At this point, the only interesting places on the “information superhighway” are the small roads in the drive-past zones where fragments of the older city and anarchic little sub-communities exist. In one of these, I ran into Clayton Barnett, a thinker and writer of human futures.
Fortunately, he had some time to answer a short interview about his writing, outlook, and how he integrates with the realist side of politics, philosophy, and religion.
What is your background, and when did you decide to become a writer?
I have a BS in Systems Engineering and worked as a Design Engineer for about fifteen years. By the grace of God, my plant shut down (thanks, NAFTA!) about the time I became a father. Spent the next six years as a full-time dad, then, with the girls off to school, reinvented myself as a pharmacy technician.
On 3 November 2014 — just over five years ago — a friend texted me: “what r u doing for NaNoWriMo?” Not knowing if he was having a stroke or a bad autocorrect day, I requested clarification. Turns out NaNoWriMo is shorthand for “National Novel Writing Month,” the challenge to write a 50k-word story in the month of November.
I’ve always been taken with irrational deadlines; they focus me. At that moment, I recalled two things: an image and the end of a talk about AI where Prof. Glenn Reynolds asks when addressing the potential threat of artificial intelligence, “why not just make them love us?” With that recollection I saw in my minds-eye a young woman walking away from my point of reference, in a rocky desert with not a single living thing there besides her. Where was she? More to the point, who was she? I’d no idea. I sat down and started typing, trying to find out. Twenty-three days later I had 56k words and the very rough draft of what would become my first novel, The Fourth Law.
What types of fiction and other writing interest you, and what are your literary/fiction influences?
As a child and young man, I read science fiction voraciously, 200-300 books per year. My favorite authors being Niven, Pournelle, Heinlein, Foster, Harrison. Discovering LOTR when I was eleven, I tried some fantasy but it really never held my mind as SF did. Starting my first real job after college, I got into the historical fiction genre, headed by folks like Michener, Follett, and McCullough; the latter, especially her multi-volume Masters of Rome series, is something I still mine for ideas to this day.
The other fiction influence came from following Steven Den Beste (the smartest man I have ever personally known) from his transition as a socio-political commentator to someone who whiles away their time watching anime. Following in the great man’s footsteps, I tried anime, too. Like any other genre, there is great dreck and there are unparalleled gems. Much of what is my style and pacing in my books is traceable to anime. I have, in fact, had a very well known author flip through one of my novels at a book show once, who commented with a smile, “you don’t write novels; this is a screenplay!” I’ll take that.
How did you build a career for yourself as a writer?
What’s the goal for a writer I read once? “50k20” I think it was? Where a writer should strive to have twenty books that generate US$50k in revenue per year. I have, as of this interview, six novels (two more on the way) and one children’s early reader and nothing close to US$50k in revenue. Still, even after those two more I just mentioned, I was working on another before taking a break to answer these questions, so that’s a total of ten. I’m halfway there!
Until you hit that mark — or get a movie deal* — I’ve told the groups I’ve spoken to about Creative Writing and Self-Publishing to not quit your day job. It is a vanishingly small number of writers who do this full-time. Write because you have a story to tell you want to share with others, not because you want to live on Martha’s Vineyard.
As for working as a writer, I call it my other or evening job. And you must. You will never “have spare time” to write. Ever. You sit down and write, at your computer or with a handful of scrap paper in your downtime at your day job. Always be writing; always be playing with ideas. When you are blessed with a scene, at least jot down the outlines so you can flesh it out later. You are being given a gift, accept it gracefully, not by saying “I’ll get to it later,” because you won’t.
* — I recall the P.J. O’Rourke interview with Tom Clancy just when “Hunt for Red October” was making it big — but before the movie deals. They were sitting in Clancy’s office where he sold insurance policies; that is, his day job. He even fielded a phone call about a life insurance quote in the middle of the interview. It took a couple more books and the silver screen deal before the million-dollar contracts began rolling in.
What does it mean to you to want to change the culture, not play the useless game of politics?
I discovered Andrew Breitbart and his works and philosophy about two years after his untimely passing. I’d heard of him prior to that but I really didn’t move in political circles. When I ran across what may be remembered as his most important quip, “politics is downstream from culture,” it was for me a Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment. In my life, politics had always been politics: that was the only game in the town for the US federal republic. Much like a Pak protector waking up from its transition from breeder, all I could do was stare off and mutter, “I’ve been stupid…”
From that realization that everything I thought right for thirty years was wrong, it was only a tiny step of fewer than two years to the next truth: culture is downstream from biology. Even as a civic nationalist I had eyes in my head: in aggregate, human races behave very differently from one another and it has nothing to do with “systemic racism” or “magic dirt” or anything else believed by the mainstream Left and Right. When people tried to argue the “blank slate” theory with me, I quickly countered with not all slates are the same: some bigger than others; some warped or cracked; some resistant to some chalks but tolerant of others.
