Tuesday, August 13, 2013

New Steampunk World Begins in Lantern City Prequel Rise

Illustration from Rise, art by
Section Studios
Last year after San Diego Comic-Con, I interviewed Matthew James Daley, the writer of Lantern City, a steampunk inspired TV series he is developing with co-creators Bruce Boxleitner and Trevor Crafts. This year, after making the rounds of conventions all over the country, they returned to SDCC to announce Rise, a prequel novel.

Aside from my interest in the story and design, I am fascinated by the production’s strategic decision to build a grassroots following in the steampunk and sci-fi communities through social media and the convention circuit, which has worked for Sanctuary, a series that may have appealed to a similar audience. 

Lantern City is a walled city located in the parallel world of Jalta, which is ruled for better or worse by the Greys, an authoritarian dynasty. Love, politics, intrigue and opportunities for exotic steampunk inventions abound. Rise, a profusely illustrated prequel, tells the coming of age story of Isaac Foster Grey, and how and why he founds Lantern City. Here’s Matthew Daley talking about Rise, and how it fits into the Lantern City universe (warning – spoilers within):

KM: The illustrations are gorgeous. How did you connect with Section Studios ? What was your collaboration with them like? ("making of" video)

MJD: We first started working with Section Studios last year. They created all of the concept art for the television show and it was a natural progression for us to continue working with them.
    For Rise, they brought in twelve artists to complete the drawings. We met a number of times to hash out ideas, go over sketches, and finalize the finished product. It was a great collaborative effort and I’m extremely proud of all the hard work people put into it.

The Streets of Lantern City. Concept Art by Section Studios.
 KM: I love the descriptions of the steampunk style tech in parts of the story. Did your steampunk community advisers contribute to this?

MJD: They did not contribute to it, so I take your comment as a compliment. My approach to the steampunk elements of Rise were to think about where the technology was during the time period of the show and consider what the seeds of those ideas would be. Rise takes place about 115 years prior to the start of the show. The technology cannot be the same. Look at how advanced technology can become in a span of ten years, let alone 100, so things could not be too advanced.
    Another element to this was that the country where Lantern City is built, Hetra, is an isolated nation. They are more primitive than other cultures within the world. That’s one of the reasons that there is greater technology in the form of steampunk designs introduced later in the story.

KM: Since you mention that timeline, why did you feel it was important to publish a prequel novel?

MJD: The world of Lantern City is well established at the beginning of the show. There is a lot of the world that should be explained, but the television series is not the place to do this, so books work well. Rise and all follow-up books will show fans how Lantern City came to be. Seeds are planted early on that slowly germinate over decades. The prequels also help fans familiarize themselves with the world of Jalta.

Illustration from Rise, art by
Section Studios
KM: In Rise, you take the main character, Isaac Foster Grey, on a real Joseph Campbell journey, complete with revenge, sacrifice and hard moral choices.
MJD: Many writers are indebted to the research and writings of Joseph Campbell. His work is invaluable and I am a great admirer of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, The Power of Myth, and Pathways to Bliss. Besides Campbell, I have also found The Golden Bough by James George Frazer and The White Goddess by Robert Graves to be invaluable resources. In fact, these are better than any how-to writing book, other than The Elements of Style by Strunk & White.

Throughout the course of Rise, Isaac is ages eight through sixteen. One of the things that I worried about was making a sixteen-year old a believable adult; another layer to that was making Isaac a remarkable adult. He becomes a leader at such a young age and I attribute this to a few things. First of all, his circumstances are unusual. Few people experience so many things at such a young age. This forces him to mature much quicker. He is pushed to the extremes in many situations and, even when coming through scarred, he still makes it out alive. Secondly, he either is responsible or feels responsible for what has happened to him and his family, and instead of recoiling, he takes it upon himself to change things. Thirdly, he is destined for greatness. Circumstances might have sped this up, but he was always bound for amazing things.

KM: You set up a stark contrast between the personalities of Isaac and his brother, and then had Isaac kill his brother in an almost Biblical manner. This won approval from the fearsome natives, and also estranged him from his mother, setting him on his path in the military. Why all these traumatic events?
MJD: It was absolutely necessary for Isaac’s arc that he did something drastic that would haunt him the rest of his life. He has some guilt for not interfering when his father was killed, but it is nothing compared to the burden of killing his own brother. It certainly does have Biblical weight to it and that isn’t an accident. It was important to have the brothers be very different people. Readers will side with Isaac up to that point; the brother’s traits are slowly revealed and readers will become more sympathetic toward him just before he dies.

KM: I'm fascinated by the mythology you've developed with the Gods, spirit & animal guides, and mystical occurrences. It seems that Isaac has to conquer the land itself before he can help his people. What is the importance of the Gods & destiny in this world.

