Peter Higgins debut novel is a fascinating blend of detective novel, alternate history, sci-fi and fantasy and he kindly took the time to answer a few questions about his work.
Could you explain a little bit about Wolfhound Century to those who haven’t yet read the book?
It’s a thriller set in a world that draws heavily on early 20th century Russia and central Europe: there are marching crowds, modernist artists, intellectuals and revolutionaries, a continental war, state police that murder their own citizens. A lot of the action takes place in a city that resembles St Petersburg in that period, though with elements from places like Berlin, Prague and Vienna as well. But it’s also a world of giants and sentient rain and immense alien creatures that fall from the sky.
This is your debut novel, what has the process been like getting here?
I started out writing short stories for science fiction and fantasy magazines. At the back of my mind, though, I was itching to write novels. I thought, and still think, that a really brilliant science fiction or fantasy short story is one of the absolute genre pinnacles, but I found I was doing more and more background research for my stories, and it began to feel that 5000 words just wasn’t enough for the kind of thing I wanted to do. So when I got a story accepted in Asimov’s Science Fiction, I decided it was time to take the plunge and have a go at a novel. It was a big step into the dark – I took eighteen months off work to concentrate on writing full time – and ended up with Wolfhound Century.
Your novel takes place in an amazing setting – what drew you to this idea of an alternative Russia?
I’m a child of the Cold War. From an early age I absorbed a sense of Russia as a deep and mysterious, dangerous and inaccessible Other Place. There was the nuclear threat and the massed tanks on the frontier and espionage and all that, but there was also another side of Russia that was everywhere and very visible at the time. The way I remember it, books by writers like Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak were very prominent in bookshops and libraries. I became aware of Russian music, Russian art, the huge role the USSR played in defeating Hitler. There was a feeling, which I internalized almost unconsciously, that Russia was a place where everything was heightened: art, literature, revolution, war, grinding oppression, bureaucracy. Russia mattered. It also had the dark scary glamour of inaccessibility: Russia at that time was on the other side of a frontier, through the looking glass, reachable only through story and imagination, without any of the prosaic dullness of the abroad that you could actually go to on family holidays or school trips.
As it happened, though, I didn’t start with the intention of writing about Russia at all. I was working on a story with a northern, forested setting: wide plains of grass and tundra, wintry Baltic shores, giants and trolls, and I was thinking about the Teutonic Knights and the Northern Crusade. But it was only when it struck me that this was also the place of the Russian revolution and the Eastern Front that the whole thing exploded into life for me: I felt I’d touched on a much deeper vein of emotional and thematic importance. And I realized I could write it as a thriller, and I was away …
You seem to have settled your narrative in a time where modernism and ‘the modern’ was the future (and ruled by the Russian Futurists), a time that is now antiquated – what attracted you to using that time frame?
There was a huge excitement in that period – roughly, the first couple of decades of the 20th Century – particularly in Europe, I think, when it seemed like everything, absolutely everything, could be different. There was a feeling that all the old certainties were all wrong, the past could be jettisoned, and humanity was going somewhere new. There was new technology, new art, new literature, new forms of thought. Freud. Revolutionary communism. Non-Newtonian physics. Atonality in music. Non-Euclidean geometry in architecture. There were attempts to develop forms of art and politics that would dissolve and escape from national boundaries. Practical ideas for space flight began to emerge. Anything and everything was possible. It was an utterly astonishing period of creativity, absolutely teeming with possible futures.
In Wolfhound Century I’ve tried to catch the atmosphere of that modernist explosion of possibilities and set it in the context of the other side of those times: the oppressive surveillance regimes, the human suffering of that dark history. The book itself sometimes makes use of modernist techniques of writing – twisted, skewed fragments of allusion and bits of poetry and popular culture, sliding between genres, and so on. It’s a way of getting at one of the themes of that period, the struggle between the full potential of human perception and breadth of consciousness on the one hand, and on the other the attempts of a totalitarian state to impose uniformity of thought and compliance with collective norms: the clash between an autonomous ‘I’ and an oppressive ‘We’.
The novel features an interesting blend of fantasy and alternative history, reinterpreting the sci-fi elements in the story as pseudo-religious theories – how did this unique blend come about?
I’ve mentioned the way the early 20th century absolutely seethed with possible alternate futures. When we look back on that period now, our view is very much coloured by our knowledge of what came afterwards: catastrophic wars; oppressive governments exterminating their own citizens by the million. And those totalitarian states (of whatever ideology) clothed themselves with the pseudo-religious rhetoric of historical inevitability and eternal permanence.
But I feel it’s really important to remember that what actually happened in the 1930s and 1940s – Stalin, Hitler – wasn’t inevitable, any more than it was permanent. It could easily, even accidentally, have been otherwise. Wolfhound Century aims to recover that sense of undecideness, of many possibilities still in play, the flux and struggle between different potential futures. You look at the bleak lives of the workers, the struggles of the dissident artists, the dispossessed former aristocrats, the excluded minorities, and you feel that their lives are probably only going to get worse. But not necessarily. The totalitarian state is powerful, but it’s not all powerful. The dead hand of history is not – quite – inevitable. There are other forces at play.
