Shaun Barger is joining us today to talk about his novel Mage Against the Machine. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Harry Potter meets The Terminator in this action-packed adventure about a young man who discovers that everything he believed about his world is a lie.
The year is 2120. The humans are dead. The mages have retreated from the world after a madman blew up civilization with weaponized magical technology. Safe within domes that protect them from the nuclear wasteland on the other side, the mages have spent the last century putting their lives back together.
Nikolai is obsessed with artifacts from twentieth-century human life: mage-crafted replica Chuck Taylors on his feet, Schwarzenegger posters on his walls, Beatlemania still alive and well in his head. But he’s also tasked with a higher calling—to maintain the Veils that protect mage-kind from the hazards of the wastes beyond. As a cadet in the Mage King’s army, Nik has finally found what he always wanted—a purpose. But when confronted by one of his former instructors gone rogue, Nik tumbles into a dark secret. The humans weren’t nuked into oblivion—they’re still alive. Not only that, outside the domes a war rages between the last enclaves of free humans and vast machine intelligences.
Outside the dome, unprepared and on the run, Nik finds Jem. Jem is a Runner for the Human Resistance. A ballerina-turned-soldier by the circumstances of war, Jem is more than just a human—her cybernetic enhancement mods make her faster, smarter, and are the only things that give her a fighting chance against the artificial beings bent on humanity’s eradication.
Now Nik faces an impossible decision: side with the mages and let humanity die out? Or stand with Jem and the humans—and risk endangering everything he knows and loves?
What’s Shaun’s favorite bit?
When I was a kid, there was a moment in the first Harry Potter book that made me hate wizards.
Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE the Potter series. Like most Millennials, they were a powerful formative influence on me, both as a person and a writer.
But the wizards themselves?
The moment I realized that wizards suck came during Harry’s first trip to Diagon Alley, in which Hagrid explains the totally shitty reason wizards hide their super cushy magical existence from the humans they refer to as muggles:
“But what does a Ministry of Magic do?”
“Well, their main job is to keep it from the Muggles that there’s still witches an’ wizards up an’ down the country.”
“Why? Blimey, Harry, everyone’d be wantin’ magic solutions to their problems. Nah, we’re best left alone.”
(Page 51, UK Hardcover edition of Sorcerer’s Stone)
I put the book down. Little pissed off self-righteous 9th grade Shaun Barger.
“Ohhhhh, I’m sorry wizards,” I said, angrily chomping on a candy cigarette. “Is the AIDS epidemic inconvenient for you?
“Oh, are the millions of people currently trapped in a thriving contemporary slave trade just TOO much of a hassle to deal with?
“Can’t do us a solid and cure cancer, huh?
“Can’t hook it up with the unlimited clean energy thing, huh? Not into the idea of totally awesome magic space travel to distant galaxies made possible by the combined efforts of the scientific and magical communities, huh? HUH?”
Fucking wizards, man.
In 2011, soon after I began living in Hollywood in a house with three friends and my sister, I remembered this moment, and found myself thinking about the long-term repercussions of magical isolationism.
That, and robots. Scary, evil, robots.
Swept up in the idea, I began writing the first version of what would eventually become MAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE.
Great title, right? My sister came up with it, at a party. She awoke from a fever dream and came out of her room to shout across a courtyard full of drunk people over very loud music, while wearing pajamas.
“Mage Against the Machine!”
I raised my hand to my ear. “WHAT?”
“MAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE!”
I looked at her. Nodded, solemn.
The characters of MAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE have all been touched by the residual trauma of the separation of their worlds. Theirs is the story of that separation coming to end, in the most catastrophic and spectacular ways.
The following passage is a look into the world of magic in MAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE — a memory of childhood from our well-meaning but total-fucking-mess of a hero, Nikolai Strauss.
I wrote this scene on my way back from a Christmas family vacation in Santa Fe. My
dad was driving, and it was dark out. We’d been listening to the audiobook of The Sorcerer’s Stone, read by Jim Dale. I was sitting in the back seat with my kid sibs, alternating between furiously typed bouts of writing, and video game breaks playing Undertale.
