Engage: An Interview with Charles E. Gannon

Gannon -DSC_4896Professor, Fulbright Fellow, think-tank consultant, scriptwriter, producer, fencer, rifleman, martial artist, husband, father, and best-selling author Dr. Charles E. (“Chuck”) Gannon is an incredibly knowledgeable guy who has published widely about the junctions where fiction, technology (especially military and space), and politics meet. His Tales of the Terran Republic including the Nebula Award nominated finalist and Compton Crook Award-winning novel Fire with Fire and its recently released sequel, best-selling Trial by Fire, exemplify his wide-ranging interests. He paused in his busy writing and convention schedule to chat with the Daily Dragon before attending Dragon Con 2014.

Daily Dragon (DD): Can you describe the twenty-second century universe of the Tales of the Terran Republic and, referencing your 2013 Free Talk Live Radio interview, the “rigorous futurism” you employed in your world building for short stories and now novels in the series?

Charles E. Gannon (CEG): It’s difficult to answer such an expansive question concisely, but I’ll give it a try. Firstly, the Tales of the Terran Republic is set in what I would call the “mid-future.” It starts in roughly 2115 AD, where a lot of things have changed, but a lot of things look and sound pretty familiar (there are specific reasons for both). The “rigorous futurism” that has, from the first, informed its creation is rooted in my desire to provide readers with a powerful sense of immersion in narrative world and an overwhelming “you-are-there” verisimilitude.

In short, I’m doing my job properly if my fiction functions as a door into another world that feels so real, so immediate, that the reader “falls into” it. Achieving that requires (among other things) that the world is credible and is thoroughly accountable to its own logic (and reasonable scientific projections, in the case of hard SF). In the case of my Tales of the Terran Republic series, I started that process by grabbing a whole bunch of intel/international resources in the early 1990’s and projecting a century’s worth of population growth, GNP, GDP, budget shares, and project costs from them, proceeding decade by decade. I avoided relying on straight line projections (that’s the downfall of a lot of safe, but ultimately flawed, futurism) and added in cycles like the Kondratiev wave (economics) and a few others, and then adjusted for what looked like “unavoidable events.”

The world that results is one that has evolved into transnational blocs. The upward spiraling costs of technology and research have compelled nations to increase their integration, to combine the resources to meet these various objectives. It’s also a world in which megacorporations have charted a course that gives them marginally greater autonomy from operating under the aegis of nations—and they are eager to expand that autonomy. Lastly, it’s a world that has lived through the threat of its own near-extinction: in the 2080s, a narrowly-intercepted asteroid nicknamed the Doomsday Rock dramatically energized an already modest resurgence to create a true space-faring society.

And it is that world, just beginning to exploit the opportunities of interstellar travel, which discovers that it is not alone in the universe. Things get really interesting (in the context of the Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times”) from that point onward.

DD: Paraphrasing one of your guest blogs, why is it okay that some science fiction or fantasy authors cannot or do not create worlds that are simple?

CEG: In my opinion, there are some stories that you just can’t tell independent from a detailed unfolding of the worlds that give rise to them. Try to imagine reading Dune without all the environmental details—and consequent social ramifications—of the desert-planet of Arrakis. Would Bladerunner work if its grim Brueghel-on-the-Styx world was not a character unto itself?

I suspect this is one of the criteria that tends to distinguish hard SF from space opera, even when both are told on epic scales. In space opera, the sense of wonder and specific differences of alien species and biospheres tend to be the spice for that rich stew of adventure and often mythic tropes and patterns. In hard SF, however, those differences are not merely the spicing: they are the very meat of the dish. In a hard SF journey, the sense of wonder that results is from a deep exploration of genuine alienness, of serious and rigorously projected changes in our surroundings and our society. I place my novels in the mid future because I did not want to tell the story of what happens after we have crossed from our contemporary reality into some very altered future. I consciously site my stories on the bridge between those two worlds, at the fulcrum of change that will transform what is still recognizably our world into something fundamentally different.

I am not suggesting that these differences would make any given future world unrecognizable or even particularly difficult to understand: the constants of human existence endure, after all. But if there is any traction in the concept behind the German term zeitgeist—that each epoch has a discernibly different outlook and conception of itself and the universe—then it stands to reason that there must be transitional periods between each one of these epochs. That transitional point is where I site my stories, because (for me) those passages from one epoch to the next are ultimately more interesting (and possibly more defining) than the destinations to which they take us.

