Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Interview with Andrei Livadny

Andrei Livadny has created several unique worlds, each unlike the previous. He wrote The History of The Galaxy with humanity itself as a protagonist. This sixty-book series creates a history of our future civilization and its contacts with alien races, forming a convincing and logical picture of humanity's development for two millennia from now. The English translation of Blind Punch (Expansion: The History of the Galaxy Book #1) is now available on Amazon. Andrei's recent involvement with the bestselling genre of LitRPG - books set in online roleplaying games - inspired him to create his most intriguing series to date, Phantom Server. Merging virtual reality with hard science fiction and space exploration. 

Could you tell us a bit about yourself? Where were you born? What profession did you initially choose?

I was born in the South of Russia but my parents moved to the central part of the country when I was only one year old. I grew up in an area not far from St. Petersburg.
When I returned from conscription in 1989, I had to decide what to do next. Still, those were volatile post-Soviet times when we often had no say in our future plans. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia was plunged into severe chaos when most people didn't know what life would throw at them tomorrow. By then, I was already writing books; I was married to Lana and we'd had our first child. This was the worst possible time to go back to school: my family's survival was at stake. So I took up whatever jobs were available as long as they put food on the table. I'd work days and then I'd write at night.
That continued until 1997 when I signed my first publishing contract. Still I continued working full time. At a certain point, Lana told me that I'd taken on way too much. She said it was time for me to make up my mind about who I really was: was I a writer? Or just a dabbler with a "proper job"?
Her support was incredible. Lana is the woman I love. I don't like the word, "wife". Lana is my muse and my critic, she's my friend and in fact she's the dearest and most precious being I have on planet Earth. It was her who helped me to start viewing writing as my job.

When did you start writing?

I was eight years old. I wrote a novel and showed it to our teacher. She was stunned by the sheer amount of work I'd done. It wasn't science fiction though. The novel took up all of five pages in my notebook - but it had a prologue, an epilogue and even an illustration!
That was my literary debut, yes. Since then, I've written a lot. Some of my manuscripts are still in waiting but most of them have since been published. In any case, it was a rather long learning curve as I was developing my voice. My books and my life on the whole demanded that I educate myself as best I could. It's never too late to study and pester educated people with questions. I'm still learning even now.

When did you realize you preferred science fiction to the exclusion of all else? Do you consider yourself a science fiction writer?

I consider myself a science fiction author first and foremost. I could write in some other genre, I suppose. But in 1978, my mindset had changed. That year, the Russian geographical magazine Vokrug Sveta - which featured a lot of quality fiction, sci fi included - began publishing the Russian translation of Robert Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky.
The book had a shattering impression on me. That was the first work of science fiction I'd ever read. I was a very emotional and susceptible child, so I was completely overwhelemed by what I'd just read. I still can't quite explain this experience because before that, I'd mainly read historical fiction by the likes of Alexander Dumas and Walter Scott. When I was seven years old, I even attempted to plough through Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, albeit with little success: I simply couldn't work out what was so special about that book.
Now Orphans of the Sky, that was different... when I finished it, I walked around in some kind of trance for days. I felt as if I was on that starship, amid the infinite Universe, reliving the tragic situation of the ship's retrograde crew. It took me several years to come to grips with the deaths of the two mutants: the deformed dwarf Bobo and the two-headed giant Joe-Jim. Only much later did I understand the author's intention: the mutants hadn't been supposed to enter the planet ultimately colonized by the ship's survivors.
But that's a bit academic. Suffice it to say that the novella left a huge impression on me. From then on, I knew exactly what kind of books I wanted to write.
After that, I read other science fiction authors, Russian as well as foreign. I read Stanislaw Lem, Sergei Snegov, Moon Rainbow by Sergei Pavlov, the Strugatsky brothers and Ivan Efremov. I actually read quite a lot. I felt inspired - but very soon I also felt challenged in quite a different way. Let me explain what I mean. In the early 1990s in Russia, a great number of new aspiring sci fi writers crawled out of the woodwork. Before, Russian science fiction authors had been few - but they were collosses, some sort of epic giants whose literary authority was unquestioned. And then all of a sudden tons of new books mushroomed out of nowhere whose quality left a lot to be desired.
Strangely enough, it was this new inferior fiction that prompted me to write. Those books didn't answer my standards of the genre, to the point where they made me angry. They showed me how you shouldn't write science fiction, encouraging me to write something of my own. Something better. That's how I began writing professionally.

Talking about the 1990s, those years saw a considerable prevalence of epic fantasy over other speculative genres. Did it affect you in any way?

