L.E. Modesitt Jr. Interview + Imager Review

L.E. Modesitt, Jr., is the best-selling author of several fantasy and science fiction series, and a name you can’t get through any bookstore’s SFF section without encountering.  I am only familiar with his work on the Imager Portfolio.  From the first book it became one of my favorite fantasy series, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to talk about the books with him.  While I did get some great insight into certain elements in the series, the discussion somehow veered off into cultural territory that I found even more fascinating.  Note on that:  I’m breaking from my usual interviewing presentation and leaving my responses intact, even when they are long, because I’m not sure his answers would make sense without my set-ups.  That being said, I hope you enjoy the perspective!

L.E. Modesitt jr

Elena Nola: I always like to ask writers about their writing process, so let’s start with that.  How do you work—do you use an outline?  Do you know the entire story before you start writing?  Do you have a pretty standard time for writing a novel, or does that vary from book to book?

L.E. Modesitt: As I’ve noted elsewhere, my initial “outline” generally tends to focus on the background of the society, the culture, the government, the geography, some of the history…and, of course, the factors comprising the problem facing the protagonist.  For every fantasy series, I have a basic map before I begin, and some description of the main characters.  I have a solid idea, usually in my mind, of the overall story arc…and where I’m going, but not necessarily all the details of how I’ll get there. I can’t say that I have a standard time for writing a novel.  I’ve averaged about 2 ½ books a year for the last eighteen years or so, essentially since I became a full-time writer.  The shortest book I ever wrote on a full-time basis took four months, the longest eight.

What was the original idea that led to Solidar and the Imager Portfolio?

I was looking for a different kind of magic.  Perhaps because I’d tried to be an artist as a young man and even won an award in a small scholastic art competition, I came up with the idea of visualization magic, and then went to work codifying how it might work in a society and what kind of society would develop and how that society would be affected and/or constrained by that ability.

How much art training have you had?  (One of the aspects I enjoyed most about Imager was the realism of the scenes when Renn is painting.) 

I’ve always been interested in art.  I had a year of what I’d now call rudimentary training in high school.  I painted in oils until well into my 20s and realized that I was far better at painting in words than in oils.  I do have a small collection of art books, and my wife and I do buy and collect original art – modestly priced works – as our finances permit.

One of my favorite aspects of Renn as a character is that he picks up easily on the idea of relative morality, and yet he still maintains a very strong sense of his own code of ethics.  One thing I did wonder when reading through some of the philosophical areas in his education, was whether you expected the concepts to be new to readers or something they would be familiar with? 

I expected that some readers would be familiar with some of the concepts, but that many would not be.  One thing that has surprised me in recent years is how many readers have contacted me to tell me that they learned more about politics and economics in my books than they ever did in school. I’d like to think that does not reflect a scholastic deficiency but the fact that it’s easier to pick up concepts when they’re part of a story…but, these days, I’m not so sure that politics and economics aren’t getting short shrift in schools as well.  While economics and politics – and the philosophy behind them – are central to most of what I write, they’re also central to the workings of any society. Although many authors either focus on action, technology, magic, or romance to the exclusion of those societal basics, I seldom have wanted to do that – or been able to do so, given how strongly I feel about the importance of the ethics [of the lack of it] behind government, politics, and commerce.

I think, from my own experience (graduated high school 2001 and university 2005) that economics, politics, and philosophy are woefully neglected in the general run of education these days. It wasn’t part of my HS education at all, and in college I was exposed to that information because I sought it out–it would have been fairly easy for me to avoid. That was actually something I personally loved about the Imager books…getting the chance to think about those concepts in a way that was divorced from any current/historical socio-political situation on earth. I think that’s something a lot of people find difficult to do, and part of why I enjoy SFF so much.

