Actions have consequences. And not always ones that can be foreseen. Take Brian Nelson’s military sci-fi technothriller trilogy The Course Of Empire. In the following email interview, Nelson explains how actions in the first book, The Last Sword Maker (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), come back to bite people in the ass in the newly released second one, Five Tribes (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook).
Photo Credit: © 2017 Andrew Clark
To begin, what is Five Tribes about, and when and where does it take place?
If The Last Sword Maker was about the U.S. military creating a new generation of weapons by combining A.I., genetic engineering, and nanotechnology, then Five Tribes is the story about how that technology winds up in the hands of different groups with different agendas (tribes). It’s the opening of Pandora’s box, but with the world’s most versatile and lethal weapons inside.
The story begins in 2026, with a secret military mission to rescue a man from a Chinese labor camp in Africa. This connects to China’s resource harvesting efforts in the developing world — big labor camps that cut timber and mine for precious metals in order to fuel China’s economic growth. But what the Chinese don’t realize is that one of their prisoners is the husband of a famous Chinese scientist who has defected to the U.S. and the Americans want him back.
So the technology that was introduced in The Last Sword Maker has now been applied to all sorts of things like body armor, aircraft design, infantry weapons, and even biohacking. As a result, the mission to Africa is also a test-run of some of these new inventions.
Of course, not everything goes as planned (because what fun would that be?), and what the U.S. had hoped would be a simple mission turns out to be a major nightmare with implications for the whole globe.
Where did you get the idea for Five Tribes, and how, if at all, did that idea evolve as you wrote this story?
The plot and the setting for this novel were really driven by character development. Since this is the second act of three part play I knew that my main character, Eric Hill, needed to undergo a major transformation, so in a sense this is his “training movie” before the final trials of book III. Eric is one of the military’s top weapon scientists and he’s always believed that technology is the answer to all of life’s problems. In this book, through his experiences in Africa, that belief gets turned on its head and he begins to see that the complete opposite is true: the evolution of technology is what is destroying the natural world and he has to face the truth that — as a scientist pioneering new technology — he’s complicit in that destruction.
And yes, things definitely evolved as I wrote. When I began, I thought that the section in Africa would be short; that Eric would perhaps spend a quarter of the book there, then bring his knowledge home with him. However, when I started to research Africa, I really started to geek out…and all these interesting possibilities starting popping up. For example, Eric is injured and must rely on a tribe of Khoe-San. This created an interesting juxtaposition, with Eric (an inventor of some of mankind’s most advanced technology) suddenly dependent on a group that lives with almost no technology.
So in the end, the Africa storyline encompasses the whole book and, for me, it’s what really makes it fresh and original.
And is there a reason these books take place in 2026 as opposed to 2126 or 12026 or some other time?
Yes, that’s because I want the reader to feel that this technology is coming soon. Very soon. This isn’t a futuristic world. It’s our world just a few years from now.
In addition, I’ve worked hard to help the reader see that these inventions are really just small steps from the things we have already. And that helps make the story a lot scarier. It really feels plausible that these things could happen.
It sounds like Five Tribes is a military sci-fi novel. Is that how you’d describe it?
Yes, I think that’s pretty close. Although when I think of military sci-fi, I think of things in the distant future, like Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. In this series, the technothriller component is a little bit stronger than the sci-fi. So I guess I’d call it a military technothriller with the sci-fi thrown in for extra kick.
As we’ve been discussing, Five Tribes is the sequel to The Last Sword Maker. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Five Tribes but not on The Last Sword Maker?
Definitely. For Five Tribes, the research took me down some very interesting rabbit holes. As I mentioned, the Africa storyline got me reading a lot of history, and I had to study the Khoe-San culture in Namibia and Botswana, which is absolutely fascinating. This is a culture that was thriving 200,000 years ago. That’s a staggering number. Especially when most people consider “civilization” as something that began about 6,000 years ago.
This led me to think a lot about evolution and what it means to be human. Here we are at the cusp of these major technological breakthroughs with A.I. and nanotech and crispr…we are literally talking about the ability to alter human evolution and augment it with A.I. It used to take millennia for a noticeable change in human evolution, but that might get cut down to a matter of minutes before too long.
This forced me to ask some fundamental questions, like what are human beings designed to do and what will happen when you mess with that design? Are we designed to live in metropolitan suburbs, commuting an hour each way to work in a metal box, and spending 50 hours a week looking at computer screens? Or are we designed to live in small bands, mostly outdoors, hunting and gathering? And what happens to us when we stop doing the things we were designed to do? Could it be that a lot of our first-world miseries are caused by this gap between what were designed to do versus what we force ourselves to do?
So one specific book that helped me understand Khoe-San culture was Laurens van der Post’s Lost World Of The Kalahari, which chronicles his journey in the 1950s to find a Sān culture that was still living the “old way” out in the bush.
What about non-literary influences; was Five Tribes influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
There is an excellent documentary about the Sān called The Great Dance [which you can watch by clicking here]. My sister recommended this to me when I told her I was going to set the book in Africa. It blew me away and inspired the hunting scenes in the book. If you’ve never seen it, it’s worth checking out.
You are a former Fulbright Scholar, and hold degrees in international relations and economics as well as creative writing. How do you think your studies, specifically those in international relations and economics, influenced Five Tribes?
