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An Interview with Hal Duncan
conducted by Jakob Schmidt

© Hal Duncan
Hal Duncan
Hal Duncan
Hal Duncan lives in Glasgow, Scotland, and is a member of the Glasgow SF Writer's Circle, an anarchist collective of a workshop, run on the Milford Rules, which taught him invaluable lessons in humility and restraint. These lessons are not always noticeable in his online rants about Strange Fiction, Indie Fiction or Infernokrusher, but he hopes that his tendency to excess will improve with age. His first novel, Vellum, has earned him critical acclaim which he tries to be modest about, but generally fails. Having recently left a steady job as a computer programmer to write full-time, he is very much hoping this kudos can be converted to cold hard cash, so he never again has to get up before 11:00 am, an ungodly hour of the morning. Ink, his next novel, will conclude the story begun in Vellum.

Hal Duncan Website
ISFDB Bibliography


According to some people, Hal Duncan may well be the most hyped new author of the year. According to others, including me, he's just not hyped enough yet. His first novel, Vellum, the first half of The Book of All Hours, is packed with Sumerian Mythology, multidimensional realities, and characters struggling for the freedom to be left alone by the demigods who are mobilising for a war in heaven. There's a lot of metaphor going on, politically and philosophically. There's also a lot of violence and some sex, and both of it is treated very seriously -- meaning that there is thunder, lightning and consequences.

Mythology and fate are dominant themes of your first novel Vellum: there are several incarnations of most main characters, who are destined to live through very similar events. Nevertheless, you consider yourself an atheist and a firm believer in the freedom of human choice. How exactly do you reconcile this position with the use of these mythological elements?

Actually, Vellum is very much a reaction against the whole idea of destiny. The central concept of The Book of All Hours is based upon the old Sumerian idea of the tablets of destiny and upon the Judaic-Christian idea of the book of god, which contains the code of everything that ever happened and everything that ever will or would happen. The novel is very much about characters who are archetypes bound into certain types of stories, bound into destinies as their eternal victims. And they're actually kicking against that, trying to escape from this story. In fact, the story itself is a character in the book -- the bitmites become this force of story, representing the power of the narrative, seeking an easy resolution which the characters either kick against or try to subvert. It's all very much about characters trying to bust free of those archetypal patterns, to change an underlying pattern of reality itself and transform it into something that is more hospitable to human beings. The characters try to transform the story into something that works for humans, as opposed to grand plans and schemes. I guess it's kind of a democratic idea: humanity is far more important, the reality of human lives, of human-level joys and sorrows, comedies and tragedies is far more interesting, far more true than epic stories of gods and heroes.

Is this also why the main characters of the novel are on the run from the recruiting forces of this war in heaven?
Very much so. Part of that has also to do with the with the philosophical and political ideas of the novel -- with a certain kind of socialism. The novel contains metaphors, ethical as well as political. I think of it as an anarchist metaphysics. It's a spiritual set-up which reflects my own political ideas. All archetypal fiction or mytho-poetic fiction reflect the culture it has been created in. The default politics of much fantasy or mythological fiction is quite right-wing, because it's all about gods and heroes. I was much more interested in saying: Well, what with the guys that aren't heroic. They're just individuals trying to survive, trying to escape the imposed, projected roles of hero and villain, or victim, trying to break through that.

But doesn't the novel also nourish the hope that these characters will become central to the events in one way or another, that they really will change something?
Yes, of course. I actually wanted to have characters who start of as minor players on the periphery and then gradually take over and come to the fore, become the more dominant central characters. The character of Seamus Finnan, for example, is very much an everyman figure. He's just the unknown soldier, a simple, working-class, Irish deserter. I wanted to give those kind of characters the resonance, the depth of a Prometheus, that mythological grandeur. It really is the common man who deserves to be appreciated, to be understood with the same mythological reverence as applied to the great kings and the lords and dukes of ancient mythology and fantasy.

I was quite surprised at how openly you use fantasy and fairy tale elements as metaphors. For example, the Gnomes in one of the many parallel worlds in Vellum are discriminated against in a way that is more than just similar to modern anti-Semitism. This is made even more explicit in your short story "The Chiaroscurist." Fantasy is often accused of following the mechanics of racist stereotyping in establishing its fantasy races. How does your own use of these stereotypes relate to that?
I think fantasy is often very responsible for perpetrating what is fundamentally racial stereotyping. The classic Tolkienesque or sub-Tolkien fantastic form, which I deliberately pirated and subverted in Vellum and "The Chiaroscurist," works on the principle that there are different races of man and each of them has different characteristics. Actually, you can find this in the classic fairy tale: the story of Rumpelstiltskin, for example, can be read as an anti-Semitic slur. The dwarf Rumpelstiltskin is portrayed as someone with great tailor skills -- he can turn straw into gold thread. That links to the stereotype of the Jewish tailor who's out for money. And what does Rumpelstiltskin want in the original story? The baby, of course. That's straight out of the medieval imagery labelled onto the Jew: the hunchbacked, crooked-nosed evil little person out to steal Christian babies. There's a point in Vellum where Professor Hobbsbaum is studying a slide with a medieval caricature of "The Hobben," as the Gnomes are referred to. This is based on an anti-Semitic woodcut of that period depicting an "evil Jew" with a sack of babies over his back. I think that fantasy needs to deal with its own tropes, it has to take on board that heritage of dodgy European anti-Semitic, racist stereotyping. If you're not consciously aware of that, if you're not making a conscious political statement, then you're making an unconscious political statement in accepting those stereotypes and perpetuating them. It's the responsibility of a good writer to tackle the implicit politics of the stories themselves.

