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Sci-fi space opera series The Vela tackles the fate of a solar system with an all-star writing team

Sci-fi space opera series The Vela tackles the fate of a solar system with an all-star writing team


Serial Box’s new space opera series begins on March 6th

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Graphic by Michele Doying / The Verge

Digital publisher Serial Box will release a new science fiction series in March called The Vela. It follows a mercenary tasked with locating a missing refugee ship in a dying star system, only to discover that there’s a deeper plot that could threaten the entire universe.

Serial Box isn’t your typical publisher. It produces long-form, serialized fiction that plays out more like a television show than a novel. Each “Serial” is broken into installments, each of which is a self-contained story, but they contribute to a much larger storyline that runs the length of the series. Unlike a regular novel, these stories are written in a writers’ room. Serial Box lined up an incredible group of authors for this particular project. The Vela is written by Yoon Ha Lee (the author of Ninefox Gambit), Becky Chambers (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet), S.L. Huang (Zero Sum Game), and Rivers Solomon (An Unkindness of Ghosts, as well as “St. Juju” in our Better Worlds anthology and the upcoming book The Deep).

The Vela will launch on Serial Box’s platform on March 6th as an ebook and audiobook subscription. We spoke with the series’s four writers about how they wrote the series and what they’re most excited about bringing to readers.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Image: Serial Box

Where did The Vela originate, and how did you come together to write it?

Yoon Ha Lee: The core premise behind The Vela — high-stakes adventure in a system whose sun is dyingcame from Serial Box’s Lydia Shamah. She approached me with a synopsis and asked if I was interested in being a part of the project. I’d been wanting to experience collaborative writing for some time, so I said “yes!” She later contacted me again, after she’d had a chance to round up some writers, and said that my co-writers would be Becky Chambers, Rivers Solomon, and S. L. Huangwas I still interested? And the answer then became “hell yes!” I was very excited to work with these writers, and when we met in person to hash out details, I was thrilled that we all got along and had complementary strengths that meshed very well.

Rivers Solomon: By the time I was involved, I knew who else was interested in participating, so I didn’t even read the description of the project really, I was just like, “Where do I sign? When do I get to meet these folks so they can sign copies of my books?” We met for the first time in person in April 2018. Shortly before that is when I started reading the materials. The synopsis and world bible Lydia Shamah had made were incredibly rich and textured, and hearing her ideas and where they came from during our first meeting was so exciting. Some things ended up changing once Yoon, Becky, S.L., and I began developing the story, but Lydia’s ideas were the fertile soil that began everything!

S. L. Huang: My experience was similar. Serial Box had been talking to me about being on a project for a while, and when they sent me this one, I was immediately drawn to the themes and potential of The Vela. But what made it a no-brainerdo not pass go, do not collect $200was that Yoon’s name was already attached as lead writer. I immediately said, “YES PLEASE, THAT PROJECT PLEASE!” Later, when I found out I’d be joined by Becky and Rivers, I thought, “What is this amazing world, how did I get so lucky, and did they put me on this project by mistake?” But what made the experience truly the best was not my fellow writers’ reputations or authorial brilliance (though I do love their brilliance!), but how tremendous they are to work with. I cannot say enough good things about them as collaborators or as people.

Becky Chambers: This project was the first I’d heard of Serial Box, and I thought it was a rad idea from the get-go. Lydia contacted me out of the blue and gave me the pitch, and I was like, “Yes, obviously, of course!” It had been a long time since I’d done any collaborative creative work, and I missed it a lot. Plus, this team... how could you say no to working with this team? It’s physically impossible. I think it’s safe to say we all clicked right off the bat. I could tell from our first breakfast togetherbefore we started brainstorming anythingthat this was going to be awesome.

The story follows a mercenary who is tasked with finding a missing refugee ship. What can readers expect from this upcoming series?

YHL: Asala, our mercenary and a former refugee herself, starts off thinking that the important thing is just to get the job done and survive. But it turns out that the refugee ship holds a secret that could mean the difference between life and death not just for the refugees, but for the entire system. People have been mining the sun in such a way that it’s cooling off, and some of the outer worlds are already frozen dead. This one mission will have implications that force Asala to look beyond herself and confront the past that she thought she’d left behind.

BC: In a sentence: This is a classic planet-killing, ship-exploding space adventure as written by four sci-fi fanatics who love weird science, hefty world-building, and punching people in the feelings.

