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Interview with Jean Johnson [Plus: ‘Space Battles’ Story Excerpt!]

Recent Philip K. Dick Award nominee Jean Johnson co-headlined a new anthology edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt called Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6, writing in her Theirs Not To Reason Why military science fiction universe from which a series of novels are being released by Ace. A Soldier’s Duty came out last year and An Officer’s Duty will be out in July. “It’s Not A Game” from the Space Grunts: Full-Throttle Space Tales #3 anthology was also set in this universe. She’s also the author of The Sword, The Wolf, The Cat and The Mage, amongst other bestselling fantasy romances. To check out more of her works, visit her at

Jean wishes to acknowledge everyone who has given support to their loved ones in the military, as well as to the soldiers themselves for serving.

BTS: How did you find out about the Space Battles anthology and what made you decide to submit?

Jean Johnson: I was invited back to submit again, which was an honor. I’d originally been published before by Flying Pen Press in #3, Space Grunts, with a story set in the same universe as this one. As for how I got into Space Grunts… You know, I can’t remember? I think it was through a friend of a friend.

BTS: So you’ve had stories in a number of anthologies but this is your second for Flying Pen Press, correct?

JJ: It’s my second with Flying Pen. I’d love to be asked back for a third, and more. Their people are fun to work with. I’ve also been included in other multi-author anthologies. I actually like being squeezed in next to other good stories; it’s like offering the readers the sampler plate at a restaurant, filled with a wide variety of possible new favorites. If I can get one of my readers interested in another author’s work, that’s wonderful, and if the can do the same, even better. This business doesn’t have to be cutthroat, because readers are always looking for new stories to read.

BTS: Tell us a little about “The Joystick War”. What’s it about? Where’d this particular idea come from?

JJ: “The Joystick War” is about a group of civilian salvage experts who run across some old but still functional A.I. war drones…just in time to realize the big enemy of their local section of space, the Salik, are starting up a second war with Earth. As the old saying goes, “They were in the wrong place at the wrong time; naturally, they became heroes.” Actually, this was my second submission for this particular anthology. The first one, I misunderstood the theme. It was set in the same universe, but there weren’t enough spaceships. In fact, there weren’t any; it was ground combat in a scene following around a secondary character from a situation found in my book A Soldier’s Duty. As soon as the editor explained what was missing, I realized it wouldn’t work, so I cast around for a different idea, one that would involve actual spaceships…and then hit on the idea of using remote controlled drones. Since I knew the basic timeline for the universe I was already playing in, I picked a battle which wouldn’t appear in my Theirs Not To Reason Why series, but which nonetheless would have happened.

BTS: Where’d the initial idea for the Theirs Is Not To Reason Why series come from?

JJ: The entire universe in which Theirs Not is set all originated from a series of bizarre yet cool, interconnected dreams I’d had literally over half a lifetime ago, coupled with a bunch of questions when I woke up, such as “Wow, why did I dream of that?” “I wonder why my character in the dream was in that situation?” “How did her world get messed up like that?” and so on and so forth. The bones of the universe setting have been worked over for at least twenty years, if not more. The story, too. My writing is finally good enough to tell the story with the skill it needs to tell it right. At least, I hope I’m up to it.

BTS: Your first novel in the series is up for a Philip K. Dick award. Congratulations! How many novels do you plan to write in this setting?

JJ: There are four books in Ia’s series. With luck, people will be interested in what happens three hundred years down the road…and I have a three book series outlined to explain what happens then. Naturally, my military sci-fi is a bit darker and grittier than my romance novels–and they are not romance novels by any means–but I can’t seem to keep my sense of humor suppressed for long, so there are some funny moments planned in the series. The trilogy for what happens three hundred years down the road will have a lot of that in it, even as it retains a gritty feel, but it won’t be focused on the military. And there are plenty of other stories in the history of this particular science fiction universe which I could easily tell.

BTS: Tell us about the novel story in A Soldier’s Duty?

