Exclusive Interview: “Sword & Planet” Editor Christopher Ruocchio

 

While the Dune novels and Star Wars saga are clearly as entrenched in the genres of science fiction and space opera as the Foundation novels and the Star Trek saga, there are also fantastical and spiritual elements to those former stories that place them in the realm known as space fantasy or science fantasy. It’s also where you’ll find the stories collected in a new anthology called Sword & Planet (paperback, Kindle). In the following email interview, S&P editor Christopher Ruocchio discusses how this collection came together.

Christopher Ruocchio Sword & Planet

Let’s start with the basics: What is the theme of Sword & Planet? What’s the commonality between these stories?

They’re all science fantasy stories, either in the classic tradition of Burroughs’s John Carter or Leigh Brackett’s Eric John Stark, or in the more modern style of, say, Dune or Star Wars.

And aside from having to fit the theme, what other conditions did the stories have to meet? Was there a word limit, did they have to be previously unpublished…?

All the anthologies I’ve done for Baen have been by invitation only, usually from a list given to me by my employer, although I get a little wiggle room vis-a-vis who to invite, and had broader latitude with this book in particular when compared to all the others. There was a soft word count limit at 10,000 words, though a few writers went over that line.

Who came up with the idea for this collection?

It was my idea. After doing four or five anthologies where the theme had been given me by my employers or been cooked up by my co-editor, this was my first outing in the driver’s seat, so to speak. I’ve always been a big fan of sword and sorcery, that old and long-neglected form of fantasy literature, and of its sci-fi counterpart, the even more neglected sword and planet (hence the title), and since my own Sun Eater novels fits broadly under that umbrella as well, I thought it might be fun to bring in some writers and do an anthology with that theme.

Was there anything particularly challenging about putting this collection together?

The pandemic didn’t help. Three or four writers had to drop from the book relatively late in production due to medical difficulties either in themselves or their families, so I had to make some changes. My own contribution to the book, Queen Amid Ashes, grew from a short story to a full-blown novella to compensate for the loss of so many writers. Nevertheless, I’m quite proud of how the book came out, I only wish I could have kept everyone aboard.

When putting a collection like Sword & Planet together, how often do you ask someone to contribute even though you think there’s no way in hell they’ll do it?

Usually once or twice a book. In putting together an anthology, you want one or two big name tentpoles to sort of anchor the collection and draw in readers. Unfortunately, such big name writers are often far too busy to participate, but it never hurts to try.

And how often when you approach a writer do they pass for whatever reason, but say, “But you should really get in touch with this person, they’re great”?

I honestly can’t recall a time someone has passed and sent me another name as an alternative. By contrast, I will pretty commonly get someone who accepts and then recommends a friend. That happens two or three times a book.

I’ve noticed that anthologies published by Baen often include stories by people who’ve written or are writing novels for them. Is this a mandate from on high or is this more because it’s easier to get in touch with these people?

A bit of both, really. Baen tends to be loyal to its own stable of writers in an effort to cross-promote their writers to their readership. I’ve tried to pull in some more names from outside Baen’s orbit for this collection (though I’m sad to say I didn’t get quite everyone I wanted, thanks to Covid), but as you say, Baen’s reliance on their own roster is partially a matter of familiarity and convenience, and partially a desire to get their own people more work.

Now, as you mentioned, you’re not only the editor of Sword & Planet, you’re also a contributor. What is your story about?

Queen Amid Ashes is a part of my Sun Eater science fantasy series, and is about the mop-up operations after an alien invasion, in which our heroes discover some wartime secrets — both about the aliens and about their human victims — and they have to decide what to do about these revelations.

And where does Queen Amid Ashes fit into the Sun Eater saga in terms of chronology?

It’s set directly after Howling Dark, which is the second book in the series, and is written in the same fashion as the books (that being first person from the perspective of the hero, Hadrian). It’s basically his first outing as an official servant of the empire. Readers of the series will know there are always huge time skips between volumes, as if there are lost or missing books in between. Consider this a fragment from one of those lost volumes. It’s a trick I’ve done a couple times before, notably in a novelette called “The Demons Of Arae,” and one I intend to keep using, to fill in the blanks between the main novels for the curious reader.

A few months back you published a collection of Sun Eater stories called Tales Of The Sun Eater, Vol. 1. Is Queen Amid Ashes in that collection, or did you hold it for Tales Of The Sun Eater, Vol. 2: Electric Boogaloo?

