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I’m Holding On Tight To Some Really Crazy Ideas

C.A. MacLean Author Interview

Elysium Protocol follows two sisters as they continue out into the universe meeting more alien races and trying to end the Scourge war. What was the inspiration for the setup to your story?

First off, thank you so much for your incredibly kind words in your review! It’s funny to think about digging to the roots of inspiration, because this one goes way back. The concepts that finally became Elysium Protocol, and these first three Architects books as a whole, had been something that I’d been kicking around since I was around thirteen years old, but back then the core structure of the story was largely informed by the kinds of media I consumed and continue to love: standards like Star Wars, games like Metroid and Star Fox – those were the kinds of stories that made me fall in love with the aesthetics of sci-fi, the alien worlds, the fantastic battles, the epic sagas of good and evil and all the gray in between. That’s definitely where the basic backbone of the story got solidified.

Because I’ve lived with the ideas that would become Architects for so long, I’d go through all these phases of falling in love with more and more storytelling and art, and some of it would stick and influence me in a big way – series like Mass Effect gave me a love of worldbuilding beyond the simple aesthetics of the style, and it’s in Elysium Protocol where I think my love of Doctor Who really starts to show, especially in Alis’s arc. There’s a lot of things going on here of that nature, from absolutely massive timescales to the multiverse, that I wouldn’t have had the creative courage or the confidence to tackle a decade ago. But I’m deep into it now, and you can expect the next books in the series to lean harder in that direction.

As far as the setup and the journey of the Engami sisters, another funny thing is that Elysium Protocol and the previous book, The Great Scourge, were originally envisioned as one novel. As you can see, that didn’t quite pan out, but I’m glad it happened this way, because the two books ended up being quite different despite both comprising the wider Scourge War arc. The Great Scourge is a very visually spectacular experience; for that one, I went all-in on huge setpiece after huge setpiece, with some wonderful visuals and some really large-scale action pieces. I set out on that book with something to prove as far as that angle is concerned, and I feel like I’ve proven it; I didn’t need to retread the same ground as The Great Scourge because I’ve already written that one.

And that’s not to say that Elysium Protocol doesn’t have its share of massive setpieces and huge action beats; if we’re taking Hivena as one big setpiece, then it is easily the biggest setpiece I’ve ever done, both in terms of in-universe size, and page-time devoted to it. And there’s some really cool visuals in the first act when Ashy’s fighting her way out of a pocket-dimension composed of her own memories, which allowed me to do some really fascinating, trippy visuals I’ve never really had leave to do before, and so on, and so forth. But on the whole, Elysium Protocol ended up being a very, very character-focused story: we see Daniel finally completing his transformation from the cynical, jaded mercenary we met in Seed Of Treachery, to someone who is willing to put everything on the line to make the hard choices for the right reasons because he’s become the kind of idealist who believes in more than just himself. We see Eva nearly crumbling under the weight of her failures and her pressures, real or perceived, only to push through, push herself to extremes she never thought she’d face, and become a symbol for more people than she’d ever thought possible. Her sister Ashy goes through so much in this story; we see more of the trauma and anguish she’s gone through, and I think as we journey with her in this book, we understand her a lot more, the person she wants and needs to be versus the forces that try to break her. If Eva’s arc in Elysium Protocol is about the crushing weight of responsibility, Ashy’s is about refusing to let the best parts of yourself be destroyed when it feels like everything is trying to run you down. And without spoiling anything for readers, she too rises higher than ever before. The sisters’ arcs tend to weave in and out from each other, always connected in some way, and while I do encourage readers to think about Architects as an ensemble cast, the sisters have always been the beating heart of the story. If I can be totally honest, and this is not to talk down on any other characters, but Ashy’s my favourite character in the series. She’s one of the characters who lives rent-free in my head all the time and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But those are just a few examples of how very character-centric Elysium Protocol ended up being, and in a way that ended up defining the structure of the story: while the basic plot details pre-dates a lot of these characters, they’re the ones who really turned it into a living universe.

