INTERVIEW: Michael A. Stackpole Talks About Military SF, the eBook Revolution and Conan the Barbarian
We exchanged a few words with author Michael A. Stackpole recently. His recent novel, At The Queen’s Command, is an alternate-history adventure set amongst a fantastical French and Indian War, and is the beginning of a trilogy called The Crown Colonies. Our review for the book can be found here.
SF Signal: First off, thank you for coming to talk with us. Your recently released novel is At The Queen’s Command, an alternate history that draws on American colonial history. You’ve previously done tie-in space opera and sword and sorcery fiction: what’s the inspiration behind the Crown Colony books?
Michael Stackpole: My degree is in history, and history has been a passion of mine since I was in high school. The American Colonial period is one I find especially fascinating because of the political dynamics and the difficulties of communicating with the parent nations. In addition to that, modern fantasy writers have abandoned an American literary tradition: the frontier novel. Science fiction has it because of the endless possibilities of space. Westerns have it because of the vast expanse of the west, but most fantasists, in writing retread Eurocentric fantasy, just don’t deal with places where civilization ends and possibilities begin. So I wanted to play with that.
And I like guns and dragons.
SFS: I’ve seen shows such as Star Trek and Firefly referred to as a Space Western – do you think that deeper cultural experiences inform the types of fiction that we read and write, broadly speaking?
MS: Absolutely. Folklorists break stories down into building-blocks called motifs. Westerns have a recognizable set of them, and stories about King Arthur and Robin Hood or many samurai legends all share the same ones. Joseph Campbell is dealing with motifs when he talks about the Hero with a Thousand Faces. I remember going to the Smithsonian’s Star Wars exhibit, which they organized around Campbell’s “hero’s journey.” This was a month before I, Jedi came out. I looked at the exhibits and realized that I, Jedi had all the Campbell motifs covered, just in a radically different order. Most writers have forgotten about motifs–or never knew about them–so they don’t use them well. Dealing with the frontier, for example, is a motif that was common in early American literature and westerns and one I get to use in this series.
SFS: When it comes to your novels being considered fantasy, there’s still a large degree of science to them, within the magic that’s utilized by the characters – couldn’t this book be considered a type of revolutionary-era science fiction novel?
MS: I suppose it could be seen a science fiction from a certain point of view, though I really like Alan Dean Foster’s simple SF/Fantasy dichotomy. He says SF is comprised of tales of the possible, whereas fantasy are stories of the impossible. Now, if we took the magick out for shooting guns, and used some odd galvano-crystalline implants that let the pasmorte function, keep the Ice Age megafauna and explained dragons away as part of that, we’d be closer to science fiction. But we’d lose the Winding Path and other more fantastic elements which is a very proud part of the American Literary tradition.
SFS: where do you see the breakdown of science fiction and fantasy, with that in mind? Is it the methods used to explore the unknown (i.e. examining the properties of magic as if they were a force of nature, much as scientists do now?) or is there some inherent mystery that keeps science looking that creates fantasy?
MS: Fantasy stories inherently involve magick, but that doesn’t mean you can’t apply the scientific method to trying to learn now to do it better. Face it, postulating a result, preparing an experiment to attain that result, assessing the results and confirming with a repeat of the experiment has to be how magick developed (unless just handed down by some god).
The real trick for me is that I really detest flash-bang magick systems that have no rules and let wizards succeed or fail simply by pulling some spell out of their pocket. Magic is a tool, just like a screwdriver. Dr. Who aside, screwdrivers only do certain things. I want to know what they can do, so I can figure out clever ways for characters to employ them. That’s likely the gamer in me, because clever is what is fun.
SFS: Why pick a period that’s roughly analog to the French and Indian War (or the Seven Years War, if you prefer), rather than something more recognizable, such as the American War for Independence?
MS: When you look at American Colonial history, the French and Indian War is easily the starting point for the Revolution. It did two things: it showed Americans that the dangers they’d left behind in Europe could still reach out and touch them. Second, they realized that if they weren’t able to defend themselves, they were going to be in a world of hurt in the future. Add to that fact that the French and Indian War bankrupted England, which caused England to turn around and tax (or try to tax) the internal commerce of American (and no one liked taxes then any more than they do now); starting at that point in history was pretty much required. In addition to all that, starting at the French and Indian war gave me a point where I could take a character like Owen Strake, and begin his journey from loyal servant of the crown to leader within the Independence movement–a journey shared by other individuals in history.
SFS: Having read through the book, it’s clear that there are some parallels to how things actually turned out. Why change up the names of locations, instead of using something like France or England?
MS: The decision to change names was not easily arrived at–and you should see the list of names that got rejected in the planning stages. The reason I didn’t go with direct analogs is that I didn’t want to be trapped by history. I didn’t want readers thinking, “Oh, George Washington never would have done that.” I mean, hey, I have a history degree. I read tons of histories and biographies. I know that historians disagree about things. It’s my job, whether writing a historical novel, or writing fantasy, to make the decisions that make for a good story.
