Sean McMullen is an Australian-based writer best known for his Greatwinter series, which features a post-apocalyptic Australia with human-powered computers and wind/pedal-powered trains. Sean is also a regular attendee at conventions around the world where he entertains fellow members with his knowledge of such diverse subjects as martial arts and medieval music. I first met Sean when I lived in Melbourne in 1995; since then, we've run into each other at conventions all around the world. I spoke with him at ICFA earlier this year; our next encounter will be in Liverpool in August for a conference on Commonwealth science fiction, after which Sean is planning to hire a motorbike and drive the Isle of Man TT circuit.
Cheryl Morgan: Being an Australian-based writer must be quite tough. Your local market is very small and dominated by imports.
Sean McMullen: Well, yes and no. I am actually treated as an American author who lives in Australia as far as the local distribution system goes. My publisher is in New York, so my books actually are those imports. The problem for me is that I am seen as neither Australian nor American, so Australians do not quite know what to make of me. From time to time I even get asked why I do not have an American accent.
SM: Aphelion gave me my first break, when it published my collection Call to the Edge in 1992. The editor, Peter McNamara [recently deceased -- Eds.], wanted to have more novels in Aphelion's catalogue, Call was something of a success, and I happened to have a novel available, so Voices in the Light was published. Aphelion was looking at winding back its output after Mirrorsun Rising was published, so I sent my next novel, The Centurion's Empire, to Tor's commissioning editor in Australia, Jack Dann. Jack bought it, and this established me with Tor.
CM: The whole process was quite involved, as I recall. The original Voices in the Light was a fix-up made from earlier short stories. Then there was Mirrorsun Rising. And then you re-wrote the two into Souls in the Great Machine for Tor. Is that right?
SM: No, it was much more complicated. Like Baldrick in Blackadder, I had a cunning plan. Back when I started out, Australian publishers were nervous about publishing anything as weird as my science fiction. Voices in the Light was first written as a novel, and with Mirrorsun Rising mapped out as its second half. I had so much trouble selling the novel that I truncated it, then extracted several short stories to sell independently. These were meant to show what great writing was in Voices, and interest some publisher in buying the novel. The plan sort of worked, and the stories were quite successful. By then, however, Peter McNamara had founded Aphelion Publications specifically to publish those sorts of works, and he bought Voices on first submission. So, I need not have bothered with my cunning plan! Anyway, I then finished the second half as a separate novel -- Mirrorsun Rising -- but my original plan had been for a 200,000 word novel rather than a two volume work. After The Centurion's Empire came out, Tor asked me what else I had. I presented them with Souls in the Great Machine, which was -- more or less -- my original concept for the first Greatwinter novel. It had 55,000 words removed from the original two books, and 20,000 new words added.
CM: One of the things I love about the Greatwinter series is the inventiveness. You have a post-apocalyptic Australian society where orbital war machines still exist and prevent any form of sophisticated electronics being deployed, so people have to come up with other solutions. Were you testing your engineering ingenuity there?
SM: Well . . . yes. I like to give myself a difficult set of rules, then come up with solutions to make things work. My idea with the Greatwinter series is that inventions are very hard to kill off. If you remove electricity, people will still try to build computers because they have lots of cool uses for them. The same holds true for my signal-tower Internet.
CM: Where did the idea of the Calculor, a computer made up of lots of people with abacuses in place of electronic components, come from?
SM: Essentially, from my lurid and twisted imagination. In the early days of computing people would say, "A thousand men with calculators would take ten years to do the calculation that a computer can do in ten minutes." I imagined a hall filled with a thousand men, all acting like a computer. Later I read an Arthur C. Clarke story about a spacecraft with a dead navigation computer, where the crew makes an abacus frame for each member, then calculates the orbit that will take them home. Later still, I worked in the State Library of Victoria, and it reminded me of a huge computer where the book stacks were the disk drive, the Reference section was the CPU, Acquisitions was the input, the reading room was the output, Cataloguing was the compiler, and so on. After I left the State Library, I began to write the novel. Not sure how the staff would have reacted had I still been working there when the first Greatwinter novel was published.
CM: Has anyone tried to actually make a Calculor, even on a small scale?
