A space opera comes alive: South Hadley science fiction writer Elizabeth Bear releases 2nd novel in ‘White Space’ series

  • The cover art of Bear’s latest novel set in the White Space universe, “MACHINE.”  Saga Press

  • South Hadley science fiction author Elizabeth Bear. Photo by Kyle Cassidy/Courtesy of Saga Press 

Staff Writer
Published: 12/22/2020 1:47:03 PM

When most people think of science fiction, they might think of typical genre tropes such as faster than light travel and galactic civilizations. For South Hadley science fiction novelist Elizabeth Bear, there’s still spaceships in her fictional universes, but they aren’t the focal point — the lives of her characters come first.

Bear’s most recent novel, “Machine,” was recently published via Saga Press in October. The book is the second novel in the “White Space” series, in which Bear introduces a character named Doctor Jens — a rescue specialist — intrigued by puzzles and mysteries and who lives for the rush of jumping off spaceships.

“‘Machine’ deals with space rescue doctors,” she added. “I’ve got a giant interspecies space hospital and an epidemic. It’s a little awkward to talk about because I wrote the book chiefly in 2018 and did the edits last year. This was finalized before we had any idea of what 2020 was going to be like. That awkwardness aside, what I’ve been trying to do with these books is tell space opera stories that aren’t military focused. The protagonist of the first one is a salvage operator. The protagonist of the second is a rescue specialist. She’s a trauma doctor that specializes in going into wrecked spaceships and saving people’s lives.”

The setting of the White Space series is in the “fairly far future,” after Earth suffered a climate and political crisis several hundred years before the onset of the series. Some people left the planet in generation ships in which it took generations to reach their destination. On Earth, society evolved to focus less on the expenditure of wealth and resources.

“The solution that they came up with was basically to create a society in which there were strong social consequences to behaving in an anti-social fashion,” Bear says. “They recreated the technology of government and economics into a more sustainable pattern. Eventually, through means that haven’t been described yet in the series of books, they made contact with an already existing interstellar civilizations of various aliens. This is where it gets space opera-y.”

Although “Machine” is set within the same White Space universe as the first book in the series, they both tell separate stories with different characters, Bear said. She also leans into “hard science fiction,” in which real-world science and physics are important to the rules of the fictional universe.

“You don’t have the opportunity to put the characters through the same level of stress and personal growth in every book,” she said about direct sequels. “At a certain point, you start off with somebody that has some portion of their character or personality that’s stuck and that’s the thing that you want to put under stress as part of the narrative and force them to confront whatever the dysfunctional aspect of their own personality is. The way I tend to write science fiction and fantasy is very character focused.”

Bear is now working on another book set in the White Space universe with a working title of “The Folded Sky.”

Growing up in a household in Hartford, where science fiction books were commonplace (both her parents and grandparents were fans of the genre fiction), it’s easy for Bear to look back today and realize how her love of the sci-fi was kindled. Some of the sci-fi authors that influenced her at an early age included C.J. Cheeryh and Roger Zelazny.

“I was one of those kids who was a really aggressive, voracious, reader,” she explained. “I had gone through all the books in the kids section of the library and read all the animal books. So I started on my mom’s science fiction collection that was probably at an inappropriately young age. But it turned out OK. It paid off.”

Bear is also a multiple Hugo-award winning writer, having received awards for her short stories and novelette. Hugos are premier literary awards given every year to science fiction and fantasy writers across the globe for works published during the past year. She was also awarded the 2005 John W. Campbell Award for “Best New Writer” for her debut novel “Hammered,” which was published in 2004.

She had been collecting rejection letters from publishers for about a decade before her first novel. Since then, Bear’s written dozens of books and short stories.

“It turns out that it’s a really hard skill to learn,” she added. “It’s really all about practice. I think it was John Garnder who told his MFA students, ‘Congratulations! Now go write for 10 years.’ I didn’t get the MFA, but I did have to go write for 10 years.”

Chris Goudreau can be reached at cgoudreau@gazettenet.com.

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