With The Stars Undying (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), author Emery Robin isn’t just kicking off a sci-fi space opera duology called Empire Without End. With Undying, Emery is also retelling one of the greatest stories ever told.
Photo Credit: Tony Tulathimutte
Let’s start with a plot summary: What is The Stars Undying about, and when and where does it take place?
The Stars Undying retells the life of Cleopatra and her romance with Julius Caesar — in space! It begins on a beautiful ocean planet in a far-flung galaxy which Princess Altagracia Caviro is desperately trying to escape. She’s just fought a bloody civil war with her sister over the planet’s throne and its god, and she’s lost. Her path crosses with Matheus Ceirran, the commander of the powerful Ceian Empire, who’s just fought a bloody civil war with his mentor over the Empire’s governance — and he’s won. In order to rescue herself and her cause from destruction, Gracia decides to win Ceirran and his volatile right-hand woman Anita to her side by any means necessary. But the three of them become a little more entangled in each other, politically and emotionally, than they mean to, and it sets them on a path that must end in either absolute triumph or absolute destruction.
So was the idea to retell the story of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar as a sci-fi space opera, or did you start writing a sci-fi space opera story and then realize it would work better if it mirrored the story of Cleopatra and Caesar?
The book started as Cleopatra’s story. As a child, I read a book in the Royal Diaries series about her and fell in love instantly, and I’ve loved the period of the fall of the Roman Republic for nearly as long — Julius Caesar was my first Shakespeare play. But my interest in Cleopatra, Caesar, and Mark Antony really revived when I was studying art history at the Berlin Altes Museum, which has a wonderful bust of Cleopatra and another bust of Caesar, positioned (hilariously) so that he appears to be staring longingly at her. The Cleopatra bust is an embodiment of everything fascinating about her legacy: the complex blend of Greek and Egyptian artistic influences, the Ptolemaic nose that she was so proud of, the fact that it was found in Italy. It became the focus of my studies at the museum, and Cleopatra hasn’t left me alone since.
To me, this is a Cleopatra-and-Caesar romance, but it’s also very much a Cleopatra-and-Antony romance beneath that, and even further beneath that, it’s a Caesar-and-Antony romance. These three people were so profoundly important to one another, in the best and worst ways — each of them was in some sense a creation of the other two people, could not have become his or her fullest self without the presence of the other two people in their lives, and each of them was in a sense ruined by the other two people. This book is about the period in Cleopatra’s life where Caesar was the person she was deciding to kiss, but it’s also very conscious of where she will choose to lay her affections later, and where she might lowkey want to be laying them now. It’s also conscious of how feelings of romantic love and sexual tension work very powerfully in people’s lives and relationships, even when they aren’t acted on. Sometimes especially when they aren’t acted on.
What made you think of the idea of retelling their story?
Cleopatra’s seduction of Julius Caesar is one of the most famous moments in history, and on the surface, it seems pretty simple: beautiful girl rolls out of carpet, man’s eyes bug out of his head like a cartoon character, et voila, sex ensues. But this story of the seduction is a story that I don’t really buy. If you listen to the Roman historians’ take on things, Cleopatra bewitches Caesar completely, causes him to abandon all reason and sense of duty, and convinces him to support her side in the Egyptian civil war solely by being scantily dressed in a rug. Not to discount the power of a good outfit, but come on! At this point in history, Julius Caesar has just won two major strategic wars in Gaul and Italy, and he’s also maneuvered himself into near-total control of Rome. You can’t convince me that he’s going to do anything he doesn’t actually want to do.
