Thursday, January 28, 2010

The mind behind the Dark Tempest

Science Fiction may not be everyone's cup of tea, but sometimes one encounters an author who is able to blend the right amount of speculative future, science and human relationships to bring forth a story that not only engages your imagination but fires up your emotions.

I am both honoured and privileged to have worked on Manda Benson's writing, an author who will, I'm sure, is going to make waves with her writing. Dark Tempest will be released through Lyrical Press, Inc. on February 15, and if you enjoyed reading works in the scope of the likes of David Brin, CJ Cherryh and Mary Gentle, I can say with authority that you'll most likely enjoy Manda's writing.


Manda, thank you for agreeing to join me here in my world. You have a background in science. Care to tell us a little about it and how it has influenced your writing?

I have an MChem and a PhD in Chemistry. I worked mainly in the areas of natural products and organic synthesis, which included biofuels, drugs design and coming up with ways to make novel polymers. I’ve also messed about with science teaching in its various forms, at secondary and undergraduate level.

I remember the thing that first got me interested in science, when I was very young, was seeing photographs of the sky at high magnification, and realising these amazing images were of galaxies, supernova remnants, clouds of gas and things so big I couldn’t possibly get my head around them. There is an awful lot out there, and I’d love to see it. Unfortunately I can’t, so I write books about it instead.

When working on Dark Tempest, one of my favourite characters was the morran, Rh'Ahrrol, who often saw a situation in a clearer light than the others.

Where do your morrans come from?

The morran species has quite a detailed backstory, none of which ended up being revealed in Dark Tempest. My idea for them came from thinking about how we have sea urchins and land urchins, and wondering what a "space urchin" might be like.

Morrans evolved on a volcanic moon orbiting a brown dwarf (a brown dwarf is an object larger than a big planet such as Jupiter and yet not big enough to start full fusion and become a sun, which emits heat but no light).

Because the closest sun is far away and the moon spends long periods facing away from it, life cannot depend on photosynthesis and instead plants use geothermal energy from the moon’s crust and radiation from the brown dwarf to grow, similar to some ecosystems that have been discovered in volcanic trenches in the ocean.

Like the deep sea, life on this dark world is bioluminescent. Morrans, an intelligent species, have evolved large eyes to allow them to see well in twilight, sonar so they can hunt effectively in pitch darkness and navigate around caves, and luminous quills and voices with which to communicate using colour and sounds.

Their genetic material is different to DNA on Earth, but their biochemistry is pretty much the same, so they can eat the same food as us. Unlike animals on Earth, which mostly have two copies of each chromosome, morrans have sixfold redundancy and thus have six sexes in the ratio 10:10:87:87:227:227. Yes, I have a spreadsheet with a table in it on my hard drive showing how I calculated that, and yes it is a very nerdy thing to do. :-)

There’s a cartoon of a morran at in the aliens section if anyone wants to know what they look like. I like trying to think outside the box when I make aliens, and I like reading about aliens by other writers who’ve done some research and come up with something clever and imaginative.

Tell us more about your Archers. How did this idea first appear to you?

In Dark Tempest, star Archers are the very top caste of the genetic dynasty, and their purpose is to hunt "chimaera" – organometallic Alcubierre organisms needed to build craft for galactic travel. Their minds are connected permanently and intimately to the computers that control their complex and powerful ships.

Star Archers are heterozygous for what’s called the "Blood" genes. Because some of these genes are on the X chromosome, all Archers are female. I was doing recurve archery years ago and I got thinking about how projectiles such as guns (which are effectively just an explosion in a tube) aren’t necessarily better or more accurate than bows, and that got me on to thinking about how new technology could make bows more powerful and more accurate. I came up with the idea of having powered limbs on the bow made of a material that can contract using a chemical reaction, like muscle, and shoot an arrow with far more force than it’s drawn with.

The other thing that ended up being a significant part of it was the Archers’ sense of discipline and philosophy. I liked an anecdote someone told me, that Korean archers are trained to shoot between heartbeats to minimise error. I’ve no idea if it’s true, but it sounds cool and it ended up in the book.

What are some of the developments you think will become more important in present technology? Where would you like to see further development?

Subjects close to my heart are genetic engineering and bionic augmentation. For as long as I can remember I’ve been obsessed with the idea of being able to control things (asides from my own body) with my mind, and this facet has appeared in almost everything I’ve written of novella-length or longer.

Space exploration (using robots, telescopes, and probes; no need to send humans unless there’s a habitat ready for them to move in) is also important to me. Although I’ve yet to hear of anything useful come out of nanotechnology, I predict big strides eventually coming from this area in terms of medicine and computing.

If you were made an all-powerful dictator on Earth, how would you exercise your power?

I honestly wouldn’t know where to start. There is that much wrong with the world, and unfortunately there are no simple solutions. However, I think it’s of utmost importance that science keeps moving forward. I’d put high value on developing the technology to terraform other worlds and build habitats for humans away from Earth, and we need to make full use of technology such as genetic engineering and tide/wind power and photovoltaics to feed people and power our industry rather than importing food and oil.

A few people in high places are making a lot of noise at the moment to do with carbon footprints, and making life difficult for motorists, and ruining the countryside by building eco slums all over it. With the population growing the way it is, that’s not going to make a blind bit of difference. It’s like trying to prevent a dam from bursting by bailing it out with a teacup. Short of annihilating the human race, climate change is not going to be undone, so we need to use our science to deal with it instead of hiding in a cave with no toilet and no Wi-Fi and hoping it will go away.

Can we expect other works set in the same universe as Dark Tempest?

Yes! Dark Tempest shares its setting, which I call Galactic Legacy, with a number of other pieces of fiction I have planned. While Dark Tempest explored the world of the star Archers and introduced morrans and the way halfBlood people are treated, there are other aspects of this universe and other castes, such as the merchants, the castellans, and the inquisitors. My next novella in this setting, which I’m currently working on, is called In the Shadow of Lazarus and it’s about ship whose crew get infected with a contagious disease that’s evolved the next step up from a snotty nose and a sore throat.

Galactic Legacy also fits into a "superuniverse" in that it’s set in a particular era of an envisioned future. There are three settings in total, the first being a near-future series of technothrillers set mainly on Earth; the second being set about 100 years after this, in a Solar system in the process of being colonised by humans; and with Galactic Legacy being the final one, set about 4,000 years after the first era.

Some useful links.
Manda Benson’s official website:
Hubble astrophotography website:
Critters online writing workshop:


  1. Manda, really like your thought process on creating alien characters. Always good to see truly alien beings in science fiction.

    Nerine, good interview!

  2. Great interview! Thanks for the peek into your universe.