Karen Traviss burst onto the science fiction scene in 2004 with City of Pearl, a book that was shortlisted for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and the Philip K. Dick Award, and placed third in the Locus poll for Best First Novel. The follow-up, Crossing the Line, missed out on the award cycle by being published very late in 2004, but the third book in the series, The World Before, is once again on the Locus Recommended Reading List.
The books are essentially a tale of first contact, but they are notable for their gritty, realistic, and emotionally hard-hitting portrayal of a small group of humans, far from Earth, struggling to deal with military and diplomatic issues that have implications far beyond their immediate concerns. The two lead characters are Shan Frankland, a policewoman who won't stand for any nonsense, and Eddie Michallat, a BBC journalist who has found himself in the middle of the biggest story in human history.
Cheryl Morgan: The striking degree of realism in your books comes, I presume, from your past lives. And I use "lives" in the plural very deliberately. Perhaps we should start with an overview of where you have come from and the various things you have done. I can imagine many authors would love to have had some of your experience.
Karen Traviss: Well, it's rich pickings in fiction terms. It's about technical detail and scenarios. Reality often makes very poor fiction—especially filing the serial numbers off real people—but there's the element of authenticity that you can extract—the way people think and how decisions get made. Obviously, I know how TV and newspaper journalism works all too well. And politics—both as a reporter and later working for politicians. Some of the best background came from the emergency planning work I did in local government—priceless. We had a long run of real disasters and emergencies that were a fantastic education for me: riots, floods, chemical fires, unexploded bombs. Lovely stuff!
Most of my military detail comes from the time I spent as a defence correspondent. It was a happy time. I got to do some interesting things that I look back on and think, "God, were you mad?" I thought nothing of being winched on and off ships' decks by helicopter, or playing with submarines or being deafened by Harriers. It was an odd mix of the political and procurement stuff—covering Defence Select Committees, talking to the arms industry—and talking to the people in uniform. (And playing with their kit, of course. The submarine simulator was a blast.)
I managed to pick a period when there were no wars, and I regret never having been an embedded journalist or getting to cover a conflict, but as I might be serving as a reservist again—if I pass the medical, which isn't looking good right now—I'm likely to end up minding embeds. (Ironic.) I was a reservist before for a few years—not in the line of fire, although a navy meat pie is a dangerous object—and that was interesting in terms of seeing how easily I fitted into a tribe. I come from a navy city and most of my family was in the services at some time or worked in defence, so I have a great affection for the armed forces. And I enjoyed serving at sea with the Royal Naval Auxiliary Service. I was the world's worst helmsman and the most inaccurate thrower of heaving lines. I loved it because it was basic seamanship duties, not media liaison. I also served briefly in the Territorial Army (that's like the National Guard), but that was in a specialist media role, and I have to admit I would rather have learned a different trade like driving trucks or maintaining tanks. But I did get some firearms training, which is handy for a writer. The reserves have changed an awful lot in recent years and the U.K. armed forces are heavily dependent on them to meet their commitments; in some specialist branches, it's all reservists.
I think my time with the police has proved useful too. Journalists spend much of their working lives with coppers and politicians, but seeing both from the inside makes a lot of difference. Coppers also know bloody good jokes, none of which are repeatable here.
CM: Your biography talks about your having worked as a spin doctor and as a media liaison for the police, so you have worked as both poacher and gamekeeper, so to speak. But you still seem to identify as a journalist, so I guess you are mainly on the side of the poachers.
KT: I've seen both jobs done badly and irresponsibly, and I have sympathy with both sides too.
There's a lot of poor-quality journalism out there, but however bad some of it is, journos are frequently the only ones able to call government to account. On balance, I'll support journalism because democracy depends on it. The fact that the BBC will take on the Prime Minister and piss him off when the government holds its purse strings reassures me that we still have a democracy in the U.K.—at the moment, anyway. When the BBC can see no wrong in the government, I'm packing my bags.
