RICHARD E.D. JONES: An entire human civilization living, breeding, dying and getting ready to (possibly) usher out the lifespan of the universe on top of the human-built body of God, which, in turn, rests on a flat singularity purpose built by a bunch of aliens called the Black Rose. Wow, John. What was it that sparked this idea?
JOHN GUY COLLICK: That’s a pretty good summary and, put like that, yes Thumb is a strange book. I’ve lived with the idea for about twenty years now so I’ve kind of got used to it, but seing it through a new reader’s eyes makes me realise that to others it’s weird - which was the intention. In my head I have a crystal-clear image of the landscape and the people, but many of my readers see it completely differently. In fact, it’s given some of them nightmares! The concept first came to me in a dream. I had a vision of people building an immense doll in a desert, the idea being it would come to life and save them from an impending disaster. They’d been building it for centuries, and had forgotten the original purpose of the mannequin. Instead the people splintered into groups, forged kingdoms around the different parts of the body, and fought and schemed among each other. The idea intrigued me, it was a physical version of the old Renaissance image of the State as a giant body (with the king at the head, the people represented by the hands and feet etc.). The more I thought about it, the bigger it got, until, in Thumb, this immense Frankenstein’s monster is 500,000 miles from head to toe. As a rough guideline one inch is six thousand miles. At that scale the average human cell is seven miles long. Earth would look like a marble in the palm of God’s hand. I have a copy of Gray’s Anatomy on my desk, which I use for reference, and you’ll notice that most of the cities and countries are named after parts of the body - Metacarpi, Antihelix, Abductor, etc.
RICHARD E.D. JONES: The story takes place in the far, far, very, very far distant future, almost at the last universal heart beat as all of our reality suffers heat death. This is billions of years down the road and, yet, the people in the story were recognizably human. They had a human body shape. They called each other contemporary names. They thought like humans. The odds of humanity reaching the end of the universe are slim, at best. The odds of them being recognizably human at the end, infinitesimally smaller. Why did you decide to have your characters be so. . . human?
JOHN GUY COLLICK: I’ve always been a huge fan of modernist writers like Franz Kafka (and, later, Mervyn Peake). Their stories belong to a tradition of absurd, grotesque writing where illogical dream-like places and things are described as if they were perfectly natural. Mervyn Peake’s castle Gormenghast is infinite, surreal and fantastic, yet the characters who live in it just accept the strangeness and get on with their urbane lives. It’s the same in Kafka’s novels. They are unsettling because they are filled with ordinary people we identify with, placed in universes that have the disorienting logic of a dream. I wanted to capture the same weird feeling in Thumb - the essential premise of the book is utterly bizarre, but the characters in the world are normal: they smoke cigarettes, listen to jazz and drink absinthe in the shadow of a Thumb as big as a planet. I based the city of Metacarpi on Prague circa 1910 - a fin de siecle world of bourgeois decadence. But at the same time I also wanted to write a cracking high-octane adventure, even if it was set in an utterly strange universe. One of my readers said it’s like a Jason Bourne novel - a fast paced thriller that just happens to be set in a completely weird environment. Personally, I think of it as a Indiana Jones meets Kafka. Sure, I could have written a hard science fiction novel describing what kind of beings may actually survive at the end of time, but that wasn’t the effect I was going for, and writers like Stephen Baxter and Greg Bear have already done it far better than I could. That’s why I decided to go for Science Fantasy instead.
RICHARD E.D. JONES: Are you religious? I ask because of the reasoning behind the human race, such as it becomes, needing to recreate God. A being it had killed? destroyed? left behind? Without a God, at least according to the Black Rose, humanity could not escape the energistic flatlining of the universe into a new energy-rich reality.
JOHN GUY COLLICK: No I’m not religious at all, and neither are the humans in the book. That was an interesting question to me - what if a humanity so ancient that it had forgotten all religion, and had descended into jaded, decadent boredom, suddenly discovered it could only survive by creating a God? What kind of being would they make? How would they create its mind? What would their responsibility be to a deity they’d manufactured from scratch, purely as a means of transport? I wanted to take the Frankenstein myth to the next level - with man creating a God, not just a human. In Mary Shelley’s novel the hero makes his new Adam as an interesting experiment, without realising his moral duty towards his creation, which he then condemns and abandons. The creature, rejected by his maker, turns to evil. Thumb asks a similar question - what is man’s responsibility to a God he has created? If we create a being that is more powerful than ourselves, and we treat it purely as a means to an end, what are the moral and physical consequences? How will it react when it discovers its own nature and purpose?
RICHARD E.D. JONES: The mind of God. Eight giants with terrifying psychic powers, roaming the body of God like questing fleas, walking among humans to learn about them. Why does God need to learn about humanity, his creator? Is it sort of the reverse of how humans believe they need to try and understand the will of God, their creator?
