In sci-fi writer S J Kincaid’s new standalone galactic thriller, The Diabolic, a deeply religious society is scattered across the cosmos. When Sidonia’s wealthy imperial family comes under threat from the Empire due to the outspoken comments of her sacrilegious father, she’s bonded to a Diabolic, a humanoid programmed to kill anyone who dares to lay a finger on her. But when Diabolics are outlawed, what will happen to Sidonia’s best friend and protector? Read on to find out about the book that had Good Reading as hooked as we were with The Hunger Games.
You once harboured an ambition to be an astronaut, and now you’re a sci-fi writer – what draws you to stories of the stars?
As long as I can remember, I’ve been a fan of science fiction. I guess I just love the idea of so many possibilities ahead for humanity. The thing is, fantasy stories are great, but I’ve always enjoyed them with a tinge of sadness knowing they are simply not possible. Magic does not and never will exist.
Sci-fi like Star Trek, on the other hand, is in the realm of distant possibility. And yes, yes, I know it’s so far form our current reality that it might as well be a story about magic, just knowing that it’s rooted in science gives me the tiniest smidgen of hope that maybe that’s what our future will be like some day.
Magic does not and never will exist.”
Having said that: it was love of sci-fi that made me want to be an astronaut. The idea of actually leaving the planet just seemed so cool. Unfortunately, I lack the math and science talent necessary, so instead I write sci-fi in a fiendish plot to inspire kids to become scientists who will revolutionise travel to space, hence leading to easy access to space for me as a very old woman. Fingers crossed, my fiendish plan may work.
Can you tell us about the haunted graveyard in Scotland that inspired you to become a writer?
Oh, it was called Greyfriars Kirk, and it was just this notorious cemetery where so many hideous things throughout history had taken place. Covenanters had been tortured there and people buried alive. Body snatchers prowled the area. There was so much about it that inspired my imagination when I briefly visited Edinburgh as a 19-year-old. I returned to Edinburgh for a junior year abroad and happened to be placed in a dormitory just across from that same cemetery. That was the year when I had this amazing social experience all about me, yet for some reason, I kept holing up in my dormitory writing. I blame the cemetery.
What is a Diabolic, and how would you recognise one in a crowd?
A Diabolic is a genetically engineered superhuman, stronger and faster and deadlier than any natural-born person. You would definitely recognize one in a crowd, because they are larger and more heavily muscled by far than any person. They move as easily as a prowling tiger.
There is a term people often use for carnivores that hunt prey, or even human serial killers like Ted Bundy: the predator’s stare.”
The whole story centers around Nemesis, a Diabolic who has been whittled down to disguise herself as the girl she was created to protect. In her case, you would only know she was a Diabolic if you knew to look for one. There is a term people often use for carnivores that hunt prey, or even human serial killers like Ted Bundy: the ‘predator’s stare’. It’s the one betraying characteristic of any Diabolic. There is simply something about the way they can look at you that sends a chill down your spine.
‘I had no soul and very little heart, but what heart there was belonged to her.’ Nemesis is an intimidating character, from her name to her ingrained ruthlessness. The only care and love she displays has been artificially implanted. What was it like to formulate this deadly character, while ensuring she was someone that readers would stick with?
To tell the truth, I wasn’t certain she was a character that would appeal to readers, or one readers would stick with while writing the story. I had true doubts about whether The Diabolic would sell at all. Having said that, Nemesis as a character was so fascinating for me to write, since she is by nature and nurture a cruel, amoral person who only cares about the interests of one individual. The thing is, though, in order for Nemesis to have that attachment to one person, that ability to love – to feel such powerful emotions towards another – has to be there in her physiology, her psychology. Much of The Diabolic explores the idea that such a capacity wouldn’t remain focused upon just one person, and how terrifying and confusing it truly is for a girl meant to be amoral to find herself cultivating a sense of feeling for other people apart from the one she protects.
Any story set far off in space necessitates a certain leap in human technological development. In order for that story to even happen, humanity must have created far more sophisticated computers, machinery, and revolutionised the sciences at some point in time. I think even now in this world around us, we are doing just that. We all have smart phones, we can screen embryos for genetic diseases and selectively use those without them, we can clone animals and speak in an instant with someone across the world.
There will soon be people with prosthetic limbs that mimic the sensation a natural hand might feel. There will be embryos with the DNA of three people rather than two. Technology is already having an impact and redefining our traditional views of humanity. How will things look in 10, 20, 30 years as this process accelerates? My other series, ‘Insignia’, also examined the questions, and it wasn’t so far off in the future. If you replicate one neuron with a computer replica, it’s still you. If you replace five-hundred? Five-thousand? If you replace every cell in your brain with exact artificial replicas of themselves, are you still you, or are you something else?
