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Why you should read Max Gladstone’s fantasy novels if you’re interested in politics

- July 26, 2016
Courtesy, Tor Books
(Tor Books)

Max Gladstone’s new book, “Four Roads Cross,” is the latest in his Craft Sequence. These books depict a world in which magic works — but looks a lot like corporate financial law. This is a world of political conflict between two different understandings of society. One is a traditional world of gods and their followers — where the world consists of intimate personal relations, local knowledge and the occasional human sacrifice. The other is abstract rules, quantifiable knowledge and contractual relations. After the God Wars killed most gods, a few become part of a new order where they are as much nexuses of debt relations as conscious, powerful beings, leading to an ambiguous detente between these radically different — and perhaps incompatible — understandings of the world.

Gladstone’s books are darkly funny — one depicts an offshore tax haven, where artificial gods are constructed like shell corporations to conceal tax evasion schemes. In the most recent book, legal doctrine stemming from a ruling by Justice Iron Hand suggests that any personal relationship between a god and goddess must fall afoul of antitrust law.

One of the key sources for Gladstone’s imagined world is the work of Yale University political scientist, James Scott. I asked Gladstone a series of questions about Scott, globalization, and writing fantasy that talks to real life politics.

Henry Farrell: The moment when I first realized that Scott was an influence on your work was the scene in your fourth book, “Last First Snow,” where a fight for control of a neighborhood turns into an argument between two kinds of knowledge — one based on contract law, and the other on people’s intimate experience of living in the neighborhood. This seemed to me to be a deliberate riff on Scott’s arguments in books such as “Seeing Like a State.” How did you come across Scott’s work, and how much did it influence the world that you built?

Max Gladstone: I had a “Seeing Like a State”-shaped hole in my thinking years — like a missing jigsaw puzzle piece, I had the outlines but couldn’t see how the picture fit. The tension between I-it, I-you, and I-thou relationships with the universe has been a factor in theology for a long time (as in Heschel); discussions about bankruptcy law got me asking myself what constitutes a corporation, or for that matter a government: physical accidents? Contractual obligations and procedures? Culture? People? Michael Taussig’s work on mythological responses to capitalist worldviews also helped. I explored these themes in my first three books, but Scott really tied the threads together. I’d heard his book mentioned by a few different friends, and in Venkatesh Rao’s essays. Reading it brought a number of different elements of my work into focus, and gave me a critical apparatus that helped push the books further. A friend describes SLAS as hovering over political conversations like a Vogon Constructor Fleet — he’s not wrong!

In your books, the Craft works in much the same ways as globalization does in ours — imposing a common-market based order, with associated institutions, on very different societies. This provides individual freedom but only ambiguously. People may still fall victim to debt slavery; contracts of adhesion may have unpleasant consequences in a world where they are literally binding; the one truly black dyed villain (the evocatively surnamed Alexander Denovo) has an unpleasant line in subverting people’s autonomy. At several points, the books suggest that the Craft will eat the world. These devices of literature echo various criticisms that people like Scott, Karl Marx, Karl Polanyi and others have made of markets and globalization. To what extent (if to any extent at all) is your fiction intended to turn back the reader toward the real world, so that she or he understands it in a different way?

That’s absolutely the idea. One reason I love fantasy is that, used properly, it offers perspective on a confusing world. We don’t have a mythic language for modernity, really, which is a problem, because we’re living in a time in which enormous immaterial powers control the destiny of billions, in which individual humans feel control and certainty ebbing, and yet most of the myths we use to understand all this stuff were built for different needs. I wanted to use that language of magic and titanomachia to get into the specifics of our moment in time — which really does feel like an inflection point in history. Though, of course, lots of people have thought that way about their own times — our species never lacks for doom prophets. So much about the modern world just started making more sense to me when I used the rhetorics of fantasy.

What an amazing link! I’m reminded, though it’s a bit off topic, of this post of mock-Zizek commentaries on professional wrestling. I had a bit of an epiphany about the King in Red recently: part of the reason he’s so messed up, is that he basically thinks he’s a fantasy hero, so of course he tries to solve problems of political economy and community formation in fantasy hero ways — that is, with enormous showdowns of mystic power, on dragonback if he can get away with it. I don’t know much about Thiel, but his habit of using Tolkien names is suggestive. I read pretty widely for each book, in a range of different genres, mixing academic and popular histories and myth. I keep up with neoliberal business news via the Economist, which is part of the reason it gets loving parodies in so many of my books. Beyond that, I try to talk to as many people as I can from the professions I’m writing about, or around — which means lots of bankruptcy law in “Three Parts Dead,” while “Two Serpents Rise” and “Full Fathom Five” both incorporate consulting and financial planning.

I’m so glad that comes through. I know this is in danger of becoming a set phrase, but for me, the personal really is political. Big issues — about the destiny and purpose of society, about our place in the world, and the health of communities — shape the lives we like to think of as private, and vice versa. That’s part of the reason I try to represent a broad spectrum of humanity as I can in my books, to show people with power and without on various axes: We all think about this stuff, all the time. We don’t just think about it — we actively negotiate it. The salvation of the world is not just the destined hero’s responsibility. It’s ours!

I love your question about conversation. I’m responding to Dorothy Dunnett’s “Lymond Chronicles,” which ask what a person who could do anything should do — an issue often swept under the table in genre by notions of heroic destiny and so on. All of my work probably stands in some degree of relation to Roger Zelazny’s books, especially “Lord of Light” and “Creatures of Light and Darkness,” which blur boundaries between myth and political drama and personal life and ambition. Ellison and Morrison and Steinbeck and Faulkner use language of myth and magic and surreality to lance into the American experience specifically. And Tolkien and Wagner are both asking: How do we live in a world where power exists and is a thing people do? Though of course having said all that I’m probably as much in conversation, deep down, with childhood memories of “Dark Horse’s Tales” of the Old Republic Star Wars comics.

There are hints in the most recent books in the series that something larger is happening behind the specific events described in each novel. Is there a broader narrative arc, and do you have a sense of (roughly) how many books will be needed to complete it?

There is a larger narrative arc. I really want to press into the near future of this world in the next few volumes, and shake up our heroes’ sense of the world they’re inhabiting. Probably the whole working-out will take fewer than five books, though that might change as the story grows.