~ Synopsis ~
From Michael Siemsen, creator of the #1 Sci-Fi Bestseller, The Dig, and the award winning (a demon’s story) series, EXIGENCY transports the author’s singular, visionary approach to world-building to its next pivotal juncture.
Nine brilliant scientists travel light years on a one-way trip to an Earth-like planet. Their mission is to study from orbit the two species of intelligent lifeforms on the surface. The first: an isolated people embarking on civilization and building their world’s first city. The second: a brutal race of massive predators, spread thick and still growing across the dominant landmass – destined to breed and eat their way to extinction within a few centuries.
After eight years of observation, disaster strikes the orbiting station and only two crewmembers eject successfully. Drifting down through a dark alien sky, the pair realizes their escape pod launched not toward the safety of the city, but to the other side of the planet, touching down deep within a land no human could possibly survive.
~ Interview ~
Welcome Michael Siemsen! Thank you for taking the time to humor me and answer some of my questions. After reading your latest book, Exigency, I have some questions that I would love answered! Let’s get started.
Thank you for having me. I love what you’ve done with the place.
1 – I know how you came up with the idea for your Matthew Turner books, but I’d like to know about your ideas for this science fiction book and where they came from.
I actually wrote about this recently, so sorry if any of it ends up duplicated… The first traces of Exigency came to me a couple years ago, though it wasn’t so much the premise of a story as it was a feeling – the emotions one might experience in a particular situation. People can feel alone, desolate, and/or invisible, even while in their own home surrounded by family. I tried to imagine being truly alone – say, lost in Antarctica. But even there, one might hold out hope for a rescue party. It had to be further, more alone, more desolate. How about another planet, light years from another human being? That’s pretty alone.
I didn’t start writing anything at that point, as there was nothing to write, but the idea would come back to me now and then, and one day I was thinking (unrelated to the first idea) about context. Context is everything, right?
Example: On your screen you see a video of a coyote limping along, injured. Maybe you feel sad for it. But the view then shifts to a woman running off with her crying baby, and she’s yelling for help. She just stopped a coyote from dragging her baby away. Our outlooks and judgments are based upon what little we see and/or hear.
Somehow, this line of thought progressed to a group of scientists on a space station, orbiting an Earth-like planet teeming with intelligent life. The researchers’ technology is remarkably advanced, but how much can they truly know of this planet and its people from such a distant, disconnected perspective? And would they be conscious of their limitations, or assume that they see all? And what happens when this accrued knowledge is suddenly put to the test, first-hand?
2 – The aliens in this book are very unique and so is the planet. How did you come up with the intricacies of their personalities and their world?
The planet’s intelligent races took a very long time to develop, and the vast majority of their respective evolution, histories, and spirituality are never mentioned in the book. It’s exhausting even thinking about it, actually, and would probably be less-than-thrilling information to digest. But I’ll tell you this much: I began with a lifeless planet and a primordial soup in which the successful base ingredients of life differed from earth (arsenic won out over phosphorus), and I went on from there for billions of years (though not in real time).
As for personalities and culture, I modeled the Threck on Early Romans, stripping away and replacing elements based upon environment, anatomy, the advancement pace of Threck civilization, and the core brain physiology of Threck after they’ve officially matured. Riveting stuff, right?
3 – Generally, you research the place you are going to write about in your books by going there. Unless you know someone that works for Space X, how did you research for this book?
Yeah, sadly I couldn’t find a cost-effective way to do a research trip on this one. In terms of time investment, this book was 9 parts research, 1 part writing. If I’m going to be making up technology and biology, they both need to be plausible and impervious to scrutiny from actual experts. After The Dig, I was particularly gratified to receive messages from archaeologists and paleos with only positive remarks.
For Exigency, I read countless books, listened to many podcasts, and spoke with some experts who were highly generous with their time. I discovered in my early outlines a number of mistakes I’d made based upon assumptions, and had to adjust parts of the greater story around this information. For instance, to send a team of nine people to orbit another planet for the rest of their lives—light years away—it would cost upwards of $30 Trillion per year to deliver a constant supply at the dollar’s (and food’s) current value. And that’s only the beginning of the expenses. And so I studied what would be required for a person to stop eating solid food, receiving their nutrients through supplements in the drinking water (which, btw, must be siphoned from the planet’s atmosphere), and all the front-, back-, and side-effects of such a change.
And there are little tidbits of real funfacts/science sprinkled throughout the finished book that readers may appreciate. For instance, if you don’t consume solid food for an extended period, your taste buds sort of disappear, making your tongue smooth and slimy.
4 – My husband loves Dale Brown and his books. One of the things that he said about his stuff is that he has been pretty good at predicting the military weaponry/strategy, etc over the years. Do you think any of your scientific & space related technologies will come about? What technology would you like to see?
Absolutely. Ionic propulsion, interstellar travel, medicine, and in particular, the fone. The robot’s perspective view you see in movies like the terminator is the next logical leap from iPhones and Google Glass. It will begin with the early adopters receiving implants, and then will rapidly spread. Everything you can do on a smartphone will be possible through this implant (be it an actual prosthetic eye as in Exigency, or an unseen implant).
Imagine the ability to snap photos with a thought, or to have captured some huge event like an always-on dashcam/DVR that keeps the last 5-10 minutes of your vision buffering. Rewind and save as needed. Play games during boring work meetings without anyone knowing (or caring, because they’re doing the same thing). We’re talking about a know-it-all’s fantasy world here. Someone says, “Oh yeah, did you know dogs are colorblind?” and know-it-all instantly pulls up Wikipedia, replying “Actually…” and spouts off a bunch of stuff verbatim as if it’s off the top of their head.
