Athena Andreadis: Desert Island Space Operas

Dr. Athena Andreadis is a molecular biologist whose research has made significant contributions to the genetic regulatory mechanisms responsible for dementia. She has also given presentations to NASA, written the popular science book TO SEEK OUT NEW LIFE: THE BIOLOGY OF STAR TREK, and co-edited with Kay T. Holt THE OTHER HALF OF THE SKY, a trailblazing, groundbreaking anthology of original space opera.

At the helm of Candlemark & Gleam, Andreadis is sending out into the world a continually expanding fleet of innovative science fiction by authors such as Melissa Scott, Kelly Jennings, and Jo Graham.

Essays and fiction by Andreadis are available on her site, Starship Reckless and her short story ‘Planetfall’ can be read in Crossed Genres.

I interviewed Athena Andreadis via email and a collaborative Google Doc from October 2021 to January 2022.

The epigraph at the beginning of TO SEEK OUT NEW LIFE: THE BIOLOGY OF STAR TREK seems like a fitting place to start:

When do we sail, so I can take the helm?

— from a Greek folk song of the Dodecanese Islands

That articulates very cogently the urgency and passion which is at the core of much of the space opera we’re going to be talking about.

As you lay beneath the ‘fiery rain’ of the stars above with your father in Greece, which science fiction stories were already boring their way into your imagination?

Τhat unforgettable moment happened in 1974, the first summer after I’d left for the US to start at Harvard – and when the Greek military junta was finally showing signs it would relinquish its grip on the country. When I first arrived in the US the September before that, I spent a month with friends in midtown Manhattan; one of their bulging bookcases was entirely stocked with science fiction, most of it Silver Era. And there I first encountered Ursula Le Guin, Poul Anderson, Joan Vinge, Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison, Kate Wilhelm, Robert Silverberg… So all these worlds were swirling like an intricate orrery in my head while I was gazing at the rain of stars on the Santorini black-sand beach – from black rocks of the undersea volcano whose eruption destroyed the amazing sui-generis Minoan Civilization, which survived as the myth of Atlantis and whose presence looms large in my own fiction and in the space operas that Candlemark nurtures.

Your story ‘Planetfall’ is multi-generational, yet intimate and sensual; it takes in the vast sweep of time, and the multitudes contained within the hopes and dreams of its characters. ‘They did more than wish. They wrought tirelessly to make it come true’ is a wonderful line from the story. The power of myths, the power of dreams. Is space opera a fundamentally optimistic form, for you?

Not necessarily – ‘Planetfall’ brims with loss (a death that changes a whole society, but also the many deaths during the adaptation stage to the new planet). But what I portray in ‘Planetfall’, as well as in WISPS OF SPIDER SILK, is the capacity of humans to change for the better, to adapt constructively, to work together, which may be the most wishful thinking of all.

How would you introduce WISPS OF SPIDER SILK to new readers?

WISPS OF SPIDER SILK is a space opera diptych, consisting of ‘The Stone Lyre’ and ‘The Wind Harp’. The stories tell of interplanetary cultures in conflict – and in perilous alliances – over psychic talents and the dominance they can confer. There is cooperation in the face of distrust, friendships that transcend culture, and, in ‘The Stone Lyre’, a retelling of the Orpheus myth.

The two stories take place in the same universe, which is also the universe of ‘Dry Rivers’ and ‘Planetfall’. Some of the links are obvious – an important character appears in both – others would become so if the novels of this universe ever saw the light of day; and I make a few connections explicit in the introduction to ‘Wisps’.

Can you talk about any new stories in that world that you’re working on?

I am currently working on the launch of starship Reckless, the bookend story to ‘Planetfall’. In it, we meet the rebel scientists who created the technology (both biological and astrophysical) that made the settlement on the new planetary home possible without despoiling it or annihilating the native flora and fauna. The central character is a demon-ridden restless woman who’s given the helm by consensus, in part because she gathered the people who ‘wrought tirelessly to make the dream come true’, in part because, like Cincinnatus, she doesn’t want such power; there are also several mythic and historical layers, as well as a component that explicitly links to the Minoans.

