In his latest novel, The Redemption Engine, James Sutter's "misotheist" hero Salim Ghadafar visits a catacomb-riddled city to solve a mystery involving missing souls. He talked with us about the novel, and atheist characters in worlds full of gods.
James L. Sutter is the managing editor for Paizo Publishing and a co-creator of the Pathfinder roleplaying game campaign setting, Golarion. In addition to the novels Death's Heretic and The Redemption Engine, he's written a wide swath of fantasy and science-fiction short stories, along with several Pathfinder role-playing supplements. The Redemption Engine will be released by the end of April.
io9: Salim Ghadafar, the protagonist of your first novel, returns in The Redemption Engine. How much time has passed since we last saw Salim? What's he been up to?
James Sutter: I've left it vague exactly how much time has passed, but I feel like it's probably a year or two. When we last saw Salim, he was down in the southern deserts, and at the start of The Redemption Engine, he's just arrived in the northern city of Kaer Maga—something like traveling from Cairo to Stockholm.
As for what he's been up to... I imagine he's been doing small jobs for Pharasma (the death goddess), but nothing on the scale of the adventure in Death's Heretic. At the end of that book—and here we're delving deep into spoiler territory—he's left behind the one woman he's really been able to have feelings for since the death of his wife a lifetime ago. He wasn't quite able to bring himself to take the happily-ever-after option, but a part of him has reawaked, and it's rattled him, knocked him out of his comfortable self-loathing. So I imagine he's probably been throwing himself into his work to try and distract himself.
io9: Redemption Engine takes Salim to Kaer Maga, a city of exiles and misfits. Can you give me the Tourist's Guide to Kaer Maga?
James Sutter: Kaer Maga is a huge stone hexagon standing at the top of a cliff. Nobody knows who built it or why, but thousands of years ago the first humans to run across it realized it was honeycombed with passages. People moved in, and for a while it was used as a prison colony, but eventually its parent empire fell and it became an independent city. Due to its checkered past, the city become a hotspot for refugees, criminals, escaped slaves, and anyone else who doesn't quite fit into "normal" society.
Today, the city is basically an anarcho-capitalist paradise. There's no official government, just a bunch of different gangs and factions that balance each other out. Literally nothing is off-limits, but if you get too far out of line, one of the other factions will smack you down. "Your business is your business" is basically the city motto, making it the perfect place to escape your past and find a new life.
As a result, the city is full of really unusual folks who wouldn't fit in anywhere else. For instance, you've got the bloatmages, spellcasters who believe that magic runs in the blood, and thus artificially overload their circulatory systems until they're giant swollen blood-balloons. There are the regenerating troll augurs who cut themselves open and read the future in their own innards. You've got the Sweettalkers, who believe that the divine gift of language shouldn't be wasted on unworthy concepts, and thus sew their own lips shut. And then of course there are your necromancers and technomancers and the subterranean rangers who keep the city safe from the monsters that live in the ancient caverns beneath the city... Really, one of the hardest parts of writing The Redemption Engine was knowing that there was no way I could show off more than a fraction of the city.
Fortunately, I didn't have to! As it turns out, I actually published a full tourist's guide to Kaer Maga a few years ago— the book is called City of Strangers, and has everything you need to use Kaer Maga as an RPG setting.
io9: I've always found the concept of an atheist in a fantasy world that is directly impacted by deities really interesting. How does Salim's philosophy of atheism work when he travels the planes and has interactions with beings who call themselves gods? Is this shaped by the particular cosmology of Golarion?
James Sutter: To be fair, I've gotten some criticism for calling Salim's anti-god philosophy "atheism," instead of a more technically accurate term like "dystheism" or "misotheism." But I stand by my choice, given that few people even know what those other words mean. (For instance, "misotheism" just makes me think of soup.)
For Salim and his fellow Rahadoumi atheists, there's no question that the gods exist—that's empirically provable, as gods grant magic to their priests, and even nonbelievers can speak to the gods directly if they're willing to spend the time and money to set it up. What Salim believes is that just because a god exists is no reason to worship it. Sure, they're extremely powerful entities, but so are kings and merchants and crime lords, and we don't worship them. To Salim, binding your immortal soul to a god is basically indentured servitude, and even if it comes with some nice perks (like magic), you're still selling yourself out. He also resents the way the gods mess around in mortal lives, either allowing or directly causing bad things to happen—there's a reason the phrase "playing god" has such negative connotations in our culture.
While this is of course shaped by Salim's specific experience—he long ago bound himself to the death goddess in exchange for a miracle, and has regretted it ever since—I think that it raises some useful questions for the real world as well. It seems like a lot of folks spend time arguing about whether god is real, when to my mind, the question is, "Even if gods are real—so what?" Just because someone created me or could crush me like a bug doesn't mean I need to swear to serve them, especially if I don't agree with all of their principles. (And honestly, any gods that allow this much suffering in the world had better have a damn good excuse, or I'd probably side with Salim and give them the finger, too.)
io9: Which of your influences came through strongest while writing The Redemption Engine?
