Five Books That Influenced Embers of War
With my latest novel, Embers of War, I’ve returned to one of my favourite subgenres: space opera.
The story follows the exploits of the sentient warship Trouble Dog as she gets embroiled in a plot to conceal the true contents of an ancient alien vault.
As a lifelong reader of stories set in space, I knew some of those books would inevitably end up influencing my writing. After all, we’re all made up of everything we’ve ever consumed. So, after much thought, I’ve prepared this list of the books I feel had the biggest impact.
1. NOVA by Samuel Delany
Set a thousand years into the future, NOVA tells the story of Lorq Von Ray, last scion of a powerful and rich dynasty, and his quest to harvest the rare mineral illyrion from the core of an imploding sun. He believes a cargo hold filled with illyrion will be enough to tip the balance of power between Earth and the quasi-independent Pleiades Federation.
Operating on several levels, the book explores Von Ray’s childhood and current quest, and relates them to Arthurian Grail lore, while also using the literary ambitions of one of its characters to provide a meta-commentary on the process of novel writing itself.
I guess the biggest way NOVA influenced EMBERS is the way all its settlements and the interiors of its ships feel secondhand, scuffed and dirty. This isn’t a gleaming future, but one where real people live, work, and scratch profanities into the walls of their cabins.
The stakes are high, but they’re also inextricably bound up in the ambitions and regrets of the novel’s protagonist—something that’s also very true for the good ship Trouble Dog.
2. EXCESSION by Iain M. Banks
Hyper-intelligent starships were always a feature of Banks’ ‘Culture’ series. But with EXCESSION, he finally pulled back the curtain and allowed us to see the galaxy from their point of view. We get to eavesdrop on their communications and see their individual quirks and obsessions.
And when a strange alien entity appears around a peculiar star, we get to see how the ships respond, and how they operate on levels far surpassing those of their human crews—crews who are seemingly just along for the ride.
EXCESSION made me want to portray the starships in EMBERS in a believable manner. They aren’t just human brains in jars. They have their own ways of looking at the world, and of interacting with each other. They have their own perceptions of time and distance—perceptions that differ greatly from ours.
3. HOUSE OF SUNS by Alastair Reynolds
Six millions years ago, Abigail Gentian shattered herself into a thousand cloned bodies, and set out to explore the galaxy. Now, after all this time, we follow the stories of two of those clones—the lovers Campion and Purslane—as they try to find out why persons unknown have decided to destroy them and all their line.
Along the way, we encounter machine people, centaurs, and ancient weapons capable of rending holes in reality itself.
If HOUSE OF SUNS influenced EMBERS OF WAR, it was in the great sense of freedom the characters felt exploring the galaxy, and the intense, almost symbiotic relationships they have with their starships. Although these ships aren’t self-aware in any meaningful sense, they are certainly treated as characters in the narrative.
In addition, the decision to name a rescue organisation the House of Reclamation was a deliberate tip-of-the-hat to Alastair, whom I once unsuccessfully invited to work with me on a novel about teams of scavengers breaking into asteroid-like bubble worlds arranged in a Dyson cloud—a setting I eventually used in my 2011 novel, THE RECOLLECTION (Solaris Books).
4. PLANETFALL by Emma Newman
On the face of it, there’s very little crossover between this tale of a traumatised colonist and the most rambunctious goings-on in EMBERS, but Emma’s book really was a key influence. I’ve known Emma for many years and am honoured to count her as a friend and colleague. When PLANETFALL came out, I read it with eagerness and excitement. It really is a hell of a good book. But its influence on EMBERS has little to do with its content and more to do with its style. PLANETFALL is written entirely in the first person, and that was something I’d never tried. So, when I sat down to write EMBERS, I challenged myself to do likewise.
5. LEVIATHAN WAKES by James SA Corey
I picked up a copy of LEVIATHAN WAKES from the Forbidden Planet store in Shaftesbury Avenue at around the time I had just started writing EMBERS OF WAR. I already knew what I wanted the book to be, but I was unsure if modern publishing still had room for tales of conflict and intrigue among the stars. LEVIATHAN WAKES reassured me that it did, and that there was still mileage in tales of tight-knit crews setting out in their trusty old vessels to take on the universe. While it didn’t directly the content of EMBERS, it did give me the confidence boost I needed to finish writing it.
EMBERS OF WAR by Gareth L. Powell is published by Titan Books. You can find Gareth on Twitter @garethlpowell
Gareth L. Powell is an award-winning author from the UK. His alternate history thriller, Ack-Ack Macaque won the 2013 BSFA Award for Best Novel, spawned two sequels, and was shortlisted in the Best Translated Novel category for the 2016 Seiun Awards in Japan. His short fiction has appeared in a host of magazines and anthologies, including Interzone, Solaris Rising 3, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction, and his story ‘Ride The Blue Horse’ made the shortlist for the 2015 BSFA Award.
Gareth L. Powell
Published by Titan Books on February 20th 2018
The warship Trouble Dog was built and bred for calculating violence, yet following a brutal war, she finds herself disgusted by conflict and her role in a possible war crime. Seeking to atone, she joins the House of Reclamation, an organisation dedicated to rescuing ships in distress.
But, stripped of her weaponry and emptied of her officers, she struggles in the new role she’s chosen for herself. When a ship goes missing in a disputed system, Trouble Dog and her new crew of misfits and loners, captained by Sal Konstanz, an ex-captain of a medical frigate who once fought against Trouble Dog, are assigned to investigate and save whoever they can.
Meanwhile, light years away, intelligence officer Ashton Childe is tasked with locating and saving the poet, Ona Sudak, who was aboard the missing ship, whatever the cost. In order to do this, he must reach out to the only person he considers a friend, even if he’s not sure she can be trusted. What Childe doesn’t know is that Sudak is not the person she appears to be.
Quickly, what appears to be a straightforward rescue mission turns into something far more dangerous, as Trouble Dog, Konstanz and Childe, find themselves at the centre of a potential new conflict that could engulf not just mankind but the entire galaxy.
If she is to survive and save her crew, Trouble Dog is going to have to remember how to fight.