Bookstore shelves are quickly filling up with novels that are reworkings of classic tales (Madeline Miller’s Circe; Jennifer Saint’s Ariadne…). But you might want to wait a moment before adding Rich Larson’s Beowulf-inspired post-cyberpunk sci-fi novel Ymir (paperback, Kindle, audiobook) to that shelf. While he admits in the following email interview that Ymir‘s working title was Cyberpunk Beowulf, he also says that his novel doesn’t owe nearly so much to the original epic poem as his original title suggests.
Photo Credit: Micaela Cockburn
For people who haven’t read it, what is Beowulf about, what happens in it?
From what I’ve gathered, Beowulf is a very old poem about a dude who kills a monster, then the monster’s mom, then much later a dragon.
And then what is the plot of Ymir, when and where does it take place, and how does it alter the story of Beowulf?
Ymir is far future sci-fi story about a despised prodigal returning to his icy homeworld to hunt down an ancient, sapient warmachine that has interrupted his employer’s mining operation.
It parallels Beowulf in that there’s an arrival, and a monster, and an otherworldly cavern, but you would have to squint eyeball-pulpingly hard to see it as a retelling.
So then did you set out to write a vague reworking of Beowulf and Ymir is what you came up with, or did you start writing Ymir and realize it was already Beowulf or that it would work even better as a reworking on Beowulf?
Ymir‘s working title was Cyberpunk Beowulf because that was the vibe I was after: cold, violent, mythic. But the plot diverged almost instantly, and the final product owes more to Martin Cruz Smith’s Rose, Émile Zola’s Germinal, William Nicholson’s Slaves Of The Mastery, Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters, Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon, and William Gibson’s Neuromancer.
People liked “Beowulf in space” as a hook, though, so I’ll be spending the summer apologizing to diehard Beowulf fans who pick it up expecting something more faithful to the epic.
And did you choose to set Ymir in an icy mining colony because Beowulf is set in cold Scandinavia or because of something else?
Ymir‘s settings draw much more from my own life than from Beowulf. The frozen surface was inspired by winters in northern Alberta, and the Cut has a bit of that oiltown vibe, though I also mixed in Chengdu and Prague. The inhospitable environment amplifies the harsh homecoming.
As you said, Ymir is a science fiction story. But is it a sci-fi space opera story, a space fantasy story, or something else entirely?
Ymir is an exploration of my own cycles of self-destruction posing as a grimy post-cyberpunk thriller posing as Beowulf in space.
Ymir is your second novel after Annex, and third book after Annex and your short story collection Tomorrow Factory. Are there any writers, or specific stories — besides Beowulf and the books you already mentioned, of course — that had a big influence on Ymir but not on anything else you’ve written?
As well as borrowing from the books I mentioned above, Ymir is something of a spiritual successor to my short story “Ice,” which was first published by Clarkesworld in 2015 and later adapted into an Emmy-winning episode of LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS.
How about non-literary influences; was Ymir influenced by any movies, TV shows or games?
Non-literary influences include Bojack Horseman, a long-gone online flash game called Galidor Quest, and a song by OnCue.
Beowulf is a stand-alone story, but sci-fi novels like Ymir are sometimes part of larger sagas. So what is Ymir?
Ymir is a stand-alone novel. In fact, I wrote it as if it were the last novel I would ever write. I fed this book all my misery and taught it all my best tricks. I don’t see it selling huge or getting award buzz, but it’s the best book I was / am capable of writing, and odds are at least one reader somewhere in the world will connect with it on every single level. That’s good enough for me.
Speaking of books that are part of a series, when we did the interview for Annex, we talked about how that was the first book in a trilogy called The Violet Wars. Where do things stand for books 2 and 3?
It’s a long story, Paul. I was struggling to deliver a satisfactory draft of Cypher, then intended to be the middle book of a trilogy, so my publisher suggested turning the trilogy into a duology. I tried to rewrite Cypher as book two of two, rather than two of three, and this time couldn’t even complete a draft.
It hurt to fail so badly at the one thing I was always so good at. I felt like I was letting everyone down: my publisher, my agent, the handful of readers who loved Annex and were eager for a sequel. Every few months I get a confused email asking what happened with Cypher, and explaining stings every time.
Silver linings, though. Since Annex wasn’t moving copies anyways, my publisher agreed to scrap the duology, re-redo the contract, and let me write an entirely unrelated adult novel. Which became Ymir.
Finally, I asked earlier if Ymir had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to turn things around, do you think Ymir could work as a movie, show, or game?
I think Ymir would make a fucking fantastic movie, but my film agent warned me it’s a swing-for-the-fences type thing, since the required budget would be massive. Tamsyn Muir thought it would make a cool game, and I could see that, too. Linka’s bar does feel like a hub, and Yorick is always fiending for power-ups.
If someone did want to make it into a fucking fantastic movie, would you want it to be animated like your short story “Ice” was for LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS? Maybe even by the same people, Passion Animation Studios?
Animation would be sick, and I loved what Robert Valley’s team did with “Ice.” It’s fun to dream about adaptations, and awards, and adulation — but the most likely scenario is that Ymir gets one print run, does decent in French translation (they think I’m brilliant; please don’t inform them otherwise), and then sinks into oblivion without a ripple. That’s what we all need to brace for: being quickly forgotten.