Not really. I like The Lord of the Rings a lot. I have a huge respect for J. R. R. Tolkien and his legacy. Even in Soviet times, Russian translations of The Hobbit were available in libraries. I remember borrowing and reading it. I liked it a lot but it didn't convert me. By then, I already considered myself a purely science fiction author; I had spent years working in various sci fi genres, seeking my own way.
I had a friend who was a bookseller. We used to get together and talk. I remember him repeating the same thing over and over, explaining to me why he didn't like my books. He said he didn't like them because they made him think. He'd say, "I come home and collapse on the couch hoping to get a break from it all. But your books won't let me relax. So I set them aside and instead open something in the vein of Your Wife Is A Witch. It doesn't require a mental effort, it's easily identifiable and it's fantasy. That's all the reader needs."
I was very upset when I heard this. The guy was a professional bookseller, and there he was telling me that readers don't like challenging reads. That all they want is a relaxing escapist trip.
Only later when I started meeting my readers over the Internet did I realize that although this tendency does exist, still a lot of people like and appreciate science fiction.

Good science fiction should encourage the reader to think - would you sign your name under this maxim?

I would sign it under every word of it. Making people think is the purpose of good sci fi. If you take LitRPG, you'd think it's entertainment at its purest. And still I tried to take the reader away from the familiar clichés. I wanted to make them ask, What if we do leave this world and settle down in virtual reality?
This is the question I keep asking myself, always. There used to be this game, Carmageddon, a car race simulator which was in fact banned in many countries. There you got points for killing pedestrians. After I'd played that game for a while, I realized it had affected my driving style in real life.

Why, did it make you want to kill pedestrians?

Not to this point, no. Still, it made me feel ill at ease behind the wheel. It showed me how deeply a game can affect your mindset.

But what about a popular notion that combat games supposedly help us channel anger into safe outlets?

It's very personal, I'm more than sure of that. The so-called "anger management" never helped me one bit. I don't feel any better after I've ripped up a piece of paper. If I feel resentment against someone, I need to either figure out the reasons for it or try and sort it out openly in real life. Trying to dump your hurt into virtual reality doesn't do jack.

Don't you think that books are in many ways similar to virtual reality?

When I work on my books, I don't care about self-expression or creativity or whatever it's called. My main focus is on how to communicate my ideas to the reader. When I finished reading Orphans of the Sky all those years ago, a thought struck me. I was only nine years old then. I thought that if I ever managed to write something that could affect someone as deeply as that book had affected me, it would mean that my life hadn't been in vain. This became my goal. I need to give value to the reader. I can't write for the sake of writing. Starships which fly through space without any believable explanation is lazy writing. What propels them? Why this particular destination?
Same with violence. I never use gratuitous violence. I try to make do with an absolute minimum, just to add meaning to the story and motivate the characters.
At first, I struggled to write villains. I just couldn't put myself in their place. How do you write books? You put yourself in each character's boots and live their lives for them.
Lana helped me a lot, like the true muse she is. She simply wouldn't let me get rid of the characters I wasn't comfortable with. She demanded I saw them through. I have this particular book where the MC - whose name is Maxim - has lost direction. He has no goal left in life, he simply goes with the flow. I just couldn't put myself in his boots. I was blocked big time.
That's when Lana told me to try it a different way. She basically saved him. She didn't let me abandon him. So together we managed to get Maxim out of his predicament.

Considering the influence Heinlein had on your career, do you think you belong to the Western sci fi tradition best represented by Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, or the Russian one represented by authors like the Strugatsky brothers and Ivan Efremov?

Both. Let me explain. At the time I used to read everything I could lay my hands on, whether Western or Russian. So I really can't choose. For example, Snegov's Humans as Gods awed me just as much as Orphans of the Sky. It's just that Heinlein happened to be the first book I read, so naturally it left the most lasting impression.
Speaking about a sci fi author, I'd say that he or she needs to embrace several important notions. Firstly, they need to be internationally minded. Secondly, their minds should be free from politics, petty nationalism and other such things. Those were the principles I based The History of the Galaxy on. I made a point of not specifying which nation colonized the Galaxy - whether it was the Russians, Americans or whoever. There're loads of planets some of which were bound to be colonized by a particular nation. But in my opinion, internationalism should be the corner stone on which a science fiction writer builds his or her work. Because the future of planet Earth belongs to all of us and not just one particular nation. Even today, space exploration is one of the most successful examples of international cooperation.
Outer space is a cruel and unforgiving environment which can't be reclaimed by the efforts of a single nation. We need to unite, all of us.

In your opinion, can we expect any major new developments in space exploration in the near future? Or do you think that a certain skepticism is setting in, due to the fact that investments in space research don't promise quick returns?

