Twenty-five years ago, science fiction writer Catherine Asaro kicked off her Saga Of The Skolian Empire with the 1995 novel Primary Inversion. But for the last six she’s been telling some mysterious tales from that fictional universe with her Major Bhaajan Mysteries series, which began with 2014’s Undercity. In the following email interview, Asaro discusses the latest in this side series, The Vanished Seas (paperback, Kindle), while also providing background on both the Skolian series and the good major as well.
I’d like to start with some background. For people who haven’t read them, what is the Saga Of The Skolian Empire series about, and when and where is it set?
It’s an epic involving multiple generations of the Ruby Dynasty, and it spans an interstellar civilization. Most of the novels are stand-alone. Some of them center on a member of the Ruby Dynasty and a particular planet where the plot takes place. Others span multiple worlds and protagonists, and involve various shenanigans in space. I love doing the world building, adventure, family relationships, science, military, and political intrigues, all of it.
The saga began with tales I made up as a small child. I imagined fantastic stories even before I learned to read. I was a bored kid, so I made up an entire universe to entertain myself. Once I started to read, I devoured science fiction and fantasy, anything that let my imagination step out of our mundane universe. I also listened to music all the time, especially rock, and I choreographed scenes in my mind to the tunes. I confess, I enjoyed that far more than doing pesky tasks like, well, homework. I was born a daydreamer.
Those early stories matured over the decades, with various detours, until a publisher became interested. At that point, I buckled down, did research to flesh out my ideas, and developed it all into a coherent storyline. The first book, Primary Inversion, came out in 1995 and I haven’t stopped writing since.
Wait, you started coming up with these stories when you were a kid? How did they ultimately come to be a series of books? Because most of the stories we come up with when we’re kids get lost to time.
Reading science fiction and imagining stories was how I spent my free time as a child. I loved creating stories. As I got older, the stories evolved.
Then puberty hit. Whoa! I was suddenly aware of boys. They were fascinating, intimidating, and mysterious. With that awareness, however, came my realization that the books I had devoured were written with a male reader in mind. Good parts for girls and women mostly didn’t exist. Before that, my perception of gender had been pretty fluid. I put myself in the protagonist’s shoes as a female reader even if the main character was male, or else I made up female characters for the stories, strong women as captains, warriors, scientists, the leaders of interstellar empires. It wasn’t until I became aware of the differences between men and women that it truly hit me just how much female or female-identified characters ended up stuck in minor supporting roles in those books, if they appeared at all.
So I got annoyed and quit reading science fiction. I dated instead, and soon had a boyfriend. He treated me well, as had most of the young men I dated, and that set the foundation for my later interest in the relationships for characters in my books. I included that development from a women’s point of view. So I was going against the grain of classic sci-fi in two ways: the women played major, non-traditional roles in my stories, and I developed their love relationships more than in traditional science fiction.
Even as a youngster, I also explored other genders, sexualities, ethnicities, and races, and made up some of my own. I never understood why society wanted to constrain people. I figured in the future no one would care anymore. So yeah, I was naive kid, but that idealism served me well as a story-teller. In recent years, I’ve been gratified to discover that the general sf readership has become much more accepting of non-traditional and diverse characters.
Interesting. So then who is Major Bhaajan, where does she work, and how do her books, the Major Bhaajan Mysteries, fit into the Saga Of The Skolian Empire saga?
Her books starts out early in the Skolian universe. A lot of characters from the Skolian Saga books either haven’t been born yet or are just toddlers. Bhaaj comes from a very different place than the Ruby Dynasty. She grew up in the Undercity, without many tangibles in her life. It’s a way for me to look at other parts of the universe, a different view than you get with stories of the Ruby heirs.
Parts of the Major Bhaajan books draw on my own background in ways I hadn’t explored as much in my other books, such as my attending an inner city, urban high school. I don’t like the term “inner-city,” though. I’ll be talking about why, and about how those experiences from my youth affected my writing, in a piece I’m doing on John’s Scalzi’s blog. for the series he calls The Big Idea [and which you can read by clicking here].
And then what is The Vanished Seas about, and how does it connect, narratively and chronologically, to the previous book in this sub-series, The Bronze Skies?
