Of narrative catnip, cultural taste differences, telling my own stories and a new “In Love and War” novella: Dead World

As many of you probably know, I currently have two space opera series going on: The Shattered Empire series and the In Love and War series. Both are stories of rebellion and of fighting an unjust system, because such stories are narrative catnip to me to the point that my personal definition of science fiction once included “there is a rebellion or a struggle against an all powerful system” as a crucial ingredient of SF.

Shattered Empire tells the story of a political rebellion against the typical evil SF empire. The focus is very much on the various characters, their stories and their reasons for joining the rebellion, but overall it’s mainly a story of a political rebellion.

In Love and War is different. It also has an evil galactic regime or rather two of them, the Republic of United Planets and the Empire of Worlds, and protagonists rebelling against them. However, Ajali and Mikhail’s rebellion is personal rather than political. They are not trying to overthrow their respective regimes and free the galaxy from oppression. No, all they want is to be left alone to spend their lives together in peace.

Of course, it doesn’t quite work out that way, for starters because both regimes pursue them relentlessly, though the Republic is a tad more enthusiastic about it. What is more, Anjali and Mikhail – being the sort of people they are – cannot just stand idly by, while others are in danger. And so they hop from planet to planet, trying to survive and stay one step ahead of their pursuers, while helping those in need.

I write a bit more about the background of the In Love and War series, what inspired it and what I want to do with it here, here and here.

In short, I had two characters I enjoyed spending time with, the potential for many adventures featuring those characters and what I thought was a compelling overall story arc full of cultural clashes, forbidden love, the conflict of love versus duty, heroic sacrifices, characters standing up against an unjust system and choosing to do the right thing, even if it could cost them everything. I had two lonely people overcoming their troubled past and finding companionship, love and a purpose in life. I also had two characters who roam the universe, helping others in need and solving those people’s problems (and eventually aquiring a makeshift family in the process), while remaining permanently on the run and unable to solve their own. In short, the In Love and War series combines various elements that are narrative catnip to me. So I reasonably assumed that the series and its elements would also be narrative catnip to others.

Alas, the In Love and War series doesn’t sell very well or at least not nearly as well as I’d hoped. Part of that might be due to the fact that I launched the series just as the US presidential election was reaching its hottest phase, when books sales fell across the board. Part of that might also be due to the covers, which are stylistically quite different from other indie space opera and indie SF romance covers.

However, in a way, the covers are appropriate, because the In Love and War series is also quite different from other indie space opera and indie SF romance series. I’ve written before about how the indie mantra of “Writing to market” is causing indie SFF to become a lot more narrow ad formulaic than traditionally published SFF ever was at its worst. And so, when I look at the also-boughts/also-vieweds of the In Love and War books, on the one hand, I see a lot of cookie cutter military SF with plots and ideas that weren’t new when Heinlein was writing them sixty years ago, and on the other hand, I see a lot of equally cookie cutter alien warlord romances that read a lot like the werewolf/werebear/shifter paranormal romances that were popular a few years ago, only with aliens instead of werwolves. The covers are naked manchests with strategically placed dots for SF romance and exploding spaceships for space opera. There was one space opera cover in my also-boughts that looked uncannily like a recruiting poster for a hypothetic Nazi space program. And people who are attracted fascist aesthetics in space probably won’t particularly care for my quirky little series about a mixed race couple who just happen to be deserters on the run from their respective governments.

No offence to the people who read and write about bare-chested alien warlords, exploding spaceships and manly space marines doing manly things in space. Those books may not be my cup of tea, but they’re obviously somebody’s – a lot of somebodies in fact – cup of tea, so more power to those authors and their readers. However, my stories – though they absolutely fit into the space opera and SF romance categories – don’t feature bare-chested alien warlords and manly space marines doing manly things in space.

Last year, I did a guest post on Sarah Ash’s blog as part of her “Nobody Knew She Was There” series on women SFF writers, where I wrote the following:

Another problem facing international writers is more subtle. For in a market – whether indie or traditional –that is still dominated by American tastes and expectations, our stories often fail to hit those expectations. Because even though we have consumed more than our share of American cultural products – books, films, comics, television – we nonetheless aren’t Americans. Our history and culture, not to mention our experiences and influences, are different. In fact, you may have noticed that I mentioned a lot of works above that few people outside Germany have ever heard of. So the stories that rise out of the stew pot of our subconscious are quite different from what an American writer would produce, even if they are nominally part of the same genre. In fact, it took me a long time to realise that a lot of what I perceived as bugs in the fiction I consumed, were actually features to the American audience those works were aimed at.

A lot of what I write, including the original spark behind the In Love and War series, is an attempt to fix the bugs in other people’s stories. And though I’m aware that many of those bugs are actually features for the (American) target audience of those works, I still can’t resist fixing them, even if it means subverting the tropes that attract part of the audience to the genre.

That truth was brought home to me sharply, when I was entering the changes resulting from the final proofread of the next In Love and War novella, while the 2017 Academy Awards ceremony was running in the background. Now US TV generally has a lot more commercial breaks than German TV and this includes the Academy Awards. What is more, the Academy Awards are on in the middle of the night in Germany, i.e. not exactly prime TV advertising real estate, unless it’s for phone sex hotlines. And so the German broadcaster fills up the commercial breaks in the Oscar ceremony with trailers for the nominated movies (since it can be assumed that people watching the Oscars will be interested in movies).

