The Orpheus Plot
I grew up loving science fiction in every form, and my tween self would have disappeared into The Orpheus Plot (HarperCollins, 2021), so I jumped on the chance to interview Chris Swiedler about his book The Orpheus Plot. Just in time for summer, Chris takes us on a great MG spacesuit adventure to the asteroid belt, where pre-teen Lucas Obadayo must bridge dual identities to prevent war. This is Swiedler’s second title with HC, following last year’s In the Red.
Welcome to Mixed Up Files, Chris!
Interview with Chris Swiedler
Sean McCollum: Lucas Abadayo is such a great protagonist, with a complete menu of internal and external conflicts to deal with. How much of your own young self is in his DNA?
Christopher Swiedler: Not enough, in the sense that I wish I’d had his internal strength when I was his age! I went to a new school for third grade and it was enormously difficult for me. Looking back I wasn’t really all that different from any of the other kids, but those differences were so magnified in my head that I felt as if I’d never be able to be friends with anyone. I can’t even imagine how I would have handled it if I’d been born in the asteroid belt!
Of course, there are lots of bits of me in Lucas. I was never very good in math, but I always loved computers. And I’ve always had a strong belief that most problems are caused by people not understanding someone else’s point of view. If all the people around you have seen something a certain way for a long time it begins to feel not only like a truth, but a truth worth (literally) fighting over. I’m mostly optimistic about the future of humanity, but I worry a lot about technology making it easier to segment ourselves and shut off any interactions with people and opinions that we don’t already agree with.
Orpheus Plot World Building
SMc: How did you go about the world-building process for The Orpheus Plot? What advice do you have for beginning science fiction authors on how to approach it?
CS: For me, world-building in science fiction is all about imagining how people will live and interact as we adapt to changes in technology. For example, it’s fascinating to think that as humans leave Earth and live in the rest of the Solar System, the first colonists will have to entirely give up eating meat, because growing plants to feed to animals and then feeding the animals to people is just too inefficient.
Or think about communication – in the last fifty years we’ve gotten used to being able to reach anyone, anywhere, instantly. Once people live on Mars, it will take anywhere from 3 to 22 minutes for signals to arrive, and then the same delay again coming back. Can you imagine trying to have a conversation with someone where it takes close to an hour for them to respond to what you’ve just said?
Good world-building is all about creating something that is different and believable. Making something different is easy—making it also be believable is the tricky part. Our brains are really good at spotting the little things that stand out and don’t quite make sense. My friend Shirin Leos uses the term “credibility gap” in her workshops, which I like a lot. I’ve gotten countless bits of great feedback from writers in her groups who start off by saying something like “I’m not at all a science-fiction person” and then proceed to point out in precise detail how a particular bit of futurism doesn’t quite make sense.
The best piece of specific advice I can give for world-building is to start off with the things you want to be different and then keep asking yourself “how would the world adapt?” If people flew on dragons—how would we adapt? If zombies rose from their graves—how would we adapt? Think about it in excruciatingly logical detail and open yourself up to all of the possibilities.
On the other hand, world building has to serve the story! Sometimes it’s fun to start with the world-building and then build the story and characters inside. But sometimes you need to flip it around and come up with the story first and the world second. My current project is fantasy / alternate-history, and I’ve only done light sketches of the world because I haven’t gotten the core story finished yet. Locking yourself into a particular, super-detailed world can sometimes be a hinderance.
MG Sci-Fi Influences
SMc: Because this is MUF, which middle grade books left an impression on you? And why do you write for middle grades now? Which science-fiction authors and books in general are among your influences today?
CS: In any genre, the stories that have an influence on me are the ones that make me think or make me cry (and ideally both). I love Watership Down for its detailed, believable, and almost totally foreign world, but the part that really gets me is at the end when you see how the story of Hazel, Bigwig, and the others gets woven into the legends of El-ahrairah for future generations. Another example is the movie E.T., where the science-fiction elements support and complement the amazing characters.
I love middle-grade novels because the stories are so genuine and positive. Young-adult books are great in how they can focus on the moments when our optimistic view of the world begins to crumble and be replaced by something more nuanced. But I find myself gravitating toward stories that see the world as an inherently positive place where conflict can eventually be reconciled. Of course, even in middle-grade there’s still a broad range of emotions like anger, sadness, and grief, but these are usually accompanied by healing and a return to an un-shattered, positive view of the world.
Out of recent sci-fi, I’m a big fan of everything that Lois McMaster Bujold has written. The settings of her Vorkosigan Saga and World of the Five Gods are amazingly authentic and engaging, but even more importantly, characters like Miles and Cordelia or Ista and Penric feel so much like real people that I’m sad when I finish the books and realize I have to say goodbye (at least till she writes the next one!)
((Looking for more space books? Check out our space-themed book list here)
Fundamentally Universal Themes
SMc: Thematically, science fiction seems to overlap with fantasy and perhaps superhero genres. What draws us to these stories?
CS: I think the great thing about themes is that they’re fundamentally universal. Things like setting, technology, magic, and superpowers can put characters into exciting situations, but it’s their choices—especially the difficult ones—that make us care about them.
One of my favorite quotes ever, from Lois McMaster Bujold, is this: “You are what you choose. Choose again, and change.” Think about that. You are what you choose. It’s true for us as people, and it’s just as true for characters. If someone is strong in the Force, or the wielder of some powerful magic, or smart enough to invent their own powered suit of armor—well, that’s great! But people are not their abilities or their talents. People are their choices. And the reason we care about them and follow them in their wonderful adventures is because we want to see those choices. We want to see Captain America choose to stick to his guns and keep fighting no matter what. We want to see Frodo Baggins choose to take the One Ring into Mordor. We want to see both the good choices and the bad ones, and we want to root for them to come out all right in the end.
Thanks so much for spending some time with us here at MUF, Chris. And have a great summer!
Keep up with Chris Swiedler:
At his website …
On Facebook …
You can also buy The Orpheus Plot online at an independent bookstore through our MUF Bookshop portal: bookshop.org/shop/fromthemixedupfiles