The Elite Anthology Interview: Drew Wagar  

By Rose Thurlbeck

Drew Wagar needs no introduction to the Elite community. Author of the Oolite saga, Torn and Elite: Reclamation, he famously ran a Kickstarter campaign in support of another and is rightly honoured within Elite: Dangerous with a station bearing his name.

Drew is now hard at work on his latest project: The Shadeward Saga, the first volume of which (Emanation) is scheduled for release later in the year from Fantastic Books Publishing.

Rose Thurlbeck - I get the feeling you are really excited about the Shadeward Saga.

Drew Wagar - Shadeward is quite a 'big deal' for me in more ways than one. I was working on it before the whole Elite: Dangerous event occurred back in 2012. That forced me to shelve Shadeward whilst I dealt with and eventually wrote Elite: Reclamation.

Whilst ER was great fun, it reminded me of the constraints present in writing in "someone else's universe". I didn't agree with some of the creative decisions taken in the Elite universe but I had to comply with them. That was irritating.

With Shadeward, I have been able to write the "history" of my environment; the events that have already transpired, the people who have shaped my world. The characteristics of the world are also mine to imagine. Whilst this provides the freedom I craved, it has a downside - you have to spend a lot of time working on the background to make sure it is cohesive.

I was also keen to ensure it was harder SF. Elite (to pick an example completely at random!) has lots of fantasy in it; hyperdrives, lasers you can see, speed limits, inertialess engines and so on. These have, in my opinion, no place in a hard SF novel. I wanted my world, whilst seen to be wondrous and at times bewildering to its occupants, to be based on science that can be extrapolated from current understanding. Don't get me wrong, I like fantasy - I just don't want to write it. Everything in Shadeward has been researched for maximum plausibility.

The Elite writers' pack only allowed for a single book, and whilst there is a possibility of sequels, it's not clear if or when that might occur. With a single book you can only develop your story so far, only explore your characters to a certain level of depth. With Shadeward I wanted to have a bigger, more expansive story line, and have characters that change their attitudes and viewpoints within the course of the overall saga. It's not impossible to do that in a single book, but it's hard as the character evolution can feel rushed.

A big theme that I wanted to explore was the interaction between science and religion. I've already done it in a contemporary setting with my novel Torn (2011), but here was a chance to explore that in a different setting. We are seeing a lot of religious fanaticism in the world today and many people simply do not understand why these people are so motivated. I want to explain aspects of that through my writing.

These combinations are what makes Shadeward so much more compelling than Elite: Reclamation could ever have been. I think the story is more powerful, more meaningful and gets to say something new about our world today.

RT - My feeling is that if we do make it to the stars, some religions will be left behind because of their belief that God created this world for humanity to live, and it would be against His Divine Plan for us to leave. Also, some would fear that if they were to die on say, Proxima Centauri IV, how would their soul find its way to heaven? Being the spiritual creatures we are though, we will develop other belief systems and other gods.

DW - I wonder about the future of religion a lot. I personally believe the 'scientific method' remains the best way to determine facts, work out how to deal with risks and inform decision/policy making. However, it's woefully inadequate to explain emotion, meaning or fulfilment, or complex human interaction.

It's interesting to note that we're seeing quite a backlash against 'science' in the the world today, which manifests in either a general disinterest, or a more active undermining of science (as seen most notably in the Christian right's activities in the US). People want spirituality and religion, even if they are demonstrably false or unprovable in a scientific context. The continued use of alternative medicine, denial of global warming and similar effects speaks a lot about how humans 'tick'.

This duality in our rational and irrational selves is a key theme I explore.

Religion will evolve to take space travel and life elsewhere in the universe into account when it has to. Religion has already adapted to a changing cosmological model and changes in social mores, I think it will continue to do so.

RT - You recently listed Anne McCaffrey, Arthur C Clarke, Iain M Banks and Michael Moorcock as influences on Shadeward. Are there specific works by these authors that inspired you?

DW - There are some very specific works.

