As someone who shelves his books alphabetically, I usually don’t care about genre (save for these author interviews, where it’s handy in explaining what a book is like). Which made the following email interview with Premee Mohamed about her genre-bending sci-fi / fantasy / cosmic horror / what-have-you novel Beneath The Rising (paperback, Kindle) so interesting…and not just because of her celebrity-adjacent author photo.
To begin, what is Beneath The Rising about, and when and where is it set?
I like to use the description from a guy I met at WorldCon last year (I use this so often I really wish I’d gotten his name): “A scientist solves the world’s energy problem…and causes a bunch more problems.” So basically, a child prodigy scientist and inventor create a completely clean energy reactor, but A) you really shouldn’t do that if you’re not a hundred percent sure how it works or whose attention it might attract, and B) it’s nice to not do stuff alone, but dragging your lifelong best friend into all of your problems is also kind of an iffy decision. It’s set around the time I initially finished it, so 2002, and it begins in an alternate-universe version of my hometown of Edmonton and St. Albert, Alberta, Canada.
It sounds like Beneath The Rising is a horror sci-fi story. Is that how you see it?
I don’t, but I admit I’m a little vague on why. My agent and I often talked about this while the novel was on submission. A few of the rejections included verbiage like “We liked this, but we don’t know where it would fit on a shelf.” My agent reassured me that this was very much not our decision to make and would be the eventual publisher’s, but I was confused that it was even a question. I thought something with eldritch monsters would be pretty clearly a fantasy. But then I was like, Oh, well it’s actually also an alternate universe and there’s nonexistent tech, which might mean it’s sci-fi too.
The only category I had a hard time seeing was “horror,” as I definitely did not set out to scare readers, which I think is my personal definition of a horror book. I wanted the characters to feel fear, sure, but that’s the case in every genre at some point. I do agree that people filing it under “cosmic horror” aren’t far off, because I think the only way to respond to our place in the cosmos is with horror.
I guess the easiest way to put it is to say that I like genres and their trappings and tropes but I don’t believe in enforcing a clear separation between them because I don’t see the point. I’m also not much of a genre purist in the books I read either.
Beneath The Rising is your second novel after The Apple-Tree Throne. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that you see as being a big influence on Beneath The Rising but not on The Apple-Tree Throne?
Yes, though Beneath The Rising was very, very far from being my second novel, and The Apple-Tree Throne was very far from being my first. Beneath The Rising was probably the tenth or eleventh novel that I had written, and the reason it’s being published now is kind of a lazy and a terrible one (basically, it was the only thing I had finished that was a semi-reasonable length when I wanted to start querying in late 2016). The Apple-Tree Throne was, I don’t know, my twenty-something-eth long work. Everything’s written and published out of order and every book is very, very different.
But definitely in 2002, Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series was a huge influence, Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles Of Prydain, and all the comics and pulp fantasy and sci-fi I’d been reading since I was a kid — Robert E. Howard, H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs and so on — plus all the Terry Pratchett and William Gibson and Christopher Priest I had just started to get into. People keep asking if Lovecraft was an influence, but actually not originally; I didn’t read any of his stuff till I was probably in my thirties, though I knew of him, of course, and the whole mythos. It was more that (I think) he influenced my influences.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, and video games? Did any of those have a big influence on Beneath The Rising?
Looking back, I think so? I was never much of a gamer (except for Tetris) but definitely at least The X-Files, and whatever sci-fi or fantasy movies I could find on TV… I was in university, I was still living at home, and I never had as much access as I would have liked to what I wanted to watch at the time. The book would have been stronger for it, honestly. I think I tried to add more current influences when I polished it up for querying, but about 85% of the book is just influenced by whatever I was into back in the day.
You have degrees in environmental science and molecular genetics. How did your knowledge in these realms of science influence Beneath The Rising?
I’m still trying to figure it out, myself. But generally, I think the science degrees really drove home how much we don’t know, and that if you were studying something, anything really, you’d never get to the end of it even if you did it for your whole life. I think that may have been how Johnny’s character arose: What if you were less limited and could start approaching some kind of event horizon of mastery in the fields you chose to research? Would that be considered unequivocally a good thing? By who? Who would benefit? Who would suffer? Who would get to choose? Would that be considered a hugely altruistic or unselfish thing to do? Would it depend on what you did with it? And the main one, isn’t it kind of unreasonable, having that kind of power?
