Victims of Our Own Devices….

Our Own Devices

I received this book in eBook form via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. I thought the premise was interesting–the whole idea of short stories based on advances in technology after World War II–but found myself unprepared for this book to be a bit of a horror story.

I wondered if the author envisioned his work casting such a chilling pall whilst conceptualizing it. All the horror elements are here: some bleak, some atmospheric, some subtle, some overt. Every story holds a surprise. Every story contains some element in which technology wraps a cold, calculated hand around the throat of a protagonist.

I admit, I read other reviews of Messier’s book. One such review lamented that the characters were “flat” or that the characters lacked any reactive emotions. I believe that reviewer missed the point. Part of what I liked about Messier’s book is that the humans take on some of the characteristics of the machines that come to define them. Of course, this is not true in every case: most notably the story In The Ocean of Storms, which is part of the Leaving the Cradle series. This is the most human and chilling of the short stories in the entire collection. While some stories left me slightly bewildered (Képi Blanc), it was In The Ocean of Storms that the book as a whole came to haunt me. No spoilers here. I was going along fine, hit Képi Blanc, began to falter a bit, picked up again in the Atomic series of stories (and that is an area of special interest for me as a reader and researcher), and then hit that brick edifice that is In The Ocean of Storms and had to stop. I didn’t stop long, but it was more of a stopping and reminding myself of where and when I was, and that what I had just read was fiction, and that that did not actually happen. Did it? There’s something intriguing about a story that makes you question your sense and remembrance of history.  While the other stories twisted facts (not in a bad way) and threaded their ways through our collective mythos to their end, the events of that story in particular would have occurred within my living memory. Did they? If all the records surrounding the events depicted should be somehow destroyed and this book somehow survive, I have no doubt that, once they decipher it, future readers will take that bit of fiction as fact. That is compelling writing. That is, I believe, what other reviewers missed.

In the end, it’s not a book about people. But, it is. It’s a book about technology and the weight of that technology on the lives it touches. People who float through history as “flies on the wall” hear more and glean more from their exposure to experiments and machines than they realize. Some brushes with these devices trigger the darkest memories, long-buried secrets that were never meant to see the light of day…until something happens and that knowledge becomes important–even life-saving in some instances. It’s a series of stories that will surprise you. Some stories will challenge you, some will make you think the characters are “flat,” but don’t be fooled. Think about them. You won’t be able to help yourself, and you find that you will think about them. What I like most is that within their contexts, you come to see just what these characters and these devices and these stories truly are.

If you’re familiar with the rating system here, well, here it is: 4 Bloody-Love Handprints for compelling writing, atmospheric settings, apocalyptically good research, and believable characterization.

Four Bloody Handprints

Do you think this author was aware he was writing horror? I asked my husband once I’d finished and whisked the book back into the carousel on my Kindle. You should ask him, my husband replied. I stared at the light bulb on the cover. I should, I muttered, I have lots of things I should ask him….

….And so I did…

gilles_messier_portrait

I am pleased to welcome to A Diamond In The Dark, Mr. Gilles Messier, author of Our Own Devices.  Now, you can be as stunned and delighted as I was upon opening his replies to my questions for this interview.

Amy: Welcome to A Diamond In The Dark! Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

Gilles: I am a 23-year old Aerospace Engineering graduate from Winnipeg, Manitoba, currently living in Ottawa. People have called me a polymath or renaissance man, as I dabble in a wide variety of interests and hobbies. In addition to being an engineer and writer, I am also an inventor, painter, graphic designer, copyeditor, filmmaker, and outdoor sportsman. The world fascinates me, and I love the act of creation (whether it be machines, artwork, or stories), and strive to try my hand at any task that comes along. I also love accumulating useless trivia and making puns – much to the annoyance of my peers!

Though I have been writing since I was young, I have only written at a professional level for the past three years. Most of my work is in the genre of historical fiction; whenever I come across an interesting (and obscure) historical anecdote, I dramatize and fictionalize it into a short story, fleshing out the characters and expanding the story or theme. Being something of a stickler for detail, I make sure all my stories are well-researched for technical and historical accuracy.

Amy: Where did the inspiration for this collection of stories come from? How did you select your subjects?

Gilles: The three-theme format came about quite by accident. Back in 2011, I submitted what I consider my first ‘good’ short story  – The Girl at Panel 857 – for publication in my university’s literary magazine. The editor loved the story, but said it was too long for the magazine and would work better as a standalone chapbook. By that time I had written two more stories, coincidentally also set during WWII, so I combined the three into a single themed volume (I was also listening to a lot of concept albums at the time, and wanted to applying the concept to literature stories). As I kept writing, a pattern emerged: with few exceptions, my stories tended to center around three themes: WWII, Nuclear Power, and Space Exploration. There was initially no master plan; these were simply the subjects that inspired me to write. When it came time to publish my first collection of stories, my initial idea was to release a series of three-story volumes, each based on a single theme. My editor didn’t think this was cost-effective, though, so we chose instead to combine all three themes into a 9-story “1940s-1960s” collection. This meant I had to write a few stories specifically to fill gaps in the three themed sections – which proved to be an enjoyable writing exercise.

Amy: Who are your favorite writers? Who would you say inspired and continues to inspire you the most?

