M.R. Carey Interview
THIS INTERVIEW DOES NOT INCLUDE SPOILERS.
Hello! Today I’m thrilled and honored to have M.R. Carey participate in his second (see first interview here) Q and A with Novel Lives. As you will undoubtedly see, Carey truly puts quite a bit of effort into Q and As. We decided to time this for the week before the release of Infinity Gate Duology (March 28th). Infinity Gate is book one of the Pandominion duology (review coming tomorrow). The second book will be released in approximately a year.
One more note of interest on my part (and I’m sure I’ll mention this in tomorrow’s review). Anyone who knows my reading habits would tell you I don’t read a lot of sci-fi. And I definitely don’t read Space Odysseys. I broke up with that genre years ago. And yet here I am. Why? M.R. Carey is an automatic read for me and Infinity Gate DID NOT disappoint. My trust is well-founded. Last note before we dive in. You’ll see Marvel references in the interview (the fun part of the interview). As I told Carey, I was in no way trying to slight him. It was just some connections I made because I’m a Marvel lunatic.
Turns out we both needed therapy after Infinity War.
M.R Carey Interview
- I haven’t seen the release dates for this series. Are they being released in rapid succession like The Rampart Trilogy? Or is it the typical period between books?
There are only going to be two books in the series, and they’ll be a year apart. That was a purely logistical decision. It took me about a year to write each one – although I was working on other projects over that time period. The Koli books <released in rapid succession> were a one-off in terms of scheduling. I wrote them in a kind of fever, really quickly, and Orbit decided to run with that and bring them out on a six-monthly schedule. The process here was different, I think because the story is different.
Infinity Gate Comparison Questions
- We discussed this in the last interview, but I wanted to revisit it quickly. We talked about writing like a memoir and/or in the first-person. You did that again here, but with a much different twist. We have no idea who/what is telling the story. In Girl With All The Gifts, we knew who was telling the story but not what/where she was, or what the hell was happening. In the Book of Koli (Rampart Trilogy Book 1 Review), we know who is telling the story, but we don’t know what he knows. He is telling his story as he goes. He knows what is coming, but we don’t. Can you discuss these different approaches?
I hadn’t seen that pattern, but you’re right. Ever since The Girl With All The Gifts, I’ve been playing around with point of view as a way of coming into the narrative on a slant. You didn’t mention Someone Like Me <doh! My bad. My Review, from when Novel Lives was just a baby, is linked> but it’s there too, with the different viewpoint characters signaled by graphic symbols at the head of each chapter. In some ways that was running with something Philip Pullman did in The Subtle Knife. The symbols in the page header tell you what world you’re on. In Someone Like Me, I did it mainly so I could have that moment when the fourth POV character emerges and the penny drops for the reader that maybe Lady Jinx isn’t what we thought she was.
2. Infinity Gate would be more like the Book of Koli (Rampart Trilogy, Book 1) if we didn’t know Koli was telling the story. How did the tweak of that structure come about for Infinity Gate?
It was a way of promising a big, seismic change in the world of the story and telegraphing just one piece of the ending. The idea is that when we finally get to that reveal it will be both surprising and inevitable. I was talking to Colm McCarthy a while back about plot twists and something he said stayed with me. The best kind of twist is the one where your first reaction is “what the hell?” but then that’s immediately followed by “but of course!” I hope that’s what we’ll get here. When we realize who’s talking to us we realize how the war ended. Among other things.
<This reader agrees>
3. Also, how did you seamlessly switch it up from that point of view to other characters’ points of view without it getting messy or one character’s POV spoiling something?
Well, I’m glad you feel that I’ve done that! One of the challenges of writing Infinity Gate was that it’s a big sprawling story that takes in a lot of characters who are gradually coming together from wildly different starting points. This might sound like a weird comparison but it’s a little bit similar to season one of Heroes in that respect. So inevitably there was going to be a lot of moving around in the narrative space. I tried to do a version with much tighter intercutting – a Hadiz chapter, an Essien chapter, a Paz chapter, and so on – and it really didn’t work. As in, it fell apart in my hands. So I did something different, spending a lot of time with each character and setting up their world before moving on. Obviously the intercutting does accelerate later once the characters start to meet and interact and the rapid shifts become more justifiable.
