Some people are inspired to write when their heart gets broken. But in the following email interview with writer Karen Osborne about her sci-fi space opera novel Architects Of Memory (paperback, Kindle, audiobook) — the first book in her Memory War duology — she says this story was inspired, in part, when her foot got broken.
Photo Credit: Josh Snitkoff
To start, what is Architects Of Memory about, and when and where is it set?
Architects Of Memory is set in a future where corporations, not governments, have colonized space — and they run it like a business.
Indentured salvage pilot Ash Jackson is threading a very thin needle after the alien war that killed her fiancé and ruined the company she hoped to join as a citizen. If her new company finds out she has a terminal illness, she’ll be tossed out of the program. She won’t qualify for the health care that might lead to a cure for her condition and she’ll never see her new love — her ship’s captain — ever again.
But that’s nothing compared to what happens after she uncovers a strange alien weapon in the wreckage of the Tribulation battlefield. Every company seems to want it. And, after it threatens to turn Ash into a living weapon, every company wants her.
It’s wild and glorious and hopeful and terrifying all at the same time, and I hope people love reading it as much as I loved writing it.
Where did you get the original idea for Architects Of Memory and how did that idea evolve as you wrote it?
The crew of Twenty-Five existed as far back as 2001, which was my senior year of college — I still have their little character descriptions scribbled into the margins of one of my papers on William Blake. In their earliest form, they were corporate research-and-development scientists tasked with removing a deadly pathogen from a lab on a colony planet. There weren’t actually going to be aliens involved at all. I got flattened with schoolwork, though, and forgot about Twenty-Five until I was unpacking my office after my move to Baltimore in 2015.
There’s a second source of inspiration, which dates back to the summer of 2006, when I broke my foot in five places while crossing a lawn and developed a blood clot in my left leg. For months, I walked around feeling like I had a time bomb floating in my bloodstream, and for months I lived in terror that it would break off and give me a stroke or a pulmonary embolism. If I hadn’t had health insurance through my journalism job, I would have probably written off the pain and swelling as just a side effect of breaking my foot. I would have died. So Ash’s illness and her terror comes from a very real place, and I hope I did it justice.
Along with your own life, it sounds like Architects Of Memory was inspired by current events. Or one of Elizabeth Warren’s stump speeches. Was it? Because The Perfect Assassin author K.A. Doore thinks it screams “FUCK CAPITALISM” at the top of its lungs, which sounds like something Warren would do.
I love Elizabeth Warren. Her kind of savage competence doesn’t come along very often in our day and age. If she were a man, she’d be our nominee right now.
But I actually started writing Architects during the second Obama administration, when we were a few years into the Affordable Care Act, and I had no idea who Elizabeth Warren was. All my non-insured friends were finally getting insurance and seeing doctors and dentists, and I wondered if a story about what happens when you don’t have health insurance might be out of date. Can you imagine?
Of course, now we’re living in a country where the president and majority party, among other terrible things, are out to strip those protections from ordinary people during the worst pandemic in a century. I’m not even sure the Auroran executive board would do that. Now I sometimes wonder if I didn’t go far enough.
It also sounds like Architects Of Memory is a dystopian sci-fi space opera story. Is that how you see it?
I tend to think of Architects Of Memory as a fairly classic space opera, but you could absolutely say it’s a dystopia — in the same way as we’re living in a dystopia today, when CEOs of massive corporations make per hour what their frontline employees make in six months.
Aurora Company, the corporation to which Ash is indentured, made it through the war with the Vai because they had a solid financial plan: they didn’t overleverage, they built smart, they did all the right things corporations need to do to survive disruption. They have massive starships and huge planetary supply chains. They’re very well positioned in the market and they could absolutely pay everyone a living wage. But they don’t. And that puts most of their resources in the grabby hands of the very few.
