For a lot of authors, the idea of someone else writing about their characters or their fictional universe is about as appealing as having their work stolen and sold to buy animal crackers. But writer Michael Z. Williamson isn’t so hands-off when it comes to his Freehold series, having overseen not one but two collections of short stories by other writers playing in his military sci-fi sandbox. In the following email interview, Williamson discusses Freehold: Resistance (which is newly available in mass market paperback), the follow-up to Freehold: Forged In Blood.
For people who haven’t read any of the Freehold books, what is that series about, and when and where is it set?
The Freehold universe is set about 500 years in the future. There are several colony star systems, a couple with member status in the U.N., and two independents. The U.N. has transformed into a fascist oligarchy and is determined to maintain control. Many of the stories involve the war between the U.N. and the Freehold Of Grainne. Other aspects in play are the technological development of space, and eventually, sapient non-human life.
Freehold: Resistance is a collection of short stories set in the Freehold universe, and the second such collection you’ve done. What inspired the first one, 2017’s Freehold: Forged In Blood, and what was it about that first collection that made you want to put together a second one?
Forged In Blood was an idea I’d had for a long time. I collect antique weapons, starting in the Neolithic and moving forward: Bronze Age, Classical Age, Dark Ages, Middle Ages, through to the future. It was very common until recently for worn or damaged tools to be repurposed or reforged.
The ego of the stories [in Forged In Blood] is an ancient sword, reused, passed down, and reforged enough to have a perspective and personality. Each bearer of an iteration of the weapon is aware of some of the past, but not the whole history. The sword as we see it is carried from Ancient Japan, through Medieval, the Russo-Japanese War, WWII in the Pacific, Iraq, Near future war in the Pacific, settlement of Grainne, through the war with the U.N., into the far future. The bearers rack up a huge tally of honorable deeds and awards; everything from humble protection of farms through pivotal battles. The last story involves a soldier who acquires it and finds researchers to study the metallurgy and tell him just how old it is, even if they don’t know the details of its past, thus linking all the stories into a 3000 year timeline. I invited other authors to tackle various human points of view in the stories: Larry Correia for Medieval Japan, Mike Massa for the Russo-Japanese War, Tom Kratman for Iraq, Kacey Ezell, who won Year’s Best Military S.F. for her story of humans boarding an alien ship in the far future. I think there’s 13 authors in all. So it ties into the existing universe, but stands alone for readers not familiar with that.
Do the stories in Freehold: Resistance also share a narrative thread?
For Freehold: Resistance, I had some volunteers, some I requested, and a couple I brought in later as the concept developed. It has a far more complicated background, and is technically a mosaic novel — each story covers a different point of view and pace, so they start and end and interlock with each other, referencing already established events and new ones. Each story stands alone, but the gestalt is itself a novel. Three of the stories intersperse the entire book: that of the invading U.N. commander; of a Freehold support ship that is in space and out of contact with the system proper, resupplying warships and insurgent forces with processed materiel; and a civilian hacker who helps construct an intel and cyberwarfare element to fight the incursion. Other stories are single episodes of rebels — including families, teenagers, surviving reservists and veterans, space traffic control, and support elements — pushed into being bona-fide combatants, as well as stories from the invading soldiers’ POV as the people they’re supposed to “liberate” turn on the full horror of psychological warfare and violence against them. So the book starts at the beginning of the war, concludes at the end, and covers dozens of narratives all tied together, mostly derived from events referenced in the extant novels.
How did you decide what writers you wanted to contribute to Freehold: Resistance?
It was a tremendous amount of work all around. A fan of mine, Jamie Ibson, had put together a timeline of the entire universe, and I was amazed at how consistent everything was over 20 years of writing, six novels, and a dozen short stories. I tried of course, but I had done better than I expected. So I recruited him as Deputy Vice Assistant Editor In Charge Of Continuity And Stuff, and he helped coordinate all the time ticks, actions, events, battles already established, and the new stories fit with those. He also contributed “Cry Havoc,” the story of the last six surviving Freehold military animal handlers, using their skills and trained combat leopards to demoralize and depopulate an enemy firebase one by two by one over weeks.
