Sci-Fi Storm

Techno-mage author Cavelos answers your questions

by on Aug.07, 2001, under Interviews

It’s a bit late since she was busy, but Jeanne Cavelos, author of The Passing of the Techno-mages trilogy of Babylon 5 books, answers your questions. Since it was late and Book 2 is already out, feel free to offer followup questions by replying here…

> From Doc-X:
> I’ve seen Joe talk a little about what process the books
> go through as they’re written (he makes an outline, you
> write something, there’s a back and forth hammering out
> details). Can you give any more insight or detail into the
> process? How did you get chosen to write your first
> book? What are the outlines like? How detailed are the
> notes you’re given?

The process with my first B5 novel, THE SHADOW WITHIN, was
somewhat different from the process with the trilogy. I’ll talk
first about TSW. While watching the second season, I became
obsessed with Anna Sheridan, thinking about what had happened to
her and the crew of the ICARUS, and what she’d found on Z’ha’dum.
I wrote a synopsis (about 15 pages, I think) of a proposed novel
about Anna’s journey. I submitted it to the editor at Dell, who
liked it and sent it on to Joe. After many months (during
which I’d assumed the idea had been rejected), I got a call from
Dell saying my proposal had been approved and asking me to write
the novel in five weeks. I talked them up to eight weeks, and
Joe returned the synopsis to me with a few notes on it. There
were maybe fifteen short comments written on the synopsis. In
some places Joe had literally filled in blanks for me, such as
when I wrote, “John Sheridan contacts Senator _____.” In a
couple other places he added a bit of information. I only
remember one case where he told me I couldn’t do something I’d
put in the synopsis. I wanted to give Morden a wife and
daughter, and have them killed in the nuking of San Diego. Joe
said the nuking did not take
place in the year I wanted to have it, so I came up with a
different way of killing Morden’s family.

As of receiving the synopsis with these notes, I was free to go
write the novel. But since I had only eight weeks (my previous
novel had taken me three years to write, the one before that
seven years), I wanted to make sure the plot was planned out
carefully, and that everything I did was okay with Joe, so I
wouldn’t have to scramble to change something major after the
book was written. So I wrote a scene-by-scene outline (about 25
pages, I think). While developing that, I came up with some
questions for Joe about various things (Can I give Morden a first
name or does he already have one? Why did the crew of the ICARUS
wear EVA suits on Z’ha’dum, when John and Anna Sheridan only wore
breathers?). I asked if I could have a phone call with Joe,
where I could discuss these issues with him, and Warner Brothers
helped set that up. Before the phone call, I sent the
scene-by-scene outline to Joe. He said it was fine. Then we had
the phone call (mainly because I’m anal retentive and want to
make sure everything’s perfect). Joe gave me various bits of
information in response to my questions, but mainly the
conversation went like this:
Jeanne: “Is it okay if I do X?” Joe: “Okay.” This actually
was very important for me, making me feel I was on the right
track and could move ahead with assurance.

The only thing he didn’t want me to do was give Morden a first
name, which created a bit of a problem for me, but I found a way
around it (I decided the entire archaeological team would call
each other by their last names). He said he’d always just
thought of Morden as “Morden,” and couldn’t imagine him with a
first name. I have to admit, whatever first names I came up with
for Morden, none of them seemed right.

Joe was really wonderful to work with, giving me the information
I needed, but allowing me creative space to make something of my
own within his fascinating universe.

The trilogy evolved differently, since this time the publisher
came to me and asked if I’d like to write three books about the
techno-mages. At first I was very surprised by the topic (this
was before A CALL TO ARMS or CRUSADE had come out), since the
techno-mages seemed such a minor part of B5. But I remembered
I’d loved that episode and Michael Ansara’s performance, and I
went back and watched it a ton of times, trying to figure out if
I wanted to spend the next two years with the techno-mages, and
if I had something important to say about them that would take
three books. When I felt certain that I did, I called back Del
Rey and said yes. They sent me Joe’s synopsis of the trilogy
(about 15 pages long, I think). In it, he established the
general arc of each book, some of the major events, and some of
the things the mages might be thinking at various points.

