Today At Boundary’s Edge I am thrilled to present my latest author interview. Fresh off the release of his Black Library debut Witchbringer, Steven B Fischer is here to talk about all things grimdark, cosmic horror, and science fiction.
These represent Steve’s thoughts and opinions only and he does not speak on behalf of Black Library, Games Workshop, or anyone else.
Q1: Welcome to At Boundary’s Edge. For those who don’t know you, please introduce yourself.
Thanks so much for having me, Alex–really excited to be chatting with you. I’m a physician living across the pond in the United States, but probably more relevantly to anyone reading this, I’m also the author of a number of speculative fiction short stories as well as the recently-released Warhammer 40K novel Witchbringer. I’ve been a reader and lover of science fiction and fantasy for as long as I can remember, and it’s been a genuine joy to join the group of writers adding to that body of fiction.
Q2: 2022 saw the release of your Black Library debut Witchbringer. What can you tell us about it?
Well, I think you covered the basics quite well in your recent review here on At Boundary’s Edge. Witchbringer is, at its heart, the story of Glavia Aerand–a former Cadian soldier, newly trained as a primaris psyker (i.e., space wizard for anyone not familiar with 40k)–struggling to find her place in the galaxy, and in her own mind when fortune brings her back to her old regiment. I did my best to make that internal struggle the central conflict of the story, although there’s a perfectly messy military campaign occurring on the pages as well. At times, the story is a down-and-dirty, gun-toting tale of a hardened Cadian regiment. At other times, it’s a more abstract look at the mindset of a primaris psyker and the perils of living on the narrow edge between the warp and realspace. The story asks a lot from its readers as we jump between those extremes, but I hope that juxtaposition gets across the challenges that Aerand faces on a daily basis, and I hope the story really delivers in the end.
Q3: Science Fiction is a broad genre. What is it that appeals to you?
Oh, man. What doesn’t appeal to me? Science fiction is such a wonderfully enourmous landscape with so much room for variety and innovation. Even more interesting to me are the sub-genres that slip even those wide boundaries. 40K does a great job of that, pulling elements of classic science fiction, fantasy, and religious fiction together into a setting where quite literally anything is possible.
What I really appreciate about speculative fiction, though, is the ability to use worlds drastically different from our own to teach lessons about humanity here and now. There’s a reason that philosophers and theologians have used parables for millennia. Sometimes, the best way to explore a present, human problem is to tell a story that’s not about the present or about humans at all. The galaxy might look a lot different 38,000 years from now, and while I’m confident that humanity will look much different as well, I also think that questions of belonging, identity, and purpose will be just as relevant then as they are today. That is if we get our act together as a species and make it that far…
Q4: Warhammer 40,000 is one of the origin points of the grimdark movement, but the way it’s been handled has changed a lot over the years. What does grimdark mean to you?
What a great question (and one that’s really tough to answer). At its heart, I think most people agree that the central defining characteristic of grimdark fiction is the way that it treats moral ambiguity. Grimdark–when it’s done well–emphasizes the unfortunate moral complexities of the real world, often focusing on the heroic elements of otherwise villainous characters and conversely highlighting the flaws in characters we might prefer to treat as solely heroic. Generally, grimdark also tends to highlight elements of limited agency, meaning that it usually chooses to focus on characters that are part of a larger machine, with some ability to control their immediate circumstances, but ultimately limited in comparison to larger forces working around them.
Those two elements so clearly mirror the circumstances of most readers, which makes grimdark a really powerful tool for exploring real life. When written well, and when read carefully, I think grimdark can be a wildly effective way to engender empathy and tolerance in readers and encourage them to explore viewpoints they might not usually hold. When written (or read) poorly, however, there’s a risk of those subtleties being missed, and of grimdark straying into violence-worship and stories that actually don’t display much moral complexity and glorify characters that are unnecessarily cruel rather than truly pragmatic or nuanced. So in that way, grimdark fiction is also a big responsibility, for both its writers and its readers.
Q5: There haven’t been a whole lot of books with a human psyker as the main character. What was it like being able to tread new ground in an established setting?
Exciting and intimidating, in equal parts. I talked a bit with Michael over at Track of Words about this before the novel came out, but writing in an established setting has a much different feel than writing completely traditional fiction. In a lot of ways, it feels more like writing historical fiction. The individual characters, plotlines, and elements are yours to control, but there’s a lot of work that goes into ensuring those pieces fit correctly within the larger framework of the existing setting. On the other hand though, that rich, existing background provides a lot of stability as a storyteller and takes a lot of the foundational storytelling work out of your hands, freeing you up to focus more intently on the specific story you’re trying to tell. Writing Witchbringer was the best of both worlds. As an Astra Militarum story, it gave me a huge body of pre-existing work to draw on, but as a sanctioned psyker story, it also gave me a lot of space to really explore new space and forge new ground within that existing framework. There was obviously a bit of weight with that responsibility, but I hope I did right by my characters and my readers.