There are many new alien species in your novel I have never come across in other science fiction. Where do you get your ideas for all the alien races you create in your novel?

For the alien races, it’s part what I think will be cool and provide a lot of opportunities for storytelling and building, and part what I think will be workable as a believable race in this universe. Sometimes it comes from the gut – ‘I really want this’ – and sometimes it comes from the head – ‘this will be very workable’. The arkerians are one of the races that came from the gut in that way, because, to be honest, I always wanted space birds. Some permutation of that was always there from, really, the very start. It’s probably safe to blame things like Star Fox and the like for planting an appreciation for that aesthetic somewhere deep in me, haha.

But it gave me an opportunity to build them into the world in some ways that gave me a chance to enhance the narrative: the fact that arkerians have hollow bones means they’ve evolved a species-wide athleticism that lets them perform tricky physical feats, like genetic parkour. That’s also enabled by their flexible raptor-like feet. There’s a scene in Elysium Protocol where Eva’s falling and grabs a foothold with one of her claws, hanging upside-down in a very ‘birdly’ way, which is the kind of thing I can get away with when I’m writing arkerians, so I can make action sequences with them a bit distinct. That’s just one example of using your in-universe assets to be able to tweak things about the narrative that just makes it more fun, more entertaining.

Altarans are fun to write because their whole culture is built around biological empathy: their aura nodes, the crystal formations they have on their heads instead of hair, transmit emotional states and feelings in a visual format, through pulsing luminescence. And I think it speaks to an underlying theme I’m trying to convey, the fact that a species who can see its emotions on the outside, and thus would naturally evolve a society based on compromises, common ground, empathy and care for others, is the one that ended up being the most populous race in the Convergence. And more broadly, Elysium Protocol is a story about the things that bring us together being stronger than the things that try to tear us apart. Altarans were actually a ‘from the head’ species idea as opposed to being from the gut, because as I was writing the first book Seed Of Treachery, I specifically wanted an alien race that would be aesthetically appealing because we’d be seeing a whole lot of them from here on out, but also distinct and iconic, and I eventually landed on the altarans as we know them. I’d love to plumb deeper into altaran culture beyond what we’ve already seen.

Alis’s race, the Everani, is definitely something that grew and developed as the series progressed. They started out fairly straightforward, with this idea of an almost Lovecraftian eldritch creature, except it plays against type, and it’s actually not some amoral or evil entity. Which brings us to how they communicate using avatars rather than their true forms to better fit in with who they’re talking to. As the series developed and one of the major thematic threads became dimensions/the multiverse, making it so that the Everani and all those like them throughout the cosmos could view alternate timestreams, through this thing they call the Sight, only made sense. Now, these are extremely powerful creatures, and Alis’s arc in Elysium Protocol was the next major step for me when I realized I wanted to go deeper with her: we saw in the last book, The Great Scourge, that when the Everani were finally forced into battle, they absolutely shredded their foes. You take an Everani (or tracoent – trans-corporeal entity, as Ashy insists on saying) at full power, and they are the MVP of any team they’re on. So the idea of de-powering them, locking them inside their Convergence-friendly avatars, was such a natural step for Alis’s arc in Elysium Protocol, because it forces her scenes to have real stakes, with the threat of death around every corner, now that she’s been promoted to a much more prominent role than in the last book. There’s definitely some of the Doctor from Doctor Who in her, definitely some of Castiel from Supernatural, and this book gave me some great opportunities to give my own spin on certain tropes associated with super-powerful, super-long-lived characters. Alis’s arc is one of my favourites; fans of Doctor Who will certainly find something to dig into there, because it’s my take on a number of themes and ideas that Who’s showrunners have also tackled over the years. Alis’s arc was actually one of the first full arcs to come together during the writing process of Elysium Protocol because I was so keen to dig deeper into her, and I had a pretty good idea of where I wanted to take her arc from the start because of that.

That said, I’m planning so much more for Alis, as her final scene in this book teases. As far as leaning into the interdimensional angle that’s been probed more and more over the course of the last two books, Alis’s arc going forward is going to go deeper and farther into that than I’ve ever gone before. I’m so very excited about it, but I’m afraid I have to keep a lot of it close to the chest for now, as it’s all quite early-stages at this point.