SM: Not that I know of. I wrote a computer simulation of one, ran it on a mainframe, and proved that it worked in theory, but that was as close as I ever got to a working model. Well, apart from some timing runs on my own abacus frame.
CM: The trains are good fun as well: wind powered with pedal back-up from the passengers where necessary. Another innovative idea?
SM: I cobbled the trains together from a variety of engineering magazines and historical works. None of the technology is truly original, but I was probably the first person to assemble an overall scenario out of it, with rules and regulations for operations, realistic designs, and so on. It's really the fine detail of running a system like that which gives it appeal to a reader. They can imagine themselves stepping aboard and strapping in.
CM: The beamflash network reminded me of Keith Roberts' Pavane -- had you read that book before writing Greatwinter? Roberts has a parallel idea with the Catholic Church suppressing a lot of invention and forcing people to develop less-sophisticated technologies.
SM: I had read Pavane before writing the novel, but before that I had read about the mechanical signalling towers used by Britain and France during the Napoleonic Wars, and right on into the mid-Nineteenth century. Which of those two led me to design the beamflash network? Probably a bit of both, but I did do a lot of extra work on beamflash protocols, logistics, rosters, and all that sort of stuff.
CM: You are the only person I know of with an science fiction novel containing a comedy scene with two trainspotters. Do you have an interest in railway history yourself?
SM: No more than in steam ships, or early aircraft, or suchlike. I really do love to read about pioneering technology of all types. So many weird and fascinating things are tried, and you can see all sorts of futures that might have been if only some arbitrary decision to standardise on one technology had gone instead to its rival. That said, my boss is a keen railway modeller (is there any other sort?), and I had watched a couple of TV documentaries on trainspotters around the time that I wrote that bit of the book, so I had the background to create my own version of the trainspotting . . . phenomenon. The scene itself was inspired by the scene with the watchman in Macbeth -- which comes just before the assassination of the king is discovered.
CM: Wonderful inventions aside, the thing that for me marked you out as someone to watch was the character development of Lemorel. At the start of Souls in the Great Machine she seems to be the heroine. You get everyone loving her and willing her on, and then her life falls apart. Did you plan that or did it just happen?
SM: It was meticulously planned. I have known several brilliant yet brittle people, who were incredibly promising at school, but came apart spectacularly when they hit their first professional setback or disappointment in love once they were in the workforce or university. The world is full of Lemorels. Maybe some potential Lemorels will read her story and heed the warning not to put too much weight on any one thing in life.
CM: There are quite a few extreme characters in the Greatwinter novels. Zavora and Theresla in particular are very driven and hard to identify with. Why does Theresla eat mice? Is it something to do with the bird genes? Owl in her ancestry?
SM: Sorry, although Theresla does have bird genes, she eats mice for effect rather than protein. Theresla and Zarvora are indeed extreme, but they get great things done precisely because they are extreme, and have a lot of drive. Theresla starts out as a strong and brilliant woman in a male-dominated society, so her way of keeping suitors at a distance -- and thus preserving her independence -- is to be so weird that they will all have second thoughts about courting her. Zarvora, on the other hand, turns herself into a sort of asexual genie, who promises and delivers fantastic rewards to those who support her. It does backfire occasionally. Theresla is so dedicated to manipulating men that when she finally does try to seduce John Glasken, who is notorious for his passion for women, he actually rejects her. She has given him the runaround for so long that there are no longer any circumstances in which he can trust her.
CM: I'm trying hard not to ask anything that will give away the secret of The Call, but I think it is safe to ask if the intention was to have an environmental message.
SM: Absolutely, and my inspiration for the land-sweeping Call was present-day driftnet fishing. For all their intelligence and superiority, humans are swept up and trashed by the Call, just as dolphins are in nets. The Call is meant to be an ultra-low frequency ground wave that sets up resonances in animals over a certain size. Mammalian brains react to it in a very specific way, that is, they are allured into following it.
CM: As I recall you were working on The Miocene Arrow before you sold the books to Tor. Was that a deliberate attempt to make the books more appealing to US publishers?
