Interview: Catherine Asaro

By J. Alexander Harman

Catherine Asaro photograph

Catherine Asaro is the author of Primary Inversion, Catch the Lightning, The Last Hawk, The Radiant Seas, The Veiled Web, and Ascendant Sun, as well as the forthcoming The Phoenix Code, and The Quantum Rose (part of which was serialized in the May-July 1999 issues of Analog). She has also had several shorter works published in Analog, including the Hugo-nominated novella "Aurora in Four Voices".

Dr. Asaro (she holds a Ph.D. in physics) has a gift for creating plausible scientific explanations for such seemingly unlikely phenomena as faster-than-light travel and telepathy. I first became aware of her work after it was recommended to me by my friend (and Strange Horizons Editor-in-Chief) Mary Anne Mohanraj; I picked up Primary Inversion, and I've been hooked on Catherine's books ever since. Although her writing is considered 'hard' SF, with detailed and plausible explanations of the physics behind the technologies she describes, it's also character-driven. Each of her books centers on a love story between two well-developed (and usually very different) characters, and her writing has earned rave reviews in The Romantic Times as well as Analog and Asimov's.

I recently met Catherine for lunch at Panera, a bakery/cafe in Columbia, Maryland. After a pleasant meal and a bit of time spent looking for someplace to talk with less background noise, we had the following conversation:

Alex Harman: Catherine, why don't you start by telling us a bit about yourself: your family background, education, favorite books, anything that's been a major influence on your writing?

Catherine Asaro: Well, I've been reading science fiction since I was old enough to read; I loved it from the first day. I didn't make any distinction between science fiction and fantasy, I liked it all. They were different from the mundane, and I got the same sense of wonder from both.

My dad is a scientist, so we were always exposed to science in my family, and I suspect that's why I tend to go more toward science fiction. The few times I've tried to write fantasy, I've usually come up with a scientific explanation -- "Oh, I can figure out a science reason for that!" -- so it ends up being science fiction. But I do have a fantasy story coming out in the Redshift anthology edited by Al Sarrantonio. SF and fantasy are forms that I really enjoy; I like the creativity of trying to think beyond the boundaries.

AH: That's pretty much why I like it, too. The first novel that my father read to me was The Hobbit, when I was about four. My parents read to me from before I could understand what they were reading, but that was the first book that took more than one night to read. That was my introduction to fantasy; I think I started with science fiction two or three years later. The first science fiction book I read was probably I, Robot.

CA: I read that twice, once as a kid and then again as an adult. I tend not to reread the books that I read as a child, because I have such wonderful memories of them, and they don't always live up to the memories. . . .

AH: Some of them won't. A book like The Hobbit will, of course, because you find that there's a lot more there than you realized as a child.

CA: That's true.

AH: The other science fiction novel I read was Fahrenheit 451; I got that and I, Robot from my older brother for my seventh or eight birthday. Those were both very good.

CA: Both my brother and my dad were science fiction readers; I filched a lot of books from my brother. That's how I found Michael Moorcock's "Elric" books. I was probably a bit young to be reading them when I did, but I really enjoyed them; I'd read anything I could get. I was about eight or nine when I read Stranger in a Strange Land. I liked the first half of it; the second half was a little bit too much for my nine-year-old innocence.

AH: Eight or nine might be a little young to understand what was going on in Stranger; it's kind of a messianic allegory. . . .

CA: I got that, but I don't think I really understood all the nuances. At nine, I was also somewhat bemused and confused by the sexual themes in the second half of the book.

AH: Now, you've probably been asked this in every interview you've ever done, but I'll ask anyway: how did you start writing?

Cover of Primary Inversion

CA: The first time I tried to write was when I was eight. For as long as I can remember, from the time I could form thoughts in my head, I was always making up stories. Soz has her roots in a character I made up when I was four years old . . . she would go out periodically and save the universe. <laughs>

When I was eight and I tried to write this story, I realized that I didn't have the background that I needed. My heroine was in a military installation saving the hero from some nebulous, nefarious villains, and I realized I had no idea what goes on in a military installation. If I'd thought about it I could have asked my parents how to do research. . . . I wanted to do it right, to do it in an authentic manner. I guess the seeds of the research scientist were in me even then.