RS: They can expect a healthy dose of angst. They can expect heists and hijinks. They can expect the prose equivalent of those movie scenes where someone is hacking and it’s just a loner typing really quickly and determinedly at a computer until they eventually say, “I’m in.”

The story tackles the most serious and important issues of our world today

SLH: This is a story that engages with some of the most serious and important issues of our world todayenvironmental collapse, refugee crises, ugly nationalism. We’ve purposely woven those truths from our world into the story.

But it’s also a space opera adventure tale. It’s filled with vast planetary landscapes and space battles, prison breaks and snarky dialogue, conflicting loyalties and madcap fight scenes. Personally, I feel like it’s the type of chewy science fiction I love as a reader: extremely fun to read but also not hesitant to dig deep and mash on my emotions or push me to think. I hope our readers feel the same!

Seeing that a refugee ship is involved, I can’t help but think about the ongoing refugee situations around the world. How do real-world events play into this, either explicitly or in the background?

RS: Various refugee crises around the world were a direct inspiration for Lydia Shamah, who created the concept for this book. In fact, there are a number of little Easter eggs, if you will, that call to specific real-world facts. But we also deal with the themes of migration and related issues more generally: displacement, the violence of borders, class conflict, language, how governments (and planets, in our case) are destabilized by those who exploit with impunity.

SLH: We very intentionally put a lot of specific metaphor into the series. For example, Lydia started things off with a setup of a planet that people are trying to escape for an orbital refugee camp, but the residents of that planet can only get out once every 17 years. That was a direct parallel to the fact that, in our world, the average time a person spends in a refugee camp is 17 yearsnot a few months or a year, but 17 years. It’s a shocking, sobering statistic.

“We very intentionally put a lot of specific metaphor into the series.”

We picked up that baton and continued digging into metaphor more and more deeply as we developed the world and the story. For example, I wrote the first episode that takes place on our orbital refugee camp, and so many of the scenes came directly from research into real-life accounts from journalism, documentaries, or personal histories. All the small details you’ll see in that episode are parallels to what happens to refugees in real life, only reflected through the lens of science fiction and, you know, in space. Everything from the dangerous crossing the migrants have to make, to the time they spend waiting to get into the camp, from the children who grow up in the camps, to the hard choices the people trying to lead them have to makethe small details about community, resilience, bureaucracy, and crimeare me trying to do my best by the people and truths of our own world.

Part of what made our collaboration so easy, but also so intense, was that all of us on the team care deeply about what’s happening around us. We wanted to engage with this, but we equally wanted to do it in a way that was sensitive and honest. I think it was very important to all of us that we write about our fictional refugees and their experiences with as much real-world respect and thematic truth as we could.

BC: We talked a lot about real-world events during our story summit, and we all went off and did research on our own after that. It is truly unconscionable the blind eye that so much of the world is willing to turn toward the displaced. All of us on the writing team wanted to hit the reader hard with the reality of refugee crises because, in some ways, they’re all the same. In the end, the conflict doesn’t matter and neither do the politics. These are human beings who need homes, end of discussion. We’re talking about individuals with hopes and dreams and goals that have been stolen away for no good reason. In writing The Vela, we paid attention not just to the enormity of the issue, but to the ugly, small details: the anxiety of waiting, the indignity of daily life without proper food or hygiene, the danger, the heartbreak, the callous absurdity of your future depending on which border guard you’re talking to that day. These things aren’t fiction, much as I wish they were.

YHL: Others have hit the high points, but there is a real sense in which The Vela is an allegory for present-day political and social ills. It’s perhaps a truism about science fiction, frequently literature about the present rather than the future, which no one can (usefully) predict anyway. The 17-year wait in refugee camps, for instance: when we had a choice between strict adherence to science / engineering versus acknowledging the emotional truth of real-world problems, we generally leaned toward the latter. So we didn’t sweat orbital mechanics too much because that 17-year wait was such a significant statistic. Likewise, there’s no known phenomenon that would cause a star to cool off noticeably within a human lifespan, but because we wanted to point at climate change in our own world, we took that as a premise of our setting.

The series starts with a simple-sounding search-and-recover mission and expands into something bigger. Can you talk a bit about what the stakes are for the characters?

