In 2019, when writer Tim Pratt was doing interviews about his sci-fi space opera novel The Forbidden Stars, he said that while it was the final book of his Axiom trilogy, “I expect to still write stories and novellas set in the world. … I want to do a short book each about the engineer Ashok, the A.I. Shall, and the alien Lantern.” Jump ahead two years, to now, and we have The Alien Stars And Other Novellas (paperback, Kindle), three stories about Ashok, Shall, and Lantern. In the following email interview, Pratt discusses these three novellas, as well as the three unrelated novels he’s either recently released or will have out soon.
For people who haven’t read them, what were the Axiom novels about and when and where did they take place?
About 600 years from now, humankind has spread to colony worlds throughout the galaxy, and have a centuries-long relationship with an enigmatic race of aliens known as the Liars, who provided the wormhole gates that enabled galactic expansion. The crew of the White Raven — which includes an acerbic captain, a cyborg engineer, a lovesick A.I., a moody ship’s doctor who does lots of hallucinogens, a navigator and a pilot who are victims-and-or-beneficiaries of alien medical experimentation, a recently unfrozen biologist time refugee from the 22nd century, and a Liar who always tells the truth — discover the existence of an ancient species of very unpleasant aliens called the Axiom. The Axiom are in hibernation as their various ten-thousand-year-plans come to fruition, but their extremely deadly and aggressive technology is littered around the universe, waiting to kill anyone who stumbles across it…and if the Axiom wake up, they’ll take a more active role in exterminating human life, as they see any other intelligent creatures as rivals to be crushed or enslaved.
And then what are the three novellas in The Alien Stars about, and when and where do they take place in relation to the Axiom novels?
They’re set a handful of years after the end of The Forbidden Stars, so they provide something of a coda to the trilogy as a whole, letting you know how various characters ended up (and then throwing those characters into terrible new problems, sometimes).
When in relation to writing the individual Axiom novels did you decide to write these novellas, and why did you want to write them?
I wrapped up the main story of the White Raven’s crew and their fight against the Axiom in the trilogy, but there were a few characters who didn’t get enough time on center stage, and I wanted to write novellas to explore them more thoroughly: specifically, the engineer Ashok, the alien Lantern, and the A.I. called Shall.
And when did you come up with the ideas for these novellas?
When I decided I wanted to explore those characters more, I began to figure out what each of their stories would be.
Ashok didn’t have a ton of unfinished business, but he did undergo a major change at the very end of the trilogy, so I decided to look into his new role a bit in The Augmented Stars; for one thing, he’s the captain of his own ship, now.
At the end of the series, Shall took on a new position too, as president of a small nation at the edge of the solar system, which meant a lot more bureaucracy and a lot less adventuring in the stars, so I found a dangling thread in one of the earlier novels and sent him on a mission to resolve it in The Artificial Stars.
The Lantern story, The Alien Stars, is probably the most intense and personal one. She has to track down the surviving leaders of the malevolent cult that raised her, and stop their dangerous plans, and she also has to deal with complex feelings of love and loss.
The Axiom novels were sci-fi space opera stories. Are The Alien Stars novellas as well?
The same. Same world, many of the same characters. It’s pulp fiction material with a heart, I hope.
Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on the novellas in The Alien Stars — either individually or collectively — but not on the other books in the Axiom series?
Not really. The same sort of sources.
Though I did play with structure a bit. The Augmented Stars is third-person limited viewpoint, like the novels, but The Artificial Stars is a first-person account (ostensibly part of Shall’s “presidential record”), and The Alien Stars is epistolary, told in a series of letters from Lantern to her friend Elena.
How about non-literary influences; were the novellas in The Alien Stars influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
After a lifetime of consuming science fiction it’s all down there in the well, and all sorts of things bubble up.
Now, along with The Alien Stars And Other Novellas, you have two novels that came out recently, and have a third on the way. Let’s start with the most recent one, Doors Of Sleep. People can read more about it in the interview we did about that novel [which you can read by clicking here], but, real quick, what is that book about and when and where does it take place?
