Interview with Tobias Buckell

NOTE: I posed these questions to Tobias Buckell in July 2018 via email, and he answered shortly thereafter. We have known each other well since Toby came to visit Bluffton as a prospective student a good many years ago, so in some cases I knew more or less how he would answer, but sometimes I was surprised, and often I learned things I hadn't known, even after all these years.

Jeff Gundy: How did you find your way to Bluffton? Did you know anything about Mennonites before you arrived? What was your college experience among Mennonites (and others, of course) like?

TB: No one in my family, paternal or maternal, had attended college. My stepdad had, though. I didn't plan on college, I grew up in the Caribbean working on boats, as had a lot of various family. I figured I would as well. I was working on getting my Captain's license and logging hours in high school when a series of hurricanes hit the Virgin Islands in the mid 90s and we lost everything (including my hours sailed logbook, drawings, and writing). We ended up living in my stepdad's parents' basement in Akron, OH, a couple months into my senior year of high school. I worked at a McDonald's, trying to get enough money to go back to the islands and couldn't make it work, the car kept breaking down and I kept needing my savings to fix it to get me to McDonald's. Some weeks before college started I ended applying to any college to buy myself four years, as I correctly perceived that I wouldn't have much in the way of opportunities as a high school grad working a minimal job trapped in rural Ohio.

I had no idea what a Mennonite was on arrival. My stepdad is a pastor, so he really pushed hard for me to come to a private religious institution and he had heard about Bluffton somehow. I've been religiously unaffiliated my entire life, but attended an Anglican prep school, so I wasn't worried about possibly being an odd one out. I grew up interacting with Hindus who celebrated Diwali, Muslims, refugees from the Middle East, practicing Rastafarians, all manner of Christians, and Europeans who considered religion a private question.

I enjoyed being around the Mennonite students and professors in classes because they had this biblically-strict calling for social justice and peace that was normally tagged by the evangelical Midwest as something they expected from 'godless liberals.' The cognitive dissonance for some was interesting to watch.

JG: I am pretty sure you still wouldn't call yourself either a Mennonite or a pacifist, but have Mennonite and pacifist ideas influenced your thinking and your writing, and if so, how?

TB: I have settled into town at the edge of the university and many of my close friends here are Mennonite, but I remain, alas, an agnostic atheist who thinks punching Nazis is a good thing. However, I ally with pacifists on many issues as I think they are quite often practical, and realistic, in their observations and are a necessary force against the military industrial complex as described by General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, no godless liberal pacifist he.

The effect of the exposure to Mennonite thinking has often been to remind me of one of my favorite Isaac Asimov quotes from the novel Foundation: "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent." It has also led to me spending a lot of time thinking about violence in fiction and in my own fiction specifically. Frequently, when watching and reading fiction, I see authors fall back so quickly into violence without really examining violence and its corrosive impact too deeply. Perversely, that may have led to me being more interested in just how horrific violence actually is and exploring that, instead of painting it in fiction with light strokes.

JG: Some of your novels and stories depict a good deal of violence. (Of course, it would be hard to write a book set in the Halo universe without violence!) Is there a difference in your mind between showing violence in a fictional setting and advocating violence?

TB: The Halo books are based on a video game that is a 'first person shooter' so it's a martial experience. But, this still gives you a place to philosophically examine the nature of violence and war, taking readers on thought journeys they may not have expected. In my first Halo novel, The Cole Protocol, there is an extended discussion on torture and its military inefficacy. It's one argument against torture, and not a new one (there's a famous nobleman who, when presented with a person who'd accused someone of witchcraft of torture during the Inquisition, then asked the priests if they would indulge him an experiment: the man was 'put to the question' regarding whether the upstanding priests standing before him with the nobleman had ever been seen doing witchcraft. The victim said yes after being tortured some, much to the amazement of the priests).

I fictionalized something to that extent in the book and got a very nice letter from a Colonel in Iraq who made the Halo book assigned reading and then would have his men discuss this idea. You see the acceptance of torture as an accurate information-gathering mechanism throughout Hollywood and it is extremely problematic. One, that it is morally acceptable at all, and two, that it is assumed to give good information, an idea discredited centuries ago.

JG: What do you think about the relation between violence in fiction and real-world violence?

