The Big Idea: Ryk E. Spoor

As a genre, science fiction is often lauded for its “sense of wonder” — or as many of its practitioners prefer to spell it, “sensawunda” — but like any aspect of writing, this element doesn’t just show up on the pages of a book; the author has to work to put it there. Ryk E. Spoor was working to get it in the pages of his latest solo novel Grand Central Arena, and here he is to give you a tour of the places he went to get it, and who he called upon to get it from, a list which includes everyone from golden age SF writers to a guy who made album covers. Very cool album covers.


Grand Central Arena is a novel intended to evoke the gosh-wow sensawunda of the true Golden Age (which is either 12, or the 1930s through some part of the 50s, I think), and in specific to echo and salute the work of E. E. “Doc” Smith, creator of the Lensman and the Skylark series. In the latter, the power scale escalates until, in the final battle, the heroes end up destroying two galaxies by the expedient of taking a star from one galaxy and precisely overlaying it on one in the other galaxy. Grand Central Arena contains many references to classic SF, fantasy, various anime, mysteries, and other pop culture, in ways ranging from the direct and overt (one of the characters is named Marc C. DuQuesne – name of the villain in the Skylark series, and he has the name for a good reason) to fairly subtle (the appearance of the Milluk species mimics to a great extent the spider-robot created by Dr. Zin in “Jonny Quest”).

In Grand Central Arena I attempted – and, I hope, succeeded – in playing on this scale with slightly more modern “tools” in my writer’s toolbox. As such, it perhaps is not a terrible surprise that there’s more than one Big Idea lurking inside the shiny façade. (Spoilers ahead, of course!)

One of the sometimes-subtly repeated central ideas is the question of identity and reality – is what we see real, and whether we even know who we are. Ariane Austin originally thinks of herself as just a racing pilot, nothing particularly special; yet by the end of the novel, her identity – her self-identity – is much more as “Captain Ariane Austin of the Holy Grail“. Marc DuQuesne begins his stint with the crew as somewhat mysterious, but trying to live life as an essentially ordinary man. Yet that is, perhaps, nothing more than a mask, and one he will have to remove. The question of whether certain beings are “real people” is implied more than once – the AISages that assist humanity in almost every role, but which cannot function in the Arena, and in the opposite role the Blessed to Serve, collectively slaves to ultra-powerful AIs.

The Arena itself raises this question; it is something so different, so bizarre, with rules and powers that defy ordinary understanding, that it almost inevitably leads to the question of whether it really exists at all or is just some kind of monstrous simulation that our heroes are trapped within.

It is the Arena – the setting and title focus of the novel – that I will focus on, as it shapes every other event and idea within the novel. Just in sheer scale it is a very very Big Idea, a construct so huge that it can encompass a scale-model duplicate of the universe within, a “place” where all species who attempt FTL travel find themselves, and where they all must meet and conduct their business according to rules laid down by the unknown, and perhaps unknowable “Voidbuilders” who created the Arena.

As a writer, I created the Arena and its ultra-tech capabilities – and sometimes apparently-though-not-actually arbitrary rules –to provide the tools and opportunities to write a story on the scale I wanted: something that might, just possibly, touch others with the same awe, the same sense of amazement, of wonder, of uplifting vision that the greatest works of the Golden Age engendered in me.

What I wanted was a universe where a few individuals could affect the destiny of the human species – and, perhaps, all other species – by their choices and actions. A universe where I could have armadas of ships clash in a war that was fought by people (alien or human), not automated ships, drones, calculations. A universe in which there was truly room for grand-scale heroes, dark villains, intricate plots, challenges and victories worthy of the best of the space operas, one which Doc Smith himself might look at and nod, saying “not bad!”… and one that at the same time took advantage of what we’ve learned about storytelling in the past 50, 60 years and bringing that into the mix.

The Arena grew in the making. The basic concept was to have a single location to which anyone travelling FTL would go – a location that would then, somehow, force or facilitate the interaction of the new arrival with all the older ones. It would have some complex rules governing interactions which would force our Heroes into some sort of difficult contests or quests in order to return home, and humanity would have some sort of “edge” that would get them enough of an advantage to survive this encounter. There would also be some mechanism to facilitate communication, so we didn’t spend far too long just learning to talk to the aliens.

Originally I had envisioned the ships from our universe arriving in what amounted to an actual docking slip, and simply stepping out of the airlock brought you into the “common” area which became what is now called “Nexus Arena” in the novel. This, however, had a lot of practical problems with it; perhaps the largest problem being that this would make the “rooms” devoted to each species be physically connected by being on the same huge construct, yet I wanted possibility for both isolation and adventurous interaction in the Arena.