4. Environmental degradation plays a massive part in both series (The Rampart Trilogy and Pandominion Duology). However, in Infinity Gate, it is the first domino in a cascading sequence of events that are politically relatable to today. For instance, Texas versus California, China annexing Japan, etc. Some treaties are abandoned (actually happened while Trump was in office), and you also had land alignment change. Was it a conscience effort to interweave some current political issues (not that Texas is literally fighting California right now, but it isn’t out of the realm of possibilities) with ongoing/near future environmental disasters?
It was a conscious decision, yeah, but really there doesn’t seem to be any getting away from it. Whether you’re actually trying or not, your obsessions are going to leak into what you write. And right now it seems to me like pretty much our entire global civilization is involved in a massive, multi-level version of fiddling while Rome burns. Only it’s not just Rome, it’s everything. I don’t think Infinity Gate has anything profound to say about climate breakdown. As you say it’s just there as a substrate and a launch point. I was thinking about the theory of limits – how you can’t have infinite growth in a finite world, so global capitalism was always going to implode at some point. And as a thought experiment, I removed the limiting factor. What would happen if a civilization like ours had access to infinite worlds?
5. Within these two series technology plays an integral part. In the Rampart Trilogy technology from the past is this unknown entity. Some of which helped a great deal in the end. In Infinity Gate, the focus is on future Artificial Intelligence and technology. I just watched John Oliver’s (linked) latest show on AI. It talks a lot about these new programs. One really bizarre interaction between an AI writing app that started saying it wanted to be alive, loved the reporter, and tried to convince him to leave his wife. Why the shift in perspective? Are both forms something that niggle in the back of your mind? Do some of the modern AI interpretations have any connection to these new programs that basically write essays for you? For all you know, I didn’t write any of this 😊! Just kidding.
That’s an interesting comparison. There’s AI in both stories, of course. In Koli, you’ve got Monono and eventually, you’ve got Sword Of Albion and what they meet there. Then in Infinity Gate, you have Rupshe and Dulcie – and some more machine intelligence coming in the second book. In fact, you have an entire culture, the Hegemony, that’s made up of machine minds and has a radically different kind of consciousness than anything that we’re used to.
What’s strange is that the situation was changing around me as I wrote. When I started Infinity Gate back in 2020 ChatGPT and Dall-e hadn’t hit the headlines yet, but there was this constant stream of stories along the lines of “machines can now do X better than us!!!” There was this sense that all the milestones were being passed very quickly, and the case for human exceptionalism was getting harder and harder to make. What’s special about an organic mind if a machine can beat it at anything that’s actually hard? So I was thinking about those things, for sure. But I never dreamed that less than two years later AIs would be designing and creating images, making music, and telling stories. We’re on the cusp of a very profound societal change, and we won’t be able to control or even understand it as it happens. It will only make sense in retrospect.
In that respect, Infinity Gate isn’t even sci-fi. Other parts of it are, but the stuff about AI feels like it’s just acknowledging where we are or where we’re coming to.
Let’s talk about character study
- If I said it once, I said it a million times. You have an excellent aptitude for writing characters across the good -> evil spectrum. Some are placed in the middle to make them morally grey, and some landing you right between disgust and empathy for a character. But, like GWATG, there is an intense, overriding theme of 1) what humanity is and 2)who/what is capable of humanity. I’ve now had two intense conversations about this because of Infinity Gate. There are multiple characters and artificial intelligence. If you take linguistics out of it, they do/don’t show humanity. So how do you define humanity for yourself and in Infinity Gate?
