Ryan Graudin explains how 'bad teachers' inspired her fascination with history
The Wolf by Wolf author previews her next book, Invictus.
Her next book, Invictus, follows 17-year-old Farway Gaius McCarthy, son of a time-traveling recorder from the future… and a Roman Gladiator from 95 A.D. (Yes, our heads are spinning, too.) Farway plans to follow in his time-traveling mother’s footsteps, but when he fails his final exam, he looks to the black market as a last resort for a job. Meanwhile, his own not-quite-natural birth is wreaking disastrous effects on the fabric of time itself. Check out EW’s exclusive reveal of Invictus’ cover, above.
Below, Graudin explains how bad teachers inspired her love of history and the difficulties of writing about time travel. And beneath that, get an exclusive sneak peek at Chapter 1 of this brilliant tale.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did the idea of this book come to you?
RYAN GRAUDIN: This book began as a piece of micro-fiction, written for a 2012 Piccolo Spoleto reading. It was short, less than 1000 words, and followed a time-traveling thief as he fled through Charleston’s streets with 18th century contraband. My friends latched onto the concept when I read it, and kept after me to make it novel sized.
I’ve always loved time travel stories, not only for their exploration of history but also for the philosophical questions they raise. Writing about a future society that sends citizens back to observe the past allowed me to consider ethics through a whole new lens. If someone in history is dying, does the time traveler have any obligation to save them? Do they have an obligation not to, since this person is technically already dead?
I was drawn to the concept of writing a protagonist who, by the very laws of nature, should not exist. So many mind-bending implications… There’s a lot of brain yoga in this book.
Your last series explored time and history by looking at a parallel universe in the 1950s where the Axis powers had won WWII. Now you’re exploring those concepts even further with Invictus. What fascinates you about revisiting history?
The past isn’t as distant as we’d like to think. Often, when I’m reading for research, I’m struck at how cyclical the world’s struggles are. Racism, sexism, knee-jerk nationalism, useless wars. There’s nothing new under the sun.
History serves as a mirror and a roadmap. It’s where we’ve been and where we might be going. Writing the Wolf By Wolf duology was fascinating because it forced me to explore a turn our past did not take. This what if didn’t just serve as a story setting, but a warning too. As I closed out my author’s note in that novel: “The world within these pages could have been our own. For a time and in a place it was, and we should do our best not to forget that.”
Invictus’ approach to history leans more on the mirror side of things. Imogen, one of the main characters, says it best, “When you witness the breadth of history, you understand how small you are. And yet at the same time, you realize how much your life matters.… How much you shape the people around you. And vice versa.
Where did that interest begin for you?
Bad teachers. I loved reading historical fiction as a kid, and I was eager to learn more about the past in school. You can imagine my disappointment when my Honors US History teacher declared war was “icky” and decided to skip every armed conflict in the curriculum. We watched The Last of the Mohicans and Gangs of New York during class, because who needs actual lessons when you can watch Daniel Day-Lewis instead?
I wish I was kidding.
Poor teaching only intensified my desire to learn. I started reading history texts outside of class; fortunately, my father is a history buff and kept the shelves in our house well-stocked.
How did you create the future world of Invictus?
With great joy. The Wolf By Wolf duology explored such a grim world, and by the time I was finished writing it I was exhausted. My goal in creating Invictus’ world was to portray a future where globalization hasn’t led to war, but a world government. Time travel, discovered in 2340 AD, plays a huge role in society—impacting everything from fashion to tourism to agriculture. I had fun playing with the idea that the world’s past is literally used to shape the future. Extinct species, such as bees, are reinstated by the Central Board of Agricultural Rehabilitation. People become obsessed with watching datastreams of historical events, as recorded by licensed time travelers.
Of course, time travel is highly regulated, since one misstep could erase known existence. But because humanity is humanity, there’s a black market of past-procured delicacies: vintage wines, cheeses, coffee, fresh-cut flowers. Farway McCarthy gets drawn into this illegal underworld.
Did any particular books, movies, or TV inspire you?
