Sci-Fi November is a month-long blog event hosted by Rinn Reads and Over The Effing Rainbow. It was created to celebrate everything amazing about science fiction. From TV shows to movies, books to comics, and everything else in between, it was intended to help us share our love and passion for this genre and its many, many fandoms.
Today I am interviewing J. Patrick Black, debut author of the new post-apocalyptic, science-fiction novel, Ninth City Burning.
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DJ: Hey Patrick! Thanks for stopping by to do this interview!
For readers who aren’t familiar with you, could you tell us a little about yourself?
Patrick J. Black: Well, I’m new to the literary world, so I’d be a little surprised if your readers knew all that much about me (most of them, anyway–Hi mom!). Ninth City Burning is my debut novel, but I’ve been writing for years. Pursuit of that all-important day job has taken me all over the place professionally–I’ve tended bar, designed video games, somehow ended up with a law degree–though geographically I’m a New England guy. I still work as a homebuilder in the town where I grew up (a suburb of Boston). It’s a total thrill to finally see something I’ve written on the shelves, and even better to meet people who’ve actually read it (even enjoyed it every now and then).
DJ: What is Ninth City Burning about?
Patrick: Ninth City Burning is an epic sci-fi fantasy set five centuries after an alien invasion of Earth. The invaders came wielding a power we had no way to fight–more than the sort of advanced technology that might have begun with fire and wheel and evolved through internal combustion engines and semiconductors, it allowed them to completely rewrite the rules of reality. For a while, it looked like that was it for human society, but then we discovered we could hijack this power and use it for ourselves. It didn’t quite turn the tide in our favor, but it allowed us to survive, and eventually fight the enemy to a stalemate. By the time the story begins, the world is pouring its resources–human and material–into winning the ensuing war, and it looks as though the end might be in sight. The invaders have other plans, however, and that’s where the action and adventure ensue.
DJ: What were some of your influences for Ninth City Burning?
Patrick: Ninth City Burning definitely draws a lot on the classics of science fiction and fantasy. Before starting out, I made a special point of revisiting some of the milestones of the genres in which I planned to write, just to get the best view I could of the space I was hoping to inhabit. That meant rereading Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, for example, and of course Ender’s Game. I think anyone who’s read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series will see his influence in the use of shifting perspectives (though probably less in the overall tone). Ursula K. LeGuin bears a lot of responsibility for getting me into fantasy in the first place (I’ve written her a thank you letter, though I’m not sure she ever got it). The astute reader will catch a few references to some of my favorite works peppered throughout my book.
DJ: Could you briefly tell us a little about your main characters? Do they have any cool quirks or habits, or any reason why readers will sympathize with them?
Patrick: The story features an ensemble cast, beginning with only a few perspectives and eventually expanding to seven different narrators by the end of the novel, so there are plenty of characters for readers to get to know. The first one they’ll meet is Jax, a newly-discovered wielder of the invaders’ world-altering power. For the most part, he’s just a regular, sort of goofy thirteen year-old, but now he’s been saddled with an immense responsibility, simply by the luck of the draw. He’s never expected to be anything but average, and as the story begins he’s trying to figure out how to become the person everyone needs him to be. He’s someone I hope readers will root for as the action starts to really intensify (I did, at least.)
After Jax, we’re introduced to Naomi, a member of a nomadic tribe living in the ruins of Earth. Like Jax, Naomi has a lot to live up to–a family to care for and a dangerous world to face, not to mention the legacy of her beautiful, swashbuckling older sister–but she tackles it by taking everything as seriously as it can possibly be taken, a worldview that results in a bit of unintended humor, especially later in the story, when she meets the more easygoing Jax, who is perpetually flummoxed by her unsmiling sense of duty.
There are a number of older characters as well, each with their own particular struggles. Torro, a laborer at a factory tasked with supplying the war effort, wants only to get through the day and make sure his friends do, too, but these simple goals suddenly become exceedingly challenging when he ends up being drafted as cannon fodder for the biggest war humanity has ever seen. He’s a quiet, observant guy thrown into a situation where a Rambo-type solider is really on order, and he’s got to work against his nature to survive. Kizabel, meanwhile, is someone who stays absolutely true to her nature, even in face of practicality and good sense. I’d describe her as a kind of magical mad scientist; she’s driven and highly opinionated, and her narration is peppered with snark-filled footnotes. When the action turns dire, however, she’s ready to step up and put both her intellect and her hardheadedness to work saving the world.
DJ: What is the universe/world for Ninth City Burning like?
