Interview with C. S. Benjamin, by Brandon Sanford
Q: You mention in your Foreword and Author’s note that Dreamtime: The Gil-Garem began life as a screenplay. Why did you decide to convert it into a novel?
A: When I first wrote the series, I invested a lot of time into crafting stories that I thought would be interesting, both in terms of the action and the human drama. I tried the usual routes for screenplays, sending the first couple around in the industry and to competitions to try and get some interest in it. I think Dreamtime: The Gil-Garem occupies a strange place because it’s an exciting action/thriller that’s critical of those same elements for the sake of encouraging understanding rather than conflict. In recent decades, there’s been a growing influence by the military-industrial complex in film pushing a very conflict-happy agenda of propagandized action. I wanted to in some way counteract that by crafting something that would appeal to that genre of grand epics without losing sight of the fact that war is in fact something terrible that should be avoided, rather than encouraged, and without writing something that was dismally bleak (the other end of the spectrum). The script was originally more satirical, poking fun at itself, its characters, and the plot, but converting it to a novel broke the constraint of having to think about prospective production costs and allowed me to get the same point across while fleshing out the characters, story, and world a bit more. It also allowed me to achieve a better balance by not being constrained to having to pick between between characters, plot, thematics, and action within a very constraining framework (a screenplay has to be 90-120 pages to generally be considered acceptable). So I set out to keep the constraints of maintaining an interesting story that kept moving forward (the original appeal to me of creating a screenplay), while bringing in more of the characters’ internal lives into the story and allowing it to breathe.
Q: You also mention that you developed rules for the hybrid tense system you use. Can you go into more detail about how you decided when to use past tense and when to use present?
A: Sure. This goes against my nature somewhat because as a poet, I always liked to overload meaning, play with form, and add subtle flourishes into my work to reward people who were paying attention. I backed off that somewhat for my screenplays, to ease the demands on the reader, although they still exist within the framework of the plot and whatnot, just in a less convoluted form. As a poet, my natural instinct was always to avoid explaining away the mysteries and puzzles that make a work interesting, but in this case it warrants some explanation for how and why I went with a hybrid tense system instead of just sticking with one or the other. I already explained my reasons in the afterword for choosing a filmbook (what I’ll call this format going forward) instead of a standard novel, but I think there was still some reluctance in me to spell it out. Perhaps a part of me also wanted to hold onto as much as possible of what made my work feel unique to me. The risk is that people may assume your artistic choices just result from laziness instead of careful deliberation. I once wrote a very lyrically mimetic poem for a writing workshop where the structure changed alongside the meaning as the poem progressed. One of my classmates was openly disdainful when I explained it and had a lot of trouble believing that I actually put that level of thought into the poem or its structure, so ideally I’d like to avoid a repetition of that here.
I experimented with the tense a lot as I was revising this story. I rewrote numerous drafts solely in past or present (more than I can count) as I was working on it, and was never happy with the results. The pacing just never felt right for the type of story I was trying to tell and the way I wanted to tell it. I felt it was too restrictive to the action or story to stick to one or the other, so I spent an extensive amount of time revising the form and really pinning down when I’d use past and when I’d use present. The rules are relatively simple now that they’re established (perhaps deceptively so), but it’s worth stating them so they’re easier for readers to understand what it means when the tense shifts and what those cues are telling them.
The important thing to get out of my hybrid tense system is that it’s an added layer of syntax to inform the reader when / how characters are interacting with the world and when they’re simply reflecting on it or thinking. I use the present tense for things that are active; physical or mental action, decisions, things happening, etc.. I use the past tense for passive thoughts, feelings, motivations, observations, setting, description, exposition, or extended action. That’s the basic idea, although the details can be more subtle, and the tense sometimes shifts where it’s appropriate. One more nuanced section is a sequence where the action and drama relating to the protagonist move entirely into his head for an extended period of time, and the more focused mental action happens in the present tense while his background mental processing happens in the past tense, to reflect differing levels of interaction with the stimuli that’s causing that phenomenon to occur. Dialogue is generally present tense, but it switches to past tense if it’s something that already happened and a character is simply remembering it. There’s one chapter that’s a flashback occurring in a character’s head as they’re sleeping and the dialogue moves to the past tense to reflect passive interaction with words that were spoken, while the action that his brain is more engaged with still happens in the present to reflect his level of involvement with what’s going on in his dream, while also reminding the reader just through the use of form and dialogue that everything in that chapter has already happened and is thus concluded at the time you’re reading it. Setting and world description usually get the past-tense treatment, but I sometimes switch those to present tense when I want it to reflect a more active atmosphere. So tense shifts happen as a result of what type / level of activity, thought, etc.. is being expressed, rather than by sentence structure, and I use it to delineate what you can expect, regardless of where it’s happening from a strictly grammatical perspective, as an added layer of telling you what’s going on with the characters. It’s a bit like the shifts in speech patterns you might find in high theater or opera, but instead of distinguishing between different characters, it’s to inform the reader how active or dynamic the world and action is at any given point.
