Q&A With Rick Wilber

Rick Wilber tells us the story of how the blimpies came to be. These are the aliens who lend their name to Wilber’s new novella set in his sprawling S’hudon universe. Check out “Blimpies” [in our March/April issue, on sale now!]

Asimov’s Editor: You’ve been writing about the S’hudonni Mercantile Empire for a long time. What led you to have an interest in aliens who are interested in profit, not outright conquest?
Rick Wilber: Yes, I’ve been using the S’hudonni Empire stories to chew away on the topic of colonial capitalism for a long time.  My first story that featured the S’hudonni was “War Bride,” back in 1990 for one of Ellen Datlow’s excellent original anthologies, Alien Sex, and there have been a number of stories since then, most of them in this magazine. The names and details of the aliens who arrived on Earth were different in that first story, but the concept started there. Those aliens came for profit, then fled when more powerful competition arrived in that first story and an innocent Earth was annihilated, so not a very happy ending.
And isn’t that the story all too often when it comes to colonial empires and their profit-making? Those empires, whether they’re British or French or Dutch or German or S’hudonni, are there to make money for London, or Paris, or Amsterdam or Berlin or S’hudon, the homeworld of my aliens.
Since those early stories in magazines and the two novels that followed, I’ve slowly built on the relationships between aliens and humans. It’s notable though, that “Blimpies” is my first story to be set on the homeworld! That made it especially enjoyable to write. Lots of great worldbuilding.

AE: Tell us about that homeworld. S’hudon is it?
RW: Yes, S’hudon. I have it as a tidally locked planet orbiting a red dwarf star, with just one habitable landmass, an archipelago in the zone between the hot side and the cold side. The storms that develop when the hot and cold zones clash are an important part of the plot of “Blimpies.” I have to say it was great fun researching how a planet like that might have a habitable zone and then thinking through the flora and fauna that might live and grow there. Plus, in this story I explain a little about the civilization that once lived on this planet and fled a looming super flare that would have stripped the planet of all life. In my research I read that red dwarfs were thought to be unstable and prone to such super flares. Very recently, I’ve read some a new study that says those super flares erupt on the side of the red dwarf opposite the planet. You reader can read about this here: https://earthsky.org/space/red-dwarf-stars-superflares-red-dwarf-planets-habitability/ . Happily, this plays right into more stories about S’hudon where the Old Ones (a classic sf/f name for that type of ancient, advanced society) return to S’hudon and want their home back. That’ll be fun to write about.

AE:  The S’hudonni stories published in this magazine and elsewhere have usually had deadly sibling rivalries, both alien and human. This one, on the other hand, seems to have two human siblings who really love and care for one another. Tell us about that. Have you changed your tune on siblings?
RW: It’s sibling rivalries that drive the plot in many of my stories. But in this one, Kaitlyn Holman, the younger sister of my protagonist through all these stories, Peter Holman, is very intelligent and athletic and talented; but she went through a horrible abuse trauma in her childhood that sent her spinning off into a troubled and addictive life. The only family member to stand by her through her troubles was her brother, Peter, so they’ve been close for years. With Peter’s help, and with the support of Sarah, the love of her life, Kait had just found her way to health and happiness and then, because she’s Peter’s brother and he’s a pawn in the power struggle between my two warring S’hudonni princes, Twoclicks and Whistle, she was kidnapped and brought to S’hudon as a bargaining chip by Whistle, the more evil of the two princes. Peter is determined to find and save her, but complications ensue. Kait is the hero of it all as she and Peter grow even closer. It’s been fun to dive into writing about two siblings who really know, love and understand each other. I don’t do that often enough, perhaps.

AE: All right, so we have to know about the blimpies! Tell us about how you thought of them and how you use them in the story.
RW: I think that out of all the alien life I’ve conjured up for stories or novels, the blimpies are my favorites. They’re even more fun than the S’hudonni themselves, who have always been fun to write about given their personality quirks, from funny to deadly. For the blimpies, while doing some worldbuilding for my Alien Day (Tor, 2021) I decided to people the home planet of S’hudon with a lot of remnant technology and life, most of it (on land anyway) not native to the single archipelago which is the only land mass on the planet, where half the planet is covered in ice and the other half boiling hot.
In that novel and in “Blimpies,” the novella, I describe how the S’hudonni have built a whole faux village for Peter Holman, which he calls Holmanville. It’s a place built to look just like the village he left back on Earth, complete with an Irish pub and a coffee shop and house with a picket fence and a wide porch with a rocker on it. They’ve built it to make him feel at home, but Peter feels trapped there and wants to see the real S’hudon, so he starts going for long walks outside the village and there he sees his first blimpie gliding by overhead. He describes them in the novel as “the size of a bus back home which floated serenely along fifty meters up over the bogs that surrounded Holmanville.” After that first appearance in the early draft of the novel the blimpies popped up here and there, no more important than any of the other plants and animals I’d created for the Alien Day.
But here’s the thing. When I decided that Kait’s story was so important and so much fun to write that I wanted to do more with it, the blimpies flew right in and became critical to the storytelling. In the “Blimpies” novella, the relationship between Kait, her brother Peter, and the blimpies really came alive for me and, as your readers have discovered or will discover, they’re crucial to the story. That all seemed to work so well in that novella that I went back and leaned more heavily into the blimpies in the next draft and the draft after that of the novel.

AE: Are you considering using the blimpies again in another story? We really enjoyed them.
RW: You’ve persuaded me! Actually I have one more novella-length story in mind that is set on S’hudon, when war looms as the original inhabitants of the planet return. The blimpies will have, you might say, an explosive importance in that story.

AE: What else is the works?
RW: Glad you asked! There’s another Moe Berg novella, “The Goose,” that will appear in this magazine in the near future. It’s an alternate-history spy novella set in Hollywood during the late 1930s and early 1940s, when home-grown American fascists wanted to keep the United States out of the war in Europe and make peace with Hitler. With war looming, these fascists planned to sabotage the Southern California aircraft and shipbuilding industries should war be declared. Also, during that time period the German government worked hard to censor Hollywood films that told the truth about Hitler’s Germany and the Nazis treatment of the Jews. All of this comes to a boil as famous Jewish baseball player and spy Moe Berg and his mysterious handler, the woman named Eddie Bennett in this story, work with others to stop the Nazis and save the day. The novella is a prequel to “Billie the Kid.”
I’m also working on the second edition of the college textbook, Media Matters, for Kendall Hunt publishing and I’m in the final revisions of the long-awaited (at least by me) Moe Berg/Eddie Bennett/Billie the Kid novel, called Alternating Currents, where movie star and inventor Hedy Lamarr saves Los Angeles from total destruction. Go Hedy!

Rick Wilber is an Asimov’s regular. “Blimpies,” in the current issue , is another in his series of stories and novels about the S’hudonni Mercantile Empire, several of which have appeared in Asimov’s. This story is in deep conversation with his most recent novel, Alien Day (Tor, June 1, 2021). Rick’s novelette, “Billie the Kid,” which appeared in the September/October issue of this magazine, was a Readers’ Award finalist for Best Novelette in 2021, and the story, “The Hind” (Asimov’s, September/October 2020) co-authored with Kevin J. Anderson, won the Readers’ Award for Best Novelette in 2020. Rick is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing at Western Colorado University, where he teaches and is thesis coordinator in the Genre Fiction program.

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