The next stage was one of the hardest parts of writing the
trilogy, something I hadn’t needed to do with TSW. I had to
inhabit Joe’s synopsis and somehow, while remaining true to the
spirit of what he’d given me, make it my own story. If the
writer doesn’t believe, with great conviction, everything she
writes, the reader will sense that instantly, and the reader
won’t believe the story either. It would have been a lot less
work to thoughtlessly follow what Joe gave me, just throwing in
some new characters to perform the various actions, add some
locations and descriptions and dialogue, and voila! But it would
also have been garbage, because I wouldn’t have believed in it.

I think that Joe purposely kept things in the synopsis very
sketchy, to allow the
author room to develop her own story. Developing it involved
adding many things that weren’t in the synopsis, and changing
some of the things that were, so that everything fit into a
unified whole.

My writing process, as with TSW, involved writing a detailed
scene-by-scene outline. I felt this was very important with the
trilogy, because I would have to turn in each manuscript as soon
as it was completed, and there would be no chance to make
corrections to book 1 if I realized some change was necessary to
set up a plot twist in book 3. One of the things I love about B5
is the way Joe set up things early in the series that didn’t pay
off for several years. I wanted to plant some of those time
bombs too, and have them go off later in the trilogy. That meant
I needed to plan everything ahead. My scene-by-scene outline for
the trilogy ended up being 200 pages long (I told you I’m anal
retentive).

To make sure that Joe was okay with the way I was developing
things, I sent him the outline, and he said it was fine. That
gave me the assurance I needed that my vision was compatible with
his. I wrote the manuscripts, and Joe approved each without
asking for any changes.

> Also from Doc-X:
> I recently re-read Textual Poachers (a good academic
> look at media fandom in general, though a bit dated). In
> it, the author discussed fiction written by men and women
> and how they often have differing styles; fiction written by
> men tends to be event-driven and fiction written by
> women tends to be introspective, dealing with character’s
> inner motivations and feelings to a great extent.
>
> While this is an incredibly broad generalization, this idea
> popped into my mind after reading Casting Shadows
> (and having recently finished the Centauri Trilogy by
> Peter David). Casting Shadows seemed a very
> introspective book with large amounts of the book being
> an inner monologue and contrasted dramatically with
> Peter’s more action/event driven stories. I’m wondering if
> this is something you’ve thought about and/or something
> you are even aware of? Was this style of writing chosen
> specifically for the subject matter or was this simply the
> way you write?

That’s a very interesting question. Have you read ENTERPRISING
WOMEN or THE AESTHETICS OF JUNK FICTION? Two other books that
touch on some of the same topics as TEXTUAL POACHERS.

I think you’ll find, if you compare the trilogy to TSW, that the
trilogy has significantly more internal conflict and is generally
more introspective. In both cases, however, I try to make the
reader feel close to the point-of-view character’s thoughts and
feelings. That’s one of the things I love most when I’m reading
a book. Getting us inside a character’s head is also the main
thing that a book can do and a TV show really can’t. So when
writing a tie-in novel, I want to exploit that one advantage I
have, and try to give readers something that’s in the spirit of
the show but that’s not just a B5 screenplay with description
added; I want to show them the B5 universe from another
perspective, the perspective of a novel, a perspective that adds
something new. I try, however, not to make a book too internal.
I think action needs to be going on constantly, that the plot
needs to be moving ahead, and the
internal stuff is important mainly to show the character’s
reaction to events–to help us feel and understand their
importance. A story can easily be lost in internal monologue,
and the plot can quickly grind to a halt.

In TSW, the main point-of-view characters, Anna Sheridan and John
Sheridan, are serving, in some sense, as detectives solving
mysteries. So I give you their thought processes as they learn
various facts and attempt to create theories about what’s going
on. That draws the reader closer to them and invites the reader
to try to solve the mysteries also.

But in TSW, there wasn’t any heavy-duty internal conflict going
on (the biggest internal conflict was in Morden, and he wasn’t a
point-of-view character). So the internal stuff was, I felt,
fairly moderate.

