Reality Skimming

Interview with Hal Friesen

Hal Friesen

Hal J. Friesen writes science fiction, plays science, and studies cello. He wore an astronaut costume for 167 days in a contest to go to space. He grew up in Prince George, BC, and holds a BSc in Chemistry and Physics, and MSc in Electrical Engineering. Now working as a Research Scientist in laser gas detection, he spends his working hours making and breaking new concepts, before going home to unleash his imagination writing on a homemade treadmill desk. He lives in Edmonton with a cello and a gnome painted like Super Mario.

Interviewed by Sarah Trick

Nestor Tark is a recurring character in your Legacies stories. Can you fill people who might be new to the series in on where you got the idea for the character and his story so far? What do you see as his place in the larger Okal Rel Universe, and where do you see him going?

I dreamed up Nestor after reading Righteous Anger. He started out as the middle-man between the conflicting ideologies of the Nesaks and the Nersallians. I wanted to exaggerate the tension between the two cultures, and Nestor became someone who could see the good and bad in both, and was torn between them. He began his journey as someone struggling to choose sides as he fights a war he doesn't believe in. At first he's forced to admit to himself where his loyalties and preferences lie (Opus3:Nestor's Gap), then as the stories continue he's put in situations where he has to make those loyalties public, broadcast them (Opus4:Nestor's Blood). He becomes more satisfied with himself but pays the price for being an outcast when his son is kidnapped in Opus5:The Caddy, and Nestor is targeted because of his radical nature. In Shepherds of Sparrows Nestor plays the role of someone who accepts other outcasts, helps them and welcomes them. This is the role I see him playing in the larger Okal Rel Universe – a shining example that the status quo can be perturbed without destroying it. That people don't have to accept A or B, and that they can choose their own path. Nestor helps the children in Shepherds and becomes a champion for those who have none – and to me that's a hugely important and interesting role that the Okal Rel Universe needs. I believe Nestor's example of "outside the box" behaviour plays a role in the final book of the series, in fact – but I'm not allowed to spoil it here.

As a scientist yourself, how did you deal with the theme of mistrust of science that figured so prominently in Shepherds of Sparrows and throughout the Okal Rel Universe? Do you, like some of the characters, ever think science can go too far?

As a scientist, I've really tried to be honest about what science can or cannot do in my work. I think there's a polarization of science in media, a tendency to look at it as either all good or all bad. This frustrates me a lot, and as a result I tend to write situations where the science is blurry – it's both good and bad. I think that's the nature of progress, and what I try to get across is that as we increase our knowledge and understanding of the universe we also have an increased burden of responsibility to put that knowledge to good use. In Shepherds I tried to keep the focus on the actions of the people involved, and whether they were being good or evil – not the science itself. There are examples on both sides – the children use the gifts of their genetic modification to the betterment of Grianach, while The Caddy (in Opus 5) fabricates the Takoshi for bloody gambling rings. I could give more but don't want to spoil anything!

You write several scenes from the point of view of Di Mon in your book. Is it difficult for you to write an established character as opposed to ones you've made up yourself?

At first writing from Di Mon's point of view was a challenge, but Lynda helped me out a lot. He's one of my favourite characters and including him in my work was something that really intrigued and fascinated me. I think as I've read more of the series and worked with him, I've gotten better at capturing his personality, but it's been a cool experience – I feel like I know him really intimately and yet there isn't that connection to his creation (like I would have with my own characters). He's like a good friend I've known for years.

What made you come up with the idea for genetically-modified highborns as your protagonists? Okal Rel distrusts science in general, so what made you decide you wanted to concentrate on the genetic side of things?

I really liked the honour code of Okal Rel, and felt that one of the main obstacles every character in the series faces is dealing with his/her blood type or genetic legacy. So much of someone's life in the Gelack Empire is determined by these traits over which they have no control. It seemed natural to me that people would get frustrated enough – and distanced enough from the atrocities of science – that they'd be tempted to take control. I see the ORU in a sense as a big thought experiment evaluating the ethics of science, honor, loyalty, greed, and a ton of other issues all at once. The genetic temptation seemed like a natural and interesting experiment, and I thought it'd be really fun to take a look at what people would choose – their honour or a better life for their family.

