In Star Wars: Revenge Of The Sith, Obi-wan laments that Anakin was supposed to bring balance to The Force, not enable a hostile takeover of the galaxy. But what if instead of being The Emperor’s enforcer, Anakin had fulfilled the prophecy? Such is the premise of The Sun Eater, a series of original sci-fi fantasy novels by writer Christopher Ruocchio. With the second novel, Howling Dark, newly available in hardcover and Kindle, and the first, Empire Of Silence, recently released in paperback, I spoke to Ruocchio via email about what inspired and influenced these novels, as well as his plans for future stories.
Let’s start with a bit of background. What is The Sun Eater series about and when is it set?
The Sun Eater is a space opera science fiction adventure set about 20,000 years in our future. It’s the story — the memoir, in fact — of a man named Hadrian Marlowe. He’s a nobleman in this vast galactic empire who runs away from home to become a scholar and instead finds himself thrust into the midst of an interstellar war between the human empire and the Cielcin, the only aliens in 20,000 years who have ever stood up to our might. Hadrian tells you on page 1 that he is the man who ended that war and killed all the Cielcin, this story is why and how. When I’m selling on the convention floors I like to say, “Imagine Star Wars if Anakin being forced to become Darth Vader was right.”
And then what is Howling Dark about and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the first book, Empire Of Silence?
Howling Dark picks up about 12 years — for Hadrian, about 50 calendar years, thanks to cryonic suspension — after the end of Empire Of Silence. He and his crew and friends have been traveling through the Norman Expanse near the core of the galaxy trying to find leads among the outlaws and criminals there that will connect them to the lost planet of Vorgossos, a planet that’s part Atlantis and part criminal Libertalia. They’ve been acting as mercenaries ever since, trying to worm their way into the galactic underbelly, and have fallen in with a bunch of new allies, mostly Norman pirates. There are some pretty important things that have happened in between the books, things Hadrian only hints at, things that I might cover in short stories moving forward — or maybe just things the readers will have to work out for themselves.
When in relation to writing Empire Of Silence did you come up with the idea for Howling Dark, and how, if at all, did the story change as you wrote it?
I knew most of the major story beats going in, but as soon as I turned in book one, I sat down and hashed out this massive 50-60 page outline, chapter by chapter, and really fleshed things out, building around those big moments. It actually changed very little. I had years and years to get book one done, but only the one year to finish Howling Dark, so there wasn’t time to second guess myself. I’ve done a similar outline for book three, and I’ve found I’m pretty good at staying on script. Every now and then a chapter might get cut or folded into another chapter, or a new chapter or scene might come out of nowhere — and it’s best to indulge these moments of inspiration, I find — but the general shape of the novel went precisely as intended.
Howling Dark combines elements of epic fantasy and sci-fi space opera. Does that mean it’s a space fantasy like Star Wars, which you mentioned earlier, or do you see this as more of a mash-up of the two genres? And is there even a difference?
I tend to see genres less as categories than I do instruments. I’m a big heavy metal fan, and I find the community there is so factionalized: people who only listen to power metal, people who only listen to doom or black or death metal, etc. But you see the greats like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest talk about how they’ll borrow elements from whatever music they want to create something that’s uniquely them and not be pinned down. I think fans like genre the way they like character types and classes in video games. But in the same way a real life monk might also be a fighter (I read a story once about a Catholic priest who used to be a Yakuza hitman, for instance), it’s okay to multi-class in genre. Write a song that’s power metal with some doomier passages, or write a story set in space where things happen that no science can adequately explain. The ancient Greeks considered their myths histories. The Iliad was history, it happened. Even the part where Diomedes fought the gods themselves on the plains of Troy. The medievals believed, as I do, that miracles happen. The Sun Eater is like that. It’s a history — an imaginary, future history — where the fantastic and the supernatural are real and have power. Not in the sense there are wizards throwing fireballs, nothing so simple, but a place and time where there are events and powers that defy human knowledge, if not human imagination.
And are there other genres at work in this story as well?
Oh yes. Like I say, I tend to think of these things as instruments. Epic fantasy and space opera may be my drums and my guitars, but you need a bass line, keyboards, hell, maybe a cowbell. Howling Dark owes a surprising amount to cyberpunk (particularly to the Japanese school: Ghost In The Shell, Alita, etc), and to Gothic literature in terms of its atmosphere and sense of creeping existential dread. There’s even a bit of Gothic literature’s younger cousin, cosmic horror thrown in down in the watery depths beneath the ice and nitrogen snows of Vorgossos, as you’ll see.