Meanwhile, Cleopatra was, by all accounts, pretty darn brilliant herself. She spoke seven languages — she was the first person in her family to ever speak the local Egyptian language, which tells you something about how sharp her political instincts were and how thoughtful she was about public relations — and she’d spent her adolescence and early adulthood muscling her brother out of their joint kingship, holding her own politically against coterie of older and more experienced advisors, and fighting a civil war. Caesar had a reputation around the Mediterranean as a womanizer, and Cleopatra certainly intended to take advantage of that. And that’s what really captures me: the idea of this canny princess rolling out of a carpet, expecting to find a pompous old soldier so arrogant in his power and his imperial privilege that he’ll be easy to manipulate; this formidable general watching her emerge, expecting to find an overconfident young girl whose inexpert seduction he’ll allow but whose wild political demands he can safely ignore…and both of them managing to surprise one another. I’ve always wondered if what they found in that room with the carpet wasn’t just romance, but respect. I think it was very rare for either of these people to be able to talk to someone who was really, genuinely on their level. I don’t know that either of them ever found that again in their whole lives.
What could have stayed a cynical exchange of sex and military favors ended up being a surprisingly committed alliance between these two people. Caesar spent months in Egypt with Cleopatra, observing how Alexandria and the Egyptian monarchy operated; Cleopatra came to Rome to visit Caesar and attempt to have him acknowledge their son as his own — which, under Roman law of the time, Caesar legally could not do. Besides which, during her romance with Caesar, Cleopatra was certainly in contact with Mark Antony, who she would of course later fall deeply in love with, which as a piece of dramatic tension has the potential to be hugely exciting and messy. So I badly wanted to write a version of the relationship that contradicted the traditional Roman-historian lens on the situation, and I was lucky enough to have as a setting a political-interpersonal drama that practically wrote itself.
And then, where did you get the idea for the plot of The Stars Undying?
At a picnic one Fourth of July, some friends of mine got into an argument: if you could create a clone that was identical to you on a cellular level, and had all of your memories, but doing so would kill your original body instantly, would you make the clone? One side argued that the clone might be identical to you, but they would not be the same as you, so the process would be tantamount to suicide. The other side argued that the clone would be the same person as you, and the process would be no different than instantaneous teleportation. At last someone suggested that our differing opinions came from our differing religious backgrounds: the anti-clone side might be arguing from a belief in the existence of the soul.
On the way home, I began thinking about Cleopatra: the peculiar melting pot of cultures that made up her family and her Egypt, the stolen corpse of Alexander The Great that her ancestor Ptolemy I had installed practically on the royal front lawn, how she took the name Cleopatra VII Thea Philopatora, meaning “the goddess who loved her father.” Most of all, I thought about how many memories she embodied — history, after all, being memory by another name — and the Aeneid’s description of Rome as imperium sine fine, an empire without end, “bounded only by the ocean, and whose fame will end in the stars”; in other words, an empire which was immortal. And on that walk Rome and Alexandria grew in my head into not just historical pasts but science fictional possibilities: technologically ensured immortality as a replacement for inheritance, artificial intelligence as a road to imperial-cult divinity, the destructiveness of war and imperialism on a planetary scale, and empires whose fame truly ended only in the stars. Then the image of Altagracia Caviro Patramata’s father bleeding from his temple with a holy computer in his hand fell complete into my head, and the entire novel exploded onto the page in a matter of weeks.
So how Egyptian-influenced does The Stars Undying get? Are there aspects of the Empire that are particular Egyptian, or is it just the Cleopatra / Caesar relationship that influenced this novel?
This novel is hugely, hugely influenced by my study of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The history of Gracia’s planet, Szayet, is an adaptation of the conquest of Egypt from Persia by Alexander the Great, and the theocratic cult that rules it is a riff on the Alexander-cult that really did exist in Egypt at the time. Cleopatra is fascinating as an Egyptian queen in part because many of her contemporaries considered Egypt to be more civilized than Rome. It was much richer and more educated and diverse and architecturally developed than Rome, but it was also, at this time period, more Greek than Rome, and Greek culture was very much considered the apex of civilization at this time. Even rich, educated Romans spoke Greek amongst themselves, rather than Latin. There was no way I wasn’t adapting that fascinating cultural insecurity. In addition, I pulled from Egyptian statuary, the ancient Egyptian diet, the layout of Alexandria, the history of the Egyptian priesthood under the Ptolemies…even the Library of Alexandria shows up on this planet. Szayet has a few other influences, too — for example, I populated it with the flora and fauna of Northern California, where I grew up — but I definitely meant for people who know ancient Egypt to recognize its bones. The Ceian Empire is similarly deeply influenced by ancient Rome — the architecture, the clothing, the politics — and other planets in the galaxy are based on other civilizations around the ancient Mediterranean, though a little more loosely.