It took quite a lot of effort and experimentation to make it work so that it flows and reads in a natural manner, and a lot of meticulous revision to make sure it follows the rules I created, even if it seems inconsistent at first glance. I liked the screenplay format, and I liked the active, lyrical form in poetry. I didn’t want to give that up for the sake of convention (in addition to wanting to style the action and interactions a certain way to make an artistic statement), so the only real option was to keep experimenting until I found something that matched how I wanted to tell the story, and allowed me to tell it well.
Q: You created your own publishing imprint for the release of this book. Why did you feel like that was a necessary step?
A: An imprint is effectively a brand, and has a personality. It says something collectively about the books and authors published under it. As an author, it reflects a level of dedication and commitment to your craft (i.e. that you intend to publish more than one novel as a hobby), and that you take your craft seriously. As an imprint, it says that you take your branding seriously, and are selective about what books you choose to publish under it to reflect that branding.
Q: Do you plan to publish other books through your imprint besides your Dreamtime series?
A: New Classic Press in some ways is an experiment. Right now I’m still working on building a following for my work, so I haven’t quite reached that point yet, but I have a number of other scripts besides the Dreamtime series to convert, some of which would be a good fit as New Classic Press titles. I’d also consider publishing other interested authors under the its umbrella, but I have a high standard as a reader, so step one is to get some recognition and success for my own work so I could attract attention from the right kind of authors to partner with. If I allow other authors in, it has to be more than a vanity press, which means I need something more to offer them, namely some level of name recognition and status. I should note that I don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts.
Q: Dreamtime: The Gil-Garem‘s interior is beautifully designed. Did you design it yourself?
A: Thank you, I did! This is one of those aspects where the amount of labor that goes into creating something that looks pleasing to the eye often gets glossed over and is largely underestimated. It was really important to me that everything in the book reflect the tone I was going for. I wanted it to feel clean, but organic. You might even say I wanted it to be a synthesis of the two. I spent more time than I’ll care to admit studying how different books looked, their aesthetic design and use of space, and how that changed based on what type of book it was. I had some vague sense going in for what I wanted, but it was really only after comparing a large number of books and doing some more research that I developed my own aesthetic for the book interior. In a crowded market, I wanted to make sure that every aspect of my book was the very best I could make it, which did mean spending a month or two studying different layouts and developing my own, and fine-tuning it until it looked the way I wanted it. I spent a full week just looking at different fonts.
Q: The cover is especially engaging, simple yet provocative, though not typical for science fiction. Your story has a lot of action in it; why did you choose to not use a cover that depicted epic robot battles?
A: It’s a question of focus really. Action is fun as long as it’s serving a purpose within the story, but action just for the sake of action is boring (to me), unless it’s phenomenal. I found Hemingway very interesting when I read him, although I was less impressed by some of his attitudes. I was also a fan of Ludlum. I found that kind of style really resonated with me as a poet, which was one of the things that made screenwriting alluring to me. It all comes down to tone and what aspects of your story you want people to dwell on. I wanted the action to be balanced with the story, rather than overshadowing it or being a sloppy mess that’s just there to fill space. I wanted it to be clear and interesting so that both parts interplayed and built on one another within the filmbook format. I briefly considered opting for a more standard “action/sci-fi” type cover, but that wasn’t really the tone I was going for with this. I wanted the cover to be evocative of the themes, motifs, and human elements. One of the big ones in this novel is what it means to be human vs. being robotic, and especially in circumstances that seem rigged to force people to play certain roles. There’s also an underlying theme of seeking conflict vs. avoiding it. While I embrace action within the context of telling a story that’s fun to read, it was important to me that the story maintain a critical tone towards it and not gloss over the consequences. I wanted the cover to set the tone of thinking about people, societies, and deeper issues more than thinking about action, although there is plenty of it.