The use of economic and/or sociopolitical themes in fantasy and science fiction, to me, is one of the best reasons for reading the genre.  Years ago, Bruce Levinson and I co-wrote a book entitled The Green Progression, a very near-future look at politics.  The book got good reviews, including one that noted the book offered one of the best pictures ever of how politics in Washington really operated.  It was also possibly the worst-selling book Tor published in the 1990s, and I think that was because it was too accurate.  People really didn’t want to have their preconceptions [both good and bad] upset.  But when an author presents political issues in a more alien context, readers can evaluate those issues and implications in a less threatening venue and consider their virtues and faults in a more objective way. Certainly, Ursula K. LeGuin was able to explore the interrelation of sex and gender and politics in The Left Hand of Darkness in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in a mainstream novel.

I had not heard of the book you mention but I looked it up to read the premise. Nearly 20 years later do you feel like any parts of it were prescient? And if they were, can I assume you aren’t surprised since you helped write the book? 🙂

What was probably most prescient about The Green Progression was the underlying theme that, for all the rhetoric of the various politicians, the structure of the political landscape really hasn’t changed that much since we wrote the book.  Oh, cosmetic change has occurred, and we’ve had three big market crashes, but everything slides back into the same tropes and conflicts.  We import more oil than 30 years ago; we have incurred more debt; and the political structure is such that it’s close to impossible to make major changes – unless there’s a crisis, and even then, most politicians don’t have the courage, because they’ll lose their job…because most voters don’t really want change.  They just want “more” under familiar circumstances.

How much history do you intentionally inject into your SFF writing?  Do you ever try to draw conscious parallels to situations or civilizations on Earth, or do you strive to keep your societies unique?

I don’t think any society can be totally unique, either in life, history, or fiction, not and be workable.  Human beings have certain needs, and societies develop to meet those needs.  Given that my collegiate studies were spent in economics, politics, and English, that I spent several years as an economist, and roughly twenty years in national politics, not to mention the fact that I’ve always read history and still do…how could my work not reflect all my education and background?  Having said that, I will point out that I haven’t modeled any of the societies and governments in my books directly on anything here on Earth, but the needs and principles in use historically and currently can’t help but be reflected.  Likewise, the political and social problems that people and societies have turn up in pretty much every culture…and in my books and stories.

Someone in the BSC message boards commented on the final book in Rhenn’s trilogy that his ruthlessness at the end was shocking.  Have you had a lot of that kind of reaction from fans?  Was that hawkish pragmatism something you had built into Renn from the beginning, or did he end up surprising even you?

I knew from the beginning that Rhenn would end up a shade colder and more pragmatic than many of my other protagonists. He has his ideals, but what many people fail to comprehend is that, more often than not, idealists can be particularly ruthless, especially idealists who have been through the mill, so to speak. In Rhenn’s case, he’s had many of his own idealistic sensibilities tromped on rather thoroughly, beginning with the effective denial of his abilities as a portraiturist, simply because he is an outstanding artist and represents competition in a tight and competitive market. He’s had family tragedies because of the petty spite and pride of high holders and the unwillingness of the Collegium to stand up for individuals in order to protect the Collegium itself. At the end of Imager’s Intrigue, Rhenn can see quite clearly the possibilities before him. He has no illusions about the limitations of the Council, or about the potential future strength of the Ferran mercantilist society, or about the time it will take to reform Solidar itself.  He’s also seen the ruthlessness of the Ferrans, and their lack of anything regarding scruples. Mercy on his part would only be regarded as weakness and possibly doom Solidar in the time of his daughter.  I’ve had some comments about his ruthlessness, but not an inordinate amount – certainly not of the magnitude of the complaints about Anna’s ruthlessness against patriarchal societies in the Spellsong Cycle.

I’ve seen at least one review that describes the world of Solidar as Steampunk.  I don’t know that I’d agree with that—the society didn’t seem right, even though there is manufacturing and steam technology in the world—but I was curious whether you had that in mind when you were building the world and the society? 