For a bit I toyed with making the entry areas somewhat larger (allowing more than one ship, giving a small living space, etc.) and adding some huge effectively wild areas inside the gigantic construct. But that left me with the question of why the heck aliens would create such a gargantuan construct and then have these areas inside – and why they’d stay that way, after thousands or millions of years with alien species coming and going. Plus, as effective FTL travel would require our ship being moved to another (cooperative) alien’s “docking slip”, I was at something of a loss as to how to get from there to here. What, you have to CARRY your starship out the door, down the hall, and over to Alien 509’s launch slip?

While I was chasing that idea around in my head, I wondered – if this construct was effectively holding the universe inside it, by keeping anyone from travelling FTL between the stars directly – what lay OUTSIDE this construct?

I suddenly had a memory of the band Yes and the covers/paintings done for them by Roger Dean, and I saw it, for a moment… a gargantuan sphere (which would become Nexus Arena) drifting in a limitless sky, with floating islands that seemed weightless, yet had gravity to pour waterfalls into the infinite void.

This is one of those instants in writing that is almost impossible to describe; I literally stopped breathing for a moment, knowing that I almost had it, almost the exact correct idea, and that even breathing might keep me from finishing the thought. Everything seemed frozen in a single moment as I saw this impossible universe laid out in front of me, but… not quite right, missing one single piece to make it exactly and precisely what I wanted.

And then suddenly it was there, in a perfect flash of inspiration that crystallized the entirety of the Arenaverse for me: the floating islands were the landing slips. One island for every star. Travel from one island to another and activate the drive according to some rules, and you’ve gone from your star system to the next. Breathable – or usually breathable – air. Storms of unimaginable scale, adventures across the universe of sky and floating island and whatever lies between. And on every floating island, a gateway that brings you to Nexus Arena.

The details, of course, changed as I developed the background and the story. The floating islands became the Spheres – with the Island bit still on top, but a huge harbor area inside. The rules for how and when you could travel from one point to another, the details on how the Arena controlled the use of technology to keep interactions on the level desired, all of these things developed and changed, but that single moment defined the most critical elements: a way to keep FTL travel possible yet controlled, a way to let us meet alien species and compete with them in something like a fair setting, yet a setting in which you could set out into an unknown universe and – perhaps literally – sail the stars. But in a sky of wind and light and shadow and color, where instead of cold vacuum and dead, dead rock, there would be air, life, danger, and opportunity.

This gave me the space-opera universe I wanted, and with Captain Ariane Austin, Marc C. DuQuesne, and Dr. Simon Sandrisson I had the very people needed to enter that universe… and change the history of humanity forever.

Whether I really succeeded in telling the story I wanted to … I can’t know, not yet. But if just a few people feel that sense of wonder, if just one girl or boy at the Golden Age feels a chill of awe go down their spine when Orphan throws wide the Window of the Arena, or when Marc C. DuQuesne tells the Molothos they have no idea what they’re dealing with, or when Ariane Austin finds a key to victory in her heart where before was only defeat… then yes, I have succeeded. Because the true Big Idea is the Sense of Wonder; all else is just details.


Grand Central Arena: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt here. Visit Ryk E. Spoor’s LiveJournal.

22 Comments on “The Big Idea: Ryk E. Spoor”

  1. Ryk, at least one of those things you wanted for the book did indeed happen. I still shiver a bit at the phrase “You have no idea what you’re dealing with.” even now, months after having read the eARC. And after that point in the story, it was a lot of fun to watch the real avalanche kick off.

    Thank you for one of the most fun reads I’ve had in many a day.

    BTW, aside from the eBook for myself, I got five copies of the treeware for the Berkeley Public Library (1/branch), a copy for my evil twin, and I’ve got another copy on my desk this morning to give to one of my colleagues and hopefully blow her mind.

    And now, to quote Oliver Twist: “Please, sir, I want some more.”


    Side note on the cover: It is an accurate depiction of a key incident in the story, and I can’t look at it without remembering that the lady is maybe thirty seconds from her doom….

  2. RE the cover: It’s a not-too-far-off depiction of an actual event in the novel; the real flaws in it derive purely from my failure to describe the scene accurately enough to the artist, who did an excellent job overall. I’m actually extremely pleased with it.

    Geoffrey: That’s certainly one of MY favorite scenes, and shows DuQuesne in about as pure-quill “Doc Smith” mode as it’s possible to be.

  3. The “You have no idea” scene was excellent, and I must note that the related later scene in Arena Central after the gong went off was the one that had me on the floor, laughing like hell and picking up the teeth I’d dropped. Every time I think of that one I have to grin.

    And, as noted, it just kept getting better and better after that.

    On another note, the idea of “plancktech,” which is to nanotech what nanotech is to steel-age manufacturing, was an awesome touch. I disagree with Sir Arthur Clarke that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It’s just technology you don’t have. Yet.

