Marion Chats with Charles Gannon

Dr. Charles E Gannon was the Director of the Graduate English Department at St. Bonaventure University in New York until 2007 when he left to focus full-time on writing. He is part of a group of SF writers who provide guidance and advice to various US intelligence and defense agencies. His fiction includes THE TALES OF THE TERRAN REPUBLIC as well as work with Eric Flint on the 1632 universe, STARFIRE, and David Weber’s HONORVERSE. The two previous TERRAN REPUBLIC books were each short-listed for the Nebula award, and Gannon just saw the release of the third book, Raising Caine.  (You can read my review of it here.) He took some time to talk to me about the series.

One lucky random commenter with a US mailing address will win a copy of Raising Caine.

Marion Deeds: Raising Caine just came out, and I think the fourth book (The Caine Mutiny) is in the pipeline. How many books do you envision in this series?

Author Charles E. GannonCharles Gannon: Actually, the fourth book’s title is Caine’s Mutiny (a slanted play on the title of Wouk’s 1951 book, but not a direct copy). A fifth book, Marque of Caine (biblical and privateering allusions both intended) is contracted. I will continue to write in this series as long as the stories remain fresh, exciting, and (I hope) thought-provoking. I would stop if I felt the series was getting stale. OTOH, I have a lot of ground mapped out ahead that is pretty compelling, I think.

I noticed how gracefully things from Fire With Fire reappear, with greater significance, in Raising Caine, and I think I see where you’ve planted some elements that will affect future books. It seems like that’s a lot to juggle! Do you have a technique for keeping things straight across the storyline of the series?

What’s involved is not a “technique” so much as it reflects a personal tendency and even affliction: this series is on my brain all the time.

I don’t really consider the Caine Riordan/Terran Republic series that complicated.

It’s pretty complex, trust me on this one.

If I was thinking most of this stuff up as I go along—well, I suppose that would be different. But when a world-builder and tale-spinner sees things far enough in advance, then the unfolding story arc functions as a persistent reminder of What Must Come Next. Some authors complain “what will I think up to put in my next book?” My complaint is: “Damn; I have to wait two more books until I let some of the coolest revelations drop!”

I’m always thinking at least two books ahead of where I am. Sometimes further. That’s also probably a (dire) reflection of what my mind is like, and what I find interesting: unforeseen factors and unintended consequences. All of which ties into my dedication to verisimilitude. That may seem paradoxical, but I tie it to the way reality is reflected in a couple of sardonic military axioms. One is: “No plan survives contact with the enemy—or reality.” The other is: “It’s not what you don’t know that will get you; it’s what you don’t know you don’t know that will do you in.”

Accordingly, probably the first and last time a plan goes off fairly well in this series is the defense of Earth in book two, Trial By Fire. And that occurs largely because the Dornaani intervene in a way that only a handful of the human planners—an inner circle that most certainly does not include Caine — anticipate. In fact, you might say he was purposively kept in the dark about one big trick that the Dornaani had up their sleeve. Or, more accurately, up Caine’s sleeve. Literally. If that enigmatic reference is tantalizing to you, well… please go read the book!

As you remember, in the first book I was skeptical of Caine Riordan’s perfection. Since then he has been put in situations where he has to go back to “beginner’s mind”, so to speak. In Raising Caine, without committing any spoilers, Caine confronts personal physical weakness on one of the planets. We see him struggle to be the protective leader at grave risk of his own health. Were there challenges in writing him, as a heroic character, facing this issue?

RaisingCaineCoverActually, there were no challenges writing this at all: heroic characters are at their most interesting and compelling when they are overcoming serious obstacles. But your comment about Caine’s having to go back to “beginner’s mind” is right on target and reflects a progression away from his comfort zone–which has been my intent from the outset. In order to see that progression clearly, I think it might be helpful to examine it from the other perspective you raise regarding Caine’s purported near-perfection in the first book.

I confess to being slightly bemused when I encounter this perspective. There is no question that Caine enjoys some fairly profound successes in Fire With Fire. On the other hand, I start him in his domain of greatest preparation and comfort. He is a DC insider with expertise in many of the areas he is asked to investigate and analyze. He is working with the intelligence and military communities, with which he has experience dating from his days as both a defense analyst/writer and consultant. So it should not be surprising that Caine’s instincts and performance are at their best when it comes to dealing with power players such as representatives of the Colonial Development Combine, and later, with enigmatic and potentially adversarial exosapients. Despite their other-worldly origins, they are still potentially contentious actors operating in a familiar real politik arena. And that’s Caine’s wheel-house.