I never even thought about the world as steampunk.  I’ve always been interested in the interface of magic and technology.  For so many years, especially when I was younger, it seemed to me that most fantasy writers effectively decided that fantasy could not or should not have technology.  Randall Garrett was one of the few who didn’t, and I always enjoyed his take on matters, although I’ve taken a different tack in all my fantasy series.  I never could see why magic and technology couldn’t co-exist.  That co-existence, in my mind, is why The Imager Portfolio is fantasy and not steampunk.

You bring up a really great point about fantasy writers seeming uncomfortable with the notion of technology. Do you have a theory as to why that is, such as a devotion to the very medieval standards, or a sense that magic would make scientific inquiry and therefore technology unnecessary (despite any internal logic or experimentation within a magic system)?

Personally, I believe that, at least for some readers, as well as some writers, fantasy offers an escape from the confines of the “real world.”  Add to that the fact that today’s business emphasis on discipline and logic doesn’t always work.  This just increases the desire of people who have to operate in that world to escape from what they see as workable logic and often excessive technology. As a side note, I’ll add that until recently economists insisted on the model of rational markets and rational consumer behavior and decision-making, but recent research indicates fairly strongly that much human behavior is neither logical nor rational, although it may be rationalized, and the fact that much of our behavior isn’t logical may indicate the appeal of non-technological and non-logical fantasy, because such fantasy may well be in greater accord with our subconscious view of the world. Also, for some people, technology has moved from being the hope of the future to a noose that tethers them to their job.  I doubt that it’s exactly coincidence that, as technology has invaded the workplace and the home, the sale of fantasy has increased and the sale and the writing of science fiction has decreased.

I think the point of technological overload is a good one. We’ve had a columnist talk about unplugging for a weekend at her parents’ (which is the same for me when I go home) and how rare it is to be AWAY from the cell phone and the email and the constantly being plugged in.  I do wonder, too, though, if some of the reason for people gravitating away from technology/SF toward non-technology/fantasy is almost an, I don’t know, a familiarity breeds contempt?  We have so much technology but most of it now seems so…microcosmic. In the sense of on a personal use scale, rather than these grandiose visions of golden age SF, exploring the universe and discovering new worlds and new life.  Any thoughts on that?  And to take this back full circle…do you think that lost sense of discovery and possibility, for the average person thinking about science, is behind the (fairly) recent resurgence of subgenres like Steampunk, to the point where it’s become mainstream enough to be brought up on (non-SF-oriented) TV shows?

I’d say that the problem lies as much in science itself as in science fiction.  Readers historically looked for two things in science fiction:  the grand theme intertwined with large and inspiring new technology that appeared possible and the ability to identify with the situation and the characters.  The problem SF writers today face is that grand themes appear scientifically impractical, if not impossible, and large scale technological progress has slowed to a creep.  We put men on the moon almost fifty years ago, and it’s been more than thirty since any have last walked there.  We had a supersonic airliner, and it’s no longer in service.  We can’t really physically get anywhere faster than we did a generation ago, and we can’t communicate, person-to-person (not computer to computer), any faster than then, although more people have that capability. The vast majority of scientific advances have been in “micro” areas, not in large grand and inspiring areas…and frankly, from what we currently know of the universe, that doesn’t appear likely to change.  So…the growth of fantasy and steampunk, urban fantasy and the like doesn’t surprise me.  Most people aren’t inspired by fascinating “little” discoveries, even when they result in profound, if incremental, social change.  I suspect the combination of these factors is behind the explosion of alternate world SF/fantasy.

Do you feel like the desire for “escapism” in reading is also fueling fantasy vs. SF in the social/political context?  That people aren’t as interested, whether from boredom or apathy or a despair of changing anything or whatever, in reading fiction that overtly tackles current issues? 

I certainly can’t disagree with your observation, and the sales figures of books that present current issues, even in a futuristic setting, tend to be far, far, lower than those of escapist fiction, but that’s nothing new.

