As they are wont to do, Baen Publishing are now systematically rereleasing the four books in Wil McCarthy’s hard sci-fi space opera series The Queendom Of Sol as mass market paperbacks nearly a year-and-a-half after reissuing this out-of-print series from the 2000s as trade paperbacks and on Kindle. With the mass market paperback version of book two, The Wellstone, being released recently, I thought it time to subject Mr. McCarthy to the following email interrogation about this book, this series, and this new edition.
Let’s start with some background. What is The Queendom Of Sol quartet about, and when and where does it take place?
The Queendom Of Sol series takes place mostly within our solar system, at a sort of indeterminate point in our future. I always figured it was around 600 years from now, but it’s hard to say for sure because the Queendom has its own calendar, starting when Queen Tamra Lutui ascends the throne. One of its underpinnings is the quasi-Utopian idea that when you understand the workings of the human brain enough to give people what they actually want (as opposed to what they think they want), it turns out that monarchy is our “natural” state. As a result, the first book, The Collapsium, is told as a sort of fairy tale, with advanced technology taking the place of magic.
And then what isThe Wellstone about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to The Collapsium?
The Collapsium is about a society of “immorbid” people — i.e., people who can be physically killed, but can’t age or get sick. They’re also (mostly) backed up on servers, so actual death is a rarity. This is great for the first generation, but a real problem for their children, who find themselves in a world that’s already fully staffed and inhabited. Their symbolic leader is Bascal Edward De Towaji Lutui, a crown prince who will never inherit the throne, or anything else. They’re quite a frustrated generation, and the story begins on a planette called Camp Friendly, which is a sort of summer camp for troubled youth. Prince Bascal orchestrates several escapes, with escalating consequences, and that’s the jumping off point for the true history of The Queendom Of Sol.
The Collapsium had a happy ending, but the lives of immorbid people are inherently going to encompass a lot of turbulent times, with every action having consequences that simply can’t be passed on to future generations. The Wellstone takes place in the moment when this is first starting to become apparent.
The Wellstone has been called a hard sci-fi space opera novel. Do you agree?
Labels like “hard science fiction” and “space opera” are useful in terms of helping readers find the stories they like, but good fiction isn’t necessarily dogmatic in that way. This series rests heavily on nuances of quantum mechanics, and The Wellstone does take place mostly in outer space, so yeah. But it’s also a coming of age novel, and (I suppose) a sort of heist story, or revolution. It’s the only book I’m aware of that’s been favorably reviewed in both IEEE Spectrum and The Romantic Times, those being the trade magazines of electrical engineers and romance writers, respectively. So I’m reluctant to pin it down too precisely.
The Wellstone was your seventh novel. Were there any writers or specific stories that you remember having a particularly big influence on The Wellstone but not on The Collapsium or any of the novels you wrote before it?
The Collapsium remains my most original work; it’s hard to point to any specific influences, except perhaps the entire field of science fiction. As a sequel, The Wellstone rests on that same foundation, but as many reviewers have pointed out, it’s also drawn from classic stories of troubled teenagers throughout history, from Romeo And Juliet onward. Also, as a writer I think by the time you’ve published seven novels (and I had actually written nine by that point), you start to trust yourself more, and be your own strongest influence.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games?
Well, the story is definitely hard science fiction in the sense that the laws of physics govern what can and can’t happen. If I want space pirates in the story, I have to come up with plausible mechanisms for how that would work. So in that sense, the laws of physics are my greatest inspiration, and my largest source of authorial headaches. I do a lot of math when I’m working out a story, though it hopefully doesn’t show.
And to flip things around, did you learn anything writing The Wellstone that would influence how you wrote the novels that came after it, especially the third and fourth books in The Queendom Of Sol series, Lost In Transmission and To Crush The Moon?
Well, I hope so. The Wellstone sets in motion a chain of events that sprawls out across many thousands of years, and while I was writing it, I realized that the problems of immorbid people were not going to stay within the confines of a single sequel. This is theme that has been picked up by some other writers as well; immortality means living forever in the wreckage of your own bad decisions. Which is great from a storytelling standpoint, but not always great for the characters involved.
Now, the reason we are talking about The Wellstone is that Baen are putting it out in mass market paperback after issuing a trade paperback last August. I can’t imagine there would be, but are there any differences between the two versions?
Some authors feel free to fiddle with things over time, so that subsequent editions of a book are subtly (or sometimes not so subtly) different. I don’t believe in giving in to that temptation. Aside from copyediting, typesetting, and book design, all the editions of The Wellstone are identical.