TB: Some of the most violent media I've encountered comes from Japan, which has low levels of real-world violence. I think the ability to separate fantasy and reality is the hallmark of a functioning adult and society. In 1994 there were 23,326 murders in the US and in 2014 there were 14,249, and the population of the country grew. Yet that didn't have anything to do with our fiction. To pull out a bit, the murder rate in the US in 1950s, that golden era many harken to, was roughly 4.5 per 100,000. That grew in the 70s and 80s to as high as 10 per 100,000, and today is back down to the low 4s, even if some folk say that we live in the most dangerous times. In the 1600s the violent crime rate in the US was in the mid 30s per 100,000 people in the country. In the 1700s it dipped under the 30s and down to the 20s. In the 1800s it came down to the teens. The rise in crime in the 70s and 80s was a reversal, but our tendency to violence has returned to the mean.

I think more access to weapons and the constant psychological contagion of big news events surrounding shootings has led to a large rise in single-event massacres in the USA, but that I believe comes out a very different set of environmental pressures. Since most of the shooters in those events are white males, to say that fiction creates them would be to also posit that women don't read or watch fictional violence and that non-white males don't. I think, based on movie and book sale demographics, that this is pretty disprovable! Steven Pinker has a whole book on this that is pretty amazing called The Better Angels of Our Nature that I recommend reading. When I talk to people casually they are generally incredibly unaware of how amazing the story of violence dropping to the lowest levels we've seen in human history is.

The one area I think we do have to be extremely careful is in exposure of young minds to violence. They have to first have the ability and education, from society and parents, to draw the line between fantasy and reality. And that's different for every kid, so on a larger cultural map it's a minefield as kids are living in the same culture as the adults.

Does fiction affect a national dispensation to war? That's an interesting question. In the last 300 years France was involved in 236 conflicts to the US's 105 and the UK's 152. Is French literature and cinema almost twice as violent as American? You can narrow this down to just war since the invention of mass produced books and the invention of the moving image and you still have the issue that the consumption of violent media doesn't map to war as far as I can tell.

Why do we, then, latch onto these stories? Why adventure and violence? I think it is because often we read to see people in crazier situations than we will ever see, or hope to see, and we see them dealing with it. I think that escapism, often derided, offers us hope, cathartic release, a guide on keeping on struggling through our daily life, or just something so ridiculously not in our normal wheelhouse we can be transported somewhere else. Do we actually want to experience those adventures? Often, no!

Tolkien, a veteran of the horrors of WW1 and writing an adventure book with great battles in it, comments on this in Lord of the Rings when a despondent Sam and Frodo talk to each other about how it's a lot more fun to read about those great heroes on their great adventures than to be slogging through the middle of one yourself. I think that's Tolkien wrapping his head around the same dilemma: why do humans keep wanting to experience a fictional misery in the guise of an adventure? It's often so that we can see the character triumph against great odds, so that we can imagine ourselves getting past far lesser ones the next morning.

NOTE: For one example of Buckell's explorations in this area, see "A Militant Peace," co-written with David Klecha, which envisions advanced technology that makes "nonviolent" military campaigns at least possible. http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/klecha_11_11/.

JG: Do you see intersections/tensions/conflicts, productive or not, between your identity as someone who's "marginal" in terms of some conventional American categories and the Mennonite sense of religious/cultural marginality?

TB: As someone who's bi-racial but looks white, I am interested in social justice. A great deal of my writing is processing my Caribbean background and experience through adventurous science fiction. That puts me into a place where the overlap is that I am given a great deal of privilege and power if I choose to be quiet and slide into the larger community. But yet at the same time I am, as you say, someone who lives in a cultural marginality here in the US. And yet, I do have a community to go back to that is very strong and has a long history for me to hearken to. It's a weird duality, and I think that might be an area of overlap at times.

JG: What else would you like to say to an audience of (mainly) Mennonites interested in SF? Are there authors and texts that you'd recommend?

TB: Karl Schroeder is an amazing author from Canada with Mennonite roots and his books are amazing. He is one of the more fascinating futurists out there. We collaborated on a story about the near future, which then inspired me to go on and write my climate change thriller Arctic Rising.

About the Author

Tobias Buckell

Tobias S. Buckell is a New York Times Bestselling author born in the Caribbean. He grew up in Grenada and spent time in the British and US Virgin Islands, which influence much of his work. A Bluffton College graduate, in spring 2019 he will be a visiting Eminent Scholar at the University of Alabama-Huntsville.

His novels and over seventy stories have been translated into eighteen different languages. His work has been nominated for awards like the Hugo, Nebula, Prometheus, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Author.

He currently lives in Bluffton, Ohio with his wife, twin daughters, and a pair of dogs. He can be found online at www.TobiasBuckell.com.