Today it gives the Speculative Fiction Showcase great pleasure to interview Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, whose novel Salvage Right (Liaden Universe®, Book 25) has its debut on 4th July 2023.
Thank you very much for talking to the Speculative Fiction Showcase and congratulations on Salvage Right, your 100th collaboration! Where did it begin and how did you come to collaborate?
Sharon: Thank you for having us!
STEVE: We started an odd kind of collaboration when we lucked into being in the same creative writing class when we were both older "return to school" students and hit it off as more than classmates. Eventually we shared a house and were both in the “opportunity pool” looking for work when Sharon started a fantasy story about a wizard’s apprentice, left it in the typewriter, and picked up tempwork. I looked at the started story for several days, called her and said “Can I finish this? I think I know where it goes...” She agreed -- with the caveat that she could say “not this” when she saw what I came up with -- but she went with it after juggling a couple details and The Naming of Kinzel sold to Fantasy Book, as did several follow-ons.
When you began to write the series, did you ever imagine that it would continue so long or have such enduring popularity?
Sharon: We had initially laid out seven books in more-or-less series. Our first contract, for three books, was not renewed, due to “disappointing numbers,” after which followed 10 years of no sales. So, no, we did not expect the Liaden Universe® to ever achieve the level of popularity it currently enjoys. We are very fortunate.
STEVE: We were working on the idea that once we got a small series together and published we could write other series and stories full-time someday (following Roger Zelazny’s advice) but no, we never expected the Liaden Universe® to have such legs.
Salvage Right, which has its debut on July 4th, is the 25th novel in the series. How much can you tell readers old and new about the story, and where it takes us?
Sharon: Through a Strange Series of Events, detailed in The Space at Tinsori Light and Neogenesis (“Tinsori Light” is reprinted at the end of Neogenesis), Clan Korval (many of the Liaden Universe® stories are motivated by Clan Korval, a Liaden kin-group whose members have an astonishing gift for finding trouble) has come into a possession of a spacestation.
It's something of a fixer-upper, this spacestation, and Salvage Right is the story of how the station, and the station-keepers, are redeemed. It's Space Opera in the grand Lee-and-Miller tradition, and comes complete with malevolent intelligences from a former universe, mad scientists, extended family, AIs, secret organizations bent on taking over everything, snarky dialogue, and a morally gray group of unlikely heroes, who have come together to make the universe a better place -- though none of them would exactly say that, if you asked them.
STEVE: Let’s see. Salvage Right in effect acts to bind a series of prior threads and story arcs (Tinsori Light, Bechimo and other AIs, Theo, The Uncle) by bringing a couple previously introduced characters together in a kind of boiler room situation requiring all of their talents to solve. Minor questions like “what does it mean to be free, what’s it mean to be a person, would you eat one of Clarence's maize buttons, what does it mean to deal honorably with the universe?” are asked and perhaps answered.
The Liaden Universe® is rich and complex. Who are the Liadens and where do they come from?
Sharon: The Liadens come from that other, steady-state, universe over there – the one that got crystallized. They were among the very few who managed to ride the wave (caused by the Disruption of! Time! And! Space! We write space opera, did we say that?) out to a new, expanding universe.
In the “present-day” universe, from which we, the authors, are reporting, the Liadens are the premier race. They say. They have long dominated the trade lanes, and Liad is a wealthy world. However, the home folk are pretty insular, and tend to disdain anything – and anyone – who is not home-bred Liaden – a disdain that spreads to the people of their own outworlds, as well as the very traders who have made the world so prominent. Playing opposite the Liadens are the Terrans, who are culturally diverse, and not nearly as dismissible as homebody Liadens hold them to be.
Terrans as a group do tend to be wary of Liadens, and with good cause. The two most important concepts of Liaden culture – what makes them not only alien, but dangerous – are melant'i and Balance.
Melant'i is the Liaden understanding that one person may encompass many life-roles. For instance, someone may be a pilot, a sister, and a student. She has different responsibilities and status in each of those roles. Liadens move fluidly between states, it being how they were brought up.
To Terrans, who are (mostly) accustomed to just talking to Joe, whether he's today's cook, or head of the local plumber's union – melant'i is a minefield. Enlightened Liadens – Scouts, and (some) traders – hold that a person of melant'i has the responsibility to sort out their roles for people who are not accustomed to doing it on the fly.
Terrans do have something like melant'i, just like we do here in so-called Real Life. Terrans have “hats,” meaning various roles. (“They keep you busy, don't they? What hat're you wearin' today?”) But they're nowhere near as rigid in practice as Liadens are.
