What a fun story! How did it come about?
I wrote this story for the John Joseph Adams anthology Armored. John and I do the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast together, and he encouraged me to write something for the book shortly after we finished recording Episode 26. In that show, I talked about how one book I read as a kid claimed that when knights traveled east to attack Jerusalem during the Crusades, they sometimes got so hot that their sweat filled up their armor, drowning them. That was still fresh in my mind, so when John suggested I write a power armor story, I got the idea of a critical flaw in someone’s otherwise invincible armor that would cause the suit to fill with fluid, drowning them.
I imagine this story probably seems like a pretty fun, fast read, but it was a real challenge to write. For the longest time I was stuck on the idea that the man inside the armor had traveled back in time and installed himself as a despot, and that no one could challenge him except this woman from the future who would somehow drown him in blood, perhaps the blood of his own minions. But I could never find an emotional angle that interested me in this story of a nasty guy who gets killed.
Finally one day it occurred to me to make the guy inside the armor more sympathetic, and then things started falling into place. I imagined him more as this refugee from the future who knows there’s an assassin out to get him, and then there’s this dangerous romance with the assassin and he has to decide whether or not to trust her. I liked that idea a lot, and I wrote a good chunk of the story with the idea that in the end she would defeat his armor and spare his life, and they’d live happily ever after.
As I neared that ending, though, it wasn’t really working for me. Blair had been set up as being so smart that I didn’t believe he’d fall into this trap. And that ending, it seemed to me, was fairly obvious. From the beginning, it’s clear that one possible ending is that Mira kills Blair, and the other is that they fall in love and live happily ever after. What the story needed, I decided finally, was a third alternative that’s somewhat ambiguous and falls somewhere between the two.
Blair says we’re “in a branching timeline. We can’t return to our own time, and no one else can follow us here. So they’ll never know whether you succeeded or not.” If he has gone back in time where no one can follow, how can they send assassins?
Earlier in the story Blair mentions that traveling back in time would create a “temporal wake large enough for them to send someone after me.” The idea is that time travel creates a temporary timespace rift that can be locked on to. After that, the rift seals, and locating that particular timeline again becomes impossible.
Which stories about similar dystopias stick out in your mind?
Dystopian fiction is so ubiquitous these days that it’s hard to think of individual examples that particularly stand out. 1984 obviously comes to mind. (The protagonist’s surname Blair is a reference to Eric Blair, George Orwell’s real name.) Other big influences on this story are obviously the Iron Man movies, which also deal with a genius inventor at odds with the government, the Aeon Flux cartoons, which feature a similar sort of dangerous romance, and the Terminator franchise, which also works with the idea of dueling time travelers.
In light of recent revelations about the NSA, the future that Blair describes doesn’t seem as farfetched as one would like. Is that future starting to feel a little inevitable to you?
Definitely. Around the time I wrote this story, I’d been reading articles about the use of fMRI machines to read people’s thoughts. There’s already technology that can scan a person’s brain in real time and produce a very hazy, impressionistic image of what that person is looking at. Some scientists think we’ll have effective mind-reading tools very soon, in as little as ten or fifteen years. It seems to me that science fiction isn’t grappling with this as much as it should, though in some ways that’s understandable, since effective, commonplace mind-reading technology poses enormous challenges to most of our ideas about what constitutes good drama. (This story, for example, only works because the characters don’t have access to such technology.) And of course such technology poses enormous challenges to most of our ideas of what it means to be human and function in society. In some ways I think the end of deceit holds out enormous promise to improve the human condition, but at the same time it’s almost impossible to imagine that such technology won’t be used in some places—hopefully not all places—to identify and punish dissenters and to ensure that the ruling party is composed of nothing but lickspittles and fanatics.
I liked the voice in this story—it works really well for the subject. Was that something that evolved naturally or was it something that was honed during revisions?
I didn’t really do any revisions, per se. I typically write very slowly and deliberately, and work out each paragraph in my head before I write it down. The disadvantage to that is that it might take me several months to finish one story, but the upside is that the first “draft” is more or less the way I think the story should be written and generally doesn’t change much. I do spend an inordinate amount of time polishing up each story, but it’s mostly just deleting commas and then putting them back in again, stuff I doubt most readers notice or care about. I also have a particular rhythm for my fiction, and I spend a lot of time making sure that every line fits that rhythm. Again, I don’t know if anyone else notices or cares about this stuff, but to me it just sounds wrong otherwise. But overall I think the voice of the story is just my natural voice as a writer—sort of earnest, sort of funny, sort of dark, definitely weird.
Any news or projects you want to tell us about?
Most of my time these days is spent working on the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast I mentioned earlier, so I hope people will go check that out if they haven’t already. Recent guests include Philip Pullman, Karen Russell, Joe Hill, Felicia Day, and Margaret Atwood, and we’ve discussed topics such as swordfights, The Wizard of Oz, rationalism in science fiction, and Choose Your Own Adventure books. You can find us at geeksguideshow.com.