Science fiction has often explored the subjects of slavery and servitude, and in unique ways.
In Mark Morton’s new novel The Headmasters (paperback, Kindle), some people have survived an apocalypse…only to find themselves enslaved by creatures who not only control their bodies, but their memories as well.
In the following email interview, Morton discusses what inspired and influenced this dystopian sci-fi story.
To start, what is The Headmasters about, and when and where is this story set?
Well, The Headmasters is about a community of about 200 people in the not-too-distant future who survived a global calamity that seems to have killed off everyone else on the planet.
But even though they survived, the lives of these people are wretched because grotesque and inscrutable creatures called the Headmasters have emerged. They basically look like plate-sized wood ticks, and they’ve attached themselves to the upper backs of almost every person in the community. This linkage allows them to control the actions and monitor the thoughts of their human “hosts” for about eighteen hours of every day. In fact, if a human host tries to remove their Headmaster, or even thinks about removing it, the Headmaster will sense this intention and instantly kill them. So the people are essentially in thrall to the Headmasters and have been for about sixty years. After all, how can you defeat an enemy that will kill you if you even think about trying to fight it?
What makes things even more challenging is that no one is allowed to talk about the past because doing so can have deadly consequences, so people live in a kind of interminable “now.” But one person in the community — a headstrong young woman named Maple — is nonetheless determined to defeat the Headmasters. And she discovers she might be able to do so by drawing on the memories of her grandmother that are gradually emerging in her mind because her grandmother once attached to the same Headmaster as Maple now is.
As for the setting, the story takes place in northern Ontario in a very remote, rugged, and unforgiving part of the Canadian Shield where the weather can be extreme.
Where did you get the idea for The Headmasters? What inspired it?
So many people right now are trapped in miserable circumstances. I’m thinking of young people in poor neighborhoods in big cities like Los Angeles, or people who grow up in remote and economically depressed communities in Canada’s north or let’s say in parts of Appalachia. It’s so hard for those young people to escape the terrible life they find themselves in. They’re stuck in a generational cycle of trauma and poverty and despair. I kind of had that in mind when I started drafting The Headmasters. I wanted to create a fictional world — a dystopian world — where people were trapped in a seemingly hopeless situation. One where even the thought of escape seemed impossible. So I’m not saying that The Headmasters is an allegory — not at all! — but the fact that there are millions of people right now who are stuck in miserable and nearly inescapable situations was part of the conception of the novel.
Is there a significance to The Headmasters being set in Ontario as opposed to Toronto or Vancouver or, I don’t know, some country other than Canada?
Definitely. I wanted the novel to be set in a remote place, one where the topography and climate are unforgiving and brutal. Northern Ontario, in my experience, is like that. I’ve been there in the winter when the cold has been literally breathtaking, and in the summer when the heat and humidity suck all the life out of you. And the Canadian Shield, which stretches across northern Ontario, is a rocky and rugged place. It’s hard to imagine how Indigenous people and, later, European explorers found their way through it. And don’t forget the voracious black flies and mosquitoes.
But, at the same time, it’s a truly beautiful place, with crystal-clear lakes and vistas of endless forests. It’s a wonderful place to visit or behold — but it takes a certain kind of rigor to live there.
Anyway, I wanted a setting that was as “brutal” and relentless as the Headmasters.
Similarly, why did you set it sixty years in the future as opposed to six hundred or six thousand?
I needed the first generation of the Headmasters’ hosts to be close enough to our own time that those characters would be familiar with some of our cultural touchstones. For example, there are passing references to Brad Pitt, the University of Toronto, electric vehicles, social media apps, and so on.
But at the same time, I wanted to suggest that it was far enough in the future that humans would have developed the kind of technologies that could cause a global catastrophe to occur in an instant.
It sounds like The Headmasters is a sci-fi story, but with a dystopian post-apocalyptic setting, as well as elements of body horror and maybe even some cyberpunk horror. How do you describe it, genre-wise, and why that way?
