Friday 27 March 2015

Interview with Oliver Sparrow author of Dark Sun, Bright Moon

22805356Title: Dark Sun, Bright Moon
Author: Oliver Sparrow
Publication date: July 2014
Buy links: Amazon

"Dark Sun, Bright Moon describes people isolated in the Andes, without the least notion of outsiders. They evolve an understanding of the universe that is complementary to our own but a great deal wider. The book explores events of a thousand years ago, events which fit with what we know of the region's history,” says Sparrow.

In the Andes of a thousand years ago, the Huari empire is sick. Its communities are being eaten from within by a plague, a contagion that is not of the body but of something far deeper, a plague that has taken their collective spirit. Rooting out this parasite is a task that is laid upon Q’ilyasisa, a young woman from an obscure little village on the forgotten borders of the Huari empire.

This impossible mission is imposed on her by a vast mind, a sentience that has ambitions to shape all human life. Her response to this entails confrontations on sacrificial pyramids, long journeys through the Amazonian jungle and the establishment of not just one but two new empires. Her legacy shapes future Andean civilization for the next four hundred years, until the arrival of the Spanish.

Dark Sun, Bright Moon takes the reader on a fascinating adventure that includes human sacrifice, communities eaten from within, a vast mind blazing under the mud of Lake Titicaca, and the rise and fall of empires cruel and kind.


Q: What inspired you to write Dark Sun, Bright Moon?
A: I have had a great deal to do with Peru since I first went there in 1980. Its indigenous people were isolated from external influences for perhaps 10,000 years, and the more I understood of them, the more remarkable they became to me. Again in Peru last year, ! suffered a mining accident that led to osteomyelitis, a condition which which left me stuck at home with a pipe in my arm, delivering antibiotics. That seemed to be a a good moment to turn what I had learned of them into print.

Q: There are a lot of images in your book, why are they so important for the story?
A: Dark Sun, Bright Moon is a long, dense adventure story that takes place in a physical and social environment that is wholly unfamiliar to most readers. If you are writing about Victorian London, you can evoke it with a reference to fog, hansom cabs and a creaking pub sign; if the Wild West, an author can evoke a similar tranche of clich├ęs. The Peru of a thousand years ago has no such cultural references, however, and as a consequence, a simple picture can settle details in a person’s mind as can no number of words. Besides, I like the result.

The images mix photography with computer modeling, the whole being rendered with graphic filters into a common style. We put together a very large web site ( some years ago on a pro bono basis, and this required us to photograph the entire country. Most of the images comes from that source.

Q: How would you describe Dark Sun, Bright Moon in three words?
A: Uncanny historical adventure.

Q: Writing is something completely different than your normal job. So how did you become a writer?
I have become what Peter Drucker and similar gurus once advocated, a portfolio person. With the exception of some concrete ventures such as mining, my career has consisted chiefly of analyzing very complicated things and explaining them to busy people in as few words as possible. The step from scarcely-cloaked fiction to un-closeted, flaunting-itself commercial fiction was not that great. It is, too, wonderful to let rip without reference to proof – the charts, the graphs, the tables and footnotes – but to retain the disciplines of narrative coherence and of respect for the evidence. Notionally fact- based analysis of complex structures pretends that it does not rely on judgment. It does, but it is such a relief to write fiction and let the judgment fly free. So, a holiday to a country where I may very well decide to stay.

Q: You have visited Peru multiple times, which is your favorite part of the country and why?
A: In crude terms, the Andes separate the Eastern coastal desert and its icy ocean from the baking humidity of the Amazon. The pretty red little houses of the Western Andean villages given way to cloud forest in a zone which is called the “eyebrow of the jungle”. The Inca used to see this as the natural boundary of their world, believing everything lower down was corrupt, vile, deadly. I am very fond of it, however, not least as it is filled with orchids, a personal passion. Each valley has slightly different humming birds and the fuchsias they feed from; the parrots and macaws hang from different kinds of tree fern and the carpets of butterflies that occupy every moist spot that comes with a bit of sunshine also glitter differently. In the morning, vagrant patches of mist shift from pink to violet as they slide over the valley walls, and later in the day the convert to vertical
structures resembling a loaf of bread, out of which fall tiny rainstorms the size of a football field. Temperatures are equable, the humidity tolerable and relatively few things bite you if you sit on them. It is extraordinarily beautiful.

