New C. S. Friedman Interview

C. S. Friedman's This Virtual Night (Canada, USA, Europe) will be published next week, so it was high time to invite the author for a chat! =)

Here's the blurb:

Returning to the universe of New York Times Notable book This Alien Shore comes a new space opera from an acknowledged master of science fiction.

When deep-space travel altered the genes of the first interstellar colonists, Earth abandoned them. But some of the colonies survived, and a new civilization of mental and physical “Variants” has been established, centered around clusters of space stations known as the outworlds.

Now the unthinkable has happened: a suicide assault has destroyed the life support system of a major waystation. All that is known about the young men responsible is that in their last living moments they were receiving messages from an uninhabited sector of space, and were playing a virtual reality game.

Two unlikely allies have joined forces to investigate the incident: Ru Gaya, a mercenary explorer with a taste for high risk ventures, and game designer Micah Bello, who must find the parties responsible for the attack in order to clear his name. From the corridors of a derelict station lost to madness to an outlaw stronghold in the depths of uncharted space, the two now follow the trail of an enemy who can twist human minds to his purpose, and whose plans could bring about the collapse of outworld civilization.

You can read an extract from the book here.


- Without giving too much away, can you give us a taste of the tale that is THIS VIRTUAL NIGHT?

You posted the book summary in your review…can we stick that in here? :)

- Were you aware that you would one day revisit the universe of THIS ALIEN SHORE?

I knew as I was creating TAS that the setting had the potential for more many novels. Between the space stations of the outworlds and long-lost colonies where humanity has taken on new forms, the racial tensions between those colonies and Earth, and the interface between human brains and data networks, there are countless possible story threads.

Although there are many books wherein characters “plug into” a computer network, I have not read any where I felt the ramifications of that were done justice. What affect would that have on the human soul? On one’s sense of identity? How do the darker instincts which lurk in the shadows of the human psyche fit into the picture? It takes more than one book to explore such questions!

The beauty of science fiction is that you can tell an exciting story while exploring what it means to be human. The universe of THIS ALIEN SHORE is perfectly designed to do both.

- What can readers expect from the upcoming sequel? Any tentative title and release date?

Working title is THIS VARIANT TIDE. (See a pattern there?) My main characters from VIRTUAL NIGHT will star in it, as they delve into secret underworld of the moddies --tech junkies who have had their brainware illegally augmented, sometimes with disastrous results—and face off against a Variant race with a chilling agenda. My editor said it has one of the darkest antagonist concepts she had ever seen, so I am sure you will like it ;-)

- What was the spark that generated the idea which drove you to write THIS VIRTUAL NIGHT in the first place?

This Alien Shore mentioned virts in passing –virtual reality games in which one’s brainware creates the illusion of a fantasy world to replace reality—and I wanted to explore that concept more, to look at the darker side of altered reality. It’s really hard to say more about it without spoiling the surprise.

- This current pandemic has turned our lives upside down. How has covid-19 affected your life, personally and as an author?


Well, it has given me an appreciation for just how much I value eating out now and then, and I don’t think I have ever yearned for anything as powerfully as I want a haircut right now. Otherwise it hasn’t changed my life much. I’m an introvert living alone so I spent most of my time in lone pursuits anyway. But I am VERY high risk for covid fatality—old age, obesity, asthma—and the degree of care I have to take to do the smallest thing out of the house is becoming exhausting. And depressing. Today I had someone come in to fix my bathroom fan, and even with precautions, it’s nerve-wracking to have to wipe down every surface he touched. I tend towards depression anyway, and this is not helping. I really want this to be over.

That said, there is a whole world of people out there who have more time on their hands than they know what to do with, and I like to think my books can help with that. :)

- We've been in touch since before the creation of the Hotlist and I don't think I've ever seen you so excited about a new novel. What is it about THIS VIRTUAL NIGHT that has you so excited?

