The last character in an empire that a sci fi fan, space opera fan, or a military science fiction fan would expect to be instrumental in starting, stopping, continuing, or preventing a war would be a chaplain’s assistant. Except maybe the janitor. How did you settle on a chaplain’s assistant as the main character in a space opera interspecies war story?
The two most common types of soldiers featured in most military stories (to say nothing of military science fiction stories) are infantry (and derivatives of same) followed by pilots. Readers have a (deservedly) undying love affair with the grunt, and the rocket jock. They are timelessly dramatic roles, forever in the teeth of the action, and it’s difficult to spin glamorous or otherwise engaging military stories about, say, the men and women in supply, or administration, etc. When I was originally working on the very first story in the Chaplain’s War universe, the task (for the workshop) was to tell a story on a distant planet, where humanity’s reach had exceeded its grasp. My thought was to tell a Prisoner Of War story, which was quickly followed by my remembering a fact from the Vietnam war: the American POWs who had some kind of religious faith, tended to fare better in captivity, than those who did not. So, I opted to tell the story from the point of view of someone intimately familiar with religious matters in a military setting, but I didn’t want to do an officer. I wanted and enlisted guy, which meant a Chaplain’s Assistant. All else eventually flowed from there. It was a very organic evolution, encompassing a short story (first) then a novella (second) and, finally, a book.
This particular chaplain's assistant is not religious. Again, the first character we would expect is a scientist, maybe a professor. Other than the chaplain himself, his assistant is the least likely. How did that happen?
Barlow is (to my mind) like a lot of kids I meet in the military every day. He’s not been raised in any particular religious tradition, and doesn’t necessarily feel invested (one way or another) in questions of religious truth, or falsehood. When he joins the space military, he’s mostly going along with his friends, and falls into his role largely by accident. Looking back at World War Two (and beyond) many heroic soldiers are ordinary men (and women) who’ve simply enlisted to do a job — to be part of the unfolding of history, or to serve a cause or country — and things ultimately turn on the choices those men and women make. Again, most military stories focus on grunts or pilots. But for my Chaplain’s War stories, the question is not how to defeat the Mantis aliens with bullets or rockets, but how to persuade the Mantis aliens that humans are not only not a threat, but worthy of sharing the universe with. This is a rather philosophical approach to conflict resolution, and the matter of religion (and its utter absence in Mantis culture) proved to be very fertile “What if?” science-fictional ground. Again, all sprouting from a single story just about six thousand words, written for a workshop in 2010.
Religion in the future looks pretty much like religion in the present. Doesn’t religion change over time due to any number or influences and pressures? Wouldn’t space travel, alien contact, intergalactic war, and impending extinction compel people to rethink their religious philosophy?
I think it goes almost without saying that the discovery of a truly alien intelligence — especially one significantly advanced beyond our current technological standards — would force almost every Earth-bound religion to examine the aliens in context with their original human doctrines, concepts, and precepts. I think some religious would be better able to adapt to the new reality, than others. I tried to portray some of this, without being heavy-handed about it. I also tried to portray (in a subtle way) the fact that the aliens themselves might spawn a kind of cultish alien-worship among some humans, who would be so overwhelmed with the aliens’ prowess and capabilities, that they’d almost be forced to view the aliens as God-like, if not Gods themselves. I may explore this issue further, in future sequels to The Chaplain’s War. It’s certainly a worthy question: how would human concepts of God, the afterlife, deities, etc., be altered by contact with aliens? Especially aliens who find the idea of God to be utterly beyond their experience?
Why exactly do the aliens want to call The Orkin Man on us? Ain’t the galaxy big enough?
In the story proper, we learn that humans are not the first intelligent, sapient life the Mantis aliens have encountered. In each instance, the Mantis culture was so far beyond the technology of the new races being encountered, those new races were regarded as little more than curiosities, quickly demoted to the status of impediments — once it was determined that the home worlds of the new races were perfect colony material for Mantis settlements. Here on Earth, humans have forever wrestled with the fact that people simply can’t seem to get along. We can share language, and economy, education, even art and music, or general concepts of religion, and yet we’re murdering each other all the time in war after war. I didn’t assume the Mantis aliens would be any more noble or elevated than humans are, in this regard. They treat all foreign sapience as something to be managed, contained, and eliminated. As a matter of course. Despite having the galaxy to roam around in. The threat is one of mental space, not physical space. Which is a point addressed directly later in the book proper.
