Interview with Karen Osborne (Author of The Memory War Duology)

I had the opportunity to review the first book in Karen Osborne’s excellent space opera duology, Architects of Memory, here back in March. I have my review of the sequel, Engines of Oblivion scheduled to post here next. But in the meantime, you can read Karen’s thoughtful answers to my questions regarding the duology and her writing experience. Whether you’ve finished the books already, started them, or haven’t started them yet, read on. And those are your only acceptable options if you are a space opera fan.

This is actually the debut interview for my site Reading 1000 Lives, though I have done some before as part of Skiffy & Fanty. More should be coming soon, so I hope you do enjoy.

Thank you again Karen! Onto the Q&As:

At least in part, the writing and marketing of Architects of Memory and Engines of Oblivion took place amid a pandemic that upended all sorts of interactions, including retail and publishing. How was that experience for you? Were there any surprising silver linings that came out of the bad situation of the pandemic for your novels? 

This year was an emotional rollercoaster. I felt a little like Schrödinger’s Author sometimes—alive or dead, who knows? My family locked down early and hard, so—no live events, no bookstore trips, no live signings, no childcare, no gatherings, no conventions, none of the stuff I’d been looking forward to since I was 12 and gawking at the sci-fi section in the Mohawk Mall Waldenbooks… well, we all know the drill by now.

I’m a gigantic extrovert, so the isolation has been hard to bear. That’s why I love online events. They are easy to attend, are no longer limited to a purely local audience, and make accessible conversations that would have been limited to expensive conventions in The Before Times. I even put together some events myself just because I felt like doing them—for example, a March series I ran with authors talking about how to write when you’re buried with pandemic sorrow and stress. It was quite cathartic for everyone involved.

My book launches were attended by people from literally everywhere, and I got to reconnect with friends from a theater group I was in back in the aughts, the writing group that kept me sane when I lived in Florida, my team from Tor, even relations from California. I also had a Nebula nomination in 2020, and SFWA ran an online awards show that felt like the real thing. It was all a real blessing in an otherwise dispiriting time. I’m sick of Zoom like the rest of the universe, but I’m also hoping that the online events don’t fade into the ether when everything opens up.

As for the rest of it? All I can do in a once-in-a-hundred-years situation like this is my best, and I just have to keep moving forward, writing new stories, and staying positive. That’s really the only way to g 

Engines of Oblivion necessitated a change in point-of-view protagonist from Ashlan Jackson in Architects of Memory to Natalie Chan. Did the returning focus on Natalie in more detail require any rewrites or expansions of her story? Was there anything you missed being unable to do with Ash in the sequel? 

Engines of Oblivion was always Natalie’s story. Ash’s intent to become a citizen began in a fairly utilitarian way—she wanted to find a cure for her disease and to be with Kate, to earn a centered kind of happiness in a life that hadn’t had a lot of it. But Natalie is a true believer. She’s paid into the massive sunk cost fallacy that is Aurora with her blood and her bone. She’s broken from the war, she’s lost people to the cause, she’s unmoored from her roots. To turn back on her investment at this point, Natalie would have to confront her own complicity in the system and navigate through coming to terms with that. I can’t ignore a story like that. It’s the kind of meaty, significant story I love to grapple with as a writer.

But not everything in the sequel was always set in stone from the beginning. I did pretty extensive rewrites to the second half of Engines—writing a book when you’re taking care of a newborn on two hours of sleep a night will do a number on your logic—and some of my favorite plot developments in the book came in that insomniac revision, because, it turns out, I needed to be a mother to write them properly. Architects of Memory was in final edits at Tor by that point, and my production team generously let me go back and support that revelation by making some changes in the first book. I’m immensely grateful.

The path not taken would have been delightful, too. The Ash-directed sequel idea had her and Kate on Tribulation, navigating their increasing illnesses while holding off rival companies like they were starring in Die Hard. It lost out to the fact that the Vai weren’t involved, and they needed to be involved. I might still write it. I think it’d make a good novella.

Most of the characters from the first novel return in the second, in one form or another. But their relationships have mostly turned opposite: complete trust in the team to thorough mistrust of everyone. Did you approach these two states in a different way or have more of a challenge writing the characters in one? 

I see them as the same state. The illusion here is that while the crew of Twenty-Five appears to be a found family at the beginning of the book, it’s really more of a pseudocommunity—a house built on sand, so to speak. I love found family stories as much as the next fan, but I’m also highly suspicious of them. Stories where found families fail are worth telling, too, for the same reason we write dystopias—to figure out how to keep that sort of thing from happening.

