Exclusive Interview: The Eleventh Gate Author Nancy Kress
In many sci-fi space operas, the way people get around isn’t as important as what they do when they get there. But that’s not true for Nancy Kress’ The Eleventh Gate (paperback, Kindle), in which the means of interplanetary travel actually drives this space tale. In the following email interview, the iconic science fiction writer discusses what inspired this new novel, as well as her new but unrelated GMO-centric science fiction novella, Sea Change (paperback, Kindle).
Let’s start with an overview of the plot: What is The Eleventh Gate about, and when and where is it set?
The Eleventh Gate is set in the future across the Eight Worlds, which are connected by stargates. The gates were discovered by accident just as Earth was entering its final climate-change and ocean-pollution death throes. There are ten gates connecting eight planets (some planets have two), all orbiting unobtrusively and fairly close in. Nobody knows who (or what) built them, how they function, or why they connect only planets (with one exception) hospitable to human life. But since their discovery a few hundred years ago, those who could afford it have fled Earth and established various forms of government on the extraterrestrial worlds. These planets trade with each other, but exist in an uneasy state of tension. Humans always want more than they have: more power, more territory, more resources.
Then an eleventh gate is discovered, and what lies behind it shatters that fragile balance of power. Not just because it leads to war — which it does — but because the gate changes what humanity thinks about the nature of the cosmos itself.
Where did you get the original idea for this story, and how, if at all, did the story change as you wrote it?
I seldom know where my original ideas come from. What usually occurs is that a situation and characters for a first scene will jump into my head. That happened here: I “saw” a very rich autocrat, a benevolent but greedy dictator, who is offered an investment risk: the location of another stargate. Will he meet the offered terms to establish a claim, sight unseen, to whatever the gate leads to? He does, of course, since otherwise I would not have a story.
So having written that first scene, I had a host of questions to answer for myself, starting with: What is behind the eleventh gate? What conflict could it lead to? Who is aligned on however many sides of that conflict might emerge? What are the social structures, politics, and economics of the Eight Worlds? The goal here is not to accept the first, easiest answers that occur to these questions, but to dig around deeper until something arises that I am genuinely interested in exploring.
The Eleventh Gate has been called a sci-fi space opera. Do you agree with this assessment?
That depends on your definition of “space opera.” One definition is “a novel, movie, or television program set in outer space, typically of a simplistic and melodramatic nature, and often associated with appallingly bad writing.” Ouch. Wikipedia is kinder, but not much: “Space opera is a subgenre of science fiction that emphasizes space warfare, melodramatic adventure, interplanetary battles, chivalric romance, and risk-taking. Set mainly or entirely in outer space, it usually involves conflict between opponents possessing advanced abilities, futuristic weapons, and other sophisticated technology.”
Let’s unpack that definition for a minute, removing “space” from each element:
“emphasizes warfare” — Yes, but so do some of the most important novels ever written. War And Peace. The Caine Mutiny. Vanity Fair. Sophie’s Choice. In all of them, events turn on decisive wars.
“melodramatic adventure” — Melodrama means emotion in excess of what is earned by the plot, or plot events that are not logical, just thrilling. I don’t see why warfare set in space has to have melodrama, as opposed to just drama, and who decides exactly where that line falls, anyway? Out-of-the-ordinary things do occur in war, and human actions do become exaggerated, both in heroism and villainy.
“interplanetary battles” — Yes, as opposed to intra-planetary ones. I can’t see that as inferior.
“chivalric romance” — If the lovers are perfect people always behaving well, who don’t learn and grow, then I guess the romance in a space opera could be “chivalric.” But certainly it doesn’t have to be. There’s no reason why fictional characters fighting a war in space can’t be as complex as fictional characters fighting a war on Earth.
“opponents possessing advanced abilities, futuristic weapons, and other sophisticated technology” — The Eleventh Gate features a major character, Philip Anderson, with “advanced abilities,” but not because he’s an alien or mutation or cyborg. His ability is an extension of what deep meditators can do already (although he gets help from an unexpected source). As for futuristic weapons and advanced technology, this is the future, and so of course weapons have grown more sophisticated along with the rest of technology. In World War II, the weapons would have looked sophisticated and advanced to the doughboys of World War I. In short, why is this a pejorative?
“appallingly bad writing” — Oh, come on now. All genres and subgenres of literature contain good writers, mediocre writers, and appallingly bad writers. The level of prose depends on the writer, not the genre.