And so, with that in mind, how could I tell those stories without rigorously defining the worlds in which they are taking place, worlds poised on the cusps of change? I think readers can instinctively detect if the universe of a story is comprised of flimsy set dressings or build up from the bedrock of closely-reasoned speculations. I also find such detailed universes tend to be gritty, paradoxical, and so, strangely resonant with the mixed bag that is human reality. It puts the reader in a virtual world that is both more believable and more immersive because it is messy, complicated, filled with multiple agendas, burdened by both its diverse history and its contending aspirations. That’s what is familiar to us, what resonates with our day to day experience of reality, what creates the narrative sense of mass and solidity that engenders (I hope) the necessary verisimilitude to engender deep reader engagement.

All that takes a lot of work, a lot of world building, a lot of watch-dogging against over-simplifications, and yet not becoming so wrapped up in details and esoterica that a reader can’t navigate it enjoyably.

Of course, every story or author needs to be concerned with these self-imposed world-building criteria. Why undertake these tasks if the story you wish to tell is founded more on, let’s say, universal tropes and mythic patterns? For example, Star Wars succeeded on very basic space opera tropes and myths. And if that universe is now fairly detailed, that followed well after the first two films had, by their pageantry and scope and ease of access, captured the imagination of an entire generation of SF fans. The kind of world-building I’ve been describing would have been the kiss of death for that kind of rollicking space-opera—but conversely, the absence of such world-building would have doomed Dune (in any of its incarnations) to failure. So I am in no way suggesting that I believe mine is the “right way” to work in science fiction. I am simply asserting that it’s the right way for me to work in SF, given the nature of the stories I want to tell (and which keep delivering themselves to the doorstep of my consciousness like a legion of  fantastical foundlings!).

DD: You also created exosapients for Tales of the Terran Republic. Do you have any wise words for undertaking creation of alien planets and their flora and fauna, including sentient beings?

CEG: I don’t know that I have wise words, but I can tell you what I do and what I don’t do. Most important is that I don’t work backward from preconceived notions and “cool stuff” I want to showcase in the story. In other words, I don’t sit down and say to myself, “I want a species that has features x, y, and z.” I start with the species’ planet of origin, extrapolate features of its biosphere. Then, after establishing what kind of basic evolutionary forbears I am going to work with, I work to formulate what is arguably the pivotal moment in any race’s history: when nascent self-awareness became so great that we would call it indicative of “intelligence.” (There is much debate upon how intelligence actually arises, and space does not permit any consideration of it here. Suffice it to say that I conceive of the definition of intelligence as some combination of a species possessing: tool use, humor, creation of narratives, and the closely related trait of being capable of future projection or of creating wholly novel conditions).

I do not propose that the transition actually occurs as the result of a single “seminal moment.” (Moonwatcher’s use of a bone as the first weapon in 2001: A Space Odyssey was a brilliant elision of a unitary event with a greater metaphorical symbol for a speciate process.) However, it’s helpful to conceive of a finite event as emblematic of what is most likely to push a species from pre-intelligence to full intelligence. For instance, in the case of one species in Trial By Fire, the Arat Kur, they went from opportunistically preying upon creatures that fell into their subterranean burrows to being purposeful trappers, eventually evolving the crafts of using bait, deadfalls, concealed pits, spikes, etc. Not so much different from our hominid forbears going from hand-held rocks to obsidian axes and atlatl.

From this point onward in my further development of the species, I observe the principle that “form follows function.” What a species truly needs, it finds the means to secure—or it perishes. This is where the details of the biosphere become urgently pertinent again. I am not talking about the rather ingenuous concept of planets with mono-ecologies, such as graced the pages of the early pulps (“It was a rainy day on the planet Mongo…”). But a world may have planetary features which influence every econiche within its compass. Some examples are: a planet with a very dense atmosphere; a planet with extremely high winds (various possible causes); a planet with a significantly elliptical orbit; a planet which is metal-poor; a planet which lacks a molten metallic core (no magnetic repulsion of radiation); a planet with a very proximal, or large (or both) satellite; a planet with high volcanism. All these details suggest how the challenges to an evolving intelligence will leave distinctive adaptive marks upon them, as well as the rest of the planet’s flora and fauna.

This is, of course, just a faint scratching of the surface, but it’s a thumbnail sketch of the checklist I run down in the process of answering the self-posed question: “So, who are these aliens?”

DD: How did you tackle interstellar travel for your series? Did your writing for Going Interstellar (edited by Les Johnson and Jack McDevitt) help prepare you for the challenge? How did these creative experiences differ from the flight mechanics of your novella included with Eric Flint’s The Aethers of Mars?