Balance is the concept that it is the responsibility of every individual to contribute to a Balanced universe. Therefore, if someone does you a good turn, you do him a good turn back. If they've skunked you, then, yeah, you're obligated to return in kind. A unwary – or even a wary – Terran can rack up quite a tab of good and bad payback without even realising that their Liaden teammate is keeping score.
Who is Theo Waitley and what is her significance in the series? Where does she first appear?
Sharon: Theo Waitley is the daughter of Kamele Waitley, a scholar-expert in the History of Education, living and teaching on the university world of Delgado. Theo was expected to follow in her mother's footsteps. Unfortunately for Delgado, Theo's paternal donor had been a pilot of some note, and those genes passed to Theo, in spades.
She first appears at the very end of I Dare, looking for her father. The first novel dedicated to Theo is Fledgling (which we wrote on the web, one chapter a week during that scary time between Meisha Merlin and Baen). Theo has five books to herself: Fledgling, Saltation, Ghost Ship, Dragon Ship, The Gathering Edge -- and joins the main storyline, such as it is, in Neogenesis. Theo gained quite a few admirers during her on-line debut, many of them new to the Liaden Universe®.
Several people have compared the books to Space Opera with romance, adventure mixed with politics and comedy of manners, with reference to Georgette Heyer and the Forsyte Saga. Please tell us more…
Sharon: People seem to have forgotten that “Space Opera” – and for that matter, “Horse Opera” – took their “Opera” from, well – Opera. High Drama, Exalted Emotions, Heroic Deeds, Larger-than-Life Characters – you get the idea. We've been writing for 35 years and in that time the understanding of what Space Opera is . . . has changed. A lot. That said, we write Classic Space Opera, or, as we put it – Action! Adventure! Romance! With a fair amount of humor. They are not “funny” books, but we intend them to be fun – by which we mean engaging, exciting, and satisfying. Also, the characters are pretty snarky – and they expect you to keep up.
I'm sorry that I've never read the Forsyte Saga or seen any of the dramatic adaptations. I will, however, cop to Georgette Heyer's Regencies as an influence on the Liaden Universe®. The clothes, the language, the Social Performance. Also, reading Heyer taught me so very, very much about characterization. She was a master of the succinct introduction. I'm in her debt.
STEVE: One of our favorite people, who happened to be an editor in a famous New York SF house, once turned down Agent of Change, the first Liaden novel, declaring it to be “John Le Carré in space.” Later on the same editor, having gotten to see the series grow over the years, was pleased to buy mass market rights for the first ten books at once for Ace Books. We don’t shrink from the Space Opera label and don’t mind having won Romance Awards and Young Adult Awards for various of the books, which we wrote as Lee & Miller books -- the universe is large enough to encompass all of those “types” while we play in it.
For new readers, where is the best place to begin?
Sharon: Well, that sort of depends on the reader. Because the Liaden Universe® is a universe, we've been able to write pretty much whatever we please within its borders. Straight-up Regency, Coming-of-Age, Mystery, Action Adventure, Intrigue – even a Liaden western (though that one's a short story). Once we realized that we were in this for the Long Haul, we made it an Object to build entry points into the Universe, so new readers weren't given the mountain of 10, 15, 20, now more books to scale.
Those readers who like Regencies may want to start with Local Custom and Scout's Progress – the story of two brothers who must provide the clan with their heirs. Those who want action-adventure may want to start with the very first book, Agent of Change. Those who like quieter stories of the trade lanes may want to start with Conflict of Honors. Coming-of-age as a pilot – start with Fledgling. Coming-of-age as a trader – Balance of Trade. If you like the feel of Old Pulp SF Adventure, then you might want Crystal Soldier and Crystal Dragon.
There's a list of sequels and standalones here: https://korval.com/publication-list/correct-reading-order/ (and also here: https://sharonleewriter.com/correct-reading-order/) It's a useful resource because we do tend to wander a bit, and don't write in a straight sequential line.
As well as your writing, you have had extensive involvement with the SF&F community, fans, and conventions. Steve Miller interviewed Roger Zelazny for the science fiction club at the University of Maryland, and Sharon Lee served on the board of SFWA in several capacities, including as President. Tell us about that involvement.
Sharon: I was hired to be SFWA's first full time executive director in 1997. It was again a fortunate circumstance. We had become isolated from other writers when we moved to Maine (from Baltimore, in 1988), and the job gave me an opportunity to meet and interact with colleagues at all levels of their craft. I worked for SFWA for three years. Later, I was elected vice president, then president.
STEVE: I’m laughing. How long do you have for this? We’ve lived so immersed in the field and community that it is near impossible to separate our careers from our living the science-fictional life. Once we got started, everything runs together.
