Today I have with me science fiction author, Felix R. Savage who generously agreed to sit down with me for a virtual interview.
I recently read through Freefall, the first book in your Earth’s Last Gambit Series, and came away with a bunch of questions. I was hoping you’d share some of your secrets with me and my readers.
To begin, a couple of words about the book: This is a hard scifi “technothriller” about a plausible first contact scenario. The powers of earth come together (sort of) and begin work on an ambitious vehicle to take a crew on a distant voyage into the solar system to make contact. It’s something of a Tom Clancy meets Arthur C. Clarke kind of story with lots of political intrigue and some excellent hard science.
For my readers who haven’t read Freefall yet, there there isn’t much in the way of spoilers in this interview, so read on without fear.
Rob C: First up: How did you come up with the idea for the story of Freefall? Was it intentionally a four part story from the beginning?
Felix: I have a bad habit of planning trilogies that turn into quartets. This was the third time it’s happened after The Reluctant Adventures of Fletcher Connolly on the Interstellar Railroad and my epic fantasy / alternate history saga, The Chronicles of the Worldcracker, which no one has read because I got mind-jacked by science fiction in 2014 and never got around to publishing it! (The first book of this saga is now available as part of the Dominion Rising box set.) I got the idea for Earth’s Last Gambit from the same place I get many of my ideas: books that disappoint me. In this case I won’t name the author because he’s 1000x more famous than I am, but it was a hard science fiction story about a voyage to Saturn, which decayed into book-hurling stupidity about 3/4 of the way through. Brilliant idea badly executed. I wanted to read the story that that should have been, so I had to write it!
RC: Is writing your full time gig or do you still punch the clock on a day job? How do you find the time?
I still work 9 to 5. The day job is quite rewarding as I work in the Japanese high-tech sector, which plays into my interest in cutting-edge technology. However I’m slowly coming to terms with the idea that something’s gotta give. It was OK when I was publishing two books a year. Now that I’m up to 4 or 5? It’s getting tough to fit everything in. However, we’re about to welcome our second child, so any thoughts of walking away from the day job have been back-burnered for the time being …
RC: Good luck with the new addition! I expect you’re going to be busier in the not-so-distant-future. Still, that’s a helluva throughput. Do you outline your work before writing or come up with the idea and pants* your way through it?
(*Pantsing, v. for those who aren’t into the whole writing thing is “seat of the pants” writing where you just kind of let the story unfold.)
The more I outline, the faster it goes. I work with a fantastic developmental editor whose name I am selfishly going to keep to myself because he’s crazy busy as it is. He’s taught me a lot about structuring story and character arcs, so now the first thing I do when I sit down to write a new book is make a 1-2 page outline for each viewpoint character and any important non-viewpoint characters. Skimping on this step invariably comes back to bite me in the butt. I’ve found that if I get stuck at this “character outline” stage, that’s a red flag that something in the story needs to be fixed before I start to write it. Just to be clear, these outlines are not character sheets where you would list their eye color, favorite movie, blah blah blah. That kind of thing is a waste of time in my opinion. What does matter is the changes that a character goes through as a result of the story and what personal challenges they conquer. That’s the core of story and that’s what I put in my outlines. This process is still a work in progress but that’s how I went from writing 1-2 books a year to 4-5.
RC: This is great stuff. It explains why your characters feel so human.
Have you thought at all about traditional publishing as a means of turning the writing into more than just a sideline?
Traditional publishing is something I would consider if they came to me. But based on what I have heard about trad pub advances, it’s very unlikely it would make financial sense at this point! It doesn’t have to be all or nothing though. I’ve done audio deals with Tantor and Podium, and I would do a print only deal if that were on the table.
RC: The ship design in Freefall revolves around a breakthrough in fission plasma propulsion. Something that’s come up again very recently with Ad Astra’s upcoming long burn test. Do you think we’ll ever put humans into space on a nuclear rocket?
