With the release of Adrift (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), writer W. Michael Gear is continuing the Donovan series of sci-fi adventure stories he began in 2018 with Outpost. In the following email interview, Gear not only discusses “what” inspired and influenced this fifth installment, but “who” as well.
For those who haven’t read any of them, what is the Donovan series about, and when and where do these novels take place?
By way of a thumbnail introduction, the Donovan series is set on a habitable world 30 lightyears from Earth and about a hundred and twenty years in our future. The tag line the publishers used was “Deadwood meets Avatar.” Consider the series to be frontier fiction set on a remarkable world with truly dangerous-but-colorful predators. The planet is officially Capella III, but everyone calls it Donovan in honor of the first person to be eaten there.
Understand, my academic training is as an anthropologist, and every aspect of the story has to be built on actual science, or at least academically defensible theory. And building Donovan has been huge fun — especially the creation of a biology which is different from terrestrial norms, but still hinges on organic chemistry.
As to why anyone would go to a world where you have a fifty-fifty chance of being eaten by the wildlife? The answer is to get rich. Donovan is literally a ball of valuable metals and clays. The Corporation — which is the governing body for the solar system — was desperate to develop the colony and extract Donovan’s wealth. At least until the large and incredibly expensive ships they were building began to disappear. Lost somewhere outside our universe in the multiverse. Turns out the theoretical method of travel they use to get around the light-speed barrier, has its own problems with uncertainty. Not to mention time itself.
So, Donovan has been left more or less on its own, with only occasional influxes of new people. Being left on one’s own, on a planet where quetzals, slugs, all the plants, and even heavy metal in the water is trying to kill you, causes people to take matters, like governance, into their own hands. Relations with The Corporation back in Solar System are going to be, shall we say, tense? It will be a whole lot tenser if The Corporation can ever figure out how to get their ships safely through the “outside.”
I started the series with Outpost, followed by Abandoned, Pariah, and Unreconciled. And while they are indeed stand-alone stories, they still follow a series of character arcs with Talina Perez, Kalico Aguila, Shig Mosadek, and Kylee Simonov, among others. What makes the books readable for newcomers, is, well, newcomers. There is always someone new in the stories who has to learn all about Donovan, the wildlife, and its history. As they do, that brings new readers up to speed without tedious narrative.
And then what is Adrift about, and how does it connect, narratively and chronologically, to the previous Donovan novel, Unreconciled?
In Unreconciled, the starship Ashanti had barely managed to make it to Donovan. Among the few survivors were the families from the Maritime Unit, the first scientific team specifically sent out to map, record, and explore Donovan’s oceans. This is their story as they drop the “Pod” atop a reef some five hundred kilometers offshore. Once they get the research station set up, things begin to go wrong. Just like on land, Donovan’s oceans are full of fascinating, colorful, and really, really dangerous beasties. Savvy readers will, of course, be smarter than our characters, thinking “Don’t do that!” as the people in the Maritime Unit blithely set out to conduct their studies. They are, after all, “Experts” when it comes to oceanography.
The story here, like all Donovan novels, is about the best laid plans and cutting-edge technology going horribly wrong. And all the while, life on Donovan is following its own agenda. But it’s the children that really make Adrift different. They were also a delightful change to write. If there is a non-exhaustible trope in fiction, it’s “Child in Peril.”
But then, this is Donovan. Maybe we should call the trope “Child is Peril.”
Stephen King would love it.
As for established characters, Dek Taglioni gets a full dose of “going native” and has to lock horns with his own demons as he fights for his life. Talina finds herself falling for the same guy Kalico is falling for. Love triangles can be so messy, especially between best friends. Nor is life at Corporate Mine all happiness and bliss. A cave-in and flooding have shut the entire operation down. Seems like there’s plenty of trouble to go around.
The previous Donovan novel have all been sci-fi adventure tales. Is Adrift one as well?
Oh, gosh, Paul, like all of my books, Adrift checks a lot of the blanks for science fiction, adventure, horror, romance, speculative fiction, thriller, science, frontier fiction, etc. Kathleen [O’Neal Gear, his wife and fellow writer] and I have always mixed genres and broken the boundaries. Who the hell wants to color inside the lines when it’s so much fun to scribble out past the margins?
Are there any writers or specific stories that you think had a big influence on Adrift but not on the other Donovan novels?
Kathleen, of course. Maybe, in some wild stretch of the imagination, Frank Herbert and his classic Dune. Possibly Heinlein from some of his earliest work. And, of course, CJ Cherryh, who was the reason I took my first sci-fi to DAW Books back in the 1980s.
But to really answer your question, our own People series of novels based on North America’s archaeological heritage have had the greatest influence on the Donovan books. In them we were constantly building viable and thriving cultures based on limited material culture, excavation, ethnographic, botanical, climatic, and zoological data.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or video games; was Adrift influenced by any of those things? Because you mentioned Deadwood and Avatar earlier.
Yeah, I’d have to tag Deadwood as an influence. The publisher was right. In a lot of ways, Dan Wirth kept tapping Al Swearengen’s keys. For a lot of readers, much to my surprise, he is so despicable, he’s become their favorite character. And Port Authority shares some of the same characteristics as the town on the show. It’s on its own, an outlaw community run by a bunch of libertarians who don’t give a damn about anything but individual responsibility. They don’t have many amenities, and only one tavern. Not to mention that gallows humor can be found around every corner.
