The Fortress at the End of Time: An interview with Joe M. McDermott.

Does space travel and the possibility of discovering new worlds interest you? What about the unending ethical dilemmas of cloning? If you also appreciate Science Fiction when it focuses on personal  inner conflict and  the day-to-day aspect of life in at the lonely edge of the galaxy, then Joe M. McDermott‘s The Fortress at the End of Time might be right up your alley.

Cover art by Jaime Jones.
Cover art by Jaime Jones.

Mr. McDermott is best known for Fantasy and heavily mythology-inspired writings, novels and short stories, rather than Science Fiction. His collection of short stories Women and Monsters is particularly poignant and quite stunning. The Fortress at the End of Time (TFatEoT), while set firmly in the Sci-Fi genre, still tackles many of the ethical concepts prominent in his other work.

The protagonist, from whose mind the story unfolds, is Ronaldo Aldo. Aldo grew up on a boat, floating around the Pacific Ocean, with his mother and father (an oil rig engineer). He  has little in the way of prospects on Earth, so he joins the military and his clone is sent to an unenviable posting at the edge of the known universe.

His clone, you ask? Yes, individuals are trained and sent as clones to the far-reaching areas of space, where they are stationed, presumably never to go ‘back’ to Earth, or anywhere else, for that matter. If they survive, there is the option of retirement on another colony. There are some interesting questions that arise, as the clones are fully developed when they reach their destination, and possess all of the knowledge of their predecessor, for better or for worse.

TFatEoT progresses as Aldo confesses what it was that lead him to his current predicament, and will leave the reader wondering what is actually at the root of your principals and your personhood, in such a world. There is some action, but it’s not an exploding-planets-and-laser-beams sort of story. The pace is cautious but deliberate, and while Aldo is not always ‘likable’ , most of the time it was easy to see why he made the decisions he did (read some of the Geekettes’ opinions of likable characters here!).


Let’s start with an easy question: What are your favorite Science Fiction influences? Books, shows, movies old or new?

I never really thought about writing science fiction until I read the amazing work of Maureen McHugh. I read a lot of science fiction, definitely, but it wasn’t until I read her work – particularly OF MOTHERS AND OTHER MONSTERS and MISSION CHILD – that I encountered someone structuring and thinking about narrative and character in a way I could creatively grok. It was like a switch flipped inside my mind where I realized I could, actually, do that genre, too. I was almost exclusively fantasy prior. The influences of the particular books in question go back a ways, though. Dino Buzzati and Julian Gracq are the major influence of this novel. They both wrote books about a distant, forgotten military outpost that were philosophical and thoughtful and beautiful. They felt like better military fiction than the military science fiction I had read because they were about the soul-crushing nature of the situation, itself, in their own, different ways.

The Fortress at the End of Time isn’t like some other Sci-Fi stories that I have read, or have tried to read. Personally,  good Science Fiction needs a very human touch, in addition to a lot of specialized research regarding technology– one of the reasons I think that a franchise like Star Trek is so popular and has had so many incarnations. For instance, Aldo grew-up on a boat in the Pacific Rim, as his father was a contractor with deep-sea mining companies. This seems almost a mundane and not particularly space- aged way for our protagonist and narrator to have lived his childhood and teenaged years. What is it about the intersection of technology, time, people, and all of the possible relationships between them that interests you?

When I teach college composition, one of the things I try to teach is how the things we do everyday shape us, like how urban planning and architecture actually influence our interior lives. Imagine cars versus buses, for example. In a car, you are in control, and you can have personal conversations with family and friends. A car feels like a mobile living room. It also disconnects you from other people in other cars. You see only a bunch of headlights, instead of the people inside of them. Compare that to what it’s like to rely on public transportation, and how that might change your experiences that change your attitude and sense of community.

