Guest Author: Simon Morden
Having trained as a scientist, gaining a PhD and eventually teaching, my writing has often revolved around science and technology – as a matter of course, I’ve tried to make the science as accurate as possible. Arcanum is a very different book, because it involves magic.
When the idea for the story came to me, it was on this basis: here was a society dominated by powerful magic, where every aspect of life was made easier by the use of magic items, from ever-shining lights, through carts and barges that propelled themselves, through to millstones that turned on their own. Science wasn’t so much stagnant as unnecessary. Even that great driver of scientific innovation, warfare, was rendered impotent, because the land was defended by sorcerers of such power that they could destroy invading armies by turning the ground they stood on into lakes of lava. So there is Carinthia, a magical superpower at the heart of a alternative Europe, wedded to the old Germanic gods, a centre for trade, rich and peaceful, surrounded by fractious, envious, warring princes picking up crumbs from the Carinthian table.
But what does a magic kingdom do when it runs out of magic? Surrounded by their enemies, all but defenseless, a social order that has stood unchanged for a thousand years crumbling by the hour, and led by a man brought up to not just believe in, but expect, Carinthian superiority in everything – ruinous civil war, invasion and extinction are the most likely outcomes.
The seeds of their salvation don’t lie with the shattered Carinthian nobility, or in the ruined towers of the wizards. They lie in the much-neglected library, created on a whim by a long-dead prince and maintained by poorly paid and poorly regarded librarians who, despite everything, have managed to amass the greatest collection of manuscripts in Europe. Somewhere, hidden amongst the uncatalogued scrolls and books, is the beginning of the scientific revolution, and a whole new way of life, founded not on the strict hierarchy of lord and commoner, sorcerer and mundane, but on a much more democratic order of administrators, scientists and technicians.
Arcanum was always conceived as a story about change, about sweeping away the old and seeing what would grow in its place. What I didn’t anticipate was the profound, passionate ways my characters would embrace that change. These are people whose history and life has told them that everything always stays the same, and when confronted with disaster, quietly and with great dignity they step forward to meet the challenge head on. They know that they might fail, and in failing lose everything – but in Arcanum it all rests on a knife edge. I try to present ordinary people, men and women doing ordinary jobs, being called on to do the extraordinary. Which is where we come in.
Simon Morden is the author of the Philip K Dick award-winning Samuil Petrovitch novels (Equations of Life, Theories of Flight, Degrees of Freedom, The Curve of the Earth), as well as Heart, The Lost Art. and Arcanum. He also writes short stories (with two collections, Brilliant Things and Thy Kingdom Come), and often comments about the interface between faith and fiction writing. Several of his essays and some of his short fiction can be found at simonmorden.com