It’s funny how things that we’re exposed to when we’re young have a way of staying with us and eventually become life-long interests. I’ve always had a fascination with other cultures and that started when I was just a kid. My father was the international programs director at a college in the Midwest, so on a weekly basis we had international students in our home. There would be a student from Kenya one week, one from Japan the next week, Argentina the next. (One nice bonus of this was that they gave my dad gifts to show their appreciation. I’m not sure why but weapons were popular gifts. As a result, I was the only kid on my street who had a Japanese katana, an Arabian scimitar, a Zulu spear and shield, and a Yanomami blow gun in my dining room.)
So I’ve always enjoyed learning about other cultures and listening to other people’s perspectives and that invariably makes it into my novels. In The Last Sword Maker, I focused on China and Tibet. In Five Tribes, it’s African history and the Khoe-San. Even my first book, which was non-fiction, The Silence And The Scorpion: The Coup Against Chavez And The Making Of Modern Venezuela, was all about international events: a coup and uprising in Venezuela.
Five Tribes and The Last Sword Maker are the first two books in your Course Of Empire trilogy. Do you know yet what the third book will be called and when it might be out?
I don’t have a title for the third book yet, but it will be out in two years. I’m not a fast writer. I wish I was! You read these stories about Stephen King writing a book in four months or Michael Crichton staying up an extra hour every day until he’s writing for three days straight and finishing…but, unfortunately, that’s not me.
What was it about this story that made you think it should be a trilogy and not a stand-alone novel or a duology or whatever a 37-book series is called?
[laughs] Do I have to be honest about this one?
You do now!
First, let me reassure your readers that these are really exciting, action-packed books with gun fights and aerial combat and love stories and all those things that make fiction fun. But having said that, I have to admit that there are some very nerdy things that inspired the trilogy as a whole. The big one being the title of the series itself, which is The Course Of Empire. Some of your artist readers might recognize that as the name of a series of paintings by Thomas Cole, who depicted the end of civilization. Specifically, Cole felt that mankind went through cycles of growth and progress, but trended to self-destruction. And that’s the central idea of my series too, that humanity’s creations will be our downfall. But let me add that this is not a man versus machine scenario. It’s not The Matrix or Terminator. No, it’s humans using this technology against other humans that causes the collapse.
Upon hearing that The Last Sword Maker and Five Tribes are part of a trilogy, some people will decide to wait until the third book is out before reading any of them, and some will further decide to read all three back-to-back. But is there any reason why you think someone shouldn’t wait?
I can already tell that these books are going to be fun to read back-to-back. There is just enough variation in them and just enough time between adventures for them to not feel like they are falling into patterns (such as returning to another year at Hogwarts). So I’d actually say if you like that big, long epic feel, then it’s fine to wait. But if you like suspense and you like anticipating the next book, then read them now.
But I’ll warn you: there are some cliffhanger moments in both The Last Sword Maker and Five Tribes. I work hard to I make my endings satisfying, but I also want to leave you wondering what will happen next.
Earlier I asked if Five Tribes had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. Do you think the Course Of Empire trilogy could work as a movie, show, or game?
I think it would make a very interesting movie trilogy, and that’s because I write with a very cinematic style. I think of my books very much like a director would. I think about how long a scene should last. I ask myself where the camera would be if it were a movie and whether it should move to a closeup (to capture facial expressions), or how to convey a point of view with what I describe with my words. So in that sense, I think it would be easy to adapt to a film.
But I will admit that a movie project will have to overcome some common problems with book adaptations. One is that I have a large ensemble cast of characters. I like stories that are epic and that have lots of points of view: scientists, soldiers, generals, politicians, good guys, bad guys, etc. This gives a grand feel to the book, but that’s hard to pull off in a 90-minute movie. So I’m sure some of my minor characters would end up on the cutting room floor. In that regard, it would probably work better as a TV series.
If someone did want to turn this series into a movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as the main characters?
I think Lucas Hedges [Lady Bird] would be a good actor to play Eric Hill. That’s because the character is both vulnerable at times, yet tough when he has to be. Eric is haunted by the suicide of his father — who was also a great scientist — so he’s fighting what he feels is a tendency toward suicide that runs in his family. And I think Hedges could play that skillfully.
Nailing Admiral James Curtiss would be a little tougher. Curtiss is a tough old native American who joined the Navy as a teenager to escape the poverty of the reservation. But I think Temuera Morrison [Aquaman] would be a good fit for that role. He’s got that military bearing, but could also capture the inner conflict that Curtiss feels about sending soldiers off to die.
Finally, if someone enjoys Five Tribes — and, of course, The Last Sword Maker — what military sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read while waiting for book 3 to come out, and why that?
That’s actually a hard one because, as we’ve discussed, this book is a bit of a hybrid of several different genres which makes it difficult for me to find comparable works. (I honestly don’t know if that’s a good thing, or a bad thing.) It’s like a Tom Clancy novel because it focuses on the military. But it’s not like Clancy because it’s set in the near future. It’s like a Michael Crichton novel because the science and technology is prominent. But it has quite a bit more character development and POV work than most of his books.
One of the reasons it might be hard to pin down is because I’ve never felt that I’m using a book or an author as a model. The creation of these books comes from non-fiction and extrapolating out from what’s true to what could be.