I didn't really start writing seriously until graduate school; I put away the book when I was eight and didn't write another one until I was in college. By that time I knew how to do research. I do spend a lot of time researching details, even those which may hardly show up in the book at all.

AH: Do you have a favorite among the novels and stories you've written so far?

CA: It's hard to say. . . . I love them all. It's kind of like asking if you have a favorite kid.

AH: I guess that would be a "no".

CA: It really is hard to answer . . . but some of them I think are better written than others. I was very happy with The Veiled Web in terms of writing. If someone said to me, "Well, I thought the middle moved a bit slowly," I could say to myself, "That may be true, but that's what I wanted."

With other books, I felt afterwards that I would have liked to rewrite them again, not to make major changes, but just to polish. I wished I could have done that with Ascendant Sun and The Radiant Seas. I like the stories a lot, but, especially with The Radiant Seas, the book got cut a lot. The first draft was about 240,000 words, the final draft about 175,000.

AH: I suspect many writers are their own strongest critics. You mentioned having rather nebulous villains in the background of your earliest version of Primary Inversion. Your present villains, the Aristos, are the most convincingly evil villains I've ever encountered in fiction; how did you come up with them?

CA: They were the last factor I added to that universe. When I first wrote The Last Hawk and "Lucifer's Legacy," which was the initial version of Primary Inversion, they didn't really have any villains, especially The Last Hawk. I would give it to people and they would read it and say, "Well, I enjoyed this, but your situation is the villain." As in my novella in Analog a couple of months ago, "A Roll of the Dice," the situation is the villain more than the people.

For my early work, my critiquers were saying, "Can't you have somebody evil in there? Give your protagonist somebody to play off of." So I thought, what's the opposite of the Rhon, these characters whose strongest point is their ability as empaths and telepaths? I thought it would be an anti-empath, someone with no capacity for compassion, and I came up with a genetic explanation for that. Then I realized that these people were really, really evil. . . .

AH: A race of natural sadists.

CA: I hadn't actually planned it out that way. They turned out to be great antagonists for the main characters, but I think in the beginning they weren't very three-dimensional -- they were just so evil, I almost didn't want to write about them when I realized what I'd created. But then gradually, as I explored what I could do with them more, they became more nuanced. I think when I realized it was possible to redeem them, it made their negative qualities more interesting, because there was now a contrast. So that's where they came from.

AH: And, of course, their anti-empathic nature gives them a perfectly logical reason for being malevolent . . . . One unifying theme I've noticed in all your novels is that they all center on a romance between people from extremely disparate cultures. For instance, your Skolian protagonists' love interests have included a Trader Aristo for Soz, a Trader slave for Althor Valdoria, a twentieth-century Mexican girl for Althor Selei, and several women from the matriarchy of Coba as well as another Trader Aristo for Kelric.

CA: <laughs> Kelric likes the women. . . .

AH: They seem to like him, too. Then in your two near-future novels, The Veiled Web involves a romance between an American woman and a Moroccan man, and the blurb for the The Phoenix Code refers to a relationship between an American woman and an Indian man.

CA: I've always been interested in pushing the envelope, and I write a lot about relationships and characters. That's what interests me the most in writing, exploring how people relate to each other. It's true that I write 'hard' science fiction, but I'm writing about how technology and science affect people . . . it permeates the books, but the books are about how people relate to each other and how technology changes those relationships.

Of course, with that also comes pushing the ordinary boundaries of human relationships. I think that's what science fiction is all about -- writing about how we're different, and what we think of as "the other". I think that's why we write about aliens; it's a way of trying to understand what's different in ourselves. And what better way to investigate that than by putting two people who come from very different cultures, different ages, different backgrounds, different social classes, different sexualities into a relationship?

AH: I suppose that's a general theme in the romance genre -- if the characters in a romance have everything in common, you're not going to have a very interesting story. Another interesting theme that I see in your books is the reversal of the power dynamic common in a lot of older romances, in which the woman is in some way a victim or prisoner, and the man is her rescuer -- or possibly her captor whose hard heart is melted by her beauty -- how often have we heard that story? I can see the inversion of that one on the cover of Ascendant Sun.

Cover of Ascendant Sun

CA: Tor did that on purpose, deliberately making a play on the traditions of SF; that cover is a role reversal of the old "babe in the bronze bra" covers from the pulps. Of course, Julie Bell's artwork is more sophisticated. I like that cover a lot, but it's been very controversial.