There’s a thing called the black box theory of intelligence, which suggests that the best way of understanding an intelligent system – whether that’s a human being or a machine – is through its output, its responses to the stimuli you give it. If you accept that idea then you have to give machines the benefit of the same doubts you give your fellow humans. If they seem to be understanding you and their responses make sense, you have to assume that they’re sentient.
This is obviously hugely problematic when it comes to the current generation of AIs. We know they’re running scripts and we can see for ourselves the places where the scripts lead them astray or where they’ve thrown in the wrong mix of ingredients. If you’re asking for a picture you get arms and legs in weird places or faces with too many mouths. If you’re having a conversation then at some point there’s some element in there that makes no sense at all or is weirdly arbitrary. So we know these AIs are not self-aware.
But I’m very sold on Daniel Dennett’s argument that consciousness is an emergent property. It’s not one thing, it’s a whole lot of things going on inside a brain that make a new thing when they’re all combined. And I’m prepared to believe that can happen to machines just as it did to flesh-and-blood creatures like us and the animals around us. Selfhood, to use the term I adopted in the book, is a thing that can grow in any soil and when it happens you don’t necessarily see it coming.
2. What thoughts/questions are you trying to provoke from readers?
I don’t have a manifesto. On some of these issues, I don’t even have a coherent position. I hope the ideas in the book will get people thinking and maybe talking about climate breakdown, the imperial mindset, about AI. But I’m not Kim Stanley Robinson and Infinity Gate isn’t Ministry For the Future (although that’s an absolutely brilliant book and you should read it right now). I don’t have answers, I have fretfulness and a little bit of eccentric connectivity.
3. In any context, people are capable of good and evil actions. And, sometimes, they don’t know which category their actions fall under when they act. You see characters enact both types of efforts throughout Infinity Gate (it could be either despite their intent). Is this character arc/growth over time?
Everyone is the hero of their own story. I think even people who do appalling, monstrous things persuade themselves that they’re pretty cool and that their actions are just fine. The way you make those accommodations is fascinating, though. How do you get to a position of “well we’ll steal billions from the economy, defund health and education to enrich ourselves and our pals, and then watch as people suffer and die”?
I think in any story there are going to be characters who you only see from the outside. That’s inevitable. But it’s copping out to do that with your important antagonists. The reader deserves to know how they tick and what their priorities are.
Going back to the Koli books for a moment, I think Catrin Vennastin is a pretty good example of what I mean. What she does to Koli is incredibly cruel – cutting him off from his family and throwing him out into the wilderness where he’s almost certain to die. But in her own mind, her motives are impeccable. If Koli tells when he knows then public order will break down and the village will eat itself alive. They won’t be able to trust each other and cooperate anymore, and without that, they’re doomed. So she squares it with herself and she does what she believes is absolutely necessary.
In Infinity Gate you have the bureaucrats of the Pandominion, especially Baxemides, and Vemmet, who are very different from Catrin – I think both are much more venal and corrupt – but the same dictum would apply. They don’t see themselves as venal and corrupt, they see themselves as navigating a complex and flawed system. Which I guess is something we all have to do.
4. Or is there a more critical message regarding these characters’ actions when they shift from good to evil and vice-versa?
If there’s a message it’s that good and evil are usually over-simple labels. Sometimes they’re really clear and distinct, but more often they’re not. Have you seen the Good Place? I love how that show deconstructs the ideas of sin and virtue. When the world reaches a certain level of complexity and interconnectedness, almost every action is going to have both positive and negative consequences. You can weigh them, but not in the same set of scales.
That sounds like I’m endorsing moral relativism. I’m really not. But the idea of absolute evil is often used to defend absolute evil. Right now in the UK a sports commentator, Gary Lineker, has drawn a comparison between the way our immigration policies are being framed by the government and the way similar policies were discussed and implemented in Nazi Germany. And the government has hit back hard, basically saying “you can’t compare us to the Nazis because that regime was such a huge, inhuman, monstrous, obscene iteration of evil that you’re trivializing it if you compare ANYTHING to it.” Which is frankly bullshit. If it walks like a fascist and quacks like a fascist, it’s a fascist. But fascist rhetoric leans very heavily on pointing to the splinters in other people’s eyes.
