Chuck Gannon probably doesn’t need any introduction to those who’ve been paying attention to Baen publishing over the last five years. In addition to authoring or co-authoring works in the prestigious shared universes of giants such as Larry Niven and Eric Flint, Chuck has embarked upon a very ambitious future history series, in the form of the Terran Republic books, the second of which launched in 2014. I’ve included links to both Trial by Fire and Fire with Fire further down in the text. Chuck gave a fantastic interview! I hope you enjoy.
Brad: This is the second book in your TALES OF THE TERRAN REPUBLIC future history. Which would seem to put you in good company with Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Robert A. Heinlein, and other authors who have meticulously constructed human-based interstellar civilizations. What kind of special research did you do for the “ground floor” layout, even before you wrote the books?
Chuck: I suppose the best umbrella statement I can make is that I approached the entire universe using futurist tools, but a science fictional perspective. What I mean by that is: futurists tend to specialize in deductive, projective analyses. This unfortunately produces a whole lot of unimaginative “straight line projections”. There are a lot of reasons for that, and it’s probably an unavoidable consequence of who pays for “professional” futurist studies and why: the impulses are purely practical, not visionary. Of course, it tends to be the opposite with us hard SF folk; we are not predominantly interested in simply projecting future trends. With us, the energizing imaginative spark is in the classic “What if…?”
For Tales of the Terran Republic and Trial By Fire in particularly, my “what if” was a first contact scenario (and its sequelae) almost exactly one century from now. Over that span of time, there were a number of key watershed events that had significant impacts on shaping the society and technology of that future world. I don’t refer to these watershed events much, but there is a 21st century event referred to as the Megadeath (which is not a plague) and another (which is more explicated in the first book of the series, Fire With Fire) referred to as the Doomsday Rock. The former explains why a lot of technology has not moved as far forward as we might expect: there was a decade of treading water. And then, given the second event, a lot of the resurgent development went into aerospace technology—for purely utilitarian reasons. If it sounds like I am being deliberately vague, I am: trying to prevent any spoilers from slipping out, for those who haven’t read it yet!
I’ve been researching, and watching the progression of, relevant scientific, technological, and politico-cultural factors since 1990. In that year, I sat down with the global almanac, the CIA world fact book, critiques thereof, and crafted a whole bunch of spreadsheets to project economic growth, funding/acquisition targets, budgetary allocation guesstimates based on historic (event-informed) trends. I did decade by decade summaries, projected out 100 years into the future. So far, the real world hasn’t thrown me any distorting curve balls (but then again, I elected to minimize big changes until after 2040, which actually seemed a reasonable fulcrum point).
More narrowly, I identified the key economic questions of a space faring society—but not strictly from the standpoint of market analysis. Here’s an example of what I mean: over time, the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo programs have paid back what we spent on them—but the costs of the space race were truly amortized over time. However, the key point is this: the space race was not undertaken because market forces made it attractive. It was undertaken IN SPITE of countervailing market forces. Going to the moon is not the first time humans have spent great amounts of treasure on something which will not show a tidy a near-term profit. I very much suspect it will not be the last time, either. Those total social forces figure heavily in my “future history.”
I did much the same thing with the alien (“exosapient”) races we’ve met in the series. In each case, I tasked myself to define their “dawn of intelligence” story—presuming that no two would be exactly the same, and also, that the differences in how a species rises to intelligence is likely to leave a deep imprint upon the predispositions and shapes of the culture that will arise along with it. How long they’ve been around—and in space—has a major impact on their place and role in the unfolding story of humanity.
There are so many layers beyond these basics that I can only encourage readers to find out in the most practical way possible: read the books. It’s a whole lot better than reading me expound upon the backstory and technological and scientific presumptions in this interview! However, one thing that I have been particularly gratified by is the number of readers who get in touch with me and say something to this effect: “It feels so real, like there’s a whole world you’ve worked out underneath everything we encounter in the book(s).” To which I reply: “absolutely right.” My pet peeve with a lot of future histories or grand interstellar schemes is that, when you run the numbers, they don’t add up. How much stuff is being moved how far for what cost and what validating reason? You might get two or three of those questions answered, but usually not all four (or not rigorously; engage the balonium drive!). In Trial By Fire (this year’s Sad Puppies recommended read and current Nebula finalist) you will get a powerful sense of just how “solid” the world is. I don’t like worlds where the surroundings feel like theater sets–painted cloth held up by flimsy wooden frames— that with one good poke, you can puncture and so, disbelieve forever after. I resolved to provide the kind of depth that promotes total immersion in the world, and which sustains over the entire arc of the series.
Brad: You’ve said elsewhere that Caine Riordan is a protagonist who must grow beyond himself through the course of events. Would you say you agree with Mike Resnick’s adage that the hero must not arrive at the same place, at the end of the book, as he began? Meaning, his viewpoint and attitudes are altered by the time he’s done with his journey?
