Given how dangerous it can be, we don’t usually think of space as a place for “sexy time.” But that’s exactly what you get, and more, from Bendi Barrett’s new erotic sci-fantasy horror space opera novella Empire Of The Feast (paperback). In the following email interview, Barrett discusses what inspired and influenced this sexy science fiction story.
For starters, what is Empire Of The Feast about, and when and where is it set?
In the broadest possible strokes, the story is about and takes place within a futuristic galaxy that’s suffered some…trouble in the past. Namely, a good chunk of it was gobbled up by a dark force called The Rapacious. Good news: a powerful woman and her crew of witches managed to lock The Rapacious in the sun. Bad news: she established a nepotistic empire with her own reincarnating self at its head to rule; indefinitely, of course.
The book starts with the empress’s thirty-second iteration coming to consciousness, but this latest incarnation doesn’t have any of the memories needed to rule. The newly minted emperor has to navigate a volatile political situation triggered by his predecessor’s death and an even more dangerous force trying to break out of its solar cage. Somewhere in there is a space orgy.
Where did you get the idea for Empire Of The Feast, and how, if at all, did that idea evolve as you wrote it?
Actually, the idea came pretty rapidly. I was approached by dave ring at Neon Hemlock about potentially writing something for their 2022 novella series, and I didn’t have an idea, so I asked what kind of stories he didn’t have in the group so far. His answer was basically: space opera, and I thought that would give me plenty of room to play around.
There was a bit of evolution in the outlining process, but honestly, the book that’s going to land in the hands of readers is very close to the one I initially pitched. I would say most, if not all, the refining is the kind of typical sharpening of narrative and theme you’d expect in taking an idea from infancy to big kid school.
So is there a reason why Riverson is the ruler of an empire as opposed to an elected leader or, conversely, someone lower down the political totem pole?
I think that’s a solid question, and I think that the story dips a toe into exactly that. In this case, so much of what defines the titular empire is this fear that instability will mean a return to the bad old days. So, anything done in the name of maintaining order and continuity is seen as necessary. In the case of Riverson specifically, he wakes up without his memories, so he’s presented with a system that he immediately sees is not functioning perfectly. But he’s also missing so much necessary context, and even if he wants to change things, he doesn’t exactly know how.
So, I think Riverson needs to be at the top of the heap to show how broken the system is and how those overwhelming pressures keep people from shaking up the status quo too much.
That said, there’s absolutely a book to be written about the people lower down the totem pole.
What about his family’s history with the river? Does that hold any significance? Or am I reading too much into his name being River…son?
Riverson takes his name from a throwaway line by his First-Retainer / confidant, Leeds, about the river bringing a son to the empire. In the story, the river is a sort of mystical connection between the world-eating beast, The Rapacious, and the empress who locked it in the sun. It’s both a source of power and a potential powder keg because no one seems to know exactly how it works except the empress. And when Riverson shows up instead of her, it’s a source for immediate concern.
Complicated family dynamics there, for sure.
You mentioned earlier that Empire Of The Feast was a sci-fi space opera story, but it also sounds a bit space fantasy as well. How would you’d describe it?
It’s a sci-fantasy erotic horror space opera. Definitely a genre that you’d see at your local bookshop and that everyone is familiar with.
Now, unless I’m mistaken, Empire Of The Feast is your first published book…
I’m in a weird position regarding publishing because under my pen name Benji Bright, I’ve had publications, including a serialized novel and an erotic novella. Much of that is out of print now, but I’ve been swimming around in the speculative fiction pool for years. However, under my name, I’ve mostly published interactive fiction and smaller pieces. So, this feels like my first book, though technically, it’s not.
I stand corrected. So are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a particularly big influence on Empire Of The Feast but not on anything else you’ve written?
A few that come to mind immediately for this book are The Locked Tomb series by Tamsyn Muir and The Machineries Of Empire series by Yoon Ha Lee. Both series walk this wobbly line between science and mysticism, which strongly appeals to me. I liked not having to stick to hard sci-fi concepts and these books provided a great roadmap. In fact, there are little Easter eggs in the book that kind of reference both these series; I hope people find them.
Oh, and there’s some Dune in there. Of course.
How about non-literary influences; was Empire Of The Feast influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Jumping straight from my disavowal of hard sci-fi, I think probably the closest thing on TV that speaks to what I’m trying to do in this book is The Expanse, possibly. I think it has analogous ideas about a galaxy full of fractious politics where everyone has their own competing agendas, ideas of what things should look like. Empire Of The Feast very much throws the reader into a tenuous political situation alongside the protagonist.
As for games, this is way out of left-field, but Control comes to mind. Similarly to Empire Of The Feast you have a person dropped into a situation with a supernatural threat. It also lives and dies by its images, which is something I hope will resonate with readers when they get their hands on the book.
Sci-fi novellas are sometimes self-contained stories, and sometimes they’re part of larger sagas. What is Empire Of The Feast?
As of right now, Empire Of The Feast is a self-contained story. I definitely think there’s room to grow from here, but readers can pick this one up and expect a complete tale with a resolution that leaves a good taste in their mouth. And if the ending happens to potentially set up something down the road, well…
Earlier we talked about the movies, TV shows, and games that influenced Empire Of The Feast. But to flip things around, do you think Feast could work as movie, show, or game?
This is possibly (probably?) a cop out, but if there’s a form of media that this story could work best in it might be the graphic novel. I’m so impressed by the grandiose nature of the visual world building in books like Tom Parkinson-Morgan’s Kill Six Billion Demons and Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s Monstress. Also, shoot, how did I not remember to list Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga as an influence?
I don’t actually know if I think this story is best told on a big screen. It’s…quite spicy and very frank about its sexuality. I imagine it would probably represent a pretty big risk for a studio to take on; otherwise, it would likely see its eroticism severely curtailed, which would be a bummer since so much of the book is built on the way the sex, politics, and magic co-mingle.
As for a game, maybe, but it would take some innovative thinking.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Empire Of The Feast?
This book is definitely weird, but it’s also rollicking, political, sensuous, and nerdy. I’m deeply glad it’s going to be in the world, and if you like your books a little bit outré and daring, then it’ll look good on your shelf.
Finally, if someone enjoys Empire Of The Feast, what sci-fi space fantasy / space opera novel or novella would you suggest they read next?
I’m fudging the question (again) and going a bit broad, but Izzy Wasserstein’s All The Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From is a short story collection that when it turns its eye to science fiction is razor sharp, but bursting with feeling and a particular kind of perfectly realized melancholy. [For more on All The Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away, check out this interview with Izzy Wasserstein.]
Then, closer to the original question: Tamsyn Muir’s The Locked Tomb series which concludes with the forthcoming Nona The Ninth is the kind of operatic, demented space fantasy I’ve always wanted to read; I think there’s a lot to love in its messy, flawed, singularly driven characters and its decrepit world. If there are books to put mine next to, it’s probably these.
For anyone craving something specifically erotic and sci-fi (or speculative, more generally) I’d have to recommend the work of Cecilia Tan and Circlet Press. Circlet has been putting out quality, smartly written, and keenly edited work for decades, and Tan’s Telepaths Don’t Need Safewords is practically a foundational text for the speculative erotica space.