Interview with Rod Rees, Author, ‘The Demi-Monde: Winter’

 

Rod Rees is the author of The Demi-Monde: Winter, the first novel in a series about the Demi-Monde, a virtual world ruled by history’s worst villains. Designed as a military training tool, the Demi-Monde is no place for a civilian: especially the teenaged daughter of the President of the United States. When she disappears inside this nightmare world, eighteen year-old jazz singer and reluctant hero Ella Thomas is sent in to rescue her. Rees recently spoke with me about history, Aleister Crowley and the real world’s answers to the Demi-Monde.

DemimondeThe idea of virtual reality training environments for soldiers has gone from theory to practical application in a scant few years. Did some of that inspire The Demi-Monde: Winter?

I started the background work on the Demi-Monde in January 2009 (doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun!) and at that time the idea of the US military (or any military for that matter) taking MMOGs seriously seemed really far out. Sure they were working on virtual training environments but most of the information accessible on the web indicated that this work was decidedly amorphous and vague … for instance:

Spot On: The US Army’s There-Based Simulation

Massive Multiplayer Online Gaming: A Research Framework for Military Training

Evaluating Game Technologies for Training

Massive Multi-player Environments for Asymmetric Warfare

The upshot was that in the end I designed the DM without any real reference to what the military was doing. Then, a couple of months back, the publicity people at William Morrow, my US publisher, asked me to answer the following: is it plausible that any government is working on a Demi-Monde of its own at this very moment? My immediate inclination was to answer ‘nah … not seriously anyway’ but I decided to trawl thru the web to see if there was anybody potty enough to be trying to do just that. I didn’t have to trawl very far. I put in ‘Virtual Worlds + Military Applications’ into Google and up popped:

Army Wants to Build a Massive Virtual World to Train Soldiers

Now according to NextGov’s FaceBook page it’s a leading federal technology web site, a meeting place for government and industry managers to read the latest news and discussions and to share insights on deploying IT successfully to achieve agency missions. What NextGov was discussing that so intrigued me was the news that the US Army wants to develop a massive virtual world populated by 10,000 avatars, managed by an artificial intelligence and operating over a 32-mile square simulated terrain. That stopped me: the Demi-Monde is 30 miles in circumference and, of course, is managed by its very own artificial intelligence, the quantum computer known as ABBA.

NextGov went on: officials at the ARDEC’s (the Army Research, Development and Engineering Command) Simulation and Technology Training Centre said that they want a systems integrator to put together a virtual world that includes soldiers, vehicles and weapons that can move around a landscape built from Defense Department digital terrain data. Of course, my Demi-Monde was commissioned by the US Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) based in Fort Jackson, South Carolina and the contractor chosen was ParaDigm CyberResearch. ARDEC might want to give ’em a call!

ARDEC also said that it wants to incorporate technologies used in massively multiplayer online games. The Demi-Monde is defined as a MMP simulation … to recreate in a wholly realistic cyber-milieu the threat-ambiance and no-warning aspect of … an Asymmetric Warfare Environment. Snap!

Now the similarities to the tender document for the Demi-Monde simulation produced when ParaDigm pitched for the contract (you can check this out on www.thedemi-monde.com) might be coincidental but being a suspicious sod I went back to check on the visits made to the site. Now to identify if any of them were from the US military I used http://www.uaff.info/militarytracking.htm (a very scary site so you have been warned!) which told me that I’d had two visits from an IP address which seems to belong to US Defense Information Systems Agency. Peculiar, right?

Now I’m not saying I’ve been ripped off but I just hope the similarities between what the US military is cooking up and the Demi-Monde end here, otherwise we’re all in deep shit. I think they should read the final volume – The Demi-Monde: Fall – before they go much further!

I loved the idea of the president’s daughter disappearing into the Demi-Monde. It’s a great set-up, and it reminds me of Escape from New York. Instead of Snake Plissken, though, you’ve got an eighteen year-old jazz student sent in to rescue her. What inspired you to go in this direction?

Escape from New York was a great movie but the real inspiration for The Demi-Monde came from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I loved the idea of a young girl being lost in a fantastic world where everything is a distorted, bizarro image of the Real World. In fact the major theme of The Demi-Monde is absurdity. The religions of the Demi-Monde – UnFunDaMentalism, ImPuritanism, HerEticalism, HimPerialism, RaTionalism and Confusionism – are merely the religions of the Real World stretched and distorted to breaking point. Now it might be that some readers think that all I was intent on doing was taking the rise but this is not the case. I believe that only by showing a belief system in extremis is it possible to see it as it really is … reductio ad absurdum.

As to why I made my three leading protagonists girls the answer is that I live surrounded by intelligent, feisty and ambitious women (my wife and two teenage daughters) and I guess it was a natural to use them as templates for my heroines. And Ella is a jazz singer because my wife Nelli is a jazz singer … you can check out her version of Falling in Love Again on YouTube.

While the Demi-Monde seems like a hellish place, I can’t help but to wonder if it wouldn’t attract researchers and historians were it real. After all, what historian could resist the opportunity to see some of history’s greatest villains in action? You must be a history buff to have written a book like this. Would you ever consider spending some time in the Demi-Monde yourself?

You’re quite right, Matt, historians et al would have been over the DM like a rash (but I didn’t include them for the simple reason that they would have played hell with my story … it’s complicated enough as it is!). Two of my characters, Vanka Maykov and Schmuel Gelbfisz, come to pretty much the same conclusion when they are discussing the JAD (the nuJu Autonomous District, a part of the Demi-Monde) in The Demi-Monde: Spring:

Vanka smiled. ‘I’m not surprised. The JAD isn’t anything like I imagined. It’s very different where I come from.’

