In Sam Hawke’s City Of Lies, Cassandra Khaw’s Food Of The Gods, and Matt Wallace’s Sin Du Jour Affair series, we’ve seen the emergence of a new fantasy subgenre based around food. Now it seems science fiction is making similar culinary inroads with Amber Royer’s Free Chocolate (paperback, Kindle), which she refers to as being “Comedic culinary space opera.” Though in the following email interview, she notes how this sci-fi story is also inspired by telenovelas.
I always like to start with a plot summary. So, what is Free Chocolate about?
Latina culinary arts student Bodacious “Bo” Benitez becomes a fugitive when she’s caught stealing a cacao pod from one of the heavily-defended plantations that keep chocolate, Earth’s sole valuable export, safe from a hungry galaxy. Forces array against her, including a reptilian cop bent on taking her home, where she’ll face execution. But when she escapes onto an unmarked starship, things go from bad to worse: it belongs to the race famed throughout the galaxy for eating stowaways.
Where did you get the idea for Free Chocolate and how different is the finished novel from that original idea?
The original starting point was an article I read about the history of coffee. This shows up in Free Chocolate in the form of a story Bo’s boyfriend Brill tells her, trying to convince her that stealing the cacao pod is noble by her own planet’s standards.
In the first draft, this was just me, playing around with history and magnifying past events to a galactic scale, trying to get Bodacious to decide what it really means to be a hero. I didn’t have a clear understanding of Brill’s culture at that point, didn’t have any idea of the pain-stricken past that had caused his people to become what they were. I didn’t understand the sheer scope of the universe I was creating. I don’t think I had a handle at that point on Bo’s true emotional core, either. It came out as more of a set piece farce, focused on the humor of running around on a spaceship that looked like a luxury liner with all this contraband. There was a lot more cooking, and a lot more about crazy ingredients and who’s allowed to eat who. And I made the mistake of letting one of the guys solve the plot problem for her at the end.
This went through a bit of transformation from that, even before my editor got his hands on it. He helped me fill in the gaps where I was afraid to present the worldbuilding and the backstory to give this comedy the gravitas it needed underneath.
And why did you decide to make it about chocolate as opposed to vanilla or snails or marijuana?
When I’ve been hand-selling this book, I’ve basically been saying: So the aliens land and they take samples of commodities…only they miss chocolate, so chocolate becomes the most important thing in the galaxy. And one of the most common responses I’ve been getting has been: Isn’t it already? There’s something about chocolate that excites the imagination, something so sensory. I did an entire self-pubbed cookbook on working with chocolate. There are entire organizations devoted to craft chocolate production. So it’s silly, but it’s also perfectly logical.
Along similar lines, the hero of Free Chocolate, Bo Benitez, is a Latina. Why did you decide to have her be a Latina as opposed to some other ethnicity? And I’m including in that human as opposed to alien.
Bo has to be human because that gives the reader an entry point into the ‘verse that allows us to contrast the future history I’ve laid out with the future Earth’s real-world science fiction tradition has promised us. First Contact in the Chocoverse doesn’t go exactly like it did for Zefram Cochrane and the Vulcans [in Star Trek: First Contact]. It’s also essential for the moral conflict within the plot: is it right to betray your world if that’s what’s necessary to save it. And what if you might be wrong? If Bo’s a non-Earthling marauder, it’s a whole different story.
Bo has to be young because I need her to be naive enough to think there’s an easy solution to such a complex problem. She will grow to balance her idealism with experience over the course of the series, but it is that very sense of idealism that allows her to do things in this first book that no one else would dare.
Bo has to be Mexican because large swaths of the story are set inside The Chocolate Belt, the region twenty degrees north and south of Earth’s Equator; specifically Mexico and Brazil. If chocolate is Earth’s main export, this area becomes the most important region of the world. That leaves the main options of her heredity being based in various parts of South America and Africa. And honestly, I’m from Texas. Which means I’ve had a lot more exposure to Mexican culture than to other cultures in the coco-producing regions.
But above everything, Bo has to be deeply empathetic. I needed a character who could deeply feel her own emotions and, more importantly, empathize with others. I’m trying to pull off a difficult feat in the Chocoverse: writing an entire space opera series from the first person. While there are a few cheats — such as other characters recounting flashbacks that feel like present-tense scenes, and holographic communication that lets Bo witness events she was not present for and interact with others on different ships or planets like they are in the same room — without this deep sense of empathy, the story would have stayed too small.
So yeah, Bo is Latina because the stor demands it. But you know what? Bo is Bo because the story demands it. I think sometimes people forget that writers are designing individual humans — and lizard men and giant shark-toothed aliens — that live and breathe in our heads. We don’t always choose exactly who they’re going to be. We plop them down into the plot and they start to demand the freedom to be themselves. It isn’t always easy. Believe me, if I’d wanted easy, I wouldn’t have given space in my head to a character who’s fluent in at least three Earth languages and even more alien ones.
Free Chocolate is a science fiction novel. But is there a subgenre of sci-fi, or combination of them, that describes this book better?
In fact, it’s space opera filtered through the lens of telenovela. So drama — especially elevated stakes and wild revelations — is going to trump everything.
If I was going to invent a genre? Comedic culinary space opera.
Speaking of which, is the humor in Free Chocolate more situational, like in such John Scalzi novels as Old Man’s War and The Collapsing Empire, or is it more jokey or satirical like Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy?
