Matthew Graybosch: Better Fantasy Through Science

By | 9:39 PM
Author Matthew Graybosch has allowed the opportunity to discuss his work and tell us a little about the inner-workings of his creative mind. The main focus currently is on his Starbreaker series, of which, the first book Without Bloodshed was released November 17, 2013. He has taken it upon himself to break the fantasy fiction stereotype and to write in a way that shapes the genre to suit his logical perspective. The result is that Graybosch has built his own brand of fantasy improved through science.  Here I will start the interview by sharing how he introduced himself to me:
"I'm a long-haired metalhead from New York, a mercenary programmer, and novelist with delusions of erudition. Back in 1999 I decided that if Terry Goodkind was the best the fantasy genre had to offer, then the genre needed a steel-toed boot in the rear. I spent the last couple of decades working on my craft so that I could be the man to give the genre the steel-toed butt-kicking it needs.
I don't do high fantasy. You want elves poncing about in the woods and singing to Elbereth? Look elsewhere. Likewise for farm boys marching off to adventure with Daddy's old sword bouncing off their hip. My wizards aren't kindly old mentors. My villains already rule the world, and they managed to make it a better place for most people in the bargain. If you want androids who don't know they're not human fighting demons from outer space, I'm your man. Starbreaker isn't a coming-of-age story. My characters are adults, and they think they understand the world and their place in it. They're competent. They know what they want from life, take it, and pay for it. Starbreaker is science fantasy with a metal attitude."

How long have you considered yourself a writer?

I started in 1996. Given how we're close to the end of 2013, that's eighteen years and almost half my life. I started in my senior year of high school, when I got stuck with an "elective" creative writing course taught by an instructor who insisted that the only fiction worth writing or reading came from the modernist tradition exemplified by early twentieth-century novelists like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Norman Mailer - the latter of which being the best of the lot, in my own opinion.

She spared little patience with students foolish enough to espouse any affection for "genre" work, and none whatsoever for long-haired metalheads possessed of sufficient nerve to suggest her literary idols were also genre writers. It didn't help that I turned in stories about long-haired metalheads aided by gifts from the Lead Bodhisattva, who put the hosts of Heaven and Hell alike to the sword because God and the Devil had the temerity to screw with his weekend plans by starting Armageddon.

The Lead Bodhisattva's gift, by the way, was a black diamond sword called the Starbreaker. "Stormbringer" was already taken - which surely caused the members of Deep Purple no little trouble when they released an album with that title in the 1970s.


What inspires and motivates you to write?

At risk of sounding both morbid and melodramatic, I needed a reason to go on living. When I got out of high school, I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I didn't have a dream, since I realized that I would never be a good enough musician to command stages, or even earn a living. No particular career appealed to me. Since I was neither public-spirited, nor religious, I couldn't have done what other aimless young men did: enter religious life or seek a military career.

I started college because I was supposed to; going to college is what reasonably intelligent teenagers do in America once they've been released from high school. It's a prerequisite to a career, marriage, children, and all the rest of the nonsense we call the American Dream.

However, I lacked a meaningful alternative until I suffered the serendipitous misfortune of reading Terry Goodkind's first novel, Wizard's First Rule. If you haven't read it, here's the deal: an Eagle Scout picks a lousy time to finally notice the existence of women, gets infatuated with the wrong woman, gets drawn into a quest to kill a dictator whose right-hand man is a pedophile, and has one of those awkward "Luke, I am your father." moments with said dictator - whose name is "Darken Rahl".

And what does Darken Rahl want? He wants to rule the world, not that Terry Goodkind bothers to tell us why, and if he can't rule the world he'll damn well destroy it - and himself in the bargain. Add in quasi-Satanic child sacrifice, lots of torture porn, and the sort of plot twist M. Night Shyamalan might have rejected as too obvious, and you have the first volume of The Sword of Truth - a series for Wheel of Time fans to enjoy while waiting for Robert Jordan to get off his keister and move his byzantine plot along.


So, after reading some of that garbage - and paying good money for the privilege, since I was a working-class college kid cleaning toilets at a supermarket to pay for textbooks and train fare - I was thoroughly fed up with the fantasy genre. Sure, Michael Moorcock and Roger Zelazny shook things up in the 1970s and 1980s, but it wasn't fair to expect Moorcock to keep cranking out Eternal Champion stories when he had already published The Revenge of the Rose (an unsung classic, in my estimation), and Zelazny was dead of cancer. So it goes.