In the trilogy, there’s a lot more internal conflict going on.
For the most part, these are conflicts that were not in Joe’s
original synopsis but that I added, so that would support the
“females like internal stuff” hypothesis. The reason I added
them, though, was because of the basic premise Joe gave me. The
techno-mages have extremely advanced technology implanted into
their bodies. They are, in a sense, divided: part tech and part
mage. This is the thing that interested me most about them;
their very nature seemed to embody internal conflict. I also
couldn’t imagine the mages having as much power as I gave them
and not being conflicted about it. If I had that power, I’d be
taking out people left and right–that slow driver ahead of me on
the road, the guy charging his groceries at the store when I’m in
a hurry, the student who tells me his computer lost his essay.
If power corrupts, then are all mages corrupt? Do they try to
fight the corrupting influence?

So from the very early stages of my development of the story,
internal conflict was central to the techno-mages’ story. In a
sense, it’s actually the main conflict of the story. The
external conflict, between the Shadows (chaos) and the Vorlons
(order), essentially serves to highlight and dramatize the
internal one. The two mage
point-of-view characters, Galen and Elric, both have serious
internal conflicts, and other mages are conflicted as well (Kell,
Elizar, Alwyn, Burell, etc.), though we see that only from the
outside.

I felt the internal conflict was also necessary to show that the
mages were trapped in a no-win scenario (if they join the
Shadows, the Vorlons will kill them; if they join the Vorlons,
the Shadows will kill them), and further, that the Vorlons and
the Shadows themselves were trapped in a no-win scenario (as John
Sheridan ultimately revealed in the series). That led to giving
Anna Sheridan (as the Shadow representative) and Kosh (the Vorlon
representative) internal conflicts as well.

So the trilogy has the most heavily developed internal storylines
of anything I’ve ever written, because that reflected the mages’
story, as I saw it. But almost everything I’ve written has some
level of internal monologue, because I really like giving the
reader the experience of living in someone else’s head for a
while.

Whether that’s because I’m a chick or not, I don’t know.
Generally, I have a lot of characteristics that are usually
ascribed to men–I’m good at math and science, I like horror
movies and gross stuff, action movies and hard SF. But then I
also loved playing with dolls as a kid, and I think that, in many
ways, paved the way for my creating stories and characters.

I don’t think of any of my stories as being character-driven or
plot-driven; I dislike that distinction. What I strive to do is
make characters and plot work together as a unified whole.

> From SuperCujo:
> Writing a book to go with another writer’s work must be
> hard. There have been many examples of this, mainly the
> huge amount of Star Wars novels. How do you
> accurately potray a character that someone else created?
>
> JMS created the characters of the B5 universe, I thought
> only he could give an idea of the motivations behind each
> character. Sure the show was written in a way that you
> have a good idea of why they approach different
> situations the way they do, but knowing every detail
> about the character from watching the show is nigh on
> impossible. Can you give me an idea on what processes
> you use to decide if the story you write would follow
> JMS’s character base accurately?

It’s a major challenge to try to portray an established character
in such a way that readers will believe he’s the same person, and
will find him consistent with what’s been shown in the series.

In a sense, the hardest thing is getting the internal stuff
right, which is only necessary if I’m in that character’s point
of view (POV).

If I’m not in the character’s POV, then I’m describing him only
externally, which is how viewers of B5 are used to seeing the
character. If the character is John Sheridan, for example, then
he needs to look like John Sheridan and move like John Sheridan
and talk like John Sheridan. The way I accomplish this is that I
watch tons of episodes involving John Sheridan, particularly
those around the time period I’m writing about or those in which
he’s feeling emotions similar to the emotions he’s feeling in my
book, and I make tons of notes about how he looks; the small
actions, gestures, and expressions he uses; and how he talks.
Then I try to include some of those key details when I describe
him. I also try to visualize the character performing the action
and speaking the words. If I have trouble with that, then it
tells me I’m probably off in my characterization and need to
rethink things.

If possible, I even try to show you something new about the
character: something you didn’t know you knew, but that you
recognize as right and true when I say it. I hope I hit that
with my description of Londo in Book 2, when I have Elric think
that Londo’s great crest of hair “served as his own personal
black halo.” My goal–which I may or may not have achieved–is
not only to avoid making the characters seem phony, but to make
them actually seem more real than they did on the show–as if
you’ve been watching them on TV but now you’re meeting them in
person.

