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Take command of a platoon of Astral Troopers! You’re a recent graduate from the Astral College and strike officer training, you have just been posted to the Astral Corps’ Levantine Regiment, Hoplites troop, and been given command of the Fifth Platoon. You must prove your professional competence to your fellow officers to qualify as a strike officer, while fighting a rebel army and combatting a deadly plague on a hostile planet.
Fog of War: The Battle for Cerberus is a 170,000-word military sci-fi interactive novel by Bennett R. Coles; I sat down with Bennett to talk about the Virtues of War universe, and the challenges of adapting to writing interactive fiction. Fog of War: The Battle for Cerberus releases this Thursday, April 25th.
Fog of War: The Battle for Cerberus is military sci fi. A genre you know a little about, as you’ve written several books in this world. Tell me about those.
Fog of War is based in the same universe as my first trilogy of books, the Virtues of War series, which I first conceived after I got home from 13 months as a UN military observer in the Middle East. I wanted to explore the human face of soldiers in combat and beyond, but I didn’t want to write a political story (i.e., about the war in Iraq, or about the Israeli-Palestinian situation) so I set my stories in the future and created a background for them.
Virtues of War led the charge, and it was an exploration of what really happens to young men and women when they see combat for the first time. How are they changed? And how do decisions that they make, in the heat of the moment on the ground, have real and lasting impacts on the world around them? Virtues is definitely the most “high-powered” novel in the trilogy, with lots of ground and space combat scenes to keep the heart pumping. It’s mostly a story of desperate survival for our heroes, with no time to even consider the wider political game in which they’re being used.
Ghosts of War is the second book, but it’s actually the original seed of my idea. It explores what really happens to young men and women when they come home from war. PTSD is a big piece of this story, but also the relationships our heroes try to rebuild with their families across a gulf of incomprehension. The larger political scene starts to creep into this book, and there is a lot of time put into exploring revenge and the causes of terrorism. Ghosts is what you might call the most “thoughtful” novel in the trilogy, as our heroes fight battles they never anticipated or wanted.
March of War is the finale, bringing together all the best elements of its predecessors. It’s a solid mix of full-throttle action and character-driven choices that demonstrate just how much impact a single soldier can have in what seems like an incomprehensible war. But the stakes are getting ever higher, and each one of our heroes gets to the point where they have to ask hard questions about who they really are. Grander politics definitely wade into this story, but it never stops being about the individual men and women. There are a few surprises in store for the reader who’s ridden this three-book roller-coaster ride to its conclusion.
And your day job as a publisher is at Promontory Press, right?
Yes, I’ve been the publisher at Promontory since 2010. We’re a small press based on the West Coast, dedicated to publishing books that are by or about people who serve society. This can lead to quite an eclectic mix of titles, and we certainly haven’t shied away from challenging books over the years. As an author myself I’ve always tried to manage the press in ways that take care of the authors. Promontory experimented for a few years with a second publishing program in the “hybrid publishing” space, but we’ve since returned exclusively to our traditional roots and are a small but mighty piece of the North American publishing scene. Our most recent major title was Steven Erikson’s Rejoice, a Knife to the Heart.
Having written and published traditional novels, what were some of the challenges for you in writing an interactive novel set in a world you’re already familiar with?
The biggest challenge was keeping my scenes short! My original opening to Fog of War described the descent from orbit in a drop ship, with sparse details of the vessel’s interior and glimpses of the planet below. In a traditional novel this would have taken a page or two and would have been considered standard scene-setting. But in an interactive novel it was waaaaay too long before a choice was offered. I needed to learn how to break up my scenes into bite-sized chunks, and also how to think along parallel paths within the same scene. It was great fun, but it required a very different approach to structuring the story.
I also had to be careful about what world-building elements I explained, left out completely, or just included without comment. Fog of War comes with three books’ worth of lore behind it, but because of the nature of interactive novel writing (bite-sized chunks) it was often a challenge to include a piece of Virtues of War lore without having to spend extra time explaining it. I wanted to capture the flavor of the Virtues series, but still keep it wide open so that even die-hard fans of the novels would be in for surprises in Fog of War. I’d definitely consider Fog of War to be a full-fledged part of the Virtues universe and I hope readers will appreciate the many connections.
What did you find most surprising about the process?
The fact that I can actually use computer code correctly. Learning how to maneuver within the Choice of Games programming system was actually a lot easier than I feared it might be. By the end I felt as fluent in code as I do in the Queen’s English, and for an artsy like me, that’s a pretty big deal.
Do you have a favorite NPC in Fog of War?
Tough choice, because they’re all cool in their own way and I poured a lot in to each of them, knowing that each time a reader makes a choice it can bring a different character into the limelight. But if I had to choose a favorite, I’d probably go with Jessica Halliday—she’s the only one I’m reasonably sure couldn’t kill me with a single swipe (all the others are combat troopers, and they’re kind of scary…).
What are you working on now?
I have a new SF series which is just launching with Harper Collins. It’s quite different from the military SF of the Virtues of War series. It’s swashbuckling space adventure, with space pirates… and dinosaurs! The first novel, Winds of Marque, just launched in April 2019, and I’m currently working on the second round of edits for the sequel, due out next spring. It’s great fun to write and it lets me stretch some different parts of my imagination.