Moving on to the always popular questions about influences, are there any writers or specific stories that had a big impact on Howling Dark but not on Empire Of Silence?
H.P. Lovecraft, for a start, and Mary Shelley, with a dash of Poe maybe, although their influence is more indirect than direct, because the truth is these days most of my fiction consumption isn’t literary. I suppose there’s a dash of Iain M. Banks here in a way that wasn’t in the first book (though I consider him a primary influence in general). The Extrasolarians are what I think his space anarchist Culture would actually look like. Not a bunch of champagne socialists at a fancy party among the stars, but a bunch of self-centered, greedy egotists to whom nothing matters but the pursuit of their personal vices. I love the Iain Banks Culture books, but I’m not convinced that human nature allows for any kind of utopia, you know? Even if the robots are in charge.
How about non-literary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or video games that influenced Howling Dark in any ways? You mentioned Star Wars and some manga and anime earlier.
As I say, I think most of my influences these days are non-literary. The Blade Runner films are a definite aesthetic influence, and Oshii’s original Ghost In The Shell. There are bits of Otomo’s Akira as well, and something of Alita (you’ll have guessed by now I’m a big anime/manga fan). Role-playing games like Tales Of Symphonia, Baten Kaitos, and Lost Odyssey remain major influences on my development as a writer, and there’s a bit of Lovecraft’s DNA in the way I’ve been affected by Hidetaka Miyazaki’s Dark Souls and especially Bloodborne. To be fair, there’s always been something of the Gothic in my own DNA. I come from a very Catholic background. Someone once called the Church a “gold-encrusted death cult” in my hearing, and while I’d punch back saying that the relics of dead saints are actually reminders to live life well and not to fixate on death, something of the old stone churches and relic skulls and stained glass has always been a part of me, and I think has drawn me to stories that share a similar aesthetic.
And what role, if any, did Michael Moorcock’s Elric Of Melnibone books play, or is it just a coincidence that the guy on the cover of Howling Dark looks like Elric’s second cousin twice removed?
None at all, it’s pure coincidence. The only thing of Moorcock’s I’ve ever read is his essay “Epic Pooh,” which I confess cured me of ever wanting to read anything else of his. The character on the cover has spent that body’s entire life underground, hence the paleness.
Now, as we’ve been discussing, Empire Of Silence and Howling Dark are both part of The Sun Eater series. But what can you tell us about it in the sense of it being an ongoing series of stand-alone novels, a trilogy, a duology, a whatever a five-book series-ology…?
It’s five books, each not quite a stand-alone novel, though each novel’s plot is more or less self-contained and episodic. I have plans for short stories, lite novels, and spin-offs set in the same universe, but these five books will take Hadrian’s story from beginning to end, from Delos to Gododdin. I’ve got treatments done and partial outlines for all 5 of them, so there shouldn’t be any surprise additions. But if these books take off, I very much hope these 5 books won’t be the last.
Do you know when the other books might be out and what they’re going to be called?
The current plan is to do them one a year! Empire Of Silence came out July 2018, Howling Dark was just released, with Demon In White slated for July 2020. Book Four should be July 2021 and Five in 2022. I don’t want to go spilling the beans on the titles for four and five just yet. They do have titles, but I’m not 100% sure whether or not Penguin Random House’s marketing teams will let them stick yet, so I don’t want to speak too soon and commit us to titles that get changed and confuse everyone. I will give you a clue on book four, though. I got the idea from a Scorpions song.
Speaking of the other books, Empire Of Silence came out in hardcover last year, but was recently issued in paperback. Is there anything different about the paperback edition?
No major changes, but I did fix a glaring typo in the first line of dialogue in the entire book. There was a whole word missing. I listened to the audiobook a bit and got to that part, and my stomach fell out. But we fixed it.
There’s also a sweet new font on the title page, but that’s probably not of note to anyone not-me.
Now, along with these novels, you’ve also edited the new sci-fi short story collection, Space Pioneers. What can you tell us about this compilation?
It’s a collection of mostly reprinted stories about pioneer adventurers or frontiersmen in space. We’ve got stories from writers like Heinlein, Pournelle, and James E. Gunn, as well as an original story from me. I worked with my co-worker, Hank Davis, who taught me to assemble anthologies (I did most of the contract work on the backend, he did the assembly and introductions). I’m doing another pair with him now. Overruled is a collection of sci-fi and fantasy courtroom stories, and Cosmic Corsairs will be about space pirates — both of those are due out next year. Perks of working for a sci-fi publisher at your day job!
