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Galactic plotting in star-based fantasy

Galactic plotting in star-based fantasy

THE DIABOLIC by SJ Kincaid was one of the most talked-about YA books last winter. Its sequel, THE EMPRESS, has now been published. Look out for galactic intrigue, murderous plots and dramatic adventures!

The Diabolic ends with a possible 'happy ever after' for Nemesis and Tyrus. However, in The Empress, beset with intrigue, dwarfed by their galactic empire and with Nemesis still hated by the 'old order' of the Helionic faith, Nemesis and Tyrus must fight for the survival of both themselves and the empire.

SJ KINCAID tells us more about her latest, dramatic, science-fiction adventure:

Q: When we spoke to you about The Diabolic a year ago (see interview, below), you weren't sure about writing a sequel. What drew you back to this story?

A: It's more a case of what drove me away! I am a history buff, and loved Elizabeth Tudor growing up. I knew from reading about her reaching the throne - the point of the traditional happily ever after - was truly only the beginning of the difficulties in her life.

I knew with Tyrus and Nemesis that reaching the height of power in the Empire would just usher in a lot more difficulties than they already faced. The idea of writing those was so daunting that I planned to just leave the book there with a seemingly happy ending. Alas, I couldn't let go of this one idea for continuing the plot, and so I went there.

Q: How did writing the second book compare with writing book one, The Diabolic?

A: The second book began with me poking at this storyline uncertain whether I'd really write it, convincing myself that surely I would not, all while not under contract for it...
The Diabolic was a much simpler and straightforward story, so The Empress was certainly much more difficult.

I didn't merely have a story about a girl taught she's subhuman coming into herself as a person. That girl is now a galactic Empress. That's a very daunting and enormous transition to capture, so I had a good bit more self-doubt and second guessing with the story this time. Standard book two stuff, though! Middle books are never easy.

Q: Although the science-fiction world you created in The Diabolic is complete, which areas did you need to do more work on for The Empress?

A: Since I had to obliterate the happily ever after of book one, I think a lot of what needed to be done was addressing the lingering emotional and trust issues of the characters while also establishing them as two people who truly, genuinely love each other, which is entirely what they need for the challenges they face.

I was also balancing this with fleshing out the details of the Empire/political situation Tyrus has assumed control of, without losing readers to boredom with details - that was the tricky part.

Q: The focus in this book is the relationship between Nemesis, the Diabolic, and the Emperor, Tyrus. They both change significantly through the book - how hard was it to track / pace those changes?

A: Well, their changes were truly meant to be in tandem and, luckily with science fiction, there are some plot devices one can use. I made use of a stellar phenomenon [no spoilers, though!] in a way to sort of even out the character development, and I quite liked doing that.

Q: Nemesis and Tyrus spend a lot more time travelling in this book than being confined to spacecraft. Which parts of this universe were you most excited to visit with them?

A: I was most excited to visit my sci-fi equivalent of the Vatican, mostly because this was the introduction of the previously mentioned stellar phenomenon (which I find so cool) and also my space religion.

It meant that the reason this Empire even exists, as well as the contradiction between revulsion to scientific study and their advanced technological state, could finally all be addressed.

Q: And which of the spaceships you described would you like to find yourself travelling in?

A: Definitely The Hera. I love the idea of an asteroid ship that's been meticulously worked upon by an artist. I find anything carved out of stone just so cool to see, and coupling that with a spaceship, well... I definitely want to see it.

Q: Do you think that, like your characters, humans will one day be living on different planets?

A: I earnestly hope so. Star Trek is my utopian future. However, so many people do not even understand the purpose of NASA and ask why we aren't just feeding starving children with the money we devote to advancing humanity's future and horizon.

NASA's budget is so tiny and space exploration must continually be justified to people unaware of the fact that a single asteroid could obliterate all life on Earth so we should hedge our bets... Well, I guess I'm just less optimistic than I used to be.

Q: There is a big problem in this world of 'malignant space' - what made you want to create a new problem, rather than use an existing space formations like black holes?

A: Malignant space is basically meant to be like Kurt Vonnegut's ice-nine, so not something that currently exists in theoretical science.

I really thought it would be fitting for human beings in this future to be squabbling while ignoring this potent existential threat growing in their midst, because the problem only is a problem for others, or hasn't touched their own lives yet. I feel like that's exactly how human beings behave.

Q: In the story, you give religion a very human face and expose the workings behind it - why did you do this?