JOHN GUY COLLICK: Yes, in Thumb, the relationship between God and Man is reversed. God is not the creator, God is just a vehicle for man’s escape, a puppet cynically created out of the rubbish of the past. The problem facing mankind is how do you create the mind of a God, which will be more powerful and complex than any human one? They have to split it into manageable components - hence the eight spirits who take the form of the giants. I’m also a fan of the poet and artist William Blake, who created his own revolutionary cosmology of spirits. He talks about the Zoas, who are parts of the spirit of God, each one with a male and female version, giving a total of eight. I wanted to play around with the idea, and also look at another dilemma which is why should this newly created God save humanity at all? He will have to believe that humanity is worth saving - so the giants are sent out into the realms of man to learn about what makes us people, ideally so that when they recombine they’ll understand enough about us to want to save us. Of course, we don’t do a very good job of convincing them.
RICHARD E.D. JONES: I really loved the way you brought up how Max, Abby and everyone else currently extant at the end of the universe, must exist at a significantly lower energy level than sentients of the deep past. The scene with Max in the time well, traveling back millions of years and almost ablating away into the structure of the more energetic past was really a thought-provoking bit of action. Coupled with that, how eating, for instance, Pomegranate seeds, would almost overflow an end-time body with too much energy.
JOHN GUY COLLICK: Thanks. Pomegranate seeds are important in ancient Greek mythology. The goddess Persephone was tricked into eating them by Hades so she had to stay in the underworld, so they are partly associated with the realm of the dead, which is what the past is. By the time Max and Abby are alive, reality and energy are spread so thin they are almost ghosts, though they appear perfectly physical and normal to each other. Dropping them in the high-energy past is like putting snowflakes in tea. The further back they go, the quicker the dissolution. In the late universe they can survive a few days on planets orbiting dead suns etc. But in our time zone they would die in hours. Similarly beings brought out of the past into the age of Thumb also die because their life force dissipates out into the near-zero energy state at the end of time.
RICHARD E.D. JONES: In our present culture, God often is seen as a being of vast power, knowledge and compassion. Nothing is said about God’s physical body. If, indeed, she even has one. Why did the Godform created by humanity need to be so staggeringly, appallingly huge?
JOHN GUY COLLICK: This question reminds me of Akira Kurosawa’s comments about his own films (he said that talking about his movies was like ‘putting legs on a snake’). Someone asked him what the lone horse trudging over the battlefield at the end of Kagemusha represented and he said “I don’t know, I just thought it looked good’. In answer to your question, I don’t know. I just thought it would be really cool to make the body of God this immense puppet. I wanted him to be as big as possible, but I ran up against the limitations of having people travel over and through him with the relatively limited technology they had, without taking years and years. So in the end a scale of 1 inch to 6000 miles seemed the optimum size. When I originally though of the story I had in mind two paintings by Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son and Panic: The Colossus. Both show god like figures that are also very physical and grotesque. I wanted the God of Thumb to have the same immense, actual presence.
RICHARD E.D. JONES: I’m thinking of the Black Rose as, sort of, a demiurge. They kicked into motion the creation of mankind’s God, basically directing the formation of the human universe. After having served as a benevolent friend, or mentor, to humanity, some of them seem to be a bit less-than enthusiastic about the possibility of humanity accompanying a risen God into the new universe. What have they got against humanity?
JOHN GUY COLLICK: I can’t answer that without giving too much away, other than to say we don’t do ourselves any favours in Thumb or its sequels. There will be more hints and revelations about man’s uneasy relationship with the Black Roses in the next in the series, Ragged Claws.
RICHARD E.D. JONES: Humans, as depicted, were scavengers at best. Grave robbers, even if not in name. Why did you set up the conflict between people who lived off the past, but were required to actually create something new to see the future?
JOHN GUY COLLICK: The question at the back of my mind was what happens to a society when it feels it has achieved all it can, and there is either nothing left to do, or nothing it can do, but which is confronted by the sudden need to save itself by undertaking an immense project which no-one alive will see to completion. The people of Thumb have to build a God, a project so vast it takes a million years, and the only way they can do this is by stealing scrap from the past because there simply isn’t enough stuff left in the universe to build anything. That also exposes them to every pleasure and vice created in the long history of the universe, so they struggle to keep focussed on the Great Task and not give way to despair and decadence.
RICHARD E.D. JONES: Outstanding. You give great answers, John. I appreciate you taking the time to talk about your book, Thumb. Do you have anything else coming out for which we should be on the lookout?
JOHN GUY COLLICK: You’re welcome, thanks for a bunch of interesting questions. Thumb is the first in a four-book series, so there’ll be plenty more strangeness to discover in the universe of Max, Abby and the Black Roses. I’ve finished the first draft of the second book, Ragged Claws. I’m lucky to have one of the best editors in the SF world, John Jarrold, and I’ll be sending the mss to him as soon as I’ve rewritten it to my satisfaction. He is utterly ruthless, which is great, but I’m hoping it’ll pass muster ready for release in early 2014. I’m also working on Book 3, Antihelix. I haven’t thought of a title for Book 4 yet. After the series is finished I’ve got a bunch of other projects to start - so I’ll have plenty to keep me busy.
Buy it on Amazon
Find it on Goodreads
John Collick's Official Website
Richard E.D. Jones is the author of A Dude’s Guide to Babies as well as numerous science-fictionally fantastic short stories. Find out more at his website, www.byrichardjones.com.