Q&A With John Markley

In this week’s blog post, find out how John Markley created the novel species that inhabits a tidally-locked planet in “Forlorn Hopes,” his latest Analog story, which appears in our [May/June issue, on sale now!]

Analog Editor: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?
John Markley: It started with me thinking about how an intelligent species that evolved on a world tidally locked to its star, so that the same side always faces the sun, might differ from us. And two things particularly captured my attention.
The first is that humans spend roughly 8 of every 24 hours unconscious, and that works fine for us since prior to artificial lighting we were pretty limited in what we could get done at night—and likewise many of the creatures interested in killing us.
But in eternal daylight, there’s no natural “down time” like that. Being continuously awake becomes more appealing. There are creatures that do this on Earth, sort of—a dolphin’s brain can sleep in shifts, for example, so even when they’re resting they’re always at least semi-awake.
And this is a pretty recent adaptation, to prevent them from drowning—dolphins evolved from land-dwelling creatures that did sleep and only took to the oceans a few tens of millions of years ago. In an ecosystem where all life had spent billions of years adapting for endless day, perhaps we’d get something more elaborate and less jury-rigged—especially if you want a species that can maintain Intelligence in the same range as humans without interruption
The second was that a habitable tidally-locked world would almost certainly be orbiting a red dwarf. Red dwarfs are often prone to flares that would, provided they don’t blow the planets atmosphere off altogether, make protection from radiation a desirable trait for anyone living around one. So, I decided, early land-dwelling animals had evolved exoskeletons, perhaps of fairly exotic composition by Earth standards. And the implications of that were huge—an enormous amount of human technological and social development ultimately lies downstream of the fact that Earth is filled with soft, fleshy creatures whose hide can be punctured by even quite crude projectiles- humans themselves among them.
That gave me my aliens, which in turn gave me an idea for what their early reactions to humans and human technology might be like. And that’s this story.

AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
JM: The expression “Forlorn hope” actually originated as an English mistranslation of an old Dutch military term, verloren hoop—“hoop” in Dutch means a heap or group, in this case a group of soldiers, but it sounds like “hope,” so a lost group of soldiers in Dutch became a lost hope in English.
But this mistranslation was actually quite fitting. The men of a verloren hoop were doomed—It meant a unit on a suicide mission, or near enough to one. Most notably, when a fortification had a breach blown in it, the verloren hoop/forlorn hope was the first wave sent through—whereupon most of them would be quickly riddled with enemy musket fire, allowing subsequent waves to advance while the defenders were reloading.
For a story about soldiers in the first battle their species has ever fought with gunpowder, it seemed appropriate.

AE: “Forlorn Hopes” is a fascinating piece of military SF—do you have experience reading in the military SF genre?
JM: Yes, a great deal, going back to Gordon R. Dickson’s Dorsai stories when I was a kid. David Drake is my favorite living author, and he was a huge influence on this story—both in its emotional tone and atmosphere and its depiction of a preindustrial society encountering a more technologically advanced species. I’ve had the pleasure of very briefly interacting with him twice over the years and he was incredibly kind to me both times so I hope this is a worthwhile tribute.

AE: Is this piece part of a greater universe of stories?
JM: It is. I’ve written a number of stories set on Surya—the human name for the planet, the Latin alphabet isn’t really equipped for clacking and chirping—from both human and alien perspectives. And I have a rough idea of what other inhabited parts of the planet are like, and where the overarching narrative would go.
One of the downsides of “Forlorn Hopes” is that it takes place in such a short span of time it can’t really explore the implications of how perpetual daylight affects everyday civilian life, or how regions with varying amounts of direct sunlight differ, or how having different parts of your brain cyclically switching on and off your entire life might affect personality or sense of identity. Or why humans are there and why on Earth they think doing what they’re doing is a good idea, for that matter.
Lots of stuff to explore, which hopefully I’ll get to share with people someday.

AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?
JM: My two most influential science fiction writers, both in general and especially on this story, are David Drake and Poul Anderson. Other authors I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from (though not necessarily in this story) are Stephen Baxter, David Weber, Vernor Vinge, Neal Asher, Larry Niven, Alastair Reynolds, Sean Williams, Glen Cook, and Jack Vance
Real science and technology, naturally. The possibilities of alien life, artificial intelligence, and human-machine interfaces particularly fascinate me.
History—the society depicted in “Forlorn Hopes” owes a good bit to the classical Mediterranean world, for instance.
Religion and mythology in general—my first story in Analog, “A Hundred Mouths and a Voice of Iron,” was partly inspired by the lines from Virgil’s Aeneid I took the title from.
TV shows and movies from when I was growing up—Star Trek, Babylon 5, The Outer Limits, Star Wars, a lot of films of extremely questionable quality from local video stores and syndicated TV stations
Tons of video games, far too many to list, and the occasional anime series.

