Charlie Jane Anders on Writing the YA Space Opera Her Teen Self Would Have Loved
"What my teenage self really wanted was a book about escape and getting away from this planet and going off and living among the stars."
Charlie Jane Anders is making her first foray into YA with Victories Greater Than Death, a space fantasy adventure about a teen girl named Tina who happens to be the clone of a legendary alien captain and is faced with saving the universe from an alien organization known as the Compassion (good branding, I know). Luckily, Tina isn’t alone. She’s got her best friend Rachael, a group of brilliant teen humans from around the world, and what’s left of the Royal Fleet, a Starfleet-like space organization on its last leg.
While the Compassion may be Tina’s main nemesis, she also has the internal struggle of living up to the very high expectations set by both the members of the Royal Fleet and herself. Raised by her adopted mother on Earth, Tina has always known the story of her out-of-this-world origin, and that she would one day be called upon to claim the memories of the alien captain she was cloned from and use them to save the universe. When things don’t go according to plan, Tina may have to learn to embrace a different kind of destiny—or die trying. You know, classic teen stuff.
Victories Greater Than Death is set in a vivid and diverse world, and is only the beginning of a planned sci-fi adventure trilogy. If you’re a fan of Star Trek or other space operas, Victories Greater Than Death is both familiar and probably not quite like any other fictional world you have seen or read. I had the chance to talk to Anders about what it was like to imagine this vibrant and hopeful world to life.
Den of Geek: Your first two books, All the Birds in the Sky and The City in the Middle of the Night were adult novels. Why did you decide to write a YA novel with Victories Greater Than Death?
Charlie Jane Anders: I’ve been a big fan of YA for as long as I can remember. A lot of the most interesting stuff happening right now is happening in YA. I really loved The Hunger Games books, and there are so many great YAs coming out right now, like Legendborn by Tracy Deonn and Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger.
One thing that made me feel like now is the time for me to do a YA was just noticing that YA had taken a turn more towards fun, action adventure stories. The one that comes to mind is Warcross by Marie Lu. A lot of people who don’t keep up with YA think that YA is all dystopias all the time, like Hunger Games or like a bunch of other books that came out after Hunger Games, but really for the last at least three or four years, there’s been a ton of YA that’s just about a group of kids having an amazing adventure.
Warcross is just a book about gaming and it’s like e-sports, but it’s in virtual reality and it’s just kids competing in a tournament. That’s the whole book. Somebody is trying to sabotage the tournament, but it’s just really fun and fast-paced and exciting and entertaining. I was like, “You know, I feel like the kind of books that I loved when I was a kid, not just even books for teenagers, but books for adults, the fun, fast-paced adventure stories that I really love are happening in YA right now.”
I’ve always wanted to do my own space opera thing that’s along the lines of Star Trek or Star Wars or Guardians of the Galaxy, and I felt like YA was a place that I could do that and actually have a lot of fun with it. Once I got into it, I started thinking about my teenage self and what my teenage self would have wanted in a book. What my teenage self really wanted was a book about escape and getting away from this planet and going off and living among the stars.
You mentioned in a recent episode of your Our Opinions Are Correct podcast that, when you set out to write Victories Greater Than Death, you laid out a bunch of YA books on the floor of your apartment to study the voice and pacing and other structural elements of YA.
Yeah, I had a pile of YA books and I was like, “OK, how many of these are in third person? How many of them are in first person? How many go back and forth? How many of them are present versus past tense? How long are the chapters? How do they work into the good pacing and tone and stuff?” I found a real range. It’s actually interesting that there’s many different ways to write YA that are successful, but the fast-paced, short chapters and the emotional immediacy and the “something is happening” are [usually important].
On any page you open it to, something interesting is happening. Some of the books had a snarky tone or a self-mocking narrator. Some of them had a narrator who was just really angry or really determined. Just looking at the writing style helped me to think about it. Then I had a moment or I had many moments where I was like, “I want to write in a YA style and tone, but I also really want this book to be the book that if you had liked All the Birds in the Sky and you wanted a young adult book by that author, this is what you would get.”
I wanted it to be recognizably by me and have some of the same feel and the whimsicalness and the whimsy and the lightness that people seem to respond to in All the Birds in the Sky—that kind of humor and that kind of feel. I really tried to find the YA version of that voice, I guess. My voice.
You have this great group of teen humans in the book that become the heart of the story and they’re from all over the planet. How did you go about choosing which teens you wanted to have representing the youth of Earth?