There are a lot of questions around technology that are cropping up around us, and a sci-fi story set in space presumes many have already been answered, and many issues accelerated. So I think stories set in space examine the question of what it is to be human because we are already asking those questions– and space stories just feature societies further along in the process.
Where did the idea come from to create a sci-fi universe in which science and technology is outlawed?
I think most human power systems boil down two conflicts with two poles at either end. I needed a conflict for two sides to use as grounds for opposition to each other, and religion versus progress is a classic one.
It may seem a contradiction to have a technology-dependent society where the study of science and technology has become blasphemous, but I think of it more as a cynically clever ploy. If you have a technological system that self sustains – machines that repair machines, other machines that repair those machines, machines that extract resources to sustain other machines, etc. – then at some point, human beings aren’t necessary. If humans aren’t necessary as workers, then the ones with the power are the ones who possess the technology. The possession of technology gives those owners a deadlock on power, and the one sure way of ensuring it continues that way is to prevent those who currently don’t possess technology from ever developing it.
In The Diabolic, the space religion has framed the development of such technology, the pursuit of sciences, as a blasphemous act that must be forbidden. In such a way, one side of this power divide has enforced stagnation to ensure the status quo remains the same.
The action of The Diabolic kicks off when the family that Nemesis serves is caught up in a scandal involving the highly religious empire. Is investigating the power and potential oppression of religion something you were keen to investigate?
On one hand, religion is an incredibly potent force in life and whenever you have a human society. I wanted to explore how it might be used by a status quo to enforce their will. The Diabolictakes place in a galaxy where a great natural disaster has wreaked devastation: a supernova that obliterated much of the Empire. It’s basically the equivalent of Yellowstone erupting, an incredibly devastating, world-changing event that could threaten every system in place. In the aftermath of such an event, religion would be important.
The main inspiration for The Diabolic was I, Claudius, so I really did mean this to essentially be Imperial Rome in space.”
Religion is a means of coping with the cruel and arbitrary devastation of such an act. It’s also a means of reestablishing some sort of order in the face of something that can make people feel small and powerless. Yes, it can also be a tool used by some to exercise control over others. Since this story deals with humanity, there must be religion within it as a force all its own, but I don’t intend to present religion as a good or as an evil. It is like gravity: it’s there and it exerts its influence. Some people use it for good, some do not.
While The Diabolic is a tale from centuries in the future, the society – with its heavy gowns, intricate etiquette system and rampant skullduggery – resembles a medieval royal court. Did you channel historical stories as well as sci-fi novels while writing The Diabolic?
The main inspiration for The Diabolic was I, Claudius, so I really did mean this to essentially be Imperial Rome in space. I’ve also been enamored of Tudor English history, and the machinations surrounded Elizabeth I’s life, so both the Tudor court and the Imperial Roman Court informed my view of this royal court. I remember reading about one of the French Kings ordering his aristocrats to stay in Versailles where he could keep a close eye on them, and the way they evolved more and more intricate, elaborate rituals over the most ridiculous things, all considered ‘refinement’ and ‘etiquette’. I think court rituals in some ways reflect the closed systems of power their inhabitants occupy, so I tried to craft some sense of such things in this world. Additionally, since this is outer space with futuristic materials, futuristic gadgets, the rules about what can be worn, what can be done, are all different. The weight of one’s garb is not a factor in a low gravity environment, for example, the way it would be for people just wandering on the street outside in our world.
The last books you wrote were part of a series – why did you choose to write The Diabolic as a standalone?
I really wanted to write a stand-alone because there are a lot of constraints that are put upon you when you write a series. Essentially, whatever you write in the first book, you have to be mindful of what you are leaving in the story in case you want to continue it. You can’t just kill off who you wish to kill, destroy what you wish to destroy, if you’re going to write a second story. That’s when you realize you could’ve used that character or that setting. With The Diabolic, I got to do in the first book what I had to wait until the third book to do in Insignia – I got to just tear things up. That was a lot of fun.
What are some standout books that you’ve read recently?
Rae Carson’s Walk the Earth a Stranger is fantastic. Rebels by David Liss is the second book in the hilarious, entertaining space trilogy, Randoms. I really enjoyed The Lost Property Office by James Hannibal. It’s fascinating how he uses synthesia in the text. On the adult front, I really enjoyed Emma Cline’s The Girls and immediately bought Helter Skelter afterwards to read all about the Manson family.