Chocolate has its downsides, sure—eating it ethically can be a challenge, eating too much of it is less than healthy—but it’s nevertheless entirely understandable why someone would kill to get their hands on a piece of it. Even if their hands were less “handy” and more “tentacles.” That’s the bizarrely amusing premise at the gooey center of Free Chocolate by Amber Royer, a debut sci-fi romp coming next year from Angry Robot Books.
In the distant future, man has ventured out into the stars, but out rather primitive planet has little to offer the wider galaxy that it doesn’t already have—save for sweet, delicious chocolate, which turns out to be a unique commodity the denizens of countless worlds are desperate to obtain at any price. They’ll even kill for it.
Teacher, former librarian, and cookbook author Amber Royer says the story was influenced by both her love of chocolate and her passion for operas of all stripes—classical opera, space operas, soap operas, and Spanish-language telénovelas—all great tastes that are certain to taste great together. Angry Robot Publicity Manager Penny Reeve sold us on it with just one sentence: “Basically, imagine Jane the Virgin, but with aliens.”
She talks a little bit more about how the book came to be below the official synopsis, which will have to sate your hunger for now—the book will be out next June.
In the far future, chocolate is Earth’s only unique commodity one that everyone else in the galaxy is willing to kill to get their hands, paws and tentacles on
Latina culinary arts student, Bo Benitez, becomes a fugitive when she’s caught stealing a cacao pod from one of the heavily-defended plantations that keep chocolate, Earth’s sole valuable export, safe from a hungry galaxy.
Forces array against her including her alien boyfriend and a reptilian cop. But when she escapes onto an unmarked starship things go from bad to worse: it belongs to the race famed throughout the galaxy for eating stowaways! Surrounded by dangerous yet hunky aliens, Bo starts to uncover clues that the threat to Earth may be bigger than she first thought.
Here’s Amber on her inspirations for Free Chocolate:
The first time I ever went to go see a full-blown opera, it was La Traviata. I know, me, at something called The Tragedy. Normally, I don’t go in for heartbreak endings, especially not if I’ve been warned ahead of time (Sorry The Notebook—I will probably never read you), but the friend planning the trip promised it wasn’t going to be a two-Kleenex-box experience. I figured, how bad could it be, I don’t even speak Italian, and started liberally applying mascara to go with my three-inch heels.
But they had a box displaying subtitles at the top of the stage, in glowing intensity above the performers’ heads. The main character, Violetta, is dying of tuberculosis, and goes as far as pretending to be in love with another man to keep her true love from having to be there as she dies. Most of the third act—I don’t apologize for spoiling a piece written in the 1850s—consists of songs about how unfair it is that she has to die, her love interest desperately bargaining to take her away from Paris, where she can get well.
By the time she died, on stage, my mascara was a gloppy mess, and I had learned that, no matter the language or the form, emotions translate. Story translates.
When all you have are the bare snatches of words, and you’re concentrating so hard to understand what is going on with the characters, everything else falls away, and you can see that what you think of as story is really just characters being tested by whatever the world throws their way, daring the world to try harder, or crumbling under the inevitability of failure. Opera is good at that, designing plots that, ridiculous though they may be, push the characters to their limits.
The characters don’t even have to be threatened with death. In Die Fladermaus (which translates as The Bat), Adele, the maid, has been invited to a party and pretended to be sick to get out of work. She’s even “borrowed” one of her mistress’s dresses. She gets to the party only to find that her master and mistress are also there, and she gets the best song in the whole multi-lingual-extravaganza, where she successfully convinces her master that she’s far too elegant to be the parlor maid he’s mistaken her for.
But what does all of this have to do with me, or Free Chocolate, or science fiction in general?
Well, space opera…soap opera…they’re all rooted in that same tradition. They can be well or poorly done (there were some bad operas, too, you know—check out Skeletons from the Opera Closet by David L. Groover for descriptions of some of the worst), but these newer forms focus on character relationships above all else in much the same way as stage operas.
According to Wikipedia, “In the name, ‘soap’ refers to the soap and detergent commercials originally broadcast during the shows, which were aimed at women who were cleaning their houses at the time of listening or viewing, and “opera” refers to the melodramatic character of the shows.” Space opera also gets dinged for melodrama. In fact, “The term ‘space opera’ was coined in 1941 by fan writer and author Wilson Tucker as a pejorative term in an article in issue 36 of science fiction fanzine Le Zombie.” (That’s from Wikipedia again) Yep. It was originally a slur.
And yes, there have been some awful space operas, and some awful soap operas (and telénovelas), but when done well, they can be some of the most addictive stories, because they force us to care about real, fully formed people, no matter what situation they’re put in. And those fandoms can start to affect fans’ real lives—Screenrant.com quotes the Social Security Administration: “The government agency says that in 2015, Kylo was ranked at No. 3,269 in popularity, and last year, it skyrocketed to No. 901.” And let’s not forget how the fans of Firefly bonded together to get their franchise a movie.
If you’re looking for quality space opera, now is a good time to be a reader. A wired.com article from earlier this year says, “Today, a bumper crop of space adventures fill [ereaders]. They run the gamut from intimate character dramas to galaxy-spanning epics, each of them as big and bold as their genre implies, but far more experimental and varied than ever before.”
And as far as over-the-top plots? The “serious” opera tradition lays the groundwork there too. It doesn’t get much weirder than The Magic Flute—and that one was by Mozart.
Free Chocolate will be published in June 2018.