Research for the sake of it is only available to a very narrow circle of people who don't have to pay for it out of their own pocket. Still, the fact remains that our resources here on Earth are limited. Today, some may disagree but that's irrelevant. At some point in its development, humanity will have to turn to the Moon, Mars and the asteroid belt in search of new resources. And if we don't claim them, one-half of humanity might become extinct while the other half might revert to the stone age because without new resources and sources of energy, our civilization will collapse.
At the moment, I live in a mountain valley far from the nearest town. We do have occasional power outages. Our house is absolutely packed with the latest technologies which need electricity to function. No electricity, no life. We do have a generator exactly for such occasions. Now imagine a similar power outage in a megalopolis. A few days without electricity would reduce it to chaos. That would be a major catastrophe with the direst of consequences. The powers that be understand this, of course, which is why our governments are obliged to start thinking in this direction and finance new research. There're quite a few sensible people on this planet who are intelligent and influential enough to promote these issues. We need to evolve; we need to improve our technologies and move on, because eventually the Earth will crumble under the pressure. And I don't think that moving underground to some artificial life-support bunkers would be an option. So it's either we head for the stars or revert to the stone age.

So is progress really a good thing? Is it wise that we've become so dependent on technology?

Progress is most definitely a very good thing. How many miles lie between you and me? And still we're talking to each other.  Progress makes information readily available. It gives everyone the chance to integrate into society. Distances don't matter anymore. We can even combine all our brains into a single network.
But naturally, progress has its own drawbacks. Some of its aspects are downright dangerous. People weren't prepared for the arrival of this new era, neither morally nor psychologically. Their lives have changed, but the people themselves haven't.
Progress is made by a very limited number of individuals. I'm not one of them. I'm just a regular user. And still I understand that while highly specialized computers such as auto pilots can preclude human error, by the same token they render people helpless. This is one danger of progress we tend to underestimate. When we begin to create neural networks and connect them to vast data structures, this, in my opinion, should not overstep a certain limit. We shouldn't become clueless users, all of us.

But is it possible not to overstep it?

This I can't tell you, unfortunately. We can't consider every possible scenario, there're just too many of them. We might have to wait and watch it unfold.

I think I actually found the answer to this question in your upcoming novel Blind Punch (to be released on Amazon on September 12 2017). Your main character belongs to this "generation of users". He knows nothing. He has no idea how anything works. But when faced with an emergency, he manages to overcome his own limitations and win, acquiring a goal and new meaning. So this so-called "lost generation" ignorant to everything that's not virtual reality isn't that lost, after all? Do we still have hope?

Well, this was only the case of one particular person. He was strong enough to confront his limitations. He faced a life-threatening emergency and came out the winner. Okay, but what did it cost him? Without giving the story away, in my next books I'll show this so-called "generation of users" who's just climbed out of their in-mode capsules, forced out of the safety of virtual reality and onto a new planet. Into a new reality. That's a tough setup with some very tough and uncompromising consequences. This is when survival of the fittest kicks in. Those who can't shed their VR mentality and change their way of thinking are doomed. Not even half of them will survive the first impact: their first few minutes and hours in the real world. In this situation, the only way to survive for my characters is by joining their efforts, going out of their way to communicate with each other.
In my other books, I describe planets where the initially successful colonization failed because all the colonists died for a number of reasons - not least because they didn't have anyone with any adequate willpower. This too is the dark side of progress.

And how about the idea so popular with many science fiction authors both in Russia and in the West? The idea that technological progress apparently goes hand in hand with moral development, creating the new man? Can we breed this proverbial "new man"?

Impossible. You can't breed a whole generation as one person, imbuing them with identical values. You may argue that it is indeed possible in certain totalitarian regimes. But we shouldn't view such regimes as a potential way out. A dictatorship can neither activate nor keep up with progress. Moreover, we can't force people to be either good or bad. We're all born different.
I described loads of colonized planets but none of them could be considered utopian. Some critics call the planet of Aqua utopian but I disagree. People will always be different. They always have been. Some are honest and correct, others aren't. Progress is born from this conflict of opposites; the very idea of civilization, its values and its legacy are all of the same stock.
When I served in the army, I wrote the following poem,

This place is a melting pot; how ironic!
But still we can't fuse; our souls drift apart
As each of us follows his separate path
And each of us harbors his own secret song
Deep down his frozen, reticent heart.

When they brought us young conscripts all together, that was indeed a melting pot where a multitude of young lives were fused together. And still our military service didn't make us identical. We didn't become uniformly good or bad. You either preserve your identity or you're not human anymore.
What good can be born of utopia? What kind of progress can it offer? Utopia is inevitably finite. It's like a seaside vacation: once it's over you need to go back in order to raise your children and work your plot of land. So I really don't think that one day everybody will become nice, honest and correct. Light is obliged to cast shadows. Our life is neither heaven nor hell: it's a narrow trail along the edge of a precipice. Your each step decides the rest of your life. As long as we remain different, we'll stay a single civilization capable of moving forward.