Insurance companies can fill out data in a chart and figure out your whole life, to the point of death. The space around us, and how we choose to live and how we are influenced by what is around us and how it is laid out, is part of that actuarial table. We still have free will, I think, though others may argue against that, because we can choose the landscape, and we can choose the apartment and the location and the commute. But, so much of our life is decided by our landscape, our tools, our daily routine.

It’s a big subject. In college, I had students invent a ridiculous method of transportion to replace cars – skateboards, Futurama-esque tube travel, etc – and figure out how it would change the material reality of our communities in the way that cars have completely reshaped our cities and communities. (Bear in mind, cars are a little over century old, on the large scale. The first Model T was made in 1908! How much our cities changed from that in just 108 years!) After we figure out the material changes, I ask them to figure out how that would change relationships of people. Would families be closer? Would neighbors be closer? Would we talk more, or less? What would we talk about, more or less?

Architecture is an argument for how people live. We live in this sort of collective imagination of how we ought to live. Everything we touch, every road we drive on, every object in our house and life, was imagined before it was built and carries with it cultural force to suggest how it ought to be used and why. We live inside the imagination, and call it the real world. I am fascinated by this, and think and write about it a lot. I think man-made climate change is a good example of this. We imagined that we could just keep burning this gasoline, burning this oil. We built our cities around the idea of the motor engine and the endless electricity of burning fuel. Our imagined city was not in alignment with the real of the city, and the distance between the imaginary space and the real is destroying us. Another example, I think, is the rise of depression. Our cities are built to be lonely spaces, with people in distant suburbs, who chase jobs away from family and community. The rise of depression is, to me, a sign that we’ve built our cities in a way that is imagined to be better, but in the real is not.

Right off the bat, you introduce us to a diverse cast of characters. Having read some of your other books, this is [refreshingly] not an anomaly in your work. It tends to still be a men’s club despite, Mary Shelley writing what was considered to be the very first Sci-Fi novel. Why do you think that white, and usually male, is the default characterization in so many writers’ work, especially in this day and age?

I don’t have a good answer, I’m afraid. I can’t speak for every creator and every reader. I know that when I wrote The Dogsland Trilogy, that was about homosexuality, and I made the main couple straight because I didn’t believe the readers who needed that message of tolerance and empathy would even allow space in their imagination for a long serial about a gay couple. I felt like, as a creator, if I made Rachel and Jona, instead, Roger and Jona, the idea that even positing that there is some kind of toxic presence inside people, they are still human, so your argument about the wickedness of the gay is wrong would have been missed by the people who most need to internalize that idea. Living in the suburban heart of the Bible Belt my whole life, once across the street from a church called “Fire and Praise”, I was pleasantly shocked to see how quickly gay marriage and gay equality rocketed through our culture and court system. It wasn’t anything like the community I knew. I wasn’t being as subversive as I thought I was. I probably could have written Roger and Jona.

So, some of it, at least, may be the sense by writers, whether deserved or not, that if we push the envelope too far, no one will follow us. It takes courage to do that. And, I should add, it takes privilege. I am not in danger of losing my house or my health if one book fails. Other authors don’t have the luxury of taking risks. It is a luxury. Ergo, the people who are most likely to be able to take risks are going to be people who have the sort of protections that marginalized communities don’t always have. Ergo, we privileged few will take the risks that inspire us, which may not include bringing in diverse voices.

And I don’t think I deserve much credit for diversity, honestly. Ronaldo Aldo still codes as a white man, regardless of my intentions. I didn’t write a gay couple in Dogsland. I haven’t had a solid female lead in a while. Much of MAZE was led and driven by a character that was given my face and name.

Earth religions– Wicca, Christianity, Islam– figure prominently in the lives of the individuals in Fortress, as do the themes of sin and confessing, seemingly without any great criticism, although there are also atheistic characters, too. Did your personal relationship to spirituality and ritual affect how religion was dealt with in Fortress?

