Joysticks to Nebulas: SF Writer Yaroslav Barsukov
In 2019, the Nebula Awards, given by the Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers of America, inaugurated a prize hailing writing talent behind video gaming. Yaroslav Barsukov, coincidentally, marks 2019 as the year he found his narrative voice for long-form storytelling. Barsukov, one-time developer of game software, made Nebula’s shortlist for his novella Tower of Mud and Straw.
In its starred review, Kirkus hails “a marvelous SF tale about dangerous technology,” praising the “sublime stretches that will warrant revisiting.”
Tower of Mud and Straw invokes a mythic realm where a queen banishes Minister Shea Ashcroft for resisting gassing a public protest. Shea must oversee completion of a great border tower, ostensibly a defense against airship raids from a rival state but in reality more a Babylon-scale “vanity project.” Among Byzantine intrigues, Shea finds the edifice relies on methods of the Drakiri, a local ethnic minority of shadowy otherworldly origins. Their strange anti-gravity devices have dire side effects.
Or, to quote the author’s earliest outlines he e-mailed himself in 2017, “a man is exiled from the capital to the provinces. There, humans coexist with another race, largely derided 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 clumsy) published story from 2015 that eventually came to fruition in Tower. Some themes just haunt you, man.”
“All of my protagonists—and I mean all of them, both in Tower and in my short stories—are either dissatisfied with life or keep returning to their past[s],” Barsukov says. As Shea describes in Tower, “something has broken in me—or maybe was broken.”
Barsukov was born in Cold War–era Moscow. Russian SF has its own maestros, but Barsukov says his favorites in the genre were American (many U.S. SF authors were deemed translatable by Soviet authorities). Still, his wellspring is his countryman Leo Tolstoy. “I’m a lifelong fan of War and Peace, which I reread, at least in part, every two years. So the genre I write in is perhaps no accident—it’s amazing to see how much of a template for modern fantasy Tolstoy has provided.”
He continues, “I fell in love with Dune but even more so with Roger Zelazny’s work…This Immortal, Isle of the Dead, [and] Dream Master—his science-fiction oeuvre. Later, I discovered Le Guin, already in a proper translation, and she became another of my major literary influences.”
Barsukov studied at the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute, then sought a degree at Austria’s Vienna University of Technology. He now resides in Vienna. Circa 2000, he worked on 3-D software engines for game development. During a pitch by his team to U.S.–based Atari, it fell to the multilingual Barsukov (German, Russian, and English) to translate a companion tale to the game’s mythology. He became taken with the exercise and the language. The Atari deal did not come to fruition, but a nascent SF writer was born.
Regarding game-scripting as emerging literature, Barsukov says, “Look at some passages in Planescape: Torment or Pillars of Eternity and tell me that’s not literature! A [computer role-playing game] can afford to have the player read a wall of text from an in-universe nonfiction source, whereas movies [for example] must rely on dialogue alone.”
Barsukov worked in earnest on his first short stories in 2014, writing in English. He logged some sales, but the turning point was realizing in 2019 that he could effectively give publishers English prose with the cadences, imagery, and poetry of Russian.
Tower does not hew to the classical hard-science SF model. Rather, Barsukov combines high-fantasy 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 early Ted Chiang. Tower features this blend of fantasy and SF, but more importantly, it employs fantastic devices as metaphors for the human condition. At the end of the day, that’s what interests me—people, their pain and desires, and their reactions to the circumstances they’re thrust into, however unreal.”
Tower of Mud and Straw has made Yaroslav Barsukov one of few Russians nominated for a Nebula Award. The author cemented his relationship with SFWA by chairing the group’s Information Systems committee. “We’re a group of engineers who modernize SFWA’s processes from the inside. Our work spans all areas of the organization’s business, from the publications process to the annual Nebula conference.”
He’s currently writing a follow-up–cum-addendum to Tower of Mud and Straw. “And then, of course, there is to be a sequel. Theoretically. If the stars align. To say anything concrete about the sequel’s plot would be to spoil the massive twist of Part 2, but in broad strokes, the book would deal with the question: How do the more militant, young Drakiri feel about their place in the world?”
His other planned books include one tentatively titled The Mandolin Teacher, an alternate-history/parallel-world Russia of the 1800s, and a non–SF novel—albeit with built-in fantasy appeal—about creative turmoil on a Game of Thrones–style TV show.
Barsukov says he would relish returning to game development, “but I’m afraid that at 37, it’s too late for that. But gosh, I would so love to. I can’t describe the elation one feels when constructing a breathing, living world when programming the rules by which the light falls, the shadows grow, the sun rises and sets. It’s something else entirely.”
Charles Cassady Jr. is an Ohio-based author and literary critic.