Does the chaplain’s assistant’s relationship with his alien friend cause either or both of them to realize they similar?
Yes indeed, which again is something I borrowed from history, a bit like the opponents of World War One singing Christmas carols to each other from across the trenches, only to realize they can’t rightly go back to shooting one another when the night is through. As much as familiarity can breed contempt, in people (alien and human) with good hearts, familiarity can also breed the sense that there is commonality and brotherhood, just under the skin. Whether it’s human skin, or a Mantis exoskeleton. Thus both characters have to take this realization back to their respective peoples, and try to lobby for change. Which is not (of course) easily done. There are a lot of individuals invested in the status quo. They’re more comfortable hating and fighting, than extending an olive branch. Especially to a species that has already proven itself hostile, and willing to kill.
How successful are either of them at convincing their respective species to rethink their view of the other?
I don’t want to give away the plot too much, suffice to say that the chore is a far more difficult one than either can imagine. But each of them also has to have a bit of faith — that despite all differences, and an entrenched war apparatus, both humans and Mantis aliens are more interested in living and learning, than killing and dying.
Are these 2 ad hoc diplomats trying to forge a relationship between the species or just trying for a truce?
Again, without giving away too much of the plot, for the main protagonist and the Professor, it’s a question of expediency. The former is seeking the survival of his species, while the latter is seeking the preservation of special knowledge. Both of them must bargain for what they seek, and it’s not easy.
What is their strategy for convincing their leaders to consider their advice?
For the Chaplain’s Assistant, it’s simply desperation; and a willingness to use a bit of unexpected and timely leverage. For the Professor, it’s much more complicated, because he has to try to convince the bureaucracy and the ruling class that knowledge of an exotic and not at all understood variety, is worth their forbearance.
How does the romance and the end of the romance affect the character and the plot?
Again, not wanting to give away too much, I can say that there are questions of potential romance, and unrequited romance. The effect on the plot is simply to demonstrate the multi-dimensional nature of the human condition, and to also provide something of a branching-off point of additional storytelling in the universe’s future. If we look to the Bible, we know that Eve was supposedly made from Adam’s rib; that man was not meant to dwell alone. I think questions of aloneness are something all of us have to wrestle with from time to time, and this is especially true for POWs who are often grappling with forced solitude, and separation over long periods from not just fellow troops, but family, loved ones, etc. That kind of forced separation will definitely take its toll on a person. One way or another.
The aliens make much of their relationship to their technology. Is there a lesson for us human?
I try not to layer “lessons” into stories, but I do think we (in the twenty-first century) are coming to grips with a new problem, regarding overdependence on gadgetry. And I am not talking manufacturing, as much as I am talking social interaction. Youngsters who’ve never known a time without the internet, and blogs, message boards, etc., are already running into unforeseen problems with face-to-face interactivity, the need for all of us to go out into the “meat world” and reckon with co-workers, customers, clients, etc. If we allow too much of our face-to-face interactivity to be replaced with digital interactivity, I believe we lose some intangibles — which we wind up sorely missing, when it comes right down to it. Again, all of this was organically arrived at, and was not a point trying to be made at the outset. As in many things with science fiction stories, all begins with a question of, “What if?” The Mantis aliens are my way of examining a society which has become literally so attached to their technology, they cannot remember a time without that technology; thus being forced to deal with the world in “meat space” is a frightening thing. They have to use “muscles” they didn’t realize they had, and also discover a lot of what’s gone missing for all the many centuries.
Some of this story, we’ve seen before. How does the short fiction context fit into the novel context?
All of the novel and each of the two, prior short pieces — the short story, “The Chaplain’s Assistant,” and the novella, “The Chaplain’s Legacy,” are coherent with each other. The novel is therefore a “fix up” in the old vernacular of the science fiction publishing world, which means that it was built from previously published short works. There was a time several decades ago when fix-up books were the standard practice, and many of the venerable men and women who’ve preceded me (in magazines like Analog Science Fiction and Fact) were doing fix-up books, so I was proud that my first novel followed a very traditional, time-honored path to publication.
Is the chaplain’s assistant retired or will we see more of him?