All the Major Bhaajan Mysteries are stand-alone novels, so in that sense they don’t directly connect to the other books. But many of the characters continue on from book to book. We get to know Colonel Lavinda Majda better in this novel. It also concentrates more on the difference between the mysterious Undercity of Bhaaj’s people and the wealthy elite of the City of Cries in the desert above them.
You see, those rich folks in Cries are disappearing. No one knows how or why, and the police can’t figure it out. So the House Of Majda calls in Bhaaj to see if she can work her magic. She can go places and talk to people that no one else in Cries can do, including places they don’t even know exist in the Undercity.
Problem is, someone is trying to kill Bhaaj. The same ability she has to go where no one else can venture — it could very well get her murdered.
When in the process of writing these stories did you come up with the idea for The Vanished Seas?
I’m not sure when or where the idea came from. It percolated for a while and gradually worked its way into a synopsis for my editor at Baen. Usually I sell on a proposal that is only a few pages long, so I’m not set in what I plan to do. A lot unfolds as I actually write the story.
The Saga Of The Skolian Empire is a sci-fi series, while the Major Bhaajan Mysteries are sci-fi mysteries. But are there any other genres at work in The Vanished Seas?
You’re right on target. They are indeed science fiction mysteries. They are also still science fiction with emphasis on the science. And it’s adventure of course.
Of course. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on The Vanished Seas but not on any of the other Major Bhaajan Mysteries? Or, for that matter, any of the Skolian stories or anything else you’ve written?
I started the mystery series when Mike Resnick invited me to contribute to Down These Dark Spaceways, an anthology sci-fi mysteries in a Raymond Chandler style. I read several Chandler books and immediately knew I needed do a story with a female take on the hard-boiled P.I. So Major Bhaajan was born.
How about movies, TV shows, or video games; was The Vanished Seas influenced by anything like that?
No, no influences from there.
And lastly for the influence questions, it says on your website that you have an M.A. in physics and a Ph.D in chemical physics from Harvard. How, if at all, do you think your advanced degrees may have influenced what you wrote in The Vanished Seas?
I love taking scientific principles and saying, “Okay, what happens if I extend this concept beyond what we currently know?” My paper “Complex Speeds And Special Relativity” came out of one such “what if?” The paper appeared in the American Journal Of Physics, April 1995, Volume 64, Issue 4. It’s a thought problem asking what happens in if we make our speed into a complex number. It turns out that gets rid of all the problems with going faster than the speed of light. Well, all except one: complex speeds don’t exist. The journal editors and the referees liked the paper, though, and A.J.P. published it. They did ask me to include a statement saying it was a thought problem, a sort of game for students of the subject, and not an actual physical process.
As for why I write hard science fiction, I guess it’s because I don’t know how not to. I’m a theoretical physicist with a doctorate in chemical physics. Actually, I’m an applied mathematician, where I apply the beautiful machinery of mathematical physics to the quantum description of atoms and molecules. Besides writing my doctoral thesis, I also had to show proficiency in applied math, physics, and chemistry. With all that, and a lifetime of enjoying science, it’s no surprise that science and math ends up in my books. I’m not even usually aware I’m doing it, beyond the fact that I like to do calculations for the background of the stories. Some of my books have more science than others. I’ve also been told by hard sf purists that my novels don’t have the feel of traditional hard sf because I concentrate on emotional aspects of the characters more than the science. However, science always plays an important role.
But! Writing about science in a way that doesn’t bring the story to a screeching halt or turn off non-scientifically inclined readers is a skill I needed to develop. In the middle of a break-neck plot development, I have to resist my temptation to give a soliloquy on the physics of antiparticle accelerators or biomechanical enhancements. I do usually sneak in some of the science. If I can’t find an unobtrusive way to put it in, then I write an essay for the end of the book, where I can exposit to my heart’s content.
For The Vanished Seas, I wrote an essay about Hilbert spaces in math. It takes a while to explain the concepts since they are abstract, so I couldn’t give as many details as I wanted during the story. However, for those readers who enjoy math, the essay is lurking there in the back of the book, waiting to be read.
