Though I’ve never felt the inclination myself, I understand why some people want a simpler life, away from the hustle and bustle. It’s also what I want for Talia Merritt, the main character in Monalisa Foster’s military sci-fi / space Western novel Threading The Needle (paperback, Kindle). Though after reading the following email interview (with Foster, not Merritt), I have doubts it will actually happen.
To start, what is Threading The Needle about, and when and where is it set?
Threading The Needle is about Talia Merritt, a veteran with a cybernetic forearm, looking for a new life on a colony world. Thanks to her old sniper partner, she gets caught up in a dispute between a corporate overlord intent on stealing terraforming secrets and settlers on Gōruden’s frontier. She desperately wants to stay out of it, but her loyalty to her old partner makes that impossible.
The story is set a few hundred years in the future after several wars and other disasters have Balkanized the large nations of Earth (U.S., China, Brazil, etc.), and a new world order made up of corporate entities and other oligarchies has risen.
While some people are content to remain on Earth, others go in search of a less-encumbered-by-government kind of life, even if that means living on a lower-tech frontier world like Gōruden. Sakura, Gōruden’s planetary capital, has a late 21st-century level of technology including a spaceport and other things we would find familiar. The further out from Sakura you go, the less technological it is because a late-1800s / early-1900s level of technology is easier to maintain without reliance or dependence on Earth. Hence the planetary and cultural aesthetic of the Old West and Meiji Restoration era Japan.
Ultimately, the goal is to declare independence from Earth, something they can’t do until they figure out why the first colonization attempt failed and how to prevent it from happening again.
Where did you get the idea for Threading The Needle?
The inspiration for Threading The Needle came from the John Wayne movie, El Dorado. I really loved that idea of two friends, bonded in blood via war, and what they had to do to survive, coming together again, giving up what was most important to them, in order to save each other and the people they love. As they say, there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
The setting itself was further inspired not just by the fact that El Dorado was set in the American Old West, but because I needed that frontier-mentality, especially the mindset found in that era. There are actually quite a few in-universe reasons for it.
And is there also a reason why Talia is a former sniper as opposed to, say, a former munitions expert or some other military specialty?
Unlike reality, fiction has to make sense. Since Talia is a woman, I gave her a specialty based on facts, physical reality, and historical precedent, particularly the female snipers of WWII. One of the reasons my stories have a real-world, lived-in feel to them (even my far-future, science-so-advanced-it-could-be-magic space opera) is my rigor, scientific as well as internal (in-story or in-universe) consistency.
I cannot divorce my background as a physicist and engineer. Handwavium will only take you so far. Talia and her sniper partner come from a place where they fought a war of attrition, one very much like what you would have expected in WWII. Her cybernetics were a result of that war, i.e. she lost her arm in that war, and they are not of the type of cybernetics that violate the laws of physics (too much) and anatomy.
Threading The Needle sounds like it’s a military sci-fi space opera story…
I am happy to have you (and your readers) call it whatever makes you buy it.
The truth is that I wrote it as a space opera as in the science fiction genre, “that emphasize space warfare, with use of melodramatic, risk-taking space adventures, relationships, and chivalric romance. Set mainly or entirely in outer space, it features technological and social advancements (or lack thereof) in faster-than-light travel, futuristic weapons, and sophisticated technology, on a backdrop of galactic empires and interstellar wars with fictional aliens, often in fictional galaxies.” (Wikipedia; sorry)
And now we see why Toni Weisskopf calls it military sci-fi. There are no space battles, and it’s set entirely on-planet. While it has FTL, it’s not about FTL. There are no aliens (fictional or otherwise; snerk to Wikipedia), galactic empires, or interstellar wars. So I’m going to go with Toni on this one, and not just because she writes the checks.
It is about a veteran and the use of military technology in a futuristic or science fiction environment (the very definition of mil-sci-fi).
You see, I have this genre drift problem, which is why I call myself genre-fluid. And it’s not my fault. Once I get inside of my characters’ heads, they often take me to places I didn’t necessarily plan on, often changing not just the characters themselves, but the milieu needed for them to make sense, the plot, and eventually, the genre. And they’re very stubborn, my characters, to the point where they won’t talk to me if I try to make them into something they are not. Like my corgi, they’re so smart, they have me trained in no time.
Given the inspiration for this story, I wanted a science fiction version of a Western, so if space Western was a thing, this would be it. I guess it was inevitable that given the premise, we’d end up comparing it to Firefly / Serenity or Westworld, to pick the two most popular examples of this. And frankly, given my love of the cowboy-samurai aesthetic, we couldn’t not go there.
So, if I had to pick a genre, I’d say it was space opera because space opera was originally a derisive term referring to “horse opera” (i.e. Westerns) set in space, but it has too many mil-sf elements via the characterization not to also be mil-sf (and Toni says it is so you can argue it with her, if you dare), and space Western which takes us back to space opera. And then there’s the rigor of the technology and science which also kicks in a bit of hard-sci-fi.
There’s no math though, I promise. (I took it out). Everyone is safe.
Now, Threading The Needle is your sixth book after the five in your Ravages Of Honor series. Are there any writers who had a big influence on Needle but not on anything else you’ve written?
The closest such writer that I can think of is Leigh Brackett.
She wrote El Dorado (and had a hand in the screenplay for Empire Strikes Back) and she was the Queen Of Space Opera. Empire is my favorite Star Wars, mostly because of the princess and the pirate dynamic. I am by no means an expert on Brackett, but in reading her stories I found that she had two patterns I adopted for Needle: the first is characters who have morally transgressed but don’t forgive themselves, even when others do; second is that the story solution is rooted in science and coincides with or follows the physical solution (usually a fight of some kind).
