By calling his science fantasy novel Mage Against The Machine (hardcover, Kindle), writer Shaun Barger is practically begging for people to make snide comments or jokes about how many songs Led Zeppelin wrote about The Lord Of The Rings. But while he says his story does have a sense of humor about it, in the following email interview he explains that this tale is no joke.
I always like to start with a plot overview. So, what is Mage Against The Machine about?
It’s a story about a troubled young wizard who, though raised to believe that all the humans died in a nuclear apocalypse a hundred years ago, discovers that humanity is alive, but not well, and currently engaged in a losing war with a vastly superior A.I. race called the Synth.
The book alternates between the POVs of Nikolai Strauss, the titular mage, and Jemma Burton, a cybernetically enhanced ballerina turned soldier for the human resistance against the Synth.
Where did you get the idea for Mage Against The Machine, and how different is the finished novel from that original concept?
Mostly, my reason for writing Mage Against The Machine was that I really wanted a story about a conflict between realistically human wizards and interesting, complex A.I. villains. I have always loved fantasy and science-fiction in equal measure, but have rarely seen the genres meet in an interesting or compelling way.
I actually finished the first version of this novel back in 2012. After a year of being unable to land an agent with the first version, I spent the following year rewriting it largely from scratch. And then again, when the next version also failed to garner any interest.
DongWon Song found Mage Against The Machine‘s third complete re-write in the slush pile, then signed me as a client after some revisions. After several more intensive re-writes, including several hundred pages of new prose, we sold Mage Against The Machine to the incredible Navah Wolfe at Saga Press. Under Navah’s patient and masterful guidance, we re-wrote the hell out of it over the course of three distinct additional drafts.
The version of Mage Against The Machine you can now buy is almost completely different from the original 2012 draft after of years of dogged, obsessive work on this idea and these worlds I couldn’t shake.
Mage Against The Machine takes place in 2120. Why did you decide to set it then as opposed to 2078 or 3120? Or, more fittingly, 2112; y’know, make it a Rush reference?
A hundred years from now is a nice, easy number to remember. Nikolai, the mage protagonist, is obsessed with human culture: movies, novels, music, etc. By having the initial apocalypse take place in the near future, I was able to make the story conceit of Nik being mostly into the culture and arts experienced by millennials, like myself. And as such, he would talk like me. Mostly.
The title is obviously a nod to the band Rage Against The Machine. Does that mean there will be sequels called Magetallica, Iron Mageden, and Mageaful Fate?
The working — and probably final — title for the sequel is Good Kid, Mage City, a nod to one of my all-time favorite albums, Kendrick’s Lamar’s masterpiece Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. So, yeah. Titles utilizing anti-fascist musical “Mage” puns is the branding we went with. If this had started as a movie, the sequel would just be called it Mage Against The Machine II, but in the book world, that simply isn’t done.
Seriously, though, is there anything about Mage Against The Machine that you think is Rage Against The Machine-esque?
Readers won’t have to look hard to pick up on my sentiments of anti-fascism, anti-authoritarianism, and a general intolerance for abusive fucks in positions of power.
Rage Against The Machine’s tracks include some of the greatest anti-fascist anthems of our time. You won’t find anything in the way of direct references to their songs or albums in Mage Against The Machine, but the tone is certainly there.
I actually met their drummer, Brad Wilk, recently and was able to show him an advance copy of the novel. He was really gracious and kind about it. It may have been one of the cooler moments in my life.
And how often have people asked you about Myke Cole’s novella The Armored Saint, which also mixes sci-fi and fantasy and takes its name from a hard rock band?
I hadn’t heard it before. But, after a quick google, I have to say it looks dope. Adding to my reading list.
As you said, Mage Against The Machine combines science fiction and fantasy. But are there any subgenres of sci-fi or fantasy at work in the book as well?
I think Mage Against The Machine can be accurately described as Science Fantasy. For a long stretch of the novel, we alternate between two very different sorts of stories: the Science Fictional story of Jemma Burton, a cybernetically enhanced ballerina turned Runner for the Human Resistance, and a classic Fantasy coming-of-age story about a wizard, named Nikolai Strauss.
In the isolated fantasy and science fiction stories of Mage Against The Machine, I really honed in on tackling classic tropes in ways that I found interesting, fresh, unique. Allowing the fantasy and sci-fi stories to play off of one another for a good chunk of the novel until they finally merge gave me a lot of room to explore genre and sub-genre tropes in ways I haven’t really seen, that I’ve been wanting to see.
Attempting to merge these worlds in an organic and meaningful way that still allowed Nik’s world to remain Fantasy and Jem’s world to remain Science Fiction without fully pushing the novel genre in either direction was challenging, but a whole lot of fun.
Mage Against The Machine also, as we’ve discussed, has a clever title. Does that mean the book has a bit of humor in it? And if so, is it jokey like Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens or is the humor more situational like John Scazli’s Old Man’s War?