This is particularly important, and difficult, in the case of
established TV characters that I use as POV characters. In this
case, we get to see into the character’s head–to know his
thoughts and feelings, which we’ve only been able to guess at
before. In this case, I need to work from the outside in, trying
to understand, by studying the character’s words and actions,
what he’s really thinking, what’s motivating him, what he really
wants. This is a process I love. I did it with Elric, Kosh, and
the “Shadow Anna.” The most challenging character to dig into in
this way was Galen, partly because of who Galen is (a mysterious,
private, intensely self-conscious person) and partly because I
not only had to get inside him, but regress his personality back
to his youth, when he was quite a different person. Figuring out
how he started out in life, and how he’d become the way we see
him in Crusade, was very exciting.

One other area that I think is very important in using
established characters is to make those characters blend in
seamlessly with the new characters. Since we’d only met a few
mages on B5 and Crusade, I created a lot of new characters for
the trilogy. I find that with a lot of tie-in books, the new
characters somehow don’t seem as real or alive as the established
characters. My feeling is that this happens in part because the
author treats the two types of characters in different ways–not
describing those we’re familiar with, while heavily describing
the “new” people. This makes the two groups seem as if they’re
inhabiting two different unverses. So I try to treat all the
characters the same way, describing the appearances and actions
of all of them. Maybe you already know what Londo looks like,
but if I show you how Elric sees Londo, then perhaps you’ll see
both of them in a new and interesting light. And if Elric
describes Londo, and then Elric describes Ing-Radi, perhaps
you’ll feel more like Ing-Radi has the same level of reality as
Londo and Elric do.

> From Anonymous Coward:
> How does the B5 universe compare to other universes that
> you’ve written for? Is it easier/harder to write in such
> a universe that actually tries to obay the laws of physics,
> and as a whole seems realistic (in comparison to the Trek
> universe, for example)?

Well, aside from some short stories in fanzines years ago, I’ve
only published fiction in the B5 universe. The other
media-related books I’ve written, THE SCIENCE OF THE X-FILES and
THE SCIENCE OF STAR WARS, were nonfiction and so don’t really
compare. I was able in those books to objectively analyze how
possible the various scientific elements were, which was a lot of
fun (I was able to do it objectively because these two books were
*unauthorized* tie-ins, meaning not connected to Fox or
Lucasfilm).

Anyway, I certainly appreciate B5’s efforts to be more
scientifically plausible. That makes the show more enjoyable to
watch and easier to write in. I feel comfortable writing about
ships entering jumpgates and traveling through hyperspace,
because I feel it’s grounded in enough science that it’s not
distracting and ridiculous. One area that I had a little bit of
trouble with was aliens. While Joe attempted some diversity in
the aliens he showed (certainly B5’s aliens are far more varied
than Star Trek’s), the great majority of B5 species are humanoid.
So when I was faced with creating some alien species of my own
for the trilogy–mainly the Soom, on Elric’s adopted home–I felt
that to remain in the spirit of the series, they should be
humanoid, despite the scientific unlikeliness of that. I felt
that if I made them something dramatically unhumanoid, it would
be like me intruding into the B5 universe and saying, “So there!
That’s how the aliens ought to be!” And I didn’t want to do
that. I know that human actors are the best way to create
interesting alien creatures on TV, and I realize that’s why most
of the B5 aliens are humanoid. So I just went with that.

On the other hand, the tech that the techno-mages use is so far
advanced from the level of technology that Earth has developed in
2258, I felt it actually *had* to behave in ways that seemed to
violate science. If the tech did only things that we could
understand with our current science (or even the theoretical 2258
science) then it wouldn’t really be far advanced. I went with
the famous quote “Any sufficiently advanced technology is
indistinguishable from magic,” and that holds as true for humans
in 2258 as it did for cavemen. So with the tech, I’m purposely
violating some rules of science, in order to show that the tech
is far in advance of the mages’ understanding. That reminds me
of another quote, which I don’t have handy and so will just
paraphrase: If a scientist knows what he’s doing, then it isn’t
an experiment.

