It was on a scouting trip to a nearby Waterstones, when Joanna and I were first thinking about setting up Strange Charm (before the concept even had a name), that I spotted the brightly-coloured spines of Rachel Bach’s books on the shelves. I picked up Fortune’s Pawn and instantly knew that it would be one of the first books we featured. So it may come as no surprise that Rachel was also one of the first authors I reached out to for an interview. We settled in to chat about early influences, dream castings, and the awesomeness of powered armour.
Rachel Cotterill: What was the first book to get you hooked on speculative fiction?
Rachel Bach: I couldn’t even begin to say. I grew up in a very geeky household. Fantasy and SF were everywhere, so exposure was never a problem. I can’t actually remember a time when I didn’t read SFF. If I had to pick a single book for spec fic, though, I’d have to say Frank Herbert’s Dune. I was primarily a fantasy girl until I stole my Mom’s copy of Dune. I read that thing over and over until the pages fell out, and to this day, the vision of sprawling, aristocratic space worlds is one that dominates my vision of cool scifi.
RC: Heh, I borrowed my mum’s battered copy of Dune (and its many sequels) too. Good times! So what are your top three favourite books by female speculative fiction writers?
RB: Ouch. This is hard. Hmmm. Well, if I was pressed to just pick three, I’d say The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, Crystal Singer by Anne McCaffrey, and the entire Sirantha Jax series by Ann Aguirre. The first two titles are perennial favorites, but I only discovered Ms. Aguirre’s books in the last few years, and they are amazing. Man, I wish I’d had them as a teen!
RC: Which SFF world do you most wish was real, and why?
RB: I’m going to cheat and say the world of Star Trek. It’s not my favorite world by any means, but the universes in SF tend to be terrifying, horrible places I’d never want to live in. The Federation, however, is pretty much an egalitarian utopia, so that’s where I’d actually want to be.
I’d still want my own suit of powered armor, though!
RC: The Paradox series feels very cinematic. What would be your dream casting for the Fool’s crew?
RB: I’ve always thought Michelle Rodriguez would make an amazing Devi. MMA champion turned actress Gina Carano would also do a good job, especially with actual asskicking parts. Both actresses have the right intensity, which is the most important part. A certain amount of barely restrained violence is critical to Devi’s character.
As for the rest of the cast, I always thought it would be amazing to see Nathan Fillion doing a serious turn as Caldswell. Nova is basically Luna Lovegood in space, so Evanna Lynch (who played Lovegood in the Harry Potter movies) is my #1 pick for her (and the Luna I always saw in my head). Sadly, I have no idea who could play Rupert. I’ve never seen an actor who really clicked for me. I am always open for suggestion if anyone has any good ideas!
RC: Besides Devi herself, which character was the most fun to write?
RB: Probably either Nova or Hyrek. Both were amazingly fun to write. I think coming up with Nova’s crazy hippie space language edges it out, though. It was a joy to share space in harmony with her.
RC: Devi is amazing in her own right, but she wouldn’t be half of what she is without her armour. Can you tell us more about how you invented the Lady Gray?
RB: The Lady Gray comes straight out of “shit Rachel wishes she had.” I can’t even remember where I first heard about powered armor, but I’ve wanted a set for a long as I can remember. A beautiful, powerful machine that fills in all my weaknesses (eyes in the back of my head, protection from the vacuum of space, super strength, super speed, etc.) and lets me shoot aliens like a boss? Sign me up!
Author wish fulfillment aside, though, powered armor is also an amazingly useful narrative tool. It gave me a way to make Devi super human, but in a fragile way. Wrecking her armor, especially in seriously-deadly-to-normal-people situations, was amazing for creating tension. So the Lady Gray worked as both a super-cool-author-toy and a writing mechanic. Hard to beat that!
RC: Speaking of armour, it obviously gives the Paradoxian characters a huge advantage over the Terrans. Is there a reason they haven’t adopted this particular Paradoxian technology?