Given Riordan’s background, the most urgent question becomes: will he be a sufficiently synergistic thinker and versatile enough to rise to the challenges which are novel to this scenario and those which follow?

However, to return to the initiating point of examination–are Caine Riordan or his outcomes improbably perfect? — I’d have to reply, “Not from the context of my frame of reference.” Nor from the professionals I’ve spoken to in the relevant fields, who primarily work with “amateurs” (the most prevalent form of intelligence asset, by the way). Which brings up a final, related topic.

In the relatively recent past, people routinely wound up doing jobs for which they had not been specifically trained—and yet they excelled at them. I grew up with a deep sense of this, having a father and uncles who had consonant experiences (i.e.; being called to master tasks for which they had some aptitude but almost no training) leading up to and during World War Two. (About which, take a look at the last paragraphs of Fire With Fire.)

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsCaine is a testament to this quality which is, I feel, deeply coded in humans: the capability to use their native intelligence and determination to endure and ultimately overcome. And in the war my father and uncles fought, that was precisely the fate of 98% of the people they served with: they were just plain folks who had to become citizen-soldiers and overcome. And they did, many spectacularly.

Today, because so many of our crisis-responders — both military and civilian—have chosen their professional paths and the hazards entailed, I think our society partially forgets (or at least heavily discounts) what “non-professionals” are able to achieve when they must rise to unwelcome occasions. This is not the same as an uncritical fetishization of the “capable man” (or, more rarely in the old pulps, the “capable woman”). Rather, it is a statement of belief that we all possess untapped reservoirs of ability, ingenuity, integrity, and just plain grit.

I do not offer the aforegoing as an excursis, but as necessary context for examining why it is sadly consistent that Caine is becoming increasingly less successful as the series progresses, why the operations for which he is responsible become more costly and more challenging — just as you point out. And that trend will continue and deepen as the series progresses.

This is not exactly a question, but I am worried about Elena.

I think that’s a very reasonable — and warranted — worry, given what we learn at the end of Raising Caine. And to say any more would involve violating the airspace over Spoilerland.

There is a consistent SF trope of, for lack of a better term, “human exceptionalism.” Either, we’re prodigies, so innovative, so courageous, so creative, et cetera, or we’re aggressive primitives if not full-blown psychopaths who should be quarantined (or worse) until we learned some manners. Are you using TALES OF THE TERRAN REPUBLIC to give a critique of both those conventions?

You are absolutely right in that I am trying to offer a reasonable (and I hope balanced) alternative to those polar-opposite depictions of humanity. However, I am hesitant to employ any novel as a social or political critique. I believe that critiques should be exercises in overt and (optimally) transparent logic and rhetoric. Fiction is, conversely, a game of smoke and mirrors, of tricking the readers’ senses into believing in a virtual reality that words on a page have conjured into existence between their ears. So, even though I might agree that all literature (and art and expression) is political (albeit in the broadest, philosophical sense of that term), I do not agree that it follows that those works of art or entertainment must also have a partisan agenda. If my work is political, it is so only to the extent (I hope) that it provokes questions about how we perceive things, and why (and according to what criteria) we label something good or evil, moral or immoral, right or wrong. I have been convinced of, and dedicated to, the proposition that encouraging careful observation, rigorous thought and respectful debate on such matters is the key to a healthy democratic society. You will find those virtues (because I do consider them such) privileged in my novels, yes. If I am going to express partisan sentiments, I will not cloak them in the guise of entertainment that, in fact, is only doing its job if you are setting aside a variety of your critical faculties in order to achieve the suspension of disbelief. I will instead write an op ed piece.

However, to speak specifically about where I stand in relation to “human exceptionalism” of either variety (i.e.; “we’re the best in universe” vs. “we’re the worst in the universe”), I would say I frequently put characters in positions where they have unique perspectives on the dangers of just such extreme and polar opinions. I am not saying that we should always veer away from extremes, but like any strong medicine, the amount and frequency of extremes — its dosing, if you will — warrants some care.