I'll be a journo at my core until they nail down the lid; I'm never sure if people with my mind-set become journos, or journalism makes your mindset, but whatever it is, it's the way I think and how I see the world. It's the biggest single influence on my fiction both in content and approach. This confuses readers sometimes. When I look at any situation, I'm trained and inclined to stand back and just say what I see, and to ask really unpleasant questions: the killer question is, "Okay, so why is this always seen as wrong? And why is this always seen as right?" I don't make any assumptions—about anything. Now, when you don't make assumptions about ethical and cultural rules, and start questioning them, you really shake out some interesting stuff. Some people find the results offensive, but I can't not go there.
CM: Does that journalistic instinct affect the way you write your fiction?
KT: I often say that I have a duty to tell the truth in fiction. Fiction is a very good way of getting under people's radar, which is why it's a spindoc favorite. We don't have our guard up when we experience fiction, and it percolates into our subconscious—especially if we have no real-life experience of something. For example, if a reader hasn't met a real commando, which they probably haven't, then I'm going to make sure the view they get in my books is as accurate and fair as I can make it.
Basically, when I write fiction I'm reporting. I take no sides. (I'm an old-fashioned journo, by the way, and I deplore the emotionally involved style of reporting that's spewing out in so many media now: it's opinion, not reporting, so bloody well label it as such and put it on the opinion page.) Just as I did in news, in fiction I let the characters have their say, and the reader can decide who to believe. Does this work? Yes. I know because of the mail I get from readers. Some of them say: "I know what message you're putting across." Then they tell me what I meant when I wrote the book. Then I get another reader tell me the complete opposite. And then another with a different take. They're all sure they know what my agenda is—but they all see radically different things. In reality, they've seen what they want to see and believed what they choose to, which is how it should be—but the opinion has come from them, not me. Rather like when the BBC is accused of being a bunch of lefty hippies and also a bunch of Tory fascists. It's the hallmark of objectivity . . . not that anything, even news reporting, can ever be wholly objective. We're limited by our filters. The best we can do is be aware of those filters and ask, "Is this really what I'm seeing?"
CM: That's an issue with reviewing as well. I know for sure that books I really warm to will be hated by other people, and vice versa. In the end all I can do is say whether or not I liked a book, and why that was so. But some people will still insist that I'm Wrong because I don't have the same tastes as they do. Do you find that readers expect there to be a One True Karen Traviss Message somewhere in your books?
KT: Most readers seem to assume that an author is putting themselves and their views into a book. I don't know if that reflects what my colleagues are doing out there, but it indicates to me that readers are always expecting Mary Sues, however dressed up the book might be in fine words and concepts. Now, you can write two ways: you can write what's inside you, or you can write what's outside you. This is where a journalism-based approach is different, because it's about looking outside yourself and drawing in the views and experiences of others. I don't want to write what's inside me: I know what's there. It's boring to regurgitate all that. I want novelty. I want to find out what it's like to be someone who doesn't think or feel the way I do. I want to feel and find out things I haven't felt before; so, like any reporter, I ask the characters.
My books are not me; the characters are not me; and the views are not mine. My job is to show each character, and their world view, as they see it—I write very tight third-person points of view. I get behind the characters' eyes and I want the reader in there too. I can do that even with the most repellent characters, the kind of people I'd shoot on sight if they moved in next door to me, but all the time I'm in their head and writing them, they're perfectly credible. It's a process like psychological profiling, in police terms. And you really can step out of a character's head feeling freaked and disturbed. It's not a myth.
And . . . I have had my mind changed by my characters about some very fundamental ethics. (The biggest morality shock came in writing my Star Wars books, by the way, for anyone out there who thinks such books lack depth. . . .) That's what happens when you write outside your own head.
I don't have villains and I don't have heroes. I just have people. If a writer wants to send a message or make a statement, great: there's a place for polemic, as long as it's labeled. Personally, I don't enjoy polemic. I enjoy exploring places I've never been. My role as author is to open the cupboard door, shine in the light, and say: "Did you know this was happening? Have you seen this? What do you think?"
CM: So I take it you don't hold with the view that books should be just entertainment.
KT: On the contrary—I'm a storyteller, and books are primarily entertainment. I really do think of it as part of the showbiz industry. But I can still add an extra dimension and make people think. I don't care what they think as long as they do, and don't just swallow any old shit they're given. When I say, "Challenge everything," I'm not pimping for EA Games, believe me. Come to think of it, that's my mission in life, if I have one: make people think. I'm stunned by the lack of critical thinking that's taught to kids now; and adults are way too trusting too. The faith they put in information given them is terrifying—they don't even ask who's giving them the information and why.