CEG: Actually, the universe of the Tales of the Terran Republic predates both Going Interstellar and the universe (mine actually) that Eric and I shared when we co-authored The Aethers of Mars. But there’s not much reverse cross-pollenation of influence, even so.

I spent a long time thinking about what aspects of physics might realistically be involved in getting to places in less time than light (note how that is different from “faster” than light, which implies greater velocity). Back in the Eighties, it became pretty clear that if we were to ever achieve such a feat, it would a) depend upon leveraging field effects such as worm holes, event horizons, etc., and b) it would have to exploit the explicative gaps in what is called the Standard Model of quantum physics. Those gaps—the pesky ones which have long separated us from the holy grail of a Unified Field Theory—swirl around phenonena such as quantum entanglement (and the telelocation of sub-atomic particles that seems to be an implication of its interconnection with the uncertainty principle), chronology protection, and the possibly integrative explanations of string theory. The method of “FTL” (a misnomer) utilized by the humans in Fire With Fire and Trial by Fire actually incorporates a number of these concepts, and has quite specific precursor conditions which must be met. And collective, all that determines the economics of interstellar travel. For instance, the only way to generate enough energy, all at once, to enter a “shift,” is to use anti-matter. That necessitated that I determine how much antimatter costs, which in turn necessitated I determine how it was made, which in turn indicated the kinds of project costs that had to be sunk into those facilities. This calculation then re-expands to determine other day-to-day strategic realities of that future Earth, namely: how much antimatter is in reserve at any one time? Who has access to what facilities for producing it, at what rate? How do the differing levels of availability impact each polity’s ability to project power, colonize, trade, explore?

However, before I could carve all this in stone, I needed to get an expert to review my speculative interstellar drive and the underlying concepts. Enter my buddy, Ian Tregillis, who just happens to be a senior high-energy physicist with the Inertial Fusion lab at Los Alamos. His review was invaluable, so much so that you will find that he is one of the persons thanked in the dedication to Fire With Fire.

DD: Your novel Fire with Fire won the 2014 Compton Crook Award for “the best first novel in the genre published during the previous year” awarded by the Baltimore Science Fiction Society, Inc. The Nebula Awards are voted on by active members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc. Eight novels competed as finalist nominees for the 2013 Nebula, including your novel Fire with Fire. What features of Fire with Fire do you feel might have contributed to the novel’s recognition?

CEG: Good grief! That’s the kind of question every author wants to be asked—until they see it in black and white and realize that it is a tar pit of potentially self-congratulatory preening! So I will briefly say that I hope (“believe” would be too strong and arrogant a word) that Fire With Fire struck a variety of readers as well-crafted starting at the micro-level of prose right up through plotting, pace, world-building, and concept. That said, there are still a lot of both genre and non-genre Easter Eggs in it that have not been found. I suspect this may be because, on the surface, the novel strongly invites readers to see it as an SF interstellar thriller. Which is certainly the intent. But I am dedicated to the concept of layered works, of writing books that reward subsequent readings in part because a reader can hope to detect new components that might have been rushed past the first time (which is a good thing, if that signifies if I’ve succeeded in creating a break-neck pace). For instance, in Fire With Fire, there is a very direct homage to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Specifically, there’s a line in a fight scene that is lifted, almost verbatim, from something that Faulkner’s character Dewey Dell observes. Similarly, I think that the Homeric codenaming scheme may not have received as much symbolic consideration as it might warrant.

But ultimately, I do not believe these literary grace-notes are why the book was nominated for the Nebula (although I hope that they might have struck a few harmonic chords in the sensibilities of my fellow authors). Rather, I think the nomination has much to do with being the right book at the right place at the right time. There was a great diversity of taste and of subgenre affinities evident in this year’s slate of Nebula finalist novels. I consider that a very good thing, and a welcome reminder that despite some of the culture wars that seem to distemper and polarize small (if vocal) elements of our community on occasion, that diverse tastes and readerships still prevail among the members of the SFWA. Fire With Fire is an attempt to combine several genres that (I think) are naturally compatible—hard sf, political thriller, action novel—while reinvigorating a number of tropes that have been with us for a very long time: first contact, the difficulties of achieving human unity in the face of a common threat, the uncertainty of our place in the cosmos. Fire With Fire was pretty much the only one of the Nebula finalists which focused on those features, and I think it became the novel of choice for those of my fellow-authors whose tastes run in those directions. Not a very complicated or penetrating explanation for its place on the finalist ballot, I suppose, but then again, I think its presence there was not the result of any particularly complicated set of phenomena.

