April 2004
© 2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Thomas Harlan Interview with Ernest Lilley

Feature Reviews: House of Reeds / Wasteland of Flint

Other Links: Thomas Harlan Webpage

Oath of Empire (official site)
Shadow of Ararat
The Gate of Fire
The Storm of Heaven
The Dark Lord

In the Time of the Sixth Sun (official site)
Wasteland of Flint
House of Reeds

SFRevu: What has been the reaction to Wasteland of Flint and House of Reeds so far?

Thomas Harlan: Critical reaction, particularly to Wasteland, has been great. Haven't seen so many responses to House of Reeds yet, but they're trickling in. People emailing me directly (or posting to the various review boards, or our mailing list) have also really liked both books - very heartening! Now, if millions will just -buy- them, I'll be set.

Thomas Harlan Bibliography:

Shadow of Ararat
The Gate of Fire
The Storm of Heaven
The Dark Lord

Wasteland of Flint
House of Reeds

Short Fiction
House of Reeds

The one negative trend in reviews (and in emails to me) has been wanting to know more (a lot more) about the background. How did the Aztecs and the Japanese conquer the earth? What happened to get the Japanese to North America? What is Earth (Anahuac) like? And so on...

I got the same kind of reaction to the Oath of Empire series - but I'm just not comfortable with a book that stops in the middle of the story and has a long digression about how things got to the way they are. I like to layer in that information a bit at a time, over multiple books, in an organic way, so that you wind up with the whole story, but haven't been lectured to.

SFR: I found your writing of action sequences to be excellent, both the naval engagements and the shipboard and ground action with armored troops. How did you come by the background for it?

Thomas: Reading too much military history, doing too much wargaming and reading far too much of writers like David Drake, Patrick O'Brien and Dave Webber (to name only some...). Action sequences have always been my strong point, so these days (after writing four books of pretty much ALL action in the Oath of Empire series) I'm trying to concentrate on character and dialog, with the action as exclamation points.

In the end, I'd rather be Leigh Brackett than Webber (though I do like Dave's stuff!) and be a master of snappy dialog.

SFR:  Don't worry. Though I think the action is deftly done, your real strength is in creating an engaging cast and moving them through their developmental arcs. Snappy dialog and all. Or do they move themselves and take you along for the ride?

Thomas: Depends on the book. Wasteland sprung from nothing into complete existence in one go; House took some muddling about to get it into reasonable shape. Land of the Dead is proving complicated and aggravating because I've got a hard word-count limit and I want to get more in than will fit.

SFR: Why did you go off in this direction? What made you decide to combine Alternate History and Hard SF?

Thomas: Some people would say that Oath of Empire was an SF/fantasy/alt.hist hybrid too... These are just the stories that interest me, or come bubbling up out of my brain. So I just write them down.

In this case, with an alternate history background and future being combined, the storyline developed out of, first, the background - which is very very deep. The universe of the Sixth Sun is based on my play-by-email game Lords of the Earth, which has been running for 20 years now. So, thanks to the game, I have a very detailed history of Earth from about the year 700 AD to 1780 AD. And Sixth Sun is the projection of that history into the 2400's. I couldn't resist using that huge historical backdrop to tell these SF stories.

SFR: Does Green Hummingbird's beliefs map into something we're familiar with? It seems vaguely Shintoesque to me, but I may be way off.

Thomas: His beliefs are very strongly rooted in the Mexica/Aztec shamanistic tradition -- pretty much everything he says and relates is right out of historical record for the beliefs and practices of pre-conquest Mexico priesthoods. Plus a bit of Yaqui and Tarahumara (north Mexico indian tribes) magical practice. Much of that thinking does, in fact, parallel Shintoist animism - which is one of the reasons why the Shinto Japanese and Mexica can get along.

The mind-altering tools available to him, or to Ixpapalotl in House, are technologically enhanced versions of the traditional herbal remedies (morning glory flower, peyote, etc.) used by the pre-conquest priesthoods.