This may be off-base for what you’ve done with your own (other) books, but while we’re talking about technology and magic… for a long time I’ve kind of felt like magic could (or perhaps I should say would) function as the same sort of gender equalizer that technology does–that when you have a tool that takes away the advantages of brute strength and endurance, then a more balanced society is going to follow. And yet a lot of fantasy tends to be highly paternalistic. Any thoughts on why that might be, or just that general idea of magic being an equalizer?

I frankly think a lot of that has to do more with the marketplace.  My Spellsong Cycle features female protagonists – Anna is a late fortyish singer who’s survived a less than ideal former husband and the death of a daughter and who finds herself in a world where highly ordered song-magic can be powerful.  As a classically trained singer, she’s the one who has an advantage in a highly chauvinistic culture.  Every single book in the series got a starred review from some professional review source, and one even won a Romantic Times award.  But…the series didn’t sell nearly as well as any of my other fantasy series.  Why not?  My own theory, based on emails and letters from readers, is that because I’m male, the books didn’t attract that many new female readers, and a significant percentage of my male readers were uncomfortable with a powerful woman who reverses sex-power roles.

Women authors can and do portray strong women, and some of them sell very well.  Women authors can and do portray strong male characters, and some sell very well.  Male authors can and do portray strong male characters, and some of them sell extremely well.  Male authors who portray strong female characters usually lose a percentage of their readers.

The other thought I have along those lines is that, especially among higher income and educated people, and that’s where most readers come from, we’re seeing a huge educational demographic shift.  Women now comprise an overwhelming proportion of college graduates – approaching 60%.  They’re also winning the vast majority of academic awards and prizes, and except for three or four disciplines, in computers and engineering, they now outnumber men in getting doctorates – especially U.S. men.  Now, since there is a slightly greater percentage of male fantasy readers than female readers, and an overwhelmingly greater percentage of male science fiction readers, I get the feeling that a considerable number of male readers are at least subconsciously uncomfortable with strong women characters.  Certainly, the majority of best-selling fantasy still features strong male characters, and much of it still has a certain residual, if concealed, chauvinism.   While this is definitely changing, I think it will change even more in the years ahead, although it will be interesting to see if these social changes also result in changes in what is offered and purchased by men and women.

It actually makes me really sad to hear that you, a male writer with an established name as an author, lose a noticeable number of male readers when you have strong female protagonists.  I will admit to understanding ENTIRELY men who don’t like to read the type of book that is by women, for women–I mean, I’m not going to pick up a John Ringo book, because I know I am not the intended audience and have no interest in laser-guns meet dinosaurs–but it does seem a lot of males are still uncomfortable with books from a female point of view.  Do you think this is a generational thing?  By that I mean, do you get the impression that younger male readers (and some of the young male writers just breaking in, who would be in their twenties now–AKA my age) are less threatened (even subconsciously) by women having a more equal footing inside fantasy worlds?  Since I graduated college and joined the work force, basically since I got exposed to women of older generations besides those who helped raise me, I’ve felt very strongly that I am really in the first generation of women who sort of take having equal opportunities and expectations for granted, because that was just how it was for me growing up.  The flip side of that is that all the men my age have grown up that way, too, so my personal hope is that there will be a greater acceptance of powerful personality, gender irrelevant, going forward. 

As an “older” male who has a number of brilliant, attractive, and successful daughters, I’m in sort of an anomalous position with regard to “gender appeal” in F&SF.  From the letters and emails I’ve received, I can only say that there appears to be some change in the viewpoints of both men and women in the “younger” generation, but that those viewpoints still, frankly, don’t extend to the majority of the population, and that’s why we still have gender gaps in F&SF.  Another factor, which I came across recently in a journal, is that the hard science community is possibly the most chauvinistic of all the professional communities.  And, of course, there’s the reverse impact.  Recently, I’ve had some women readers complain about Anna in the Spellsong Cycle, saying that she’s not like them, because, while she can be ruthless as necessary, she’s also very careful about what battles she picks and how she fights them.  But…for women of her age, especially at the time the series was written, that was almost always the only way for a woman to succeed.  Certainly, that was true historically as well.  Like it or not, the statistics show that the glass ceiling is still there in the U.S., and it’s a lot lower and more impenetrable in most of the rest of the world.  A movie that I thought portrayed this brilliantly was The Contender, where the entire political world is applying a double standard to an ambitious female senator.  Despite what people may have said about it, based on my twenty years in Washington, D.C., and politics, it was largely accurate [except for the President insisting on speaking to Congress].  There are still large demographic areas and groups in the United States who are incredibly uncomfortable with the idea of powerful women, no matter what their rhetoric may be.

