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Author Myke Cole talks writing hard science fiction in his space-set Coast Guard novel Sixteenth Watch

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Sixteen Watch hits shelves next March

Graphic by Michele Doying / The Verge

Myke Cole is best known for his fantasy work, including his military-focused urban fantasy Shadow Ops series and his more traditionally epic fantasy Sacred Throne trilogy. But with his next novel, Sixteenth Watch, he’s switching things up a bit, swapping out the swords and sorcery for spacecraft in his first novel-length science fiction work.

Like Cole’s other books, his next draws on his personal military experience. But instead of putting the spotlight on the usual branches of the armed forces seen in military science fiction, like the Army or Marines (or even a Space Force), it focuses on the United States Coast Guard attempting to de-escalate a potential war on the Moon between the United States and China.

The Verge recently spoke with Cole about Sixteenth Watch and his thoughts on working in a shorter format. We also got an exclusive look at the cover art, below.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Can you tell us a little about Sixteenth Watch?

Every story, every book, has both its conceit, and it has the heart of the character beneath it. And for this one, [the conceit] is that it’s the US Coast Guard attempting to de-escalate and stop the first war between the United States and China on the surface of the Moon. But from the character, human level, it’s about a woman, ostensibly at the end of her professional life in her 50s, who’s having to, after the loss of her husband, reinvent herself and figure out who she is and what her place is in the world.

We’ve written so much about young people, right? Science fiction, fantasy is a youth-loving tradition, the bildungsroman, the origin story of the young farm boy or farm girl who’s finding their way. We really don’t deal enough, I think, with the fact that life doesn’t stop at 30. And I really wanted to look at how older people build meaning for themselves when they have major events in their lives.

This is a new genre for you. You’ve done fantasy, both epic and urban. What’s the shift been like to switch to sci-fi?

So it’s not new for me in that regard. It is my first novel-length work on it, and the shift has been interesting. The thing, though, that I want to point out is that the basics or the core of what makes books great, or any story great, is always character. And it’s always: “Are the characters interesting? Are they identifiable? Are they flawed the way real people are?” And that’s universal, whether you’re writing about elves or an officer in the United States Coast Guard in the future. So it was transitional, in the respect that the details had to be different, right? Because I’m writing about not just the military, but a future military. But the core of what makes it a story is the same.

And I have a huge advantage when I write military science fiction, especially military science fiction about Coast Guard, in that I was a serving Coast Guard officer for many years. So for me, really, the big challenge was how to make sure that I was bringing my reader along with me and not just using a bunch of acronyms — there’s a massive glossary in the back of the book to help the reader, by the way — and not just losing the reader, but having to sort of explain my terms as I go or make sure those terms are implied with context. I tried to be as relentlessly authentic as I possibly could.

Why specifically the Coast Guard in space? Why not another branch of the military, like the Air Force or the planned Space Force?

Right, yeah. But that’s been done to death. Oh, God. The Space Force jokes. When I put down the idea for this book, I had no idea the Space Force was ever going to be a thing. So I fully am ready to be teased to death about the Space Force, and what can I do? But I promise anyone who teases me about the Space Force is guaranteed to get a tense smile. What are you going to do?

The other four branches of the military have been done to death. There’s a genre, military science fiction, and that genre is all about the other four branches of the military and space. And no one, to the best of my knowledge, has focused on the Coast Guard or a search-and-rescue element. What does their mission look like in space? And the other thing I wanted to focus on is so much of the military science fiction is, I mean, frankly, glorifying war. Or sort of dramatically emphasizing the horrors of war a la films like Platoon, you know. It’s sort of taking the war movie and putting it in a science fictional context. What I loved about the Coast Guard is not only has it never been done before, but I wanted to deal with the idea of de-escalation. The idea here is a branch of the military that is trying to avoid a fight. And that’s their critical role: a military branch that’s dedicated to not fighting, a military branch dedicated to saving lives instead of taking them. And I thought that really added a unique spin to the genre, which I want to shout out.

How “hard” is the science fiction here?

It’s so funny. When I first started this, I was like, “I’m not going to do this hard of a science fiction.” So Katie Mack is this famous public astrophysicist who I know on Twitter. And I always imagined Katie, like, hovering over me, wagging her finger. I live in terror of Katie reading this book and what she’s going to say.

So when I first started writing the book, I met with Jack Campbell, (also known as John Hemry), who is one of my most favorite military science fiction writers. He’s probably most famous for his Lost Fleet and Genesis Fleet books, and he’s also a former Navy intelligence officer. We served in the same commands, so we have a good relationship. One of the things he said he was, “Look, Myke, the less you go into the science, the less vulnerable you are to criticisms of getting the science wrong. So just say ‘thrusters.’ Or when I was trying to come up with this technology to keep my Marines’ boots stuck to the deck, I just called them ‘gecko boots’ and didn’t explain how they work.” And I was like, “That’s great. That’s what I’m going to do.”

But then in the course of doing it, my brain wouldn’t do that. My brain started looking up all of this stuff. So, I’d say it’s in the middle. I have a couple of former astrophysicists friends that I had look at the manuscript, but I definitely did go into how weapons work in gravity and the pressurization, spin gravity versus acceleration, gravity and those kinds of things. I really tried to keep it soft science, but I’ve got a feeling it’s probably somewhere in the middle.

What does the title mean? Is it a military term?

The title is completely made up. So the International Space Station sees 16 sunrises in a single orbit. So I decided that the military had a colloquial expression for all space service. Of course, you don’t see 16 sunrises on the Moon. In fact, you see one every two weeks. It’s very different. But the military based on the International Space Station came up with the expression of “going on the sixteenth watch,” meaning you’re going to serve in space. So no matter whether you’re on the Moon or on the International Space Station or low Earth orbit or wherever you are, if you pulled space duty, you’re on the sixteenth watch. That’s the meaning of the title.