Patrick: Ninth City Burning is set on Earth, but an Earth much changed from our own. The first days of the invasion wiped out all but a few remnants of the modern world, and the advent of the hijacked alien power (which we’ve dubbed “thelemity”), along with the necessities of an ongoing war, have ensured a new world very different from the one it replaced.
Society on this future Earth is divided into three basic segments. There are the cities (Ninth City, which you’ll recognize from the title, is one of these–the ninth, as it happens), megalopoleis charged with defending the planet. They run on thelemity, and while this power enables a whole slew of wondrous advantages, including nearly unlimited energy, its range is very limited, with the result that these cities must contain an immense population within a relatively small area. That means a lot of mountainous, closely set buildings, heavily fortified and armed to the metaphorical teeth. The cities are almost completely militarized, with practically every citizen being either a solider or in training to become one–a totalitarian system, but one most residents recognize as necessary.
Every city is surrounded by a network of settlements tasked with supplying raw materials and soldiers for the war effort–an effort that is regarded with considerably more resentment and suspicion in these outposts than in the cities. Denizens of the settlements are kept in the dark about the true nature of the war–they’re told they’re fighting another Earth-based civilization–and know nothing about thelemity. Many believe the war to be a hoax, an excuse for their rulers to work them to exhaustion without giving anything in return. There is, moreover, the ever-present possibility of being drafted for the war, something every settler dreads, because, while vast numbers of them are sent yearly to the front, no one has ever returned.
The last segment of society is, simply put, everyone else. When the invasion began, most of Earth joined together in resistance, but not everyone. Some refused, while others were simply cut off from the rest of the world. Five hundred years later, their descendants are still out there, living in pockets all across the planet, surviving however they can. It’s a dangerous, often brutal world, and the people who survive it are tough–often savage–by necessity. They know little, if anything, about the war, but a few have encountered the territory surrounding the cities, which seem to them magical, even hallowed ground, and they will occasionally visit the settlements on errands of trade–always keeping a wary eye on their hosts, suspicion that is wholeheartedly reciprocated.
DJ: What is this “thelemity” I read about in the book synopsis?
Patrick: “Thelemity” is the word humanity uses to describe the power the invading aliens brought with them to Earth. Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and that’s much how the invaders’ capabilities seemed in the early days of the war. Thelemity allows those capable of wielding it to bend or outright break the laws of physics, albeit only within a small area–a few miles across, roughly. When people discovered a way to hijack this power, we were suddenly faced with the task of learning to use it and, even more dauntingly, trying to understand it. We set to it by way of the tried-and-true scientific method, establishing whole new areas of study and research. When you’re trying to be analytical about a thing, calling it “magic” tends to be counterproductive. Thelemity is a basic force of the universe, like gravity or electromagnetism. It has its own set of rules, and in the world of the story is an area of constant research and discovery–and urgency as well, since thelemity is our only means of defending ourselves from an enemy intent on wiping Earth clean of humanity.
DJ: There no way I can’t ask this question: what are your aliens like?!
Patrick: I like to refer to them as a militant, expansionist Narnia. They’re very mysterious in their manners and culture–they’ve never made any formal attempts to communicate, and we’ve never been able to capture one for questioning. We don’t even know what they call themselves. (We, on the other hand, have a few different designations, including the UAR–for “unknown alien race”–and the “Valentines”, so named for the day they first appeared.) They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, what one character refers to as a Hieronymus Bosch-inspired menagerie, but these are, so far as we know, simply different types of battle armor. One thing we can say for certain, however, is that they’re far more adept in their use of thelemity, the terrifying power they brought with them to Earth, than we are. Like thelemity itself, they’re something that we don’t know how to fully conceptualize; all we see of them is their incredible technology and their ostensible desire to kill everyone on the planet. I will say that one of my characters does encounter a representative of these aliens in the course of the novel–but the conversation, as you might expect, doesn’t end peacefully.
DJ: What was your favorite part about writing Ninth City Burning?
Patrick: I’d have to say my favorite part was writing from so many different perspectives. I knew I wanted to tell this story in the first person, and that meant coming up with a unique, recognizable voice for each of the characters. I’ll leave it to my readers to decide whether I actually succeeded, but I certainly had a lot of fun trying to get into the heads of people with such disparate temperaments and backgrounds, trying to fit the style of writing to the way I imagined each one would think. In a lot of cases, working out the way a particular character would narrate her or his experiences led to unexpected discoveries about their personality and motivation. It also made me think more deeply about the world of the story, since I had to be able to depict it from so many different angles. And it was always refreshing, after getting in deep with one character, to climb into someone else’s head and suddenly be looking at everything from a totally new point of view.
