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BOOKS Chicago author talks space opera, queer representation
by John Stadelman
2019-03-09

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Chicago author/Hollywood stuntwoman SL Huang ( author of the science-fiction novel Zero Sum Game ) has recently teamed with fellow authors Becky Chambers ( The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet ), Yoon-Ha Lee ( Ninefox Gambit ) and Rivers Solomon ( An Unkindness of Ghosts ) to work on The Vela, a serialized space opera.

Set in a futuristic solar system rotating around a dying sun, The Vela follows soldier Asala Sikou and politician Niko as they search for a spaceship of refugees that has gone missing. Along the way they navigate the complex class and refugee politics between planets competing with each other to survive, and find themselves in the middle of a struggle for the fate of the entire solar system.

The Vela contains a significant representation of LGBTQ+ characters.

"We're a 100-percent queer writer team," Huang told Windy City Times, "so it was important to us to represent our own reality and portray queer characters as heroes. Our protagonist, Asala, is a transgender woman, and her partner Niko is nonbinary and presents androgynously. … We purposely made part of the uncommented-upon fabric of our universe that in this far-future solar system, gender variance has become socially normalized and nobody thinks of it as a big deal. In developing and writing our characters, being cis or straight was never the default. … As a queer author it was relaxing to write in such a world, where the characters never had the additional social stresses that queer identities unfortunately carry in reality. We freely made our cast as gloriously diverse as our own social circles are."

This allows the story to focus on the issues of migrant refugee politics, as residents of the environmentally devastated planet of Hypatia are prevented from settling on the nearest habitable planet: the populist, militant Gan-De. What help they do get, from the elitist planet Khayyam, isn't done for humanitarian reasons but for political gain.

"Many of these themes go back to the initial concept Lydia [Shamah] pitched to us: a far-off solar system, an environmental crisis, refugee parallels. … We took that ball and ran with it, weaving in a lot of serious metaphor to our current world. All of us were deeply interested in exploring these themes and doing as well by them as we could," Huang said.

This allowed Huang to draw from her own background. "I was intrigued and moved by the idea of writing something about migration politics and refugee situations. I come from an immigrant family and the topic feels very personal to me. … Our collaboration was a huge asset, because we were able to share and compare our personal experiences and perspectives, and bring all that to the table in our efforts to explore such themes respectfully."

This shows in the complexity of the solar system's refugee crisis. Most of the characters, even the bad ones, act in the interest of protecting and saving their own people, no matter what the cost to others. Nobody is completely evil or completely good.

"That's the most engaging kind of conflict, to me," Huang said, "when readers can see where everyone's coming from even when those characters are working as hard as they can against each other until they break each other's hearts."

Spread out over 10 episodes written between four authors, The Vela is certainly a collaborative work. Yet it reads as a tight story with a singular, cohesive vision.

Huang echoed the excitement and creative unity that drove the team.

"Yoon, Becky, and Rivers are all brilliant people, and extremely lovely to work with. We were looking to do all the world-building, character development and plot outlining in only three days. I thought, no way will we be able to do it that fast! But every time one person had a piece of an idea, someone else would be able to jump off it, and the series grew and fleshed out so quickly it was astonishing. … It's so much fun to take in and then build on what your partners are coming up with."

"From the beginning," Huang continued, "we outlined the whole series, including pegging down which major events happened in which episodes. We knew right from the start where the characters would be and what pieces of the larger story arc would be moving forward in each part. Then we said, 'Who's excited about writing which ones?' and worked it out that way. … We all have different strengths as writers, so different episodes interested each of us right off the bat. … We would look at what everyone else was doing and have conference calls to discuss. That way, anytime we had a structural inconsistency between episodes, we could shift things around and fix it before getting too deep."

The Vela is, of course, packed with action. From spaceship battles to fist-fights, the action is just as intense as the thematic exploration is deep. Huang's background as a stuntwoman ( including work on Battlestar Galactica ) came in hand here.

"Stunts is all about creating visually interesting, emotionally riveting action scenes—much like they should be in writing. The most important thing to me is always making the fight have intense character stakes, because that's what ties it to the story and makes it something the audience will invest in, and that's definitely something I learned from movies."

The Vela is available through Serial Box ( in both e-book and audio formats ) at www.serialbox.com/serials/the-vela. For more about SL Huang's, visit www.slhuang.com/ .


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