By Kathy Bryson
The EarthCent Ambassador Series starts from the premise of ordinary life in outer space. In Book 1, Kelly Frank is sleeping in her office because she’s overdue on her rent to the space station she’s assigned to. As representative of that newest, most primitive planet Earth, she’d have to work up to embarrassing her post as Ambassador, so what could go wrong with accepting some blind dates from the omniscient AI that runs the station? If you have to ask…
Instantly relatable, this series still has all the action and adventure you could ask for in outer space, but delivered in an hysterically funny, mostly human way. The encounters with alien species and customs also act as the perfect foil for sending up some of Earth’s most cherished and outrageous beliefs from economics to the press. Reminiscent of the best of Anthony or Asprin, this series is an auto-purchase for me and I sought out E.M. Foner to ask him about it.
Q) Your work is listed as sci-fi/fantasy, but you make a point of being family friendly and I wouldn’t hesitate to share with interested kids. What do you think are the distinctions between adult and children’s sci-fi and do they help or hurt the genre?
E.M. Foner: That question goes right to the heart of the matter, which is why I starting writing the series and have stuck with it. A cousin of mine recently asked what I was writing, and when I replied, “Science fiction without wars and graphic sex,” he replied, “What’s the point?”
The point, for me, is that I’m just not interested in reading hero-based fiction about desperate battles to save the universe in which the human always come out on top (excuse the double entendre). My goal when I started writing these books was to create an immersive story about a future that I would move to, if supplied with a time machine. That ruled out all the post-apocalyptic plots with zombies, slaves, and planets blowing up.
The basic premise of the EarthCent universe with nearly omnipotent and omniscient benevolent alien AI running things was my solution for an optimistic future. And the long time scale of the back story, at tens of millions of years, means that humans aren’t going to have a Eureka moment and suddenly catch-up with everybody else and start fighting wars.
But the books were definitely written for adults, and feedback suggests that the majority of my readers were born before 1960. Most of the humor is based on misunderstandings surrounding family and professional lives, and I don’t think young readers would even pause for the bits that make a retired banker or professor laugh out loud. And the joy in the series, if I can call it that, is about watching the young humans, aliens and AI develop. That’s more suited to grandparents than to teens.
I wish that Amazon had a Family Science Fiction category, but I mean it in the sense of “SciFi books about family” rather than “SciFi books for the whole family.” I’ve read YA SciFi and I believe the main element for that age group is that the hero has to be a teen. I think that fiction in general has become too genre-specific, with authors and publishers targeting demographic groups for the sake of promotion opportunities and discovery. It’s been a real problem for marketing the EarthCent series as it doesn’t fit into any neat categories.
Q) Your commentary on parenting is the best on-going joke in a series. Go InstaSitter! Are you a parent? Do you work with children?
E.M. Foner: I’ve never been married or had children so the characters on Union Station are my wish-fulfillment family. The reason I’m still writing the series is that I became addicted to my own characters. When I’m feeling down about the business side of things, I catch up on reading Amazon reviews for the later books in the series, and it really cheers me up that so many people write that they think of my characters as family or friends.
Q) As a journalism professor, I had to laugh at your description of training the press and the fact that the most-reputable press is the students’ newspaper. It also made me wonder – What’s your real-life profession? Are you a teacher? Or given the Styx’ role in the series, perhaps you’re a librarian?
E.M. Foner: For the last four years, my real life profession has been a full-time science fiction author, and I’ve actually made a living at it the last two years. My education was in engineering, and I went back to school after a few years for a master’s in the radar/RF concentration, but I never returned to real engineering work after completing the degree. I worked with computers for a few years, and then found myself writing and publishing how-to books for a living, primarily as a way to be my own boss.
Q) You had a funny twist on drive and ambition in Wanderers on Union Station. What would you do if you could take off from your responsibilities altogether?
E.M. Foner: I’d like to think that all the books have a funny twist, but Wanderers was probably written when millions of unemployed people were transitioning to social security disability and I was trying to process that in a positive way. I’m a terrible pessimist by nature, and the whole series is an exercise in trying to find the bright side of events ranging from impending extinction of a species to being the dumbest sentients in the room.
Q) You cover a lot of activities in your books – dancing, dueling, diction. Do you dance or duel yourself?
E.M. Foner: Ah yes, the three D’s every Vergallian gentleman must master. I don’t dance myself but when I was overseas I went with friends a couple of times to an Argentinean tango club which made a lasting impression on me. And thanks to years of writing how-to books about ephemeral technology (computers), I think learned how to convey what’s important without getting bogged down in details, that along expiration dates, can ruin the suspension of disbelief for people who have more expertise than the author, which will always be the case.
I rarely enjoy “hard” science fiction myself because my background in engineering makes it difficult to buy the explanations of authors who want describe how non-existent technology works. If somebody just waves their hands (like most of us do) when talking about faster-than-light travel, that’s fine, it’s tough to write space opera without it. But when authors put together a few ideas from popular science that don’t really fit, it ruins the fun for me.
It helps that I had a wide work experience when I was younger, quite a few restaurant and security jobs, always did my own car work, etc. And I’ve put in a lot of time helping friends with businesses and construction projects during my twenty-five years of self employment. But I admit that some of the professions of characters, like fashion design (and caring about clothes in the first place), come directly from Korean dramas.
I don’t have a TV and hadn’t watched anything but sports for many years when I gave it up (due largely to all the commercials for crime shows about sadistic killers), but since getting a Fire tablet, I’ve fallen into watching Korean shows with subtitles on Viki, which I would recommend to anybody. I go for the romantic comedies and occasional SciFi/supernatural series, usually somewhere between 16 and 20 one hour episodes for a complete story. Korean dramas are highly family-oriented, with grandparents, uncles and aunts playing an important part in the plots and outcomes.
Q)What can we look forward to in future?
E.M. Foner: I have a draft of the 14th books almost completed, tentatively titled, LARP Night on Union Station. But I have a character making a sort of a mathematical speech near the end and I’m waiting for a scientist cousin of mine (the same one who doesn’t get the point) to write that for me. I’m currently working on the plot of a totally unrelated book set in the present day that includes AI, but I often abandon projects after writing for months if the characters don’t come alive for me.
At the same time as publishing my current book, I released my first bundle, with new cover art that I think captures the spirit of the series.
Union Station 1, 2, 3: Three Book Bundle