AE: What is your process?
JM: I usually start with a very broad premise—in this case, “preindustrial alien society on a tidally locked planet.” Then I start thinking through the implications of that, and start coming up with the broad strokes of a setting that accommodates that premise. Then I think about the implications of that setting, and the implications of those implications, and so on- for example, “maybe they’d have evolved exoskeletons to deal with their sun’s flares, in which case . . .” and so on.
Writing the actual story is usually very seat of my pants. I sit down a with vague idea of something interesting that could happen in this setting, in this case “gunpowder is abruptly introduced into their society,” and just start writing and see where the story goes, making up character and setting details as I need them.
Then I go back and try to make it all look more thought out then it actually was: establishing characters and concepts properly so they don’t spring into existence from nowhere later, rewriting to better fit whatever themes or emotional tone the story ended up developing, things like that.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?
JM: Work on something else for a while, usually. If I get stuck on one story I’ll often switch to another so that I’m still at least working on something instead of just stewing in frustration and not accomplishing anything.
Talking about it with somebody else helps. Explicitly laying out to somebody else what I’m trying to accomplish and what’s impeding me can give a different perspective than having that knowledge just sitting in my head. Having to answer questions about the story or characters are setting can also expose flaws or unexploited opportunities I’d missed.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
JM: I always have a few things in varying stages of completion. Currently in progress:
A hard SF take on the Cthulhu mythos, which is kind of a response to what I think is a common misinterpretation of those stories. People think Lovecraft’s universe is heartless and indifferent to humanity, when it’s actually heartless and indifferent to EVERYONE, and Big C is no more the plucky protagonist of the universe than we are.
Another hard science fiction story, about stellar engineering and a possible solution to the Fermi Project. No spoilers but the note to myself when the idea started to coming to me was “what if the sun was evil and hated you.”
A decidedly less hard science fiction story, addressing the long-neglected question of what would happen if the malign intelligences of the Outside could enter the material universe via any physical computational substrate powerful enough to contain their vast minds and an improperly managed server farm could become a gate to Hell.
I’m also venturing into a different medium for the first time, video games, with an artist friend of mine and trying my hand at making a visual novel. It’s quite a different experience writing something that’s interactive and reacts to player choice. More difficult in some ways, but also liberating—if I have a dilemma about which way a scene should go, I can pick “both!”

AE: What are you reading right now?
JM: Recently finished Xeelee: Endurance by Stephen Baxter, which I highly recommend, and just started Yukikaze by Chōhei Kambayashi. Also a bunch of stuff about space elevators, for a story I’m planning where one gets sabotaged and Hijinks Ensue.

AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
JM: Your writing never has to be more public you want it to be. It’s perfectly fine to suck in the privacy of your own home, as long as you’re learning from it.
At the beginning, don’t be afraid to write stuff that’s derivative, or pastiche—just remember to try to put your own individual flair on it, even if it’s very small things at first.
This can help you discover important things about yourself. When does your passion and imagination come out the most -when you’re writing about action and adventure, or about character’s and their emotions, when you’re puzzling out the logical consequences of a technology or a cultural practice, something else? What tone fits you best—optimistic, bleak, heroic, tragic, highly emotional, more detached? Are there particular themes or subjects you find yourself gravitating to? And so on.
For instance, I didn’t start out with the conscious intent to write “hard” science fiction—I discovered in the process of writing that I found it more satisfying when I could justify events in my story with real-world science, and that the research to accomplish that often inspired new ideas. And my journey towards this realization began with writing what was basically a thinly veiled knockoff of the Wing Commander games with a setting on loan from The Mote in God’s Eye and Babylon 5.
And that doesn’t mean you have to pigeonhole yourself. Obviously, ideally you want to be good with both characters and ideas, be able to be both upbeat and downbeat as a given story demands, etc. But it will help you discover the passions and strengths to better write something that is more fully you.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
JM: I’m on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/johnmarkley, and I stream at http://www.twitch.tv/johnmarkley. I’ll often stream science fiction games and talk about them from a world-building perspective, and sometimes talk about what I’m working on, though fair warning that you may have to trudge through a lot of weird digressions and  absolutely terrible jokes to get to those parts. I also have a discord server where I sometimes talk about my writing that you can join at https://discord.gg/eKWgymw.

John Markley is a former Escapist Magazine staff member and Chicagoland newspaper reporter from Illinois. He has three published science fiction stories, two of them in Analog Science Fiction and one in Escape Pod Magazine

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s