Q&A with the Authors of the New Anthology “The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination”

Edited by John Joseph Adams and published by TOR, The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination features all original, all nefarious, all conquering tales from the megalomaniacal pens of Diana Gabaldon, Austin Grossman, Seanan McGuire, Naomi Novik, Daniel H. Wilson and 17 OTHER EVIL GENIUSES.

The book description is this:

Mad scientists have never had it so tough. In super-hero comics, graphic novels, films, TV series, video games and even works of what may be fiction, they are besieged by those who stand against them, devoid of sympathy for their irrational, megalomaniacal impulses to rule, destroy or otherwise dominate the world as we know it.

We asked a few of the authors a couple of questions…


Q: What is the appeal of mad scientist fiction? Why do writers–or you yourself–write about it? What do you think readers like about it?

Mary Robinette Kowal: I think it gets back to the idea that everyone is the hero of their own story. Mad scientists go mad because they are geniuses — super-geniuses — and have a vision for the world that no one else has. Personally, I think that part of the appeal is that it dramatizes the struggle that we’ve probably all experienced when we’re sitting in a meeting and have that horrifying moment of realizing that the person in charge is not very bright. The moment of “If I were running things…!” That and the total world domination.

L.A. Banks: I think as human beings we’re all titillated by brilliance–the apex of the human mind, and then we get an adrenaline rush from the fact that the line between uplifting genius and evil genius is so very fragile.

David Farland: Oh, gosh, if you look at the genesis of it, it began in the 1940s after the US dropped the atomic bomb.  Suddenly there were lots of “mad scientist” stories, although we had seen them before.  One of the best examples of course was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  I think everyone is fascinated by the way that one single idea can shape the world, whether it be an idea for good, or for evil

Jeffrey Ford: Mad scientists are cool because they take a piss at Science. Writing them doesn’t mean the author is not interested in Science or believe in its abilities, or admire scientists, but Science holds very powerful sway in the modern world and we trust the Scientist now more often than the witch doctor or the priest, as we should, but that doesn’t mean scientists aren’t often mistaken or just plain wrong, and that fact has to be kept firmly in mind. The first rules of Science should always be to retain a healthy skepticism, which these types of stories help us do.

Alan Dean Foster: It’s the distaff side of superhero stories. It’s the reason readers find themselves drawn to powerful villains. It’s the thought that some characters have absolutely no restrictions on what they can do. They’re free of all societal constraints. It’s why Chuck Jones always said he was like Bugs Bunny but wanted to be Pepe LePew. It’s a kind of freedom from everything, including having to think sensibly. For most people, their lives are ruled by sensibility, and they feel smothered. Mad scientists are decidedly unsmothered.

Diana Gabaldon: I imagine part of the appeal may be the notion of untrammeled power and secret knowledge. After all, if you’re mad, you plainly don’t give a rat’s ass for OSHA or the EPA, and if you happen to succeed in finding out how to create life or turn flax into gold or something fun like that…well, I mean…who wouldn’t?

Theodora Goss: I think the mad scientist is a sort of modern archetype. He or she is our version of the wizard. But because the mad scientist deals with science rather than magic, he or she tests the boundaries of the real. What can science actually do? What can we actually accomplish in our physical universe? Can science indeed produce effects that seem magical? Can it overcome death? These are the sorts of questions that the archetype raises. And the mad scientist always seems to pose ethical dilemmas. He or she is always trying to overcome social or natural boundaries. No wonder the mad scientist creates monsters–and monsters have their own fascination, because they are both like and unlike us. They allow us to explore the boundaries of the human.

Austin Grossman: Once you get started it’s a frighteningly natural mode of thinking. Because there are times when what’s inside your head is so madly, disproportionately bigger than the reality around it, when the difficulty of finding the correct change starts to feel like a massive yet whimsical research project, or setting a date for a party ends up feeling like a massive war of good against evil, science against the forces of ignorance. Or in less trivial terms, one of the core conceits of the mad scientist identity is that no one else realizes how important the things you care about really are, in fact people probably laugh at your greatest ideas. It’s a real feeling, and it helps to tell stories about it.

Grady Hendrix: Who hasn’t felt like the smartest but most misunderstood person in the room before? Mad scientists just refuse to read social cues and decide that if they feel awkward, everyone else should be dead. And anyways, on TV and in movies every scientist is a mad scientist. They all have an era-appropriate Magical Science Gimmick (Electricity! Computers! DNA!) that solves all problems, their computers make exceptionally pleasing “beep” and “boop” noises when they work, and they all do things no one quite understands behind closed doors. Also, the more eccentric their behavior the more intelligent they are. In real life, the more eccentric you are the closer you are to winding up on an A&E reality series that pities you.

