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Let’s start here: Martha Wells doesn’t have to prove anything. Her storied career, and her novels’ many, many deserved accolades, speak for themselves. Her first book, The Element of Fire, 1993, kickstarted her Ile-Rien series, the first two books of which will get repackaged and republished in 2024. If you don’t recognize her from her various prolific fantasy series, you might recognize her name from The Murderbot Diaries. Yes, the far-future novella series might be a far cry from Ile-Rien, but Wells has the range, and is ready to get back to making people second-guess what her next move is.
We sat down with Wells to chat about Witch King, what it was like returning to epic fantasy, and, of course, Murderbot. In May, Witch King was released. This novel marks Wells’ return to fantasy after nearly a decade. The main character, Kai, a demon and a witch, was trapped in a water prison for over a year. When he wakes up the politics of his world have shifted, and not in the way he likes. Both a travelog and a recollection of a rise to power, Witch King is remarkable for many reasons, and not just because of Wells’ reputation. More on this later.
Her return to fantasy novels isn’t all Wells has for us. She’s also releasing System Collapse in November—the seventh installment in The Murderbot Diaries, a series which has won the Hugo and the Nebula awards multiple times. Each of these delightful tales follows an unnamed, nongendered, not-person Security Unit as it attempts to deal with noisy humans. While the first four diaries were novellas, Network Effect and System Collapse are both full-length novels. “Stystem Collapse takes place a few days after Network Effect,” Wells said. “And Murderbot is dealing with a lot of the repercussions of that novel, emotionally and, to some extent, physically.”
She said that this book was exceptionally hard to write. “I was supposed to be writing Network Effect in 2019, and I could not get started on it. And that’s when I got the idea for Fugitive Telemetry, a straightforward murder-mystery. And I started writing a scene with Murderbot looking at a body and started writing, and realized, you know, this is really fun and it’s going really well, so maybe we’ll just write this instead.”
When the pandemic hit, Wells had writer’s block. “There were six months that I was supposed to work on System Collapse,” she said, and it just never happened. Much like with Fugitive Telemetry, Wells started on a new book (Witch King), and then went back to System Collapse. “It hit me, finally, what the missing piece was. This book is really about Murderbot dealing with the really traumatic experience of Network Effect… It seems like I always start in the wrong place and then kind of have to work my way back through it.”
Wells is no stranger to struggling to write. She’s written so much, and so consistently that it seems strange to type that out, but Wells truly struggled to start System Collapse. “There’s always a point where you know what you want to say but knowing where to start and finding that story… it’s a process to get there.” One of the parts of the process is about medium; writing fiction vs. nonfiction, original fiction vs. fanfiction, a first novel vs. the seventh in a series. “It’s always a different process… I try to stick with the rule of just telling the audience enough of what they need to know to understand what’s going on in the moment.”
Witch King was a “liberating” experience for Wells. Murderbot is a character who can access so many different perspectives, so Wells really enjoyed sticking to Kai’s POV. The Murderbot Diaries are also restrained in the way they describe the world, and with Witch King, she had a lot of opportunity for her to create a lived-in world and culture around Kai. “I was able to open up and describe and talk more about the different ways the cultures handled gender, for example, and the different ways people dressed and the art. And that’s because fully organic people are interested in that!”
With regards to gender in Witch King (as much has been made of gender in The Murderbot Diaries), “one of the things I wanted to get into with it is that gender is very cultural, and the way people understand it is cultural in the way it’s expressed is cultural.” Wells describes two cultures in the book: one that uses gendered clothing to express gender, and another that doesn’t express gender much at all. As time passes in the book, the cultures blend, and clothing is used by both cultures to designate gender or non-gendered expressions. “And so you can tell that both cultures have changed from impact with the other culture and their views on it have evolved in a natural way as the two cultures who have become really close allies have worked with each other over time.”
Kai’s gender, which is male, is also a little variable. He ends up in a variety of bodies over the course of the book, and by the end of it (and really, even starting with his introduction), it’s hard to know exactly what gender means to him, if it means much at all.
Wells mentioned fanfic and I asked: what was her relationship with fanfic? “I first wrote fanfic before the internet, in Star Wars fanzines. I found fanzines not very long after the Empire Strikes Back came out. I was really involved with fandom for a while. I haven’t really been recently. I still read fanfic because there’s some shows you just want to go back to.” She would love for online fanzines to be a thing again, but in the meantime she’s keeping fanfic tabs open for Chinese dramas, Star Wars, The Avengers, Dorothy Sayers’ murder mysteries, and Galaxy Quest. “It’s kind of nice to be able to dip back into something. You finish the book you’re reading and you’re able to kind of peek in and look for a story that’s going to be fairly short and engaging.”
But right now Wells is taking care of herself while she working on a sequel to Witch King. She started writing it in December, and is—as she said to me, in a way that was far too self-deprecating for an author who published two books this year—that she was “very far behind.” She says said that “I think I’ve finally gotten back on track. I’ve told people I have like 30,000 words, but none of it’s connected.”
Beginnings, as we mentioned earlier in the interview, are very hard. “I think once I get the beginning pulled together, I can get it done, hopefully by the deadline,” Wells said, laughing a little. “Beginings can be rough. Sometimes they come very naturally and you can just go from there. You get that first sentence that’s perfect, and you go on and can do the whole draft. And then other times it’s like I’m wandering around the set. I need to go back. I need to go forward, I have to do another take. Beginnings can be a lot harder than endings.”
Witch King is available for purchase now. System Collapse will releases on November 14.
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