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INTERVIEW: Charles E. Gannon on TRIAL BY FIRE, Alien Invasions, Putting the Science Into Sci-Fi, and More

Charles E. Gannon is a breakthrough rising star in science fiction with a multiple short story and novella publications in Baen anthologies, Man-Kzin Wars XIIIAnalog, and elsewhere. Gannon’s debut novel for Baen was Fire with Fire.  Gannon is coauthor with Steve White of Extremis, the latest entry in the legendary Starfire series created by David Weber. Other novels include 1635: The Papal Stakes cowritten with alternate history master, Eric Flint. A multiple Fulbright scholar, Gannon is Distinguished Professor of American Literature at St. Bonaventure University.

Charles took the time to speak with us regarding his newest release, the Nebula Award nominated Trial by Fire.


Nick Sharps: Hello Chuck, thanks for taking time out of your schedule to answer some questions for us. Let’s start with the sales pitch. Sell our readers Trial by Fire in 10 words or less. 

Charles E. Gannon: “Don’t go near this one; can’t put it down. This one’s a tidal wave.” — Jack McDevitt


NS: Trial by Fire is the sequel to Fire with Fire, one of my favorite books of 2013. Though both books are set in the same universe, focus on the same characters, and involve the same conflicts, Trial by Fire is more of a military science fiction novel whereas Fire with Fire could be classified as a futuristic spy thriller. Will you be tackling a different sub genre of sci-fi for book three? What can readers expect? 

CG: You can expect the same blend of intrigue and exploration, but this time I’m polishing up the retro-trope of crash landing on an alien planet as a gateway to an extended depiction of “deep contact”—that sustained encounter with an exosapient species in which humans find their presumed “rules” of existence turned upside down. There’s also a lot of small naval action in this one, as well (one new area of technology introduced at a time so readers aren’t wholly overwhelmed—see my answer to the next question!).

This book also ends my “labor of love” pursuing what I will call the purposive revivification of some of the great tropes of earlier SF: the first contact story (Fire With Fire), the alien invasion story (Trial By Fire), the shipwrecked with alien culture story (Raising Caine). I feel that these narrative templates have acquired a bad rap in the past two decades because, quite frankly, a lot of folks have confused the tropes with the writing styles that introduced them to us: occasionally clunky Golden Era prose, creaky with the stereotypical expectations of its time.

Now, I want to be very clear that I am not inveighing against against those earliest ventures or these tropes. In their time, they were incredibly inventive. And also, for their time, they were often at the cutting edge of the progressive notions of their cultural moments. But those moments are past, and the originals do tend to show their age (as almost all fiction will, eventually). However, as the late John Gardner wrote in On Moral Fiction (I paraphrase mightily), each epoch needs to retell timeless tales so that they retain their meaning in the new idiom of that later day. So I wanted to give these tropes new life, see what they’d look like with more modern sensibilities (both aesthetic and cultural).

NS: Trial by Fire is a science fiction book with actual science but you are able to break it down into digestible pieces. How do you strike a balance between too much and not enough when it comes to the science in science fiction? 

CG: I do this by remaining mindful of how we experience technology in our mundane existence. Much of what we have in our lives—in doctor’s offices, in our home computing and communication gadgets—would be nothing short of miraculous to someone who was brought forward in one great jump from 1965. So why am I not living in a perpetual state of sensawunda, since I was five years old in 1965, and was quite cognizant of the contents and limits of that world?

The answer is in pace and acculturation. Change only seems dramatic in retrospect. In actuality, it arrives gradually, and usually on cat’s feet, slipping into our lives bit by bit as a slow accumulation, not a raucous tidal wave. And I take this as my model for how technology and science is perceived and therefore represented by the characters in my future world: the reader might experience a sensawunda over the changes, but not the characters themselves. That means a lot of off-hand remarks about various technological and scientific aspects that I sweated over but which, for the inhabitants of the universe I’ve conjured into virtual exsitence, are as quotidian as microwaves and cell phones are to us.

That said, much of the easy accessibility of our own (and their) modern technology is a specially crafte feature, and there are situations—particularly in crises—where we have to look under the hood or break open the back cover and figure out, if we can, just how these damned wonder-tools actually work. I do this in Trial By Fire: because it is a crisis situation, lots of folks have to familiarize themselves with technology and science on a deeper, more involved level that they had to as casual users—and that’s where the details come in and seem a natural part of the scene in which they get explicated. Because: emergency!

NS: Trial by Fire features several, very different alien races. How do you go about crafting alien races that behave so uniquely in diplomacy and in warfare? 

CG: In each case, I tasked myself to define their “dawn of intelligence” story—presuming that no two would be exactly the same, and also, that the differences in how a species rises to intelligence is likely to leave a deep imprint upon the predispositions and shapes of the culture that will arise along with it. How long they’ve been around—and in space—has a major impact on their place and role in the unfolding story of humanity.