In the meantime, C. J. Cherryh was done with her Morgaine science fantasy series. C. S. Friedman had finished her utterly brilliant Coldfire Trilogy. Steven Brust still doesn't get enough respect. George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire wasn't the juggernaut it is today, neither Scott Lynch nor Joe Abercrombie were publishing yet, and I had not yet read Matthew Stover's brilliantly profane Acts of Caine. Brandon Sanderson might have been working on Elantris at the time (which I still haven't gotten around to reading). Nor had I yet discovered Glen Cook, the Vietnam vet who penned underrated classics like The Black Company and the Dread Empire sequence while making cars for GM, and I wouldn't mind buying that guy a beer.

I was pissed off with the fantasy genre as I understood it, particularly with the genre's tolerance for lousy villains - a tolerance for which blame should be laid squarely on the grave of J. R. R. Tolkien. Sauron was a lousy antagonist, from a literary standpoint. All we know about his motiviation is what his enemies tell their dupes, by which I mean what Gandalf tells Frodo to con him into taking the One Ring and buggering off to Rivendell. And what are we told about Sauron? That he wants to rule the world.

You know what a band called Tears for Fears taught me in the 80s? Everybody wants to rule the world. Tolkien, however, never bothered to tell us why Sauron wanted to rule the world. Did he want his pick of Elvish virgins? Was it payback for how the Valar bumped off his boss Morgoth back in the First Age? Did he just want to spend eternity punching kittens without any interference?

We don't know. Tolkien, perhaps because of a belief in evil as diminishment that goes all the way back to Dante Alighieri (if not further), doesn't tell us. So, after drop-kicking my copy of Wizard's First Rule across the room, I said to my cat, "You know what, furball? This genre needs a steel-toed boot up the rear. If the best we can do is rehashes of the Campbellian monomyth with some demon-ridden idiot of a farm boy marching off to adventure with his daddy's katana bouncing off his hip, and villains with less characterization than the end boss of a bad JRPG, then we deserve all the contempt we get."

My cat's response was to start licking his nuts. Not exactly supportive.

Edmund Cohen
Tell me more about your brand of steel-toed fantasy.

I'm surprised you care at this point, and I'd be shocked if your readers got this far, but here goes. The following principles provide the foundation of my brand of heavy metal science fantasy. I'll admit that I didn't come up with these principles right away. It took years of further reading in the fantasy and science fiction genres, as well as outside the genre, to develop some of them.

  • There is no such thing as the supernatural.
  • Everything must make sense.
  • Everybody has a reason for the things they do.
  • The characters should be competent adults.
  • If a sentence sucks, the whole book sucks.

I hope you and your readers will indulge me as I expound on these principles.

  • There is no such thing as the supernatural.

I suspect many of your readers will object to the first principle, and insist that a blanket rejection of the supernatural precludes magic. I disagree. I distinguish between the supernatural and the preternatural. Supernatural phenomena are beyond the scope of human understanding, and always will be. Preternatural phenomena are currently unexplained, but may yet be explicable through diligent scientific research.

If you want examples from film, consider The Exorcist and Ghostbusters. In the former, no remedy or stratagem known to human science can banish Pazuzu from its human host, Regan. Regan's terrorized parents resort to the Catholic Church's rituals of exorcism. Demonic possession is supernatural in The Exorcist, and there is nothing humans can do about it on their own. They have to turn to a higher power.

In Ghostbusters, the ghosts are preternatural, rather than supernatural. Most people dismiss them as fakery, and the paranormal researchers portrayed by Bill Murray and Harold Ramis as charlatans, but they figure out how to trap ghosts and remove them from their haunts using unlicensed particle accelerators strapped to their backs. Instead of the power of Christ, they use the power of science, albeit Hollywood science.

  • Everything must make sense.

I don't care much for Tolkien's fiction, for reasons beyond the scope of this interview, but the man not only grasped the concept of worldbuilding, but grasped the importance of keeping most of his worldbuilding in the background. I suspect his only living equal as a worldbuilder is Ursula K. Le Guin, who draws from anthropology as Tolkien did from philology, which predates modern linguistics.

