While humans are the dominant species on Earth, it’s interesting to imagine what it would be like if we were refugees in the galaxy. Which is the set-up of The Remembrance War, a sci-fi space opera trilogy by writer Michael R. Johnston. In the following email interview, Johnston discusses what inspired and influenced The Blood-Dimmed Tide (hardcover, paperback, Kindle), the second book in this series, as well as his plans for the third and final installment.
Let’s start with some background. What is The Remembrance War series about, and when and where is it set?
Oh, man. I’m really bad at telling people what my books are about without feeling the ominous sounds of Impostor Syndrome stalking toward me, but here goes.
The Remembrance War is set in a distant corner of our own galaxy, a little more than a thousand years from now. All that is left of humanity is a few million descendants of a colony sleeper ship that was found, drifting and damaged, by the Zhen Empire about 800 years before the series begins. Since the Zhen couldn’t figure out from the humans’ damaged systems where they came from, they gave them a place in the Empire as a client state. They give the humans the benefit of their advanced technology, from FTL “jump” drives to nanotech-based neural computer implants. But the downside of all that is that Zhen look down on humans — and most other species in the empire — and consider them second-class citizens.
[The first book,] The Widening Gyre, tells the story of Tajen Hunt, a now-disgraced former Hero of the Empire — a title he earned in war — who meets a new crew, loses his brother, and heads out to finish his brother’s quest for the lost human home world. Along the way they have some adventures and discover some secrets that lead to the first battles of the Remembrance War.
And then what is The Blood-Dimmed Tide about, and, aside from being the second book of The Remembrance War series, how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to The Widening Gyre?
The Blood-Dimmed Tide picks up a year later. The war expands to an occupation of Earth by the Zhen, and long-buried secrets are revealed, not just about the Zhen, but about other alien races, one of which is connected, on a deep level, with Tajen’s past. And while all that’s happening, there are several battles, some small, some huge. And a wedding!
When in the process of writing The Widening Gyre did you come up with the idea for The Blood-Dimmed Tide, and how did that idea evolve as you wrote this second book?
Back in 2010 I took a brief stab at a Master’s in English. One of the classes I took was on Modern Irish Literature. In reading and doing research on the Troubles of the early twentieth century and the Irish Civil War, I became fascinated with the period. Now, this was a night class, and I was a full-time teacher and a new father, so I would get very tired towards the end of the class. One night, to try to keep myself awake, I started doodling in the margins of my notes a set of bullet points outlining a future history of humanity and how it comes under the heel of an alien species who steals the Earth in a huge hoax, and the fight to liberate it when the truth is discovered.
In my earlier notes, and in T.W.G., the Zhen were just your basic Bad Guys. As I began to plot out book two, however, I started looking for ways to make it more complicated than that, and to tie it all in to Tajen’s history. While I don’t want to give it away, there’s a reason the Zhen are worse than they were before, and the behavior of the Red Zhen, the ruling caste, will hopefully make sense to readers.
At the same time, I didn’t want the Zhen to be like Star Wars‘ Imperials. They’re not a monolithic culture, and not everyone agrees with the ruling caste. So Tajen finds allies among the Zhen in this book, and that will continue in book three.
The Widening Gyre was a sci-fi space opera story. Is The Blood-Dimmed Tide one as well, or are there other genres at work in it as well?
It’s definitely still a sci-fi space opera, but it’s also got a thread of urban action in its DNA.
Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on The Blood-Dimmed Tide but not on The Widening Gyre?
I’d have to claim as influences writers like John Scalzi and Steven Brust — the way they use snark in their narrators definitely had an influence on me. A lot of my technology was influenced by Peter F. Hamilton — the use of nanite-based computer implants, and the way AR can be used, was pioneered by Hamilton long before I came on the scene, and long before AR became a real-world thing.
How about non-literary influences; was The Blood-Dimmed Tide influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
I imprinted very young on Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, and my space battles are definitely a callback to all that. As unrealistic as they are, there’s something about small starfighters dodging around each other that really calls to me, so that’s made it into my books. And I’ve got a soft spot for cosmopolitan futures filled with various lifeforms, so even though only four major races are featured in The Remembrance War trilogy, more are mentioned and have bit parts — though some of the bit player aliens in book 1 are featured more centrally in book 2.
As you mentioned, you’re a teacher. Specifically, you teach high school English. How, if at all, did your day job impact either what you wrote in The Blood-Dimmed Tide or how you wrote it?
