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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is speculative fiction author Premee Mohamed! Her short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies, including The Book of Witches and Robotic Ambitions: Tales of Mechanical Sentience; in Slate‘s Future Tense Fiction series of stories about science and technology; and in many publications, including Analog, Escape PodFireside, and PodCastle. She is also the author of several longer works, such as the Aurora Award–winning post-apocalyptic novella The Annual Migration of Clouds, the Nebula and World Fantasy Award–winning novella And What Can We Offer You Tonight, and the novels in the Beneath the Rising series, which includes books nominated for the Locus and British Fantasy Awards. She has had two books released in the last couple of months, The Siege of Burning Grass and The Butcher of the Forest, and We Speak Through the Mountain is coming in June. I’m thrilled she’s here today with “Speculative War and Writing What You Cannot Know.”

Cover of The Siege of Burning Grass by Premee Mohamed Cover of The Butcher of the Forest by Premee Mohamed

Speculative War and Writing What You Cannot Know

If we can start with a shocking, even unspeakable opinion, then let’s start there: Murder is bad and we shouldn’t do it. If we can expand from that (do we dare?): Ordering people to murder is also bad and we shouldn’t do that either.

But we do. And we do. And we have for millennia. What is wrong with us?

I’ve never held to the idea that writers should only ‘write what we know.’ It’s constraining to the point of parochialism, it’s an embarrassment to say out loud. Even when people mean it to be expanded into ‘Writers should research what they don’t know,’ I don’t like it. Just as an example, I don’t know anything about what it’s like to go to war (even though I’ve literally read a book entitled What It Is Like To Go To War by Karl Marlantes: it didn’t help) but I write about it all the same—stubbornly, repeatedly, year after year.

Most recently, my novel The Siege of Burning Grass deals with a war in progress, and a pair of mismatched pawns shoved across a colossal chessboard by one side in an effort to win it (they carefully avoid saying ‘end’ it). My novella The Butcher of the Forest deals with the aftermath of a war of colonization, and an arrogantly invasive out-group refusing to seek out the knowledge of a subjugated in-group. My short stories have covered war against zombies (Instructions), nuclear powers (Sixteen Minutes), other humans (Four Hours of a Revolution, The General’s Turn), nature (The Arrival of the New World), and gods (too many to list). Arguably, I’m obsessed with war in a speculative setting. Why?

Writer and filmmaker David Mamet has described an author’s motivation to return to specific subjects as their bruise—something they repeatedly touch to see if it still hurts. Usually, he suggests, this is something they simply ‘can’t figure.’ His example is a young playwright who is enraged by personal and systemic racism, feeling it should be eradicated by now, and so keeps writing about racism in play after play because they want to comprehend what seems to be incomprehensible, either because it’s so obvious or because it’s so opaque.

I’m the same way about war. It pains me even from my immense moral and physical distance, so I keep returning to it, hoping rather than expecting that at some point, in some piece, I’ll arrive at a conclusion to make it stop hurting. I’ve read hundreds of books about war and related topics over the years: the evolution of weapons, changes to strategy, the lives of officers, memoirs of the enlisted, sociological studies of pre- and post-war populations and economies, the psychology of war, the philosophy of war, as well as the usual reams of basic historical accounts. This group attacked that group, this country attacked that country, it went on for so many years, so many people died, etc.

I’ve been down in the trenches with young men watching their toes rot off, and up in the control rooms watching timers count down, and I still don’t understand it. There’s always a point where we can step back from deliberately, cold-bloodedly taking a human life, no matter the provocation. And to say not only can we not, but we can’t on a giant scale—that makes me despair for what I know about human nature, and maybe think that I’m wrong about humanity overall.

For me, this is where fiction comes in. Just as someone writing graphically about murder or torture may not be able to imagine themself doing it, they must be able to imagine a character doing it to write about it convincingly, and to justify the character’s desires and motivations. I have to explore this glaring void in our humanity through the filter of made-up worlds.

Why speculative war instead of historical fiction then? I like N.K. Jemisin’s reasoning around speculative fiction in general: Sometimes we need to write about the world next to ours in order to remove the confounding factors about our own world. In this way we can convey our ideas more clearly—forgoing the tangled mess of real history, and constructing simpler, purer geometries consisting of only those things we want to focus on. (A friend suggested that if I had taken out all the speculative elements from The Siege of Burning Grass and set it in the Balkans, it might be up for the Man Booker prize. But that wasn’t the goal.)

In genre work, particularly sci-fi and fantasy, the author is counting on the reader to do two things. The first is just to expect genre—that is, to be prepared for, even eager to see, a certain level of worldbuilding and imagination that deviates from the real world. The second is to do some of the work—the world we build in the story is collaborative, and the reader, we hope, will bring in their own images, ideas, and details as they read.

But when I write about war, I don’t want the reader to bring in a backpack full of knowledge about real wars and their outcomes. That’s one of the variables I’d like to control in the fictional experiment, just as I want to focus on characters rather than real historical figures, so that I can highlight other story components: the trauma, atrocity, and immorality of war. Instead of the way things did turn out, I want readers to focus on the narrative uncertainty of how things might turn out, in a much more contained setting.