I read a lot of dystopian books, and watch a lot of dystopian TV series and movies. What I like about that genre is that it places people in a “stripped down” version of society, one where the social contract has broken down and life has become, like Hobbes said, “nasty, brutish, and short.” In that kind of world, character comes to the surface quickly and we get to see how people react in extreme situations — how they rise to the challenge or don’t.
Also, setting it in a dystopian world meant that I didn’t need to describe things like the interior of a Starbucks or Walmart, which I wouldn’t be very good at. So, I think it’s fair to describe The Headmasters as a young adult dystopian novel. But I would stress that though it has plenty of action (including a couple of chase sequences!), the story is also a vehicle through which I explore ideas about identity, memory, culture, and personal sacrifice.
As you just said, The Headmasters is a young adult novel. But is it the kind of YA novel that’s written for young adults or the kind where there’s nothing inappropriate for young adults but it can actually be enjoyed by old adults as well?
That’s an interesting question because a lot of YA novels are read by adults. I think that’s certainly true of The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, The Giver, The Fault In Our Stars, The Book Thief, and so on. In fact, I recall reading an article a while back that said that more than half of all YA novels are bought by adults who intend to read them (and then, maybe, hand them over to their kids).
Having said that, I do think that The Headmasters has plenty for adults to chew on, especially ones who like a strong female protagonist and who like to read fiction infused with “big ideas” about what it means to be human. To put it another way, The Headmasters is the kind of book I would have enjoyed as a teen, but it’s also the kind of book that I’d enjoy reading — even if I hadn’t written it — as an adult.
While The Headmasters is your first published work of fiction, I’m guessing it’s probably not the first thing you’ve written. Are there any writers, or stories, that had a big influence on The Headmasters but not on anything else you’ve written? Because people surviving an apocalypse in a sealed facility makes me think of Hugh Howey’s Silo novels.
I did write books before The Headmasters, but they were all non-fiction, more specifically about language, culture, and history. All of them were published before 2008, because that’s when my wife and I adopted four older children, and so we both had to put our writing careers on hold for about fifteen years, until the kids got old enough to be more independent.
But when I started writing again, a few years ago, I realized two things: I no longer had the mental stamina to hold very large amounts of information in my head, which I needed if I were going to write another non-fiction book (or at least of the type that I had previously written). But also, my interests had changed. I wanted to write fiction, and I wanted to start with a YA novel, likely because of all the YA novels I’d read with my kids.
As for the influence of other writers… I think the ones that have influenced me most deeply are Emily St. John Mandel with Station Eleven, and Cormac McCarthy with all of his novels, but especially The Road, which is dystopian, and Blood Meridian, which is not (although in a way, it kind of is). I’m in awe of Cormac McCarthy’s writing — it seems to me that he’s almost created a new kind of syntax, one that’s perfectly suited to the bleakness of his artistic vision and the taciturn personalities of his characters. And William Falkner, too — he’s been a big influence on my writing. Along with Cormac McCarthy, I read his books over and over, trying to figure out how he does it.
What how about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Did any of those things have a big influence on The Headmasters? Because the way the Headmasters work immediately made me think of that movie The Puppet Masters.
To be honest, I haven’t seen The Puppet Masters, and haven’t read the Heinlein novel it’s based on. I didn’t even know of its existence until Robert Sawyer, who wrote a very enthusiastic blurb for The Headmasters, drew my attention to it.
I think the biggest, non-literary influences on my writing in general and The Headmasters in particular have been my kids. As I mentioned, my wife and I adopted them as older children, and they had experienced a lot of trauma before they came to us. Yet they were so resilient, so courageous, and so yearning for love. Those qualities — resilience, courage, love — are the ones that define Maple, the protagonist of The Headmasters.
I’ve also always been fascinated by memory, and I’ve read a fair bit about it. That’s likely why memory — or rather the repression of it — plays such a big part in The Headmasters.
It’s also possible that my longstanding interest in memory might be related to the fact that I have moderate prosopagnosia, a.k.a. face-blindness. That means that I have a lot of difficulty recalling faces or recognizing people. I literally have a very poor memory for faces.