Invictus is basically the love-child of two fandoms: Doctor Who and Firefly. I’ve been a Whovian Browncoat for the better part of my adult life. One of the things I love most about Firefly is the crew’s camaraderie—you get to know each and every character so well, by the end of the show you feel as if you’re a part of their misfit gang. One of my goals in writing Invictus was to capture this phenomenon: to portray a crew that functioned as a family. As for Doctor Who, one of my favorite parts of the show is how it treats time travel—as a vast range of times and places to be explored. One episode can take place in ancient Pompeii, while the next hops to the fifteenth version of New York. Many time travel tales tend to have a smaller scale; with characters going back hours or days, instead of entire centuries. I wanted Invictus to span the latter.
Thus, the idea of sending a crew of time-traveling thieves to plunder history’s many lost treasures was born!
What was the hardest part of the process?
Making the time travel make sense. Before I wrote Invictus, I asked Alexandra Bracken for advice on writing time travel—her Passenger duology reads seamlessly—and her half-joking response was “RUN!” Time travel is hard. There’s so much to consider when it comes to timelines and who affects what and grandfather paradoxes. I thought I had most of it sorted out when I submitted my first draft, but alas, I received an 11-page edit letter about all of the logic snafus that needed fixing.
If I never hear the word “paradox” again it’ll be too soon.
Excerpt from Invictus by Ryan Graudin
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
— William Ernest Henley
The Boy Who Should Not Have Been
May 5, 2371
“State your name.” The med-droid’s automated voice was cut clean, every syllable filed down to replicate a Central accent. Why machines needed accents, Far didn’t know. Maybe the programmers added this touch of humanity to put the med-droid’s patients at ease. The tactic had failed, though the robot couldn’t be faulted for Far’s discomfort. Sitting tail-naked on an examination tabletop wasn’t exactly Relaxation 101. The stainless steel surface was a few degrees shy of frosty, nipping places on his body where cold had no business going.
“Farway Gaius McCarthy,” he answered.
The med-droid recorded the reply, shifted seamlessly into the next question. “State your date of birth.”
Far sighed. They asked this question. Every. Single. Time. And every single time he answered, the med-droid’s computers would whir through the census databases, find nothing, and state in its elegant accent: “Answer invalid. Restate your date of birth.”
This routine was old hat. He’d done it scores, if not hundreds, of times, for all the scores, if not hundreds, of Simulator exams he’d taken at the Academy. The anticheating measures—a full stripping and thorough identity scan before every Sim session—seemed extreme, but as Far’s instructors had taught him, time travel demanded flawless precision. Cheating now could lead to world-ending catastrophes later. Maybe. Time’s immutability was something much debated by the Corps, who were too afraid to test their theories in case they ended up changing the future they lived in—butterfly wingbeats and whatnot. Thus, perfection was their MO.
Traveling the Grid—exploring the past in real time—was Far’s only future. He’d been raised on a steady diet of serialized datastreams and Burg’s expedition stories: outrunning velociraptors, witnessing Vesuvius’s rage against the night sky, surveying the great Dust Bowl of the 1930s. But watching pixels flicker through screens and listening to an old man’s recounted adventures wasn’t enough to sate Far’s hunger. Even the Sims’ state-of-the-art sensory replications, with their sounds and smells and hologram people imbued with enough artificial intelligence to mimic an interactive scene from history, weren’t enough.
He wanted to meet history face-to-face. He wanted to be the blood in its veins, as it was in his. Far was a McCarthy—son of one of the most beloved Recorders of her generation. Everywhere he went, Empra’s name followed. Older Academy instructors always did a double take when they came across Far in their class rosters. You’re Empra’s boy, they’d say, along with some version of: She was a bright girl, one of my best students. It’s such a shame about what happened to the Ab Aeterno.
His mother’s legacy and loss were always there, pushing Far to be the best, always the best. And he was. Today he’d pass his final exam with flying colors, like he always did, and receive his license. Today his Sim score would earn him a coveted space on the crew of a Central Time Machine. Tomorrow he’d be exploring many yesterdays ago, documenting momentous events for scholars, scientists, and entertainment moguls alike.
But first—first!—he had to get past this pragmatic med-droid. “State your date of birth.”
“Can we just skip this part?” Far shifted on the table, a vain attempt to keep his unmentionables from going numb.
