In Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame, Siblings Conquer the Universe with Language and Math

Science fiction and fantasy often features antagonists who seek absolute control (over their kingdom, country, world, galaxy or universe). But few break down the secret to power as elegantly as Seanan McGuire in Middlegame, where the forces of nature are subdued by the union of language and mathematics.

McGuire sees elements of a “modern Frankenstein” in her novel about a brother and sister created by a ruthless alchemist in a laboratory under an Ohio cornfield. But instead of a hideous monster, her alchemist produces two brilliant siblings, whose comically rhyming names (Roger, a language genius, and Dodger, a math prodigy) bely their potential to control time and space.

The siblings are a study in contrasts. Life is easier for Roger, whose facility with language opens doors. Dodger is suspicious of people and keeps to herself. “Dodger is a math prodigy and a smart girl. And those are two things that tend to get you kicked in the teeth by the world over and over again,” McGuire told me in her New Books interview.

Raised in separate homes and at first unaware of each other’s existence, Middlegame’s complicated plot is as much a story about the sibling’s on-again off-again relationship as it is about the discovery of their powers and their own alchemical origins.

“It took me 10 years to write because I had to get good enough to write it first. The flow charts for Middlegame were kind of a nightmare in and of themselves,” McGuire says.

Like Roger, McGuire was an English prodigy. She is also a science fiction all star. The author of 36 books, she’s received numerous awards, including the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2010 and Nebula and Hugo awards in 2016 for best novella. She’s twice won Hugo’s for best fancast and in 2013 received a record five Hugo nominations.

She attributes her prolific output to a conscious choice. “If you’re somebody that wants to have more of a social life than I do or wants to have more of a family life than I do, you need to make different choices,” she says. “At this point I am functionally … an Olympic athlete. It’s just that my sport is novel writing, so I’m in training every single day to be able to start and finish the next book in a timely fashion.”

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