My Superpower is a regular guest column on the Skiffy and Fanty blog where authors and creators tell us about one weird skill, neat trick, highly specialized cybernetic upgrade, or other superpower they have, and how it helped (or hindered!) their creative process as they built their project. Today we welcome James L. Sutter to talk about how the power of talking about the important things relates to The Redemption Engine.
When asked what my superpower is, I’d usually talk about sneezomancy. For reasons unbeknownst to me, my sneezes are a reliable indicator of my general health. One sneeze means I’m getting sick. Two sneezes means I’m fine. Three or more sneezes means “wow, it’s dusty in here!” Not exactly the sort of thing that gets one onto the X-Men, right? So in getting ready for this article, I started rifling frantically through other powers. The ability to bend my thumb back, like, really far. The ability to eat several pounds of blueberries in a sitting without Serious Gastronomic Distress. The ability to consistently hit the high note in “Take On Me.”
And then I realized that I actually have a superpower that permeates every aspect of my life.
I can talk to people about things that matter. In fact, I adore it.
This might not sound like much, but it’s unbelievably important. In our society, it’s hard to feel safe enough to dive below the surface level of conversation into the dark waters where the leviathans swim. Maybe you have a few friends with whom you can talk about the Big Things, but the people you’ve just met? That’s small talk territory. Your job. Television. The weather.
And I say to hell with that. While those topics can be interesting (turns out, I do want to talk about the weather in tornado country), I want to talk about whatever things matter most to people. The issues that excite them or keep them up at night, that constantly demand their attention. Beliefs. Sexuality. Relationships. Death.
That’s not just because I’m nosy, but because in my experience, talking about the things that matter to someone is the quickest way to build an actual connection. In any new friendship, there’s that beautiful moment where you feel things go from “she seems nice” to “we are now unequivocally friends,” and suddenly the usual social barriers no longer apply. I love that feeling of freedom and try to push my way through to it as quickly as possible by projecting interest and openness. If necessary, I’ll be the first one to strip down for the conversational skinny-dipping.
Of course, in the tradition of all great superpowers, mine is also a weakness, as it’s almost impossible for me to process emotions or know what I think about issues without discussing them with others. But I hope that by wearing that on my sleeve, it makes other people feel more comfortable stepping outside societal convention. Certainly I’ve made some of my best friends (including my wife) by talking to casual acquaintances about their recent breakups or other things you aren’t supposed to talk about with strangers.
Most of my close friends are used to it at this point — I don’t even have to pretend to play by the rules, just say things like, “So what’s been important to you lately?” or “Reveal the deepest yearnings of your soul!” Often I’ll ask “How’s it going?” twice — once to get the socially required “fine” out of the way and a second time to show I’m actually interested in the answer.
So how does all of this tie into my new book, The Redemption Engine? While there’s no question that making connections with people is useful in the publishing industry, at an artistic level, I always want to push people toward discussion. It’s why both of my novels deal with atheism in a fantasy world where gods are objectively real — because I think the interesting question in our own world is not so much “Is God real?” but “If so — so what?” It’s also why the morality of my characters is often ambiguous. Nobody’s clean, but nobody’s totally evil, either — people are people, and the most compelling villains are the ones you can agree with. For instance, the central philosophical question of The Redemption Engine is: if you could magically turn bad people good without their consent, would that be a miracle or the worst form of assault?
Some of the most pride I feel as an author and as one of the co-creators of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is during debates that break out on the message boards over the morality or ethics of a particular character or situation I’ve presented. Because that’s one of the great powers of science fiction and fantasy: to help people talk about important social and philosophical issues in the real world by giving them that crucial bit of distance.
Yet even that sort of philosophical discussion never beats talking about the things that are personally important to folks. So if I ever ask you, “So what’ve you been thinking about lately?” — feel free to tell me the truth.
James L. Sutter is the Managing Editor for Paizo Publishing and a co-creator of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. He is the author of the novels Death’s Heretic and The Redemption Engine, the former of which was #3 on Barnes & Noble’s list of the Best Fantasy Releases of 2011, as well as a finalist for both the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel and a 2013 Origins Award. He’s written short stories for such publications as Escape Pod, Apex Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the #1 Amazon best-seller Machine of Death. His anthology Before They Were Giants pairs the first published short stories of science fiction and fantasy luminaries with new interviews and writing advice from the authors themselves. In addition, he’s published a wealth of award-winning gaming material for both Dungeons & Dragons and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. He lives in Seattle with his wife, a gaggle of roommates, and a fully functional death ray. For more, visit jameslsutter.com or talk to him on Twitter at @jameslsutter.