Elizabeth Moon has been publishing novels since 1988 and recently returned to one of her most successful and loved universes, Vatta’s War. In the new series, Vatta’s Peace, Moon reunites her audience with heroine Kylara Vatta, space-fleet commander.
As one of the most enduring female voices in military science fiction, we wanted to talk to Elizabeth about the logistics of writing a series and what it is like to return to characters after such a long break.
When it comes to science fiction, you tend to come back to space opera and military SF. What is it about these sub-genres that most intrigue you?
Space exploration and military subjects have both intrigued me from childhood. Thus it was natural to read in those areas, and also write in those areas. Before I read science fiction (started that in the ninth grade) I was already reading about developments in rocketry and astronomy, as well as military history and memoirs from WWII and the Korean War. My mother had been an aeronautical engineer, a liaison engineer for the Army Air Corps with an aircraft plant, during WWII, enforcing change orders and ensuring quality control. And after college, I joined the military myself. So the background was there.
Most of your novels are a part of a series. How do you handle the logistics of planning and writing a series?
Badly, usually. I don’t plan an entire series, except that experience suggests odd-numbered series self-organize better than two or four or six books, because the “keystone” of a long story arc should not be divided between books but occur within one. I know within the first half of the first book if it’s going to be a series or one book (if the keystone of the story arc is already showing up by 50-60,000 words, it’s a singleton, otherwise not) but I’ve been fooled repeatedly into thinking I had a three book group that turned into something longer.
Why did you decide to come back to the character Kylara Vatta after ten years? Have you found the reception of a military SF narrative with a female lead has changed in the interim? Has the cultural context (gender, politics, military attitudes…) today changed how you approached Vatta and influenced what you have wanted her story to cover?
My editor suggested that I return to the Vatta universe after the second Paksworld series, Paladin’s Legacy. That was the main impetus, though I had plenty of encouragement from fans. Unlike the original planning for the Serrano-Suiza books, I had set up the Vatta universe to sustain more books if they were wanted and I felt like it.
There are, I think, both positive and negative changes to the reception of military SF by a female writer and with a female lead. More women have written military SF now (although that was already in train when I wrote Vatta’s War.) Some of those women are veterans and thus have direct military experience. I would cite Tanya Huff as one who has made especially good use of her experience with the Torin Kerr books. There’s less disapproval among women readers of women writing military fiction, and the male readership for female-written military SF has grown. However, there’s still a segment of the SF readership that thinks women *shouldn’t* write about the military (because that “glorifies” it) and another that thinks women *can’t* write about the military because only men can do it right.
Certainly, today’s cultural context influences what I write (though, given the lead time and writing time for a given book, you often have to look back five to ten years). An integrated military with women in combat is now a reality–something not true in the early 1990s when I was starting the Serrano-Suiza books–and only becoming a reality in the early 2000s when I wrote Vatta’s War. There’s nothing SFnal about that anymore, and far less assumption that women in the military are necessarily peculiar (as there was when I served, and as you see in much earlier ). And yet at the same time, there’s a backlash against LBGT soldiers and sailors that suggests the old (wrong) stereotypes are still active.
What inspiration do you draw upon when writing either science fiction or fantasy outside of traditional fantasy sources (such as folklore, mythology, history)?
Life experiences provide the underpinning and interesting details for some of it. I’m intensely curious about many things, love to learn both “subjects” and skills, and even the failures along the way (things I tried and didn’t learn well) have been useful. Failure, confusion, mistakes, and the emotions associated with them enrich characterization.
On the academic research side, I’m lucky to have degrees in two very disparate subjects. This has given me research experience on both sides of the humanities/science line and made digging into any topic easier. But mostly it’s the hopscotch kind of curiosity I have that’s shoved me from one enthusiasm to another since I was a child. For a while, in my early thirties I almost despaired of the strange pattern this made, but once I started writing fiction seriously, it all came together.
Sell Vatta’s Peace to our readers! And do they need to have read Vatta’s War first to appreciate the series?
Although readers don’t need to have read Vatta’s War before approaching Vatta’s Peace in its first volume, Cold Welcome, those who have will be better prepared for the complexity. There’s a three-year gap in writing between the two series (and a short story that sits toward the end of that gap, found in the anthology INFINITE STARS, edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt).
The new group is set (so far) all on Ky Vatta’s home planet of Slotter Key, to which she returns after seven years, unwillingly, to finish some family business that she thinks will sever her forever from family and home. She has spent the intervening years in space, on space stations, or foreign planets; she’s fought a war, and she expects to continue as a military commander.
However, the same forces that caused her family’s destruction are still active, and instead of a brief, unpleasant, but necessary visit to settle legal formalities, she’s caught in a web of conspiracy, this time arising from her own planet, not some distant megalomaniac’s ambitions. She and her own surviving family–her cousin Stella Vatta, now CEO of the family business, her great-great-aunt Grace Lane Vatta, now Rector of Defense in the planetary government–are not the only the targets. The conspirators have very old and valuable secrets to conceal, and immense ambitions, political and military, to fulfil. And it all starts with what should be a simple shuttle trip down from Slotter Key’s main space station to an official reception. Instead, the shuttle crashes in a frigid ocean and Ky, along with the Slotter Key military personnel aboard, face a harrowing journey if they are to survive.
Elizabeth Moon grew up in South Texas, a few miles from the Mexican border, giving her early experience with major cultural differences and leading to a lifelong fascination with how culture shapes individuals and how they adapt (or don’t) to new experiences. She has degrees in both history (Rice University) with several courses in cultural anthropology on the side, and biology (University of Texas). She served three years active duty in the Marine Corps between the two degrees (during which she worked with what were then quite large computers) and did graduate work in biology at The University of Texas at San Antonio. She married her husband while both were in the military; they have one adult son.
Moon’s first fiction sale came in 1985–prophetically, her first two sales included a fantasy story set in her epic fantasy world and a hard SF story sold to ANALOG. She continues to go back and forth between science fiction and fantasy. Her first novel came out in 1988, winning the Compton Crook award for best first novel. So far, as of January 2016, she has 26 novels in print, and has published 50 shorter works in various magazines and anthologies. She won the Nebula Award for best novel with THE SPEED OF DARK (also short-listed for the Clarke Award), and was a finalist for the Hugo in 1997.
When not writing, Moon enjoys photographing wildlife and native plants, singing in a choir, cooking for friends and family, drawing, reading, knitting, and lying in a hammock pretending to be plotting the next book. She and her husband subscribe to and read several science and medical journals (since they’re not near any academic libraries.)