Author Interview: Aric McBay

Today I am interviewing Aric McBay, author of the new speculative fiction novel, Kraken Calling!

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DJ: Hi Aric! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview! 
For readers who aren’t familiar with you, could you tell us a little about yourself?

Aric McBay: I’m an author, an organizer, and an organic farmer.

I live and work on an organic farm on one of the Thousand Islands (Ontario) on the traditional territory Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee territory. it’s very beautiful and lush this time of year, and we have a lot of wildlife, including endangered species that we set aside habitat for. 

Being a farmer – and seeing the huge impact the climate emergency is already having on our farm and farms around the world – definitely helped motivate me to write this book.

As a community organizer and farm organizer, I work on a lot of different issues from prisoner justice to Indigenous solidarity to anti-pipeline campaigns to unionization, to name a few.

As an author, most of my previous work has been non-fiction about social movements and social movement strategy. My book Full Spectrum Resistance (2019, Seven Stories Press) is a two-volume exploration of how to build more effective movements. And your readers might also be interested in my 2020 book Direct Action Works: A legal handbook for civil disobedience and non-violent direct action in Canada, which they can get for free online. 

Kraken Calling is my sixth book, but it’s my first novel. The shift to fiction has been exciting and fulfilling for me. This may seem counterintuitive, but I believe that fiction can allow us to connect to fundamental truths even more deeply than non-fiction.

DJ: What is Kraken Calling about?

Aric: Kraken Calling about social movements, the climate future, and people trying to make a difference in the world, even when doing so is extremely difficult. 

The chapters of Kraken Calling alternate between 2028 and 2051.

In 2028, activists fight an increasingly desperate battle against the climate emergency and capitalism, but their every victory brings down repression. Meanwhile, discontented by protests and polemics, a radical movement named Kraken grows in the shadows. 

Twenty years later, an oppressive regime has taken control after a series of epidemics, economic shortages, and ecological disasters. The population suffers ruthless “triage” at the hands of an Emergency Authority that cares only for its own inner circle. Revolutionaries struggle for survival and support. In the city and on a remote farm, regular people try to stay out of the conflict. But no one can avoid the coming storm. 

Popular social movements and underground liberation groups clash, and people struggle against the limitations of their time. In 2028, the underground seems premature—but by 2051, they may be too late.

DJ: What were some of your influences for Kraken Calling

Aric: I draw on broad influences. Certainly I love speculative fiction with social justice themes, which has had a huge influence on not only my own writing but my life. Octavia Butler is one of the greats. (More recently I’ve been enjoying a lot of N. K. Jemisin, Becky Chambers, and Martha Wells.)

A formative novel for me as a teenaged activist was Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing, which also deals with a future wracked by climate change and authoritarians, and attempts to build sustainable and equitable societies that are nice to be in!

I love novels, but TV and film are dominant in our society right now. The typical person watches a lot more TV series than they read novels. These are ways that people like to be told stories, and I wanted to include in the novel some of the same writing tools that TV and film can use to be engaging and propulsive.

So, while I was writing the novel, I also went back and studied scripts from some of my favourite films and TV series, includes films like Gattaca and Children of Men which deal with dystopian themes and how people resist. I also read scripts for Breaking Bad, a suspenseful crime drama which was very well-plotted.

One specific TV influence was actually Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which tackled racial justice, occupation, and resistance in a way that was quite bold for a TV series for the 1990s. In particular, I was influenced by an episode called “Past Tense” in which the protagonists travel back in time to visit a troubled version of the 21st century. For my money, it remains one of the best episodes of Star Trek ever made (although the pacing is a tiny bit slower than current audiences are used to).

I also love video games. (I’m writing one currently!) Half Life 2, which is set in a dystopian future, is a definite influence on the novel though I doubt that’s obvious to a casual reader. I really enjoyed the alternate-history detective RPG Disco Elyisum (although that come out after I had already written Kraken Calling).

Music is likewise a big inspiration for me. I use music to get into the right mood when I’m writing. Film music and ambient music in particular – I’ll sometimes listen to the same albums over and over when I’m writing a particular passage or chapter. It helps me return to the same headspace at each writing session. In particular, I find myself listening to musical artists like Max Richter, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joe Hisaishi, Ramin Djawadi, Zoë Keating, and Michael Nyman. I find music with lyrics too distracting to write with, but there are certainly lyrical musicians like Janelle Monáe who I adore and who have influenced me with both amazing music and with futurism. 

In the near future, I’ll release on social media a playlist of some of the music I listened to while I wrote the book – in case you want to listen the same music while you read it!

DJ: Could you briefly tell us a little about your main characters? Do they have any cool quirks or habits, or any reason why readers will sympathize with them?

Aric: There are six point-of-view characters in the novel – three in each time period. 

