Exclusive Interview: “Robosoldiers” Editor Stephen Lawson

 

There are a number of former soldiers who write military science fiction, and there are a number of anthologies that collect military science fiction. But in the following email interview with Stephen Lawson, the editor of Robosoldiers (paperback, Kindle), he notes that this anthology of military science fiction short stories not only has former soldiers as contributors, but that he specifically asked them to focus on their military specialties when coming up with their ideas.

Stephen Lawson Robosoldiers Thank You For Your Servos

To start, what is the theme of Robosoldiers? What connects these stories?

All of the stories are about the future of military robotics and artificial intelligence. It’s hard sci-fi, and the future time limit was fifty years.

Who came up with the idea for Robosoldiers?

The idea came from the subtitle when it popped into my head: “Thank you for your servos.” Little puns and dad jokes just emerge on their own sometimes. I thought about writing a short story or novella with that title, but then the idea grew into the anthology concept so it could focus on all domains of warfare. I initially asked one of Baen’s editors to edit it and save one of the author slots for me. They all had a full load at the time though, so Toni Weisskopf [Baen’s owneer / publisher] decided I should edit it. So I did.

Aside from having to fit the theme, what other parameters did these stories have to fit? Did they need to be new for this anthology, under a certain length…?

Most of the authors are military veterans, and I asked them to focus on their military specialty. The diversity in the authors’ experiences means readers get sea, air, space, land, and cyber warfare — all domains. All the stories are hard science fiction, and I asked them to stay in the 8,000-9,000 word range. A couple went short of that and a few went long, so the volume length is right where I wanted it to be. They’re also all new; no reprints.

Were there also any story-based parameters? Like, did you specifically tell potential contributors not to just do their own version of Terminator 2 or Ghost In The Shell, or that they had to be mechanically possible or something?

They’re all hard science fiction, so they’re as real-world plausible as possible. The Ph.D.s in the group wrote some phenomenal hard science. There’s solid scientific backing for the other stories, but I learned a bit Googling and trying to keep up as a layman with the scientists in the group. One story had a few stretches into the mildly paranormal, but I think they’re entirely justified with the scientific reasoning behind them.

Once you had the theme and rules in place, how then did you decide what writers to approach?

I knew most of the writers from various events and encounters, and I tend to befriend people with interesting minds when they let me. I knew M.T. Reiten and Philip Kramer from the 2017 International Space Development Conference. We were there because Matt (M.T.) and I had placed 3rd and 2nd in the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award, and Philip had won the grand prize. Both Matt and I have won it since then. They both write hard science so I knew that was a good start for the theme and criteria.

I knew Martin Shoemaker, Doug Beason, and Sean Hazlett from the Writers Of The Future workshop in 2017. Sean and I were contest winners, Doug was a judge, and Martin was there to coach and mentor us.

David Drake, T.C. McCarthy, Monalisa Foster, Richard Fox, and Brad Torgersen are part of the Baen community, which Toni Weisskopf has referred to as (forgive me if I misquote) “our own little minor league.” People get to know each other more in the Baen community than with some other publishing enterprises. There’s more fan-to-author and author-to-author contact and friendship from my experience.

A couple of others were friends of friends. Sean Hazlett recommended Weston Ochse to me, and Toni recommended Phillip Pournelle.

So to answer your question, most of my invitation process was based on social networking and who I was aware of that could write military hard sci-fi and whose writing style and life experience I thought would work well in the anthology.

contributor Sean Hazlett

Were there any instances where someone you approached actually suggested someone else, someone you didn’t know or maybe even wouldn’t have thought of for this kind of collection?

Sean and I have worked together on a few projects. He’s edited Weird World War III [which you can read more about here], Weird World War IV [which you can read more about here], and another upcoming anthology for Baen. He mentored me a bit on this process since it was my first go at it, and I’m grateful to him for that help. He suggested Wes, T.C., Brad, and some others when I was in the planning stage. Toni suggested Phillip Pournelle. I’d met his dad, but I’ve never met Phillip. I’m really glad she did, as he wrote some great military strategy in “The Rules Of The Game.”

You also have a story in Robosoldiers. What’s it about?

My story’s called “Nightingale.” I’m a pilot, so it focuses on a rescue mission involving the crew of a stealth-equipped helicopter. It’s also a dysfunctional romance story, and gets into the fallibility of people that wear the uniform. It has a lot of layers. Some people will notice some of them. I doubt anybody will understand all of them. But it’s a decent adventure story.

Speaking of you being a pilot, you were in the U.S. Navy, and are currently a helicopter pilot and an officer in the Kentucky National Guard. But in putting Robosoldiers together, did your military experience ever run counter to helping a contributor tell a good story?

