When left unchecked, sibling rivalries can tear a family apart. But what’s terrible for families is good for fiction, as writer Kristyn Merbeth shows with her sci-fi space opera series, The Nova Vita Protocol trilogy. In the following email interview, Merbeth discusses what inspired and influenced both this series and its recently released conclusion, Discordia (paperback, Kindle).
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The trilogy takes place in the distant future, and follows the Kaisers, a dysfunctional family of interplanetary smugglers. While the five inhabited planets of the Nova Vita system all have closed borders, the Kaisers have the unique ability to travel between the worlds — and they use this, naturally, for crime.
At the beginning of the series, the family is under the control of their matriarch, Captain Auriga Kaiser (or “Momma”), but when she decides it’s time to retire, her two oldest children both expect to inherit the ship and business. The series is told from their alternating points of view: Scorpia, the ship’s charming, reckless, bisexual disaster of a pilot, and Corvus, the grim, determined soldier who has been away fighting a civil war on his birth-planet. After their mother drags them into an interplanetary war, the two siblings have to grapple over who will be in charge of the family, and what kind of future they intend to lead them to.
And then for people who have read them, and thus don’t need to heed my SPOILER WARNING, what is Discordia about, and, aside from being the final book of the trilogy, how else does it connect to Memoria, both narratively and chronologically?
Discordia takes place a few months after the story leaves off in Memoria. The Kaisers and their crew of outcasts and misfits have taken off from a now-peaceful Nibiru and are free to roam the stars again. But the system has shrunk to only a few safe planets, and various planetary governments are eager to either learn what the Kaisers know or lock them away to keep their secrets safe. The crew soon find themselves at the top of a most-wanted list, and with tensions rising fast between Deva and Pax, they have to decide whether to stay out of the conflict or thrust themselves right into the middle of another blossoming planetary war. The future of the system depends on their choice to speak out about the dangerous alien secrets they know, or stay silent.
As you said, this trilogy is somewhat centered around a sibling rivalry. Do you have any siblings? Because I’m wondering if you get more snide remarks at Thanksgiving or when celebrating their birthdays.
Ha! Yes, I have two younger brothers who are very important to me and a large part of why I wanted to focus on sibling relationships in this series. I’m pretty sure most of the snide remarks happen on my birthday — especially this year, since I turned 30 and am now, apparently, “super old.” (One of my brothers brought a cane to my birthday party because “I’ll need it soon.”) Generally, we get along very well, though we do have some intense lemon-eating contests and talk a lot of shit during video games.
When in relation to writing Fortuna and Memoria did you come up with the plot of Discordia, and how, if at all, did the plot change as you wrote this story?
I knew most of the main plot points from early on in the series, and always had a sense of how I wanted to wrap things up for the various characters, but I did a lot of the fine-tuning after finishing writing Memoria. I had to figure out exactly where to leave off for that book first, and swapped some major events from the end of book two too early in book three, which required some shuffling around.
But really, thinking back, I don’t think there were a lot of major changes to the plot once I started working on it in earnest…just tweaks to pacing, added / deleted scenes, that sort of thing. I had already spent a lot of time thinking about how I wanted this story to end, so I just had to find the right road there.
Like Fortuna and Memoria, Discordia is a sci-fi space opera novel. Are there any other genres at work in this story as well?
Action is my favorite thing to write, so my books tend to have some thriller elements, and I also drew from my love of horror for some of the survival scenarios. And of course, there’s plenty of family drama, along with some crime family aspects. Plus, a little sprinkle of romance in the subplots, though that’s not the main focus of the story.
Are there any writers, or maybe stories, that had a particularly big influence on Discordia but not on any of your other novels, especially Fortuna and Memoria?
Discordia provides a deeper dive into the planets of Deva and Pax, and I sought inspiration from some new sources while exploring those worlds, such as Sue Burke’s Semiosis for the strange Devan jungles and Dune for the desert world of Pax. And as I decided how I wanted to leave this universe, I turned to some recent sci-fi novels with big philosophical ideas about the future of humankind, both dismal and hopeful, such as Becky Chambers’ To Be Taught, If Fortunate, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children Of Time, and Temi Oh’s Do You Dream Of Terra-Two?
And what about non-literary influences? Was Discordia influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games? Because when we did the interview for your novel Bite, you mentioned that, “If I’m not reading or writing, I’m probably gaming.” And there’s also that gaming app, Discord.
