Jazz musician Sun Ra used to tell people he was from Saturn. But while smooth jazz saxophonist Jackiem Joyner makes no such claims — he’s from the planet of Norfolk, Virginia — he does have some spacy connections as well. Literary ones. Along with such albums as 2012’s Church Boy, 2019’s Touch, and the recently released Missing You, Joyner has also released two young adult science fiction novels: Zarya: Cydnus Final Hope and the new sequel Zarya Episode II: Sochi Unleashed (Kindle). In the following email interview, Joyner discusses what inspired and influenced these sci-fi stories, as well as his plans for future space adventures.
For people who haven’t read the first book, Zarya: Cydnus Final Hope, who is Zarya, what does she do, when and where does she live, and what happens in that first book?
Zarya is a 15-year-old girl who lives on Cydnus, a highly advanced desert planet that’s under brutal military control. In the first book, Zarya discovers a plot by the planet’s chief military officer, Gerik, to unleash a deadly weapon against the people. Armed with her father’s research, and accompanied by her friends, she sets out to stop Gerik and save her planet.
And then, for people who have read Zarya: Cydnus Final Hope, what is Zarya Episode II: Sochi Unleashed about, and when does it take place in relation to Final Hope?
Sochi Unleashed picks up after Final Hope. The oxygen levels on Cydnus are depleting, and political tensions are high. Zarya, her father Aaron, and friends Kizzy and Marco are caught in a web of political intrigue as they work to save their planet. Their most powerful asset is Sochi, Zarya’s advanced AI Airboard. And in this book, Sochi’s newfound abilities present both incredible opportunities and serious risks.
When in relation to writing Zarya: Cydnus Final Hope did you come up with the idea for Zarya Episode II: Sochi Unleashed, and what inspired this second story?
I came up with the idea for Sochi Unleashed while writing Cydnus. The world of Cydnus, with its technological marvels and political tensions, had so much potential for exploration that I felt compelled to continue Zarya’s story. One of the aspects I was particularly excited to explore in this second book was the evolution of Sochi, Zarya’s advanced AI Airboard. In this sequel, Sochi’s capabilities have expanded to include the ability to control other machines and even write its own code, which adds an intriguing layer to the story. The evolving relationship between Zarya and Sochi and the implications of Sochi’s newfound abilities became a focal point that I believe readers will find both fascinating and thought-provoking.
It seems like Zarya: Cydnus Final Hope and Zarya Episode II: Sochi Unleashed are sci-fi stories…
I’d classify them as science fiction with elements of cyberpunk, military science fiction, and elaborate world-building. The series is set on a futuristic desert planet, Cydnus, with alien skyscrapers and advanced technology, creating a unique and immersive setting. The story explores the impact of technology on society and the ethical dilemmas that come with advanced tech. It delves into themes like artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, and the dynamics of a society ruled by advanced technology. The series also addresses issues such as political power, survival, and human connection in a world transformed by technology.
It also seems like they might be young adult novels, given that Zarya is fifteen in Zarya: Cydnus Final Hope.
The books are absolutely targeted at young adults, with Zarya being 15 in the first book. But I like to think of them as crossover novels. While they’re accessible to young adults, they tackle themes and concepts that resonate with older readers as well. There’s nothing inappropriate for younger readers, but the story has layers that can be appreciated by readers of all ages.
Moving on to the ever-popular questions about influences, are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Zarya Episode II: Sochi Unleashed but not on Zarya: Cydnus Final Hope?
Creating the sequel, I drew heavily from the world and characters I had established in the first book. But, you know, I also found myself influenced by other works I’ve been reading. Andy Weir’s The Martian, for example, has been a significant influence on me lately. I’ve also been inspired by All Systems Red by Martha Wells, which offers a unique perspective on AI, while And The Young Elites by Marie Lu has influenced my approach to character development. These books have all left their mark on the sequel in different ways.
How about non-literary influences; was Zarya Episode II: Sochi Unleashed influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Well, I’d say I’ve got a mix of influences, and they definitely span different genres. Blade Runner 2049, for example, was absolutely a game-changer for me. The visual style, the world-building, and the exploration of AI and identity — all that really fed into my creative process. The Fifth Element was also a big inspiration, with its colorful characters and futuristic setting, while Ready Player One brought in the whole virtual reality and gaming aspect. And I can’t forget Alita: Battle Angel, which influenced the way I approach technology and human connection in the series. Of course, I’m a huge fan of Mass Effect as well, and the world-building and narrative choices in that game series have had a profound impact on my books. Each of these works has left a lasting impression on me and continues to shape the way I approach storytelling in the world of Cydnus.
And how about your music career? Do you think that has had any influence on your writing, and specifically on Zarya Episode II: Sochi Unleashed?
