Interview with Sarah Newton
Sarah is a writer of science-fiction and fantasy roleplaying games and fiction, including the transhuman space opera novel “Mindjammer”, and the ENnie Award-winning RPG setting of the same name; the techno-fantasy RPG setting “The Chronicles of Future Earth”; and the “Legends of Anglerre” roleplaying game. She’s currently writing “Zero Point”, a series of globe-spanning World War 2 adventures for the “Achtung! Cthulhu” RPG setting, published by Modiphius; the “Great Game” campaign for the Steampunk “Leagues of Adventure” RPG from Triple Ace Games; and “The Worm Within”, the first “Chronicles of Future Earth” novel, to be published by Chaosium, Inc, in 2013. She lives in a field in rural France, surrounded by numerous farmyard animals.
Hi Sarah, thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you first become acquainted with science fiction? With RPGs?
My first encounter with science-fiction happened when I was about 9 years old – back in 1977. Of course I’d been watching Star Trek before then, but Star Wars year was a huge thing for me – I lived in the sticks, and going to the cinema was a rarity. Star Wars just blew me away, awakened a love for stars, spaceships, and big bold space opera tales that has never gone away. Around the same time – maybe before or after, I’m not quite sure – I read my first “proper” scifi, in a book I borrowed from our local library. I now know it was a story from “Flight of the Horse” by Larry Niven – it tells the story of a dimensional traveller who travels *sideways* in time, and visits an alternate earth where people have evolved from wolves rather than primates. At the time, I remember being totally captivated not by spaceships and ray-guns, but by the sheer *strangeness* of what the universe could be like. After that I hunted down science-fiction wherever I saw it – I read the Star Wars tie-in fiction, I read Larry Niven, Asimov, M. John Harrison, Moorcock, a total science-fiction fan by the time I hit my teens.
Roleplaying games happened a couple of years later – I was about 11, my last day of first year high school, and I saw someone leafing through the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons softback Player’s Handbook. I blagged a look, and was captivated by the maps, the illustrations, the possibilities for stories. I went straight home that day and ordered “Buffalo Castle” from Flying Buffalo for the Tunnels & Trolls game – within a few months I discovered “Traveller” and the brilliant science-fantasy RPG “Metamorphosis Alpha”, both of which I played relentlessly in the years after, about the same time as I was discovering Harry Harrison’s “Stainless Steel Rat” and Niven’s “Ringworld” stories.
What’s the appeal of the genre for you?
To be honest, I think its optimism. No matter how dark or edgy science-fiction gets, the fact that we, human beings, are out there, in a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand years, exploring, evolving, achieving mighty feats, *being human*, is immensely encouraging. Even in the most desperate dystopias, there’s an element of hope – that we’re taking it on the chin, wrestling with huge issues, surviving…
Modern science-fiction, with its strong vein of transhumanism, fits me perfectly. Philosophically I rate thinkers like Nietzsche very highly, and I think I probably have a thoroughly Western, dialectic view of history. I’m not a millenarianist, I’m not looking for the perfectability of human beings or anything, but the eternal process of self-overcoming it’s possible to detect in history and extend into the future is something which transhumanism articulates in an immensely engaging way. I find so little of the vital discussion we really should be having at the dawn of the biotech age, about *what kind of* human beings we want to involve into, actually happening in the mainstream media or social arenas, that science-fiction sometimes seems the only open forum where we can properly debate these questions. In science-fiction, we can encounter how other writers have answered; and in transhuman scifi RPGs, we can actually play-out and stress-test our theories and ideas.
How did you end up writing for RPGs? For fiction?
I think like many other writers I’ve “always” written – my first attempt to write my own Lord of the Rings was when I was about 9 or 10 years old, my first attempt to write an RPG (of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea!) was about 2 years later! But my writing for publication happened relatively recently – about 4 years ago, when I started to write for a setting I’d created called “The Chronicles of Future Earth”, which was a very far future science-fantasy, set perhaps a hundred millennia from now, when humankind had gone through its expansionary era, undergone massive evolutions and cataclysms, and had returned to Earth, wounded, stagnating, on the verge of extinction. In many ways it was inspired by the atmosphere in the paintings of Bruce Pennington – I was exposed to covers like The Pastel City and the Dune and New Sun series in the late seventies and early eighties, and their atmosphere of strangeness, familiarity, and haunting landscapes impressed me deeply. I wanted to write about a world in which those images were possible – that’s how Chronicles was born. I started writing the fiction and the RPG for The Chronicles of Future Earth roughly the same time – the RPG book was published first, and I’m finishing up the first Chronicles novel now, to be published in 2013 by Chaosium, Inc.