CM: Given all of this fascinating work you have done, what made you want to turn to writing novels?
KT: Had sufficient, as one of my former staff used to say. I'd always written as an outlet (hobby is too benign a word), since I was six. I never thought of writing fiction professionally, even though I've written for a living for all but six months of my working life, and then a bloke called Malcolm McGreevy changed my life. He was the career-development consultant attached to a management course I was doing. Long story short, as my U.S. buddies would say: I was sent on a fast-track management course when I was a local government spindoc—the little chief execs' course. It became clear that death was preferable to being a bloody CX, or even staying in the job, which I admit taught me more than I'd ever learn in a million random lifetimes. So when I had my obligatory session with him about my glittering future in fucking up the running of cities, I said I didn't think it was my bag. God bless him: he switched to finding a career I'd prefer, interrogated me on whether I'd want to go back to TV (no), newspapers (no), and what I liked doing. After exhausting the list, he said: "But what do you do in your spare time?" When I said that I wrote fiction, he looked at me with some bewilderment and asked: "You're a professional writer. How come you never thought of writing fiction for a living?"
Bang. Light-bulb-over-head moment.
CM: D'oh! Yeah. But it can't be that easy, right? Where do you go from there?
KT: I hadn't ever considered being a novelist, but once we'd chatted I realized I could apply a business process to it and make a career of it. That was in late 1998 and I started right away. I spent the career development grant I got for the course (thank you, taxpayer) on a fiction workshop, One Step Beyond, and a few other science fictional writing things. I did a five-year business plan and stuck to it—the objective was selling novels by 2003 and quitting day job in 2004. Done and done.
CM: That sounds very efficient and organized.
KT: Yes, I do five-year plans. Writing for me is a business, one I happen to love as much as eating and breathing, but it is a business. I designed the Wess'har series based on marketing principles, to appeal to the widest range of book-buying demographic: I covered all the bases from military fiction and romance to political thriller and ethical/religious/philosophical debate; my Wess'har readers range from 12-year-olds who've found me via Star Wars to professors of ethics who set my books as course work. There's something for everyone. It's also part of the reason I use very plain English.
CM: Getting to the books (at last), Shan Frankland isn't an ordinary policewoman: she works for an environmental agency. Her job is to arrest people for polluting the environment. That's a fairly radical concept from the view of George W. Bush's America. Could you explain a bit more about what she does?
KT: Well, she started life a street copper and fell from grace when she was in Special Branch as an antiterrorist officer and went native with the ecoterrorists. She's a bent copper. The legislative environment she operates in is one where people can be decitizenised—basically, she can unread them their rights and do what the hell she wants to them and there's no penalty for her. In the Europe I've extrapolated, people can lose legal rights if they offend too often, and there's something akin to reading the Riot Act. An officer can say, "If you don't stop this right now, you're formally decitizenised, and tough shit." That concept doesn't shock readers now quite as much as it did when I wrote City of Pearl in late 2001—and that says a lot about how our governments have shifted position since 9/11. That erosion of personal rights has crept up on us a slice at a time. I won't say if I think that's good or bad, but we should at least be saying, "Hang on . . . what's happening here?"
Anyway, Shan is demoted sideways to EnHaz, where she can bust polluters, nick scientists who breach guidelines or falsify data—if it affects health or the environment, she can wade in. But the world is one where all food plants have been patented by huge corporations. She operates in an ethical minefield, where companies challenge elected governments and are often more powerful. She's basically at war with these huge companies, and she's armed, and not too choosy about how she gets the job done. Her ability to "de-cit" doesn't apply. So she's not averse to using her old ecoterrorist buddies to carry out a bit of enforcement for her.
CM: There are many memorable scenes in City of Pearl, but one that really sticks in the mind is a flashback incident from Shan's early career wherein she sees a gorilla waving at her and later realizes that it was using sign language to beg for help. It sounds like you have a fairly strong position on animal rights.