For anyone who is only familiar with your Imager Portfolio, like me, which of your books or series would you recommend as a follow-up?  (Since on your website you make the point that you don’t simply re-write the same series and thus a fan of one might not be a fan of some or all the others.)

I wish I could say that the Saga of Recluce, or the Corean Chronicles, or the Spellsong Cycle would make a good follow-up…but that depends so much more on the reader’s taste than upon my recommendation.  Certainly, the Recluce Saga, based on order-chaos magic, is the oldest, the longest, and the most popular, at least to date, but I have readers that swear by the Spellsong Cycle, usually but not exclusively women, because all five books feature female protagonists and what I would call “true” and rigorous song-magic. Other readers like the earth-magic basis and the life-force semi-militaristic conflict between the two different species in the Corean Chronicles. For those most intrigued by the politics and intrigue of The Imager Portfolio, actually some of my science fiction might be more interesting.

Your website mentions that you’re working on a new Imager trilogy set well before the current one.  What about the society or the world made the past more compelling vs. the future? 

I honestly can’t say that the past is more compelling than the future.  It’s more that once I’ve created a world, the historian in me starts asking, “Well… how did all this come to be?”  Now…I already had a good solid idea, and you can see that from all the “historical” references in the first three books of The Imager Portfolio, but I still like the challenge of working out another exciting story arc.  There are some readers who protest my “prequels” on the grounds that they “know” how things turn out, but…certainly in the real world, as well as in my worlds, what we “know” about history often turns out not to be so.

Finally, what books do you have coming out soon and what are you currently working on?

Lady-Protector, the eighth book in the Corean Chronicles, will be out in hardcover in mid-March. A twenty-year trade paperback commemorative edition of The Magic of Recluce will be out in June, and the fourth book of The Imager Portfolio, Scholar, will be out this coming fall, most likely in November.  I’ve recently turned in the fifth Imager book, tentatively entitled Princeps, and I’m currently working on the sixth one.

L.E. Modesitt

Imager is the first book in a new fantasy world for Modesitt.  It introduces us to Rhenn, a young journeyman portraiteurist who begins to suspect that he might have a small talent for imaging when he begins to correct his own brushstrokes using only the power of his mind and his inner vision.  His talent is seemingly so small, so useless, that he does not present himself to Imagisle, home of all the city’s Imagers, to be tested.  His only ambition is to make it through the rest of his journeyman training and become a master painter.

His fortunes change, however, when a terrible accident takes the life of his master…an accident that Rhenn’s untrained imaging abilities might have caused.  When none of the other painting masters will take him on as a journeyman, Rhenn has no choice except to return to his father’s house and his father’s goals for him–joining in the family cloth manufacturing business–or to seek his fortune on the Imagers’ island.  He chooses the latter and is quickly placed under the tutelage of one of the most senior masters at Imagisle.

Rhenn’s new life requires him to learn, or re-learn everything he thought he knew, about Imagers, their place in his society, and even the laws and political policies of his society itself.  He also quickly finds himself the target of repeat attacks, first by some of the other students and then by genuine assassins sent by someone who has been targeting junior Imagers for months.  Political tensions abroad begin to threaten the family business and the lives of Rhenn’s newfound peers, and he finds his investigation into his own attempted assassinations lead him right into the thick of Council politics.  At the same time, he must continue to hone his talents as an Imager and in his spare time pursue the beautiful Seliora, who may or may not believe that Rhenn is her destiny….

