Kate Elliott begins an epic new science fiction series with Unconquerable Sun, a complex and addicting tale of political intrigue that takes inspiration from ancient history—specifically, Alexander the Great. We talked to Elliott about drawing from the distant past to create a tale set in the far future, which of the book’s perspectives was the hardest to crack and why “queen” is a gender-neutral term in this fictional universe.
You’re the author of more than 10 science fiction series and numerous stories. After traveling to so many places and times in your writing, what excited you about Chaonia?
At the beginning of my career I wrote seven science fiction novels, so I might even say I started as an SF writer. Since then I’ve written 17 fantasy novels. This new book represents a return to my science fiction origins, which is quite exciting to me. I love writing fantasy with its magical worlds. And while I consider science fiction and fantasy to rest comfortably together under the umbrella of speculative fiction or the spacious tent that encompasses the literature of the fantastic, I can’t deny that it is relaxing and fun to return to writing space opera as a change of pace. Space opera can offer strong ties to the modern world, which can be evoked on the page. Its operatic sense of bombast, bold colors and vivid settings allow it to create a big, theater-filling spectacle. Sometimes theater-filling spectacle is exactly what I want to write, and to read.
“Sometimes theater-filling spectacle is exactly what I want to write, and to read.”
This book has been characterized as a gender-swapped retelling of the life of Alexander the Great. What led you to pull from the stories of mighty empires and conquerors, and was Alexander indeed your primary inspiration?
Yes, this is in fact exactly what it says on the label: a gender-swapped version of the life of Alexander the Great, set in space in the far, far future.
As a fantasy writer, I’ve long been interested in what empire is and how it functions; I’m not sure why but maybe because I grew up in an empire (the USA), so it would be natural for me to analyze and think about empire through the stories I tell.
Why Alexander? I don’t know. I’ve just always been fascinated by his story.
“I would call it a society where gender is a secondary consideration.”
The hierarchical structure here is reminiscent of ancient times, with its royals, Companions and cee-cees (Companions’ companions). What was your favorite part of crafting the relationships, alliances and tension between the different classes and peoples in Unconquerable Sun?
While the story is set in a far, far future tenuously tied to Earth, I used real history as the basic template. Part of my work was deciding which aspects of the history of Alexander the Great I would create analogs for, and what things I would make up specifically for this story. That means some of the tensions and alliances were built into the history. For example, I knew from the beginning that the Phene Empire was the enemy of the Republic of Chaonia, and that both empire and republic had a contentious history with the Yele League. In historical terms that translates roughly to the Persian (Achaemenid) Empire, the Kingdom of Macedon and the Greek city-states under the general leadership of Athens.
To make a space opera work, however, I did not want to simply turn every part of the story into a direct analog. The actual history and those governments and nations wouldn’t work “as is” in a space setting, for one thing. Also, half the fun of writing a space opera adaptation is to bend history and events and characters to make something new from it.
As for all the different classes and peoples, my foundational assumption is that people living on far distant worlds would not share exactly the same cultural landscape. Creating unique-to-their-place cultural landscapes is one of the things I most enjoy about writing science fiction and fantasy, and this project has been no different.
Chaonia is a gender-equal society, as well as a society that embraces same-sex unions. Did you base aspects of Chaonia on any real civilizations?
I would call it a society where gender is a secondary consideration. In Chaonia the term “queen” is gender neutral, like the word marshal. The leader of the republic is the highest ranking marshal (a military designation). In Chaonia, that highest rank is called “queen”—thus the ruler is the queen-marshal of the republic. The ruler doesn’t have to be a woman. For example, the current queen-marshal, Eirene, was preceded as ruler by her older brothers, who died in battle before she came to the throne.
In that same way, Chaonian marriage is about political alliances, bloodlines and business relationships, as marriage has usually been in the past and as it certainly was in the time of Alexander and his father Philip. I also made the presumption that reproductive technology will have advanced enough that any two individuals, regardless of gender, can have a child together who shares their genetic material.
I should note here that I didn’t sit down and say to myself, “I’m going to write a queer space opera.” The history is already queer. King Philip was what we would today call bisexual. So was Alexander. To be sure, sexuality wasn’t seen in the same way then. The terms homosexual and heterosexual were only coined in the mid 19th-century, and they don’t represent a universal understanding of gender across time or in other cultures. But the point stands. History is already queer.
“The real world I am living in always creeps into my writing.”
What was the origin of the insanely fun and often witty chapter titles such as “Introducing the Wily Persephone and the Loyal Solomon with the Predictable Result of Their Foray into Battle”? Did they come to you while drafting, or do you wait until the book is closer to be finished to come up with them?
I love chapter titles. You can do so much with them. They can give a signal to the reader. They can tell a little story in themselves. They can hint at things to come. And so on.
In the first few drafts mostly I wanted to identify literal phrases from the chapter text that I thought would work well to highlight in the chapter titles. Then when the reader reaches that phrase in the chapter, it hits them harder because they’ve seen it before. They’re primed for it. That’s my theory, anyway.
Later, in the final revision, I made the decision to include the words “the Wily Persephone” in all the chapter titles that are from Perse’s point of view. Given her narrative voice and who she is, it made sense to me to have those chapter titles to be more pointed and even poke fun at her because it’s the kind of thing she would do when speaking of herself. The rest, as they say, is history.
What is your favorite genre outside of SFF to read?
History. I go through phases where I struggle to read fiction, but I can always read history. I’m just so fascinated by windows into the past.
When writing what is, in many ways, a political thriller in space, do you try to address or find yourself referencing current political events? Or do any parallels only become apparent to you once the book is closer to completion?
The real world I am living in always creeps into my writing. The influence might be overt, a connection I intended to make, or it might be hidden in layers of the story without me realizing it. But after I finish a book I always see one or more elements that feel drawn from current events, even if I didn’t consciously intend them.
Unconquerable Sun mainly toggles through the points-of-view of three very different characters: Sun, Perse and Apama. Did you always know that you wanted to tell this story from all three perspectives, and did any one of them come easier to you?
Persephone was the first point of view in the story. It started with her. Zizou came next, although he remains a minor point of view in the novel.
Eventually, I realized I had to include Sun’s point of view because this is her history, after all. She is by far the most difficult character to write. Her intensity and focus can feel hard to capture. Because she is who she is—unapologetically ambitious and capable—she does not display many of the usual character traits that we think of as making women “sympathetic.” That was also a challenge for me as a writer, one I knew I had to tackle because one of my goals with the story has been to write depictions of women leaders in societies where no one ever questions their right (as women) to lead.
I added Apama last, partly because I needed a point of view from within the Phene Empire and also because I needed Apama’s point of view specifically once I realized the larger outlines of the story I am telling.
Perse, Apama and Zizou were all fairly easy to write because they aren’t Sun. I “get” them.
What’s next for you and your writing? I’m sure readers would love to know what’s in the pipeline for you, Sun, Perse and Apama.
I’m currently writing book two, Furious Heaven. Saying more than that would be a spoiler.