The hiven were definitely a ‘from-the-gut’ choice for a race, dating way back to when I was a teenager. I tend to wear my influences on my sleeves in some regards, in this case being part inspired by the Space Pirates from Metroid Prime, one of my favourite games of all time (and funnily enough, yet another sci-fi series that has anthropomorphic space birds, although I can honestly say that the arkerians were not inspired by the Chozo specifically). Basically, the hiven started out as the kind of enemy that could provide fertile ground for big, thrilling action pieces (and I like to think they did!), but as the story developed, I turned a worldbuilding eye to the hiven themselves, a whole species whose cultural development appears stunted and broken off at the root. Or to put it another way, I became more self-aware about the sci-fi narrative tropes that the hiven represented, and I found a chance to really turn things on their head. I just had to wait until the eleventh hour, through like two whole books, to really pull the rug. In my last interview with Literary Titan for The Great Scourge, I remember teasing that there was ‘a twist coming’ about the hiven, and now it’s come. For the sake of readers, I definitely can’t just say that one out loud, but it’s one of those things where – as soon as you find out, everything about them makes so much more sense. In broad strokes though, they’re a race I definitely enjoyed writing because they offered a real chance across the last two books to bring so many of the action-forward big setpieces I’d been clawing away at since I was a teenager to life. I feel very lucky to have had that sort of opportunity.

I could go on all day about more species, and what makes various species tick, because it’s also good for me to talk about these things and keep it fresh in my mind, but I’d better cut myself off here before I start going into literally everything. =)

When writing a novel, what comes first for you, the characters or the plot?

It largely depends on the novel. Plot, characters and theme all can’t co-exist without the others, but since the basic skeleton of this story pre-dated a lot of these characters, you can say that plot came first here, which allowed me the luxury of building all these character arcs around the plot structure, knowing that there were certain plot beats that I needed to hit at certain times, which helpfully kept a lot of things anchored. And in a story this size, when you as a writer are trying to keep this many plates spinning at once, you really want to have an anchor or five.

But in the case of this story, character arcs developed organically around, along and within that structure. If we take Ashy’s arc in the second act, for example, that whole sequence where she infiltrates the Serronan pole base to acquire hiven signal codes was originally just her going it alone, way back at least a decade and a half ago (the story structure has been in the cooker for that long!). Her whole arc with Enistea came along because I found a way to integrate an earlier subplot, involving the Black Dwarf black ops organization who had framed Ashy for murder, into the story and move that forward at the same time. Then I was able to parlay the scenes I had with that into some thematic commentary on justice systems that mercilessly focus only on vengeance; so that sort of ended up being an example of character, plot and theme all winding around the same set of scenes and coming together to make the finished build what it is. (Incidentally, the theme of ‘justice without mercy is only revenge’ ended up dovetailing into a much more major game-changing decision taking place in the final arc as well.)

Or if we look a bit earlier in the story to the Stellar Hope arc, Caleb’s plot thread in this story was already set before the Stellar Hope scenes came out, but the Stellar Hope arc turned out to be a wonderful place to really express the core themes of his arc in a way that I feel turned out really well.

Vuroka’s arc, by contrast, is definitely a case of character coming after plot. She gained a lot more nuance in Elysium Protocol compared to The Great Scourge. It was also a really refreshing way for me to take the hiven scenes in a somewhat unexpected direction – she was fun to write from top to bottom, actually, from the absolutely bonkers aesthetic she’s rocking in Elysium Protocol with her biomechanical upgrades and the fact that her true form is just totally showing through her stolen host body (She almost feels like a sci-fi version of some crazy boss-fight-type character from the manga Berserk or something) to the fact that she’s so close to questioning everything she ever fought for – actually, her role in the story ended up getting more than double the screentime when I realized I had to completely re-work one of the subplots, and it gave me a great opportunity to deepen her role so that her newfound inner conflict is present through most of her scenes, not just a few.