I thought Imager was a great book.  It combined a double-or-nothing coming-of-age story (someone who has to come of age a second time, when his identity changes so radically from what he had become out of adolescence) with a murder mystery and political intrigue.

It also presented a cool new world that has developed steam technology and gunpowder and basic machinery but has not yet cast aside all its guilds and superstitions.  The interplay of what the imagers did, what part they played in shaping these new technologies, was especially interesting:  basically, they were the reason their government had the best-equipped army in the world, because they could precision-manufacture bullets and machine parts (or at least casts) to a degree that technology couldn’t yet do on its own.  I found it both hilarious and just sort of self-evident that of course their biggest client is going to be the government.  Sort of makes you wonder when the other governments of this world are going to catch on to the fact that, oh, yeah, maybe there is something better to do with magicians than kill them.  Plus I thought the power of imaging itself was nicely conceived, limited enough that it has to be used creatively and furtively, and with realistic levels of danger for its wielders.  The reasons behind the ability are not discussed at length, which I prefer–nothing is worse than a badly reasoned magical system.

I thought the exposition of the world was also handled very well.  Rhenn was an artist, not a merchant or a politico of any sort.  He had little interest in the politics of the Council, or international relations.  He was not studying to be a lawyer or to serve the Council directly, so he had no reason to know the intricacies of the law.  And so instead of having paragraphs explaining the rules of the world and the society for their own sake, we learn what Rhenn learns–and what he unlearns–about the world.  The information is relevant to the story not because it allows the reader to understand what’s going on, but rather because it affects Rhenn.  It changes his opinions.  It opens his eyes.

My one criticism of that section is that I think some of the social philosophy was offered and accepted too glibly.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed that aspect a lot.  I just feel that for someone who hasn’t studied the concepts involved, it might just slide past them completely or seem less true for our own world than they really are.  But on the other hand, most people don’t want to read a philosophical lecture in disguise as a fantasy book, so it feels more like something that’s there for people who are already in on the joke to chortle over and everyone else to not even realize they’re missing a joke.

Let’s see, other things….Loved the art aspect.  Possibly because I’ve studied painting and art history.  I felt like he captured the feeling of painting and the work of mixing paints very well.  Rhenn’s training went a little bit Ender’s Game, in the sense that he is kept separate from his peers and trained at what seems to the reader a breakneck pace but because he doesn’t know better and thinks he’s not doing well, it never occurs to him that he is either insanely talented or that there might be a bigger issue out in the world that has his mentor upping his training schedule until someone else suggests it to him.  Rhenn is a very unpretentious prodigy, and is therefore very relatable as a protagonist.  We all want to be what he is:  very good at what he does, and proud of his work, but not puffed up with false or even deserved but overblown self-worth or pomposity.  He’s just a hard-working young man who is too observant and honest to understand why anyone might want him, specifically, dead until it’s almost too late.

Imager was obviously a first novel in a new series, but it really brought the action of this story to a good conclusion and merely left me curious about what he does next rather than feeling like the story is incomplete.  It was a fast, engaging read; Rhenn was a charming main character; and I really just can’t wait until the next book comes out to see where his life takes him.

Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.

2 Replies to “L.E. Modesitt Jr. Interview + Imager Review”

  1. Great interview! I kind of wish I was a fly on the wall there when you discussed art and visualized magic. I’m curious to know whether he has read and/or enjoyed The Golden Key which was an excellent story and not like his Imager Portfolio but has an art-based magic system.

    Also, he discussed ‘learning’ about politics and government from books – in college (um, lots of years ago) we studied the Foundation books for political theory.

    In any case, great interview and thank you Elena and Mr. Modesitt.

    *Also a female fan of the Spellsong cycle 😉

  2. It cut my name off! Anyway, can’t edit the earlier response but I meant to say that The Golden Key is excellent and like Imager has an art-based magic system (wasn’t trying to insinuate that Imager was in any way dirivative).

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