Do you think people who enjoy Empire Of Silence and Howling Dark would like the stories in Space Pioneers and vice versa?
I think anyone who likes science fiction will like Space Pioneers, regardless whether or not they like my novels. There’s a bit of everything in it. Where I work, at Baen Books, my boss has a felt cultural obligation to keep a lot of obscure or older science fiction in print, and one of the way we do that is through these old story collections, which Hank curates and which I’ve been helping Hank curate since his health took a turn. Hank’s amazing. He has this encyclopedic knowledge of the old magazines. Ask him about a story, and he’ll tell you which issue of Analog or Astounding it was in down to the month and year, and probably tell you what was on the cover.
But my fans will be happy to find a quick peek into the edges of The Sun Eater universe in a story I did called “The Parliament Of Owls,” which follows a bounty hunter/repoman named Kalas through a quest to find some lost terraforming equipment. It’s kind of a noir piece, and kind of a frontier cowboy piece. Plenty of gun fighting, and a look at the parts of the universe where the Sollan Empire doesn’t quite control everything.
Aside from “The Parliament Of Owls,” do you have any plans to write any other short stories as part of The Sun Eater series, and if so, are you thinking they’d eventually be collected into a single volume?
Who told you my secret plan? Yes! So there are 4 stories written. “Not Made For Us” appeared first in an anthology called Star Destroyers that I edited for Baen Books, then there’s “The Parliament Of Owls” in Space Pioneers. I’ve also written a Hadrian-centered novelette called “The Demons Of Arae” that’s out in an eBook anthology called Parallel Worlds this October, as well as a Valka-centered story called “Good Intentions” that was slated for a crowd-funded magazine that failed and never saw the light of day (but hopefully will find a new home).
I’ve also got a few more I’m working on. Next up is a story called “Victim of Changes” for that Overruled anthology I mentioned. It pits a Terran Chantry Inquisitor against a Extrasolarian family in trial. I’m very excited about it.
Earlier I asked if Howling Dark was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. But has there been any interest in adapting it and The Sun Eater series into some movies, a show, or a game?
There’s been a little interest in the past but nothing formal just yet. I’m hoping the release of book two helps spur something, fingers crossed!
As to what I’d like, I really think a game would be the most interesting to me. The book is very much Hadrian’s version of events, and it’s easy to imagine things diverged from his actual account — things he left unsaid or buried, etc. An RPG in the style of The Witcher or even Mass Effect might allow for a sort of non-canon exploration of alternatives. “What if things were different with Kyra? Or Cat? Or Valka?” and so on. A game lets you explore multiple possibilities and see things in different ways, and it would be a fun way to revisit the story I’ve already written.
But I’d also like a series. I saw WarnerMedia is launching HBOMax, so who knows?
If Howling Dark was to be adapted into whatever a TV show, who would you like them to cast in the main roles?
In my mind, Hadrian is Harry Lloyd, who played Viserys Targaryen in the first season of Game Of Thrones. He’s a fabulous actor, and not only does he look just right, but he has this fabulous emotional range such that even beneath Viserys’ arrogance and cowardice you could still feel pity for him in places. He’s just tremendous. For Valka, someone like Berenice Marlohe from Skyfall would be excellent, she has this real edge to her I just love. Hadrian’s tutor, Gibson, speaks in Peter Capaldi’s voice in my head, and he’d be perfect. The Undying, the King of Vorgossos in book two (that’s him on the cover), should be someone like the great Ken Watanabe [Godzilla: King Of Monsters].
I could go on about casting for ages, and alas it’s something I’ll never have any power or say in.
Finally, if someone enjoys Empire Of Silence and Howling Dark what similar sci-fi fantasy series would you suggest they read while waiting for Demon In White to come out?
I’ve been compared (flatteringly) to Gene Wolfe’s Book Of The New Sun and Frank Herbert’s Dune, but those are both, you know, giants of the industry and rightly so. They’re somewhat different, but I think anyone who reads my work and hasn’t read the legendary Vorkosigan books by Lois McMaster Bujold is in for a real treat. Lois is an utter genius. You might also like Susan R. Matthews’ Under Jurisdiction series, a very dark, bleak series about an interrogator in this totalitarian interplanetary state who, as Susan puts it, “is not a nice man.” (Susan herself is about the kindest, warmest person I’ve ever met, and not at all like her books). I’d be remiss not to plug my dear friend D.J. Butler, whose Witchy War fantasy series is absolutely top tier and deserves miles more press than it’s gotten (and as of August, it will be complete).