Today’s author, J.S. Fields, has written a science fiction series that plays with gender and sexuality in some very interesting ways. I’m thrilled to have her here today to discuss the first novel in that series, Ardulum, First Don.
Blurb for Ardulum, First Don:
Ardulum. The planet that vanishes. The planet that sleeps.
Neek makes a living piloting the dilapidated tramp transport, Mercy’s Pledge, and smuggling questionable goods across systems blessed with peace and prosperity. She gets by—but only just. In her dreams, she is still haunted by thoughts of Ardulum, the traveling planet that, long ago, visited her homeworld. The Ardulans brought with them agriculture, art, interstellar technology…and then disappeared without a trace, leaving Neek’s people to worship them as gods.
Neek does not believe—and has paid dearly for it with an exile from her home for her heretical views.
Yet, when the crew stumbles into an armed confrontation between the sheriffs of the Charted Systems and an unknown species, fate deals Neek an unexpected hand in the form of a slave girl—a child whose ability to telepathically manipulate cellulose is reminiscent of that of an Ardulan god. Forced to reconcile her beliefs, Neek chooses to protect her, but is the child the key to her salvation, or will she lead them all to their deaths?
Can you tell us a bit about your novel, Ardulum, The First Don?
The planet that vanishes. The planet that sleeps. When Ardulum first appeared, the inhabitants brought agriculture, art and interstellar technology to the Neek people before vanishing back into space. Two hundred years later Neek has joined the Charted Systems, a group of planets bound together through commerce and wormhole routes, where violence is nonexistent and technology has been built around the malleability of cellulose.
When the tramp transport Mercy’s Pledge accidentally stumbles into an armed confrontation between the Charted System sheriffs and an unknown species, the crew learns the high cost of peace – the enslavement and genetic manipulation of the Ardulan people. Now a young Neek, outcast from her world for refusal to worship ancient Ardulans as gods, must reconcile her planet’s religion with the slave child whom she has chosen to protect – a child whose ability to manipulate cellulose is reminiscent of the ancient myths of Ardulum. But protecting the child comes at a cost – the cultural destruction of her world and the deaths of billions of Charted System inhabitants.
That was the actual snippet from my query for the first book in the series. Ardulum, the first don, is the first in a three book arc that explores the hard science of cellulose with some unusual telekinetics thrown in. At the heart of the series is the relationship between two women, one a religious outcast and the other a genetic relative of the gods the outcast has tried so hard to ignore.
What part of the story came to you first?
I wanted to explore a world where cellulose is the primary polymer of interest. In my field, I get to see a lot of technological advancements before they ever hit market, as well as discuss cool technology that is right around the corner. In the past five years or so, cellulose has really dominated these conversations, from cellulosic food printers (soon, people, sooner than you think), to computers that are simple cellulose weave screens that can roll up and slide into your pocket. If technology carries on like this, we might soon be living in a world where we rely on cellulose for every electronic ‘thing’, and possibly even for space travel.
So I built this world, imagined it, fleshed it out, and then realized that, like planting tree monocultures, having only one polymer control all tech was a recipe for disaster if something could manipulate it. In reality that something would probably be wood-rotting fungi. In fiction, it’s more fun if it’s a humanoid. The series was born.
At what point did you realize you were writing a series?
I realized this was a series after the third chapter. I originally conceived of the book with Neek (our primary protagonist, named after her planet…it’s complicated) and Emn (the telekinetic god/slave) being around the same age, and having romance be a central theme. That did not work from the beginning. Neek had too much baggage from being kicked off her homeworld, losing contact with her family, and being known throughout the galaxy as THE heretic. She wouldn’t trust adults, certainly not ones that looked like these mythological gods she’d sworn for the past ten years didn’t exist. That meant I had to backtrack. Who would Neek listen to? Who would she trust? Probably no one, but a kid could get under her skin.
Having Emn start as a child destroyed any option for romance, but did get Neek to interact with her. There was so much story to tell, however, and having to backtrack meant I needed more time, both in terms of storytelling and in terms of Emn growing up, so I could get to the areas I really wanted to explore. Completely unplanned, Emn’s lifecycle (for her species, the Ardulans), is broken up into three ‘dons’, and that coincides nicely with a trilogy. It seemed a good place to cut each book, once I realized I needed more than one.
