While the future may be female, the future is also going to be intelligent and artificial. And some of that A.I. is going to be soldiers. In the following email interview, writer and editor Christopher Ruocchio discusses World Breakers (paperback), a new military sci-fi anthology about A.I. war machines that he not only contributed to but also co-edited with fellow contributor Tony Daniel.
To start, what is the World Breakers anthology about? Does it have a theme or are the stories all part of a larger story?
It’s a classic themed anthology. All the stories are disconnected from one another, but all feature A.I. or cybernetically controlled war machines (usually tanks, although Monalisa Foster threw us for a loop with her story “The Needs Of The Many,” which is about an A.I.-run hospital ship; it’s fun to include stories that push the formula a bit). That’s a pretty wide ambit, and the writers all went in very different directions. Sometimes the tank is the hero, sometimes the villain, or a supporting character. There’s a real wide spread here.
Where did you get the idea for this theme, and why did you feel this would be a good theme for this collection?
The book grew out of an old letter we found from Baen’s founder, Jim Baen, to Keith Laumer, author of the old Bolo military science fiction series. We’re talking a letter probably as old as I am, and [Baen Owner / Publisher] Toni Weisskopf thought it would be nice to revitalize the idea in this letter, which was essentially to use these giant tanks to tell some action stories that also spoke to the mythology of being human, if that makes sense, to talk about the relationship between man and machine and so on while also rolling in, all guns blazing.
Were there any other parameters that all the stories had to abide by?
I like to keep my editorial guidelines pretty broad, so besides capping our authors at 10,000 words or so, and asking they put a cool, high-tech tank in, the rest was up to them. In assembling an anthology, especially a themed anthology, giving the authors as much room to self-determine really lets the finished book be as varied and wonderful as it can be.
The stories in World Breakers are obviously all military sci-fi. But are there other genres at work in these stories as well?
They’re more or less all military sci-fi, yeah, though what we think of as genre is pretty porous anyhow. My own story, “The Dragonslayers,” has a bit of an epic fantasy feel to it, I think — and it would, being part of my Sun Eater universe, which folks like to call science fantasy. Kacey Ezell’s story, “Daughter Of The Mountains,” has a bit of a fantasy feel to it as well, and even a bit of a historical fiction feel to it, whereas, say, Keith Hedger’s story, “Amarillo By Fire Fight,” is very nearly a comedy. Wen Spencer’s “Anvil” offers a rather delightful turn that’s hard to categorize as anything other than Wen’s own idiosyncratic genre blend. It’s great!
Keith Hedger, Wen Spencer, Kacey Ezell
As you said, some the tanks in World Breakers are controlled by A.I. How did you decide how the A.I. would work in the tanks, or did you leave it up to the writers to decide?
Every story has its own rules. Some tanks are pure A.I., some are run by vivisected human brains — or inhuman brains, for that matter. One tank acts like a kid, still learning about the world; another takes an oath of fealty to a princess in a post-apocalyptic world; one even falls in love with a human on a dating app. Tony and I just let the authors be themselves and run wherever their fancy took them, with the result being — I think — a series of pretty wild rides.
You also have a story in World Breakers. Some editors think it’s wrong to contribute to their own anthologies, others think that not only should you do it, but that the readers will expect it. Why do you fall into the latter group?
Well, insofar as I’m known for anything, I’m known as a writer. I’ve written five books now, and nearly a dozen short stories, and so I worry that a reader might pick up something with my name on the cover and be upset if they made a purchase and didn’t find any of my work inside. I’d like to avoid disappointing that reader, and so it’s never seemed inappropriate for me to include myself. Quite the opposite, to be honest.
So, what can you tell us about your story in World Breakers, “The Dragonslayers”?
It’s set several thousand years in the future on a human colony overrun by a horde of alien barbarians who’ve sacked the place, and it follows a small unit of soldiers who are trying to deliver the planet’s very young Countess to safety after having saved her from a bunker beneath her ruined palace. They are hunted by a tank-like alien weapon and have to contend with that.
And, as you said, it is connected to your Sun Eater series.
It certainly is! The unit I mention appears in the upcoming fourth Sun Eater novel. This story is backstory for them, and contains a couple teasers from the book.
I may have misspoken. It was slated for this July, but it unfortunately had to be pushed back to March of 2022 due in part to the pandemic’s effect on publishing and in part due to some personal troubles that slowed production. I finished the first draft in March, though, so it’s done. It’s called Kingdoms Of Death, and I’m very excited to share it with everybody when the time comes.
You also, last year, put out a Sun Eater novella called The Lesser Devil. Are there plans for any other Sun Eater novellas?
I would love to do more, of course. I have plans to try and fit one in before I jump into work on the fifth and final mainline Sun Eater novel, but I’m not 100% sure whether or not I’ll have time. At time of writing, I just finished work on Kingdoms Of Death yesterday, so I’m still a touch fried. Moving forward though, I’d love to slot more of these sort of side-story novellas in between larger projects. There’s not really a place for novella-length works in traditional published (with a couple exceptions), and so self-publishing them to supplement my tentpole work has proved a very helpful business model.
You also assembled an eBook collection of Sun Eater short stories called Tales Of The Sun Eater, Vol. 1. In the interview we did about it, you said you had more in the works.
Yes. Tales Of The Sun Eater, Vol. 1 has 7 stories , and I plan to do a couple small story collections like this as eBook exclusives, with the hope of assembling a master collection at some point in the more distant future, which I hope to publish traditionally.
Going back to World Breakers, this is — unless I’m mistaken — the fifth anthology you’ve co-edited, and second with Tony Daniel. You two previously put together Star Destroyers, and you also did Space Pioneers, Overruled, and Cosmic Corsairs with Hank Davis. What is it that you like so much about co-editing short story collections?
Well, it started out as a learning experience. I was new to publishing when Tony and I did Star Destroyers, and working with Hank (which started because Hank was rather unwell and needed my assistance) was so fascinating due to his long and damn-near-photographic memory for these old stories. Circling back to work with Tony on this feels very full circle, especially given that my next one, a book called Sword & Planet, coming in December, has just me in the editor’s chair, flying solo. Working with Hank and Tony has been a learning experience, and getting a handle on how to compile these anthologies in working with them has been one of the most useful and rewarding aspects of my time as an editor.
Finally, if someone enjoys World Breakers, which of your other anthologies would you suggest they read next and why that one?
Star Destroyers is perhaps most similar in terms of content, being about large spaceships instead of tanks, but the one I’m most proud of, I think, is Overruled. There’s a Fritz Leiber and a James Blish story in that one that had never been reprinted (to the best of mine and Hank’s knowledge) since their release in the 1950s. Bringing these lost treasures back up out of the depths is a genuine pleasure.