Canadian author, Julie Czerneda, first broke onto the science fiction scene in 1997 with her novel, A Thousand Words for Stranger, which transported readers to the far future, where interstellar travel is possible and humans and aliens intermingle. She also introduced readers to the Clan, a wealthy and powerful alien race, who look like humans and have been living among us for some time. Over the next eighteen years, Czerneda continued to expand the universe of the Clan and add to the science fiction (and fantasy) canon. Now she’s back with her most recent novel, This Gulf of Time and Stars, a new series set in the universe that started it all. I had the opportunity to speak to Julie about this new series, the Clan, science and the challenges facing writers today.
This Gulf of Time and Stars is the start of a brand new trilogy but is set in the same universe as your Clan Chronicles series. For those who haven’t read the Clan Chronicles (yet) what are three things you think they should know about the universe?’
Three things, hmm? 1. It’s set in a fun far future, with interstellar commerce among alien species who manage to get along, most of the time. I’m more interested in the bumps of negotiating divergent interests than conflict. 2. Carasians are one of these species, think giant lobster with attitude, and their females retire from their careers to communal pools where they divide their time between stimulating discussions with their peers and sex. In my stuff, biology always matters. 3. The Clan are late arrivals to the party and have chosen to hide themselves from the rest, being xenophobic and afraid despite their personal powers. They succeed by manipulating vulnerable Humans and might have stayed hidden, but they’ve bred themselves into a corner, having selected for strength at the cost of successful reproduction. A theme of mine is ignore your nature to your peril.
What sets Gulf apart from the other books in the series?
I strip off the gloves. It’s fast-paced, deadly, unrelenting. In the first trilogy, Stratification, readers learn how the Clan’s power to bypass space came to be, and why that sent them running. Backstory, in other words. In the second, the Trade Pact, I introduce Sira di Sarc, the first Clan female too dangerous to safely mate and reproduce. She finds a partner in Jason Morgan, a Human telepath who captains a trade ship. Together they bring the Clan into the Trade Pact, seeking a way for her kind to survive. A love story, in other words, with a wonderful happy ending.
>But that isn’t the end, of course. Gulf begins the final trilogy, Reunification, and I start by having the Clan face the terrible consequences of their actions. The only way out is to run again; this time, back to where they started. What will they face? Where did they originate? Who are they? I’m working on the next book now, and I believe some of the answers in it will prove quite a surprise to readers. I love my job.
I was studying the evolution of chemical communication systems in minnows. Great subject for that, because the ones I used produce pheromones that elicit a flight response in others if the skin is damaged by, say, a predator taking a nibble. The exception is during reproduction, when the males must rub their skin against rocks to prepare a surface for egg-laying. So there’s a special risk to their reproduction as well as the physiological cost of growing mucous etc. I was intrigued by the idea of how much risk an intelligent species might accept in their reproduction, if there was some great benefit to the whole. Science fiction lets me run that experiment.
Your science fiction novels often tackle a number of biological themes and issues – in what way(s) does This Gulf of Time and Stars approach these ideas?
It comes up in a few places, not only in the main what if? of the plot. The technology used by aliens differs from that used by Humans, because bodies and senses differ. The worlds my characters encounter have ecosystems of their own; when something is brought from one to another, there’s a reason. For example, I’ve mobile fungi imported to “lick” clean the floors, particularly in seedy bars. They’re also something you don’t want to find you when you can’t move away. I’ve differences in body function. Restaurants have various seating arrangements, including covers on chairs, and good manners include knowing who needs clearance to land. I pay attention to who eats, as well as other aspects of life. Reproductive technology features in the Clan books, as does the annual mass fling of sperm and eggs on a world Sira visits. It also shows up in her relationship with Morgan. They are of different species. While they love deeply and enjoy one another’s bodies, for them sex is a sterile act.
Good question. I’d always thought my Webshifters series had the most biology. Apparently I’m prone to it everywhere.
Your novels (both science fiction and fantasy) are usually quite epic in scope. How do you keep everything straight?
By squinting? I’ve journals in which I sketch or scribble world-building details. Lists of words and names. Ideas for upcoming books in a series. None of these helps until I need to check something near the very end. You develop a nose for what’s not quite right or in line. Plus, for Gulf I had beta readers. I’ve talked to them about the process in another blog.
I do know the big picture before I start writing. Not as an outline, but as outcome. This and this will lead to that. But about that squinting…once engaged in writing, I keep a big concept story straight by keeping it simple. I narrow my focus. Sira and Morgan, in the current trilogy, for example. I know them very well. Events will unfold to challenge their relationship and I’m not sure, yet, if it can survive or even if it should. That tension is part of the drive for me in the writing and also a glue, if that makes sense? Most importantly, when I squint, figuratively, all I see is them and what needs to happen along their thread. I think of a story in threads, or sometimes as instruments in an orchestra, bits to grow and establish then bring together in a whole.
What do you think are some of the challenges the science fiction community is facing right now both as a woman and as a person who’s been writing in this genre for some time
The challenges are the same for any author, at any time. Doing your best work. Finding readers for that work so you can make a living and keep doing it. I have noticed it’s easier and easier to engage with readers—not to mention peers—with the rise of social media. It’s powerful and a delight, but quickly becomes a time sink. I pick and choose what to do online, because there’s only so much I can do and still write. That’s why I don’t blog regularly, and respect those who do, believe me. My pot of creative energy belongs to my stories. Another good for us thing? The surge in markets. There are great new anthologies springing up and I’m thrilled by the success of publishing houses like ChiZine that can hardly be called “small” press any longer.
As for being a woman? It’s no more or less important in my career than my being Canadian or wearing glasses. Wait, being Canadian probably has been the bigger factor. When I travel to the U.S. and elsewhere people like the accent and suspect me of rampant politeness.
Do you think you’ll continue to write within the same universe of the Clan Chronicles when this latest trilogy is finished?
I’m going to say it’s not on my radar. I’ve a new Esen to write–hopefully more than one– along with titles in Night’s Edge and Gossamer Mage, a fantasy standalone. As usual, I’ve been making notes for a book I haven’t contracted yet, which is distracting. Will I always be thinking about Sira and Morgan? Definitely. They were my first characters and own my heart. Is this the end of their story? Even I have to wait and see.
Thank you for such insightful questions! A pleasure.
This Gulf of Time and Stars is out now from DAW.