SM: Not at all, I had other agendas. Firstly, I needed a high-tech society across the ocean from Australia as a setting for The Miocene Arrow's invasion-by-Australians theme, and America seemed to be the logical place. Europe was too far away, and Japan was too small. America is known to present-day readers as a strongly technological nation, so it seemed credible to have that machine-based culture continue into the future. Secondly, I have always wanted to give America a really interesting future. While other writers made that future either bleak and punk, or ultra-high tech, or even an ecological arcadia, I went for glittering renaissance-style cities, a workable class system, and ritualised air combat which actually held society together. A lot of Americans have told me it's their favourite science fictional future -- then they generally say that it's a pity that it took a foreigner to write it.
CM: So the setting is medieval chivalry but with WWI-style aircraft rather than horses. . .
SM: Yes, but with certain utopian undertones as well. The rulers look down on their domains from the air, and everyone else looks up at their rulers high above them. The rulers fly expensive, handcrafted flying machines, are conspicuously brave and have a god-like overview of their subjects. A lot of symbolism is built into that. I have had a lot of fan mail from around Utah and Colorado, which is where a lot of the novel's action takes place. Most use my Fortieth Century names for their cities.
CM: There are some rather driven peoples in this book as well: Serjon and Bronlar, for example. Your characters seem to have a bad habit of getting consumed with hatred.
SM: Well . . . not quite, only some of them. Most characters are like Zarvora -- bad news if you get in her way, but unlikely to be hating you as she takes aim at you in the duelling chambers. Bronlar and Serjon really are haters, however. I planned and wrote this book with the later stages of the Balkans conflict going on, and I noticed that a great number of people who had been rather well behaved citizens were suddenly becoming dangerous patriotic psychos as the former Yugoslavia fell apart. I was trying very hard to explain why people become like Serjon and Bronlar, and to paint a balanced and relatively sympathetic picture of them. I think I succeeded, or at least came close, but at the end of the book I did not like them very much.
CM: In my review of Eyes of the Calculor I described Martyne Camderine as an anti-Glasken, is that correct?
SM: Martyne is more focussed than Glasken, is brave to the point of foolishness, and has a strongly developed sense of honour that gets him into a lot of trouble. He is not so much anti-Glasken, as un-Glasken. Martyne is less of a survivor. Faced with a dangerous situation, Glasken would snatch up a bottle of the hard stuff and dive for the nearest window. Martyne would stay and fight.
CM: I have to ask: how much of Sean McMullen is there in that loveable rogue, John Glasken?
SM: Glasken is a bit of a Frankenstein's monster, made up of bits and pieces of various people. Some bits are from me, but not many. I do not gamble at all, I get sick if I drink more than two or three glasses of wine, and I am not nearly as impulsive as Glasken. Glasken is loveable if you are not too involved with him -- that is, unless he owes you money, or you are his official girlfriend. Try to put any weight on him, and he has all the resilience of a bendy toy. Above all, Glasken is a seducer, and I am a bit too shy to be a seducer. On the other hand, you must remember that Glasken is trapped by his image, and deep down he wants people to take him seriously. At the end of Eyes of the Calculor he finally achieves this, and that is why he makes that quite startling decision regarding his future. How alike are Glasken and I? Consider this: both of us are quite fond of women, yet I have taught self-defence to women for two decades without ever having had an amorous relationship with a student. It's a matter of honour, I could not take advantage of one of my students. Do you seriously think that Glasken could manage that?
CM: Voyage of the Shadowmoon is something of a departure. Was the move into fantasy something you wanted to do or was it driven by commercial pressure?
SM: I had always wanted to write fantasy, but when I was starting out, in the 1980s, there was no scope for having it published in Australia. I had been in various medieval re-enactment groups, I had sung madrigals in the Trinity College Singers, I had even made my own harps and a lute. The trouble was that I was also working in a highly technical job, and was good at science fiction. Thus I had a pretty good reputation established in science fiction by the early '90s, when fantasy began to gain popularity in Australia. The Centurion's Empire was a sort of distant flirtation with fantasy, but by then people knew me for the Greatwinter novels, and I had the story arc mapped out in my head, so I felt obliged to finish the trilogy. I actually began writing Voyage of the Shadowmoon in the late 1990s, while the Greatwinter books were still incomplete. Writing fantasy was my special treat to myself, back then.
CM: But you do have some good knowledge of the medieval era. You were an SCA member for sometime and a champion swordfighter, as I recall.