RS: As always, in almost any space opera, life and death, but more specifically, the fate of a doomed solar system and the people without access to the resources and social status to procure an out. Of course, Asala must contend with more personal questions as well. And for me, the real stakes are her conscience, her soul. As Yoon mentioned, for so long, she’s lived purely as a survivalist. She’s done what needs doing to survive. The journey she goes on throughout this book is going to test her ability to continue forward that way, but going from amoral to, hmm, let’s say, chaotic good, isn’t a straightforward process, especially when what’s “good” is so unclear. There’s no possible future where there won’t be regrets.

SLH: What Rivers said! We’ve got big world-ending stakes about the death of whole planets, saving populations, clashes of government, new technologiesthat sort of thing. But a lot of more intimate, character-level stakes are intertwined with this, involving family, personal and planetary loyalty, betrayal, facing one’s own past, and living up to one’s ideals. All of our main characters grapple with conflict in their own lives at the same time they’re doing their level best to save the world.

BC: Yeah, the personal stakes are the meat and potatoes here. Not that dying planets are anything to sneeze at, of course. I suppose the central question for every character we wrote is: when you’re faced with crisis, how do you respond? Nobody here wants the world to end. We don’t have any villains twisting mustaches and bringing on destruction for destruction’s sake. Everybody here thinks they’re the hero, and that’s the problem because they all have different solutions, most of which are wildly incompatible. So, what do you do when facing down extinction? Do you protect your own? Do you protect yourself? Do you seek vengeance? Do you sacrifice yourself for the greater good? The collapse of this solar system is a morality test, in essence, and we don’t give the characters (or the reader!) any easy answers.

YHL: There’s the old saw that one death is a tragedy while a million is a statistic. That holds very true here. As the others have said, in terms of the survival of humanity, the stakes are huge. But what people care about are individual stakesthe fate of a father, a sister, a child. Everyone is trying to protect someone or something they care about, in ways that collide horribly.

What are you most excited for readers to encounter in the series?

YHL: The scene with the rampaging mobuck comes to mind. Even in a science fiction future full of spaceships, you have to beware the critters! As for what exactly a mobuck iswell, you’ll have to read the episode.

RS: The food! I wrote so much good food. It was so fun to see all of our different takes on those types of cultural artifacts.

SLH: Episodes 9 and 10 and the payoff Yoon and Becky have waiting there. I’m such a sucker for character, and I think our character journeys are going to make people squirm and screamnot just our protagonists, either! And in 9 and 10, this is going to climax in all the character feels.

BC: Bad guys you will love to hate. Also, spaceship porn. We went full-tilt on cool spaceships.

Each of you is well-known in the SF / F genres. What have you learned from your prior works that you’re bringing to the story here, and is there anything that you’ve learned by writing in this collaborative environment?

RS: I learned that stories really come to life in the little things: the tiny gestures, the looks, the meals shared, the little sad feelings that come up and are never truly resolved. In a story as big in scope as The Vela, taking place over multiple planets and over a significant chunk of time, these small details were the moments I really wanted to lean into.

SLH: One of the things I learned from novel writing was that I should skip the boring parts. I don’t mean that every scene has to be action, but if a “connecting” scene feels boring, I either don’t need it or can find a different way of telling it. This was helpful in the compressed plot arcs of 10,000-word episodes, and I also feel like my experience writing short stories was useful there. But I never guessed how much collaborating with this group would level me up! I feel like all my skills in planning, outlining, character, world-building, and more have taken a huge leap forward from the Serial Box process and the privilege of working with Yoon, Rivers, and Becky.

BC: There was one part of the collaborative aspect that was a great challenge for me because in my solo work, I don’t outline. I’m used to just hermiting myself away, writing a huge mess of scenes, and figuring out the order of everything way late in the game. Turns out, that’s a really problematic habit to have if you need to, say, write a cohesive story with three other people! Process-wise, I had to take a big step outside of my comfort zone, but when is that ever a bad thing? It was a positive experience for me, having to re-examine the way I work, and to get an intimate look at how other people go about writing. Plus, these three are so much fun to work with. They definitely made that jump something I was eager to try.

YHL: I learned the hard way from novels that it’s important to foreground character. The other writers on this team are character-focused, whereas I tend to focus narrowly on plot / concept if I don’t watch myself, so I definitely appreciated working with writers who are so excellent at creating interesting, well-rounded characters. On the other hand, no one else wanted to volunteer for a particular episode that had a lot of space battle stuff! It was so great teaming up with writers who all have such diverse viewpoints and areas of strengthRivers with their attention to telling cultural detail, S.L.’s taut action scenes, Becky’s ability to evoke warmth. It was a privilege to learn from all of them.