Fans of fantasy are unlikely to have escaped the deluge of rave reviews of Richard Swan’s Empire of the Wolf series. With the magnificent The Justice of Kings and The Tyranny of Faith being marketed as his debut fantasy trilogy, what his new legion of fans may not know is that he has a completed space opera trilogy called The Art of War (with prequels and short stories building off it) which, for this interviewer, read like a glorious mixture of The Expanse and Warhammer 40,000.
Book one, Reclamation, and I think you could argue the entire The Art of War series, is the story of the escalation of political conflict driven in a hundred directions by a range of competing factions. The series is a mixture of political intrigue, espionage, and brutal military conflict. It is a story about biting off more than you can chew, and of the large and powerful becoming rather small and weak. The galaxy is colonised, other species have been met and treated with, but even as humanity has grown into the stars, the things that make humans brilliant to write about because of the conflicts created by our arrogance, greed, and stupidity, remain.
Richard was kind enough to spend some time with me talking about one of the best sci-fi series I’ve read—and, conversely, the first trilogy I’ve back-to-back read and reviewed in a long, long time.
[GdM] When I reviewed The Art of War trilogy, I could think of no better comparison than The Expanse and the Warhammer 40,000 universes. The incredible layers of worldbuilding, history, politics, war, character arcs and the sheer awe-inspiring speed and scale of your battle scenes deserve no less comparison, in my eyes. While you have spoken about Warhammer 40k’s impacts on you, I know Reclamation was written before you had heard of Leviathan Wakes, and in my eyes that is the closest comparison. Can you describe the themes and influences for this series?
[RS] Well, first off thank you very much for the kind words! In terms of direct inspiration, as with many things it was the culmination of a lifetime of media consumption. I must have put pen to paper on Reclamation around 2012/13 and at that point I was very heavily influenced by a lot of videogames I was playing. Games like the Halo franchise (and especially Reach / ODST), Mass Effect (the third instalment of which I had only really just got round to playing) and StarCraft 2. I’ve also had a lifelong love of the Star Wars prequels which I think will always feed into my writing in one way or another. In terms of literary inspirations, I was very heavily influenced by the epic space operas of Peter Hamilton growing up (I’ve always been a Night’s Dawn / Confederation man, though I think the Commonwealth Saga is probably his more popular work), that sort of multiple POV, slightly martial, high-tech, breathless, galaxy-spanning hurtling-towards-war kind of narrative. And I was completely obsessed with Iain M Banks’ Culture series for the longest time, too. The themes Banks explores I think are writ large in the Art of War Trilogy; this idea of covert operatives, willing to take the low road, willing to get their hands dirty and do dreadful things in order that the majority can sleep easy at night, I’ve always been very drawn to the moral quandaries that that idea presents. And I think certainly during my formative years the Global War on Terror was in full swing, so this idea of liberal democracies compromising their own values so readily and comprehensively—values which they have fought and died and killed to defend—in order to defeat an enemy who does not play by those rules, that was a fascinating and rich seam of inspiration for me. I think in all of my fiction there is this exploration of the tension between societies with liberal secular systems and values, and what happens when those societies are faced with an existential threat which plays by completely different set of rules. It always comes back to the same moral dichotomy, consequentialism versus deontologism.
[GdM] The story spans the breadth of the galaxy, and features a united humanity addicted to connectivity and manipulating every aspect of the galaxy, the downtrodden Kaygryn trying to survive and claw their way out from under the Ascendancy’s direct bootheel and humanity’s indirect one, and the Provar Ascendancy as the dominant species in the Milky Way sending most of their military strength off to crusade beyond the boundaries of the galaxy against an unknown foe. What inspired each of these species and their drivers?
[RS] Certainly I think the United Nations as it exists within the Art of War Trilogy is a fairly naked allegory of modern Western society. In fact, probably some of it and the epigraphs are a little heavy-handed; I’d be a bit subtler if I was to write the same trilogy these days. In a lot of my science-fiction I have humanity as existing in a pseudo post-scarcity society in which much of the manufacturing base is completely automated and everybody is entitled to housing and subsistence. So, I have the vast majority of society existing in these hyperconnected digital playgrounds which most of them are hopelessly addicted to and who spend their days doing nothing but indulging their desires. But I also like the idea of having a sort of confected labour market / economy, so that people who still want to have jobs and work (and these mostly exist around the civic infrastructure—legal, administrative, political, military) can do in order to earn more than their subsistence entitles them to, and these people tend to be the more motivated and driven as a result. Generally I think the UN in the books is the ‘good guy’ and wants to impose its way of life and values on the other races of the galaxy, but also whilst maintaining its own position of self-congratulatory superiority. It’s essentially addicted to intervention, and the series is about what happens when you meddle in something you really ought not to have—or perhaps, you ought not to have intervened in unless you could be assured of victory.