So, with all these qualifications, yes, The Eleventh Gate is a space opera. Proudly. So is my Probability series: Probability Moon, Probability Sun, Probability Space.
Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on The Eleventh Gate but not on anything else you’ve written?
Not that I can think of.
What about such non-literary influences as movies or TV shows; did any of those have a big influence on The Eleventh Gate? Because there is that movie Stargate, and the spin-off TV show Stargate SG-1.
Again, probably not. I don’t watch much film or TV SF, because so much it turns science into blatant magic.
But having said that, I think that everything a writer reads, sees, or hears gets dropped into the well of unconscious where — with luck — it combines and mutates and undergoes a sea change “into something rich and strange.”
Your oeuvre includes both stand-alone novels and some that are parts of a series. What is The Eleventh Gate?
All my novels are stand-alone, until they’re not. Beggars In Spain began as a novella, grew to a novel, and ended up a trilogy [with Beggars And Chosers and Beggars Ride]. The same was true of The Flowers Of Aulit Prison, which became the Probability series, and Yesterday’s Kin, which became the Tomorrow’s Kin trilogy.
Right now, I have no plans to expand The Eleventh Gate into any kind of series. But, then, I never do. Some other writers are much more far-thinking about their work than I am.
Now, along with The Eleventh Gate, you also recently published a novella called Sea Change. We talked about that book already in a previous interview [which you can read by clicking here], but what I’m curious about, given their close proximity, is did you write these two stories either at the same time or back-to-back?
I can’t write two works at the same time. When I am writing a piece of fiction, I am completely wedded to it — I think, feel, strategize, and sometimes even dream about that story. Anything else would feel like adultery.
I wrote The Eleventh Gate first, and then wrote Sea Change. The reason they ended up appearing close together is partly due to my writing process and partly due to their respective publishers. A novel takes me a long time; I don’t think I’m a natural novelist. On the other hand, a novella, my favorite length, goes much quicker. It took about a month to write Sea Change, partly because I’d already read a lot about its subject (GMOs), which interests me.
The publishing reason came about because it took Baen much longer to get around to reading The Eleventh Gate. Tachyon read Sea Change more quickly, which isn’t surprising because Jacob Weisman [Tachyon’s publisher and editor] had asked me to write it.
Do you think writing The Eleventh Gate impacted Sea Change? Or the other way around?
I don’t think it impacted it at all. They are so very different: far future vs. near-future, Earth vs. space, first-person viewpoint vs, multiple third, hard science vs. adventure-warfare. My mindset as I wrote was different for each. One example: I identified closely with protagonist Renata in Sea Change, but wrote the many characters of The Eleventh Gate more from a detached-observer mental stance.
And do you think people who enjoy Sea Change will like The Eleventh Gate as well, and vice versa?
I don’t know. I myself enjoy many different subgenres of science fiction, and I’m always astonished when people say, “Oh, I never read X, just Y.” For me, enjoyment depends on the quality of the writing and the interest the characters and ideas hold, not the specific genre. But I know that’s not true for everybody.
Earlier I asked if The Eleventh Gate had been influenced by any movies or TV shows. But has there been any interest in adapting The Eleventh Gate into a movie or show?
No interest. If I had my choice, I’d prefer a TV mini-series, because it would have more room than a movie to develop both the large cast of characters and the complicated plot. But I am not holding my breath.
If someone did decide to make The Eleventh Gate into a TV show, who would you want them to cast as the main characters?
As Rachel Landry, Meryl Streep [Defending Your Life] because why not go with the best? As Sloan Peregoy, another veteran: Anthony Hopkins [Westworld], since Sloan is supposed to be very old. For the younger characters, [The Usual Suspect‘s] Benicio Del Toro as Luis, Emma Stone [La La Land] as Caroline, and someone pretty, young, and ditzy as Tara. Also, Ryan Gosling [Blade Runner 2049] as Philip Anderson, Angelina Jolie [Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil] as the malevolent, half-crazy Jane, and [Moonlight‘s] Mahershala Ali as the revolutionary Scott Berman, because Ali can act anything. That leaves Sophia, and I am out of good ideas.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Eleventh Gate, which of your other sci-fi space opera novels would you suggest they read next and why that one?
My only other space opera series, Probability Moon, Probability Sun, and Probability Space.
However, a word of caution: I think the first book is weaker than the other two, so maybe begin with Probability Sun? It was Probability Space that won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. A series is not supposed to go that way, but so there it is.