Anne McCaffrey's Dragon series was a major influence on me during my teenage years. I read the whole series, up until her son Todd took over. Many people consider these to be fantasy novels, but they're actually SF. Anne's world is cohesive, with no magic wands or pixie dust acting as deus ex machina devices, save perhaps the Dragons' teleportation capability. Anne also didn't feature a good versus evil story, her world was beset by a mindless indifferent enemy in the form of 'thread' which simply fell from the sky on occasion and killed people.

The interesting thing here was that, given that premise, Anne's characters were at once heroic and striving in the face of danger, yet squabbling and arguing about the petty details at the same time. It was one of the first stories I came across that portrayed real nuanced characters in SF, rather than the typically one dimensional 'heroes, heroines and bad-guys' we frequently see.

Clarke needs little introduction of course. He's something of a hard SF legend, using research and scientific advancement to inform his stories, and sometimes pre-empting them. Whilst he's most famous for the 'Space Odyssey' series, I consider his best work to be 'Rendezvous with Rama' (ignore the awful sequels by Gentry Lee) and, reportedly, his favourite novel was the equally good "Songs of distant Earth". Both feature themes of exploration, but "Songs" also has elements of tragedy and pathos as a starship arriving from a doomed Earth finds an idyllic colony settled many centuries before.

Banks had 'The Culture' of course, a sort of weird anarchistic utopia. What I liked about this was the impact on a society after you remove the 'scarcity of resource' problem and how it worked. It needed AI to operate... the 'Minds'.

Moorcock was a bit weird to be be honest. I read the Elric and Runestaff series as a teenager and loved them. Re-reading them today I find the characterisation poor and the plots contrived, but what does still shine through is the colourful imagination and description of the environment. Granbretan itself, the battle for the Kamarg are just so vivid. I wanted to aim for that level of immersion in the world.

RT - I loved The Dancers At The End Of Time. I kept trying other books set in the Multiverse, but was always disappointed. And I didn’t know Songs was Clarke’s favourite. I remember queuing at a signing for that novel, and just being so in awe of him. I think I shook his hand, but it’s all a bit of a blur.

DW - There are specific things I've taken as inspiration from all of these books, which will feature in the Shadeward Saga:

  • Hard science fiction, unadulterated by fantasy elements. The universe is wonderful enough without adding to it.

  • A sense of time and discovering things that were once known and are now lost. I love the idea of people rediscovering technology that their ancestors once knew and learning to use it once again. The same sort of feeling invoked by the sight of the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes.

  • A battle against the environment. Shadeward doesn't have 'thread' of course, but my world has difficult challenges that need to be overcome. I don't know any other SF books which have gone into detail about the problems of living on a tidally locked world around a red dwarf. It's not easy!

  • Characterisation that is complex and nuanced. There are never 'goodies and 'baddies' in my books, just people who are trying to achieve some aim, who have flaws and insecurities, and often who fervently believe they are right and others are wrong. Characters who do things for a reason, rather than just to move the plot along.

  • AI that has its own agenda.

  • Description that puts you right in the world, living and breathing it.

  • An exploration of modern themes in an SF setting. This has been done lots of times of course, but I'm looking at the issues we have a in 2015 - religious extremism, loss of confidence in politicians, suppression of minorities, class segregation and denial of scientific thinking.

RT - The more I hear about it, the more ambitious this project sounds. How much of the Saga have you planned, and do you know how many books it will take to tell your story?

DW - Well, the first book in much detail. Subsequent books less so, but I know who lives, dies, what happens and how it all ends up. I am a 'planner' so like to work things out in advance. That said, there are always surprises when I write, so it's not cast in stone.

It was originally 4, but I think at least 5 at this stage. There is the possibility of prequels too, but we'll get the first series out first! :)

RT - I'm amazed you have time to do anything else. Would you ever consider giving up the day job to become a full-time novelist?

DW - I'd do it tomorrow if I could. There's only a few minor drawbacks: being able to pay the mortgage, bills and keep food on the table. Writers earn a pittance, which relegates it to a fun hobby where I occasionally break even on expenses. I hope that I'll be able to take it up full-time (ish) when I retire, but that's at least fifteen years away!

