Best-selling. Award-winning. Critically-acclaimed. Eagerly-awaited. Beloved. Bewitching. Bedeviling. Adored.
For years, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller were science-fiction’s best (if incomprehensibly) kept secret, their Liaden Universe® a playground known to only the most fortunate of geek souls. While other writers saw their works and their worlds capture the public imagination, crossing over into the mainstream and leading to lucrative multi-book deals and Hollywood contracts, the husband-and-wife team remained in comparative anonymity, their elegant, subtle and star-spanning creation known to a relatively few -- but increasingly ardent -- admirers.
Enter, then, Usenet. A fan group entitled Friends of Liad came together in the mid-90’s, and slowly, slowly, the Liaden Universe buzz began to build. New stories began to appear. Then more novels. And now, finally, more than two decades after the publication of their first Liaden adventure -- 1988’s Agent of Change -- Lee and Miller are beginning to receive their due. Their books, long left languishing in out of print or hard-to-find obscurity (not helped by the demise of one time publisher, the peskily unreliable Meisha Merlin), have been snapped up for re-issue in omnibus form by Baen, who have also released four additional Lee and Miller novels in the past few years: two of which were Liaden, and the most recent of which, Saltation, made it to #4 on the appropriate Wall Street Journal Best-seller List. (Clearly a publication of taste and discernment.)
Hot on the heels of this triumph, and in the lead up to the release of their new and much-anticipated Liaden novel Mouse and Dragon (out June 1), we talk to Sharon Lee and Steve Miller about where it all began, what is happening now, and where it may go from here...
GS: First, a little backstory: how did you two first meet? Boy meets girl (or vice versa), then…?
LEE: We met a couple times for the first time, actually. The second first time was in college. Both of us were older students; I worked for the University of Maryland's Graduate Schools and tuition was part of my benefit package, so I was getting my undergrad degree on my off-hours. Steve was returning to school in an attempt to placate his then-wife. We were both looking for an easy class to round up to a full course load, and chose Creative Writing. We were the oldest students in the class and quickly formed an alliance of necessity. It's true what they say about age and cunning, by the way; and we found that we played well off of each other.
MILLER: A case of both of us looking for easy college credits at UMBC; I'd already published and Sharon was well on her way when we both took a creative writing course. We were both older students than our classmates by a few years (I was returning, having already been Curator of SF at the school!) and we were both SFictionally-oriented so we gravitated together pretty easily. Sharon invited me to a Christmas party being thrown by one of her Jewish friends, where I met her cat, and things were kind of inevitable after that.
GS: What was your first joint writing project?
MILLER: The very first was on a science fiction newspaper (The Star Swarm News) I was editing; part fact and part fiction, we also had fictional ads mixed in with real ads and Sharon began helping with the writing. That later grew (in a strange way) into the story we first collaborated on, which was a fantasy Sharon started but had to leave in the typewriter while she went to work at a temp job. She came home too tired to write several days in a row and I finally broke down and asked her if I could finish it, because I was pretty sure I knew where it went. She agreed -- with the proviso that she could fix it or nuke it -- and thus the first Kinzel story was written... a distant spin off of an idea from The Star Swarm News.
GS: If you had to describe your Liaden Universe® in one sentence (and let’s assume, for the sake of this question, that you do), what would it be?
LEE: The Liaden Universe is an original space opera geography where honor, wit and true love are potent weapons against deceit and treachery.
MILLER: Zorro and his Cartwright cousins back-up the Texas Rangers as the Goths invade, with music, knives, attitude, spaceships, allies, and moxie.
GS: Which came first: Liadens, or the far-flung future they inhabit?
To expand: Val Con came first, closely followed by Miri and what were then called, in my head (I was telling stories to myself in my head, you see, at about... 13? 14?) The Green People, later to become dignified as The Clutch. [Ancient, wise and cryptic giant turtles - Ed.] Val Con had Adventures, sometimes with Miri, sometimes not. When I got to a sticky point in the current Adventure, or didn't know how to get out of a narrative knot, The Green People would wander through and do something Inscrutable, jumping the story to another track, and I'd go on from there.
Stories that you tell yourself in your head are a lot more forgiving than stories you write down to share with other people.
In any case, Val Con and Miri brought their universe with them; they lived there, knew what to expect, and what was unexpected. They explained it all to me as we went along. Almost always, that's been the case when Steve and I have been writing stories to share with other people -- that the characters come complete with their own cultures, worldviews and understandings of How The Universe Ought To Work, which they then share with us-the-authors as the story moves along. One of the things that we've been told that readers enjoy in the Liaden stories is the lack of infodumping. I wish we could take credit for that, but honestly, we don't know some of this stuff until one of the characters explains it to us.
GS: My favorite aspect of the Liadens is their oh-so-elegant manner of speech: do you find that difficult to write, or do such flowing phrases come naturally? If so, have they always?
LEE: Certainly, it comes easier with practice, as so many things do. What I like about those oh-so-elegant sentences and rolling periods is how much opportunity they present for genteel, sharp-edged snark.
I do have to say, though, that we are not to blame for the Liaden manner of speech. Steve introduced me at a young age (well, all right, before I was 30) to the works of Georgette Heyer (the inventor of the Regency Romance) and I immediately fell in love with the whole Regency attitude and mode of expression. Much of that style and elegance is reflected in the Liadens.
GS: Do their carefully measured requests and other convoluted sentence structures ever find their way into your everyday conversation?
MILLER: How could they not? One must obviously be able to carry on full and meaningful conversations on nearly any topic, in depth, at a moment's notice. It is a facility we honed to fine measure when we were sysops on our Circular Logic BBS, dealing with hackers, spammers, and nerds. Or maybe we paid attention to all those Georgette Heyer books we read in our wasted youths.
GS: How do you feel about the label “Futuristic Romance”? Do you think it adequately describes your books?
MILLER: Umm. No. I suspect "Futuristic Romance" was coined by PR hack or a desperate editor. We write SF, or Space Opera, or Science Fiction; our stories are not about some vague "futuristic" (see Jetson's robot dog and flying cars for futuristic) but about people being people in a potential universe.
LEE: One of the things that Steve and I had agreed upon early was that, In the Future, People Would Still Fall in Love. That doesn't sound so radical now, with Futuristic Romance a booming sub-genre, but when we first started this gig -- Agent of Change was first published by Del Rey in 1988 -- it was something of a departure from the norm in SF. What we wanted was to tell stories of competent, committed people, either one of whom was perfectly capable of rescuing the other.
Do I think "Futuristic Romance" is a fair label for our work? For some of it, sure. Others are more "Action Adventure." A couple are "Military SF." This is where the very useful designation of "Space Opera" comes in so very handy. Space Opera deals with larger-than-life characters in situations fraught with emotion; the narrative can be as small as a story about a girl and her cat; and as large as the crystalization of the universe.
Fledgling and Saltation -- and Balance of Trade -- are coming of age stories. All three also happen to be Young Adult novels. Science Fiction readers tend to be more forgiving than other readers about the age of their protagonists. All three are also Space Opera -- no getting around it.