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[GUEST INTERVIEW] Frank Chadwick, Interviewed by Keith Brooke

Frank Chadwick has designed or written over one hundred games and game-related books. In the science fiction field he is probably best remembered for his work on Traveller and Space: 1889. He also writes military history and his Desert Shield Fact Book (1991) reached number one on the New York Times best-seller list. His debut print novel, How Dark The World Becomes, was released by Baen Books in January of 2013. The Forever Engine will appear in January of 2014 and he is currently working on the sequel to How Dark The World Becomes. He lives in east-central Illinois.


Keith Brooke: Published earlier this year, How Dark the World Becomes is the story of a second-generation human native of a brutal colony buried beneath the crust of the inhospitable planet Peezgtaan, and his quest for freedom – and survival. Your protagonist, Sasha Naradnyo, is described as ‘toughest thug in Crack City’ – was he fun to write?

Frank Chadwick: Sasha is enormous fun to write. (I use the present tense since I’m currently working on another piece featuring him.) He has a dry sense of humor along with a need to explore and understand who he is and how he fits into the world, but he lacks conventional boundaries. As he says himself, “. . . although I’d developed scruples, I had no compunctions.” Like all of us, he has a sense of who he is, and like most of us, he’s not really certain how much of his self-judgment is accurate. The book blurb does indeed describe him as the toughest thug in Crack City, but he’d never describe himself that way. The truth is, he’s not as tough as he acts, but he is tougher than he thinks he is.

KB: If you had to describe your novel to a potential purchaser in a couple of sentences, what would you say?

FC: Sasha Naradnyo, a tough-as-nails hood, plunges into a desperate run across much of known space to save two alien children from pursuing assassins and a sinister conspiracy. If they can survive, Sasha may find a measure of redemption, and perhaps even reset the balance of galactic power.

KB: Tell us a bit about the world of Peezgtaan and the background to Sasha’s story.

FC: The story takes place a little over a century in the future, but a lot’s happened in that time. About thirty years in our future we are contacted by a star-faring civilization, the Cottohazz, or Stellar Commonwealth. We’re invited to join and become the sixth intelligent race, but the catch is we have to honor their intellectual property laws, which stick us in permanent sixth place. What we excel at are those things which rely on creativity or a willingness to do violence. Human composers, musicians, artists, architects, and interior designers are in high demand, along with mercenaries and security personnel. We’re also excellent criminals.

Peezgtaan is a world which was eco-formed by the Varoki, the dominate race of the Cottohazz, shortly before First Contact with us. The surface of the world is airless, but the eco-form provided a low-pressure, high-oxygen atmosphere at the bottom of a very long, deep chasm (“The Crack”).

About forty years before the story opens several hundred thousand Humans were brought to Peezgtaan as contract workers with the prospect of a decent life working for a pharmaceutical firm. All of that went south and now the survivors and their offspring live in the Human Quarter of Crack City, their name for the planet’s capital. The Quarter is a desperately impoverished ghetto not unlike Human slums on a number of worlds of the Cottohazz. Sasha is the orphaned son of Ukrainian immigrants, born on Peezgtaan and forced to raise himself in the tunnels and alleyways of The Quarter. Now a grown man, he’s become a prominent member of the criminal underworld, but he has also begun to tire of the endless violence in his life.

KB: The readers’ responses to this book on the Baen website are pretty unanimous: ‘We want a sequel, and we want it now.’ The novel, while complete in itself, certainly sets up the possibility of more to come – will we be seeing Sasha again?

FC: Absolutely. I’m working on the sequel, and it’s great to write Sasha again. When I finished How Dark The World Becomes I was actually a bit melancholy not to be hanging around with him any more. But the prospect of a sequel is also intimidating. A lot of people have said, “I can’t wait for the next novel. I know it’s going to be even better than this one!” That’s very gratifying to hear, but it’s also a hefty bit of expectation to live up to, particularly considering how much of my soul I put into the first novel. But Sasha’s universe is clearly teetering on the brink of enormous change, and Sasha has a critical role to play in that.

KB: Although you’re well established in other creative areas (which we’ll come to in a moment), I believe this is your first solo novel. What made this something that you had to write as a novel, and not in some other form?

FC: That’s correct. I have a solo novella (A Prince of Mars) and two collaborative novels (Dark Side of Luna with J.T. Wilson and Conspiracy of Silence with Andy Frankham-Allen), all three of which appeared as ebooks from Untreed Reads, and all set in the Space: 1889 steampunk universe. More on that later. But How Dark The World Becomes is my first solo and first print novel, and is also the first science fiction novel I wrote – it was done several years before I wrote the ebooks for Untreed Reads.