“Answer invalid. Restate your date of birth.”
“April eighteenth, 2354 AD.” Far tried the date that made him seventeen and a smidge. It wasn’t his true birthday, but that didn’t stop his cousin Imogen from buying him gelato and sticking sparklers in it every year. He’d tried to make 4/18/54 official, but no clerical worker could be persuaded to fill the blank gap on his birth certificate. Far’s birth outside of time had to stay on the public record, for historical purposes. Med-droid malfunctions be hashed.
Speaking of: “Answer invalid. Restate your date of birth.”
Far attempted the date he used whenever he was trying to impress a girl. The date that made him 2,276, minus a smidge. “December thirty-first, 95 AD.”
“I know, for Crux sake! I don’t have a hashing birthday!” Far knew it was useless to get mad—he was the glitch, not the med-droid’s programming—but sometimes it just felt good to yell. “I was born on the Ab Aeterno!”
The examination room door slid open. A living Medic stuck her head around the corner. Her features were as edged and elegant as the Hindi on her ID card. A stethoscope dangled from her neck, competing for space with gold-tinted headphones. “Is something wrong—oh!” Her face brightened. “Hello, Far!”
“Hey, Priya.” He grinned at the Medic and tried oh-so-subtly to tense his abdominal muscles. “Like the headphones. Where’d you find them?”
“Some hawker in Zone Four was trying to pass them off as genuine BeatBix, asking three thousand credits for them. Can you believe it? With the BB logo facing the wrong way and everything.”
“I’d expect nothing less from a Zone Four hawker,” Far told her. “One of them tried to convince my cousin that a kitten with an awful dye job was a red panda cub.”
“Aren’t red pandas extinct?”
“Exactly. So what’d you haggle him down to?”
“Two hundred and fifty credits.” Priya’s rip-off headphones gleamed as she shrugged. “Could’ve gone lower, but some prices aren’t worth the fight. Hawker gets to pay his bills and I get to listen to Acidic Sisters through something other than my comm.”
“Answer invalid,” the med-droid informed them in its tireless cadence. “Restate your date of birth.”
“Ah. Birth date question again?”
“Never not,” Far said.
Being a Medic in an age where droids made up fifteen percent of the population required training beyond human biology, so like most of her peers, Priya doubled as a mechanic. She pried open the med-droid’s chest plate and rearranged some wires—a routine Far had seen her perform scores of time—to bypass the question manually. “You’d think they’d have this bug fixed by now.”
Far laughed as he offered his arm for the inevitable blood sample. Of all the Medics who came to intervene with his examination hitches, Priya was his favorite. She always pretended the problem lay on the med-droid’s end and not his. And where her coworkers were quick to scurry off—their silence like fear—she lingered, often close enough for him to hear the notes beating through her headphones. Today it was a punk-tech ballad. Catchy to the max.
“So…your final exam Sim. I’d ask if you were nervous, but who am I kidding?”
He laughed again. Nerves were for people who didn’t know what the future held, and his was pretty clear: valedictorian of his Academy class, acer of Sims. Sure, final exam Sims were the toughest of the bunch. You could get anything from Neolithic bonfires to a twentieth-century high school keg party to watching King John sign the Magna Carta. The goal was simple—record the event and study the people without being noticed. One misstep and you could be thrown out of the Academy tail-first, banned from time travel forever.
Far didn’t make mistakes, however, just calculated risks. “Got any song suggestions for my impending victory dance?”
“Classic or current?”
“Classic. I’ll need to get used to some historic beats once I’m licensed.”
“Let’s see.” Priya tapped her chin. “There’s Queen’s ‘We Are the Champions’ and DJ Khaled’s ‘All I Do Is Win.’ Oh—and you can’t go wrong with Punched Up Panda’s ‘Top of the Rise.’ M.I.A. has some good ones, too.”
Far made a note of the band names on his interface so he could look them up later. “Queen, Khaled, Panda, M.I.A. Got it.”
“You should breathe.” The Medic’s smoky eyes flickered from Far’s exaggerated, oxygen-starved abs to the vitals graph on the med-droid’s chest. “You’re skewing the readings.”
Ah! She’d noticed! Perhaps not in the way he’d intended, but still…
“When will you go once you pass?” Priya asked.
