For more than three decades and over twenty novels writers Sharon Lee and Steve Miller have been exploring the sci-fi space opera realm of their Liaden Universe® novels. In the following email interview about the latest installment, Trader’s Leap (hardcover, Kindle), this dynamic duo explain how this story fits into the saga at large (hint: it’s not where you might expect).
For someone who hasn’t read any of the Liaden Universe® novels, what is this series about, and when and where does it take place?
Sharon: Well, let’s see…the series is about … [counts on fingers] …three million words. Rounding down. That’s broken up into 23 novels and a whole buncha short stories. Genre-wise, the Liaden Universe® is space opera — which is to say, “action adventure science fiction with a touch of romance.” The Liaden novels tend to follow the exploits of the extended family known as Clan Korval, or Tree-and-Dragon Family, the members of which are Magnets For Trouble.
The action takes place in what we here in the Science Fiction Biz style as “elsewhere and otherwhen.” It does not take place in the Far Future so much as it does in, ahem, A Richly Imagined Science Fiction Setting where interstellar trade exists, as well as interstellar warfare. There are non-human aliens in the mix, but the culprit in most of the tangles the characters find themselves in are most usually societal or cultural — what the characters themselves dignify as “local custom.”
Some of the characters have extra-natural powers. These fall into two broad categories. There are the dramliz, which translates roughly to “wizards,” who do the flashy things: levitation, precognition, telekinesis, divination, post-cognition, finding / dowsing, and so on. The second group is more useful if not more benign: the Healers, who are empaths with a specialized secondary sight that allows them to see into the hearts and minds of men, and heal them of psychic, mental, and spiritual ills.
Steve: Understand that the Liaden Universe® is not the universe we live in, though it has some things in common with ours. We knew the backstory when we started with the first seven novels set in the “modern” universe, since the backstory portions took part in a steady-state universe that was — in effect — destroyed by powerful inhabitants who tried to remodel the universe to perfection.
And then what is Trader’s Leap about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the previous book, Accepting The Lance?
Sharon: Trader’s Leap is about the efforts of Master Trader Shan yos’Galan to design and implement a profitable new interstellar trade route for Clan Korval. Clan Korval has lately relocated in some disorder from an…over-civilized world, let’s say, to a frontier world. The circumstances surrounding their departure from their former homeworld are such that many of their long-time trade partners no longer wish to be associated with them. In addition, their new base is in a different sector of space, so many of the routes remaining to them are just not viable. But moving is expensive, the clan needs money, so Shan has to be about designing and implementing that profitable new trade route right quick.
As to the chronology, Trader’s Leap is starts a couple days after the ending of Alliance Of Equals, and takes place concurrently with Accepting The Lance, the 22nd Liaden book. It takes place so concurrently that for a while Leap and Lance were the same book. Happily, we realized that if we continued down that road, we’d be handing in a 250,000 word book and our publisher would murder us, so we unwound the narratives into two books.
You said that the Liaden Universe® novels are sci-fi space opera stories. But are there other genres that either describe it better or are at work in this story as well?
Sharon: We used to have a business card that read: “The Liaden Universe®, where honor, wit, and true love are potent weapons against villainy.” That pretty much sums up what we’re about, and what the novels and stories are about. The Liaden Universe® novels are character driven, as distinct from gadget driven, and they are intended to be fun.
Since we’ve been doing this for, oh, 33 years or so, the Liaden Universe® has some features that may seem…quirky to those who started reading science fiction more recently. Though the main characters are human, sentient non-human aliens live in the Liaden Universe® — this includes both a very long-lived, turtle-like race, and sentient trees. Extranormal powers — considered by recent readers of science fiction to be “magic” — are very much in play (when we first started writing, psychic powers were being seriously investigated by scientists; the Rhine Institute, for instance, was established in 1965 and extranormal abilities were still being treated as possible in the 1980s). There is romance is the Liaden Universe® as well as other interpersonal interactions, not limited to revenge, though there’s that, too.
So, Sharon, how often do people ask if these books are about a space cowboy named Maurice?
