With The Firmament Of Flame (paperback, Kindle), writer Drew Williams is presenting the third, and probably penultimate novel in his sci-fi space opera series The Universe After. In the following email interview, Williams discusses what inspired and influenced this latest installment, and why he thinks you shouldn’t wait for the last book to come out before reading the other three.
Photo Credit: Daniel Barnacastle
For those who haven’t read any of these novels, what is The Universe After series about, and when and where is it set?
The Universe After is set in a far-distant future where the very technologies that allowed several space-faring species — humanity among them — to take to the stars have been rendered unreliable and chaotic by an event called “the pulse.” The pulse also gifted certain children born after its arrival with supernatural abilities; The Universe After follows one such child, grown now to almost adulthood, as she and her mentor seek answers about the origins of the strange phenomena.
I don’t know that I’ve ever officially worked out exactly how far out from the present day it is, but we’re talking several millennia.
And for those who have read them, what is The Firmament Of Flame about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the second book, A Chain Across The Dawn?
For those who read Chain, they’ll recall that it ended with the discovery that a forgotten species of alien was capable of “consuming” the pulse, returning machinery around it to a fully-functioning technological state. Unfortunately, that alien was also a dangerous zealot intent on kidnapping gifted children for reasons unknown; Firmament opens with our characters following the alien’s backtrail, trying to discover what — if any — connection the species has to the pulse, and possibly finding a way to convince them to help the rest of the galaxy escape its effects.
When in the process of writing the first book, The Stars Now Unclaimed, and A Chain Across The Dawn did you come up with the idea for The Firmament Of Flame, and how did that idea change as you wrote this third book?
Firmament — more so, I think, than Chain — was a direct outgrowth of the novel that preceded it; in that sense, Chain did a lot of the heavy lifting for this one because the narrative is already more or less “in motion” when Firmament begins. I always knew exactly where Firmament was going to end (which is a relative rarity, for me), but the path to get there, as always, was shaped more by the decisions of the characters than any specific approach I wanted them to take.
The Stars Now Unclaimed and A Chain Across The Dawn were sci-fi space opera stories, and I assume The Firmament Of Flame is too. But are there any other genres at work in this novel as well?
If Stars had a more military bent to it — at times as much a war story as a science fiction novel — and Chain leaned more into horror, Firmament takes roughly the same amount from superhero stories. Esa, our supernaturally gifted protagonist, has come more or less into her own, as far as her abilities are concerned, and as her confidence in her capabilities grows, so too does her confidence in herself: she’s entering adulthood just as the universe is throwing a lot of “who are you, really?” questions her way…and not all of them have to do with her powers.
Are there any writers or specific stories that had a big influence on The Firmament Of Flame but not on The Stars Now Unclaimed or A Chain Across The Dawn?
Purely structurally, I spent a lot of time thinking about Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness when I was writing this one; Firmament has a similar “journey into the dangerous unknown” conceit, as the characters are well and truly beyond the edges of their maps, even when the novel opens.
Also, any time I’m writing young adult characters (even in an adult novel), I tend to find an excuse to re-read Nick Sagan’s Idlewild, which is one of the best sci-fi takes on that age group out there, as far as I’m concerned.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, and video games; did any of them have a big influence on either what you wrote in The Firmament Of Flame or how you wrote it?
Superhero comics and films, for sure.
I was also playing a lot of Destiny 2 when I wrote it, so I’m sure I was picturing some of that game’s general aesthetic when I was writing more of the descriptive sequences, just because that kind of thing leeches into your brain after a while.
Also — more or less coincidentally — I was listening to a lot of Simone Felice and Low Roar at the time (not necessarily while I was writing, just in general), and tonally, that sort of thing can have a huge impact on a rough draft.
Now, in the previous interview we did about A Chain Across The Dawn [which you can read here] you said The Universe After was probably going to be a four-book series. Is that still the plan?
I think that’s still roughly where it’s headed, but it’s still in the early stages — and of course, it depends on whether readers are interested, as much as anything else.
As you know, some people wait until every book in a series is out before reading any of them, and some then binge read all of them. Is there any reason why you think people shouldn’t wait to read these books?
Honestly, I think about this a lot — and apologies for what’s kind of a tangent — when I think about the word “binge,” and how it gets applied not just to reading, but to television as well: I feel like stories stick with us longer when we take time in between, time to live with the prior novel, the prior episode; when we spend some time wondering “what happens next?” before the next chapter comes along and answers that question. I think stories need time to grow in our own imagination in order to really stick with us, you know? I mean, it’s human nature to want as much of something we love as possible, and to want it right now…but at the end of the day, a “binge” isn’t actually a good thing. Nobody’s ever like, “man, I’m so glad I went on the binge; I feel great about that decision.” So yeah, I definitely come down on the side of “you should let the series breathe a little bit between installments.”
Finally, if someone enjoys The Stars Now Unclaimed, A Chain Across The Dawn, and The Firmament Of Flame, what sci-fi space opera novel of someone else’s would you suggest they check out and why that? And to keep things interesting, you can’t say K.B. Wager’s books because you said that last time.
But K.B. Wagers is still awesome.
No, I’ll give Michael Moreci’s Black Star Renegades a shout-out: a lot of fun, great world-building, and Moreci does great action, as well. Give the series a read.