These short conversations often, but not always, had the finger pointed at me with the body-snatcher howl of “raaacist!” close on its heels. One, I learned to not care and ignore the howl, and two, resisted the impulse to take out my phone and say “by the way, would you like to see images of one of my business partners? My daughters?” Tempting but I don’t use friends and family as props. I found that simply not immediately groveling for forgiveness was enough for the howling to stop.
Returning to the point, I was still transitioning — as they say these days — from cultural-realist to race-realist when I accidentally became a writer. I find it hilarious that I, the raaacist, have my first three novels headed by non-Whites, the first two by women. Only with the two-part series of The Saga of Nichole 5 do I have a protagonist who “looks like the poster-girl for Irish Tourism.” She’s also a machine.
With my most recent novel, Worlds Without End, race and culture versus politics come closer to the surface: seeing monarchy and an ethnostate the only secure way forward, the political leader of the City-State of Knoxville seeks to expel all non-Whites. The book’s protagonist, young Gary Hartmann (half-Prussian, half-Min Chinese) and his thinking machine Intended, while fully understanding the utility of such a program, object. Harshly.
It is thus that in my books I fully acknowledge the difference between races, and from that flows culture and politics, yet I still want to show that cooperation along the fringes is possible, that the future does not have to be a war of all against all. To quote Vox Day: diversity plus proximity equals war. I prefer faufreluches: a place for everyone and everyone in their place.
How much does politics (or philosophy) influence what you write, and where/how does it come out?
Not very much, I would like to think. I’m telling stories about relationships; relationships between friends, families, lovers… even nations at a few points. What little politics and philosophy can be noted as follows.
In the post-Breakup United States of my future history, only a few places have survived and only one of them, the Republic of Texas, with large territorial control. The City-State of Portland, former Oregon, is ruled by a dictator in all but name. San Diego is occupied by the Mexican Army. Even in Texas, there is a clear distinction between Citizens (the few who can prove their family residency to the Nineteenth Century, who can vote) and Residents (who merely have legal rights). The City-State of Knoxville has executive authority vested in the Council of Five (based upon the Spartan Ephors) but is shading into monarchy in my recent work, Worlds Without End.
I have a distrust if not outright dislike for the democratic process; it is based upon bribery and appeals to the stupid. If you allow all citizens the franchise, as the Roman Republic did, make sure that only a tiny handful of the votes matter (the top hundred Centuries; the Rural Tribes) and that the oligarchy stays in place to control things. Monarchy is the natural state of mankind. This to some degree grows out of my orthodox Catholic beliefs…
Which also resonates in the background of my novels. Most all of my main characters are Catholic. Some rediscover their faith, such as Lily and her sister Callie, in my first two novels, respectively. Some such as Henge, one of the AIs, study, pray, and convert. In my two-part novel series of The Saga of Nichole 5 it is only the mother of a tertiary figure who is Catholic, who tries, and fails, to bring her young friend across the Tiber.
I converted to Catholic Christianity (from pretty much nothing) when I was in my late twenties, so I can see many sides of this issue and have tried very hard to illuminate and gently evangelize.
Can you tell us about the literary worlds you have created and the characters within them?
Getting close to the end of my first novel, The Fourth Law, I knew that there was enough in my mind for a second, a sequel. Once Echoes of Family Lost was in the can, I turned my attention to questions I had about what happened in the earliest days of the Breakup of the United States and the Formation of the Republic of Texas. I had pages of notes and about five pages of story… and I stopped. It was too much and I was too young a writer: the characters, their relationships, the politics, and intrigue… it made my head spin, so I abandoned that project for over four years.
Still, I had two novels and notes for a third, all set in the same spacetime. Just as Niven has his Known Space, Pournelle his Co-Dominium, and Tolkien his Middle-Earth, I had the beginnings of something that was not only familiar to me, but just as familiar to my readers: a future history where I would not have to explain everything from scratch every single time someone opened one of my books. Did I put a little exposition at the start? Sure. But not having to reinvent the wheel for each and every book is a huge help!
What is it that I mean by the Breakup? Allow me to give a précis by quoting from a couple of Nichole 5’s creators as they take a break in Osaka, Japan:
Hakane took another drag off his cigarette in Somi Corporation’s breakroom, laughing at his colleague’s comment. It wasn’t so much their company discouraged smoking as that they wished to make sure their products were not contaminated. Given the delicacy of some of the prototypes, all respected this rule.
