Interview with Karen Osborne

picture of Karen OsborneKaren Osborne is a writer, visual storyteller and violinist. She is the author of Architects of Memory and Engines of Oblivion from Tor Books. Her short fiction appears in Uncanny, Fireside, Escape Pod, Robot Dinosaurs, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She is a member of the DC/MD-based Homespun Ceilidh Band, emcees the Charm City Spec reading series, and once won a major event filmmaking award for taping a Klingon wedding. You can find her on Twitter at @karenthology and on the web at www.karenosborne.com.

Shauna Kosoris: Where did you get the idea for your first book, Architects of Memory?

Karen Osborne: It took a while to come together! I came up with Ash and her team during my senior year in college. At the time, my entire aesthetic was enthusiastic sci-fi team television like Star Trek, Stargate and Babylon 5, and I wanted to create some shipmates of my own that would have similar adventures. The lives of the folks on Twenty-Five have always been quite a bit darker than those shows and, at the time, I wasn’t ready to write something like that.

Flash forward to seven years later, when I broke my foot in five places and developed a blood clot that nearly killed me thanks to a genetic clotting disorder I didn’t know I had. The entire ordeal was absolutely terrifying and I nearly died. I called it a “timebomb in my blood,” and I knew I needed to harness that feeling and use it in a book.

The last brick in the foundation was laid after I read an interview with SpaceX founder Elon Musk where he spoke about his company’s Martian aspirations. In general, corporations are terrible at taking care of their employees—and, at worst, are actively exploitative, from coal miners dying of black lung to gig workers giving rides in their Hondas for tips and peanuts. What happens when that exploitation is normalized to a degree you don’t even see today? What happens when this exploitation is the only way off a dying planet? 

That’s how you get Architects of Memory.

Your aliens, the Vai, are very different from humans. What was it like creating them? Did you have to do a lot of research? 

This was fun. I wanted the Vai to be as alien as I could get them, so I kept on asking questions of myself until I figured out what I thought the most important part of being a human being is—and reversed it. Now, there are some spoilers here, so I’ll have to dance around what that important thing ended up being, but it was an incredibly fun idea to work with. I grew up with shows and books where the alien conflict was always a cultural one, and I wanted to go further than that. I wanted the main characters to have to put in work to bend their minds around a concept completely out of their experience.

That said, I had to do a lot of research! Most of the science in Architects of Memory is “under the hood,” because the action works way too fast for me to go into the specifics of the Alcubierre drive or basic computer networking, but it’s all there.

The second book in the series, Engines of Oblivion, is coming out soon. What can you tell me about it?

Engines of Oblivion does the “safe” sequel task of answering the question: “what happens next?” It’s also a little on the tricky side, because it switches up main characters: this time, we’re following ordnance engineer Natalie Chan, with Ash Jackson and Kate Keller being supporting characters. Natalie was one of my favorite characters in Architects—she’s snarky and damaged and also naive at the same time regarding how other people live and think—so it was a blast to give her a bigger voice this time. Without getting into spoilers (again), the events at the end of Architects change our characters, and especially Natalie. She has a very long personal journey in this book set against some pretty game-changing events, and she learns a lot—but, also, she’s Nat, so she’s stubborn and wants to do her own thing. 

You get to see more of the corporate world, and we play with a lot of questions about how memories make you the person you are—and how they shape entire worlds. It was incredibly fun to write with some killer fight scenes, and I hope everyone loves it. It’s out on February 9th!

I can’t wait! So as a writer, what attracts you to science fiction?

In my opinion, few other genres are suffused with as much sheer, utter possibility and ability to be creative as science fiction. Space is so mild-bendingly large and so full of mysteries, and even with all the science we’ve done in our history as a species we’ve only just started to understand it. In science fiction, you can play with all of these cool possibilities and neat gadgets and have some gonzo space battles while getting really deep into the human condition and into relationships and feelings and what makes us tick. It’s just plain fun.

Whatever “it” is to you, you can dial it up, dial it down, take it sideways, make it gonzo, or keep it real. You can stick to the rules or change the rules. 

Lately, I’ve been very interested in the part of SF where people learn to live in space—I’m fascinated with how, psychologically, humans are going to make the jump to living in tiny tin cans surrounded by death, in environments where the smallest mistake can kill you. After all, we can’t even stop going to bars right now.

Along with your novels, you also write short stories. Do you have a preference for writing one or the other? 

I bop between them whenever I feel like it, because they both scratch different kinds of writerly itches.

