"New Worlds Are Our Oyster."
October 2001 Issue
of This World Romance
NEW! PNR Poll: We Want More............Interstellar Romance!
Catherine Asaro was born in Oakland, California and grew up in El Cerrito, just north of Berkeley. She received her Phd in Chemical Physics and MA in Physics, both from Harvard, and a BS with Highest Honors in Chemistry from UCLA. Among the places she has done research are the University of Toronto in Canada, the Max Planck Institut für Astrophysik in Germany, and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Her research involves using quantum theory to describe the behavior of atoms and molecules. Catherine was a physics professor until 1990, when she established Molecudyne Research, which she currently runs.
A former ballerina, Catherine has performed with ballets and in musicals on both coasts and in Ohio. In the 1980's she was a principal dancer and artistic director of the Mainly Jazz Dancers and the Harvard University Ballet. After she graduated, her undergraduate students took over Mainly Jazz and made it into an organization at the college. Catherine still teaches ballet in Maryland.
Catherine's fiction is a successful blend of hard science fiction, romance, and exciting space adventure. She has published nine novels, seven of which belong to her Saga of the Skolian Empire. Spherical Harmonic, the most recent novel in this series, came out in hardcover in December 2001 from Tor. Her previous novel, The Quantum Rose, won the Nebula Award for best novel of 2001 and is now available in paperback.
Catherine has also published short fiction in Analog magazine and in several anthologies, as well as reviews and nonfiction essays, and scientific papers in refereed academic journals. Her paper, "Complex Speeds and Special Relativity" in the April 1996 issue of The American Journal of Physics forms the basis for some of the science in her novels.
PNR: Catherine you are a woman of many talents, a physicist, a dancer, and a teacher. All these aspects of your personality reflect in the subject matter and characters in your books. What inspired you to become a writer? To write science fiction/futuristic romance?
Cathering A: I've always loved science fiction. I started reading it when I was six. All of its many aspects appealed to me: the sense of wonder, the adventure, the clever ideas that make you go "Eureka," and the chance to submerge yourself in a new, fantastic world or universe. I've also always enjoyed optimistic love stories. Their appeal goes so deep, it's hard even to say where it comes from within me. It's like asking, "Why do I like a beautiful day?" Given all that, it felt natural to combine SF and romance.
When I was very young, say six or seven, the stories I made up always had a heroine a few years older than myself. She had special powers and would go around in her space ship saving the universe. Often her cat came along. Then I turned a few years older, and a handsome young fellow replaced the cat. The hero got to help the heroine save the universe, though sometimes she had to rescue him too. An amazingly large number of the aliens they encountered resembled cats. <g>
PNR: Do you think that romantic elements make this sub-genre more appealing to women? Your books are published either by a science fiction house (Tor) or for a science fiction imprint (Bantam Spectra) rather than by a romance house. Do you think men are more likely to read a romantic piece of science fiction if it is released by a SF publisher rather than a romance publisher?
Cathering A: Only in the sense that SF houses are more likely to publish books that satisfy readers who look first and foremost for science fiction. If the book isn't in the usual areas of the store where SF readers shop, they will have to hear about it by word of mouth. If an SF reader (male or female) buys a book "outside" the genre because they have heard it is also SF, then they usually expect the book to be good not only in its own genre, but also to be as good in its science fiction they would pick up from an SF house. The reverse is true as well; if a science fiction or fantasy book claims also to be romance, it needs to meet the expectations of a romance reader, including a central love story and an optimistic, emotionally satisfying conclusion.
If romance publishers put out more books with a strong SF content, they would probably pick up more SF readers, including men. But they might lose some readers who are looking, first and foremost, for the romance. So it's always a balance.
I do think, though, that straight romance is more likely to appeal to female readers. The basic premise of romance, as a genre, is that women deserve emotional fulfillment. It is also about emotional fulfillment for men, which is probably why many male readers enjoy romantic stories too. But they can find that in other genres, with more focus on the man's priorities, whereas until recently only romance focused on the woman's priorities. So it is natural the genre would attract more women.
