When deciding where to set their stories, writers often pick places they know. But in the following email interview about her hard sci-fi novel The Dabare Snake Launcher (paperback, Kindle), writer Joelle Presby admits that while she did this as well, she was driven as much by science as it was by the self.
To start, what is The Dabare Snake Launcher about, and when and where does it take place?
Dabare is about what it takes to try to build a space elevator. Except that’s not exactly a straightforward thing to do, even in a rather optimistic future version of Earth. A project of that magnitude means a lot of opportunity for people to help themselves out at someone else’s expense. People aren’t great at seeing the big picture or at knowing whether there have already been so many other self-interest driven choices that one more is going to have cataclysmic impacts.
Where did you get the idea for The Dabare Snake Launcher? What inspired it?
I blame Space Elevators: An Assessment Of The Technological Feasibility And The Way Forward for this novel. That’s a compilation of science articles bound together in a hardcover report published by the International Academy of Astronautics.
When I learned that engineering-wise there was one challenge left before it would be feasible to have a real space elevator on Earth, I got interested.
In science fiction, the author usually gets one free pass. I could use that for our space elevator tether material. My in-universe multinational space elevator building company calls it DiamondWire™️, but it’s just carbon nanofiber: really, really long carbon nanofiber without structurally non-useful branches which makes it an excellent space elevator tether material.
That wasn’t quite enough to get me to write the story though. So let me just jump on to your next question…
Which is: Is there a reason why you had them build the space elevator in Africa instead of the U.S. or South America or somewhere in Europe?
I’ve got a background in engineering. I served in the U.S. Navy as a nuclear engineering officer. Writing about the people who’d need to work together to try to make a space elevator intrigued me, but what really sold it to me was the Africa connection.
I found out that those IAA scientists thought Mount Kilimanjaro would be an excellent ground station for an elevator. Further, they thought the space debris already in orbit around Earth would be a major problem for the construction. (Jump a hundred or two years into the future, I figure there will be even more debris in orbit.) A spaceport for launching supply missions for elevator construction and for launching small craft for debris field clearing would have the most energy efficient launches if they were near the equator.
In the novel, the characters argue a bit about moving that second spaceport from West Africa to somewhere else equatorial, but Europe and North America aren’t in the running at all. They wouldn’t be logical choices for that space mission.
I fell in love with an Africa-centric story that was set on the continent, because the science demanded it.
I grew up in Cameroon (West Africa). Writing what you know is nice, but when your experiences are too different from most of your audience, you don’t get to do it very often. For most stories I have to do a bunch of research to expand what I know before I can write it. For this novel, there was certainly also a lot of research, but I started out with the advantage of having lived in Cameroon for twelve years.
I had some ideas about how a multinational company without too many qualms might be able to convince both Tanzania and Kenya to let them use the mountain. I had more ideas about the necessary second African spaceport.
It sounds like The Dabare Snake Launcher is a hard sci-fi story. Is that how you’d describe it?
Yes, I’d definitely call it hard sci-fi. You might also call it magical realism or fantastic sci-fi. There’s a character, possibly only the result of high temp fever-induced hallucination, named Mami-Wata. She’s central to the story and was very unconcerned with my qualms about genre boundaries. I tried to write her out of the novel twice. I’m pretty sure she bit me. She’s not only still in the novel, she’s in the first scene and the last one.
While The Dabare Snake Launcher is your first solo novel, you previously co-wrote The Road To Hell with David Weber, and had short stories in such anthologies as Star Destroyers, Lost Signals, and We Dare: No Man’s Land. Are there any writers who had a big influence on The Dabare Snake Launcher but not on anything else you’ve written?
I’m really bad about identifying my influences. And that question is tricky, because I’ve got three short stories also set in the Dabare story universe: “On Space Tigers, Consideration Of” is in No Man’s Land; “What Goes Up” is a freebie available only to my newsletter subscribers. (The signup is on joellepresby.com.); and “Barbie And Gator Ken Versus The Hurricane” is in the upcoming Chicks In Tank Tops anthology releasing in January. So I’m going to punt and just go with: “No.”
