Author Naomi Novik recently published Tongues of Serpents, the sixth book her Temeraire series. We talked to her about what's next for her dragons-in-the-Napoleonic Wars alternate history, as well as her passion for preserving fanfic online.
Best known for her beloved Temeraire series - which Peter Jackson has vowed to turn into a miniseries - Naomi Novik started her career as a videogame designer who wrote fanfic online. Mostly her fanfic took place in the Master and Commander universe, which reflects her ongoing interest in historical fiction. Then, in the early 2000s, she began to publish her Temeraire novels, where intelligent dragons serve as both weapons and soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars, changing the entire face of the conflict. But she maintained warm ties with the fanfic community where she started, and has recently worked with the Organization for Transformative Works to create an online archive for fanfic called An Archive of Our Own. In the clip above, she explains why fanfic is a crucial part of literary history.
As we sat poolside in a San Diego hotel, Novik explained how she made the jump from historical novels to dragons:
I'm a big fan of both history and dragons – primarily I'm a huge scifi and fantasy fan. I need something to be going on that's not just everyday. It doesn'thave to be magical in a supernatural sense but I want the stakes to be high in my entertainment. I want a big war or the end of the world, an apocalypse. And I generally find that genre gives me that. As for the Temeraire books – I had just gotten into a naval adventure Napoleonic phase because I'd seen the movie Master and Commander and read all the books. I thought, now how can I add to it? Zombies or dragons or magic? I wanted an element of wonder and fantasy is really good at bringing that to the table. I love being in a world you think you know – that you recognize – and all of a sudden there are dragons.
What are her big dragon influences? Were there any she had in mind when she created Temeraire and his cohort? Novik said:
I read [Anne McCaffrey's dragon books] - and I cried buckets over Dragonsong. I love Ursula LeGuin's dragons with their elemental power. Of course Smaug is always there in the background. But I really liked the idea of [McCaffrey's] Pern dragons – that they are friends, so the most terrifying monster of our imagination is turned into an ally. I think that's compelling. Plus there's that whole soul bonding and partnership. What I wanted was a more fraught partnership. Because Pern dragons – it's a permanent unquestioning thing – it doesn't seem like the dragons have a choice. You're bonded and stuck. I like the idea of dragons perhaps being vulnerable to that pairing but not constrained. It's more like a marriage where both parties agree to stay. That opens up more possibility for conflict.
So is Laurence's relationship to the dragon Temeraire like a marriage? She replied:
The middle three books have been about their evolving partnership. By end of book 6, Laurence and Temeraire are full partners and both of them needed to change to get to that place. Laurence had to overcome a whole host of issues and Temeraire had to gain more knowledge of the world. Now I feel like going into last 3 volumes of the series they've solidified their partnership – they both take care of one another and give to one another. The emotional arc is about the meeting of true minds.
But one thing that never happens in the Temeraire books is sex between humans and dragons - unlike in other dragon-themed series. With a grin, Novik said:
[In series with dragon/human sex, sometimes] the author is just throwing everything is at the page. I think, sure – go for it – let your dragons have sex with people. Fabulous. In my books the dragons are slightly too large for that. By the same token, my dragons don't need to have shame – they can do their business anywhere they want. They're not likely to have body self-consciousness like a Napoleonic-era man.
One of the big themes in the Temeraire books is the way Laurence and Temeraire work to secure more rights for dragons - who, in the first novel, are basically slaves. Are dragons an allegory for minority groups? Novik said:
Obviously the dragon rights theme works as an allegory. But the minority in this case has a significant advantage of size and strength. It's a minority that has a kind of power that most minorities don't have. Of course the reasons most minorities are oppressed is that they can't resist that oppression in many ways. What I like doing is having the dragons work at undermining the society, the oppressive structures of the Regency period. Because I think that makes for interesting stories. It's much more interesting to me at least to see [how dragons affect] British gentlemen grappling with necessity of treating women as equals or discovering an empire in Africa that can kick your ass. I like looking at colonization efforts that failed because local resistances were aided by dragons.
We know that colonial narratives are really quite sad. They're all about cultures that were lost. My parents came over from Eastern Europe and I grew up speaking Polish at home. I had a whole separate culture at home as well as being in American culture. It makes me sad when I know so much culture was lost during colonization - but it's also fun to play with that story.
So what's next for Temeraire? Novik spilled the beans:
In the next three books, we'll see a conclusion to the Napoleonic wars and see them become a global war. Partly because of the presence of dragons. And Laurence and Temeraire will deliberately take a major role on the stage of world events. Laurence had to change over 6 books to be willing to take that role with Temeraire. Now I feel like both of them are ready to embrace that role and can do it. And maybe we'll see some American dragons. Book 7 is called Crucible of Gold, and we're going to see the Incan empire. It's one of the native societies that resisted invasion and colonization due to the presence of dragons.