Sweep of Stars: Maurice Broaddus Reimagines Epic Space Opera

We talked to debut author Maurice Broaddus about Sweep of Stars, his love for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and why we need more science fiction utopias.

The cover of Sweep of Stars and a photo of author Maurice Broaddus
Photo: Tor Books

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Now that The Expanse—both the books and TV series—are over, fans of political space opera are looking for a new, epic series to dive into. Sweep of Stars offers that, pushing the space opera genre further with Maurice Broaddus‘ community-centered imagining of a postcolonial future that centers Black cultures and characters. Set 100 years in humanity’s future, Sweep of Stars follows and ensemble cast of characters in a space empire called Muungano, a Pan-African alliance of city-states stretching from Original Earth (O.E.) to the Moon, Mars, and Titan. Muungano is working to realize healthy, sustainable community, but with a threat from O.E. and a possible alien incursion looming, community-building becomes even more difficult. Den of Geek talked to Maurice Broaddus, a teacher and organizer from Indianapolis, about his epic debut novel.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Den of Geek: Tell us about Sweep of Stars, the first book in the Astra Black trilogy.

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Maurice Broaddus: Astra Black is a trilogy of books that explore this utopian kingdom known as Muungano. They are a Pan-African community, a Pan-African Alliance, that started on the moon. And yet, they have now spread out to pass Titan and to this great mining colony, all the way out to what’s called the Oran Gate, which is an artificial wormhole. There’s [also] Brownsville on Mars. And so this kingdom has established themselves and they are just trying to figure out who do we want to be as a community. But, alas, they are not left alone to figure these sorts of questions out for themselves as they have the forces from O.E., which is Original Earth, looking to reclaim them as an empire. So you have them on one front, and then you have this possible invasive alien incursion on the other front.

This is such an intricate and rich world. I’m so impressed with what you’ve been able to weave together, just in the start of the story. The book has been compared to The Expanse and Black Panther. I don’t know if you’re a fan of those stories, but, if you are, can you talk about the ways in which Sweep of Stars is similar?

Well, I have to be careful how I watch both watch both properties now—well, I mean, there’s nothing I can do about Black Panther. If I was in my office, you would see that I would be surrounded by over 20,000 comic books that go all the way back to Black Panther’s first appearance, and most of his appearances. And I think I have all of his comic book runs. So I go way back with Black Panther.

The Expanse I’m careful with because I’ve only actually seen, like, a season and a half so far because I don’t want it playing too much into what I’m doing. Like, I’ll watch it in-between books. If I’m actively creating, I’m not watching any The Expanse.

When it comes to Black Panther, I love the idea of this utopian kingdom being put through its paces, right? Because utopias set off by themselves, you know, in isolation, is great if they’re the only thing that exists. However, they’re not. They are usually surrounded by other nations that they do have to engage with or not, depending on how they want to run their utopia. And so what’s that story? In the case of Sweep of Stars: They have to actively engage with the principalities around them. And that has led to all sorts of issues.

As for The Expanse, I just love the idea of this near-future exploration of our space. And what does that look like?

Do you think people are looking for more stories, especially science fiction stories, of utopia?

I don’t know about people, but I am.

Me too, so that’s two.

So we have a market of two. It’s not exactly what careers are made of, but I’m good with that.

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As a creative, in the first half of my career, I actually came up as a horror writer, right? And so and I realized, in retrospect, whenever I’m writing horror, I’m writing from this place of anger, this place of, almost… lament, in a lot of ways. But when I’m writing science fiction, I’m writing from a different place creatively. I’m writing from a place of dreaming and from a place of hope. I’m looking ahead and going, ‘Ooh, how could things be?’ And that’s the space I love writing from.

Sweep of Stars is essentially me dreaming alongside my neighbors, in terms of what’s the future we’d like to see. What are we working towards? And I loved writing from that place, because then it’s like, ‘We can do anything, right? The possibilities are endless.’ And, in terms of looking at the systems that we’ve come from, it’s like, ‘Whoa, wait, we don’t have to be bound by those systems. Like what if, what if, like any creative, we have a blank page in front of us, we can do anything? We can reimagine our educational system. We can reimagine our economic system, we can reimagine the priorities of our culture. And that’s the space I wrote from when it came to Sweep of Stars.

A lot of our existing science fiction is written from a very White, Euro-centric background or culture. Sweep of Stars brings in so many aspects of different African cultures and the African diaspora. Within the many cultures that includes, what were some of the cultural touchstones?