SFR: Why are there no chatty AI's in your future? I often find that the most compelling characters are machines, probably because they're dependent on their owners for purpose.

Thomas: They just haven't shown up yet -- Prince Xochitl (one of the wayward Tezozomoc's more able older brothers) has an embedded AI in Land of The Dead - but that kind of technology is restricted to the higher levels of social power in the empire.

SFR: I gather that the Sixth Sun series isn't a trilogy, but something much larger. How many books do you plan? Will any of the characters make it through to the end? Can you tell us anything about the story arc?

Thomas: The Sixth Sun is designed to be a long set of standalone novels (and one two-parter) relating the epic of the Méxica and their greatest struggle, in a vast galactic war (wherein the human empire is only a minor, yet pivotal, player). Planned currently are: Wasteland (done), House of Reeds (done), Land of the Dead (in process now), River of Ash, Rising Wind, Abyss of Storms, and then Open Hand and Sun-Flower (the two-parter).

Gretchen Anderssen will be in all of the books except OpenHand/SunFlower (which involve humans who are far away from Méxica space, and trying to get home). Captain Hadeishi and Susan Kosho and Green Hummingbird will drop in and out of the books as necessary. Though we will see all of their stories develop over the long term. Characters like Prince Tezozomoc and other Imperial nobility will also weave in and out, but Gretchen is our viewpoint character for these vaster events.

SFR: What's your involvement with archeology? I see rocks in all your family pictures. Is Gretchen based on anyone in your family?

Thomas: Both of my parents were in archaeology or anthropology in their younger days; mom's been a archaeobotanist (identifying plant fragments taken from archaeological sites) and pop is actually a world-famous dendrochronologist (someone who figures out a whole range of climatological data from the width and composition of tree rings in very very old trees). So I grew up on archaeological sites in the southwest, and was constantly surrounded by people in that business.

Gretchen, however, is not based on them (though some of the things that happen to her are based on stories I've heard around the campfire, or otherwise passed down by the grizzled old walnuts of the extended family) but on my friend Betsy, who is a classical scholar and archaeologist by training. A fact which causes her no end of embarassment...

SFR: How long have you been into gaming anyway? How did that start?

Thomas: I've been designing and playing wargames, of different kinds, since 6th grade. Growing up in a sci-fi/fantasy reading household introduced me to many things at an early age, including some friends of my father's who played ancient, ancient Avalon Hill wargames like Richtophen's War and Tactics II. But having no money as a 6th grader, if I wanted to have my own - then I needed to make my own. In 7th grade Dungeons and Dragons came along, leading to a lot of time spent rolling dice. For some reason, I was always the GM.

SFR: So, when did you create Lords of the Earth? Can you tell us a little about it? (official website: http://www.throneworld.com/lords/index.jsp )

Thomas: In high school I had branched out from making traditional hex-based wargames or role-playing games into political/historical games played by dozens of my friends. We fell into what's usually called play-by-mail gaming sort of as a way to allow more than 2 or 4 people to play a big game over multiple days or weeks, with each turn happening overnight.

In the summer between high school and university, I wrote a pretty complicated space-conquest game called CORE, which was played by mail. But though it had a number of very fervent players, it wasn't very interesting to GM. So I wrote what I hoped would be a simpler, more interesting to moderate game called Lords Of The Earth.

And it was a lot more fun, for everyone - GM and players alike. We started with six players, and three of them are still in the game, twenty years later. Now there are over a hundred people playing nations in that original game. And there are 30-odd other games running, in the US, in Spain, in Italy, even Germany.

Q: You're a terrific writer, a master game designer...and a Buffy fan?

Thomas: A bit - I was a Buffy fan from the the pre-publicity for the -movie-, which makes me a bit "old school" I guess. My favorite Whedon show, though, is FIREFLY. Such good, good work. Yo, Joss, if you need someone to write a novelization of the movie, give my agent a shout!

SFR: I'm delighted that you've added SF to your output, but are the fans of your fantasy series ok with it?