Sharon: No one has ever asked me this.
And Steve, how often do they think they’re sooooo clever when they ask you that, while you just sign deeply and shake your head and wish once, just once, someone would make a funny joke about your name?
Steve: Sigh. Not very often…anymore.
Look, we’re well known in the fannish community for our convention attendance — I’ve attended conventions and participated on panels pretty frequently since 1974. I ran and helped with art shows all over the East Coast. When Sharon and I got together in the early 1980s, we were book dealers and art agents for years — by the 1990s, when we first started getting asked to be Guests Of Honor at Sci-Fi Conventions, any “confusion” between Steve Millers was over, in the science fiction community.
Nowadays, if someone outside of the sci-fi community says anything, I will cop to being a Space Cowboy or the Gangster Of Love.
Going back to relatively more serious questions, are there any writers who you think had a big influence on Trader’s Leap but not on any of the other Liaden Universe® stories?
Steve: Not really. Our Liaden books as a whole grew out of all of our experiences, and I don’t think we approached Trader’s Leap in the mode of “answering” anyone’s book or idea anymore than we approached any other book in that fashion or as an homage to anyone’s particular book or idea. So Trader’s Leap was always very much in the way of a book aimed at answering the questions of “what happens next” that grew out of the rest of the prior work.
Sharon: I can’t point to one thing that was only an influence on Trader’s Leap. When you’ve been writing in series as long as we have, the rules of the universe have long been set, and while we have the freedom to go to another planet if we want to explore a new society or environment, we still have to play within the universal rules that we’ve set for ourselves.
All that said, I can point to one specific influence relevant to Trader’s Leap: The literary inspiration for Shan yos’Galan is Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsy.
The entire series also owes a great debt to Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels, and also to Elswyth Thane, who introduced me to the concept of multigenerational family novels.
Other influences on the Liaden Universe® as a whole — these would be the writers I was reading as I came up, so to speak — Andre Norton, James Schmitz, Ruth Stiles Gannet, Isaac Asimov, CJ Cherryh, Robert Heinlein, Anne McCaffrey, Christopher Stasheff, Daphne du Maurier, Rex Stout, Margaret Sinclair, Alan Garner, Dorothy Sayers, Frances and Richard Lockwood, Gwen Bristow, Mary Stewart, Agatha Christie, Elswyth Thane — this is getting a little silly; I read a lot.
Steve: Sharon’s mentioned many of the same people I would have as basic influences — also for me Roger Zelazny, who I met while a student at University Of Maryland Baltimore County, who encouraged me mightily, and also Harlan Ellison who I met at Clarion West and who in the midst of a critique session on one of my stories said, “Don’t cheat the reader! If you’ve given them a death don’t make it a cheap death!”
Sharon: One of the notable things, I think, is that many of my influences are outside of the science fiction genre. When I was coming to age as a reader, it was not possible to only read in-genre. Nowadays, readers can spend a lifetime reading not only science fiction, but the exact kind of science fiction that they prefer. They never have to venture out of their comfy neighborhood, or accommodate a different kind of story, or a different style of storytelling. Which I think is too bad. If you don’t get out of your own neighborhood and do some exploring, you’re really missing out on learning new things, meeting new people, and thinking new thoughts — all of which is necessary for growth as a human. I believe that reading fiction is practice for real life — a safe place to try on new ideas, broaden your horizons, and learn empathy.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Did any of those have a big influence on Trader’s Leap?
Steve: We’re not real big on non-literary influences outside of say music and science; we really don’t have much truck with TV shows, aren’t current on movies, and as far as games maybe Risk, Scrabble, Othello, Upwords, Five Hundred Rummy, and Chess are what we could be said to consider when it comes time for games.
Sharon: Though the Liaden Universe® does of course owes a debt to the classics: The Avengers — the Diana Rigg / Patrick Macnee show — The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Mission: Impossible, I Spy, My Favorite Martian, The Prisoner, Bugs Bunny, The Jetsons, classic Trek…
Now, along with Trader’s Leap, Baen also recently released the paperback edition of Accepting The Lance. What is that book about?
