Clay Gilbert has FINALLY returned to ScifiPulse. This time it is to discuss his latest novel Binary Sunset. As a creative who has been thinking of aliens, vampires, and people from the future since he was a child, Gilbert always has fascinating insights into writing fiction. And with this novel, Clay merges his love for fan culture and comic cons with science fiction and romance.
Nicholas Yanes: It has been more than two years since we last talked. How has life been for you? Slay any monsters?
Clay Gilbert: A couple, Nick, but not the kind you might expect. I like the usual kind. COVID-19, now, I managed to steer clear of it these last two years. I did have a pretty nasty run-in with depression for about a year, but I think a lot of people did during the pandemic. My work helps me through times like that, and fighting back against the things going on inside me, as well as in the world around me, helped bring Binary Sunset to life.
Yanes: While we are still dealing with COVID, it seems that the worst of the pandemic is over. How did the COVID lock-downs impact your approach to life and writing?
Gilbert: There was a meme floating around online during the initial days of the pandemic which summed up what I thought it was going to be like, showing an introvert grinning during the lock-downs and an extrovert frowning. Replace ‘introvert’ with ‘writer’, and you’d have something of what I imagined. The reality was different. My mother was in the hospital for two months during the lock-downs, unable to have any visitors other than my dad, who couldn’t see me because he’d been exposed to the hospital environment, and every day was a litany of death, infection and fear. I didn’t do much writing that first year of the pandemic, but I did do a lot of thinking: about what, and who, was important to me in my life. For me, thinking eventually leads to writing, and anxiety eventually leads to writing, so it was no surprise when Binary Sunset came knocking on the door of my subconscious in mid-September of 2021, in the first days following my usual trip to DragonCon in Atlanta; a trip that had been taken off the table by the pandemic in 2020.
Yanes: What was your inspiration for Binary Sunset?
Gilbert: Initially, it was the time of the year, having just gotten back from DragonCon, and missing someone I’d reconnected with, who I spent a lot of time with at the con, and who I’d known for a lot of years, but had never been as close to as I wanted to be. That’s a situation mirrored in the relationship between Riley Rivers and Bryson Anderson in both Binary Sunset and the still-to come Into the Imago.
The pandemic played a part as well, making an impact on both the plot and themes of the book. But there was a third factor, too.
I heard Ray Bradbury say once, at a speech at the 1986 Worldcon in Atlanta, that science-fiction was the most important form of literature there is. I’d broaden that designation to ‘speculative fiction,’ to include fantasy and horror as well, the three genres usually embraced by Forry Ackerman’s term ‘sci-fi’, but I agree with Bradbury. Writing a story that would underscore that importance, and the importance of imagination, was certainly a big part of the creation of this novel.
Yanes: Much of this book feels inspired by fan culture. What aspects of fan culture did you directly include in the novel?
Gilbert: The real inspirations were deeper, as I’ve said, but because I’ve been involved with fandom for about forty years, it was a good lens through which to tell this particular story. As you can probably tell from the title, which shares its name with a track from the Star Wars soundtrack, Star Wars fandom is a major presence in the book. Doctor Who, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Matrix all get shout-outs. Convention life, cosplay, and live-action roleplay are all also integral parts of Binary Sunset. They’re some of the tools the imaginative war that plays out across both books—Binary and its sequel, Into the Imago—are fought with.
Yanes: Imaginative war.’ That sounds intriguing. Can you explain that a bit more?
Gilbert: Sure. On its surface—particularly for anyone who knows me and my interests—Binary Sunset may seem like just a romance mixed with a sci-fi road-trip buddy adventure. There’s more than that going on here, if I’ve done my job right.
I think the world we live in right now really encourages people to pick a box and get in it; to pick a side and stay on it, and not try to see beyond borders or envision any way to build a better paradigm; a better version of things. There are people in this world who enjoy the conflicts caused by the way things are, and who really have a vested interest in making sure things don’t change.
