Thursday, January 28, 2010

The mind behind the Dark Tempest

Science Fiction may not be everyone's cup of tea, but sometimes one encounters an author who is able to blend the right amount of speculative future, science and human relationships to bring forth a story that not only engages your imagination but fires up your emotions.

I am both honoured and privileged to have worked on Manda Benson's writing, an author who will, I'm sure, is going to make waves with her writing. Dark Tempest will be released through Lyrical Press, Inc. on February 15, and if you enjoyed reading works in the scope of the likes of David Brin, CJ Cherryh and Mary Gentle, I can say with authority that you'll most likely enjoy Manda's writing.


Manda, thank you for agreeing to join me here in my world. You have a background in science. Care to tell us a little about it and how it has influenced your writing?

I have an MChem and a PhD in Chemistry. I worked mainly in the areas of natural products and organic synthesis, which included biofuels, drugs design and coming up with ways to make novel polymers. I’ve also messed about with science teaching in its various forms, at secondary and undergraduate level.

I remember the thing that first got me interested in science, when I was very young, was seeing photographs of the sky at high magnification, and realising these amazing images were of galaxies, supernova remnants, clouds of gas and things so big I couldn’t possibly get my head around them. There is an awful lot out there, and I’d love to see it. Unfortunately I can’t, so I write books about it instead.

When working on Dark Tempest, one of my favourite characters was the morran, Rh'Ahrrol, who often saw a situation in a clearer light than the others.

Where do your morrans come from?

The morran species has quite a detailed backstory, none of which ended up being revealed in Dark Tempest. My idea for them came from thinking about how we have sea urchins and land urchins, and wondering what a "space urchin" might be like.

Morrans evolved on a volcanic moon orbiting a brown dwarf (a brown dwarf is an object larger than a big planet such as Jupiter and yet not big enough to start full fusion and become a sun, which emits heat but no light).

Because the closest sun is far away and the moon spends long periods facing away from it, life cannot depend on photosynthesis and instead plants use geothermal energy from the moon’s crust and radiation from the brown dwarf to grow, similar to some ecosystems that have been discovered in volcanic trenches in the ocean.

Like the deep sea, life on this dark world is bioluminescent. Morrans, an intelligent species, have evolved large eyes to allow them to see well in twilight, sonar so they can hunt effectively in pitch darkness and navigate around caves, and luminous quills and voices with which to communicate using colour and sounds.

Their genetic material is different to DNA on Earth, but their biochemistry is pretty much the same, so they can eat the same food as us. Unlike animals on Earth, which mostly have two copies of each chromosome, morrans have sixfold redundancy and thus have six sexes in the ratio 10:10:87:87:227:227. Yes, I have a spreadsheet with a table in it on my hard drive showing how I calculated that, and yes it is a very nerdy thing to do. :-)

There’s a cartoon of a morran at in the aliens section if anyone wants to know what they look like. I like trying to think outside the box when I make aliens, and I like reading about aliens by other writers who’ve done some research and come up with something clever and imaginative.

Tell us more about your Archers. How did this idea first appear to you?

In Dark Tempest, star Archers are the very top caste of the genetic dynasty, and their purpose is to hunt "chimaera" – organometallic Alcubierre organisms needed to build craft for galactic travel. Their minds are connected permanently and intimately to the computers that control their complex and powerful ships.

Star Archers are heterozygous for what’s called the "Blood" genes. Because some of these genes are on the X chromosome, all Archers are female. I was doing recurve archery years ago and I got thinking about how projectiles such as guns (which are effectively just an explosion in a tube) aren’t necessarily better or more accurate than bows, and that got me on to thinking about how new technology could make bows more powerful and more accurate. I came up with the idea of having powered limbs on the bow made of a material that can contract using a chemical reaction, like muscle, and shoot an arrow with far more force than it’s drawn with.

The other thing that ended up being a significant part of it was the Archers’ sense of discipline and philosophy. I liked an anecdote someone told me, that Korean archers are trained to shoot between heartbeats to minimise error. I’ve no idea if it’s true, but it sounds cool and it ended up in the book.

What are some of the developments you think will become more important in present technology? Where would you like to see further development?

Subjects close to my heart are genetic engineering and bionic augmentation. For as long as I can remember I’ve been obsessed with the idea of being able to control things (asides from my own body) with my mind, and this facet has appeared in almost everything I’ve written of novella-length or longer.

Space exploration (using robots, telescopes, and probes; no need to send humans unless there’s a habitat ready for them to move in) is also important to me. Although I’ve yet to hear of anything useful come out of nanotechnology, I predict big strides eventually coming from this area in terms of medicine and computing.

If you were made an all-powerful dictator on Earth, how would you exercise your power?

I honestly wouldn’t know where to start. There is that much wrong with the world, and unfortunately there are no simple solutions. However, I think it’s of utmost importance that science keeps moving forward. I’d put high value on developing the technology to terraform other worlds and build habitats for humans away from Earth, and we need to make full use of technology such as genetic engineering and tide/wind power and photovoltaics to feed people and power our industry rather than importing food and oil.

A few people in high places are making a lot of noise at the moment to do with carbon footprints, and making life difficult for motorists, and ruining the countryside by building eco slums all over it. With the population growing the way it is, that’s not going to make a blind bit of difference. It’s like trying to prevent a dam from bursting by bailing it out with a teacup. Short of annihilating the human race, climate change is not going to be undone, so we need to use our science to deal with it instead of hiding in a cave with no toilet and no Wi-Fi and hoping it will go away.

Can we expect other works set in the same universe as Dark Tempest?