Romance is delightfully subversive. The reaction against it in academic/literary circles may derive, in part, from ingrained cultural assumptions about women. Why is romance the only genre judged by its worst rather than best examples? Why is it so often dismissed as fluff? Perhaps because it carries a self-affirming message for women that challenges a long history of literary traditions. Just think of what happens to the leading female characters in most works of our literary canon. Romance, and indeed most women's fiction, offers a positive, female-oriented alternative to those portrayals.
PNR: You have pointed out the metamorphosis that covers have undergone over the years. Do you think this reflects the level of acceptance that romance is receiving from readers of science fiction?
Cathering A: I'm not sure. It was basically a pragmatic decision on the part of my publisher; the character-oriented covers sell better than the space ships. The ASCENDANT SUN cover has the most romantic feel. That book did well in certain markets, but in others the orders declined. Its overall sales will probably be better than my previous books, but the cover also turned off some readers who might have liked the book. So that cover may be pushing the romance elements as far as marketing can go.
I enjoyed the ASCENDANT SUN cover. I liked the way it reversed the roles for the old "babe-in-the-bronze bra" covers of the SF pulp era. It's an intriguing commentary on science fiction, that reversing the roles makes the picture resemble a romance novel.
The ASCENDANT SUN cover isn't a traditional romance style, either, though. On a romance cover, the man almost always commands the picture, or else the roles of the hero and heroine are more or less equal. The man looks out at the reader, leans over the woman, or is side-by-side with her. In the ASCENDANT SUN cover, he is staring off to the side, startled and uncertain. The woman obviously controls the cover. Julie Bell (the artist) did some wonderfully audacious plays on gender with it. I liked that the folks at Tor were willing to take such chances. THE QUANTUM ROSE, which came after ASCENDANT SUN, has a lovely cover with romantic overtones. SPHERICAL HARMONIC, which comes out this November, has a cover different from anything I've had yet, with neither people nor spaceships. It's beautifully haunting.
I've liked all my covers. PRIMARY INVERSION and THE LAST HAWK were done by Ron Walotsky, and Peter Bollinger did CATCH THE LIGHTNING. Julie Bell did the last three: THE RADIANT SEAS, ASCENDANT SUN, and THE QUANTUM ROSE. The new one is by Harris, I believe. I haven't seen the actual dust cover for that one yet.
PNR: You would be considered a veteran SF writer, having written two independent novels for Bantam and a series of seven full-length novels for Tor, along numerous short stories set in the world of the Skolian Empire. Your next release, SPHERICAL HARMONIC, is one of the latter. For first time readers, tell us about the origins of the Ruby Dynasty. They were originally from Earth?
Cathering A: Originally, yes. The background story for the Skolian Empire is basically this: about a thousand years ago, an unknown alien race kidnapped humans from Mesoamerica, North Africa, and India. Not only did they strand the humans on a distant planet called Raylicon, they also moved them about six thousand years in our past. Then the kidnappers vanished. That's the mystery: who were the aliens and why the blazes did they relocate humans in both time and space? The displaced humans eventually develop star travel and searched for Earth. Although they never find their lost home, they do establish the Ruby Empire, an interstellar civilization. However, it is based on poorly understood technology they found in ruins on Raylicon. The fragile Ruby Empire collapses after a few hundred years, isolating its colonies for five thousand years. Eventually the humans on Raylicon develop star travel again and return to the stars. They begin to rediscover the lost colonies and rebuild their empire, which they now call the Skolian Imperialate.
The Ruby Dynasty ruled the ancient Ruby Empire. Its Pharaohs were a hereditary line of fierce warrior queens. The women of the Ruby Empire owned their males and were, quite frankly, exceedingly sexist female chauvinists who viewed their men as sex objects, prizing them almost exclusively for masculine beauty. In modern times, the roles of women and men are much more egalitarian, and men have achieved equality (for the most part). Almost half of the Skolian military are men, and they have attained positions of authority in other arenas. However, pockets of the old ways still exist, particularly in conservative remnants of the ancient noble Houses.
