First Salik War:
I discussed some of Jean Johnson's science fiction and SFR in previous posts and will rave more about her work in the future. But now you should listen to what she says was behind the science concepts she has used.
-------------GUEST POST BY JEAN JOHNSON-----------
Greetings, Dear Readers!
Does everyone have their safety goggles and lab coats? Excellent. Today’s session is on blending science and romance into fiction, and why entangling the two is actually a pretty good idea.
Now, there have been plenty of debates on where the dividing line is between things like paranormal/fantasy romance versus urban fantasy. The conclusion which myself, Kat Richardson, Shannon Butcher and Jim Butcher all came to during Norwescon 34 (April 21-24, 2011) was that the focus of the story is what determines whether it’s paranormal romance set in a fantastical contemporary setting, or urban fantasy with romantic elements. But we’re going to talk about how you can blend science and romance, not just fantasy and romance.
Fantasy romance has been around since the first fairy tales with hints of romance in them started circulating. Whether it’s the brave lad wooing the princess or the plucky lass winning the prince, we understand those tropes and are familiar with them. Science fiction, however, has been (rather wrongfully) considered more of a “boy’s thing” and so a lot of romance writers don’t try to blend it because they don’t feel their readers would be interested in it.
Or if they do, they may not be heavily into reading science fiction, and thus don’t understand it for its own merit; they’re looking for a fancy but quick backdrop in which to place the setting, somewhere new and exotic. Or there are those science fiction writers who don’t read romance, but try to wedge some romance into their stories without really paying attention to how romances actually work, both as a genre and as an actual “how do romances actually work in real life?” kind of thing.
Thankfully, there are those of us who read both romance and science fiction. A lot. I grew up cutting my literary teeth on Johanna Lindsay and Alan Dean Foster. I’ve read Dara Joy and Andre Norton. I’ve cuddled up with Catherine Coulter and Anne McCaffrey. In fact, I figured I could write in my three favorite categories as a reader, science fiction, fantasy, and romance, because Alan Dean Foster has had a successful career writing science fiction, fantasy, and books based on movies. My life goal is to write as many stories or more as the 150 which Andre Norton got published over the span of her own career.
So when I set out to write, I knew that I’d be hopping from genre to genre. I knew that I wanted to write science into my science fiction, too. I also learned fairly quickly that I suck at contemporary romance; I just have to put in some sort of fantastical element, or it’s just not a story I want to write. Other people have other experiences, but hey, plenty of room for plenty of different sorts of stories, right? Right.
My latest release, THE TERRANS, which is the first novel in the First Salik War trilogy, is predominantly a science fiction First Contact novel. The startlement, surprise, irritation, humor, aggravation, bewilderment, and wonder of trying to figure out how to deal with an alien culture, an alien lifeform, is a fun plot to map out and follow. There is lots of room for political intrigue, social gaffes, cultural misunderstandings, and potential conflicts all over the place.
(For those of you interested, THE TERRANS can be found at at http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-terrans-jean-johnson/1120853148?ean=9780425276914
as well as through Black Bond Books up in Vancouver, BC, Canada, et cetera.
At the same time that I figured out I wanted to write a First Contact story, I knew I had to find a way to draw the readers in and get them not only interested in reading the plot, but involved in the struggles of the characters. Politics is kinda boring for a lot of people, so why should anyone care? Well, in this particular universe, I developed a logical way for psychic powers to exist (“Aliens!”), and developed the science-y stuff on how it all works, because I like my science fiction to have an attempt at science in it. (Remember, it doesn’t have to be right if it’s just a theory; once the theory is out there, then experiments can be devised to test the theory to see if it holds water or not.)
Once I had that established, it occurred to me that if psychic abilities are the manipulation of energy and matter by the mind—itself a source of energy and matter—then it could be quite possible that two minds could become quantum entangled. If you don’t know anything about quantum entanglement, it basically means that if you “entangle” two molecules into having a matching “spin” to them, you can separate them over great distances and they will still have the same interrelated spin. You can try to change and measure one waaaay over here and know that the one waaaay over there has the corresponding measurement because they’re entangled.
So why not minds? On the surface, telepathy would seem to be a great way to overcome obstacles in communication, right? Alas, I believe Douglas Adams was far more accurate about the end results when he said, “Meanwhile, the poor Babel Fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.” Or to put it into more mundane terms, gentlemen know that the best verbal answer to “Do these jeans make my butt look fat?” is always, always, “No, dear,” or “You look perfect to me in whatever you wear,” regardless of what they may actually think.
Mercedes Lackey, in a line from her Vanyel books in her wonderful Valdemar series, once remarked that “lifebonding” (her version of entangling two souls or two minds) is actually more awkward than awesome, because you constantly have to juggle the needs of both people; you have to work harder at getting along than any other pairing because you’re stuck with each other.
So thinking about all these things, I bwahaha’d a bit and wondered if I could get my heroine, Jacaranda Mackenzie, and her counterpart from the other faction, Li’eth, stuck in a quantum entanglement of their minds. In my series, this is called a Gestalt (geh-sh-TALL-t), which is a lovely German word which boils down to “the end result is bigger than the sum of its parts”, or basically, 2+2=5 and not just =4, for sufficiently strongly enough reactive values of 2.
Now, there are several alien species in the universe of the First Salik War. In fact, readers familiar with my military science fiction series Theirs Not To Reason Why (the first in the series, A SOLDIER’S DUTY, is found at http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/soldiers-duty-jean-johnson/1102164487?ean=9780441020638
http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/soldiers-duty-jean-johnson/1102164487?ean=9780441020638 )will have already met the Salik species because that story struggles with the problems of the Second Salik War. But there were also two branches of humanity, the Terrans and the V’Dan, and I thought it would be more fun, and more plausible, to entangle the brains of two Humans.