I pay homage to Brackett not just via incorporating the two elements mentioned above, but via Dame Leigh Stark, one of the characters in Threading The Needle, the matriarch of the Haricot clan, the terraformers whom Talia helps.
What about non-literary influences; was Threading The Needle influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games? You already mentioned El Dorado and Brackett’s work…
I guess you could say that yes, somewhat, peripherally. Firefly / Serenity with its spaceships and Old West feel, as in yes, there is all this advanced technology but not everyone has it, whether by choice or not. Even today on Earth we have places that are quite primitive as compared to high-tech Hong Kong or Tokyo or NYC, so we know that the existence of technology does not make it ubiquitous.
We know that you can have primitive living conditions alongside the use of something quite advanced like cell phones. Or people living in huts but having a well with a powered pump of some kind and also a satellite dish.
And things like the premise of Westworld reinforce that some people will always have nostalgia for the past (Old West, the samurai of the Edo period) even to the extent of wanting to live like that but with some modern perks.
The Last Samurai (I know it’s not historically accurate) is one of my favorite movies and one of the joys and perks of writing space opera is that I don’t have to worry about the historical accuracy. I can take what I like / need / want as long as it makes sense and doesn’t violate the rigor (internal consistency) of the story. So I did.
DespairBear (front), CorgiSan (back)
And what about your dogs, what influence did they have on Threading The Needle?
These are my two boys, the inspiration for the CorgiSan and DespairBear robots in Needle. Though CorgiSan and DespairBear are not their real names, just their online aliases. Celebrities, fae, and minor deities must protect themselves you know.
DespairBear came about his name because he looks like a much-loved teddy bear that’s seen better days. Look at that picture. He is desperate in so many ways. The world just does not understand how hard it is to be a Skye terrier. What it’s like to have to walk on those tiny little legs. What it’s like to be shaped like skateboard. What it’s like to be mistaken for a mop all the time. What it’s like to have ’80s rock star hair…but all over. Why the cost of shampoo and conditioner alone is enough to make you despair.
And then we have our very own corgigorgeous specimen of canine financial ruin (this dog has cost me more money than all the others combined), our Welsh Cardigan Corgi (that’s the big corgi with a tail, not the momo-butts), known as CorgiSan. Why CorgiSan? Because early on he adopted the kamikaze lifestyle and decided to do his own stunts. His most recent attempts to bankrupt me included being run over by a Tesla. He has frequent flyer miles with all the emergency vets in the area. And since he’s indestructible, so are the robots in the story.
Their main influence on the story was very much in their personalities.
For example, CorgiSan is a glutton (he’s a corgi, after all) so the robot equivalent is that he likes to sit on his charger. DespairBear on the other hand seems to survive on air. I’m constantly trying to get him to eat. It’s like he’s watching his figure, worried about his next modeling contract or something. For years I couldn’t get him to finish anything near the amount I was told I needed to feed him. Now that he is in his dotage he has more of an appetite. Finally. And that’s why robot DespairBear won’t take a full charge. Things like that.
Basically they’re little clowns that make life better. And don’t worry, there’s no animal suffering or death in the story, not even for the robots.
As I just mentioned, your previous books were all part of a series called Ravages Of Honor. Is Threading The Needle also part of a series?
Threading The Needle is not part of the Ravages Of Honor series. It’s not part of the same universe. Probably the only thing they share is the use of Japanese and samurai plot elements (such as swords), in-world rigor, and the tight and deep point of view.
I wrote Needle as a stand-alone (meaning that it’s a complete story in-and-of-itself) but that doesn’t mean that it has to remain that way. I cut certain things out of Needle so I would not write myself into a corner, i.e. remain open to taking it in several directions. At this time I’m not sure what they would be, however.
When I wrote a prequel short story called “Relics” for Baen’s website, I discovered more of the backstory for Gōruden but I don’t have a world bible tucked away anywhere. On each re-read (there were several for continuity, copyediting, and proofing) I found myself making little notes for possibilities.
Earlier I asked if Threading The Needle had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think Needle could work as a movie, a TV show, or a game?
Oooh. Okay, since I’m not a gamer myself, I’m not sure I can address the gaming aspect except to say that the setting would be a good backdrop. I’m not sure what the dynamics of the characters would be game-wise. Someone like my friend Brian Urbanek, who designs games, could probably answer that better.
I’m thinking it would work as a movie and could be expanded to a TV series. Because I wrote it as a single-viewpoint (new to me since I tend to multiple viewpoint narratives and dual protagonists) and a single protagonist story, a series would require that the other characters get their own storylines. That would mean putting on-screen the background events that were not dramatized in Needle. So we’d get fleshed out storylines for Maeve, Lyle, and Logan as well as for Dame Leigh and other members of the Haricot clan. And we’d get more on the black-hats like Contesti and Rhodes.
And if someone wanted to make that movie, who would you want them to cast as Talia and the other main characters and why them?
Definitely the hardest question of the day!
I don’t know celebrities that well, so I’m stuck for an answer on this one. It would have to be someone feminine (but not a waif) who could pull off being good with guns and swords. I know CGI and Hollywood physics can make anyone work in the role, but I’d prefer a production that doesn’t rely so much on wires and CGI but maintains an element of realism and veracity when it comes to the combat since I based them off real-world sequences. In fact, I went to great lengths to keep those (especially the swordfights) grounded in reality.
Finally, if someone enjoys Threading The Needle, what military sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you recommend they check out?
If you want the space battle space opera variety, then David Weber’s Honor Harrington series. If you’re more of a galactic empire space opera person, then Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. Both of these series meet the “set in space” and “galactic empires” components of space opera mixed in with military sci-fi elements. And Marisa Wolf’s Beyond Enemies [due out February 6th, 2024] also comes to mind for those of you that like the AI-tank type of military sci-fi that also crosses into space opera.