With What Rough Beast (hardcover, paperback, Kindle), writer Michael R. Johnston is concluding The Remembrance War trilogy he launched in 2019 with The Widening Gyre and continued in 2020 with The Blood-Dimmed Tide. In the following email interview, Johnston discusses what inspired and influenced this conclusion to his epic sci-fi space opera saga.
For people who haven’t read any of these novels, or the previous interview we did about the second book, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, what is The Remembrance War trilogy about, and when and where does it take place?
I’m going to try to avoid spoilers, but there may be some in here.
The Remembrance War is set in a distant corner of our own galaxy, a little more than a thousand years from now. All that is left of humanity — so far as anyone knows, anyway — is a few million descendants of a colony sleeper ship that was found, drifting and damaged, by the Zhen Empire about 800 years before the series begins. Since the Zhen couldn’t figure out from the humans’ damaged systems where they came from, they gave them a place in the Empire as a client state. The upside is that humans gain access to the advanced technology of the Zhen Empire, from FTL “jump” drives to nanotech-based neural computer implants. The downside is that the Zhen look down on humans and consider them second-class citizens at best.
And then for those who have read the previous books, and thus don’t need to pay attention to this SPOILER ALERT, what is What Rough Beast about, and how is it connected to The Blood-Dimmed Tide?
As previous readers know, in The Widening Gyre, Tajen Hunt finds out his brother was murdered by the Empire he once served, and he sets out, along with his crew, to finish his brother’s quest for the lost Earth. When they find it, they discover that the Empire has been lying to them for nearly a thousand years; revealing those lies leads to the first skirmishes of the Remembrance War.
In The Blood-Dimmed Tide, it’s a year later, and humans have begun recolonizing Earth. Just as they’re getting the new colony off the ground, the Zhen invade and establish a brutal occupation. Katherine is lost in the first battle, leaving Tajen and his remaining team to fight a guerilla war against the invaders, with help from their Kelvaki allies. At the end of the book, Katherine turns up alive and well, and tells Tajen she is going to introduce him to the Tabrans, whom he’s only ever known as enemies.
What Rough Beast begins moments after that. In this book, each of our three main characters — Tajen, his husband Liam, and their friend Katherine — have their own mission. Tajen goes in search of Zhen defectors, Katherine heads to Marauder space to find an ancient device, and Liam tries to keep the human refugee fleet that fled Shoa’kor station at the end of the last book alive as Zhen forces pursue them.
When in the process of writing The Widening Gyre and The Blood-Dimmed Tide did you come up with the idea for What Rough Beast, and what inspired both this third book’s story and how it would end this series?
You know, What Rough Beast was originally going to be an all-out battle for the Empire, with the various oppressed races coming together to annihilate the Zhen. But I’d been reading a lot of anti-colonial writing (both sci-fi and literary), and while I love a big Good Vs. Evil struggle as much as the next guy raised on Star Wars, in real life, things are often more complicated than that.
So as I finished The Blood-Dimmed Tide, I decided I didn’t want the entire Zhen people having to face the consequences of their government’s decisions. The majority of the Zhen citizenry are an oppressed people every bit as much as the humans are, and we’ve seen allies from among them throughout the story, so I decided they deserved better. I reworked the story, and it became more about how our actions have consequences, and they won’t always come directly to us, but sometimes to our descendants. And there’s some slightly pointy critique of how, sometimes, movements don’t realize they’re treading on the toes of those who came before.
The Widening Gyre and The Blood-Dimmed Tide are sci-fi space opera stories. Is What Rough Beast one as well?
I’d say What Rough Beast is also firmly in the space opera subgenre.
Are there any writers, or maybe specific stories, that had a big influence on What Rough Beast but not on The Widening Gyre or The Blood-Dimmed Tide?
Hmm. Setting aside the influences on the previous books, I would say the work of Tanya Huff, specifically her Confederation Of Valor books, have influenced me. Those books are more military sci-fi than my own, but the way she handles various aliens and makes them both relatable and alien to human experience is amazing. I’ve tried to learn from her in how I handle non-humans.
How about non-literary influences; was What Rough Beast influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Well, both Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, as well as games like Freespace 2 and the fondly-remembered Independence War (finally available again! Seek ’em out!) games, continue to influence my space battles. When I’m stuck, I’ll often boot up Elite: Dangerous and spend some time in my “other life” until I’ve got an idea what to do in the book.
And what about your cats, of whom you own “more…than is strictly necessary”? How did owning an excessive amount of cats influence What Rough Beast?
I’m always coy about the cats, but we don’t have that many. My wife and I each had two when we married, and that number has remained steady through a few losses and new cats. Every time we decide we’re not going to replace anyone until we’re down to just two, a new cat finds a way through our shields, normally because it needs a family and we’re the best bet. So “more than is strictly necessary” basically means there are four cats in residence.
Sadly, we lost our “sandworm” Fletcher (so called because of his coloring and size) to cancer during the pandemic. His loss made writing this book a bit harder, as did the pandemic in general. His successor in the household is a bit of a pain in the proverbial parts, but he’s growing on us.
Now, there are people who’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of What Rough Beast so we, I mean they can read all three back-to-back. But do you think this is the best way to take in this story?
There’s no story-based reason to read them in any particular way except in order. I know some people like to devour a series all at once, and that’s easily doable with The Remembrance War, as every book is a pretty fast read. But whether your preference is to read them all at once or stretched out, you’ll have a fun adventure.
And is this the end for this fictional universe? Because some people who write trilogies will later write prequels, sequels, or side stories.
What Rough Beast is the end of The Remembrance War universe — for now. I did leave seeds in the final chapter that point to a new adventure in that universe, but I have no concrete plans to write it yet. As much as I love writing Tajen, it’s time to give some new voices, and new stories, some time. I’m currently working on a science fantasy — basically an epic fantasy with science fiction underpinnings, set in the far future. Although that book is outlined and I’ve begun the work, I’ve no idea when I’ll finish writing it, much less when it will be out. I’ve also got several other story ideas that are all in various stages, from another space opera in a new universe, to an urban fantasy.
So, is there anything else you think people should know about What Rough Beast and The Remembrance War series?
The titles of all three books are parts of lines from “The Second Coming,” my favorite William Butler Yeats poem. The poem is about the contrary forces at work in history, and the conflict between the modern and the ancient. The Remembrance War is very much concerned with these ideas, where ancient evils have to be paid for in the present, so the poem was perfect for the titles of each book. It’s also my single favorite poem, and one I’ve had memorized for decades now.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Widening Gyre, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, and What Rough Beast, what sci-fi space opera novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
I whole-heartedly recommend the Imperials series by Melinda M. Snodgrass. These are books (there are four out now) that center the idea of humans as the bad guys in an interstellar Empire: they went out into space, met aliens, and conquered them all. It’s a story that mines the colonialist assumptions that underlie most empire-based space opera for all that it holds, and also engages in critique of those same assumptions. It’s quite honestly a series that deserves more praise than I’ve seen it receive. Start with book one, The High Ground, and I’m pretty sure you’ll be hooked.
Another I love is The Divide series by J.S. Dewes, which begins with The Last Watch. It’s got everything: an exiled prince, a legion of rejects who are The Last Hope Of Everyone, and some of the same ideas of ancient evils come home to roost. Can’t wait for book 3.