April 24, 2015

Plague Confederacy: an interview with Alison Sinclair, author of "Contagion: Eyre"

Eyre has survived the collapse of the galactic empire better than most of the lost colonies with a central government, a world trade network, an effective medical system - and a pathological fear of death. When the medical re-contact ship, Waiora, arrives with its dual mission of finding the plague and stabilizing surviving colonies, its crew is quickly immersed in a religious schism that threatens their mission and their lives. As a mysterious contagion threatens lives and incites revolution against the Caducean Order, the Waiorans must choose between the success of their mission and their most deeply held values. This is the second volume of The Plague Confederacy series from Alison Sinclair.

Available on Amazon.com

I had the chance to ask Alison a few questions about the second book in her Plague Conderacy series. Enjoy!

Gef: What was the impetus behind the Plague Confederacy.

Alison: I started out with a plan to write 3 novels over the next 4-5 years. One novel about a physician from a very different tradition, one book about a medical starship, and one book about a medical dystopia. The first wound up being a trunk novel, since I have not been able to solve its problems. The second was Breakpoint: Nereis. By the time I had written the second draft of that, it had hatched a plot-arc and was demanding a sequel. I had a central character (Teo) whose faith was strong and had previously caused her problems, and religion was very much in the news and public consciousness. I fancied challenging the Waiorans’ blithe assumption that the medical part of their mission was the uncontroversial one. Hence, Contagion: Eyre.

Gef: Is there much difficulty in approaching a sequel as opposed to the first book in the series? Is there anything you did differently in your process this time around?

Alison: Not much difficulty, no, and definitely not in comparison to Lightborn and Shadowborn, second and third book of a trilogy. The structure of the Plague Confederacy series is episodic-with-arc, so I just had the one plot thread (granted, it's a significant plot thread) continuing, and that only motivates one member of my cast, Phi. That keeps down the complexity of the carryover from book to book. In addition, since I was starting anew with a new setting, I could refine the central conflict to challenge a character (Teo) whom I had already established.

Gef: There's been a lot of star gazing in the mainstream media lately, at least it seems that way with chatter about a potential Mars mission, potential life on one of Saturn's moons, so how optimistic are you about humanity reaching out beyond the Moon in the years ahead?

Alison: Isn’t it great? When I was a child, I built a little plastic moon module, and now I have an iPad app that pops up a notification every time another exoplanet is added to the database. (Thus invalidating all the merry handwaving and planet picking that I and others have done for decades: a hazard of the profession.)

I'm optimistic about our colonizing the solar system. It’s within achievable science and technology. It will be expensive on a scale that would make even military budgets shrivel, and it won't happen tomorrow, or even in the next few decades. That's also assuming we can preserve both ourselves and the institutions needed to support the project until it becomes self-sustaining. That may prove the bigger challenge. But it is doable.

Gef: How intensive does the research process get for you? What little tricks have you picked up with approaching the research phase of writing?

Alison: It varies. There are two aspects: internal self-consistency and external accuracy. Internal consistency is more a matter of trying to get the pieces to work together, and for that I do a certain amount of conceptual-type research, get the concepts as straight as I can, and then use my imagination from there. External accuracy is where I have to get down to details, and check against what's known. My most research-intensive book to date was Cavalcade, published in 1998 and set a few years in the future, with a human cast. Aside from the contribution of my recent medical degree, my research included structural colours, the history of microscopy, international aerospace law, disaster response, US Special Forces, and military-civilian relations.

For Contagion: Eyre, the major topic was public religion. I'm a product of the post-Enlightenment privatization of religion and the high level Church-State divide (although Christianity is so embedded in British and North American culture it becomes invisible). So I had to study up on how religion functioned in cultures and states that did not have those forces operating, on my way to coming up with a fictional religion and culture that works with my story.

I’m not convinced I have any tricks. I have a tendency to disappear down a rabbit hole and try to learn everything, when I know in principle much more efficient way to proceed would be to find an expert. But I still have to get quite far into the story before I know what I need to know.

Gef: What do you consider to be the strength or saving grace of science fiction?

Alison: Being able to slip constraints and cast off assumptions, particularly the social ones. Science fiction was liberating for a seventies teenage girl interested in science and discovery. While the media endlessly debated the place of women in the workplace and public life in general, inside my head women were running whole planets.

And ... Watching imaginative people play with science. The sheer intellectual pleasure of assembling a world from clues. The way social movements ripple through science fiction, and the imaginative forms writers’ responses can take. Being downright casual about hundreds of thousands of years, millions of light-years, and personally acquainted with life at scales from microbes to Gods (even if all of it’s fictional).

I suppose what I’m trying to say is: it’s fun.

Gef: What's the worst piece of writing advice you've received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?

Alison: Stop. You should be doing something else. That really dwarfs all the others.

I’m not sure there are any I wish would just go away. Development as a writer is individual, lives and circumstances change, and different pieces of work have different requirements. Just about every piece of advice is probably just what someone, somewhere, at some point, needs.

Gef: What kind of guilty pleasures do you have when it comes to books or movies or whatnot?

Alison: Strangely, all my guilty pleasures seem to have become respectable over time. Science fiction and fantasy were my guilty pleasure—or more precisely my defiant pleasure—for years and years when I was supposed to be reading Great Literature. I read young adult books long after I qualified as one, and my writing of my PhD thesis were interrupted by bouts of comic-book debauchery.

My fondness for military SF, especially naval SF, might count as a guilty pleasure. Particularly for someone who is firmly on the side of war being a failure of statesmanship rather than an extension of it. But in my fiction, I enjoy life-and-death stakes, tech, military tactics, and power-politics. In movies, my unfashionable pleasure involves good dialogue, and lots of it, excellent acting, emotional intensity, and logical plotting. Which probably explains why I've seen more live theatre than movies over the last few years. I’m an avid listener to radio.

Gef: What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans? 

Alison: The sequel to Contagion: Eyre, of course. Working title is Contact: Umber, though that may change without notice. I had a prolonged false start, but I now have an engaging grandfather-granddaughter pair about to cross paths with the Waiorans, a culture that is going to challenge even Val's expertise, and a medical mystery that is once again going to prove Phi is too smart for her own good.

Alison Sinclair is the author of the science fiction novels Legacies, Blueheart, and Cavalcade (nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award). She released the first novel in the Plague Confederacy series last year, Breakpoint: Nereis. She currently lives in Ottawa where she is working on the next novel in the Plague Confederacy.

Alison Sinclair Website : Twitter

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