Jeff Carlson, author of the famous Plague Year novels, was kind enough to drop me a note after I posted a review of his novella, The Frozen Sky. After a short back and forth I asked if he would answer a couple questions by email. He kindly obliged, and with that — five questions with Jeff Carlson:
1) Could you describe “The Frozen Sky” in your own words?
At a glance, this novella is a First Contact story — man meets monsters. If I was pitching it in Hollywood, I’d say, “This is a high concept cross between Aliens and Pitch Black. It has a strong heroine caught in a cinematic labryinthe of ice, rock, and mysterious lifeforms.”
But I like to think there’s more going on. I’m fascinated by environment and how our surroundings affect us.
Yes, “The Frozen Sky” is a sci fi action-adventure story. There are freaky little intelligent starfish that hunt in packs, and people get their faces ripped off in a dark, spooky world, and yet the underlying theme is Why are we what we are?
When and if humankind makes contact with extraterrestrial life, I personally bet against discovering that the galaxy has evolved on the Star Trek/Wars model, i.e., everyone else also will be bipedal air-breathers.
There are going to be some weird, scary aliens, dude. So I imagined we found ‘em nearby on one of Jupiter’s moons.
2) The Frozen Sky strikes me as a story of conflict, with the principals being by turns profoundly disabled and profoundly disturbed. Is this a fair description?
Aha ha. You’re only being half fair!
The main focus is Alexis Vonderach, a human explorer in over her head. We see the story through her eyes, and my hope is everyone will agree Vonnie is a bright, capable, tough-minded hero who remains as grounded as possible in horrific circumstances.
But if you’re talking about her opponents, yes. By our perspective, the lifeforms deep inside the ice of Europa are savage, stunted nightmares, blind to many fundamental human traits like curiosity or fear. And yet their reactions aren’t only sensible. In their ecology, violence and greed are survival mechanisms.
3) The reason “The Frozen Sky” caught my eye relates to John Boyd’s idea of the OODA Loop. The acronym stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act, but the trick is that people rarely decide, and when they do, they are likely to make mistakes. Being proficient means you’re oriented to act in the right way without going through conscious decision-making…
My guess is most people capable of such proficiency are either highly trained or highly intuitive. In a crisis, they don’t use their conscious mind. They go on instinct. And yet our strength as a species is our ability to evaluate, study and outwit threats and obstacles.
Sometimes that works against us.
Physiologically, human beings are virtually identical all over the world, and yet we couldn’t be more diverse. Why? Our perceptions and beliefs, our very senses, are shaped by where and how we live. Maybe that seems obvious, but especially in politics and religion, I hear people speak as though their subjective ideas are absolutes. In reality, each of us is extremely small and we comprehend only a fraction of the influences on our personalities and our decisions. Too much of the time, we operate on biased data.
Trying to overcome our own handicaps is a common theme in my best short stories, like “Long Eyes” and “Damned When You Do,” and in my Plague Year novels, which begin with a runaway nanotechnology plague that devours all warm-blooded life below 10,000 feet elevation, leaving only a few survivors in the highest mountain peaks. In that storyline, the problems of isolation and limited resources are critical — but at least we have hope, imagination, and the memory of something different.
In “The Frozen Sky,” the natives of Europa have never conceived of the possibility of escaping their world.
4) You’ve become an international bestseller with the Plague Year trilogy. Who is the least known author we should be reading?
Me, dude! Ha ha.
The truth is I barely read for pleasure any more at all (it’s write, write, write, edit, research, write), which is a crime, because I got into this crazy business because I love to read and grew up as a serious bookworm.
Unfortunately, I don’t know of any hidden little gem authors who I should recommend. When I do read for pleasure, lately it’s been mostly P.I. and legal thrillers by folks like Robert Crais and John Lescroart, neither of whom is a secret.
5) What advice would you give to aspiring fiction writers?
Do the work.
The greatest thing about writing is also the worst. Every writer is his own boss. Every writer has to find his own way. There are no short cuts. Do the work. That means learning the craft from the very basics of grammar and sentence structure to developing plot ideas to more advanced nuances like character arcs and subplots.
Read a lot. That certainly helps. Study your favorites and the greats. See what works for them, then try to use those tools yourself. For me, when it’s going well, writing is extremely gratifying. It’s not only similar to playing both sides of a game of chess. Even though I’m the good guys and the bad guys, I’m also the board! I build the world. Then I move the players. Anyone who’s ever enjoyed a great puzzle knows what I’m talking about.