A: Any society in history features religion as a prominent force in whatever form it takes at the time. When I was defining Nemesis as a character, it made sense to me that there'd be a spiritual framework for why this conscious, thinking, feeling girl is not actually a person in the eyes of the society about her.

I was also exploring what sort of religion would evolve in this place far from Earth where people dwelled among the stars rather than on our planet. So many religions we currently have are Earth-focused, and that just wouldn't make sense in a society removed two-thousand years from Earth, so that was a fun creation process.

Q: The book also looks into AI technology and what makes humans and machines distinct. Do you predict there are profound debates to come over AI technology and where did you go to research it?

A: Honestly, in order to achieve interstellar travel, I think human beings would have to be upgraded. We have to be smarter. I just don't think as a species we have the intelligence necessary to not only prioritize a focus upon travelling outside space, but also to really devise the means of understanding and mastering these natural forces that are barriers to such achievements.

That said, we're also in the process of a revolution with computers, and there are many different theories about what form AI will take. It seems inevitable at this rate that a computer more intelligent than a human being will be created, and the question is, do we create it independent of us, or do we make it a part of ourselves and therefore reap the benefits without setting ourselves in direct opposition to some sort of artificial consciousness?

I feel like the advancement of computers will lead to this question being addressed sometime in my lifetime, so I'm really interested in it and so I've read a good bit about the idea of the singularity, and futurism, etc.

Q: Through this world, you also explore futuristic recreational drugs and how they impact on the user. This is important for the plot - but did you also want it to be a warning and did you need to research into the effects of drugs to write about them?

A: This is the thing: The Diabolic is modeled upon Ancient Rome. If anyone has seen I, CLAUDIUS, you will know there were some shocking, decadent behaviors I could never put into a YA without getting the book banned from pretty much every school district there is.
I considered what forms of decadence this galactic Empire would have, and drug use was literally the first one I could think about. This is a society where an Empire has such incredible technology, that the wealthy are virtually removed from the consequences of their actions. If there was no possibility of dying and overdosing, no addiction, no devastating health consequences - wouldn't there be a lot of people using narcotics? Why wouldn't there, if so? It's a short term physical pleasure.

However, The Empress does explore another facet of this: what happens in a society of such casual narcotic use when there is something that wreaks a physical toll upon a person? In the modern day and age, human traffickers often use substances to hold control over other human beings, and I thought that was definitely a dimension to explore, especially given the fact that I didn't want to come across as promoting use of this stuff as some sort of consequence free thing in real life.

As for research, nursing school honestly provided a very fantastic framework for me, since although I've forgotten much of the material by now, I still possess enough understanding to know what I'm looking at and think of the physiological, systemic consequences to certain things when I'm reading about the effects of substances upon a body and a mind. There's this fascinating old story about a man named Phineas who gets a railroad spike through part of his brain, and the way his personality completely transforms. That taught me people really aren't fixed human beings but the products of physiology, so that aspect of course enters the story in some form.

Q: This book is also left open for a sequel. Can you give us a glimpse into what might happen next?

A: The plotline for book two that destroyed book one's happily ever after alas necessitated a book three, so I knew The Diabolic would be one or three books. As for what happens next, revealing that would most certainly spoil the entirety of The Empress! All I will say is that the ending of book three is entirely fixed and set, and there may still be shades of I, CLAUDIUS in it all.

Q: What are you writing now and do you have a favourite writing place?

A: I am writing THE DIABOLIC III and I most prefer to write in this one particular Panera. Since I've recently moved, I haven't quite fallen into the groove with a new place yet.

Q: Do you have another trilogy or standalone books planned?

A: I do have an idea for a younger series I'd love to write, but it's so tonally unlike THE DIABOLIC that it's just not one I can write at the same time. But in short: yes.

Q: What are your top tips for young people writing their own sci-fi story?

A: Read a lot, write a lot - and grow a thick skin! There is a lot of rejection even for published writers, and the most important thing you can ever do is desensitize yourself to it and prepare to keep fighting for what you want despite hearing the word 'no' over and over again.

Q: What's your favourite way to relax?

A: My favorite way to relax is also my favorite way to not relax, and to pass way, way too much of my day: surfing the internet! I'm pondering a terrifying hiatus from it maybe in December so I can get back into reading more, and make sure all of DIII is done, so I don't know what I'll do to relax then. I would love to think I'll exercise or something, but alas, I'll probably spend it pining for the internet...


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