A beta reader asked me if it was a plot hole that Ash and the other indentures were struggling so hard when the birthright characters early in the book wear diamonds on their shoes. You have to look closely in Architects to notice, because it’s almost impossible to understand the level of wealth at the top of Auroran society in the same way it’s hard to understand the sheer amount of cash possessed by a Bezos or a Buffet or an Arnault.
It’s definitely not a plot hole.
Speaking of genres, the press materials for Architects Of Memory call it a “poetic space opera.” I assume you’re not telling this story as a series of limericks, are you?
I’m terrible at limericks, so I’m just going to stop there before I try to write one and really embarrass myself.
Seriously, though, do you think there’s something poetic about Architects Of Memory?
Absolutely. I hate the artificial divide that has developed over the years between literary and genre writers, and I’m chuffed that I live in a world where so many colleagues are working to break down those boundaries between the two. Why can’t readers have rocket ships and sonnet-worthy language in the same book? Why can’t we read literary works of art set in wildly fantastical realms?
I want to write smacking good science fiction adventure stories. I also want them to be literary works of art. I don’t think I should have to choose between these two options. Really nailing that balance is one of the major goals of my career, now and in the future.
So what writers do you see as being a big influence on Architects Of Memory? And I mean specifically on this story, not on anything else you’ve written.
I love Elizabeth Bear’s early space operas Hammered and Pinion, which showed that you can have a deft hand with language and still tell an exciting, fast, high-octane story. Other (spiritual!) influences include C.J. Cherryh’s Cyteen, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, and Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution, which is not a novel but a killer collection of essays. There’s also Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti, Becky Chambers’ The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, and The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey. I can also include so much short fiction from places like Uncanny, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, and more — way too much to get into detail with here.
I believe that the more you read, the better a writer you will be, so I’m always trying to find something new.
How about non-literary influences; do you think Architects Of Memory was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games?
100% yes! I’m a huge fan of crew-based sci-fi. I’m a massive Trekkie and a huge fan of Stargate, The Expanse, and Babylon 5. No matter how old I get, there’s always going to be a character-hungry, television-gobbling ’90s teenager somewhere in my work remembering what it was like to watch Jean-Luc Picard match wits with Romulans or Xena step forward with her iconic scream or Delenn confront the Grey Council for the first time.
There’s something passionate and smart and innocent about the ’90s television storytelling style that’s still very powerful, and although we can’t — and probably shouldn’t — go back, there’s always going to be a hint of the thrill I felt from watching those crews as an impressionable teenager.
Speaking of movies and TV, along with being a writer, you are also a filmmaker. Why did you decide to tell this story with words instead of pictures?
I’ve primarily made documentaries and shorter films, so I don’t really have the experience to do a blockbuster myself…or the money, or the connections. On top of that, novels are my first love. I can write anything, go anywhere, and meet anyone I like in a novel. All I need is my laptop or AlphaSmart. I would absolutely love to get my hands on a Hollywood project at some point, but right now I’m concentrating on prose.
Now, you have already said that Architects Of Memory is the first book in your Memory War series. What can you tell us about this series?
I’ve already written the sequel, Engines Of Oblivion, which currently has a release date in the first quarter of next year and is currently available for preorder. Engines concerns the direct fallout of the events of Architects Of Memory in the galactic market, and it’s wild. I love it.
I chose to tell the story as a duology at the moment because there’s a natural stopping point at the end of Engines. While there’s absolutely a chance that the story could go further, as a debut author, it’s best to wait to see if the readers think so, too.
Upon learning that the Memory War series is a duology, some people will decide to wait until Engines Of Oblivion comes out before they read Architects Of Memory, and some will also decide to then read them back-to-back. But do you think there’s any reason why people shouldn’t wait to read Architects Of Memory?
For the same reason that most of us didn’t wait until 2019 to binge every Avengers or Star Wars film: the experience of reading it for the first time before randos on Twitter tell you the identity of Rey’s parents is much more fun! (I’m still salty about that, really. I also went into Avengers Endgame knowing who else would wield Mjolnir.)