How much planning/research did you do before starting the first book?
I had zero outline. In terms of research, I’m a scientist and I work with cellulose, so I guess you could say I have my undergrad, master, PhD, and post doc, plus all my time as a professor invested in it so…fifteen years?
What is the hardest part of the writing process and how do you make it easier for yourself?
The hardest part of the writing process for me is strong emotional development in characters. I can be a guarded person, and that often comes out in my characters, especially in first drafts. I use an extensive system of beta readers to help me pull the character emotions forward. It often takes five to six rounds of edits before I can drag them out and onto paper.
Your series has several alien species, most of which have three sexes. How did you create these species?
I’m nonbinary, and it always frustrated me in fiction, especially science fiction, that all the species seemed to be straight up female/male. Humans aren’t even just female/male, so really this concept is more alien than not. In the first book I wanted a gentle introduction to different sexes and genders. The cellulose part is hard enough for people, so I figured adding neopronouns to that might be a bit much.
Book one has an agender species, which was easy to create as there are plenty of examples even here on Earth of asexual reproduction. The trinary gender structure of the Neek people from book one was actually based heavily from my time living in Thailand. The Thai people have three established genders (you could argue for a fourth, the ’tom’, but I saw far fewer instances of this one so am less familiar with it), and the history and culture surrounding the kathoeys is fascinating. I did not want to copy this gender, but the dynamics of a three gender system have stuck with me over the years, and I wanted to explore how something like that might develop in other species.
The quad genders that are introduced in book two and carry through the rest of the series are my attempts to address parts of my own non-binary status. These four genders stem from the same two sexes, ‘male’ and ‘female’, but differentiate based upon preference. I wanted species with more fluidity to their sexes and genders, and while I don’t spend a great deal of time discussing the intricacies of sexual and asexual reproduction amongst species, they are there, and visible to the reader. Most importantly, a gender binary is never assumed, nor the norm, in any of the three books.
You also have a bisexual main character. Did you decide to make her bisexual at the outset or is this simply how the character developed?
Neek was most certainly always bisexual. Her character was clear from the beginning, as was a great deal of her backstory. She is a woman who knows what she wants, has strong opinions (and strong language), and fights for her views, often to her own detriment. Her sexuality is actually never really discussed in book one, but does come into play in book two.
Should I ever write a prequel to the series, I would love to explore Neek’s early interests across the spectrum. There is no taboo for sex between consenting adults in any of the alien species encountered in the books, which allows for a real freedom of exploration with characters.
How would you like to see representation change in the next five years?
Honestly, if we could just see more QUILTBAG characters in general, I’d be happy. I understand straight authors may feel uncomfortable writing them, and I get that. I’d be uncomfortable writing a m/f sex scene. That doesn’t mean, however, that these characters shouldn’t be a part of every narrative. It isn’t hard to make a secondary character have a same sex partner, to be androgynous, to have no romantic inclinations, etc. QUITLBAG characters don’t have to be all the protags all the time, but they SHOULD be represented, especially in space-themed science fiction where aliens are involved. To assume that the female/male dynamic is the only option is completely ridiculous, and only further isolates QUILTBAG youth and adults.
If you could give an aspiring writer only one piece of advice, what would it be?
Finish that first draft! You can’t do anything until draft zero happens!
What are you working on now that readers can look forward to?
Ardulum, The First Don is being edited and will release February 27th, 2017. Second don will release August 7th, 2017. My project for right now is Third don, which is still going through beta reading. I have another series outlined which utilizes mushrooms, my other passion, within a fantasy setting. It might be a while for those books, however. I still have to live my life as a scientist and professor, and manage all those pesky science publications and books as well.
J.S. Fields (@Galactoglucoman) is a scientist who has perhaps spent too much time around organic solvents. She enjoys roller derby, woodturning, making chain mail by hand, and cultivating fungi in the backs of minivans. Nonbinary, but prefers female pronouns. Always up for a Twitter chat.