You can tell these stories have been in my head a long time because Starship Reckless is the name of my personal website. The launch of the Reckless was intended to be a short story or novella, but it threatens to become a novel. There are also three novels in this world; one is fully written but needs to be revised, the other two are partly written. They go from deep past to far future.

You provided four lists, four lists for four possible desert islands – a multiverse of islands. In the end I went with ‘Five unforgettable space operas’. Before we start talking about the books themselves, what is your definition of space opera?

According to Wikipedia, space opera ‘emphasizes science fictional space warfare, with use of melodramatic, risk-taking space adventures and chivalric romance’ and was apparently derived from soap opera. For me, space opera is slightly different: I consider mythic layers/echoes, saga aspects, deft worldbuilding and potent interactions crucial components, whereas I deem warfare optional and melodrama detrimental. To borrow a Wagnerian term, it must be Gesamtkunstwerk.

Another attribute you may have noticed in my choices is that whenever I name a series (Melissa Scott’s FIRSTBORN, LASTBORN; C. J. Cherryh’s Union/Alliance, McDevitt’s Benedict and Academy) they consist of linked stories rather than sequels. Sequelitis has overcome science fiction and fantasy with a vengeance; and though I understand the reasons, I can still rue the prevalence.

One last attribute shared by my choices is that all have mythic echoes. They are just as enjoyable if you’re not aware of them, but discerning the hidden layer deepens the story – and the pleasure its reading confers.

When we were talking about that list, you mentioned how the protagonists are ‘regular’ people, in their own particular contexts. Their greatness or importance is not a right of birth; they are neither Chosen Ones nor superheroes; but they are people ‘who nevertheless have vision and achieve much.’

Cassilde Sam achieves a lot in FINDERS, and she definitely has vision. What did you find attractive about that character when you first read her, and why take her story to the island?

Cassilde is a pragmatic can-do person, highly competent and really good at what she does (which includes tinkering with dangerous Ancestral technology); she also has an adventurous streak, is loyal to friends and lovers, stands by her principles and trusts her informed intuition. In other words, she’s a lodestar example of an engineer – and in that she reminds me of my beloved dad, who shared all these attributes. What I additionally like about Cassilde is that she has two devoted consorts who are also her work partners and she never complains about her debilitating illness.

What was it like working with Melissa Scott and taking her original story – the story you published in RETELLINGS OF THE INLAND SEAS – and turning it into a novel? Did you always feel that the story could be the seed of something larger?

Actually, the kernel short story for FINDERS appeared in THE OTHER HALF OF THE SKY, though stories from that universe also appear in the other two Feral Astrogator anthologies: ‘Firstborn, Lastborn’ in TO SHAPE THE DARK, and ‘Sirens’ in RETELLINGS OF THE INLAND SEAS. Each of the stories is in a different era of three in that universe, demarcated by catastrophes that topple human civilization throughout the galaxy, requiring painful and lengthy reconstructions. But at least one common thread across eras is the deeds of a pivotal dynastic family of scientist/engineers, the Daedalor (we had a wonderful time thinking of names, and chose the science-fictional version of Daedalus).

I had long had my eye on Melissa Scott as a major talent and a pioneering forerunner in science fiction and fantasy – but I also simply loved her writing. So she was among the authors that I asked for a story when I envisioned my first anthology, which became THE OTHER HALF OF THE SKY. When I acquired Candlemark, I asked her for novels – and FINDERS marks her return to science fiction after a very long hiatus. She and I are literally in harmony when we work together; add the fact that she’s a consummate professional, and you have an ideal partnership.