More importantly, that time in history is one of great energy and great possibility. If I retained historical names, I’d get locked into the exact timeline as history; and yet most folks don’t understand that technology was in a great state of flux back then. For example, rifles, as opposed to smooth-bore muskets; were right on the cusp of adoption. They would revolutionize warfare, and could have in that era. The advancements made a generation hence weren’t because the people were smarter, it was just because their means to apply technology and communication got a bit better. People had developed breech-loading cannons almost two centuries before the Revolution, and there was no good reason why they weren’t fully developed or deployed in that time.
So, I made the changes to avoid some obvious handcuffs which, if anyone thinks about it, I’d have to avoid anyway since the introduction of magick tosses everything into a cocked hat. Well, that, and dragons.
SFS: So with this past that you’ve created in mind, how do you think America would turn out? Is there any particular lessons from both histories that are inherently present when we’re talking about the formation of a rather spectacular nation?
MS: I really haven’t given much thought as to where Mystria would be ten or forty years down the line. I do think having a young nation, full of resources, creates a powerful dynamic which will be a blast to explore. What happens when the Strake and Woods expedition reaches the west coast and finds a thriving set of Han Colonies up and down that coast? (The fact that my basic map doesn’t even have that coast drawn on it not withstanding.) There are a few hurdles to get over before that point, but the obvious one to tackle after a War of Independence is the rise of a Napoleon and what that will mean to the world.
Aside from the strictly historical, what attracted me to this era was that it provided me an arena to deal with questions about freedom and responsibility, what constitutes a living creature and a dead one, religious issues and freedom of worship; many of the early dynamics which still manifest themselves today. It would be easy to, say, toss in an analog of the Westboro Baptist Church and wipe them out (and very cathartic), but the greater prize is having a place to get into their minds and explore.
SFS: Your books can be described as a sort of military fantasy: how do you draw upon real military history when going into your own worlds?
MS: Without a doubt. I read a lot of military history and enjoy it. I also come from a wargaming background, so it’s pretty much a compulsion to fight old battles over and over again. I also think it’s important to get the details right, since so much of warfare has been sanitized. Heck, America’s been at war now for almost a decade and the only stories we see about the wounded are hopeful ones where we see guys who lost limbs wanting to go back and fight, or learning how to ski on a leg and a half? That’s just not right. And warfare back in the days of lesser technology wasn’t any less nasty. So, I get to put some of that in there to remind folks that wars aren’t just box scores.
SFS: Do you think that we’re set to see more interest in military speculative fiction because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
MS: In a very practical sense, yes, since a lot of our troops read military SF. I think that level of interest, however, is an outgrowth of techno-thrillers and the expansion of that market segment back in the 1980-90’s. When the techno-thriller market collapsed, the readers didn’t go away, they just shifted over to MilSF, which is really the same thing plus FTL and aliens that can be hard to kill. David Weber’s Honor Harrington series is, after all, Horatio Hornblower in space. David does it very well, but he’s not the first author to bring those historicals forward; and Hornblower clearly predates techno-thrillers, proving the basic appeal of those stories.
What I’ll find interesting is waiting to see if, ten to twenty years from now, we have novels coming out about the experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. We saw a very limited amount of that after Viet Nam. That will be an attempt by participants to put the war in some perspective. I don’t think current MilSF really does that, simply because not enough time has passed and the belief, mistaken or otherwise, that preventing an Afghan Civil War is somehow keeping us safe in the US. This gives most readers and writers a vested interest in supporting that meme; so there’s really no opening for a solid examination of what’s going on there in speculative fiction or otherwise.
SFS: Zombies are big over the past couple of years, and everyone is familiar with them, but you’ve gone in a very different style when it comes to the ones that appear in this book – what is your reasoning behind that?
MS: Zombis are generally seen as bogey-men, eating all the brains they can find. Historically, France suffered in the new world from a lack of people. If magick existed, and it was possible to reanimate people to varying degrees of utility, folks would have done it. I also had to think about what zombis were and would be within the magick system I set up. I liked the idea of having some mindless creatures that were little more than beasts of burden; and then a high-functioning zombi like Quarante-neuf; who could appear to be human in almost every aspect, and was self aware enough to question whether or not his being reanimated robbed him of humanity. That all makes for fun stories.
SFS: How do you think the book will be received in international markets that might not be as familiar with, or might have different views of, how the conflict turned out?
MS: That’s a good question. German publishers bought the series immediately–Command is the first of three–and there are characters from analogs of some of the German states in the book. I suspect that the acceptance elsewhere will depend on a couple of things. If the books are marketed strongly as alternate history, they might hesitate. If they are marketed as fantasy with guns, dragons and zombis, we could have an entirely different reaction. Obviously I’m hoping that the themes of independence and self-determination will have relevance for everyone.