As mentioned, Kraken Calling alternates chapter by chapter between two timeframes. The 2051 timeframe is rather dystopian, wracked by ecological devastation, energy shortages, and an authoritarian government. The 2028 chapters are near to our present day, in which the protagonists struggle to avoid a future they sense is coming, but don’t fully know how to prevent.

There are three central characters in each time frame, whose lives converge and diverge, sometimes cooperatively and sometimes antagonistically.

In the past, our protagonists struggle against present-day opponents. Helen, a community organizer, tries to unite her community against a toxic petrochemical expansion project. Adita, a young courier in a secretive anti-capitalist movement, tries to undermine those in power while keeping her actions secret from society and her father. Taavi, a discontented suburban youth, yearns to confront the police and the powers that be, but falls in with people who may not have his best interests at heart.

In the future, an oppressive regime called the York Emergency Authority has taken control after a series of epidemics and disasters. Layth, a revolutionary, races to overturn the Authority before it crushes his movement. Evelyn, an office worker for the Authority, tries to stay out of trouble and protect her small family as she gains awareness about the Authority’s dark side. And Adelaide, part of a collective farm called the Thistle, hopes to avoid the conflict entirely until combatants from both sides arrive on her doorstep.

Part of the fun of the novel for the reader is puzzling out the connections between the characters as the novel progresses. Because of the chapter structure and the  clandestine groups, there is a major element of mystery. 

And while the future is dystopian, the arc of the story is not unendingly bleak. Characters face real struggles and dangers, but there are glimpses of hope in their moments of unity, their collective problem solving, and their communities.

DJ: What was your favorite part about writing Kraken Calling

Aric: In terms of the actual writing I enjoyed sinking into the characters I was writing – their different (and often energetically conflicting) ways of seeing the world. And the excitement of action sequences involving the different movements. 

For marketing purposes, fiction is often siloed into separate categories. But as a writer, it was fun to be able to infuse the narrative with influences from all the genres I appreciate, from science fiction to thrillers to mystery.

I will say that as an activist, it was also rather therapeutic to write this novel. When we look back at historical social justice campaigns, like the civil rights movement, we are often told an over-simplified version of events. Real social movements are messy, sometimes haphazard, and even their biggest victories can be incomplete. 

Kraken Calling acknowledges that reality, but it’s also a fictional narrative that has to be a bit more self-contained. So it’s therapeutic in that in fiction can sometimes offer resolutions and clarity that are harder to get in real life. 

DJ: The themes and events of the novel seem very timely, given everything that’s going on in the world right now. Was that intentional?

Aric: For better or worse, the novel ended up being even more timely than I expected. 

I had written the first draft of the novel before the pandemic, and was editing it shortly after the pandemic began.

That actually posed a real challenge: things from the book kept happening in real life as I was revising it.

For example, in the future timeframe, members of a resistance group use an abandoned restaurant as a safehouse. When I originally wrote the book, I thought this was a clever bit of world-building. And then, of course, real restaurants closed all over the planet, and so using an abandoned restaurant as a safehouse suddenly seemed like an obvious choice in a future wracked by epidemics.

Likewise, some major plot points center around a container ship which has run around. And then the Ever Given ran aground in the Suez Canal and blocked international shipping as I was editing one of those passages.

There are more examples, but I want to avoid spoilers. I guess that’s a challenge of writing near-future speculative fiction.

As an author, it was a rather eerie experience, to see some events similar to the novel happening in real time. 

DJ: What do you think readers will be talking about most once they finish it?

Aric: I think that readers will be talking about the character’s choices, and the way the characters change.

And, of course, their mistakes. In the novel, even our protagonists make mistakes, whether that’s because they don’t have enough information, or because they are trying to compromise with others, or sometimes out of desperation. 

The plot is not a perfect fantasy of revolution or resistance. Far from it. 

In particular, I think readers will be thinking about how the characters treat each other. Movements are made out of people, and when we want to make change that’s usually collective work. When I was writing this novel, I was also thinking a lot about what makes a group pleasant or unpleasant to be in, what makes it work, and what compromises we are willing (or unwilling) to accept when we work in groups.

So I think – or hope – that people will be reflecting on the choices of the characters in the novel. Asking: What would I have done differently if I were these characters, in their shoes? What should they be doing next? And what should I do right now, in real life?

DJ: Did you have a particular goal when you began writing Kraken Calling? Was there a particular message or meaning you are hoping to get across when readers finish it? Or is there perhaps a certain theme to the story?

Aric: Well, I’m a climate justice activist, and a social justice activist. The goal of building a better and more equitable world shapes everything that I do.

That said, I didn’t sit down and write a list of goals for the novel. I wanted, first of all, for readers to have an engaging, gripping, and emotionally moving experience. I wanted create a novel that was a great read on its own merits. 

