INTERVIEW With qntm, Author of There Is No Antimemetics Division

interview science fiction book

I recently had the pleasure of reading There Is No Antimemetics Division, a paranormal sci-fi novel. I stumbled across it while browsing the Kindle store and I was immediately hooked from the premise.

The story focuses on the members of the Foundation as they fight to save Earth from the titular antimemes, which are elusive, memory-altering entities intent on destroying humanity.

When I finished reading the book, I did a bit of digging online and learned about the wide genre of SCP fiction (Special Containment Procedures), of which There Is No Antimemetics Division is a part of. After my sleuthing, I found qntm’s website and reached out for a chat.

So, I’m excited to share with you all the conversation I had with qntm!

Author Bio:

The author known as qntm was born in the UK and still lives there. He is educated in mathematics and now develops software for a living. He’s been writing science fiction in his spare time since he was in secondary school. For an incredible amount of time, it was just a hobby, but he’s now at the point where it’s a full-on side gig. He is the author of Ra, Fine Structure, Ed, and most recently, There Is No Antimemetics Division.

So, qntm, you have a few books in the broader sci-fi genre, how did you get into writing, and who the biggest influences to your writing?

“I have been writing science fiction for a long time, mostly putting that writing out online for free, on my own website and as part of various online writing communities. I spent a massive chunk of my life contributing both fiction and factual work to Everything2, which is where I found my earliest real audience, and where my first few books originally appeared (serially, over the course of years). E2’s popularity waned in the early 2010s, but around that time my own website was beginning to gain traction/readers. More recently, I spent several years contributing to the SCP wiki. That’s where There Is No Antimemetics Division originates. It’s only relatively recently that I’ve actually started publishing my serials in ebook and paper formats.

My earliest influences were Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. For a long time I wrote in an Asimovian style where essentially I would have largely personality-free talking heads produce a new science fiction concept, and then do something clever with it, and then end the story immediately. It was David X. Cohen and Matt Groening’s Futurama that taught me that science fiction could, and should, be much more than that: smart, colourful, funny, relevant, opinionated, story-driven, character-driven. Like a lot of people of my generation, I was also massively influenced by The Matrix. And I’ve drawn massive stylistic inspiration from Grant Morrison’s late 1990s run on JLA — those comic books are the main reason why I write in the present tense, just to begin with. More recently, I’ve loved the Culture novels of the late, great Iain M. Banks.

But most recently of all, a lot of my inspiration is simply modern technology news. The world is moving unbelievably fast right now, and the gap between what a science fiction writer can imagine and what a real human can just do in reality has never been narrower. It’s difficult to stay out in front of that.”

One of the most interesting things about There Is No Antimemetics Division is of course antimemes; can you explain what an antimeme is for our readers, and can you talk a bit about your inspiration for such a concept?

“So, “meme” has multiple conflicting definitions, but for our purposes I define a meme to be a contagious idea. It’s an idea with some kind of intrinsic property which causes people to spread it to other people. The mechanism for that spreading can take a lot of different forms. An idea can spread because it’s useful, but it can also spread because it’s just catchy, or it rhymes, or because someone’s paying people to spread it, or because it’s forbidden to spread it (reverse psychology)… A meme can be a catchphrase, or a scientific theory, or a design for a tool, or a memorable tune which is easy to chant, or a symbol which is easy to scribble, or an urban legend, or a massive, complicated economic philosophy, or a whole religion. A meme doesn’t have to be the truth. A meme can be a lie.

My observation was that the contagiousness of an idea varies greatly. Some ideas are clearly less contagious than others. So, what’s at the bottom end of that scale? What ideas, truths or lies, are the most difficult to share? What ideas intrinsically resist being shared? There are plenty of examples. Things like dirty secrets, taboos, passwords, dreams, politically inconvenient historical facts, complex equations, boring tax code, injunctions and super-injunctions. I call these difficult-to-share ideas “antimemes”. Both memes and antimemes are real, by the way.

The study of memes is memetics. Exactly whether memetics is a real scientific field is, I believe, disputed and questionable. Personally, I think it seems rather elusive and pseudoscientific. Luckily, I’m not a scientist, I’m a science fiction writer, and exactly what memetics can be in fiction is something we are free to play around with, and redefine. I called the study of antimemes “antimemetics”, obviously. Antimemetics is just as questionable as memetics, as a field of study, but that doesn’t mean we can’t keep going.

Now, what happens if you take a step from there into fiction? A fictional, “supernatural” meme might be an idea which spreads faster than should be physically possible – it spreads from person to person seemingly telepathically, maybe across great distances, and maybe has some physical power to it. Meanwhile, a supernatural antimeme might be an idea which should be memorable but somehow isn’t. An item locked in a vault which anybody can go in and look at… but nobody who leaves the vault can remember what they saw, or what happened to them. Photos come out blurry. An antimemetic entity trips you up — you don’t remember why you fell, and after getting up, you may not even remember falling.