DJ: What do you think readers will be talking about most once they finish it?
Patrick: I think there will be a good amount of speculation about these mysterious invaders–where they came from, what brought them to Earth, why we know so little about them–and also about the nature of thelemity and how it relates to this alien presence. There are certainly plenty of mysteries lurking in the text–and answers, too, if readers care to search them out.
One subject I hadn’t expected to grab any particular attention, but which seems to have really piqued the curiosity of the readers I’ve met so far, is how the context of our world today influenced the settling and story of Ninth City Burning. I’ve been really impressed with the insights some of my readers have brought to my attention about the way this novel speaks to their understanding of things like government, violence, warfare, the role of information in culture, and society’s relationship with technology. I’m constantly amazed at–and grateful for–the thoughtful, intelligent attention these readers have devoted to my work.
DJ: What is your goal in writing Ninth City Burning? Is there a particular message or meaning you are hoping to get across to readers when it is finally told?
Patrick: One of my big goals starting out was to write a story in which everyone had a voice. I knew it would be infeasible to devote an absolutely equal amount of attention to all the story’s characters–especially in a story of this size–but I could at least create a diverse cast representing a number of different perspectives and outlooks. Some of these characters have very different values, and varying opinions on their wold and the way it operates, and this often brings them into conflict, but even when they’re not acting in a way that’s necessarily admirable–and that definitely happens from time to time–they’re nevertheless doing what they believe to be right. My hope is that every reader will find characters with whom she or he can identify, but will come to understand them all, even those who don’t come off as immediately admirable or agreeable.
In the same way, I was hoping to say something about the nature of conflict, how taking up a cause on one side of a dividing line leads to a sense of those on the other side as alien, as other. The narrators in Ninth City Burning comes from all different strata of their society, and often end up in situations where their interests come into conflict. The same character might seem rude or hostile from an outside perspective, but appear reasonable, even relatable, once we get a window into her or his thoughts and motivations. I’m hoping that will lead readers to consider how this might relate to the larger context of the invasion, and the war–is there more behind the aliens’ attack on Earth than the simple desire to destroy humanity? Could the situation, which on its face seems about as black and white as you can get, actually be more nuanced, more complex than it at first appears?
DJ: When I read, I love to collect quotes – whether it be because they’re funny, foodie, or have a personal meaning to me. Do you have any favorite quotes from Ninth City Burning that you can share with us?
Patrick: I have several, though I’ll admit what I enjoy most is hearing which lines resonate with my readers. One I’ve heard repeated back to me more often than I had expected is a line from the first chapter introducing a new character, which she uses to sum up the state of her social life: “My imaginary friend thinks I need to get out more.”
DJ: Now that Ninth City Burning is released, what is next for you?
Patrick: I’m working on a sequel–just finished draft one of Book Two a few days ago!
DJ: Where can readers find out more about you?
Amazon Author Page: amazon.com/author/jpatrickblack
DJ: Before we go, what is that one thing you’d like readers to know about Ninth City Burning that we haven’t talked about yet?
Patrick: I think you’ve covered it very well!
DJ: Is there anything else you would like add?
Patrick: Thank you so much for having me on your site!
DJ: You are welcome! And thank you so much for taking time out of your day to answer my questions!
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*** Ninth City Burning is published by Ace and is available TODAY!!! ***
Buy the Book:
Amazon | Barnes & Nobel | Goodreads | Kobo
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Centuries of war with aliens threaten the future of human civilization on earth in this gripping, epic science fiction debut…
We never saw them coming.
Entire cities disappeared in the blink of an eye, leaving nothing but dust and rubble. When an alien race came to make Earth theirs, they brought with them a weapon we had no way to fight, a universe-altering force known as thelemity. It seemed nothing could stop it—until we discovered we could wield the power too.
Five hundred years later, the Earth is locked in a grinding war of attrition. The talented few capable of bending thelemity to their will are trained in elite military academies, destined for the front lines. Those who refused to support the war have been exiled to the wilds of a ruined Earth.
But the enemy’s tactics are changing, and Earth’s defenders are about to discover this centuries-old war has only just begun. As a terrible new onslaught looms, heroes will rise from unlikely quarters, and fight back.
About the Author:
J. Patrick Black has worked as a bartender, a lifeguard, a small-town lawyer, a homebuilder, and a costumed theme park character, all while living a secret double life as a fiction writer. While fiction is now a profession, he still finds occasion to ply his other trades as well. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts, where he likes to visit the ocean. NINTH CITY BURNING is his first (published) novel. He is at work on his next book.