Science fiction is at its best when it directs our attention to traumatic material while we are being entertained. With her riveting Bel Dame Apocrypha series of novels, author Kameron Hurley does that brilliantly. She was kind enough to answer questions about her inspiration.
Hickman: The protagonist in your Bel Dame Apocrypha series, Nyx or Nyxnissa so Dasheem, is constantly travelling, working and fighting, taking physical risks. I gather that you have lived something of an adventurous life and taken more than your share of risks. Fiction writers often dismiss or discount any autobiographical inspiration for their work. Still, is the character Nyx so convincing because you know her so well?
Hurley: Certainly every character a writer creates is a mashup of particular aspects of themselves. That said, it can bedangerous to assume that writers are too much like their characters. Nyx is a product of her time and place, and she’s had to become someone rather terrifying in order to do what she does so well.
When I create people, I often draw on the feelings of things as opposed to the exact experience. So, I know what it’s like to have to cut myself away from people in order to stop feeling things so intensely, and I know what it’s like to be called a monster because of that. I know what it’s like to live in a foreign country, and get forced into trusting people I know I really should not be trusting. I know how to shoot and clean guns, certainly, but I’ve never chopped off anybody’s head and I didn’t grow up in a birthing compound.
What inspired Nyx more than anything else was my interest in creating a female Conan that was just as – if not more – compelling as Conan himself. I wanted a woman who could actually be ruthless, self-interested, and cold when she needed to be, and who didn’t spend a lot of time angsting about it. I tend to think that women characters get the short end when it comes to being a badass in fiction. It’s expected that they have to be selfless and nurturing, even if they carry a gun, because otherwise they’re just too “unlikeable.” In fact, I often think that people don’t really think through what becoming a cold-blooded weapon will actually do to a person. We assume you’ll just be the same old person once you pick up a gun and start killing. But people who have done that – and continue to do that – will tell you otherwise. The training changes you, and the killing changes you. To do it in such close quarters, repeatedly, the way Nyx does, takes a very particular kind of person.
Hickman: How did you go about writing that ‘weaponization’ of personality?
Hurley: I did a great deal of research into how soldiers are trained, and read personal accounts of men and women who went to war, particularly accounts from people who killed others up close. It’s estimated that about 1-2% of any fighting force is a “natural” killer – they are borderline sociopaths. Everyone else must be trained to fire and fight and kill. It’s not inherently in our nature. We must train for it. And it changes us.
In Nyx’s case, she does have a morality, but it’s not one that we’d recognize. She uses that morality to guide her actions. If she has to kill four people to save four hundred, she will do it without another thought, and it won’t keep her up at night.
Hickman: Although the cultural context in which Nyx operates is Islamic, the planet Umayma was settled by Muslim refugees a thousand years ago, in some respects she seems very American. Cultural anthropologist Lewis Hyde described the cowboy and the private eye as characters who possess the “perfect freedom of strangers” and who “act out the drama of survival” in a society without attachments? Is that also Nyx?
In the West, we very much glamorize the “lone gun” type of character. You see that in 80’s apocalypse movies like Mad Max, and Escape from LA/NY type movies. You see it in westerns, and even some SF like Bladerunner. We subscribe to this notion that the most interesting and powerful characters are actually people who have no attachments to anyone, who don’t rely on anyone. As someone raised in this culture, I can’t help but love this idea, too. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that it covers up the reality that so many of us actually need one another desperately in order to survive.
So though Nyx is very much modeled on a lone gun, my goal from the outset was to also make it clear that her continued survival was actually a very complex thing. Though she may not explicitly rely on them, as the series progresses, it becomes clear that the reason she’s still alive is because of the connections she’s made and the people who care whether she lives or dies – even if she doesn’t care much for them in turn.
To some extent, one of Nyx’s biggest struggles in the books is her denial of attachments to people who want to get close to her. In her business, friends and lovers die. I’ve had some people argue that Nyx’s biggest adversary is actually herself.
Hickman: The planet Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s Dune series – it is impossible not to draw the parallel – seems inspired by a reading of the history of the French and Spanish fin de siècle conquest of Morocco and Algeria. Have events in the Middle East inspired your portrayal of the society on Umayma?
Hurley: Folks with an interest in Middle East history have actually spotted the parallels between the Nasheen/Chenja war and the Iran/Iraq war in which the U.S. was supplying arms to both sides. I know someone who was actually flying arms into both countries back then, and officials in both countries simply signed for the weapons like it was no big deal.
I was also very much interested in the Iranian revolution in `79 and how it so totally changed the politics of the country. That said, much of the scenery, and the bloody-mindedness of my protagonists, is actually drawn from Abrahamic religious texts and stories of ancient Babylon and Assyria. The Old Testament stuff is really, really violent, and it’s in line with how things were done. You read about piles of chopped-off hands and penises back in Assyria, and how they’d cut open people during the siege of Babylon looking for jewels and gold the people had swallowed, and your brain can hardly comprehend the carnage.
