While there are times when science fiction stories are too much about the humans involved (I’m looking at you, Cloverfield), it does always help to have some humanity in your sci-fi to ground the story or make the consequences more real. Which is what writer, real-life NASA employee, and Lost In Space consultant Les Johnson is doing in his novel The Spacetime War (paperback, Kindle). In the following email interview, Johnson discusses what inspired and influenced this romantic sci-fi space opera story.
To begin, what is The Spacetime War about, and when and where does it take place?
The story takes place in the 22nd century after scientists discover a spacedrive that allows near instantaneous travel to stars many tens to hundreds of lightyears away from Earth. The countries of Earth have established settlements on planets around 15 stars (or so) and humanity is mostly at peace. But the peace is disrupted by an attack by ships of unknown origin who begin destroying the settlement worlds one by one, for no clear reason.
The story is centered upon two people: Captain Winslow Price of the Commonwealth Space Navy, and Lt. Milana Ahuja of the Indian Space Navy. Both serve aboard space warships from their respective countries and are engaged to be married. As the aliens press their attacks against Earth’s settlements, Price and Ahuja are among many who are called to defend humanity, and one of them is ultimately separated from the other by a barrier that cannot be overcome.
The story is part space opera, part hard science fiction, and part love story.
Where did you get the original idea for The Spacetime War, and how, if at all, did that idea evolve as you wrote it?
The specific storyline is very dependent upon a plot twist that I don’t want to reveal. My goal was to write an entertaining space adventure with military action; the love story happened when my lead characters took lives of their own and fell in love.
As you said, the main characters, Price and Ahuja, are engaged. Is there a reason you made them a couple as opposed to brother and sister or mother and son or just two people who work together?
Without giving too much away, I have always been haunted by Tennyson’s, “’tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” and this was my chance to explore that theme in a science fictional setting.
The Spacetime War is not your first novel. Are there any writers, or maybe specific stories, that had a big influence on The Spacetime War but not on anything else you’ve written?
Like many in my generation, I was generally inspired by the big three: Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke. Soon thereafter, the list grew to include Le Guin, Niven, and many more. My love of hard science inspired me to become a physicist and, when I began writing, to embrace writing stories based on realistic science. That said, I find myself drawn to space opera and military sci-fi as well. No specific story stands out as an inspiration.
When not writing or editing, you work for NASA. Does that mean The Spacetime War is scientifically accurate?
I try to place story first, but always base my stories on real science. It is important to note that realistic science does not mean real engineering. As an example, I have ships traveling at >10% the speed of light, which is certainly physically possible, though we have no idea how to actually build (engineer) such spacecraft. To me, science fiction must be based on science or it is fantasy.
So what do your NASA coworkers goof on you for more: your sci-fi novels or your work as a consultant on Lost In Space?
Actually neither. Early in my career, I hid my love of science fiction and told none of my colleagues that I attended science fiction conventions. I was afraid they would disapprove and that my career would suffer. As I became more confident and experienced, I found that many of them were also sci-fi fans, and they actually encouraged me to continue the outreach and to write.
Though I do have to mention that all my activities are conducted on my own time and without using any NASA resources. NASA does not endorse my “outside activity” nor am I supposed to hype my NASA connection.
Now, as you know, military sci-fi novels are sometimes stand-alone stories and sometimes part of larger sagas. What is The Spacetime War?
The Spacetime War is both a stand-alone novel and potentially the first book in a series. I tried to wrap up all the loose ends and bring the story to a satisfying conclusion so that readers would not be left hanging, but there are also a few hooks for a possible book 2 (or 3).
Along with Spacetime War, Baen also recently issued a paperback edition of Going Interstellar, an anthology you co-edited with Jack McDevitt. What is that collection about, what is the common theme of those stories?
The long-term goal that has driven my professional career as a space technologist is the dream of future interstellar travel. How will we reach planets circling other stars? What will we find there? What will become of us as make the journey? Going Interstellar is a collection of original science fiction stories by various authors intermixed with non-fiction popular science essays describing some of the science behind the fiction. Our goal is for the reader to be entertained and to learn something along the way. As a nice perk, Baen commissioned a study guide (available as a free download on their website) for high school teachers to use.
Going Interstellar was originally released as a mass market paperback in 2012; the new version is a trade paperback. Aside from being bigger, are there any other differences between the old and new versions?
The stories are unchanged but the essays have been updated to reflect advancements made since the first printing.
So do you think people who enjoy the stories in Going Interstellar will enjoy The Spacetime War as well? And vice versa?
I certainly hope readers will enjoy both books. If you are looking for entertaining stories set in plausible futures then both books, all my books, are for you.
Earlier I asked about the movies, TV shows, and games that influenced The Spacetime War. But I’d like to turn things around, if I may, and ask you this: Do you think The Spacetime War could work as a movie, show, or game?
What author doesn’t dream of their book being optioned for a movie or TV show? I cannot see The Spacetime War as a video game, but I can easily envision it on the big screen as a two-hour feature film.
If someone wanted to make that movie, who would you want them to cast as Price, Ahuja, and the other main characters?
Price would be played by Chiwetel Ejiofor [12 Years A Slave] because he’s the actor that played the role in my head as I was writing the book. I have no idea of who should be cast in the Ahuja role. There are many very talented Indian-American actresses out there who could play the part, but I don’t have anyone in particular to recommend.
Finally, if someone enjoys reading The Spacetime War, which of your other books would you suggest they check out next, and which of the anthologies you’ve edited should they read after that?
I recommend readers check out my novel, Mission To Methone. This was my first solo novel, and I am very proud of it. It’s a first contact story combined with international intrigue and, of course, some surprises in deep space. I encourage your readers to look up information about Saturn’s moon, Methone. It was discovered in 2004 by the NASA Cassini spacecraft, is relatively small (less than a few miles across), is shaped like an egg, and covered with ice that makes it look fluffy. Oh, and it is the least dense moon in the solar system — meaning it could be hollow. Like an old spacecraft. A very old spacecraft.
As for another anthology, readers of Going Interstellar would almost certainly enjoy the anthology I edited with Robert Hampson called, Stellaris: People Of The Stars. It is essentially a sequel to Going Interstellar that focuses on the human aspects of interstellar travel rather than the hardware, with both original sci-fi stories and popular science essays.