I’d wanted to write fiction for some time, and I’ve actually been writing fairly seriously for quite a few years. I’d been writing historical fiction, had completed several unpublished novels, but it wasn’t working well. The history dominated the actions of the characters, robbing them of agency, and I knew I had to try something else. Sasha came to me in an odd way-or perhaps all good characters appear in odd-seeming ways. But in any case Sasha came to me and I sat down and he dictated a scene. That scene became the first chapter of the novel, with fairly minor revision. Everything else flowed from that. So the short answer is this was a novel because Sasha’s voice demanded it be. In a very real sense the novel is about Sasha’s voice.

KB: How Dark The World Becomes has a strong military feel to it, but also has been singled out as an example of science fiction noir. Do you like noir fiction? Who are your inspirations in that field?

FC: I love noir, and in terms of style I’d say the writers who have influenced me most come from there. Raymond Chandler is at the top of the list. Now that son of a bitch could write! John D. MacDonald is another, and for the last few years I’ve been reading a lot of James Lee Burke.

Sometimes writers read just for pleasure, just like anyone else does, but sometimes we read to devour a guy’s tricks. Michael Chabon’s noir novel, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, is one I’ve read and re-read, because there’s something for a writer to learn on almost every page. Also, it’s sort of science fiction, if you squint real hard.

KB: So are you interested in writing mysteries some time?

FC: Oddly enough, I’m not. Between the writers I mentioned before, plus Elmore Leonard and a couple others, my mystery itch is pretty well scratched. I don’t believe I have anything to say on the subject they haven’t already said better. I think writers ought to write where they still have an itch nobody’s quite managed to scratch.

KB: What will we see next from you, on the fiction front?

FC: This January (2014) Baen will release The Forever Engine, a steampunk novel set in the Space: 1889 universe, although it’s an unusual steampunk outing. The protagonist is from our world and time but rather violently shifted to this different universe. It enables the protagonist to look at this very odd Victorian world through our eyes and with our sensibilities. It also addresses the question of whether the various paraphernalia of a steampunk universe can coexist with our modern understanding of physics.

KB: What makes good steampunk? What made you want to write it?

FC: As a child of the Fifties and Sixties, I grew up with a bunch of Victorian science fiction films, all those colorful treatments of Verne and Wells. I loved them. That and a diet of Burroughs’ Barsoom books left me with an itch for this sort of fiction which has never really been scratched by anything which has come since. That’s a perfect situation for a writer – un-scratched itches generate stories which scratch them.

As to what makes “good steampunk,” tastes vary, and I would never set mine up as a standard others should follow. So I’ll say what makes for enjoyable steampunk for me: respect for the characters and for the integrity of the world. Characters are the heart of any good story, not instruments to move the plot forward. As for the world, if the author wants me to invest time and emotional commitment in a story, he or she better take it seriously. I don’t care much for stories where I feel the authors are smirking while writing them. I also don’t like it when the author water-boards my willing suspension of disbelief. If you want me to believe in a world, first you need to believe in it yourself, and then you have to convince me why I should as well. That’s your job, so do the work; don’t expect us to do it for you just because, ‘Hey, it’s steampunk,’ as if that’s enough.

Hmm. That’s more of a negative definition — what I don’t like — isn’t it? Well, I like stories which look at the friction points between technology and human values. Steampunk provides a chance to do exactly that, but from a different perspective. I also like explorations of the inescapable contradictions between living as an individual and living as a member of society — and having to do both at the same time. Victorian society, with its emphasis on conformity and place, but also with its fascination with colorful eccentrics, is almost a perfect backdrop for those sorts of stories. And I like the look of brass and mahogany.

KB: As well as writing science fiction, you also have a fine pedigree as a games writer. How did you get into that?

FC: Again as a child of the Fifties, my early years were dominated by images and remembrances of World War Two, which I’m sure is the root cause of many of my passions. I discovered war games about the same time my curiosity about “army stuff” began to mature into an interest in military history, and before long I was re-designing war games to better reflect my understanding of what was going on in the battles and campaigns (flawed as that understanding was in a sixteen-year-old). Years later, after graduate school, I established and headed up a Learning Resource Center at Illinois State University and one of the things we did there was design educational games to the instructor’s specifications. After a year of that, in 1973, several of the designers and I formed Game Designers’ Workshop, and GDW had almost a quarter-century run as a board game, role-playing and miniatures rules publisher. That was a great time.