Hickman: What about material from outside the Middle East?
Hurley: I also drew a lot on more current human rights abuses, particularly in South Africa and Rwanda. There’s nothing I could make up that would be as horrible as the things we’ve already done to each other.
Hickman: How do you feel about Herbert’s novel Dune? I ask because the first two novels in your series, God’s War and Infidel, present the perfect anti-Dune. Matriarchy instead of patriarchy. War motivated by theological disputes rather than dynastic competition. No cheap pieties about the environment or anti-imperialism.
Hurley: Many people have compared the worldbuilding to Dune. But some of the character interactions and my initial interest in creating this type of settings with diametrically opposed protagonists actually came from reading Jennifer Roberson’s Sword Dancer series, which is about a low class southern mercenary and a high class northern woman seeking revenge for her family, and how they butt heads over things like class, gender, and other cultural assumptions.
I was also very interested in reacting to Dune by creating a world that wasn’t just a “desert world.” Though much of the first book in this series takes place in a wasteland, it’s clear that there are actual distinct environments here besides “desert.”
Hickman: People who are more familiar with arid lands understand that. Have you been influenced by other science fiction and fantasy writers?
Hurley: If you read widely, you can’t help but be inspired or influenced by other writers. I remember reading China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station and realizing the bar had been raised for worldbuilding. I’m also a big fan of Jeff VanderMeer, Gene Wolfe, Michael Moorcock, KJ Bishop, Angela Carter and even Zelazny. Joanna Russ was also a huge influence; I’ve always admired the anger and passion in her writing, which is something I think we need to see more of these days. For settings, though, you really can’t beat Mary Renault, who does these amazing retellings of Greek myths that make you feel like you’re in ancient Greece. Tim Akers also does really fascinating things with religion and worldbuilding that I love, and Genevieve Valentine is a master of creepiness. I’ve also recently discovered Lauren Beukes, who is a really bad ass writer.
Hickman: Confession: I’m not an entomophobe, insects and spiders are interesting, but the ubiquitous bugs in God’s War and Infidel are wonderfully disturbing. Did you deploy the bugs to mess with your audience?
Hurley: I lived in South Africa for a year and a half, and it gave me a whole new perspective on bugs. Bugs were just sort of… a part of life over there. Granted, I also lived in a very cheap flat owned by some rather corrupt owners who didn’t spray for bugs enough. So I shared a very small space with a nest of cockroach nymphs and dozens of flying adults, as well as geckos, beetles, spiders, moths, and all manner of nasties.
Waking up with a cockroach on my pillow, staring right at me, was one of my more memorable nights. I started wondering if there was anything useful we could do with all these bugs… and that led me to ponder what a magic system would look like if it employed bugs instead of, say, elements or some misty “world power” or “force” or something. What if these bugs were genetically tailored to respond to specific people who could direct their actions?
Before I lived in South Africa, bugs really didn’t bother me that much. And before I started writing about all this violence, I liked really bloody steaks. But I admit that after eight years of writing and reading about bugs and blood, I’m not as comfortable with either anymore…
There’s also a little-known book by Frank Herbert called The Green Brain that tells the story of this colony that’s being overrun by sentient insects that’s really cool, and certainly inspired some of my interest in playing with what else I could do with bugs.
Short answer, then: no, the bugs weren’t in there to turn anybody off. It just looked like something nobody had explicitly done before. And I do love to play with stuff that nobody’s done before.
Hickman: The third volume in the series, Rapture, will be published in November. Can you tell us anything about what happens in the novel?
Hurley: Rapture is the book where the gloves come off, really. The centuries-long holy war is ending, and the boys are coming home from the front. There’s a surplus of angry boys looking for a voice in politics, now, and things aren’t looking good for a non-bloody ending to that confrontation. Nyx decides to take up a contract to bring back a man she’s already killed, because doing so could help quell the impending riots. We meet a lot of new people in this book, and learn a lot more about what lies beyond the northern borders of Nasheen. A lot of people die. The First Families also get more face time here, and if you’re interested in learning more about who Nyx truly is, where this world came from, and where it’s going, this is the book to pick up.
Hickman: Looking forward to reading the third volume! There is a lot more material to draw from the Middle East. Is there any chance the series will be longer than three volumes?
Hurley: It’s funny you ask that, because I was just discussing this with my UK editor last week. I do have quite a bit of interest in doing another series of three books set in this world after I finish my next stand alone book, but it really just depends on how well these first three do. There’s this whole interstellar war thing that I… well, I’ll save that for another time. If fans are passionate about me writing more about Umayma, I’d be happy to do it. Alas, everything depends on sales numbers. So if you love the books, I encourage you to recommend them widely. If my editors see enough interest, they’ll ask for more.