Joysticks to Nebulae: SF Writer Yaroslav Barsukov

In 2019, the Nebula Awards, presented by the Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers of America, inaugurated an award that salutes the writing talent behind video gaming. Yaroslav Coincidentally, Barsukov marks 2019 as the year he found his narrative voice for long storytelling. Barsukov, one-time game software developer, made Nebula’s shortlist for his novella Tower of mud and straw

In the starred review, Kirkus praised “a wonderful SF story about dangerous technology”, praising the “sublime pieces that should be re-watched”.

Tower of mud and straw evokes a mythical realm where a queen banishes minister Shea Ashcroft for resisting the gassing of a public protest. Shea must oversee the completion of a large frontier tower, ostensibly a defense against airship attacks from a rival state, but in reality more of a Babylon-scale “vanity project”. Among Byzantine intrigue, Shea finds the building based on the methods of the Drakiri, a local ethnic minority of shadowy alien descent. Their strange anti-gravity devices have serious side effects.

Or, to quote the author’s earliest sketches that he emailed himself in 2017, “a man is banished from the capital to the provinces. There, people live with another race, largely mocked by the rest of the country. Ancient artifacts, etc.” Barsukov adds, “and if you dig even deeper, you’ll find many elements in my first (mostly awkward) published story from 2015 that eventually came to fruition in Tower† Some themes just haunt you, man.’

“All my protagonists – and I mean them all, both in Tower and in my short stories – either dissatisfied with life or keep returning to their past[s]’ says Barsukov. As Shea describes in Tower“Something in me has broken – or maybe it was broken.”

Barsukov was born in Moscow during the Cold War. Russian SF has its own masters, but Barsukov says his favorites in the genre were American (many American SF authors were considered translatable by Soviet authorities). However, his source is his compatriot Leo Tolstoy. “I am a lifelong fan of War and peace, which I reread every two years, at least in part. So the genre I write in may not be a coincidence – it’s amazing to see how much of a template for modern fantasy Tolstoy provided.”

He continues: “I fell in love with Dune, but even more with the work of Roger Zelazny…This immortalIsland of the Dead† [and] Dreammaster— his science fiction oeuvre. Later I discovered Le Guin, already in good translation, and she became one of my main literary influences.”

Barsukov studied at the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute and then studied at the Austrian Technical University in Vienna. He now lives in Vienna. Around 2000, he was working on 3D software engines for game development. During his team’s pitch for US-based Atari, the multilingual Barsukov (German, Russian, and English) had to translate an accompanying story into the game’s mythology. He was captivated by the exercise and the language. The Atari deal didn’t come to fruition, but a budding SF writer was born.

About game scripting as emerging literature, Barsukov says, “Look at some passages in Planescape: Torment of Pillars of Eternity and tell me this isn’t literature! A [computer role-playing game] can afford to have the player read a wall of text from a non-fiction source in the universe, while movies [for example] have to rely on dialogue alone.”

Barsukov was seriously working on his first short stories in 2014, in English. He recorded some sales, but the turning point in 2019 was the realization that he could effectively give publishers English prose with the cadence, imagery and poetry of Russian.

Tower doesn’t stick to the classic hard science SF model. Instead, Barsukov combines imaginative filigree and physics indistinguishable from alchemy. Some have called the novella steampunk, a label Barsukov avoids. †[Author] Peter Watts… described the book as a cross between the New Weird and the early Ted Chiang. Tower contains this mix of fantasy and SF, but more importantly, it uses fantastic devices as metaphors for the human condition. Ultimately, that’s what interests me: people, their pain and desires, and their reactions to the circumstances they find themselves in, however unreal.”

Tower of mud and straw has made Yaroslav Barsukov one of the few Russians to be nominated for a Nebula Award. The author cemented his relationship with SFWA by serving as chairman of the group’s information systems committee. “We are a group of engineers modernizing SFWA’s processes from the inside out. Our work encompasses all aspects of the organization’s operations, from the publishing process to the annual Nebula conference.”

He is currently writing a follow-up cum addendum Tower of mud and straw† “And then of course there will be a sequel. Theoretically. When the stars align. To say anything concrete about the sequel’s plot would ruin the huge turn of events of Part 2, but broadly speaking, the book would address the question: How do the more militant, young Drakiri feel about their place in the world?”

His other planned books include a tentatively titled The mandolin teachera 19th century Russia with an alternate history/parallel world, and a non-SF novel – albeit with built-in fantasy – about creative turmoil in a Game of Thronesstyle TV show.

Barsukov says he would love to return to game development, “but I’m afraid at 37 it’s too late for that. But gosh, I’d love to. I can’t believe the elation not describe what you feel in constructing a breathing, living world in programming the rules through which the light falls, the shadows grow, the sun rises and sets. It’s quite another.”

Charles Cassidy Jr. is an Ohio writer and literary critic.