SFS: At The Queen’s Command was set in a largely sympathetic view towards the colonists (from Strake and several other European characters) – are some of your other books going to play with this viewpoint a bit, or even going as far as to switch things up from another point of view?
MS: It’s been my feeling for a long time that the most interesting story that can be told about people interacting with a corrupt political system involves when they notice the corruption, how they interact with it, and when they make the conscious decision to join with it or rebel against it. In short, what does it take to get someone to the point where they refuse to be manipulated any more. Any character in this series is going to be forced into dealing with that sort of situation in one way or another.
This does not mean, however, that the colonists will all be saints, and the overlords will be morons. Lord Rivendell is largely portrayed as a grasping political creature with no understanding of warfare, no respect for the colonists and a drive for power that makes him willfully blind to the world’s reality. He’s pretty much John Burgoyne, though I had to tone Burgoyne’s antics down. On the other hand, Owen’s uncle, Duke Deathridge, is about as nasty a piece of work as anyone wants to see on the other side of the battlefield. He’s very competent. As the saga continues, other characters will arise and will know success and failure.
One thing I decided I never wanted to do, at least not in the initial set of stories and books, is to write any part of the story from a point of view which is not in Mystria. I want to keep that distance from the Old World. Communication is the key to winning a revolution (hello Egypt), so that’s an element I’ll preserve. But you’ll see things from the point of view of non-colonists, beginning in the second book.
SFS: What’s coming up next in the Crown Colonies? Any plans for what comes after that?
MS: As I noted above, the original contract is for three books. I’m working on Of Limited Loyalty now, and the third novel is An Ungrateful Rabble. You can see from the titles that the Crown’s opinion of the Colonists is trending negative. While the original deal was for three novels, I designed the world and situation to allow me to set a lot of different stories. In addition to the novels, I’ve got a number of novellas outlined and started which allow me to expand the world and characters’ backgrounds, or illuminate incidents from the past. This world is one I can play in for a long time, and I’m really looking forward to that–especially in this age of the digital revolution.
SFS: That’s really fascinating. Does this digital revolution allow you different freedoms than before when it comes to expanding your own works? Were novellas such as the ones that you’re thinking about really marketable to any magazines or other print sources, or does this completely open up what authors can write about?
MS: I’m not the first author to notice that this is the arrival of a golden era for writers. We can explore our worlds and characters in ways, as you suggest in your question, that haven’t been open to us since the days of the pulp magazines. Because of some projects, and as research into ways we can approach fiction, I’ve been dipping back into the stories from the 1890s up through the 1950s. If Robert E. Howard were writing today, we’d never have heard of Conan because he only wrote one Conan novel in his life, and that was a paltry 75,000 words long. Right now traditional publishing doesn’t have a use for anything that doesn’t fit into the 100,000 word long novel box; but readers have a voracious appetite for it. Shorter and medium-length works will be coming back with a vengeance.
More importantly, writers get to return to being what we have always been: entertainers. Sure, stories can deal with lofty themes that illuminate the human condition; but they can do that in short forms as well as massive novels. Readers get to vote directly with dollars and with their opinions because of the net. Every author’s website becomes his living room, and readers can interact with him there, asking questions, letting him know what they’d like to see more of. And the digital age makes it so much easier to interact with other authors, sharing things back and forth.
And my remark about the living room is never more true than when you look at being able to do a Twitter #hashtag chat in real time; or when you use something like Second Life where folks can come and actually hear an author doing a reading. I hold weekly office hours in Second Life, where readers and writers can come into one location, as questions about stories and their writing, hear about what’s going on in the industry and all. And I do readings there, affording folks a chance that they only get if I come to a convention near them.
Contrast that with Robert E. Howard living in the middle of nowhere in Texas and only being able to interact with his fans and peers by snail-mail or when someone like E. Hoffman Price decided to drive to Cross Plains to meet him. Heck, I’ve had conversations in Second Life about some of my books with people who’ve read them in translations I didn’t even know had been made.
It is an incredible time to be a writer, and is only going to get better.
SFS: Shifting gears a little: you were the first author with a specific app in the Apple Store for their work. Where do you see the world of books going in this environment?
MS: It really is a revolution, and that is not restricted to interactions with the audience. Back in the early 1980s, when I started, a short story would make the rounds and, if I was lucky, might get purchased and published within a year to 18 months from the time I wrote it. Now an author can turn out a story and almost immediately have it for sale on Amazon, B&N and their own website. It’s nothing short of amazing. Having your own inventory and adding to it so you’re making money monthly means that the old “advances against royalties” system becomes obsolete. Authors no longer have to mortgage the future to pay for today. An author who is serious about writing and sharing stories (or in the vulgar, “grinding out inventory”) can begin to make a decent return on a part-time job, which will free them to make the transition to full time with less risk and greater chances of success.