Or consider the usefulness of true night vision, thermal imaging, mag, etc. Predictable privacy/big brother concerns aside, this is where we’re heading. Just a few weeks ago, I grinned as a headline appeared on my screen: Researchers Invent Interface to the Optic Nerve.
5 – Where does the inspiration for your characters come from? Are they based on anyone you know? 😉
Sometimes they’re based on people I know, or combinations of multiple people. Often, they’re as fictional as the world they live in, though psychologists might refute such a claim, suggesting that, like in a dream, every character I create is some piece of myself. I’ll just be sure to keep said psychologist away from Frederick of A Warm Place to Call Home (a demon’s story).
6 – Are there any plans to write any more about this world and these aliens? A spin-off perhaps? A prequel maybe?
I wrote it as a stand-alone, and still see it that way. If a really compelling story occurs to me in the future, I’m not opposed to returning to it. You never know…
7 – This is technically your first science fiction story. What made you decide to try this genre? Did you enjoy writing it more, less, or about the same as your other books?
I feel like I’ve always been a Sci-Fi writer, and if you didn’t know any better, and saw my ever-growing idea and work-in-progress list, you’d probably be surprised to discover how much of what I’ve put out has not been straight Sci-Fi. The Dig is pretty Sci-Fi-ey (if I may), if you look at it as the story of a non-human civilization. Exigency is definitely my first “hard” Sci-Fi, and it’s uber-satisfying when you finish writing a beast like this. It may be just because it’s the newest, but I think it’s tied with A Warm Place to Call Home for the most enjoyable to write award. Though I’m aware that that’s a very hindsight perspective of Exigency. Frederick definitely wins out in terms of ease and fun, beginning to end.
-Now some general questions about you-
That’s not a question.
8 – There are a lot of distractions around, especially with social media and this new-fangled site called Reddit. How do you block it all out and write?
I’m sure I could find on Reddit a hilarious and apropos gif that perfectly expresses “a day in my life”, but instead I’ll simply say: Distractions are the devil. Espresso is my friend. Oh, and here’s a gif I found on Reddit that perfectly expresses “a day in my life.”
9 – What do you enjoy doing outside of writing?
I’m into camping, lakes, hiking, travel, and when I’m around the house, unable to focus on writing, I usually end up fixing stuff or making something out of something and hanging it on our walls. I like to make stuff out of stuff. Because making stuff out of no stuff is beyond my power.
10 – What’s something about you that most people don’t know?
That I write books. Ha! Zing! … against myself.
As for those few random souls scattered across our great planet (I sold a couple books in Brazil last month. Go figure.), I don’t know how many are aware that I’m a do-it-yourselfer from beginning to (almost) end. Besides my virtuoso editor (shout out to the fastidious Kristina Circelli of Red Road Editing, my go-to since Samuel Beauchamp), I do everything from cover design and web coding to physical book layout and marketing materials. As much as a traditional publishing deal would relieve me of operational tasks, I say nay. A) I saw the samples of horses**t covers they wanted to slap on The Dig, and B) How lazy would I have to be to justify giving up lifetime rights to my books, a 90% pay cut, and losing all say into how my books are packaged, just to avoid a couple weeks extra work on each book. Seems kind of like paying a live-in chef to select and make all of my food for me, and then he eats most of it before serving it.
Not to say I’ll never again consider a traditional publishing deal, but I’ve yet to see a compelling case for it (that there’s the caveat for when I announce a couple years from now that I went with NY on some new book, so no one can throw it back in my face “Nnehnh! You said never!”).
11 – Who is your favorite character that you’ve written? I’m a little partial to Angela in Exigency. She’s a pretty cool chick and a total smart ass.
She’s pretty awesome, but I’ve sort of already called out Frederick, soooooo…
12 – Have there been any scenes in your books that were difficult for you to write?
Difficult as in writerly struggles? Countless scenes.
Difficult as in emotionally? The Many Lives of Samuel Beauchamp (a demon’s story) has some pretty rough subject matter. The Opal, as well, contains a fair bit of personal parallels. And then, of course, those scenes in A Warm Place to Call Home were probably as awkward to write as they were for some to read.
13 – In all of your spare time, what are you currently reading?
This isn’t usually the case, but right now I’m in the middle of way too many books. Generally I’d have a single fiction book I’m reading for pleasure, and often bounce back and forth with non-fiction, sometimes overlapping. At present … [sigh] … here’s the mess I’ve created in my head:
The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell
What We See When We Read – Peter Mendelsund
Extreme Medicine – Kevin Fong, M.D.
Empress Zenobia – Pat Southern
Joyland – Stephen King
14 – What is are your favorite books?
As a voracious reader, I’m sure you, too, would be hard pressed to identify a single, above-all-others book. So I have secretly and deftly transmogrified your question into one that suits me.
Most recent notables:
Sand by Hugh Howey – (this book is how it’s done)
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline – (the most fun I’ve had reading a book since … since … I guess just the most fun)
Less recent favorites:
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (I think this is her best book, even though Gone Girl made her famous)
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell (greatest writer of this generation IMHO)
The Road by Cormac McCarthy (also the greatest writer of this generation, if I’m allowed to do that)
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (another single greatest writer of this generation)
Redshirts by John Scalzi (hilarious, clever, must-read material for Star Trek fans)
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (like David Mitchell, Ishiguro elevates the entire Sci-Fi genre)
If I were to go back any further, we’d be here into next week.
15 – Who is your favorite author?
16 – If you could collaborate with an author and write a book with them, who would it be, what genre would it be, and why?
At first thought, a bunch of names pop into my head, but then I think about this prospect realistically and cower beneath my desk for fear of being found out by a “real” writer.
Thank you Michael Siemsen for your outstanding and hilarious answers and for humoring me with these questions. I’m sure it’s helped offer a little insight into your world and hopefully given them some reasons to check it out.