Yes! Dark Tempest shares its setting, which I call Galactic Legacy, with a number of other pieces of fiction I have planned. While Dark Tempest explored the world of the star Archers and introduced morrans and the way halfBlood people are treated, there are other aspects of this universe and other castes, such as the merchants, the castellans, and the inquisitors. My next novella in this setting, which I’m currently working on, is called In the Shadow of Lazarus and it’s about ship whose crew get infected with a contagious disease that’s evolved the next step up from a snotty nose and a sore throat.

Galactic Legacy also fits into a "superuniverse" in that it’s set in a particular era of an envisioned future. There are three settings in total, the first being a near-future series of technothrillers set mainly on Earth; the second being set about 100 years after this, in a Solar system in the process of being colonised by humans; and with Galactic Legacy being the final one, set about 4,000 years after the first era.

Some useful links.
Manda Benson’s official website:
Hubble astrophotography website:
Critters online writing workshop:

Thursday, January 21, 2010

An author's temple is her library

As an author and editor, with a day job, a big gripe I have is that I no longer have much, if any, time for reading. Oh, I read all right. I read submissions, I proofread, I study... but for pleasure? Nah. If I'm lucky, I snatch an hour or so on the train every day, when I'm not writing or chatting with friends. Sometimes I'm lucky and get to read for a whole hour on a weekend when my husband decides to hog the computer. That's if we're not rushing about madly after his photo- or film-shoots.

If 2009 was anything to go by, it's set the tone for 2010. I need to find balance. Sure, I love what I do and this year I'll be trying to work even harder than the last, but I need to be able to indulge in the activity that got me into this predicament in the first place: my love of books.

It all started when I was a wee lass of about five or so. My mom used to teach at a primary school in the seaside village of Hout Bay. My pre-school was across the way from her place of work, and every afternoon I'd sit patiently in her classes (she taught the Grade 6s) and wait for her to finish so we could go home.

(This is possibly also another reason why I could read and write better than most brats my age, thanks Mum!)

Sitting in a classroom watching my mum teach soon lost its appeal. A few other teachers had younglings my age and we sometimes ranged about the school for hours on end, catching all sorts of mischief, but they weren't always there, so I had to find some other sort of entertainment.

That's when I discovered the library. The Thomas Library (as it was called then) was in the same block as my pre-school. I'm not quite sure how I discovered it, but when I did, I pestered my mum to let me spend the afternoons there helping the librarian pack away books.

Even though my reading wasn't all that great, I loved paging through the books, trying to string together words and examining the illustrations or photographs. I spent almost every afternoon in the library, a habit that continued well into my teens, although not with as much frequency, since I'd started checking out books instead.

The saddest development over the past few years since I've started writing and editing professionally, is that I'd stopped going to the library. Besides, even if I did check out books, I never had time to read them anyway. With so many books at home sitting on my "to read" pile, it didn't make sense to still use the library.

What I didn't realise is that I'd been missing out on what can possibly described as one of the most spiritual aspects of being a wordsmith. The library was my temple, and I was so far off the path I didn't realise my absolute thirst for knowledge and inspiration.

I work in Cape Town's CBD, and for many years the central library was hosted within the labyrinthine City Hall, with several floors and a series of pokey, stuffy rooms choked with shelves. Although fun to visit, I was rarely stayed long to browse mainly because the building made me feel claustrophibic.

Imagine my delight when I decided to visit the newly revamped central library, which has now moved to a historical building next to the City Hall.

This story pretty much sums up the feeling of intense ecstasy flowing through my veins:

Of course, I told myself, I had to be realistic. With my current times being overburdened with other activities, there was no way I could check out books and read them. But a part of me just itched to spend time in that hallowed hall, breathing in the atmosphere and basking in my reverence of the written word.

Then something struck me. Nothing was stopping me from making a special "me" day, once a week, to spend my lunch hour in the library. Now, every Wednesday, I trot down the road to the library. Acting on personal whim, I wander between the shelves, picking books at random. Sometimes I read the preface... or the first chapter... Maybe next week I'll pick up the book again or find something different.

The most important aspect of this act is to take me away from the hundreds of distractions and say, "Hey, you, author, how about broadening your horizons a bit?"

During an hour I look at four or five books in this fashion, and am exposed to new ideas. As a writer, this is a real act of discovery, and often I walk away turning over the bones of yet another plot to stir and thicken... and who knows, may just prove to be my next novel.

Monday, January 4, 2010

2009 in review

Well, For the sake of keeping things neat and tidy, I've listed some of 2009's achievements with regard to links and activities related to my publishing endeavours. Looking back, it's been quite an eventful year, even though at times I felt I wasn't moving forward.

December 21, 2009: Khepera Rising launches at the Phoenix Lounge:

December 13, 2009: Taking the Dark Diva Reviews spotlight:

December 3, 2009: A review for Khepera Rising from author Greg Hamerton:

December 2, 2009: I'm one of SinWhore's favourite sinners:

September 18, 2009: I finally cave in and join The Red Room:

Oh, and did I mention that cover art for KHEPERA RISING is live at:

September 15, 2009: Interview with author Keith Pyeatt:

June 3, 2009: Horror flash story appears at Fear and Trembling magazine:

May 22, 2009: Interview with David Farland goes live:

April 24, 2009: Featured review for SECRET NAMIBIA:

April 20, 2009: Author page live at LPI:

April 8, 2009: Release date for Khepera Rising, to be published by Lyrical Press, Inc. is December 21, 2009.

April 7, 2009: Issue 9 of Something Wicked magazine available as ezine. See:

March 30, 2009: Guest-blogging on Murdery by 4:

March 23, 2009: Jam Jars and Fairy Dust sold to BK Publishing for inclusion in its Water of Life project:

March 6, 2009: The publisher contacted me today with the news that they've signed the contract on their side. Khepera Rising now officially is part of the Lyrical Press Inc. stable.

March 5, 2009: I'm on Twitter: