Stina Leicht isn’t the first writer to combine Westerns with science fiction. Or the first to gender flip a familiar story. Or the first to rework Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 samurai classic Seven Samurai into something new. But she might be the first to do all of those things in a way that makes something think of the phrase “viciously feminist.” In the following email interview, Leicht discusses her new sci-fi Western novel Persephone Station (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), including how she explains that interesting tag.
To begin, what is Persephone Station about, and when and where is it set?
My elevator pitch for this novel is: “Persephone Station is a gender-flipped Magnificent Seven with six women of color and one white woman who never speaks.” The story takes place on a planet on the edge of the human-inhabited galaxy called Persephone and the government-owned station that orbits the planet. Persephone itself is run by the Serrao-Orlov Corporation, who bought it from the Catholic Church. Persephone is said to be uninhabited. However, Angel de la Reza and her crew are hired to protect a hidden community of people who are, in fact, native to the planet. They call themselves the Emissaries, and they have their reasons for remaining secret. Unfortunately, Serrao-Orlov is taking advantage of them. Since the Emissaries are passivists, Angel’s team is hired to fight for them.
As for when it’s set, well…the future. In my opinion, the year doesn’t really matter. You see, I don’t like giving dates because doing so instantly gives the story a sell-by date. Hell, as an author, one even has to be careful of cultural references. For example, Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson came out in 1992. I enjoyed it, but because the novel frequently mentions historical events that took place in the late 1960s and 1970s, it sets the novel’s timeline in the early 2000s. And clearly the world looks nothing like that book describes. Near future sci-fi is tough that way. Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke was written in 1953, and the beginning takes place in the 1990s. It’s all but unreadable now for anyone who didn’t read it before 1980. You’re not even off the hook if you set your story far into the future because so many changes are happening now from one decade to the next. When I was a teenager we only imagined super computers you could hold in the palm of your hand. Now, cellphones are everywhere and are hooked into the Internet, and that, in turn, is affecting life via social media. And that’s only been within my lifetime. How different will things be in three hundred years? Science fiction has always had a divinatory aspect to it for that reason. I’m just not enough of a techie to play that game. It’s all day dreams and fantasy anyway. Best to have fun and not worry about it.
Where did you get the original idea for Persephone Station, and how, if at all, did that idea change as you wrote it?
I literally got the idea while watching the latest version of Magnificent Seven in the theater. I’m a bit of a Kurasawa fan, and Magnificent Seven is just one of his movies that was remade as a Western.
Anyway, ever since I read an article from the Geena Davis Institute on gender in media about the dismal statistics regarding non-male gender representation, I’m quite conscious of how much films are mainly about white men. The new remake’s preview led me to believe that there’d be a more inclusive cast. I walked out angry and vowed to write a book wherein all the meaty speaking roles were given to non-male genders. And Persephone Station was born.
In case you’re wondering, I’m not even the first person to mash up Magnificent Seven with science fiction. That would be Battle Beyond The Stars.
And there’s Samurai 7, the steampunk sci-fi anime version of Seven Samurai.
Several of Akira Kurosawa’s works have been reframed. Yojimbo was remade as A Fist Full Of Dollars and Last Man Standing. And Star Wars has ties to Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress.
Science fiction and Westerns have had a relationship with one another since the beginning. Space is, to quote Star Trek, the final frontier. In fact, Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek to the television executives as a “Wagon Train to the stars.” (Which explains the colonialist attitude, too, when you think about it.)