The corollary to this is to determine the specifics of their home environment and from what kind of creatures they are descended. For example, the Arat Kur are subterranean creatures that, in their past, mostly trapped surface creatures much larger and more dangerous than they were for food. Their first tool was, functionally, the concealed dead-fall pit and impalement spikes. They are cave dwellers; sight is not so important as sound. All these details shape the consciousness of the species in question, because in evolution as in everything else, form follows function. We are what our environments make us, both in the immediate sense of individuals and in the epoch-spanning sense of the ascendancy of a species to intelligence.

NS: Caine Riordan is a great character that reads like the spiritual descendant of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. Will Caine remain the primary protagonist as the series goes on?

There’s probably some Jack Ryan in Caine Riordan. It’s also not chance that his codename is Odysseus in the first book, Fire With Fire. There are also shadings of people I’ve met in the course of my work consulting for the defense/intelligence community via my involvement in Sigma.

In regards to the latter: a few readers critiqued Caine’s problem-solving and other abilities in Fire With Fire as a bit (or more) Mary Sue-ish. I can only say: I’ve worked with people who make Caine Riordan look like a piker. Frankly, what we each deem both “possible” and “realistic” (i.e.; that which arises as actual capabilities on the bell-curve of human performance) is powerfully shaped by what we see and experience personally. Caine is unusual, but is by no means unprecedented, or even extraordinary, in terms of the sigma shifts in the capabilities of many of the personnel available to, and often recruited by, intelligence (and defense) agencies and organizations.

That said, Caine was also mostly operating in or close to his areas of expertise in the first novel. In Trial By Fire, circumstances compel him to work further outside that professional and personal comfort zone, and what we see is more failures, more costly successes, and more learning/expansion of his character, both in terms of skills and breadth of perception. By entering new ground, he grows—and the growth is not always comfortable or confirmatory of his initial  beliefs and worldview. Just like real life.

In the matter of whether Caine will remain the primary protagonist. Well, yes, certainly the primary protagonist—but not the only one. Here’s what I mean by that: the series has a main line (the Caine Riordan books) but it also has arcs that spiral out from, but then (usually) wind back into, the main thread. The Tales of the Terran Republic is the umbrella term for the entire future history universe in which I’m working. Caine’s own story has a number of discrete arcs within it. Trial By Fire is the conclusion of the first arc, which I would tentatively label the “encounter arc:” humanity’s contact with exosapients and the immediate sequelae to that contact. The second arc (three novels) is the “envoy arc:” for reasons that are partly planned and partly fate, Caine comes into closer, defining contact with a number of those species. I know the arcs beyond that, but, to say more on that topic… well, to quote a favorite television show of mine, “that would be telling.”

What I can tell you is this: the stakes keep getting higher.

NS: What are some of your favorite science fiction novels? Where did you draw inspiration for Trial by Fire? 

CG: The answer to these two questions do not necessarily share a lot of overlap. But I don’t want to take up twice the space, so I’m just going to fire out a bunch of authors and titles (maybe appended with a short comment here or there) about what has stuck with me over time and made me think, “Damn, I wish *I’d* written that!” (Not all are SF/F) So:

Gordon R. Dickson’s The Tactics of Mistake; H.B. Fyfe’s Protected Species; CJ Cherryh’s Downbelow Station; (and for the reason of the same kind of crisp, pitiless prose), most of Flannery O’Connor’s work; Mack Reynolds’ The Hunted Ones; Chad Oliver’s Blood’s a Rover; Thomas Pynchon’s V; Heinlein’s Starship Troopers; Haldeman’s Forever War (and Joe has made it quite clear that the latter was not written as a counterblast to the former—and that Bob Heinlein was the first to come over and chat with him when Forever War won the Hugo); Jerry Pournelle’s Janissaries; James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of An Ex-Colored Man; Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying; Octavia Butler’s Kindred (she was the sweetest, kindest soul); Wells’ War of the Worlds and the World Set Free, and Urula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.

The latter novel is a somewhat odd inclusion among the rest, inasmuch as it is, by comparison, a somewhat clinical novel. But its structure of working social analysis through the agency of pitiless comparison, rather than repeated  comment and exhortation, was instructive. It informed some of my own objectives in authorship, but whereas her concern was more with historical and political presumptions of economics and power, my questions are more primal, focused more at the level of anthropology and the interface of evolution and ethics. (For those not familiar with The Dispossessed, it compares what I would call the extreme endgame of egalitarian socialism with that of meritocratic capitalism. While there is a suggested preference between the two, it is hardly a triumphant and cheery choice: Le Guin’s assessment exposes the flaws of both and leaves us with no wonderful choice.)

NS: The major engagement in Trial by Fire has tons of moving parts and layers of complexity. How do you go about plotting something with so many facets and making sure it all comes together at the end? 

CG: A lot of sweating of a lot of details. A lot of juggling between the necessary/logical sequence of actions, and the best dramatic flow. Knowing how to cut out extraneous pieces without leaving an explicatory gap behind by having excised a little bit too much. The final combat (what I’ve dubbed The Longest Day reboot) in Trial by Fire was, without doubt, the most tricky bit of narrative I’ve tackled, simply because of all the characters and necessary actions that had to be integrated. As one reviewer wrote, the end of the book is like a complicated chess game with all the moves clearly explained. When I read that, my reaction was “whoa! I pulled it off!”