Q: You don’t mention superhero comics as being an influence in your writing, but some aspects of the battles are reminiscent of the Avengers or Superman movies. Are you a fan of comics and do they influence your writing?
A: This may sound strange, but growing up I was always a reader. I made the jump from picture books to YA novels early on, and never could really get into comics. There may have been a brief period when I was very young that I read comics, but I never really saw the point of having to flip through pages and pages of illustration for actions and dialogue that could be described in a few sentences or less. This isn’t a judgement on comic authors or readers (I get that the illustrations are a big part of the appeal for comic readers), so much as a difference in reading-style and preference (I was also drawn to more concise, structured poetry in my studies). I did like TV cartoons when I was younger, but that’s not exactly the same thing. As far as the Avengers or Superman are concerned, I wrote the first half of this script in the start of 2006, and finalized the screenplay in 2008, which was well before what I’ll call the modern era of comic films. Before that, pretty much all we had were superhero movies that promised a lot, but were a continual disappointment (to me at least), which did nothing to foster any interest in me to explore the comics they were based on.
I’d say I was more inspired by science fiction films and thrillers where the focus was on telling a human story, but the action was still interesting and well done to facilitate it. This may not be as apparent if you’re going in from the perspective of reading a novel, and comparing it to that instead of thinking of it as an enhanced film and assessing it in that way, but I put a lot of work into developing the characters within the confines of what you’d expect from a sci-fi film of this genre. I like films that have some level of thought and raison d’etre.
Some films I’d seen and liked when I was working on converting my two earlier short stories into the initial draft of the screenplay were Skycaptain and the World of Tomorrow, the Rocketeer, iRobot, The Island, Crouching Tiger / Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers, Minority Report, Serenity, and The Count of Monte Cristo. I pay homage to a few of them (mostly in the form of character names), as well as the Star Wars trilogy (and mild ribbing on the prequels). I grew up watching the originals and was fairly disappointed that the prequels lacked their nuance.
At the time I was drafting / finalizing the screenplay for this (2006-2008, as reflected on my copyright page) and was sending it out, modern comic-based films like the ones you mention hadn’t yet been made. Comics tend to draw from old mythologies and recurring themes in the human psyche (i.e. things that predate the advent of comic books), and it can be easy to forget that there are multiple creative paths to the same destination. I think it’s sometimes helpful to do some reading on the nature / psychology of symbolism and metaphor, lest we get too caught up on comparing works and arranging them into chicken-and-egg type hierarchies while misunderstanding the nature of creativity. I was never really into comics so it honestly can be quite a bit frustrating at times when people compare my work to that, especially movies that were made after I’ve written something. I do recognize that comics have had an impact on mainstream culture, even if I’ve largely ignored them, so they may have had some indirect impact on my work in that way, but from an action standpoint, I think I was probably more influenced by fantasy / sci-fi novels and films in general, and my own imagination trying to think up interesting visuals, action sequences, and choreography that fit well into the context of the story, and my desire to have it make some reflexive statement on what that action means outside the heat of the moment.
For a while, I was rather dispirited by some of the similarities it shared with films that started getting released after I wrote it, especially given my lack of interest in comics growing up. I think that worry about uniqueness, in addition to a desire to try some different things, led me to change focus when I was writing subsequent screenplays (and the Dreamtime sequels in particular) to make them more distinct from films like Dreamtime: The Gil-Garem that were starting to come out. Then films, TV shows, and even a few video games started popping up that felt similar to the second script in the series. I decided to stop sending out my scripts because it was causing me too much stress and I took a break from screenwriting. When I returned to the scripts, I started thinking of ways I could keep their visual focus without worrying about whether or not they actually became movies, or having to compete for a very limited number of spots in a crowded field, which in addition to mimetic reasons for wanting to maintain a certain type of flow, led me into experimenting with form and coming up with the hybrid tense system I used that straddles the line between screenplay and novel.