Q: Are any of the characters inspired on people you know or are they all creation of your mind?
A: I build characters out from an armature that is based on the traits that I want them to have: the big five, fluid intelligence, skills and blind spots, degree of autism, psychoticism, analytical and synthetic thinking, values-grounding. I generally put them through Myers Briggs tests to see how they come out, and to test for robustness in other ways before they get to interact with each other. If I use living people as templates, however, I find that as I prune off the here and now and the specific, they all become projections of aspects of myself. A rigorous approach puts your patrol line abreast in the plot-jungle, and not all following the same path.

Actually, I lie. Usco is probably the combination of an imaginary friend that I had when I was a child in the Bahamas and a Ridgeback dog that was my constant companion in Africa. I hope that he is as much fun for younger readers as those were for me when I was their age.

Q: Can you tell us three random facts about yourself?
A: Um. Six foot three, which makes me stand out in Andean villages, where I would guess the average height is just over five foot. I’ve generally been at my happiest in mountains, and spent the holidays of twenty years walking the Himalayas before returning to the Andes. I am delighted by orchids, and started to collect them when I was a child in Africa. These days, though, collection has strained natural populations to breaking point and I prefer just to look at them in their natural habitat.

Q:  How would you describe your main character(s) in five words?
A: Q’ilyasisa: hapless outsider transformed to social architect , eventually disembodied arbiter. Damn, that’s eight. Nine. Live with it.

Q: Why should everybody read Dark Sun, Bright Moon?
An ideal book, I suppose, informs as it entertains. Dark Sun, Bright Moon is a vigorous adventure story and you can read it at that level, but it has a rigorous internal logic that stems from the frankly bizarre metaphysic that the Andean people evolved during their ten thousand years of isolation. That in turn opens a way into a world that has never been touched upon in fiction, or indeed anything but academic archaeology. 

We have had a lot of reader feedback, which is posted at A significant number of posts from Latin America seem to feel that we have unleashed dark forces, powers that had better have been left alone. That is nonsense, but although it is fiction, the book sticks close to what we know about intellectual life a thousand years ago. The reconstruction of the belief patterns is close enough for us to receive commendations from shamans in even the Philippines. (I had no idea that Peru trained Philippino shamans, but it appears that they do!) So, skimming the deeper material does, in my view, miss most of the fun.

A useful tip from readers is to go the Appendix after the action-man Section One: The Defence of the South, before moving into the longer and more complex second section.

Q: If you could tell all your readers something what would it be?
A: These questions of yours, fine though they are, are too general to fix the book in someone’s mind. We are a thousand years in the past, dealing with people who have no writing, no iron, no wheels, no understanding of a wider world. Nevertheless, they have insight into the nature of the universe that makes our science look timid. We – everything a reader knows – is sandwiched between two other realities, both vastly bigger than our universe, both inhabited by sentiences. Our world is a fragile thing, constructed moment by moment by one of these spaces at the direction of the other. Those directions in turn come from our own past. What has been dictates what will be. However, because nature is at equilibrium, most of the information that governs what happens next comes from unnatural activities, which in those times equates to human activity. Life establishes itself around these flows: apus, being that manage human communities for harmony, stability, permanence. Each community acquires its apus, indeed, as they do today in the contemporary Andes. The apu may be referred to as San Pedro, but there he is on his peak and the community go up to dance for him.

