Robert Jackson Bennett’s trilogy is a lot of things, a novel about pain and growth, Sancia is not the same character we started with, about found families and the importance of relationships we make along the way in life. It is also about power, magic, and technology. But most of all The Founder’s trilogy is ending. It has had a beautiful arc and we end with a kernel of hope. You can read the final installment of the Founders trilogy with this month’s release of Locklands.
Bennett was gracious enough to have a conversation with Ryan Howse and myself regarding this trilogy, writing, and what he has going on in the near future.
Beth: You have won or been nominated for various awards, including the Locus, Shirley Jackson, and World Fantasy awards. Was the writing process the same after a nomination or win? Or was the writing process different?
Ehhhhh, not really. I utterly lack all insight into how awards lists are generated and then how the awards themselves are then given out. I suspect each one functions in a completely different way, and that method changes hugely from year to year, based on the jurors. As such, trying to build a career around awards would be a little like trying to develop a daily routine on what color cars you see go by your house each morning.
Beth: You wrote that you get a lot of ideas about vacuuming; I get that. Vacuuming is meditative. Is it true you were vacuuming your living room and listening to St. Vincent’s “Digital Witness” when you came up with the idea for Foundryside? What about City of Stairs or Vigilance?
Kind of. I listen to music to try to capture mood: the ambience, the vibes. I definitely have songs that are tied to specific scenes, and I used to try to summarize them on my blog. (Example.)
However, having reviewed the traffic on those blog posts, I quickly came to the conclusion that ain’t nobody give a fuck about that stuff, so I gave up and keep that to myself now.
People want to see maps and drawings, stuff like that. Nobody cares about your mixtape. It’s a humbling realization.
Beth: Your early work and some of your short fiction has a strong horror element. Do you plan on returning to that kind of work in future projects?
Nope! I like dollars. I get to buy food with those things. Unfortunately, people are unwilling to exchange dollars for short fiction. Hell, people already get pissed off and yell at me on twitter because they gotta pay a couple dollars for this thing I spent three, four years making. I bet most people would only buy short fiction for a handful of bottlecaps and a small bag of dirt.
Beth: What attracts you to the horror genre? What attracts you to fantasy?
People like the idea of a world that’s bigger than you. They like the feeling that there’s more out there, that this isn’t all there is.
What’s more interesting is to flip that around and explore the crawling suspicion we all share: what if the world is bigger and more fantastical and alive than we think, but it doesn’t give a shit about us? What if we’re just bugs to it? Or what if it’s actively hostile to us?
I like fantasy for the same reason. For some folks, fantasy is a power trip, an imaginary world where you can shoot fire from your hands. For me, it’s about that weird feeling of being small in a big world.
Beth: Do you read horror? If so, what kind of horror do you find scary as a reader?
Not really! I mostly stick to nonfiction these days. That stuff has no shortage of horrors, but they’re all bland and mundane and terrifyingly easy to imagine happening again. Nobody wants to read a fantasy novel about the Holodomor.
Ryan: Along those same lines, your early work also touched on lots of Americana. What was it about this that fascinated you?
Well, I live in America. I keep all my stuff there.
I guess I felt like in the 2010s we were trying to figure out a national identity of who we were, and I wanted to reflect on that conversation. However, now we are all just screaming at each other and trying to kill each other, and I have less to say about such an exchange.
Ryan: You’ve mentioned Le Carre as an inspiration for The Divine Cities. Who would be the big one for The Founders trilogy?
Probably Terry Pratchett. Pratchett was always secretly a science fiction writer, anyways. You could feel all the big ideas and complex systems bleeding into his works. I wanted to do that, but in my own way.
It was that, and the classic science fiction films I watched as a kid. When I was younger, you usually watched science fiction and read fantasy. I’m not sure why it worked out that way. But I remember watching Blade Runner when I was around ten, and feeling this intense, beatific melancholy at the idea of identity merging with technology, and how the wonders of science didn’t make it any easier to just go about being a person every day.
I feel like the best cyberpunk stories touch on that melancholy: the sudden awareness that you are, in a way, a temporary system image of a person, like the imaging of a machine. But this one might not be one you can restore.
Another was the show Halt and Catch Fire. I respect how the show was willing to totally change locations and times from season to season. We see these people at different eras of their lives facing totally new issues. That was inspiring, and gutsy.
War has eaten the world, and Berenice and Sancia and their survivors are on the run. They’ve invented and invented and changed and changed, until they’ve built a little bubble of egalitarian utopia that challenges what it even means to be human anymore. They changed because they had to, and they’re starting to have a vision of a posthuman world they could found together – until they get some very bad news, and realize their enemy might have found a way to alter the world on a grander scale than they can imagine.
Beth: How has Sancia changed over the course of the three books?
I think Sancia very much reflects the arc of maturity, the growing conception of the world beyond you. She is both literally and figuratively forced to grow up very fast. I think many young people experience this arc, where you’re full of revolutionary fervor and insist that unless your ideals are adopted by the world at large, the world will cease to be; but then the world keeps on going, maybe picking up some of your ideals or maybe not, and you start to comprehend the macro level systems that are shaping your choices and life as you live it.
I think some fans would have preferred I keep with the revolutionary spirit – but most revolutions fail. And most young people who fight in them get killed on the front lines, or get rounded up and shot. That’s how history shakes out. And I think in Locklands, she knows that.
Sancia is not quite the protagonist of Locklands, because by this point, she’s too wise to be a protagonist. Your protagonist has to be dumb enough to try some really dumb shit for the book to be entertaining. But Sancia, by this point in the series, is too smart to be that stupid. She sees the arc of her story, and the story of her people, and is content to live it – including its end.
Beth: What’s the scene from Locklands you’re proudest of?
I would say the very, very end. That, or a moment where Berenice has a memorial for someone who’s now gone. You learn a lot about her, and what she’s going through.
Ryan: The Divine Cities is a trilogy that started as a standalone. The Founders was a trilogy from the beginning. What was the difference in writing those stories?
I think the tricky thing is that as an audience member, I want the stories of the characters to be fully resolved in each installment. I want things to have closure. I don’t want to have to open wounds back up and mess with them more – yet this is what the series demands of you.
So that’s the balance you have to strike: the idea that each installment of a series is like an era of a life, where you face issues and struggle to resolve them. (There are series out there whose installments offer no closure and just kind of stop, and I think they suck.) But just like in real life, things aren’t truly closed, but just somewhat resolved – and yet, the world keeps going, with all its disappointments and worries.
I think that’s how the best sagas work. They are aware of the flow of time, and understand how time doesn’t respect how you feel about the eras of your life. It just keeps ticking on, and it’s all too content to reopen old wounds.
Beth: Now that you are ending the trilogy, did the story end how you envisioned it?
Actually, yeah! The last scenes are ones I wrote in my head way back in… hell, 2015? 2016? It felt deeply, deeply strange to write them in 2021. It was like time traveling: looking through glass and seeing your younger self sliding by, unaware that your older self is sharing this moment with you.
Beth: I found that the political dynamics of power in The Founders in a society based on intellectual property were written very well. Did you research this topic before writing the novels, or were the power struggles dynamics evident to you from the start?
Nope! I just figured that was how shit would shake out. Maybe part of it was how I’d listened to news stories long ago about how algorithms were patented, these complex mathematical and logic puzzles that were inscrutable to most people, yet were now bound up in laws, protected by the justice system. It did feel like magic.
Beth: What is next for you?
I’m gonna shoot from the hip, and say you might be seeing me do the high fantasy equivalent of Knives Out.