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Exclusive Interview: Elizabeth Moon on Her OPERATION ARCANA Story “Mercenary’s Honor”

SF Signal is pleased to present a series of interviews with the authors of the military fantasy anthology, Operation Arcana edited by John Joseph Adams and available now from Baen books.

Here’s what Operation Arcana is about:

In the realms of fantasy, the battlefield is where heroism comes alive, magic is unleashed, and legends are made and unmade. From the War of the Ring, Tolkien’s epic battle of good versus evil, to The Battle of the Blackwater, George R.R. Martin’s grim portrait of the horror and futility of war, these fantastical conflicts reflect our highest hopes and darkest fears, bringing us mesmerizing visions of silver spears shining in the sun and vast hordes of savage beasts who threaten to destroy all that we hold dear.

Now acclaimed editor John Joseph Adams is sounding the battle cry and sixteen of today’s top authors are reporting for duty, spinning never-before-published, spellbinding tales of military fantasy, including a Black Company story from Glen Cook, a Paksenarrion story from Elizabeth Moon, and a Shadow Ops story by Myke Cole. Within these pages you’ll also find World War I trenches cloaked in poison gas and sorcery, modern day elite special forces battling hosts of the damned, and steampunk soldiers fighting for their lives in a world torn apart by powers that defy imagination.

Featuring both grizzled veterans and fresh young recruits alike, including Tanya Huff, Simon R. Green, Carrie Vaughn, Jonathan Maberry, and Seanan McGuire, Operation Arcana is a must for any military buff or fantasy fan.

You’ll never look at war the same way again.

In this “mission debrief” Elizabeth Moon talks to Hannah Huber about her Operation Arcana story “Mercenary’s Honor”…

Elizabeth Moon was born March 7, 1945, and grew up in McAllen, Texas, graduating from McAllen High School in 1963. She has a B.A. in History from Rice University (1968) and another in Biology from the University of Texas at Austin (1975) with graduate work in Biology at the University of Texas, San Antonio.

She served in the USMC from 1968 to 1971, first at MCB Quantico and then at HQMC. She married Richard Moon, a Rice classmate and Army officer, in 1969; they moved to the small central Texas town where they still live in 1979. They have one son, born in 1983.

She started writing stories and poems as a small child; attempted first book (an illustrated biography of the family dog) at age six. Started writing science fiction in high school, but considered writing merely a sideline. First got serious about writing (as in, submitting things and actually getting money…) in the 1980s. Made first fiction sale at age forty–“Bargains” to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword & Sorceress III and “ABCs in Zero G” to Analog. Her first novel, Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, sold in 1987 and came out in 1988; it won the Compton Crook Award in 1989. Remnant Population was a Hugo nominee in 1997, and The Speed of Dark was a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and won the Nebula in 2004.

Hannah Huber: “Mercenary’s Honor” takes place in the world which you created in the Deed of Paksenarrion trilogy. For the uninitiated among our readers, would you care to expand a bit on that world and the way it works?

Elizabeth Moon: It’s a complex world with many different political entities, from mercantile city-states to a theocracy, with various kinds of feudal or semi-feudal states in between. Different cultures, different religions, different racial origins, different systems of magic, different levels of technology–and that’s just among the humans. (The non-humans don’t come into this particular story.)

“Mercenary’s Honor” is set in the continental south some decades before the events in the Deed of Paksenarrion. Here, city states are loosely connected by a sort of “common market” agreement, and hire mercenaries for fixed terms of employment to do whatever fighting they want done. War is more common in the south than the north, but the north provides most of the mercenary soldiers. The closest historical model would be the mercenary companies in what is now northern Italy (then warring city states) in the 13th-14th centuries. Three of the characters in this story appear in the novels, older and wiser.

HH: You set up a traditional fantasy scenario at the beginning of “Mercenary’s Honor”, and then you upend it in a way both satisfying and surprisingly humorous. What would your advice be to other writers who want to break the rules of the genre or defy audience expectations? How can they do so effectively?

EM: Find a way to turn the tables while still fulfilling the promise of the genre–it’s not about breaking rules, but surprising (without cheating) the reader. It’s like doing floor gymnastics inside the square or longsword fighting in the circle: the double back flip or the clever attack combination is more impressive that way, in a confined space, than in a 40 acre field. Then all depends on the characters. Give them enough depth, enough complexity, so that their internal and external sources of conflict result in unexpected behaviors that are still within the parameters of their character, culture, and situation.

As a way of getting there, put diverse characters–different in several ways, such as age, experience, immediate or long-term goals–into a situation where they don’t think the conventional action forwards their goals. Write it from all the relevant viewpoints–they want to avoid X, the obvious, so what are they thinking instead? Then choose the one viewpoint that allows the story to be as compact as possible (if writing a short story) or show multiple viewpoints if you wish and have the room to do so.

The spirit of the mercenary-soldier social structure – one shared by Ilanz Balentos and Aliam Halveric – seems to be one of nurturing, particularly of older men guiding and supporting younger ones.

