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Interview with Thomas Harlan

[An interview from my old blog in 2006, reposted 2 May 2010]

Thomas Harlan’s military-archaeological alternate future series In the Time of the Sixth Sun (Wasteland of Flint, House of Reeds) stands out among recent archaeo-SF. The books feature a xenoarchaeologist protagonist, Gretchen Anderssen, and strongly emphasise the techniques used to unravel archaeological mysteries on other worlds.

Thomas Harlan lives in Salem, Oregon. For more information, see his official site.

(Note: the following interview may contain spoilers.)

Steve Wilson: Every alternate history has a turning point, where the fictional timeline separates from our history. Where does the Sixth Sun universe diverge from the real world? What led to Aztec dominance, and what are its ramifications, apart from the fashion for feathered-cape-wearing, and a religious right to smoke tobacco? :-)

Thomas Harlan: In the late 1100’s, a proto-Mongol Empire (ruled by Genghis’ father) conquered northern China and Korea. Attempts by the ruling Japanese clan of the time, the Fujiwara, to exploit this chaos by seizing southern Korea for themselves, and parts of coastal China angered the khan and he launched an invasion of the islands with a Korean fleet. He did not attempt to land on Kyushu, but instead landed in southern Honshu and immediately defeated the main Fujiwara army sent against him. The Japanese emperor then panicked, as the Mongols were advancing upon Kyoto and burning every town, city and hamlet they encountered. The foray into China (initially for piracy) had yielded a variety of large, ocean-going Chinese-built ships – some very large. Believing that all of Japan would be destroyed, the Japanese Emperor fled, following the description of a mythical land to the far east, across the ocean. Gumshan, the land of the golden mountain. He took with him his court and thousands of others – retainers, craftsmen, everyone who could be packed aboard every ship they could find.

The journey across the north Pacific was hellish, and nearly half of the refugees perished in the initial attempt, but they eventually found safe harbour on the shores of North America, near where the city of Vancouver, British Columbia stands today. That site eventually became New Edo or Shinedo and the center of a new, Japanese state in the Americas. Within two years of their arrival, the Nisei (as I’m calling them, though not terribly accurate) had established contact with the wide-ranging Toltec pochteca (trade) network and had bartered away their dominance of the new world (metalworking, horses, double-growing-season rice) to the southerners in exchange for slaves and food. Six hundred years later, Aztec fleets would attack and conquer the British Isles. Colonies would be established in Africa, in South America and eventually the entire world would be dominated (nearly fifteen hundred years later) by the Aztec-Nisei alliance.

Steve Wilson: What’s the attraction of alternate histories for you? Do you have any favourites by other authors?

Thomas Harlan: I love history, so playing with it in my books adds a special extra dash of tobasco sauce, as it were. My favourite alternate histories would be books like H. Beam Piper’s Paratime series, of which Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen would be the prime example; Steve Sterling’s Island in the Sea of Time is also quite good; and we must not forget L. Sprague De Camp’s fabulous Lest Darkness Fall and The Dragon of the Ishtar Gate.

Steve Wilson: Your work is noted for its detailed worldbuilding – is this a result of your gaming background? Do you create a milieu first, then a story, or do you develop both in tandem?

Thomas Harlan: I’d say that the desire to build whole new worlds fed into the gaming first, and then the books benefited from that experience – but from the same wellspring. The story and its environment usually develop in tandem, though sometimes the world or period will suggest itself first. In the case of the Oath of Empire series, the background for the story evolved out of working up a game module that blew right past what the game could contain, and became an entire world, myriad characters and a truly epic plotline. But Thyatis and Dwyrin first took flesh, for example, as character sketches for the game; then acquired personal histories – which were then entirely thrown over when I started writing Shadow of Ararat. The core of their personalities remained, though if you look back at those initial notes now, those characters would be the alternate history versions of where they wound up in the books. Characters like Gretchen Anderssen, in the Sixth Sun books, came to life from many sources – some gaming, some personal – to provide the proper viewpoint character for the series. But she didn’t exist before the first pages of Wasteland were written. The world she would explore did exist, in broad outline, but the fun of it is the exploration as you write.

Steve Wilson: The Oath of Empire series and your D20 game Crusader Earth are historical, and Sixth Sun is archaeological. Do you have a background or training in history or archaeology?

Thomas Harlan: My university background is history, art and creative writing – all good for these kinds of books – but both of my parents were archaeologists / anthropologists and so many of the work details in these books come from how I grew up, spending the summers sitting in a tent, or a trailer, or remaindered army bases while they were working. Many of their friends are in the same business, so I hit them up for anecdotes and stories about their time on different digs. So history, science and archaeology have been all around me my whole life. Kind of hard to get away from it, then.