What's the difference in your creative process between writing your original characters and ones you've gotten to know, like Di Mon? What is the most challenging part of integrating into a shared universe?

My characters: I have the freedom to shape in almost any way I like, and I usually come up with them as I read Lynda's work – basically whoever I think would make a cool addition or have an interesting take on an ORU situation. For the existing characters I've gotten to know, I'm more constrained but at the same time I have a lot of material that I can draw from if I get stuck. In the initial stories I wrote Lynda had to rein me in quite a bit, because Di Mon was doing/saying things he would never do/say. I'd say the most challenging part of integrating into a shared universe is finding a way to patch the gaps in your understanding of it. With any created universe there are always a few details missing – sometimes to allow readers to fill it in for themselves and keep their imaginations active, or just because it's not good writing to spend all your time world-building. When you're trying to integrate into a shared universe, however, these gaps can be major stumbling blocks if a key plot element depends on person X doing or having something that you're not really sure would happen. At first it was really intimidating, because I felt like I had to understand everything about Lynda's universe to do a good job or even to suggest events. I think I've slowly learned how to walk the line and do interesting things in her universe without totally breaking it. Although, to be honest the first draft of Shepherds did break her universe, so I'm grateful that Lynda's so patient and helpful with her feedback and guidance; she was able to take my story and keep enough of it intact. An unexpected outcome of the process has been that I really enjoy the main series novels a lot more now – I can really dig and get into the details and the characters, because I've invested so much time thinking about them. It's going to be bittersweet to see the series wrap up.

Could you elaborate a little more on how the collaboration process works? How did you go from 'breaking' Lynda's universe to not?

Usually I start with an idea and run it by Lynda – she gives me more of a box or framework to work within, and usually there's a bit more back and forth to clarify details before I start writing the story.

For Shepherds it was a larger work and I ran with an idea that I had roughly ran by her (genetic modification of a liege leads to conflict). I took a fair bit of license after that, coming up with the weaving stories of the children, and I hadn’t clarified some of the details with her. For example, in the original version there were many Takoshi (lizard-like creatures) that could rip through hullsteel. That is too powerful and contrary to the engineering Lynda's spent a lot of time developing, so that had to go. The scale of the conflict also had to be toned down to make it more plausible within the overall timeline. That was a change I was grateful for, because it added more realism to the clash since it was no longer "Hollywood scale" exaggerated. Another big change was the overall public perception of the genetic temptation and Di Mon's awareness of corruption. Lynda managed to keep the story almost as is while putting in checks and balances that made the events flow and remain plausible within the ORU. I can't imagine what it's like to do that, and she did a great job.

There was one caveat about the whole story that determined how it ended, and I struggled with that constraint a lot as I was writing it. It wasn't the first ending I would have chosen, but I completely understand the reasons for it. In the end it forced me to do some ethical and moral searching, and I'm happy with the way things turned out. I hope readers are too.

Where do you see your new characters going after this? Do you have any more adventures planned for them? Any non-ORU future projects in the works?

I think Nestor is making an appearance in the final main series book Unholy Science, and I'll have to read it to see where I think he'll go. Lynda's mentioned doing some stories on the foundation/formation of Monitum (planet where the novel is set) which could be cool too, but wouldn't involve Nestor. Voltan has grown on me a lot, and it'd be fun to do something with him. We'll see where Reality Skimming takes us.

I'm editing my novel "Connecting Will" which is about the realities and possibilities of signal transmission through time. It's very much a story about the impact of science on regular humans, and is the most ambitious and time-consuming project I've written. Fingers crossed that I can finish it and submit it to TOR soon! I just finished a few short stories for various contests, about religion and SF, post-apocalyptic Canada and text messaging.

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