What is best in life? To have a successful book and to have the publishers and fans clamoring for a sequel. But what’s best in life comes with its own set of (admittedly high-end) problems. This Ryk E. Spoor discovered in the creation of Spheres of Influence, the follow-up to his science fiction hit, Grand Central Arena. How did he solve his problem? Let’s find out.
RYK E. SPOOR:
Back in 2007, I had completed my draft of Threshold, the sequel to Boundary, and had – at the time – no contracts other than that for Portal, and that I couldn’t work on until Eric Flint did his work on Threshold, and submitted the final draft. With encouragement from Eric, I began to work up a new proposal for Baen (as they hadn’t shown interest in other work I had ready at the time).
That proposal became Grand Central Arena, my salute to the Golden Age and all my science-fiction inspirations with a special focus on the work of E. E. “Doc” Smith, as most clearly shown by the inclusion of a character named (for very good in-universe reasons) Marc C. DuQuesne.
The development of The Arena, and the reason behind that development – the attempt to re-create the Golden Age “sensawunda” as I had experienced it – I detailed in a prior Big Idea post when Grand Central Arena was released. But at the time Grand Central Arena (henceforth just GCA) was released, I had no idea if it would sell or not. Much of the “fan appeal” could be pretty obscure. I thought the surface story and adventures were good enough, but I couldn’t know if anyone else would think so.
As it turned out, GCA did quite well, and so Baen was happy to accept a proposal to write a sequel.
And for the very first time in my life, as I started working on a book, I felt a touch of fear.
It was really quite alien, and for a while I couldn’t figure out why. I’d said before – and I still believed – that I could write in the Arenaverse for twenty years and not get bored, that there was limitless possibility in The Arena. I had a decent, though far from clear at that time, idea of what I wanted to do both in short and long-term – certainly no vaguer an idea than I’d had when I first started writing GCA. I knew I was, if anything, a better writer than I’d been two, three years ago.
So why in the world was I suddenly half-frozen trying to write it, to even write an outline?
I sat down and started re-reading GCA again, enjoying the flow of the novel but really trying to figure out which loose ends I needed to address first, where the plot needed to go, and so on. And as I began to focus on the real question, what I as a reader would want from the sequel, my tension and fear came screaming into focus:
I didn’t know if I could measure up to myself.
Does that sound silly, or maybe even arrogant? I don’t know. But what I was afraid of was not being able to keep the sense of wonder. The first book in any series has a huge advantage there. For all the infodumping and talk-talk-talk that I had to do in GCA, it was the book where we first saw the Arena, the infinite skies filled with storms and possibility, first met clever, scheming Orphan and wise, considered Nyanthus, dueled the Molothos for the sake of our Sphere and faced the Shadeweavers and their impossible powers. GCA had the whole new universe to hit you with, and that was its purpose – to make the reader sit back, periodically, to go “wow!”.
Now that I’d done the Big Reveal, now that Marc C. DuQuesne of Hyperion had unleashed his true self, now that Arian Austin had faced and defeated Amas-Garao with a brilliant last-ditch throw of the dice… how in the world was I going to … not even equal that, but just follow up on it with something that wouldn’t leave the reader – a reader perhaps like I had been, a couple decades ago – feeling vaguely, or perhaps not so vaguely, let down?
I had experienced it before with many books, and movies, whose sequels were pale imitations of the original. Even series that held up reasonably well – the Chronicles of Amber, for instance, or Weber’s Honor Harrington – didn’t quite have the same oomph in the second and subsequent volumes as that first introduction, and I really didn’t (and don’t) feel that I’m at the level of those or other major talents in SF.
That was what was scaring me. It was a novel sensation, because in general, I’m not writing for an audience. I’m writing for me, to read stories I know no one else will, or can, write. In a sense, of course, I still was writing for me… but the part of me that was the reader was warning me that there was this big ol’ pitfall right in front of me.
I didn’t have that problem with Threshold; while that was somewhat similar in that I had invented the universe only a few years prior, I had Eric Flint as a backstop, someone who’d be able to tell me what I might do wrong, how to fix it, and it was a much more limited, defined universe. Hard SF is a pain in the ass to write in some ways, but the fact that the universe draws many of the lines for you is comforting at the same time.