In the modern age, the Ruby Dynasty no longer rules, at least not formally. An elected Assembly governs, with representatives from many worlds. However, the dynasty retains power, because only they can use the ancient technology that makes interstellar communications possible. Without the interstellar webs, all star-spanning civilizations would collapse. Whoever controls the Ruby Dynasty controls human civilization. The members of the dynasty are also uncommonly beautiful, both the men and the women, which makes them even more coveted. So the interstellar powers are constantly fighting over them, much to the consternation of the Ruby Dynasty, which would really like to be left alone.
are empaths, telepaths, or Rhon psions depending on their Kyle rating.
What does that mean?
Cathering A: I needed a way to compare abilities of the characters, so I picked a rating system. In the books, most humans fall in the range 0 to 3, where 0 means no empathic ability at all and 3 is the minimum for an empath. People with ratings of 3 and above are empaths. The higher the rating, the better the empath can pick up emotions.
For empaths with ratings of about 6 or above, their ability to discern emotions becomes strong enough that they can distill a few thoughts from the emotions they detect. So 6 is the minimum for a telepath. One person in every thousand is a 3; one in a million is 6, one in a billion is 9, and so on. Most planets have fewer than ten billion people, so it's hard to find psions with ratings over 10, because it's hard to find populations of people greater than ten billion.
PNR: Who are Rhon psions? Why and how were they created? What place do they play Imperial Skolia? What are their strengths and weaknesses?
Cathering A: In the stories of Skolia universe, Rhon psions are the strongest known telepaths. The traits are hereditary and difficult to reproduce in the lab, even with modern genetics. The only known Rhon psions are the members of the Ruby Dynasty. Left alone, they would probably have ratings above 20, which means nature makes less than one Rhon psion for 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 people. However, the Assembly constantly pressures the Ruby Dynasty to interbreed and produce more Rhon; as a result, about fifteen of them exist, among about three trillion humans.
Even the Rhon can't usually pick up that much of another person's thoughts, unless that person is a strong psion or else projects his or her thoughts with unusual strength and clarity. Most of the characters in the books naturally barrier their minds, and the ability of a psion to receive emotions or thoughts falls off with distance. In some cases, Rhon psions can augment their ability with neural modifications, but generally they pick up emotions far more than actual thoughts.
PNR: The Traders ie. Eubian Aristos were part of the Rhon experiment gone awry. The experiment was intended to reduce the inevitable pain experienced by the super psions due to their empathic nature. What went wrong?
Cathering A: Rhon psions were created in a genetic experiment intended to increase the sensitivity of telepaths. The project had two goals: to enhance the genetic mutations that created psions, and to help psions develop protections for their unusually sensitive minds. The first goal eventually led to the Rhon, but unfortunately, the second goal went horribly wrong. It created a race of anti-empaths, the Aristos.
The brain organ that lets Aristos receive emotions is abnormal. It picks up only signals produced by another person's pain. Then it increases the Aristo's resistance to that pain by sending the signals to the pleasure centers of the Aristo's brain. In other words, the more another person hurts, the more Aristos experience pleasure -- so the more they seek to cause pain. It makes Aristos phenomenally unpleasant people, which they try to hide by also making themselves phenomenally powerful, beautiful, and wealthy.
Aristos want to own psions because the stronger a psion, the more intense the signals he or she send and the more intense the Aristos' response. The Aristos call their captive psions "providers" and keep them as treasured pleasure slaves. Rhon psions are the ultimate providers, which means the Aristos are constantly trying to capture members of the beleaguered Ruby Dynasty.
PNR: The elite military forces of Skolia are Jagernauts. Tell us about them and their biomech enhancements.
Cathering A: Jagernauts are Skolian military officers who protect their people against the Trader Aristos. The biomech inside the body of Jagernauts give them augmented speed and reflexes, and they also have computer implants to enhance their brains. It turns them into super-warriors, making them versatile and deadly weapons. Their uniforms resemble black leather, with black knee-boots and high-tech gauntlets, all of which enhances their formidable reputations. They are both revered and feared by the Skolian people.
The hero in CATCH THE LIGHTNING is both a Jagernaut and Ruby Dynasty prince. He has a Jag starfighter, which is where the name Jagernaut comes from (and which lets the author play with very cool space ship ideas). And hey, he's gorgeous. <g>
PNR: The stories details three governments: Imperial Skolia, The Eubian Concord (the Traders), and the Allied Worlds of Earth. What is the relationship between these three? How is their balance of power maintained?