I think a lot of people put off reading books in a series because they don’t like cliffhangers or the way cliffhangers make them feel. I’m certainly much happier with a cliffhanger when I don’t have to wait an entire summer to find out what happens. I can assure you that Architects Of Memory is a stand-alone story and satisfying on its own — it has its own beginning, middle, and end — and that if you don’t really want to wait, its sequel is flying close on its heels.
Speaking of the Memory War series, prior to writing Architects Of Memory you wrote a number of short stories. Are any of them part of this series?
Not officially. My novelette “Cratered,” which appeared in the 7/19 edition of Future Science Fiction, takes place in the same universe, but it’s much earlier on the timeline than anything Ash and company would recognize — positively ancient history by the time they’re all born. Nevertheless, it deals with a few of the events at the very beginning of the Architects timeline and might help readers discover why the spacelanes are run by executives and not presidents or kings.
Has there been any talk of collecting them into a book of their own?
I would absolutely love to do a collection down the line, and I’m definitely planning to do so. I’m going to give myself a few years to stretch my artistic wings and see what happens.
Now, earlier I asked if Architects Of Memory had been influenced by any movies, TV show, or video games. But has there been any interest in adapting Architects Of Memory into a movie, show, or game?
I think Architects would translate extremely well to a film, as it takes place in a span of just over two days. As a filmmaker myself, I tend to write visually and cinematically, and since I’ve spent so much time editing video, I often end up thinking of chunks of prose like I do scenes on a timeline. I already use the same spreadsheets and methodologies I used to write my event films in writing novels, so it works. I collected all those tools over the years, so I might as well use them.
If Architects Of Memory was going to be adapted into a movie, who would you like to see them cast as Ash and the other main characters?
I’ve never really had anyone particular in mind for Ash, so I’d love to see who a casting director comes up with. I know that sounds a little bit like I’m wiggling aside from the question, but I haven’t actually had television for the past few years, and so all my first choices are about ten years too old or too young for the part.
Well, except for one. I’ve always seen Emily Blunt as Twenty-Five‘s captain, Kate Keller. I imprinted on her performance in the sci-fi thriller Edge Of Tomorrow like a little fluffy duckling, and wrote some of the part with her in mind.
Also, given your filmmaking chops, would you want to be involved in making the Architects Of Memory movie, or would you rather someone else do it?
I think I might be in the minority here, because I’d want to work with the camera department. Seriously. I am a massive camera nerd, but you don’t often get to use the fabulous studio rigs when you’re out on a solo documentary because you just can’t haul all of the stuff yourself. I’ll pull focus, assist, swap lenses, get coffee for the cinematographer — whatever, really.
A lot of writers jump straight to wanting to write the screenplay to their film adaptation, but I’d rather leave that up to a more experienced screenwriter at the moment. Screenplays and novels are apples and oranges — being good at one doesn’t mean you’ll be good at the other — and I’d want what is best for the project.
Finally, if someone enjoys Architects Of Memory, what sci-fi space opera of someone else’s would you suggest they check out while waiting for Engines Of Oblivion to come out?
I think people would really enjoy Elizabeth Bear’s Ancestral Night, Marina Lostetter’s Noumenon, K.B. Wagers’ Indranan War and Farian War series, and Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire and A Desolation Called Peace. I would certainly recommend anything by C.J. Cherryh and Ann Leckie. I also highly enjoyed recent work by Derek Kunsken and Valerie Valdes. I’m also going to spend a ton of time pushing classics like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books.
If it’s new, and it’s in space, read it. I could spend hours talking about all of the new books coming out. I definitely want people to look forward and read as much new science fiction as they can. We are absolutely living and working in a new golden age of science fiction, and anyone who has their eyes trained only on the past is missing hundreds of delightful new classics. Please support your indie booksellers and debut authors in this pandemic year!