My published fiction notionally began with Cthulhu, I guess like many writers; writer and editor William Jones of Elder Signs Press edited my Chronicles of Future Earth RPG, and asked me to write some short stories for Cthulhu anthologies back in 2008. They were accepted, but ironically neither anthology has yet seen the light of day, for various reasons. “Disclosure”, which we’re showcasing on the Tuesday Fiction on the World SF Blog this week, was one of those stories.
My first published fiction piece is Mindjammer, the novel launched in August 2012…
How did the concept of Mindjammer develop?
I mentioned the Chronicles of Future Earth setting above. When I was writing the backstory for that, I envisaged a great interstellar civilisation which had somehow “fallen”, giving rise to the exotic far future science-fantasy of the Springtide Civilisations and the Venerable Autocracy of the Chronicles setting. At the time, I called this hyper-advanced civilisation “the Commonality of Worlds”. Over time, I got to wondering what it had been like – what the nature of an interstellar civilisation, tens of millennia in our future, would be. As far removed from us as the Stone Age, it occurred to me that in all likelihood such a civilisation would be so unimaginably post-human that it would be incomprehensible to us – even now, as we approach the Singularity, it’s clear that even the near future is going to be very strange indeed. But ten thousand years from now? Twenty thousand? How could that still be human enough for it to be able to collapse into the far future of the Venerable Autocracy?
That’s where the New Commonality of Humankind came from. It’s a massive sandpit for me to play around in – it’s extremely advanced, with technology which at its most sophisticated is unfathomable, magical; and yet parts of it are backward, sometimes deliberately so, like star-travelling Amish folk, refusing to participate in the galactic melee. Its interstellar, with faster-than-light travel and a nascent pseudo-wormhole technology; yet its recent past is slower-than-light, and filled with conservative cultures awash with culture shock. I wanted to design a setting where I could fathom out all of my favourite science-fiction questions – where the setting would respond to my poking and prodding and throw up even more questions and realisations as I went on. There’s so much to say about the New Commonality, both in fiction and in RPG, and it has that Golden Age optimistic feel, coupled with a post-cyberpunk transhuman ethos, that for me is proving very fertile ground. It constantly inspires me.
For those unfamiliar with the book, could you tell us more about the Mindjammer line?
The present-day of Mindjammer is seventeen millennia from now. For over ten thousand years, the conservative and tradition-bound Commonality of Humankind governed a slower-than-light civilisation centred on Old Earth and the densely-settled solar system of Manhome, and a small collection of near-Earth star systems known as the Core Worlds, all of which had been reached and now communicated slower-than-light. For ten millennia it had sent out slower-than-light colonisation vessels, most of which travelled too far to ever effectively communicate home. It was an extremely advanced society, with lifespans set by law at 500 years, sentient cities, starships, artificial lifeforms. But for all its riches and utopian visions, it was stagnating, dying; until, 200 years ago, it suddenly “discovered” faster-than-light travel, and set about “rediscovering” all of the lost colonies from its distant past.
The result is revitalisation, and chaos; cultural conflict on a galactic scale. The New Commonality is a new, outward-looking, optimistic, and yet somehow fascistic civilisation, determined to bring the “benefits” of its civilisation to all the many colonies it has seeded, whether they like it or not. Yet, at the same time, as it contacts those lost colonies, it often finds cultures very different from its own, which attempt to “infect” it with all manner to reverse colonial ideologies. The Security and Cultural Integrity Instrumentality is the Commonality agency tasked with managing cultural contact and integration – and one of its teams is the star of the first Mindjammer novel.
In the New Commonality, everyone is connected by biotech implant to a vast neural network called the “Mindscape”. Like a massive interstellar internet, it contains the sum total of humankind’s knowledge; but not just knowledge – memories, too. Using the Mindscape implant, Commonality citizens can upload their thoughts and memories to the Mindscape, and even download the memories uploaded by others – effectively “remembering” events experienced by other people. And, because memory is one of the cornerstones of identity, you get some very strange consequences. When a person dies, they’re able to upload the sum total of their memories, and perhaps even parts of their personalities, to the Mindscape – known as a “thanogram”; when synthetic intelligences are created (such as those piloting starships or running cities or planetary metroplexes), they’re often imbued with these thanograms as the basis for their own personalities. These “eidolons” know that they’re in no way the same person as their dead memory source – but they feel a close bond with their “donors”, sometimes verging on the spiritual.