I guess if you want some takeaway, it’s that at any given time a lot of people are writing similar stories or having similar ideas. We know from archeology that isolated cultures often developed similar technologies and ideas independently, and the same is true of individuals. It’s really only the one that has the big budget or connections that ends up being produced or marketed and making all the money in our culture. It’s just going to get worse as populations continue to explode and the number of creative people having the same ideas at once keeps increasing along with it. Creating really unique, original ideas (or ones that seem that way to us when we’re having them) is quite hard and takes a lot of thought and a degree of artistic isolation so you can really develop your ideas, and after all that, you’re confronted with the realization that whatever you made isn’t quite as unique as you thought, and there’s a bunch of people out there making similar things, before, after, or at the same time as you, and probably someone who has much better connections or resources to make their version happen, and that’s the one that will ultimately get picked up by society as being representative of an idea, while yours gets relegated to the sidelines. That’s the reality of life as an artist in our society. You just have to learn to keep working on your art and craft despite all that.
Q: A lot of the themes you explore in the novel revolve around identity, either as an individual or as a society. Why is identity so important to you?
A: Identity is an interesting topic to explore. What makes us who we are? How do we define what it means to have personhood? One of the things I was thinking about as I wrote this was how that definition varies for different groups of people and to what degree they’re recognized as people versus being considered disposable? Synthetic / robotic life is one aspect of that, but I was really thinking about the issue more broadly, instead of fixating on just that and making it a “robot” story, so what you see is that I spread questions of identity and personhood out across the groups that appear in the story, instead of just applying it to one group. Synthetic life is just something that’s present in my universe that the characters think about and deal with the same way they navigate those interactions with other groups and individuals, which I think reflects how our interactions would be if they were present in the real world. You need to be always thinking about the possibility of running into people who’re different from you, or from a different culture and recognizing their identity and personhood, even if it seems strange on the surface. So that’s one of the ideas I wanted to convey – that identity issues and recognizing other lifeforms as having a valid right to exist doesn’t extend just to the groups we’re most familiar with.
Our notion of what it means to be a person has to be more than simply adhering to the basic rules that apply in your group, whether cultural, racial, or by species. It has to do with maintaining a broad outlook of who we’re prepared to consider a person, and being prepared to recognize sentient life in others when we see it, instead of only adhering to the bare minimum of decency that we’re legally required to observe within our own societal group. Empathy is a big part of this, and recognizing each other’s basic humanity or personhood (which doesn’t strictly have to be limited to humans), regardless of the distinctions. If we only acknowledge full personhood to people in our own group, there’s nothing stopping other groups from treating us the same way when they encounter us. It goes both ways. Most cultures are reasonably good at recognizing the importance of showing empathy within their own social group or caste, but there’s a tendency to ignore that necessity when dealing outsiders or anyone in your own society deemed to have a lower value (and this becomes especially true during times of war or conflict). People get caught up with entrenched notions of identity hierarchies and providing people better or worse treatment depending on where someone fits in their ranking system. It’s something we need to always be thinking about and resisting. Are certain people given full personhood, are they seen as partially human, as sub-human, or not human at all and disposable?
Part of that is a measure of how much value we assign to people and whether we take their voices into consideration if they fall outside our accepted social hierarchy, so that’s one thing I was thinking about as I wrote this. It starts slow, but it becomes more prevalent in the second half of the book, even as it slips into the the background somewhat by that point. In the real world, you can see that with the way movements like the Black Lives Matter get treated when they demand basic human rights, the dehumanization of hispanics, immigrants, women, Muslims / anyone who people think “looks” Muslim (of course, the same can obviously be said in reverse of how extremists in other cultures think about us), and how anyone opposed to caveman tactics as implemented during the disastrous Bush Crusade were constantly harassed as being unpatriotic, despite that administration and its supporters’ propensity for encouraging terrorism rather than reducing it through their actions and policies. So one of the things I was thinking about when I wrote this was to include more subtle distinctions and remind people that these aren’t just issues that you switch on or off when it’s convenient or you encounter someone from a different group. You have to be mentally prepared to try and treat others with respect and find common ground.
