Henry V. O’Neil is the name under which award-winning mystery novelist Vincent H. O’Neil publishes his science fiction work. A graduate of West Point, he served in the US Army Infantry with the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, New York, and in the 1st Battalion (Airborne) of the 508th Infantry in Panama. He has worked as a risk manager, a marketing copywriter, and an apprentice librarian.
In 2012 he published his first military science fiction novel Glory Main (written under the name Henry V. O’Neil) which was picked up by HarperCollins in 2014 as a three-book series. The sequel Orphan Briagade is due in January.
Nick Sharps had the chance to chant with “Henry” about his highly-enjoyable series…
Nick Sharps: How did you come to be published by Harper Voyager Impulse?
Henry V. O’Neil: That’s a fantastic story. I’ve been writing for a long time, and was first published in the mystery genre by St. Martin’s Press in 2005. I branched out into horror and military science fiction, and just after I completed Glory Main HarperVoyager announced they were opening a submissions window to help launch the Impulse imprint. I submitted Glory Main, and was thrilled to learn that it had been selected as one of Impulse’s first releases and would be followed by two more books in the series.
NS: Were you able to draw from your own military service in the writing of Glory Main?
HO: Absolutely. When I was a newly-minted infantry lieutenant from West Point, I attended an extremely challenging course known as the US Army Ranger School. Ranger is roughly two months long, and they don’t feed you much or let you sleep much. The Ranger students carry heavy loads over difficult terrain, trying to perform the many tasks involved in a variety of missions while also being harassed by their graders.
That whole experience translated quite well into a story of survival like Glory Main, where I basically marooned four soldiers on an unidentified planet. With no water, no food, and no weapons, the four castaways have to walk long distances in an increasing state of deprivation and exhaustion. As they solve each of their most immediate problems, they’re confronted by new threats of mounting intensity and lethal danger. One of my classmates from the Ranger experience told me, “Your book is Ranger School in outer space!”
As a fun aside, one of the training locations in Ranger School was Dugway Proving Grounds, Utah. They don’t send the Ranger students there anymore, and I have to agree with that decision because in the winter of 1986 many parts of Dugway resembled the surface of the moon, one million years BC. The nearly-barren planet in Glory Main is loosely modeled on Dugway.
NS: Has your experience as a marketing copywriter influenced your fiction writing in any way?
HO: It really has. I’m lucky in that I work with many talented writers and designers, and their focus on word choice, impactful imagery, and ruthless brevity really helps my writing. I read all of my work out loud, because it makes a really clunky sentence jump right off the page. I then edit the clunky sentence and read it out loud again, often starting from the beginning of the paragraph. By the time I’m done writing and editing a book, I’ve probably read the whole thing out loud ten times.
NS: Glory Main defied a lot of my expectations regarding military science fiction novels. Did you set out to write something that defied the conventions or did it happen organically?
HO: It’s a little bit of both. I knew I was going to write this as a series, and so I wanted to leave myself plenty of room for future development. I’ve always been intrigued by the sci-fi stories where characters who are normally surrounded by technology are suddenly forced to function without it, and so a setting where the characters have basically nothing was very appealing.
That setup of course lent itself to a character-driven story, and so I had to have a pretty firm idea of who these people were before I started. With that said, every book I’ve written has diverged from my original concept at one point or another, and I feel it’s important to let it do that. So some of the unexpected developments in Glory Main were a bit of a surprise for me, too.
NS: Survival is a key theme of Glory Main and a constant source of dramatic tension. How long do you suspect you could survive in Lieutenant Jander’s shoes? What’s the biggest challenge presented by being stranded on an alien planet?
HO: At the beginning of the story, Lieutenant Jander Mortas is as green as it gets. He’s just arrived in the war zone, and awakens to discover he’s stranded on a largely barren planet instead of arriving at a headquarters where he’ll be assigned a platoon. He has to adapt to the situation right away, and one of the first things he has to determine is what tools are available to him.
Because they have no water, food, or weapons, the available tools are the four survivors themselves. Jander initially dismisses the potential contribution of two of them (a psychoanalyst and a mapmaker) while focusing on the survival training and combat skills of the group’s only blooded veteran, a member of the elite Spartacan Scouts. Right away Jander has to adopt a collaborative approach, convincing the scout to stay with the group because they need his talents.
But that only works until the scout and the psychoanalyst start to bicker. Jander is then put in the position of so many new lieutenants: He doesn’t know a lot, but he’s in charge and so he has to resolve conflicts like that one. He also needs to develop as a leader at an accelerated pace, with a lot at stake.