I really love this scene, and the story it tells about the relationship between these deeply flawed characters.
I hope you like it, too.
One day, when Nikolai was eight, he’d hidden himself in a stall of the boys’ bathroom at his school, praying that nobody could hear him as he struggled through snot and tears to calm himself.
His mother’s lesson that morning had been particularly brutal, and all day he’d been distracted from class, struggling to breathe through the tightness in his chest that threatened to overwhelm him until he’d been forced to excuse himself.
He hated it—wished his body would listen to the cold logic of his brain, could listen to his mother’s voice calmly explaining that there were terrible things beyond the Veil, and that if she didn’t make him strong, he and the people he loved—the people he needed to protect—would be hurt. Die, even.
But Nikolai didn’t love anyone. Not really. His parents, of course. But did that even count? And weren’t they supposed to protect him?
A tiny fist pounded against the stall, hard enough to make him jump.
“What?” he said, yanking open the door to curse the intruder. Angry words died on his lips as he froze, stunned. Standing before him was a girl with short, straw-colored hair sticking out in all directions and a smattering of freckles across an upturned nose.
Her lips were pursed in a tight little frown—her chin jutted out defiantly as if she’d eaten something sour and was furious at the injustice that had been committed against her palate.
“W—what are you doing?” he asked her, hurriedly trying to wipe away evidence of his tears with a sleeve. “This is the boys’ room.”
“I used to cry like that,” she said, with a sort of twangy Southern Veil accent he’d never heard before.
“I wasn’t crying!” Nikolai said unconvincingly. “Crying is for babies.”
And Nikolai was no baby. Not after a year of his mother’s lessons, which she’d begun in secret when he was seven.
The girl gave Nikolai a knowing look with eyes too old for her little face. “My daddy used to call me stupid. And ugly. And he hit me. Then his mom always healed me so no one would know and told me to shut up when I cried.”
“His mom . . . your grandmom?” Nikolai said with wonder. His mother always did the same, using her golden mediglove Focal to heal his wounds and bruises with little clouds of sparkling light. Hiding what she’d done.
The girl crinkled her nose. “I guess. I hate her.” Who was this strange, angry little girl? He didn’t have any friends—didn’t need any friends—but there weren’t that many magi in his school and he knew everyone.
“I’m Astor,” she said, as if reading his mind. “I moved here last week from Blue Ridge. You’re the only one in our class who hasn’t talked to me yet. You don’t talk to anyone. And today you looked so sad. So I followed you.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, feeling ashamed. “I’m Nikolai. And I’m not sad, I just—”
“You should tell on them.” Nikolai froze. “What?”
“I know you don’t want to tell, ’cause you love them. But they don’t love you. Not really. Or they’d be nice.”
“You’re wrong,” Nikolai said, and looked away, unable to meet her eyes.
“I told on my dad,” she said. “He used to only hit me, but one time he started hitting my sister and she’s practically a baby.”
She stuck her chin out again with that defiant intensity only exaggerated by her wild crown of hair. “So I started calling him stupid and ugly and told him that I hated him so he would hit me instead. Mommy was always too scared to stop him so I ran away before his mom could heal me. It took all day but I found a Watchman and showed him and asked him to protect my sister.”
She beamed, proud, but Nikolai could tell it was for show. At least a little bit.
“So they took him to jail and he can’t talk to us anymore. We left his mom’s farm and came here to stay with my cousin.”
“I’m . . . glad,” Nikolai finally said. But he knew that he could never tell on his mom. His mom was an Edge Guard married to a Watchman. Even if they could arrest her, none of the Watchmen
would be strong enough to fight her anyway. She stared at him for a bit, pinching her chin thoughtfully with her thumb and her index finger. Then she nodded, having come to some sort of decision. “We’re friends now,” she said. “Everyone is nice here but they don’t get it.”
And that was that. Nikolai had made his first friend, and Astor wasn’t going to take no for an answer. She never took no for an answer.