Not really. Most of the authors are veterans, and the three that aren’t are extremely well-educated. Martin, Monalisa, and Philip Kramer wrote things that added quite a bit of value to the volume as a whole. They know the material and did research where they needed to. I’ve had other writers ask me for advice on writing team dynamics and other things, but I didn’t have to do any coaching with this group.

Obviously, the stories in Robosoldiers are military science fiction, but what other genres or subgenres do these stories fall into?

I don’t think there are really other subgenres present. Someone may differ with me, but that’s how I read them. Sean Hazeltt (“Manchurian”) and Weston Ochse (“My Dog Skipper 2.0”) write horror, and their stories are a bit more dark and grisly than the others, but still military sci-fi. They don’t actually delve into horror here.

Monalisa Foster (“Resilience”) writes romance sometimes. There’s a bit of that in her story, which is also a bit dark, but I wouldn’t call it a romance. A few of my stories have themes of dysfunctional romance and mental illness. You have the themes that come with the writers — where they feel comfortable mentally and emotionally — but it’s all just hard sci-fi here.

contributor T.C. McCarthy

And are any of them humorous? Because the subtitle “Thank you for your servos” makes me think this might be…well, not jokey, but maybe have some situational humor.

I make jokes even when I shouldn’t sometimes, so there’ll be things like that with anything I have influence on. There are a few little jokes in my story, “Nightingale.” M.T. Reiten has some decent humor in the banter between his two main characters in “Higher Ground.” There’s a repeated pun in Richard Fox’s “Edge Case” that I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t notice until I was halfway through editing it, at which point it made me laugh. Doug Beason’s “All Is One” has one scene that made me laugh when I probably shouldn’t have. T.C. McCarthy’s protagonist in “The Handyman” is pretty amusing, and I’ve always enjoyed the irony and jokes that Philip Kramer works into his stuff; “Operation Meltwater” made me laugh a few times.

Now, along with all of the stories, Robosoldiers features a foreword by Major General (Retired) Stephen R. Hogan. Aside from him being a fellow Stephen and not one of those bastard Stevens, why did you want him to write the foreword?

There are probably a few decent Stevens in the world, but thank you for picking up on the more honorable spelling of the name.

Part of the reason for inviting him was his professional credibility. He retired as a 2-star, and he did and experienced quite a lot during his military career. He talks about some of that in the foreword. General Hogan was my boss’s boss when I was a company commander. He was Kentucky’s Adjutant General (TAG: The Adjutant General) during Matt Bevin’s administration, and everyone I interact with in the Guard enjoyed his leadership. He’s the real deal as a soldier and a statesman, and I’ve always sensed genuine humility in him and affection for the people he leads. When we dealt with unpleasant things like discharges for various reasons or when things needed correcting — he absolutely corrected them — but I think he loved the people he served with. I don’t think you can be a really good leader without that quality, and I get more attached to people like that.

As you know, Hollywood loves turning short stories into movies. Are there any stories in Robosoldiers that would work particularly well as a movie?

Oh man, you’re going to put me on the spot. Do I have to say all of them, lest I face the wrath of the other writers?

I think the ones with the most movie potential are Philip Kramer’s “Operation Meltwater” and Doug Beason’s “All Is One.” And maybe Weston Ochse’s “My Dog Skipper 2.0”

Some of the others have plots that might not work as well in a feature-length film. The world-building is probably too tight to allow it unless the stories are expanded quite a bit.

Some, mine included, have too much going on inside the main character’s head to translate well. Monalisa commented recently that writing is an inside-out experience, and visual entertainment is outside-in, meaning that you get the thoughts and feelings directly with the written word, but you have to try to discern some things in movies, even with great actors.

So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Robosoldiers?

I meant it as a sort of idea factory. I wanted to see if any of the ideas the writers came up with might make their way into reality in the next decade or two. So save a copy, and maybe we’ll find out together.

Stephen Lawson Robosoldiers Thank You For Your Servos

Finally, if someone enjoys Robosoldiers, what 2 anthologies that someone else put together — one that has a story of yours, and one that does not — would you suggest they read next?

Check out Sean Hazlett’s Weird World IV. I have a story in it called “Mea Kaua” (“weapon(s)” in Hawaiian). It’s about a mercenary with some neat tech single-handedly assaulting a floating city.

It’s been out for a couple of years, but check out William Ledbetter’s The Jim Baen Memorial Award: The First Decade. I didn’t win until 2018, so I’m not in that one. The concept for that contest influenced the concept for Robosoldiers. It’s hard sci-fi, next fifty years. The focus with the contest is on space exploration. I just focused on military robotics. Both interesting, both worth thinking and reading about.

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