THE most original sci-fi book I’ve ever read is Vokhtah by Andrea Flory. The depth of her world-building and character-construction is highly creative and intensely alien, right down to the language these insect-like creatures use. I’ve been wanting to interview her and finally got the chance. Welcome Andrea!
1. You decided to create an alien world without humans. Lots of authors do that, but their characters are often “human in disguise” with human-ish thoughts and emotions and cultural variations. Your characters are definitely NOT human. What inspired you to create a completely alien species?
Aaaah Diana! Thank you for inviting me, but…you’ve opened a real Pandora’s box here. What inspired me? I could say it was the original Mr Spock played by Leonard Nimoy, or the character of Dexter, the ‘good’ psychopath, or the aliens of The Left Hand of Darkness by the late Ursula K. Le Guin, but that would only approximate the truth.
To give you a genuine answer I would have to change your question to ‘Why do so many humans create aliens in the first place?’
To that question, my answer is that we’re looking for answers about ourselves. Humans are such a mixed bag. We run the gamut from saints like Mother Teresa to monsters like Ted Bundy. Why are we so different? In creating my aliens, I tried to create a dark mirror to the familiar, a contrast by which we could see ourselves more clearly. And what could be a greater contrast than flying, sociopathic hermaphrodites?
2. For a book to engage readers, characters (particularly the protagonists) need to be relatable. Readers want to feel connected to them, and this is often accomplished through shared “human-ish” experience and emotion. What was your thought process in how to achieve relatability while maintaining a sense that these are very different creatures?
Every society requires some kind of co-operative ‘glue’ to survive. On Vokhtah, my alien society evolved to value strength, courage, justice, honour and the paying of ‘debts’, traits we humans recognize and value too. Those traits provide a bridge between them and us. Plus, I have to admit that some of my aliens are ‘nicer’ than others. The hardest part of writing them was stopping myself from making them too nice.
3. Your world-building is deep and complex. Did you plan it out in advance of writing? And to what level of detail? Did it evolve as you wrote the first book?
Nanowrimo 2004 triggered the creation of my aliens, but the world took about nine years to evolve, and it required a lot of research, including a crash course in basic astronomy. The relationship between the twin suns has a profound affect on the planet so I had to learn about binary star systems and how they might affect the day/night cycle as well as the seasons. This is my reference ‘calendar’:
And then there’s the con lang [constructed language] spoken by my aliens. Because their lungs are in their wings, sound is produced by pushing air through tiny ‘pipes’ called cilia. As a result, their language evolved as a mix of organ-like sounds together with optional ‘scents’ that add an emotional depth to their words.
Adding to that complexity is the fact that, as hermaphrodites, my aliens are neither ‘he’ nor ‘she’ but ‘it’. Trying to make English reflect these constraints without being too awful to read was a…challenge.
4. I know you enjoy making images as you conceptualize your story. Tell me more about that process and your reasoning.
Some people can visualise everything perfectly in their heads. Me, I have to see the things I imagine in some kind of physical form, otherwise I miss the ‘obvious’.
One of those obvious things I almost missed had to do with how many arms my aliens have. I wanted them to have ‘clever hands’ and powerful wings that look a bit like bats. But those wings rely on impossibly long ‘fingers’, leaving no room for functional ‘hands’. The challenge was to find a way for my aliens to have both hands and wings.
It took a while, but as I messed around with various models, I suddenly realised that my aliens needed not one set of arms but two! That ‘ah hah!’ moment combined with a lot of images of black leather eventually led to this:
Still a work in progress, but getting there.
5. What excites you about writing these books? What are you most proud of?
I love a challenge, and I love doing research, but what I’m most proud of is that I stayed true to the original vision of the story.
I created sociopaths so I could explore what it means to be human. I created hermaphrodites so I could explore gender. But to stay true to both those themes, I had to create a language that was both gender neutral and lacking in names. That resulted in dialogue like this:
“Begging,” the Apprentice sent in desperation. “Allowing others in group to join Tellers. Not deserving this.”
There was a short silence before the Runner replied.
“Others can re-joining caravan,” it said, “but not Apprentice, Flyer or that Plodder. Life-debt must being cancelled.”
One of my first beta readers strongly advised me to re-write the dialogue in standard English, to make it ‘easier’ for readers. I did agonise over that one because I know that too much ‘dialect’ can make dialogue almost incomprehensible, but there was no way I could change the dialogue without changing everything about the story, starting with the biology. I kept the dialogue.
6. Thank you so much for sharing your creative adventure with us, Andrea. Anything else you’d like to add?
Vokhtah was, and is, my passion. If the book had been picked up by a traditional publisher, I am sure I would have been told to change a great many things, including the dialogue. One of the joys of being an Indie is that I can stay true to the vision that made me write the story in the first place. That freedom is a gift of immeasurable value.
And so is the gift of community. Family and friends are precious, but sometimes their eyes glaze over when I talk about writing. When I come here, it feels like coming home. Thank you, Diana, for always making me feel welcome in this accepting community of writers and readers.
Huge hugs to all,
Meeks [aka acflory]
Diana’s review of Vokhtah:
This is a hard book to describe. “Pure Alien” is a good start, and I’m impressed by the author’s ambition and execution. Vokhtah is an alien planet and the characters are insect-like (my impression) creatures who engage in their own sort of political intrigue, espionage, and social caste system. They’re clever, dastardly, selfless, and selfish – much like humans – but there the similarities end.
The world-building is rather amazing and humans won’t find much that’s familiar here. Even the speech is different. The iVokh and Vokh are genderless “its” and don’t have names, referred to by their role in society, their ranking, and their talents. Social norms are dictated by groups and reinforce variations in dominance and subservience. It takes about a third of the book to get used to.
The story unfolds from multiple points of view, all alien. Flory doesn’t pamper the reader with backstory or explanation, but tosses us right into the strange world – sink or swim. The experience is immersive, but it requires patience to figure out who these aliens are and what the heck they’re doing. I enjoyed the story-telling, the fascinating world, the author’s imagination and writing skills. The pace was excellent and kept my interest.
I did spend a fair amount of the book confused about the characters, though. This is primarily, I think, because they don’t have names and, in many cases, go by multiple designations. For example, there are a number of Sixths and Sevenths. A Blue is also a Messenger who is also a Healer. A Teller is also a Trader, and is sometimes an Apprentice, so sometimes they’re the same character, sometimes not. There are a lot of identically designated characters as each location/eyrie in the story has the same basic social structure, and the book involves travel. I struggled to keep them straight until about 50% through when the plot began to narrow down the action and further define the characters’ personalities and motivations.
But then, I struggled to keep Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon straight. That one I gave up on; this one I didn’t. And it was worth it. By the end, I was ready for the next book in the series. I highly recommend Vokhtah to readers who love pure alien sci-fi, love a reading challenge, and want to engage with the work of a wonderfully creative imagination.