Our genre (literature in general) has described immense pendulum swings in regard to “human nature” over the past half-century. I confess that I did grow weary of seeing humanity alternatively portrayed as “the flawed but deep-down truly good guys/gals” or as “a seemingly civilized but ultimately galactocidal bipedal virus that must be quarantined or exterminated.” Both extremes (as most do) tend to oversimplify matters to such a point that the narrative map no longer resembles the actual terrain. Humanity has plenty of warts, but ultimately, also possesses considerable virtues. Conversely, in Raising Caine we see that the nature of the Ktor challenge the very definition of what constitutes either a wart or a virtue, and puts a spotlight on how arbitrary it might be to judge a race as definitively “good and laudable” or “bad and detestable” without considering the different conditions under which that species has evolved and under which it continues to exist.

The Ktor define morality and virtue differently than we do. And I am giving you fair warning; I intend to steal “galactocidal.” It is just too good.

It is impossible to go into this specific matter further without also revealing a ton of spoilers, so let me just offer this: when writing in this series, I consciously occupy a vantage point from which totalized concepts such as “human nature” and “technology” are not invested with inherent moral properties. Rather, I examine how these social constructs function more as lenses: they are neither inherently good nor bad, but magnify and shape the choices we make. Why we make those choices — well, that’s where concepts of good and evil do come in. And readers who’ve read as far as Trial By Fire will know exactly what I mean when I say that, in setting up the humans and the Ktor as contrasts to each other, this is truly a case of beings understanding themselves by being compelled to look in the mirror…

About the Ktor…they have a rigid societal model that does not seem to have vocabulary for concepts like “partnership” or “collaboration.” Interpersonally, it’s all about competition and dominance with them. Of course, there is something behind that, which they are not admitting even to themselves. How did you come up with the idea of the Ktor’s society and value set?

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsActually, the Ktor definitely have concepts/words for “collaboration” and “partnership” — in their strictly pragmatic sense. They can certainly work together toward a common goal, and they understand that a group without any sense of loyalty between its members will lack security, hence lack cohesion, and thus, will ultimately unravel.

But concepts such as love, compassion, empathy? No: those are considered to be delusional. However, as your question touches upon (“there is something behind that, which they are not admitting even to themselves”), they do spend an awful lot of time and energy inveighing against these “weaknesses.” Which suggests that the social mold they admire is not by any means a natural one, even though they’ve been encouraging it and impressing it upon their young for many millennia.

The origins of their society come, once again, from a different set of presumptions regarding the social evolution that was predominant among the Ktor. As we learn in Raising Caine, the Ktor were bred for certain tasks. Given their proclivities for violence, it might be tempting to assume that they were bred for combat, to be soldiers. But as is so often the case with “easy” answers, they may turn out to be too facile. In the case of the Ktor, as you discerned, they were bred for dominance, for control. That is their objective: violence is merely the most prevalent and final tool whereby they strive to achieve that. However, they are equally skilled in other means of establishing dominance, and this is why Nezdeh, one of the major Ktoran characters in the book, has such a profound advantage over so many of her peers: she has mastered a wider array of dominative skills and brings them to bear in optimal combinations the way an organist employs all the stops and pedals of her instrument to heightened effect. (Yes, I am indeed suggesting that Nezdeh is a virtuoso when it comes to dominating others.)

That’s not a stretch at all for me, really.

Armed with this understanding of Ktor social objectives, certain human models seemed to provide suitable guidelines for creating the culture that might arise. Firstly, the Ktor must have some core social structures strong enough to withstand the powerful egoistic forces of an entire culture full of individuals who are all encouraged to ruthlessly pursue their own individuation, aggrandizement, and accumulation of power and dominion. So the Ktor reach back into the only social impulses they consider strong enough to bear up under this constant disruptive pressure: family and clan structures, which ultimately are expressions of the “selfish gene” instinct in higher animals. So they are arrayed in competing Houses whose interactions recall those that existed between the predatory city-states of Renaissance Italy. The Borgias on steroids, if you will.

Logically, such a society will be driven by philosophies of utter self-direction and realization, so they will evolve along Machiavellian lines, boosted by the dynastic ruthlessness of pre-Opium War Imperial China. So practically speaking, we take those uber-Borgias and school them in the arts of the Mandarins, the strategies of Machiavelli, and the most megalomaniac philosophies of Nietzsche. Then multiply by ten, slow roast them over the fires of unremitting internecine strife, and let sit for untold centuries. You have now whipped up your first batch of Ktor. If you are foolish enough to take them to a bake sale, they will steal all the other cookies and hold the school board hostage. For starters.

