Exclusive Interview: A Red Peace Author Spencer Ellsworth
Is it still called a “scorched Earth policy” if it doesn’t happen on Earth…and involves genocide? No, of course not. But that doesn’t make it any less of an intriguing fictional construct (emphasis on “fictional”). Case in point, Spencer Ellsworth’s sci-fi novel A Red Peace (paperback, digital), the first book in his Starfire trilogy, in which the last remnants of a galactic empire do an impression of Bender from Futurama by declaring, “Kill all humans!”
Let’s start with the basics. So, basically, what is A Red Peace about?
A galactic empire falls. In the halls of a new power, a secret directive rings out: kill all the humans.
It’s about a galactic genocide. About the smugglers and ne’er-do-wells who have to step up and help the targeted people escape. About the soldiers that have to find their consciences in the wake of unconscionable orders.
Also, there are giant space bugs. Spiders, moths, ticks…anything that ever weirded you out when you looked under your bed is probably in there.
A Red Peace is the first book in what you’re calling the Starfire trilogy. And, in fact, the second book, Shadow Sun Seven, is already set to be released November 28th. Without spoiling anything, what is Shadow Sun Seven about, and what is the Starfire trilogy about?
Shadow Sun Seven picks up right where A Red Peace left off and…that’s all I can say without spoilers. I will say that A Red Peace is very much a chase. The characters fly across the galaxy with all the forces of evil nipping at their heels. Shadow Sun Seven is the opposite: a caper where our heroes must infiltrate, steal, scheme, and disguise their way to an advantage.
Where did you get the idea for A Red Peace in particular and the Starfire trilogy in general, and how different is the finished version of A Red Peace from that original idea?
The initial scene — a galactic empire falls, a new and charismatic ruler gives a genocide order — popped into my head a few years ago. I couldn’t resist it and I started back-filling the story in my head.
I couldn’t shake it. I love works that consciously subvert a popular work, such as Jacqueline Carey’s Banewreaker, which took on The Lord Of The Rings from the point of view of a sympathetic Sauron. This had potential to start where Star Wars — and Foundation, and who knows how many other space operas — ended and go somewhere very different.
So I had questions. Who overthrew the Empire? I decided it was the military class, who had been custom-designed to be perfect soldiers I called “crosses.” Why is there a military class? Because there are giant space spiders who want to eat your planet.
I like bugs.
Why are there giant space spiders?
You’ll have to read for the answer to that.
In the original idea, I knew that the story would center around humans escaping the forces of this new regime, but I didn’t have the logistics of that escape. Once I found my main characters, Jaqi and Araskar, I knew their voices would carry the story.
When in the writing of A Red Peace did you decide it was the first book in a trilogy, as opposed to a stand-alone novel, and what made you think that?
I usually think all my ideas are terrible, so I wrote the first chapter of A Red Peace, said “that’s crap” and hid it away. Later that year, I was attending the Cascade Writers workshop and I knew Beth Meacham — then just a friend, now my editor — would be there, and I had nothing else to bring.
She loved it. Eeek!
I hurried home and got the characters through their first major growth point, and had a very short, tightly paced novel, but I knew, given some of the larger plot points — Space spiders. How do they work? — that there was a lot more in this universe to explore.
Now, are there any writers or particular books that you feel were a big influence on these books that did not have a big an impact on your previous short stories?
I actually started writing A Red Peace back in 2014, so it’s hard for me to recall exactly who I was reading then…hmmmmffff…but I, as usual, reread Octavia Butler a couple of times in between then and now. A Butler reread a year keeps the writing sharp.
While writing the sequels this last winter, I got super-hooked on the Expanse books by James SA Corey [Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, Abaddon’s Gate, Cibola Burn, Nemesis Games, and Babylon’s Ashes]. They do such a great job of showing how space is itself an enemy to any oxygen-breathing, warmth-liking being. They are absolutely terrifying in places and action-packed in others, and always smart.
Also, James Roberts and Nicke Roche wrote some amazing Transformers comics for IDW, which explore the idea of being a robot literally built to fight. The IDW comics are nothing like the Michael Bay movies. I think they have some kind of devil’s bargain. Like, the worse the Bay movies get, the better the IDW comics get.
What about specifically for A Red Peace, are there any writers or books that had an impact on that books but not on Shadow Sun Seven?
At the time, I had just read Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which is a really great meditation on personhood, empire, and individuality. Leckie’s portrayal of artificial intelligences, stuffed into reclaimed dead bodies from Radchaai wars, had a big influence on the way I thought about the crosses and their destiny as custom-made soldiers. Of course, Leckie’s a much more poetic and thoughtful writer than me; I’m very pulpy and comic book-y.
What about movies, TV shows, or video games; do you think any of them had an influence on A Red Peace, and if so, which ones and in what ways?
I don’t play many video games, except with my children. But I was watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars while I wrote A Red Peace, to help stay with the theme of subverting Star Wars-y tropes. And I was watching The Wire. I’ll leave it up to the readers to determine whether that had any influence.
So has there been any interest in making a movie, TV show, or video game out of A Red Peace or the Starfire trilogy?
There has been interest. That’s about all I can say until things happen.
If A Red Peace or the Starfire trilogy was being made into a movie, show, or game, who would you like to see them cast as the leads, and why them?
Ooooh, I love fancasting. I just watched the Roots remake and truly loved it; I think Emayatzy Corinealdi, who played Belle, would be a great Jaqi, or Simona Brown, who played Jinna. I picture Araskar as Rami Malek of Mr. Robot and The Pacific, right down to the laconic stare and slow manner he had as Pfc/Cpl Merriel Shelton, a.k.a. Snafu.
Finally, if someone enjoys A Red Peace and they’re looking for something to read while waiting for Shadow Sun Seven to come out, what would you recommend they check out and why?
I have a TBR stack a mile high. I really enjoyed Wendy Wagner and Nicky Drayden’s recent debuts, An Oath Of Dogs and The Prey Of Gods, respectively. And the rest of the Tor.com lineup for this year looks really great, especially JY Yang’s fantasy novellas [The Black Tides Of Heaven, The Red Threads Of Fortune] and Margaret Killjoy’s horror/dark fantasy novella [The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion].
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