KT: Shan has persuaded me on a lot of things. Writing the wess'har has made me obsessive about recycling and carbon emissions. The characters teach me a lot and influence me: when I say that the books write me, and not the other way around, I mean it. I do a lot of research, so I come across all kinds of people and agendas, and I end up agreeing with some characters and not others. It's hard to do the research on this and not see Shan's point of view.
The gorilla was a pivotal image for me because I once worked with someone who taught gorillas sign language, and the questions she didn't ask and the things she didn't see amazed me. She was stuck in a very narrow field of enquiry and the overview missed her totally. She was so bogged down in the questions like syntax and brain architecture that she missed the big headline: hey, this is another species trying to talk to you, for Chrissakes!
Actually, my obsession with the artificial line between the Us and Not Us springs from a single documentary that I saw years ago. It was about AIS—androgen insensitivity syndrome. This program was about women who found they were genetically male—the extreme cases where they really have no reason to suspect that they're male because externally, they're very glamorous women. I didn't know this condition even existed and it struck me that there was no universal, logical line between male and female: childbearing isn't even an absolute definition, because plenty of women can't have kids. I was talking to a university researcher on gender identity about it, and that started me off on the whole thing about Lines. Lines—between male and female, animal and human, between races, between sexual orientations, age groups, the whole shebang—dictate how we treat life.
The problem is that lines don't exist in reality. People confuse lines in ethics with lines in the real world. At some point I need to decide as an individual what I will and won't do, and I need to draw a line. That line actually doesn't exist, but if I don't draw it I have no moral benchmark. The trouble starts when people think their moral datum line is a real external one.
The Line is dangerous. The Line says, "This is Me and Us, and everything else is not Us."
CM: Of course in science fiction you can make the point more easily. Another very memorable scene from City of Pearl is where one of the squidlike bezeri gets dissected. The human scientist who does it maintains she's doing a biological study of a fish, but what she's actually done is torture an alien child to death.
KT: SF is the finest tool on God's Earth for examining fundamental issues because there are no limits except—if you accept hard SFnal rules—the boundaries of feasible science. Fantasy might be even better, because it has no rules at all. And what better way to examine difference than through aliens? To paraphrase what one of the characters says in City of Pearl, if we can't treat animals right, how the hell can we deal with aliens?
The bezeri dissection is a key scene. It's about the delusion of distance. Back to Lines. Humans have these mental safety barriers that they erect to say, "Look, this isn't Us. It doesn't feel what We feel. We can do what We want to it." We can justify it all we like with ethics or scientific dogma, or pretend that compassion is soppy anthropomorphism and unscientific—heresy of heresies!—but in the end we do it Because We Can. We extend it to humans who aren't like us, too. We've always got a mental excuse ready for treating someone or something else like shit.
That's why I love playing with an alien culture that's above us in the food chain. It's a total world-view shift—and I don't mean all that Independence Day let's-kick-alien-arse crap. I mean aliens who really are superior to us, and where we don't win, and where we aren't the good guys. I think that puts some people in a particularly difficult corner.
CM: In general scientists don't come over very well in your books. Where they are not being blinkered and insensitive because all that matters to them is their research, they are salivating over bonuses promised by their employers back home if they manage to come back with valuable new patents. That's very different from the traditional science fiction attitude that scientists are generally heroes.
KT: They're just people. In general, science is the same as any other trade: there are the same proportions of stupid, honest, dishonest, competent, noble, mediocre, greedy, brilliant, incompetent, and plain average individuals as there are in any group of people.
Let's look at the scientists on the Thetis mission. What kind of psychological profile makes anyone willing to take a one-way ticket out of their life? Because that's what 150 years' time separation means. The speed of space travel in my world dictates that: there's no FTL. So the Thetis party—including Shan and Eddie and the military—are the kind of people who have no emotional anchor and who are prone to risk-taking behavior.
But my first journo question about scientists is this: who pays their wages?
Economics is the biggest issue for me. We live in a world where science is dictated by business. It has to pay. When I see research findings, I can't evaluate them until I know who paid for the research.