That was the question, wasn’t it? Far had spent his entire life watching other times. A whole quilt of cultures and humanity…prehistory, ancient Greece, ancient Rome, medieval Europe, the Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the Age of Progress, all the way to Central time. And that was just the Western Civilization track. So much was still unexplored—for while there were hundreds of licensed time travelers, there were only so many CTMs to go around. The finite life spans of the explorers they did carry covered just a fraction of history.
The possibilities were endless. Almost.
“I could go back and kill Hitler,” Far joked. “Isn’t that every time traveler’s dream?”
Priya shot him a you shouldn’t kid about that look from under her bangs.
“Whenever the Corps wants to send me, I guess,” he recanted.
“You don’t have any preferences? You aren’t scared you’re going to get stuck trying to collect bubonic plague cultures from corpses in the name of science?”
When Far was fourteen, he watched a datastream of the Black Death. Even at that age he could tell it was highly edited: choppy shots, faded audio. The Recorder taking the footage had gagged at a blurred-out cart piled high with bodies. “Not my first choice.”
When the med-droid finished its ritual pricking and prodding, it rolled toward the door, calling Far along. “Proceed to the next chamber to acquire your final exam Sim wardrobe.”
“I want to see it all,” he told the Medic.
“Speaking of seeing it all…” Priya bit her lip, but her smile was too strong to hide. Every other corner of her face lit with it as she nodded to the door where the med-droid had vanished. “You should go get dressed.”
Far found his final exam Sim suit in the next room, pressed to perfection and composed of too many pieces. Wool stockings went on first, followed by knee-length breeches and a dress shirt with rabid lace frothing from its ends. These ruffles peeked out of a blue waistcoat embroidered with vines and some long-extinct flower Far couldn’t remember the name of. A green-and-gold-striped coat weighted all this into place. The outfit was bookended with leather shoes and a powdered wig.
“Not the plague, then,” Far muttered as he reached for the stockings.
He’d experienced a few Sims from the eighteenth century—witnessing the signing of the United States’ Declaration of Independence, sailing the Pacific as part of James Cook’s crew, watching the streets of revolution-era Paris crumble into parades and chaos—but it wasn’t a time he’d studied thoroughly.
It made sense. The point of the exam was to demonstrate how well you could improvise. Time travelers had to use costumes, knowledge, and technology to blend into their surrounding environments. On board a traditional CTM, the responsibility for providing flawless covers fell to the Historian. They assembled the Recorder’s wardrobe: clothes, hairstyle, and translation technology…the works. They were responsible for briefing the Recorder on the time period they were walking into. They ID’d key historical figures and sent instructions about how to behave over the comms.
During examination Sims, the Historian’s role was played by a computer linked directly to Far’s comm. It greeted him with the same accent as the med-droid: “Welcome to your final examination Sim, Farway Gaius McCarthy. Your mission is to observe and record an hour-long datastream. You will be graded on the quality and content of your datastream as well as your recording methods.”
The usual, then, Far snapped his breeches into place. For Crux sake, they were tight. It was a miracle the human race managed to keep procreating after years in pants like these.…“When exactly will we be going?”
“May fifteenth, 1776 ad. Seven o’clock in the evening.”
The shirt was snug, too, and the waistcoat pushed the ruffles up so they feathered Far’s neck, making him feel ostrichlike. “Who wears this many layers in May?”
“The residents at the Palace of Versailles,” the computer informed him.
Versailles. A glamorous den of royals, where the air was prickly with wig powder and the golden halls swished with gowns so voluminous they could second for circus tents. There were girls in Far’s Academy class who would kill—or at least significantly maim—to be placed in such a Sim.
Far shouldered the overcoat, secured his wig, and ran through his pre-Sim mantra:
I am Farway Gaius McCarthy, son of Empra McCarthy. Birth date unavailable. With timelessness in my blood and nowhere calling to my heart. Born on the Ab Aeterno, for Ab Aeterno. I am a single Sim away from all of time.
The Palace of Versailles, France, 1776 ad would be a cinch.
He switched on his recording devices and stepped into the Sim.
Copyright © 2017 by Ryan Graudin