In the novel, she skates over most of the gatekeepers and indeed most of the gates that constrain other scientists. But those are there for a reason. Also, I guess, more practically, studying science lets you lie pretty fluently about the scientific process as well as research outcomes, which makes it very useful for fiction.
Were there any instances where you had to decide whether to be scientifically accurate or a good storyteller?
Probably, but I regret to report that I ignored them. I write stories to end up with a story I like, and wherever scientific accuracy impedes that goal, I go full megalomaniac and toss it out the window. I hope no actual (say) physicists (among other things) read this novel, because they’ll do the same to me, and rightfully so.
Good to know if I need to buy something for my Uncle Bunny…or, as most people know him, Stanford physics professor Bernard Widrow.
Anyway, as you may know, some horror and sci-fi novels are stand-alone stories, while others are part of larger sagas. What is Beneath The Rising?
It was written as a stand-alone. I definitely did not have the writing skills back then to plan a series. (Jury is still out on whether I have them now.) And then it was pitched as a trilogy. And then Solaris bought two books (I’m working on the sequel as we speak!). So there was a little bit of refoobling to make the ending of the first book not quite such a closed door after it was bought, and now I’m refoobling the ending of the second book to attempt (note the use of the word attempt) to make it both something that could end a series, or go on, possibly, which is harder than it sounds. Stay tuned.
The sequel has tentatively been titled, but it is a secret for now and subject to change by my editor or the marketing department or whoever. I don’t know when it might be coming out, but hopefully 2021, and we’ve just been calling it the Beneath The Rising series.
Is two books a series? Anyway, you know what I mean.
As you may also know, some people wait until every book in a series is out before they read any of them, and some then read them all in a row. But is there any reason why you think someone shouldn’t wait for the second book before reading Beneath The Rising?
Obviously I want people to buy the first book — Buy the first book! Thanks! — because I can kind of feel my editor anxiously breathing down my neck to say so. But from a story standpoint, reading the first book and getting some breathing space before the second is, I think, helpful here, because the second book is going to be very, very different. It won’t make a ton of sense unless the first book has been read and sat on for a bit. In particular Nick, the narrator, asks a question that he really should have asked in the first book…and gets it answered in the absolutely worst possible way. And I think when people see that question they’re going to be like, “Oh, yikes, now what?”
Earlier I asked if Beneath The Rising had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. But has there been any interest in adapting Beneath The Rising into a movie, show, or game?
Not so far! Probably, even if there had been, I wouldn’t be allowed to say, because publishing.
Do you have a preference?
I think it might make a neat movie (particularly animated), but not a show, because so much of it relies on Nick’s first-person thoughts about what’s happening (so it might work for like an hour and a half but on a weekly basis it would just be a drag). I’m not sure about a game. Probably all the choices would just be super bad ones and the setup would be that you would be encouraged to make the worst ones again and again with no takebacksies and no save points.
However, if it ever were a game, I would like my preposterously talented and experienced cosmic horror novel-writing but also game-writing friends Cassandra Khaw and Jonathan L. Howard to team up to write the game. I think their talents and backgrounds are a virtually unique combination of alignments with the book, no one else is as qualified in such a tiny niche, and they’d do an amazing job.
And if Beneath The Rising was going to be adapted into a movie, who would you want them to cast as Nick and Johnny and the other main characters?
Oh noooo I have no idea… who are the teenage actors out there? I guess I will have to show my general age and unhipness because I don’t know What The Kids Look Like These Days [yells at clouds] but I do think if we could rearrange time a bit, a young Kristen Stewart [Charlie’s Angels] with a short haircut would have made a good Johnny, and an 18-year-old Dev Patel [Hotel Mumbai] has a good Nick face. I definitely also pictured Tariq as 2002-era Kevin Garnett.
Speaking of movies, I normally don’t ask questions about the cover art, but I do have to ask: How did you get one of the heptapods from the movie Arrival to do the cover art, and did they already have it done when you asked since they don’t perceive time in a linear fashion?
Well, I didn’t design the cover, but I’ll be sure to pass on your question to our lovely cover artist, James Jones, who as far as I know is not a heptapod, though I confess I have not met him.
Finally, if someone enjoys Beneath The Rising, what horror sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read and why that one? And let’s keep H.P. Lovecraft out of this, if only because that would be too obvious…and I’ve read all of his stories already.
Can I recommend one I haven’t finished yet? I am predicting Charlie Jane Anders’ The City In The Middle Of The Night is going to turn out to be a horror as well as a sci-fi, and I’m really enjoying it so far. Splendid, eerie stuff, but no eldritch creatures sighted yet!