HOW WE ACCIDENTALLY WROTE A BOOK FOR OUR TIMES
by JJ Blacklocke
In 2016, two best friends traveled to New York City for a pair of adventures: to see HAMILTON on Broadway and to sit down together and plot out a science fiction series. Four and a half years later, we can watch HAMILTON on Disney+ in the comfort of our own homes, and REFUGE, the first book of that science fiction series, is now in print – proving, we suppose, that all sorts of dreams can come true!
But the summer of 2016 was very different from the autumn of 2020. A different administration was completing eight years in office, in Washington, D.C. There was no pandemic, or any of the other dark realities that have dominated the past four years. And so, as REFUGE ventures out into the world, we look back on the unexpected connections that connect the imaginary world we created to the world we all live in today.
The tale we plotted begins happily, as 937 Vennans undertake a four-day journey to the interstellar space station known as Tradepoint. They plan to take part in a cultural exchange, and to watch as one of their own is honored at a ceremony known as ‘the Trisectoriana.’ The youngest member of the delegation is a young woman named Gredin te Balamont, and it is around Gredin that our story revolves.
STRANDED AND IN NEED
When we wrote REFUGE, we never intended to create a ‘ripped from the headlines’ novel with thinly veiled references to real-world situations. Instead, we were focused on recounting the adventures of the Vennans, a race of inherently decent, sensitive people who, through no fault of their own, are thrown into a situation where they must rely on the kindness of strangers (in every sense of the word) for their very survival.
We used our imaginations to put ourselves in the metaphorical shoes of Gredin and our other main characters when they learned that their beloved home world had been destroyed. We speculated about how they would cope with being stranded on a space station, left with scant resources in a place that was (no pun intended) so alien to them. And so, with Gredin as our main focus, we wrote about a young woman’s determination to safeguard her people’s few survivors and resources, and of her perilous search for new sources of food, shelter, safety and, ultimately, allies to help ensure her race’s continued existence.
Gredin had never been to the interstellar station known as Tradepoint before, and so we found numerous credible stumbling blocks to place in her path. She has to pursue her goals in unfamiliar surroundings, with no personal knowledge of the different races she encounters. She soon discovers that every stranger on Tradepoint has their own set of attitudes toward the various other races who come there to trade.
As writers, we considered countless angles, particularly how the Vennan refugees might be treated by the Prett (who run Tradepoint) and by those who come there to trade. Visiting races view the station as a means to an end. The place is ruled and shaped by the Prett, who discourage anything that might impede efficient trading. In addition, the Prett impose stiff fines on anyone who overstays the time allotted for their visit. What repercussions might occur when others discover that Tradepoint has, by default, become the Vennans’ home for the indefinite future?
And for the Vennans themselves, a proud people accustomed to a life of abundance, living in close connection with nature, how does it feel to suddenly be refugees? Their entitled existence transforms overnight into a state of uncertainty as they anguish over the need to pay for food, for lodging, for the very air they breathe, all while trying to navigate the politics of their shaky oasis.
Who holds the reins of power on Tradepoint? Will that power be used to support or to penalize them, in their new vulnerability? What underlying resentments or bigotry, formerly hidden, might others now feel emboldened to display upon learning of the Vennans’ tragedy? Where – if anywhere – does safety lie? And who – if anyone – might be a trustworthy friend?
In our speculations, we also considered how this abrupt change in fortunes might affect the Vennan survivors, mentally and physically. Would the stress of prolonged uncertainty alter key individuals, as well as the group of survivors as a whole? Would it splinter them beyond functional cohesion, or would the challenges of survival forge a new kind of unity? And always, to further complicate the situation, we had to remember that every action and reaction would be amplified by the profound bereavement the Vennans were experiencing.
Only after we’d turned in the final edits on REFUGE in early 2020 to our publisher did we fully realize the degree to which similar themes were playing out via real-world news. In November of 2018, the new administration had announced an ‘asylum ban’ to prevent the arrival of immigrants seeking refuge from violence and poverty. It also took steps to eradicate previously safe havens on our country’s southern border. At the same time, Europe grappled with waves of refugees fleeing war and persecution. Governments grew increasingly hostile and conservative in their views towards anyone ‘different’ who didn’t fit their ever-narrower definition of a ‘compatriot.’ Kindness wilted beneath the glare of self-interest.
We had written a book about survival and the struggle to remain true to higher principles and to oneself during trying circumstances. By the time we turned in the book that we had first begun drafting in 2016, our country – and, in many ways, the world – was deeply enmeshed in a number of troublingly similar issues.
Suspicions aimed at the different, the poor, the non-native language speakers –
common problems for refugees, whether in the real world or our imaginary one – weren’t the only new difficulties the Vennans faced.
We imbued the Vennan race with certain characteristics for very specific reasons. First and foremost, we decided to portray a race that wasn’t scientifically sophisticated or tech-oriented, in order to heighten their contrast with everyone else on Tradepoint. Augmented by hours of discussion as we played devil’s advocate, that resulted in a world inhabited by a race that was a mono-society. Although subdivided into thirty-three different city-state ‘Houses’ on Venna, all Vennans speak the same language, look substantially the same physically, and are raised from birth with common cultural values. Their greatest unifier is the Power, a golden wellspring of energy that touches every individual, enabling Vennans to exercise a unique array of ‘gyftes’ that make machines, science, and tech superfluous in their society. Every gyfte is respected and valued; as a result, every individual is respected and valued. Each Vennan is born with certain gyftes, and those gyftes are neither hereditary nor dictated by gender.
