What do you get when you mix science fiction with fantasy… and a lot of queer orcs? A. K. Larkwood’s debut novel, The Unspoken Name!
Why did you want to mashup scifi and fantasy tropes within the one narrative? How did you manage readers’ expectations with this genre crossover?
My standard joke response used to be “well, I love fantasy, but I don’t know anything about horses and I refuse to learn” or “well, I love science fiction, but I don’t know anything about space travel and I refuse to learn” – and that’s why I had to put the flying ships in, your honour.
Obviously, the “what’s SF and what’s fantasy” bunfight is never going to end, and just as obviously it can be useful to have two niches for marketing purposes. But I don’t really see that it’s a meaningful consideration at the point of telling the story that a near-future dystopian thriller and a space opera adventure are both “science fiction” whereas a high fantasy epic and a contemporary folk-tale retelling are both “fantasy”. Those are all mini-genres in their own right, with their own set of rules and reader expectations, and I don’t think they map neatly into two categories other than “does this feel a bit futuristic or a bit historical?”
I’ve always loved to read all kinds of books – all sorts of SFF, historicals, literary fiction, mysteries – so it felt very natural to just use whatever elements the story needed – not a crossover so much as a blend of my favourite ideas from across genres.
You not only build a world but a whole universe over the course of the novel. Why did you want to create this added macro lens to the story?
I’ve always really liked the agility of space opera stories – hopping from planet to planet and ship to ship gives you a lovely opportunity to sketch out a setting that feels vast and intricate without actually having to do a huge amount of work or overwhelm the reader with masses of information. I wanted to imagine lots of different wild alien landscapes without necessarily having to go into great detail about why and how and where everything had come into being, leaving lots of blank space for the reader to imagine or for me to fill in later.
Also, I always really liked the monoliths in Heroes of Might and Magic III, so travelling between worlds via spooky magical gates just feels very right.
What worldbuilding barriers did you face/tips do you have for others trying something so epic in scope?
Just go for it!!! When you’re a kid starting to write stories you don’t worry about genre or what the market wants, you’re just like “okay, so they’ve defeated the giant bugs that spit acid, and now it’s time to go to the floating demon city for the big hoverbike race, but will the vampire queen turn up???” Ideally I would want to get back to that kind of eclectic worldbuilding freedom, while retaining a grown person’s understanding of structure and characterisation. One hears again and again that a fantasy world should be consistent and yes, to a point, it is frustrating for the reader if you contradict things you’ve established as being important – but consistency should be a quality control check, not a guiding principle. It’s a shame to flatten and unify and never mix flavours – and after all, how consistent is our real world?
You pick up on elements of blending technology with religion, something done very well in Battlestar Galactica. Why are religion and tech – two things which *shouldn’t* work together – such a match made in heaven? What themes do you think are most ripe for picking when combining these two areas?
I’m pretty sure that for as long as human beings have existed we have been thinking – why are we here? how can we survive and flourish? So I don’t feel like religion (in its broadest sense) and technology (also in its broadest sense!) are even all that divergent as themes – they’re both about how we see the world as it is, and how we think the world ought to be.
Stories centred on the people who help others to power are common (The Assassin’s Apprentice immediately comes to mind!), but rarely are they female. What did you hope to bring to the story by finally telling the story to fit the proverb ‘Behind every great man there’s a great woman’?
Haha! Well – I don’t know if that was at the forefront of my mind. I specifically wanted to write about a complicated mentor and protégé dynamic, not necessarily a dynamic of power imbalance between genders (one of the major early inspirations was Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, specifically the relationship between the political fixer Cromwell and his patron Wolsey, who are both men). On the whole, though, I feel it’s less a story of working through a ‘great’ man to gain power, but breaking away from one to gain autonomy.
Pitch us The Unspoken Name! Why should our readers pick up a copy?
Conan The Barbarian (1982), fortified with 400% your recommended daily allowance of queer orcs.
A. K. Larkwood studied English at St John’s College, Cambridge. Since then, she has worked in higher education & media relations, and is now studying law. She lives in Oxford, England, with her wife and a cat. The Unspoken Name is her debut novel. You can find her online at www.aklarkwood.com and on Twitter as @AKLarkwood.