And how about your three dogs and your rabbit? How did they influence The Headmasters?
Actually, we now have four dogs and, with brief exceptions, we’ve always had four, which might seem like a lot. But we found that having four dogs meant that our four kids could each sort of “adopt” one. And a dog’s unconditional love is so healing.
We do have a rabbit, too; a beautiful long-hair lionhead rabbit named Oden, as in the Norse god whose name is still present in the word “Wednesday” — Wednesday is “Oden’s Day” just as Thursday is of course “Thor’s day.” Sorry, I love etymology and just had to slip that in.
But not to be forgotten is our lovebird Coco, as in “cocorico,” which is how roosters crow in French.
As for how our animals have influenced The Headmasters, one of our former dogs — Farley, who died more than ten years ago — is a character in the novel, sort of. Even though the fictional Farley died when Maple was a child, he comes to her when she learns how to enter into the Headmasters’ shared mind space, where he acts as a kind of guide for her, like Virgil in Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Top: Layla, Myah, Jasper
Bottom: Gia, Oden, Coco
Now, sci-fi novels — be they post-apocalyptic, horrific, YA, what have you — are sometimes stand-alone stories and sometimes part of larger sagas. What is The Headmasters?
I wrote The Headmasters in such a way that it would be natural for a sequel to follow it. In a few places in the novel, I’ve placed some “hooks” that kind of point forward to a follow-up. But I haven’t started a sequel yet, because I didn’t think it made sense to do that until the first book got published.
In the meantime, I’ve written another dystopian novel, but not a young adult one. It’s called The Changelings, and it’s ready to get sent out to a publisher. And I’ve started a third novel which is very much grounded in history, specifically Winnipeg and France during and after the “Great War” — the war that was supposed to put an end to all wars. But that novel also contains a golem, so it’s not historical fiction per se. After I’ve finished this third novel, I might sit down and write a sequel to The Headmasters.
I asked earlier if The Headmasters was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think The Headmasters could work as a movie, show, or game?
Absolutely. As I was writing The Headmasters I often envisioned scenes from a “cinematic” perspective — it helped me create a vivid and detailed world. So I do think it would film well, though I’m not sure whether it would be better as a movie or as a TV series. It’s a fairly long book, and a lot happens in it, so from that perspective a TV series might be best. But on the other hand, I think I prefer the more unified narrative arc that movies tend to have, whereas TV series tend to have narrative arcs that are more undulating, like a sine wave.
Either way, if a movie or show did happen, who would you want them to cast as Maple and the other main characters?
Hmmm. I haven’t thought about this before because it seems preposterous that it could ever happen! (I’m just a simple farm boy from the Canadian prairies, so I have only humble flights of fancy).
But if I ponder it right now, I think that Ciara Bravo would make a great Maple. Bravo was one of the two protagonists in the series Wayne. I’m not sure if I can call it a TV series, because I think it aired only on YouTube premium. Anyway, judging from her performance in Wayne, I bet Ciara Bravo could really embody Maple’s grit, daring, and “screw the Headmasters” personality.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about The Headmasters?
One of my favorite characters in the novel to write is a fellow named Eccles (also the name of one of our now dearly-departed dogs). I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that Eccles is from another small community of humans who survived the global cataclysm because they happened to be deep in a copper mine. They were a mixture of miners from Newfoundland, astrophysicists from Australia and South Africa, and investors from Texas. Over the course of sixty years, their various dialects, accents, and cultures have merged, and so Eccles has a very unique way of speaking and a distinctly roguish outlook on things.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Headmasters, what sci-fi novel or novella that you read recently and liked would you suggest they check out and why that one?
Wow, it’s very hard to pick just one. But I think the novel I most wish I had written would have to be Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Stylistically, she is such a great writer — so much beautiful prose in that book. But even more, the way she unfolds the story, moving seamlessly among various times and places before and after the pandemic, is something I deeply admire. It’s a novel that stays with you — almost haunts you — long after you finish reading it.