AH: I like it too.

CA: I think it's a hoot that it looks to many people like a romance cover. It doesn't look like a romance cover to romance readers, because they recognize the rules that are being broken. Kelric isn't in control of the cover; in a romance cover, either the guy will be looking right out at you, or he'll be bending over the woman in the classic clinch. He's obviously not the one in control of that cover. My editor told me that they've also heard some of the controversy, but they also tell me that that book shipped more than any others I've written, so apparently something's working.

The cover for The Quantum Rose, the book coming out in December, is more traditional. The woman is in the foreground, looking over her shoulder, and the man is in the background riding a strange-looking alien beast; he looks severe, almost angry. That picture has a lot of tension. It's a gorgeous cover; it looks like a fantasy, except that she's dressed as though she shops at Lord & Taylor.

The Quantum Rose doesn't have much science in it, because that didn't fit the atmosphere I wanted to build for the story. Instead I wrote an appendix about the science, to explain how the story is an allegory to quantum scattering theory.

AH: I found that story to be somewhat more traditional, at least the version that was published in Analog.

CA: It was, in some senses. What I was looking at with that story was rather controversial. The woman is in an abusive situation, and I wanted to portray why women feel trapped in those situations, why they don't just walk out; it's not that simple. I used to be a sexual harassment counselor, and I've had training for dealing with various types of situations. I've done other kinds of counseling, too. I was trying to show, with sympathy, the complexity of the situation. It's very difficult to do when you're telling it from the point of view of the character herself, because she can't step back and say, "Oh, yes, I see why this happens." Because if she saw, she could get out of it.

Also, I only told the first half of the story in Analog. Although it completed a full story arc, it was obvious the characters had more to do, and readers asked about that. So I rewrote the serial to make it clearer what I was doing, and then I wrote another book, the sequel, and put them together, so the hardcover is about sixty percent new material. I like the characters a lot in that one; both the male and female leads have dealt with difficult experiences. I wanted to show that people can have difficult situations and still recover; I guess that's a theme in all of my books.

AH: Another thing I've noticed is that whenever your Skolian and Trader characters make references to a higher power, they always refer to "gods", plural. You touched on some details of the ancient Raylican religion in Catch the Lightning and connected it to Mayan religion. Have you developed the belief systems of the present empires as background material, and will those be explored in later books?

CA: Oh yes, I have many folders on the background of those cultures. The initial culture was made up of a group of humans taken from various places on Earth just before 1000 A.D., when the Mayan culture was at its height and then suffered a very sharp decline. The largest portion of them were taken from Mesoamerica, so that's the major ethnic group that contributed to the Raylican culture. Other groups were taken from North Africa, India, the general Mediterranean region.

AH: From the same time period?

CA: Yes. The way I worked it out is that they were all moved back in time to Raylicon about six thousand years in our past, so that you get a smattering of the cultures of about a thousand years ago, yet the Raylican civilization dates from six thousand years ago rather than one thousand. It confuses the Raylican historians no end because they can't find any culture on Earth from 6,000 years ago that could have given rise to the culture of their ancestors. That's part of the mystery they need to solve. They figure out a portion of it in Catch the Lightning.

AH: I noticed that Dehya Selei's title in The Radiant Seas is "Pharaoh", so I wondered if there was a connection to ancient Egypt.

CA: In a sense. "Pharaoh" is the best translation of her title in English. It comes closest to describing her hereditary position. Technically her family no longer rules; they haven't for centuries. The Skolian government is an elected assembly. But of course, Dehya has her own ideas about that. [grins] It has been a great source of tension from the very first book in the series, with all this political maneuvering going on between the assembly and the dynastic family, which Dehya heads.

About the religions . . . they're drawn from religions on Earth, but of course if you take a bunch of people from different cultures and put them all together in an isolated environment, they're going to evolve their own culture, one that has its roots in their old one.

The gods that Althor refers to in Catch the Lightning are all drawn on Mayan gods. In The Last Hawk, Rashiva, the Manager of the second estate where Kelric lives -- the one who puts him in her harem -- is descended from the smaller subset of the Raylican culture that comes from North African culture, and that's where the mythology she talks about is drawn from.