Yanes: Very interesting. Go on.
Gilbert: One of the things the best works of speculative fiction—books, movies, TV or what have you—have done over the years, it seems to me, is look at the problems in our world and use stories to imagine a solution.
Yanes: So Binary Sunset isn’t just ‘DragonCon in Space’, or ‘Star Wars Celebration in Space?’
Gilbert: That’s just an element of setting here, and while I love cons and fandom, and wanted to celebrate all that, I also wanted a way to talk about why these kinds of events, and the kinds of stories they embrace, continue to be so popular.
I hope it’s a fun book, with some of the same elements classic sci-fi and space fantasy tales have. At its heart, though, it’s a story about how imagination can be a way to change things, not just escape a reality we’re unhappy with. Plot-wise, Binary Sunset and really both books of the Crow War Chronicles, are about a power from another dimension, a group of beings called the Crows, who want to steal away the power of imagination from those who have it, because they themselves don’t. A convention like the Ouroboros Expo (think DragonCon or San Diego Comic Con, but in space) is the perfect feeding ground for the Crows. And, of course, there are some good guys who plan to stop them, and I don’t just mean the main protagonist, Bryson Anderson, or the friends he’s attending the con with. Bryson and the gang just get caught in the middle of all the cosmic goings-on.
Yanes: What elements of this novel took a life of their own?
Gilbert: So often in my writing process, characters or situations from my stories become three-dimensional and seem to step across from the realm of imagination—the place this book calls the Imago—into the world of ‘real life.’ But this book began out of situations in my own life—the pandemic, my wanting to reaffirm and reorder priorities in my life, including reaching out to someone special who I felt I’d kind of let slip away—and so writing this novel felt like making a mirror of imagination to reflect the real world. I’m probably still doing that in much of my work, but in many of my novels, the task seems to be to take mythic creatures, settings and situations and distill them so that they’re more relatable in real-world terms.
Yanes: The male protagonist of the book, Bryson Anderson, who’s your age and is a writer, might be seen to be a projection of yourself. Do you think writing about characters and situations similar to, or even drawn from, things in your own life cheapens the creative process?
Gilbert: Bryson’s like me in some regards, but not exactly, and he’s not a cleaned-up or idealized version of me. He’s got his own fears, failings and challenges. The other characters in the book have their reflections in the real world as well, and those aren’t exact, either. As for how a technique like that affects creativity: alternate universes are a frequent trope of speculative fiction, and ‘what if?’ is a question people ask themselves both in life and in science-fiction stories. There’s a moment in the second book, Into the Imago, where Bryson and Riley wonder about alternate versions of themselves, and whether their version is the one that gets the happy ending. I won’t spoil that, as that book isn’t even out yet, and I want folks to read it—but I will say that questions like that aren’t just the stuff of science fiction, but a fundamental part of the human experience. And creative work involves self-examination as much as it does anything else.
Yanes: When people finish reading Binary Sunset, what do you hope they take from the experience?
Gilbert: That dreams are important. Passion is important. The human imagination is important, because it’s transformational. Any problem; any obstacle we’re faced with, if we can imagine a solution, we can bring that into reality. Human beings are rather uniquely blessed in that regard: we can imagine things, and bring them into being. Actually, it’s both a blessing and a curse, depending on what we do with it. I think illustrating that is one of the important functions of speculative fiction: it’s not just escapism.
Yanes: What else are you working on that fans can look forward to?
Gilbert: First off, but not next in line to be released, there’s Into the Imago, the second part of the two-volume saga called the Crow War Chronicles that was begun in Binary Sunset. That’ll be out by the end of this year. But before that will be Pearl of the Shadows, Book Two of my urban-fantasy Mountain-Walker Saga, which began back in 2019 with Pearl: A Monster Story. It’s what I’m working on right now. And beyond that, there’s more to come, this year and next!