Steve Wilson: Would you mind telling us a bit about your parents’ careers? What do they think of the idea of archaeology in space?

Thomas Harlan: Well, they would like to go, as soon as possible please. Both started out in anthropology (pop at Texas Tech, mom at the University of Arizona) and wound up not being career diggers – pop moved into dendrochronology (tree-ring research studies) where he is now world famous (a somewhat narrow field, but still…) while mom became a botanist. Both of them have kept their feet in archaeology, though, as dendrochronology is useful to fixing site layer dates from wood samples; and mom spent quite a bit of time doing archaeo-botany in the south-west US and El Salvador.

Steve Wilson: In the tradition of H. Beam Piper’s Omnilingual, you’ve put a lot of thought into the equipment used by xenoarchaeologists. Glowbeans, multi-function goggles, and the IdeoStat are a few that I drooled over. Is there any particular bit of technology or technique in the books that you’re most proud of?

Thomas Harlan: I like the ultralights used in Wasteland quite a bit, but I must confess I did not design them – Paul Gazis, a NASA engineer and ultralight enthusiast, did. I just needed a flying machine, and he did the rest. Generally, when providing equipment to Gretchen and her team, I provide them with gear I’d like to have in the field myself, though I try not to provide them with anything truly spectacular. Digging in the dirt is the key to all, isn’t it?

Steve Wilson: Indeed, although we can always wish for a nice indoor structure to explore, like Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama.

Thomas Harlan: Indoor structures tend to be more dangerous, and just as dirty, as open field excavations.

Steve Wilson: Apart from university work, archaeologists in the Empire can seek employment in the private sector, with the Honorable Chartered Company. Can you tell us a bit about the Company and its goals, and why would an archaeologist choose to work for it?

Thomas Harlan: Archaeology in the Empire is quite regulated, both by the Fleet (for security reasons) and by the large universities – we see a bit of this in House of Reeds, where Gretchen is trying to get a permit to do her survey on Jagan. The prospect of uncovering some usable technology or information from the past carries great fiscal weight in the Empire, particularly since humanity is a very small player on the galactic stage. Any kind of new technology could mean life or death for the human race, so there is intense interest. Because of these pressures, it is essentially illegal to be a wildcatter, or freelance archaeologist. In addition, the placement of graduate and post-doc students on teams is controlled by the department heads at the various Universities – and that means they go only to their cronies, sycophants and relatives. For someone like Gretchen, who does not have a sponsor, the only way for her to work would be to hire on to the Honorable Chartered Company (which is, by the way, of South African origin) and work as a wage-slave in all kinds of nasty, dangerous places. But at least she has the chance to put her hand on the tomb-door of destiny.

Steve Wilson: You mention that the human race is a small player in the galaxy. We haven’t yet seen many other starfaring sophonts, except the feline Hesht. What’s their relation to the Empire?

Thomas Harlan: The Hesht are a star-faring race, though their entire civilization is currently migrating across part of the stellar neighbourhood controlled by the Empire in slower-than-light world-ships. It’s true that we have not seen any other sophonts; though they are certainly mentioned – piratic races like the Khaid figure prominently in House of Reeds and will actual appear in Land of the Dead. Part of this is because the Empire (and the Judges) work ceaselessly to keep alien influences out of Mexica space, or to tightly control interactions when alien races (like the Hjogadim, who also feature in Land of the Dead) to travel among humans. And the Jaganites in House of Reeds count as an ex-starfaring race, now don’t they? 8-)

Steve Wilson: The ultimate prize for a xenoarchaeologist in the Empire is a First Sun artefact. The First Sun races were, I gather, the earliest to arise in the Galaxy. What can you tell us about them?

Thomas Harlan: I’m sorry, sir, that information is restricted at this time.

Steve Wilson: Well, it was worth a try! I guess the most important thing to know is that in the tradition of long-vanished science fiction races, they’ve left behind artefacts of great power and danger.

Steve Wilson: The first three chapters of the third book in the series, Land of the Dead are up on your site. When will readers be able to hold a copy in their hands?

Thomas Harlan: I’m writing the book now, and hope to have it done by mid-Spring of 2007, which means it should be through the editing stages by Summer or Fall of 2007. Which would put it in stores, maybe, in Spring of 2008. A long delay between books, but the arrival of a squalling youngster in the house pushed everything back!

Thomas Harlan’s novels are available through Amazon.com.

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Founded spacearchaeology.org to promote the emerging fields of space archaeology and space heritage.

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