‘A brokh. I often zay how remarkable it is zhat zhe JAD unt zhe rest ov zhe Demi-Monde could have deviated zo far, zo quickly.’ Rabbi Gelbfisz was silent for a moment as he munched suspiciously on the matzo brei. ‘Zhe JAD is an anthropologist’s vet dream, is it not? How vonderful to be able to study zhe manner in vhich a population, shunned unt isolated as ve nuJus have been, can develop in such strange unt different vays. It is proof zhat evolution is alive unt vell.’ He took a sip of his coffee, eyeing Vanka as he did so. ‘Perhaps zhat is vot you are, Mr Tyler, an anthropologist?’

As for the question would I spend time in the DM, the instinctive answer is ‘no’ – it’s way too scary for me – but then I guess the lure of being able to meet with some of my heroes – like Josephine Baker (a woman who shows just what can be achieved with a skirt made out of bananas, a big smile and a truck full of moxy) and Nikolai Kondratieff (one of the unsung geniuses of the 20th century who I had to give a lead role in the DM) – would be irresistible.

Evil is a difficult thing to define, and sometimes one man’s hero is another’s villain. How did you go about selecting the historical characters that would appear in Demi-Monde: Winter?

My Singularities (or Dark Charismatics as they are known inside the Demi-Monde itself) are drawn from the über-psychopaths who have tormented the world since time immemorial … real people like Reinhard Heydrich, Shaka Zulu, Empress Wu, Godfrey de Boullion, Selim the Grim, and Lavrentii Beria. I wanted guys (and most of these maniacs are men) who demonstrated the stone-cold and unrelenting evil of their class. But as I researched them it became apparent just how glib and charming these bastards are … just how charismatic. As one of my characters in ‘The Demi-Monde’, says:

‘Many would have it that evil is a cold, a heartless and a fearful thing, but it is not…evil is seductive, it draws you willingly into its grasp with honeyed words and a saucy smile.’

Evil isn’t a one dimensional thing: it’s subtle and sneaky and the logic its proponents use to promote it specious and compelling. It’s this ability to make arrant and pernicious nonsense sound reasonable I’ve tried to imbue my bad guys with. But more, as I studied the bad guys in history I got to wondering whether they might actually constitute a separate taxon of the species H. sapiens and that opened up a real world of wonder …

The Demi-Monde is a very complicated place, it seems, and has its own religions and philosophies. Why did you feel that it was important to include these as an element of the story?

My own belief is that the PCism rife today has simply put a smooth, gloss finish over some of the uglier aspects of humanity. The discussion of racism, sexism, ageism…in fact all the ‘isms’ has been rendered taboo in polite society but that doesn’t mean they’ve disappeared. PC is simply a veneer. Scratch beneath this surface coating and you’ll find that bigotry, prejudice and narrow-mindedness are still alive and well … even flourishing. Homophobia: Check (Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment for a gay pride march through New Orleans); Fascism: Check (the European fascist parties are thriving); Religious Fundamentalism: Check (the Twin Towers) … the list goes on.

Karl Marx (who makes a cameo appearance in The Demi-Monde: Summer) observed that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. I’m hoping that the DM brings a little farce into the consideration of history and gives me a chance as a writer is to kick a few rocks over to have a look at the vermin squirming happily around in the shadows, waiting for an opportunity to have their turn in the sun. And in times of political and economic upheaval they flourish: the Russian revolution spawned Communism, the depression of the 30’s bred Fascism and now the world is facing fresh challenges. Chaos breeds extremism. These are the warnings from history: the problem is that studying history isn’t terribly popular anymore. So it seemed timely to remind people of how horribly plausible but ultimately fatuous some of these belief systems and their proponents actually are.

Tell me about Aleister Crowley. He was a complicated fellow, historically speaking, and scholars have had a hard time parsing fact from fiction. How did you first come across Crowley? How did you choose what to include and what to leave on the cutting room floor?

I first encountered Crowley through the Dennis Wheatley novels about Satanism and the occult, and when I was picking ‘Religious Singularities’ for inclusion in the DM, Crowley was a snap – how could I resist a man once described as ‘the wickedest man in all the world’. But you are quite correct, Crowley the man is hard to pin down simply because much of what is known about him is Crowley-inspired fabrication: this was a man determined to be his own press-agent. The one enduring impression I came away with from my research was a feeling of how weak the man was … that he never really had the courage to be as mad or bad as his propaganda suggested. And it is this weakness that I’ve tried to portray as the DM series unfolds.

As to what I left on the cutting-room floor, the answer is lots. The original Winter was a third longer than the one that reached publication. Maybe one day …

I know that this is the first book in a series. When can we expect the next one?

I understand that the second book in the series, The Demi-Monde: Spring, is coming out in the US at the end of 2012. Most of the action of Spring takes place in the hedonistic Quartier Chaud (the Franco-Venetian Sector of the Demi-Monde) where Robespierre and the Marquis de Sade are the Singularities making life miserable for Norma and Ella. It’s the book where the underlying duality of the Demi-Monde universe becomes more apparent. This is the blurb I wrote for the book:

The shadows grow ever darker across the Demi-Monde. And as the soldiers of Heydrich’s ForthRight goose-step into Paris and the ancient evil that is Lilith is awoken, it falls to Norma Williams to lead the resistance.

Lost in the virtual nightmare that is the Demi-Monde she must come to terms with these terrible responsibilities and with the knowledge that those she thought were her friends are now her enemies. To triumph in this surreal cyber-world she must be more than she ever believed she could be … or perish.