So when you’re saying someone is evil, you have to be prepared to roll up your sleeves and get down to cases. It’s the black box thing again, or a version of it. Judge people by their output, by what they do. What they say will often be a smokescreen.
M.R Carey And Marvel
The Avengers are mentioned directly at the 22% point. However, outside of that, I found some parts of Infinity Gate that might be inspired by pieces of Marvel. I will list them below, and you can respond by laughing at me, explaining any connection or any that provokes thought from you.
- To be fair, I know that Quantum Physics exists and existed long before/outside of the Marvel Universe. But Marvel thinks it can through Quantum in front of anything, and that explains everything! Your use of Quantum?
I hang my head. There was no intention to quote or steal, but it’s true that I used a bunch of high-sounding nonsense to achieve an effect that’s basically magic. I wanted to have inter-dimensional teleportation. I needed a hook to hang that on. I grabbed what came to hand.
2. The “Multiverse”
My interest in the multiverse predates the Marvel movies for many decades. The first place I came across it was in my early teens, in Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion novels. Moorcock has a character who is eternally reborn – in different places, with different names and histories – and always ends up fighting in the same endless battle between order and chaos.
It’s true I did also read a ton of comics back then, but it would have been in DC rather than in Marvel that I saw those ideas at play. The Justice League was always swanning off to alternate universes, where there was always some kind of Crisis (with a capital C) going on.
3. The Registry- this so reminded me of the TVA that was initially introduced in Loki, Season 1.
I don’t want to say too much here because there are still a lot of reveals to come about the Registry. Super-computers are another venerable staple in sci-fi. I think my main inspirations were probably the various machine minds in Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality stories and the Gottschalks’ time-traveling super-computer in John Brunner’s Jagged Orbit.
4. Blips/People turning to particles- Thanos
Fair. That was almost certainly in the back of my mind. I won’t forget the dusting scenes at the end of Infinity War any time soon.
5. Variants (as they pertain to Marvel)
See my earlier answer. I was already steeped in this stuff from a very young age!
6. Ant-man in general. Plus, there is a part where tiny machines infiltrate the Cielo armor.
Again, probably fair. I wasn’t consciously borrowing, but those playing-with-scale scenes in Ant-Man are so cool they probably left an echo. More generally, I think it’s really hard for an author to figure out where they’re borrowing from. Most writers are insanely prolific readers, and all the stuff sinks down and becomes a substrate in your mind out of which your own stories flow. I’ve only consciously stolen once in my career, but I bet I’ve done it dozens of times without realizing it…
About M.R Carey
M. R. Carey has been making up stories for most of his life. His novel The Girl With All the Gifts has sold over a million copies and became a major motion picture, based on his own BAFTA Award-nominated screenplay. Under the name Mike Carey he has written for both DC and Marvel, including critically acclaimed runs on Lucifer, Hellblazer and X-Men. His creator-owned books regularly appear in the New York Times bestseller list. He also has several previous novels including the Felix Castor series (written as Mike Carey), two radio plays and a number of TV and movie screenplays to his credit.
Contact M.R. Carey
ABOUT INFINITY Gate (Book One Of The Pandominion Duology) BY M.R CAREY
The Pandominion: a political and trading alliance of a million worlds – except that they’re really just the one world, Earth, in many different realities. And when an AI threat arises that could destroy everything the Pandominion has built, they’ll eradicate it by whatever means necessary, no matter the cost to human life.
Scientist Hadiz Tambuwal is looking for a solution to her own Earth’s environmental collapse when she stumbles across the secret of inter-dimensional travel. It could save everyone on her dying planet, but now she’s walked into the middle of a war on a scale she never dreamed of.
And she needs to choose a side before it kills her.