While there are a number of one-liners and zingers in the dialogue, a lot of the humor comes from the situation. For instance, when Tyson bites her to keep her from running away, she’s spent several chapters trying to not mentally compare him to an Earth snake or make assumptions about him being violent — and then she’s a bit outraged when he turns out to be venomous after all. I’m a big believer in the writing philosophy that whatever insane world or circumstance you’ve dropped your characters in, they should never become the joke. That means passing up the specific joke if it comes at expense of the character’s dignity.
Think about the humor in Fiddler On The Roof. Tevye’s sense of humor comes from the desperation of the circumstance. He’s sweet and absurd, and has ideas that other characters don’t necessarily agree with. There are truly horrible things that happen in the course of the film, and while he changes and arcs, he never breaks, and we can be sure of that because his sense of humor remains intact. Just about everybody Bo’s dealing with once she winds up on the alien ship has a Tevye mentality. So the situation shapes the laughs.
Do you consider Scalzi or Adams to be an influence on the comedy in Free Chocolate? And while we’re on the subject, what other writers had an impact on that aspect of the novel as well?
Adams is definitely a big influence on my writing. The Hitchhiker’s Guide was one of the first books I ever read that combined comedy and sci-fi. He took the idea of an every-man problem and took it galactic. Which opens your eyes to the possibilities.
Another early influence is Walter Jon Williams’ Drake Magistral series [The Crown Jewels, House Of Shards, and Rock Of Ages]. You have a character who’s allowed to steal anything he wants without legal consequences, so long as he completes the theft with style and keeps his ill-gotten gains out of the clutches of the police long enough for the caper to be broadcast galaxy-wide.There’s a feeling of larger-than-life drama inherent in that premise — and the comedy in turn comes directly from committing to the premise and following every possible avenue of how this could go wrong. Yep. As you do.
At the same time, I was reading William Sleator’s young adult novels. I still love all of them, but the one that probably most influenced Free Chocolate was Interstellar Pig. The fun that comes from misunderstanding the situation you’re in, and the humor of the existential crisis that follows finding out that your neighbors are aliens…that one’s always stuck with me. Plus, the aliens are just fun, in and of themselves.
Piers Anthony…Robert Asprin…Lois McMaster Bujold…Connie Willis…bits of all of them shaped my take on sci-fi humor. I’ve always been a voracious reader.
What about other aspects of Free Chocolate; who do you consider to be the biggest influences on what you wrote in Free Chocolate and how you wrote it?
Bujold and McCaffrey are definitely two big influences here. They write science fiction with heart, that isn’t afraid to explore both character development and the niceties of etiquette in alien societies.
But there’s also a whole tradition of culinary mysteries, and a little bit of that crept into the structure here. The sensibility of Lilian Jackson Braun’s early The Cat Who…books and Diane Mott Davidson underlay part of the plot.
And of course there’s the whole tradition of Mexican books and films where the connection between food and family, between food and plot, centers everything. This is what connects Bo and her Mama, despite everything else that has come between them.
How about non-literary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or video games that had a big impact on Free Chocolate?
I reference a ton of stuff directly in the text, most notably Star Trek and Star Wars. These are characters who grew up with a tradition that grew straight out current sci-fi, then got hit a curveball when we found out aliens were real. Now some of the aliens are fans of “cult classic” Earth art because they think it is hilarious how badly we got it wrong.
Imagine if someone from “out there” tuned into a feed of MST3K. It’s embarrassing really.
Now, as you know, while some sci-fi novels are stand-alone novels, others are stories in larger sagas. Which is Free Chocolate, the first book in a series or a self-contained tale?
It’s a series. Free Chocolate is just the beginning. We’ve just scratched the surface of the galaxy and Earth’s part of the larger conflict. Bo hasn’t even made it to an alien planet yet. I have so much more to tell you.
So what can you tell us about this series?
The second book, Pure Chocolate, is complete and to my editor. It’s scheduled for release March of 2019. I have outlines for the entire series arc — like any good telenovela, it has a solid protagonist character arc for the entire series — so I know how many I’d like to do, and how I want to structure them. It’s just up to you guys to buy this first one so I can get the chance to tell you the whole story.
Earlier I asked about the movies, TV shows, and video games that may have influenced Free Chocolate. But has there been any interest in turning this novel into a movie, show, or game?
Nobody has said anything about that yet. But like most authors, I think it would be beyond cool to see my book as a movie. I nearly cried when they first showed me the cover art for Free Chocolate because it was like [cover artist Mingchen]Shen had looked into my head and made my imaginary people real. Spot on. Perfect. I can only imagine what a good director might be able to do.
I’ve never considered it being a game, but that would be awesome. Though I imagine there would have to be a lot more space pirates than in the actual series.
Probably. So if Free Chocolate was being made into a movie, who would you like to see them cast as Bo and the other main characters?
I’d be horrible at casting, especially since the leads are supposed to be so young — they’re early twenties, so maybe some as-of-yet undiscovered talent? — and there’s be so much makeup and CGI involved for everyone else.
Finally, if someone enjoys Free Chocolate, what novel would you suggest they read next and why that one?
That’s such a hard question, because it depends on what they liked about the Chocoverse.
Maybe consider Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels, which start with The Eyre Affair. They’re wacky with an undertone of thoughtful, like what I’ve tried to do with Free Chocolate. There’s a well-developed female protagonist who’s dealing with loss and facing the challenge of keeping order in a world not quite our own. Thursday’s world is a parallel universe, rather than the future, but who wouldn’t want to hang out in a world where literature is the predominant form of entertainment and you can have a pet dodo bird? Thursday’s job as a real-world police officer gets sidetracked when she is asked to enter the world of books to keep a criminal from changing the plot of one of them. Just go with it. The internal logic is there to make the ‘verse feel real — and the footernoterphone is there to fill in the gaps.