The Gauntlett

Tobias Buckell Has First-Hand Experience in Telling a War Story


You want action? Take a look at this guy Tobias S. Buckell, a Grenadian-born New York Times bestselling author, with 7 novels and over 50 short stories to his credit. Violence is his stock in trade, whether its alien Aztec gods beating seven bells out of Caribbean space-faring settlers on a far-off world, or technothriller spy stories where ex-intelligence operatives find themselves battling over the fate of superweapons that could destroy the planet. He’s on the New York Times bestseller list and has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Prometheus and John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction author. He’s also a huge video game fan who goes nuts for Halo and Skyrm; veteran fans of the Halo franchise may already have one of his books on their shelves, The Cole Protocol.

I was fortunate enough to be able to sit down with the gentleman and interview him for the Escapist. Here’s what he had to say.

Adam Gauntlett: The Writers of the Future competition, which you won in 2000, was an important first step in your career. Can you describe what that meant to you?

Tobias Buckell: It was really exciting! I first encountered the anthology when I was 13 and living in the Virgin Islands. They had the instructions on how to submit and send stories in right on the back. At the time I didn’t even know how to submit a manuscript; this how I found out what to do. I didn’t even know the addresses of other magazines to submit to until many years later, when I was in the States and found the Short Story Writer’s Guide. The Writers of the Future was the first market I tried to break into.

I got rejected quite a lot! I think I submitted almost every quarter for six years, until I finally got published when I was 19, with In Orbite Medievali.

Gauntlett: What kept you going?

Buckell: It just became a habit. I wanted to become a working writer, so I became obsessed with Writers of the Future. I kept at it, and kept at it, and kept at it. High school was a long time ago, and I don’t remember all of it, but I do remember in college reading about how many rejections other authors endured before they succeeded. That gave me the encouragement to soldier on!

Gauntlett: Then you succeeded …

Buckell: It was fantastic! Sometimes in life you get times when you can bring things full circle, and that was one of them. It was the first place I’d submitted, so to finally sell it a story after all those years of trying just felt wonderful. In Orbite Medievali was a story I wrote while I was at Clarion, a six week long workshop for Science Fiction and Fantasy writers, so I was really excited both to sell a story from Clarion and to finally crack Writers of the Future, something I’d been trying to do for years and years and years. Cool!

Gauntlett: Let’s talk Halo. You wrote a tie-in novel, The Cole Protocol. How did that happen?

Buckell: When I was in New York my publisher, Tor, had the rights to work with Halo novels. The editor who was working on the Halo tie-ins was roughly the same age as me, and we talked about favorite video games and the different games we played, so when he, and Halo, were looking for a new writer, he asked if he could put my name in the hat. Tor sent some of my original novels out to the crew, and the guys at Bungie came back and said, ‘Hey, we kinda dig what he’s doing, we feel he’s adventurous, and we’d like to see what he can do with a Halo property.’

When I flew out to meet them and talk about some of the ideas I had, it quickly became clear that I’d played all three titles all the way through, and was very familiar with the universe. I didn’t need to be brought up to speed or anything!

Gauntlett: Which was your favorite Halo title?

Buckell: I really liked Halo 3 because that’s the first one I played. I picked it up when I got an Xbox 360, and I think it came with the console. I played through Halo 3 and then I went back and played Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2. I liked the storytelling in Halo 2; Halo 3 had some great sense-of-wonder moments that were really cool, but because I hadn’t played the previous titles I spent a lot of time being confused, even though I was having a lot of fun!

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Gauntlett: I know you enjoy what’s sometimes described as high octane novella, but what exactly does that term mean to you?

Buckell: I love adventure. Things gotta blow up, man! I like writing things that really pull readers all the way through, and I don’t like to give them a lot of excuses to put the book down. When I say high octane, it tends to be the sort of book where you don’t have time to take a breath. That’s what I like!

I was pretty inspired by a concept William Gibson talks about. When he was trying to write Neuromancer, he said, he didn’t want to give the reader an excuse, at any point on the page, to put the book down. That was guiding philosophy when he structured Neuromancer, and it’s one of my favorite books. It’s extremely tightly written, and extremely hard to put down once it gets going!

Gauntlett: Games often rely on action to tell the story. How do you think that affects the medium? Is it a limitation, something that can be played with, something else?

Buckell: It depends, mostly on the values of the studio. If the studio values storytelling then usually the story comes first and the action is laced throughout. In a lot of other cases we unfortunately have a situation where people will create an engine, create the combat, and drag writers in and say ‘Fill in the gaps.’ I think that shows. I think people know the difference.

For many years, in Hollywood, writers were not exactly respected; they were treated like interchangeable widgets. I think the gaming world is repeating this mistake. I’m always very appreciative of games that come from studios that value narrative; you can tell, when you’re playing them.