Yes, I do. As you know, the main limitation on Ad Astra’s VASIMR drive is its titchy (solar!) power source. Plasma drives are great but they can’t generate massive thrust without massive power inputs. Nuclear is the obvious choice. This may be wishful thinking, but I believe we’re due a nuclear renaissance, and when the zeitgeist embraces nuclear power plants on Earth, the obstacles to nuclear spacecraft propulsion will go away, too. They’re mainly cultural obstacles, not technical ones!
RC: Yes and no. The cost of building modern fission plants is huge, and I worry that the engineering know-how is getting away from us. There are cheaper variations that we haven’t implemented on larger scales because, I think, the benefits of Uranium fission have been too attractive to the governments pushing them. Thorium and salt-based reactors have a lot of potential and are potentially cheaper with more readily-available fuel supplies…
I agree that thorium / molten salt reactors have great potential. Disagree that we don’t have the engineering know-how for traditional fission plants. The only risk is that the experienced engineers will all hit 65 and retire before producers can move forward with new plants. Of course another factor in the nuclear stall is that natural gas is just so cheap right now.
Look, I’ve been on the other side of the fence. I was living here in Tokyo at the time of the March 11th earthquake and the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. Fearing the worst I decamped to the States with my family and spent the next couple of months obsessively reading up on the physics of nuclear power generation, waste disposal, toxicity dispersion patterns, all that stuff. My conclusion (as I slunk shamefacedly back to Japan) was that nuclear risks are significantly overblown by the media. At Fukushima, pretty much everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. And yet the disaster did far, far less damage to people’s health and livelihoods than did the tsunami that caused it. Smog and industrial pollution kill more people around the world every day than Fukushima, Chernobyl, Richland WA, and Ozersk (look them up) put together. I’m confident that people who care about human flourishing and ecological stewardship will soon wake up and realize nuclear is a superior baseload power source. It doesn’t kill birds or disfigure landscapes either!
RC: I don’t disagree with any of this, but there are some real risks with fissionable uranium. There’s a great document that was declassified a few years back called A Review of Criticality Accidents (Los Alamos) that boils down to certain container configurations focusing enough neutrons back at the cores that it causes a full-blown fissile event. The thing comes with a list of these events at various facilities during the sixties and seventies that are just horrific.
Even Fukushima, while relatively minor, a large exposed core is sitting in a container of sea-water. They can’t even send robots near the thing without losing contact with them because the core is so hot. It’s just sitting there in the ocean, doing god-knows-what to the environment.
Definitely not without risk, but also, high pay-off if you can build a “safe” one.
RC: You have a very striking cover style with stark, moody portraits in space. Who does your covers?
Christian Bentulan did the covers, using original photography that I commissioned from Andrew Dobell. These guys are both extraordinarily gifted professionals and it was a joy to work with them. I wanted something different from the usual “big spaceship go vrrrrooom” style of sci-fi cover. Don’t get me wrong, I love big spaceships, but my books focus on the people in the ships and I wanted the covers to reflect that. Wait until you see the covers for my upcoming new series!
RC: I will admit, I found the covers kind of creepy on first impression. They reminded me of renaissance portraits. They have an otherworldly quality about them. They grew on me and I now appreciate their uniqueness and humanity. Very cool.
Mission accomplished! The covers for the new series will ramp up the creepy factor.
RC: Freefall and the other books in your series have a co-writer, Bill Patterson. I’d love to hear about the process that goes into co-writing a series like this. How do you distribute the work? Do you each have specific roles?
I knew going into this series that I’d need help with the science. I love science but there’s a hell of a lot of stuff I don’t know, and for these books it was important to get everything right. I could either spend 10 million hours researching it for myself, or recruit someone to answer my questions … and I was fortunate enough to find Bill. To keep the record straight, I started out working with someone else, but that didn’t pan out for a bunch of reasons that were largely my own fault, and Bill heroically stepped into the breach. The division of labor was clear-cut: I wrote the books and he was the science consultant. However, Bill is also a hard SF writer in his own right and he’s about to launch his first major series, Riddled Space. I got to read the first book in advance so I can say that it is well worth your time!
RC: I look forward to reading them!
How shall I put this… You’re a mysterious guy. You seem to have a strong grasp of governmental and covert workings. Are you a spook?