The Provar Ascendancy is your sort of classic theocratic fascist autocracy, whilst the Kaygryn are a race of aliens as you say just coming out of centuries of servitude (and that itself has been engineered by the UN in one of its back patting interventionist episodes—though they are also perfectly content to hang them out to dry as well). I think the Provar originally were inspired by the elites from Halo and certainly have that same aggressive honour-based warrior society. I also drew inspiration from real-world parallels, for sadly there are plenty of modern totalitarian regimes to take ideas from. The interplay between these societies is really just a reflection of the interplay between modern super states with different ideologies, and how political missteps and cultural misunderstandings can fan the embers of a conflict into outright war. In fact, now I cast my mind back to it, the very first kernel of inspiration for Reclamation was the Falklands War.
[GdM] Throughout the trilogy, you really get deep into expanding on some of the problems in today’s current human society. Things like our addiction to technology and the internet (and what happens when it’s taken away from the addicted, or introduced to the uninitiated), the impact on society of the removal of jobs and the introduction of a universal wage system, and our penchant for just straight up thinking we’re smarter than everyone and can manipulate everything with little-to-no consequence for those not experiencing the front lines. How did you choose which societal concerns to focus on, what was your approach to extrapolating them out, and at what point do you need to draw a boundary when you write about them?
[RS] That’s a very good summary of the UN as portrayed in the novels. I think you are absolutely right when you say that you kind of have to pick and choose which areas you’re going to focus on when writing a science-fiction novel, as of course everything as we know it will change in the future, and it is not clear now what any given invention could have on society as we know it. For example, I had one idea which basically extrapolated on the idea of memeing to the point where writing became practically obsolete and was instead replaced by very dense pictograms which were able to convey information much more effectively than sentences of text. Even something as simple as the idea of windows—as in physical, glass windows in a house—can be completely reframed (pun intended) in the future. I think it’s perfectly possible that one day houses will be completely sealed units because replicating a pleasant view with appropriate lighting and ambient sounds will be perfectly achievable using UHD screens. Even the idea of something like offices in their present form still existing hundreds of years in the future is probably ludicrous; it’s probably more likely that workspaces will be entirely virtual reality because the definition and interface will be so advanced. Replacing a physical workplace will have profound implications on labour-as-socialisation.
When it comes to societal issues, certainly there’s a fear at the moment of hyper-connectivity and addiction to the internet, smartphones, et cetera. My personal prediction (which is nothing unique or ground breaking) is that eventually technology will be fully integrated into our bodies—permanent HUDs grafted into our eyes, implanted computers in our brain that are controlled by our thoughts, sensors in our fingertips, et cetera. Whilst I think some people would find this horrifying, I also think that one of the corollaries of this absolute ubiquity of technology would be a huge drop in crime to the point where the incidence of certain crimes would fade almost into nothingness (e.g. it would be practically impossible to commit any sort of assault whilst the victim is able to record every part of it and upload it to a remote substrate in real time).
Things like this small morsel and other similar ideas I explored briefly in the Art of War book 3, when a character from a “Tier 2” world (a world that is technologically advanced but does not have faster than light travel capability) joins the UN and so is exposed to the UN way of life. It’s something which she quickly finds completely overwhelming to the point where she becomes depressed and alcoholic. However, the sociological impacts of ubiquitous technology are better suited for (and abundantly explored in) the cyberpunk subgenre so I did not set out to get into the guts of it in this space opera trilogy.
[GdM] The first book has been out for a decade, now. With ten years of hindsight alongside ten wild years of pandemics, wars, technology evolution, etc, if you could go back and insert one more societal theme into these books, what would it be?
[RS] It’s a really good question. When The Justice of Kings was published I actually did go back to the original word files of the Art of War trilogy with a view to editing them and bringing them up to my current writing standard. I didn’t want readers going through my back-catalogue to think that they were necessarily reflective of my current ability. But apart from a few excisions, I was actually fairly happy with the Art of War trilogy (I didn’t reread the whole thing, I got about halfway through book 1 before stopping). I certainly wouldn’t write it in the same way now, but it absolutely was not worth the time and energy investment in editing half a million words because the qualitative gains would have been fairly minimal.