My other personal problem with some scientists is the abdication of personal responsibility. Unlike the wess'har, who only hold someone responsible for what they do, I think we do have to ask how what we create will be misused by others. What gets discovered gets used. "Ah, you're suggesting we limit the quest for knowledge!" say the progressive and enlightened. Well, maybe I am—but we already limit research in some areas. We don't carry out vivisection on humans (not usually . . .) because as a society we've decided that it's wrong, even if the data would be far better. So we accept that there are moral limits to where science can look.
And a lot of scientists spend their day working out ways to put more air in junk food and create nail varnish that changes color—wasteful trivia for profit. They're not all engaged in heroic cosmology and helping to feed the starving.
Anyway, back to heroes. The characters are all a mix of good and bad, and as you get to see them from different points of view including their own, you can make up your own mind. The important thing to remember with the Wess'har series is that it's going to take all six books before you see the full 360-degree view of every character. So don't decide too soon. . . .
CM: I've mentioned Shan and Eddie as major characters in the book, but I should also mention Aras, the wess'har supersoldier. In some ways he is an extreme example of the idea of a professional army. He is a one-alien army, though a very effective one, and his existence allows the rest of wess'har society to distance themselves from the draconian political decisions that they make. Is there an argument for saying that professional armies insulate people from the reality of war in the same way that the food industry insulates them from the reality of eating animals?
KT: That's not what actually happens in wess'har society, because they all fight. They do have an army and everyone does military service when needed. It's just that they have a small population compared to the isenj and troops like Aras (who were biologically modified to make them better soldiers, although they had no idea what c'naatat was at the time) leveled the playing field in the war.
But in general I'd agree with that sentiment. It's not just true of the general civilian population. We have politicians who have no experience of the military or of war and yet take us into wars. They do it far too easily, far more easily than politicians who know from their own experience what combat is like. It should be a last resort, not a second one. (I'm quoting a former Labour cabinet minister there.)
The end of National Service (in the U.K.) combined with the massive reduction in our armed forces means that most people over here never even meet service personnel, let alone understand the reality of combat. This creates the armchair critic who believes they know what troops should have done in a given situation, and how they'd have behaved differently if they'd been there. If you've never been under fire, and you're sitting safe in your home watching war on TV, you have no right (or basis) to judge the people on the front line. You have no idea what the job entails or what it feels like. You sit back and make hindsight calls about should-have and should-not-have, with all the time in the world and no risk of even getting injured, let alone dying or seeing your mates killed next to you. You're so sure that you'd act differently. And you're so sure you wouldn't follow orders.
I have this debate with 14-year-old Star Wars fans who believe they'd never have followed Order 66 and gunned down the Jedi (movie reference, folks). I tell them that virtually every human will norm with the group, but they find that scary. It's unpalatable to think you can be swayed by peers if you think you're such a free, independent spirit. But without that hardwired instinct to fit in with the group, even when we don't really want to—shown time and time again in studies—we'd have no society. People don't seem aware that they comply every day, all day. It's what humans do.
We have a disconnect in society between civilians and the people we expect to do our dying for us. I'm a great believer in compulsory military service for many reasons, not least of which is to help citizens understand what they're really supporting or voting for.
CM: Wess'har justice is very much black and white, including having Aras massacre billions of alien civilians. They seem to have no room for forgiveness or for rehabilitating the criminal.
KT: No, they don't. That's a human concept. It doesn't fit their worldview. They run on consensus; on their planet, the evolutionary advantage went to species that cooperated rather than competed for resources—not only with each other, but with other species. The proto-wess'har found an evolutionary advantage in a partnership with the proto-ussissi, another alien species on their home world. Before the Darwinists stone me for heresy, I can come up with a scenario where that trait would be an advantage.
So if you're that far outside the cooperative norm of their species, they have no idea how to deal with you. You're a serious threat. It makes sense. How can you change? You can't. And there's a lot throughout the series about motive, mitigation, and forgiveness, all of which are totally outside the wess'har logic system.
Actually, I'm not sure humans change: they just stop doing what they've been punished for, but not always. And on balance, I'd rather walk the streets late at night in F'nar than on Earth.
