Science fiction has often told stories that are allegories for colonization. But in Stephen Leigh’s new sociological sci-fi novel Amid The Crowd Of Stars (hardcover, Kindle), he not only explores the conflicts that arise between a planet’s native population and the humans who’ve accidentally invaded it, but also the conflicts between the human survivors and the people who’ve come to rescue them, and between different groups of survivors. In the following email interview, Leigh discusses what inspired this story, and why it wasn’t influenced by other sci-fi colony stories.
Photo Credit: © Kyle Cassidy
To begin, what is Amid The Crowd Of Stars about, and when and where is it set?
The novel’s set on Wolf 1061C, an exoplanet we’ve already discovered around the red dwarf star Wolf 1061. The humans in my novel call the world Canis Lupus, the Latin classification for the Gray Wolf. Canis Lupus’ year is roughly 19 days, and that rapid rotation around Wolf 1061, according to astronomers, most likely means that Canis Lupus, like our moon to Earth or Mercury to our sun, is tidally locked, always presenting the same face to its sun. As a result, one side would be excessively warm and the other excessively cold, but I postulated a habitable zone between those two extremes.
The novel’s about the cultural tensions there: 1) between the humans who were accidentally marooned on the planet (and who essentially are no longer Homo sapiens, but Homo lupus, given the biota they’ve taken in and the changes / mutations wrought on them by their environment; 2) between the two main “human” cultures —t he “Islanders,” who live on archipelago off the mainland, and the “Mainlanders” — who don’t entirely get along; 3) the conflicts between the putative “rescuers” from Earth who’ve come and must decide if those on Canis Lupus who originally came from Earth can safely be returned there; 4) the changing attitudes of the artificial intelligences whom the Earth-based human interface with; and 5) understanding the sentient life that is actually native to Canis Lupus which pose their own threats and issues.
All of those conflicts eventually come together by the climax of the novel.
Where did you get the original idea for Amid The Crowd Of Stars, and how, if at all, did that idea change as you wrote this story?
The genesis for the novel was from a trip to Ireland, where we visited the Dingle Peninsula (a location I’d love to return to some day). At the end of the peninsula, there’s the Blasket Islands, the westernmost part of Europe.
The Blaskets also have a strong literary tradition, and I was fascinated by the story of the place (enough that I bought a handful of the books the various islanders had written). To quote from the afterword section of Amid:
“It was during a trip to Ireland in 2017 with my sister Sharon and her husband Dave that I stumbled upon the story of the Blasket Islands while we were exploring the gorgeous Dingle Peninsula. The Blasket Centre is well out on the peninsula’s Atlantic head, a delightful museum dedicated to the history of the Blasket Islands and the Blasket’s literary tradition. I was immediately fascinated, bought several of the islanders’ books, and the more I thought about the islands and their relationship to the mainland of Ireland, the more I found myself inundated with potential story ideas. This book is a result, even if the connection to the Blaskets isn’t immediately apparent.
“In our world, the Blasket Islands were well-known in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for being the place to go if one wanted to study the Irish language as it was spoken, as this was one of the few places in Ireland (like the Aran Islands or parts of the counties in the west of Ireland) where Irish was the language they both spoke and wrote. But the lure of the modern world and other countries along with the difficulty competing with new fishing technologies and regulations caused the residents to slowly leave the island until there were too few of them left to sustain the settlement. The last permanent residents of the Blaskets were finally evacuated from Great Blasket Island on November 17, 1953.
“It was the sense of disconnection and the resulting escalating tensions within the Blasket culture itself and between the Blaskets and the more ‘modern’ society of the mainland that provided the initial spark for Amid The Crowd Of Stars.”
Essentially, then, the historical Blaskets provided the basis for the Mainlander / Islander conflict in the story. Mind you, that initial spark morphed and expanded greatly, reflected in additional conflicts as I began figuring out exactly what I wanted to explore and how to best do that. But seeing and learning about the Blaskets was what started things roiling about in my head.
As you said, Canis Lupus, where the humans are stranded, is already someone’s home. When you were figuring out how the locals would look and act, did you base them on aliens from any movies, TV shows, or other people’s books?
I definitely didn’t base anything in the book (at least consciously) on any movie, TV show, or another writer’s books. That’s not the way I work. In fact, I deliberately avoid doing that. Canis Lupus’ native intelligent species are either aquatic or so different from us that we have very little in common with them. In fact, some of them more resemble a virus than anything else. I realized late in the writing of this that the current coronavirus situation must have been in the back of my mind as I was working on this.