David D. Levine: Bad guys are the most fun because they have a lot of power and they can — and do — do whatever they want. Mad scientists are smart, driven, and misunderstood, which makes them fun to write and fun to read about. And then there’s that pesky being-defeated-in-the-end part, which is disappointing but often brief.

Heather Lindsley: What’s not to love? The hair, the minions, the goggles, but above all the Nietzschean disregard for the ethical constraints of the less-visionary masses. That’s what really sets them apart from their lukewarm cousins, the absent-minded professors.

Marjorie M. Liu: There’s the appeal of mad scientists, and then the fear of them — because you’re faced with men and women who are beyond genius, and who have no moral compass to guide that genius. Or if they do have morality and a code of honor, it becomes overruled, twisted, all in the name of the “big idea”. Of course, I’m speaking in terms of the evil mad scientist — and evil results. There are good guys, too!

Seanan McGuire: Mad scientist fiction is interesting because it has two diametrically opposed appeals. To some, it reaffirms the belief that there are Things Man Was Not Meant To Know ™, and that those of us who dig into them will inevitably meet a messy and unpleasant end. To others, it reaffirms the belief that before our monstrous creations suck the marrow from our bones, we’ll get to see them stop the crap out of all the people who made fun of us in high school. I think many writers spent our school years designing those very monsters. Fiction lets us unleash them without that pesky federal prosecution.

L.E. Modesitt, Jr.: There’s an all-too-human fascination with evil genius, particularly when it’s associated with conquest, politics, or domination, whether historical, such as with Hitler, the Borgias, Rasputin, Cromwell, or Huey Long, or fictional, such as Professor Moriarty, Dr. No, Saruman, or others.

Jeremiah Tolbert: For the same reason we love all our monsters; they are some part of us unfettered by society and rules. Mad scientists are willing to do things without regard for silly notions like “ethics.” They do their experiments as much because they’re freaking cool as anything else. Some part of us wishes we could unleash science, let it really run wild, and see where it goes. At least, I would.

Harry Turtledove: You can talk about power trips–about man playing God, basically. Should he? Shouldn’t he? Can this possibly have good results? Or you can get silly, the way I did. Unlike some who write about mad scientists, I wasn’t facing any great philosophical issues. I was just having fun, which is also in the rules.

Genevieve Valentine: I think there’s always some appeal in the too-smart-for-their-own-good trope, and mad scientist manifestations of that tend to have more hilarious gadgetry than, say, the serial-killer version of that. Plus, a mad scientist is sort of a hopeful figure; even in the darkest incarnations, they’re on the hunt for knowledge and solutions, and there’s something endlessly appealing about the quest for understanding. (In the lightest incarnations, they’re marvelous goggle-wearers.)

Carrie Vaughn: There’s a no-holds-barred aspect to it. Tech-wise, anything goes, and by their very nature mad scientist characters are morally ambiguous. You expect them to do strange, bizarre, and often unpleasant things, and as a writer it’s a great challenge pushing those boundaries. As a reader it’s fun — and/or horrifying — to read about them. Just how far will these characters go in the otherwise admirable pursuit of knowledge?

Daniel H. Wilson: The beauty of the archetypal mad scientist is the conflict between raw brilliance and utter lack of insight. Every mad scientist is a genius in some way, but a fundamental flaw always ruins everything. Flawed perfection. It’s why a mad scientist is like a hugely powerful locomotive that’s gone off the tracks and is plowing through neighborhoods just leaving piles of dead bodies in its wake. There’s a lot of drama in the clash between madness and genius, but there is also a lesson. For example, the mad scientist in my story didn’t understand until too late that family is the most important thing in life. In his own twisted way he tried to figure it out and made a virtual copy of himself. Unfortunately, this resulted in the Executor, who destroyed the scientist’s family for centuries.

Ben Winters: We all know the John Milton Rule, that no matter how he tried (in Paradise Lost) to make God interesting, Satan really steals the show. The truth is that evil people and their evil actions tend to be deeply interesting, in part because they get to do all the nasty stuff that most of us normal, law-abiding readers and writers never do. This is perhaps especially true for scientists and geniuses, who are choosing to use their extraordinary abilities to do bad things.


More to come in Part 2! Stay tuned…

One thought on “Q&A with the Authors of the New Anthology “The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination””

  1. Can’t wait to read this! I just posted a review of JJA’s Wastelands anthology on my blog, it was pretty much the best SF/fantasy compilation I’ve ever read with the possible exception of The Weird.Really looking forward to Daniel H Wilson’s story – I was a tad underwhelmed by Robopocalypse but thought Amped was excellent.

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