Baen have now reissued all four books of The Queendom Of Sol quartet in some form or another. For people thinking they’d like to read all four books back-to-back, do you think they should or should they read something in between?
People’s tastes are so varied, I try not to tell anyone what to like. As time has gone by, I’ve found to my surprise that my personal favorite of the series is the third book, Lost In Transmission. I sometimes suggest that people start there, but the four books are pretty different from one another in tone, so it’s hard to say. The Wellstone is about angry people in their teens and twenties, whereas Lost In Transmission is about people who are hundreds of years old, and in To Crush The Moon they’ve lived through thousands of years of turmoil, like the elves in The Lord Of The Rings. Think about all the things that happen in a thousand years of real history, and you get a sense of what that really means for an individual person. But in The Wellstone those events are just beginning.
Along with The Wellstone, you also recently put out a new novel called Rich Man’s Sky, which itself will be rereleased in paperback in 2022. People can read the interview we did about it, but for those who hate clicking things, what is that novel about, and when and where does it take place?
In Rich Man’s Sky, I decided to abandon the far future and write about something much closer to home. The story is about the future of privately funded space programs, and it’s set about 30 years from now. The concerns in that book are more geopolitical, and they map to (or extrapolate from) problems we’re having on Earth right now. Wealth distribution has gotten very skewed, which is bad for most people, but it does allow the people at the top to command resources on a scale that used to be reserved for nation-states. These men are, for the most part, not answerable to Earthly governments, so outer space is a blank canvas for them to create whatever they want, within the constraints of physical and economic reality. But they are also working at cross-purposes, and attracting unhealthy attention from actual nation-states.
In light of recent events — y’know, Jeff Bezos going into space, Richard Branson going into space, William Shatner going into space — do you think Rich Man’s Sky is more relevant now than it was when it came out in April, or do you realize you screwed up by not having Patrick Stewart going into space?
I think it’s a topic that can only get more relevant over time. Twenty years ago I nearly wrote a book called Fake Astronaut, about things like Space Camp and simulated Mars missions, that could let a person (in this case, myself) get increasingly qualified for outer space, without ever actually getting there. The project fell through, though, because actual space tourism was already getting off the ground at that time. Now it’s happening so often it doesn’t even necessarily even make the news.
The next step, of course, is to stop visiting space and start actually living and working there, and people like Bezos, Branson, and Musk are right now building the infrastructure to make that happen.
Do you think people who enjoy Rich Man’s Sky will also enjoy The Wellstone, and vice versa?
There are certainly people who enjoy everything I write, so there will certainly be overlap between the audiences for those books. But I try not to repeat myself, so Rich Man’s Sky is quite different from The Queendom Of Sol. Not everyone is going to enjoy both of them, which I think is good. As an artist, one of the worst things you can do is get typecast or stale. But both of them can be considered hard science fiction space operas, so in that sense they do share some DNA.
Earlier I asked if The Wellstone had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, has there been any interest in adapting it into a movie, show, or game, either now or when it first came out?
There was talk at one point about a CGI animated Queendom Of Sol movie, but the funding never really materialized. I still get inquiries from time to time about whether the dramatic presentation rights are available, so you never know what could happen. Sometimes a movie is made decades after the book is written.
As for games, I can’t think of a way to adapt either The Collapsium or The Wellstone that would make for a fun playing experience. However, the later history of the Queendom involves different factions struggling for control of the narrative, and that kind of thing does make for good board games. Or card games, I suppose.
So if someone did try to make a Queendom Of Sol movie, live action or animated, who would you want them to cast as Bascal and the main characters?
These days it’s preferable to cast from within the same ethnicity as the original character, so Bascal would ideally be played by someone of 50% European and 50% western Polynesian (preferably Tongan) heritage. Maybe a young Jason Momoa [Dune] or Jay Laga’aia [the Star Wars prequels]? Conrad is Irish, and Xmary is Asian-American, and the main characters are all between fifteen and twenty-five years old, so it could be a tough casting job. Queen Tamra could be played by Rena Owen [Star Wars: Attack Of The Clones], and King Bruno by John Rys Davies [The Lord Of The Rings].
Finally, if someone enjoys The Wellstone, what hard sci-fi space opera novel by someone else would you recommend they read next?
I can’t say enough good things about Count To A Trillion by John C. Wright. It’s not very much like The Queendom Of Sol, but it’s the closest thing I’m aware of, and it instantly became one of my favorite books.