Note to self… Do not invite Nezdeh to the bake sale!

There is another necessary component to allow these domineering ubermenschen to function without destroying their civilization—which they’d do, if they were constantly trying to dominate each other. Specifically, to breed effective dominators, you need to have a vast untermensch class—and that’s just what Ktor has. The Ktor attitude is that you cannot sharpen a knife without a whetstone, cannot teach dominion when there is no one you may dominate. Their answer is to retain a surprisingly large, backward population of helots and other lower classes, who both do all the dirty work and provide the raw material upon which the Ktor practice and perfect their skills at domination.

It may sound implausible, but in the annals of human history, just such repressive autocratic regimes have (until the last two hundred years) had much greater shelf-lives than pluralistic ones. Ancient China and Egypt both show extraordinary feats of longevity for such cultures — bear in mind that those (often very fragmented) dynastic polities had much less profound technological divides than the one that exists between the Ktor and their helots. Nor were the upper classes genetically enhanced and groomed to be, quite literally, superior in every way possible to those whose obedience they expected and compelled.

The Slaasriithi have an extreme relationship with their own evolution, more so than the Ktor. How much additional research did you do to make sure their most unusual evolutionary and social model was plausible?

When I’m starting with human building blocks, I have my own instincts to draw upon, as well as reams of well-established history, sociology, biology and just plain common sense. But that sense is only “common” to homo sapiens, just as our history, sociology, and biology may not provide a useful starting point by which we would understand beings whose path to intelligence had different catalysts and shaping influences than our own.

While I may initially conceive of an exosapient species in broad terms, it is not long before I have to dive into some hard, cold logical analysis of how they wound up as they did. More specifically, how did their biology and pre-intelligence behavior lead them to their own transitional “dawn of intelligence” episodes? Once I know the episodes and why they were decisive, then the creative floodgates tend to open up and reveal consequent details faster than I can write them down (at this juncture in my creative process, my notes look like hallucinatory ravings crawled by an epileptic).

In the case of the Slaasriithi, everything was determined by the fact that their “dawn of intelligence” tipping point was not tool use so much as employing behavioral conditioning to “recruit” other species in symbiotic or cooperative relationships. They didn’t learn how to beat off predators with sticks; they enticed a stronger, more aggressive variety of their own species to do the job for them. They provided those “protectors” with free food and, lo and behold, those protectors acquired an instinct for defending their “free meal tickets.” And those proto-Slaasriithi expanded that web of relationships until they achieved the peculiar polytaxic social characteristics that we see in Raising Caine.

There wasn’t too much research involved, simply because we humans do no differently when we breed special-purpose livestock (we know darned well that dachshunds didn’t evolve that way naturally!). And there are innumerable other examples among terrestrial biota. What makes the Slaasriithi different is that they do not stop after establishing a few key relationships; they began to interact with, and built, their entire world through this modus operandi. And when you begin to think about the value structures and philosophies that would emerge from a creature with that evolutionary history — well, a lot of their cultural particulars do not arise from any wild creativity on my part, but from a sense of what seems almost inevitable, given those origins.

Tell us about an average writing day for you.

I have nothing to tell, because there truly is no average. And if you wonder how that could be, well–ask me again when I don’t have all four kids at home! Being the “domestic first responder” for four young lives that constantly need assistance and guidance not only has high costs in terms of total hours lost, but has an even heavier impact about how many of those hours remain in useful blocks of three or more hours. That has been, and remains, my biggest challenge.

Many of our reviewers here can empathize with that – and so can many readers! What are you reading for pleasure these days?

Nothing, damn it! The irony is that the more you write, the less you read—at least when you (yep, again) have four kids.

It is also my great good fortune to have lots of writing to do — so much so, that I have little time to read. I am currently wrapping up a book in the Starfire series. I have two more contracted for the Caine Riordan/Terran Republic series, as well as two more titles for 1632. And coming round the bend are two more proposals for 1632, one more for Caine Riordan, and an epic fantasy trilogy with a strange twist that is pending final approval and contract.

This is in no way a complaint. This is exactly the kind of “problem” any working writer longs to have and I am very, very grateful to have all this work. But it is also a simple fact of life that when you add commitments, you lose free time. So — I don’t read much. Sigh.

