Joy Division once proclaimed that “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” But in her science fiction novel Barbary Station (paperback, Kindle), writer R E Sterns introduces us to two women so determined to not let that happen that they end up on a space adventure that will eventually encompass three books. Though in talking to her about this, the first novel in a planned trilogy, Sterns pointed out that this didn’t actually start out as a sci-fi love story.
Photo Credit: Carlos Romero
Let’s start with a plot summary. What is Barbary Station about?
When two women love each other very much, and the ruined economy of a postwar galaxy threatens to keep them apart, they resort to space piracy in order to stay together. Lying pirates, an abandoned space station, and untrustworthy artificial intelligence make joining a crew much more difficult than our heroines anticipated. They stand to make a fortune, if they can survive long enough to claim it.
Where did you get the original idea for Barbary Station, and how different is the finished novel from that initial concept?
SpaceX was just beginning to have success with their Grasshopper rocket when I was writing up ideas for Barbary Station, which was probably the start of it all. However, the first scene I mapped out was about space pirates being interviewed for a podcast. By the time I decided who they were, how they came to be there, and what they were trying to do, that scene had become a very small part of the middle of the book.
Barbary Station has been called a space opera. Do you agree with this, or do you think it belongs to a different subgenre of sci-fi?
In the MIT Technology Review, Stephen Cass defines hard sci-fi as “tales grounded in the cutting edge of science and technology (albeit with varying degrees of artistic license)” which multiple actual scientists describe as not only plausible but inspirational for their own investigations at the edges of their field. On what seems to be the other end of a spectrum, Emily Asher-Perrin of Tor.com describes space opera as “adventurous stories…writ large and bursting with color and light,” prioritizing art and entertainment over scientific accuracy.
My goal with Barbary Station was to deliver romance and adventure based in a universe almost identical to ours, with its usual rules and limitations. That most closely fits the space opera subgenre. However, I’m fascinated by technology and I’ve been told that I got a lot of the facts right in Barbary Station, so I hope the novel will satisfy science-minded readers as well.
Barbary Station has garnered praise from such fellow sci-fi writers as Ann Leckie [Ancillary Justice, Provenance], Mur Lafferty [Six Wakes], and Stephen Baxter [The Massacre Of Mankind]. But do you think someone who has enjoyed those books, or others by those writers, will enjoy Barbary Station?
The fundamental unknowability about what other people think and like is kind of the point of the novel as an art form, isn’t it? But I think if you enjoyed the large cast, complicated situations a long way from Earth, and mystery-style action in Six Wakes, you’d like Barbary Station. The Imperial Radch novels have amazing A.I.s, and do fun stuff with gender, so if you just finished Provenance, and are wishing for more space adventure, Barbary Station might be worth checking out. And honestly, Stephen Baxter just published a sequel to The War Of The Worlds called The Massacre of Mankind. Everybody who likes the idea of Barbary Station will also have enjoyed at least one Stephen Baxter story, because he’s got a massive range of amazing sci-fi.
I’m sure that Firefly and Serenity influenced Barbary Station, because I’ve watched them so many times. The Firefly soundtrack is on my rotation of music to write by. One obvious influence was Zoe and Wash’s relationship. I have a permanent crush on Zoe Washburn, and I love the way she looks out for the safety of her usually ship bound spouse. I am sure readers will spot similarities in Iridian’s and Adda’s relationship. Also, Barbary Station and Firefly both take place in universes where a recent war still affects the worlds and the people who live there.
What about other TV shows, movies, or, for that matter, video games? Are there any that you feel had a big impact on Barbary Station?
Barbary Station’s specialized ships are a bit like those in the computer game EVE Online, and the holographic user interfaces were almost certainly inspired by Blade Runner and trippy visual effects from Sense8. And Tara and Willow got together in Buffy The Vampire Slayer during a formative period in my life.
How about more literary influences; what writers or specific books do you feel had a big influence on both how you wrote Barbary Station and what you wrote about?
The ones I hope influenced Barbary Station the most were the Expanse series by James S.A. Corey [Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, and Abaddon’s Gate], and Nathan Lowell’s Golden Age Of The Solar Clipper series. They show that people will be people wherever they are, and space makes life uniquely complex. My joy at running words together to make natural futuristic terminology, and my effort to explain as little as possible, definitely came from William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Neuromancer’s A.I.s have some commonalities with Barbary Station’s, as well. The artificial intelligence in Barbary Station is also a bit Lovecraftian, in that it is frightening, vast, and unfathomable.
A lot of the sci-fi novels I’ve read lately have been the first book in a series of three or five or whatever, as opposed to a stand-alone novel. Where does Barbary Station fall; is it part of a series or a stand-alone novel, and why is it whatever it is?
It stands by itself well, and it’s the first of a trilogy. None of the characters would just sit around after the story is over. In particular, the artificial intelligence story arc introduced in Barbary Station will take three books to conclude.
I asked earlier about the movies, TV shows, and video games that may have influenced Barbary Station. But has there been any interest in adapting Barbary Station into a movie, show, or game?
Though a few people have described Barbary Station as “cinematic,” I’m not aware of any specific interest in adapting it at this time. I think it could make a great comic or video game, because there’s so much going on in and behind every scene. It’d be fun to see what else could’ve happened at certain decision points.
So what kind of game do you think it should be, and who do you think should make it?
I’d love to see an episodic graphic adventure game of Barbary Station, in which you choose between in-character decisions our heroines could make, and then see how those play out. That format takes advantage of the narrative and world building to give you a wider view of the characters and their universe. Telltale Games is the major producer of this type of game right now, so much so that a “Telltale” game is practically its own genre. If Campo Santo got inspired to make something similar, that’d also be awesome, because they, too, have a flawless grasp of narrative games.
Finally, if someone really enjoys Barbary Station what would you suggest they read next and why that?
If you haven’t read Ann Leckie’s books [Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy, Provenance] for some reason, read those because they are high quality science fiction. If you have, Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion a.k.a. Lesbians In Space is a visceral tale of even more women doing even more wild things in space. And if you’ve read both of those, Autonomous by Annalee Newitz has pirates and robots and pharmaceutical smuggling. You can’t say no to that.