Much of my future flowed through that UMBC club, which started when a few SF fans were sitting around the cafeteria of a brand-new just-a-building university campus, talking Sci-Fi and one fan said “You know, we ought to have an SF club here.” Before I knew it I was President of the Infinity Circle.
The Zelazny interview I did meant I met Roger in person. He donated books and magazines to the school library, treated me as a fellow traveler, often giving me insider news about SFWA and the SF field. Other club members were fanzine fans; I started doing reviews and articles for them and soon I was writing for fanzines and semi-pro zines around the world, which led to doing the SF review column for the Baltimore Sun, which helped lead to me teaching a science fiction course at UMBC (which I did several times). Because of the courses I got an invitation from Vonda McIntyre to apply to Clarion West, which I successfully did, and worked with Terry Carr, Jim Sallis, Harlan Ellison, Vonda, Ursula LeGuin, Peter Beagle, and Joanna Russ. Shortly after Clarion West in 1973 I was offered the opportunity to be Curator of the UMBC SF Research Collection that was accumulating around the core of material Roger donated. There I worked with Damon Knight on his research for The Futurians and also wrote the first story I sold to Amazing Stories.
I’d also become active in BSFS (Baltimore Science Fantasy Society) where as Director of Information I was the club’s public face -- and I helped run their first short story contest. Sharon Lee won that contest and I got to 1) meet her and 2) introduce her to Isaac Asimov.
The following semester Sharon was in that writing class I’d mentioned before. I was a “travelling fan” and eventually Vice Chair of a WorldCon bid, sometimes hitting conventions 6 weekends out of 8 while pushing the bid. Later Sharon and I started DreamsGarth, a travelling book and art agency with a small bookshop as well.
Summary -- Curator of SF for a university library, connections with major writers and editors, connection with many of the most active fans in the US, all out of one “we should have a science fiction club!” Being part of the online community and the convention fan, dealer, and art community too meant panel invitations to start with and then Guest of Honor invitations. Each GoH offer puts us in front of more fans and introduces us to more editors, writers, and convention runners. A squirrelly line of events proving that for me/us the “Fandom is a Way of Life” saying popular many years ago.
How far has the Science Fiction/writing world changed since you started out in the 1980s and how much have you had to adapt, if at all?
Sharon: The writing world has changed almost out of recognition. We were fortunate to be brought back into print by Meisha Merlin in the late 1990s, and when Meisha Merlin went out of business, to be picked up almost immediately by Baen. Except for a few scary months between Meisha Merlin and Baen, we have been continuously under contract since 1997.
STEVE: Zelazny told me what he felt was a proven method to go pro. First, write for the established magazines and after selling eight or ten stories and maybe picking up some award nominations there, start shopping a novel or two, using the word of mouth from your short fiction to sell editors on your viability and to find an agent. Then shop a big book -- he figured three to five years to break in fully. I tried to follow those rules, but the consolidation of publishing houses even then made it harder to get into the magazines and harder to find a publisher. Obviously things have changed since then. We learned very early on from our computer experience to sell some chapbooks which led to us becoming a small publishing house, and then we became eBook pioneers in the late 1980s. In effect we’ve had a hybrid career from the start. Once you’re outside the traditional publishing model everything becomes adaptation.
To what extent has the advent of social media, with spaces like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, affected how you interact with readers? Is it a good thing?
Sharon: We started interacting with our readers online 'way back in the early '90s. Before we had Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, we had Usenet, and before we had rec.arts.sf.written, and before that, we had Usenet and computer bulletin boards. In fact, we – by which I mean Steve – ran the largest community bulletin board system in Maine for a number of years – Circular Logic. There was a Friends of Liad “listserv” that had a global membership, that was started by an eager fan living in Argentina in – 1992? We have been very fortunate in our fans, as well.
There is still a Friends of Liad “listserv,” this one maintained by another fan, living in Minneapolis. Nowadays, it's mostly used for announcements as people moved to web-based platforms for conversation. So, now we talk to our fans on Facebook and to a lesser degree on Twitter. I have a blog, which is sadly neglected, and there's a Liaden Universe® web presence, for news. We remain fortunate in our fans, who are largely good, smart, decent people – who like our stuff! There have been the occasional griefers, which the internet as now constructed makes too easy to happen, but we've managed to cope.
STEVE: Since the days of computer BBS and the later invention of blogs we’ve been connected to fans electronically. In some ways we’re old fashioned, with a reliance on webpages and Facebook, and later we added Patreon, but that’s where many of our fans are already and we found early that you can’t really cover all the bases at once. Our fans have helped -- there’s a fan-run Liaden wiki with hundreds of pages in it -- but we’re also partial to conventions and meeting people in person.
