Usually when we talk about sci-fi space opera / space fantasy stories, there’s aliens, spaceships, politcal intruige, maybe some weird food. But in the following email interview about his sci-fi space opera / space fantasy novel The Circus Infinite (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), writer Khan Wong instead talks about crimebosses, acrobats, and Oliver Twist.
Photo Credit: Rich Porter
To start, what is The Circus Infinite about, and when and where does it take place?
The elevator pitch is it’s about a circus that takes down a crimeboss on the galaxy’s pleasure moon. It follows a young man with gravity manipulation powers who’s on the run from the institution experimenting on him, and he lands a job with a circus, makes friends, meets the local crimeboss, and Dramatic Events ensue. It’s set in a far sector of the galaxy, in a distant future when humans have joined a coalition of worlds.
Where did you get the original idea for The Circus Infinite?
I’d done the foundational worldbuilding of this universe for a now-shelved project. But I was enamored of this world, and set about brainstorming another kind of story for it. At first I tried a murder mystery, but that didn’t feel right. I’ve always had in the back of my mind to write a circus story, but I’d always imagined it would be Earth-based and grounded in our “normal” reality. And one day it just clicked to put the circus in space.
When I started writing it, I was thinking of it as an Oliver Twist re-telling, but I didn’t really stick with that plan, though you can probably spot elements of that story DNA in the concept of Circus.
The Circus Infinite sounds like it’s a science fiction space opera story. Is that how you’d describe it?
I like the term space fantasy for this book and world. I think of space fantasy as a subcategory of space opera, but others may disagree about that.
Now, unless I’m mistaken, The Circus Infinite is your first novel…
It’s my first published novel, but the eighth novel I’ve written.
…though you’ve also published some chapbooks of your poetry. Are there any writers who had a big influence on The Circus Infinite but not on anything else you’ve written?
For Circus, Becky Chambers and her Wayfarers series was definitely an influence. And also The Sol Majestic by Ferrett Steinmetz. There’s a whole bunch of other writers I’ve learned from and whom I consider influences, but to answer your question, Becky’s and Ferrett’s books specifically influenced The Circus Infinite.
How about non-literary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or games that had a big influence on The Circus Infinite?
Star Trek most definitely. I think that’s a pretty obvious one as far as worldbuilding goes.
Another non-literary, but also non-media, inspiration was the subculture of circus performers at Burning Man, and the various offshoots of that. A lot of those artists live — or at least they used to — in the San Francisco Bay Area (where I live) and there were parties and performances happening all the time. I haven’t been part of the scene for a while, so I don’t know the current state of things. But that scene from the early aughts til about 2014 or so was a big part of my life and a huge inspiration for this book.
And how do you think writing poetry — and, I assume, reading it — influenced The Circus Infinite?
I’m not sure that influence is very much present here, at least not consciously. I was always really fond of elliptical poetry, and I also read a lot of political poetry in translation from Central America, the Middle East, and Asia. I aimed for a kind of lyrical surrealism in my most recent poems — which are far in the past now, by the way. That way of imagining scenes maybe has influenced some of the imagery and landscapes of Circus. But in terms of language, Circus is written in a much more straightforward style than my poetry, and is pretty far afield from the poetry I read. Although, I did also read a lot of queer poets, and wrote poems about the queer experience, and that subject matter is certainly a part of Circus, but I’m not sure that it’s a case of poetry influencing this book so much as this book takes up a subject area I’ve long been interested in and explored via different genres in the past, including poetry. I spent a long time not writing at all, and it seems like my writing style reset itself in that time.
As I’m sure you know, science fiction space opera novels are sometimes self-contained stories and sometimes part of larger sagas. What is The Circus Infinite?
It’s a self-contained story that’s set in a fictional universe that can support other narratives. I have in mind three other books set in this world that I’d love to get the opportunity to write, which include stand-alone stories for two of the supporting characters from Circus. So it’s an interlinked / stand-alone style series, rather than the one epic tale style series. There’s a big picture that emerges over the course of the stories I have planned, but it’s not a singular quest or mission, and there are no cliffhangers. There will be Easter eggs for people who’ve read the other books, but the idea is that each book is its own self-contained story.
Keep in mind this is what I have planned, but whether I get to write it all is another question. Hopefully Circus does well enough to justify more books in this universe.
There’s a lot to explore in this universe, and story ideas for these other characters came to me while writing Circus and as I explored its world. The characters of Esmée and Bo, in particular. They’re the BFF and love interest of The Circus Infinite, and the arcs I have in mind for them all complement each other in an associative way, rather than a logical plot progression way. Maybe that way of conceiving of how these stories relate is an influence of poetry?
I think of these books as “The 9-Star Set,” after the union of worlds they’re set in, which is the 9-Star Congress of Conscious Worlds. And “set” has double meaning, and could refer to the set of books, and also to this group of friends. But if a series does come to pass, who knows if that’s the title we’d go with. I do have titles for the other books, but I haven’t even pitched them yet as of this moment, so I won’t say anymore right now. But here’s hoping. I’d love to do a book a year. Career goals. Including Circus, there are four books planned, but this fictional universe could certainly support other stories beyond those I already have in mind.
Earlier I asked if The Circus Infinite had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think The Circus Infinite could work as a movie, show, or game?
I think it would work ideally as an animated series. That would be a dream. I could see it being a live action movie too, though. An expensive one. [laughs] But I think animated series would be best.
So, is there anything else you think people interested in reading The Circus Infinite should know?
If a story set in the bohemian underbelly of a spacefaring civilization, or a story that includes powers but not in a superhero way, or a story focused on relationships as much as action, sounds appealing — please dive in. This book mixes up a lot of disparate elements. This is not a set-on-a-spaceship-during war type of space opera.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Circus Infinite, what science fiction space opera / space fantasy novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
I’d suggest Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki. It’s not a space opera because it’s on Earth, but it does also include aliens, found family, and other common elements to The Circus Infinite. In particular, both my book and hers, I would characterize as lively celebrations of queerness, and music and love of music and making it also figures prominently in our stories, in different ways.