My mother’s from Jamaica, and Jamaicans always have a way of like, setting themselves apart, as if they’re above the fray and everything. Like, ‘Yes, that’s great for you all, but we’re Jamaicans.’ And so [the Maroon] are my nod to my mom, and all of that.

But, generally, it’s this whole idea of: How can I draw on all of the aspects of who we are? Like, what would it look like for all of us to come together in one alliance to form a community? And that’s not going to be perfect, because there’s still humans involved, but the goal is to say, ‘We’re gonna set cultural priorities. We’re gonna set these mores that we establish who we want to be and how we want to operate. And we’re all going to pursue that as a dream. And that’s what’s going to unite us is the aspirational aspects of who we want to be as a collective.’ And so I was very intentional about, you know, drawing on as many different cultures as possible.

It was a struggle for me, and then it is a struggle within the Muungano Kingdom, because we have been so steeped in a Euro-centric education and a Euro-centric identity that how do we think outside of that? So there’s plenty of times when I go through drafts and go, ‘Wait, no, no, no, I can’t do that. Because that’s O.E.’ That became my code … Even down to the idioms that get used, because we default to even European idioms. We default to European fairytales. And it’s just like, ‘No, I want to do none of that.’ Because it is so thoroughly ingrained, it is so much of the waters that we swim in, in the air that we breathe, that we don’t even think about it. And so, as I’m going through the various drafts, I’m very intentionally thinking about that and trying to root it out as much as possible to give a different experience.

The cover for Sweep of Stars

I couldn’t interview without asking about Star Trek, because I saw in one of your other interviews that Deep Space Nine is your favorite Trek. There’s a wormhole in Sweep of Stars, which is a very specific plot point. Do you think DS9 has informed your writing?

So, originally, it was like, ‘No, no, no. There’s no way. I love Deep Space Nine, but I’m trying to set out do my own thing.’ And so then I write the first draft of Sweep of Stars, and someone is like, ‘Oh, you really love Deep Space Nine, don’t you?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, yes. But what makes you say that?’ And they’re like, ‘Well, you have a starship captain, and their entire storyline seems to revolve around her relationship with her son.’ I’m like, ‘Huh? I did do that. Oh, and there is that wormhole.’

The thing is, Deep Space Nine so informed me as a creative coming up in the 90s when I was really, really young in my writing career, and thinking through what I even wanted to do as a writer. And there was that one episode [“Far Beyond the Stars’]. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched that episode. Just going, ‘Oh, wait, we can do this. We can we can imagine different futures.’ And, in fact, there were several times that the the beginning quote for this book was ‘I am the dreamer, and the dream.’ That almost was the beginning quote for this book. Because that episode so influenced me. So, yeah, Deep Space Nine is a huge influence on me.

I want to ask about the way you use voice in this book because it’s really interesting. And I think like playful, and you’re just using so many different tools. I think a lot of writers feel like they have to limit themselves to either, you know, first or second or third person, but you’re just using all of those to bring a diversity of perspective and character to this world. Was that always a part of the story or did that kind of develop as you were going?

It’s a bit of both. I do so many nods to some of the things that are, for me and my writing, all through everything I do. So you’ll see my love of hip hop in this book, you’ll see my love of jazz music in the book. Originally, starting to do second person was just a way of doing a nod to Nora Jemisin and The Fifth Season because that was like a clinic in writing. So I wondered what it would look like for me to try something like that.

But I didn’t want to do something like that just for the sake of doing it, and so then it became this thing where the different person voices I’m using actually informs these different characters, and their relationship to the idea of community. So you have one character who, whenever the story is told through his lens, it’s always in first person—’I’ this, ‘I’ that—and that’s because of his relationship to community. Even though he’s all about community, he can’t see community outside of the lens of himself. That’s how we draws community.

Then you have the opening chapter that’s in second person. And it’s from the point of view of a young lady who, even though she’s a part of the community she knows she’s a part of the community, part of her doesn’t quite feel accepted, and doesn’t quite feel like she belongs to the community. So, for her, it’s told in second person because that’s her relationship with community.

And then you have another person who cannot see himself as a distinct person outside of community. So it’s always ‘We.’ ‘We do this,’ ‘We do that,’ which looks pretentious as heck in some ways, but it’s not about being ‘the royal we.’ It’s: ‘I do not see myself outside of community. I see me community and community as one thing.’ And so that’s one of the reasons why the language plays out like that.