I also played with the effects of having a small group of disparate colonists, how that can change the dynamics of their interactions. It's like the way you extrapolate science; I asked, "What would happen if you ended up with a group of very strong women among the settlers on Raylicon, perhaps from one of the older Earth cultures with matrilineal aspects?" That's where the matriarchy came from. The women took over. [grins] I'm afraid they evolved the Ruby Empire into an appallingly sexist culture. Fortunately, in modern Skolia, the culture is much more egalitarian. Remnants of the matriarchy remain, so men still fight the stereotype that they are just sex objects, but in modern times the fellows have almost full equality.

AH: What are some of the challenges you've faced in becoming a professional writer?

CA: Having enough time to write everything I wanted to was one. Rejection was hard; it was very frustrating, knowing that I had all these stories to tell, and knowing that I had to convince a publisher that they would sell. Every time a rejection letter would come back I would think, "What can I do to make this story better?"

I wrote a long letter to one editor explaining why the science was good; that story was an early version of a novelette called "Light and Shadow," and I was talking about the relativistic physics and what I based it on. I realized later that you're not supposed to write editors a page of stuff on why this is a good science fiction story. But the editor, Stan Schmidt, was very patient with me, bless his heart. He said, "This is very interesting; I've played with relativistic physics before, too." He's also a physicist, and a brilliant, brilliant person. He too had looked at ways that you could go faster than the speed of light, and he came up with some very clever problems. I went and read his book, which was very well done.

"Light and Shadow" was my first story that was published in a magazine; it appeared in Analog in April, 1994.

AH: That's the one about Kelric dealing, or at first failing to deal with the death of his first wife.

CA: That's right. It was also about a supercool plane -- the ultimate fighter. Kelric pushed it to its limits -- and found out it could go a lot farther than he expected.

AH: What advice would you give aspiring writers?

CA: I would say, don't take rejection personally. No matter how good you are, chances are you'll get a lot of rejections I certainly got my share of them. And if you are one of the lucky ones, and the first thing you ever write is published by a major house and they pay you two million dollars, try not to let your head get swollen . . . <laughs> Of course, it would be hard not to if they paid you that much. I think the important thing to remember is just keep writing, keep working on improving your craft.

AH: What are you working on now?

CA: Well, I just finished The Phoenix Code, which is a thriller about an android who decides he doesn't like the life that the military and the corporation that's working on him have laid out for him, so he kidnaps his two creators, goes to Las Vegas, and gets in a lot of trouble. Another one is The Quantum Rose, which is the Analog serial plus its sequel, put together in one book. I'm also working on a proposal for a new thriller . . . sooner or later I'll talk about it, but since it's in the development stage right now I don't want to say too much.

AH: Are there any further Skolian novels in the works?

CA: Yes, Spherical Harmonic is coming out in November 2001; it's about the Ruby Pharaoh, Dehya -- actually Dyhianna -- and what happens to her after the events of The Radiant Seas. In that one she and her son went into an alternate universe to escape capture by the Traders.

AH: With no certainty of ever being able to get out again.

CA: Right. She comes out, that's the very beginning of Spherical Harmonic -- her coalescing out of this alternate universe back into her own. She has no idea where she is, and at first she doesn't even know who she is, because she's coalescing out in waves -- she doesn't come out all at once. A spherical harmonic is an absolutely gorgeous wave function in quantum mechanics, and this alternate universe where the characters are is based on all the rules of quantum Hilbert spaces. Throughout the book, she's coming out of the Hilbert space in wave after wave of existence, I guess you could say.

A small amount of the text in the book is actually in the form of simple spherical harmonic wave functions. This doesn't overjoy the production staff. So I tried to hold it down and minimize the amount of effort -- I don't use any complicated wave functions, just the simplest ones.

In Spherical Harmonic, Dehya is stranded. For her entire life, she's had bodyguards around her all the time and led a very constrained existence. Now, for the first time she's completely on her own, with no defenses, on this weird planet where she has no idea where she is. She has to survive in a hostile environment, and she runs into hostile people. She has to get home, to deal with the chaos caused by the Radiance War. So she really has to rely on her wits.

AH: Sounds like quite a story; I'll look forward to reading it. Well, that's about all we have time for; thank you very much, Catherine. It's been a pleasure to meet you.

CA: Thank you.


J. Alexander Harman is an Articles Editor for Strange Horizons.

To learn more about Catherine Asaro, visit her Web site.