Given unlimited time, inspiration, and inclination, I think certainly I would have explored the characters in a little more depth, which is something I was at pains to do in the Empire of the Wolf trilogy. The Art of War is a very plot focused story and the characters I think are probably a little archetypal and, really, vehicles to carry the plot forward rather than necessarily beguiling or intriguing people to read about.
In terms of themes, as I said earlier I think I’d have been a little more subtle in my examination of modern Western societies. Some of the left-wing handwringing is a bit overdone, especially in the epigraphs—some of which make me wince to reread. But generally speaking, I think I covered the thematic ground I wanted to; I have just done it in a more nuanced and interesting way.
[GdM] There is no doubt in my mind that sci-fi fans are going to absolutely love the sheer range of technologies integrated into your character’s experiences: from the mantix combat suits, to impact gel, to the IHDs in every UN citizen’s head that enable you to perceive time differently. What are your favourite bits of Swan-tech you’ve invented, and how much of those were pure cool factor, or required for parts of the story?
[RS] I think I enjoyed the technology around space combat the most. A lot of science-fiction in popular culture has these sort of pseudo aircraft-carriers-in-space type combat ships—and I actually love that aesthetic—but what I love less is the idea of having all of your officers standing on a bridge with windows out to space, ordering guns being fired at an enemy a few kilometres away. To my mind these engagements would be three things: they would be very quick, because most of it would be dictated by computers; they would be conducted over huge distances, many hundreds of thousands of kilometres apart; and they would be very violent.
In order to contrive to have humans in this process, I had to do a number of things. The first was to get them as far away from the outer hull of the ship as possible. So the officers are in an armoured core in the very centre of the ship. As well as armour plating made of various fictional alloys, I also encase them in a sphere of ‘nanogel’, which is a non-Newtonian ballistic impact fluid, like a womb. Each officer is in a capsule like this, with their brains then linked to a virtual reality command sphere, which visually would be like standing in a bubble of glass in space surrounded by HUD graphics. And then as you have already alluded to, their implanted computers are able to alter their time perception, so that they can make decisions in the space of picoseconds and keep up with the computers who are doing the heavy lifting during the engagement.
So, I think I had a lot of fun in coming up with ways of including humans within the combat and maintaining their agency in what should really be the preserve of computers and machines.
[GdM] When I first read this brilliant, un-put-downable trilogy, one of the things that blew me away the most was when I found out they had been self-published. The quality of these books is so good, I actually had to pick my jaw up off the floor when you told me you hadn’t pitched them to publishers. Can you talk me through what the journey for these books has been like, from when you first published them, to now, when your fantasy trilogy is on everyone’s TBRs?
[RS] I think I probably first started conceiving of the idea of Reclamation after university. I finished university in 2010, and from about 2007 I had been heavily involved in the official black library fanfiction forums. For the uninitiated, Black Library is the publishing wing of Games Workshop and is responsible for producing novels set within the Warhammer 40,000 Universe. Over the course of three years I must’ve written about five novels of fanfiction plus innumerable short stories, novellas and group stories. And then those forums were disbanded to be replaced by a very early prototype of what is now the modern-day Warhammer community website.
So, after they went down I was feeling a bit listless with my fiction writing. The fanfiction forum had consumed me and my writing for years and almost overnight that community was completely dismantled. So, I didn’t write anything for a little while, until probably a year or two later when I was getting really into Mass Effect and wanted to write a novel that was reminiscent of that. By the time I finished Reclamation it must have been 2015, and the idea of pitching it to publishers (I didn’t know what agents were at that time) didn’t really occur to me. I definitely thought that the book was much too generic, just a fairly run-of-the-mill space opera, to be suitable for traditional publication. So, I never actually attempted to get it published in that way. Around the same time I became aware of KDP, the Kindle self-publishing platform, and that was extremely attractive to me. I could completely control the direction of the novel, and most excitingly the cover art (the first piece of artwork for reclamation was a John Harris piece which I had licensed), and I became completely consumed with the self-publishing process. Looking back, I actually had much more success than I really should have done. I did almost no marketing beyond a bit of amateurish social media stuff, expecting readers simply to seek me out and find me (ha!) and expecting the book to simply just begin selling. The Art of War Trilogy actually did moderately well over the course of three years or so, but it was when I self-published a MilSF novel (Earth Remembers), which I expected to succeed simply because my previous space opera had, I had a much more classic self-publishing experience—which was that absolutely nothing happened. In fact, I de-published that novel recently because to date it had still only sold about twenty copies.