James Sutter: China Miéville. When I first started designing Kaer Maga many years ago, I had just read Perdido Street Station, and it blew my mind. I'd spent so much time with "traditional" fantasy based on Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons that to see someone diverge so flagrantly from the standard tropes was deeply inspiring. One of China's great gifts is taking ideas that at first sound absurd—people with beetles for heads? cactus people?—and then writing them so well that by the end you're totally on board.
I also love authors like Dan Simmons who aren't afraid to throw all their setting ideas into the pot for a given book, and directors like Guillermo Del Toro and George Lucas who aren't afraid to "waste" a rad creature design on a two-second cameo.
So in Kaer Maga, I tried to learn from places like Perdido Street Station and Mos Eisley and make a city that was as chock-full of weirdness as I could make it. Once the book heads off to Heaven and Hell, I was really inspired by authors like Clive Barker and artists like Wayne Barlowe (whose visions of Hell are some of the best since Heironymous Bosch).
io9: At this point there are 21 Pathfinder Tales. Some of the novels are ongoing series with recurring characters, but for the most part they've all been fairly self-contained. What's the grand plan for Pathfinder Tales? Any multi-author events? Any corners of Golarion you'd like to see explored?
James Sutter: The grand plan is the same as it's always been: to make the best fantasy novels we can and get people excited about the Pathfinder campaign setting. Of course, at a more philosophical/world-domination level, my goal is also to eradicate the idea that tie-in fiction (work written in the world of a game/movie/show/etc.) is somehow "lesser" than regular fiction. But I think that's already getting chipped away at as you see more and more respected authors like Brandon Sanderson and Greg Bear writing tie-in.
In terms of areas I'd like to see explored, one of the advantages of being Managing Editor is that if I feel like an area of the world isn't getting the love it deserves, it's pretty easy to fix that problem. And as far as multi-author events go, we've definitely had some crossovers—characters created by certain authors showing up in other authors' books—but it's always 100% consensual between the authors. As an editor, I believe strongly that one of the best ways to get good work out of writers is to give them as much creative control as possible—ours come up with their all their own characters, plots, etc. So while a big multi-author arc would be possible, I would want to be very careful to make sure that it wasn't stifling for folks. And at this point, I'm still very much a fan of the "every book should stand on its own" model—I want every novel to be a potential entry point to the line.
io9: Every novel, adventure path, and gazetteer that Paizo publishes adds more interlocking pieces to this massive fictional world. Could you talk about the challenges of maintaining consistency and continuity? Has that changed in the last two years, as Pathfinder grows?
James Sutter: It's a constant challenge! When we first started this thing, something like seven years ago now, everybody knew everything. Now the world has grown so much that it's basically impossible for anyone to keep up with every aspect of continuity (though I should give a shout-out to our developer Mark Moreland, who gets the staff award for Biggest Continuity Goob). Instead, we all play to our strengths. For instance, I might be the expert on the solar system, but our publisher, Erik Mona, is passionate about the city of Absalom, and Senior Developer Rob McCreary really loves the failing empire of Taldor, and so on. That sort of distributed interest and knowing who to ask about what helps us all stay organized (and sane). We also have a really incredible fan-run wiki at pathfinderwiki.com that we use internally all the time, and which I point my authors to.
That said, it should be noted that I don't expect my authors to know everything about the setting and rules. As an editor, I help them locate the material that's directly relevant to what they're writing about, and act as a sort of research assistant during the process, helping them take advantage of all our in-house resources.
io9: How much crossover is there between your novel writing and RPG writing? You've got your feet planted in both worlds — are you more often writing a novel scene and statting up something that turned out cool for Pathfinder, or pulling in ideas from the RPG to create scenes in the novel?
James Sutter: The thing I'm most in love with about RPGs has always been setting, so in that sense, there's not really a difference between fiction and RPG writing—it's all just worldbuilding and a chance for me to explore new cultures and landscapes.
In the case of The Redemption Engine, there are definitely a few things—such as the creepy censor angels called excinders—that I'm pretty sure will wind up statted out in a Bestiary before long. But the flip side of that is those occasions when you're skimming through a Bestiary and a monster jumps out at you, and you immediately think, "Oh my god, I have to write about that!" Two characters from Death's Heretic—a riddle-talking chaos-snake called a protean and a robotic lawkeeper called an inevitable—ended up in the story solely because I'd always been enamored with the concept art. Having those grains of sand to let the pearls grow around can be a huge help in getting past the Curse of the Blank Page.