In the Vennan society we created, we realized the concept of diversity would be unfamiliar to them. Raised to value all individuals, Vennans view the other races they encounter on Tradepoint with initial caution but also with tolerance, curiosity and kindness. The nine-hundred-plus Vennans who journey to Tradepoint in REFUGE are culturally hard-wired to accept and appreciate other living beings. And this particular group of nine hundred are, by and large, the best examples of their race and Houses, having demonstrated a certain extra degree of courage, tolerance, and flexibility by choosing to travel to Tradepoint in the first place.
Concepts of racial and cultural diversity are new to all Vennans except the Travelers and Traders who commonly do business on Tradepoint. Still, as authors, we wanted to avoid creating a strictly ‘Us vs. Them’ narrative. That source of conflict tends to be predictable and simplistic. Instead, we courted subtlety, surprises, and the rich complexity of multiple inter-species interactions.
In fact, in scenes of ours where conflicting beliefs clash, it’s mainly between one Vennan and another, rather than between the Vennans and the other races on Tradepoint. Tolerance is the keynote we sought, with interest and conflict arising from friction between fully rounded characters – more along the lines of ‘I like that individual, but his cousin isn’t my cup of tea.’ Having multiple sentient races on Tradepoint gave us a way to constantly change the emotional complexity of life on the station, all depending on who was in port. We could manipulate a kaleidoscope of needs and wants, allowing the occasional inevitable inter-racial conflicts to arise from cultural mismatch, not personal grudge.
We believe in the beauty of diversity. Star Trek fans would call it IDIC: infinite diversity, infinite combination. As JJ Blacklocke, we add INIG: infinite needs, infinite goals. This belief gave us an enthusiasm for creating a society composed of many shades of grey, rather than a stark bilateral polarization. Plotting the book, we could easily step into the shoes of the Prett, or the Hesch, or the Beng, to name just a few, as well as the Vennans. In any situation, the verdict of who is right, who is wrong, who is hero, who is villain, who should triumph, and who should be denied could justifiably vary.
And every time, as we moved from scene to scene, we found the view from those new perspectives fascinating – and humbling.
RECOVERY AND GROWTH
Although we began by burdening our Vennans with a heavy, group-wide loss while they were isolated in an unsettling environment, it was our firm intention to write a series about hope and resilience, not doom. The story arc of The Tradepoint Saga, which begins with REFUGE, follows our community of nine hundred and thirty-seven Vennans as they suffer a massive blow but then regroup, responding to that loss.
Their progress isn’t easy, nor is it linear, and some within the group are overmatched by the experience. The vast majority, however, will lay claim to an inner strength that enables them to rebound and rebuild, aided by those around them.
Recovery, however, isn’t simply a reclamation of what their lives once were. Huge changes have been visited upon them, and they must examine their past society and relationships, retaining what is still positive and useful but relinquishing, albeit reluctantly, elements of their old life that don’t serve them well in their new reality. For people from such a stable society, it’s not easy to summon the necessary pioneer spirit. Resources are limited, physical surroundings are vastly different, and grief touches every member of their group. Some have lost more than others, objectively speaking, but no one is unscathed.
Back on Venna, each of the thirty-nine Houses was run by its Head, whose decisions and instructions were accepted without question. Now, nearly two thirds of those Houses are entirely gone, ended forever. Of the thirteen Houses who remain, only a fragment of their kinsmen have survived. Some smaller Houses sent many members to Tradepoint. Some large Houses sent few. The old societal order is gone, and a new one must rise from the ashes and establish itself.
Some Vennans are folk of hope and good cheer. Others are less resilient, more emotionally brittle. Some have ideas about how things can be arranged to assure that everyone is cared for. Others resist any suggestion that old, established ways be altered. Some are bold, filled with a desperate energy and determination. Others, given the choice, would simply shelter in their bed all day, dreaming of the life that once was theirs.
But life is persistent. Those with a plan will push ahead, doing their best to carry the broken individuals along, hoping they will rally as the blanket of mourning gradually lifts.
This struggle toward the light, toward reclaiming happiness, toward finding a new sense of purpose is what The Tradepoint Saga is all about. Triumphs will be hard-won, especially at first, but they will be won. And those who can lift their gaze from the floor and look around will find that Tradepoint is a place full of wonders, brimming with individuals of other races who, while not Vennan, nevertheless also have dreams and ambitions. Smiles, even laughter, can still be found by those with the courage to seek them. Despite the enormous loss that has assailed the Vennans, there are better days ahead, along with experiences undreamed of in the insular world that was previously theirs.
Come and join the Vennans. Take part in the otherworldly adventures that await them. It all begins with REFUGE, and we can hardly wait to share it with you.
X X X
JJ Blacklocke is the pen name of two long-time friends who have written together for years. Their website, which contains excerpts, illustrations, and more about the Vennans and their adventures on Tradepoint can be found at: https://jjblacklocke.com/
THE TRADEPOINT SAGA:
- REFUGE (published November 10, 2020)
- AFTERSHOCK (coming January 12, 2021)
- THE BEREFT (coming April 13, 2021)
All three titles (published by Aethon Books) will be available in print, e-book, and audiobook through Amazon/Audible.com or by order through your local bookstore’s link with Ingram.
And REFUGE received a laudatory pre-publication review from Kirkus Reviews:
“… the novel does an admirable job of presenting the archetypal story of an unlikely hero within a finely drawn fictional universe… An enjoyable introduction to a new space-opera mythology. Our vote: Get it.” Kirkus Reviews