It’s interesting you mention that because my music career has undoubtedly played a big role in shaping my writing. As a musician, I’ve learned to stick with a project through thick and thin, from writing the first song to releasing an entire album, and that experience has helped me stay focused on my books. I pour my emotions and energy into my music, and those feelings also find their way into the characters and storylines of my books. And then there’s the pacing and rhythm of a narrative; I approach it the same way I do with a musical composition. I like to think of it like a symphony, with moments of crescendo and calm, building tension and releasing it, just like in a song. And, of course, there’s the freedom of creativity. In music, I’ve always had the freedom to explore different sounds, styles, and genres, and I bring that same open-minded approach to my writing. So, in many ways, my music career has been a great complement to my writing, and I’m grateful for the influence it has had on my books.
As we’ve been discussing, Zarya Episode II: Sochi Unleashed is the sequel to Zarya: Cydnus Final Hope. What are your plans going forward with this series?
You know, it’s funny you ask because I’ve got some really exciting plans for the series. I’m currently working on the third episode, Zarya Episode III: Rise Of Shadows and I can already tell it’s going to be a thrilling addition. This next installment will introduce Darcadious and Makrion, other large districts and cities that haven’t been mentioned before, bringing new characters and exciting dynamics to the story. I feel like there’s so much potential with these characters and this world I’ve created, and I’m really excited to continue exploring it. I’m also thinking of bringing back some of the characters from the first book and diving deeper into their stories. And who knows? There might even be some side stories in the works. The sky’s the limit, really! So, while I can’t give away too much, I can definitely say that readers can expect a lot more to come in the world of Cydnus.
Do you know when Zarya Episode III: Rise Of Shadows will be out?
I’m still in the process of writing and planning, so I can’t provide any specific dates at this time. However, I can assure you that I’m actively working on the next episodes, and readers can expect a continuation of the series in the near future. I’m thrilled to keep exploring the world of Cydnus and can’t wait to share more with my readers.
Earlier I asked if Zarya Episode II: Sochi Unleashed was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think Unleashed could work as a movie, show, or game?
Ever since I wrote the first book, I’ve always dreamed of seeing Zarya: Cydnus Final Hope on the big screen. It’s a passion project for me, and bringing it to life in a movie, TV show, or video game would be a dream come true. Zarya Episode II: Sochi Unleashed, with its expansive world, layered characters, and thrilling story, is just begging to be translated into a cinematic or interactive experience. I really believe it has the potential to capture the imagination of audiences and video game players alike.
So, if someone wanted to adapt Zarya Episode II: Sochi Unleashed into a movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as Zarya, Sochi, and the other main characters, and why them?
I would absolutely love to see Zendaya [Euphoria] as Zarya. I think she has the acting chops and the right presence to portray a strong, determined character like Zarya. For Sochi, the AI, a talented voice actor like Cate Blanchett [Tar] would be perfect. She can bring such depth and nuance to her roles, and I think she’d be amazing as the voice of Sochi. As for the other characters, it’s important that the casting reflects the rich diversity of the world of Cydnus. I’d want actors who can really get into their roles and bring depth and authenticity to these characters.
And if someone wanted to adapt this series into a game, what kind of a game should it be?
I envision an open-world, role-playing format where players can take on the role of Zarya. She’s got this incredible airboard, which she uses to zip around at high speeds, and there would be these exhilarating flying sequences. I can see Zarya using futuristic weapons and partnering with Sochi to outwit and defeat her enemies. And stealth! It would be a big part of the game, sneaking around and using her intelligence to overcome challenges. I’m also imagining massive creatures that Zarya could befriend and even ride. Working together with her allies, like coordinating with her friends, would be key. A game studio like CD Projekt Red, known for their world-building in games like The Witcher 3, could really bring this vision to life.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Zarya Episode II: Sochi Unleashed?
In Sochi Unleashed, I’ve introduced even more intriguing elements to the world of Cydnus. There are these fantastic new creatures I’ve created, and then there’s Sentinel, a blend of mechanical and biological components that adds a whole new level of complexity to the story. And there’s another thing I’m really excited about — power elements. They’re scattered across Cydnus, each with unique abilities, and they’re protected by the different cities on the planet. The power elements will take the adventure to new heights, and readers will get to explore how they play into the politics and power dynamics of Cydnus. At the heart of it all, the book delves deeper into the relationship between sentient beings and technology. It explores the ethical dilemmas that arise in a world where advanced technology can be both a blessing and a curse. Themes of bravery, friendship, and survival also play a central role as the world teeters on the brink of collapse.
Finally, if someone enjoys Zarya Episode II: Sochi Unleashed, and they’ve already read Zarya: Cydnus Final Hope, what sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that one, and which of your albums should they listen to while they do?
For readers who enjoyed Zarya Episode II: Sochi Unleashed, and are interested in exploring similar themes and worlds, I’d highly recommend the novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. It’s a sci-fi novel that explores a virtual reality world, and it’s a fantastic adventure.
When it comes to my albums, I would suggest the reader listen to Evolve. That album is a very free spirited and imaginative album for sure.