In the twenty years since she released her hard sci-fi novel In The Company Of Others, Julie E. Czerneda has written more than a dozen novels, novellas, and short stories. But in the following email interview about the 20th Anniversary Edition of In The Company Of Others (paperback), she not only discusses what originally inspired and influenced this story, but how it influenced what came afterwards as well.
Photo Credit: Roger Czerneda Photography
To start, what is In The Company Of Others about, and when and where is it set?
In The Company Of Others is set in a not too distant future. Humanity has achieved faster-than-light travel and is about to embark on an ambitious move outward by terraforming planets in other solar systems to suit our species. With the wave of terraforming complete, immigrants from Earth to these new worlds fill the great space stations built to support the settlements, eager to move on. They can’t. The terraformers made a mistake. They left behind alien Quill, mindless pretty creatures thought harmless. Worlds prepared for humans proved even better for the Quill, who reproduced rapidly and, in large numbers, prove not to be harmless at all.
My story starts 20 years later. Fear of the Quill has trapped the immigrants on the stations, unable to return to Earth. A research vessel from Earth carries a scientist seeking an answer to the Quill — namely the famed Survivor, rumored to be the only person to ever survive contact with the alien threat, in hiding ever since.
Where did you get the initial idea for In The Company Of Others?
While doing research at the University Of Saskatchewan (on population dynamics), I came across a paper about the impact of introduced Red Deer on New Zealand ecosystems. That made me wonder: What if we made that same mistake, on a larger scale, while exploring space? We know better, don’t we, but…will we?
And is there a reason you made the Quill a fungus-like alien as opposed to something tree-like or flower-y or an animal but one you’d never expect to be sentient like a bug or cow-like thing? Or a deer, a female deer?
Yes, there was. The terraformers were doing everything right, so I had to envision something scientists wouldn’t consider a threat but that, in hindsight, had to be. An individual Quill is a beautiful ribbon that wraps around a human wrist. Wearing one makes you feel happier. Not like a drug, more like a living mood ring to echo your feelings and help fine tune them be more positive. Deep space travelers use them to help deal with being away from Earth so long. So did the terraformers — who didn’t want to bring their Quill back home. They assumed, away from their skin, the things would shrivel and die. After all, they hardly seemed alive at all.
The other reason was to give credibility to how the Quill became invasive. The biome being established, pre-settlement, was an immense grassland with associated microflora / fauna to start nitrogen and other cycles in the soil. A fungus-type alien, able to add itself to that association, was perfect. With the bonus you wouldn’t see anything obvious until it was too late.
It sounds like In The Company Of Others is a sci-fi space opera story. Is that how’d you describe it?
I’ve always called it hard SF, being primarily about space exploration with a side order of the impact of forgetting biology. I worked very hard on my space station, inside and out, and how people might survive an extended period trapped there. My terraforming tech isn’t far off what we should be able to do. Really, the only leap from today I ask of readers? Simply that we’ve starships with some type of wormhole tech. The rest could be a thriller, in a sense.
The other description I’d use for this story? Introspective. It looks at us. How space might change us…and how it won’t.
Now, In The Company Of Others originally came out in 2001, and you’ve written more than a dozen novels since. How do you think writing In The Company Of Others influenced the books that came after it?
Well, I wrote in third person more often, that being my first go at it. I did like it being a stand-alone and honestly tried to sneak in more of those, despite writing a couple of series. I’m delighted to be writing another now, also about us and space and the future. With biology and aliens, of course. To Each This World is the title and it’ll be out in 2022 from DAW Books.
Company did teach me a stern lesson on life / writing balance. To have a lasting writing career means taking care of yourself, not going at each new project as if cramming for final exams. I’ve made it a rule ever since to get outside, exercise, and put the work aside on a regular basis. The plus? I spend less time writing and accomplish greater word counts. I’d love to be able to tell my younger self.
At the time you wrote In The Company Of Others, you had already published four novels: 1997’s A Thousand Words For Stranger, 1998’s Beholder’s Eye, 1999’s Ties Of Power, and 2000’s Changing Vision. Were there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on In The Company Of Others but not on those earlier novels?
That’s difficult to say. I came up with the concepts for Thousand, Beholder’s, and Company at the same time, as a grad student in biology, so whatever I’d read to that point was in my head. Voices I liked. Ones I didn’t. Mostly, stories I didn’t see, if that makes sense? I wanted my own.
My three are similar in that each is me doing an experiment I couldn’t in real life: reproduction and breeding for advantage; biological basis for immortality; and terraforming / invasive species. I picked Thousand to finish and send out first because it was the longest when I made that decision. Sheila E. Gilbert of DAW bought it, then Beholder shortly after, which made me happy because I love the main character, Esen, so much. I didn’t feel ready, as a writer, to tackle the scope of story I saw in Company. That said, I sold it to Sheila in a three-book deal with Ties and Vision.