The question of identity is also to some degree a question on the role of the individual in society and how much people place their own interests above society’s or society’s above theirs, and this is also true on a societal/global level. Different characters in the book place different value on personal vs. private interest / agenda, although mostly I wanted to include people who tended more towards thinking about cooperating or trying to work towards the greater good, as I think that tends to be more normative in cultures that allow it, despite how it’s often portrayed in the media (perhaps justifying the bad actors who care more about their personal profit, fame, power, and / or desires). It creates the interesting, and seemingly contradictory question of how do we ensure respect for the value of individuals if we at the same time ascribe value to individuals and groups based on their perceived value to society.
The answer perhaps is to personally focus on our individual contributions to society for its sake rather than ours and at the same time recognizing the basic rights of others, rather than looking for justifications to dehumanize them. It comes back to empathically reflecting on our interactions and choices, both on the individual and societal levels. This does mean a level of self-awareness of the potential impact and consequences of our actions and choices on the people and cultures around us, as well as on our own. Edmund has a complex role where he’s not personally looking to outsmart or beat the bad guys, as is more typical in this kind of story, so much as trying to avoid alienating potential allies and prevent the already bad from spiraling out of control while clearly identifying the enemy and laying the groundwork for a more effective response to them.
So they’re all walking a kind of tight-rope where they seemingly have multiple allegiances and have to avoid taking actions that would cause them to break loyalty from their cultures. We have these complex interactions in real life too where corporations have been slowly eroding public governance to replace it with a libertarian paradise where each corporation is effectively its own nation-state that only answers to its shareholders. Are people more loyal to a corporation, a government, a union, a culture or group, a religion, a gender, a race, a species? And how much to each? Too often in this kind of story, helping another culture is presented in the form of a binary. Either you have the protagonist go native (which, while sometimes valid, also has the potential to encourage too much empathy for militant groups that don’t quite deserve it), or you reveal the natives as some kind of savage monsters, thus justifying their murder and extermination. I wanted to avoid that and show more honest interactions where people worked together for the common good, but still retained their distinct identities and loyalties. This can be complicated because societies aren’t homogenous groups. Everyone’s different, and there are hardliners or extremists in every group, just as there are more moderate / rational people or groups that are more interested in the common good. It’s important to keep yourself grounded and to find the people who’re willing to work together towards human progress, rather than giving too much credence to those who prefer to see the world through a lens where violent clash of civilizations / cultures is the supposed natural state (it’s not, but there are people who believe that it is, or who put their own needs above the common good, or who take actions without really thinking things through; therefore we need to oppose them, and encourage other groups and individuals to do the same, to ensure a more civil society).
One of the things I felt was very important to show was the difference between aggressive vs. defensive military engagement and the ease with which people convince themselves the former is the latter. It’s common for people with very rigid views to label people who don’t embrace conflict / violence as the first and best solution, or who’re place the good of society as a whole above entrenched hierarchies / ideologies, as somehow radical or extremist themselves. Being moderate means stepping back and responding to conflict in a way that will reduce further conflicts, rather than encouraging them. There’s a legitimate need to protect ourselves from hostile threats, but sometimes there’s also a need to protect the rest of the world from us (we probably wouldn’t be dealing with ISIL now if we’d handled the Al-Qaeda threat more maturely in the first place instead of wreaking complete havoc in the Middle East and creating a power vacuum). Reactionary responses typically backfire and just cause continual, repeated conflicts instead of solving them. It’s usually better to build bridges and find common ground (provided you can find people who share those values), rather than blindly striking out (and usually against the wrong target), but bridges require maintenance and commitment from individuals and collective societies on all sides in order to avoid conflict. The beliefs, actions, and identities of individuals merge to shape the identity of the society they exist within, so individual identity is important the same way individual votes are in an election. Those identities merge together and shape the overall society. Peace is better than war, and maintaining it requires an attitude of conflict resolution from individuals and cultures on both/all sides, which means a commitment from the affiliated individuals to seeing it through, and challenging those from their respective cultures who would force conflicts for their personal benefit or ideology, be those people at home or abroad.