Matthew J. Daley at SDCC
MJD: Religion is essential to every society and it is no different in the world of Lantern City. One of the first things I did when I started to build out the world was to consider the different religious beliefs.
     I wanted to create an interesting dichotomy with traditional versus new beliefs. Isaac wants to believe in some of the old beliefs, whereas his father has no interest in them. Isaac’s desire for belief stems from many things: age, desire, circumstances, and ignorance. His beliefs will be explored further in the subsequent books.   
   The nature-based elements of Rise were extremely important to me. Lantern City is an industrialized megatropolis. Since Rise takes place before Lantern City exists, it was essential to show the conflict between the emerging industrial urban landscape and the natural world that had existed for thousands of years. There is a great fear of nature among most of the people in the story. This is not true for Isaac, even though he must face his greatest tests within the natural world. Before Isaac could become the founder of one of the greatest cities ever, he had to become a man in the natural world. This makes him more prepared, stronger, and more adaptable than most of the people he encounters.
    This is very similar to cultures that require young men to go into the wilderness, complete a task, and return as men. In a sense, this is destiny, because if you survive, you have a set of skills and experiences that set you apart from others. Technically, Isaac wasn’t forced into the wilderness, but that is where his destiny took him. Eventually, he will have to return to fulfill his destiny. 

KM: There are many myths about defeating an enemy/powerful animal and eating its flesh to absorb its power. Rise adds another with the story of Isaac and the Korbear.
Illustration from Rise, art by
Section Studios
MJD: I have always loved survival stories and stories pitting man against nature. Fiction has a way of romanticizing intense and often deadly encounters with nature and all that she contains. One of my favorite films from last year was The Grey. There are many reasons why I enjoy such works, but one of the primary reasons is that such experiences are foreign to me. I’m grateful for this, of course, though my fascination for such tales never wanes.
    As far as Isaac and the Korbear, I wanted to pit him against a nearly impossible force of nature in order to bring out his warrior side. He possesses savagery, as displayed when he kills his brother; he also has formal military training, but neither of these make him a warrior. It was absolutely necessary to have his back against the wall and his only chance for survival result from a total transformation. Another trick with this element of the story was to create an animal that was familiar enough for readers and yet still original. Hence, the Korbear. It’s bigger, more agile, more aggressive, and more vicious than our grizzly bear. To emphasize this I showed the Korbear defeating what seemed to be Isaac’s greatest threat, the White Wolf.
    Isaac’s eating the Korbear’s raw flesh was essential too, because it added both a spiritual element and a level of respect. This isn’t killing for the sake of killing or for sport: this is to survive. Finally, it was important to me that nobody witness Isaac’s feat of killing the Korbear only because it adds to his legend. Anyone that hears of the story will wonder, “did he really do that?”

KM: Let’s talk about the visual theme of lanterns. They pop up everywhere, from the title to technology. What do lanterns symbolize to you?

MJD:    As far as the use of lanterns in the world of Lantern City, it offers hope, it represents the possibilities of the unknown, and it is proof of progress. I hope that the symbolism isn’t offensively obvious.

KM: I thought it was interesting that you use a lantern as a portal between our world and Jalta. In Rise, it seems like the destination at the end of the portal is not entirely controllable. Whether it’s a technological flaw or the hand of the Gods, your characters will risk ending up in places they didn’t plan on.

MJD: It is something that isn’t discussed at length with the books or the show, but it is actually a bit of both. Each lantern will be based on the original blue prints, but built by someone else; since it is handcrafted, it will never be the same as the original (whether it be the actual parts or some of the details of the design). The world in which Lantern City takes place is scientifically advanced, but there are things that cannot be controlled. Those that want to push the boundaries must take leaps of faith through the portals.

KM: It was a refreshing contrast to hear the voice of Spruce, a person from our world circa 1970’s, react to what he sees in Jalta. Isaac, and generations later, Killian, will be aware that another world exists.  It’s intriguing to me that the ruler of Lantern City would be one of the only people that knows about the existence of our world.

Rise Book Cover.
MJD: What sets the television series in motion is three people from our world being transported to the alternate world of Jalta (known only to them, and a majority of the residents, as Lantern City). As soon as I was brought on board the project, I began to build out the history of the world. Through this, I developed what would eventually become Rise. The prequel books could certainly work well without having any dimension crossing, but it enhances the history and ties them into the television show. Readers need to know that the prequels will pay off while watching the television series and one of the best ways is to introduce this dimension traveling aspect.
    Readers don’t know much about the Spruce character by the end of Rise, though I hope he is memorable. He is obviously paramount to the founding of Lantern City and helping Isaac become the leader, but he is not motivated to rule alongside Isaac. His agenda is getting back to Earth.
   He is from the 70’s because he was a pilot during the Vietnam War. Having fought in that war prepares him for the chaos he faces in Jalta. I originally wrote him as a scientist, but he needed to be able to escape from a powerful army and fly airships; hence, he became a pilot. He could not be from the present day because he is transported to an earlier time in Jalta, whereas the character on the show will be in a more modern Lantern City.

KM: I saw a blurb on-line that there could be one or more prequel books like Rise. Can you hint at things to come?

MJD: There is great potential for a series of books. I have outlined six more books that are separate from the series and could potentially even write the television series as an epic cycle of books. The idea was born as a television show and it has grown to be much more.
    One of the benefits of books is that you can really expand the world and characters. All of the possibilities are exciting to all of us because building the world is so much fun.