Tobias Buckell On Eco-Thrillers and Writing Fight Scenes

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Fresh off his top-selling novel Halo: The Cole Protocol, Tobias Buckell is turning back to original stories with an eco-thriller called Arctic Rising. He talked to us about that, and why the best fight scenes are short.

I sat down with Buckell at WorldCon last week. First we talked about Arctic Rising, and where he is with it.

Buckell said:

It's a near-future cyberpunk ecothriller. I'm just working on the first third of it. It's the first of two books I'm doing for Tor, and both will be ecothrillers.

I'm trying to write something that's [politically] moderate ecological SF. I did something similar in short fiction in the last year, with my story in Metatropolis, and now I'm taking it into novel form. Some people called me a raging liberal for writing [that story]. But I want to piss off liberals and conservatives – all of their solutions are problematic. Dogma gets in the way of what need to be done about the environment.

There are already responses on the ground to what we're facing that are agnostic – in third world, for example, where people have already figured out ways to reduce your impact on the earth. It's criminal that it's hard for me to find a showerhead that doesn't have an on-off switch that's detachable. I grew up on a boat and all the showerheads were like that. Now I routinely use oodles of water because my showerhead doesn't turn off. Little things like that add up. In St. Thomas, people get water by catching rainwater on the roof.

I realized that there are not many people interested in engaging with this stuff. It's in the political background and in science magazines. But there's not as much engagement with it in science fiction as I've been hoping for. That's why I want to do a James Bondesque adventure with climate change. I love adventure. What I hate about polemical novels is two characters talking to each other.


I asked Buckell if he'd consider doing another franchise tie-in like he did with the Halo novel, and he said that he only did the Halo book because he truly loves Halo. There are few other franchises he feels that way about, but, he admitted, "If anybody was ever to ask me to do something Wolverine-related - good grief I'd do it in a heartbeat."

Instead of playing in other people's franchises, he's interested in creating his own. He said:

You become a mini-consortium if you can. Given how much fun I've had with Halo games, comics, and reading and writing Halo books, I'd love to do different media with my stuff. There's a possible chance of a graphic short story adaptation coming up for me. I would completely dig seeing cross media stuff happen with my work.


One of the most arresting aspects of Buckell's writing is his facility with fight scenes, which are incredibly hard to write well. I asked him what his secret is for planning and executing one of his trademark action-packed scenes. He said:

Fight scenes are all about the stakes. If you took a Jackie Chan movie and novelize it, it would be weird. In fiction, you have to figure out the consequences of the fight scene. What the stakes are, what led the characters there. You need to consider the emotional side of the fight to make it feel like it's a major problem the character has to overcome.

As an action-oriented, blow-things-up writer from the beginning, my juvenalia is filled with fight scenes, but I wasn't able to make them interesting until I figured out they exist in a larger context. The reader is reading it like "oh crap oh crap" and that's what provides the tension. Really effective fight scenes are no more than a paragraph – the important parts are the anticipation and fallout. The shorter you write, the faster it feels to the reader. A page-long fight is the equivalent of slow motion – you've brought the book to a standstill. You can do it stylistically in a John Woo flash, but if you want a balls-to-the-wall, ugly, brief human thing, you've got a paragraph to get to of the action, and then you need to get back into stakes.

When I write fight scenes, I spend time trying to draw out the environment [the characters] are in. Tim Powers taught me that characters need to interact with the physicality of the environment. A fight scene lets you block out the physical nature of something. They climb around in it, and that lets you describe the interior of an airship. You get to provide exposition as well as a fight scene or moments of drama. More effective to have a character back up and fall over a couch than to say "There's a room and a couch and then they fight."