While some writers have day jobs to make ends meet, others have day jobs that meet with their writing. And no, not for coffee and small talk. Take science fiction writer W. Michael Gear, who — in the following email interview about his new novel Unreconciled (hardcover, Kindle), the fourth in his Donovan series — discusses how his work as an archeologist informed this sci-fi adventure story.
For those who are unfamiliar with this series, what are the Donovan novels about, and when and where are they set?
Some people have likened the Donovan series to a cross between Avatar and Deadwood. Yes, it’s frontier fiction, but set in the twenty-third century on a world 30 light years away.
The twist is that it’s written as an anthropologist would write it. That’s the cool thing about being an anthropologist. I get to ask tough questions. For instance, in the first book, Outpost, if you had a 4 in 5 chance of dying in space on the way back to Earth, or a 1 in 4 chance of surviving in a dying colony, which would you choose? And [the planet] Donovan is interesting in its own right. Building a functional alien world based on biological, geological, and physical science has been a hoot.
And then what is Unreconciled about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the previous book, Pariah?
[The space ship] Ashanti has been mentioned in previous books as being “missing.” Turns out it’s been in space for ten years, slowly closing the distance to Donovan. The catch is that the hydroponics system could only support the five hundred people aboard for a maximum of four years before it started to degrade. By the time the ship has reached Donovan, the system can only support about two hundred and fifty. To survive, the transportees have turned to cannibalism. For Talina Perez, Kalico Aguila, Shig Mosadek, and the rest of our familiar characters, it poses the question: What do you do with a shipload of cannibals? This puts a whole new twist on serving one’s fellow man.
Pariah was a sci-fi adventure story. Is Unreconciled as well? Because it sounds like it might have a bit of horror in it.
Can you have a thrilling story without a bit of horror thrown in? Pariah is a novel about self-discovery on Donovan. Unreconciled asks the question: Can we ever be vindicated for unconscionable actions? Are some transgressions unforgivable even if they were committed in the most dire of straights? I’ve dealt with cannibalism in previous novels, especially People Of The Moon [an unrelated book he co-wrote with his wife, writer and archeologist Kathleen O’Neal Gear] and the Anasazi mysteries [an unrelated series also co-written with his wife]. This was my chance to get inside it, see it from the standpoint of the cannibals. At the same time, I get to advance the character arcs for Kalico, Talina, Kylee, and that scuzzy, foul Dan Wirth. Expect surprises and “I didn’t see that coming.” Some characters will meet bad ends, others will be introduced, and Donovan plays its staple role of whittling away the occasional character. Oh, and there’s something living in the forest outside Tyson Station. Something big, evil, and dark that defies even quetzal memory.
Are there any writers or specific stories that you think had a big influence on Unreconciled but not on the other Donovan novels?
That’s a hard question to answer. I’m not familiar with any authors or stories — especially any told with any sympathy toward cannibalism — outside of the professional literature. In our culture, eating people is considered a pretty big taboo. There are four kinds of cannibalism: survival, ritual, political, and pathological. The Unreconciled mix it all up into a messianic cult. To write inside, from the POV of the Unreconciled proved to be a challenge. That was especially true with the character of Batuhan, who thinks of himself as a prophet. If that strikes anyone as being a familiar storyline, let me know. I’d like to see how another author would handle it.
What about non-literary influences; was Unreconciled influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games?
While I can’t say it was an influence, Kathleen did note while she was reading the manuscript that the plot for Unreconciled was about as predictable as Game Of Thrones.
Now, in the previous interview we did about Pariah [which you can read by clicking here] you said that the books in the Donovan series were connected but stand-alone stories. Is that the case with Unreconciled or has something changed?
Unreconciled takes place three years after Pariah ends. With the arrival of Ashanti, we have a ship full of new characters who, like first-time readers, need to be brought up to speed. After three years, the old characters have to be reintroduced and changes explained, all of which make the novel friendly to first-time readers.
That said, by the time you get four books into a series, some things like quetzals, TriNA, and the Bloody Drink tavern are taken for granted. If I have done my job, first timers will be so seduced by the problem of the Unreconciled they’ll just fall into the story.
And is your plan still to keep writing them, and to have the fifth out next year?
Book 5 is under contract! I will begin writing it as soon as I finish Implacable Alpha, the sequel to The Alpha Enigma. The Alpha Enigma will be published by DAW in November. That means DAW will release the Alpha books before I can get back to Donovan. Expect the fifth Donovan novel sometime in 2021. Should be fun. Kylee will be a little older and dealing with her quetzal self, the Maritime Unit will give us — and Kalico — the first terrifying look at Donovan’s oceans, and there will be a change of management at The Jewel. Oh, and not to mention a new predator that even quetzals fear.
You also said in that previous interview that there had been some interest in adapting the Donovan series into some movies. Is that still the case?
Hey, it’s Hollywood, babe! It’s all hurry up, hype, and wait. We will wait to see if the option check ever shows up. Even then, we won’t get jazzed until it clears the bank. Been here, done this, got a lot of t-shirts.
If it happens, do you still want Sophie Turner and Emilia Clarke from Game Of Thrones to be Kalico and Talina, respectfully?
I think they’d knock it out of the park.
Finally, if someone enjoys Unreconciled, they’ll probably go back and read Outpost, Abandoned, and Pariah if they haven’t already. But once they have, what similar sci-fi adventure series of someone else’s would you suggest they read and why that one?