RT - I remember Laundry author Charles Stross complaining that 90,000 words into the writing of a novel isn’t the best time for his brain to spring a magnificent plot twist upon him. Would you be happy if that happened, or is everything planned and choreographed in exquisite detail?

DW - I have added some major elements in at the end of the first book that weren't in the plan, because I suddenly thought 'how cool would that be?'. It's one of those things!

RT - When I wasn’t playing Elite II on my Amiga 1200, I was messing around with a ray tracing program called Imagine 3D. I’d bought a planet-generating plug-in and a floating point math co-processor, and spent many hours creating worlds (many hours waiting for them to appear on screen). One of my few successes was almost jewel-like in its beauty – a tapestry of lakes and mountains scattered across the surface of the world and the only thing missing was an active atmosphere. I’m still hoping to set a story on my world, but wish I could take it to the next level and model the climate on such a planet. Would it be an ideal vacation place? I don’t know.

I’m fascinated by your world-building techniques – modelling the planetary system, achieving a stable orbit of a tidally locked planet around it’s parent star and the Prism system you created for Elite: Reclamation. But how far can you go in modelling the climate of the planets you’ve created, and do you have any idea what the weather would be like?

DW - Ah... Ray tracing. I remember it fondly! :)

For the climate, the modelling software I use (SpaceEngine) does allow you set the atmosphere type, density, greenhouse effect and so on. You can add multiple clouds layers and play around with wind speeds. This gives you an idea of the possible. My tidally locked world has a massive permanent hurricane positioned over the 'substellar' pole - something that will make an appearance in a later book.

If you watch my trailer you can see some of this in action.

In terms of the detail though - I've had to read some more serious research to make sure the climate on the surface is as realistic as possible. There isn't much research done here - because there's nothing to observe yet! However, a number of theoretical models have been written. I found an excellent summary in this book.

As for specifics on the weather. The prevailing view is that air would rise at the substellar pole, taking up a large quantity of water with it. This would drift towards the terminator and cool as it moved away, dropping a lot of rain in the temperate zones. The cooling air would draw cold air from the frozen dark side and return at ground level to the substellar point.

What you have is a massive 'Hadley cell' rotation in its simplest form. This is made a bit more complex by the fact that a tidally locked world does still rotate (at the same speed as its orbit around the star) - in my case about 35 days. This means the Hadley cells distort and you get eddies in the flow (storms in effect).

Also, there are impacts due to mountain ranges causing 'cold spots' - remember that shadows are fixed on this world, so behind a mountain will be an area of everlasting shadow - so there are some interesting local phenomena too. :)

RT – In the real world it’s 2015. We have robots searching Mars for evidence of ancient seas, all the main planets have been visited and we recently landed a brave little explorer on a comet. Yet I still don’t see the lights of populated settlements shining out from a crescent moon. Is there anything you find disappointing about the reality of space exploration in the 21st century?

DW - I'm in two minds here. The child in me is absolutely gutted there is no warp drive, no hyperspace, no transporter, no orbital space station with special velcro shoes, not even a flying DeLorean. The scientist in me is fascinated with the probe based exploration of the solar system, the discovery of exoplanets and our ability to probe the secrets of the universe with x-ray and radio telescopes. It's not unfolded as I might have hoped, but it's fascinating nonetheless. The recent flurry of interest around the 'EmDrive' is interesting, fingers crossed it's real! I hope to have life, of some description, confirmed on another planet - perhaps by the use of advanced spectroscopy, before I pop my clogs!

RT - Finally I have to ask: have you read any of the other Elite: Dangerous fiction?

DW - I have read all the Fantastic Book Publishing novels, T James' Out of the Darkness and Michael Brookes' Elite: Legacy.

RT - So all the FBP novels, but not the Tales? That does it. Drew Wagar, this interview is over. Thank you very much.

Drew Wagar's first novel, Torn, is available from Amazon

Elite: Reclamation is out now from Fantastic Books Publishing, and will soon be out on Audible.

To find out more about Drew (who promises that he has read Tales From The Frontier) and the progress of Shadeward, visit his blog.

Tales From The Frontier
An official Elite: Dangerous book.

Published by Fantastic Books Publishing

Website by Codecraft