Now, as we’ve discussed earlier, the Major Bhaajan Mysteries are side stories to the Saga Of The Skolian Empire series. Do you think someone can read the Major Bhaajan Mysteries without having read the Saga Of The Skolian Empire books?
Yes, sure, readers don’t need to know the saga to enjoy the mysteries. Although the Major Bhaajan Mysteries are set in the Skolian universe, they don’t depend on books in the Skolian Saga. In terms of the chronology, they take place before all of the Skolian books except Skyfall. Every now and then we get a glimpse of a character from the Skolian books, and the world building / politics / history are the same in both series, but that’s it.
The Major Bhaajan Mysteries are also a good place to start reading my work because they are stand alone and take place earlier in the chronology.
Conversely, what do you think people will get out of reading The Vanished Seas if they have read the Saga Of The Skolian Empire books?
Ah! It fills in parts of the history for the Skolian universe that don’t come up in the Saga books. Also, readers of the saga might just find the answers to some of the mysteries about the origins of the Skolian universe presented in the saga tales.
I love it when readers write to me to say, “Hey! I figured out from these hints in your book what you’re doing here.” And then they tell me something that I’d wondered if a reader would ever figure out. It’s gratifying.
One puzzle no reader has ever written to me about is the meaning of the number given for the planet Coba in the prologue of The Last Hawk. The number isn’t random; it actually has a meaning in the story. Perhaps if I say that here, a reader will figure it out.
So then what are you writing next? Another adventure for the good Major, another Skolian novel…what?
I’m currently working on a popular science book about black holes penned two NASA experts, both of whom passed away. I hope within a month or two to submit that to agents, after I finish the polish / final revision and get clearance from the various involved parties. After that I will be submitting another science fiction book to my editor Readers can find out more on my Patreon page. I also post new chapters from my work, short stories, updates, and all sorts of juicy updates for my patrons there.
Earlier you said that The Vanished Seas was not influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. But has there been any interest in turning the Major Bhaajan Mysteries — or the Saga Of The Skolian Empire series for that matter — into some movies, a show, or a game?
I had some interest in making The Phoenix Code into a TV mini-series, but nothing came of it. I do think the Major Bhaajan books would be excellent sources for tv or movies. Lightning Strike, Book One from the Skolian Saga would also make a wonderful romantic science fiction movie. It wouldn’t require a lot of special effects because it is set in 1980s East L.A. Well, at least for the most part. An exciting air battle roars along at the end, as the two main characters try to escape Earth.
A number of readers have also asked me to make the dice game called Quis from The Last Hawk into a game my fans can play. I’ve thought for a long time I should do that. However, I’d need the help of an experienced gamer. The game as described in The Last Hawk is complicated, to put it mildly. The chapter titles actually play out part of a game, and each chapter contains implications from the single move implied by the chapter title.
Some years ago, David Ladyman at IMGS asked for my permission to name a planet in his game Star Traders after me (the planet Asaro) and to have it export Quis Dice. I was flattered. I said yes, and now the world Asaro exists in that universe. I have a copy of the game, which includes some nifty cards with cool images of quis dice.
Cool. So if someone wanted to turn The Vanished Seas and the Major Bhaajan Mysteries into a movie, who would you want them to cast as the Major and the other main characters?
Finally, if someone enjoys The Vanished Seas, they’ll probably read the rest of the Major Bhaajan Mysteries and then the Saga Of The Skolian Empire books, if they haven’t already. But once they’ve done all that, what sci-fi series of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that one?
My fan base seems to overlap with fans of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books and David Weber’s Honor Harrington series. So I’d suggest their books. I certainly have enjoyed them.
Among the classics, readers tell me they also like Ursula Le Guin, Greg Benford, Hal Clement, and Greg Bear. I consider it an honor that readers who enjoy these authors also enjoy my work.
Also, among my readers I have fans of the Outlander books by Diana Gabaldon (and the show, too). I’m not sure how that overlap happened, given the marked difference in what we write, but I love the Outlander books myself and am a big fan of the show. Years ago, Diana was kind enough to give me a quote for one of my near future thrillers. So somehow we have an overlap, not so much in subject matter as perhaps approach.