With the release of his new sci-fi space opera Starfire: Memory’s Blade (paperback, Kindle), writer Spencer Ellsworth finishes the science fiction trilogy he started last year with A Red Peace and continued with Shadow Sun Seven. Though in talking to him about the third book in the series, he revealed that there’s actually more to this story forthcoming…sort of.
For those unfamiliar with these books, what is the Starfire trilogy about, what is Memory’s Blade about, and aside from being the third book of three, how does it connect, narratively and chronologically, to the other two?
The Starfire series starts when a galactic empire falls, a brave Resistance sweeps into power, and then The Resistance decides they need to kill all the humans in the galaxy. Imagine Star Wars if Luke Skywalker had turned out to be Josef Stalin.
Memory’s Blade is the BEEEEG HUUUUUGE FINISH to the series. It’s so huge. We got a lot of fighting on a lot of planets, folks. The books have all had this theme of “reckoning”; the idea that no deed is ever done in a vacuum — pun intended — and that consequences for our decisions will spread out through the universe. We learn the truth about prophecies about Jaqi, our main character, the looming presence of the evil sun-eating spiders, The Shir, and the confrontation with the fledging forces of Araskar and Jaqi and The Resistance, now an empire of its own. Araskar’s choices in the first book come back to haunt him, and even the sidekicks of the series come into their own.
Memory’s Blade, and in fact the entire Starfire series, have been called science fiction and space opera. But is that how you think of it, or do you think there’s a better genre or subgenre of sci-fi to describe these novels?
I tend to think of space opera as having two categories: “pretty real stuff” and “fantasy in space.” A series like [James S.A. Corey’s] The Expanse, which I love but could never write, is a fairly plausible look at where humanity will be in two hundred years, while the Starfire series is a bit more like [Frank Herbert’s] Dune, a fantasy in space. It’s got freaky creatures, unlikely FTL travel, swordfights, and telepathy. I love both, but as Liz Bourke said, my worldbuilding is “mind-bendingly batshit” and so I tend to go for the bizarre outré stuff.
When you and I did the interviews for A Red Peace [which you can read here] and Shadow Sun Seven [which you can read here], you made jokes and struck a lighter tone. But these books and Memory’s Blade are not comedies. They’re not like Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, but more like John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War or The Collapsing Empire in that they’re serious stories with a bit of situational comedy in them. Why did you decide to inject that kind of humor into these stories?
The distinction between “humorous” and “non-humorous” stories is kind of like the sugar in Thai food. Bear with me, for I wield metaphor. An average Thai dish at a restaurant has something like two tablespoons of sugar in it, but it melds with the sourness of the lime and the hot oil, and the saltiness of the fish sauce. A good story should have a lot of humor in it, but unless that’s the major “flavor,” and you’re writing metaphorical dessert, you also need thrills, chills, serious pathos, and a sense of wonder in equal measure.
I’m reminded of how Watchmen, a pretty dour read, still has a good sense of set up and punchline. “You know the kind of cancer you eventually get better from? Well that ain’t the kind of cancer I got.” And Firefly‘s jokes were funnier than about 85% of the funny shows I had seen at the time.
Who then do you consider to be the big influences on the humor in A Red Peace, Shadow Sun Seven, and Memory’s Blade?
I read a ton, but my most formative experience with humor was [Jeff Smith’s] Bone. When I was in college, I read all of Bone, including the hilarious “Big Johnson Bone” prequel and thought, “that right there is how to pace a joke.” The reaction shots in Bone are great; I love the moment where the rat creatures are simultaneously terrified of the fact that Big Johnson is swinging their comrades around by the tails, and are also discussing the way his tall tales have gotten more and more ridiculous.
More recently, I watched Crazyhead while writing Memory’s Blade, and adored the goofy tone melded with the dark subject matter. A sort of out-Buffying-Buffy. James Roberts’ Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye is my favorite monthly comic, and it’s hilarious and deep and full of “the feels,” as the kids say. As long as you can master the balance, like good Thai food, humor only enhances drama.
On other fronts, are there any writers or novels were a big influence on Memory’s Blade, but not on the other two books?
