Last month, I posted on this blog about my thoughts on Erik Cain. Erik was my first major character, and the release of The Black Flag, which is most likely the last book that will feature him, put me in a thoughtful mood. After all, when I started writing him, I hadn’t sold so much as a single book. Now, nearly 1.1 million books later, things look very different. I’ve written new series and lots of new characters, some of whom I might even say are better conceived and developed. But the first will always be the first.
The response to that post was amazing. I got all kinds of emails and comments from readers, and that told me many of you like that kind of peek inside my head. So, I thought I’d try to write more posts of that sort. Since I started by talking about Erik Cain, I thought it made sense to continue with some thoughts on his universe, the Crimson Worlds.
Crimson Worlds started with a single book. I wanted to write about a futuristic Marine, which led me to the stunningly original title, Marines. Those of you who have read Marines know it is written in the first person, unlike the rest of the series, and that it is intensely focused on Erik Cain’s recruitment, training, and advancement in a futuristic military.
Many of you have also noticed it has some structural similarities to two classics of military science fiction, Starship Troopers and The Forever War. Those are two very different books, at least in everything but basic structure. Both are first-person accounts of the main characters, and they follow their protagonists from training through their military careers.
Marines’s similarity to those books in terms of that basic structure is completely intentional. Both were key influences on me in my early years, and I have read both many times. While Marines is a very different book in terms of its plot and messaging, its basic structure is a tribute to these classic novels and the impact they had on me.
The Forever War, in particular, affected me, though not only for its messaging, which has been discussed often enough over the past forty years, but even more for the way it is written. Whenever I read that book, I feel like I am there, in the middle of the action. It is a masterwork at “putting you there,” and it certainly had a major effect on my notion of what makes writing good writing. Even seemingly irrelevant scenes have this effect, such as very close to the beginning, when Mandella is sitting alone in the lounge at training camp, thinking about how he’d gotten where he was. That couple of pages is the author’s way of giving us a little information about the war that is erupting as the protagonist reads the news, but we also get to see him clinging to a few minutes to himself, a shred of the “normal” life he realizes is slipping away, probably forever. Reading it always makes me imagine how he was feeling there…and that kind of thing puts life into a character. I have always tried to give that kind of insight into my characters, hopefully with at least some success.
I also love rich and detailed backstory and settings as a reader. So, when I sat down to write Marines, having already decided I wanted to tell one grunt’s story, I set out to develop a substantial universe around him. I have always been drawn to books with richly-developed settings, and I wasn’t about to drop my Marine into a poorly-detailed future. A single story can be very focused on a character and not much else and be good, but for something ongoing like a series, I think rich worldbuilding is absolutely vital. In a thriller or crime novel or romance, the author can borrow the real world, where the story takes place. A SF writer needs to reinvent all of that. Kirk and crew can wander the halls of the Enterprise all day long, but without a Federation, Klingons, etc., we wouldn’t have much context on their missions.
Cain’s universe is a bleak, dystopian one, where despotic superpowers rule over mostly poor and downtrodden populations. It is likely no secret to anyone who has read my books-or who knows me, certainly-that I tend toward the cynical in my general outlook on things…and that I particularly loathe politicians (of all stripes). I try to avoid overt representations about today’s direct political issues in my books, as much as anything because the kind of knee jerk reactions people have toward such things pulls attention away from the story. I have my own views on things, of course, but the last thing I want to be is some hack, prattling on incessantly and insisting everyone see things my way. I try to write a rich and satisfying story, but in the end, my purpose is to provide a few hours of entertainment, not to lecture my readers like some kind of know it all.
In my book, nothing is as tiresome as having someone flog you incessantly with their political views (unless it is a setting specifically for that), especially when it’s clear they don’t really understand what they’re advocating as well as they think they do. People who enjoy that kind of thing can get enough of it on TV, watching the political drones of their particular choosing repeating the same party lines over and over again. They don’t need me for that, and my primary, secondary, and tertiary intents are to entertain my readers, to excite their imaginations, and to give them as good a story as I can write, one worth what they paid for it and the hours it took them to read. If I can make someone think a bit, or tug at a heartstring or two while doing that, all the better.
If there’s a message of a semi-political sort in Crimson Worlds (and in many of my books), it’s that freedom is a fleeting, precious thing, and one most of us are very unlikely to truly appreciate it until it’s gone. I tend to think people don’t think about this enough, and I think that is the perfect way to increase the likelihood that their grandkids live in some kind of dystopian hell one day. The vast majority of humans who have been born and lived on this planet did so with little or no personal freedom, and it is always distressing to see how those who are fortunate enough to enjoy such liberty rarely truly value it. So, if I’m pushing a message, it’s one of caution. It doesn’t take too many pages into a history book to understand that more people have been killed, tortured, and enslaved by their own governments than by any outside enemy. You don’t have to be some kind of extremist to see how quickly liberty can vanish…so, whatever other views are important to you, appreciate your freedom while you’ve still got it, because the likelihood of it lasting is not good (I told you I was dark).
Back to Marines now. It is, at its heart, a story of redemption. Erik Cain is not a terribly nice guy in the beginning of the book. Granted, events in his life came together to make him that way, and he had suffered a lot, but when he is arrested and given the choice of execution or joining the Marines, he is, in fact, guilty of his crimes. That was very deliberate. I didn’t want a perfect hero, springing from his mother with a burning desire to selflessly help people. There’s enough of that out there. I wanted to show the transition, how he responded to finally having a supportive environment among his fellow Marines. Even with all of that, Erik never becomes a typical hero. He has much of the antihero in him, and he never gets past his hatred and distrust for the government he serves.
The Alliance government has little to admire, save for the fact that it is perhaps, slightly less horrifying than those it fights against. I decided to portray a future Earth that had come together into eight large superpowers, the result of a series of conflicts known as the Unification Wars. I envisioned a future of scarce resources, one in which weak countries with something the stronger powers needed had all been gobbled up. I imagined wars sweeping across the globe, many of the tensions plaguing our world today getting steadily worse until nearly a century of unending conflict forges the Earth Erik Cain knows.
These conflicts, however, are not his story. They are his past, the events that shaped his reality. Erik’s wars are out in space. The Earth of his day, having come so close to total destruction, is governed by a treaty forbidding terrestrial warfare. The superpowers have taken their battles to the stars, fighting over the resource-rich colony worlds that offer the promise of wealth and power. This is, perhaps, a bit convenient, a writer’s device of sorts to push the fighting into interstellar space. It is based, in my mind, on the Cold War, at least to an extent. As an amateur student of history, I don’t have the slightest doubt there would have been a third world war if nuclear weapons hadn’t existed. Whatever else people may say about the atomic bomb, it has likely been the greatest peacekeeper in the history of mankind, at least until now.
I took that same kind of idea of mutually-assured destruction as a source of restraint, and imagined an Earth exhausted by decades of mostly-conventional warfare. With the discovery of worlds rich in the resources a depleted planet could no longer provide, the real causes of conflict are moved offworld, making it easy for the powers to forge a partial peace, while still fighting each other like starving wolves for what really matters. And, thus, we have the Crimson Worlds.
The colony worlds, especially those of the Western Alliance, tend to be populated by those least able to adapt to the rigid, tightly-controlled societies on Earth. And, of course, being lightyears away from the government authorities at home, they tend to feel more and more independent…and this is the setting as Crimson Worlds begins.
Well, that’s probably enough for one long-winded post, so I’ve given the title a little ‘part one’ at the end. I’ll revisit the topic soon, with a few more thoughts on Crimson Worlds, and maybe just a little bit about whether I’m done with the universe…or if there just might be another series coming sometime.