It was really important to me to have kids come from all over the world for a few reasons. First of all, I mean, originally I was like, “Oh, maybe Tina, the main character, maybe she just goes up into space with a group of teens from her own high school.” But I don’t know, every way I tried to write that, it just didn’t seem as interesting. It felt a little bit boring.
I liked the idea of teens coming from all over the planet because then you could have teens who are geniuses in their own right and who’ve been selected through the process that we have in the book. I feel like if you are going to get the best and brightest, they should come from all over. I also feel like when you’re having humans interact with humanoid aliens, one of the dangers is that you start projecting onto these humanoid aliens in a way that makes them representatives of real ethnic groups on earth.
You see that in Star Trek a lot. I think that one way that you can get away from that is by really representing the actual diversity of humans and making the aliens of aliens as alien as you can. Making the aliens really alien and making sure that, instead of having aliens who represent Asians, you have Asian people, you know? I really wanted to do that. The thing is, I didn’t want these characters to be just along for the ride.
I didn’t want them to be just random teenagers who happened to get swept up in Tina’s adventure. I wanted them to have their own reasons for leaving Earth. A lot of the thought that went into it was like, “OK, what’s an interesting, compelling little backstory that gives this person a reason to be like, ‘I’m leaving the planet now’? Like, ‘Oh, this flying pizza tray just fell out of the sky and landed in front of me and I’m being told that I will leave home forever if I get on it.'”
Stuff like Wang Yiwei just had a giant fight with his girlfriend and she broke up with him and he’s just like, “Well, screw it. I’m leaving the planet now.” That made sense to me and then he has other reasons once he’s in space for wanting to be in space. He’s gets really obsessed with a lot of stuff that he’s learning in space. I just wanted the characters to have their own origin stories that were more distinct.
It felt like having them make this choice to get on this circle, even if they don’t know what’s going to happen next, added a little bit more fun to it as well.
Yeah. I also like how there are “Chosen One” elements in this story with Tina and how her character is viewed by so many people and even sometimes by herself, but there’s also, I think a rejection of that. I like that both those things exist in one story.
Yeah. Thanks. That was something I thought a lot about. Obviously, we’re all thinking about “Chosen One” stories right now and how to do them better or how to maybe replace them with something else.
There’s a lot of moments in the book where Tina is like, “I’ll handle this. Everybody else stay back.” Or she’s like, “I’ll go down to the planet. All the other humans should stay on the ship because it’s not safe.” Or, “I’ll protect you.” She’s always like, “I’ll protect you.” To everybody. By the end of the book, hopefully there’s a moment where she realizes and everybody realizes that she’s stronger and that she’s only going to be able to win if she actually trusts her friends and relies on them and doesn’t just treat them as her sidekicks or as people that she’s going to protect or boss around. That she actually needs to let them be part of it.
I think that I’ve been in a lot of conversations about replacing the chosen one with the chosen family where you have instead of one person, who’s the special person who everybody else is their sidekick, everybody is special or everybody gets to be important in their own way. It’s more of an ensemble versus the one special person.
We get that so early with Tina and Rachael’s relationship. Rachael just really advocating for herself and being like, “Well, I want to go too. You don’t get to make this decision for me.” Their friendship is great. I’m really enjoying that so far.
Yeah. I had a lot of fun with Rachael. I think Rachael is probably my favorite character in this book. She’s one of the main characters in the second book. We get her point of view. Rachael was a lot of fun. Again, there are certain tropes that it’s so easy to fall into and in some cases, I had to really stop and think about how to not fall into them. For example, in the case of Rachael, so there was a version of the book where she gets on the ship with Tina. She comes up to the ship with Tina and she’s immediately like, “I want to go home. When can I go home? Let me go home. I’m scared. Let me go home.”
I don’t know, it turned her into a wet blanket for one thing, but also, it wasn’t as interesting and it didn’t feel real to me. When I thought about Rachael and who she is and how she wants to be and experience all this stuff, and so she’s passionate about developing her art, and what could be cooler than going into space and seeing all the cool stuff in space so she can draw it and so that she can be the first human being to draw something in space?
I was like, “Of course you would want that.” I thought it added a really good complexity to her character that she’s somebody who when there’s a bully, a kid her own age calling her names or maybe harassing her in some way, she runs and hides. But when there’s an alien monster trying to kill her, she stands her ground because it’s a different situation. People aren’t as simple as just they always run and hide or they always … People are different in different situations.