JJ: The premise of the series is, what if you could foresee the future in all its infinite possibilities, and in viewing that future, you realized that in all but one potential scenario, your home galaxy would be destroyed? What would you do to save everything you know, long after you’d be gone and dead? The first book shows the beginning of the main character’s efforts to enter the military, because the first big obstacle in her way is an interstellar war that’ll erupt in just a few more years. Her goal is to become a leadership figure so that people will be willing to follow her precognitive missives down through the centuries.

The catch is, she cannot tell anyone in the military she can foresee all these possibilities, because if she reveals herself at the wrong moment or to the wrong people, everything will go wrong. It’s like setting up a line of dominoes in a Rube Goldberg pattern designed to take three centuries to go off. One bad misstep and the whole thing collapses. In A Soldier’s Duty, the main character Ia (pronounced EE-ya) has to enter the Space Force Marine Corps as an enlisted grunt so that she can retain the respect of her fellow groundpounders when she advances up through the ranks. In the military of the future I’ve projected, it’s believed that the best combat officers are the ones that have been in the trenches as enlisted and non-coms themselves.

BTS: You are also a paranormal romance “smut slinger”, am I right? (Wink-wink.) Tell us about those novels.

JJ: Yes indeed, I do also write paranormal romances, some of them quite smutty. I know a lot of people in the science fiction and fantasy communities are inclined to look down upon romance authors because of the “poorly written smut” stigma such novels often hold, but in my experience, the genre only matters when it comes to the author knowing how to write in that sort of setting with that sort of theme. Beyond that, if the author is a good writer, then the story is going to be well-written; if they cannot write well, then the story is going to suck, whether it’s about cowboys ridin’ the range in a western, robots trying to overthrow their corrupt meatbag masters, or twelfth century viking maidens looking for love.

In my case, I’d have to say the evidence points to me writing entertaining, good stories, because most of my romance novels have been bestsellers, and all of them consistent, stellar sellers. The biggest series I have is the eight books of the Sons of Destiny series, which is about eight mage brothers exiled to an island because of a prophecy predicting doom and gloom, should they ever fall in love. Individually, each book is a romance, covering an individual brother’s love-life, but taken as a whole, it’s one heck of a fantasy story ride. The first book in the series is called The Sword, and they are all available from Berkley in trade paperback and ebook formats, with almost all of them also available in the smaller, normal-sized mass market paperbacks. In fact, the eighth and final book in the series, The Mage, will be re-released this June in mass market as well.

My next project, after I finish writing the fourth Theirs Not book, is to revisit the Sons of Destiny universe with a new eight book series titled the Guardians of Destiny. I already have all eight books plotted out, and the first four lined up on contract with Berkley, sister company to Ace, which produces the Theirs Not series.

BTS: How’d you get started as a writer?

JJ: Ohhhh, round about when I was 8 or 9, I read a book where I didn’t like the ending, thought I could write a better one, tried it–and knew it sucked–but I enjoyed it so much, I kept doing it. Then when I was 15 or so, I realized I needed to put writing first as a life goal, because it was always my “go-to” secondary choice. You know, “I wanna be a rockstar–and a writer on the side!” or “I wanna be an astronaut–and a writer on the side!” The urge to write was always there. I just needed to put it first.

As for getting published first, I suffered the slings and paper cut arrows of many rejection letters until I gave up and started posting stuff online to see if I could get a following big enough to get me noticed. Which I eventually did while writing fan fiction for fun and parody–not for profit, just for fun and parody’s sake. The editor who read and enjoyed my fanfics offered to read a manuscript in women’s fiction, either chick lit or romance, and since I don’t write women’s literature, I grabbed the first finished romance manuscript I had, which ended up being The Sword. As you can see, I got published in romance first simply because that’s where I got my foot in the door. But I’ve always loved writing in my three favorite genres, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Romance…usually when combined with one of the first two.

BTS: Where’d your love of Science Fiction come from?

