Behind the book: A spiritual successor to Michael Crichton
"Once you start reading his work, you don't want to stop." Meet the team behind Ray Nayler's sophomore sci-fi thriller, THE TUSKS OF EXTINCTION.
Last year, when I read Ray Nayler’s debut novel, The Mountain in the Sea, it instantly cracked my personal list of the best sci-fi thrillers ever written, right next to Michael Crichton’s Sphere, Justin Cronin’s The Passage, and Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. It’s a brilliant look at humanity’s myopia when it comes to personhood, consciousness, and intelligence beyond the confines of our own skulls.
Now, Nayler is back with a new short novel, The Tusks of Extinction, about a murdered elephant biologist whose consciousness is resurrected and implanted in the brain of a de-extinct woolly mammoth in the Siberian tundra, where a corporation hopes she’ll be able to teach a Jurassic Park-style herd of mammoth clones how to survive the threats of nature and poachers. It’s concise, intense, and like Nayler’s first novel, ripe for a cinematic adaptation.
For The Frontlist, I spoke with Nayler, his editor Lee Harris, and his cover designer Christine Foltzer about bringing a deeply researched science fiction thriller to life.
Ray Nayler, author
When and how did The Tusks of Extinction begin for you?
For me, a book really has three or four different starting places. One of them for The Tusks of Extinction was the work I was briefly involved in at the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, working on elephant tusk and rhino horn trafficking issues when I was Environment, Science, Technology, and Health Officer there.
So many disturbing images of slaughtered rhinos and elephants, and I remember that one of the things that stuck in my mind was that in the "trophy shots" some of the hunters would take with their kill the hunters looked deeply unhappy about what they had done. There was often no triumph there — only a kind of resignation, or guilt. That stayed with me, as did the images of piles of elephant tusks seized from poachers.
Later, these images and ideas combined with research I was doing on the embodiment of meaning, umwelt, and biosemiotics for The Mountain in the Sea, several stories I had seen about mammoth tusk hunters, my own experiences in Siberia and in Tomsk, and research on de-extinction that I was doing out of personal interest. As a writer, I feel like I am a sponge that absorbs things until I reach a point of fullness. My curiosity is tireless, even if I am not.
Once I have enough raw material, I can start processing it by writing. Tusks wrote very easily — I didn't struggle much with it — I felt like I was there, almost — like watching the characters act out the scenes themselves, and taking dictation of what I was seeing.
What was your research process like?
Research is a continuous process for me — ever since I was a kid, I would get interested in something, and start researching it at the library. I'm always investigating four or five different things at a time, and a book is, in a way, a core sample of my interests at the time of writing.
But once I start the actual composition, I also have to focus on real demands, and then my research method changes. It's kind of like the Isaiah Berlin essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox, which is itself a reference to a fragment attributed to the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus: "a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing."
I'm a bit of a fox in my research overall, but once I get to writing, I have to turn into a hedgehog. So I dug into many books on de-extinction, elephant poaching, the ivory trade, overland transport vehicles — all the things I needed to understand for the book to be as true to life as I could make it.
What was the hardest part of writing Tusks?
This book really was not hard for me — I don't know what it was about it, but it felt as if it unfolded really clearly in my head, and there were times that I literally felt as if I was observing a scene and writing down what was happening. That's not always the case with my work — some stories are hard, others are easy. In the writing, this was of the latter type.
I suppose that the hard part was the darkness of the subject material, and its direct connection with my life. The entire time I was writing I was haunted by the terrible slaughter of elephants that humanity has been responsible for. But I was also encouraged by the many tales of bravery as well — especially of the rangers across the African national preserves, often sacrificing their lives to save these animals. That was uplifting.
Lee Harris, editor at Tordotcom
What drew you to Tusks and to Ray's work in general?
Ray's debut novel, The Mountain in the Sea, was my first experience of reading Ray's work. It blew me away. It's brilliantly written, with gorgeous prose, a truly fascinating plot, and pacing that makes you want to just keep reading, even though it's past midnight and you've just been reminded you have an early start the following morning, and would you please just put the light out because if you don't want to go to sleep it doesn't mean that's necessarily the case for everyone. Just consider others. Ok? Thank you. (That might be bordering on the overly-specific). What I'm saying is, Ray's an exciting writer. Once you start reading his work you don't want to stop.
What made Tusks a great fit for Tordotcom?
Tor has always been the perfect home for science fiction of all varieties — excellence is really the primary motivating factor when buying a book to publish with the Tor Publishing Group. Ray's story about humanity's refusal to accept the consequences of its own actions fitted right in.
How did Tusks evolve during the editing process?
Every now and then I get a manuscript that requires little to no work. It's not common, but it happens. Ray's manuscript arrived well-formed, so there was really nothing structural that I needed him to address. A line edit and copy edit was all that was needed. Pretty much everything you see in the finished book was there before I got to read it. (Thanks, Ray. I owe you a glass of something for making my job that much easier!)
Christine Foltzer, art director at Tordotcom
What did you want to convey about Tusks on the cover?
With all book covers you want to convey both the subject matter and the tone of the book in a single, iconic image. With The Tusks of Extinction, we wanted to communicate the subject matter, mammoths, while still looking like a science-fiction thriller.
It is very easy for a mammoth to come across as non-fiction. The dynamic photo of the mammoth skull, combined with the color palette, helps twist the mental associations we have with historical animals. It's not a scientific publication but rather something something more mysterious, maybe even sinister. With the addition of the geometric sans-serif font that message gets pushed further. Bringing it all together into that iconic image needs to both intrigue and excite the reader into picking up the book.
Coming soon in The Frontlist
My big 2024 book preview
Behind the book with Sarah Ghazal Ali, author of Theophanies