Exclusive Interview: The Quantum Magician Author Derek Kunsken
It’s always interesting when a writer mixes two disparate genres together. Take Derek Kunsken’s new sci-fi space opera heist novel, The Quantum Magician (paperback, Kindle), the first book — but not his first story — in The Quantum Evolution series. In the following email interview, Kunsken discusses the origins and influences of this science fiction crime story, as well as his plans for this ongoing saga.
To begin, what is the setting and overall story of the The Quantum Evolution series, and what, more specifically, is The Quantum Magician about?
The Quantum Evolution series is a space opera set about five hundred years in the future. The Quantum Magician, the first novel in that universe, is a heist story, so at its core, there’s a con. The con man is hired to move a dozen warships across an enemy wormhole. But, while the heist plot is fun and exciting, I chose that story because it left me a lot of room to look at what happens to humanity when we can genetically engineer our children and there are no police in space to stop us. The con man of the story is one of the Homo quantus, a sub-species of humanity engineered to have quantum perceptions, and we get to experience all that can go right and wrong with that kind of project.
Where did you get the idea for The Quantum Magician, and how different is the finished novel from that original concept?
I was really impressed with the universes of space opera and hard SF writers like Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter; many of their stories and novels were set in their two universes. I decided that for this novel, I would like to pull together a lot of the future histories, aliens, broken sub-species of humanities and astronomical phenomena that I’d written into my short fiction.
I don’t think the novel changed too much from original concept. I outline my novels pretty well before starting, but the thing about outlines is they’re like google directions. You know the landmarks and turns your journey will take, but your headlights see a lot of things you would never know from the plan. For example, The Puppets, one of the other engineered sub-species of humanity, became a lot creepier than I’d originally intended. I had to rein them in a lot to not lose the focus on the con.
You said The Quantum Magician is a science fiction space opera story. But are there any other sci-fi subgenres, or combinations of them, at work in the story as well?
I do consciously write in the British space opera tradition, where it feels like politics, science, and character work has a primacy of place. In the U.S., the definition of space opera sometimes seems to blend into military SF, and that wasn’t the feel I was going for.
Now, on your website it said that The Quantum Magician was originally serialized in Analog magazine.
Yes, it was. Analog selects one novel per year to serialize. It was really exciting to have had mine picked up. Analog was the first place books like Dune and Ender’s Game appeared, so it’s a huge honor to join that club.
Are there any major difference between the version in the magazine and this edition?
The Analog and Solaris Books versions are identical except that the swearing in the Analog version is toned down a bit. One of the characters is pretty potty-mouthed and some of what came out of his gills was better to tone down for the magazine edition.
The Chinese version is actually more substantially different though, from those two. The Chinese serial version and book version sold at the same time as the Analog sale and my Chinese publisher started translating right away. However, the Analog and Solaris editors agreed on some additions they asked for, so the English version has a few extra scenes, mostly to do with the Scarecrow who is trying to head off the heist.
Interesting. While The Quantum Magician is your first novel, you’ve written a number of short stories. Are there any writers or specific stories that were a big influence on The Quantum Magician but not on your other work?
I really like sense of wonder, being transported to other places, the extremes of the universe and weird scientific concepts. I think that my short fiction occasionally goes further and more extreme in the hard SF than my novels do, so I might take some of the harder SF stories of someone like Stephen Baxter and deliberately challenge myself to write stories with as much or more sense of wonder. The heart of The Quantum Magician though, what it cares about, is the future of humanity, how we govern ourselves, how we adapt ourselves to other environments, and how that changes us inside. In that sense writers like Dan Simmons and Iain M. Banks suggested lines of thinking to me.
How about non-literary influences, such as movies, TV shows, or video games? Did any of those have a big impact on The Quantum Magician?
Definitely heist movies had a big influence on the shape of the novel, whether The Sting or Ocean’s Eleven or whatever. I don’t get to watch as much TV as I want to, although I’m trying. I’ve never gotten into video games. Life is busy and I always feel like time is an either-or proposition: I could be writing or playing. So I did my best never to get hobbies that pull me away from writing. But that means there are a ton of gaming experiences I’m missing out on.
The Quantum Magician is the first book in The Quantum Evolution series. But is this an ongoing series or a set number of books, and if it’s the latter, how many books are you planning for it to be, what are the others called, and when might they be out?
The Quantum Magician is the first story I wanted to tell about Belisarius Arjona, the Homo quantus con man. I have enough material for three or four novels in The Quantum Evolution before the threads and subplots and thematic questions are answered. When Solaris offered on The Quantum Magician, they asked for a 2-book deal. We said yes and The Quantum Garden will be out in October, 2019.
I’ve also shown them The House Of Styx, a novel set in the same universe as The Quantum Magician and my short stories, but 250 years prior. It’s a sort of Godfather story set in the clouds of Venus that details the origin of the Venusian Congregate, who are the interstellar hegemonic empire in The Quantum Magician. We’re finishing negotiations right now, but if all goes well, I imagine that will be an October, 2020 release. I want to write the next two novels in 2019 if I have enough time. I’m an 8am-3pm sort of writer most weekdays, but there are other writing projects on the go too, and life.
The conversations I’ve had with Solaris suggest that my books will be October releases. I had naively asked about closer releases or shifting to summer dates, but I hadn’t realized how complex the marketing and selling-to-big-book chains is and how much lead time is required. I’m persuaded that annual October releases will get my books the best chance for finding fans. But I’m glad I asked and that my publisher was so forthcoming and willing to help me understand the business decisions.
It seems like these are stand-alone stories…
I actually hate books that don’t finish when the book is done, so I don’t write any cliffhanger books. In The Quantum Magician, I tie up all the immediate questions and it’s a complete story.
That said, The Quantum Garden picks up about a week after The Quantum Magician ends, because there are some pretty dramatic implications to the end of The Quantum Magician that rise up quickly for those who want to see more.
You mentioned that a number of your short stories are connected to The Quantum Evolution. Are there any plans to put together a book of those stories?
Yes, definitely. My agent and I are discussing the possibility of packaging a collection, but I feel it’s a bit early. I have other stories I would still want write to give the collection added thematic and narrative weight with respect to the novels.
I asked earlier about the movies, TV shows, and video games that inspired The Quantum Magician. But has there been any interest in adapting it into a movie, show, or game?
Last fall, I was a Guest of Honor at the 4th International SF Conference in Chengdu. While I was there, my Chinese publisher had me to a ten-minute pitch to directors and producers from the Chinese movie and TV industry, like Tencent and others. That was an exciting first conversation. In English, it’s still early, because the novel only came out this month.
So which do you think would work best?
I think that TV adaptations might be more interesting. Instead of two hours, TV writers have seven, or ten, or thirteen hours in a season to tell a similar story, or even just a first story. Also the quality of television seems so high nowadays. That said, while I think a TV adaptation would be more interesting and more faithful to the characters and questions I ask in the novel, heist stories certainly fit into two hours and are really popular.
I really don’t know anything about games, but luckily Solaris Books is owned by Rebellion, a video-game company. So, if there’s a good case, it’s already positioned in-house.
Finally, if someone enjoyed The Quantum Magician, what novel of someone else’s would you recommend they read next?
If someone enjoyed The Quantum Magician, I think they’d really enjoy The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks. It’s not part of the Culture novels, but it’s pure hard SF.
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