I can tell that you’re teacher. You’re really good at explaining the thought processes behind these things. How does being a middle school teacher impact you as a writer and storyteller?

One of my students said, ‘You cannot stop teaching people, can you?’ And I, first I was kind of taken aback by that, because they were just like, ‘A Maurice Broaddus story means you’re gonna be taught something.’ And, and I do kind of love that. And so it’s one of the things I did kind of lean into. And so, like someone pointed out, every name in the book means something. So, you know, the name of the the military unit, for example, they are the H.O.V.A. Hellfighters, right? Okay, well, H.O.V.A. is just me and my love for hip hop again—so that’s a Jay Z reference. But the Hellfighters were named after the Harlem Hellfighters, which were an all-Black military unit [in World War I]. And so it’s that thing where I wanted to let history inform as much of even the naming conventions. So I’ve tried to weave as much history into a lot of my work as possible to make sure it’s just steeped in that sort of thing.

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You’ve mentioned how important jazz and hip hop is to this book. Did you have like a playlist for Sweep of Stars?

I actually do. Yes, I do have one, I have my indie Afro-futurist playlist, or something like that. It’s both the playlist of some of the funk and hip hop and jazz tracks that go into the story, as well as some of the local artists here in my Indianapolis community. The artists who just inspire me, just in how they approach their work their level of craft and just because they’re dope human beings. So yeah, I do have I do have a playlist out there somewhere on Spotify.

And people can make their own playlists, too, right?

Make sure you get a lot of 90s hip hop, some Sun Ra, some Kamasi Washington and you should be good.

This is the first book in a trilogy, and you’re going to be releasing one every year. Correct? Was this story always a trilogy in your mind?

It wasn’t always planned to be a trilogy. I don’t even know what the plan was. When I pitched the book, my original intention was imagining my sister and her friends out in space, patrolling the universe with lasers. That was pretty much all I had in mind. I don’t know how long that was gonna be. But then, as I started building this world and I was like, ‘What kind of world would send them out into into space?’ And I started building the intricate place that became Muungano. And it was like, ‘There’s, there’s no way I can tell the story in a one-off book, not by any stretch.’

And whenever I get stuck on an issue of world building, I will write a whole short story to flesh out that part of the world building. Wow. Right. And so more and more of the magic system gets explored in book two. Nice. Which also means I’ve written three or four shorts stories that involve the magic system. So I gotta get a solid cemented in my head about what it would look like.

It sounds like a short story collection.

It might be because I am over a dozen stories deep now. And, and, and they’ve been, you know, they’ve started to pop out in a while. But I’m just like, I don’t know if people realize that’s connected to the universe. Like almost all of my sci fi stories are tied to this trilogy. Even the ones I started writing long before I even thought of the Astra Black trilogy, I came to realize, ‘Oh, wow, they all fit into this world.’

What are you hoping people find in Sweep of Stars?

One, I want conversations to happen. I love the idea of sparking conversations. But the big thing for me is—and this is something I’ve started doing, like with my circle of friends, and when I’m working with other groups, there’s just this whole idea of, you know, the process of writing it itself, right? It started with I gave myself permission to dream about the future. And so when I’m talking to people and when they you know, even when they’re talking about the situations, they’re stuck in, and I am like, ‘Well what’s your dream for yourself?’ You know, ‘Have you given yourself permission to dream?’ And so that’s my big takeaway from this is…This is my dream of what could happen, but what are all of you all’s dreams? You know, what is it, collectively, what are all of us working towards? What’s the future we would like to see? Paint that future for us and then, you know, by even just casting that sort of picture, then that gives us something to work towards. 

I know like even in my day-to-day interactions with people, there’s just little things. Like, the Muungano greeting of ‘I see you.’ Or, when they say goodbye by saying, ‘I appreciate you.’ Well, I realized I started doing that with my friends, just on a regular basis. Like, ‘Hey, goodbye, Maurice.’ ‘Goodbye, I appreciate you.’ You know? Just those little things.

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Yes, in this future, relationships are centered and prioritized. And we just value each other fully. Like, wait a second. I can do that now. I could do that now. And so the whole idea of creating this, you know, is let’s dream about possible futures, but let’s start enacting them now. That’s what I want people to draw from it.

Sweep of Stars is now available to buy wherever books are sold. Find out more here.