The main effect my day job has on my writing is that I don’t write as much in the school year, because I’m just wiped out creatively from the job. So most of my writing is done on school breaks.
When you set out to write The Remembrance War series, did you ever consider making it a young adult novel so your students could read it?
I didn’t, no. I don’t rule out doing a YA book at some point, but my students are older than most YA is geared for, so I wasn’t really worried about them reading it.
That said, in book 2 there is a character named after my daughter’s friend Ryan, who “stole” his mom’s copy and devoured it the weekend after it came out. He was 11 years old at the time, so he’s probably my youngest fan.
Conversely, did you cut anything out of The Widening Gyre or The Blood-Dimmed Tide because you thought one of your students, or maybe a coworker, would read it and give you grief about it? Cuz high school libraries are a surly bunch.
Since I wasn’t writing for my students as an audience, I didn’t really think about the work in that way at first. But there’s a scene in The Blood-Dimmed Tide that is there in part because one of my students read the first book and told me that she’d be quite upset if I didn’t put a particular thing in the second one.
There’s also a scene in The Widening Gyre where I originally wrote it much more explicitly, but ended up rewriting it as a “fade to black,” not so much because of my students as my aunt. I’ve had to warn her not all my books will do that.
As we’ve been discussing, The Widening Gyre and The Blood-Dimmed Tide are the first two books of a trilogy. What can you tell us about the third book?
The final book, tentatively titled What Rough Beast, is being written now. The Widening Gyre had only one POV, and The Blood-Dimmed Tide has two. What Rough Beast has three, so I’m working on making each voice distinct and telling the story in a larger, more segmented way.
And what was it about this story that made you feel it should be a trilogy as opposed to an ongoing thing or a duology or whatever a sixty-seven-book series is called?
I designed it as a trilogy because I wanted a story with the classic three-part plot: Hopeful beginning, dark middle chapter, rising finale and resolution of the main threads. I do have some ideas for shorter works or “prequel” stories, but I honestly think that once What Rough Beast hits shelves, I’ll be done with that world, and ready to move on to other properties — I’ve got several in various stages of creation, in both science fiction and fantasy settings, as well as some odd hybrid ideas.
When it comes to trilogies, some people wait until every book is out before reading any of them, and some then read all of the books in a row. But is there any reason why you think people shouldn’t wait to read The Widening Gyre and The Blood-Dimmed Tide?
I really wish I could come up with a good answer to this, but there really isn’t a story-based reason to either read them now or wait.
Earlier I asked if The Blood-Dimmed Tide had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But has there been any interested in adapting it or The Widening Gyre into a movie, show, or game?
There hasn’t been any interest that I’m aware of yet, so unfortunately there’s not much to tell. But as a huge fan of both SF TV and movies, I’d absolutely love to see the series adapted to either. I think, personally, it would do better as a series, where a lot of the backstory could be brought in, and some of the things the books mention could be explored in more detail. For example, humans live as second-class citizens in the Empire, but Tajen and his family weren’t doing too badly. What is it like for people who weren’t university professors or military heroes, though? What’s life like on Terra, the one world where humans live, as opposed to the human enclave on Zhen:da? And how do the other races in the Empire see the Zhen? We know the Tradd worship them, but what about the Tchakk or the Hun?
A game could also be fun. I’ve been a pen & paper RPG player for decades. I’m also a console and PC gamer, so I could see a lot of ways to turn the story into something like that. But I think a TV series would be best, but a series of movies is second-best.
If The Remembrance War series was going to be adapted into a TV show, who would you want them to cast in the main roles?
I have a whole cast list for the humans, and because it’s in my head and totally fantasy, I spared no expense. I’d like to see either Nathan Fillion [Firefly] or Anson Mount [Star Trek: Discovery] as Tajen Hunt, and Ming-Na Wen [Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.] as Katherine Lawson. Liam Kincaid is, in my mind, played by Ryan Reynolds [Deadpool 2], mostly because he’s got amazing comic timing.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Widening Gyre and The Blood-Dimmed Tide, what similar sci-fi space opera novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read while waiting for What Rough Beast to come out?
I’d start with Michael Moreci’s Black Star Renegades and the sequel, We Are Mayhem. They’re the same kind of snarky, Star Wars-inspired space opera as The Remembrance War. Drew Williams’ The Universe After series, which begins with The Stars Now Unclaimed and A Chain Across The Dawn, are also pretty amazing reads. I’m eagerly awaiting the last books in both series.