How Slaves of War was written

Some time ago, during a conversation on Facebook, I mentioned a very old novel of mine, at that time called The Fifth Power. I wrote it long before the Bruce Willis movie with a similar name, with which it has nothing in common. I said that I didn’t know what to do with it, it just didn’t feel like “real” science fiction, even though what science there was in it was essential to the story. It was all aliens and space combat and brain-slaves and like that. Somebody said it sounded liked space opera, and somebody else said they liked space opera, and suggested that I write it that way.

My original thought, many years ago, had been that I should develop the character a lot more, make the plot revolve around his actions and decisions, make other characters more important than the action, and put more science into it, even if only as background. You can’t have much science in trans-galactic star drives, but you can put in a lot of astrophysics. I’d done that before with Star God. But I didn’t know how to free my character from the plot, which other characters I should make important, how to make astro-science interesting. Maybe it would be better if I threw it out and wrote a new novel with some of the same ideas. But that was more work than I wanted to commit to at that time, so it sat on a shelf for years. (Actually, it sat on a floppy disk in a box on my desk for years. Yes, the idea was that old.)

But after that Facebook conversation, I thought that maybe it wouldn’t be too difficult to turn that old novel into a clearly deliberate space opera. And the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. It already had everything it needed — an action-adventure plot, four very different alien races, massive space battles which sometimes involved whole solar systems, a lone heroic character kidnapped to serve as a warship’s living control computer, and a war that had been going on for so many generations that nobody remembered why they were fighting.

When I first wrote the story, I selected certain real world cultures to serve as models for my alien races. Just as models, which I exaggerated and trimmed and changed. But having a model meant that each racial culture was internally consistent, if rather exaggerated and more colorful. I assumed that there was nothing about the technology which my hero could possibly understand, so I didn’t try to explain planetary drive, star drive, flicker drive, brain conditioning, the immensity of the ships, why they all breathed the same atmosphere. Or why despite being extremely alien, they all shared recognizable human foibles, needs, weaknesses, faults, and so on. Or how the economics would have worked, since the war would have depleted every available resource in a matter of years instead of generations.

As David Gerrold has said, more than once, “It has to serve the story.” Story was paramount, not the setting or the background or the science, what there was of it, or the logistical impossibility.

Turning my old novel into a space-opera was not that difficult, and I enjoyed doing it. I had other projects I wanted to get to, such as The Empty House, Soul Stone, my so-called faerie story now titled The Heart of the Fey (no Tolkien or British fairy stories here), and The Black Ring, any one of which would take all my time and creative energy for many months, or even years. As it turned out, the space opera conversion took only about two months. It was a “quickie.”

What I needed to do was to bring the text up to my current narrative standards. And I knew how to do that. I had grown a lot as a writer in the decades since the first draft, and I continue to learn with everything I write. So I would just treat the existing manuscript as a well-developed rough draft.

I decided that I could not use the original title, even though it predated The Fifth Element by many years. None of the alternates I came up with were really any good. It took me a while to work out that the key concept of the story was that humans who wouldn’t be missed (bums and tramps and homeless, especially in the world’s large cities) were being kidnapped so that they could be conditioned to serve as control computers for the space ships. Our brains were fundamentally different from the aliens, in a way that actually has a basis in reality.

The kidnapped humans, deprived of most of their personality, simply did what they were told, learned how to command the ships, and were slaves. My hero’s neurology was different from everybody else, in a real way, which enabled him to overcome the conditioning. The war had been going on for ten or eleven genrations, or even more as far as anyone could tell, though no one knew why. By now it was being fought for the sake of war itself, and for the power and prestige and reputation. Hence, the story is now called Slaves of War, though I kept the original title for part six.

I worked on each part separately, and the revisions for story were quite easy. Style and voice took some effort, since they are quite different now from when I wrote the story. I made sure there were no continuity problems between the six parts. I fixed some of the alien names so that they would be pronouncable (even I sometimes had difficulty). I formatted each part for Kindle publication, and two months after the last part went on line, I did the paper version.