So the explicit use of these metaphors is a way of making the political unconscious conscious?
Yes. It's about taking the assumptions, the preconceptions, the things that are usually taken as a given and drawing them up to the surface, making them something that you're actually controlling -- a crafted story rather than an unconscious revelation of your own prejudices. For example: if you look at the American communist-paranoia SF movies of the 50s, you can see all sorts of fears and desires bubbling up through their surface, but the writers and directors didn't seem to be aware of what they were doing. If you want to write something that is to be any good, you need self-awareness. That's the critical faculty that is absolutely central to good writing.

Let's get to questions of style. Vellum clearly departs from classical SF and Fantasy in style, partly in being non-linear, partly in imitating the repetitive, hypnotic style of the Diane Wolkstein adaptation of the ancient Sumerian Inanna-myth. These techniques seem evocative of modernist stylistic experiments -- and in fact you keep referring to modernism on your internet blog. How exactly is modernism an important influence for you? And do you think that SF has somehow missed out on it?
The answer to the last part of the Question would be "no." Actually, I think that SF took on the mantle of modernism when modernism reached into the ivory tower and went too far for many people -- I'm talking of modernism in the sense of James Joyce or Wallace Stephens. For many people, that was a bit too far. And the backlash against modernism in some respects fed into the resurgence of contemporary realism. I think modernism went underground, into the pulp genre, into the work of writers like Alfred Bester. Bester's The Stars My Destination has a rhyme in the beginning: "Gully Foyle is my name, and terra is my nation; Deep space is my dwelling place, the stars my destination." That's a direct a direct reference to James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where the character of Stephen Dedalus sings a similar rhyme: "Stephen Dedalus is my name; and Ireland is my nation." Bester was deliberately drawing on modernist styles: At the end of The Stars My Destination, there's this experimental use of cut-up and fold-in, this textual experimentation on the page where layout is all-important. And eventually you arrive at writers like Burroughs -- you know, it was more acknowledged that Burroughs was an experimental writer. He is seen as a more literary writer, but I think that's going right back to people like Alfred Bester. SF is doing that strange, experimental modernist tricks, but it's pulp-modernism. It shows that these types of techniques are not necessarily for a literary high-brow establishment. They are completely accessible. Bester is a great case in point.

Sounds convincing -- but to be honest, I thought of it more in the opposite way: The modernists as opposed to, for example, H.G. Wells and that tradition of SF that is more linked to very traditional modes of narration.
Well, the way I always think about modernism is that in the 18th and 19th century you've got two big, warring aesthetics: rationalism and romanticism. And to me, modernism is where these two come together. It's the battleground between these two aesthetics. Even Wells' fiction was rationalist romance. The writers Wells, Jules Verne and, to some extent, Edgar Allan Poe can be seen as romanticists. But at the same time, you can see them as rationalist. Or think of H.P. Lovecraft: a lot of people read Lovecraft and think of his "Elder Gods" as supernatural beings. But Lovecraft himself was a complete nihilist. He made a point of the fact that he did not believe in God. In his world, the deities are absent. Lovecraft's "Elder Gods" are multidimensional entities. They are based on what was called at that time "The Fourth Dimension." And that was also the way most of the modernists, artists like Picasso, Braque and Kandinsky saw themselves representing the world around them: with extra-dimensionality. They painted the world as perceived from the fourth dimension. So in the modern era, there occurs this huge crossover: the aesthetics of romanticism and rationalism clash. On the one hand, this informs the highly literary work of James Joyce or Wallace Stephens. But at the same time, you can look at the pulp, the genre fiction all the way back to writers like Wells or Verne. In them, there's a battle going on between romanticism and rationalism, which, to my mind, makes them essentially modernist.

