Robert Jackson Bennett Uses Magic To Make Sense Of How Technology Shapes Our Lives

In Robert Jackson Bennett’s critically-acclaimed new novel, Foundryside, a scrappy thief-cum-spy explores a world where items can be “scrived” to think for themselves and bend natural laws. The role scriving plays in this alternate reality is powerfully analogous to how software defines so many aspects of our own lives, and the four merchant houses that dominate Bennett’s fictional society map closely to the tech monopolies that are accruing more and more power every day in the real world. In the following interview, we discuss the political consequences of technology and the power of imagination.

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How does scriving extrapolate the social implications of the internet?

The superficial comparisons to software and technology are fairly obvious in the story: magic functions as instructions, which must be carefully written by some very educated people in order to achieve amazing results — only instead of using pattern recognition to identify hidden, unrealized value in large datasets, the programmers in this world smash things together and blow stuff up. So, a bit more dramatic.

Things are a bit more interesting when you start to consider how using this technology allows people to reshape reality, both directly and indirectly. This method grants certain kinds of people a great deal of power, which allows them to dictate how the world works — much like how the political and economic schemes of our world are increasingly viewed through the lens of the internet, in the world of Foundryside, everything is shaped by scriving. They cannot imagine living without it, and they can’t imagine not using it to get what they want. It’s just too easy to colonize and conquer.

What can we learn about ourselves from the systemic problems illustrated in the book? How do we build a future that leverages the power of scriving without winding up in a merchant house oligarchy?

I think technology and technologists trend toward moral agnosticism. There is a belief that the purpose or value of a technology will reveal itself after being exposed to the market – you make it available for sale, and people, being pretty smart, will use markets to figure out how to use it to produce the most value. In other words, the morality of a technology is often someone else’s problem. It’s not an engineering problem, in other words.

But I think we’re seeing now that markets make good servants but poor masters, and right now, technologists seem to believe markets are masters more than servants. Amazon wants to sell facial recognition software to ICE, Google wants to sell a censored search engine to China — these are all decisions that pencil out to make a great deal of money, but are morally bankrupt. If technology continues to develop in this sort of environment, then the world of yawning inequality and tyrannical merchant houses is inevitable.

Foundryside is a story of revolution. What are the most misunderstood aspects of real world revolutions? If we want to empower ourselves to make a difference, what should we do and what should we pay attention to?

Revolution is examined much more closely in the sequel, but I would say that it’s important to realize that a revolution is not a singular event, but a violent series of tug-of-war that has actions and reactions. One can argue, for example, that the French Revolution lasted nearly a century, if not more, as various kinds of liberals seized power, only for various kinds of conservatives to pop up and take it back, practically right up until the First World War.

I think we should view revolutions in terms of survival. You should ask: Which groups are the most threatened? Which threatened group has the most power to organize and respond? You fight a lot more when your future’s on the line, and your fight makes a difference when you have the actual power to see it through. You can think of this in terms of the Clayton Christensen model of disruption, where disruptors are put into positions where they must disrupt in order to survive, or you can look at the Founding Fathers, who were almost exclusively upper class landholders and merchants — a critical reason why the American Revolution succeeded.

If a group’s survival is threatened, and if they have enough power to adequately fight back, then a revolution can take place. But if people are distracted or content or fractious, or if they’re unable to organize and act, then either nothing will happen, or dissent will get quickly squashed. There are far, far, far more failed revolutions than successful ones.

History is full of dead, failed heroes. We tend to forget that when we climb up on our metaphorical horses.

The universe the story takes place in has the heft and texture of a fully-realized world that extends far beyond the confines of the novel. How did you build this world?

I read a lot of history, and tried to draw from that rather than play to whimsy. I try to build my worlds so that each facet examines a central theme, however elliptically. Good worldbuilding feels organic, and it feels like there’s a purpose to it — learning about the sort of ships the world uses tells you something about the world and the people, not just the ships.

Even while it wrestles with big problems, the story is packed with intrigue and misadventures. How can “beach reads” that embrace the joy of pulp shed a unique light on important issues and ideas?

A spoonful of medicine helps the medicine go down. I’m all about recontextualizing things we’re dealing with today in terms that make us rethink them. Like, say, slavery — America has a lot of problems with its history with slavery. But if I make up a slave system for my secondary world, it’s suddenly a lot easier for Americans to decide how they feel about slavery. I try to use fun and magical worldbuilding to sort of sneak through the backdoor into people’s brains and plant ideas. I’d say it’s subversion, but it’s really not terribly subtle.

What role does speculative fiction play in society? What do journeys of imagination offer us?

Speculative fiction gives us the emotional distance to allow us to more dispassionately judge our ongoing moral conundrums. People paint self-portraits sometimes because they wish to distort their faces to see how much they can change and still remain “themselves.” Speculative fiction is a literary version of that.

What other books would fans of Foundryside enjoy? What books have changed the way you see the world and your place in it?

I expressly avoided reading Brandon Sanderson as a writer, because I didn’t want to subconsciously steal from him (in fact, I really read almost no fiction these days, for better or worse) but I am told that Foundryside has a lot in common with his works.

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Eliot Peper is a critically-acclaimed novelist and the author of Bandwidth, Borderless, Cumulus, Neon Fever Dream, True Blue, and the Uncommon Series. He lives in Oakland and maintains a popular reading recommendation newsletter.

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