Being a self-taught software developer, rather than a linguist or an anthropologist, I may never match the stature of Tolkien and Le Guin as worldbuilders. However, I grasp the importance of logic in a narrative. If there is anything in my story that I can't justify, then I screwed up. End of story. Coincidences are not permitted. Miracles are right out. Everything that happens in my fiction must have a cause, and that cause should be explained, or at least alluded to, in the text.

  • Everybody has a reason for the things they do.

Remember how I griped about villains like Sauron, Lord Foul the Despiser, and Darken Rahl? My primary objection is that they are evil just because. They got stuck with the Villain Ball. I'm not naive enough to think there's no such thing as evil - not when human history is as full of examples of human depravity as I am of self-aggrandizing arrogance - but the Holocaust happened for a reason, and the reason isn't just, "Because Hitler was a pathetic wanker with a silly mustache."

As an author, it's my responsibility to bring to characterization the same exacting effort every halfway competent fantasist brings to their worldbuilding. Create as elaborate a stage as you like, but the play's the thing. What's a play without the players?

villain character Imaginos
Since it's the villain who drives the story, it isn't enough to pick a character and say, "OK, you've got the Villain Ball, now run with it." The first thing I did when I started putting serious effort into Starbreaker, the first damn thing, was to sit down with my villain Imaginos. I asked questions:

  1. What does Imaginos want?
  2. Why does he want what he wants?
  3. What gave him his reasons for wanting what he wants?
  4. What has he done to get what he wants?
  5. What is he willing to do to get what he wants?

These questions are Psychology 101, but a lot of traditionally published fantasy authors (at least when I was starting out) only asked such questions of their protagonists, and perhaps their minor antagonists. They might psychoanalyze the Dark Lord's flunkies, but not the Dark Lord himself.

To suggest I am unimpressed with such an approach is an understatement of Homeric proportions.

  • The characters should be competent adults.

There's a reason it took me almost twenty years to publish my first novel: it's hard to write about mature adults when you're not one yourself, and when I first conceived characters like Morgan Stormrider and Naomi Bradleigh - experienced adults who think they understand the world and their place in it - I was an eighteen-year-old punk who had yet to kiss a woman. I had to grow into my cast - as if it were possible to grow up enough to properly characterize a sorceress who's over fifty thousand years old, and hides behind the persona of a Manhattan socialite devoted to horticulture and the symphony.

Morgan Stormrider isn't just some callow youth from a farming village who agrees to ride off with a sorceress he doesn't know and her bodyguard because monsters burned his house down and almost killed his father. He's a grown man, with adult problems. He's stuck with a job he's come to hate. He wants to start a career better suited to his evolving values. He's in love with a woman with whom he's been friends for years. His ex was recently murdered, and he's a possible suspect. With the possible exception of the last, these are all problems any thirty-year-old man living in a Western country might face. It's the specific nature of his problems that are extraordinary, and the efforts required to solve his problems will force him to grow, learn new skills, and reevaluate his understanding of the world around him.

  • If a sentence sucks, the whole book sucks.

I know I'm likely to regret mentioning this last one, because I risk running afoul of an individual reader's tastes, but I flatter myself by thinking that I do the best I can with every word, sentence, paragraph, and scene I write. I omit needless words, and excise irrelevant details. If you see one of my characters sitting in the crapper, it won't be because everybody poops, but because something related to the plot is about to happen while this character's sitting with his pants around his ankles.

In Without Bloodshed, I have a scene where Morgan and Naomi fret about contraception not to hammer home the importance of safe sex, but to show the implications of the genetic condition they share, congenital pseudofeline morphological disorder (CPMD). When somebody with CPMD has sex with a normal person, there's no risk of pregnancy. When two people with CPMD get together, pregnancy is a possibility. This is important to the story, for reasons I'm reluctant to explain here.

To read more of my interview with author Matthew Graybosch, Click Here.

How to find Matthew Graybosch online...
author in new york, matthew graybosch
Available on Amazon:

You can also try conjuring me, but the last person to try squiggled a line that should have been straight while drawing his summoning circle. The poor schmuck ended up as a chew toy for the Hounds of Tindalos. So it goes.
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Matthew Graybosch said...

Hello, everybody. Rebecca Knight told me that she changed her commenting system, so I made an account to let me answer questions from her readers.

Rebecca said...

Thanks so much, it is good to see you here.

I appreciate you taking the time to interview me and help me promote my work, Rebecca.