Thomas: Sales will tell... I haven't gotten any angry emails about shifting gears. I have gotten a few plaintive ones asking when I'd be continuing Oath of Empire. To which I reply: "That series is over, complete, done. But there will be a follow-up series - Empire of Darkness - in a couple years (wherein we pick up that world about 20 years on from the end of The Dark Lord).

SFR: Growing up, when did you first get interested in SF/Fantasy?

Thomas: My parents were into the Lord of the Rings and SF before I was born. So it was just part of my life from day 0. No way to escape it, really. (If you want to hear more about the author's Tolkien childhood, read his essay: "Fool of a Took".)

SFR: What do you read these days?

Thomas: Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey and Maturin series is the only real fiction I've been reading, aside from occasional Bill Baldwin (the reissue of his Helmsman series) and McMaster Bujold's fantasy series. Everything else I read is research of one kind or the other.

SFR: Were you a writer as a child? That is, did you make up your own stories?

Thomas: Absolutely! Started off with hand-drawn comics, then game storylines (I was a game designer before I was a writer), then lots of long short stories in college, then years of writing newsletters for Lords of the Earth, and now real novels...

SFR: Of your own books, do you have a favorite?

Thomas: The two books that flowed the best, from mind to pen, as it were are: Gate of Fire and Wasteland of Flint. Wasteland came fully formed, all in one go, and then all I had to do was write it down.

SFR: What other writers do you feel you have something in common with? Do you hang out with authors?

Thomas: There's a large community of SF/F authors here in Tucson: Dennis McKiernan, Judy Tarr, John Vornholt, Janni Simner, Terri Windling, Catherine Wells, etc. And we hang out a fair amount - parties, wakes, cons, and so on.

For authors that I think I follow in the tradition of, or are in the same writing space: Ed Abbey was a strong, strong influence on me and we share a love of the desert and wilderness; H. Beam Piper was my first, favorite SF author; I won't even bother to say that Tolkien didn't influence me, because those were the first books my parents read to me.

Other authors I aim to match, in terms of skill and storytelling (and I have a long way to go!) are Ken Bulmer (who wrote all those great Dray Prescot books for Daw), Hayao Miyazaki (whose manga Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind is one of the greatest stories ever told), and Sterling Lanier.

SFR: What does Fantasy offer that Science Fiction can't? Why is gaining popularity among readers?

Thomas: Everyone in the industry has an explanation for this, but I'm starting to wonder if people don't see the usual kinds of fantasy settings and storylines to be more comfortable; while SF is tending to be more uncomfortable to read. If this is the future, where is my flying car? My anti-grav belt? Our thriving moon bases and space colonies and asteroid mines? Without all that? Pah! Still the plain old present.

That said, SF has some work to do - to jump ahead of the old standbys that have crept up and become part of daily life - and do its real job, which is looking ahead 50 years and getting us thinking about what will happen in our (later) lifetime, before we get surprised.

SFR: What's does Alternate History bring to the genre? Whose do you like?

Thomas: I love alternate history and always have; from Wells (War of the Worlds), L. Sprague De Camp (Lest Darkness Fall) and Piper (Paratime Police) in the old days, up to Stephenson and Turtledove and Flint today. And my taste has changed, which I've alluded to above, now I want to see a seamless world presented, not one where characters stop and tell the audience the why and wherefore of the altered timeline, but one where the reader discovers that for themselves, figuring it out as they go along.

Which books are on my self? Tim Powers, H. Beam, Talbot Mundy, Bill Forstschen... Those are people I've read more than once, and keep the books.

SFR: How do you feel about the future? What makes you the most hopeful and the most fearful?

Thomas: Well, things are just going to get very difficult for everyone. Global climactic change is already upon us, and that's going to bring sharp changes in the way (and where) we live. People can dispute the theories, but we're facing some planetary challenges to our civilization. Hopefully, we'll make it through in a way that means a better life for everyone, instead of general collapse, or a world divided into fortress societies with sharply limited freedoms for their citizens.

That will make my job much more difficult... If no one is allowed to read SF. 8-/

© 2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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