It’s important to recognize others as beings who exist, and respect their rights to their own lives, bodies, possessions, welfare, and privacy – above more selfish concerns or desires. Everyone tries to find or maintain their place in the world, but when we start assigning hierarchy and value to those places, if we let it go unchecked, it tends to result in legalized slavery (or things closely resembling it) and dehumanization (and sometimes genocide) of people from groups deemed lower on the social caste hierarchy. We’re seeing some of this going on now. So people struggle to maintain their outward perception and prove they have value, or to create some kind of legacy for themselves, even as their underlying value is questioned, and unfortunately one of the easiest ways (especially in societies that encourage it) is to arbitrarily decide that those other than or different from yourself belong lower on the hierarchy and don’t need to be respected to the degree we expect for ourselves.
By observing other societies, we can break free from our perceptions and constructed hierarchies and reflect on how we navigate our interactions. It’s important to lead a positive, ethical life and avoid leaving a negative impact on the people and societies around us. This is true regardless of your identity or cultural affiliation. The choices we make have consequences. It’s easy to ignore that wars cause people to die or that the structures we have in place can cause terrible things to happen when you’re a safe distance away from it, whether physically or mentally, and especially if you benefit from it. One of the things I felt was important was to keep reminding people of the human cost of war, even as we entertain ourselves with exciting battle sequences. It comes at a price, and we need to be frequently reminded of that if we don’t want to keep drawing ourselves into extended conflicts and wars in real life. One of the things I did to this effect was to make it so that every time they engage in conflict someone they know or have met dies. Eurydice originally represented the ultimate cost of trying to resolve everything through conflict (I later changed her character somewhat for other reasons). I wanted to show and foster a reluctance to make decisions that cost other people their lives. We have to keep reiterating the need to recognize other people as people, and keep working toward a society that’s empathetic towards, and helps everyone, rather than just benefiting us personally.
Shifting perspective slightly, and leaping over to another one of my thought clouds (What can I say? I’m a creative type…), I was very interested in the topic of gender and racial identities and encouraging a more balanced view of them. Species characteristics are included, but racial ones are omitted, and I intentionally avoided overly describing characters. Partly, I wanted to challenge readers to use their imagination to fill in the gaps, but I also felt it was important to work against rationalizing characters’ personalities based on their looks, ethnicity, or gender. The screenplay was more satirical than the book. Edmund originally represented a kind of hyper-competent vision of masculinity that thinks of himself as a savior and is always trying to fix the world’s problems, while just causing more of them and destroying everything he touches, usually without realizing it and without really thinking things through. The same can be said of earlier versions of James and the Dominion Senate, which in some ways were a critique of what was going on in our country pre-2008. Reynolds originally was the voice of reason, frequently pointing out how terrible Edmund’s ideas were. I largely excised the satirical elements in the process of novelization, changed the tone of the story, and reshaped the story and its literary devices to focus on the demonstration of better modes of interaction, and to make the story resonate better with the target audience. I guess I felt that presenting the same message in a more authentic way and putting out solutions was preferable to comic criticism.
There was originally more personal conflict between Edmund and James / Eury, since they were in some respects caricatures, and he had to make a choice at the end whether to follow what he wanted for himself or to do what was in the common interest. You see this all the time in the public sphere. Certain types of people do things that primarily benefit themselves or their families, their friends, or their agenda in direct odds with what’s best for other people, and in disregard of the consequences, but justify it by telling themselves that they’re taking care of their own. I ultimately backed off that some and pulled more of the gender balance stuff from the rest of the series forward by a bit. Eury initially had been less of a primary character and more of a femme fatale / foil for the other women in the series, who previously took on a relatively greater role in the first book. I decided that some progress had been made so there was less need to ease people into the idea of gender balance, and also that emphasizing it earlier in the series was a more effective method to encourage its acceptance and morality more generally. I also had increasing misgivings about using the femme fatale concept at all (what role it plays on how people view women, and whether it indirectly encourages violence against women), so I reworked her character into a femme fantastique. This did have the side-effect of eliminating / reducing a few elements from the story that I felt were important – the idea of romantic / personal self-interest (Eury) vs. altruism on a personal level (Alex et al.), and a caution against getting drawn in by militant / extremist groups that might seem moderate or reasonable at first. I felt the trade-off was mostly worth it and resulted in a less conflicted case for intercultural / inter-group cooperation, more in keeping with my main intent.
