In last year’s The Philosopher’s Flight, writer Tom Miller injected both fantasy and feminism into an exciting war story set during the first World War. Now he’s returning to familiar territory, both chronologically and philosophically, with the sequel, The Philosopher’s War (hardcover, Kindle). In the following email interview, Miller discusses what inspired this second story, his plan for this series going forward, and what you might want to read while waiting for him to finish writing the third, fourth, and fifth books.
Photo Credit: Abigail Carlin
To begin, what is The Philosopher’s War about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the previous book in this series, The Philosopher’s Flight?
The Philosopher’s War is set in a world where “empirical philosophy” — magic (though no one calls it that) — was discovered a century before. Women have a much stronger affinity for philosophy than men and as a result American history evolved in a different direction. The series’ protagonist, Robert Weekes, spent The Philosopher’s Flight striving to become the first man to join an elite military unit of flying philosopher-medic. The Philosopher’s War follows him as the only male Rescue And Evacuation flier in France during the Great War. As it turns out, hauling the wounded from the trenches back to the field hospitals isn’t quite the grand adventure Robert imagined. He faces the same skepticism and hostility abroad that he did at home — and his fellow philosophers endure the same sort of discrimination and misogyny they saw in America, even while saving lives.
Chronologically, the story begins a few weeks after the first book ends, following Robert from his first day overseas, through devastating attacks and counter-attacks, as he becomes caught up in a secret plot to win the war overnight.
When in the process of writing these books did you come up with the idea for The Philosopher’s War and how did the story evolve since you first came up with it?
When I set out to write Robert’s story ten years ago, I originally planned to cover the entire sequence from him leaving the farm in Montana up to the end of the war in a single book. I’d also intended that he have only a small role to play in the war, rather than playing a major role in world history. As I wrote, I realized I wanted to more deeply develop the characters and events from World War I, and I ended up splitting off that part of the story to become its own book, which is The Philosopher’s War. I also realized I wanted Robert involved in the biggest rescue mission of all time, with millions of lives at stake. As a result, the final chapters take place against a much more tense, desperate backdrop than I’d originally planned.
The Philosopher’s Flight was a historical fantasy story and an alternate history tale. Is that how you’d describe The Philosopher’s War as well?
Yep, historical fantasy or alternate history — both are accurate.
Are there any writers or specific stories that were a big influence on The Philosopher’s War but not on The Philosopher’s Flight?
I read several collections of letters from nurses and woman doctors overseas during the Great War, as well as accounts of the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion Of Death, an infantry formation formed mostly for propaganda reasons which then really did fight in the trenches on the Eastern Front. Those were helpful in sketching the world at large.
I was also lucky that World War I produced a lot of terrific autobiographies. Robert Graves’ Good-bye To All That is one of the best examples. I had a particular interest in wartime emergency medical care, so the memoirs and novels of several WWI volunteer ambulance drivers (several of whom went on to famous literary careers) also came in handy: John Dos Pasos’ One Man’s Initiation, ee cummings’s The Enormous Room, Jerome K Jerome’s My Life And Times and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, and video games; did any of them have a big influence on The Philosopher’s War?
Reruns of M*A*S*H, which I grew up watching and admiring. I also remember seeing Saving Private Ryan in the theater in high school and I’m still struck by the action scenes in that film — not just the D-day landing — especially how carefully orchestrated they are in the ebb and flow of fighting and how well they illustrate the plans and miscalculations by both sides. It’s well-designed, comprehensible chaos. The old PlayStation Medal Of Honor series are probably the video games that influenced my combat scenes most — oftentimes the worst thing you could do in those games was open fire with a heavy weapon and lose the element of surprise.
The Philosopher’s Flight had a feminist bent in that the hero is a male magic wielder in a world where magic is primarily used by women, some of whom aren’t happy this stupid boy is using it, MAKE HIM STOP! For The Philosopher’s War, did any real-world incidents with women’s issues have an impact on the story?
The first real-world example I can think of that I encountered in a more mature way was Shannon Faulkner suing to go to the Citadel, a military college in South Carolina. I must have been in seventh grade at the time. It seemed to me such so obviously, villainously unfair to try to keep her out based on gender. I was glad when she got in. Though in Googling that story just now, I have to admit that I never realized the abuse and death threats toward her and her family were so terrible that she dropped out after a week…but also that, over the past 25 years, there have been 500 female graduates and the last class president — or regimental commander as they call it there — was a woman. So it wasn’t for nothing. You can find a similar story pretty much weekly in the New York Times, both military and in civilian careers of all kinds. I wondered if there was something we could learn by flipping the genders — how things would (and wouldn’t) go differently for a man trying to break in to a woman’s world.
The Philosopher’s Flight was well received by fans and critics. But did anyone say anything, positive or negative, that altered your plan for The Philosopher’s Flight?
I made sure that one of the supporting characters who was a fan-favorite, Freddy, had a more sizable role. I was also struck by a question that several readers asked: Am I supposed to like Danielle, who is Robert’s love interest and an important in-world figure? My answer is, no not necessarily. Hopefully you respect her. But I did allow some of other characters to voice some of those skeptical feelings about Danielle — she’s admirable but not always fun or kind.
Now, in the previous interview we did about The Philosopher’s Flight [which you can read here], you said you’d already started writing books three and four in this series, and that there may be as many as five by the time you’re done. Is that still the plan?
Book 3 is still early in the writing process. It takes inspiration from the race to break the sound barrier as well as early space exploration. There’s no clear publication date at this point — at least a couple of years.
I think five books (a pentalogy?) is about right for the story I’m trying to tell, about the backlash against philosophy and how it re-establishes its place in American life. I consider this to be a series. I hope the individual books stand well enough on their own that a casual reader could pick up one from the middle and read it without too much difficulty, but I think they’re more fun together.
As you know, some people wait until every book in a series is available, and then some of them read all of the books in a row. But is there any reason — and I mean a story-based one, not a PR or publishing one — why you think someone shouldn’t wait to read them? Or should? Or should but then shouldn’t binge read the whole series? Or should binge them all?
I grew up on unfinished series! Half the fun of The Wheel Of Time was the anticipation waiting for the next one to come out and then (two years later) trying to get back up to speed on all the minor developments in the last one that you’d forgotten. Or you pick up book 6 in the new Tom Swift series at the library after having read the first two and there’s a new character who’s appeared out of nowhere and upset the status quo. I’ll add that I first read Game Of Thrones in 1998 and I’m not in any hurry for George R.R. Martin to wrap up the series — I’ve read it off and on for twenty years. But in the Netflix age of binge watching of series — and the Amazon age, when nothing’s truly ever out of print (as opposed to whatever Scribner’s Books or the Wauwatosa Public Library had on the shelves) — I can understand the impulse for wanting the complete story, in the right order, all at once.
You also said in that previous interview that there had been some interest in adapting The Philosopher’s Flight — and, by extension now, The Philosopher’s War — into a movie or TV show. Is there anything new to report in that regard?
Continued murmurs of interest with nothing concrete.
I should also mention that the paperback edition of The Philosopher’s Flight came out a few months ago. Is it safe to assume it’s the same as the hardcover, that you didn’t add a new coda or a short story or anything?
No, no new Easter eggs.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Philosopher’s Flight and The Philosopher’s War, what would you suggest they read while waiting for book three to come out? Oh, and you can’t say Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell; you said that last time.
I found Naomi Alderman’s The Power fascinating. It starts with a similar conceit — women develop quasi-magical powers — and develops in a very different direction, both stylistically and plot-wise.