The language of Vellum has strong onomatopoetic qualities -- grenades literally make a "Doom"-sound when striking. Is this a deliberate formal link to the thematic content of the book, which deals with the idea of a universal language that directly links phonetic representation to the sound of language?
Very much so. The novel has this idea of what I call "the Cant": The original, oral language which can be phonetically written with absolute precision, including intonation and the ways that different sounds have different emotional, musical effects. A minor key in music has a certain emotional resonance, and I was interested in the idea of language doing the same thing -- in the idea of saying something in a certain way which has an emotional resonance. I turned that into metaphor, extrapolating it to the point where language can be used to control reality itself. To capture that idea, to really get it across to the reader, you have to simulate those types of effects. You have to use language in a way that reflects that aesthetic effect. In one of his essays, Michael Moorcock points out that many modern fantasies are lacking the poetic qualities that the myths they're based upon originally had. Vellum contains a translation of the old Sumerian story of Inanna. It's written in a repetitive, ritual kind of language, designed to be intoned, to be read out in a ritual context. And that level of artificiality had to be brought into the book as well. It had to work in the same way to represent the idea of the Cant properly.

Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash is partly based upon a similar concept. Was it an influence on Vellum?
I'm sure it was. I read Snow Crash when it first came out, sometime in the early 90s, and thought it was wonderful. I'd always been interested in Sumerian mythology, so I was familiar with the concepts that Stephenson uses, with the idea of the me and the tablets of destiny. There probably was a got deal of influence in terms of Snow Crash being based on a similar idea of a language that programs people, which basically is a programming language.

This "programming language" is an extremely scary concept of social domination -- maybe the most scary idea possible of how to control society.
In a certain sense, this language is a bit of a metaphor for "story" itself -- for writing. If you control the flow of ideas, if you control communication, the way people hear, perceive, understand, you control reality. It's really about the power of propaganda, about imagery and language as a method of social control. That's a major theme in the novel.

In the last few years, there has been a lot of talk about the "New Weird." Do you consider yourself in any important way to be part of something like a New Weird movement?
Not really. When I wrote Vellum, I hadn't read any China Miéville, and I hadn't read any of Jeff VanderMeer's work either. I know that Jeff is actually uncomfortable with the whole label of the New Weird. I'm very wary of defining these kinds of sub-genres within SF, because they really narrow the scope. I very much agree with Jeff VanderMeer on that point: It's more a matter of looking beyond the movements and sub-genres, not about putting it inside this narrowly defined style. In a lot of cases, there's not that much in common between the various writers who are grouped as the "New Weird." People pick up on a few features here and there and say : 'Let's make that a sub-genre and call it the "New Weird."' The danger of that is that it can be turned into a formulaic structure, where the superficial features are taken as the identifying features. You then get the derivative, copyist works. It happened to Cyberpunk: the trappings, tropes and techniques of certain writers were taken on and formulated into this kind of derivative genre. Eventually, you end up with things like Matrix, where all of what has been Cyberpunk is subsumed into a formulaic structure.

That may also be a reason why Cyberpunk writers like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson have basically left the field of Cyberpunk.
I would speculate so, yeah. All writers want to move on. No one wants to be locked into a certain style or a certain formula. You can create something that somebody else can pick up and say: "Okay, we can formalise this and turn it into a genre." But the writers themselves are probably more interested in moving on to the next thing.

Your next novel, Ink, will conclude The Book of All Hours. Do you have any plans for what comes next?
As you said, Ink will finish up The Book of All Hours. It's not going to be an endless fantasy saga with 10, 12 or 13 volumes. There are only the two books in it, Vellum and Ink. In fact, the whole thing is structured into four parts, based on winter, spring, summer and autumn.

The next novel I'm working on is a retelling of Gilgamesch. It will have furries -- There's this subculture called the "furry culture" in it, whose members are fans of anthropomorphic animal art. They gather together, and some of them dress up as animals. Some of them are identified so strongly with an animal that they have an alter ego. I want to take the relationship between Gilgamesch, King of Uruk and Enkidu, a wild man covered in fur, who is discovered in the wilds and becomes Gilgamesch's companion, and map that onto a near-future world, with an anthropologist, a man of learning, a "civilised man," who has a relationship with a wild monkey boy from that furry scene. It's going to be a multi-threaded novel again. I want to do part of it as a straight adaptation of that original Sumerian text of Gilgamesch, in the same way that Vellum has the story of Inanna embedded in it, counter-pointed with the near-future world. There's a third narrative thread, which will tell essentially the same story, but with a European settler in British Columbia, in the early days of the American frontier. That thread will be about the relationship between a European settler and a Native American. The whole thing is about exploring ideas of the civilised versus the savage, about what's human and what's animal, and where we draw the line. What distinctions do we make, how artificial are these distinctions? Although the idea of using furries sounds completely barking mad in some respects, I think it offers a huge scope for bringing in these ideas about what makes a human being a human being. Ultimately, the whole story of Gilgamesch is about his realisation of his own mortality. To my mind, that statement is the thematic core of the story: that what makes us human is the knowledge of our own mortality. And that really offers a huge scope for investigation.

Thank you for the interview!

Copyright © 2006 Jakob Schmidt

Jakob writes and translates reviews, essays and short stories, most of them for the German magazine Alien Contact ( and its publishing house Shayol. That's in his spare time, which luckily still makes up the bulk of his days.

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