    If you ever get a copy of the operating manual/source code for the Arena, let me know. One of the hats I wear is “hacker.” :)

  4. Huh. Well, you invoked my sense of wonder just in describing your book, so… good job!

    Gonna have to read this.

  5. Yeah, I think I am going to have to pick this up just to see what happens after chapter 9. Mission accomplished!

  6. You hooked me when you invoked YES and Dean’s illustration work for the English rock band. Plus, anything inspired in part by the Lensman series must be good.

    But, I know already I need the annotated version with all the little footnotes or endnotes to explain all the allusions to the golden age of sci-fi literature that I have not read, or more likely have read and lost any memory of reading. So, will it exist? An annotated version even if only in electronic media?

  7. On my website,, are a lot of extras. I’m working on that in-joke and references file — the one currently up is only on Chapter 5 — but I’ll be doing more every couple of weeks. There’s a bunch of other stuff there, and I’m working on putting up similar “extras”, as much as I can, for my other books as well.

  8. Rick,
    As a huge fan of The Skylark of Space series, when I first read the name of Blacky DuQuesne, I got shivers! One of my favorite bad guys from my youth, who I thought, even then, wasn’t as bad a guy as he seemed. Now, you have given him another shot at redemption, which is just too cool.

    I loved the entire book when I read the ARC on Baen’s Webscriptions. As a blind “reader”, Baen’s, and now de facto your, policy of releasing in formats that I can actually access is also deeply apreciated. I can’t wait to read the encore, or to gift tangible copies to my delightfully-light-dependent friends and family! :)

  9. Could you ask Baen to let you write your own backcover copy on your next book? This piece made GCA seem much more interesting than the actual book packaging does.

    (Tossed it in my go-to-work bag for lunch break reading.)

  10. Bruce: I actually did write the major part of the back cover. However, the back cover has something like 100-200 word limit, like an abstract, and this piece is slightly over 1,000 words. More words allows very different approaches.

  11. read both Grand Central Arena and Threshold
    both excelent, now want more for both story lines.

  12. With luck there will be more for both. Threshold I can guarantee at least one; GCA, that depends on enough people buying it to justify sequels.

  13. #17: Ryk, I hope GCA sells well, I’m going to send at least one person over to buy it. The same person who pointed me at Baen in the first place (and now a professor at Cornell!).

    I knew about Yes/Dean connection without knowing about it. Could feel it. Makes perfect sense; I had most of the 70s Yes albums.

  14. Bravo! Arena finally made it off the “reading shelf” and into my hands to read. You delivered all that your Big Idea essay promissed. I am passing my copy on to my 31 year old son (sorry for the lost sale).
    Only one critical observation: all the aliens in the novel are only alien in appearance. Insofar as how they think, feel, and interact with humanity the aliens in the novel seem identical with humanity. This, naturally, can be said about most aliens in most all science fiction written to date. I can readily think of two exceptions. The alien in the film franchise Aliens and Peter Watts’s novel Blindsight. Oh, well…
    Thank your for a great read.

  15. Gary: Thanks very much for the kind words! And passing books on is expected. Though if you have any friends who might like GCA for the holidays… ;)

    Insofar as the aliens, no, they’re not very alien, but that’s because (A) it’s a Smithian Golden Age homage, the aliens weren’t, in general, and (B) I don’t really BELIEVE in aliens more alien than the more alien (to me) human cultures. If you get to the point that you’re building starships and computers, you’ve HAD to go through a lot of the same things we did, and you have to have some intellectual motivations and processes very similar to our own. Though I will note that the facile communication provided by the Arena also masks some rather un-human thoughts and concepts by translating them into equivalents — and it does the same for OUR alien thoughts as they’re conveyed to, say, Orphan or Relgof or Amas-Garao.

    Even the Alien (from the movies) was completely comprehensible; it was a predator, like a digger wasp, and probably — judging from its capabilities — was an engineered weapon. Which made its creators all too human in outlook, I think.

  16. #18 Dave: thanks for the promo.

    I actually hadn’t listened to much Yes back when they first were popular, though I’ve listened to more since. The COVERS, though, had burned themselves into my brain and, I think fortunately, were waiting to re-emerge at just the right time.

  17. I stumbled across this site by accident while looking up information on the technology of the Skylark series.

    I read Grand Central Arena about a year ago. One day I was browsing the science fiction section at Borders and happened to spot a name I recognized from Usenet newsgroups (rec.arts.sf.written or so I picked it up and looked it over. It looked good, so I bought it. I had a great deal of fun reading the book, which is definitely in the spirit of Doc Smith or John W. Campbell, Jr. The Doc Smith references were fun. Ariane is a great character. I would enjoy seeing a sequel to this starkly brobdingnagian novel.

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