In the following email interview, writer Robert Jackson Bennett explains how his new novel, Foundryside (paperback, hardcover, Kindle, audiobook) — the first book in his The Founders Trilogy — started life as a cyberpunk story, but ended up a mix of that and urban fantasy.
Photo Credit: Josh Brewster Photography
So, what is Foundryside about?
Foundryside is set in a world where some people figured out how magic works, and did the most rational thing with it, the thing any of us would do: they tried to make a bunch of money off of it.
The people of Tevanne didn’t discover the art of “scriving” — engraving objects with runes so they’d disobey reality in select ways — but they did refine it, and use augmented ships, weapons, and tools to build a massive city, establish an empire, and capture enormous trade routes all across the ocean. Now, four powerful merchant houses dominate not only Tevanne, but the world.
Tevanne is a place of yawning, crushing inequality, and Sancia Grado — a impoverished, escaped slave who’s curiously talented at infiltration — makes her living running espionage, sabotage, and theft jobs for the houses. Right up until she steals an object that could upend the very idea of scriving, which makes her someone that all the merchant houses would dearly like to see dead.
Where did the original idea for Foundryside come from, and how different is the finished version from that initial idea?
I get a lot of ideas vacuuming; I can remember the exact room I was vacuuming when I had the idea for City Of Stairs as well as Foundryside. So I was vacuuming and listening to St. Vincent’s “Digital Witness” [from her self-titled album], and I had an idea about a near-future cyberpunk story where almost all the buildings of a city had A.I., and there was one girl, an escaped experiment of some kind, who had a chip in her brain that could allow her to talk to them, befriend them, confuse them, and so on. I thought it was fun, peppy, and upbeat — but I’d have to learn all about technology and coding, and I sure as hell didn’t want to do that.
Instead I started thinking about the old Thief games — a sort of late-medieval, vaguely steampunk, urban environment — and I changed my idea to something more fantasy and magic oriented. The original version wasn’t “industrialized” at all — there were no foundries, for example — and it had several systems of magic, as opposed to the one. As I iterated on the idea, I settled on using the story to explore our current relationship with technology. Just like San Francisco is a massive unequal city governed by massive companies that seem willing to go all in on corporate feudalism, Tevanne is a city where the magic functions as technology, restricting movement, enforcing boundaries, and repressing everyone’s day to day lives.
In the previous interview we did for City Of Miracles [which you can read here], you said Foundrysidewas, “…being pitched as a cyberpunk story set in a magical, Renaissance setting.” Now that it’s done, what genre, or combination of genres, would you use to describe Foundryside?
I would say that, much like Star Wars is a story that functions like a fantasy but uses the guise and tools of science fiction to do so, Foundryside functions like a cyberpunk story, but uses urban fantasy guises and tools to do so. As the later installments delve more deeply into the mythology of the world, it will probably tile more toward outright fantasy.
The main character in Foundryside, Sancia Grado, is a woman. How much of what’s that’s been happening in our culture lately, with #MeToo and #TimesUp, had an impact on your decision to make Sancia a woman, as well as on what happens to her in Foundryside?
My idea for her character pre-dated the “official” start of both those movements — if they can really be said to have a start, since a lot of it is just putting a name on a sentiment that’s been building for some time — but Foundryside is very much focused on the haves and the have nots, those who have status and power and those who don’t. There are huge swaths of starving neighborhoods, and cloistered enclaves hidden behind magical walls where people can, say, eat meat at every meal, something that is unthinkable for most of Tevanne.
Gender is a big part of this power structure. As Tevanne became a more martial society, and used scriving to capture territory, scriving also became a more masculine art, and it became socially unacceptable for women to practice it. This was directly inspired by the boom of personal computing in the ’80s, and how most of the early computers were advertised as for boys, identifying it as a male practice. It became culturally male, and the number of women in computer science, as opposed to nearly every other STEM field, plummeted accordingly, and has never really recovered. Though there are plenty of other STEM fields, or fields in general, that are hostile to women, computer science remains an unusually fervent example.
Sancia is outside of this, however, as someone who is desperately poor. She is something of a triple whammy of being unprivileged — she is poor, she is an escaped slave, and she is a woman. She is accustomed to circumstances in which there are no rules, and no justice. This makes her a fun character to write: if they won’t play by the rules, neither will she. She is willing to bust down walls and crawl through tunnels and swarms of rats to get what she needs. In an odd way, being so outside of Tevanne’s gender struggles, and having survived everything that’s been thrown at her so far, she’s more powerful than the people inside it.
So did you set out to tell a story with a feminist bent or did you decide to write this story and then, once you made the main character a woman, did the other stuff just fall into place?
I think I set out to look at how power inequalities change people on either side of the divide. There are all kinds of inequalities, be it by wealth of social convention. Tevanne is a place where they are unusually extreme.
Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Foundryside but not on your previous novels?
I would say that Terry Pratchett’s ingenious talent for taking a fantasy idea and then pushing it a step further was a big inspiration. There is a little bit of Ankh-Morpork [the fictional city state in Pratchett’s Discworld novels] to Tevanne.
How about non-literary influences, such as movies, TV shows, or video games; did any of them have a big impact on Foundryside?
Well, I mentioned the Thief games, that was an inspiration. I also went back and looked at some of the cyberpunk classics: Snow Crash, Neuromancer, Deus Ex, and so on. I didn’t have to do a tremendous amount of wild thinking to come up with more cyberpunk dystopias, though, since all I had to do was turn on the news.
Now, you’ve already said that Foundryside is the first book in a new series. What can you tell us about this series?
It’s going to be called The Founders Trilogy, so if I don’t make it three books then I expect people will be confused or pissed. It is going to be about technological and social change, and how it inspires the best and the worst in us, and how we’re never sure if we’ll survive it. I’ve no clue when the rest will be out, but I’m writing the sequel now.
As you undoubtedly had with your Divine Cities trilogy [City Of Stairs, City Of Blades, City Of Miracles], some people will wait until every book in The Founders Trilogyis available, and then read them all in a row. But is there a reason, a story reason, why people shouldn’t do this? Or should?
I try and make every one of my books satisfying to read in their own right — no abrupt endings where things just feel cut off — but I would very much prefer it if people bought them as they came out, because if they do not buy them, then it will be uncertain as to whether or not I will get to finish the story. So that is a pretty good story reason why you should not do that.
Speaking of the Divine Cities trilogy, all three books have recently been released in a digital omnibus edition, which also includes an excerpt from Foundryside. But aside from that excerpt, is there any else new in this collection?
Nope. Nothing. It is, I believe, the words I wrote, and nothing more.
You also, in our previous interview about City Of Miracles, said that those books were being shopped around as potential movies or a TV show, but that, “That’s about all I can say at the moment.” Can you say any more at this moment?
Nope. Sure can’t.
How about Foundryside or this series; has there been any interest in adapting it into a movie or TV show?
There has been some interest. We’ll see what happens.
So if Foundryside was being made into a movie or TV show, who would you like to see them cast as Sancia and the other main characters and why them?
I’ve no idea. But I know that Orso sounds like Hugh Laurie [Monsters Vs. Aliens].
Finally, if someone enjoys Foundryside, what would you suggest they read while waiting for the second book in The Founders Trilogyto come out?
Probably City Of Stairs, because I like dollars.