Cathering A: Of the three major powers, the Eubian Traders are the most powerful, and also the largest, spanning over a thousand worlds and space habitats, with well over a trillion citizens, all controlled by a few thousand Trader Aristos. Many hierarchies exist among the Eubian citizens, and some Eubian citizens even achieve a degree of power or wealth. But none of them are free. The Aristos own them all. Being megalomaniacs, the Aristos want to conquer all humanity, first the Skolians, then the Allieds.
The Skolian Imperialate is also powerful, but they have fewer resources than the Traders. They survive because they have the Ruby Dynasty and control the interstellar networks.
The Allied Worlds of Earth is a younger civilization. Earth discovered star travel independent of the Traders and Skolians. Her people began to establish an alliance, with about three hundred colonies -- and then they had one powerhouse of a shock. They discovered their siblings, the Skolians and Traders, already out among the stars, busily building empires.
The Allied Worlds aren't powerful enough to threaten Skolia or the Traders, but they are big enough that no one wants to risk attacking them. So both Eube and Skolia have, at various times, courted the Earth and her people as allies. The process involves a great deal of convoluted propaganda, as the Skolians and Eubians do their utmost to convince Earth that the other empire is evil and deserves to be squashed.
PNR: Though Rhon-Rhon matches are the optimum relationship among these psions, your Skolian heroes and heroines often find love in other cultures. They visit worlds, by accident or intent, which are set apart from the three empires, generally primitive by comparison, only to discover their people are of the same origins. In spite of their technological lacks, do these cultures have something to contribute to the more advanced Skolians besides a much needed infusion of new genes in a vastly inbred gene pool?
Cathering A: Very much so. All the lost colonies were once part of the Ruby Empire. In that sense, their people are all now Skolians, and the Skolian Assembly would like to bring them back into the fold. After the Ruby Empire fell, the colonies were left on their own for thousands of years. Some evolved, some failed, and many backslid to more primitive cultures. Some have artifacts from the Ruby Empire that might help explain the ancient technology, which even the best scientists in modern times haven't been able to unravel.
One of the lost colonies, Coba, retained the matriarchal structure of the ancient Ruby Empire. When Kelric, a Ruby Dynasty prince and Jagernaut, crashes there, the women won't let him go. The queen who rescues him from the wreck decides he would make a good addition to her male harem, much to his dismay. That all happens in THE LAST HAWK, which was nominated for the Nebula.
PNR: During the Radiance War, the Ruby Pharaoh performs an unheard of feat, integrating both her mind AND body into the interstellar web itself. Then the web collapses, taking away her people's one advantage over the Traders. The Ruby Pharaoh is missing and presumed dead. Yet we know from the novel CATCH THE LIGHTNING, set more than half a century later, that she is alive. Will that be the focus of SPHERICAL HARMONIC, to be released in November?
Cathering A: Yes, absolutely. SPHERICAL HARMONIC chronicles her emergence on a distant world in the hinterlands of Skolia. From there, she struggles to return to her people and begin rebuilding the web before it is too late. She also searches for her husband, who sacrificed his own freedom to save her and their son, giving himself to the Traders so the family he loves could escape. SPHERICAL HARMONIC is their story. The hardcover comes out in November 2001 and the paperback should be out, I think, in February or March 2002.
Qox the third has become a key figure in these novels. Who is Jaibriol
III (Jai) is the emperor of Eube in my later books. He is the son of
two truly star-crossed lovers: Soz Skolia, a warrior queen of the Ruby
Dynasty, and Jaibriol II, also known as Jaibriol Qox, the previous Trader
emperor. Jaibriol II was secretly a Rhon psion, one created by his father
to wrest control of the interstellar webs from the Ruby Dynasty. The
plan backfired: Jaibriol II fell in love with Soz and they fled into
exile. Their story is told in PRIMARY INVERSION.
