While people have long dreamed of moving to another planet — insert your own joke about there being no intelligent life down here, Scotty — the reality is that living on another world would not be easy. Heck, just dealing with local allergens would turn Claritin and Zyrtec into multi-billion dollar companies. But why bother packing and moving and buying all that antihistamine when you can just read W. Michael Gear’s Donovan novels, which are all about living on that titular planet far, far away. In the following email interview, Gear discusses Pariah (hardcover, Kindle), the fourth and newest installment in this sci-fi adventure series.
I find it best to start with the basics. So, what is the Donovan series about, when is it set…?
First, understand that I am an anthropologist. A student of human culture and behavior. Anything I write, be it historical, prehistorical, thriller, or SF, is filtered through that lens.
Parsed down to the underlying foundation, the Donovan books are about asking fundamental questions about human nature. The series is set in in the mid twenty-second century, on a world thirty light years distant. Donovan is a treasure store, filled with incredible rare metals and minerals. The catch is that getting there and back is a terrible gamble — losing means facing a terrible death. And Donovan itself is no picnic. Humans aren’t used to living on worlds where the local flora and fauna will eat them.
In the first book, Outpost, the question is: What would you do? Stay on Donovan where you’ve got a ninety percent chance of being eaten? Or chance spacing back to Earth where you’ve a ninety percent chance of being marooned in space for all of eternity? The lure is, if you make it, you’ll be fantastically rich.
In Abandoned, the novel is about the choices people make when they’re on the ropes. Technology is failing, and ultimately, survival may depend on seizing someone else’s adaptations. What are the moral implications of survival? And, of course, we learn more about Donovan’s unique biology, and how the planet is fighting back. The book works on a lot of levels, not just storytelling, but puts the reader between the thorny horns of dilemma. What would you choose? And, who is the victim here? Donovan? Or the humans?
And then what is Pariah about, and how does it connect, both chronologically and narratively, to the previous books?
The Donovan series intensifies with Pariah. Some of the characters are infected by the local biology, essentially hybrids. Not only do they not fit in human society, but quetzal molecules are inserting themselves into human thoughts and actions. Beyond that, a new character will mount a challenge to Port Authority’s libertarian ethic. So, who’s responsible for protecting the people? Government? Or, ultimately, the people themselves? And, finally, there’s the ecological question of humans interacting in an alien environment. Once the genie is out of the bottle, how do you ever put it back? A question modern environmentalists and conservationists should be asking themselves.
Where did you get the idea for Pariah, and when in relation to writing Outpost and Abandoned did you come up with this idea?
Pariah was the natural evolution of the Donovan story. It all goes back to asking, “What does this mean?” and putting characters in place to face those hard decisions. Humans have been given a green light to exploit the planet. But what are the consequences? And which way are the impacts running? It was a delight to drop a conservation biologist with an agenda right into the middle of the mess, to cut to the heart of what both conservation and evolution mean. And to put Dan Wirth face to face with a guy who’s meaner, nastier, and more cutthroat. Finally, just about the time the quetzals have been forgotten, it was a delight to turn three of them loose in Port Authority.
Pariah is a sci-fi adventure novel. But are there any other genres, sub-genres, or combinations of them that are part of this story as well?
Good science fiction is a mixture of intellectual thriller, suspense, mystery, science, frontier, politics, romance, and drama. A huge part of the story is Talina, our heroine, fighting for her psyche as alien molecules war inside her.
So, is Pariah a psychological thriller? I suppose so. Tam Benteen is attempting a coup at Port Authority. Is it a political thriller? Yes. Dortmund Weisbacher is face to face with wild Donovan. Is it a nature suspense? Guess so. And ultimately, the book is about justice.
Are there any writers or specific stories that you see as being a big influence on Pariah but not on Outpost and Abandoned?
[My wife] Kathleen O’Neal Gear — who is a much more talented writer than I am — has her fingerprints all over the Donovan series, and Pariah as well. She is truly my muse, inspiration, and mentor.
I relied heavily on David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker’s Maya Cosmos, along with additional anthropological works on shamanism and the anthropology of religion for Talina’s journey to the underworld. The DSM-5, various books on Eastern religions, and political treatises fill in a lot of the gaps. See Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer. And, of course, the formula for the Donovan books has been worked out for years in our People series [the series he’s cowritten with his wife].
How about movies, TV shows, or video games; did any of them have a particularly big impact on Pariah?
Outpost was drafted long before either the movie or the HBO series, but the marketing people at Penguin Random House say that the Donovan books are like Avatar meets Deadwood. I actually like that comparison, having enjoyed both series. After the comparison was made, I’ve noticed a little bit of Al Swearingen creeping into Dan Wirth’s character.
And this is my last question about influences: You and your wife raise bison. How, if at all, has taking care of such large animals influenced what you wrote in Pariah? Are there space bison in it? Do people make space bison burgers, maybe with grilled onions and apple slaw?
No space bison, or burgers. The meat on Donovan is nowhere near as tasty, healthy for you, or environmentally sustainable.
Bison politics, however, do play a role as they partially inspired the character of Dortmund Weisbacher. I’ll leave it to the reader to figure out why, and which side I come down on.
Now, as we’ve been discussing, Pariah is the third book in your Donovan series. For those unfamiliar with this series, is Pariah a stand-alone story in a series of them, the third book of a trilogy, the middle book in whatever a five-book saga is called…?
Anyone can pick up Pariah and read it as a stand-alone. Lots of new characters arrive on the survey ship, Vixen. New readers will get the back story along with the new characters. No one will be lost, and it’s all part of the action instead of boring narrative.
As to the series? Hey! I’m having a blast writing this. Each book spins new questions in the constant “what if?” Currently we’re building a rabid readership who can’t wait for the next book. And that includes some of our readers who’ve never cracked an SF book in their entire lives.
So how many books are you planning the Donovan series to be, when might the rest be out, and what are you planning on calling them?
I’ll write them as long as people are willing to buy them. Book 4, Unreconciled, is on the publisher’s desk and will be out April of 2020. The proposal for book five has already been submitted for some time in 2021.
Nice. Earlier I asked if any movies, TV shows, or video games had been an influence on Pariah. But has there been any interest in adapting this book, or the Donovan series, into a movie, show, or game?
There has been film interest. These Hollywood types being the secretive bunch that they are, I can’t disclose more. However, that said, and having been in the business for as long as I have, we’ll all wait and see. Been here, done this, got the t-shirt. The old mantra is that you always wait and see if the check clears, and even then it ain’t for certain.
If the Donovan series was to be adapted into a movie or TV show, who would you like them to cast in the main roles?
Finally, if someone enjoys Pariah, and they’ve already read Outpost and Abandoned, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next?
Tough question. Depends on what they like to read. If they’re into hard SF, The Way Of Spider trilogy [The Warriors Of Spider, The Way Of Spider, and The Web Of Spider] or Forbidden Borders. If they like other-worldly with fantasy elements, People Of The Morning Star, Sun Born, Moon Hunt, and Star Path. For gut-punching historical fiction, This Scorched Earth. And for frontier, Flight Of The Hawk: The River and its sequel, The Plains.