In Mindjammer, a SCI Force team is investigating the breakout of something called the “Transmigration Heresy” in a newly rediscovered culture in the Solenine star cluster. The heresy is common among backward cultures, involving a mistaken belief that eidolons are the reincarnations of the dead, that identity can somehow persist after death into an artificial body – something the Commonality says is impossible. What the SCI Force team discovers is something far greater – and potentially far more destructive – than the Transmigration Heresy could ever be.
Mindjammer is the first novel in the setting – it’s standalone, but I’m working on a second book right now, Transcendence, which should see the light of day next year. I have a third book in the offing, and also two anthologies of short stories, one in the modern Commonality, and another tracing the ten millennia and more of its history. It’s a very fertile setting for creativity!
Could you share with us how the novels integrate with the campaign setting?
That’s a great question. When I play RPGs, I hate things to be too scripted; even more than fiction, when you hand a setting to a fellow gamer, you are abdicating all control over it. You simply can’t dictate what *must* happen in that setting, without stifling a lot of the creativity which kindles around a gaming table. When I write an RPG book, I try to provide everything a group of gamers will need to head off on wild flights of fancy, and nothing to hold them back. Obviously, that conflicts somewhat with the exigencies of fiction, the desire to tell great and epic stories. Very often, RPG tie-in fiction resolves this dichotomy with a simple device of requiring a “status quo” conclusion. In other words, a given piece of tie-in fiction can tell great and soaring stories, as long as it doesn’t destroy the underpinnings of the setting and as long as things return to “normal” at the end.
While that’s a viable approach, it’s not the one I’ve taken in Mindjammer. In the same way the Mindjammer setting is a springboard for my imagination, I hope it’ll be the same for those playing in it. The fiction is offered as a manifestation of those flights of fancy – my version, if you will, of how the story went. Without being too flippant, it’s my version of the “Many Worlds Interpretation” of the history of the New Commonality of Humankind; I hope you’ll enjoy it, be inspired by it, and, if you roleplay in the setting, only take from the novels what you want to take, and continue to let your RPG version of the Commonality forge its own story of our transhuman future!
How different and similar is writing a game supplement as opposed to a novel?
I touched upon this a little above – there are several approaches, some more similar than others. In physical, workaday terms, I often feel writing an RPG supplement is perhaps more like writing a movie or theatre script than a novel; or, better, writing the necessary foundation for a group of actors to conduct improv sessions in a theatre environment. You have the history of the setting, descriptions of its locations, bios of its characters, the precursor issues to the plot, “what has gone before”, and so on. You have the technology, the culture, its mores. But, then, you write the scenario; and that’s where I personally really focus on *not* providing a rigid script. Some RPG scenarios out there happily provide a “railroad” for players to follow, giving the players the illusion of freedom but all the time guiding them through a series of carefully prepared scenes. As a game story teller myself, I find that ultimately unsatisfying, frustrating, even boring: I like to sit down at a gaming table with *no idea* of what’s going to happen next. For that reason, I take care when writing a scenario not to provide a rigid plotline. It’s like a layer in the story is deliberately “missing” – I provide the story teller with a guide as to the events that would happen if the players weren’t playing, and then extensive guidance for how to deal with the players’ interventions into the plot. I structure my scenarios in episodes and scenes, again like a movie script, but at the same time provide decision nodes everywhere for players to run amok!
Obviously that’s radically different from writing fiction, but that awareness of divergent plotlines is at the same time a very fruitful thing for a writer. In the past, my scenario approach caused problems for my writing; I found myself being too loose when I approached a fiction plot, expecting it to “fall into place” at every node. Of course, that doesn’t happen, and you end up with all kinds of consistency issues and blatant plot holes! Like many writers, I suspect, I have a vast store of unpublished manuscripts in my attic – depending on how you count it, Mindjammer is as much as my seventh novel! – and these days I find myself outlining more and more before I ever put pencil to paper – quite the opposite of writing for roleplaying games!
What made you decide to start Mindjammer Press?
I guess we’re in a revolutionary time. The walls between publishing, small press, and self-publishing are falling down everywhere. These days, with cartographic and layout software very affordable, ebooks and print-on-demand accessible and cheap, and social media, it’s possible to do a great deal of the publishing legwork yourself. However, it’s important to say that’s not always desirable! Publishing takes skill and a huge amount of time – if you want to work as a writer, it will devour the time you want to devote to writing and force you to spend it on other tasks. For that reason I don’t think publishing companies are going to go away – however, they are in flux, as we all wrestle with the massive changes our new technologies and economic relations are forcing upon us. I think many of the publicist and distribution functions of agents and distributors are starting to merge with publishers, certainly in the roleplaying game space, and some of the tasks of publishers are starting to merge with writing – typesetting, for example, some elements of layout, mapmaking and indexing, etc, in the case of RPGs.