Chuck: I agree with Mike’s comment; I’d expand upon it in one particular. It is entirely possible to have a protagonist whose journeys lead her/him back home, and confirm her/his initial worldview. But that is *still* change. To plunge our presumption and views into the crucible of events and varied experience is akin to refining a metal into a purer form. Such a “Trial By Fire” (forgive me; I couldn’t resist!) is a change agency unto itself; it has the power to both challenge and confirm the beliefs with which we started. In short, even a journey that brings us back to where we began has changed us, because we occupy that place not out of tradition or assumptions, but from a personal journey that confirmed its “rightness” to us.
That said, the journey of Caine Riordan, the protagonist of Trial By Fire, is certainly one of change. He is not a soldier or a diplomat or an intelligence operative when the series starts, but because he’s the right person in the right place at the wrong time, he must accrue these skills. The only reason he succeeds—and survives—is because he is smart and versatile. But as the series goes on, his successes become more difficult and more costly: he started out within his comfort zone; the more directly involved he becomes in the looming interstellar conflict, the further outside its boundaries he moves. The changes to Caine’s character and outlook are subtle at first, but grow (some might say devolve) as the series progresses.
Brad: How do you envision interstellar economics working in your series, and are there any clues you’re taking from extant international 21stcentury economics?
Chuck: The Interstellar economics of Trial By Fire are informed by a fairly complex combination of forces. It is extremely expensive to travel between stars, and it takes about five weeks (most of which is preacceleration) to get from one stellar system to another. And at the beginning of the series, the maximum “shift range” is about 8.33 light years. The mechanics, costs, and energy-density physics of the Wasserman Drive are unfolded in plain, painless language in the first book (and actually as someone being a jerk by displaying someone else’s ignorance. I avoid “as you know, Bob” stand-and-deliver scenes).
The initial drivers to found Earth’s colonies are, in many ways, informed by a more clear-eyed version of what happened in the early years of the 18th century with the colonization of North America. In short, the strategic benefits of settlements and concommitant resources that were beyond the ready reach of other European powers became increasingly important. And it was intolerable to any of the powers of that age to simply allow rivals to develop a monopoly over New World influence.
Much the same thought initiates the initial colonial drive outward from Earth. Then, other factors enter: there resource, including novel biota and xenogenetics that are quiet valuable. There are also a variety of social pressures (but not over-population; the economics of using spacelight to ameliorate Earth’s overcrowding just aren’t very promising). However, new star systems provide new homess for the disaffected, the anarchic, the different, the adventurous, the restless, the entreprenurial. Their modest diaspora becomes a win:win for a variety of nations and national blocs. Growth is fairly slow, at first, but that changes after an invasion of Earth that almost succeeds. Two major post-war variables create an accelerating outrush: 1) reverse-engineered (as in better) alien technology and, 2) the strong sense that living on planet Earth might be akin to living in the crosshairs of hostile powers.
At this point, the interstellar economy begins very much to resonante with the dominant cost:benefit ratios of the mid-18th century: colonies were still a drain on the home country, but they were an obvious requirement to maintain power and expansionistic parity—so it was ultimately more costly NOT to support them. And of course, by then, the benefits of trade with the New World (significantly amplified by the greater reliability of Atlantic passage, or, in this case, speed and reduced cost of interstellar transits) begins to look economically positive in the long view.
Brad: Would you call yourself a futurist?
Chuck: I suspect I pretty much gave away the answer to this question in my first response. I am a futurist—I consult as such—but I am a proponent of what I call “immersive futurism.” To put it another way, you can project all sorts of change with graphs and charts and timelines and numbers. But that doesn’t all mean very much to 99 % of people–not until it gets connected to a narrative to which they can relate. What is the STORY of that future—and what might it be like to live in it? Futurism which does that has a chance of working because it not only engages the mind, it excites the spirit. Or it may terrify the spirit: sometimes the shaping force is a carrot, sometimes it’s a stick. But either way, personal, gut-level involvement is what has been missing from a lot of “professional futurism” (and sometimes, science fiction) in the past few decades. However, when I put on my futurist hat, I’m thinking both about what the future might contain, and what stories it allows us to tell which are new and captivating.
Brad: You teach for a living, yes? Do you find yourself dropping into “lecture mode” when you’re doing prose, or does writing fiction stretch a different skill set?
Chuck: Actually, no, I haven’t taught for a living since 2007. However, I still have my title from St. Bonaventure University (Distinguished Professor of English) since I have, on occasion, undertaken some projects for them and am happy to carry their flag wherever I go.
On the more important matter of dropping into lecture mode. No, no, no and doubly no—which is probably not a surprise given the preceding answers and my concern with blending ideas with entertainment and vice versa.