RC: Really? I’ve heard that if you keep asking someone “Really?” that they’ll eventually cave and tell you what you want to hear. Really?
I have lots of experience evading these tactics. Ahem.
RC: Tell me about the Lizard People, Felix. (You didn’t think anyone would actually read that, did you?)
Sssh! SSSSHHH! They can access the internet too, you know! Here’s a tip, Rob: get a cat. The more cats the better. I have two. The LPs hate them and will not enter a home guarded by felines.
RC: This is troubling as I have no cats at the moment.
Dogs might work but I can’t vouch for it. Fish? Useless.
RC: There’s a great bit in your short The Signal And the Boys set in Khazkhstan. Have you been to the Baikonur Cosmodrome? Bonus question: Have you been to space?
I keep trying to persuade my family to holiday in Khazakhstan so I can see it for myself. Bizarrely, they prefer holiday destinations with beaches and room service. But the day I make my first million I’m going to follow in the footsteps of these two lucky (and very rich) people: http://www.spacex.com/news/2017/02/27/spacex-send-privately-crewed-dragon-spacecraft-beyond-moon-next-year
RC: I would love to go. I heard a great presentation by a friend and former colleague who made the trip as a guest of Esther Dyson who did the whole program just short of going into space. Her account of the old guys running the ancient computers they used to put these things into space was incredible. I love their low-tech, can-do attitude over there.
Needless to say, I’d love to see it.
Exactly. It’s incredibly inspiring to think about what can be done with comparatively primitive technology. Where there’s a will there’s a way.
RC: I’m interested in what’s next for you. Can you tell me a bit about what you’re working on currently? When are you targeting your release?
My next series will return to space opera territory with a new twist: ghosts in space. The first book of the series, The Chemical Mage (chapter 1 preview), begins with a massacre on a remote colony planet. the Human Republic is fighting for its life against the mysterious Tegression, an army of ghosts … innumerable, unstoppable. The heroic defensive actions of the Navy fail to turn the tide. Earth itself is in danger of falling when a disgraced gunship pilot, Colm Mackenzie, stumbles on a clue to the mystery of the Tegression. With the clock running out on humanity’s survival, it’s up to Colm to unravel the Tegression’s ruthless vendetta against us. What he discovers could alter the future of the galaxy.
RC: wait, did you say, “ghosts”? Would you like to talk about that a bit?
If you start feeling cold for no reason, you’re probably being targeted. Switch off all electrically powered equipment immediately. Drain the charge from any batteries or fuel cells in the house. Don’t even use the radio. Failure to follow these simple guidelines has led to world after world being overrun.
RC: Brr. I think it just got chilly in here. Maybe it’s this eclipse… So, FTL?
Yes, I’m using FTL in this series. No relativistic time dilation, either. Sorry, Einstein. But I do have a pretty good scientific explanation, lifted from Asimov with the help of one of my faceless allies in the struggle against the LPs. [uh oh, I think he means Lizard People again… -rob]
So yeah, big spaceships that go vrrroooom! But also ghosts. It’s kinda like Stephen King in space and I’m massively excited about it. I’d also like to reassure everyone who enjoyed Earth’s Last Gambit that I haven’t abandoned my commitment to real science, or at least realistic science. Everything in this series is properly grounded in the laws of physics. Well, except for the ghosts …
RC: This really sounds intriguing. Should we expect a supernatural element in this series?
In one sense, the supernatural is merely what we don’t understand. Yet it remains the case that very few people will ever understand it. Most people don’t even understand how Colm Mackenzie does the stupid little stage magic tricks he learned from his father, such as making cards levitate and coins vanish …
Please feel free to click on the link above and read the first chapter of The Chemical Mage!
RC: I will do that! Thanks for taking the time to talk, Felix. It’s been a hoot!
This was terrific fun. It also forced me to work on my blurb, which is like a root canal, better to do it and get it over with 🙂
RC: Blurbs. Absolutely awful things. Take care of yourself.
For more Felix R Savage, check out his blog and newsletter. (signup includes a free copy of The Signal and the Boys, a prequel to Felix’ Earth’s Last Gambit series)