My editor asked me for a working title and we came up with Persephone Station together. I wanted the novel to be something Feminist. So, the Persephone myth seemed a good place to start. The aliens are comprised of traditional gender-based qualities and behaviors. For example: women are discouraged from aggression of any kind, including anger. The weather reflects a hostile environment where you aren’t made to feel welcome. Women of a certain age are invisible, and men have taken credit for the works of other genders for centuries. There’s more to it, but you get the idea. I added in the Artificial General Intelligence part of the plot because I personally love reading fiction that teaches me something. So, even though I’m not into hard sci-fi — to me a story is about characters, not only ideas — I wanted to include some science. Biology and psychology are my favorite STEM subjects. And all the research into A.I. these days is related. Essentially, they’re trying to replicate how the brain works, but the interesting thing is that A.I. is nothing like how the brain works — it’s only like how we think the brain might work. Humanity’s model for the human brain has changed with every advance in technology. There was a time when hydraulics were the high tech of the day. So, we used fluids to model the brain. (Remember the four humors?) Then came the rise of mechanisms. People built automatons and theorized that one day they’d make a person out of gears. Now, we have computers and everyone talks about the human brain as if it were a computer. It isn’t, and it never has been. Our memories don’t work like that. Still, we’re moving ahead, making more and more lifelike A.I.s and robots. Ultimately, we’re creating an alien species.
I find that fascinating.
So then would you call Persephone Station a sci-fi Western space opera?
Actually, I think that fits rather well.
The press materials also say it’s “viciously feminist.” What does that mean, and how is it different from just being feminist?
[laughs] The truth is, I didn’t come up with that one.
But I suspect that the “vicious” comes from the fact that I was dead set against having any male main characters in this story — except for Lou’s boyfriend. Neither Magnificent Seven nor The Seven Samurai have female characters — except for the girlfriend of one of the samurai / soldiers. So, that was my goal and I stuck to it.
By the way, mostly male people have commented about how there isn’t any world-building reason for the story to focus only on non-male genders. Look, if you don’t need a world-building reason for thousands of movies, books, and TV series to be only about cis men, then you really don’t need one for one novel about women and other genders. This isn’t about hating cis men. It’s about what’s fair. Other genders should get to be seen being competent at their work and having adventures while doing it. Everyone deserves to live in the future.
Also, it annoys me that straight white women are given one end goal in life: to find a man to be with forever. Look, romance is lovely. I so enjoy a good RomCom. However, there’s more to life than finding a partner or partners. All women (and trans women are women) need to see themselves winning at something in life besides “achieving a stable relationship.” Although, in the case of trans women, I believe a case can be made for seeing more of them being happy in a relationship. The same with Black women. “Women” as a group aren’t a monoculture, after all.
You don’t often see women simply being close friends. Americans in particular need more examples of the distinction between emotional intimacy and sex. Toxic masculinity dictates that if a woman is emotionally intimate with someone then sex follows and it’s because of that confusion. Human beings need emotional intimacy. Men can and should be close friends with other men. Right now, that’s hard, but we’re seeing that change, and it’s a good thing.
Ultimately, I want to read about women of all sorts of backgrounds, ethnic makeups, and sexualities, working together as a group and supporting one another. I want to read about all non-male genders doing amazing things together. Part of oppressive systems is arranging it so that cooperation between those who are not part of the establishment is difficult or impossible. Humanity in general will be better off when all genders are allowed to be human and allowed to simply be.
That’s why how marginalized groups are depicted in media is so important. You can’t be what you don’t see.
I agree. Persephone Station is your fifth novel. Are there any writers who had a big influence on Persephone Station but not on anything else you’ve written?
Well, like I said, Akira Kurosawa is a big one. Iain M. Banks is another. I love his Culture books. They’re amazing. Anne Leckie was an influence, Martha Wells, Becky Chambers, Nnedi Okorafor, and Octavia Butler, too.
What about non-literary influences; was Persephone Station influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games? Because anytime someone says something is a “sci-fi Western,” I immediately think of Firefly.
Of course, you do. Firefly is the only recent and obvious example of Western genre influenced sci-fi. But like I said before, science fiction and Westerns have a long history together. Star Wars: The Mandalorian is another recent show that has its roots in Westerns.
Found families are pretty common in sci-fi too — as are teams. Just because science fiction and fantasy went through a lengthy Lone Hero Saves The Universe™ phase doesn’t mean that’s the only way to tell a story. Truth is, ensemble casts exist all throughout science fiction television. So, is Firefly an influence? Sure. How could it not be? But I’d also say that my other non-literary influences are Star Trek, Blade Runner, KillJoys, and Outland. I also binged a lot of The Expanse. I’m a visual person. Watching sci-fi television and film was helpful.