So I think it’s very important to know your science if you’re
going to write SF, so that you don’t blow the audience’s
suspension of disbelief. But I also think you need to use the
science to tell the story, not the other way around. I love
using science as metaphor, to reveal a deeper truth about human
beings and the human condition. That’s what I’ve tried to do in
the trilogy, with the tech embodying the part of Galen that he
doesn’t like and doesn’t want to accept. I think we all have
parts of ourselves like that.

I don’t think I could write a Star Trek or Star Wars novel that
dealt with the technology in any significant way. They’ve both
come up with such elaborate, nonscientific explanations for the
way things work (have you seen those crystals that allegedly
power light sabers?), I wouldn’t want to put that stuff into my
story. If I ever did write a novel in one of those universes, it
would have to steer clear of those issues. But as a writer, I
have a bigger problem with those book lines, which is that the
books have to follow so many different rules that I think it’s
very difficult to have any creative freedom. I really value the
way I’ve been able to work with Joe, and I don’t think I could
have that with a Trek or Star Wars book.

> From mfarah:
> Have you been involved in the creation of alien species
> within the B5 universe? If so, how does the process
> differ from the creation process in other universes you’ve
> worked in?

I think I answered most of this in my previous response. When I
write SF in a universe of my own, I try to be more scientifically
plausible with my aliens–for example, in my novella “Negative
Space,” the aliens are primitive microscopic organisms. That’s
the alien life we’re most likely to find.

When I create aliens for a B5 novel, I try to picture them in an
episode, with other characters we know, and see if they feel like
they fit. I think it’s my responsibility, when writing a B5
novel, to make it feel like it’s in the B5 universe–not only by
portraying the established characters, settings, and events
believably, but by creating new characters, settings, and events
that somehow feel as if they belong in that same universe. One
thing I’ve admired a lot about B5 is that no character seemed
completely good or evil–they all were more complex than that and
were drawn in shades of gray (Morden being the possible
exception). So when I create new characters for a B5 novel, I
keep that underlying philosophy (which I happen to agree with) in
mind. I think all the characters I’ve created also are complex
and have elements of both good and evil. And I even made sure
that Morden did too. It just wouldn’t feel right to have a
purely good heroic character on B5, just as it wouldn’t feel
right to have someone completely and utterly bad.

In the same way, I try to create settings and alien species that
feel like they belong in the B5 universe, rather than imposing
some other ideas that don’t fit at all.

> Also from mfarah:
> Besides the B5 and SW universes, is there another
> well-known SF universe (Foundation, Dune, Known
> Space, Vinge’s “zones of thoughts”, etc.) you like so
> much you’d love to write a novel/short story within?

I do love the original Star Trek, and I love Star Wars also,
though I don’t think I’d do a novel in either of these universes
for the reasons discussed above.

Of those short stories I referred to earlier, several were Trek
stories, one was Han Solo meets Spiderman, another Snake Plissken
(Escape from New York) meets Norman Bates (Psycho), and other
weird stuff like that. Those were some of my early writing
efforts. They were fun to write.

I’m not so attracted to continuing a novel series started by
another writer, because in that case, the style of writing, the
level of characterization, etc. are all established, and if you
want to do a good job, you basically have to transform yourself
into the original writer and channel the novel he would have
written. Writing a novel based on a TV show or movie, you’re
moving the story to another art form, which allows some different
levels of exploration and more freedom.

Right now, I’m eager to work on a novel idea I came up with about
three years ago. I’ve been too busy with other projects (that
were far too cool and exciting to refuse, like the B5 trilogy) to
work on it until now. It’s a near-future biological SF thriller
set in my own universe, and I’ve been researching it for the last
couple months and am almost ready to write the outline. Then I
just have to hope that a publisher will want to buy it. . . .

If I were to write a tie-in novel for some show other than B5,
Farscape is the most likely candidate. That’s the show that most
excites me right now. Someone said that the scripts seem like
they’re written by psychos in straight jackets, and I think
that’s true to some extent, but it also makes the show the most
inventive on TV. They don’t always get it right, but when they
do, it’s incredible.



Comments are closed.