clarke, Le Guin etc., and made speculative fiction more accessible and popular. They also wrote novels, short stories, plays, and TV-dramas with a speculative bent.
Today a few writers publish speculative fiction novels through traditional publishers in Norwegian, and some are self-publishing directly in English. But I only know of a handful of Norwegian speculative fiction authors and have only met one of them.
GB: You have these little throwaway lines throughout the novel that are so fascinating, because they speak to such a long history. At one point, the Elf has a comment on the mutability of the concept of money. At another, there is a sentence about the perception of the heritability of crime. These lines made me wish for more (maybe in another novel)! But it also made me think about the influences that you bring to bear upon your writing—economic and social history, clearly! Could you perhaps tell our readers a little more about that?
BE: After the financial crash in 2008, it was clear that money was, for the most part, a set of numbers on a screen, and could simply be created out of nothing, as terrible as that is. That was the inspiration for the elf making yellow leaves seem like gold coins for payment. The elf’s magic is more of a sleight of hand type, as well as shapeshifting and skin-switching, which is common in Scandinavian folk tales.
My background is in the natural sciences and my day job is writing science news. I mostly cover space science and space exploration, so the plot about the heliocentric solar system comes from that. Since I have a degree in biology, stories and observations about animals, plants and other biological themes tend to sneak into my fiction writing too.
For a short while I also wrote articles about social science research and the line about the heritability of crime comes from there. The natural sciences, medicine, and technology are closest to my interests, but I also enjoy reading about folklore, myths, fairy tales, military intelligence, history, politics, and current affairs.
GB: One of your protagonists is a scientist—not the most common of genre choices. Could you tell us a little bit about the thinking behind that?
BE: Scientists are a common trope in speculative fiction, and like many have pointed out, they tend to be the evil wizards of science fiction or horror. For A Tale Of Truths I wanted someone who was driven and had book knowledge, but who was also wise in the ways of the world, and aware of the machinations of politics and rulership, without being a part of it themselves. An older and experienced scientist fit the bill. For a story inspired by the baroque and rococo, it was more natural to have a scientist, rather than a more typical fantasy sorcerer, since those eras saw a lot of scientific discoveries and progress.
As a graduate student in biology I met many scientists who were in all stages of life. In my current job, I talk to people who work at the crossroads of science, public service, private enterprise, and high tech innovation. It’s a more dynamic world than academia, and even more interesting and inspiring for a writer.
Dame Logan is rather ruthless in promoting her discovery, but she’s paid the heaviest price for it herself by being exiled from her city. She’s still managed to raise several kids and grandkids, and I imagine that for a while she put all her energy into being a mother, with the same dedication as she has to science (maybe after she was ousted from academia).
As scientists, Dame Logan and her apprentice—her granddaughter—also see themselves as part of a larger society which they have to navigate, for better or for worse. They’re not chosen ones, and have to influence their peers to change the society they live in. I didn’t set out to create characters that were atypical of fantasy literature, but did what I thought would fit a story about heliocentrism and hierarchy.
GB: Your novel begins with vivid, sweeping landscapes, reminiscent of Scandinavian coastlines. I wanted to ask how much of your physical surroundings, growing up in Norway, have influenced your work, and the descriptions in it?
BE: The landscapes and nature, wildlife and weather; but also the fairy tales and legends and myths of Scandinavia are a major influence of all my work. I like to call my fiction 'landscape fiction', and the natural world plays a big role in my novels as well as short works.
The nature and climate here, because it’s so dominant to human lives even in our modern times, has influenced most Nordic authors one way or another. With a low population density and small cities, the natural world seems perhaps closer than in countries with more people.
It’s impossible to live here and not be influenced by the nature and the weather, practically or artistically. I view it one of the best things about the Nordic world.