I had not yet read The Expanse when I wrote the first two books, but I was deep in James S.A. Corey’s space opera while I was writing Memory’s Blade. [Daniel] Abraham and [Ty] Franck [who write as James S.A. Corey] are just so meticulous in their setup. You know so clearly the stakes of each scene, the unexpected ramifications, and the ways each character will react — sometimes overreact — to everything. I think some of Abraham and Franck’s best moments were in later books, which really speaks to the quality of that series.
What about movies, TV shows, or video games; did any of them have an influence on Memory’s Blade?
I’ve talked in other interviews about how Star Wars: The Clone Wars was a gem of inspiration for Starfire. Sometimes I worry the two are too close. The clones in The Clone Wars are suspiciously satisfied with their lot in life, which didn’t seem plausible to me at all. So the crosses are clone soldiers that, in my mind, act like actual clone soldiers would act: like humans being treated as automatons. Humans don’t like being treated as automatons. You can’t just wind up a soldier and stick them back in the field.
So now that all three Starfire books are out, would you suggest that people read them all in a row, or should take a break in between?
People seem to ask this question a lot. The long answer: I hope that they are short, exciting, and suspenseful enough that people will want to marathon the books; on the other hand, I also hope that people who waited between the books feel like they got whole and complete episodes.
Think of the Starfire books as a Sherlock-style season of TV. Rather than six 45-minute episodes, Sherlock is three 90-minute episodes, with interconnected threads but fundamentally separate stories.
K.B. Wagers, who wrote The Indranan War trilogy [ Behind The Throne, After The Crown, Beyond The Empire] recently said that she was writing a second trilogy in the same fictional universe which will kick off this fall with There Before The Chaos, while Kameron Hurley is expanding her completed Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy [God’s War, Infidel, Rapture] with a collection of linked novellas coming out this year, Apocalypse Nyx. Have you given any thought to continuing the Starfire saga in some way?
Um… Yes…and maybe…and kind of! Was that enough of an answer?
There are stories I’m writing that continue some threads, but they are short stories and none of them are from Jaqi or Z or Araskar’s points of view. The plan right now is to finish writing them, and then send them to Tor.com for potential publication on the site. Sadly, Tor has not figured out how to publish stories I haven’t written yet.
Someday, down the road, it would be lovely to have a big omnibus edition of all of the Starfire novels and short stories with a nice thick spine.
There’s also a connected project that shows how a very different corner of the universe has weathered the last thousand years of darkness. It’s another space opera, called Assassin Moon, and it’s set in the same future as Starfire, but takes place on the other side of the universe. It’s about a star system dominated by a ruthless oligarchy, and the assassin order that considers themselves the “conscience of the system.” Notice how that’s a description they coined themselves?
Any idea when Assassin Moon might be out, and is it a one-off novel or the first of another trilogy?
I’m still writing it, and hopefully we’ll have more news soon. It’s the sort of story that is only one long book so far, but could easily sprawl into some other books.
Are you working on anything else?
I’ve also sold a fantasy novel to Broken Eye Books called The Great Faerie Strike, which should be out sometime around the end of 2018; it’s about the tycoons who turn 19th-century Faerie into a Dickensian hellscape, and the union of gnomes, trolls and a Nellie Bly-esque half-vampire reporter who take them down.
Finally, if someone read A Red Peace, Shadow Sun Seven, and Memory’s Blade, what would you suggest they read next?
I read widely, and space opera is actually just a small part of that. I really liked Wendy Wanger’s An Oath Of Dogs and Nicky Drayden’s The Prey Of Gods from last year; both were really imaginative and tense first novels. I also just finished John Crowley’s KA, and found it really enchanting.
But my favorite write is still Octavia Butler, and her whole canon is worth the time to anyone interested. She shaped science fiction in, I think, ways we are still just beginning to understand. Her books don’t ever default to a cheery, bland optimism about human evolution; she genuinely grappled with the question of whether survival, in and of itself, is a virtue.
Do you have a favorite Octavia Butler book?
Wild Seed is the one I reread every year because it’s such a perfect example of a dramatic, tight, character-driven story. The two interweaving POVs are worth studying for the way each builds tension off the other, and helped me figure out how to balance Jaqi and Araskar’s chapters against each other. It’s also such a profound story with so few easy answers. Doro and Anyanwu really can’t escape each other, and every time I read the ending I have a different reaction and a different interpretation.