SM: I was in the SCA for madrigals and tournaments, I have never made a secret of that. Working straight out of my memory (my records are buried in the garage), I think I fought in 16 SCA and New Varengian Guard tournaments. I won four of them, and came second or third in most of the others. All that fighting certainly helped my writing to be authoritative on the subject of action scenes. A lot of nonsense is passed off as action scenes in fantasy, but I have developed a pretty good feel for the practicalities of fighting, medieval-style. I am currently making more use of my musical background in my writing, and of course my Ph.D. studies in medieval fantasy are providing me with vast amounts of rich detail.
CM: We are not entirely in fantasyland, however. The Shadowmoon itself, a submersible sailing galley, could be right out of Greatwinter, and Silverdeath is very much an science fiction-style weapon
SM: I have built a working model of the Shadowmoon. All the physics in the Moonworlds novels is sound. But please keep your voice down, people might hear. . . .
Joking aside, my work has the look and feel of fantasy, but I need to use real-world physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering to force me to have ideas. A world where anything can happen is a boring world. Another author might use a broomstick or flying carpet to get from A to B, but I use a wind-powered submarine. Which of the aforesaid three draws most attention to itself? The less magic that you use in your writing, the more powerful your magic becomes. Terry Pratchett's Granny Weatherwax is a very powerful witch, but she uses magic very sparingly.
CM: I recall from ConJosé that you and John Meaney were doing this macho thing in the Fairmont bar swapping martial arts feats. What disciplines do you practice?
SM: I do Shotokan Karate, with a lot of Ju-Jitsu, Foot and Fist Boxing, and even Savate incorporated in the technique, and I am a third dan with over twenty years experience as an instructor. I also do foil and sabre fencing with the university club.
Getting back to that incident in the Fairmont bar . . . karate instructors have very strong stomach muscles, and John and I were letting some fairly large people jump on our stomachs to demonstrate this fact. I had drunk three glasses of wine (which is quite a lot for me) when someone asked me something about karate. There were a dozen or so people sitting about who looked as if they could use a bit of comedy, yourself included, and that was my motive for the demonstration. I can't speak for John.
CM: Tell me about the desert trek. What were you actually researching?
SM: Medieval travel features a lot of walking, and travelling long distances by foot under difficult conditions with a heavy load seemed to hold the promise of a lot of black humour, so I decided to give it a try, by doing some serious walking in an Australian desert dressed in medieval gear. Seriously. I am a fairly comic writer, and people under duress are pretty good value as far as comedy is concerned. I also wanted to learn more about the values of people who travel a lot by foot -- what things concern them, what annoys them, and what their priorities are. Ask a dedicated walker, hiker, or trekker what they experience while travelling by foot, and you will be told all the stuff about fresh air, sunshine, tweeting birds, and crystal-clear streams. Do it yourself and you soon realise that cramped legs, blisters, uncomfortable boots, and extreme weather are a much bigger part of the deal. I also learned a lot of specific detail about medieval gear: for example, the flat soles of medieval-style boots are quite comfortable, but badly fashioned uppers can flay your skin raw after only ten or so miles.
CM: How much weight did you lose on the trip?
SM: About seven pounds in the short term, and two pounds in the long term. I was pretty fit to start with, so there was not much to lose.
CM: And this medieval tavern song show, we are going to see some of that at Worldcon?
SM: If the programming people decide that they want it, yes. I shall be bringing one of my concertinas over to Boston anyway, and some of the people who will be attending the Worldcon know the same tavern songs and madrigals as I do, so we shall be doing lots of music one way or the other. The tavern songs show is about what tavern patrons did for entertainment while drinking, and touches on the dances and dance tunes, as well on the drinking songs, bawdy ballads, and suchlike.
CM: Your latest novel, Glass Dragons, is also set in the Shadowmoon world and continues the adventures of Laron, the world's most chivalrous vampire. Will we eventually find out how Laron got to the Shadowmoon world from Earth?
SM: Yes. This story is told in the creative work that I have to do as part of my Ph.D. About 20,000 words of that novel have already been written, and the review committee really liked the bits that I submitted as part of my topic confirmation. Can't say when it will be published, I must discuss that with my agent.
CM: I understand that you have been working on a young adult novel. How did that come about?