I tried to write a book that didn’t just retell Cleopatra and Caesar’s life stories, but held itself in conversation with the many, many portrayals of them, Egypt, and Rome in the two thousand years since their deaths. I certainly play fast and loose with the history in some places, but it’s my hope that there’ll be plenty for historians, classicists, and readers to enjoy anyway — the book has Easter eggs and historical in-jokes around Plutarch, Shakespeare, Shelley’s Ozymandias, Elizabeth Taylor, you name it.
Speaking of influences, while The Stars Undying is your first published novel, you’ve written a number of short stories. Are there any writers who had a big influence on The Stars Undying but not on anything else you’ve written?
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, of course, though that’s cheating. This book is in two simultaneous arguments with C.S. Lewis, who I loved as a child, and who I suppose still love as an adult, only a lot more angrily. One conversation in this book about divinity and immortality riffs gently on a scene in The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe, where the Professor and Peter discuss whether Lucy is lying, mad, or telling the truth about having seen Narnia. Lewis is coming at SFF from a background of academic Christian apologia, so his job is to help his characters arrive at the correct answer; I’m coming at SFF from a background of diaspora Judaism, so my job is to leave my characters with more questions. I think we both succeed pretty well.
The other argument I’m having with Lewis is about the end of the book The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader, where the characters sail through a series of very beautiful ocean scenes on their journey to the edge of the world — an underwater mermaid society, a field of lilies and sweet water, an island of fallen stars. My problem with this sequence is that I think it ruled to absolute hell and I wanted more of it immediately. There’s a section of The Stars Undying, based on Caesar and Cleopatra’s (possibly) historical road trip down the Nile River, that very much comes from my love of those chapters and how outraged I am that they don’t take up more of the book.
How about non-literary influences; do you think The Stars Undying was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
This is going to sound very out of left field, and it is, but the TV shows Narcos and Narcos: Mexico are a masterclass in writing people who really, truly want to rule the world. I have mixed feelings about the shows as part of the institution of police media, but every character is an object lesson in how to build huge, shocking actions from the kind of ordinary emotions that everyone on Earth carries around daily.
On a lighter note, I’d be lying if I said the blending of historical and futuristic aesthetic in The Stars Undying didn’t owe something to the movie Treasure Planet.
I mentioned earlier that The Stars Undying is a sci-fi space opera novel. But it sounds like it also might be a space fantasy story, and maybe a romance as well. How do you describe it, genre-wise?
I do describe The Stars Undying as a space opera — probably a little heavier on the opera than the space, if only because of the amount of theater in it. Whether it’s also a fantasy is an open question within the book. What some characters call a digitized soul, or an immortal god, is what other characters call an A.I. that’s just imitating a person well enough to pass the Turing test. It was important to me that the book not agree with one side or the other, because if the answer depends on who you talk to, we can go on to ask a lot of questions about faith and culture and grief that I was really interested in. So whether or not this story is a fantasy depends on who the reader chooses to believe.
It also definitely has aspects of romance to it, though not really in the traditional sense of the genre. There’s Gracia and Ceirran’s romance, which drives much of the plot, but I don’t think I’m spoiling too much if I say that Julius Caesar’s life doesn’t necessarily end happily ever after. I also don’t think I’m spoiling too much if I say that Cleopatra’s romantic life doesn’t end with Julius Caesar! Mark Antony — in The Stars Undying, a volatile, swaggering captain named Anita — is very, very much present in this book, and I’d say she’s even present in Gracia and Ceirran’s relationship. Ceirran is also definitely present in the relationship between her and Gracia. It’s a very fun, messy love triangle, and one that isn’t destined for a tidy ending.