JJ: Probably my Dad. He insisted on watching Star Trek before supper with my sister and me, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica…and even took us girls down to the 70mm theater in downtown Seattle to watch Star Wars when it first came out. I was very young at the time, 5 or so, but the movie was absolutely fantastic. …It was also one of the very rare instances where they still had the human Jabba the Hutt scene. Lucas removed it from all the 35mm versions because they couldn’t figure out how to animate the Jabba figure he wanted to use and superimpose it on the stand-in actor they used, but someone forgot to remove that scene from the 70mm version of the film…which confused me to no end as a child later on, whenever Star Wars played on television, because that scene was “always missing.” But yeah, I probably have to blame Dad for my love of all things sci-fi.

BTS: What other projects do you have in the works that we can look forward to?

JJ: Well, the new fantasy romance series, Guardians of Destiny, is next on my plate. I’m also trying to squeeze in time for free serial short stories on my website, in a steampunk-style world of machines and magic, classical elements and continental exploration called the Vulland Chronicles. It’s been slow going these last few months because I had a number of deadlines leap on me like a pile of plotbunnies, but I’ve slowly been clawing my way out from under their fuzzy fury, and should be able to get back to the third story in the series soon.

If anyone wants to chat with me about “The Joystick War,” A Soldier’s Duty or the second book in the series, An Officer’s Duty, which will be released at the end of July 2012, I can be reached via Twitter at @JeanJAuthor, and my website is I don’t know who owns the .com version, but if you go there, they’ve put up a sign saying “This is not the author’s website, please use .net”…which you’ll have to admit was very nice of them. Just make sure my version ends in .net.

Here’s an excerpt from Jean’s fun story in the Space Battles anthology…

“The Joystick War”

by Jean Johnson

“Hey, Rrenn, check this out!” From the depths of the huge piles of crates lining the storage bunker, Scott Grayson’s bleached tuft of hair popped into view. He curled his arm in a broad wave, beckoning the dark-furred Solarican youth his way, then disappeared back behind the stacks.

“Clann Brother?” Moving that way, Rrenn F’sauu sniffed the air, trying to get a hint of what his Human friend had found.

“Just wait until you see!” Scott’s voice drifted back to him, echoing slightly off the high ceiling.

They were supposed to be checking these crates for salvageable goods. Most of what was stored here in this bunker beneath the rockand-methane surface of Eris was military surplus, but most of that surplus was from a century and a half ago. His legs, short but muscular, bounded him well over a pile of rummaged goods—they hadn’t bothered to turn on the deck plates, leaving them able to move huge loads easily in the dwarf planet’s lightworld gravity—and his tail swung to the side, helping him turn corners as he leap-jogged through the maze
of discarded materiél.

The extreme cold had acted as both destroy and savior of most of the goods here. Raw materials like scrap metal were usually salvageable; send it into a foundry unit to remove the oxidized bits, and get paid in cash per resulting ingot. Preserved foodstuffs-which this chamber didn’t hold, thankfully-were either reduced to dust, or covered in slow- growing biological contaminants, requiring them to be torched rather than recycled, even as composting material. Other items might be valuable for historical or informational purposes, but this was just a storage bay for military surplus parts. Most of it was outdated spare parts, age-brittled uniforms, and other odds and ends. All Rrenn could smell was dust, iron oxide, and hints of that distinct, ongoing fart-smell that said they were on a methane-iced planetoid.

The airlocks still worked, small ones for personnel to use and large ones for the crates themselves. As did most of the base’s life-support systems. Still, the survey teams had first approached the base fully suited, not ready to trust the airlocks until they had been proven viable from the inside out. That meant methane crystals had been tracked inside.

He didn’t find the scent as offensive as, say, his sister’s version of cooking, but she was back on the ship, matching the salvage inventory to pricing lists on the Nets. Thankfully, it was Scott’s father who was doing the cooking for their mixed-species crew these days.

He found the Human toward the back of the cavern, by the great lifts that functioned as oversized airlocks. Scott stood with his hands braced on his knees-a rather unbalanced-looking posture for a race born without tails-while studying a labeling package on a particularly large crate. One of forty or so similar crates, in fact. Each one stood on its own, rather than stacked like all the rest, but then each one was larger than their shared crew-cabin back on board their salvage ship, the Hunting Party S’kessa. Rrenn cocked his ears, letting the rings piercing the edges swing and clink in wordless curiosity.

