Exclusive Interview: “Devil Dancers” Author Robert E. Waters
During World War II, a group of Navajo worked with the U.S. Marines as code breakers, carrying on a tradition started in the first World War by the Cherokee And Choctaw peoples. And it didn’t end there for Native Americans serving in the armed forces. Taking that idea even further forward (and fictional) we present Devil Dancers and Other Tales (paperback, Kindle), a collection of military science fiction stories by writer Robert E. Waters. In the following email interview, Waters talks about how this collection came together, as well as what inspired and influences these short sci-fi stories.
To start, what are the stories in Devil Dancers And Other Tales about, and when and where do they take place?
The Devil Dancers stories are set in a far, far future where a human empire known as the Federated Union are fighting an intergalactic war with the Gulo, a wolverine-like race that has pushed into Union territory with severe force and violence. The war has been raging for decades “Standard Time” and one Union fighter squadron engaged in that war is called the Devil Dancers. The Devil Dancers are (primarily) Apache warriors from Earth or from one of the various native colonies that have fled Earth for various reasons. But they fight alongside their Union compatriots because no one is safe when Gulo armies and fleets are on the move. One of the lines that my main character, Captain Victorio “Tomorrow’s Wind” Nantan, is famous for typifies the situation that the Union finds itself in: “We’re all in this together.” It’s a fight for the very survival of the Union and humanity, and the DD are more than happy to assist.
Let me explain what Devil Dancers are. The official term is Ga’an Dancers — or Gan, or Gahn; there are various spellings. They are a dancing troupe comprised of four Ga’an mountain spirit dancers, and oftentimes, there’s a fifth dancer added to the troupe known as a clown to provide humor and levity to such solemn ceremonies. Each Ga’an Dancer represents one of the mountain spirits that Yusn Life-Giver, one of the holiest Apache spirits, sent to earth to teach the people how to be good citizens and stewards of the Earth, how to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, heal the sick. The mountain spirits would teach the people the proper life-way through dance, and thus Ga’an Dancers would perform during various Apache ceremonies as a way for the people to connect with the larger world and cosmos.
The term “Devil Dancers” is actually a derogatory term, attached to the Ga’an by white men (or “white eyes” as they are often called) because their movements were so erratic, chaotic, and their costumes and masks so devilish. But Captain Victorio knows that, even in the cold vacuum of space, a “devil” is feared and respected by both friend and foe alike. So, they use the term as a PR stunt in truth, and it has served them very well.
And where did you first get the idea to write these stories?
Well, I’ve always been interested in Native American culture, even as a boy. I remember my brother having one of those Time Magazine leather-bound picture books about Native Americans. I remember spending hours poring through the pages, looking at all the pictures, reading the captions. But it wasn’t until I entered college that I put my interest into practical study. I took a ton of Cultural Anthropology classes, some being about North American Indians, Meso-Americans, the Inca, you name it. In fact, if I had stayed one more semester, I’d have gotten a degree in Cultural Anthropology, and probably with a concentration in Native American cultures.
Then, sometime in the mid-’90s, I started getting interested again in writing science fiction and fantasy. I picked up one of those Osprey books about Apache warfare and read about how young Apache warriors were trained to be skilled fighters. I read it cover to cover, taking copious notes, but without any specific story in mind. I had a lot of nebulous ideas about how to introduce Native American culture into a science fiction setting, but nothing concrete. So, I packed away the ideas, the notes, and sat on them for over 10 years.
Then I met the McPhails. Editors Danielle and Mike McPhail had just started a new military science fiction series known as Defending The Future. They liked some of my previous work, and so they invited me to submit a story to them for this series. And boom! The Devil Dancers were born. I suddenly had a venue through which Captain “Victory” and his Devil Dancers could thrive.
So the stories in Devil Dancers And Other Tales are military sci-fi?