Cover of Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed Cover of A Broken Darkness by Premee Mohamed Cover of The Void Ascendant by Premee Mohamed

Particularly in The Siege of Burning Grass, what I wanted to explore was character agency through the lens of knowing that real people generally have very little agency in life, and even less in times of war. Generations of editors and readers have been trained to seek out and approve only those stories where the active characters, veritable locomotives of independence and individualism, force their way through every obstacle in the perfect circle of the Hero’s Journey, blowing up mountains and filling in swamps, laying the track of their lives as they go. Whereas in real life, we’re all vaguely aware that everything from the food in our fridge, to our commute to work, to the jobs that we’re trained and hired to do, to where we can live, the roads we traverse, the quality of the air we breathe, is all the result of the communities, systems, and institutions that control our lives to the point where our everyday movements are genuinely so limited we may as well be living in a shoebox.

It’s true that it’s nice to read stories about ‘active’ characters as escapism, but we should show some respect to ‘passive’ characters who, after all, have the advantage of verisimilitude. Alefret is coerced into his mission with threats to his friends and his own freedom; his minder, Qhudur the military fanatic, is going because he was ordered to (also, he’s a fanatic). As with virtually all military operations, the decisionmakers at the top are the only ones with ‘agency,’ and their goal is to use it to make everyone else do what they’re told.

In the world of the story, the volunteer recruits have run out long ago; they’re well into conscription, another uncomfortable topic to address in the microcosm of a novel (also, I would be remiss not to shout out Matt Wallace’s Savage Legion series here, as the titular legion of conscripts is, unusually for epic fantasy, the focus of the three books). War is about bodily autonomy, and it’s the starkest example of how easily and completely it can be taken from the average person by powerful people, for reasons that may not be logical, moral, or even rational. Conflict versus cooperation or collaboration or compromise is another thing I have to address in writing about war; stories, we’re told, all stories, have to run on conflict. Conflict is the story engine, or else why bother? And so with the real world: When disagreements arise on a large scale, it’s true that sometimes we can talk our way out of things getting violent, or buy or scheme or negotiate our way out. But when those fail, I almost still cannot believe the final recourse is “I’m sending my people to murder your people.”

Writing about war means writing about failure, and I’m so uncomfortable with it I feel I have to keep doing it. I also have to keep circling back to the collateral damage of war, which decisionmakers have historically either taken heroically in stride (“It can’t be avoided”) or aimed directly at (“It’ll help us win the war”). In Siege, I discuss the civilian-killing actions both sides take to deny resources like timber or livestock to the enemy; in These Lifeless Things I focus on civilians surviving the guerrilla war ongoing in their city, avoiding being targeted by the enemy and finding food, water, and shelter.

Particularly in the intersection between cosmic horror and military stories, I also want to explore the trope of the traditional cosmic horror ‘villain’ as an ancient being or pantheon of unimaginable power and knowledge, who can therefore either wipe humanity off the face of the planet or will simply not notice or care that that’s an option—uncomfortably similar, again, to military commanders who consider noncombatants either an obstacle or a conceptual sacrifice, perfectly reasonable to make in order to achieve their other objectives. In my Void trilogy of novels (Beneath the Rising, A Broken Darkness, The Void Ascendant), the main question that gets asked is: How can you wage war when only one side can fight? What can humanity do against insurmountable odds? Why bother, when you get right down to it, fighting at all when you know you cannot defeat your aggressor? Who buckles, who collaborates, who goes underground, who continues to resist, and why?

In The Butcher of the Forest, the only way to avoid the dangers of the forest (which itself checks many boxes for the average cosmic horror antagonist!) is to possess knowledge about it, and again war ruins this: The Tyrant and his people are outsiders who have waged war to take possession of Veris’ region, and they regard their latest conquests as resources to be used up rather than human beings to connect with and learn from. As a result, the conflict that kicks off the story is the Tyrant’s children going missing in a forest that poses no danger to the local children, because they know to avoid it. In many of my stories I want to dig into the ‘why’ of war, and ‘war to colonize’ is another topic I cover better in a speculative setting, so that I can speak about and around the violent history of India and the Caribbean, where my family is from.

It’s not that I enjoy writing about dehumanization, forced migration, famine, enslavement, imprisonment, starvation, torture, death, disease, and all the other atrocities attendant upon war; it’s that this is the bruise that keeps hurting me, compelling me to write till I get to the bottom of it. Not that I intend to spend my entire career writing about war in speculative settings, but certainly I have not gotten to the end of it yet. And unfortunately, neither has humanity.

Photo of Premee Mohamed Premee Mohamed is a Nebula, World Fantasy, and Aurora award-winning Indo-Caribbean scientist and speculative fiction author based in Edmonton, Alberta. She has also been a finalist for the Hugo, Ignyte, Locus, British Fantasy, and Crawford awards. Currently, she is the Edmonton Public Library writer-in-residence and an Assistant Editor at the short fiction audio venue Escape Pod. She is the author of the ‘Beneath the Rising’ series of novels as well as several novellas. Her short fiction has appeared in many venues and she can be found on her website at www.premeemohamed.com.