And this is how I chanced to see a trailer for a movie called Allied, which was nominated for an Oscar for best costume design. I’d never heard of the movie before and the brief clips shown during the Ocar ceremony made it look like “Agent Carter – the Movie” (which I would actually watch). However, the trailer (and the movie I presume) told a very different story: We got a couple of action scenes and a handsome 1940s couple played by Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard having adventures and falling in love. So far, so good. But then the trailer took a sharp turn, when we got a scene where Jared Harris (the British suicide guy from Mad Men) in a military uniform told Brad Pitt that they suspected Marion Cotillard was a Nazi spy and ordered Pitt to find out the truth and personally execute her. If he refused, he would be hanged.

So what does Brad Pitt do? Does he tell Jared Harris where he can shove his order, even if it means risking the gallows? Does he go on the run with Marion Cotillard, shadowy military guys hot in pursuit? Does he shoot the bunch of them? No, he begins to doubt Marion Cotillard, whereupon the trailer descends into a series of increasingly tense scenes between the two of them.

Now these days, comparatively few movie trailers excite me. Most just leave me bored. This one, however, made me actively angry. It made me angrier than I’d been at a stupid movie trailer in years (and coincidentally, the last one was also a WWII movie starring Brad Pitt – I do sense a pattern there). It also made me wonder how a movie with such a terrible plot could ever get made, let alone with obviously high production values, good actors and a good director (Robert Zemeckis, who can do so much better).

Remember that I was entering the final changes into the manuscript for the next In Love and War novella, when I saw that trailer. And the very premise of the In Love and War series is that two elite soldiers fall in love against all odds and turn their back on their respective regimes, because they both refuse to hand over the other to certain death. In short, the story, the whole series I was working on at that moment, was the polar opposite of that movie.

Like everybody, I have a few tropes that I really, really hate. And one of my most hated tropes – a trope that’s pretty much an instant “Book meets wall” and “Movie/TV show meets OFF button” moment for me – is characters turning against friends, loved ones and family members at the slightest hint of any wrongdoing and subsequently turning over those friends, loved ones or family member to the police, the courts, the FBI or whomever. I can tolerate that trope, if the suspect is actually guilty and turns out to be a serial killer or something similarly awful. However, in the vast majority of cases – even if the suspect is guilty and most of them aren’t – the crime is comparatively minor like smuggling or theft or drug possession. That trope is what killed Quantico for me, what killed Blindspot for me, what killed Picket Fences for me, what caused me to dislike Benjamin Sisko from Deep Space Nine. Amazingly, it did not kill The Maltese Falcon for me, but then I find I can never be angry at any character played by Humphrey Bogart for any reason.

However, it wasn’t until I chanced to see a trailer for a movie featuring a particularly noxious instant of that trope, while working on a story that is the exact opposite, that I realised that this trope I hate so much might not be a bug for US audiences at all, but a feature. For while Germans – and most Germans I have talked to hate this trope, too – value personal loyalty to friends and loved ones more highly than loyalty to a state or system, Americans don’t necessarily seem to share this preference and indeed find something compelling in stories where someone chooses loyalty to the state/system over loyalty to a loved one. As for why this is so, I suspect the reason lies in our sorry history. For within living memory, we had not one but two regimes where plenty of people decided to value loyalty towards the system more highly than personal loyalty and chose to sell out their friends and loved ones to the state (and it happened. A lot). This sort of history leaves its mark, both on our collective psyches and on the stories we choose to tell.

So is part of what made the story of Anjali and Mikhail so very compelling to me, the fact that they are both willing to turn against their respective regimes (and both the Empire and the Republic are pretty damn awful – these are not nice democracies) and turn their back on everything they ever strove for in their lives for the sake of love, the very thing that puts off American readers? I don’t know.

As I said before, I can only tell my own stories, not somebody else’s. And I hope that at least some of you will give Anjali and Mikhail a chance and follow their adventures.

Which finally brings me to the actual point of this post, namely that there is a new In Love and War novella available. It’s called Dead World and sends Anjali and Mikhail on a deadly chase across a nuclear wasteland, relentless pursued by a bounty hunter who’s after the prize on their heads.

It’s got action, emotion, vile villains, heroism and of course, true love. So just check it out, will you? And if you want to read the whole series, there’s a handy bundle available at a sharply reduced price at DriveThruFiction.

Dead World
Dead World by Cora BuhlertOnce, Anjali Patel and Mikhail Grikov were soldiers on opposing sides of an intergalactic war. They met, fell in love and decided to go on the run together.

Now Anjali and Mikhail are trying to eke out a living on the independent worlds of the galactic rim, while attempting to stay under the radar of those pursuing them.

When they are hired to retrieve a weapons prototype from an abandoned planet, it seems like a routine job. But it quickly turns out that the planet is not as empty as they had thought. And soon, Anjali and Mikhail find themselves caught in a deadly chase across a radioactive wasteland.

More information.
Length: 27500 words.
List price: 2.99 USD, EUR or GBP
Buy it at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Germany, Amazon France, Amazon Netherlands, Amazon Spain, Amazon Italy, Amazon Canada, Amazon Australia, Amazon Brazil, Amazon Japan, Amazon India, Amazon Mexico, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Apple iTunes, Scribd, Smashwords, Inktera, txtr, Thalia, Weltbild, Hugendubel, Buecher.de, DriveThruFiction, Casa del Libro, e-Sentral, 24symbols and XinXii.

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