SFS: What about the editorial input here? In a recent podcast here, author Cathrynne Valente said to get ready for the slushpile to come to audiences near you: the market is already saturated with books about every conceivable topic, couldn’t the ability for any aspiring author without the proper skill set push some readers away?
MS: That’s a canard that authors who’ve not studied the situation parrot because that’s what publishers are telling them. Publishers believe that a) they have a lock on editors and b) that their imprimatur and promotion will make authors rise above the roiling mass. First off, any writer can hire the same freelance editors that New York uses. Second, publishers are not brand names, and when was the last time you saw a first novel (or second, third, fifth….) that wasn’t already a bestseller get any sort of promotion. Doesn’t happen, hasn’t happened for years; and with the advent of the web, publishers have been pushing all that promotional stuff off on writers to do anyway.
Here’s the trick to rising above in the digital age: sampling. We know sampling works because every business there is uses it to bring new customers in. Amazon and every other ebook retailer provides buyers the opportunity to download a sample of a book before they buy it. If a reader does not read a sample and buys a lemon, that’s on the buyer.
Authors, then, need to make samples of their work available on their websites. With my digital-original novel In Hero Years…I’m Dead I posted the first three chapters. I’ve figured that if folks don’t want to buy the book after reading them, they’d not have liked the book anyway. In addition, providing new material in terms of essays or short stories or novellas and sneak peeks is the perfect way for authors to alert readers as to what is coming out. This is all stuff we should have been doing all the way along and now, since we can sell directly to customers, we reap the benefit of these efforts more quickly.
SFS: Is there a place for big publishers from here on out?
MS: I prefer to refer to them as traditional publishers instead of big because I think they’ll be getting smaller, and it’s the publishers’ desire to cling to the old business model that causes problems, no matter their size. What I believe will happen is that within the next three years digital rights will be severed from paper rights (much as paperback rights were severed from hardback rights just after World War II). Authors will make their work available digitally first, and then paper publishers will buy the rights to do physical copies of successful books. Drawing the line on what constitutes success here isn’t going to be easy because of the shrinking number of bookstores. I’m also hopeful that a return of smaller, independent booksellers will make those physical books available, but that’s a very difficult road to travel.
MS: More important than that was Barnes & Noble’s announcement at the end of February that they had reached their ebook sales goal for 2014. The ebook market has grown so fast that they’ve exceeded expectations by three years. I’ve personally seen digital sales of my work go from $0 six years ago, to being able to pay my mortgage and more each month. That’s a heck of a return on investment for time I spent five, ten or twenty years ago. As more and more people get comfortable reading off smart phones and as the price of dedicated readers continues to fall, this market will burgeon. I’m really looking at print books as being advertising for folks to come to my website and buy things direct. It is getting to the point where online sales are providing income that allows me to indulge in the hobby of writing for the dead-tree industry.
In the near future we will see further contraction of the print marketplace. Bookstores will go away, so finding books will become more difficult. This will result in a number of things. Expect to see a Netflix-style lending library service pop up. It won’t live long, but someone will try it. Expect to see bookstores shrink and become best-seller boutiques, with ebooks being used to take care of a lot of midlist and backlist sales. Expect to see the rise (short-lived though it will be) of print on demand services in mall stores, where you order a book before you arrive at the mall, and they print it for you in the back room.
You’ll also see small and specialty presses arising to create stunning deluxe versions of books that well do as ebooks. These limited-edition souvenir copies of books will be the things you buy to put on your shelves and if the publishers are smart, the covers will have a small pocket for holding the SD card that has the book’s digital edition on it.
All of those physical outlets, however, will be minor things compared to the ebook market because the ebook market has one thing over them all: it allowed readers to get what they want now. It’s instant gratification, and the price may be lower. It is that convenience which is what drives the ebook market and until physical books can compete with that, it will lose to the ebook revolution.
SFS: You’ve made a big splash and gained considerable recognition with some of your tie-in work, such as your X-Wing and Battletech books. Will you be returning to tie-in fiction in the future or revisiting old playgrounds?
MS: I’m just finishing up my latest tie-in project, the novelization for the Conan the Barbarian movie which will be out in August, 2011. I’m talking with a number of other companies about doing work in their universes. The two factors I look at when picking projects are 1) how much the property interests me and 2) whether or not it has an audience/market share which I can tap to buy my other books. Because of the digital revolution, I have a choice: either I work for someone else at a tiny percentage, or I work for myself, turning out independent books like my In Hero Years…I’m Dead. Since the payoff for the latter is much better, and the process is quicker; any tie-in properties will have to be things I really love with a huge audience. (Hence my working in the Conan universe. )
Many, many thanks to Mike for talking with us!
Filed under: Interviews
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