Inner Worlds II: Steven Erikson, the author of The Malazan Book of the Fallen

On fantasy, bias, and telling a story

Credit: Jess Anderson

Writing fantasy, it’s easy to forget that world-building is the story’s servant. It’s easy to get enamored with your own creation and push it in front. Even the fantasy superstar George R. R. Martin, the author of A Song of Ice and Fire, does that. He feeds the reader with the minutiae of fashion of Westeros and describes every detail of food the noblemen eat, often without adding a meaningful point to the narrative.

I’m not a fan of Martin. Or, for that matter, fantasy writers in general. Authors who get lost in their own worlds do not tell interesting stories. And yet one of my favorite works of fiction is fantasy. Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen is an achievement in world-building without comparison, in the genre or beyond. 10 novels long, its complexity is mind-boggling, spanning thousands of years and hundreds of characters. The story jumps between perspectives of gods, wizards, and common people. There is no all-knowing narrator. There isn’t even a single cohesive narrative: timelines are in flux, history is unmasked as myth, events change depending on the point of view.

The world, co-developed by Erikson with a fellow writer Ian Cameron Esslemont, turns one popular trope on its head after another. It’s a world of gender and racial equality, a world of gods that need the mortals, a world where the noble savage is neither noble nor savage. But it never takes precedence over the story. It’s only a medium for Erikson to tell stories that always come back to one overarching theme: compassion.

Trust me, I tried to make it sound less pretentious. But I gave up. It is pretentious. It is audacious in its ambition. And that’s a good thing.

Erikson used an imagined world as a medium for his story and I wanted to know how and why. But it was hard interviewing him. A fan-author relationship isn’t the most fertile ground for asking thoughtful questions. It seems against the very idea of being a fan: you do not question what you worship.

And yet here I am, asking and trying to unlock for others the mind that once took me on exciting journey to a world that doesn’t even exist.

Wojtek Borowicz: What’s the most difficult thing about creating a world?

Steven Erikson: It all depends on the kind of world you’re trying to create for your fiction. On the most basic level, all fiction is world-building, even that which purportedly takes place in the ‘real world.’ A contemporary ‘real’ setting employs a sense of commonality shared with the audience, but the fictional world being presented remains an invention, given shape by the details chosen — and those not chosen. Contemporary fiction assumes a commonality even when it doesn’t exist, since different perspectives offer up different world-views and often these are barely compatible in the real world.

In epic fantasy fiction, the kind that presents a secondary world, there are both challenges and pitfalls to world-building. In essence, the only necessary commonality between the real world and the fictional one is that humanity be present (even if it’s represented by, say, rabbits with swords). The human condition lies at the heart of all fiction and epic fantasy cannot escape that, nor should it. Beyond that single linkage, pretty much anything goes. The writer is free to create any kind of world she or he can imagine.

At this point, there are technical requirements which I won’t get into much here (internal consistency, etc). Simply put, there needs to be a recognisable sense of cause and effect, or at least the potential thereof. And there needs to be mundane details that a reader will recognise, which will serve as the signposts to commonality. The risk of pitfalls comes into play at this point, when certain assumptions are carried over into the newly created world, and it is at this point that the writer needs to bear down and think things through.

What kind of pitfalls? Aren’t author’s assumptions and biases always reflected in the world they create?

Want a quasi-medieval fantasy world? Fine. But wait, what does that mean, exactly? European medieval? Japanese? Pick one. Okay, now define ‘medieval.’ What are its historical characteristics? Well, patriarchy for one. The rights of women are not equal to the rights of men. They have fewer opportunities, are often seen as war-prizes, the rewards for political alliance, subject to cloistering, necessary only insofar as producing male heirs and — in the Christian ethic of the times — also temptresses eager to bring about a man’s downfall through seduction and other poison fruits, not to mention occasionally turning out to be witches.

So, you really want all that for your secondary fantasy quasi-medieval world? If so… why? What was it about that medieval setting that you, as author, found so attractive? Swords? Knights? Damsels in distress?

Okay, so you chose the quasi-medieval setting for your secondary world. You like swords and knights and damsels in distress. Oh, and a strict class system with nobility (your heroes), maybe a few priests thrown in, and then the peasants, serfs, tinkerers and all the rest of the unmentioned unwashed. And you picked the European model because, well, you don’t know much about Japanese history. Now it’s time to create the external threat. There’s almost always an external threat. Well, barbarians to the north, of course. Oh, and how about a dark(er) skinned horde to the east — oh, let’s make them nomads who ride horses and use bows! As for the south, well, that’s a collection of decadent, steamy lands, replete with deserts and even darker-skinned people steeped in the esoterica of assassins, poisons and nefarious intrigue…

I won’t belabour this too much. Assumptions carried into a secondary world from this one can be deadly, in what they imply, in the biases and prejudices they embody.

I am not suggesting that a writer can’t do any of that — can’t select a Eurocentric medieval model for their fantasy stories. What I am suggesting is that those assumptions carried over exist, and are subject to challenge by readers and critics. So it pays to be prepared and have your reasons for doing what you did.

But I will also suggest, as humbly as possible, that maybe we’ve had enough of the Eurocentric medieval settings for epic fantasy? Maybe we’ve had enough of patriarchy taken as a given? Or of stratified class systems that reduce the common person to sword-fodder? Or of pale-skinned heroes of civilization and the eastern horse-riding hordes intent on destroying said civilization?