And sometimes scenes or whole subplots can blossom out of single images that end up sticking in my mind. I have a very visual mind (even though I can’t draw to save my life), especially when I’m listening to music, so this happens all the time. One super-quick example being, most of the chapter at the server hub on Hivena expanded outward from this single visual I had in my head of Hannah carrying a wounded Naomi away from the battleground, fire from explosions licking at her back.

Though I will say this: the one character we see here who does pre-date the basic structure of the story, is Talon. In some form or another, every permutation that these ideas took prior to being fully realized as Architects, was anchored at least in part around Talon’s long-game arc. Being able to finally reveal so much about this villain in Elysium Protocol – though we still don’t know everything, we know a lot more than we did – was really fantastic. You get me talking about the creative process and I don’t know when to stop (…as you can see), so having to bite my tongue about so much of this for so many years was – I’ll call it “not easy” and leave it there. =) So there was really the weight of expectations when I was doing When The Devil Already Knows You’re Dead, the chapter where we get some pretty big revelations about his true nature, and it’s that weight of ‘oh god do not let me screw this up’, but I really feel like that chapter turned out to be one of my proudest moments as an author so far.

But as far as the characters’ arcs informing the overall plot and vice versa, something very deliberate happened along the way: given with the many Greek myth references and imagery in the novel, the story is divided into the acts Tartarus, Hades and Elysium, going from the deepest and most forsaken parts of the Greek afterlife to the highest and brightest. And our protagonists’ journey in Elysium Protocol reflects that, from the first act where everyone’s scattered and at the edge of losing everything, to the final act where everyone comes together at last, we get some long-awaited reunions, and things turn around, perhaps, for some who deserve it most (without spoiling it for readers!).

Were you able to accomplish all you wanted with this series or do you think you will need to write another novel?

Well, as it stands the series is only halfway done. There will be six mainline installments at the end of the day, with the second half of the series picking up and building on certain plot threads left dangling in Elysium Protocol, and introducing several new story arcs. But I’m also planning side-stories, and the next adventure in the Convergence is going to take us into the past instead of forward, with a side-story novella that is tentatively called The Kyre Crucible, which shows us what happened when Eva confronted the Kyre colonies that were abducting her own people as slaves, an event we’ve seen referenced numerous times throughout Architects. The novella is going to be taut, gritty, and absolutely packed to the gills with sharp, intense action. I’m in the middle of writing it now, and I’m finding it a wonderful way to refocus after spending so long finishing the post-production work on Elysium Protocol, which is just a huge, huge story with so many interwoven threads, that it’s really been refreshing to just dive into telling a story that goes full steam ahead on one tight thread. I’m also excited for everyone to see it because the action is going to have a whole lot of that arkerian agility that I mentioned up there, which is always so much fun to write and visualize. (We’ll see if I can keep it as a novella, knowing me there’s every possibility it’s going to just end up being a full-length novel, but on the shorter side.)

As for what’s next in the mainline series, though, I can tell you that we’ve only scratched the surface of the dimensional/multiversal side of the series, and I couldn’t be more excited to dive deeper into that. I have a ton of really cool ideas I can hardly wait to put onto the page, and I’m holding on tight to some really crazy ideas that I think readers are going to love.

I hope I didn’t go on too long, but I hope it’s been interesting! Again, thank you so much for your generous words, thank you for your time, and thanks for having me!

Author Links: Twitter | Website | GoodReads

We are not the dark between the stars. Taxed to the limit in the brutal Scourge war, the people of the Arela system fight on against the ravenous hiven, scrounging for the one thing that could bring them a decisive victory: Project Olympus. But it’s going to take everyone, working together when discord is but a fracture away. Only courage can prevail: courage on the battlefield. Courage to sacrifice. Moral courage in a time of desperation. But the enigmatic Talon has yet to play his hand. And the unthinkable truth of the Fireseeds’ elusive foe could change everything. Join the rejuvenated Fireseeds in the world-shattering climax of the Scourge war!
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