In speculative fiction, one of the “What If?” questions that gets asked the most is “What if [War X] went on longer than it really did?” But in his novel The Ratten Expedition (hardcover, paperback, digital), writer David A Hornung doesn’t show us what The Civil War would be like if it lasted six years longer than it really did, but what life is like ten years after that longer war concluded.
To begin, what is The Ratten Expedition about?
The Ratten Expedition is about people. By that I mean, Yes, it is a continent spanning adventure, and a lot of steam and gunpowder are used up, but the main thing that drives the story is the circumstances that force the characters to develop and change. John Morton, my protagonist, changes from a quiet professor of Natural History, what we would call a Paleontologist, back into a harder version of himself from his time in the Union Army during the Civil War. Isaiah is a man broken from the loss of his wife and child, the healing that goes on thanks to Sarah. Julia is the most changed of all; she goes from a cold blooded government killer to a caring young woman. Sarah sees her young life being returned to her after the loss of her family. While Father Peter is the glue that helps to hold all these broken people together.
As to the story itself, it sets up to tell the story of a group of people who by accident, except for Julia, find themselves as part of a secret government team trying to stop two renegade scientists from tearing the different United States apart with their creation.
Where did you get the original idea for it, and how much did the story change from that original idea?
My first answer is damned if I know. The story I started to write turned into my second book, now in edit. This one just took off on its own as I tried to keep up with my characters who had a mind of their own.
I had the outlines of the historic change, the Trent Incident, in my head for years. It is one of those pivotal points in history where the coin could land either heads or tails. Much of the background that happens in Buffalo, as they try to add Isaiah to the team, comes from my home town’s history as a vile den of depravity around the area called Canal Town. Parts of the book’s story are based upon real life incidents that took place, such as the anti-Chinese riot toward the end of the book in Los Angeles. The dig in the bad lands again is from history, the Dakota bone beds are famous in Paleontology. The end with the Ratten comes from some miniatures from Blue Moon called “Pirats” I had painted up for my gaming.
What authors or other novels do you think we’re the biggest influences on this novel?
Well, first there was Tom Clancy. Part of my style of writing came from his techno thrillers; when I am describing things, I try to keep them as realistic as possible, even if they are steampunk. For example, the airship Congress has plenty of green paint and not much brass with dull boring food; it is a military vessel not a pleasure craft.
Second, I would say Gail Carringer. She is a well known steampunk author, and I love the way she narrates a story and has the ability to paint pictures with words. Throw in a bit of Edgar Rice Burrows and Charles Dickens and some other people I have not mentioned, and there you have it.
In The Ratten Expedition, the American Civil War lasted six years longer than it really did. In figuring out how to depict life during that war, did you look at fictional accounts such as movies, or did you do a lot of research?
I would say mostly research and fiction, not too much of the movies. I am a miniatures war gamer and an avid history buff. I was for many years a Civil War reenactor, till I decided I was getting too old to sleep on the ground in a tent. I would say that there were several TV series that helped me get the feel for the period. BBC’s Copper and Ripper Street were in there as the strongest for the feel, and in the U.S. Wild, Wild West and Brisco County Jr. helped a lot with the pacing and fun aspects. Reading good history books helped a lot, too.
Obviously, with the Civil War lasting a lot longer in your novel than it did in real life, the weapon technology would’ve advanced further than it did in real life as well. How did you figure out how far to take things? Did you try to come up with weapons that we might’ve created had the war lasted that long, or did you just go full steampunk and not bother trying to be accurate?
I’m not sure it was a conscious decision, in that I did not map it out before I wrote the story. I did not want the “tech” to overtake the people; the heart of the story is the changes both good and bad in the people. As an Engineer — or recovering Engineer — it is not only how long it takes to develop something but how long it takes to get it into production and to the troops. Obviously, I played with certain aspects, steam powered airships, but I am sorry it was just way too much fun to pass up along with Father Peter’s aversion to flying. The other thing is the biology was taken way forward, but it worked for H.G. Wells on that island Dr. Moreau had. Overall, I tried to strive to keep the technology as the backdrop and not the story. I have read several books that made the tech the centerpiece and, overall, I thought they were terrible.
Now, while you have the Civil War lasting way longer than it really did, The Ratten Expedition actually takes place ten years after the war ends. Why did you decide to write a book set after the war, as opposed to during it?