Another influence? I’m not a dystopia person, meaning there were many SF novels I enjoyed, but on some level disagreed with, such as [John Wyndham’s] Day Of The Triffids. Great stories but, to me, people hiding out behind fences and hoarding isn’t survival. We’re a communal, social species. We accomplish more together. So part of my thinking, writing my own post-disaster book, was to show people doing just that. Finding ways to survive, together. Getting along as best they can. Maybe it’s pertinent that I’m Canadian, we have serious winters, and I was brought up to leave doors unlocked in case someone needed shelter. I think it’s more that I find the most credible, exciting drama in how far people can rise to a challenge, than in how they show their worst side.
How about non-literary influences; was In The Company Of Others influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
A long long list of biology books, physics texts, and space technology.
As for movies and shows? I suppose the reason I went to science fiction at all was because having discovered it at ten years of age, it gave me the stories I’d been waiting for, that looked beyond here and now. Star Trek came along just when I was allowed to watch TV by myself — finally, a show that spoke to me, that wasn’t about monsters (though I’m a huge Blob and Godzilla fan), but about a future worth having.
As you mentioned, In The Company Of Others was a stand-alone novel. What was it about this story that made you think it could be told in just one book?
I always knew Company would be a single book. It had to conclude, the question resolved, the fate of those on the stations answered. (Not that there wasn’t room to imagine more, but the story I was telling, that had to end.) When I finished, I took a certain satisfaction in surprising those who’d started to assume they knew what I’d write by what I’d done already. I’d folders full of ideas — I still haven’t used them all — and nothing, to me, is more important than to challenge myself to do better next time.
Now, the reason we are doing the interview is that In The Company Of Others is being reissued as a 20th Anniversary Edition trade paperback. Is there anything different about this new version? Did you add a new preface, rewrite the whole thing, replace all the references to The Grateful Dead with ones about Phish…what?
I’m deeply honored that DAW Books has put out this 20th anniversary edition. The original book was a mass market paperback. If you wanted a hardcover, the SFBC did a nice one, but those are pretty scarce now. The trade is a lovely, very readable, version.
With pluses! This new edition contains an introduction by the inestimable Tanya Huff and a new author’s note from me on how I came to write the story. It also includes the finale short story, “The Franchise” that I wrote in part in answer to the many readers who wanted more. And I found a typo to fix. One never stops trying to perfect. But otherwise? The story stands as written and I remain very proud of it.
Along with the new version of In The Company Of Others you also recently published Spectrum, which is the third novel in your Web Shifter’s Library series, while Library is the second series in your Esen saga. What is the Esen saga about and what is the Web Shifter’s Library series about?
All the books and stories are, to me, Esen stories. They flow in order from Beholder’s Eye, the first. Esen and her kind are semi-immortal shapeshifting aliens I invented to play with the biology to be long-lived. They’re few and spend their time collecting knowledge of more ephemeral intelligences they store in their flesh. Esen’s the youngest and prone to impulse. She makes mistakes, but her good nature saves the day.
I think of Esen’s stories as TV episodes. Each deals with Esen facing a new biology-based conundrum between other aliens only she can resolve. There’s an arc to her growth and friendships, but no end in sight (for me) to what she’ll encounter next.
And then what is Spectrum about, and how is it connected, narratively and chronologically, to the previous book in the Web Shifter’s Library series, 2020’s Mirage?
Spectrum concludes the ooh, scary monster in space arc begun in Search Image and continued in Mirage. We (DAW and I) call these books after the All Species’ Library of Linguistics and Culture Esen and her Human friend Paul have built. Who doesn’t love a library?
Going back to In The Company Of Others, I asked earlier if that story had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. In the twenty years since it came out, has there been any interesting in adapting Company into a movie, show, or game?
There was some movie interest before Company was published, and again around 2007ish. In a wonderful “my how the world turns” the splendid Bjo Trimble, of Star Trek fame, told me she kept telling people to make it into a mini-series for which I remain grateful. Wow. Now that I’m represented by Sara Megibow of KT Literary, and this new edition out, how knows? The science remains solid — and stories about people remain relevant.
If someone did want to adapt In The Company Of Others, what form do you think would work best?
Any and all. There’s a great deal in the book, with respect to backstories and settings. Luis Royo’s painting for the cover was a revelation to me, to see what another mind could do with my words. I look forward to seeing what other minds can do.
Finally, if someone enjoys In The Company Of Others, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next and why that one?
I find readers who love Company are also big fans of my Species Imperative trilogy, set in near-future Earth but with us part of an immense alien economic network. I wanted to look at what might happen if one of those alien neighbors had a biological imperative — migration — that had a terrible impact on the rest.
My main character, Mackenzie Connor, is a salmon researcher not the least interested in space or neighbors, but she becomes embroiled in the mystery and does her science proud, if I say so myself. I love this story and it’s out as an 10th anniversary omnibus from DAW.
Esen? Always worth a try, in my biased opinion. She’s such great fun to write…and read.