One of the many things Melissa Scott does very well is to naturalistically build very complex worlds through the eyes and experiences of her characters. Everything unfurls very organically. Thinking back to FINDERS, I’m struck again and again by how full-bodied and lived-in this world feels. Kelly Jennings does this extremely well, too, in both FAULT LINES and IN THE DEEP. A symbiosis of strong characters and vivid worlds. What in the worldbuilding of FINDERS makes it so unforgettable for you?

The textures of Melissa’s worlds are always rich, but they’re never either info-dumped or paraded; instead, they’re just part of the flow of the narrative. The other component that makes the universe of FINDERS/‘Sirens’/‘Firstborn, Lastborn’ indelible for me is that it recasts Minoan and Hellenic myths: FINDERS is a retelling of Pandora & the Titans, ‘Sirens’ a retelling of the Minoan exodus after the Thera/Santorini apocalyptic volcano explosion, ‘Firstborn, Lastborn’ is a variation on the Atreides family curse. And the protagonists are powerful, engaged intellects – yet fully of their worlds. You can see why such a blend would work for a walker between languages and cultures like me!

Moving to your second choice, Jack McDevitt’s, A TALENT FOR WAR and ENGINES OF GOD, McDevitt is seeking out old worlds and old civilizations, and boldly going where ancient alien races have gone before. What draws you to these novels?

Each of these novels was the first in a respective series: A TALENT FOR WAR launched the Benedict/Chase series, ENGINES OF GOD the Academy/Hutchins one. Jack, like Melissa, is enamored of old cultures and myths; in his case, many of his stories are based on the classical Hellenic era – most prominently the Persian Wars in his Benedict/Chase series, with the Ashiyyur taking the part of the Persians. And in both series, most alien races have long disappeared, leaving tantalizing remnants to the explorers who happen upon them.

What initially drew you to those two McDevitt series, and what has kept you reading them?

I loved the frisson of ancient breezes blowing through them, the sense of forever-unsolvable mysteries when one encounters another civilization (human or not). A TALENT FOR WAR had an additional wrinkle: the description of Christopher Sim rang bells, because in some ways he resembled Aris Velouchiotis, perhaps the most famous resistance fighter during the occupation of Greece by Nazi forces in WWII; for example, both were humble schoolteachers who became leaders. I wrote to Jack about this, and it was the start of our friendship.

Donald Kingsbury was a completely new name for me, and I wasn’t sure where to start; but after reading Robert J. Sawyer’s 1984 interview with Kingsbury, I started to see some hint of what might have drawn you to COURTSHIP RITE. Hopefully I can get my hands on a copy of the story itself.

Did you first read COURTSHIP RITE in ANALOG, in parts, or later as a single novel?

Oddly for an science fiction lover, I never read magazines like ANALOG or ASIMOV’S. So I read COURTSHIP RITE as the complete novel.

Kingsbury says this about Geta: ‘In the north of Geta, it’s very cold and elsewhere there are forests – admittedly not very lush ones – and there are many, many places where it is harsh, harsh desert.’

The world he’s describing has texture and variety. It doesn’t have a monoclimate like Arrakis or Hoth. I’ve always had problems with planets that seem to have only one biome. What appeals to you about Kingsbury’s worldbuilding in COURTSHIP RITE?

What drew me to COURTSHIP RITE is the fact that it was one of the earliest stories to explore in depth biological aspects of planetfall that were ignored in earlier science fiction tales of such settlements (and even by NASA, when they contemplate/d such missions). Namely, that the flora and fauna of earth-like planets could still be inedible or even toxic to off-planet inhabitants, and that human societies that develop on such planets will drift considerably biologically and culturally. In COURTSHIP RITE, Kingsbury explored this without pulling his punches, including codified cannibalism and rapid accumulation of recessive mutations that bolster adaptation to the new context but also result in high rates of miscarriages and similar difficulties (as I do myself in my short story ‘Planetfall’).