That meant having to come up with the distinct and unique culture of the V’Dan, who—according to the history I drew up for that universe—have been cut off from Terrans for almost ten thousand years. We don’t really get into the V’Dan culture in the series Theirs Not to Reason Why because it’s entirely from a Terran perspective. It’s also had roughly two hundred years of contact with Terrans by that point, and like any situation where two cultures start interacting, they’ll have had an impact on each other, for better or for worse.
In the First Salik War series, however, I knew I could show these two Human empires being as alien and separate as they could get and still be a story about two branches of the same species interacting and clashing. Throw in the other aliens and their reactions and interactions to the new players who “are not like the V’Dan we’re used to dealing with,” and you have a delightful recipe for lots and oodles and scads of expectations falling short, cultural misunderstandings, assumptions being made, and the whole making an “ass” out of “u” and “me,” so on and so forth. Lots of fun, lots of room for a writer to work.
So I took this idea of a telepathic Gestalt, and poked and prodded at it from all angles. Since I’ve been working on this series on and off for a couple of decades, I was able to iron out a lot of wrinkles, trim and tailor it this way and that, and I think have come up with a pretty good story. We have Jacaranda MacKenzie, whose telepathy has been so strong, she’s never considered settling down with anyone. This has made her an excellent civil servant as well as a former soldier, so on and so forth.
She is of mixed ethnicity, though she identifies strongest with her Hawai’ian heritage, and she is earnestly interested in finding solutions that will benefit the most number of people, not just a select few. (Yes, authors will find a way to sneak our opinions into a story in the hopes it will inspire future generations. Sometimes those opinions might even be good ones, but only time will tell.) She is lucky to live in an era where skin-based prejudice no longer exists, where corruption in politics is rooted out ruthlessly, and your representative is actually trustworthy. Do they still have problems in the Terran United Planets? Oh my, yes…but they’re willing to acknowledge and work on them.
Then there’s Li’eth, a prince of his people, destined to serve in the military for a while because that’s one of the things extra children do when they’re not the primary heir. He comes from a culture where physical maturity is displayed by jungen, which is a set of colorful markings which appear on the skin, the irises of the eye, and even the color of one’s hair can be changed. This has led his entire culture into the “obvious correlation” of thinking that if you don’t have these marks, you must still be pre-pubescent, and thus still immature. Add in the fact that his people treat psychic abilities as a mystical religious experience, whereas the Terrans treat it as a palpable science, and you have yet more awkwardness awaiting the pair.
I also decided that neither of them could be in their early twenties, let alone teenagers. We don’t give political power to anyone under 25, and we certainly don’t hand over control of a First Contact situation to a teenager. I didn’t even want to put them in their late twenties. People need time to gain experience in life and in work, to figure out how to get things done, to be entrusted with a great deal of clout, if not actual power. So mid-30s seemed about right.
So, we’ve got quantum entangled brains, check. We have culture clashes over perceptions of maturity, check. We have people who do understand politics and governance interacting in First Contact situations, check. Wait…entangled brains. They’re sharing thoughts. Not like constantly, but very easily all the same. So…how would these two react to that? Should I put in some romance, or not?
Going back to that Mercedes Lackey quote, it occurred to me that if they could communicate in packets of thought with mental images and underlying subtext flavorings, it could be useful for communication, but it would also require constant mental adjustments to get along with each other. Since neither one wants their respective governments to go to war with the other—most civilized cultures don’t—that means they would have to get to know each other, get familiar and friendly with each other, and…
Hm…are they both heterosexual? (I rolled some dice, the dice said, “Yep!”) Do they find each other attractive? (Rolled more dice, again “Yep!” came up. I can’t help it; I grew up playing D&D and other RPGs, and thus use a random number generator to help make up my mind when I’m ambivalent. I like to think of it as injecting random potential for fun.) Well, since they were both single, both forced to work together, both find each other attractive…oh, wait. Li’eth is from a culture where if you don’t have the right sort of marks coloring your body, you’re, um…well, you have curves and stuff, and you’re thirty-five years old, but…society says you’re a child. Ahah! Another source for culture clash!
Plus there’s that whole thing about “exerting undue influence” that crops up whenever two people on opposing sides of a debate or a treaty or whatever start dating each other on top of everything else. So how would a career representative and an imperial prince balance everything? The needs of their people? Their own brains becoming psychically entangled to the point where they suffer when they’re separated? Their interest in each other? The ethical and moral quandries of “sleeping with the as-yet-not-firmly-stablished-ally” if not “sleeping with the enemy”…?
Well, the focus of the story, as I said, is more science fiction than romance. But you can put romance into science fiction. You can put science fiction into romance. The plot can be X and Y and even Z…but how the characters deal with all of that, how they change and grow and struggle, that is what makes the plot into a story that grips you and pulls you in. Because you want to know how they deal with all of that. Because it allows you to journey with them as they try to manage love life and career and complications.
As a reader, you become all the more invested in their struggles. You become a sympathizer for their failures. You become a cheerleader for their triumphs. You become, Dear Readers—if just for a little while—entangled in the spinning of their lives.
If you have any questions, you can always contact me via:
My website, http://www.JeanJohnson.net
…And I also have a Patreon which gives sneak advanced peeks at book covers, chapter and scene selectsion, so on and so forth: http://www.patreon.com/JeanJAuthor