Interview: Sci-Fi Author Nicky Drayden Talks About Her Trippy Debut Novel, "The Prey of Gods'

Friday, 02 June 2017 - 4:31PM
Friday, 02 June 2017 - 4:31PM
Interview: Sci-Fi Author Nicky Drayden Talks About Her Trippy Debut Novel, "The Prey of Gods'
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Image credit: Nicky Drayden
When people hear the terms "sci-fi" and "South Africa" in the same sentence, the knee-jerk reaction is to say "Oh, like District 9?" Nicky Drayden's The Prey of Gods, however, is unlike anything else we've seen before. Its futuristic vision of South Africa, entwined with personal robots, genetically engineered animals, and old cultures meeting new, is incredibly inventive and ambitious. Did we mention there are giant robot fights and hallucinogens?

Yeah. Those are important.

We sat down with Nicky to talk about the book, her inspirations, and what readers can look forward to when it comes out on June 13th. 
Outer Places: Tell me a bit about yourself—hobbies, private obsessions, lifelong passions, etc. The nerdier the better!
Nicky Drayden: Most of the time, I don't feel like a proper nerd since I don't have any hobbies or obsessions (other than reading and writing), but I do have a pretty swanky collection of nerdy t-shirts. I try to live with a minimalist's mindset, so my collection is far from vast, but every shirt I own, I love. Some of my faves: a painting of Serenity in the style of Van Gogh, Lego Moss from IT Crowd, and probably my all-time favorite Ursula from The Little Mermaid. I think she was just misunderstood.
OP: Tell me about your inspirations for The Prey of Gods. Were there stories or experiences you drew from when writing the book?
Drayden: The first character I wrote for this book, a disenfranchised demigoddess working as a nail tech, came to me while I was driving around downtown Houston and saw a salon sign that said "Magic Nails." I thought about how cool it would be if they really did use magic to do nails, but then started thinking about what kind of person would be giving manicures if they could do magic. I wrote a character sketch and filed it away. 
I like to participate in National Novel Writing Month, and in 2009 when November 1st rolled around and I was desperate for a story idea, I turned to my pile of random character sketches, picked a handful of them, and decided to weave them together into a story. I chose to set the story in a futuristic South Africa since I'd been there back when I was in college. 
Many of the highlights from my visit are featured in the book, for example, we toured some of the rural townships where people live in tin shacks, met teenagers who had recently gone through the circumcision rite, and bought hand carved souvenirs from local artists. And it seemed like everywhere we went, there were these little cute antelopes called dik-diks rummaging around the city, kind of in a similar way some places have deer overpopulation problems, so those things all got worked into the book. It was a lot of fun to relive my memories through my writing and to project how South Africa's unique challenges and strengths would intersect with technological and scientific advancements over the next fifty years.
What was the hardest part about writing the story? What was your favorite part? Any fun behind-the-scenes anecdotes?
Drayden: My favorite part was also the hardest part-weaving the characters' threads together. There are six point-of-view characters, most of which have never met one another, and yet they're all connected in various ways. For example, in Sydney's first chapter, she's giving a manicure to a woman who's getting ready to go to a fundraiser for Councilman Stoker. She also has a night job overseeing janitorial robots at the place where another character's sister works. Almost every character's path crosses every other character in some way—sometimes a big way, sometimes just in passing.
OP: A major feature of the book is personal robots, including alpha and delta bots. What do you think about AI personal assistants like Google Home or Amazon Echo, and what do you think about the prospect of robots replacing humans in the workforce?
Drayden: Right now, having Alexa is kind of like having a five-year-old for an assistant. Sure, she can do some useful things, like turning on the lights and television, but then when you're doing an important phone interview, she'll decide to interrupt and tell you a completely useless answer to a question you didn't ask. And a lot of times you're screaming at her because she's not listening to what you're saying. I'm sure things will improve, but it might be a while.
Honestly, I think the AI movie that is the closest to how life will be 150 years from now is WALL-E. Ruined Earth, living in space, with robots doing all the work, while humanity (or what's left of humanity) is at leisure. But 25 years from now? Cheap AI labor will drive prices down, drive wages down. However, I think the savvy individual will use this cheap labor to their advantage, and we'll see a lot of ingenuity from startups and entrepreneurs harnessing the power of AI.
OP: Genetic engineering (and a genetically engineered virus) is another big theme in the story, mostly driven by the ZenGen corporation. With tools like CRISPR on the horizon, where do you see genetic engineering coming into play in our future?
Drayden: If it can be done, I think we should do it. Cautiously, of course, but at the rate we're changing our environment, we no longer have the luxury of letting evolution run its natural course. We'll be engineering trees that are more efficient at consuming CO2 and ocean creatures that can better withstand polluted waters. For better or (probably) worse, we're going to be micromanaging Mother Nature for many centuries to come.  
OP: The Prey of Gods is grounded in elements of South African culture, including Zulu and Xhosa beliefs. How did you balance the futuristic aspects of the story with these older traditions?
Drayden: I'm quite far removed from being any sort of expert on South African culture, but I do find it interesting to watch how old traditions butt up against technology and the demands of a modern-day lifestyle. For example, in my research, I saw that the Xhosa circumcision rite used to be followed by six months spent in seclusion up in the mountains. The seclusion period shortened to three months, then one month, and participants no longer venture to the mountain, but to a secluded place away from the village. Following that trend, in the novel set 50 years from now, Muzi's rite takes place over the course of an afternoon spent camping out in his own yard.  
One of my favorite small details in the book is a street vendor selling robots made from old Fanta cans. Township art is one of the newer South African traditions, which uses recycled tin or wire to produce unique sculptures. Having small robots made from reclaimed soda cans in the story seemed like the next logical step.
OP: There are elements of fantasy mixed in with the sci-fi elements in Prey of Gods, especially when it comes to the 'gods' part. In your mind, is this a 'Clarke's Third Law' sort of thing, where the fantastical aspects can be reconciled with science, or did you want to leave that question ambiguous?
Drayden: Yes, in my mind, science and magic are pretty much interchangeable, which is probably why I enjoy combining them so much. We've come so far over the past century, but right now, we're sitting on the brink of a technological explosion, and with it, we'll be dealing with new and interesting social and moral dilemmas.
OP: There's a lot of drug use in the book, including a hallucinogenic, pain-killing drug that makes various characters see themselves as animals (which is pretty trippy when you read it). Did you have a real-life drug equivalent in mind, like peyote, when you wrote those experiences? 
Drayden: The goings-on in my head are pretty trippy 24-7, combined with the high of writing 1666 words a day for NaNoWriMo...well, you get things like hallucinatory dolphin/crab sex in the first chapter.
OP: If you could grab someone by the shoulders and give them one good reason why they should pick up Prey of Gods, what would it be?
Drayden: It's got giant robots doing jujitsu. If that doesn't catch your interest, then we can't be friends.
OP: What are you working on next?

Drayden: My next book is sort of an African-inspired humorous dark fantasy with a heavy helping of steampunk. More gods and robots to look forward to! 

You can check out our full review of The Prey of Gods here, and pre-order the book here! You can also visit Nicky Drayden on her website here.
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