It’s about a man named Zax, who has a peculiar condition: Whenever he falls asleep, he wakes up in a different branch of the multiverse. Basically, he bounces through a series of strange parallel universes, never knowing what he’s going to discover the next time he opens his eyes. Sometimes he wakes up in post-scarcity technological utopias, sometimes in nightmarish worlds of predation and terror, sometimes in pristine wilderness, sometimes on abandoned space stations, and often in much more bizarre realities. If he finds a world he likes, he tries to stay up as long as possible (with chemical assistance when possible), and when he’s in a dangerous or terrible place, sedatives can take him away (if he has any).
There is one thing that I forgot to ask you when we did the Doors Of Sleep interview: In that story, Zax, the main character, isn’t from our world, though he is human. Why did you decide to not make him someone from our reality? Was it so when he ran into the flying guy with the red and blue outfit and the underwear on the outside of his clothes he wouldn’t recognize him as Superman and then be pissed he was in the DC Universe and not the Marvel one?
Because it’s more fun! Especially if people start out assuming Zax is from our Earth, and then realize that his home, The Realm Of Spheres And Harmonies, is something different.
I also wanted to give him a job that wasn’t exactly like being a counselor or social worker, and a cultural milieu where that job would make sense; he’s a Harmonizer, who helps people find a place in society where they can fit in, thrive, and contribute toward the good of the whole. Being ripped out of his culture and sent spinning through the multiverse is consequently even more painful for him, and one good way to figure out who your protagonist should be is to ask “who suffers the most in this situation?”
Along with Doors Of Sleep, you are writing a series of novels based on the board game Twilight Imperium, with the first, The Fractured Void, already out, and a second, The Necropolis Empire, slated for August 3rd. People can read more about Fractured in the interview we did about that book [which you can read by clicking here], but what is Necropolis about?
It’s a lost space princess story with a twist. Bianca Xing grows up on a backwater planet, looking at the stars and dreaming of adventure…and then aliens come and annex her planet, and take a keen interest in her, for some reason. It turns out there’s something special about her, and the aliens claim they want to make her an aristocrat in their society…but Bianca is smart enough to realize that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. She has to figure out the real motivations of the aliens and what her true purpose is in the galaxy, all while developing strange new powers. She crosses paths with the Letnev operative Severyne (from The Fractured Void), and a down-on-his-luck treasure hunter looking for his next big score (and to get back his self-respect). Because it’s Twilight Imperium, there are also the vast movements of nations and alien forces happening in the background.
And how does Necropolis connect to Fractured?
Necropolis Empire takes place a year or two after The Fractured Void.
The Fractured Void is a sci-fi space opera story. Will The Necropolis Empire be one as well?
It’s still space opera, set in the world of the game, though it draws on some other tropes (lost inheritance, secret princess, some fairy tale structures) in a science-fictional context.
Going back to The Alien Stars And Other Novellas, do people need to have read the other Axiom books to get what’s going on, or do they stand on their own?
They were written to stand alone as stories, though I like to think they gain extra resonance when read in the context of the trilogy as a whole.
Some people might be inclined to read the three novellas in The Alien Stars And Other Novellas back-to-back. Do you think they should?
They can read them at any rate or in any order they want. I arranged them in the book from least-to-greatest emotional intensity: The Augmented Stars is pulpy fun, with literal space pirates; The Artificial Stars has lots of adventure and fighting and tense horror-movie moments, but also more emotional depth; and The Alien Stars, as I said, is the most personal of the lot, but still fun, I hope.
And for people who haven’t read any of the Axiom books, when in relation to the novels should they read each of the novellas?
They all take place a while after the main trilogy concludes.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Alien Stars, and they are looking for something to read in between reading the 3857476 books you’re putting out this year, what sci-fi space opera novella of someone else’s would you recommend they read next?
Lemme open up my list of books I’ve read recently… Alistair Reynolds keeps doing great stuff in his Revenger series; I liked Bone Silence a lot. The Light Years by R.W.W. Greene did some great stuff with time dilation, very character-driven. Prime Deceptions by Valerie Valdes is a lot of fun, also part of a series. Max Barry’s Providence was super weird but enjoyable. And I liked Nancy Kress’ Eleventh Gate, nicely mingling first contact and political sci-fi and family drama.