In these political times, it’s easy to read too much into things. It’s why, when quizzing writer Robyn Bennis about her debut novel — the steampunk adventure The Guns Above (hardcover, paperback), which has the tag line “Lean In. Fire At Will.” — I avoided asking any questions about feminism and its role in the book. Though after she told me what The Guns Above is about, I didn’t really need to.
I always like to start with the basics. So, basically, what is The Guns Above about?
The Guns Above is a military adventure story about the nation of Garnia’s first female airship captain, Josette, and the aristocratic dandy, Bernat, on a mission to undermine her. When Josette’s new airship turns out to be an untested deathtrap, and an enemy army is discovered massing for a sneak attack, she has to find a way to keep Bernat at bay and survive long enough to give the enemy a shot at her.
Where did you get the original idea for it, and how different is the book from that original idea?
The original idea stemmed from Poe’s “Balloon-Hoax” and — as often happens — couldn’t be further from the current book. Poe’s hoax was about a balloonist crossing the Atlantic in 1844. After reading it many years ago, I thought, “Well, what if it was real?” I outlined a story about a whacky inventor having whacky airship adventures, but as I continued to imagine what effect this new technology would have on the world, a more compelling story emerged.
The Guns Above has been described as a steampunk adventure. Do you agree with this assessment?
I do. The setting may be pretty far from The Difference Engine, but The Guns Above takes place in a world that’s being transformed by steam engines and airships, while retaining many of the mores and most of the smart clothing from the previous age. To me, that’s the heart of steampunk: a world in transition, reaping the rewards of strange new technologies while dealing with the social fallout that results. With lots of shiny brass buttons, obviously.
Why did you decide to tell this story as a steampunk one, as opposed to cyberpunk or space opera? Or even something set in the real world? Because it seems like this story would work as any of those.
If I’m being brutally honest with myself, it’s because I wanted to blend a fantasy element with Aubrey/Maturin [the nautical historical novels by Patrick O’Brian that include Master And Commander], and Naomi Novik [His Majesty’s Dragon] already did it with dragons. There’s also the momentum from my original ideas, and the fact that it’s easier to make sexism funny in a setting that looks more like the past than the present or the future.
Since The Guns Above is your first novel, I’m legally required to ask you about your influences. But I want to be specific about it. What authors, and which of their books, do you see as being the biggest influences on The Guns Above, and in what ways?
The Aubrey-Maturin is by far the most significant influence. I’ve aspired to that effortless blend of comedy, action, and vibrancy of character since I first read Master And Commander, and I’ve tried to capture some of O’Brian’s spirit in The Guns Above. Hornblower is another, and of course there’s David Weber’s Honor Harrington series. Weber has an amazing talent for creating fictional technology that recreates age-of-sail naval battles in space, but he’s also worked through the implications of his tech, large and small, making his setting feel rich and plausible. Following that example, I’ve spent a lot of time in thoughtful reflection about how the technology in The Guns Above would shape the world, and I think it shows in the novel.
Writer Tina Connolly [Ironskin] said The Guns Above was, “…an engaging gunpowder adventure with a helping of witty Noel Coward dialog and a touch of Joseph Heller.” I’m guessing you think you’re not worthy of being compared to Coward and Heller, but do you think those comparisons are at least apt?
Oh, I’m absolutely worthy of that comparison. In fact, someone recently compared one of my passages to the work of Tolstoy.
Though, now that I think of it, he may have meant that it put him to sleep.
Okay, in all seriousness, I have endeavored to make the dialogue sharp and the dilemmas maddening to my heroine. Whether it rises to the level of Heller and Coward, well…I’ll have to leave that question to the reader.
On the cover of the book, it says The Guns Above is “A Signal Airship Novel.” Is it then safe to assume that The Guns Above is the first book in a series?
There will be at least one sequel. In fact, I’m currently working on revisions with my editor. And if the first two books do well, I’m standing by with a rough outline for a series with no end in sight. Garnia never met a quagmire so deep that it didn’t want to step in it, so there will always be work for my protagonists.
So, has there been any interesting in turning The Guns Above into a movie, TV show, or video game?
There’s definitely been interest in a movie from my family. They’ve been asking about it since I first signed the book contract. As for interest from an actual studio, I haven’t heard anything but rumors so far.
Which do you think would work best, and who would you like them to cast in the main roles?
I have such a clear image of my characters that it’s hard to believe any actor could live up to it. However, one of my uncles has suggested that he could be cast as a dashing officer who saves the day a lot.
To conclude, if someone enjoys The Guns Above and they’re looking for something to read while waiting for The Guns Above II: The Guns Are Still Up There to come out, what would you suggest they read and why?
You’ve already mentioned Tina Connolly. If you like witty ladies kicking ass in a richly detailed fantasy world, you’ll love the Ironskin series.
If you’re looking for a ragtag crew trying to hold their ship and mission together against impossible odds, I can’t recommend Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension enough.
Or how about some of the best mil-fic of the past decade, but in a space fantasy setting where belief in a heretical calendar can disrupt the very laws of physics? That’s Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee.
Oh, and we are still working on a title for the sequel, so thanks for helping out with that suggestion. I’ll add it to the short list.
You’re welcome. You know where to send the check.