Amid The Crowd Of Stars is clearly a sci-fi novel. But is there more to it? Is it hard sci-fi, a sci-fi space opera story…?
It’s certainly science fiction (because it’s set on another planet in an imagined future), and if I had to give it a category, I say it’s “sociological sci-fi” because it’s mostly about how cultures interact and clash, though there’s some affinity to hard sci-fi in that I’m also exploring different types of intelligence and how their agendas and outlooks would be very different from those of us mammals.
Amid The Crowd Of Stars is not your first novel; not by a long shot. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Amid The Crowd Of Stars but not on anything else you’ve written?
I honestly can’t think of any stories or writers that particularly had a large influence on Amid, and especially not only on Amid. There are lots of writers I absolutely admire for one aspect of their writing or another, but largely they’ve always been with me for a long time.
The truth is that I don’t read a lot of fiction when I’m in the midst of writing my own. Most of my reading is non-fiction, which I think of as “mining for ideas.” Reading novels and stories in my genre by other writers I save for when I’m between projects — it’s a lot more enjoyable that way, and I don’t have to worry about unconsciously borrowing from them.
What about non-literary influences; was Amid The Crowd Of Stars influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
That’s an easy one. In a word, nope. I can’t think of any similar movies (and I don’t see that many movies anyway), I watch as few television shows as possible, and while I used to DM / GM for a local group of role-playing gamers, I realized that was taking up way too much of my time and creative energy and I stopped. My computer is entirely devoid of any games. I don’t have enough time for my interests (writing, music, art, aikido) and what I care most deeply about in my life (my spouse and partner Denise, our children, and our friends) as it is.
As you know, some sci-fi novels are stand-alone stories, while some are part of larger sagas. What is Amid The Crowd Of Stars?
My strong preference is for stand-alone novels. Even though I’ve committed series work before (and may again in the future), even with my duologies and trilogies I tried as much as possible to make each book stand alone. For instance, in my recent Sunpath Duology, the protagonist of A Fading Sun is the mother of the protagonist of A Rising Moon. I especially dislike eternal series where Book 1 just stops with little-to-no-resolution, Book 2 starts where Book 1 stopped, and so on and so on and so on.
Perhaps that explains why I much prefer a TV “mini-series” with a distinct end point to television shows that just go on and on and on until their audience gets bored with them.
So yes, Amid The Crowd Of Stars was written as a stand-alone book.
You spoke earlier about how you don’t watch a lot of movies or TV shows, and don’t play games. But I’ll ask this anyway: If someone wanted to adapt Amid The Crowd Of Stars into a movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as the main characters?
I have to admit that I don’t know enough to answer who I might want to see cast as the main characters, [but] I certainly could see Amid as a movie or as a mini-series, and if someone is interested in doing either, I’d certainly love to talk with them.
I’d especially love to see how someone else visually interprets the novel, especially since CGI is now sophisticated enough to render everything convincingly. I wouldn’t even have to agree with their interpretation. Every reader sees the characters in a novel differently from any other reader, as well as from the author, and I’m fine with that. Someone wants to do Amid as a graphic novel? That might be interesting.
Finally, if someone enjoys Amid The Crowd Of Stars, and this is the first book of yours they’ve read, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next and why that one?
That would depend on their tastes in fiction. I’ve written pretty widely over the years: science fiction — far future and near future, serious and comic, standalone novels and series. Fantasy — high fantasy, epic fantasy, urban fantasy, Celtic fantasy, and again, stand-alone novels as well as series.
If someone wants a long “immersion” in a world, and likes fantasy, I might recommend the Celtic Cloudmages Trilogy or the Renaissance-based trilogy The Nessantico Cycle. Or just for a long read in a single book, the contemporary / historical fantasy Immortal Muse, or the (shorter) contemporary Celtic fantasy The Crow Of Connemara. For my science fiction, you might look up DAW Books’ compilation of my three early “Hoorka” novels in Assassins’ Dawn, or for the reprint of Thunder Rift (as The Shape Of Silence) from Arc Manor Press, or just wait for Bound To A Single Son, which will be out sometime after I finish it. Or head to my website and see which of my novels sounds like something you’d like.