An interview with C. A. Higgins

The Bookman recently spoke with C. A. Higgins, author of the science fiction novel book cover imageLightless, which is being released by Del Rey at the end of September 2015. Ms. Higgins holds an undergraduate degree in physics from Cornell and now works in the field of theater as well as continuing to write. You can learn more about her on Twitter or at her author site.

Caitlin, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Your debut novel, Lightless, combines some “hard” science fiction with elements of a psychological thriller. Where did the idea for the book come from?

The idea for Lightless came from a physics class where we talked about entropy. I imagined that if entropy were a tangible thing that could be increased and decreased somehow, how powerful would be the entity that could control it. From that I got the idea for the Ananke. In the same class we talked about thermodynamic equations of state and how groups of particles are governed by a few quantities, including entropy. And so I envisioned this isolated group of characters who act sort of like a group of particles, in that their individual interactions affect the overall system and that with every action they take the “disorder” on the ship increases. An extended interrogation scene forms a centerpiece of the book.

How did you go about creating tension between the characters?

My approach to building tension between Ida, who is doing the interrogating, and Ivan, who is being interrogated, was to make sure that every time either of them said anything, something changed. Every scene should have a change like that, but it was especially important for the interrogation scenes, which are otherwise just two people talking in an empty room. So every time Ivan said something, we had to learn something about him or his friends or the solar system, even if it wasn’t what Ida was trying to learn. The same thing for every question Ida asked. And each time they speak, the balance of power between them had to shift: now Ida has control ofthe conversation, now Ivan does; keeping them both on edge. I also tried to make the scenes become increasingly personal for both characters.

The interrogation begins so early that the reader doesn’t necessarily understand the significance of the terrorist called the Mallt-y-Nos or care about her identity. Instead, the tension in the scenes comes from the clash of Ida’s motivation, which is to get Ivan to talk, and Ivan’s motivation, which is intentionally obscure, but clearly he has something to hide. Each time Ida fails to achieve her goal she escalates her methods, and each time she escalates her methods not only does she target subjects that are closer and closer to Ivan’s heart, which reveals more about him, but she also exposes more and more about herself and what she is willing to do.

What are your own science fiction influences?

A lot of television—Battlestar Galactica and Blake’s 7 were especially large influences on the tone of Lightless. I also love Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Which contemporary SF writers are you reading now?

I recently read Lois McMaster Bujold’s (fantasy) Chalion series and thought it was brilliant, so I’m going to read some of her science fiction next.

How realistic is the technology you put into the Ananke, the ship that in some ways becomes a central character?

It is a mix. The Ananke is a black hole starship. Theoretically, aspects of it are possible. In terms of literal engineering, I plead artistic license. I calculated out the mass of the black hole and the size of the Ananke, for instance, but don’t know of a realistic way that the System could have actually made the black hole. As for the Ananke’s computer, the robotic arms are realistic (I was taking a robotic motion course at the time), but the computer itself and how it evolves is mostly fanciful.

The notion of entropy plays an increasing role in the novel, for both the scientific and character developments. Tell us a little about how you thought about the concept and how it works in the novel.

At one point in the novel Althea says to Ivan in exasperation, “Chaos isn’t a thing!” And it isn’t—you can’t have a jar full of entropy. Instead, it’s a way of describing an attribute of a system: specifically, how many different states that system could be in. When we first meet the characters they have very clear roles and power structures and allegiances, which is a state of very low entropy. There’s a huge amount of drama in the collapse of such structures because with the structure gone you don’t know exactly where each of the characters stand—which is a state of high entropy. So I set up this situation of high order and then I destabilized it until the ways the characters relate to each other became unpredictable.

On an individual character level, the tension comes from the question of what choice a character will make. So for someone like Althea, for example, she starts the novel with one clear allegiance and therefore very few choices. But as thestory goes on, she starts to realize that loyalty might not be as simple a thing as she’d always imagined. She has to make choices. And that feeds into the destabilization of the characters as a group, because the more options each character has the more ways of relating to each other there exist. I used entropy, the physical concept, as a sort of thematic connection between all these characters and the world they’re living in.

What’s next for you? Will we be seeing more of the characters from Lightless?

Lightless will have two sequels. The next one is called Supernova, and it will follow several of the characters from Lightless in the aftermath of the events of the novel—and tell the reader more about the terrorist Ida is hunting in Lightless, the Mallt-y-Nos.  

A conversation with C. A. Higgins on the eve of the release of her debut science fiction novel, Lightless.