As for the others, two of the stories are reprints of mine, and I wrote the connecting text and the new story of the support ship, “Force Majeure.” Kacey Ezell wrote a terrifying psychological warfare story based on a reference in Freehold. Larry Correia brought in the Professional Duellists’ Association, now unemployed and looking for work. Mike Massa covered a retirement home for spies and operators that gets turned into a U.N. research facility, with very helpful retirees. Brad Torgersen covered a very rear echelon support element of the injured and unfit in a running convoy battle to relocate supplies. Jason Cordova covered the destruction of space infrastructure to damage the invading logistics chain. J.F. Holmes wrote a wrenching story of a small farm community struggling with staying out of the fight while doing what they can to hinder the enemy. Between the authors — since some have different hats — 12 veterans, 6 of them officers, one combat engineer, one combat medic, three Academy graduates, one pilot, one world class neuroscientist, one cybersecurity expert, a former SEAL officer and security expert, three weapons experts, two intel officers, one police officer. If you were actually staging an insurgency, this is probably a good crowd to start with. And 4 are national or NYT bestsellers.
I want to make sure I mention everyone, given the scope, so: Jessica Schlenker, biologist and information forensics. Christopher DiNote, USAFA, colonel, intel. Jaime DiNote, MP and Intel. J.F. Holmes, U.S. Army, established military author and cartoonist. Rob Reed, weapons expert and consultant. Jason Cordova, U.S. Navy, historian, Campbell Award nominee. Kacey Ezell, USAFA, pilot, Years Best Military SF. Rob Hampson, PhD, neuroscientist. Larry Correia, weapons expert, instructor, multiple NYT bestseller. Marisa Wolf, new to the field and very good. Jamie Ibson, Canadian infantry veteran and police officer. Michael Massa, former SEAL officer, security consultant and manager, national bestseller. Brad Torgersen, U.S. Army warrant officer, multiple award winner and bestseller. Justin Watson, West Point, artillery officer. Christopher Smith, recurring contributor of fascinating tellings. A.C. Haskins, armored cavalry officer. Philip Wohlrab, former Coast Guard, Army combat medic. And me.
And did they come up with the ideas for their stories or did you?
Larry’s contribution was his idea, based on the existence of dueling in the society. Brad’s was his take on a necessary event. Jamie had already proposed writing about the combat leopards I referenced in “The Weapon.” Chris’ and Haskins’ story was Chris’ idea that evolved from Assault On Precinct 13 to Kelly’s Heroes. Doc Wohlrab’s was original to him. The others were either, “I need this type of story, who wants it?” or “There’s this event referenced, can you write it?” I specifically asked Jess, Kacey, Rob Hampson, Mike Massa, and Jason to write those specific stories.
Both of these anthologies have absolutely developed and presented new or lesser seen authors. Jamie Ibson, Doc Wohlrab, came up. Kacey and Chris Smith both expanded their oeuvre. A couple of others had self-published, and I was able to offer some advice on how professional publishing differs, and the specific needs. A couple of the writers had copious non-fic experience, and this was their first fiction foray. In Forged In Blood, Zachary Hill published his first, and unfortunately last piece of fiction, that is absolutely fantastic. He passed away while it was in production and printing.
So do you think Freehold: Resistance would be a good place to explore the Freehold saga?
Yes, Resistance absolutely stands alone as a work even if the reader hasn’t read other books in the setting. So does Forged In Blood. I try to make every book stand alone, even if it’s a sequel, so new readers don’t have to struggle with background and context.
Finally, if you had carte blanche, and could put together a similar short story collection for someone else’s fictional universe, which one would you like to explore both as a writer and as the editor?
I don’t think I’d attempt a project like this in any other universe. A consistent timeline is essential, and it has to be sufficiently dense for things to work. Also, it was a tremendous labor to make everything fit — I had to have people change seasons in their stories, drop references that didn’t fit the timeline, etc. It was certainly worthwhile, educational, and a great product, but not something to do often. I know Kevin J. Anderson did something similar in the Star Wars universe.
We did finish another anthology scheduled for next year, Freehold: Defiance, which is true to the timeline, but is just independent stories set into it, not interwoven.