Studying a Setting: The Orbit Series, by J. S. Collyer
When J. S. Collyer released the classic-styled space opera, Zero, last year, it received considerable acclaim. The second book in the series, Haven, has just been released. Setting has always been critical to storytelling, not just as a backdrop to the story, but also as a character or plotline of its own. Iain M. Banks relied more on setting than story or character to convey his message in the Culture novels and, in some ways, something similar could be said of Kameron Hurley's Bel Dame Apocrypha series. In short, setting in science fiction and fantasy is critical. So, I asked J. S. Collyer to tell me a little about the series, and more importantly, how she went about creating the setting for it.
The Orbit Series is your debut work. Zero, Book One, has received glowing reviews and done really well. Haven, Book Two, has just been released. Introduce us to the series.
The Orbit Series follows the story of Kaleb Hugo, a high-ranking, well-connected soldier in the military establishment called the Service that rules over Earth and its orbiting colonies in the not-to-near future. Book 1, Zero, begins when Hugo makes a controversial decision and loses his position in the establishment that has been his whole life but is re-assigned to a special ops vessel the ‘Zero’. The Zero is crewed by a rag-tag group of orphans and misfits who look to their wry, wrong-side-of-the-tracks commander Ezekiel Webb for leadership whilst executing undercover work for the Service. This shift in positions and perspective, both in Zero and again in Haven, leads Hugo to re-examine the way the world works and his own position in it whilst trying to fight for what he believes is right. His perception of risk and relationships shift hugely as he discovers more and more about himself and those around him during the course of his missions.
What feel are you going for with the Orbit series? Is it a classic space opera, high melodramatic adventure, or does it have more in common with hard science fiction or military science fiction?
I would say it has more in common with TV shows like Firefly and Farscape than any hard-hitting or universe-spanning book series. I try to keep it light-hearted in that the narrative is fun and relatable, the characters grounded and realistic and the settings easily visualised. I like a really immersive experience from my fiction which comes from relating to the characters and experiencing their story along with them. My themes revolve heavily around the characters and their relationships and experiences. For me, the setting full of lasers, space stations and star ships are an added bonus that provide a super-human backdrop to a very human story, so I’d say classic space-adventure with feels than anything else.
I want to talk about setting. First of all, walk us through the setting for both books.
The setting is the future of our own world but not so very many years away. Think hundreds rather than thousands. I envision an over-populated Earth with wide areas of uninhabitable areas that are the result of a Whole World War several generations ago. Humankind has expanded onto cities on the moon and into two ‘strips’ of orbiting space station colonies – the Lunar Strip consists of 5 space stations (Lunar 1 – 5) and the Sunside Strip has five more (Sunside 1 -5).
The Lunar strip is older, more ramshackle, and populated by descendants of Old America and Europe, the first groups of people to flee Earth. The Sunside colonies are newer, better equipped, richer and with stronger ties to the Service, the first military establishment that was strong enough to unite more of the ‘Orbit’ (Earth and its colonies) than any other force in history. Despite the strength and hold of the Service, humanity is still a sprawling, fractured species, desperate for space to live and resources to live off. They mine asteroids harvested from the asteroid belt for minerals and parts of the Orbit use dangerously flammable fuel to run their machines as they have no other options. Crime and conspiracy and power struggles are rife, though the Service tries its best to keep things under control, for better or worse.
By the second book, humanity is starting construction of a new colony on Mars which promises to be the new start everyone is hoping for, but in reality sparks a whole new mess of revolution and unrest.
How do you go about designing the setting, and how much of it developed as you wrote Zero? Did you develop it even more in your own mind as you were writing Haven?
The Orbit is developing all the time. The more my characters travel through and explore it, the more I learn about it myself. The premise of Earth and space station colonies was all I started out with and has been done before. The individual idiosyncrasies of the colonies, populations and levels of society all came together as I wrote, gaining (I hope original) colour and texture with each book.
Where did your inspiration come from for the setting? What research did you do to build its realism?
My inspiration came from some of the Japanese anime I used to watch in the 90s. They seem to have a grungy, post-apocalyptic style all of their own which is gritty, over-the-top outlandish and yet grounded and dirty and real. In terms of research, I read up on our own solar system, the basic properties of the moon, other planets, asteroids to get an idea of the logistics of living and working in such environments and I also did some basic research on military ranking systems as well as guns, bombs and other weaponry. However, the main focus of these books will always be the characters and their emotional journey so, though I did read up on things to keep the realism in check, don’t expect paragraphs of technical knowledge or explanation on any of their gadgetry, computer systems or ship workings.
How important is realism to you? How hard do you want the science fiction in the series to be?
I find realism extremely important, and that’s emotional and character realism as well as that relating to the setting or objects, because no matter how far-fetched the setting or premise, I can get on board and with almost anything if it reads realistically. Anything that smacks as unbelievable catapults me right out of a story and I struggle to commit to the narrative once I feel like it could never actually happen, or at least not happen in the way the author has articulated.
I also like realism delivered through seamless background details, character reactions, actions and motivations. I don’t like paragraphs of explanation or descriptions of spaceships, societal systems or other-worldly transportation methods. Lots of people really like detail and I appreciate that. Many scifi and fantasy fans love like knowing all the ins and outs and imagining every detail of the fictional world. But for me, as I’ve said, it’s the characters and their journeys that’s the draw of a story, not how technically accurate their communication technology is. So as much as I like believable and technically accurate details where they matter, the Orbit series is not what would be classed by many as ‘hard’ science fiction because of the focus on the humanity rather than the technology.
Kaleb Hugo and Ezekiel Webb are your lead protagonists. If the Orbit series were picked up Bad Robot or SyFy, who would you love to see cast in the roles?
I’ve daydreamed about this so many times! I’m a very visual story teller so to me they do feel almost more like films than books. I ‘see’ everything happen clearly when I write so things like mentally designing sets, scouting locations and casting actors is a very satisfying indulgence I allow myself once in a while.
Casting my protagonists is fun but tricky. Trying to narrow down so many wonderful actors who I think could lend themselves to Hugo’s hard-nosed but good-hearted integrity and Webb’s snide and cynical but open honesty is quite difficult. I also have a very clear physical depiction of both these characters in my heads but like to leave that open to interpretation as I think their physical appearance is up for debate, but their characteristics are not.
For Hugo I would love to see the likes of Idris Elba or Daniel Craig in the role, someone who can pull off gravitas but the capacity for a hot temper and strong emotion. As for the slightly younger, cheekier and yet dry and cynical Webb, it would have to be someone like Jay Baruchel or Cylian Murphy.
Book 1 in the Orbit Series is called Zero and has been described as ‘James Bond meets Firefly’. It is out now on Amazon: http://a-fwd.com/asin=B00MRACF86
Haven, book 2 in the series, which has been described as ‘cinematic, full of breathtaking moments’ and is out now for Kindle and as Paperback: http://myBook.to/havenjscollyer
Details of all publication and more thoughts on writing, publishing and promoting SciFi on J S Collyer’s WordPress: http://jcollyer.wordpress.com