I have a very limited amount of time – I have twins! – to play games these days, but I really enjoy Skyrim. I thought that had a lot of narrative. The worldbuilding wasn’t perfect, but I thought it was very fleshed out, and I loved exploring all the facets of it. I spent a lot of time on Skyrim, and that’s because the developers spent a lot of time telling stories in that world, all those quests and events. It’s one thing that Bethesda has been doing for a long time, and I know its reputation comes from a history of producing really great narrative.

Gauntlett: Skyrim, like many other modern titles, is a sandbox. How do you see that changing the method of writing?

Buckell: There are lots of little stories being told inside of it, so you’re able to wander around and explore the stories at your own pace. A game isn’t a novel; in a novel I can force you to go down the route I want you to explore, and the reader’s kind of expecting that. With a game, one of the differences is that the person playing has complete and utter free will. When you’re in a directed narrative in a game, it can feel very confining. Look at Assassin’s Creed or similar titles, where every 30 seconds you’re forced to go through another little cut screen which gives you some more narrative. Some of the narrative can be interesting, but it constantly exposes the hand of the director. Whereas with something like Skyrim you spend a lot more time deciding where you want to go and what you want to experience, which makes the player feel as though he has a great deal of agency.

Gauntlett: Have you ever considered writing for videogames?

Buckell: I have, in the past, talked to people but it’s never quite come together yet. It could be a lot of fun! I’ve done enough consulting work and discussions around the edge that I’m familiar with some of the concepts. I wouldn’t turn it down!

Gauntlett: What would be your dream game project?

Buckell: It would be fun to do something with the guys who do Skyrim, because I really like the open world; I think an open world is great for telling a lot of different stories. There are lots of other games that are cool and interesting, but Skyrim‘s the one I’ve played the most. I figure, if I’ve put in enough hours, I must like it! The results speak for themselves.

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Gauntlett: You were born and raised in Grenada and, as a child, were there during the Coard Coup of 1983, as well as Operation Urgent Fury that resulted in the overthrow of the People’s Revolutionary Army military government. Most writers don’t have that kind of experience; has it had any influence over your writing at all?

Buckell: The influence it has is that I’m often just as interested in the aftermath, the after effects and the side effects of conflict, particularly on the noncombatants. I tend not to invest 100% in the glorification of action. It’s this weird dichotomy; I’m someone who writes action adventure, but who’s also, through reading and through my early experiences growing up, am aware of just what a mess war is.

I was 4 or 5 when that all went down, and 10 when I left. The invasion – intervention, depending on who you talk to – is one of my earliest memories; the aftermath was tough. It was tough to get dealt a blow like being invaded, tough to get the island recovered; not many jobs, there was a lot of crime afterwards. It was hard for people to heal a lot of wounds. There were a lot of things wrong with the revolution, but it had happened because people were frustrated and wanted a better life. The people who thought the revolution was a chance to shake things up and try something different, because things had got so bad that revolution sounded like a good idea, felt very beaten down and frustrated. I think Grenada’s in a better place now, but growing up immediately afterward … a lot of undercurrents, not a lot of stuff out on the surface but a lot of undercurrents, and some bitter people.

It’s actually a thing I wrestle with quite a lot. You write the stuff that takes these archetypes of action adventure, and you play with them, but there’s also a part of me that spends a lot of time trying to unpack all of that.

One of the things I was really proud of is that there’s a section of The Cole Protocol that talks about the efficacy of torture. Particularly in the States, a lot of people have become inured to it, and think of it as an effective tool. If you look at our entertainment, and what’s coming out of Hollywood, heroes now torture in order to get information out of bad guys. It’s always done in such a way that it’s righteous torture. The person is always the bad guy, they never torture someone who’s not a bad guy by mistake – which is something that tends to happen – and the person the hero’s torturing always holds information, so to get it from them is actionable.

The truth is, the more you read about this sort of stuff, the more you learn that this isn’t the way it goes. If you torture someone and they give you bad information, that causes huge problems. When I was writing The Cole Protocol one of the things I did was have a conversation about that. I actually got a lot of letters from soldiers who were really impacted by it, and who liked it. I don’t know how many minds I changed, but the way in which I talked about it gave them some vocabulary that they thought was really useful in having further conversations about it. ‘From a military efficacy standpoint, this doesn’t work, and here’s why,’ not just ‘It’s a problem morally.’ They were interested that I had this extra argument in there, that having bad information can lead you into horrible situations.

It’s unfortunate. Human beings can tell fantasy from reality, but I think that if we keep repeating a narrative over and over and over again, we can begin to absorb it. It’s one of the things I’ve noticed recently, that we’ve become a society which, in its literature and particularly our movies, basically condones torture, where the hero tortures actionable information out of someone. It’s part of the archetype of how action adventure plots are made now. I think it’s one of those things where, as an artist, you have to stop and say, ‘Okay, how can I entertain but also add an alternative to this?’

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