I see my Devil Dancers’ stories in two ways. Yes, first and foremost, they are military science fiction. We’re talking massive naval engagements and fighter-to-fighter dogfights in the cold darkness of space. You don’t get much more mil-sf than that. But I also see them as social science fiction. The Devil Dancers are not only trying to kill and/or capture as many Gulo as they can for the safety of the Union, but they are also trying to maintain their cultural identity, trying to preserve their tribal beliefs and traditions in a universe that, oftentimes, just doesn’t give a damn. It’s a stressful situation for them all, but they do what they can to keep that connection with their culture, their heritage.
Are there any writers, or specific stories, that were a big influence on the stories in Devil Dancers And Other Tales but not on anything else you’ve written?
Man, that’s a tough one to answer. For me anyway. I’m not sure I can point to any specific story that influenced the stories in Devil Dancers. So much of an author’s influences just sort of seep through and affect all of his/her writing, and often subconsciously. But, I can say with near certainty that Lucius Shepard’s collection of stories dealing with a future Central American war [The Best Of Lucius Shepard] had an enormous influence on my desire to try my hand at stories using native cultures and mythologies as a backdrop.
How about non-literary influences, such as movies, TV shows, or video games; did any of them have an influence on any of the stories in Devil Dancers And Other Tales?
Well, a lot of the movies that I grew up with in the late ’60s and ’70s were cowboy movies from the ’40s and ’50s — John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Allan Ladd, what have you — and many of them had Native American tribes from the Southwest. I mean, the so-called Union “cavalry” was always fighting someone in the dry brush country. Now, unfortunately, many of those old movies perpetuated cultural stereotypes, and so they didn’t make good reference material for a future writer whose goal was to be as accurate and honest as he could be when portraying Apache culture. What they did do, however, was show me a culture that would take no shit from any invader: American, Texan, Mexican, or otherwise. And that appealed to me. I knew that these people could endure a tough environment, a tough situation, and prevail.
Along with writing short stories and novels, you’ve also written and produced some tabletop games. Are any of the stories in Devil Dancers And Other Tales influenced by that work?
Yeah, a little, I think. For a short time I was an editor, writer, and assistant designer for The Avalon Hill Game Company. In the mid-’90s, they published a game called Geronimo, which was a board game about the Indian Wars of the 19th Century. I wasn’t directly involved in the development of that game, although I did have a minor role in it, and the subject matter certainly spurred my renewed interested in Native American cultures. We also did another game there called Maharaja, which was about the rise and fall of empire in India. And although it wasn’t directly related to anything dealing with ancient American cultures, many of the groups in the game rose and fell around the same time that the Native Americans were rising and falling in their own way. I think it’s interesting to study the parallels and deviations of cultures existing at the same time.
What about other people’s tabletop games; do you think any of the games you’ve played had any kind of impact on these stories?
On the military sci-fi side of things, I’ve certainly drawn ideas and influence from Starfire, Battlefleet Gothic, Silent Death. Heck, I’d say even such Age Of Sail games as Wooden Ships And Iron Men were influential. I don’t go into the nitty-gritty detail about fleet movements and maneuvers that other authors might do, but I do try to adhere to at least a semblance of logic when it comes to fleet and fighter engagements in zero-g.
So as far as Devil Dancers And Other Tales itself is concerned, what prompted you to put this collection together?
Well, I’ve been writing these stories for over ten years, most of them for Danielle and Mike. One of them, “The Sorrow Sea,” I wrote for another anthology. Danielle and I sat down at a sci-fi convention in New York early 2018, and during the conversation, she invited me to submit them all as a full collection. I was more than happy to do so, as I had brought up the idea before, but it just wasn’t the time earlier.
When you decided to put Devil Dancers And Other Tales together, did you already have enough stories for it, or did you have to write some new ones to flesh it out?
