War…war never changes. But it does change the people it leaves behind. Which is where we find Karen Osborne’s sci-fi space opera duology, the Memory War. In the following email interview, Osborne not only discusses what inspired and influenced the second book, Engines Of Oblivion (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), and how it connects to the first one, Architects Of Memory (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), but whether this actually is the end of the story.
Photo Credit: Josh Snitkoff
For those who didn’t read the first book, Architects Of Memory, what is the Memory War series about, and when and where does it take place?
The series is set two hundred years in the future, where multinational corporations, not governments, took to the stars in the wake of climate change. When first contact with an alien race happens, millions die. The Vai come out of nowhere, destroying entire fleets, colonies, and companies, and then disappear. The Memory War series is what happens in the aftermath of that conflict, as these traumatized humans and shredded corporations try to explain to themselves just what happened.
And that’s where the “war” comes in. The least healthy place for that kind of reckoning to happen is capitalism — or the supercapitalism of Architects and Engines. History is written by the powerful, and our own goals and beliefs change our views and memories. We gaslight others, we are gaslight by others. We rely on reductive stories, justify horrors, and twist narratives to best suit our personal and class agendas. Our memories are often rewritten in our own minds to fit the stories we tell about ourselves. History is a horror written over with smiley faces, as the crew of the salvage ship Twenty-Five finds out.
After the Vai retreat, the corporations start fighting over the alien technology left behind. The citizens and indentures caught up in the conflict all need to learn how to survive in a world where the rules of life itself have irrevocably changed. One of those people is Ash Jackson, a terminally ill salvage pilot who just wants to earn her corporate citizenship and get healthcare for her ongoing condition. Ash uncovers a genocidal Vai weapon in the wreckage of the last battle of the war — which might hold the secret to keeping the aliens away for good, or, on the other hand, might provide the corporations with the ultimate source of power. The discovery starts an arms race that threatens to turn Ash into a living weapon — and destroy the people she loves the most.
And then what is Engines Of Oblivion about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to Architects Of Memory?
Engines Of Oblivion shifts its focus to the Auroran flagship, where Natalie Chan, Ash’s friend and co-worker, has finally gotten what she wanted all along: corporate citizenship. She’s happy — even as she struggles with trauma and memory loss from the events of Architects — until her bosses figure out that she’s been lying to them about what happened to Ash Jackson, who is the only person left with the power to destroy the Vai. And seeing as they’ve returned to human space, weapons bristling, the executives are pissed.
Locked away in Natalie’s missing memory is a secret that can save — or destroy — entire civilizations, and with the threat of a new Vai war hanging over their heads, Aurora Company will do anything to own it. Where will Natalie stand — with the corporation to which she’s given her life, or with the friends she’s pledged to defend?
Engines deals a lot with the issue of how memory makes us who we are. Natalie has to function in a world where she doesn’t even know what she’s forgotten. Why can we remember what we ate for lunch on a summer’s day seven years ago when we otherwise can’t remember entire swaths of time: months, weeks, years? Why do childhood traumas continue to affect our bodies as adults, even if we can’t remember them? If time has dimmed the memory of someone we love — a friend, a spouse, a parent — how much of their influence still remains?
And, of course, you’ll still get all the twists and double-crosses and insane space battles you’ve come to expect from the series. It’s a kitchen-sink book, gross and beautiful and dealing with lots of themes and subplots like a violent, emotional layer cake. It’s a lot of fun.
When in the process of writing Architects Of Memory did you come up with the idea for Engines Of Oblivion, and how, if at all, did that idea change as you wrote this second story?
I started writing the series to have some fun during National Novel Writing Month, so I didn’t really know where I was going. About 30k in, I realized that there was way more story involved than I could fit in Architects‘ one eventful weekend. Which is fine — one of my favorite things ever are long, delicious, dramatic character arcs.
Originally, Ash was going to continue as the protagonist of the series. But books are tricksy creatures, and characters often have minds of their own. Once I knew where she and Kate would end up, they told me — loud and clear — that there was no way they would set foot on an Auroran ship of their own volition ever again. As a writer, when your characters are that clear with you, you’ve just gotta listen.
At the same time, I realized that I was having a hell of a good time writing Natalie Chan. She was tangled and complicated and cool, and she stole every scene. I mean, I love Ash and Kate down to my bones, but Natalie just flowed out of my fingers with zingers flying. I also discovered that Natalie’s arc wasn’t going to be completely resolved in Architects Of Memory, because there’s just so much trauma living under her skin and that can’t be sloughed off in the few decisions she makes at the end of the book. So Natalie would go back to Aurora, and there would be consequences to that. I love consequences.
The last thing I did before handing in Architects Of Memory was to go back and revise for Natalie’s arc and add bits of foreshadowing for Engines Of Oblivion that readers might not even register as such the first time around. It was delightful. I might have been cackling. We writers live for that kind of thing.
In the previous interview we did about Architects Of Memory [which you can read by clicking here], you said it was, “a fairly classic space opera.” Is that what you’d say about Engines Of Oblivion as well?
It’s still a space opera — there are massive fleet battles, communication with aliens, and at least two incredibly nerdy EVA sequences — but I would also call it a corporate espionage thriller in the vein of Total Recall, Inception, and The Blacklist.There’s spycraft, there’s backroom politics, there are explosive chases and fistfights and communicating with aliens and at least one scene where a character is forced to do brain surgery in the shower.
Natalie’s actively trying to save her own bacon and that of her friends while making sure the galaxy-shifting technology she’s worked on for a year doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. But who are the wrong hands? Can she get over her hate and her pain? Can she outwit executives playing at the highest levels? Who can she trust? And what happens when she can’t remember the most important thing she needs to know? What happens when you can’t remember who you are? Total cyberpunk corporate thriller.
Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Engines Of Oblivion but not on Architects Of Memory?
There are no direct influences. Basically, if a story gets too close to something I’m writing or want to write, I wait until I’m done with my own work to read it, and everything from 2015 on that matches somewhat is in my to-be-read pile. Natalie uses a neural-implant-esque device called a memoria to help her piece together her missing memories and her past, so there’s definitely some earlier Alistair Reynolds, William Gibson, Pat Cadigan, C.J. Cherryh, and Neal Stephenson in it, a lot of as well as some early Elizabeth Bear and James S.A. Corey in Engines. The biggest influence, of course, is the world and the style of Architects Of Memory; this was my first time writing a sequel, and I wanted to make sure that everything tied back to the first book.
And what about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Did any of those things have a big influence on Engines Of Oblivion?
I always write to soundtracks. Always. This book was written to the Inception, Interstellar, and The Expanse soundtracks, as well as a Spotify playlist called “This Is Ramin Djawadi,” so that should give you a clue as to the aesthetic of the series.
To be honest, The Expanse is actually fast becoming a major influence in my writing and artistic life — and I do specifically mean the television show, even though the books are fun, too. Authors very rarely get to examine their work and improve on it after it’s published and on bookshelves, but that’s exactly what the authors of the series have been able to do, as they’re the showrunners.
The result is probably the best space opera I’ve ever seen, and a master class in how to revise a story as you go, which is a technique I still need to work on. I love the way the series uses its very strong characters to tell interpersonal stories that are both really deep and human while including space battles and alien tech and future politics and other “standard” SFnal things, which is what I was aiming at doing in Engines Of Oblivion. The series gets more spectacular every season and it’s really something to admire.
Now, as you know, some people — myself included — have been waiting for Engines Of Oblivion to come out so we can read it and Architects Of Memory back to back. Though, obviously, in the correct order. Do you think this is the best way to enjoy this story or do you think that I, I mean we’ve made a terrible mistake, one I’ll regret for the rest of our lives?
It’s meant to be read however you like, and I’m really proud of that part. They’re both stand-alone stories with full arcs. I’m the kind of reader who loves resolution and hates cliffhangers, who enjoys purchasing and binging an entire series in a long weekend, so as a writer, whenever I toss a character over a cliff, I’ll always try to provide some real resolution first.
But if you’re a reader interested in character arcs and consequences, the best way is to actually read them one after another. Architects took place over one weekend, while Engines wends its way through a matter of months, so by reading it all at once you get to see how the characters grow, get to understand some of the foreshadowing in the first book in the context of the second, and see how the secrets have twisted and metastasized in a way that I think reads really well. And you won’t have forgotten, like Natalie…
…oops, gotta stop there. Spoilers!
Some people who write duologies or trilogies or other kinds of series that are a set number of books telling a single story will later expand upon that story with sequels or side stories. Are you planning to do this as well?
It’s still a duology at the moment, but I certainly hope to get that chance to expand. I tend to worldbuild a lot, so there are plenty of threads to follow in the Memory War; we haven’t even seen how Ballard Systems works, for example, and that’s a killer story on its own, and you see a character in Architects called Aster Jessen for about ten minutes who already has an entire novel of her own in my head. If I don’t get to write that novel, it’ll definitely show up in some form on my Patreon.
But writing is how I pay my mortgage and my grocery bill, so I have to listen to the readers when choosing my next project. When you’re a working writer, it’s always a dance between the thing you want to do and the thing your publisher thinks will find a home on readers’ shelves, and if you’re extremely lucky, sometimes it’s even the same thing. I can cross my fingers, but in the end, it’s up to everyone out there.
Currently, I’m working on an unrelated space opera in an entirely new setting, tackling questions of conservation and climate change and our responsibilities to the universe. I’m having a lot of fun with it, but we’ll see what happens.
We also talked in the previous interview about how your novelette “Cratered” took place in the same universe as Architects Of Memory and Engines Of Oblivion, but not at the same time, and was unconnected. Does “Cratered” appear in any versions of Engines Of Oblivion?
The technology in “Cratered” is actually an incredibly early version of what will eventually become the superhaptic interfaces in Engines Of Oblivion, and Natalie experiences a lot of the same effects that Kate and Arjun in Cratered experienced in the very first chapter of the book, when she’s in a puppet haptic rig executing a mission on a planet. I’ll try not to be too spoilery for the folks who haven’t read the story, but that technology fails miserably for the original corporate Moon and Mars colonies and is put aside for a long time, until scientists at Wellspring and Aurora both independently figure out that they can insert Vai technology as the missing link to make it work.
I would love to do a collection of stories someday, but I think that’s probably a few years off. I really love “Cratered” and it would definitely be in there.
Finally, if someone enjoys reading Architects Of Memory and Engines Of Oblivion, what sci-fi space opera duology of someone else’s would you recommend they read next?
I don’t know if these two are actual duologies or just entries in a series, but they can both be read as such. Elizabeth Bear’s Ancestral Night and Machine are spectacular space operas about space pirates and shipminds and alien intelligences, while Derek Kunsken’s The Quantum Magician and its sequel The Quantum Garden are big-idea space opera about genetic engineering and interstellar war and space heists, and they’re delightful. Duologies are great fun to read in general because you can spend a lot more time with your favorite characters in your favorite universes, but you rarely get the slumpy middlebits that often show up in trilogies. But maybe that’s just me — I hate writing middles.