In a special author interview for BCS Science-Fantasy Month, BCS Assistant Editor Kate Marshall talks with Megan Arkenberg about “Juggernaut,” the machinery of subgenre, why an oppressed underclass is allowed economic power, and the unique perspective of a character outside the power struggle.
BCS: You’ve published both science fiction and fantasy. How do you approach genre in your work?
Arkenberg: As a writer, I don’t find broad genre divisions particularly useful. A story’s subgenre has much more influence on its plot, setting, voice and point-of-view, and I find that some of my favorite subgenres—dystopia, steampunk, cosmic horror—blur the lines between science fiction and fantasy anyway!
I think there are two important things to keep in mind when purposely writing in a certain subgenre. The first is to remember that subgenre is an ongoing conversation. Your dystopia is not the first dystopia your readers have ever read; if you’re going to use these devices, you need to question them, examine them from different viewpoints, deconstruct them.
The second is that subgenre is not a plot blueprint, a checklist of clichés to incorporate. The machinery of subgenre needs to evolve seamlessly (or appear to evolve seamlessly) alongside the world-building, plotting, and characterization. You have to strike a balance between relying on subgenre as a roadmap and reducing it to set dressing—if you’re writing dystopia, the forces of oppression don’t have to be the focus of the story, but they can’t appear just once in the background, either.
BCS: Would you call “Juggernaut” science-fantasy? Where would you place it in the genre?
Arkenberg: I started writing “Juggernaut” as a steampunk adventure story. Some traces of steampunk appear in the Argonaute’s engine room or the steam-carriage tracks in Alcor, but overall, as I was writing, I found myself de-emphasizing the gritty nineteenth-century feel of steampunk for a streamlined, vaguely Ottoman futurism. I started borrowing what I saw as futuristic elements from other sources—the Baris Water Garden, for example, is based on Chicago’s Millennium Park, where I saw a flock of shoeless tourists gather one summer day.
The end result resisted my attempts to label it. I didn’t think the “science” behind the space-travel or mining techniques was adequately explained for the story to count as science fiction, but at the same time, the inter-planetary setting seemed more scifi than fantasy. The science-fantasy label seemed like an acceptable compromise.
BCS: Casimar’s influence and decisions shape the events of “Juggernaut.” Why did you choose to show Casimar through Levent’s perspective? What does Levent’s perspective bring to the tale for you that Casimar’s cannot?
Arkenberg: I think telling the story from Casimar’s point-of-view would have eliminated a lot of the tension at the ending. Casimar knows more or less what she is going to do; she can be surprised or driven to despair, but overall, a story from Casimar’s perspective would consist of watching her move from point A to point B, with only a few emotional stumbling blocks.
Levent’s point-of-view lets us see Casimar not as she sees herself but as she wishes to be seen. Casimar is consciously building a myth around herself—her own backstory comes to Levent and the reader through her own words, with little or no corroborating evidence. How much of it is true, how much exaggerated for effect? These are questions Levent asks that Casimar would never even consider.
Finally, I think that the conflict between Casimar, Hazan, and the Dragons is more visible from the perspective of Levent, who is powerless to control it, than from the eyes of the major players, who would all focus on their own plans and advantages.
BCS: The Dragons are glimpsed mostly in memories and related stories, but their impact is felt throughout the narrative. How do the Dragons reshape the worlds they’ve conquered?
Arkenberg: The Dragons create a unified culture of fear and violence on the planets they’ve conquered. They follow Machiavelli’s maxim to strike so suddenly and so forcefully that their victims’ vengeance need not be feared. They understand the value of dehumanizing and humiliating their victims; emphasizing the powerlessness of the people they destroy.
But they also live in a system with limited resources, and they know that threatening access to these resources—threatening it too much, anyway—is a sure way to create a rebellion; that’s why they create a wide berth around people like Casimar, who control large amounts of the Tourkis System’s resources, and focus the bulk of their cruelty on people like Aysun and Levent, who can’t fight back.
BCS: The relationship between Casimar and Levent is rooted in their mutual ties to Aysun. How do their feelings for Aysun shape the way they view one another? Do you think their relationship is changed by the end of the tale?
Arkenberg: Witnessing Aysun’s relationship with Casimar taught Levent that Casimar can provide protection. At the beginning of the story, Levent is too concerned about gaining this protection to be blinded by past jealousy. Along the same lines, Casimar sees Levent the way she sees almost everyone around her—as a tool to use and protect.
At the end of the story, Casimar and Levent have both been humanized in each other’s eyes; Casimar finally sees Levent as a person rather than a possession, and Levent realizes the limits of Casimar’s power. Their alliance at the end is on much more equal footing than their agreement at the beginning.
BCS: Casimar has strong economical power, but she remains under the oppressive rule of the Dragons. How do these different types of power interact in her world?
Arkenberg: Casimar herself is safe from the Dragons as long as her efficient management of her resources is more useful to them than confiscating her property (and dealing with the inevitable rebellion that produced) would be. The Dragons have nothing against theft on moral grounds; it would just be inconvenient to them to have to distribute things like fuel and ships when someone like Casimar is perfectly capable of doing it herself, provided they do her the small courtesy of not interfering.
But this is a precarious balance, requiring constant vigilance on Casimar’s part, and her sphere of protection is not nearly as large as she would like to believe. As the theft of Juggernaut shows that, provided the prize is big enough, the Dragons actually have little reason to respect Casimar’s property.
BCS: What other work do you find inspiring, either fictional or otherwise?
Arkenberg: Music is a great motivator—I especially love the work of Two Steps from Hell/Thomas Bergersen. For stories, I find inspiration in weird places (who doesn’t?). Most of the stories I’m working on now had their genesis in what I call “throwaway lines”—metaphors, images, etc. that authors introduce briefly in poetry, stories, or essays, often for only a sentence or two, but that are too striking not to be examined in depth. For example, in John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies, there is a sentence about “fairies of the furnace as well as of the wood” that I can’t get out of my head....
BCS: What’s next for you? What are you working on at the moment?
Arkenberg: Most of my current works-in-progress include non-human characters: angels, dragons, fairies, cosmic monstrosities. This is pretty unusual for me, but I think it’s also an excellent exercise, forcing me to really focus on characterization. I’m also trying to write more for anthologies. School, work, and editing have taken up so much of my time that I really need deadlines to encourage me to finish things!