Gilles: For a fiction writer, I actually read surprisingly little fiction. I find reading non-fiction to be more useful all-around, but make up for my ‘literature debt’ (as it were) by converting the facts I read about into stories. I still read the occasional novel in order to ‘refresh’ my literary style, as my prose tends to get rather dry after reading too many technical documents.

I have read all sorts of literature, but the authors who had the greatest impact on my writing career were Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park) and Jules Verne. The former was actually my inspiration for becoming a writer, and my first attempt at literature (a novel called Vostok, written at age 13) was heavily influenced by his style. Being very technically-oriented, I loved his relatively realistic and practical approach to science fiction.

Amy: I can completely relate to that–all about the technical detail in prose. Don’t get me started on fishing … What is your reading history? Did you read a lot growing up? What types of things do you like to read?

Gilles: I read a lot as a child. In fact, one of my favorite summer pastimes was to visit the library, check out as many books as I could carry, then spend the rest of the day in a nearby cafe, reading. I would (and still do) read about anything and everything, often just pulling any book that looked interesting off the shelf (in the regular adult section, no less). Needless to say, I amassed a very broad collection of knowledge.

I still read a lot, and on a wide variety of subjects. I tend to prefer in-depth accounts of single, relatively obscure historical or scientific events and concepts, such as military operations or mathematical theorems.

Amy: There is an element of pervasive horror in the book, and the storyline, at times, becomes quite chilling. Do you work from an outline? Did every story take the turns you expected? Were there any unexpected turns that surprised you?

Gilles: I suppose the horror aspect comes directly from my creative process. I love studying history, and once in a while I will come across an anecdote that really sticks with me, inspiring me to write a story. It just so happens that the emotion that most impacts and inspires me is horror (followed by comedy, which features far more in my later stories). I have always loved the darker, shadowy annals of history, and this translates directly to my work. This fascination with paranoia sometimes works against me, though, for despite the cautionary tone of many of stories, I am actually a firm believer in technological progress. Horror just makes for a more effective story!

My actual writing process is very “concentrated”; I will let an idea sit in my head for weeks or even months, so the main details of every story are always fully worked out by the time I actually set words to paper. The occasional new detail will emerge in the course of writing, but these are almost never major plot points. As I often have only a limited time in which to write, this process prevents me from wasting time on unworkable concepts.

Amy: Which of these stories was your favorite to research? To write? Why?

Gilles: Kepi Blanc and The Downwinders, for very different reasons. Kepi Blanc is the closest I have come to a fully “organic” writing experience, with what began as retelling of a single WWII battle snowballing into a sprawling epic about the French Foreign Legion, colonialism, and the changing face of modern warfare. While researching this story, I would constantly stumble upon little snippets – technical details, obscure battles, even marching songs – that I knew I just had to weave into the narrative. Needless to say, the final product turned out very differently from my original concept!

The Downwinders also comes to mind not for the initial writing process, but what happened afterwards. I based the story on a 5-minute documentary segment about an incident that occurred during the British nuclear tests in Australia in 1950s. This incident was so obscure, however, that dramatizing it required me to use a great deal of artistic license. Two months after the story was published, I received a strange email from Australia, which turned out to be from the daughter of the very man – Luke van Houdt – featured in the story. She soon put the two of us in touch, and I was able to interview Mr. van Houdt and learn the whole story directly from the source. I then proceeded to write an entirely new version of the story (which will appear in a future edition of Our Own Devices) based on these facts. It’s not every day that a character from your book calls you up!

Amy: Ah… now I have guilt! I didn’t go into The Downwinders in the review, but that ran a close second as my favorite stories went. It was very reminiscent of the sheep ranchers in Utah during America’s atomic testing in the 1950s and early 1960s. I remember being in Moab, Utah and talking to a woman in her late-50s whose uncles were out on the ranges when the above-ground tests went off (and the Army didn’t realize anyone was out there). I’m sure you’ve read it, but there’s a book that was published about a million years ago (or at least back in the 1980s) called The Day We Bombed Utah by John G. Fuller. Because it’s spend-y now, I would suggest Interlibrary Loan…  But, I digress… Do you have any current works in progress? What else can we expect to see from you, or where else can we find your work?

Gilles: I am very near completing a second 11-story collection, tentatively titled Twentieth Century Blues. It will be less structured than Our Own Devices, featuring a medley of stories on subjects as diverse as computers, mental health, aviation, and modern relationships. I have been experimenting quite a bit with character voice and absurdist humor, so the new collection should be far less “heavy” than Our Own Devices! I expect to have the book out by early next year, though some of the individual stories are already available as e-books.

I have also set myself an ambitious lifelong writing task: to write a novel set in every decade of the twentieth century (10 in total). I have already begun work on two: 13 Shining Stars (set during the Space Race) and The Downwinders (an expansion of the short story). I am also working on an unrelated sci-fi novel, The Reaper Weary.

Thank you for being here, Gilles!

See, now? He’s industrious and busy. I expect we’ll be hearing a lot about Mr. Messier in the months and years to come. I would highly recommend Our Own Devices to anyone who has an interest not just in how technology has come to define us, but also has an interest in the human face of the post-industrial world. Right now, it’s only 99¢ for your Kindle, so please click the book cover above and check it out!

And, to paraphrase, while horror may make for a more effective story, compelling writing will keep you reading until late into the night … or at least until the charge on your Kindle gives out (which is why there will always be physical books!)…