Sharon: Accepting The Lance takes place on Clan Korval’s new homeworld of Surebleak (a nod to Niven and Pournelle). Surebleak is a company world which was abandoned when the resource being mined was found in a greater and more accessible quantity elsewhere. In order not to go too far into the red, and lose their position in the conglomerate, the company — the Gilmour Agency — decided to remove upper management only, abandoning the rest of their people to a really inhospitable planet. The abandoned evolved a Boss System as their society, derived from the corporate structure they’d known, but over time it degraded into a pretty nasty situation where the Boss of a territory would sell their…constituents’ insurance against the Boss’ violence (As in, “Nice place you got here, be a shame if something happened to it.”). Gunfights on the streets were common, and “retirement parties” where somebody who felt they deserved to be Boss went after the seated Boss weapons to the fore.
Into this environment come the members of Clan Korval, who are themselves notable bad asses. They, however, admire organization, subscribe to a code of honor, and accept the responsibility of bad asses to protect those who are weaker in order to make society a better place. So, Clan Korval is working on bringing Surebleak up to spec, but — some people liked Surebleak the way it had been.
Is there anything different about the paperback version? Did you add a new coda, include a recipe for sourdough bread…?
Sharon: I think we caught a couple more typos. But the only thing that was added — that I know of, she says darkly — was the first chapter of Trader’s Leap, at the end of the book.
And my understanding, based on what I saw online, is that you have yet another Liaden Universe® novel coming out soon, one that takes place the same time as Accepting The Lance. What can you tell us about that book in terms of plot, title, release date, etc.?
Sharon: Hmm. What we have are four books beyond Trader’s Leap under contract with Baen Books (our traditional publisher, as we say in this brave new age). The next two will be featuring a character who is not of Clan Korval — Jethri Gobelyn — who has already appeared in two novels of his own — Balance Of Trade, and Trade Secret. Jethri’s arc is a few hundred years before the “main” story line involving Clan Korval.
However, we also do This Other Thing Over Here: Pinbeam Books. Pinbeam Books is the Lee-and-Miller indie publishing arm. Under that imprint, we publish shorter works set in the Liaden Universe® and elsewhere. Pinbeam Books recently published Liaden titles The Gate That Locks The Tree, Shout Of Honor, and Fortune’s Favor. Ambient Conditions is coming up in December.
Finally, if someone enjoys Trader’s Leap and the rest of the Liaden Universe® stories, what similar sci-fi series of someone else’s would you each recommend they check out?
Steve: If you’re looking for similar series, we’re not sure there are any. But we do know there are lots of fun series out there that hit some of the same notes without being at all cookie cutter. To begin with, we learned a lot from Andre Norton, particularly her Witch World books, which dealt with some themes that are current now despite having been writing in the 50s and later — I started reading her work in junior high and never got over reading it, so I’d say read them. Later Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider series came along, and, yep, read them. Anne and Andre both corresponded with us over the years — so yeah, we were all biased about each other’s work.
Elsewise, though I think Roger Zelazny’s fantasy Amber series may be best known of his work — I think his science fiction and science fantasy books stand together very well even if not officially a series — start with This Immortal (also known as …And Call Me Conrad) and add in Isle of The Dead, Damnation Alley, Jack Of Shadows, Today We Choose Faces — and you have a pretty decent series exploring the question “what makes a hero,” and add the sometimes self-referential A Night In The Lonesome October dealing with the same theme and you’ll be good. Meanwhile if you’re into space stories in particular go for Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series, and Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s War and Serano’s Legacy books — that’s a lot of reading!
Sharon: We also share readers with Nalini Singh, the author of the Psy-Changeling and Guild Hunter series, with Lois McMaster Bujold — especially those readers who enjoy her space operas detailing the exploits of Miles Vorkosigan — and with the late Anne McCaffrey, creator of the Dragonriders Of Pern books and the Brainship series, among others. All of these series are long-running, so they’ve stood the test of time, and have many volumes, so nobody has to worry about running out of story too soon. In addition, all are character-driven action stories featuring strong interpersonal relationships.