It just came together perfectly, like the pieces of a puzzle, plot development and character growth and pacing… there’s a surprise revelation halfway into the book that I’m particularly proud of. But most of all I love the relationship between my two protagonists. She is a mercenary adventurer and adrenalin junkie, willing to risk her own life for the sake of a novel experience; he is a fantasy game designer and virtual reality programmer, who has spent his life crafting adventure stories without ever leaving the safety of his desk. They are opposites in so many ways, and yet there is a wonderful chemistry between them. They are the only characters I’ve ever written about where I go to the end of the book and thought, “I really want to keep writing about these people.” So I will. :)

It was fun to write, it is fun to read, and I think my fans will love it.

- It took nearly four years for this new book to see the light. What was it about THIS VIRTUAL NIGHT that made it more difficult to write?

I’ve struggled all my life with clinical depression, and for a variety of reasons having nothing to do with this book, it just got the better of me for a while. Depression affects my language skills, and nothing I wrote was coming out right. When I finally pulled out of it I threw out everything I’d done and just started the book afresh.

- You've already revisited the universe of IN CONQUEST BORN in THE WILDING, and two installments are now planned in the universe of THIS ALIEN SHORE. Which begs the question: Are you planning to revisit the settings of THE MADNESS SEASON, or the Coldfire and the Magister trilogies in novel-length projects?

No. Those worlds were designed for stories that had clear endings. I feel strongly that such works should be left to stand on their own, so that readers can imagine what happened next. Also, each of those books ended in a way that altered the world it took place in, so the dynamic that made the original book so successful would no longer exist in a sequel. I attempted one with the Wilding, but it was a difficult project. I write SF and fantasy because I love creating worlds, and when you set another story in the same world as before, it just isn’t as exciting to work on.

The universe of THIS ALIEN SHORE is an exception to that because it was designed to support multiple novels. With space stations that function as planets—each with its own culture and politics-- and a universe full of altered humans, there are so many interesting corners of the outworlds to explore, I don’t think I could ever run out of fresh ideas.

- In a previous interview, when asked why you had spent your entire career at Daw Books, you said that it was because of your editor, Betsy Wollheim. In this day and age when more and more writers go down the self-publishing road and forgo editors altogether, what is it about Betsy that has made such a difference on you and your novels over the years?

You mean aside from the fact that her faith in me is part of what got me through those awful few years? She’s a brilliant editor who is totally tuned into my work, and can sense what I’m trying to do even when I fail to pull it off properly. Such insight is worth its weight in gold.

- Speaking of self-publishing, a few years back you self-published DOMINION, a novella acting as a prequel for the Coldfire trilogy. Have you ever considered doing this again?

I’m not a fast writer, as you have no doubt noticed, and I really angst over short fictions. So taking on a project like that would mean putting aside my novel for a pretty long time. Maybe the day will come when I can afford to do that, but right now I don’t feel it’s an option.

- Do you have any short fiction pieces in the pipeline that you might submit to future anthologies?

I have some story ideas I am working on that I intend to submit to magazines. Someday I would like to have enough short fiction to publish a collection, but I am so slow at writing short stories, I may not live long enough for that to happen.

- In recent years, like fellow bestselling SFF authors Brandon Sanderson and Joe Abercrombie, you have tried to tap into the extremely lucrative young adult market without much success. What makes the YA market such a hard nut to crack for writers known for their adult-oriented works.

Who knows? We don’t really understand what makes one good book a bestseller and another good book not, even among regular titles. You write the best book you can and send it out there for the fates to judge.

- There are a number of different perspectives as to the function secondary-world or epic fantasy carries out for readers. Le Guin once wrote that such fantasy deepened and intensified the mysteries of life, while R. Scott Bakker has put forward that humanity is neurologically ill-equipped for a modern, rationalist world and this leads some to seek access to a pre-modern worldview (or the fiction of one) where reality conforms to the mind's irrational, evolutionarily hardwired expectations. Others have denigrated it as mere escapism, an alternative opiate for the masses.

What is your view as to fantasy's function?

I think it is twofold.

