Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Interview with Mike Brotherton

The human colony on the planet Argo has long explored and exploited the technology left behind by an extinct alien race. But then an archaeology team accidentally activates a terrible weapon: a weapon that will destroy the entire colony, and its star, if they cannot deactivate it. Evidence at the site suggests that the weapon was created for the ancient Argonauts by another race, a race of traders. The archaeologists discover a map of their interstellar trading empire, and the coordinates of their main trading station. Although the information is over a million years out of date, the only hope for Argo is to send a ship and crew into the unknown, to find the traders—or anyone who can help them find a way to shut down the weapon.

Mike Brotherton is a hard science fiction writer publishing novels with Tor. His latest, Spider Star, is being released on March 4, 2008. In addition to being a writer, he's a professor of astronomy at the University of Wyoming, an observer who studies quasars with the Hubble Space Telescope and other facilities on and above the Earth. His webpage is http://www.mikebrotherton.com.

What is the premise of the new novel?

It's a story about an interstellar colony on the planet Argo orbiting Pollux, and what happens when the people there accidentally set off a doomsday weapon left behind by the original inhabitants of their system. The original technology behind the weapon came from an even more advanced alien species living in something referred to as the "Spider Star." There are two main protagonists. The first is an older man, Frank Klingston, with a family who is drafted into the mission given his previous experience as the only human to ever encounter living intelligent aliens. The other is a young hotshot, Manuel Rusk, who was supposed to head off the next interstellar exploration mission and is partially responsible for setting off the weapon.

What was your inspiration for writing Spider Star?

I was finishing up my first novel, Star Dragon, and was chatting with a friend at a review panel for the National Science Foundation. He told me about some papers by David Eichler, a theoretical astrophysicist, hypothesizing the concept of planets made of dark matter that might be found around neutron stars. Well, that was a pretty cool idea and originally I was just going to write a short story of some kind but never got around to it. By the time I was ready to write about this idea, it had grown to novel size and had accumulated a lot of associations. I'm always looking to do something exotic, leaning on my professional expertise for unique situations or environments, that haven't been done a million times already. The setting of Spider Star is unique, I believe, but a setting no matter how great doesn't make a story on its own. Story ideas kind of grow piecemeal for me, where one good idea isn't enough but when it hooks up with two or three other ideas suddenly a story crystallizes. It's like the ideas are amino acids floating around and my mind is the enzyme that assembles them when it finds the right combination.

What kind of research did you do for this book?

While I don't think so-called "hard" science fiction should be hard to read, it can be hard to write. My current operational definition is fiction that requires a calculator. I had to do a bunch of ugly calculations and estimates to world build, and then find engineering/plot solutions when the physics didn't quite work out the way I wanted for the world building. Some of the things were rather complicated and I lucked out that I found a couple of papers doing most of them for me, as I would have resorted to writing computer code to be sure what I was envisioning was plausible. I'm talking around this because I don't want to spoil too much.

I also leaned on the stories of Jason and the Argonauts and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness for some layers of mythology that seemed to resonate with the plot and themes of the book. Happy accidents do occur when symbolism and motifs crop up on their own, but I usually try to put some in intentionally to reinforce points I'm trying to make and the mood I'm trying to establish.

What are you trying to do with your science fiction? Does it have a purpose beyond telling an entertaining story?

Yes, ideally. I think science fiction at it's best is great literature. It shows a side of humanity in the face of new ideas or new circumstances that cannot be done with mainstream work. What does it mean to evolve past our current state? What does it mean to us to confront non-human intelligence? Are we great, as complex and intelligent life, in the face of a largely lifeless universe, or insignificant before the near infinity of space and time?

I also try to get as much of my science right as possible, although I do push the limits and sometimes just avoid the impossible while embracing the unlikely (if it's interesting enough). I like to think I'm educating people a little about astronomy and physics and perhaps inspiring people to study science, the way I was inspired by Star Trek and other science fiction I encountered growing up.

Who are your favorite authors and books now and when you were growing up?

That's a difficult question because I have so many! My favorites growing up and then through college were Philip Jose Farmer, Joe Haldeman, Robert Heinlein, Fred Pohl, Arthur C. Clarke, Harlan Ellison, David Brin, Larry Niven, Gregory Benford, and Roger Zelazny. More recently I've been a big fan of Dan Simmons, Nancy Kress, Michael Swanwick, Jack McDevitt, Eric Nylund, Robert Charles Wilson, Vernor Vinge, and Kurt Vonnegut (better late than never). I think there's a lot of great books being written and I'm happy to be able to contribute mine.

Thanks to Mike Brotherton for dropping by to answer a few questions and promote his newest book which is available TODAY (March 4). If your curiosity was piqued by what you read here, please go out and find yourself a copy of SPIDER STAR!

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