In 2014, it was sadly unthinkable that a rich and powerful man might face consequences for his criminal acts, let alone his bad behavior. It was while she pondered how this might change that writer S.A. Jones conceived of the story that would ultimately become her new speculative science fiction novel, The Fortress (paperback, Kindle). In the following email interview, Jones discusses what inspired and influenced this tale in both positive and negative ways.
To start, what is The Fortress about, and what kind of a world is it set in?
The Fortress is about a wealthy and successful man, Jonathon Bridge, who is a passive observer and enabler of sexually coercive behaviors at his top tier law firm. He is neither evil nor sadistic, merely blithely accepting of the world he has inherited and perpetuates.
For all his inadequacies and limitations, he very much loves his wife Adalia. She is clever, sensual, and discerning. When the practices at Jonathon’s firm come to her attention, she stages a crushing intervention and then issues Jonathon an ultimatum: enter The Fortress as a supplicant for one year or our marriage is over.
The Fortress is the territory of the original inhabitants of the land, the Vaik. It is a sovereign territory run according to its own rules and traditions. The Vaik is an all-female civilization (though “femaleness” as the Vaik understand it is a psychological rather than biological principle).
As a supplicant, Jonathon must consent to the Vaik’s total dominion over him for the period of his confinement. That dominion has limits and is governed by a contract. However, it requires Jonathon’s ineradicable consent to sex with all Vaik who want or direct it.
Sex for the Vaik is both a prosaic fact (they must reproduce to keep their society functioning) and a pleasure they inherit as a birthright. Vaik girls are raised to believe that sexual pleasure is their due. Although their lives are quite regulated, it is perfectly normal to down tools and get busy if one is so inclined.
The Vaik who manages Jonathon, Mandalay, advises him to empty himself out so he can learn to see through Vaik eyes. To do so, he must cede the power and ego that define him.
Can he do it?
Where did you get the original idea for The Fortress and how did the story evolve as you wrote it?
The idea for The Fortress came from wondering what it might take for a man like Jonathon to become self-aware. I talk about one of the origin stories over at The Big Idea [which you can read here].
In my earlier drafts the Vaik were entirely homogenous: all dark skinned, blonde haired, cis-women. The deeper I went into the story and the psychology the more it became apparent that what defined the Vaik was a state of mind: a total physical autonomy and the psychic power that results. Any person capable of inhabiting that state of mind could be Vaik.
Hence, the character of Mandalay appeared. She was not born on Vaik territory and is physically unlike the Vaik. But having demonstrated her ability to see through Vaik eyes (this concept of gazer and gazed is repeated throughout the novel), she is accepted as Vaik.
It sounds like The Fortress is a dystopian sci-fi story. Is that how you’d describe it?
I didn’t set out to write a speculative fiction novel, let alone a dystopian one. I typically work in the realist, literary fiction genre. However, it quickly became clear to me that if I wanted to write about profound and radical change to the gendered order then I needed to create an alternative world. The Vaik was born out of that technical necessity.
I’ve heard a few interesting terms to describe what “kind” of book The Fortress is: utopian-dystopian, erotic fiction, spec fic and sci-fi. All are true to some extent. But one tag I definitively reject is that of “political manifesto.” The world of the Vaik is not my idealized world. If I were to write a political manifesto it would look quite different.
I think the book is literary fiction, drawing on the bucolic and epic traditions, but with rather more sexy-time.
The page for The Fortress on your publisher’s website has a disclaimer that says, “Content notice: The Fortress contains references to objectification of and violence against women, pedophilia, sexual assault, submission, and toxic masculinity.” Clearly this story has been somewhat inspired and / or influenced by what’s going on in the world. But did you set out to write something socially- and politically-relevant, or did you start writing this story and it just naturally became socially- and / or politically-relevant?
There’s an assumption apparent in some of the reviews that I wrote this book in response to, or in conversation with, the #MeToo movement. That is not the case. I started this book in Thailand in 2014 (by a pool near Kamala Beach, to be precise) with one question in mind: What would it take for a privileged man to change?
