Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Nighthawks at the Mission: Move Off-World. Make A Killing.

Nighthawks at the Mission: Move Off-World. Make A Killing. That is indeed the complete title of Forbes West's psychological sci-fi novel. Born and raised in Chicago, the author is a political science major, masterfully weaving the ideas he garnered in the classroom into speculative fiction.  If you are looking for something beyond your usual space opera, something in the spirit of the Strugatsky brothers and Rod Serling, this is the novel for you. 

MJN: In the synopsis it's mentioned that The Oberon being the last place where the American Dream is alive.  I picked up some bitter situational irony. America has always been regarded as a destination for the world's outcasts and freedom-seekers.  Now this dream has to be taken offsite?  As a first-generation American, I am still struggling to grasp that definition of the American Dream. To me it's as tangible as the Bigfoot.  In less than three hundred words, what does it mean to you?

FW: America’s a mixed bag now. There is still a lot of social mobility for those coming up from nothing- my wife’s a perfect example. She came over with zero English skills and almost zero cash. Now she’s a Statistics and Mathematics Professor making a great wage with a work schedule to kill for. But there’s also a sensation now that the window of opportunity is getting more and more closed off with each day for those who don’t have a good foundation.  You see, if there someone like my wife who comes over from an industrialized country that isn’t totally corrupt and totally morally broken with an excellent education system, yeah, they’ll prosper if they work hard. Sure. But for the true poor, tired, and hungry coming over, or for our own homegrown poor, the window of opportunity to make a new life for one’s self is closing. Businesses don’t want to pay an extra dime for their workers beyond the legal minimum and utilize their connections instead of their own skills to make a profit. The schools at the K-12 level are a joke, and in some areas the only decent job left is law enforcement or the Army (which speaks volumes about the priorities of American society).  It used to be that if you came over you’d start as a janitor and if worked hard you could own your own janitorial service and you send your kid to a decent college so they don’t have to do what you did. Now you’re just lucky if you get twenty hours as a janitor and your kid doesn’t get five years for having pot.

I think, in answer to your question about the American dream, and what that really means, I always thought of it as a few things. Making money by yourself as your own person. No real boss because you are your own boss and you enter into any contract for your services or what you make as an equal partner. No one regulating the hell out of your life with needless laws based on the idea of “for your own good” or because of stifling cultural traditions.  That your last name doesn’t mean crap and no one cares what your race or religion is because they don't think it matters. And always being able to start over fresh and in a new place if you needed or wanted to.  That’s the American dream for me. Where can you find it now? It’s somewhere out there. But it’s well hidden in today’s America when it used to be more out in the open. When I thought about The Oberon, I thought of a place where everyday Americans can chase that dream down with only some of the baggage of modern day life holding them back.

MJN: It's a very bold, obliging and restrictive move to write an entire novel in the second person, present tense. Most creative writing instructors encourage their students to be very cautious with that tempting technique.  Clearly, you pulled it off very well.  Can you think of another author who followed the same narrative format?

FW: Thank you for saying I pulled it off. I was influenced by Jay McInerney’s “Bright Lights, Big City”, which was written in the second person present tense and which holds some of the themes I adopted for “Nighthawks at the Mission” such as loneliness, disillusionment in the ones we love, and how we turn to drugs and alcohol and sex to kill the pain.  I wanted to really draw the reader into the main character’s life and really have them understand the actions and the course she takes on this journey and to place the reader in the middle of her feelings. I think that the second person perspective does this uncomfortably so for some readers and I wanted all readers to sense what it was like if they were to be in the middle of the maelstrom.
MJN: There seems to be a lot of mystery around your identity.  You'd don't have a headshot on Amazon.  Some reviewers even speculated that Forbes West a pen name of another famous author.  Is this air of mystery intentional?  Do you purposely avoid personal visibility so your readers could focus on your books?

FW: The air of mystery wasn’t really that intentional. I just had it so that I keep my own privacy and be able to step out of myself and to look at my works a little more objectively.  I think that part of being a good author is to be able to really kill your darlings and really free yourself up as much as you can when it comes to your imagination with nothing holding you back. I think the fear of what others will think is one of the biggest devils for authors and having a pen name puts sort of psychological shield up against those pressures and allows your imagination to be unencumbered. Having a pen name helps in that regard.

MJN: What inspired the name of the sanctuary in your novel?  The only Oberon I can think of is the king of faeries from Midsummer Night's Dream.  Is there some clandestine Shakespearean allusion?

FW: Absolutely. The planet they go to, The Oberon, is named after the king of the faeries because the indigenous beings who reside there have a connection to magic through these orichalcum stones that the American settlers desire to have. It’s also because the dead cities that the settlers salvage from are full of high technology that might as well be magical items because they can’t be replicated (or even understood) back home in the USA.  It’s also named The Oberon since it was alluded to in the play that every time Oberon argued with his wife, the weather would be affected. Since the characters have to deal with the danger of “flash storms” in the dead cities, I thought it was appropriate to have that allusion since important plot elements and conflicts happen during these storms.
MJN: What appealed to me most about your novel was the bitter self-deprecating tone.  It's like expensive perfume - once the top note wears off, you get the layers underneath.  I actually caught myself returning to certain passages and rereading them.  I got a sense that you have read many philosophers in your lifetime.  Which philosophers shaped your worldview? 

FW: Thank you again for the compliment.  I’ve been influenced mostly by Marx and Freud. Freudian thought concerning the id and the super-ego was a major factor in shaping this book. I think that so much of our lives swirl in and out about rationalizing our actions, denying who are, and controlling our appetites while constantly thinking of what others think of us. I think that all the main characters in “Nighthawks at the Mission” follow this sort of pattern of losing control, regaining it, rationalizing what they have done or what they will do, and staying in a sort of odd denial in the aftermath. They aren’t bad people but they do make terrible decisions and I think that it is because they had trouble controlling themselves in this world of The Oberon because they are operating in a vacuum away from the super-ego of everyday normal American life and culture. At a certain point, the settlers all consciously or subconsciously realize how wide open the territory is and that at the end of the day, the only judge of their actions is really themselves. And sometimes they crack up when they understand that reality.  I think that in my life I’ve seen these battles play out with everyone I know. And to go back to Marx, I do see a system of exploitation and oppression, and of class warfare. The Oberon sees this play out just as any other colony, former colony, or third world nation has seen time and again in the 20th century. It shapes our entire shared experience and to deny it would be to deny reality. The real problem of Marxist thought is not that Marxism is wrong in diagnosing that there is a disease, because there is a system of oppression at work, but what it suggests we do once we know what the disease is. For many Marxists it was violent revolution-which is something that characters in “Nighthawks at the Mission” grapple with, as The Oberon faces a wave of terrorism affecting the new settlers because of the exploitation going against the indigenous non-human beings who live there. But violence and oppression beget more violence and oppression, not peace and a bright future, and it is a hideous cycle replacing old pigs with new pigs.

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