One of the keys to survival in such a situation is identifying and maximizing available resources, and Jander soon realizes that the group’s greatest resource is the group itself. Each member of the group has hidden strengths and weaknesses, and one of his greatest challenges is to bring that all together so they can function as a team.
As for my personal survival in Jander’s boots, I learned early on to do what he did—identifying what the team members can contribute and working to build them up as a team—so if I was in the same situation with the same three people I think we’d do pretty well.
NS: The Sims are an interesting enemy race, shrouded in a lot of mystery. How is it that the Sims came to be?
HO: The question “Who is making the Sims?” is the greatest mystery of the war. When Jander gets to the war zone the conflict has been raging for forty years. Mankind and the Sims are locked in combat across numerous solar systems, fighting for control of habitable planets. The Sims are very similar to humans (hence the name) but they have differences that strongly suggest they’re a designer enemy. Sims can’t form human vowels or consonants, and their speech resembles the sounds made by birds. Sims die if they come into prolonged contact with humans, so they can’t be held prisoner for long. Finally, Sims can’t reproduce—so something has to be making them.
An entity powerful enough to create the Sims is presumed to be significantly more advanced than humanity, which leads to an unpleasant question: Are the Sims meant to block humanity’s expansion across the stars, or to wipe us out?
NS: What are some of your favorite military science fiction novels? Where do you get your inspiration?
HO: I read Starship Troopers when I was a teenager, and that hooked me on the genre. I prefer the grittier stories, so John Steakley’s Armor and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War are two of my favorites. Although they might not count as military science fiction, I love just about anything written by William Gibson because of the way he can introduce future technologies and cultures as if they already exist.
I get a lot of my inspiration from reading military history non-fiction. For example, the human-Sim interaction in Glory Main draws a lot from World War Two’s Pacific theater and the Korean War. Both conflicts involved combatants who mostly didn’t speak each other’s languages, but that didn’t stop those soldiers from successfully infiltrating each other’s perimeters, slipping into opponents’ columns on the move, and even joining the other side’s chow lines.
HO: There are so many great sci-fi directors out there that it’s hard to answer that without giving a laundry list. David Twohy comes to mind because of Pitch Black, which neatly combined a desperate survival situation with lots of action and fully-formed, engaging characters. I felt Doug Liman really captured the humor and camaraderie of soldiers in Edge of Tomorrow, while also delivering a genuine science fiction action movie. And, since I’m just dreaming here, Ridley Scott because he’s Ridley Scott.
As for the cast, I’ve received some intriguing suggestions from people who’ve read the book. Most of the characters are very young, so it would be fun to build a cat of relative unknowns in their early twenties.
With that said, I believe Jay Baruchel could be a very convincing Jander, as a green lieutenant thrust into a position of leadership in a life-or-death situation. Cranther, the jaded Spartacan Scout, is a rugged individual who I could see being played by a young Jeremy Renner or a young Taye Diggs. The psychoanalyst Trent has an inner toughness and an obvious intelligence that put me in mind of Karen Gillan, Olivia Wilde, and Jennifer Lawrence. Finally, I think Brenton Thwaites would do a fine job as the pacifist mapmaker Gorman.
NS: If Glory Main were an ice cream flavor what would it be?
HO: There is no ice cream on the dirty, dangerous rock where Jander and the others are marooned. But to answer the question, it would have to be a combination of four very different flavors that come together to provide a taste that’s far superior to the individual elements by themselves.
NS: What can you tell me about Orphan Brigade: The Sim War Book Two?
HO: Because Glory Main begins with such a small cast of characters, all focused on an initial goal of finding water, I wanted to go in the opposite direction with Orphan Brigade. Both books have the decades-long, solar system-spanning, war-of-survival as a backdrop, but Orphan Brigade encompasses the whole conflict.
In Orphan Brigade the reader is introduced to Jander’s father Olech, the duplicitous Chairman of the Emergency Senate who runs the war, and Jander’s sister Ayliss, who is obsessed with finding enough dirt to bring about their father’s downfall. While the war with the Sims is still the biggest element of the story and there is plenty of action, the shaky interplanetary alliance and the vendettas among the human leadership clearly represent a threat to humanity’s survival almost as grave as the Sims—and whatever is making them.
NS: Any final words for potential readers?
HO: Don’t get too close to any of the characters.