Queen Amid Ashes wasn’t in Tales, Vol. 1. It appears here in Sword & Planet for the first time. I’m not planning to include it in Vol. 2, either. It’s a full-blown novella at about 35,000 words long, so if it sees an eBook release in the style of Tales, it will probably be on its lonesome.

As for when Vol. 2 will be out, I’m planning on putting it out some time next year, after the release of my next novel, Kingdoms Of Death, in March. Let’s say Summer 2022. I’m writing the final story for Vol. 2 as we speak.

In the interview we did for Tales Of The Sun Eater, Vol. 1 you said that while that collection was just an eBook, you were planning to assemble an omnibus print edition after the final Sun Eater novel comes out in 2023. Will Queen Amid Ashes be in the omnibus?

Yes! Unless I decide to expand it slightly and do it like The Lesser Devil [a novella published separately]. Still on the fence.

Now, along with Sword & Planet, you also recently compiled another anthology for Baen called World Breakers, which you co-edited with Tony Daniel. We went in-depth on that collection in a previous interview, but for people who hate clicking, what are the stories in that book about?

World Breakers is a collection of all-original war stories, each featuring some sort of artificially intelligent or bio-mechanically controlled war machine (mostly traditional tanks, but with a couple exceptions). The idea was to sort of homage the old Bolo stories by Keith Laumer, but we got some pretty divergent variations on the theme. There’s one about an AI M*A*S*H unit, and another where a robotic tank finds itself sworn into service as a medieval knight, plus we have stories by both David Weber and Larry Correia, which never hurts.

And what genre are the stories in World Breakers?

Pure military science fiction, but there’s a lot of latitude under that umbrella. Like I hinted at above, some of these stories are less typical of the military sci-fi mold than you might expect. Certainly we’ve got some classic all-action stories, both ones where the tank is the hero and ones where it is the villain. But there are some more thoughtful stories. A particular favorite is Pat Chiles’s “The Prisoner,” which is a kind of philosophical Mexican standoff between a machine and its human quarry.

As if that wasn’t enough, Baen also recently released a mass market paperback version of Cosmic Corsairs, a collection you and Hank Davis put together in 2020. What is that anthology about, and what genre?

Cosmic Corsairs is exactly what it says on the tin: a collection of space pirate stories, about three quarters of which were reprints of classic stories from writers like Fritz Leiber, James Blish, and Katharine MacLean. The others were original stories, including a novelette of mine called “The Night Captain.”

Amusingly, the cover was done by the legendary Don Maitz, who not only has painted probably hundreds of covers in his career, but also painted the logo for Captain Morgan rum, so I figured we had to get him for the pirates book. It’s great fun.

Is there anything in this new version of Cosmic Corsairs that’s different from the original?

Baen tends to re-release most of their books in mass market. Doing so drops the price point, both in print and for the eBook, and that opens the book up to more people. It’s otherwise the same text.

So do you think people who’ve enjoyed World Breakers or Cosmic Corsairs would also enjoy Sword & Planet and vice versa?

I certainly think they would this one as well. Sword & Planet is a more divergent collection, one held together only by the very broad umbrella of a genre, but there’s some real gems here, and whether you’re looking for a light adventure verging on comedy, or a darker, more philosophical piece, I think science fiction and fantasy fans alike will find a story or two to love here.

I was told that you recently left Baen to concentrate on your own writing. Does this mean you won’t be editing or co-editing any more anthologies for them?

On the contrary. I was attached to two more anthologies already by the time I turned in my resignation, and agreed to finish them. Time Troopers, which is out in April 2022, is the last of my classic reprint anthologies co-edited with Hank Davis; while my very final Baen anthology (for the foreseeable future), is Worlds Long Lost, a collection of alien archaeology stories that’s due out sometime late 2022, and for which I’ve just begun collecting stories.

Christopher Ruocchio Sword & Planet

Finally, if someone enjoys Sword & Planet, what somewhat similar anthology that someone else put together would you suggest they read next and why that?

I can’t think of another science-fantasy anthology off the top of my head, but I might instead recommend one of the great writers of ages past who has fallen out of public consciousness. Leigh Brackett wrote the original draft of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, the one where Vader isn’t Luke’s father, but her books from the ’40s and ’50s, particularly the Eric John Stark books, are sort of the epitome of the kind of sword-and-sorcery-in-space kind of story I was hoping to capture in this book. She’s one of the genre’s all-time greats, and most of her stuff can be found online with relative ease. Her stuff is just a blast to read.

 

 

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