Exclusive Interview: “Escape Orbit” Author Patrick Chiles
Okay, stay with me. With Escape Orbit (paperback, Kindle), writer Patrick Chiles is presenting the sequel to his 2020 sci-fi novel Frozen Orbit. But he’s also presenting the second installment of a trilogy, which is also the sixth book in a series that started with 2012’s Perigee, then continued with 2015’s Farside and 2022 sci-fi technothriller Frontier…except that the Orbit trilogy are only loosely connected to those other books, and are more straight sci-fi. But don’t worry, in the following email interview about Escape Orbit, we talk about his dogs.
For people who haven’t read the previous books in this loosely-connected series, Frozen Orbit and Frontier, or the interviews we did about them [here and here], what is the set-up and setting for these novels?
I think “loosely connected” is an apt description. Both are about our expansion into the solar system, with the Earthbound intrigue and conflicts that inevitably follow. Escape Orbit is a direct sequel to Frozen Orbit, but there are some character crossovers between all three. The Orbit books are more of my “big idea” track, whereas Frontier is an action / adventure story that’s a bit of a throwback to Cold War technothrillers, which is a genre I have a well-known soft spot for.
And then for those who have read Frozen Orbit and Frontier, what is Escape Orbit about, and how does it connect to those books, narratively and chronologically?
Escape Orbit takes place a few years after the events of Frozen Orbit, when astronaut Jack Templeton has taken the stripped-down Magellan spacecraft back out to the edge of our solar system to find the mysterious “Planet Nine,” which is thought to be a Neptune-sized world lurking out beyond the Kuiper Belt. He’s not entirely alone: the ship’s A.I., Daisy, has achieved sentience, and has been watching over him after he’s forced to go into hibernation to survive the trip. Magellan disappeared around the time it should have been encountering this undiscovered planet, and it suddenly reappears five years later. There’s a lot of speculation back on Earth as to what might have happened, particularly how did Jack survive all this time? And his old crewmates, Traci Keene and Roy Hoover, are determined to find a way to bring him home.
When in the process of writing Frozen Orbit and Frontier did you come up with the idea for Escape Orbit, and what inspired this book’s plot?
Honestly, I’d not considered a Frozen Orbit sequel until my sister-in-law said she was dying to know what happened to Jack at the end. That made me realize just how open-ended I’d left his story, and reading up on some of the current theories as to what Planet Nine might actually be led to some intriguing possibilities. Is it a primordial black hole, or the core of a long dead companion star to our Sun? There was a heck of story waiting to be told, some good old “what if” science fiction that leads to unexpected places. Frontier doesn’t really play into it, other than a couple of cameos from characters who help Traci out of a jam. It was a lot of fun to add them to the story and I think it’ll leave readers satisfied.
Was your sister-in-law satisfied?
We’ll see, but I certainly hope so.
Frozen Orbit and Frontier were sci-fi technothrillers. Is Escape Orbit one as well?
Escape Orbit is more proper sci-fi, as I mentioned it’s part of the “big idea” track. There are some technothriller elements, namely bureaucratic and foreign intrigue. One of the points of conflict in Frozen Orbit was an American currency crash, which nearly scuttled the whole mission. The aftereffects of this play out in Escape in several ways, and I’m afraid they haven’t made life on Earth very enjoyable. They definitely limit Traci’s options and influence her decisions.
Obviously, given what we’ve been talking about, Escape Orbit is not your first novel. Are there any writers who had a particularly big influence on Escape Orbit but not on anything else you’ve written, and especially not Frozen Orbit and Frontier?
This might be a stretch, but Arthur C. Clarke immediately comes to mind. He had planned on 2001 being a one-off, and we all know how that turned out. I think I know how he felt now.
Aside from Clarke, are there any other writers who had a particularly big influence Escape Orbit?
Les Johnson was a tremendous help, and while he didn’t directly influence the story, he introduced me to a professor at Baylor whose work was pivotal in my understanding of some of the bizarre physics which does play a central role in the story. Les also helped me with solar sails, which is a major focus of his day job at NASA. While that ultimately didn’t make it into Escape Orbit, it’s going to be featured in the sequel in ways I think he’ll find interesting.
How about non-literary influences; was Escape Orbit influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
While I didn’t set out with any one influence in mind, Interstellar would be the most obvious example, just without all the crying. I don’t want to give away much more than that. Possibly Ex Machina, as I wanted to explore the possibilities and limits of synthetic intelligence.
And what about your lethargic dachshunds, Beanie and Frankie? What influence did they have on Escape Orbit?
They’re still around, and one of them is always either at my feet or by my side in my writing chair.
As we’ve been discussing, Escape Orbit is part of the same series as Frozen Orbit and Frontier. Do you have plans for more books in this series?
Escape Orbit was a bit of an education for me, and not just in the background science. I went down a lot of blind alleys that ultimately had to be cut from the story, more than any other I’ve written before. I’m not much of a “discovery” writer, but once I took some time to string those excised chapters together, it turned out I had the opening act of a pretty exciting sequel that will tie this whole thing up into a nice little trilogy. It’s currently saved under the working title of Terminal Orbit, but we’ll see how that turns out. It will probably feature one or two crossover characters that will influence the Frontier series as well. I’m still formulating the sequels for that one, and they’re going to be big. I can see that story arc culminating in something like Red Storm Rising, with the inner solar system being a major theater of conflict. There’s at least two more books there.
Do you have any idea when these might be out?
I can’t offer a timeline on any of them, other than to say “as soon as possible.” I’m currently under contract for a two-book series with Baen that is going to be a bit of a departure from my previous work. I’m having a lot of fun writing them and I think that’s going to come across to the readers as well.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Escape Orbit?
Since the underlying technology was already well established in Frozen Orbit, there isn’t much to add there. Escape Orbit is more character driven, and I especially enjoyed fleshing out Daisy and her interaction with a couple of new A.I. characters. She really comes into her own in some unexpected ways.
Finally, if someone enjoys Escape Orbit, what sci-fi novel you read recently would you suggest they read next?
By now it’s obvious that near-future sci-fi appeals to me most because I want to see these things happening right now. Joelle Presby’s Dabare Snake Launcher [which you can read more about here] has some great bleeding-edge engineering combined with good old-fashioned Earthbound intrigue, uniquely influenced by her childhood in Africa.
I also enjoyed Daniel Suarez’s Delta-V, and have recently started reading the sequel, Critical Mass. Otherwise, I’m mostly reading nonfiction lately. Those seem to be where my best ideas come from. A few juicy anecdotes from an astronaut or engineer can get spun into some great stories if you let them marinate in your head long enough.