While there’s been a lot of fantasy novels about women trying to make it in a man’s world, and numerous fantasy novels set during World War II, writer Tom Miller is pushing both conventions aside with his new fantasy novel The Philosopher’s Flight (hardcover, Kindle), which he not only set during the first World War, but also flips the script when it comes to who’s trying to make it in whose world.
Photo Credit: Abigail Carlin
To start, what is The Philosopher’s Flight about?
The Philosopher’s Flight is set in a world where a woman-dominated form of scientific magic was discovered in the eighteenth century and changed the course of American history. Though no one calls it “magic,” it’s “empirical philosophy.” The story follows Robert Weekes, a rare male empirical philosopher, who was raised by his mother, a veteran of the United States Sigilry Corps. Robert has always dreamed of following in her footsteps and becoming a philosophical flier in the Corps’ elite Rescue & Evacuation department, but they’ve never taken a man. After an act of heroism wins Robert a scholarship to Radcliffe College, he strives to win the respect of his all-female classmates and train for the Corps. He also falls hard for Danielle Hardin, a young war hero turned political radical, but the two of them run afoul of a group of violent extremists who will stop at nothing to destroy philosophy and everything it stands for.
The Philosopher’s Flight has been tagged as a fantasy novel. But is there a subgenre of fantasy that you feel describes it better?
Alternative history describes it well; I sometimes also use the term “historical fantasy.” Though I wrote primarily imagining an adult audience, the protagonist is eighteen and many of the main characters are college students in their early twenties, so it has something in common with YA fiction, too.
There’s been a lot of World War II novels in which the Nazis use magic, including, most recently, David Mack’s The Midnight Front. Why did you decide to set The Philosopher’s Flight during World War I instead, and what impact did it have on the story?
Great War America seems to me exactly the right time to set a book about the collision of modernity and traditionalism, science and magic, and masculine and feminine. WWI, in which cavalry units still charged into battle on horseback into machinegun fire — though not very often by 1917 — alongside such new inventions as poison gas, airplanes, and tanks, is so much stranger and more fantastic than anything I could invent, so it’s a great backdrop. On the homefront, you had women entering the workforce in large numbers, as well as the eventual success of the suffrage movement — though not without great reluctance on the part of Woodrow Wilson and much of Congress — so that felt like a natural fit, too. WWI is also one of the big points of divergence in my alternate timeline, so setting a story in the midst of those key years, rather than spending twenty pages doing an exposition dump on what happened during that period — as I attempted to do in a previous version of the novel — proved vital.
As you said, the main character in The Philosopher’s Flight is a guy who’s studying a kind of magic that’s primarily practiced by women, and he’s sometimes met with skepticism by female magicians. Did you ever consider writing The Philosopher’s Flight about a woman who uses a primarily male-centric magic?
No. The “man in a woman’s world” aspect was present from the first page I wrote, simply because I thought it was an interesting scenario that I hadn’t seen before. It was originally a minor point, as I imagined a fish-out-of-water comedy with a man at Radcliffe College. But the more I brought the gender politics to the center of the novel, the more interesting the story became. One of the most important ideas to me is that even in a world where women have had the vote, readily accessible birth control, and a career-path for reaching a relatively comfortable, blue-collar middle-class existence — by mastering the less exciting but extremely useful forms of empirical philosophy — patriarchy has nevertheless been the default setting for thousands of years and it takes a long time to reach relative equality. So even though Robert faces a lot of skepticism while studying philosophy, that pales in comparison to the hostility and outright violence Danielle experiences while trying to break into politics and to which even ordinary philosophers are subject every day.
Are there any writers or particular stories that you feel had a big impact on The Philosopher’s Flight, but not necessarily on your writing style as a whole?
I’d been kicking around some ideas for the world for a year or two when I read Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I found myself wanting to write something in a similar spirit set in America. The lone male sorcerer among sorceresses probably owes something to the early volumes of Robert Jordan’s Wheel Of Time, which I read in middle school and high school. Though I’ll admit I only made it through book eight [of fifteen]. Robin Hobb’s original Farseer trilogy [Assassin’s Apprentice, Royal Assassin, Assassin’s Quest] provided a useful structural useful template, with a middle-aged narrator looking back on his youthful magical exploits. Emmaline shares something with the dad in The Great Santini, who is the polar opposite of my own father.
How about non-literary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or video games that had a big impact on The Philosopher’s Flight?
For superpowered teenagers, The X-Men, which I first encountered through the 1992 animated series. Final Fantasy VII was probably the most influential game of my young-adulthood, and there are traces of it in in the mix of magic and 1910s tech. In writing the hovering scenes, I watched a lot of flight and aerial combat clips, including the movies Top Gun, Memphis Belle, Always, the 1927 film Wings, the enjoyably terribly Flyboys, the 2008 German movie The Red Baron, and Dunkirk. The original Star Wars trilogy is also a lifetime favorite of mine and also concerns a farm boy who leaves for the big city to study magic.
A lot of the fantasy novels I’ve read lately have been part of a larger series. Is that the case with The Philosopher’s Flight, or is it a stand-alone novel?
It’s part of a series. I wanted to watch Robert, Danielle, and their world develop over a decade or two, which naturally leant itself to multiple books.
The sequel is set in France during the final days of the Great War. Robert is again the protagonist, and while the cast is mostly new, several characters return from The Philosopher’s Flight. I have a finished draft and am currently revising. Simon & Schuster will publish it; we’re hoping in mid-2019. I’ve also done some writing done toward books three and four, which borrow themes from the race to break the sound barrier and the civil rights movement circa 1968. The series will most likely run four of five books, but I’m not certain yet…and it’s surprised me many times already.
So has there been any interest in adapting The Philosopher’s Flight into a movie, TV show, or video game?
Yes, some early interest toward both film and television. I’m excited to see how it develops.
If The Philosopher’s Flight does get made into a movie or TV show, who would you like to see them cast in the main roles?
It’s tricky because none of my main characters are supposed to be pretty. I sometimes imagine Robert as a young, less-handsome Vin Diesel with hair. Holly Hunter channeling Aliens-era Sigourney Weaver could plausibly play Emmaline. Saoirse Ronan [Lady Bird] or Dakota Fanning [Coraline] would make a good Essie. The first time I saw Gwendoline Christie in Game Of Thrones, I said to myself, “Oh, that’s Professor Brock exactly!” For the sequel, I’d like to go to war with Katie Sackhoff [Battlestar Galactica], Gemma Whelan [Game Of Thrones], Quvenzhané Wallis [Beasts Of The Southern Wild], Hailee Steinfeld [Pitch Perfect 3], Gina Torres [Firefly], Leslie Jones [Ghostbusters], Emily Blunt [Edge Of Tomorrow], Gal Gadot [Wonder Woman], Rosario Dawson [The LEGO Batman Movie], Kate Mulgrew [Star Trek: Voyager], and Michelle Yeoh [Guardians Of The Galaxy: Volume 2].
Finally, if someone enjoys The Philosopher’s Flight, what would you suggest they read while waiting for the second book to come out?
Oh, I’ll go with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which is a blend of fantasy, alternate history, and literary fiction that no one has ever managed to replicate.