I haven’t experienced it starting the sequel for Phoenix Rising either – but that’s because I’ve spent thirty-five years building the universe, and more than twenty thinking about Phoenix’ basic story. I can actually play with that one, and I am, without worrying; I know the beginning, middle, and end, and no uncertainty about how the world works, or whether I’m forgetting a key detail.
But with Spheres of Influence I had no one backing me up, and instead of three and a half decades of worldbuilding I had three or four partial years. There were a lot of ways to screw up, and no one to keep me from doing so except maybe my beta-readers.
I was tense for another, related reason, I realized. There were a lot of things I wanted to do with this series – a lot! – but there were certain specific things that had to be dealt with before I could get to a lot of them. Would I have to write a boring intermediary book in order to set things up – and kill the point of setting them up?
I finally forced myself to move forward, and to do that I made myself list out the purposes of the book – from the point of view of how it would serve the characters. Simon Sandrisson had to deal with becoming a more active force, and with what had happened to him during the ritual that sealed away Ariane’s newfound powers. DuQuesne had to face his Hyperion past. And Ariane had to really come to grips with being the “Leader of the Faction of Humanity” – even though a lot of people would not at first believe that she had that position, and afterward not feel she was suited for it.
I needed something more, though. I needed something exciting, and not just grim or scary. I needed something cool, and fun, and with more potential for later books. I needed to put Ariane in a position that forced her to, put bluntly, grow up – because Humanity, in 2375, is en masse almost childish.
I didn’t know – exactly – how I would do that, although an idea started to niggle at the back of my brain, touching on some other unanswered questions. But suddenly I did know what I needed for the first problem.
I needed Son Wu Kung, the Monkey King of Hyperion. I needed the laughing trickster, the eternal hero, the Great Sage Equal of Heaven. He was part of DuQuesne’s backstory, mentioned in passing as one of the things that most hurt DuQuesne to lose, one of his great regrets, and one of those that had been safegarded back in GCA during a cryptic meeting by DuQuesne with a “Doctor Davison”.
I needed to tie up some of DuQuesne’s other loose ends, too – his mysterious “K”, the woman it was implied he had loved before he met Ariane, and the other mysterious force, the one DuQuesne was clearly afraid of. I’d known who “K” was all along, although how I wanted to present her wasn’t clear, but the mysterious enemy I only had a vague idea of at first.
And then in a single flash of inspiration I did know who and what she was, why she was designed, for what purpose, how she became one of the worst imaginable enemies, all of it… and I stopped dead. I wasn’t sure I dared do what I knew I ought to do. I didn’t know if I had the skill, or maybe just the king-sized cojones, to try what I’d thought of.
When I described the idea, though, my wife Kathleen immediately said “Yes. Yes, do that. Do exactly that.”
So did my beta group.
So I did; if you read Spheres of Influence, you’ll understand exactly what I was so hesitant about. Yet it fit. It fit the glorious yet utterly self-involved, blinkered, hideous brilliance of Hyperion perfectly, and answered all the questions about who DuQuesne’s enemy was and why, at the same time, he did not, and couldn’t, kill her (for it did have to be a her).
Understanding DuQuesne’s “arc”, so to speak, in the book gave me a foundation. I felt the tension recede – a bit – and that was enough. I was able to see Simon and Ariane’s directions as well, and recognize the part that Son Wu Kung would play in this, and later, adventures. I could sit down, and write.
And I did.
Spheres of Influence is, I think, a better written novel than Grand Central Arena. It may not be – quite – as shiny as GCA, since GCA got to keep a lot of the shiny for itself. But I think – and hope – it is shiny enough, and that it offers more for a reader – more knowledge of the people of the Arena, of the ways the Arena works, and even more about the dark triumph of Hyperion and the world of our solar system in 2375, as well as the adventure of watching Captain Ariane Austin come fully into her own as the Leader of Humanity.
I still have some of that tension, but now it is – mostly – worry about whether the book will do well enough to let me tell the rest of their story, for there are still so many questions to confront – so many answers to discover. Answers that I know, right up to the ultimate ending of the series.
But now… I’m not afraid that I will fail if I get the chance to write those books.
At least, not much.
Thanks for reading, and please come with me and enter the Arena… again.