DD: What aspects of Trial by Fire might be considered as reprising the same standards recognized in Fire with Fire?

CEG: A reader will find the same in-depth and immersive world-building, the same level of detail and complexity (where the story warrants that detail and complexity), the same internal consistency and physical accountability, and (I hope) the same energetic dialog and the same clean and (I hope) visually-evocative prose. You will certainly find the same rapid pace and high-stakes action—just a lot more of it! Where Fire With Fire was very much a novel with a narrowly focused perspective—there were several point of view characters, but it was the fundamentally the story of Caine Riordan’s awakening into a brave new world—Trial By Fire is far more multi-focal. Caine, and many of his fellow-travelers, are once again at the center of the action and story development, but this second novel features an ensemble cast with multiple exosapient viewpoints. This is because, ultimately, it is not the story of a single person, but of our entire species and its fight for survival and also self-discovery. Fire With Fire sets forth the challenges of humanity’s first step into a broader, interstellar ocean. Trial By Fire follows the rather cataclysmic ripples which radiate outward from that step, which turns out to have been anything but a small step for (hu)mankind.

DD: What works do you have in progress that we might expect to see released in the next year or so? What might their jacket blurbs or log lines proclaim?

CEG: The novel I’m working on right now (with Steve White) is the next in the Starfire series, Imperative. For fans of that series, I think the best (if cryptic) tag line I can give is, “Things are about to get messy—messier than they’ve ever been.” I suspect the novel after that will be the third in the Tales of the Terran Republic, tentatively titled Raising Caine. I’m setting out to rejuvenate and reapproach the “crash-landing on alien world” trope, but it’s going to have some exosapient—and human— twists that make it a very modern, even timely, hard sf novel. And of course you’ll find the same action, skull-duggery, and surprises that make the series so much fun for me to write. Also next year, or possibly early in 2016, the next (and probably last) novel in the Ring of Fire/1632’s “Papal Arc” will come out, entitled 1636: The Vatican Sanction. This is going to be a much shorter, tighter book that focuses on dangerous underside of Pope Urban’s convocation of many religious factions to consider some of the perspectives articulated in the uptime-delivered “Vatican II” documents. That’s the framing event—but the real action is in the dangerous shadows, which very much follows in the narrative tradition (and pattern) set by Seven Days in May.

DD: In 2013, Elitist Book Reviews called you “a new SF author worth following” even though you’ve been writing science fiction and alternate history for some years, including with  authors  Steve White and Eric Flint. How did your earlier writing efforts, including collaborative writing in other authors’ worlds, hone your individual craft?

CEG: Writing in gaming taught me how to be a good guest in another person’s world, how to combine compliance with rules and yet innovate within them. It also taught me how to recognize the characteristics of a great collaborative partner and also some of the danger signs of folks who don’t play well with others in the same narrative world. I have nothing against folks who find collaboration a bad fit: rather, I applaud those who know it in advance, and can thereby give everyone on the project a fair estimate of where they will and won’t encounter difficulties.

Writing in television and film taught me to be very fluid with plot, story, and structure. Screenplays are supremely collaborative enterprises, and the focus on short arcs, economy of action and dialog, and visualization of setting taught me lessons that I use every day when I sit down to write fiction. It also gave me what I consider some of the best models for how to write action. The lessons about brief shots edited into a tight, hard-hitting sequence can be directly applied to prose. The same goes for how to best switch between points of view, and how to create a sense of place through highly selective but purposive imagery.

Writing about writing—which is one of the things I did as an academic—was instructive, too, although my approach to it was often viewed askance by other, more theoretically-minded professors. I always approached fiction as a writer, not a scholar or critic, which was often well-received outside the immediate confines of theoretically-minded colleagues. And it gave me the opportunity to think long and hard—and in detail—about the various advantages and limitations of different styles, narrative voices, points of view, lexical choices, and a whole lot more.

DD: You are truly a Renaissance man in your studies and interests.  What fields of inquiry would you suggest to someone who aspires to be an author, especially one of speculative fiction? Which of your own pursuits have you found the most valuable to your writing career?

CEG: I’m a Renaissance Man? Gee, I don’t feel like I am, but for sake of argument (and being a cooperative interview subject) I will go along with that somewhat dubious proposition! I’m not sure there are any fields of inquiry that are so strongly advantageous that they constitute “must do’s.” Obviously, considerable work in writing—in a variety of disciplines, and always with rigorous assessment—are pretty valuable in terms of putting together a basic authorial toolkit. Coursework in these areas are not essential by any means, but good writing study (however it occurs) prepares one for the unavoidable task of pitiless rewriting, revision, and reconception of every component in a story—and those ARE essential skills for a writer to have. So while I don’t think it’s necessary to go to school to gain such abilities, I do think it’s extremely helpful to have the input of a more accomplished writer at various stages of one’s development.