PNR: I think readers are especially curious to know how young Jai fares as ruler of an empire that would turn on him immediately if they were to discover his secret. Yet it seems he manages, although he hasn't completely turned his people around. Will we get a better feel for his personal development in SPHERICAL HARMONIC or is that a story for another day? Will we ever learn what became of the other Qox-Skolia children or the two children Kelric left behind at the end of THE LAST HAWK? What about the son of Ami and the late Imperator Kurj Skolia? Can we expect the series to continue? What is next for Catherine Asaro?
Cathering A: Yes to all! Jai's story is told in THE MOON'S SHADOW, which I'm writing right now. It is tentatively scheduled for release in September 2002. THE MOON'S SHADOW follows Jai and Kelric as they each take the reins of power, over a period of about ten years, starting from the moment Jai claims his throne.
PNR: Catherine, the romance readers are well aware of your efforts, through romance conferences and list serves, to promote science fiction and futuristic novels. They would like to know if you are working within the science fiction and futuristic communities to promote romance as well. You have recently returned for the World Con held last month in Philadelphia. Tell us about the conference and what the Science fiction readership's reaction is to romance in their particular genre fiction.
Cathering A: I've actually spoken more about romance in the science fiction community than the reverse. I'm invited to speak in a number of venues, including SF conventions, colleges and universities, places like the Library of Congress or the Smithsonian, romance conferences, writing and multi-genre conferences, and various media interviews. The number of SF invitations is higher than those for romance, so I'm more likely to end up talking about romance in SF circles.
panels I'm most often asked to speak on at SF cons are, roughly in order
of interest: science in SF (or hard SF), science fiction romance, literary
science fiction, and writing science fiction. At romance conferences,
I'm most often asked to talk about science fiction romance (orfuturistics/paranormal/
fantasy), cross-genre work, writing SF romance, and pushing boundaries.
The SF community has been wonderful and is very special to me. I've made friends who mean the world to me. The same is true for the many special folks I've met through my participation in the romance community. When I was first published, though, back in 1995, I was surprised by the resistance to romance I encountered. Some people worried that I would ruin my reputation as a literary SF writer if I paid so much attention to the romance in my books and spoke so openly about it.
Although I thought about what they said, I knew I was just as proud of the romantic aspects of my work as its other aspects, both literary and scientific. To hide the romance would have felt wrong. So I kept speaking and writing about it, as well as the other aspects, not only for my work, but also for other authors whose work might appeal to science fiction and fantasy audiences. It seems the only way to change stereotypes.
is true I've probably lost some science fiction potential readers as
a result, but I suspect that is balanced by readers I've gained from
the romance community. Also, a lot has changed in just the last six
years. When I first started talking about romance on SF panels, it was
considered unusual. I even encountered some hostility. Nowadays cons
often have science fiction romance panels, which are well attended.
For the SF romance panel at Worldcon, we had hundreds of people in an
auditorium-sized room. In fact, it was far better attended than any
futuristic panel I've done at a romance conference.
The magazines ASMIOV's and FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION have also published a few SF or fantasy romances, including the masterpiece, "Forgiveness Day" by Ursula Le Guin, the short fiction version of "Nekropolis" by Maureen McHugh, and the delightful role-reversed fairy tale "Rude Kate" by July Lewis. R. Garcia y Robertson often has strong romantic threads in his short fiction, and has a superb time travel romance novel called "Knight Errant" due out from Forge/Tor in November.
I tend to take the science fiction aspects of my writing for granted, so I naturally talk about them in either romance or SF settings. Perhaps that is the best "promotion" of all; the natural inclination of people to talk about what they love, whether it is romance, science fiction -- or both!
SPHERICAL HARMONIC Separated for decades by circumstance and political machinations, the Ruby Dynasty, hereditary rulers of the Skolian Empire, struggle to bring together the tattered remnants of their family in the shadow of a disastrous interstellar war. Too many have died, others are presumed lost, yet they must move quickly if they are to resume their rightful place as rulers of Skolia.
Skolian Empire Series
The Quantum Rose was serialized in three issues of Analog magazine: May 1999, June 1999, and the combined July/August 1999 issue.
The serialized novel plus its sequel came out together as one novel, from Tor Books, in 2000.
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