CM: One of the things I really like about your books is the way you play on human attitudes to animals to create expectations about the aliens. The wess'har are described as looking like sea horses, a particularly innocuous type of animal, yet they are very dangerous. The isenj look like giant spiders and exist in vast numbers, but they are not actually that unpleasant. Their main problem, much like humans, is that they are prepared to live in awful conditions rather than change their environmentally unsustainable habits.
KT: I didn't consciously set out to make that point with the wess'har, actually. The wess'har sea horse thing is based on their reproductive behavior, where the males gestate the offspring. The isenj were the ones I wanted to make as radically different in physiology to humans as I could. They evolved from an insect or spiderlike ancestor and once lived in something like termite colonies, but they're individuals. One thing that pisses me off in SF tropes is the "hive-mind," as if it's something inferior and limiting. Let's see the hive-mind for its positive elements. They're brilliant engineers. They've destroyed their planetary ecology and they manage it artificially. Okay, they can't carry on like that, but it's quite a feat of engineering to have got that far. And they don't fight among themselves: for all the problems they have, their society remains orderly. It takes something like an outside threat to trigger destructive behavior.
CM: Wess'har society is matriarchal, to the extent that male wess'har are unable to resist commands from a dominant female because of the effects of the female's pheromones on them. Is this intended as a significant feminist statement, or just an interesting extrapolation of biological ideas?
KT: Well, the males can resist their females. They're not programmed. But their instinct is to keep the female happy, because the sex act (which is not reproductive) restores the integrity of their DNA. If they don't get their leg over, they die. It puts dying for a shag in a whole new light.
It's a biological idea. I construct my aliens from scratch, from their niches. It sure as hell ain't a feminist statement and I'm not a feminist writer.
CM: Should I take that as "I am not a feminist" or "I don't want to put feminist messages in my fiction?"
KT: Feminism today isn't the feminism I bought in the '70s—same pay for same work. The deal was that if I wanted to mine coal and I could do the job like a man, then I would get the same pay. Fine. No job would be closed to me because I was female—if I could do it.
But I don't recognize the whiney self-pitying brand of feminism I see now. "Men are responsible for all the ills of the world. Women would run the world better. Women can have it all." No, love, you can't have it all: if you have it all, it's because someone else is getting less. Demonizing men and discriminating against them might be getting your own back, but it's hardly a productive strategy. I genuinely feel sorry for men in today's society because they can't win, whatever they do.
Of course, that doesn't stop me slagging off the boys' club mentality of some parts of SF, but that doesn't make me a feminist writer, just a stroppy bitch. I slag off the sisterhood cabal too. I'm a writer who happens to be a woman. That's all.
CM: Moving on to Eddie, I was impressed by the way in which his role changes through the books. In the beginning he's a traditional journalist hero finding ways to block government censorship of his stories so he can get word out about what the bad guys are up to. But by The World Before he's starting to have to take responsibility for what he is doing. His activities cause the death of one of his close friends and start riots on Earth.
KT: Eddie is an odd case. And he's not a hero; he's a typical knee-jerk journo. A lot of journo reaction that looks magnificently brave is just a reflex—the feeding frenzy. "You're hiding something from me! I'm going to get it!" As Rayat says in the books, it really is like a dog chasing a car. I've done it myself. (Going after a story because it pressed that button—not chasing cars, barking.)
I devised Eddie because I needed an everyman character who would be external to the events and provide an overview point of view. A journo is perfect for that, and it also gives me the opportunity to use epigrams like news bulletins, diary entries, and memos to the nth degree: I love epigrams. If I didn't have them, it'd add 20% to the length of any book or short story that I write.
As the books progressed, the simulator ran. What I mean is this: I create characters from the ground up, based on the kind of person who would be in the environment where the story is set. Then I put in two or three givens—this is a commercial mission, you will meet aliens, the aliens are at war and they have the following beliefs—and then I let the characters loose. They interact and give me the plot. It's got far more in common with gaming, by the way, than with written fiction: I don't read. I wasn't brought up on books, but on TV, radio, and films, so that's where I picked up my expectation of fiction. Once you add my media training on top of that, you can see why I structure my books the way I do.