Most military organizations have a culture of older soldiers (enlisted and officer both) mentoring younger ones, but in this case–when it involves men in different organizations–something more is going on as well. Although Ilanz Balentos rather likes this new young commander–formerly a rival for contracts–he has another reason for being cordial to Aliam Halveric. He wants something from him. His offers of assistance, his advice, can also be interpreted as expert manipulation of a younger, less experienced man, convincing the junior that the elder’s desire is good for both. It costs Balentos nothing he needs to take a fatherly role and acquire an ally/friend if he can. He can respect himself for helping a younger man (he has no children) and also for being clever enough to convince this obviously proud, hot-blooded northerner to do what he wants. He is both manipulative and honorable–not a combination often recognized and admired, though it exists.

HH: Is this a theme that you explore often in your work?

EM: What fascinates me is something more general: intergenerational relationships that show how people of different generations tackle the same problems with the different skillsets their experience has provided them. Mentor/mentee is only one such relationship. Typically, maturation involves shifting from a simpler, more obvious or conventional approach to dealing with a challenge, to more tactical and then to strategic thinking. Not everyone matures as they age, but the ones who do make more interesting characters to write. Each individual has his or her own individual problem-solving approach as well, so there’s never a lack of variety if you put people of different ages and backgrounds together.

HH: What sources of inspiration do you draw upon to make these men and their bonds feel so real?

EM: Direct experience (one advantage of getting older–see above) plus intentional study of human behavior, cultures, psychology, neurology, and–for military fiction–military history. This allows imagining not just what characters would do but why–the vector calculus of their motivations. Why would a commander at the height of his powers, acknowledged to have the best mercenary company in the region, be heading for retirement? And–given his abilities–how would he go about it? What does he really want? Why would a rising young commander take the contract he took with Vonja? Why would he listen to the man he was hired to defeat? What is his long-term goal?

HH: Do you feel that various speculative fiction – fantasy, science fiction, horror – are particularly well-suited to realistically address the experiences of soldiers and the wars they fight?

EM: No more than any other form of fiction. The degree of realism in any form of military fiction depends on the experience and understanding of the writer more than the genre in which it is written, and it varies widely within speculative fiction. It is, however, easier to get military fiction published in genre fiction than in literary fiction because of the subject matter. Exciting situations, actions, events, are viewed with suspicion in non-genre writing.

HH: What are some examples of soldier portrayals in any branch of speculative fiction that have caught your eye?

EM: Hard to make decisions here–lots of them have, from time to time, some for one reason and some for another. The characters feel “right” for the kind of military situation they’re in (castle guards not the same as space navy veterans), the situations make tactical/strategic sense, if set in historical times (such as alternate history) the setting feels authentic. The entire story doesn’t have to be all military for me to enjoy and remember the military parts. For instance, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Barrayar and Cetagandan military organizations and characters are often spot-on. John Hemry, writing either has himself in the JAG books, or as Jack Campbell in the Lost Fleet series handles military characters and situations masterfully and reflect his own experience. Tanya Huff’s Torin Kerr stories are excellent, as are Glen Cook’s Black Company stories, David Drake (he’s best known for the Hammer’s Slammers books, but Redliners struck me as even better.) Myke Cole has done an excellent job with his Shadow Ops books. C.J. Cherryh in multiple series, including with alien soldiers and believable cultural differences. Harry Turtledove’s well-researched alternate histories…and farher back Gordon Dickson’s Dorsai books and Tolkein’s LOTR–both written by veterans–show that experience in the work. Memorable good spec-fic portrayals of soldiers, from ancient history to far future are a target-rich environment. (So are memorable bad ones, but they can be ignored.)

HH: Are you working on an upcoming project that you’d like to tell us about?

EM: I’m working on a new Vatta book, in which Grand Admiral Vatta finds herself faced with new challenges and fewer allies.

HH: What is the appeal of military fantasy? Why do so many writers – or you yourself – write about it? Why do readers love it so much?

EM: Military fiction’s appeal–whether historical military fiction, military mystery, military science fiction, or military fantasy–is that it presents a cultural milieu, characters, and situations that many people find both novel (exotic, even) and exciting. Military fiction promises clearly defined conflict, usually both internal and external, with stark consequences for making the wrong decisions. Yet many of its most avid readers have no military experience, and find it exotic for that reason–they can imagine themselves in those situations for which they have no real-life analog: extreme danger, the need for courage, quick thinking, strength, and so on. (Readers with military experience read it differently, but with equal interest–for them it’s familiar ground, and they read to assess the action–and the writer’s competence–in light of their experience.

The specific appeal of military fantasy–beyond the military setting and the excitement of danger–is that in fantasy even those who don’t find the military itself exotic can experience an exotic setting, situations that do not exist in the real world, and characters who can accomplish what they cannot in the here and now–or fail just as spectacularly Military fantasy engages the sense of wonder, the “what if” factor.

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About Kristin Centorcelli (842 Articles)
Kristin Centorcelli is the Associate Editor at SF Signal, proprietor of My Bookish Ways, a reviewer for Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly, and has also written for Crime Fiction Lover, Criminal Element, and Mystery Scene Magazine. She has been reviewing books since late 2010, in an effort to get through a rather immense personal library, while also discussing it with whoever will willingly sit still (and some that won’t).
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