This was not to be a “War Story,” but a story to save the country, a desperate chase. The war provided the training and tempering to the three males, each of them had been deeply affected by the war. After all those years of hell that they had put behind them and fashioned new lives, all of a sudden they were pulled back into it as if it never ended. Julia grew up in a world that has hardly been peaceful, even though it is not brought out in the story. Hers is a dark shadowy world where men like William Anderson create and then send women like Julia out to clean up problems for them. The idea was they had to solve the problem without fanfare or a major battle because if word got out it could also destroy the country as surely as the Ratten themselves would. Meanwhile Julia and Sarah seem to save each other and form their own family.
As you said, you’re a recovering Engineer, and in your bio it says you hold, “a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, a doctorate in environmental engineering, several other degrees in the social and physical sciences, and that you’re studying for your MA in pastoral ministry.” How, if at all, have your studies influenced the book?
Well first for the full CV: AAS Chemical Technology, BA Sociology, BS/ME Mechanical Engineering & PhD Environmental Engineering. Except for rewriting my Theological Reflection, a.k.a. Master’s Paper, MAPM in Pastoral Ministry.
Because of my training in engineering and my love of history, I have always been fascinated with the history of technology, so I wanted to keep that as true as possible. Julia’s gas bombs are basically Phosgene, which was used as a chemical warfare agent in WWI. Father Peter and his gentle nature is right out of my seminary training, he is a composite of several clergymen I have known both Catholic and Protestant.
You also said you used to be a Civil War reenactor. Be honest, did this book come about because you realized one day, when you were doing a reenactment, that things would’ve gone way differently if you’d shown up with a grenade launcher or a lightsaber?
Short answer: No. We always strove for historic accuracy. Wool clothing in summer, food cooked over a campfire, and sleeping on the ground in tents. As one visitor remarked while we were giving our living history lesson, “at least we smelled authentic.”
No, I would say that the idea came more from watching Jim West and Artimis Gorden save the country every week as a kid.
Do your reenactment pals know about this book? I wonder how they’d reacted to it being speculative fiction and steampunk as opposed to realistic.
Well, I’ve been out of reenacting for quite a while, so I have lost touch with most of them. However, most historians or people who are interested in history, like me, wonder “what if.” What if there had been a third strike on Pearl Harbor damaging the facilities or catching our carriers coming back in? What if the Trent had been damaged or Genghis Khan had not died when he did? So I do not think they will mind, and will enjoy the fiction as much as any “normal” person.
More importantly, your bio also says you have five cats. I’m guessing they were the biggest influence of all, right?
Well, not the biggest influence, mostly being interrupted to scratch one of the fur kids. Mostly they helped me relax. Nothing says afternoon cat nap like 22 pounds of grand kitten in your lap.
Now, the chances of The Ratten Expedition being made into a movie are probably slim, thanks to the Civil War steampunk flop that was Wild, Wild West. But if someone in Hollywood did think that it would make a cool — and, let’s be honest, profitable — movie, who would you want to direct it and star in it and why them?
First of all, I would love to see it as a movie, since it would not cost anywhere near as much as Wild, Wild West. And the Sherlock Homes movies have not done too badly. Many of the scenes could be filmed at Old Tucson or other historic sites. The main “big” ticket items would be Isaiah’s Steam Wagon and the Ratten makeup.
Directors I do not know very well, my wife is handicap so we do not get to the flicker pictures too often. However, I would stress that it should be someone who wanted to tell a good story and not someone who used special effects as a crutch instead of telling a story.
Stars…well when I was writing it, I tended to visualize Michael Shanks as John Morton. Julia I would probably say Kimberly Guilfoyle, but she is too old for Julia and a lawyer and not an actress, so second choice Selena Gomez. As for Father Peter, I am not sure; perhaps William Devane. Isaiah, if cost is not a problem, Denzel Washington. Sarah, I do not know, check with Disney, see who they have coming up in their bull pen.
Finally, if someone really likes The Ratten Expedition, what steampunk novel would you suggest they read next and why?
I’d say Gail Carringer’s Soulless series and Shelly Adina’s Magnificent Devices series are both excellent. Scott Westerfield’s Goliath trilogy. Finally, classics such as Burrow’s John Carter Of Mars or H. Rider Haggard’s tales.