Building Strange New Worlds: Michael J. Martinez
Michael J. Martinez has spent two decades in journalism and communications, most notably with The Associated Press and ABCNews.com. After spending all that time telling other people’s stories, he decided to try telling one of his own creation, informed by a love of genre fiction and pop culture. The result is The Daedalus Incident, his debut novel from Night Shade books, available in the U.S., U.K. and Ireland in digital format and in the US in print through most major booksellers. While he had no experience with prior fiction writing, Michael found his journalism experience helpful in creating the worlds in his novel, and he reveals all (almost!) to writing.ie. Michael told us:
“The simplest way of looking at science-fiction and fantasy is that it’s like any other piece of fiction, just with a very different setting.
Naturally, it’s a bit more complex than that when you get around to writing it. Setting really matters in genre fiction; it needs depth and breadth and wonder. It needs to be exciting and different, but it also has to make sense.
For nearly ten years, the notion of sailing ships in space – cruising between planets with the solar wind in their sails – was firmly lodged in my head in that insistent, distracting way good writing ideas stick. Through a variety of writing projects, jobs and life experiences, it was the one idea I kept coming back to. The trick was to figure out how to make it work.
Having spent the better part of two decades in journalism and communications, I decided to apply those tried-and-true reporting questions to the problem: Who, what, when, where and why. These, I think, are the key questions a writer should ask whenever they put together a setting, whether it’s fantastical or not. Setting informs so much of a story. It’s the playpen in which we set our characters loose. It informs both the possibilities and the limits of the plot.
When I finally sat down to flesh out this setting for what would become The Daedalus Incident, I decided to answer these questions first. For example:
Who – Early on, I felt there should be a historical bent to the setting. C.S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian were early inspirations for Daedalus, and I wanted to capture the romanticism and adventure of those books. So instead of trying to create a whole new setting, my “who” became those very same powers that dominated our historical Age of Sail during the Napoleonic Era, with England taking its place front-and-center. That’s how I ended up writing a historical sci-fi/fantasy mash-up.
Since I had chosen to play off of historical fiction, it made character development somewhat easier. When pondering the heroes of the piece, I immediately thought of the relationship between C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower and one of his first captains, Edward Pellew. Thus I found my protagonist, young Lt. Thomas Weatherby, as well as his captain, Sir James Morrow, commander of the frigate HMS Daedalus.
What – Ships don’t just lift off from the seas and hurl themselves into space on their own. What was the engine behind this phenomenon? I played with a variety of ideas, from steampunk-style technology to outright magic. I even briefly toyed with the idea of miracles and the power of faith. Finally, I settled on a solution derived from history – alchemy, that cross between leftover Middle Ages mysticism and the budding growth of real science. By making alchemy far more powerful than in the real world, I gave the setting considerable flavor – and a plethora of plot ideas from which to choose.
The presence of alchemists in the setting provided further ideas for characters. Weatherby was given an excellent ally – and foil – in the form of the dissolute ship’s alchemist Andrew Finch, which became something a nod to the relationship between Capt. Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin in Patrick O’Brian’s works. Another alchemist, drawn from history, became the book’s antagonist – you’ll have to read it to see who that is! But without spoiling the book too much, the presence of alchemy also became a key part of the plot as well.
When – For this book, I felt that I wanted the European powers to be firmly established in the novel’s setting, rather than taking their first halting steps into space. So I decided that humanity first sailed off into the Void in 1492 – yes, Columbus’ voyage. Instead of Columbus, however, I took one of his other captains, Pinzon, and gave him quite the wrong turn – he ended up on the Moon. Just as Columbus’ voyage marked the beginning of our historic Age of Exploration, Pinzon’s voyage launched humanity – and its sailing ships – into space. When my book begins in 1779, the period of colonization was well underway. (Not accidentally, this also gives me a lot of interesting history to play with in future books!)
While the Napoleonic Wars may have been a more natural starting point for the book, I had an eye on future works in the same setting as well. By starting off in the midst of the historic American Revolution, I not only had an exciting wartime backdrop, but also gave my young Lt. Weatherby and Dr. Finch time to grow, allowing them to take a role in my alternate history going forward. All settings evolve, and giving your setting room to grow is important if you want to use it as a part of a series. I’m fortunate in that I have history to inform my choices – if you’re creating a completely new SF/F setting, you’ll have to think about the past and future of your worlds.
Where – Why did Europe come to the New World in the first place? It was a commercial enterprise; there were immense resources in the New World to exploit. This seemed a perfectly reasonable drive for my setting as well. That meant some changes to the planets of the solar system, however. Venus became a lush jungle world with primitive saurian inhabitants. Mars was a once-great world of a long-dead race – the canals had to come from somewhere! – transformed into a barren red desert. The moons of Jupiter became rich targets for colonization; the British colonies on Ganymede, rather than in America, are fighting for independence in Daedalus. And as for Saturn – well, I’m not giving that away, either.
My ideas for Mars and Jupiter also informed the nascent plot that was developing in the background as I worked on the setting. The Ganymedean quest for independence, the lost civilization on Mars – these were interesting plot hooks that I enjoyed working into my story.
Having figured out “where,” I found I needed some more mechanics as to the ships and their travels. I turned the aurorae found at the poles of Earth and other worlds into the solar wind, which extends outward from the Sun and has currents and eddies throughout the Void between planets. Alchemists found ways to harness this “natural” phenomenon further, making it possible to travel to Jupiter from Earth in four to eight weeks’ time – not coincidentally the time it historically took many European ships of the era to reach the New World. For the ships, I added some mystically enhanced lodestones in the bilges to provide gravity, heat and air, along with “planesails” on the sides of each ship to provide three-dimensional movement. With that, I had a ship fitted out for the rigors of the Void.
Why – By the time I got to this question, it was already answered. The rest of the solar system had taken the place of the New World in this setting, and all the reasons for venturing between worlds were just as valid. Indeed, there were new ones informed by the setting as well. There was the possibility of advances in alchemy through materials gained from other worlds. There was the European enslavement of the Venusians in lieu of the New World’s indigenous peoples. There were mysteries to be solved and money to be made and political power to fight over. I had figured out how and when humanity had reached the stars, what got them there and where they went.
And thus, a setting was born, along with key elements of plot and character as well.
You may notice a rather futuristic spaceship on the cover of the book. There’s another setting in there as well – a Martian mining colony in the year 2132 – one that is based on a very real, very non-fantastical view of our world’s future, and one that still required the same questions and answers. Determining how these two disparate settings might come together meant more questions and even more creative answers.
Whether your setting is modern-day Dublin, 2nd century China or a fantasy realm created from whole cloth, I think you can benefit from this kind of exercise. I know it forced me to think very critically about the creation of my setting and it’s potential for storytelling. Some of the answers to these questions aren’t spelled out in the book – Pinzon barely warrants a mention, poor fellow – but I know exactly how I got there, and can better determine where I want to go next.”
About Michael J. Martinez
The Daedalus Incident is the debut novel from Michael J. Martinez, a veteran journalist who, after years telling other peoples’ stories, decided to tell one of his own. He lives outside New York City with his wife and daughter and an exceedingly well-behaved cat. He blogs at www.michaeljmartinez.net and is on Twitter @mikemartinez72.
The Daedalus Incident, published by Night Shade Books, is available in the U.S., U.K. and Ireland through most major booksellers.
Mike Martinez recently spoke to international bestseller Peter Brett for writing.ie – click to read his interview Demons at his heels; the writing life of Peter Brett