Some of the best things happen when you mix disparate elements together, like when you inject magic into science fiction or cross Back To The Future with nihilism or put tater tots in a breakfast burrito. It’s also where you find Brendan P. Bellecourt’s deco-punk science fiction novel Absynthe (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), which, in the beginning of the following email interview, he describes as being a mix of a classic movie, a classic novel, and a movie that may some day be considered a classic.
Photo Credit: Al Bogdan
To start, what is Absynthe about?
The story follows reclusive war vet Liam Mulcahey, whose memories of the Great War (a war that took place not in Europe, but on American soil) were lost to an injury sustained in the war’s last major battle. Ten years later, following a terrorist attack, Liam has a debriefing with his former commanding officer, Leland De Pere, now the President of the United States. That meeting mysteriously jogs some of Liam’s memories loose.
Soon after, Liam’s best friend, Morgan, is abducted by a nefarious government group known as the Cabal. As Liam’s memories continue to unfold, he realizes his time in the war and his squad’s participation in a project to link one another telepathically, is directly linked to Morgan’s abduction.
Now in a race against time, Liam must not only find and free Morgan, he must unlock his own memories — and discover why the Cabal and the president himself wanted Morgan so badly — before their sinister plans for the country are unleashed.
Where did you get the idea for Absynthe?
About four years ago, I stumbled across a TED talk from Ed Yong, a science journalist who reports for The Atlantic. The talk was on “zombie roaches and other parasite tales.” It focused on parasitic organisms and how various parasites, including bacteria, can affect the brain of their hosts.
It was a fascinating, if slightly repulsive, talk, and the true genesis of Absynthe. I already knew I wanted to write a story in a reimagined version of Chicago during the Roaring ’20s, but the idea of using bacteria to enhance extrasensory perceptions (with perhaps nefarious purposes) gave me a real spark to see how its development might affect the main characters, their perceptions, and how they view their place in the world.
So is there a significance to the fact that you misspelled absinthe?
I altered the spelling largely to give the reader a hint as to the time period, but also as a subtle indicator that the world they’re about to enter is not quite the same as our own.
And is there a reason you set Absynthe in the roaring ’20s as opposed to, say, the 1940s after World War II or in the 2120s after the War For The Planet Of The Apes?
I think the answer to this is in many ways a story of exclusion. My earliest inclination was to write a steampunk novel, but as I really started digging into the material, it didn’t feel right. I wasn’t getting any juice from it. I fast forwarded in time and tried out WWII and beyond, but I was really drawn to the Roaring ’20s. It’s such an interesting time in American history, and I grew enchanted over the idea of combining a retro-future aesthetic with the art deco and art nouveau movements of the time. I think half of writing is finding a way to fall in love with your story, and this was one of the ways I did so with Absynthe.
Absynthe sounds like it’s a historical science fiction story. Is that how you’d describe it? Because online I saw it called “dystopian” and “deco-punk.”
I tend to go with the “deco-punk” descriptor, mostly because it’s easily digestible and more or less hits the mark. And while Absynthe is firmly set in America’s Roaring ’20s, it doesn’t hew closely enough to that history for me to feel comfortable in calling it a historical.
Now, Absythne is not your first novel, though it is your first science fiction one. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Absynthe but not on anything else you’ve written?
China Miéville’s The City And The City had a huge influence on me. Absynthe is no police procedural, but what I did try to recreate was the onion-peel experience of diving into a world (à la The City And The City’s Ul Qoma and Beszel) that was similar to our own but very different in key ways. The foremost of these similarities is the notion that there are things being hidden from the main character, Liam, and that he must pull back the curtains before it’s too late.
What about non-literary influences; was Absynthe influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games? You did say earlier that it was, “Inception meets Metropolis by way of The Great Gatsby.”
As the high concept quoted above implies, Inception’s influence can be felt in the story. Though not the same type of story, they both touch on altered perception, shared mental experiences, and how memory plays a large part in self-identity.
And indeed, The Great Gatsby and the general aesthetic of the time influenced how I portrayed the story. I leaned hard into the grandeur of the time period while trying to give the sense that things were rotting from within.
Sci-fi novels are sometimes stand-alone stories and sometimes part of a series. What is Absynthe?
I’ve long wanted a story that could stand on its own, a thing readers could consume and enjoy without the need for a greater investment. I think I finally have that in Absynthe, and so have no further plans to expand on the story. My hope is that readers enjoy Absynthe for the tasty morsel that it is and feel satisfied by the experience.
Earlier I asked if Absynthe had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But has there been any interest in adapting Absynthe into a movie, show, or game?
I’d love to see it adapted as a TV mini-series. In fact, I’ve been chatting with a producer about that very thing. I even wrote treatment and a script for the pilot. As with anything Hollywood, chances are low it’ll go anywhere, but it was a fun experience trying my hand at a different medium.
If that does end up happening, who would you want them to cast as Liam and the other main characters?
Another major influence on Absynthe was Peaky Blinders. In my head, Liam was always Cillian Murphy’s Tommy Shelby. And Grace Savropoulis was modeled after (surprise, surprise) Annabelle Wallis’ Grace Shelby, née Burgess.
Finally, if someone enjoys Absynthe, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next and why that one?
I’d recommend Twelve Kings In Sharakhai [which he wrote under the name Bradley P. Beaulieu]. Though epic fantasy, Twelve Kings has a similar sense of hidden mysteries and the main character, Çeda, working hard to uncover them.
Here’s a blurb: Sharakhai, the great city of the desert, center of commerce and culture, has been ruled from time immemorial by twelve kings — cruel, ruthless, powerful, and immortal. With their army of Silver Spears, their elite company of Blade Maidens and their holy defenders, the terrifying asirim, the Kings uphold their positions as undisputed, invincible lords of the desert. There is no hope of freedom for any under their rule. Or so it seems, until Çeda, a brave young woman from the west end slums, defies the Kings’ laws by going outside on the holy night of Beht Zha’ir. What she learns that night sets her on a path that winds through both the terrible truths of the Kings’ mysterious history and the hidden riddles of her own heritage. Together, these secrets could finally break the iron grip of the Kings’ power…if the nigh-omnipotent Kings don’t find her first.