Seriously though, since Trial By Fire is very much an intentional slipstream novel that, on the action level, blends mid-future hard sf with political/technothrillers, I wanted to do something that I had not really seen done in SF before: a military sf novel that moved between big picture and worm’s eye view to convey both the horrors of this battle, and the unique considerations of an entirely new kind of assymetrical warfare. The invaders have all the technological edges, but the defenders have a variety of home court advantages—and both play parts not as caped interstellar warlords out of space operas, but as highly trained, highly focused commanders and operators akin to those we see peopling novels such as The Hunt for Red October. In real warfare, nobody stops to buckle their swash: there are the quick and the dead. And to quote Edna Mode of The Incredibles: “No capes!”

NS: How do you judge mankind’s current chances surviving an alien invasion? 

CG: Wow! That’s sort of like asking: How many beans are in the jar—and where have I hidden the jar I’m talking about and which you’ve never seen?

It’s important to point out that (as per the question answered above) this is not your typical alien invasion novel. It turns out that certain elements of our intelligence community knew, from about 2083, that We Were Not Alone. I won’t spoil how they knew: it wasn’t saucer people or anything like that. Consequently, we are not caught as unprepared as we might at first seem.

Also, the aliens (well, “exosapients”) are not the unconstrained marauders of most B-move invasion narratives. These exosapients are compelled to work within boundaries quite familiar to us humans: being members of an interstellar polity (of sorts) they must measure maximum battlefield effectiveness against political blowback, thereby creating rules of engagement that are often intensely limiting. For the same reason, they do not so much invade as are “invited to support wronged terrestrial powers,” thereby muddying the waters: is it an invasion if you are sent an invitation? But does the invitation count if it is clearly just one human faction’s meretricious attempt to advance their own agenda? As in actual warfare, the causes and conduct of it is anything but cut and dried.

This, by the way, touches on why there is no “my God, here come the aliens!” invasion scene, replete with blasted buildings and screaming multitudes (who always seem to gather in Times Square to flee madly through the congested streets of midtown Manhattan). Frankly, I was sick and tired of that scene—and was also of the opinion that it would not be consistent with the political and military realities I was trying to cleave to. The invaders’ need for plausible deniability and evidence of operational restraint constrained them to striking only those targets that clearly and provocatively made aggressive moves against them; there were two such targets, but there was no real warning and no descent by bad aliens in even worse costumes. The targets were eliminated by rail-gun strikes from orbit: annihilation without warning or fanfare. Because that’s how that war would be conducted. So I was not about to add a gratuitous “here come the ravening aliens scene.” (And yes, I’m looking at YOU, Nick Sharps! )

NS: If Trial by Fire were an ice-cream flavor what would it be?

GC: It doesn’t matter what flavor of ice-cream it would be, because “dessert” is  only one part of the novel, which is a seven-course dinner, provided in conjunction with an open bar. Please come and enjoy what I hope are its many delights!

NS: Any final words for potential readers? 

GC: Yes: just two words. Thank you. And I do not just mean “thank you for going out and finding my book(s)” (although I certainly mean that, too). I mean thank you for being interested in this wonderful genre where anything is possible and which exists to expand minds and  perceptions rather than to codify and narrow them. I have pretty eclectic reading tastes, both within and beyond the genre. For instance, there isn’t one of this year’s Nebula nominees that I am not itching to read, and among those which I have read, there isn’t one that wouldn’t earn my vote. We spend a lot of time focusing on differences in our genre; I consider this ironic, in that we are unified by an incredibly powerful commonality: our deep and abiding love of, and involvement in, the exploration of alterity. I’ve worked in media and audience analysis, so I can say this with a bit of experience; demographically, that embrace of the different, even the dislocating, is arguably the rarest of all social perspectives. Humans tend to be creatures that like knowing right where their cheese is, and react quite poorly to having it moved by any one or anything. That makes them largely “change-averse,” except for in small ways that are more akin to “novelty” than genuine change.

SF/F readers and fans are, by comparison, change-junkies. What most others fear or view askance, we spend our precious time and scarce funds rolling around in, to exult in. I think that every time we are tempted to perceive our genre as divided by differences of politics and/or taste, we ought to remember this: we are far more alike than we are different, and we should celebrate our collective sibling-hood within the family of the SF/F community.

NS: Thanks so much for your time Chuck! 

GC: My pleasure! And by way of ending on a practical note, I believe in free samples. So you can know if you want to plunk down hard earned money for my scribblings before you actually do so, Baen Books makes this very easy. They publish the first ten chapters or so of all their books. Here are the links to this year’s Nebula contender (and, according to many of you, recipient of Hugo nomination votes) —Trial By Fire: click here to read the first 14 chapters.

About Nick Sharps (85 Articles)
Nick is the Social Media Coordinator and Commissioning Editor for Ragnarok Publications and its imprint, Angelic Knight Press. He is a book critic and aspiring author. He is the co-editor of Kaiju Rising: Age of Monsters from Ragnarok Publications. He studies Advertising and Public Relations at Point Park University.
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