RB: I mention it briefly in book 1, but didn’t go into it in depth, but Paradoxian armor is actually insanely hard to use. Paradoxians can do it because they train in armor use from a very young age due to their crazy militaristic society (Devi, for example, started Junior Armor League at age 8). Because of this learning curve, Terran armor, which is made to be mastered in just a few years, tends to be much simpler and therefore, according to Paradoxians at least, inferior.
There are actually suits of Terran Armor which are equivalent to Paradoxian (see the HVFP team in book 2), but Devi would never admit such blasphemy. Armor use has never been as widespread in the TR as on Paradox though simply due to the fact that they’re not obsessed with the stuff as a culture like they are on Paradox.
RC: You’ve populated the Paradox universe with several distinct species, which gives a great opportunity to explore prejudices and social norms without the shadow of contemporary expectations. Can you say a little more about the way you developed the different cultures?
RB: When I was first building the universe, I knew I wanted very different cultures. This was also my chance to really play with how society would adapt for, say, a warrior culture where you could choose your gender, or a culture where every member was saddled with a flocking instinct that overrode individual personalities. This is the sort of thought experiment I live for as an author, and making all the various cultures, alien and human, was pure fun for me! Even better, Devi only visits most of these cultures, so I got to brush on the most important aspects without having to worry about the tiny details of writing a full book inside one. It’s kind of like author tourism, and I really just loved it.
RC: We’re noticing an increasing tendency for teenagers to save the world in SFF these days, so it’s refreshing to read about grown-up characters with complex lives and histories. How much backstory did you need to develop, that doesn’t make it into the pages of the trilogy?
RB: All the characters had a ton of back story that never made it into the books. Devi in particular had an entire history for her time in the Blackbirds that probably could have been a book in and of itself. I built all this stuff first, because I thought it was interesting, and second, because it helped me create a base of experience for Devi that helped me understand how she would make decisions. Real people don’t exist in a vacuum. We’re giant piles of experiences and memories and prejudices and hard lessons learned. That was what I wanted to recreate for Devi–a merc who’s been around the galaxy a few times and views the world with a confident, professional eye. For this to function, though, I had to know what she’d been through in her life, which meant lots of back story and character development. It really wan’t work, though. Devi’s pretty fun to pal around with!
RC: You write intergalactic sci-fi (with spaceships!) but also high fantasy (with dragons!). [Note: Rachel’s fantasy is published under the name of Rachel Aaron.] What are the most notable differences and commonalities you find as a writer, switching between these genres?
RB: I’ll probably get some flack for this, but for me and the way I write, the only real difference between fantasy and SF is flavor. Both genres require creating realistic secondary worlds, magical systems, and characters who spring naturally from these new environments. Whether those characters are powered armor badasses, wizards, or dragons is largely a matter of what flavor I want to write at the time. I’ve always been a fantasist at heart, though, which is why I think Fortune’s Pawn reads more like urban fantasy with spaceships than hard SF. I’m always about the character drama and the sweep of the story over whether or not something is scientifically accurate. The number one goal for anything I write is, is it fun? Is it entertaining? Would I stay up all night reading this and not care? That’s my gold standard. Everything else is just details.
RC: What are you currently working on? And can we look forward to any more stories set in the Paradox universe?
RB: Currently, I’m working on the sequel to Nice Dragons Finish Last, my urban fantasy about the worst dragon ever trying to make a living in post-apocalyptic Detroit. Once that series is wrapped up, though, the next project on my plate is a new trilogy set in the Paradox world about an all female Blackbird Armored Mercenary crash team on a mission gone wrong. I’ll also be addressing some of the questions left hanging from the first series about the Sainted King and what’s actually going on with Paradox itself, and Devi will make a guest appearance. So, in short, it should rock!
RC: Well, now I really, really can’t wait for that! Thanks, Rachel.