You’ve mentioned your wife, Kathleen O’Neal Gear, a couple times in this interview. As it so happens, she is also putting out a novel this month, the cli-fi story The Ice Lion. Do you guys read each other’s books and give feedback?
Actually, Paul, we have three books hitting the shelves this June. Along with Adrift and Kathleen’s The Ice Lion, there’s Dissolution: Book One Of The Wyoming Chronicles, a near-future dystopian, apocalyptic, Western, science fiction, thriller (see what I mean about blurring genre lines?) that deals with an archaeological field school headed to the Wyoming mountains to dig a high-altitude village site. Which is where the end of the world catches up with them. Like so many of our novels, it’s about choices. Ethics. And what people will do when survival comes down to brass tacks. Think of it as a sort of modern take on The 100. (Great show, by the way. Just discovered it recently and highly recommend it.)
But you asked about Kathleen’s input to Adrift. The answer is yes. Paul, we co-author. Doesn’t matter whose name is on the spine, nothing leaves this house without both of us having been through it. It would terrify me to send in a book that Kathleen hadn’t read, taken her red pencil to, and, in some cases, re-written. Dissolution is a prime example of that. She breathes within every line in the book. Adrift is a much better book because of her insight, critique, and sometimes uncomfortable comments. I couldn’t do this without her. She’s the brains, talent, and inspiration for everything I write.
I assume, then, that you did the same for The Ice Lion. Did reading that book, and with an obviously critical eye, prompt you to make any changes to Adrift?
Not really. Well, okay in a sense, yeah. Some of her descriptions are so riveting — like when Lynx is trapped in the crevasse — that it spurs me to ask, “Could I write a scene that brilliantly?” Reminds me that I am never a master at this craft, and there’s always a high bar to reach for.
Inspiration aside, however, the two books are entirely different stories.
I’m going to be running an interview with Kathleen when The Ice Lion comes out in mid-June, but for those who are curious about it now, what is it about?
Love this book! It’s prehistory meets the future. The premise is that efforts to battle climate change go awry. Attempts to absorb carbon from the atmosphere get out of hand, which results in a re-glaciation of the continental land masses. In an effort to save life on earth, the Jemen scientists revive Pleistocene fauna and humans. Which is about as cool a setting as you could wish for. I just hope Kathleen’s not as prescient with The Ice Lion as she was with Maze Master. Sometimes the lady scares me.
Cool. Now, you said earlier that the Donovan novels were connected but still stand-alone stories. But what do you think people will get out of reading Adrift after they read Outpost, Abandoned, Pariah, and Unreconciled first, and in that order?
The key to any series is balance and structure. As an author, I have choices to make. Sometimes, like with Star Path in the People Of Cahokia series, we have to leave readers with a cliff hanger because that’s what the story — and the realities of the publishing industry — dictates.
In the Donovan books, the good news is that structurally, they can be written as independent novels. At the same time, I have to maintain the long-term character arcs through the entire series. So, for people reading in chronological order, they’re getting the next chapter of Talina’s, Kalico’s, Dek’s, Shig’s, and so many other characters’ lives. They also get a better insight to Donovan. Like when little Felix is bent over the side of the Maritime Unit’s launch, splashing his hands in the water. Newcomers are going to think: Isn’t that cute. Just like a kid. Old time Donovan readers are shaking their heads, saying, “Don’t do that!” And they’re right of course.
And are you already thinking about writing a sixth Donovan novel?
Book 6 is already under contract. I’ll begin writing it as soon as Implacable Alpha is delivered to DAW Books this fall. Haven’t come up with a title yet, but this one will be about Kylee, Kip, and Flute dealing with what it means to be a young adult when you’re filled with quetzal TriNA, you’re an outcast, you’re hunting the treetop terror that killed your parents, and Donovan is trying to kill you.
And, just when things are getting really interesting, another ship appears in orbit.
Now, in the previous interview we did about Pariah, you said there had been some interest in adapting the Donovan novels into a series of movies. But then, in the interview we did about Unreconciled, you said there was nothing new to report about that adaptation. Is that still the case?
It is. Been here, Done this, Got the t-shirt. Film’s a weird business, and Kathleen and I have been down this road so many times, we listen to the hype, nod, yawn, and say “We’ll wait and see if the check ever clears the bank.”
Finally, if someone enjoys Adrift and the other Donovan novels, which of your wife’s books would you suggest they read next and why that one?
Wow! Tough fricking question. All of them! Clear back to An Abyss Of Light.
But if it’s a punt off Adrift, I’d have to say The Ice Lion. The book is science heavy, alien environment, toothy beasts that eat people, but with Denisovans, Neandertals, and Heidelburgensis characters. Did I mention the scene where Lynx is trapped in the crevasse? Beyond which, the reviews for The Ice Lion to date have been spectacular. They had a huge bidding war between three audio companies for the audio rights, so there’s a lot going on here behind the scenes. I think anyone who enjoys the Donovan books will be thrilled with The Ice Lion.