So Eddie evolved, like the rest of the cast. I found that his reactions were asking and answering questions that I had about the role of the journalist in the real world, and he helped me work out some of my own issues about that. It also turned out to be a mirror of the fiction process, too—or at least how I write fiction. So I'm finding Eddie useful. I learn from him. Eddie is nothing like me, so that helps the process.
CM: The different races in the books have different characteristics, and one of the things that is most noticeable is that the dominant trait of humans is duplicitousness. The other aliens can't believe how much we lie and cheat, even amongst ourselves. Do you really think we are that bad a species? Should the wess'har wipe us out for the good of the galaxy?
KT: Who said that lying was bad? It's largely value-neutral in these books. It just baffles and even annoys the aliens most of the time, but it's not the highest on their moral black marks list. They can't see why humans do it and they don't understand euphemism and indirect speech. The wess'har, for example, can't control their scent reactions and so lying is a waste of time; so they rely on sheer force, not strategic deceit. They're literal, and so they're very frustrated by words that don't mean what they seem to mean. It's not our reliance on illusion they find most morally repellent; it's our eating habits and our profligacy.
Yeah, so maybe they should erase us. But not until I've maxed out my Visa card.
CM: While the books are full of humans who do bad things, there are some who try hard to be good. There is a small human colony on the bezeri world, and they are fundamentalist Christians. But whereas most books dealing with religious extremists these days portray them as intolerant and vicious, yours are a bunch of peace-loving devotees of St. Francis who want to live away from the rest of humanity and harm no one. How did that come about?
KT: The colony idea started this way. Who would be motivated to do this? An extrasolar colony doesn't make economic sense. So the motivator is something else. Religion is a classic; loads of nearly impossible things have been done in human history because someone thought God wanted them to do so. So I made the colony religious. Why Christians? Because I think there's a sense of stewardship that must arise in Christianity, and I note that there's now a U.S. evangelical group that's very active in environmental issues as an act of faith.
I'm not a Christian, by the way, nor do I play one on TV. I don't even have a position on God, gods, or anything. Totally neutral; but I judge religions by the way their adherents behave, not what it says in their scriptures. Everything looks good on paper—until you see riots over poxy cartoons or some dingbat urging Armageddon to fulfill God's divine plan. I think fundamentalism is a far bigger threat than terrorism; in fact, I think terrorism is way down the list of issues we should be worrying about. It's a sideshow with a lot of hype, which is why it works, because we let it. (Another topic that appears in my Star Wars novels. I can really explore it there.)
CM: The real bad guys appear to me to be the politicians back on Earth whose machinations cause all sorts of trouble for Shan and her expedition. You've worked closely with real politicians. Are they really that bad?
KT: I don't think the politicians come across as the real villains, but maybe I spent too long breathing the same air as them. So it looks quite average politics to me. They do what all real politicians do to a greater or lesser extent: they cock up and then struggle to get out of it. I've seen very few genuine conspiracies in my life (one, maybe two) but many, many cock-ups followed by panicky arse-covering. Conspiracies actually require long-term thinking, which is in very short supply in the political world.
On the personal front, I've known a lot of politicians both at local and national level and in every party. Some are good friends. Some I'd use for pet food. But by and large, I like them. I like them a lot better than some of the senior management in the public sector. There's plenty of devious, arse-covering, incompetent, and shameful behavior there, too. But they don't get elected, and they aren't accountable or visible to the public. No, give me politicians any day. But when they are bad, they are very, very bad—I can't be rational about the current U.K. government now, so I'll take more antifroth meds and shut up.
If you really want to see the self-deluding, self-justifying behavior of politicians taken to logical but extreme conclusions, the best example is in a Star Wars novel I have out in September, Bloodlines. I doubt if many of my "serious" SF audience will pick it up, but if they do, they'll have strong sense of déjà vu—especially the Brits.
CM: Given that you are an Englishwoman writing about environmental issues, many people would expect your bad-guy politicians to be Americans, but in fact they are the E.U. We hear very little about America in the books. What has happened to it, and why did you decide to write it out as a world power?
KT: Because it's going to disappear up its own backside if it continues to overstretch itself and neglect its infrastructure and economy. All empires do this: Britain and Spain did. Empires can't leave it alone. They go on and on believing their own PR and being empires. They're blind to what everyone else is doing, or dismissive of it. And then the bubble bursts. Been there, done that. . . We all get a turn on the world stage before we outstay our welcome. It's the way history works.
