Fifteen years after she released Hidden In Sight, science fiction writer and former biologist Julie E. Czerneda is finally giving fans another adventure for her iconic shapeshifter Esen in Search Image (hardcover, Kindle). In the following email interview, Czerneda discusses why it took so long for her to return to the Web Shifters series and what inspired this new story.
Photo Credit: Roger Czerneda Photography
I always like to start with a plot overview. So, for those unfamiliar with the Web Shifters series, what is that trilogy about, what is Search Image about, and how does Search Image connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the rest of the Web Shifters series?
I’ve always approached Esen’s books — she’s the main character throughout — as episodes in a TV series I love. While there are arcs of plot that carry over, mostly it’s “Today’s Alien Biology Dilemma, Resolved By Your Well Meaning Blob Of Blue!” In each book, Esen needs to discover what’s causing problems between two or more alien species, and fix it. She’s convinced ignorance is enemy, common well informed, courtesy should be the default, and if no one else will step in, she’s more than ready. As a semi-immortal shapeshifter with perfect memory spanning millennia — and who loves all the details — she’s uniquely suited. As the Youngest of her kind, naïve about most things, and prone to leap without looking? It’s a good thing Paul, her human friend, is there too.
Beholder’s Eye is the first book and where I’d recommend readers start. On her first away mission for her kind, Esen meets Paul and decides to rescue him and his human crewmates. In doing so, she reveals her kind…and is shred into bits by a fan, hides out in a fish tank, and does massage for hire, among other adventures new to her. Paul chooses to keep her secret, at the expense of career and family. Because they’ve become friends.
Changing Vision and Hidden In Sight, the next two books, trot along in that vein. In the first, we rejoin Paul and Esen years later, safe in their new identities. Which don’t last long once she decides to meet a brand new species, invade an art gallery, and hide in an abyssal trench, among other adventures. At the end of Hidden In Sight, Esen has decided to follow Paul’s long-held dream: to open a library of alien language and culture. Plus return him to his family, because friends do that.
Which brings us to Search Image. For Esen and Paul, it’s been a few months since Hidden In Sight. For me, and readers, it’s been twenty years since the first book, and fifteen since the latest. For that reason, and because I love the library deeply, we’ve started a new brand, so to speak. From now on, Esen’s stories will be in the Web Shifter’s Library because, well, they will be. There’s more, you see. Many more…
Where did you get the idea for Search Imageand how different is the finished novel from that original concept?
Hmm. Interesting question. Let me digress. Before Esen met a human, she relied on her Web: the other five of her kind in this part of space. They exchange memories by taking bites out of one another. The current slang, grammar, and/or swear words one Web Being acquires for a species is thus part of all the Web’s ability to speak the language of the times. To stay current is essential for their ability to pass themselves off as that species — the right shape alone without trendy clothes won’t work, for example — but also their purpose. To remember ephemeral life and its accomplishments, long after that life goes extinct.
I won’t spoil the story but will say Esen now has to collect such information for herself, with Paul’s help. The library is thus vital for her, providing a source of critical minutiae on sentient species. But it’s more than that. She and Paul are determined to continue to save the talking universe from dangerous ignorance. The “All Species’ Library Of Linguistics And Culture” will let Esen act in secret, by providing the answers others don’t have.
At least, that’s their plan.
As you mentioned, Search Image is the first book in the Web Shifters series you’ve published since 2003’s Hidden In Sight. Was the plan always to write more novels in this series, or was it more that you thought it was done, and then you just happened to come up with a new idea for Esen?
Goodness. I write Esen all the time. I’ve ideas constantly. I’ve fat folders of weird biology — for my aliens and their issues are based in reality, believe me — destined for her. I knew about the library in 2003, remember, and Sheila Gilbert, my beloved double-Hugo-winning editor at DAW Books adores Esen too. Plus writing Esen? She’s my vacation. I laugh while I write, because everything about her is easy and joyful. I keep worrying someone will discover I’m being paid to do this.
However, there’s only so much time. I spent three wonderful years with Species Imperative. Then I returned to my Clan Chronicles. Took a side trip into fantasy for two books after that — which was fabulous and fun, but also took a total of four more years — then I’d to finish the Clan series, as promised. A few anthologies in there.
All along, I knew Esen would be back as soon as I could squeeze her into my life. Which is now.
Search Image is a science fiction story. But are there any subgenres of sci-fi, or combinations of them, that describe this story better?
Are there? I wouldn’t know. I tend to be a lumper, not a splitter, though genre categories are doubtless helpful. How’s “biology-based first contact adventure within a multitude of species and worlds that’s about friendship and slime.”
Wors for me. So are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Search Image or your earlier novels?
It’s rather embarrassing, but I’ll confess. I’d dash away to write more Esen whenever an SF book I read disappointed me. Therefore I won’t name any. Though there could be cheery Pratchett references here and there. One can’t escape the turtle. In fact, yes, I do have Esen refer to a world carried on the back of a turtle.
How about movies, TV shows, and video games; are there any of those that had a big impact on Search Image?
You may find spots of that. I’m not a gamer, but movies and TV? There’s sometimes a wink or two. Farscape, mayhap. With Esen, I tend to write stream-of-consciousness, so if something’s recently caught my attention, it could show up. Less than with the other books I’ve done. In The Company Of Others has well over a hundred pop references buried in it. That’s simply because Esen lets me pour out biology and I don’t want to stop.
Finally, back when you were deciding how Esen’s shapeshifting abilities would work, did you base her on any other shapeshifters in fiction, or, did you try to figure out how a shapeshifter would work in the real world, thus taking advantage of all the studying you did to become a biologist?
I recently did a piece for John Scalzi’s Big Idea on that, for more detail. In essence, I wanted to figure out a way an organism could be essentially immortal, and reproduced as rarely as possible. Hydra longevity hadn’t been discovered then. The premise I chose, that my beings had control over their molecular structure and could use that energy to reshape themselves, came almost secondarily. But yes, I did want a solid, thoughtful blob of blue.
When I was envisioning Esen — and starting to write her — I’d not come across another shapeshifter outside of the supernatural/magical sort. Which are fine, just not Esen. In fact, when trailers for Deep Space Nine began to air, showing they’d a shapeshifting alien, I was a little, hmm, worried? Horrified? Panic-stricken? I confess, by then, I was thinking of Esen books, maybe a series, one day. Fortunately, when I saw Odo in action, I could relax. Cool alien, but nothing at all like mine. A good lesson for me as a beginning writer. Ideas are one thing. It’s where we take them that make our stories personal.
So have any of your old biologist pals ever chastised you for being scientifically inaccurate and if so, did you give them a dirty look or did you just say, “Yeah, I know, but then my book would have to be peer reviewed…”
Oh, the contrary. I’ve a host of biologists who are fans of Esen and my other biology-laced work, Species Imperative. Biogeeks, I call them, and they delight in spotting all the real, accurate bits I’ve used. It’s one of my favorite parts of the job.
I’m also delighted that Beholder’s Eye has been — and may still be — used by a professor of astronomy at Alfred State University in his course work, to show alien-building and first contact.
Accurate science, I assure you, doesn’t mean dull.