ROCHESTER, Minn. — "The Ninth Metal," the first novel in Northfield, Minn., author Benjamin Percy's Comet series, is about cosmic intrusion.
A comet streaks through the solar system. The Earth spins through the debris field, and a new element is introduced that transforms life in once-sleepy Northern Minnesota.
It propels trains, turns humans' eyes blue, and transforms people who absorb it into superhumans. In other words, life is upended, chaos ensues, and a town of heroes and villains grapples with the implications.
Percy is an author with a lot of irons in the fire. He writes novels and comics. He writes screenplays, and is involved in a film project (which he is not at liberty to discuss yet). He's produced podcasts and worked for Hollywood.
What does this hardworking author do for fun? He writes.
Between projects, he took time to answer a few questions.
Q: The sky opens up and the Earth is showered with an exotic metal that transforms life not only on the planet, but in Northern Minnesota. What attracted you to this story?
A: What I was looking to create was a shared universe equivalent to the DCU or MCU. I've been writing for comics since 2014. I made my debut with Batman and Detective Comics, and I now write Wolverine and X-Force for Marvel. Comics were my signature reading experience as a child. They forged my imaginative hardwiring. And one of the pleasures of reading comics is that they belong to a shared universe.
What happened in Batman carries over to Wonder Woman, carries over to Superman, and all these titles are in conversation with one another. And I also see this in the works of Louise Erdrich and William Faulkner. They have families that they're writing about over many generations, creating their own shared literary universe. So, in writing the Comets cycle, I wanted to blend my love of comics and literature, and create this kind of amalgamation.
Q: There's a sentence in your book that stands out for me: "It wasn't the apocalypse, but it was a taste of it." But it is the end of a way of life for the people of North Fall. A small town becomes a boom town. And it brings out the worst in people. Is that reflective of your view of human nature?
A: Power can corrupt. Money can corrupt. But I think there's also a lot of good people in this world who are doing the best they can. I'm not an optimist or pessimist. What I wanted to do was to show a cross section of humanity in this book. That's why there are perspectives in the police force, in local landowners, in outsiders, government agents, and scientists. I'm trying to swirl through all these different points of view to not provide answers, but raise questions.
The thing about Northern Minnesota that interested me is that it's a liminal zone. It's a borderlands. You know, what's privately owned? What's government owned? What's the U.S.? What's Canada? What's indigenous? Sometimes, it can get confusing up there. And that seemed like the perfect patch of real estate to set a story that was about the convergence of worlds, since this is a story about cosmic intrusion.
Q: Do you do research, talk to scientists? The idea that the Earth doesn't encompass all the properties of the universe — to what extent does that square with reality?
A: I sat down with a buddy of mine, a physicist who works as a professor at Carleton College (in Northfield). And I plied him with scotch, and got him to unload all of his secrets. It's a very slippery slope of science at work.
As you push forward with the series, you're going to come to realize something maybe that's suspected all along, and that is that the comet doesn't come from the Oort Cloud, which is where most comets originate. It contains matter that is not on the periodic table. The only way that's possible — because, you know, all elements come from the same place and the Big Bang — is that it comes from elsewhere. ... there is a "multiverse" possibility to the origin.
Q: You dabble in a lot of mediums. Is that what it takes to be an author? Or is it a personal preference?
A: Diversification has been key for me. Working in different mediums means that I'm constantly challenged, learning new storytelling techniques. I'm never bored. But it's also a matter of economics, in that you have a combination of high-risk and low-risk endeavors in front of you. Maybe some of those high-risk projects will never pan out, but they're worth the shot. And some of the low-risk ones are providing you with a stable, reliable income.