Astor was very close to her cousin, a loudmouth class clown named George Stokes. And the moment she told Stokes, very seriously, that Nikolai was her friend now and Stokes had to be friends with him too, he just shrugged, said okay, and started treating Nikolai as if they’d been best friends their whole lives. Even though really, they’d been in the same class for two years and had never actually spoken.
Having friends changed everything for Nikolai. Stokes was funny—he was always joking around and laughing but never said anything mean about anyone. And when they watched the old human movies Stokes’s dad got for them from the university and something sad happened, Stokes would always think of some- thing happy to say, or at least try to make the others laugh.
Nikolai wasn’t sure Stokes had ever been sad. Not really—not like he and Astor. Because whenever they seemed down he would always start cracking jokes or fart and blame it on Astor, which never failed to make them all laugh—but it was in this sort of panic, like being sad was some sort of sickness he didn’t understand but couldn’t stand to see his friends suffer.
Astor and her little sister lived with Stokes until Astor’s mom saved up enough money as a waitress to get their own little apartment. Her clothing was all secondhand—frayed and stained and almost always too big for her. She pretended not to care but sometimes he would catch Astor looking at herself in the mirror and Nik could tell that no matter what she said, and no matter what he told her, a part of her still believed what her dad had said. About her being stupid. And ugly.
For the first time in his life, Nikolai knew what happiness was. In ashes and moments, at least. And when Nikolai was with Astor, there was this weird feeling in his stomach—this kind of warmth that made him want to smile and run around.
One day, not long after he and Astor had truly become inseparable, Nikolai got into his very first fight.
Astor tripped and fell during a game of tag—totally ate it, face-first in a puddle. She sat up and started laughing—grinning at Nikolai with a mask of mud, pretending that she’d transformed into some sort of monster as she began chucking handfuls of muck at him.
But then another mage said something that made her stop smiling. Nikolai couldn’t even remember his name now, or what he said exactly—all he could remember was that the mage had been one of the rich kids, and how ugly he looked when he and his friends started laughing, how ugly they all were when they pushed up their noses and started making pig noises at her.
It wasn’t the first time they’d teased her, though she’d been too proud to tell Stokes or Nikolai. Teased her for her clothing. Teased her for her tangled hair, which was rarely brushed because her mom was too busy with two jobs and taking care of Astor’s little sister. Teased her for being poor.
Watching Astor retreat inside herself as they mocked her was the first time that Nikolai had experienced a very specific kind of anger. He broke one mage’s nose, gave the other a black eye, and pinned the ringleader to the ground, forcing him to eat mud while telling the boy that he’d kill him if he ever made fun of Astor like that again.
It was only then that the horrified headmaster finally pulled Nikolai away, who, even as the much larger mage carried him off, continued thrashing and screaming threats back at the weeping boys.
It was the second time Nikolai had ever seen his Watchman father lose his temper.
“You could have killed them!” his father rumbled—barely raising his voice, but still terribly intimidating as he towered over him. Nikolai stared sullenly up at his father, his briefly broken but now-healed hand wrapped in ice, his still-bloody lip trembling.
Calming himself, Nikolai’s father explained that there was almost no fight you can’t talk your way out of—no mage you can’t reason with. That fighting should always be a last resort. That the most heroic thing a mage could do was to use reason instead of violence. To use kindness and love instead of anger, instead of hate. That there was always a choice, difficult as it might seem.
His mother, on the other hand, showed him how to coat his knuckles with a layer of hardened air, so he wouldn’t break his fingers next time he had to throw a punch.
She always was the practical one.
Nikolai never forgot how Astor slipped her muddy little hand into his as they waited outside the headmaster’s office for their parents to come get them after the fight. Never forgot how his mother’s lessons finally began to make sense.
Shaun Barger is a Los Angeles-based novelist who detests cold weather, idiot plotting, and fascism. He splits his days between writing, resisting the siren’s call of Hollywood’s eternally mild summer climes, and appeasing a tyrannical three-pound Chihuahua with peanut butter and apple slices. Mage Against the Machine is his first novel. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @ShaunBarger.