My precious: a signed copy of The Crippled God

From the perspective of a writer, what’s the difference between storytelling and world-building?

World-building is the scaffold upon which you assemble the narrative needed to tell a story. It’s present in all forms of fiction and so all genres share the same characteristics. Fantasy fiction has to work harder at world-building, of course, but the rules of setting remain the same.

Storytelling is the narrative itself, the propelling of characters through that world.

Malazan Book of the Fallen always comes back to the theme of compassion. Did telling a story about compassion require creating a new universe?

Strictly speaking, no, of course not. I think compassion has been my primary fuel for all fiction I’ve written to date, whether contemporary, SF, or fantasy.

Can you imagine telling the same story in a different world?

Sure, I tell that story all the time, even in a short story. What drives my narrative are characters and understanding those characters demands compassion, no matter who they are or what they do. I need not agree with their actions or their motivations, but I do need to understand them.

Your first novel, Gardens of the Moon, started as a movie script. Do you still want to show people this world through the lens of a camera?

That script was lost a long time ago. If I was to think of a cinematic approach to the Malazan novels now I would think in terms of a television series.

Also, the Malazan world was first a setting for your tabletop role-playing sessions. What’s the best medium for world-building?

Role-playing games are a good vehicle for fleshing out a secondary world, for establishing its history, its tone and its atmosphere. I couldn’t say it is the best medium, but it is one that worked for me and Cam Esslemont, and it added so much to the Malazan world.

What’s interesting about the gaming history of the world you created is that you once said your RPG sessions were not traditional. How did they look?

Often they were one on one sessions and campaigns. Each of us took on multiple characters, with one the GM and the other the player (alternating, often with different character groups). The narrative side was just something that happened, where the gaming moved away from treasure-hauls or power-questing. Many times entire sessions involved little more than conversations between characters.

You have co-created the Malazan world with Ian Cameron Esslemont and you also share it as authors. Have you two ever argued about an event, a place, or a character?

I wouldn’t call it arguing: we have disagreed on details but then quickly worked out the direction we would take. We were never zealots when it came to maintaining the integrity of gamed-out sequences once it came to re-interpreting or re-imagining those sequences as fiction. The fiction always won out: the needs of the fiction outweighed the needs of the gaming.

You said a couple of times that you’d be happy to see the Malazan universe explored in another medium. If, say, a video game company approached you with an idea for a story set in the Malazan world, would you give them freedom in writing?

We have been approached a couple times regards a video game version, up to and including meetings with the developers. This was where the proposal was ultimately rejected by me and Cam, since we’re not interested in a game version that emphasises action over story. Our view of what would make a good Malazan game is either a) not yet possible or b) not considered financially viable.

Having said that, I keep an eye on trends in gaming and it does seem things are finally turning towards story-driven adventuring, so maybe one day it will be possible to speak the same language as the developers. As an example, one developer pitched to us a console-style version of the Malazan world, but one that would have 60 to 70% action/fight set-pieces and, to make matters worse, wanted a main character who was unknowingly a reincarnated god… this in a world that has no reincarnation and pointedly avoids the ‘chosen child’ trope.

I’m asking about this because a few months ago Andrzej Sapkowski, author of the Witcher books, publicly mocked the video games based on his works. The games are successful — critically and commercially — yet the original author holds them in contempt. Are you afraid something like this may happen to you?

Not afraid as such, but it’s probably one of the reasons we have rejected pitches thus far. It should either be done right or not done at all. I’d hate to find myself in a position where I mocked a product or held it in contempt.

Malazan fan art. Credit: Corporal Nobbs

Fans spend a lot of time discussing the universe you’ve created and trying to make sense of all the pieces of the puzzle. There’s a fan site, Malazan Empire. There’s a subreddit, r/Malazan. There’s Malazan Wiki. Does that make you happy?

It’s good that readers can get together to discuss elements of the Malazan series. These books were always written with re-readability in mind. In some ways, it’s a reverse-narrative and many of the rewards only arrive once a reader has completed the series and then embarks on another run through it.

Would you like to see the Malazan world take on a life of its own, like Harry Potter or Star Wars?

I’m not expecting it. The rigid ‘show don’t tell’ nature of my writing style also makes it highly unlikely, as debates continue as to whether I write decent characterization or not.

What are the other worlds you like to ‘visit’?

SF worlds, mostly. I love the Culture novels, and I thought Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time was not only brilliant, but well-deserving of the Arthur C. Clarke award — and I’d love to read more in that universe.

Finally, why do you think we do that? Why do we get so invested in creating and venturing into fictional realities?

The more stressed and the more miserable the real world gets, the more we long for something better, something that actually makes sense. Fiction imposes the comforting illusion of causality, not to mention the equally comforting illusion of life possessing a narrative arc that is anything but meaningless. This is not restricted to any genre: it’s one of the primary functions of all fiction. An encapsulated alternate reality offering immersion and investment and, almost incidentally, the gift of empathy (assuming that the fiction in question is not ideologically driven, one-sided, or politically entrenched).

The singular point of view is deadly: it shapes an entire world to suit its own prejudices, invariably inviting a clash. Fiction offers up multiple points of view. It acts as a counter to parochial thinking. People who don’t read fiction are usually the first ones pulling on jack-boots.

And that sucks.

Liked that? Read other conversations about imagined universes at Inner Worlds.