In Asking The Prophet, we probe the brains of sci-fi, fantasy, and speculative fiction writers. This week, we spoke with Christopher Farnsworth about conspiracies, vampires, spy programs, UFOs, mothman, and the future of science fiction.
How do you approach world-building?
With The President’s Vampire, it was a lot easier because in that world, every horror movie or conspiracy theory is true. It may not be exactly the way we see it in horror films, but that’s sort of a methodology that’s filtered down and out into the general public. The idea is that there’s this massive shadowy conspiracy behind everything, and the only things between it and us are a few dedicated people who know the secret and are willing to bare the burden. So it was a lot of fun, because it was just me taking everything I loved as a kid — comic books, spy novels, horror movies — and trying to figure out how to mash them together in a smorgasbord.
What are some books or shows you’re interested in right now?
My ten year old self would have had a heart attack had he known this is what the future was going to be like. I read Octavia Butler’s Patternist series while writing Killfile. David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and William Gibson’s The Peripheral. As for TV, The Venture Bros, Daredevil Archer, Justified, Deadwood, Silicon Valley, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
My ten year old self would have had a heart attack had he known this is what the future was going to be like. Right now, one comic that I’m reading faithfully is Ninjak from Valiant Comics. It’s a really smart, interesting take on the idea of a super spy who’s also a ninja. There’s so much interesting, good work being done.
Since your work largely revolves around spy activities, how do you go about conceptualizing gadgets?
John Smith — the protagonist of Killfile — basically is the gadget. He is the technology. He’s one of the men who stare at goats from Jon Ronson’s book. Only in this world of the novel I’ve written, it’s actually true there is a psychic soldier program. So he’s a graduate of that program and he was trained to use his inherent psychic gifts as a weapon; as a tool on the war on terror. Now he’s walked away from that and has a business himself. He works as a consultant for the 1%, the only people who can afford his special set of skills.
So the idea there was to take all of the psychic and paranormal research and reading I did as a kid — there really were all of these psychic research programs. There was the idea that the human mind was going to be the next great weapon of the Cold War. Literally millions of dollars were poured into this by the Soviets and the United States. Soldiers would be trained to become living psychic weapons. For me that was the fun part: What would a guy like this actually be like, and what would he do if you let him loose out into the world? How would he make money? What would it actually be like to have that sort of ability?
You said you learned about paranormal research from reading you did as a kid — Was that something you learned in school? Or did you do it on your own?
I was always hanging out in the lower numbers of the Dewey Decimal system where all the paranormal and weird books are. All the books by Charles Fort and [Frank Edwards](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FrankEdwards(writer_and_broadcaster) and just all of these really fringe science ideas. My teachers thought I was wasting my time with this stuff, but I was fascinated by it. There is a story in Killfile that talks about a Russian psychic that I first read when I was in 6th or 7th grade. I’ve been just collecting little bits of stuff like that my whole life. I’m really fascinated by it.
Do you keep current with weird science reading?
I think I still have a Google alert for stuff like Mothman. To me that’s about the most perfect example of the paranormal out there. There’s some giant guy with wings flying around and nobody’s ever managed to take a picture of him but he’s still out there. Being a reporter, I learned to be skeptical of eyewitness testimony because people’s memories are fallible.
But there is this urge with everybody to believe that there is something bigger and grander and more fascinating that everyday life. That’s what I try to do in my books: Pull away the curtain and show them this other world out there that’s waiting if you just turn the corner at the right time or glance at the right direction at the right time.
Do you think the age of “pics or it didn’t happen” has made interest in the paranormal even higher?
I think so. I think people need to believe in something bigger. If they’re not getting it in their everyday life, they’ll look for it in fiction. That’s one reason why comic book heroes are so big today besides the fact that CGI gives you the ability to do movies like The Avengers. There’s less of an appetite for these small, intimate dramas, and more of an appetite for these huge, world-shaking conflicts. Onscreen and in fiction. I think people want bigger ideas and bigger answers.
Do you consider yourself more of a scifi writer or a fantasy writer?
One of my agents once told me that I’m a hybrid author. I think that every good story I write starts out grounded in some kind of reality and then you find a bigger picture behind it. I don’t stick with one genre. I think every author uses every tool they have to tell the story they can. Genres are just a way of dividing those stories up.
Do you think it’s easier or harder to be a writer that isn’t in one genre, but writes in between?
I think there’s ups and downs and pros and cons, but I would have to say that overall, it’s easier. I think people are more willing to pay attention to this stuff. You look at authors like Philip K. Dick who struggled their whole life because he was considered — as he put it — a crap artist. A guy who wrote cheap paperbacks when he was writing really ground-breaking fiction. Or Kurt Vonnegut. Guys who struggled their entire lives, being shoehorned as just sci-fi writers. I think people are more willing to take that seriously. You look at the massive success that is The Martian and it’s technically science fiction. People are more willing to pay attention to a story about a guy trapped on Mars these days because our perspectives have been broadened.
What excites you about the future of the genre?
I can’t wait to see what other people are going to do next. First and foremost, I’m a reader and a fan. I’m absolutely fascinated by the ideas and the innovations that people are able to come up with. Some of the authors I love reading are Charles Stross, Ian Tregillis, and Nick Harkaway. These are all guys who are able to create these great mutations of the genre and take established elements and use them in new and fascinating ways and create entirely new worlds. I’m always thrilled to see what’s coming next. I think the genre is bigger than it ever has been and it’s only going to get bigger, because imagination is limitless.