I had not intended immediately for a sequel, but the story definitely has “space” at the end, for more. After having read many of the wonderful letters from readers, I think I must re-visit this universe again in the near future, and continue the story — not only to further advance the plot of the Chaplain’s Assistant himself, but also to address questions left over from the original telling.
You’ve graduated to novels, yet one of your short stories recently appeared in Mike Resnick’s Galaxy’s Edge. A hauntingly vivid piece, I might add, especially the 3rd act. How much writer resource are you devoting to your short story career and how much to your novel career?
I learned to love short science fiction, thanks to Larry Niven. Having labored over two decades, to perfect my short storytelling skills, I definitely want to keep using the skillset. I have been asked for many submissions to different invite-only anthologies, and I also still do original short works, such as my novella “Purytans,” which is coming soon in a double-issue of Analog magazine. I can’t see myself ever stopping doing short work, but now that novels are part of my production process, I have to balance the short with the long, on a weekly and monthly basis. It’s definitely been a learning curve, especially since I am still maintaining a full-time civilian career, and a part-time military career that has (over the past two years) consumed month upon month of time. A tall order. But I enjoy the challenge. I am also thankful for editors who are patient. (grin!)
That Galaxy’s Edge piece is in the same universe as the some of your other stories. What’s going on in that universe?
If you’re referring to the SARGASSO story, it’s actually embedded in shared universe that multiple Galaxy’s Edge authors have been writing in. I had to work hard to bring all the separate characters and components of the earlier stories, together in a sufficiently compelling and believable climax. And of course, the SARGASSO universe stories continue. I know the publisher plans to continue them, with many more authors contributing. I may or may not be putting my hand back in, depending on what the publisher needs. I had fun working in the SARGASSO world, since it was very different from anything I’d have come up with originally on my own. Which can be a benefit, or a curse, depending on what kind of author you are. I try to be open-minded and easy-going. The “playground equipment” (to use Larry Niven’s phrase) is there for all of us to use.
How did you fare during the recent regime change over at Analog?
Trevor Quachri and I have worked very well together, going back to the time even before Stan Schmidt’s departure. So far I’ve sold Trevor several independent works, and I imagine I will be selling more. One thing I always tell aspiring authors is that they can’t hope to please every editor. What they should do is focus on the editors already editing work those authors enjoy anyway, and try to write with that enjoyment in mind. They will have far better luck with an editor editing work that is the same or similar to the type those authors already like, than trying to write material in genre(s) or subgenre(s) that the authors aren’t familiar with, simply because they are trying to score with a specific editor, publisher, or market. It just so happens that Analog‘s publication track record and my own personal story style (and spirit?) mesh fairly well. But again, it took many years of honing my craft, before Stan Schmidt (or Trevor Quachri) would invest in me.
How is the novel process going?
A novel is a very separate skillset, in my experience. I have to have multiple characters and a richer, more layered plot. Plus I have to think ahead, through multiple books, each forming one part of a series. That’s an entirely different thing, compared to writing a short story or a novelette. I tend to hammer on the novel(s) until I get frustrated, or I need a break, then I will divert to working on short fiction — for the sake of taking a breather. Often, I can return to the novel(s) at a later time, and find myself refreshed, with new ideas, a fresh perspective, new energy, etc. Which again is another reason I keep going, with independent short works. They are a very useful, very enjoyable excursion. For those periods when the book seems like too much of a slog.
Have you got a projected date for when you’ll be a full-time writer?
My bar is very, very conservative; for when I will be able to actually quit my day job. As it is, writing provides a healthy “bonus” income that aids my little family’s blue-collar budget tremendously. In order to go full-time with writing, I’d have to have all debt paid off, a number of other financial obligations met, an obscene amount of money in the bank, etc. At this point, I am not planning to get there, because it would take an overwhelmingly fortunate series of events for me to get the kind of money I’d want (in the bank, sans debt) to feel comfortable taking my family’s financial security freelance. I know other writers who’ve managed to balance work life, writing, family, etc., and while it’s difficult, I find the chore preferable to trying to develop a healthy family financial plan on the feast-or-famine back of my writing checks. Again, there may come a day when it’s possible. For now, I merely focus on controlling my weekly and monthly production, meeting (or as often as not, catching up with) editorial deadlines, and putting new prose into print. Going full-time? Sounds nice. May not ever happen. I am fine with that.
Interviews with Contest judges, past winners, current winners, and entrants
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