So in a way, I guess, Wolfhound Century walks a line between alternate history and fantasy. If it is alternate history, it’s not the kind where the world is like ours except for one change, one divergence: it’s a world where much is different, and things exist which are shadows or impossibilities in our world. Some of what’s there is recognizable, and reflects or resonates with the historical, but I’m more interested in the ideas, the atmospheric details, the art and stories and struggles of the period, rather than familiar events or real geographies.
A number of your characters are fascinating, including Vissarion Lom, a hard-boiled detective type, yet one firmly entrenched in the religious/political framework of the story – did you set out to re-imagine the crime detective in a fantasy epic?
Yes. Absolutely. I really like the way you’ve put that. One of my biggest influences as a writer is Gene Wolfe, and in particular The Book of the New Sun. In my own mind there’s a connection between Gene Wolfe’s Severian, exile from the torturers guild, and Vissarion, exile from the state security police.
There’s an implication throughout Wolfhound Century that more is at stake in Lom’s struggle against the forces lined up against him than simply solving a crime or stopping a killer: it’s about reaching for an alternative future, even if it’s a future you can only glimpse and you’re not sure how real it is or how to get there. The overall conception is that Wolfhound Century is the first part of a three-part series, and if you dig below the surface there’s a quest-story structure. Each book will be a thriller in its own right, but overall they build into one story arc that owes a lot to the fantasy trilogy tradition: though it isn’t a structure limited to fantasy and sci-fi, le Carré’s Karla trilogy is in there somewhere too.
There also seems to be a clash between the sci-fi, space-faring (evil) elements and the fantasy, nature (good) elements in the novel – without giving too much away, what is the sub-text here?
Wow, that’s a great question!
It’s always struck me that the sudden emergence of extreme totalitarian regimes like the Nazis, the Fascists and the full-on cult of Stalin was – apart from anything else you could say about them – very weird. The absolutism, the blind devotion and passive fear, the stark and unmistakeable imagery, the way they turned people from individuals into particles in a mass, the transformation of cruelty into a kind of oblivious managerial efficiency: underneath the awfulness, it’s also very odd. Really quite alien. These systems seem to have come from nowhere, emerged fully formed as a radically new way of organising people and society, and then – with equal suddenness – just disappeared again.
This sense of weirdness and alienness has always been part of the image of Nazism – the associations with occultism, the idea they were inventing flying saucers and super-weapons, and so on – and in very different forms it also turns up in responses to Lenin and Stalin: say, in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, or Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, or the sleek dehumanising visuals of some Constructivist and Suprematist art.
In Wolfhound Century I’ve used sci-fi tropes and images to catch that feeling of weirdness and alienness – wrongness, queasiness, out-of-scale-ness – about the regime in power. And in writing about the things that totalitarian and collectivist ideologies suppress and exclude – the full range of emotions and sympathetic perceptiveness, the richness and mythic quality of the unconscious, the ability to notice and value the natural world and what’s at the margins of perception – I’ve tended to edge more into fantasy.
In the end, though, I wouldn’t actually say that Wolfhound Century enacts a conflict between sci-fi and fantasy. I wouldn’t want to separate out the strands that neatly, either in my book or in the genre(s) more generally. For one thing, you can find mythic perceptiveness and concern with the magical boundaries of consciousness in the core science fiction tradition – say, Ray Bradbury, or the first Star Wars trilogy – and there’s plenty of core fantasy that doesn’t have it at all.
Hannu Rajaniemi praised you for your style and language and you also begin your novel with a quote from the poet Osip Mandelstam – has poetry had an influence on your work and, if so , how?
That’s another great question! Yes, poetry’s a big beast out there in the undergrowth when I’m writing. Apart from Russian writers like Mandelstam, Mayakovsky and Akhmatova, and German poets like Rilke and Brecht, who are pretty direct presences in Wolfhound Century, I’ve been very much influenced by, for example, Ted Hughes and T S Eliot, and above all Peter Redgrove (particularly The Wedding At Nether Powers and Doctor Faust’s Sea-Spiral Spirit, and his prose book about consciousness, The Black Goddess). There’s also a thread of what might be called ‘intense prose’: the kind of exact, intense writing I love in writers like Virginia Woolf and Angela Carter. I owe a big debt to them. Dickens, too, in some of his darker, more intense passages, like the opening of Bleak House.
I’ve tried to make Wolfhound Century as linguistically alive, interesting and adventurous as I can. I see that as part of what’s possible in fiction, part of the range of ways of writing, part of the ground to cover. It’s more than just linguistic: it’s about intense, direct, complex perception, and pushing language into fresh territory to get at that. Thematically, it’s the opposite of the collective cultural norms the dictators sought to impose.
It’s important to Wolfhound Century, though, that the style doesn’t overwhelm the story. The poetic register is part of what’s available, but it’s not the only colour on the palate. I haven’t talked about thrillers much in this interview, but I’ve tried to make the style and language as good as I can within that genre, too. Wolfhound Century is also in a tradition that would include John Buchan and Graham Greene, as well as later books like Fatherland, Gorky Park and First Blood. I love the way an excellent thriller takes you straight into the story and keeps you gripped there, racing along. The most important thing about each paragraph is that it makes you want to read the next one.
The novel ends with a few storylines left unanswered, can we expect a sequel?
For sure. The next part of the trilogy, Truth and Fear, is coming out early in 2014.