Q6: One of the things Witchbringer does really well is tap into the cosmic horror elements of Warhammer 40k. How did you approach creating unknowable horrors for a setting in which many of the horrors have game mechanics, and might well be familiar to readers?
It makes me happier than you know to hear you say that. At its heart, Witchbringer is obviously Aerand’s story, but it’s also the story of the world of Visage, and Will (my BL editor) and I knew from the start that we wanted this to be an environmental horror story as much as it was a character-driven novel. I love cosmic horror deeply, and I think it fits so well within the larger framework of grimdark fiction on those elements of both moral ambiguity and agency. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard regarding horror is that a monster is only frightening until you see it, and I tried to channel that in Witchbringer. By limiting the information available to the POV characters about the threats on Visage, my hope was that the reader had a chance to face questions and possibilities rather than a concrete villain until the final moments of the story. I hope that decision paid off for the reader, but there are definitely books out there that do it even better. Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation trilogy is the best cosmic horror written in decades, and if you haven’t read it, go buy it tonight. Forget the movie. That was fun, too, but beyond the initial premise they have next-to-nothing in common, and the second and third books of the series are really where it’s at.
Q7: Alongside Witchbringer, you have short fiction that follows Glavia Aerand. Was this always the plan, or did one lead naturally into the other?
Definitely the latter. One of the best parts of storytelling is the way that characters and plotlines take on lives of their own. When I wrote The Weight of Silver four years ago (wow, has it really been that long?) I hardly knew Glavia Aerand and the soldiers of the 900th, but I immediately knew they had more stories to tell. I was lucky enough to get to continue that tale in The Taste of Fire, and when BL asked me to pitch some novel ideas for the cast from those two stories, I was wildly excited. At that point, I felt that I knew Aerand quite well, and I was able to (mostly) turn things over to her. There’s no greater joy for a writer than shutting off the conscious part of your mind and letting a character tell their own tale, and Aerand definitely took the reins in this one. It was a blast for me to watch the story unfold, and I hope readers feel the same way!
Next up is a section I like to call D20 Questions. I have a list of twenty questions, and choose three at random through the rolling of a twenty-sided dice.
Q7/20: If you could write a sequel to any science fiction book, what would it be about?
Most of my favorite science fiction books were my favorites precisely because they didn’t need a sequel. Writing a story (or a series) that’s perfectly self-contained is an incredible challenge, so I don’t think I’d actually want to add anything to the works that I’ve enjoyed reading the most.
If you’d asked me a couple years ago, I would have told you that I’d write a sequel to Hyperion by Dan Simmons. I read the first novel in the series way back in undergrad, and I’m not proud to admit that I thought it was a stand-alone novel for at least half a decade afterward. Needless to say, I found the ending really unsatisfying and didn’t understand all the good things I’d heard about it until I found out that it was part of a duology…
Q9/20: Who is an author you wish more people had heard of?
I’ll give you two for this one since I dodged the last question.
Number one: Jeff Vandermeer. His Annihilation trilogy (Authority, Acceptance) is my favorite work of cosmic horror, and some of the best fiction I’ve ever read, period. There was a movie by the same name a few years back that was allegedly based on the novels, but don’t judge the books by the film. It was a decent enough flick, but really didn’t have anything to do with the written story past the first few scenes.
Number two: Cormac McCarthy. Now I know a lot of people have heard of McCarthy (I mean the guy won a Pulitzer), but I don’t think he gets a lot of the credit he deserves within the speculative fiction community. The Road is as close to perfection as you can get in a post-apocalyptic novel, and Blood Meridian is technically historical fiction, but it has enough metaphysical elements in it to creep along the edges of the magical realism/slipstream subgenre.
Q11/20: What is the next science fiction book you’re planning to read?
Listen, I’m not normally a romance reader, but I’m really looking forward to checking out The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard. My understanding of the premise: a tech wizard enters an arranged marriage with a sentient ship that is also the leader of a notorious pirate fleet in order to investigate the death of the ship’s previous wife. All set in a rich, expansive interstellar setting with heavy Vietnamese influences.
There are just so many cool elements to love in that setup that I’m more than excited to branch out of my typical sub-genres to check it out. I’ve heard nothing but great things about the story, and hope it lives up to my high expectations!
Final Question: Where is the best place for readers to get updates on your work?
It’s a really basic site, but I keep it updated with anything new that I put out, as well as news, reviews, etc, when they occasionally pop up. Given the impending collapse of modern society at the hands of social media, I’ve done my best to get off of all of it over the last year or two so that I can humble brag about not having it during interviews like this.
Thanks so much for having me, Alex, I really appreciate you giving Witchbringer a read a few months back and giving me a platform to yap about myself a little bit. Keep writing great, thoughtful reviews, and hopefully we’ll have more to talk about soon!
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