Elizabeth Bear Answers 6 Questions About Her Return to Sci-Fi in Ancestral Night

In late 2016, we brought you news that award-winning mega-prolific, and genre-hopping author Elizabeth Bear was taking a (brief) break from her ongoing epic fantasy trilogy for Ancestral Night, a space opera promising to show readers more than one new universe. Today, we reveal the cover of the U.S. edition, coming from Saga Press next March, and get Bear to spill a few secrets about her first pure sci-fi novel in seven years.

First up, that cover, designed by Saga Art Director Michael McCartney, which hints at the plot’s multi-dimensional qualities. Take a look at the full image below the catalog copy, then keep reading for our interview with the author.

Haimey Dz thinks she knows what she wants.

She thinks she knows who she is.

She is wrong.

A routine salvage mission uncovers evidence of a terrible crime and relics of powerful ancient technology. Haimey and her small crew run afoul of pirates at the outer limits of the Milky Way, and find themselves on the run and in possession of universe-changing information.

When authorities prove corrupt, Haimey realizes that she is the only one who can protect her galaxy-spanning civilization from the implications of this ancient technology—and the revolutionaries who want to use it for terror and war. Her quest will take her careening from the event horizon of the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s core to the infinite, empty spaces at its edge.

To save everything that matters, she will need to uncover the secrets of ancient intelligences lost to time—and her own lost secrets, which she will wish had remained hidden from her forever.

And here is Bear to answer our burning questions…

Of late, you’ve been deeply ensconced in fantasy (two epic trilogies), and you’ve dabbled in steampunk… What made you decide it was time to dip back into full-blown science fiction?
Well, I sold a science fiction book!

Honestly, it’s that simple. Every professional writer has the experience of having any number of great ideas, shopping them around to publishers, and winding up writing the ones that sell! So sometimes you love the idea of a book very much and never get to write it.

I’m super-excited go be actually getting to write the White Space books; they combine a lot of my favorite aspects of science fiction and space opera, and are deeply influenced by the books I grew up loving, including James White, C.J. Cherryh, Andre Norton, Octavia Butler, and so on, through more modern authors like Ann Leckie and Iain M. Banks. There’s something deeply satisfying about writing stories that involve zooming around the galaxy at high rates of speed discovering vast alien artifacts and dealing with space pirates and complicated politics and human biology.

Your sci-fi books have twisted the tropes of cyberpunk (the Jenny Casey trilogy) and the generation ship (Jacob’s Ladder). Are you looking to upend any specific tropes in Ancestral Night?
I’m always interested in taking stuff apart and seeing how it works, obviously! And the universe as portrayed in space opera is so vast and haunted–I just love that classical science fiction sense of wonder. So that’s what I’m going for, with a modern sensibility, and embracing modern ideas of identity, neurology, and physics.

What’s your elevator pitch for Ancestral Night duology?
“Uber, but for ancient alien artifacts caught in the hinges of space!”

Okay, I’m slightly kidding, but what a great question! It’s not exactly accurate to call it a duology, however. It’s two related books, which will have some continuing characters, but each one should stand on its own as an arc and a story. So I’m structuring it more like Cherryh’s or Banks’s space operas, where a number of independent novels take place in the same universe. And who knows, if these work out there might be more!

So with that in mind, Ancestral Night is a book about a shoestring space salvage operator who isn’t who she believes herself to be, uncovering the secrets of a universe that is much vaster and more treacherous than she understands. Also, pirates, and politics, and a giant praying mantis space cop.

The second book, which is titled Machine, is about a woman is a space trauma rescue specialist for an enormous multi-species medical center. It derives from my love of James White’s Sector General books and stories, when I was growing up, and all the great addicting rescue shows (such as Third Watch) that I have been a fan of since I was a kid and paramedic rescue was a shiny new thing, and I was completely fixated by EMERGENCY! (Remember EMERGENCY! ? Starring Randolph Mantooth, who possibly has the greatest name of any actor in the 1970s?)

I still have to write that one, though.

Your book is built on a really fun conceit—that every instance of FTL travel creates a mini-universe. When writing sci-fi, how seriously do you approach the “science” part of things?
It depends very much on the book! Sometimes I cheat a little, especially if cheating is more fun. But the White Drive in these books is based on the very theoretical and currently very impractical underpinnings of the Alcubierre drive, a model that manages to get around little problems like the speed of light and relativity by warping space rather than going faster.

There’s a lot of handwaving involved about exactly where the power source comes from, but that’s science fiction for you. Exotic matter! Whee!

This is a concept that will be familiar to anybody who’s watched Star Trek, so the idea of a “warp drive” isn’t that new. On the other hand, I’m not sure anybody has written an exploration of what you do when stuff goes wrong with warp bubbles, and how you get stuff and possibly even people back out of those spaces if they are stuck there. (If they have, I missed it. Sorry about that!)

The cover we’ve just revealed promises a different kind of space opera, and hints at an epic scope. How do you think it fits with your own image of the book?
Well, that’s what I was trying to write, so I’m hoping it will be an accurate reflection! I’m very interested in neurology as well as physics, and the sorts of work we do to create our reality and our understanding of it. The book also posits a novel political system, a post-scarcity society focused on providing opportunities for personal fulfillment and community service for everyone while navigating the complexities of an enormous, multi-species polity–and discussing the shortcomings of that system as well. (It’s not a utopia. But then, neither is our current system.)

Honestly, I think the most radical SF ideas in this book have to do with mechanisms of governance and political systems. A lot of people have posited post-scarcity societies, from the Federation to the Culture; I’m trying to talk a little but about how you might make such a thing work.

What’s your favorite space opera cover ever (you own books excluded)?
I am a huge fan of the Michael Whelan covers for C. J. Cherryh’s Chanur books, especially The Pride of Chanur. Those books are so great on so many levels—from the alien perspectives to the space fights written like submarine battles. And the cover really reflects the complexity, uncertainty, and politics that dominate the narrative.

Ancestral Night will be published in March 2019.

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