“Can you believe it, Atazaki?” he asked, flourishing his newspaper. “The US economy imploding like this? I’m an engineer, not an economist, but how in the world…”
“Call it belief; call it faith. Lose it, and your world ends,” his friend replied, looking at a domestic part of his own newspaper.
“What’s that?” What Hakane knew of politics could fit into a sake cup.
“Since the war,” for a Japanese, that meant only one thing, “the world economy had the US dollar as its reserve currency, backed, not by gold or silver, but by the faith — mind you — that the US will always be there!”
Atazaki glanced at the clock over the inner door and decided one more cigarette was in order.
“So now we find,” he said, pointing at Hakane’s paper with his lighter, “that as the American President is being removed via extra-Constitutional means, the Russians, Chinese, and Indians are rolling out a new currency…what’s it called?”
“The ria,” Hakane managed.
“Whatever. Backed by the gold they’ve been buying up for a generation, and indexed to oil. At that point, US dollars became valueless.”
Hakane was still confused. But why…
“Why is there rioting in the US? And getting worse so fast?”
Atazaki blew a blue-grey cloud toward the ceiling’s scrubbers.
“It’s a replay of what almost happened back in 2008: credit dries up, the velocity of money drops to zero.”
Atazaki realized his friend didn’t get a single word. He tried again.
“Credit cards stop working; all the zeros and ones in banks are gone, and, for the Americans,” he took another drag, “their food-welfare cards, whatever they’re called, stopped working.”
He exhaled again and sat back.
“All cities in the US are starving right now. And there is nothing… nothing at all, to stop it.”
Atazaki took another drag while looking out the window at bustling Osaka.
“They’re done for.” Quieter. “God help us; we’re all alone.”
Where do you think humanity is now, and what does the future hold?
Humanity? In aggregate, Agent Smith is correct: we a virus; and the first asteroid that comes along will put an end to us.
Quoting, I believe, Gerard Van Der Luen, “we are all lying in the mud; some of us are looking at the stars.” I have great hope for the high-IQ, high time-impulse-control races to save themselves and push us into the solar system and beyond. I have only begun to touch on this in “Old Friends,” one of my short stories which shall be in my January collection. Setting it almost two generations after my current stories, I speak of the Polar Alliance of nations and their program to terraform Mars.
We have such… possibilities.
Do you think there is a convergence between sci-fi, adventure fiction, and traditional literature which is emerging?
Disclaimer: once I began to write the stories I see, I have assiduously steered clear of sci-fi as I did not want to contaminate, so to speak, any of the ideas in my head. I still read history and a little historical fiction.
From what I read as a boy (mid-1970s to early 1980s) until I moved away from sci-fi (very late 1990s) I would claim the opposite was true. The stories I read in the 70s, written in the 50s and 60s, contained many adventure elements, and, for example, after Heinlein’s “brain-eater” heart attack, easily shaded over into literature, as well. In the 1980s, especially after William Gibson’s invention of cyberpunk, it seemed specialization was the coming thing. Plus, as much as I enjoyed Niven and Pournelle’s Escape from Hell, pace Dante, that was just enjoying seeing people I didn’t like in Hell, not literature.
To conclude, based upon my limited recent experience, I would have to disagree.
What are you going to write next, and will it continue any existing storylines?
My plan was to release the novella Crosses & Doublecrosses around Thanksgiving; there might be issues with the cover, so that may be pushed out a month. January will see a collection of short stories from Machine Civilization — with the core tale a love story between Lily Barrett (Han Chinese) and Arpad Rigo (Hungarian); I really need to polish my raaacist! creds better.
Further out from that, when I met Gary Hartmann’s slightly crazy younger sister, Faustina, while writing Worlds Without End, I knew she would end up with her own novel; she’s too wild a character not to! The working title is either “American Crusade” or “Deus Volt,” the latter a play on the machine’s involvement in human affairs. I cannot speak to a release date for that.
So long as I draw breath and my liver holds out, I shall keep writing down what they show me. It is why I wake up in the morning.
How do people keep track of what you are doing and your latest output?
I use my website (www.machciv.com) as a sounding board for my thoughts and ideas. It is cross-linked to my Amazon author page. I tend to post the most recent things I’ve been shown and gauge interest via “likes” and “comments.” Some ideas there become short stories. Several have turned into complete novels.
The other source for my ebook versions is on Smashwords.