I wrote SCP-055, which is the first chapter of what came to be There Is No Antimemetics Division, in 2008. SCP-055 is little more than an antimemetic entity in a box — there’s not a lot to it other than this thought-provoking premise, in the Asimovian sense I mentioned above. But years later I decided that there was a lot more unexplored narrative potential here.

Antimemes make for a really interesting science fiction adversary — how do you fight something you can’t remember? What else is there in this ecosystem of competing ideas? What kind of organisation can deal with that kind of problem, and what kind of person works there? These questions turned out to have really interesting answers. That’s how the book starts.”

One of the things that struck me about There Is No Antimemetics Division is the structure. It jumps back and forth between characters at different parts in the timeline, and in the beginning, it incorporates case files for SCPs as part of the narrative. How did you land on that structure, and is there something about it you feel lends itself to the story?

There Is No Antimemetics Division was originally written in serial form on the SCP Foundation wiki, as a series of SCPs and Tales, over the course of years. All of my SCPs are intended to be comprehensible if read standalone by an idly browsing reader. About half of my individual Tales are too, especially the earlier ones.

So, the structure of Antimemetics is less of a continuous narrative than it is a series of discrete events.  Think like a series of movies, rather than a television show.  Chapters appeared individually, with months separating them. With this in mind, I was trying to make it so that each chapter was, to a certain extent, a complete short story, providing value to a reader, providing progress and narrative satisfaction in itself.

And I really like the effect this had. First of all, I think it just keeps things interesting. It keeps the reader guessing, keeps them on their toes, changes the scenery, changes the pace. A strictly linear story would have been much less interesting, and, in this case, it would have given away quite a lot of crucial information far too early.

 Secondly, a major theme of this specific story is that the characters themselves are kind of acting without context. They are arriving at confusing and frightening situations, with no memory of the years of prior events which led up to those situations, and then they are making the best decisions they can based on limited information.

When I withhold that backstory from the reader, the reader has to deal with the same situation, and decide for themselves whether the characters made good decisions. The flashbacks make it a complete story in retrospect, but they mean you aren’t second-guessing the characters. It’s the best alternative I have to actually erasing the readers’ memories.”

You’ve mentioned the SCP Foundation Wiki, can you explain a bit more about that?

“At its heart, it’s a collaborative work of science fiction/fantasy/horror, using the format of a database of “Special Containment Procedures” (SCPs) for thousands of diverse “anomalies”. The anomalies are all contained by the same ambiguously moral organisation, the Foundation.

The Foundation is a huge, nebulous, bureaucratic secret agency, the kind you’ve seen in many other places in fiction. It has a lot in common with The X-Files, Hellboy’s Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, Warehouse 13, Men In Black… the key differentiator here is the collaborative wiki aspect.

Anybody can sign up, invent a new SCP, and contribute it to the wiki. When you do, other people will vote your contribution up or down. If people like what you wrote, they might even build on it. As a result, a sort of consensus lore gradually emerges, a background for other people to build on…. The wiki isn’t something I invented, by the way. I’m just one of thousands of contributors to this show.

A Special Containment Procedures database entry (“SCP”) has to use a specific, fairly rigid structure, and a clinical tone. And normally it should stand completely alone, being comprehensible if read in isolation. It can be really challenging to tell a compelling story in this format — that’s part of the fun. I actually consider it a form of constrained writing, like a sonnet or a palindrome. But the wiki also allows for “Tales”, where contributors can break from that format and present a conventional narrative.”

I know a lot of the literature in the same universe as There Is No Antimemetics Division consists of different short fiction pieces, how did you decide it had to be a novel?

“It was a coin toss whether it would even turn out to be a novel. There Is No Antimemetics Division was written primarily as a web serial, to entertain the readers of the SCP wiki. That was the top priority for me. In fact, some aspects of the original web content had to be sacrificed in order to assemble the ebook, and then more still to turn it into a printable format for the paperback and hardcover editions.

For example, the original web version of “SCP-3125” shows only the first half of the database entry, and an interactive keypad. The reader has to figure out the right code to enter before they’re even allowed to read the rest. In the book, naturally, there’s no keypad, you just turn the page and there’s the rest.

Of course, the adaptation could have been a lot harder. Some SCP wiki content uses moving images, complex full colour text and backgrounds, advanced interactive controls… all very difficult things to adapt to a non-web format.