Sometimes people can handle psychological attacks differently than they would handle physical danger. I wanted to have that complexity in there.
Yeah. You mentioned the second book, this is going to be a trilogy. Was it always a trilogy?
It always was going to be a trilogy. I think part of it was just that I wanted to create a really big universe that I could explore over a few books. I spent honestly so much time coming up with very complicated backstory for the Royal Fleet and for all the different aliens in the book. There’s so much stuff that I came up with that’s not on the page at all, but it’s just in my notes. I created a Wiki for all of the world building and all the creatures and all the stuff.
I really wanted to be able to do a big story with a big mystery. There was just a lot of stuff that I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get to in the first book. For example, the second book, which I just handed in a new draft of, the second book basically answers all the questions that are raised in the first book. We get to see all the stuff that was hinted at in the first book. It’s a lot of learning more about the world and understanding this mysterious thing that we find out about at the end of the first book.
Then basically everything is answered in the second book. Then there are new questions that are raised at the end, which I would say by the middle of the third book, most of those questions are going to be answered. There’s a lot to unspool there.
Yeah. You can tell how much world building you did. Actually, one of my questions was, was it hard to hold back those details? Because I feel like every time you introduce an alien, I can feel how much you know about them.
Yay. I’m so glad. I’m glad that that worked. Yeah. I mean, everything has to be about the characters. Everything has to be about moving the story forward and all the little details are just there to ground you in the world and keep you in the action.
Are these alien ideas that you’ve had for a long time or are they ideas that you were brainstorming as you were writing this first book in this world?
I was brainstorming as I was writing. I feel like I just spent a lot of time trying to come up with aliens that I hadn’t seen before, or that felt like their own thing, that felt like they were a different idea. When I submitted the book to my agent and then eventually to Tor, I had a giant document with everything there is to know about a bunch of alien species plus the history of the galaxy and just a ton of other stuff, because I wanted the publisher to know and I wanted my agent to know there’s actual stuff here. I didn’t just come up with a bunch of random names and just throw them in there.
I’m having a lot of fun in the third book, because there’s this species called the Aribentors. They’re the people who look like skeletons kind of, and we learn a lot about them in the first book. Then we learn a little bit more in the second book, but in the third book, I’ve got a thing where the group of heroes now includes two Aribentors who hate each other.
They’re members of the same species. They belong to the same civilization, but they just each think the other is just full of shit. It’s actually really fun to have the two of them just be like, “No. You’re the one who doesn’t understand.” Because when you only meet one member of a particular species or a group, they can tell you whatever about how things work in their culture and you’re just like, “Oh, OK. That thing.”
Once you got two of them together and they can argue with each other and we can see that, “Oh yeah. Just like everybody else, different people have different viewpoints.”
It was actually really cool to read this book right after I read the ARC for First, Become Ashes because both books have characters introducing themselves along with their pronouns. When did that become a part of this?
I’m trying to remember how that came about. I think it was that I was just thinking about this universal translator that they have, the EverySpeak, how a universal translator would work. It would have to use telepathy or limited telepathy because otherwise, there’re so many languages. You think about just how many languages there are on Earth and then you’re like, “OK, now there’s like a million other worlds and they each have the same number of languages per world.”
There’s no way that you would just have a device that’s just like, “Oh, we have a database of every language in the universe and we’re just going to translate automatically.” It would have to be telepathic. So I thought, “Well, if it could do that, maybe it could prevent other kinds of misunderstandings.” One of the main misunderstandings is if you get someone’s pronoun wrong or if you misgender somebody. It just made sense that the technology would be able to do that.
I very carefully in the first book say that not everybody hears the pronoun spoken out loud. I think in the second book we get other points of view and some of the characters are not hearing the pronoun spoken out loud. It’s just that they are aware of a person’s pronoun when they meet someone. I’ll just be like, “I met up with so-and-so.” Then in parentheses I’d have their pronouns at the start.
It’s just like the translator’s letting you know their pronouns, but I didn’t think it should be the same for everybody necessarily, but I thought it was just really important. There’s a certain amount of wish fulfillment and utopianism in stories like Star Trek and like Victories Greater Than Death. I feel like one of the things that is a piece of wish fulfillment for me is just living in a world where nobody ever gets your pronoun wrong.