Mindjammer Press seemed a very logical step. It allows me, and hopefully a small number of other writers like me, to produce fiction and roleplaying manuscripts to ebook and print standard, ready for ebook release, and even print-on-demand distribution. We believe we’ll also be in a great position to distribute our products to the RPG and related fiction audience, either directly ourselves or in alliance with a larger publishing and distribution partner, several of whom we’re in discussions with already. The field is rapidly changing, however, and I believe that the process of fission we’re seeing on the small press and self-publishing side at the moment will soon be met by a new process of fusion on the representation, distribution, and promotion side. The biggest issue facing any writer these days is ironically not the physical process of writing and producing books, but their promotion and distribution, in being seen and heard in today’s vast creative melee. I think there’s a great big hole for a new kind of agent or publisher, who’ll represent writers and small press publishers and be an aggregator or gatekeeper of selected high-quality content for readers and gamers.
With Mindjammer Press, we’re starting small, aiming to produce purely the RPG and fiction products associated with the Mindjammer setting. We’re aiming one novel-length fiction piece and three RPG supplements per year. I’m still continuing my freelance fiction and RPG writing work – Mindjammer Press has a very specific focus, but personally I regard it as a very exciting project in a dynamic and rapidly changing field!
What were the challenges in writing the books? In running the press?
I’ve alluded to the time issue above; that really is the major challenge. I think all writers today feel the pressure of not being able to be simply a writer, but having to spend huge amounts of time on promotion, publicity, social media. Of course it’s a delight to connect with readers and gamers – one of the great pleasures of any kind of writing is receiving feedback – but at the same time, the time spent on these “additional” yet essential tasks takes you away from your passion – writing.
That touches on the next issue, perhaps less obvious, but equally critical – the financial one, the need to make enough money to survive. I live in a field in Normandy and am semi-self sufficient, so my financial needs are relatively low, but they still have to be met. With Mindjammer Press, I’m able in a small way to be remunerated for the time I spend on promotion and publicity. Writing isn’t a well-paid field, and RPGs far less so, so anything which increases one’s survival margin and allows one to continue writing is a great thing.
So far the signs are good. If Mindjammer Press can fund itself, which it looks likely to, then it’ll be great for the Mindjammer line. But it’s a very dynamic environment, and I’m sure the next twelve months will be eventful and challenging in many unexpected ways. Perhaps you’ll have me back in a year’s time to give you a report!
What’s in store for the future, for both the novel series and the RPG line?
I mentioned Transcendence, above, the second novel in the Mindjammer series, and the third novel, provisionally entitled Revelation. There’s also Songs of Old Earth, the anthology of short stories chronicling the history of the Commonality of Humankind; and Tales of the New Commonality, a collection of stories from all across Commonality Space and the Fringe Worlds beyond. On the RPG side, after the release of the second edition RPG Mindjammer – The Expansionary Era next spring, we have a schedule of 3 RPG products per year, beginning with the Solenine campaign pack, which allows you to play with the events of the first Mindjammer novel (and rewrite its entire plot!), followed by a vastly expanded Black Zone campaign pack, and the long-awaited Planeships and Slowboats starships supplement. Beyond that, we hope to release two campaign packs and one supplement per year, covering star atlases, culture books, and some seriously transhuman adventures, all sitting alongside and complimenting (and being complimented by) the fiction line. It looks to be a busy time for Mindjammer!
Anything else you want to plug?
Well, obviously all of the above depends entirely on the Mindjammer fans, and on people continuing to support the fiction and RPG lines. So, if you’re a transhuman space opera fan, please give Mindjammer a go – there are links at the bottom of this interview, and the Mindjammer novel is available in trade paperback and Kindle editions. And, if you have friends and colleagues who you think might like the Mindjammer setting, please help spread the word!
Beyond that, as you know, Charles, I’m fiction editor of the World SF Blog, and I’d like to give a massive plug for that. You and Lavie have done a sterling job creating a vibrant and enthusiastic genre fiction community here, and I’ve felt truly privileged to be involved and receive some great speculative fiction submissions as part of my World SF duties – inspiring for their scope and inventiveness, and also for their truly global perspective. Please check out our fiction section, the brand new Apex Book of World SF Fiction 2 short fiction anthology, and, if you feel inspired, send through your submissions!
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