Yes and no. One of my criticisms of Science Fiction when it is not well-written is the construction of futures where either everyone’s soul is going to the same place, or no one has a concept of spirituality at all. The future of religion and spirituality, I suspect, is going to be at least as messy and diverse as the past. In a particular situation like the Citadel, where anybody could come from anywhere on Earth, there is going to be a lot of variation in the destination of souls. The Monastery [on the terraformed Colony] seems equipped to handle that.

Ronaldo confesses his sins so that he can clear his conscience and join the monastic order there. I was thinking about the strong tradition of Christian confessional writing, definitely, and the monks and priests and nuns in my own family, definitely. I don’t think my sense of spirituality was much a part of this one, though. There isn’t a character in the book that takes on much of my own sense of ritual and spirituality. It’s more about how the extreme circumstances would warp such things, really. In my own writing, I tend to reserve my ideas about faith and the spirit for poetry, not fiction.

Fiction is about conflict, right? Man versus man, man versus nature, man versus self, man versus society. So, really, what fiction is about is sin. It’s about those moments where situations or choices push individuals and groups into sinful harm of some fashion. Fiction is a form that tries to grapple with sin, and hopefully get people thinking about the damage done, the way it can be healed, and the way things could be better. Ergo, fiction is always a devil’s game. It’s dancing with darkness. If it’s good enough, maybe it’s able to dance those devils back into the cage.

Ronaldo’s clone has his first intimate relationship with Amanda, a transgender woman, on the Colony that the humans are trying to terraform. Most people seem to accept Amanda without question, although a number of individuals continue to deadname her. While racism seems to have diminished in this world, sexism and transphobia still exist. How did you decide what types of bigotry and otherness still existed in this world, in relation to things such as race and religion, that no longer seem like they’re such divisive concepts?

I think that the choice was about the meanness of the small town, so to speak. The potential meanness, I should say. The acceptance of transgender reality is not evenly distributed, and folks at the Citadel are going to get cloned from all over the world. The monastery is not deeply discussed, but I sort of envision the major world religions merging into the same sort of bureaucracy of faith while debating all their religious differences endlessly. I don’t think it’s so hard to believe Islam and Christianity, for example, would someday merge into something like Coptic Christians versus Catholics, for example, as similar as our religions are in many of the most important ways. When the differences are theological, not moral, it’s fairly easy to imagine a future of endless theological debate coupled with a united structural front, like university philosophy departments.

But, inside of that endless debate, in a small community where everyone will know everyone extremely well, and everyone came from different cultures, there’s going to be hiccups along the way.

I hope it is clear, at least, that the author believes strongly that a transgender woman is a woman, and perfectly capable of being the female lead. Adebayo Anderson, also, has a ‘boy’s’ name. She is described in an androgynous fashion intentionally, while still being very much a woman, and I encourage readers to considers carefully why such a choice was made.

One of my very favorite ideas in Fortress is that the enemy that the Citadel is supposed to be protecting the solar system from an enemy that might not even exist, as they are described as potentially gaseous aliens who leave no trace of their bodies after an attack– thus, no one’s ever found evidence of them!   In our own time of fear-mongering, and senselessly making enemies out of individuals or  groups of defenseless people, this seems poignant, after I get past the concept of awesome evaporating aliens. As an author, what is your process for gathering information to avoid this hive-mind pitfall of believing what you’ve always been told, and how does/does it overlap with your everyday life?

I believe what I’m told all the time. I’m not a climate scientist, but I believe them when they tell me what they find. I’m not an economist, but I believe what they say when they write about the economy. I’m not a botanist, but I believe them when they tell me about the plants in my little garden. I think we live in a time when people with bad intentions can access a very large megaphone and use it to create harm. I believe emotion is a much more powerful force in our daily life and decisions than we give it credit. I think we often use reason to explain away our instincts, instead of using reason to overcome them. And, I know that I am just as guilty of that as anybody.

The Fortress at the End of Time, by Joe M. McDermott will be available tomorrow, January 17th at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.

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