What about non-literary influences; was The Dabare Snake Launcher influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games? Because the tag line on the cover says, “Out Of Africa Ad Astra,” which makes me wonder if it’s a combination of those movies.
“Out Of Africa Ad Astra” or “From Africa To The Stars”? Hmm, no, not movies. I blame that tagline on Mami-Wata.
People who’ve finished the book might credit someone else, but we only have Mami-Wata’s word for it that the Queen of Heaven was involved at all.
Hard sci-fi novels like The Dabare Snake Launcher are sometimes stand-alone stories and sometimes they’re part of larger sagas. What is Dabare?
I intend it to be a stand-alone novel with a sequel series. I’m counting The Dabare Snake Launcher as Book Zero. I’m calling the whole story universe Dabare. I’m currently working on Book One of the first Dabare series: Insert Amazing Series Title Here Just As Soon As I Think Of It. If I get to publish everything I want to write, I’ll have more than one Dabare series.
I’m not getting into why. It’s complicated and involves spoilers.
You said earlier that The Dabare Snake Launcher was not influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But do you think Dabare could work as a movie, show, or game?
It’s the best fit for a game. Definitely. A semi-cooperative board game. Maybe Zev Shlasinger of WizKids could make it. Or maybe indie game designer David Sherrer could be convinced to take it on.
Please excuse me while I geek out and brainstorm all the game mechanics right in front of you.
Each player would be assigned a character, and the players could work as a team to get the space elevator built. Or not.
The players would have individual goals and their progress towards those — hidden from the group — would involve taking resources that would then not be available for elevator construction and safe operation. When given a personal goal achievement opportunity, the player could just take the resource tokens or roll a gut check to see if their character could overcome the temptation.
I’m envisioning three possible end game conditions: (1) everyone works together at least enough that the elevator is built safely and everyone wins, (2) before significant construction occurs one player manages to achieve all their personal character goals and they alone win, or (3) the construction gets far enough along that the combination of player choices and bad luck results in massive industrial engineering failure causing extreme damage to planet Earth and everyone losses.
Groups of players might end up balancing their play from the very beginning so as to avoid situations where a player has to roll a temptation die. But if they see one or two players grabbing for resources without even rolling… It could become a no holds barred grab for all the resources as fast as possible. One player might win quickly enough to end the game. But they might not, and then with the elevator construction advanced to the point where a build failure would be cataclysmic for Earth (and cause all the players to lose) everyone would panic, switch tactics, and try to work together.
For advanced play, you could add in a Mami-Wata wildcard who could hit players with a crisis of conscience and remove their ability to grab resources without doing a temptation die roll. And you could add a Hidden Villain character working against the project in a way that none of the other players can see.
Now, if someone had the funding and really wanted to make the story into a movie, I’m not saying I’d refuse if there were honest interest in the retelling this story for visual media.
And if that happened, what does your dream cast look like?
In my dreams: [Us‘] Lupita Nyong’o is cast as Sadou Pascaline; Florence Kasumba [Black Panther] is Sadou Maurie; [Training Day‘s] Denzel Washington is Chummy; and Martin Freeman [The World’s End] agrees to be cast as the disagreeable Ethan Schmidt-Li.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about The Dabare Snake Launcher?
Ah, yes. You need to go read it. Get the sample chapters in your ereader. You can finally find out how to pronounce dabare, learn what on Earth dabare means, and get enough information to tell me if my title, The Dabare Snake Launcher, is a spoiler or not. I look forward to hearing from you.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Dabare Snake Launcher, what hard sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you suggest they check out next?
I say, try out Frozen Orbit by Patrick Chiles [which you can read more about here]. He gives you hard science fiction without skimping on the character development. The sequel, Escape Orbit, will be out in April 2023 from Baen Books.
And if it’s the Africa-centric nature of Dabare that really engaged you, then be on the lookout for Nigerian expat Wole Talabi’s debut fantasy novel, Shigidi, coming for DAW in 2023.