It did mean reworking Edmund’s character into a more authentic representation of what I wanted to express, rather than a mock-heroic caricature. There’s still the sense of the story being a critique and rejection of that kind of assertive, dominant, forced masculinity present in our culture then and now, especially prevalent among those trying to profiteer off conflicts while undermining the basic social, economic, and private rights of others; it just became more subtle and woven under the surface as I shifted the tone of the story. When I first wrote the screenplay, it was rare (or seemed that way) for pop films to critique that way of thinking, or to have an equal balance of male / female characters where they were on an equal footing and women weren’t just for cat-fights or part of the scenery, so showing that balance was important to me, and trying to change culture within these types of films. It was an attempt in some ways to challenge the status quo (which in retrospect probably didn’t help in trying to get it made) and make people more familiar with the idea of a gender-balanced government, as I tend to think gender equality in the people making the decisions can help them focus more on reasoned discussion and solving domestic and economic issues instead of getting trapped in ideological bubbles. I experimented with a number of things for the sequel and one of them was switching to a female protagonist to draw contrast against (the originally more parodied form of) the characters in the first screenplay, and explore these issues a bit more. So in that respect, the series is also about the handover of some of that masculine power to the cause of female and minority empowerment / representation.
Q: Water seems to figure prominently throughout the book. Does it have a special significance for you?
A: I’ve always been kind of intrigued by mystery and stories that have to do with the unknown. Growing up, novels like Goblins in the Castle, The House of Dies Drear, The Hobbit, and films like (the old) Journey to the Center of the Earth made me interested in fantastic, unexplored worlds and spaces. There’s something inherently mysterious about bodies of water. You always wonder about what’s beneath them or what’s on the other side, but they also open up space and create vistas of the surrounding territories. I went to a lakeside college and one of my odd-ball pastimes was to go out on the lake and just take everything in – the landscape, the waters, the twinkle of the town at night. It helps you step out of yourself and into a different perspective; you read the natural (and sometimes artificial) world around you as symbols and imagine different people in different places and situations. It leads you into a place where you’re considering a deeper continuum than your own storyline. It’s not entirely a coincidence that I titled the series Dreamtime, which is an aboriginal Australian concept that involves stepping out of your perspective and into a larger space where past, present, and future are blurred and symbolically integrated into the natural world. I always had, as some of my grade school teachers affectionately called it, an overactive imagination, so I wouldn’t attribute my style directly to my time abroad in Australia, but it definitely resonated with me, both artistically and structurally, in terms of the ideas and cultural issues that I’d been thinking about / wanted top draw attention to when I crafted this story.
Dreamtime: the Gil-Garem started out as a combination of two short stories I’d begun in 2004 for a creative writing class. The first was about soldiers driving through the desert to check out strange occurrences at a location in the forest beyond. I had to abandon it at the time for the sake of deadline and space constraints (I could already tell it was going to be a much longer story and wasn’t anywhere near finished, and needed to turn in something shorter for the assignment). The second story concerned an underwater civilization, a kind of creative predecessor to the Gil-Garem, and about one such individual who gets sent out to check on a very different kind of anomaly in the surrounding ocean, and was to stumble upon and unravel a conspiracy to ignore the eminent environmental collapse of their civilization for the sake of profit and maintaining the status quo. I had to cut that one short as well, on realizing it was also going to end up much longer than what was dictated by the assignment. I was out of time, and I still needed something for class, so I made the obvious choice and cut it short by having the character get crushed by a boulder. Yes, undersea (and yes, even at the time I realized that didn’t make sense on any level), but I had a story to turn in for the assignment, and fortunately my class-mates weren’t too harsh on me for the bizarre ending. I always meant to return to the two stories, but life intervened for quite some time before I was able to return to them. I was majoring in both Computer Science and English Literature with a focus on Creative Writing, which left me little time for writing extracurricular stories, and I got involved in theater in addition, which I enjoyed immensely. I studied abroad the following term, and between my studies and traveling had very little time to devote to reworking old stories, but taking screenwriting my senior year gave me an opportunity to return and develop them more. I rewrote the desert soldier story until it shifted into what would become the first few chapters in the novel (there aren’t any chapters in screenplays, at least typically), and the underwater story merged with it in the form of the Gil-Garem, as I added characters and developed the plot, and they (or what was left by their legacy) became the focal point of the story. They’re sort of a hybrid land/water species, and I was always kind of interested by transitions – whether between water and land (evolution), or land and sky (e.g the robots, flight suits, etc..).
