Interview: Charles Coleman Finlay on "The Political Prisoner"
Charles Coleman Finlay–author of “The Political Prisoner,” the cover story of our August 2008 issue–said in an interview that the story is about what happens to Maxim Nikomedes when he gets caught in the wheels of political repression he helped create. “Because genetic change and space colonization raise questions about who is and isn’t human anymore, Max is forced to deal with the underlying issue of his own humanity if he wants to survive,” Finlay said.
The story is a sequel to Finlay’s Hugo and Nebula Award-finalist “The Political Officer,” a space opera spy novella originally published in our April 2002 issue. “Even before I finished the first story, I knew I wanted to write more about Max, but take it out of spaceships and down to the planet Jesusalem where he lived,” Finlay said. “What would a culture look like that feared change, trying to hold on to parts of the 20th century the same way the Amish hold on to the 17th century? Especially after the religious power structure breaks down.”
The protagonist, Maxim Nikomedes, is the ultimate insider in his culture. “He’s a double agent within his own government, who spies and kills secretly for the old regime while working on the surface for forces committed to change,” Finlay said. “He’s invested his whole life in this political process, feeling both pride and creeping shame at what he’s done.”
“The Political Prisoner” ended up being a very hard story to finish. “I had a rough draft done in 2003, when Gordon asked me for a sequel after ‘The Political Officer’ made the Hugo and Nebula award ballots,” Finlay said. “But Gordon always says that one of the biggest problems he sees as an editor is stories that are rushed out too soon. I didn’t want to do that. So I workshopped it as part of a novel at the Blue Heaven retreat in 2004 and fixed some things but still wasn’t happy with the reclamation camp scenes, which are essential to the story. I rewrote it again in 2006, workshopped it with Paul Melko and Tobias Buckell, who are super smart critiquers, and then revised it in 2007. Even then, Gordon made me do another rewrite before he bought it. So from start to finish it took five or six years, but I’m glad I took my time. I needed to mature as a writer to make it a better story than the first one.”
The themes of the story–what does it mean to be human, what are our obligations to strangers, how can we do right in the face of persistent evil, is right even possible–are core themes for Finlay. “It’s the kind of thing that keeps me awake at night, if I let it,” he said.
Much of the research for the story came from Finlay’s college years. “I went through a phase in college where I read and reread concentration camp survivors like Tadeusz Borowski (This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen), especially, and Primo Levi (Survival in Auschwitz),” he said. “There’s also a writer named Isaak Babel, a Russian Jew who survived a pogrom only to serve in the Russian cavalry with the Cossacks during the invasion of Poland. I deliberately avoided rereading those books, because–aside from adapting Levi’s distinction between the drowned and the saved to drowners and swimmers–I didn’t want be overly influenced by them. But they were definitely part of my background.”
He also read up on planet formation and terraforming. “Robert Scherrer, who’s written stories for Analog, helped me out in the early drafts, telling me about the availability of uranium on the surface of young planets and that sort of thing,” Finlay said.
Finlay is currently working on book three of a novel series for Del Rey about witches fighting in the American Revolution. “A short story about Proctor Brown, one of the witches caught up in the fighting, is scheduled to come out in F&SF sometime soon,” he said. “I also have a third Maxim Nikomedes novella outlined where he gets exiled to Adares, the technologically advanced planet he’s been fighting his whole life, and I’ve written thirty thousand words of a novella prequel, a very rough draft about his life as a boy on the planet leading up to the civil war. But it could be years before I get around to finishing either of those. The last Max story took a long time to gestate and I’m focusing my attention on novels right now.”
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