Oh! There’s a Logan’s Run reference in there too.
Your publisher, Saga Press, has also compared it to Cowboy Bebop, while the cover art is rather anime / manga-esque. Is there a Japanese thing going on in the book as well?
Do you mean more than Akira Kurosawa? [laughs]
Yes. The main character, Angel de la Reza comes from a planet mainly inhabited by people from South Asia, South America, North America, China, and Japan. Her mother is Black and Japanese. Her father is South American. Angel and her mother are members of a famous martial arts organization (and school) geared almost entirely for women. And that school is, in turn, based upon the Japanese style of martial arts I spent a few years studying. So, yes.
Now, as you know, sci-fi novels, Western or otherwise, are sometimes stand-alone stories, and other times part of larger sagas. What is Persephone Station?
As of this moment, it’s a stand-alone because the publisher requested it to be so. People ask this question a lot and I understand why. Everyone wants more of a good thing, right?
Unfortunately, the marketing numbers indicate that readers drop off super fast. That makes justifying maintaining a series difficult for financial reasons. Plus, bookstores stopped stocking backlists unless they’re from authors like J.R.R. Tolkien or maybe George R.R. Martin. Worse, readers these days are impatient and don’t tend to have long attention spans. As a result, the only series that really make it profitable for the publisher are from authors who write fast. Sadly, I’m not the kind of writer that pumps out a book every six months. That’s just reality.
Mind you if my publisher should ask for a follow-up novel, I’m totally in. But even so, I’m more likely to write a book set in the same world and not necessarily the same characters every time. I’m a big Sir Terry Pratchett fan. I also love Iain M. Banks. I feel they both did the series thing right in that every book stands alone, but, if you read them all, you get the bigger picture.
All in all, authors aren’t necessarily in charge of whether or not to continue writing a series. Yes, literature is an art form, but art isn’t the entire picture. Writing fiction is a job. And the reality is if our work doesn’t sell, we don’t get paid. We don’t get paid. We don’t eat. The unfortunate truth is there are only a lucky few who get to ignore that truth because they’ve made enough of an income that it’s no longer a factor. And it’s highly likely that you can name every one of them. Richard Castle lies.
That bastard! Anyway, earlier we discussed the movies, TV shows, and games that influenced Persephone Station. But do you think Persephone Station could work as a movie, TV show, or game?
Of course, I do. The plot is based on a movie. How could it not? Any of those formats would work, I think. However, I don’t really see it as a game. Sci-fi games require a certain structure. They need a whole universe, not just the one planet.
So if someone wanted to turn Persephone Station into a movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as Angel, Rose, and the other main characters?
It would be so amazing if [Star Trek‘s] Zoe Saldana played Angel. She’s the one I had in mind while writing the novel. Lou would be Ruth Negga [Preacher] and I think Rosario Dawson [The Mandalorian] would make an amazing Sukyi, don’t you? I’ve always thought of [Black Panther‘s] Angela Basset as Enid Crowe — why not go with the best? Seriously! I just adore her so much. Rosencrantz “Rosie” Ashmore? Well, I don’t have anyone specific in mind but they’d absolutely have to be a nonbinary Black actor. Lastly, it’d be fun to see Gwendoline Christie [Game Of Thrones] play Beak, but there are a number of white female actresses who could play that role and do it well. However, they’d need to be able to channel Sphinx from Gone In 60 Seconds.
Finally, if someone enjoys Persephone Station, which of your other novels would you suggest people check out next and why that?
It depends upon if they prefer something more literary — I’d recommend Of Blood And Honey in that case — or if they’re more interested in something more accessible, then I’d recommend Cold Iron. Keep in mind that Of Blood and Honey is set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, and it’s considerably darker. That might not be appropriate if you’re extremely stressed out. If something lighter works better, definitely go with Cold Iron.