There’s always been a strong emphasis traditionally placed on fear of the unknown, whether places outside direct human control (like the sea, forests, space, etc..), things or people, and they often become stand-ins for the subconscious, or else cultures seemingly strange and different from our own, so one of the things I wanted to do was make those places more interesting and less scary. The old thinking is don’t trust your intuitive urge to have faith in people, and don’t trust anything or anyone because you can never really trust anyone and they’re all just waiting to betray or harm you. It worked well when we were still fighting for our place in the natural world, but we’ve become something like super-predators now. We’ve radically changed our natural environment and place in the animal kingdom to the extent that we’ve run out of legitimate threats from other species, so the need for that fear is largely gone, yet we feel the need to manufacture threats from other cultures out of habit (who unlike animals, we can communicate with so don’t need to resort to violence all the time), while we ignore the real threat to our species (climate change) through willful ignorance. We’re causing it, but it makes some of us more money to keep on ignoring it, so lets just go invade some other country instead of dealing with the real threat to sentient life on Earth (ourselves and how we interact with our natural environment / each other). So a big part also was that I wanted to push back against the traditional hostile associations surrounding the feminine / natural and related imagery, and show alternatives that I felt were a bit more nuanced, much the same as I wanted to show a range of technology with different purposes. One of the distinctions I wanted to draw between the different cultures I created was how complimentary vs. competitive they were towards their environment or each other. The nurturing feminine isn’t the great evil it often gets made out to be. There’s a prevailing sentiment that people should never be allowed to be comfortable or have their needs taken care of, and should always be on edge because “it’s a dangerous, hostile world out there,” but things typically go better for you when you respect nature and the people around you, and see them as fellow travelers along life’s journey instead of treating everything like a threat. There’s always a need for some level of caution in life, but we shouldn’t fear things just for the sake of fearing them. People tend to reciprocate the way you treat them (at least reasonable people) so if you treat them as threats, that’s often what they become. If instead you make a habit of seeking common ground, rather than fixating on competition, that often becomes the reality, and shapes your interactions with people, although it does require effort and commitment from all parties involved.
Wandering back into the ocean, I’ve always liked its aesthetic; how beaches and bodies of water appear visually, and the therapeutic feeling you get when you’re swimming and your limbs pass through the water. We come from water, and I think it’s always there, periodically beckoning us to return to it, although ideally not through the rising tides of climate change.
Q: What do you most want readers to take away from your novel?
A: I covered a lot of topics here, or maybe I’ve covered the same topics a lot of different ways, and this is still by no means comprehensive; just a snapshot of different things that were running through my brain. In writing this story, and in its novelization, I set out to create an exciting story filled with all the intrigue and action that we’ve come to love, but I also wanted to remind people in general of the darker side that comes with that, even as I sought to keep the story optimistic and uplifting so readers aren’t simply left with a prevailing sense of hopelessness and despair when they’re done. I wanted to show alternative modes of interaction to what we were seeing and for them to think about the issues, but in a way that’s more subtle and less demanding on the reader, and leaves them feeling hopeful and inspired so they think about getting involved and fighting for the kind of forward-thinking society we need if we want humanity to survive in the long-term, or at least reconsidering some of their preconceptions about others and how they interact with the world.
C. S. Benjamin has been writing all his life in some capacity or other. He started with short stories as a child to amuse himself and his brothers, then switched to writing poetry, before returning to short stories when he studied Creative Writing at Hobart College in Geneva, and branching from there into a number of screenplays. He’s currently in the process of converting his Dreamtime series into novels, of which Dreamtime: The Gil-Garem is the first. He lives in Upstate New York. Find out more about C. S. Benjamin and his book at his website, or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.
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