Beyond that, I would suggest a few perspectives or habits to new or journeyman writers. First, you will always be learning. I have found—in this field and every other into which I have ventured—that the more I learn, the more I realize I have yet to learn. It is a tired old axiom, but it probably endures because it’s also so damnedly true.

Secondly, travel—in your mind, if you cannot do so physically. I think a mind forever voyaging is a mind rich with a potential for life-long authorial inspiration and vision. Cultivate wide interests without diving down the rabbit hole of specialization in too many. This is a very important warning, because the authorial mind is a naturally inquisitive one, but it is therefore also the kind that most easily derails itself into a path of eternal preparation to write, rather than actually writing

Thirdly, approach every day, every situation, as grist for the authorial mill. To paraphrase and combine some wise writers (and philosophers), if it concerns humankind, then it concerns me, for my subject is nothing less than the whole of our species, and being of that species, there can be nothing in it that is not, in some part, within me also. I am not saying that we should “approve” of everything—absolutely not! But we must be willing to embrace things, even distasteful things, enough to understand them. For what an author does not understand, s/he cannot write about with any certainty of accuracy or balance.

DD: You have praised your publisher Baen Books and its chief Toni Weisskopf for both business practices and creative acumen. What qualities would you recommend that an author value in a potential publisher?

CEG: Let me start by telling you the one quality I value most in my publisher, Tony Weisskopf of Baen: integrity. And here’s why: if you think about what integrity is, it both subsumes and assumes a variety of what I will call “precursor virtues.” Toni will probably blanch and squirm as I apply the word “virtues” to what she considers just plain good practice and fair dealing but, you see, I worked in television. And in cut throat academic environments. So for me, there is nothing “plain” about “good” practice and “fair” dealing.

Let me give you one example that most exemplifies doing business with Toni and Baen: if you come to an agreement with her about something (e.g. her buying your book), that agreement—that hand-shake level commitment—is utterly and invariably ironclad. Her word is her bond and she lives by that virtue (yes, I consider it a virtue, a cardinal one and essential to the construction and continuance of any healthy society, in fact). I trust her handshake more than I trust a long, detailed, legally-pored-over contract. Remember, I worked in TV. There, contracts were often simply obstructions to be removed, recast, reinterpreted, or ignored. They were statements of provisional intent, not unflinching commitment. Having lived and worked in that world, I cannot tell you how refreshing and personally cheering it is to work with Toni in this one.

Editorial skill, professional savvy, adequate track record, marketing and promotion, fair recompense: all these are extremely important. But integrity is the foundation upon which all of them rest—and if that foundation is weak, so too will these other properties. So consider a publisher the way you’d consider a house. Look at the foundation first. If it’s not rock solid, move on.

Want to know more? Explore his worlds at Charles E. Gannon.

Or meet Chuck Gannon in person at Dragon Con:

  • Signing SFWA table Fri 5:30-6PM Exhibit level (Hy)
  • “First Contact: Make & Create Aliens Fri 8:30PM Embassy A-B (Hy)
  • Signing Larry Smith’s Booksellers Sat 11:30AM-12:30PM Exhibit booths 103, 104, 105
  • “The Big Stuff” Sat 1PM Embassy A-B (Hy)
  • “Baen Books Slide Show and Prize Patrol” Sat 2:30PM Regency V (Hy)
  • “The Pen and the Sword: Arming the Written Word” Sat 4PM Hanover C-E (Hy)
  • “Politics in Sci-fi” Sat 5:30PM Regency V (Hy)
  • Autograph Sun 10AM International Hall South (M)
  • Reading Sun 2:30PM Roswell (Hy)
  • Signing The Missing Volume Sun 4-5PM, Exhibit 328, 329, 300
  • Signing SFWA table Sun 6-6:30PM Exhibit level (Hy)

Author of the article

Amy L. Herring (Louise Herring-Jones) writes speculative fiction, with a preference for historical fantasy and alternate mystery. Her stories, appearing in fourteen anthologies, include “The Poulterer’s Tale” in God Bless Us, Every One—Christmas Carols beyond Dickens (Voodoo Rumors Media, 2019). Amy is a NaNoWriMo co-municipal liaison. She also coordinates the Huntsville (Alabama) Literary Association’s writers’ group. Visit her online at http://www.louiseherring-jones.com.