For me—and this isn’t for everyone!—short stories are bonbons. They can be flavorful and experimental and you can do various things with them that would be really inaccessible in a novel. 

But you can’t live on chocolate and caramel alone; you need actual food, vegetables and meat and carbohydrates. You can’t spend a long time with characters in a short, you can’t really watch them grow over a long period of time. That’s glorious meat-and-potatoes stuff. You need a novel for that. 

Generally, I’ll complete a bunch of short stories between novels, which is where I am right now. Shorts are more likely to sell faster than a novel, and that can give you a nice shot in the arm when you’re meandering through the mid-novel doldrums.

Will we be seeing more stories (either shorts or novels) set in the same universe as The Memory War Duology?

That’s a good question! I dislike when television shows and book series leave me on a cliffhanger because they’re canceled or not renewed, so both books are their own self-contained stories, and the duology itself covers one coherent story of the effect the Vai weapon has on Twenty-Five and the people on it.

That said, it’s a massive universe and I’ve done a lot of worldbuilding, so a new book is not out of the question. That really depends, though, on the readers. The best way to ensure authors are able to write more stories in your favorite universes is to show interest in them: buy the paperback or the ebook, request books at libraries, and talk about those books with friends and online.

There will definitely be more short stories written. I’m doing flash fiction on my Patreon (karenthology) and there’s a longer Sharma story there. In addition, my June 2019 story from Future SF, “Cratered,” takes place in the Architects universe in the very early days of the timeline. It’ll all be fun. We’ll see!

What are you working on now?

I’m not entirely sure I’m allowed to say! I can say that it’s space-based SF in a different universe than Architects, and it has to do with climate change. I’m halfway through the first draft, and I’m very excited about what’s coming up. The main character is one of the smartest heroines I’ve ever written—a lot smarter than me—so that’s been difficult and fun. She’s also a blast, and I keep on wanting her to be real so we can be friends and I can take her out for karaoke and beer. 

It’s all a lot more gonzo than I thought I would write, but if there’s something that the pandemic has taught me, it’s that you may not have as much time as you think you do. You might as well go straight to the heart of what makes you happy as an artist.

That’s very true. Good luck on finishing it! Speaking of finishing things, I have just a few more questions before we wrap up. What book or author inspired you to write?

Pretty much every writer I read during the school years of 1992 to 1994, when I was the least popular kid at Iroquois Middle School. I used to get bullied up one side and down another in the cafeteria during lunch, so I’d sneak out to the library, where the librarians hooked me up with lots of challenging reads (C.J. Cherryh, Octavia Butler, Elizabeth Moon, and more) and the idea that I could be a writer.

I was obsessed with Brian Jacques’ Redwall books about a bunch of brave woodland creatures defending their abbey from conquerors and pirates (hmm, I wonder why a bullied kid might like that). I really liked the Finder-Seeker trilogy by Gayle Greeno (psychic cats!). Middle school is where I started reading the Vorkosigan books by Lois McMaster Bujold, which is absolutely SF required reading.

Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?

N.K. Jemisin is one of—if not the—most important science fiction writers working today, and if you want to be conversant in the field and the delightful and necessary places it’s going, you need to follow her work. She’s the first writer to ever win a Hugo Award for each novel in a trilogy (The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky) and that trilogy is an absolute masterclass in how you tell a story. I abolutely drowned in feelings while reading it—it’s so good. 

Jemisin is more than the real deal. She’s massively influential, won a handful of Hugos and Nebulas, and has been nominated for every other award in the book—including a MacArthur grant—because she’s just that good. I’d start with The Fifth Season, but her debut, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, is also stellar.

And finally, what are you currently reading?

I’m reading The Montessori Toddler by Simone Davies. Parenting in the pandemic is so different than the kind of parenting I prepared for, and one of my big projects right now is to make a life in the living room just as big and bright and awesome as I was planning when I wanted to take my daughter to the library and music classes and toddler gyms and the playground. I’m a bit of a pack rat—we can’t have a real Montessori house—but I’m looking forward to applying a lot of the lessons I’m learning in the book in real life.

My fiction TBR is massive. I’m looking forward to Sarah Pinsker’s We Are Satellites in February, and just finished Marina Lostetter’s Noumenon Ultra and Michael Underwood’s Annihilation Aria. There’s so much good SF/F right now; I really feel like history will look back to what’s being published right now and say that this was the real Golden Age.

cover of Architects of Memory

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