Definitely more situational. I like writing dark stories with funny characters. In real life, everybody’s funny, in their own way.
Most human interaction is some form of joking around. Nobody’s grimdark all the time. Comedy is a survival tool, as well as a pivotal part of the human experience.
I’ve always hated the trope of having One Funny Character, and a bunch of other characters who are attractive and charismatic but are somehow allergic to engaging in humor, unless it’s to make some power play in the form of the occasional sick burn, usually made at the expense of a villain to impress the audience.
So who do you see as being the biggest influences on the comedy in Mage Against The Machine?
The people in my life. My friends, family, the people I meet. I live in Los Angeles, which many who’ve briefly visited love dismissing as a plastic empty town full of plastic empty people. But the fact of the matter is, Los Angeles is one of the most incredibly diverse and culturally influential cities in the world, and the storyteller scene is lit.
[The TV show] Six Feet Under is the closest to what I strive for, in terms of realistically interpersonal comedy. Though I usually try to avoid hyperbolical claims of All-Time Greatness, Alan Ball’s masterpiece really was the tops.
Aside from Six Feet Under, did any movies, TV shows, or video games have a big impact on Mage Against The Machine?
The Black Mirror episode “White Christmas,” starring Jon Hamm, deeply troubled me, and had a big impact on Jem’s POV story, inspiring the concept of Torment.
I also I played and replayed the entirety of Undertale while writing the POV chapters for Jem. Though I can’t say how I was influenced by the game specifically, I was thinking about it a lot during the entire process, and I’m sure it’s there.
And this is my last question about influences. In your author bio it mentions that you have, and I’m quoting here, “a tyrannical three-pound Chihuahua.” Did your dog have an influence on any aspect of Mage Against The Machine? Like is there a mechanical dragon that’s really small but also really vicious?
While I was in the middle of writing this one really intense scene near the end of the book, Lily Brown, the chihuahua in question, began to choke on a cylindrical dog treat.
Cut to me and two of my housemates desperately struggling to dislodge the treat so she could breathe. Ever googled an emergency life-saving procedure in the midst of said emergency? It’s really fucking stressful.
And then, once you’ve found them, it’s one thing to see the methods of the doggy Heimlich maneuver listed out, and quite another thing to replicate them on a very small dog, with a very delicate little rib cage.
Spoiler Alert: Lily was saved without any lasting harm. My screenwriting partner and extremely cool-headed friend Alexis Brown, Lily’s actual owner, ended up jamming her finger down Lily’s throat to push the treat the rest of the away down, allowing her to breathe again.
Edit deadline looming, I had to immediately get back to work, after freaking out over Instant Messenger with my seriously amazing agent and friend DongWon Song about Lily almost dying.
But then, I got back to work, and finished the scene. The tone of which was absolutely informed by what had just occurred.
Glad to hear that Lily is okay. Now, you mentioned a sequel earlier. What is your plan for this series?
My current plan is for a quintet, though for now I’m mainly focused on making Good Kid, Mage City satisfactory in and of itself. We’ve got a lot of working titles for the rest of the series, but nothing I’ve fallen in love with enough yet to share.
As you know, some people like to wait until every book in a series is available, and then read them all in a row. But is there a story-based reason why you think people should not wait and should read it now? Or that they should wait?
Don’t wait! Mage Against The Machine, though the first step in a larger story, stands alone just fine.
Also, spoilers. Spoilers, everywhere.
Earlier we talked about the movies, TV shows, and video games that inspired Mage Against The Machine. But has there been any interest in adapting it into a movie, show, or game?
The hype stew is bubbling. Stay tuned.
Do you have a preference?
My big stupid dream is for movie theatres to bring back “The Intermission.”
I think book-to-film adaptations get fucked by the fact that a movie really can’t be more than 180 minutes long. Nobody wants to sit in the same place without checking their phone or going to the bathroom for two-and-a-half hours. But for a lot of epic fantasy and sci-fi, two-and-a-half hours isn’t nearly long enough for any sort of faithful adaptation.
If I had my way, Mage Against The Machine would be a big, bloody, three-and-a-half-hour blockbuster, with ten-minute intermissions every hour, so people could hit the bathroom, buy more food, smoke a cig, hit a joint, whatever.
If customers are dropping $16 on a movie, and at least as much on food, why shouldn’t their comfort be prioritized? Why must we always desperately have to pee during the final acts of our epic action blockbusters?!
And if Mage Against The Machine was being made into a three-and-a-half-hour-long movie, who would you like to see them cast in the main roles?
I’ll leave that to casting.
Finally, if someone enjoyed Mage Against The Machine, what would you recommend they read while waiting for Good Kid, Mage Cityor whatever it ends up being called?
Check out Charlie Jane Anders’ Nebula Award Winning All The Birds In The Sky. It’s the beautiful and real-as-fuck love story of a witch and a mad scientist, and my current favorite Science Fantasy novel from another author. You should definitely read it!