We should quickly mention that in the early days of computer BBS we were active on several Baltimore area BBS and when Fantasy Book went out we did a public sigh about it, explaining we had more Kinzel stories for them … and “online” people suggested we publish it ourselves, which we did when the “crowd” started sending money to see it done -- and that we had BBS followers come to our house to collate … so we did social media crowdsourcing back in 1987 …
You have both worked on separate projects. How does that differ from working on a collaborative project like the Liaden Universe®?
Sharon: A writer living with a writer can never be said to have written something “by themselves.” In this household, we bounce ideas off of each other, as well as off the cats. The main difference from a full collaboration is that the consulting partner doesn't have voting rights on ultimate story decisions.
STEVE: So many of the ideas we might work with individually are still common to our joint visions and some are born out of discussions and what-ifs that haven’t matured within a Liaden or common story arc yet -- so not as different as might have been 30 years ago.
What are your plans for the future of the Liaden Universe® and how do you see it developing?
Sharon: LOL! That sounds so . . . grown up. We have books under contract, a lot of trouble-prone characters and an expanding universe to play in. Literally anything could happen.
Talk to us about the language of Liaden and how it evolved.
Sharon: The Liaden language is literary sleight of hand. The “Liaden language” at last count, and not including the names of cities or ships, was 62 unique words/phrases, many of them endearments, some illustrating certain social concepts or technical situations. The reason people think that there's a “Liaden language” is because the books – most especially the dialogue of Liaden characters – are written in a distinctive style, for which we once again acknowledge our debt to Georgette Heyer.
When you were building the world, which came first - the language or the culture?
Sharon: LOL! The characters came first. The characters always come first. We were really interested in exploring the ways in which groups of people are separated by their cultures, what sort of accommodations might need to be made to get along and forge mutual understanding, and work together for common goals. Simplistically, the Liadens have a complex social organization, the rules of which are highly codified (The Liaden Code of Proper Conduct is an actual multi-volume resource found in many Liaden home libraries). Culturally, they operate on melant'i, a concept that gives Terrans a lot of trouble, and on Balance, which gives Terrans even more trouble.
STEVE: The characters came first and the decisions that made the universe have cultures we could work with in the first place, so that the stories would be fun and accessible. We weren’t (and aren’t) after deeply predictive fiction but rather elsewhere and otherwhens our readers would enjoy.
What advice would you give to young writers starting out today?
Sharon: You know? We've been at this so long, and have kind of carved out our own niche – Steven King is said to write “Steven King books,” the idea being that he has not so much transcended horror, but created an adjacent genre. I think at this point we could be said to be writing “Lee and Miller books.” Things have changed so much since we started – Space Opera was deprecated in the 1980s, when we were submitting Agent of Change. So much so that an editor apologized to us for using the words “space opera” to describe – wandering, sorry.
The point is that the field has changed so much that none of my experience is relevant. The only advice that still resonates is, “Don't quit your day-job.” There's nothing shameful about having a day-job; they're very useful in terms of paying bills and keeping writers fed. And a writer who doesn't have to worry about where their next meal is coming from is far more productive than a writer who is cold and starving. There really is nothing noble about suffering for your art. Life is short; embrace joy.
STEVE: Stay alert. Read the contract. Enforce the contract if you need to! If you need an agent of advice see if SFWA can help. Aim for doing your own work and creating your own universes rather than chasing after the gimmick du jour. Get paid for your work.
What are your thoughts about AI: is it an existential threat, as some fear, or has the power of machine learning been exaggerated?
Sharon: I think it's far too early to tell. Some people are trying to work the angle, take advantage, and win – there are always such people. The conversation about what belongs to the artist, and what's just been left lying about has been ongoing for as long as I've been in the field.
STEVE: Humans, stupidity, and greed are the existential threat to most of us. AI may be a boon or a bust but misuse of it for greed, that’s dangerous the way over use of toxic chemicals is dangerous.
After the launch of Salvage Right, can you hint at what comes next?
Sharon: This being June, I'm working on Ribbon Dance, the sequel to 2020's Trader's Leap, which is due on our editor's desk in early August. After that – I'm not sure. Maybe back to Tinsori Light, to see how everyone's doing? We are under contract for four more Liaden Universe® novels, and there's a lot of stories to choose from.
About Sharon Lee and Steve Miller:
Before settling down to the serene and stable life of a science fiction and fantasy writer, Steve was a traveling poet, rock-band reviewer, reporter, and editor of a string of community newspapers. Sharon, less adventurous, has been an advertising copywriter, copy editor on night-side news at a small city newspaper, reporter, photographer, and book reviewer. Both credit their newspaper experiences with teaching them the finer points of collaboration. Sharon and Steve passionately believe that reading fiction ought to be fun and that stories are entertainment. Steve and Sharon maintain a web presence at http://korval.com.