In Ask a Prophet, we use our alien probes on the brains of sci-fi, fantasy, and speculative fiction writers.
This week, we spoke with J. Patrick Black, whose buzzed-about debut, Ninth City Burning, is the beginning of a new alien saga that blends elements of sci-fi and fantasy.
Where did the idea for Ninth City Burning come from?
There were all these sort of little bits of stories that I had floating around in my head. I was sort of thinking about the way technology can really seem magical. I had this thought of magic as, like, wifi. When you have it available it’s great and perfect — but when it goes out you’re kind of up the creek. Once I had that thought, all those other little snippets and shreds of ideas kind of just collected around it. That’s where the story started.
In the course of writing it, did you do any research on real battle tactics or even reading other fictional alien invasion narratives?
I read up about warfare in the Napoleonic Era where projectile weapons existed, but you still had a lot of regimented formation-based fighting. I wanted to see how I could translate that in still the sci-fi fantasy setting. As for other accounts of alien invasions, I wanted to kind of bone up on the traditions in which I was going to be writing, so I read a lot of The Forever War and got into some Japanese cartoons just to make sure I was really well-versed in the genres I was going to be inhabiting.
The genre’s really had a boom in recent years. What excites you most about entering it at this time with your first release?
Most of all it’s the community that I really enjoy so much. One thing that the genre of sci-fi and fantasy in particular is really unique about is that the barrier between fan and professional is really much thinner. You see a lot of people who started out writing fan fiction or with self-published fiction and end up becoming extremely successful professionals in the field. I got to go to my very first Comic Con in San Diego about a month ago, and that was just so cool to really be in a place where all of these people had been drawn together by their love of genre.
What was your favorite thing you saw or experienced there?
I’m a big fan of the costumes. I don’t really go into that as a participant myself, but I love spectating. There was this one point actually when I was rounding a corner and I saw this huge crowd trying to get a picture of something. It was this guy in an amazingly elaborate and gigantic suit of armor trying to get into an elevator. He couldn’t do it because he had these huge shoulder plates and he was seven feet tall. The combination of the comedy of that plus this amazingly elaborate costume was the one moment of the Comic Con that just crystallized it all for me.
Are there any sci-fi or fantasy movies or television shows that you’re a fan of?
I’m just usually about five years behind. I was a big fan of Lost five years after everybody else was infuriated over the last episode and I had the opportunity to prepare for that. I’m currently watching Season 2 of The Sopranos. I recently discovered, even though it was a big deal about two or three months ago, the new Voltron series on Netflix, which I think is just really well-done.
Do you have any alien invasion stories that were a big influence on you growing up?*
Aside from Ender’s Game, the alien invasion genre was not one I sought out that much. Really when I started on the story, I almost thought of it more as a fantasy rather than science fiction. I kind of saw these aliens that were invading not so much as aliens as kind of a militant extension of Narnia. Of course they were aliens because they were not of our reality, but the literary lineage would be more fantasy for me.
What are you most excited about for the future?
The best part about getting to publish a book is that I get to be a professional writer now. So if I have an idea and I want to write it down, there’s a good chance that somebody will actually read it. I’m taking the long view on this series, but I’m also working on ideas for some more one-off things that I could do in between different stages of this series. The same way that the idea for this story coalesced has led to a constellation of kind of quirky, fantastical, occasionally-scientific ideas just kind of floating around. I’m just waiting for one to develop itself and evolve enough that it can really stand on its own as a story.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.