What was it that set this story off for you? What inspired you to take soldiers and put them in a Hell?
“The Way Home” only exists because John asked me to contribute a story to the anthology that became Operation Arcana. I think he was slightly concerned though. I’m mostly a science fiction writer, so he emphasized that this needed to be fantasy, not SF. “Sure, no problem!” But I didn’t want to do a story where magic was a normal part of the world or something available to the protagonists. So I went with the classic “portal world” situation, and this is just the setting that came to me.
What struck me on re-reading the story long after it was written is that, despite the fantastical setting, and despite John’s admonition, it feels like a science fiction story. What I mean by that is all the soldiers are regular people, with no magical ability or magical technology, who’ve been plunged into a situation they can’t explain and don’t understand — and they have to figure out the rules of this world to escape it. So it’s a problem-solving story, but also a psychological story of how people react under pressure.
You’ve written quite a bit about the military in an SF context; what keeps bringing you back to this sort of story?
I haven’t really written that much military fiction; it’s just what I’ve done recently. It started with my novel The Red: First Light, a near-future military thriller. I wrote a couple of short stories to support the novel, and then there were two sequels to finish the arc. (The Red: First Light is currently off the market, but will be republished in June by Saga Press/Simon & Schuster.) Anyway, what I find fascinating about military fiction is the confluence of so many of the themes that have always drawn me to fiction: honor, duty, action, physical challenges, moral questions, technology, and a means to examine real-world policies and politics.
Throughout the story, Whitebird talks about his command in terms of his ever-shifting triage of who leaves the desert when. What prompted this narrative choice?
As above, that fascination with honor and duty. Whitebird is very aware that this is his defining mission, he is being challenged to live up to his ideals and the responsibility of his command. The situation demands that he maintain control over his soldiers while making life and death decisions: Who gets to go home? And why? That’s a huge responsibility, but it’s a responsibility that any military commander might one day face. Whitebird struggles with the situation, and with himself, trying to get it right.
What’s next for Linda Nagata?
As I mentioned above, my novel The Red: First Light will be re-released in June by Saga Press/Simon & Schuster as The Red, with the sequel, The Trials to follow in August. If all goes according to plan, the third book will be out in the fall — so three novels in one year. That’s pretty exciting.
As I write this, I’m waiting for editorial notes on the third book. Turning in a finished draft of that is my priority, but I have in mind at least two pieces of short fiction I’d like to do this year, and I’ve started putting together ideas for my next novel. So sooner or later, there will be new fiction.
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