I loved that moment in Star Trek: Discovery where Adira tells everybody on the ship that they’re now using they/them pronouns and nobody bats an eye. Everybody’s like, “OK” That’s the whole conversation. There doesn’t have to be a giant discussion about it.
In Victories Greater That Death, characters have different greetings for different situations that reminded me of the Vulcan “Live long and prosper/Peace and long life.” Do you have a favorite of the ones you came up with?
Yeah, I really like “Clueless enemies and forgiving friends.” I think that’s still in there. I mean, I wanted the Royal Fleet to just have a lot of elements that were fun and colorful. Instead of it just being a grim “we’re all just saluting and saying jargon to each other,” it’s funny. I watched this show, The Last Ship, which has a lot of problems, but it was made I think with the cooperation of the U.S. Navy and it had extremely accurate and very well-done naval battles, which actually really helped me thinking about space battles, even though obviously a little bit different.
Part of what The Last Ship really shows is the level of the rituals and all the little observances and rituals and somewhat whimsical stuff that people do in the military. Just the thing where they don’t say, “What’s your location?” They say, “What’s your whiskey?” I think I’m getting that right. I thought, “They should have their own little rituals and their own little observances.” It should be something that’s fun that people can be like, “Oh, I’d want to be part of that, because that seems like a fun thing.” I’ve tried very hard in general to avoid the grim, “we’re just all gritting our teeth” thing all the time.
Star Trek was obviously a big touchstone for this book and world. What elements of Trek did you want to emulate or explore and which elements did you maybe want to push back against?
I definitely grew up loving Star Trek and definitely Star Trek is still super important to me, especially now. I feel like Discovery has really rekindled my love of Star Trek and I’m loving Lower Decks. [With Victories], mostly what I wanted to do was write something that nobody would be like, “Oh, you just completely just copied Star Trek.” I didn’t want it to be like oh, instead of Vulcans, there’s like Vercans or whatever. You know?
I was trying really hard to not just do the Star Trek thing up the wazoo. I think one thing that I wanted to do differently is that in Star Trek it always seems like humans are in charge of everything. The Federation is basically humans and then other groups get to be a part of it, but the humans are always the one calling the shots. I thought it was way more interesting if humans are just there—like, we have our human kids, but everybody else is an alien and aliens have been doing this thing for a long time and they’re in charge. They have their own knowledge and they have their own establishment. That was the thing that I thought was more fun or was fun to do differently.
I think to some extent when I watched Star Trek, especially the original Star Trek, but really all Star Trek, to some extent the Federation and Starfleet feel like they’re representing America. I feel like, to some extent, the show is about America and American power and influence in the world. So you have this thing of the Prime Directive. The original Star Trek has all these stories where it’s explicitly about basically proxy wars fought, except instead of fighting proxy wars in Latin American countries, as you know, we were with the Soviets, we’re fighting them on a planet with the Mugato and everything, and against the Klingons. The original Star Trek very much commented on the Cold War with the United States represented by the Federation and Starfleet. I inevitably had to think about the Royal Fleet and what it stands for.
To some extent it does, in my mind, represent America a little bit or represent the Western powers. You see some hints in the first book. I’m not going to spoil it too much, but you see some hints in the first book that the Royal Fleet has some problems and has some shortcomings. We learn a lot more about that in the second book. Part of what I love about Star Trek is that it’s so idealistic and that Starfleet is usually good and just and usually does the right thing.
But sometimes Star Trek does delve into how the Federation sometimes does the expedient thing rather than the right thing, or sometimes it makes mistakes. Picard really goes into that with the Federation basically just abandoning the Romulans and retreating into isolationism a little bit after this disaster that happens. Anyway, so basically I wanted to interrogate that a little bit more and if this space fleet, in my case, the Royal Fleet, is representative of the United States, is standing in for the United States, what do we think about that? Is it necessarily all good?
Before you go, I like to ask the people I interview what they are a fan of currently…
I’m really loving Batwoman. I like the new season a lot. I finally just finished reading The Folk of the Air trilogy by Holly Black, who I’m going to be doing an event within a few days. That was amazing. It was so great. I love her writing so much. I love A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow and I love The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus. Those are a couple of young adult books I read recently that I was just like, “Wow. These are so amazing.”
It was so nice to talk to you.
Good to talk to you too.
Victories Greater Than Death hit bookshelves tomorrow, April 13th, and is available to pre-order now.