LSQ: Given your background as a historian of the Byzantine Empire, what about this era and setting fit with the telling of this story?
Arkady: I would not have been able to tell this story without being the sort of historian I am; it is a story very deeply rooted in Crusader history, medieval Western Christian theology, and a (Jewish) Byzantinist’s problem with both. Much of this story comes straight out of medieval accounts of the First Crusade; what doesn’t is my attempt to grapple with what Crusading legends do, how they effect historical memory, how they distort time.
A distortion that Michel and Thomas are well-aware of, by now.
Arkady: Thomas and Michel are certainly caught in some sense. And they experience time out of sequence, and over and over. I don’t want to specify whether the way that they are caught is a time loop, or a religious process, or a series of hallucinations – or both, all, none of these things. The importance is that they are caught. Or – Michel is caught, and Thomas may or may not be, but has chosen to be caught alongside Michel.
If I might ask a question in return: would it make a difference if Thomas was real or a figment of Michel’s imagination? Or if Thomas was or was not human?
LSQ: The history of the Crusades in Antioch, returning again and again in dreams, the brutal dryness of the desert — this story has a timeless feel to it. Is there a theme you’d like the reader to pull out of this?
Arkady: This story is less timeless than it is timeslipped; deserts are deserts, aren’t they? No matter when. Right? (Or not right: deserts are hollow spaces that can be variously filled.) I opened this story with a quote from Jabes for very specific reasons: wandering creates the desert. It is not the desert that is changeless. It is the wanderer seeing the desert that sees changelessness.
Is that a theme? If you like.
LSQ: Has Turkey or the Byzantine Empire made its way into other works of yours? Does this setting/era lend itself to speculative fiction in a way readers might not be aware of?
Arkady: So I ran an entire conference about Byzantium in SFF this past summer at Uppsala University in Sweden, because Byzantium and byzantinism is hidden all throughout speculative fiction. Byzantium is a site of familiar otherness. The thematic elements of post-Roman imperial formations and the literatures which they produced – including but not limited to decadence, the post-Roman world, the problem of defining barbarian and citizen, and the use of ‘Byzantine’ settings and symbology as codes for the foreign or exotic – are everywhere. (So are Byzantinists. I am not the only one: Harry Turtledove holds a PhD in Byzantine history as well.)
I myself use Byzantium less as a setting and more as an influence. My debut novel, with comes out in early 2019 from Tor Books, was heavily influenced by my academic work on the 1044 CE Byzantine annexation of the Bagratid Armenian city of Ani. I spent a lot of time thinking about who benefited from that annexation, and what it might be like to be a person who contributed to the devouring of one’s own homeland by a rapacious, compelling empire… and wrote a space opera, which is called A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE, that not only deals with those questions but makes explicit use of Byzantine-esque literary culture as an imperial trait.
I’ve also written what I’d call a ‘SF saint’s life’, “Contra Gravitatem”, which appeared in Lackington’s a bit ago – which again, was highly influenced by Byzantine literature, but is not at all a story about Byzantium.
LSQ: Who are some authors that are influencing your work or inspiring you at the moment?
I am very interested in procedurals right now. And in telling detail coupled with internality and lyricism.
LSQ: Are you working on other projects currently? If so, can you tell us a bit about them?
Arkady: Currently I have just begun the sequel to A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE, which is about incomprehensibility and impossible wars; I am also working on a couple of short stories, one on ghosts in the New York City subway, one about an AI and a semi-haunted desert house and a murder, and one about what would happen if you entered a prize drawing and won a free marriage to the Raven King.