It just happens that my thought experiment coincided with a societal interest in toxic masculinity, privilege, and consent.
About the disclaimer, I agreed to it because I think people should be reasonably informed about what they’re buying.
Yet I think it’s perverse that The Fortress carries this warning while “mainstream” books don’t. It’s all about context after all, and in the context of The Fortress none of the things “warned about” are gratuitous, condoned, or titillating.
The Fortress is your third novel. Are there any writers or specific stories that had a big influence on The Fortress but not on your other books?
Margaret Atwood is a key influence. The Fortress has been called a “reverse” Handmaid’s Tale, which is a reasonable comparison. Yet, the MaddAddam trilogy probably affected me more than Handmaid in terms of specific influence.
I remember one particular scene of sexual violence against women in The Year Of The Flood [the second book of the MaddAddam trilogy] where I thought to myself “No. I cannot take this scene or variations of this scene any more”. And that was the last Atwood I read.
I’ve had enough sexual violence — real, observed, and imbibed — to last a fucking lifetime. So yes, there is sexual, gendered violence in The Fortress. There is also its antidote.
More subtly, Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter was an influence. The character of Kristin was a kind of prototype when I began conceiving the psychology of the Vaik. Undset’s world building is so realized and lush and visceral. Anyone out there who hasn’t read it, don’t be deterred by the weight (literal and reputational) of this book. It is as gripping as anything you will ever read.
A few drafts into The Fortress I started watching Vikings and thought Lagertha could be Vaik.
Speaking of which, was The Fortress influenced by any movies, TV shows, or anything else non-literary?
Not that I am consciously aware of. I had a somewhat unusual childhood in that I was raised on a remote island in the Buccaneer Archipelago in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. For most of the time I was there the only television we had was the national broadcaster (the ABC). So while I am across the David Attenborough oeuvre, I am missing vast chunks of pop culture.
Perhaps because I didn’t acquire a television habit in my childhood I’m typically very late to the binge-watch party. I remember being delighted when I discovered Buffy a few years ago and all my friends rolled their eyes in their Serje, you are so Amish way.
And this is my last question about your influences, no matter how nicely you ask: You have a PhD in history. Do you think your knowledge of history had any impact on The Fortress?
Most definitely. One of my historical interests is the history of ideas. Readers will recognize the conversation in the novel between the two (contradictory?) strands of feminist thought — one that emphasizes the freedom from (reflected in the temperance movement, the anti-porn and anti-sex work strands of feminism) and the one that emphasizes the freedom to (reflected in reproductive rights, sexual expression, and a skepticism about biological essentialism).
There’s also ideas about physical scourging sourced from the Christian tradition and an Agrarian / Blakean / Circular vs Industrial / Marxist / Linear debate happening too.
Hopefully none of these influences are too didactic and the novel works as narrative. In other words, you don’t have to be schooled in these intellectual traditions to make sense of The Fortress.
Now, as you probably know, speculative sci-fi stories are sometimes self-contained and sometimes parts of larger sagas. What is The Fortress?
I conceived the book as stand-alone. However, I’ve received lots of requests for a prequel that delves into how the Vaik came to be.
If we survive this stoopid virus then that’s something I might consider.
Earlier I asked if any movies or TV shows had influenced The Fortress. But has there been any interest in making The Fortress into a movie, show, or game?
There have been “approaches” regarding film rights, but nothing beyond at this point.
Personally, I think The Fortress would make a great film. It would be a radical departure to have a lens that looks at the male body in the way we are used to “seeing” the female body. The Fortress as a place and the Vaik as a people are so visually arresting that it would be a delight to watch.
If The Fortress was to be adapted into a movie, who would you like to see them cast as Jonathon, Adalia, and the other main characters?
Finally, if someone enjoys The Fortress, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next and why that one?
All of my books are quite different, so a reader looking for something tonally and thematically similar to The Fortress won’t find it.
I’d suggest they try Isabelle Of The Moon And Stars. It has a cult following (it was shortlisted for the most underrated book awards in Australia) and is probably my personal favorite.