Some SCP wiki content is hyperfiction with no single intended linear reading order. Some of it is highly collaborative, with multiple contributors. And some of it relies heavily on contextual knowledge from other SCPs.

As for me, I wrote a relatively linear, self-contained, closed, plain text story. There’s some screwy text formatting, but relative to a lot of wiki content, There Is No Antimemetics Division is positively pedestrian. I guess that makes me old-fashioned. But it meant the end result was fairly novel-like.

If you’re asking how I decided that the serial should be adapted as an ebook, and then a paperback, and then a hardcover? People asked for it!”

Along the same vein as the last question, I realized there are a lot of things in the novel that aren’t really explained, the man who confronts Adam Wheeler outside of Site 41 near the end of the novel, for instance. I haven’t read all the short fiction in the same universe, but are many of these things explained there? Or is the lack of explanation a part of the paranormal horror?

“I consider this to be a very self-contained story. There are some mysteries which I left open because I wanted the reader not to know the answer. You won’t find the answers to those elsewhere in the wiki. In particular, you know everything about that man, Red, that I want you to know.

Having said that, if you don’t get cracking into the rest of the wiki, you are missing the heck out. The main thing to check out is What the Dead Know, a side story by sirpudding set in the Antimemetics continuity and written around the same time. This side story introduces Mobile Task Force ω-0, and eventually crosses over into Antimemetics. It’s not necessary for understanding Antimemetics — if it were, I would have found a way to incorporate it into the published novel — but it provides valuable background detail and is well worth a read in its own right. I also highly recommend SCP-1425, an early SCP by Silberescher which was massively influential on Antimemetics and is obliquely referenced in the story.”

From what I understand, there’s no official canon in the SCP universe. A lot of other authors might shy away from letting readers actively participate in the ‘canon’ (I’m using the term loosely here), how do you balance your own writing versus reading what other people have written in the world you’ve created? I personally really love the idea that the SCP universe is a collaborative effort, and I think more authors should start opening up their worlds to readers like you have. There is of course, fanfiction, but to actually be considered part of the universe’s ‘canon’, must be very exciting as a reader.

“Contributions to the Antimemetics Division corner of the SCP wiki have been relatively limited since I wrapped the story up in 2020. I think that’s because the story is fairly complete and self-contained — it was kind of designed to be that way, after all. I suspect a lot of potential contributors get to the end and think, “How do I follow THAT?” and instead head over to another corner of the wiki and develop something without those creative constraints!

As for the fiction content of the greater wiki… like I say, it’s not something I have control over, or would even want to control. I wish I could read more than a fraction of it. But I think contributing to a huge shared universe, even one with “no canon”, is one of the great attractions of the SCP wiki. There being “no canon” is another way of saying that when you write your contribution, you have great creative freedom in which facts you take to be canonical or not — and others have the same choice when it comes to your work. There’s a chance to contribute something which really resonates with a lot of people.”

There Is No Antimemetics Division was your latest book; what projects are you working on next?

“Next up is a book of short stories. This will include my short stories “Lena”, “The Difference” and “I Don’t Know, Timmy, Being God Is A Big Responsibility”, at minimum… and a fistful of others, some old, maybe some new, I haven’t decided yet. No working title, no planned date.

After that, there’s an outside chance that I might do something I’ve never done before, and write a book and self-publish it, without first releasing it for free on the web. It’ll take a lot of willpower, because I love that immediate feedback.”

Can you describe what your writing process looks like?

“I’d love to have a reliable, consistent process. That sounds great.

When developing a story, my general approach is to start from some kind of compelling science fiction “What if?” and then run with it. What if information was a substance you could almost shovel around like snow? What if magic was, starting from the 1970s, just another field of engineering? What if you were at war with your own failing memory? Then I explore the logical consequences as far as I can, finding out how the universe changes if this concept is introduced, and how the universe has to change retroactively in order for this to become possible in the first place. Usually, once I get far enough, some kind of story emerges — if it doesn’t, it’s time to start over from some other premise.

Ideas, however, are cheap. Execution is expensive. I write pretty slowly by most people’s standards, and that’s when I can muster the time to write at all. Maybe a hundred words a day. It’s hard going.

If I’m writing a serial, it then becomes about planning ahead as far as humanly possible, while also understanding that the plan can’t be perfect in every detail, because a plan perfect in every detail would just be the completed serial. I usually have a basic end goal in mind and some cool set pieces or lines of dialogue which I want to engineer somewhere along the line — and commonly half of them turn out to be mutually exclusive with the others, so they have to be ditched.

The rest is just time. And experience.”

You can find qntm’s novels for sale on Amazon or Google Play!

And if you liked this interview, let us know! Is there another author you’d like us to interview?

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