The 1632 series is on my To Be Read list, and so for selfish reasons I’m glad to hear there are more coming.

We are asking the authors we interview to share a favorite beverage with us. It can be alcoholic or non-alcoholic. What’s your signature beverage?

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews

Maple Manhattan – One Ice Cube

I would normally mention at least three drinks, but since I’m down to one, I’m cutting references to the wine Fleurie and a favorite beer, and just going with this. While my signature mixed drink is a Manhattan in the classic style (rye, dry vermouth, dash angostura, cherry, shaken not stirred, served neat), my true favorite is something that is now a rare treat for me, given that a) it’s sugar-heavy and b) I’m a recently-diagnosed Type II diabetic. I don’t know what you call it, but it is essentially Knob Creek bourbon with several dashes of Sortilege (which is a mix of rye and maple liqueur). I prefer it with a single ice cube: the water brings out the esters and flavor of the bourbon. I specify Knob Creek because that bourbon has strong maple overtones. If you are sparing with the Sortilege, that keeps the drink from becoming noticeably sweet, but gives you a powerful, layered maple flavor. If you like that sort of thing. (Obviously, I do.)

I would wax rhapsodic over a few beers — but being diabetic, now, that would only make me weep for days gone by.

Thank you for your time, and thanks for the book! It’s engrossing.
It was a great pleasure visiting and chatting; thank you for the opportunity!

Readers, remember to leave a comment in the section below for a chance to win a copy of Raising Caine (U.S. addresses only, please).


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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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19 comments

  1. great interview–love the details on the various cultures!

  2. I have purchased the audio versions of this series. Looking forward to it!

  3. Knob Creek is tasty bourbon, I have to say. Also, SF writers advising the government is a thing? For real? The things you learn…

    Really great interview, Marion! Very thought-provoking and informative. I’ll be sure to check out Gannon’s books after this.

    • The think-tank thing is for real. Going the other direction, I was reading Jemisin’s acknowledgments for her book and she talked about the NASA workshop for “societal influencers” (helping them get the science right) and it’s a real thing too. That really caught my interest.

    • Hi Jana! I’m delighted that you’ve decided to give my books a look. Also, you might be interested to learn that SF authors have been advising the government for a verrryyyy long time. I wrote a book on the topic, Rumors of War and Infernal Machines that earned a very humbling award.
      To learn about Sigma, a group which arguably defines the term “politically diverse” (Bruce Stirling and Steve Sterling in the same place!, go to:
      http://www.sigmaforum.org/

      Thanks again,
      Chuck

  4. David H. /

    I had the pleasure to meet Dr. Gannon at Capclave a couple weekends ago (here in the DC area), and I really enjoyed his presence at all the panels I saw him on (the Revolutions, Rebellions, and Nuance panel was really wonderful). I didn’t allow myself to read this interview *too* closely since I only just picked up “Fire with Fire,” but I hope to get to it and the rest of the series soon. I’m only sad we don’t have more Fire-titles, but the Caine ones for #3 through 5 are nicely punny. I look forward to Book Six, “Caine’t Always Get What You Want.”

    • Caine’t Get No Satisfaction?

      I was liking the Fire-titles too, and they fit with the stories, but I think the title-shift is probably appropriate.

    • Actually, while I could come up with some other puns for the titles, they are actually fairly dark when they are revealed against and given context by the events in each novel. After all, let’s not forget who Cain(e) is…

      But I’m pretty sure we’ll be moving from current Emissary arc (Raising Caine, Caine’s Mutiny, Marque of Caine) to a new arc and title set, beginning with the (appropriately ominous) “Endangered Species”.

      and yes, I guess one could call it the species arc…

    • Thanks for the kind word, David! Next time we’re at the same con, please come on over and let’s meet for real!

      • David H. /

        No problem, Chuck! I actually did meet you at Capclave–I was the deaf guy who knocked down the Capclave sign in the hotel lobby while walking with you (whoops!). I definitely enjoyed all the panels you were on as well as your reading. I don’t go to very many cons, but looking forward to whenever we next meet! :)

  5. Wonderful interview! Thanks to both of you!

  6. I love that cover. I am s in the mood for something fantastical and full of adventure!

  7. Conal O'Neill /

    Nice interview. About to start Trial by Fire and looking farward to it along with the Raising Caine.

  8. Dvid H, if you live in the USA, you win a copy of RAISING CAINE!
    Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!

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