I wrote a whole series of articles about drift and adaptation of newcomers on earth-like planets (including the intractable dilemmas vis-à-vis native lifeforms), and also explored this from various angles in TO SEEK OUT NEW LIFE: THE BIOLOGY OF STAR TREK. As a result I was invited to talk about this topic to venues like NASA (the APL Laboratory); so it’s not surprising that stories like COURTSHIP RITE would appeal to me.

Sawyer is also complimentary about the way Kingsbury writes female characters. What do you feel Kingsbury does particularly well with characters in COURTSHIP RITE?

The centre of COURTSHIP RITE is a group marriage (Kingsbury was a forerunner in this as well; the only other author of that generation who occasionally portrayed non-nuclear arrangements that I can recall was Poul Anderson). I loved the fact that one the wives is a powerful politician, another a talented and influential mathematician.

Another thing that I found wonderful in COURTSHIP RITE is that the human settlers are slowly recovering lost knowledge, some of it locked on the starship that brought them, now orbiting the planet and deemed godlike. It shows how things can be (mis)interpreted, just as archaeologists invariably call an object of unknown function ‘ritual’ when it might be anything but. And, last but not least, the tattooing – literally a life-or-death status symbol.

Thinking for a moment about archaeologists, do you read much about contemporary archaeology, or is the fictional variety infinitely more appealing?

Both are interesting, and (should) inform each other. I have specific areas of interest – for example, decipherment of scripts and languages, in part because my own are not those of the currently dominant culture and are in danger of eventual extinction, but also because the Minoans are an integral strand in the tapestry of my fiction</a>.

As you probably know, Linear A, the Minoan script, has not been deciphered yet because it left no identified living descendants, there aren’t enough samples for comparative studies, and we lack a Rosetta stone for it. A variant (Linear B) used to write Mycenaean has been deciphered, because it’s an early form of Greek. A crucial key was Alice Kober’s discovery that Linear B was inflected; but she died unexpectedly and too young, so Michael Ventris (notably an architect, not an archaeologist by profession), aided substantially by Kober’s insights, cracked Linear B.

Are you planning to write any other non-fiction titles related to science fiction? Your STAR TREK book is fascinating, and I think a similar survey of, say, alien worlds, would be fascinating.

I did plan to write a book along the lines you describe, which I titled DISTANT CAMPFIRES. It looked at how humanity would evolve on long interstellar journeys and after planetfalls. I sent the proposal twice. The first time, it was too early (no exoplanets had yet been discovered, and exobiology consisted of examining extremophiles on earth). The second time, it was too late (too many exoplanets had been discovered, though exobiology still consisted of examining extremophiles on earth). So at some point I just wrote the gist of the proposal as a series of <a href="""">six blog posts under the collective title MAKING ALIENS</a>. But now that I have Candlemark & Gleam, I’m toying with the idea of updating and publishing this work, because it has become even more topical than it was when I first conceived it.

If COURTSHIP RITE was republished today, do you think it would still find an audience?

Science fiction has drifted and split into systems of barely-communicating ponds. So I think a subgroup would still enjoy COURTSHIP RITE, but it might also push some ultra-PC buttons. But speaking for myself, I hugely regret that Kingsbury has not yet published THE FINGER POINTING SOLWARD, the long-awaited companion novel to COURTSHIP RITE.

Your fifth choice is IN CONQUEST BORN by C.S. Friedman. This is a cycle of short stories, and a cycle with an enormous scope. How would this one sustain you on the desert island?

In CONQUEST BORN is actually a novel of conflict between two extremely dissimilar starfaring cultures. The Braxin are a mixture of samurai and old-testament with a warrior caste, the Azeans have cultivated psychic abilities; the two representatives from each culture locked in mortal combat turn out to be genetically coded for each other. It’s an science-fictional variation on a romance trope as well as a take on the Bene Gesserit long-term breeding strategy, but its specifics are vivid and unique.

You’ve alluded to DUNE a few times. What do you think accounts for its longevity?