One of the games I designed back then was a Victorian science fiction (the term steampunk didn’t really exist yet) role-playing game, Space: 1889 (it was published in 1989). That’s one I kept when GDW closed down. It’s still in print, a new German edition came out last year, and ‘The Forever Engine’ is set in that universe.

KB: What do you think the world of gaming has brought to your fiction?

FC: When you design world backgrounds for a role-playing game, they have to work. They have to follow some internal logic. Their economics and politics have to not only make sense, they have to be involved enough to generate endless adventure possibilities. The people you meet (the ‘non-player characters’) have to have a story of their own, motivations which are believable and are sufficiently involved that they complicate the lives of the players by contagion. All of that is pretty good practice for fiction world-building. You also have to write, a lot, and you have to do so clearly. All those hundreds of thousands of worlds in rules and adventures were excellent practice at just pounding the keyboard, “putting black on white.” Game designers are not intimidated by the thought of writing fifty or a sixty thousand words; we do it on a regular basis.

Now here’s the down-side: rules need to be absolutely unambiguous, absolutely clear and without any possibility of alternate interpretation. Nothing must be left to the reader’s imagination. But in fiction, you have to leave a lot for the reader to fill in, to keep her an active participant in the story-telling partnership. The habit of writing everything, and leaving nothing ambiguous, is a very hard habit to break.

KB: Is there much overlap between your gaming and fiction audiences?

FC: I think there is, although not as much as there probably once was. Older science fiction readers are fairly likely to be current or former paper (RPG or board) gamers. Younger ones are more likely to be console gamers.

KB: Are there any other genres or forms you’d like to work in?

FC: I would very much like to get back to historical fiction at some point. I just think I need to work on my writing chops a bit more before I can pull that off. It’s not that historical fiction is more demanding than science fiction; it just requires a different set of muscles, and I haven’t got them toned up yet.

As I mentioned before, I am much more comfortable in long form than short form fiction, but I’d like to start writing some decent short stories. (I’ve written a couple, but if I were an editor, I wouldn’t publish them.) My problem with short stories is that I try to write little novels, but good short stories aren’t little novels at all. So I’d like to crack that code and start writing some better short fiction. I think I’m getting close.

KB: If that potential purchaser wasn’t convinced, which other book would you recommend to them, and why?

FC: There is one science fiction novel I recommend frequently and without reservation: Alexei Panshin’s Rite of Passage. I admire this book first and foremost for Panshin’s handling of its characters. There is not a single stereotype, not a single cardboard stand-in ordered up from central casting, anywhere in sight. In a sense, there is not a single “bad guy” in the whole novel, although many people end up doing terrible things.

Beyond that, Rite of Passage is a demonstration of what science fiction is capable of. Science fiction can examine society, the individual’s place in it, the entire field of ethics, and can do so free of much of our cultural biases. When the author creates the culture, we don’t know whether it’s a “good” culture or a “bad” culture except by its deeds. That Panshin’s book can, in the end, be so thoughtful an exploration of right and wrong, and yet never fall into heavy-handed pamphleteering, is a remarkable accomplishment.

KB: Outside your writing, what do you do for relaxation and/or fun?

FC: I like jazz a lot. I still do a lot of game design work on a freelance basis, and I enjoy doing it, so it counts as fun. I take a lot of adult education courses and I run some study groups on writing and on military films (mostly World War Two, but now co-teaching one on films about the U.S. Cavalry and the Plains Indians). I don’t consider myself particularly well-read, outside of history and military affairs, and I’m working hard at making a dent in that. Right now I’m revisiting Conrad and reading a lot of short stories. I’m not very comfortable writing in short form so I’m reading them to get a better handle on the process. I’m in three writers’ groups and they’re fun – not just work. Writing itself is a lonely business, and I think writers need to hang around with other writers or they’ll start getting all twitchy, not to mention full of themselves.

Keith Brooke‘s first novel, Keepers of the Peace, appeared in 1990, since when he has published seven more adult novels, six collections, and over 70 short stories. His novel Genetopia was published by Pyr in 2006 and was their first title to receive a starred review in Publishers Weekly; The Accord, published by Solaris in 2009, received another starred PW review and was optioned for film. His most recent novel, Harmony (published in the UK as alt.human), is a big exploration of aliens, alternate history and the Fermi paradox published in 2012 by Solaris and shortlisted for the Philip K Dick Award. 2012 also saw publication of Strange Divisions and Alien Territories: the Sub-genres of Science Fiction, an academic exploration of SF from the perspectives of a dozen top authors in the field (edited by Keith Brooke, published by Palgrave Macmillan).

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