Let’s start at the beginning: Where did you come up with the idea for this story? While I’m curious about the general inspirations for this alternate history, I’m particularly fascinated with how you came up with the capuchin monkey assault teams.
The idea came from a contest within the Codex Writers’ Group where we had to write a story based on a seed from another member. Fellow Codexian Yosef Lindell sent me a picture from a children’s book (It’s a Little Book by Lane Smith). The picture depicted a cutesy monkey wearing a diaper and a hat. The monkey was saying “no.” Trust me, nothing sinister about the image (bit.ly/2Lavj7b) but I got hung up on the word “no.” I took “no” to mean killer monkey assault teams. I married the idea to a setting I had written about previously in a story called “Song of Passing Grief” and longed to return to. These key ingredients, and not chocolate chips, are the essentials to a steampunk war story featuring killer monkey assault teams.
Although the story involves fantastical airships and mind-controlled monkey minions, it is set in our real world and apparently during a historical conflict between the Turks and the Russians (seemingly the Crimean War). While a steampunk setting can allow authors and readers to take certain speculative elements for granted (even here the character Adnan hand waves away the underlying science), the choice to incorporate identifiable cultures, locations, and events requires other kinds of work. What sort of research did this piece require, and how did you balance those real and speculative elements?
I like the idea of steampunk and I enjoy it especially when it’s set against the backdrop of our world, if only an alternate version. I have a problem, though. As a black male, the 1800s is not an American era I like to revisit or even re-envision . . . I find it incredibly difficult to overlay steampunk technology on a society gearing up to fight a civil war over the right to enslave my ancestors. And I find steampunking London to be a well saturated undertaking, so it doesn’t really motivate. What’s a writer to do?
I used to be a Turkish linguist and some of that training involved culture studies. In researching the Victorian era for “Song of Passing Grief” (which was my first attempt at steampunk), I ran across the Crimean War and it just felt like the perfect situation to place my stories. The Russians had notable black men in the form of General Ibrahim Gannibal and by extension his great grandson Alexander Pushkin, and the Turks were decidedly non-white, so it gave me an opportunity to tell stories from traditionally marginalized perspectives not just with steampunk technology, but with a war raging in the background. Ultimately, I think the research, which is largely untold hours of Wikipedia cross-referenced with historical websites, pays off because I think it makes the world more palpable than it would be if I just made up Steamlandia and Cogwheelgonia. Who the hell knows how they dress in Steamlandia?
Oh, and you asked about the balance . . . I try to keep as much of the real in as I can. If it’s not enough to qualify for a Hollywood-esque “inspired by true events” stencil, then it should have a “Made with real history!” stamp across the front.
Going back to the section where Adnan, the Kismet’s galvanizer, gives a brief and dismissive explanation of the underlying science, an interesting idea lurks in what he is unable or unwilling divulge. When Oz tells Adnan that he does not understand Hezarfen, the organ grinder, Adnan tells Oz that “[w]hat a person feels is the one thing that can’t be explained, the only magic left in the world.” Yet, isn’t that explanation what fiction tries to do? In particular, despite Adnan’s protest, can readers see in this story how young Oz is conditioned to eventually take up Hezarfen’s mantle and, in understanding what Oz feels, gain a transitive empathy for Hezarfen?
I think Adnan’s right . . . understanding what a person feels is true magic, and this is what makes good fiction, where you see these characters as real and feel for them, a powerful spell in its own right. Will some readers see Oz being conditioned to take over as the organ grinder? Sure. Will some readers ultimately empathize with Hezarfen? Possibly. The nature of magic, no matter the vehicle, isn’t consistent for everyone. So if I did this story justice then the people who read it and enjoy it will feel differently about the characters and how they acted and what they wanted. If that happens, I’ll feel honored.
In this story, there is an interesting tension in the importance of names. The act of naming can convey power, such as how Oz renames the monkeys that are injured and rebuilt, taking more and more stewardship over them until he finally assumes the organ grinder’s role entirely. However, names are not destiny; for example, the men refer to Adnan as “Yarim”—which means “half man”—because of his metal arm, although he is the warmest and most humane character we meet. Similarly, despite naming the first capuchin with a metal arm “Ruhsiz”—or, “Soulless”—Oz still gives the monkey the last blood rites and as dignified a send-off as possible. What then is the power of names? If they have any, does it come from how the named one acts, or is it from how the named one is perceived?
No one names themselves . . . your first one comes usually from your parents and the names you pick up later, or nick, if you prefer, come from either friends or enemies. Certainly there’s power in them, whether it’s in a feeling of hurtful resignation, as in how Adnan receives the term “Yarim,” or in Oz’s transformation to see someone he initially deemed Soulless as having enough soul to bless it into the afterlife. And as your examples demonstrate, that power comes in both how the receiver of the name acts and in the perception of others, a perception that can and perhaps should change.
Another key element here seems to be the concept that Adnan articulates when he hints that Oz could run away during a brief landing: “The nicest thing about being homeless is that you can make anywhere home, yes?” Instead of running away, however, Oz rejects the flat land to return to the airship and eventually become the new organ grinder—the war song he grinds at the end is the song of his home on the Kismet. This is not an indisputably good thing, as Oz has taken up a mantle that may lead to his becoming cruel and, at the very least, he now presides over a suicidal pack of mangled monkey war orphans. As readers, should we find comfort in the way that Oz has found a home, or should we be sorrowful for the human capacity to acclimatize to any terrible situation? Does that ability perpetuate conflict and misery, or does it provide respite?
Your term “indisputably good thing” reminded me of my favorite game, which I recently became re-obsessed with, and a saying in it from Martyr Logarius: “Acts of goodness are not always wise and acts of evil are not always foolish, but regardless, we shall always strive to be good.” I think it’s natural and right that a reader find both comfort and sorrow in the end. That said, the only answer I can give to your last question is “yes.”
Finally, what’s next on your horizon? Beyond any concrete plans or upcoming releases, are there any new and still forming ideas that you’re eager to explore?
I’m trying to finish my third novel . . . I swear these things were so much easier to knock out when I was deployed. But I’m sure I’ll take a break from taking a break on the novels and enter a Codex contest, where someone will give me a seed like the one that prompted this story and my mind’ll run in a new and surprising direction.
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