At the same time sales for the Art of War Trilogy were drying up to a trickle and I decided to turn my back on independent publishing in about 2018. My goal in life had always been to get one book in print with a Big Five publisher, and so I turned my mind back to that task (and started writing what would become The Justice of Kings). One of the very welcome corollaries of the publication of The Justice of Kings and The Tyranny of Faith is that people have now been going back to the Art of War trilogy, and so after several years of zero sales I’m shifting a couple of hundred copies a month—and that number keeps going up. So, these books are finally getting their moment in the sun!
[GdM] I remember those Warhammer forums! Do you remember your name on there, and what some of your favourite works were about?
[RS] I do indeed! My handle was Firefox and I used to write about a military investigator called Vandemarr. The books were Auxiliary, The Source, Last Testament, Fallen City, and Deathwatch. It is difficult to overstate how much of my brainpower and creative energy those novels monopolised. I was completely consumed by them. Those three years were absolutely formative for me in honing my craft.
[GdM] I also find it very interesting that The Earth Remembers did not reach the light over the last year-and-a-bit through people finding it in much the same way as they did The Art of War trilogy. Do you have any thoughts on why it might have remained in the sales hall of darkness?
[RS] I never really pushed it or marketed it and I think even in the three or four years it took me to write and publish the Art of War trilogy, the nature of KDP changed fairly drastically in terms of how the algorithm was structured. I don’t think Earth Remembers was (is) a bad book, but it was just completely invisible, which is the default state of any self-published novel (and indeed published novel). It was also very different from my ‘UN-iverse’ (the Art of War Trilogy, Hadan’s Reach and the two Ascendancy War novellas); it’s a much pulpier, dieselpunk World War II in space novel, pure MilSF, and yet I was publishing it as an indie space opera author, so I don’t think there was much pull through for my audience. It’s something I do intend to revisit at some point as I have always loved military science-fiction, but I think it needs a new cover and a bit of a rebrand!
[GdM] You once told me you were a science fiction author masquerading as a fantasy author. Can you elaborate a bit on that, and let me know what aspects of your authorial skillset built in science fiction helped you deliver the absolutely magnificent The Justice of Kings?
[RS] Essentially, I’ve always written science-fiction. The Justice of Kings was the first fantasy novel I ever wrote. The first stories I wrote when I was twelve were military science-fiction, and then I wrote a very long novel with a friend which was more military space opera. My first crack at a proper multiple POV space opera solo project was when I was about seventeen, and that formed the blueprint of how I approached fiction ever since. From there it was 40K fanfiction, then the Art of War trilogy. Even now I have science-fiction trilogy idea I’m 50k words into writing, and a sci fi standalone called Prophet about a space fighter pilot which I really must do something with (that could well be my favourite ever book I’ve written). So, for as long as I’ve been writing, fantasy is very much an aberration for me.
I saw a reviewer once compare The Justice of Kings to the Star Wars prequel trilogy and the collapse of the Republic (with Justices being a bit like Jedi), and, whilst that was certainly not my intention, I really love that comparison—the idea that The Justice of Kings is a secret science fiction novel masquerading as a fantasy trilogy. But I think for me the authorial skillset wasn’t necessarily built by writing science fiction per se; rather it was built just by writing so much. Ultimately the only way any of us get good at anything is by practising, and so all the books I wrote prior to The Justice of Kings all helped to hone that narrative voice.
[GdM] With The Empire of the Wolf soon coming to its society-collapsing conclusion, can you tell me what you’re writing next?
[RS] I have three projects on the go at the moment. The first is a flintlock fantasy trilogy set several centuries after the Empire of the Wolf Trilogy and centres around a diplomatic mission to an enigmatic and violent race of sea dwellers. The second is a short post-apocalyptic novel set in London; and the third is a contemporary crime novel set in Sydney which revolves around a sequence of shark attacks. So, fingers crossed something happens with these in the near future!
Read The Art of War Trilogy by Richard Swan
This interview was originally published in our Sci-fi / cyberpunk special issue: Grimdark Magazine Issue #34.