I think it was one of the earliest science fiction novels to use a non-US culture as its frame; and of course westerners have always been fascinated by the rigors of desert ecologies and cultures. It also didn’t fear complexity across several dimensions, though its gender politics are primitive even for its era. But I recall that it took a while to gain its popularity momentum – Herbert collected a thick sheaf of rejections. After that, it became like THE LORD OF THE RINGS: a sign of coolness among the aficionados despite its self-importance and longueurs.

Recent adaptations of DUNE, FOUNDATION, and THE WHEEL OF TIME have each dealt with their source material in interesting (if not always entirely successful) ways. Have you seen any of them, and do you have any thoughts on the fact that all three turn on the idea of a chosen one?

I’ve read the first two DUNE books, the FOUNDATION trilogy (long ago) and only a satellite story of THE WHEEL OF TIME (talk about sequelitis and doorstoppers!). I cannot quite see how FOUNDATION could be made interesting, especially cinematically, so that answers that part of the question. I’m not interested enough in THE WHEEL OF TIME to watch the series, just as I didn’t watch THE GAME OF THRONES (I read and liked the first A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE book, but didn’t even start on the second when I heard George Martin was planning six straight sequels – and, from other series of eventually famous authors, I guessed that they’d become thicker and less edited as they went).

Which leaves DUNE. My memory has tried hard to suppress the Lynch effort, but I liked the TV series version (a minority opinion, I’m made to understand). And I had high hopes of Villeneuve’s attempt, after his INCENDIES (an incandescent contemporary retelling of the Oedipus myth, centering Jocasta) and of course ARRIVAL and the BLADE RUNNER sequel, which made me think we had found a director who could adapt science fiction with a modicum of depth. However, I found Villeneuve’s DUNE a total failure notwithstanding the vaunted visuals – and, once again, it highlights the incredibly annoying fact that film directors endemically don’t use perfectly serviceable dialogue and plot points and logic from the books they adapt.

(Re)viewer gripes aside, DUNE is an interesting variation on the Chosen One theme: Paul Atreides is expressly created to be such a specimen by an aeons-long breeding program, which has also embedded cultural triggers to buttress his ascension in the shape of prophecies and myths. By my reading (and keeping in mind I haven’t read the interminable sequels by either Herbert or the lunchbox crowd after him), the Bene Gesserit were trying to create a messiah who would primarily accomplish feats of the mind (granted, with the power his actions would confer to the Order and, of course, biddable), not one who would become the engine behind endless scorched-earth wars. Paul is aware of all this and at some point he renounces the power, though too late to prevent the consequences of the avalanche he set in motion, including the death of his beloved and the brutal use of his mother, his sister and his children. But then that’s an integral part of being a messiah: too many people have to be sacrificed on that altar, and messiahs invariably are either sociopaths from the get-go or become such when they acquire a cult following.

Moving back to Candlemark & Gleam, Jo Graham’s SOUNDING DARK is out now and it sounds amazing. What can you say about it, and how does it relate to some of the themes we’ve mentioned?

The developing space opera series from Jo, which starts with SOUNDING DARK, shares the attributes I listed earlier: mythic layers and lost knowledge, biological and cultural repercussions of planetfall, ‘regular’ people becoming leaders and heroes, linked stories rather than sequels.

Looking ahead to 2022 and beyond, what space operas can readers expect to see from Candlemark & Gleam?

There are at least three space opera paths being explored at Candlemark & Gleam. One is Melissa Scott’s FIRSTBORN, LASTBORN, of which FINDERS is the starting point – though the new novels will go backward in time, with a reprise at the end. Another is Jo Graham’s CALPURNIAN WARS, which explores the conflicts between human cultures flung across nine planetary systems, which of course have diverged – and are based on Mediterranean circa-Hellenistic cultures and myths. Yet another is Kelly Jennings’s gritty Pirian/Combine ESCAPE VELOCITY stories, that follow the chosen family of rebellious starship captain Velocity Wrachant. And who knows who else will join the fleet?