Now, sci-fi novels are sometimes stand-alone stories and sometimes a part of larger sagas. What is The Stars Undying?
The Stars Undying is the first of a duology called Empire Without End. Undying is the first half of Cleopatra’s life, and the second book will be the second half, which lines up very neatly with the last years of the Roman Republic — and, of course, the last years of independent Egyptian rule until the twentieth century.
The second book is (very, very tentatively) titled The Sea Unbounded, and it’s in the drafting stage. Anita’s the star of this one, and I’m currently joining the ranks of the many, many people who have struggled to get Mark Antony to cooperate with their plans.
What was it about this story that made you realize it couldn’t be told in just one volume?
I’ll try not to give away too much of the ending here, but Gracia and Ceirran are very self-aware narrators, as narrators go. They’re obsessed with spectacle and self-image, and they’re each constantly thinking about their lives and careers as a story, and they each want their story to serve a certain purpose. And for each character, there’s a moment where — for two different reasons — they have to stop talking and wait for the audience to respond.
Both Gracia and Ceirran’s arcs were very much complete by the time I had finished The Stars Undying, but history wasn’t. (Not that history ever is.) I still wanted to write about Cleopatra’s romance with Antony, the last civil war of the Roman Republic, and Cleopatra’s death, but it became clear that I was going to have to tell those stories from a new perspective.
Upon hearing that The Stars Undying is the first book of a duology, some people will decide to wait until the other book comes out before reading Undying, and some will further decide to read them back-to-back. But is there any reason why you think people shouldn’t wait?
The Stars Undying is the first in its duology, but it’s also meant to stand alone. There are a few Easter eggs sprinkled in there to help me set up for another story — the introduction of the boy who will become Augustus Caesar, for example — but a lot of what’s raised in Undying is also put to bed in Undying: whether Gracia will be able to hold onto her power, whether Ceirran will be able to hold onto his, whether they’re destined for a happily ever after. Early readers have definitely been demanding the sequel ASAP, but I’ve heard less people complaining that the plot isn’t resolved, and more people complaining because they need more Anita immediately. Which is a sentiment I vehemently agree with.
Earlier I asked if The Stars Undying had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But I’d like to flip things around, if I may, and ask if you think The Stars Undying could work as a movie, show, or game?
I’d love to see The Stars Undying as a movie or limited series. I really enjoyed myself with building out the visuals of these worlds, and I think a moviemaker would, too — and besides, there’s such a long and happy tradition of Cleopatra on the silver screen.
And if someone wanted to make that happen, who would you want them to cast as Princess Altagracia, her sister, Matheus Ceirran, and the other main characters?
Gracia and her sister are identical twins, which saves on casting choices. I think the person who could play them both is [Narcos‘] Teresa Ruiz. Her performances have such a wonderful blend of ambitious determination, hidden uncertainty, banked rage, and a desire for connection, plus old-fashioned screen sizzle. Ceirran I always pictured as a mixture between Leslie Odom Jr. [The Many Saints Of Newark] and a young Mahershala Ali [Green Book]. Anita is probably the trickiest, and maybe the most important — she has to have a real capacity for vulnerability and devotion, but also such unbelievable levels of butch swagger. I think Ariana DeBose [West Side Story] could pull it off.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Stars Undying, what sci-fi novel that’s a reworking of another story would you suggest they read next?
Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald was pitched as “The Godfather in space,” which I think is fantastic. (Am I just selling people Space Italians? Is that my job now?) It’s a meticulously researched moon colonization novel that hits all the beats you’d want out of a Godfather story, which is to say, all the beats of a good old-fashioned swashbuckler — heated duels, death-defying escapes, cross-generational vendettas, the merciless hand of Fortune, people being really weird about sex. Fictional mob politics are identical to fictional royal politics in that their whole purpose is to escalate “well, your mom’s aunt didn’t invite our daughter to your cousin’s wedding in 1993” into mass murder, which for any adventure writer or reader is enormous fun.