Apus “feed” on flows that reflect community harmony or stability. They can push this reciprocity too far, roboticising a village and quickly killing off its people. Rulers recognize the symptoms and disperse the people before this can take root. When Dark Sun, Bright Moon begins, however, a far more subtle plague is spreading across the Andes, debasing local apus and debauching their communities. It will kill the entire highland population if it is not stopped. Yachaq’, of whom today’s shamans are a poor shadow, can partly enter the parallel domains of reality. High yachaq’ who are the product of hundreds of generations of refinement, can effect meaningful change in them. Our young heroine, living in poverty with a dysfunctional family, marooned in a peripheral village on the very edge of the Andes, inherits the burden of her Grandfather’s power and is set by other major forces to breaking the plague. But in the end, she achieves far more than that.

There are two videos (4, 7 minutes) that go into this in more depth at

Thank you so much Oliver!!


Chapter 1: A Small Sacrifice at Pachacamac

A priest knelt before her, a feather from his head-dress tickling her face. His musky odour of old incense and stale blood was rank, even here on the windy summit of the pyramid. Four other priests held her body tipped slightly forwards, and the pressure that this put on her tired old joints hurt far more than the fine, cold bite of the knife at her neck. Quick blood ran thick down her chin and splashed into the waiting bowl. Then the flow weakened, the strength went out of her and she died, content.

Seven elderly pilgrims had set out for Pachacamac, following their familiar river down to the coast and then trudging North through the desert sands. Two of the very oldest of them needed to be carried in litters, but most were able to walk with no more than a stick to help them in the sand. Lesser members of the community had been delegated to carry what was necessary. These would return home. The elderly would not.

The better-regarded families of the town were expected to die as was proper, sacrificed at the Pachacamac shrine for the betterment of the community. Such was to be their last contribution of ayni, of the reciprocity that assured communal harmony and health. It was also their guarantee of a smooth return to the community's soul, to the deep, impersonal structure from which they had sprung at birth.

The Pachacamac complex appeared to them quite suddenly from amongst the coastal dunes. They paused to marvel at its mountain range of pyramids, its teeming myriad of ancient and holy shrines.

Over the millennia, one particular pyramid had come to process all of the pilgrims who came from their valley. They were duly welcomed, and guards resplendent in bronze and shining leather took them safely to its precinct.

They had been expected. The priests were kind, welcoming them with food and drink, helping the infirm, leading them all by easy stages up to the second-but-last tier in their great, ancient pyramid. The full extent of the meandering ancient shrine unveiled itself like a revelation as they climbed. Then, as whatever had been mixed with their meal took its effect, they were wrapped up snug in blankets and set to doze in the late evening sun, propped together against the warm, rough walls of the mud-brick pyramid. Their dreams were vivid, extraordinary, full of weight and meaning.

The group was woken before dawn, all of them muzzily happy, shriven of all their past cares, benignly numb. Reassuring priests helped them gently up the stairs to the very top tier. In the predawn light, the stepped pyramids of Pachacamac stood sacred and aloof in an ocean of mist.

Each pilgrim approached their death with confidence. A quick little discomfort would take them back to the very heart of the community from which they had been born. They had been separated from it by the act of birth, each sudden individual scattered about like little seed potatoes. Now, ripe and fruitful, they were about to return home, safely gathered back into the community store. It was to be a completion, a circle fully joined. Hundreds of conch horns brayed out across Pachacamac as the dawn sun glittered over the distant mountains. Seven elderly lives drained silently away as the mist below turned pink.

About the Author

Oliver SparrowOliver Sparrow was born in the Bahamas, raised in Africa and educated at Oxford to post-doctorate level, as a biologist with a strong line in computer science. He spent the majority of his working life with Shell, the oil company, which took him into the Peruvian jungle for the first time. He was a director at the Royal Institute for International Affairs, Chatham House for five years. He has started numerous companies, one of them in Peru, which mines for gold. This organisation funded a program of photographing the more accessible parts of Peru, and the results can be seen at Oliver knows modern Peru very well, and has visited all of the physical sites that are described in his book Dark Sun, Bright Moon.
To learn more, go to 


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