But with the novel written and published, there are definitely some experiences that I’m hoping readers will have:

  1. I want the reader to be swept up in the story; the mystery of what is going on inside the Authority and within the underground movements, the puzzle of how the timelines and characters fit together, the suspense of how things will turn out for characters who are in growing peril.
  2. I want readers experience vicariously some things that are hard for people (particularly activists) to learn in real life: I want them to experience setbacks and frustrations that the characters do, and then to keep going anyway. To try new things, to experiment, to escalate.
  3. I want other activists and organizers to experience a kind of emotional solidarity; a salve for the troubles we experience in doing this kind of work. And for people who aren’t activists (or who are new to social change) to be exposed to some different ways of thinking about and doing things.
  4. I want people to think (and feel) about the kind of future they want to leave the next generation, and to act accordingly. I want to prime them to think about authoritarian trends in a proactive way; not to just wallow in dystopia, but to consider what might happen in the world in the aftermath of pandemic, as climate change gets worse, as authoritarians become more bold, and to think about how we can best intervene.

Ultimately, I want them to feel more motivated when they close the book, to go out and do something, to participate in some movement for good.

DJ: Now that Kraken Calling is released, what is next for you?

Aric: I’m writing more fiction, including a videogame about mental health called “The Light Within.” It’s still in development, but it was recently a finalist in the Ubisoft Indie Series. I’m also working on speculative fiction short stories, and a novel set in a different universe. 

I’m also working a text-based adventure game set in the same universe as Kraken Calling, which will be released for free online this summer. Here are a few of the character portraits from that game, from the wonderful artist Dibujos de Pam:

Starting in September, I’ll be doing a book tour in-person for Kraken Calling. If you’re reading this and you’d like me to come to your area in person please do send me a note to I’m also very happy to do online events by video.

DJ: Where can readers find out more about you? 

Instagram: @aricmcbay



DJ: Before we go, what is that one thing you’d like readers to know about Kraken Calling that we haven’t talked about yet?

Aric: Hmm. To tell the truth, I was a little wary, at first, about writing fiction with strong dystopian elements. Dystopias can help us understand our own world, and possible futures, by heightening key facets of our own societies. 

But dystopian fiction can also be demobilizing and demoralizing for readers. When we face so many challenges in our own real world – white supremacy, imperialism (in Ukraine and elsewhere), the climate crisis, the pandemic, the school shoppings and stripping away of reproductive rightsin the US – it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, and even paralyzed, by how traumatic that all is, by how difficult the future can feel. 

I hear that a lot, especially from younger people, when I’m doing talks and workshops.

For Kraken Calling, I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want people to come out of this book feeling paralysis and despair. To the contrary: I want people to finish it and feel like they are more able to make change. 

Fundamentally, that’s why I structured the book the way I did. I wanted to temper the dystopian elements with genuine hope, and with the potential for action. In the 2028 time frame, people are taking meaningful action all the time.

And even in the 2051 time frame, we spend time with a group of people at the Thistle, a self-sustaining community that is far from affluent, but that seems like a really nice place to live, where people genuinely care for each other and work together well. 

The novel has twenty-four chapters – twelve in each time period. Kraken Calling begins in the future of 2051, but it ends in the “past” of 2028. That was a very deliberate choice. I didn’t want to end in 2051, where the dystopian future feels fixed or inevitable, like a fait accompli

I wanted to end the story near our own time, where we still have a chance, collectively, to change the course of history. To build and to fight for the kind of future we actually want to live in.
DJ: Is there anything else you would like to add? (Or add your own question).

DJ: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to answer my questions! 

Aric:  Thanks so much for interviewing me!

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***Kraken Calling is published by Seven Stores Press and is available TODAY!!!***

Buy the Book: 

Amazon | Goodreads

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About the Book:

A sweeping near future dystopic fantasy in the Octavia Butlerian vein of the Parable of the Sower novels.

Political activist and anarchist author Aric McBay (Full Spectrum Resistance) toggles between the years 2028 and 2051 to give us the experience, with breathtaking realism, of what might happen in the span of just one generation to a society that is already on the brink of collapse.

In 2028 environmental activists hesitate to take the fight to the extreme of violent revolution. Twenty years later, with the natural environment now seriously degraded, the revolution is brought to the activists, rather than the other way around, by an authoritarian government willing to resort to violence, willing to let the majority suffer from hunger and poverty, in order to control its citizens when the government can no longer provide them with a decent quality of life.

So it is the activists who must defend their communities, their neighbors, through a more humane and in some ways more conservative status quo of care and moderation.

And the outcome here is determined by the actions of those who resist more than it is by the actions of the nominally powerful.

About the Author:

Aric McBay is an organizer, a farmer, and author of six books. He writes and speaks about effective social movements, and has organized campaigns around climate justice, prisoner justice, Indigenous solidarity, pipelines, unionization, and other causes.

He lives and farms near Kingston, Ontario, on traditional Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee territory.

For talks, interviews, or workshops, email: talks at aric mcbay dot org

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