Firstly, I keep the emphasis on drama, action, dialog, and twists because that’s what makes for a fun read. Novels may or may not illuminate, but they must entertain/interest/captivate readers. I hope my novels do both. And that brings up my other reason for stringently avoiding treatises or “platform statements” in my stories: we don’t actually hear “treatises” a lot in the real world unless we go LOOKING for them. Are you in a classroom, at a conference, attending a public talk? Sure: you’ll hear treatises there. You’ll hear treatises until your ears bleed. (I’m a professor: I know whereof I speak on this matter…)
But unless my characters have a reason to go hear a treatise, and unless the information imparted thereby must be represented AS a treatise, why would I put it in my novel? And frankly, I can’t think of a single good (or even bad) narrative reason to inflict that on a reader. Oh, it might be realistic to portray a character listening to a one-hour sermon or lecture—but does that make it a good idea to write one, and force a reader to endure it? My answer is: no, never.
Fiction has some implicit contracts with readers. One of them is that the book should be an enjoyable experience. If I also elect to make an implicit promise that I am going to try to convey a world that does not insult the implicit boundaries of reality, that does NOT mean that I now get to make the book dull. Instead, it means I’ve set myself TWO jobs—the book must be fun AND believable. The burden of increased narrative ambitions should be solely on the author and her/his skillset, not the reader’s patience. In Trial By Fire and the rest of the series, I take on those two narrative ambitions—and more—but I always bear this in mind: it’s on ME to make them all work. I won’t tolerate including a scene where I have to make an excuse, where I have to tell myself, “well, it might not be as interesting or exciting as other scenes, but it is SOOOO necessary.” Nope: that’s lazy writing. Go back and try again, Chuck. You know there’s a better way. There’s ALWAYS a better way. And when people are plunking down their hard earned cash for my stories, I bloody well owe them that effort, all the time, no shirking, and no fail. And you know what? It makes a better book, and me a better author.
All that said, it is also true that different readers want different “joys” out of books. Some folks want a non-stop all-action romp, light on the ideas, long on the explosions: Michael Bey between covers. Other folks want something that is ovewhelmingly cerebral, conversational, where action becomes a distraction from the interplay of ideas. Neither one of these are really my style, because, you see, I love both action AND ideas. I won’t write a book that banishes one for the sake of the other.
And that completes my extended lecture about never writing extended lectures. Wait…what?
Brad: When developing your future universe, what deliberate choices did you make (if any) to make your universe stand out?
Chuck: I decided upon a number of what I felt were atypical elements to ensure that this universe was distinctive, while remaining a reasonable projection of our contemporary reality, one hundred years hence. One such atypical elementi s the historical fulcrum point at which I choose to site the series.
Most far ranging SF or sf-fantasy tends to place us in a far-future world with what I will call the Utopist’s Device: the universe depicted is separated from us by a signifcant gap in time and historical linkages. It is A Very Different Place that only faintly points back to its origins in this, our contemporary moment. So, somehow, humanity crossed from the humble banks of our every-day river of reality to that far shore of a wondrously different world. I think this is fine, and I like a whole lot of this literature. I write some of it myself, but it is not, in my opinion, a distinctive project. Lots of people do it. In the Tales of the Terran Republic, I chose to do something very different.
I site my series neither on the banks of contemporary experience, nor on the far shore. Rather, the vantage point of the characters places them squarely upon the bridge of change, the bridge that we must ever build as we move toward the far shore of the future. And when the series is assembled as a mosaic (my intent from the start), I hope readers will, in retrospect, not only reflect upon how far we have come and how fast, but also, how in getting there, the characters did not experience the journey as an endless rollercoaster of dislocating jolts. Rather, the progress into that vastly changed future seemed deceptively, almost insidiously, gradual, more marked by it seeming normative rather than stupendous.
This is fundamental to my interest in creating immersivity, in creating a world that feels real because it follows a key feature in our experience of change: it does not arrive as a fast cascade of momentous events. Rather, most change comes daily, on cat’s feet, and we only realize how far we have come when we glance in the rearview mirror. Being utterly committed to verisimilitude (because: immersivity), I want that experience to track into my fiction; in short, that change is something we feel more in retrospect than in any given moment.
In deciding upon this as a kind of guiding principle, I also determined that I was pen the series as a subgenre mashup that hadn’t really been attempted before: mid-future hard sf with political/techno-thriller. Nothing says “today” more than cutting edge thrillers. They are immediate and visceral. And I wanted to bring that same sense of gritty urgency and reality to my SF. In short, I wanted to imbue a future history with a narrative style that imparted a sense of present-day urgency.