What drew your attention to the genre of LitRPG? Normally, the writers working in it are experienced gamers themselves. How about you?

Although not LitRPG per se, I actually started working in a similar genre quite a long time ago. As the readers of The Neuro and Phantom Server might have noticed, I don't use any existing games but try to come up with something of my own. Does that make me a gamer? Not really. I do play; I used to play really a lot in the past until it began to feel repetitive. Now I don't play as much.
I don't really think that gaming has influenced my work in any way. I always try to place the reader on the edge between the real world and VR. It doesn't inspire me to take an existing game world and write a book around it. What does inspire me is to take the reader to the frontier of the realm in which they find themselves and ask them, what next? I'm not trying to preach to them, I'm just offering them food for thought. I went through it too. I used to play Fallout really a lot. These days I play Dark Souls.

So you are familiar with this world first hand, aren't you?

I am. I like watching it and seeing how the players' characters evolve. It can be quite fascinating: sometimes funny, other times scary. In any case, it's a huge experience.
Why did I start writing LitRPG? Because I was invited to try my hand at it. At first, I thought it wasn't my thing at all. Still, it was a challenge, so I tried. I wrote a few trial chapters, reread them and decided to persevere. In actual fact, the world of Phantom Server was only marginally a game. There, the game was only a cover up for something fundamentally real: a mega project of intergalactic proportions. The Neuro is more traditional in this respect but the principle remains the same.

A lot of readers like the series' structure, comparing it to Star Wars: here too there's the main trilogy and a prequel trilogy. Was that your idea from the start?

Not really. At first I only planned to write Phantom Server. But when I finished the third novel of the series, Black Sun, I realized that I was leaving behind quite a few nice, endearing characters on Earth to face the unknown. Also, in Phantom Server I didn't dwell too much on the idea of the Reapers and how they came about. That's why I wrote a standalone short story, Purgatory, which was published in the You're In Game! LitRPG anthology. The entire Neuro series grew out of it, I suppose. I created a few new main characters and led them down the paths which had remained unexplored in the first trilogy.

Talking about science fiction's ability to predict the future: it forecast lots of things like the telephone, the Internet, etc. Do you think that today's sci fi still preserves this instinct? And in any case, what's the point in trying to second-guess the unknown? Do you think it's worth it?

Most definitely. Now that we can see from our everyday experience how far science can go, we absolutely need to ask ourselves where technology can take us. And which direction our civilization might take. But as you've rightly noticed, it's easy to predict details. What one can't predict is their consequences. We could predict nuclear weapons - but could anyone predict a nuclear war? Our world is so diverse it can react to a particular invention or discovery in a vast number of ways.
In any case, reality will always surpass our wildest expectations. But in my opinion, it's our duty to predict. It's our duty to make things up. Naturally, in order to make them up you need to base them on those inventions and discoveries that exist already. Science fiction lovers inevitably look into the future, whether consciously or not. They prepare themselves for the future, they keep thinking and wondering about it. In this, science fiction plays a very important role indeed.

How do you follow progress? How do you solve the problem of the infinitely increasing complexity of every possible branch of science?

The Internet helps me a lot, of course. Neither TV nor even contacting experts can help much in this respect. Firstly, I monitor news sites for anything pertaining to science and technology. But once I need to dig deeper, that's where it gets complicated. Before, I used to be able to take a car to pieces, any car. But now that they're all electronic, I have to take it to a garage. I can't take it apart anymore because I know I just won't be able to put it back together again.
But at least I try to learn everything. Because if I don't, how am I supposed to explain it to my reader? If something is so complicated that you need a degree to understand it, then you shouldn't put it in a book. Pointless. I consider myself a man of average intellect and education. I'm not special. Some things I know better, others worse. As long as I understand something, I'll be able to explain it to my readers so that they can understand it too.

Is The History of the Galaxy complete? What are you working on now?

No, The History of the Galaxy is not complete. Currently it counts 61 books. It stops at the point when all human-colonized worlds have become isolated from each other due to a particular process. That's where I stopped but the story is far from finished. This is actually a very interesting transitional moment. You'd think humans would feel at home in space by now. They've fought two wars. And then all of a sudden they're isolated from each other. The network which used to unite them is broken. So naturally it calls for more books whose characters will have to try and fix it.
Currently I'm working on two books: The Fugitive (working title) although I'm not sure it's going to be a standalone novel, and a transitional book which is supposed to link The Neuro trilogy to Phantom Server. In this book, I hope to tell the reader whether humans will manage to join the Founders' network.


  1. Honestly in my top 5 authors. I wish I could read Russian. Can't wait for new translated books. Thanks for making your books thought provoking and realistic enough where it's easy to picture yourself in the future.