The Thursday War — With Karen Traviss

Halo The Thursday WarKaren Traviss has understandably earned a notable reputation for writing science fiction novels that focus on solid and believable characters. But she has also earned the respect of millions of fans who see her as pushing the boundaries of established and successful franchises like Star Wars, Gears of War and more recently Halo.

The Kilo-5 trilogy features a host of interesting characters, including a Spartan-II, a bunch of ODSTs, a failed Spartan-II candidate (who happens to be their captain), an extremely interesting and almost charming AI and a language expert. And, for the first time, an interesting insight into Margaret Parangosky. The first book, Glasslands introduced us to life after Halo 3 — life after the war with the Covenant, where deception is the name of the game. Now, however, with The Thursday War life has become a little more complicated. Well, for those on Sanghelios.

From the TOR website:

This is a life-or-death mission for ONI’s black-ops team, Kilo-Five, which is tasked with preventing the rutheless Elites, once the military leaders of the Covenant, from regrouping and threatening humankind again. What began as a routine dirty-tricks operation – keeping the Elites busy with their own insurrection – turns into a desperate bid to extract one member of Kilo-Five from the seething heart of an alien civil war.

But troubles never come singly for Kilo-Five. Colonial terrorism is once again surfacing on one of the worlds that survived the war against the Covenant, and the man behind it is much more than just a name to Spartan-010. Meanwhile, the treasure trove of Forerunner technology recovered from the shield world of Onyx is being put to work. And a kidnapped Elite plots vengeance on the humans he fears will bring his people to the brink of destruction.

Despite being extremely busy, Karen was able to answer a few questions on The Thursday War and the characters that feature within the trilogy.

You have mentioned in previous interviews how you approach novels that are based within a well-known fictional universe, such as Star Wars and Gears of War. But were there any particular challenges that came with writing in the Halo universe?

This is probably going to be a disappointing answer for many people, but no. And that’s the way it should be. I approach every job the same way and apply my methodology to it. I think this is a hard one for any fan to understand — they love a particular franchise and they see it as different from others in fundamental ways. For them, it is — they’re the consumer. For me, they’re all the same, in that they’re all made up of the same basic elements and tools. Like cars, in fact: you might prefer a Ford to a Citroen, but all cars have wheels, gearboxes, engines, and wiring looms.

With regards to Halo as a whole, the Kilo-5 trilogy is allowing the fans to see Margaret Parangosky up close. How does a woman like Parangosky get to the top of the food chain in ONI?

I’ll admit that when I was looking at characters I might re-use and I saw a 92-year-old chief spook, I thought: “Yeah. Really. Like that’s credible.” But given that she existed, I decided to grab it and go for broke with her.  Just being 92 meant she deserved a much fuller and more considered character treatment. She won’t think like a younger officer — she’s not going to live much longer, and that changes all your priorities in life, it changes how much risk you’re willing to take, and it means you have a phenomenal store of life experience with which to slap the **** out of youngsters of 60 and below.

She’s a people person. But not in a touchy-feely way — a garrotte-y sort of way. She understands how people work and she exploits that ruthlessly. To quote BB: “Usually she was a people person in the same way that a cattle farmer was an animal person.” She has dirt on everyone who’s got dirt, and if there’s no dirt, then she knows enough about someone to press every button on their board. She values loyalty above all else. Now, if you’ve worked in politics or government at any level, that phrase will make you go: “Ahhhh…” Because you absolutely, totally, and utterly have to know who’s got your back, and who’s got a knife ready to shove in it. So she’s never given anyone a chance to stab her in the back, she collects loyal disciples who’ll do anything for her, and she’s made a point of conspicuous punishment/ revenge — mess with her or fail to do your best, and you know what’ll happen to you. Everyone knows where there stand with her.

Her stated replacement as the head of the Office of Naval Intelligence is Captain Serin Osman, a former SPARTAN-II candidate whose physiology didn’t agree with the augmentation process. Do you think Parangosky has made the right choice?

I’m really not sure yet. I know what they both think, but  whether it works or not will come out in the interaction of all the characters. She knows Osman is exceptionally competent and loyal — she can do the job. The question will be whether she wants to. And you really have to want to do that job to put up with the isolation it brings.  Osman, like Parangosky, isn’t a careerist. She wants to rise in the ranks solely to get things done, not for a better pension or power or a seat on some defence contractor’s board when (or if…)  she retires. Parangosky thinks that’s the right stuff. To both of them, power for its own sake is pointless. It’s just a means to an end, which in their case is removing as many threats to Earth and its colonies as possible, by any means necessary.

Black Box (BB) is a delightful character in the novels, quite charming as well. And you’ve said he’s one of your favourites. But which character was the most frustrating to flesh out? And how did you overcome it?

I wouldn’t say he’s one of my favourites, because I don’t actually have favourites — it’s not how I work.  But he’s certainly one of the most useful characters I’ve ever created, which is why I wanted to hang on to him — he makes the nuts and bolts of writing a lot easier.  He’s the character that welds it all together because he’s omnipresent. I write very tight third person point of view (aka tight third POV) which means you see each scene strictly from the viewpoint of an individual character. The reader can only see what that character can see. Now, that can be very limiting if you have lots of locations and events to cover, but an AI can be anywhere and everywhere at once, including eavesdropping on other characters in a way that conveys POVs that aren’t in the POV cast. So he’s a force multiplier in storytelling terms.

I don’t find any character frustrating to flesh out. The bedrock of my writing is characterisation.  For me, it’s as easy as breathing. I can’t not flesh out a character. I don’t know how to write without doing that.

As Halo 4 is out, we’re getting to see aspects of the novels that resonate within the game, such as Lasky, the presence of the UNSC Infinity, the interrogation of Halsey, and a more confident air to humanity. But I’m eager to know if areas of the third book, which I presume is still set before Halo 4, will reflect events within the game as well. Is that the case?

Not really. There are lots of story arcs from the two previous books that we have to see played out in the third novel and they don’t really relate to the events of the game.

If you could jump into the shoes of any Kilo-5 character, who would it be, and why?

None of them. Really, I don’t relate to any characters that way when I write. That’s identifying with them, and I find that very icky. Once a writer identifies with a character or has favourites, they start investing too much in that character, consciously or subconsciously,  and that leads to neglecting other characters and also trying to make the reader like that character as much as they do, rather than just letting the character behave naturally. It’s very fanfic-ish.

I can write memorable, vivid characters only because I don’t identify with any of them. They’re all fully realised and three dimensional, and when I step into their heads so I can see through their eyes and think their thoughts,  there’s no trace of me in there. That’s why they work – no authorial intrusion. When I step out of that mind, I go back to being me, and I’m glad to get out. They all have equal weight, and that means it’s a better, more immersive story.

As it stands, the third book in the trilogy will be your last for us Halo fans. But if you could write another novel, featuring John and Cortana, how would you portray them?

It’s already been done, and I don’t like going over pre-explored ground. So I haven’t even thought about it. I know it sounds weird, but unless I have a specific project, I don’t spitball mentally about things, because I work best when I approach things cold — preferably when I haven’t even seen them coming. I’m a very compartmentalised thinker.

Thanks, Karen.

There’s one more book to go in the trilogy, but Karen currently has some original fiction on the way. Her next novel Going Gray is due for release in August next year. Till then, if you don’t have either book from the Kilo-5 trilogy, I suggest you do something to change that.

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