Lastly, I will call out one phrase from a prior paragraph: “ And when the series is assembled as a mosaic (my intent from the start), I hope to show readers how far we have come and how fast.” It is important to me that every tile (i.e.; novel, story) in this series’ mosaic has its own, complete tale to tell and image to impart. But that does not preclude it from also being one part of a much greater whole. The series of which Trial By Fire is a pivotal part is about the human future. The specifics—the warfare, the exosapients, the technologies, the political evolutions—are not unimportant, but I hope that the series’ greater ambitions are becoming evident (if they weren’t from the start). Because underlying all the various action in all the various novels, these questions are being probed in ever-greater depth: what does it mean to be human? What diversity of intelligence might there be in the universe, and what does it signify–not only to us, but to the unfolding of that universe’s far future? How and where are the points of commonality which make interspeciate communication possible–and where are the unbridgeable crevasses? Is love universal? Hope? Faith? Compassion? Fellowship? Individual consciousness? To repeat what I said earlier, I love both action AND ideas.
Brad: Having been previously nominated for a Nebula award, what’s your opinion on the state of the field’s (SF and F’s) accolades? Are we (collectively) doing it right? Doing it wrong?
Chuck: I’m going to spin this question in a different direction (hell, I’m not even sure who the collective “we” refers to). I am going to discuss something pertinent to awards and voting. I do not have the temerity to (nor would I be comfortable with) offer(ing) opinions, let alone exhortations about how anyone else should vote. Rather, in the spirit of “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” I am simply going to reveal how *I* approach voting for books. And, if the universe were intrinsically fair (–chortle–) I would want no more than to reap as I sow (but at 54 years of age, I have no illusions about the likelihood of that).
While I suppose one could consider this (or expect it) to be an overview of my “aesthetic approach”, I must lead with an important caveat:
Yes, I am a professor of English, have taught literary theory (several times as a Fulbright Fellow in Europe), am no stranger to the ebb and flow of critical reception and the whys and wherefores thereof. It was part of my job, after all. And here’s how much that affects my award recommendations and voting:
Not. One. Damned. Bit.
I like what I like. I put my sheepskins and scholarly robes in a corner when I make my recommendations, in large measure because I refuse to conflate matters of taste with questions of any predetermined set of literary expectations.To argue that the latter should determine the former is an inherently suspicious assertion. At its most extreme, it suggests that a work which might be a lifeless yet pristine narrative object should also excite our personal delight.
Sorry. No. There are many objects of beauty in this world that leave me cold. There are many objects defined as “pop culture,” or which were “once beautiful” but have been consigned to the rearview mirror of contemporary taste, that I still find beautiful. Those purely subjective reflexes determine my voting.
It would be a gross misreading of my meaning to believe that I am saying that I am not concerned with quality; I most definitely am. But I do not need to make painstaking cognitive assessments to detect and reject clunky prose, predictable plots, hackneyed characters. No thanks. However, it is rightly said that the “success” of a narrative is best assessed “critically” (or, more improbably, “objectively”) in the terms set by its own structures of execution. In short, a critical assessment that tries to compare a pulp novel to belles lettres is like a food critic trying to compare french toast to escargot: each has its own rules, and implicit (gustatory) expectations.
These, from my perspective, are all matters of theory and literary criticism and have their own validity and place. But I do not use those metrics when voting for an award. That is particularly true when the criterion for the award can be framed by the simple question “but which do you LIKE best?” If I were to base my choice upon a critical checklist, I would not be answering that question. Rather, I would be responding to the query “which novel succeeded most in its own terms?” These are two very, very different questions. I will vote for the first; I may deeply admire the latter.
The natural consequence of this is that I am not wed to the past, the present, or the cutting edge of any “movements” or “missions” in the field of fiction. I have seen enough, and taught enough, of them to feel quite safe making the following assertions about what is, was, or will be au courant:
* it will change
* it is more about fashion and contrast with what preceded it rather than any intrinsically permanent merit (time will tell that)
* it is invariably politicized (I mean this in terms of both aesthetics, academics, and public partisanry)
* those who raise an uproar about it (you can tell this by their wide-eyed vehemence) are full of sound and fury signifying nothing
My non-genre/canonical preferences run from Flannery O’Connor to Pynchon to Faulkner to Kipling. If you can find a common thread there other than my own eclectic taste, I would be happy to hear it. But that’s the nature of what I like, and how I vote.
If you have (or plan to) read Trial By Fire, my very deep gratitude. My equally deep gratitude if you decide it is worthy of your nod for a Hugo nomination. It is not a ‘typical’ award-category book–but then again, what is? And more to the point, is it wise that anything should be “typical” of any given award? I think/hope not.
And to ensure that we end on a practical rather than philosophical note, here’s a statement of fact: I believe in free samples. So you can know if you want to plunk down hard earned money for my scribblings, Baen Books makes this very easy. They publish the first ten chapters or so of all their books. Here are the links to Trial By Fire, this year’s contender for the Nebula award, and with your kind help, the Hugo as well.