David Taylor's sci-fi trilogy A Tale of Four Planets is about people and extraterrestrials who get caught up in pacifist schemes to defuse an interplanetary war. The first two books of the trilogy (Session with the Seer and The Rejected Counsel of Oomb have already been released. The third book is expected to be released by late 2018 or early 2019. Taylor describes his books as a mix of speculative fiction and magical realism.
Taylor has been influenced by the works of progressive rock artists such as Steve Hackett, the lead guitarist of Genesis. After the first book of Taylor's trilogy was released, he emailed Hackett to thank him for his influence on his work, in particular for how he tries to bring together musical influences from several different traditions in his compositions. To the author's surprise, Hackett and his wife Jo ordered the book and even provided a blurb to include on the back cover of the second book.
Interview with David Taylor
What do you think is the most interesting conflict that arises from the interplanetary war?
There are loads of fascinating conflicts that arise from the threat of interplanetary war, but one of my favorites is between the deer creatures from Tictoctic. Some of them want to explore negotiating with intelligent species from other worlds, over how those other species might be able to help them with their food shortage. But most of them follow the lead of their psychopathic ruler. They believe all other intelligent life is far inferior to theirs, and simply exists for them to round up and consume like so much cattle.
Meantime, you have starship Captain Helena Taylor, conflicted between the militaristic strategizing of her superiors, and the pacifist counsel of mobile tree creatures from Oomb.
Of course, when Earthlings and extraterrestrials clash over their divergent ways of viewing the universe…there’s a dinner scene in book three, where the Earthlings are trying to convince the deer creatures there are tasty, more practical alternatives to human flesh!
How do you portray evil in A Tale of Four Planets?
By showing rather than telling, I ask the reader to ponder whether evil is more about certain actions that some people (and some extraterrestrials) commit, or is it more about a quality inherent to certain people (and certain extraterrestrials). For example, book two, The Rejected Counsel of Oomb, goes into detail about terrorist activity and the response to that activity on the planet Fafama. The terrorists have demonized the Fafaman government, and the Fafaman government has demonized the terrorists. When the terrorists launch their attacks, it is made clear those attacks comprise a response to the violent response the Fafaman government launched to previous terrorist attacks, which in turn were provoked by other actions by the government. Any resemblance of this endless cycle of violence to current affairs on planet Earth is purely intentional!
What inspired you to write your trilogy?
It is difficult to reconcile my enjoyment of science fiction and fantasy with my deep concern over how often governments resort to military solutions to problems that beg for a deeper understanding of what moves some people to commit such horrible violence as terrorism. Doesn’t matter whether it’s The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter, or the recent series of Marvel superhero films. In a lot of pop culture science fiction and fantasy, ultimately violence is required to stop the bad guys. Granted there are hopeful trends, for example in The Black Panther, with its bad guy having gotten motivated by past injustices, and years ago in such Star Trekfilms as The Undiscovered Country, wherein violence is committed by humans and Klingons alike to try to sabotage peace negotiations. But I wanted to take a much deeper dive into the question of evil, and how to deal with it, bringing to bear the challenges posed by such spiritual leaders as Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When a premise for exploring these issues hit me back in the mid 1990s, that seemed like the perfect excuse, at long last, to tackle a decades-old desire to write a broad, sweeping, outer space epic.
How did you develop the world of A Tale of Four Planets?
What fun, imagining life on other planets! Lots of daydreaming informed by lots of research went into this process. I started with the assumption that planets we find in the so-called “Goldilocks zone” around their respective suns are not necessarily going to be the exact same size as Earth. Which means their gravitational pull is going to be different. What impact does that have on the planet’s weather? Geology? Its life forms’ evolution? There was also the matter of how communication would proceed between Earthlings and extraterrestrials. For this, I brought to bear my experience of thirty years teaching English as a second language.
Then there are the spaceships. Encouraging the reader to think more deeply about their assumptions about how the world works regarding issues of war and peace would be enhanced, I thought, by reimagining spaceship propulsion. I set aside everything I knew about, for example, warp drive in Star Trek, and went back to square one, reading various theories of how we might be able to cruise the galaxy. Of most fascination was the work of a Portuguese physicist named João Magueiyo, summarized in his book, Faster Than The Speed Of Light. His research concerns the possibility the speed of light is not a constant.
Once I developed a scheme for cheating the speed of light, I allowed my perhaps warped sense of physics (talk about warp drive) to dictate the design of a starship, rather than just trying to describe something that looks cool. I hope readers enjoy the result, in addition to the many twists and turns of the storyline!
Could you tell us more about the spaceships and the "warped sense of physics" in your work?
The late Carl Sagan envisioned a solar sail, pushed along by light rather than wind. The starship Smoke and Mirrors adds an electromagnetic field to the mix, and maze-like arrays of mirrors that look like blooming flowers. The end result is supposed to be an acceleration of light rays, inspired by the research of the Portuguese physicist, João Magueijo, who thinks the speed of light might not always be a constant.
I imagine the inventor of this form of spacecraft propulsion unable to understand exactly why it works; accelerated light is regarded as only one possibility. In fact, another physicist is brought aboard the Smoke and Mirrors in book two, to try to figure it out. There is precedent in human history for inventions outrunning their inventors’ ability to fully understand how and why they work. It is unknown whether the inventors of batteries unearthed from Egyptian ruins actually understood completely why they generated electricity, or what electricity is, for that matter.
Did you make any major revisions in your work? Was there a time where you had to rewrite a chapter or a major scene?
There are major scenes scattered throughout the trilogy where, rather than crossing out and redoing a line here and there, I had to rewrite entire pages from scratch. The first, face-to-face contact between Earthlings and extraterrestrials in book one is one example. There are some passages, such as the prologue for book one, that went through ten or more rewrites.
The biggest rewrite of all came early on in the process. My original conception, the original outline, envisioned a single, albeit long-ish novel. About a hundred pages into the first draft, however, the enormity of this undertaking fully took hold. I realized characters and events were getting crammed too close together, without enough room for their proper development and elaboration. It was back to the drawing board with the outline, something more expansive.