Aha, yes, the title works as a nice shout-out to Discord for getting me through the disaster that was 2020. I pulled some inspiration from various space horror and survival stories, such as the Alien series and the movie Life, and space exploration games like FTL and Deep Sky Derelicts. And during one particular sequence, I sought to capture some of the paranoia of social deduction / traitor games like the board game version of Battlestar Galactica and the video game Among Us. (There’s one moment in particular that’s definitely strongly inspired by both Among Us and Alien. Beware the air vents.)
Speaking of the other interviews we’ve done, in the one we did about Memoria, you said, “I wrote this trilogy during a time of great turmoil in the United States and the world at large, and I have poured all of my anxiety about the present and my fears and hopes for the future into them.” How do you think the turmoil of the last few years, and your anxiety and fears about them, influenced Discordia specifically?
In previous books, the characters have been largely focused on dealing with immediate threats and ensuring the safety of their family. But in this book they begin to think more about the future, as well: How will they be remembered? What legacy will they leave behind? A lot of what they’re worrying about here is parallel to what’s been on my mind, as well, after the last few years: What comes next? How can we stop repeating the same mistakes? How do we heal, and rebuild, and ensure that we don’t go through all of this again in the future? These questions about our own world weighed on my mind while I decided how I wanted to say goodbye to this universe and the characters within it.
As we’ve been discussing, Fortuna, Memoria, and Discordia form The Nova Vita Protocol trilogy. Did you look at any other writer’s trilogies, or the last movie in a movie trilogy, to see what to do, and not to do, in bringing The Nova Vita Protocol to a satisfying conclusion?
Definitely. This is my first trilogy, and I wanted to make sure I was doing my characters justice. I’ve read through a couple of great trilogies over the last few years while working on my own. Myke Cole’s The Sacred Throne trilogy and R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War trilogy come to mind. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker also gave me some good notes on what not to do, because jeez, it’s a horrible experience for a trilogy’s conclusion to feel like a betrayal. In the end, though, I had to tune a lot of that out and trust my own instincts — as I mentioned earlier, I’ve always had a sense of how I wanted this story to conclude, so it was more of a matter of bringing my characters to that ending in a way that felt fun, and right, and satisfying.
As you know, the end of a trilogy isn’t always the end of the story. Some writers expand upon their trilogies with side stories, while others will write sequel or prequel trilogies. Are you thinking you’ll be expanding this story as well?
I don’t currently have any plans to expand on this trilogy. I love these characters and this universe, but I’ve dedicated the last three or so years to them, and find myself eager to explore new worlds. I’m the type of writer who finishes one thing and wants to dive into something very different — especially since I enjoy reading and writing a wide range of genres. I’d love to try my hand at fantasy…but we’ll see where my muse takes me. (And also, of course, I would never rule out the idea of returning to the Nova Vita universe and the Kaiser family someday in the future. There’s still plenty to explore, both before and after this trilogy, if I want to.)
On the flipside of that, there are people who’ve been waiting for Discordia to come out so they can read the entire Nova Vita Protocol trilogy back-to-back. But do you think that’s the best way to experience this story?
I’ll admit I’m biased, because I am not generally a person who likes to binge read (or watch, or play…). I prefer to space things out and give myself time to process the story and think in between installments. I personally feel that spreading out the read, especially with a fairly epic, lengthy trilogy like this, can also add to the sense of the passage of time…letting the changes to the world during and between books, and the growth of the characters over the storyline, really sink in.
But, on the other hand, maybe it would be fun to read the books back-to-back and be able to rapidly experience the character development with previous books still fresh in your mind.
So, is there anything else you think people should know about Discordia and The Nova Vita Protocol trilogy before deciding whether or not to buy them?
The series is about messy family relationships and deeply flawed characters just as much as it’s about space wars and blaster fights. If you aren’t interested in those things, it’s probably not the series for you.
Finally, if someone enjoys Fortuna, Memoria, and Discordia, they’ll probably want something quick to tear through next. So, what sci-fi space opera novella would you suggest they check out?
Ooh, Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti novellas are perfect for this. They’re quick reads, but pack a stunning amount of depth for such a short page count. I finished each one in about a day, but was left thinking about the characters, world, and themes for months afterward.