“Look at that, Clan Brother,” Scott murmured, lifting his chin at the label. His lips parted in a big grin, revealing his incisors. “A real, honest-to-goodness AITX TarDro … mint condition, in-the-box, packaged with everything you need to launch it and fly.”

“Ay-ticks tarrr-droh?” Rrenn asked, peering between the box and his partner. He didn’t take offense at the Human’s bared teeth; his extended family had worked with Humans for generations, and knew the gesture meant extreme pleasure, not extreme anger. “What is annn AITX TarDro? … Are you actually drroolinng?”

Scott mock-wiped the corners of his mouth as he straightened. Turning his gaze to his salvage partner, he smirked. “I think I am, Rrenn my friend … because if anything in these boxes is still good enough to fly, we just hit a bag full of cool-colored credits.”

“Explainn,” Rrenn said, one ear flicking back in skepticism.

“I’m not completely sure what the TX stood for-I think it was just some product number designation,” Scott explained, nodding at the crate. “But the TarDro means Targeting Drone, and the AI means Artificial Intelligence.”

Both of the Solarican’s ears pulled back at that. He hissed a little, too. “That isn’t good. Smarrrt machinnery is vital to interstellarr lllife, but artificial intellligences are trrrrouble.”

“Oh, relax,” Scott dismissed, flipping his hand. “This stuff isn’t self-aware.”

“So you say,” Rrenn muttered, skeptical.

“See that inventory list? Joystick controlled,” his partner pointed out, tapping the relevant line in the fine print posted to the side of the crate. “This sort of stuff’s just a real-life vid game. In this case, AI simply means it’s capable of analyzing data, assessing risks, and managing complex flight systems with onboard programming, reducing the operating requirements to simplified control commands. It’s passive AI, not active. The real question is, does this stuff still function after being locked in its packing crate for a hundred and fifty or so years? That’s what we need to find out.”

Rrenn nodded slowly. “It’d be nnno good trrrying to sell these if we didn’t knnow their trrrue value.” He nodded more firmly, and lifted his chin at the first crate. “C’mon, let’s crrrack one opennn, and see if it’s still shipshape.”

Scott clasped his hands together and rubbed them in glee, then cast around, looking for where he had left the hoversled loaded with his toolkits. “Let’s see … those bolt seals look like they’ll need a number seventeen socket drill…”

Continued in Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 which you can purchase here.

About Bryan Thomas Schmidt (68 Articles)
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and Hugo-nominated editor of adult and children's speculative fiction. His debut novel, THE WORKER PRINCE received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club's Year's Best Science Fiction Releases. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. As book editor he is the main editor for Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta's WordFire Press where he has edited books by such luminaries as Alan Dean Foster, Tracy Hickman, Frank Herbert, Mike Resnick, Jean Rabe and more. He was also the first editor on Andy Weir's bestseller THE MARTIAN. His anthologies as editor include SHATTERED SHIELDS with co-editor Jennifer Brozek and MISSION: TOMORROW, GALACTIC GAMES (forthcoming) and LITTLE GREEN MEN--ATTACK! (forthcoming) all for Baen, SPACE BATTLES: FULL THROTTLE SPACE TALES #6, BEYOND THE SUN and RAYGUN CHRONICLES: SPACE OPERA FOR A NEW AGE. He is also coediting anthologies with Larry Correia and Jonathan Maberry set in their New York Times Bestselling Monster Hunter and Joe Ledger universes. From December 2010 to June 2015, he hosted #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer's Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter as @SFFWRTCHT.

1 Comment on Interview with Jean Johnson [Plus: ‘Space Battles’ Story Excerpt!]

  1. Thanks, Bryan!

    I recall Jean mentioning her story on the Functional Nerds podcast that you, her, and Brad Torgersen was on. The story sounds intriguing.

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