SM: Actually it is done. I've already got copies. The editors of the Quentaris shared-world series commissioned me to do a proposal. I had a dozen YA short stories published at that stage, so I was not quite a newcomer to the field. They liked the proposal, so I wrote The Ancient Hero. They bought it. The official publication date is May 1st. The editors were hoping for a funny action novel, and I gave them precisely that. The central character, Corran, is a teenage wannabe swordsman, who is too poor to afford a sword, so he is learning to fence with an iron pipe. He is one third of the minimum weight for the Bodyguards Guild, so he does his exams with the Thieves Guild. When his older sister, Zelda, is threatened by an invincible stalker, Corran is all that stands between her and certain death. Naturally Zelda does not feel very hopeful about her future.
CM: So what you are working on currently?
SM: The novel is Voidfarer, it is the third novel in my Moonworlds series, and it is my first novel to be written in the first person. As the title suggests, it involves medieval-magical space travel (although I did calculate the orbital dynamics, just in case any of my hard science fiction readers decide to check up on me). In the starring roles are three minor characters from the earlier novels: the young guardsman Danolarian, and the sorcery-student radical Riellen (from Glass Dragons), and Wensomer's smarter, younger albino sister Lavenci (from Voyage of the Shadowmoon). Wallas is still a cat, but has maintained his taste for Chardonnay and gourmet cooking. I really like the way that the story unfolds through Danolarian's words; it provides a lot more scope for humour, while making the action more immediate. I am about ten thousand words from the end, and the release date is May 2005.
CM: So what is this Ph.D. you have been mentioning?
SM: I am doing a Ph.D. on Medieval Arcadianism in Fantasy Literature. It involves a dissertation about my theories on the medieval setting as utopia, and a creative work that demonstrates the assertions laid out in the dissertation. I got through topic confirmation last December, and I have roughly half of the work done. It is certainly making me do a lot of reading that enhances my fantasy writing.
CM: How on earth do you manage to do all this and hold down a job at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology?
SM: Er . . . I am not sure. I am highly organised and very focussed, but the more successful I become, the harder it gets. For example, the Ph.D. has grabbed most of the time I used to reserve for short stories, so my output there is currently way down. The problem is that most of my science fiction comes out as short fiction these days, meaning that I am having very little science fiction published. In karate, I should have my fourth dan by now, but I just don't have time to get my advanced katas and applications up to scratch. As for my foil and sabre technique, don't even ask. I hardly read any modern fantasy or science fiction any more, because of the amount of medieval fiction that the Ph.D. requires me to read. In other words, I am coping by selectively letting some things go on the skids. As for my computer management job, it's actually an opportunity to take a break from creative work, five days out of seven. I think I'd go batty without that.
CM: And finally, for the benefit of everyone who went to Aussiecon 3 and became captivated by your daughter, what is Catherine up to these days?
SM: Right now she is in Italy on a school tour, absorbing lots of culture. She is still writing, but quite a few other things are competing for her time currently. Some of the foregoing things are boys, which will probably come as no surprise to anyone. The fiction that she writes for her school projects is still great, but it does not get published. Last year she directed a student movie (which won an award), captained the school's Tournament of the Minds team, rowed for her school in various regattas, and threw a couple of spectacular parties. This year she is doing part of her International Baccalaureate, and working on the school newspaper. She will be speaking at the Australian National SF Convention the day after she gets off the plane from Rome. Sometimes I think she is training to be like me. What a horrid thought. Sometimes I think I should warn her not to before it is too late, but she would probably ignore that sort of advice.
CM: Sean, you are obviously way too busy for me to keep you here talking any longer. Good luck with Voidfarer. I'll see you in Liverpool, and you'll be back in the US for the Boston Worldcon, right?
SM: I shall be there, and thank you for the interview, my dear, it was a pleasure. As for Voidfarer, the first draft is due in by the end of June. Maybe I should do half an hour on it before going to bed. . . .
Copyright © 2004 Cheryl Morgan
Cheryl Morgan is the editor of the online science fiction and fantasy review magazine Emerald City. Cheryl and the magazine have been nominated for Hugo awards and for a British Science Fiction Association award. Cheryl is also a regular contributor to Locus magazine. Her previous publications for Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. To contact Cheryl, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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