In the books, the U.S. as we know it now doesn't actually exist—the borders have changed. Central America has pushed north and those saucy White House-burning Canucks have pushed south. (But very politely.)
I find the idea of a paramilitary Eurovision song contest (the F.E.U., as Europe in the books) bloody scary. What a potentially fragmented, squabbling, vile behemoth that'll be. It's interesting that few reviewers so far have latched onto the future of Europe and the new world order in Wess'har books. Climate change has an impact. It ain't pretty.
CM: The accepted wisdom is that the U.S. market won't buy books unless they are about Americans, but here you are selling well in the U.S. with a book about British people, and yet you haven't got a publishing deal back home. Why do you think that is so?
KT: Readers can identify with the characters at a more fundamental level than their passports. And if American SF readers can cope with aliens, they certainly don't need American characters to get what's going on or identify with them. There's way too much stereotyping of Americans by my fellow Brits, I'm afraid. America is a diverse society.
On the subject of British publishing—your guess is as good as mine. I have a French publisher, and I'm available in Australia and N.Z., but I can't get arrested in the U.K. Maybe I spilled someone's beer at a con. Maybe my books aren't good enough. Who knows?
I went straight to the American market first anyway, which tells you what my evaluation of the U.K. was right from the start; 90% of the English-language market is the U.S.A./Canada. My parents were pissed off that they couldn't see my books on the shelf in Ottakar's, but then George Lucas came along and changed all that, so they're happy now. So . . . go figure, as they say over there. Or over here, depending on your location.
My gut feel is that we're apologists in the U.K. and prefer to dress up SF in pseudointellectualism so that it's respectable. "My spaceships and dragons are more intellectually meaningful than your spaceships and dragons."
My books look like SF and they don't apologize for it, because they are SF. They're stories. I'm a storyteller, plain and simple. With spaceships.
CM: To finish off I'd like to talk about another way in which your books differ from traditional SF. In most stories that involve the military it is the foot soldiers who get to die tragically while their officers save the universe. Star Trek is a typical example. Your books feature a detachment of Royal Marines. It is their inexperienced officer, Lindsay Neville, who makes all the mistakes. The ordinary soldiers do their jobs efficiently without complaint, and are generally much better behaved than the civilians. You've worked closely with ordinary soldiers—people whose job it is to go out and kill for Queen and country, and who might be regarded as brutes by those who have had no contact with them—but I get the impression that you have a lot of admiration for them.
KT: I'm showing the military as it is. I suspect the SFnal love of the officer class is based purely on lack of knowledge of how the military functions. The noncommissioned ranks have far more responsibility today than ever before, and the sergeant (or NCO of your choice) has always been the backbone of the army (or service of your choice).
In the books, Lindsay Neville isn't actually a bad officer—she's very competent. But she's not a Royal Marine officer, a first-contact mission isn't what she was tasked or qualified for, and the situation is complicated by the intelligence services getting involved. Her authority is eroded by Shan Frankland, too. She can't win.
But—getting back to the key question here—yes, I have the highest regard for the British fighting man and woman. (I say British purely because I have far less contact with U.S. personnel, so I'll talk about what I know.) I've met hundreds of servicemen and servicewomen over the years and I remain humbled by their general professionalism, superb discipline, and human decency. There are lapses, but compared to the behavior of a civilian population, they're few and far between. And war is a dirty job—most of us have no idea how dirty. So the fact that they can remain decent is extraordinary. Many of them—far more than the government will admit—pay the price with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and get sod-all support from a "grateful nation." So I challenge any civilian who thinks they'd do different or do better to get down to their local recruiting office right now and put their money where their mouth is.
Because servicemen and servicewomen volunteer to put their lives on the line, the rest of us don't have to be drafted. So thank them and treat them with respect.
CM: Karen Traviss, thank you for talking to Strange Horizons.
[Editor's Note: In the March 2006 issue of Emerald City, Karen Traviss talks about writing Star Wars novels and how that differs from writing her wess'har books.]