1) It is entertainment. We read novels to explore other worlds and experience what it is like to be other people. I don’t think any more explanation is required. Humans love fiction. It doesn’t require deep reasons. We enjoy stories that take place beyond the boundaries of our mundane lives for the same reason that the ancient Greeks loved their poets and the Scandinavians their bards. Humans enjoy having their imagination stimulated.

2) Both Fantasy and SF allow us to explore what it is to be human. By speculating on how various facets of human nature might play out in an alien setting, we gain greater insight into those elements, and thus into ourselves.

- Were there any perceived conventions of the science fiction genre which you wanted to twist or break when you set out to write THIS ALIEN SHORE and its sequels?

Oh, yes! I was hoping someone would ask this. :)

Back in the 80’s, when cyberpunk first came out, I was reading a novel—maybe Neuromancer—wherein a character plugged a computer connection into a socket in in the back of his head. And in that moment y suspension of disbelief totally crashed. All I could think was: SEBUM. You know, that oily film that accumulates on your skin, made up of oil and sweat and flakes of dead skin? How were they keeping that out of the head socket? How did the sweat not corrode the connector? What would happen when the socket broke down and had to be replaced? Because it would, you know; no technology lasts forever. And what would happen when a virus got into one’s greyware, which was also inevitable. Hell, I’ve twice had to trash a computer because it picked up malware so nasty that there was no way to save it. How do you replace something that is in your head? And even if everything works like it’s supposed to, and doesn’t break down, what happens when upgrades render the stuff in your head obsolete? None of the cyberpunk novels I read ever addressed these things realistically, so I decided I wanted to try.

I began to think about what brainware would really have to be like, to be functional and reliable. And I decided upon a two-part system. Internal biotech would enable the brain to communicate with outside systems, provide storage, and run a few irograms that operated inside the body. And that was it. No one could load new software into their head without a physical operation being required. Malware would be no danger because nothing that was inloaded could alter the programming. And because brainware was completely internal, there would be no chance for physical contamination. Meanwhile, the more active and vulnerable features of the system would be in a headset that the brainware controlled. Headset software could be altered, upgraded, infected, repaired, or replaced, as needed.

Now, twenty years after I wrote that, scientists are experimenting with mind control, placing a crown of contacts on a person’s head so they can detect activity in different parts of the brain, and teaching the subject how to trigger the necessary signals. I can’t tell you the shiver that runs up my spine when I see it. The key difference—other than my system of contacts being internal—is that they brainware I created uses sensory response to produce the necessary signals. Visual input maps geographically onto the brain, as does somatic awareness. Since visualizations are processed the same way actual sight is, envisioning the color blue will thus trigger activity in a specific part of the brain. Easy to control.

So, from the simple thought “what about sebum?” arose biotech concepts that are slowly but surely entering our reality.

- According to George R. R. Martin, most authors are either architects or gardeners. Which type of writer are you?

I’ve never heard those terms. I attempt to plan out my novel before I write it, but some ideas occur to me as I am writing, so that’s an ongoing process. Does that answer the question?

- How has your interaction with the fans and the critics colored your choices in characterization and plot over the years? Has there been anything that you've changed because of that interaction?

Other than fans pressuring me to write a sequel to TAS, I can’t think of anything.

- Your career now spans more than thirty years. Looking back upon it, what are you the most proud of?

My career. :)

Seriously. Very few people are able to work full time as writers. I’ve managed it. That is a source of great pride to me. My dad was a writer and I know that if he was still alive, that’s what he would be most proud of.

I like to think that some of my books have important things to say about the human experience. When a reader writes to let me know that Coldfire helped bolster his faith, or an autistic reader tells me how Guera’s approach to neurodiversity encouraged her to seek new strengths within herself, I’m damned proud of that. We write because we want to touch people’s lives. I am moved and humbled when readers tell me I have done that for them.

- Anything else you wish to share with us?

Covid has cancelled our live cons, and with them all the readings and workshops and booksignings that we used to spread the word about our books. So if you enjoy this new one, please tell other people about it!

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