When we first started talking about the collection, I had four stories published. But I had two others — “Child Of The Water” and “I Am the Lightning” — that I had written for other anthologies that, unfortunately, went belly up. It happens sometimes in this biz, much to my chagrin. Those two combined were nearly 30 thousand words just waiting for a shot. So when Danielle made the offer, I was more than happy to add both of them to this collection, and as it turned out, they fit nicely within two gaps that needed filling in the timeline.
Did you also include a framing device in Devil Dancers And Other Tales?
The stories are presented in chronological order. They weren’t all written that way, however. The four stories (“Devil Dancers,” “I Give My Heart To The Hawks,” “The First Peace,” and “Medicine Man”) first published in the Defending The Future anthologies were written that way, but the other three (“The Sorrow Sea,” “Child Of The Water,” and “I Am The Lightning”) were originally written as one-offs, with no specific order in mind. But when I gathered all the stories together for the McPhails, those three one-offs fell nicely into gaps that were present in the timeline.
Are the versions of these stories the same as they were when they were published before, or did you make any changes?
Yes, we did make some changes from the original stories. When I first wrote them, I always took the tact of reiterating certain concepts because of the amount of time between each published story, and as a writer, you can’t assume that a person who reads The Sorrow Sea (published in another anthology) would have read the first story, Devil Dancers. So, for example, when the squadron performed their Ga’an dance from one story to the next, I would often use similar words and phrases to describe it. But such a tactic, as you know, doesn’t work on a full collection, if you assume that your readers will read the stories in order. So, those descriptions had to change somewhat to ensure that we didn’t have huge blocks of repetitive descriptions appearing back to back.
We talked earlier about the movies, TV shows, and games that influenced the stories in Devil Dancers And Other Tales. But has there been any interest in adapting any of these stories, or all of them, into a movie, show, or game?
I tell you, Paul, if any producer or director were to approach me about an adaptation, I’d be more than happy to have that conversation. No one has done so yet, alas, but perhaps after the collection is released…we’ll see.
And if it did, do you have a preference to the format?
I think it could be adapted for either a TV show or a movie, although a TV show might be best. The scope of the stories would have to be expanded, I think, to include more characters in many more roles: from single pilots to captains to admirals and everything in between. The stories in the collection are primarily focused on Captain Victorio’s point of view, although there are a few different POVs that pop up every once in a while. For the stories to continue beyond one season, more POVs, more voices, more personal stories would have to be added.
So what’s the plan for you and the Devil Dancers going forward? More stories? A novel?
I’m always thinking about new material for the Devil Dancers, and if I’m privileged to write more stories about them for the McPhails, I’ll jump at the chance. I consider this collection, however, to be the end-point of the Captain Victorio / Lieutenant Blue Bird story arch. My captain and his second-in-command (and love of his life) are just too banged up physically to subject them to any further punishment on the front line. The squadron’s third-in-command, Shines Like The Sun, will take over from here on out, and Victorio and Blue Bird will serve the squadron in other, less dangerous, ways. I’m excited about the future with these guys; they’re like family to me now.
Finally, if someone enjoys Devil Dancers And Other Tales which of your other books would you suggest they read next and why that one?
First up, I’d recommend The Masks Of Mirada, Book One in my Mask Cycle fantasy action-adventure series. It’s the story about a young thief and swords master, Sonata Diamante, and her intrepid bullmastiff side-kick, Fellfang, who stumble upon a mask that may spell doom for her entire world, and what’s she going to do about it? I’m currently working on the second novel in the series, The Thief Of Cragsport.
Second, I’d recommend The Cross Of Saint Boniface, Book One in my City Of The Gods trilogy. This one is what I’d call alternate history horror. It is set in 1500 AD, and the cursed East Prussian city of Starybogow is the epicenter of a war between the old Slavic Gods and the newer Eldar Gods who wish to spread death and desolation throughout the world. Published by Winged Hussar Publishing, it was released in 2018, and the second novel, The Swords of El Cid, is in the can and is scheduled for late 2019 / early 2020.
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