We use the word “community” interchangeably these days, from churches to Discords to lists of people on Twitter who like the same video game, and I’m not sure we should. Everyone on Earth has a story or two where we thought we were pretty tight with a group of people only to have the entire thing fall apart over a secret. And then we feel stupid and silly because, hey! We trusted those people with our very hearts! But when you haven’t done the very real, very tough emotional labor to create foundational bonds that last, that’s always what happens. And it becomes hard to for you to trust again in the same way, and it starts to feed into a cycle where trust becomes impossible.

In a way, the entire duology is about Natalie’s experience with that cycle and how she gets out of it. When you meet her, she’s traumatized, but she’s started to really explore the feeling of trust, with Ash and with Len and Keller, and when her world is upended, the cycle begins—and, of course, in Architects, her inability to trust Ash ends in some truly tragic circumstances.

But in Engines, she has to learn to trust again, to do the real emotional work that brings her through the hard times to develop a true community, a true found family, one that lasts through earthquakes and fires and secrets and aliens. Of course, this being a book I wrote, it doesn’t end up exactly like that…

Speaking of thorough mistrust, characters can’t even trust themselves fully due to memory issues. How did you try to balance (or play) with confusion for the characters, and reader’s memories, between books? 

Our memories are really the substance that drives our behavior as humans, right? More than beliefs, more than dreams, more than cash or status. We seek out situations that we remember as beautiful, and avoid situations that we remember as traumatic, from hot stoves to crucial relationships.

The problem is—with memory loss, you often don’t know what you don’t know. You don’t truly understand what you’ve lost unless there’s somebody there to guide you and help you. You think your mind is set in stone, that you are who you are and that it won’t change, but all you have to do is look at a person who has received a brain injury or developed Alzheimer’s or dementia to know that isn’t exactly true (ask me about the time I was driving around with a bad concussion and hit Annapolis before I realized I was supposed to be driving to Baltimore). The memories that remain write your behavior going forward, and the choices you make might not be the same. This happens a lot in the duology. Keep watching as to when the London weapon is activated in the duology, who is present, and what changes…

The book would have been easier to write if I hadn’t chosen close third person, where the narrator doesn’t know anything more than the character. So what I did was drop hints that the characters can’t pick up on but the reader would—for example, Keller looks at a picture of Sharma’s granddaughter while the doctor is on-planet, and after Sharma turns on the London weapon there, she mentions that she doesn’t have one, and the lack of that family information in turn informs Sharma’s decisions going forward. I wonder—would she have made different choices if she’d remembered? I had a whole spreadsheet for each character logging what they knew, what they didn’t know, and how their behavior would change when they found out. The books are littered with little clues like these for the reader. It was a really intricate juggling act and the result is decidedly not a beach read. I’m very proud.

Like many great space operas, your novels touch on multiple themes, including memory, friendship/trust, corporate politics, alien biology, war, oppression… Where did it begin/evolve for you? Did separate stories become one? 

It’s a big katamari ball. The crew has been around for nearly twenty years. I wrote little short stories about them in college, but never really hit on anything that fit, so into the round file they went. Ash’s disease came from my own experience dealing with blood clots—we both have timebombs in our blood. There’s becoming an adult in the wake of 9/11 in there, of watching everything we grew up believing fall apart in greed and violence. There’s my fascination with how space travel is developing, going private, run by corporations, who don’t have workers’ rights in focus and who are already planning de facto indenture/work-repayment programs (which Elon Musk has alluded to on Twitter). And my obsession with writing really alien aliens is in there, too. That’s from the ‘90s, too—the only aliens you got back then were the ones with the bumpy noses and I always wanted to go just a little bit further than that.

It all just kind of came together when started writing. I wish I could say something more interesting than that! That’s why I keep on reading widely, writing about my own experiences, and trying to have new experiences. Whatever you’re doing or going through, remember it all, write about it all, shove it all into the dusty recesses of your brain and don’t forget, because you honestly never know what you’re going to need. The tiniest things may become the most important.

Central to the novels, for me, is the issue of people from all walks of life (or species) just trying to survive. That simple survival often makes it hard for anyone to really change things. Do you feel that’s accurate, and how far did you want to delve into the possibilities of changing power structures?  

I think we as a society often forget that the working conditions modern folks consider bog-standard and normal today—the 40-hour work week, minimum wage, health benefits—were actually paid for in blood. People died. A lot of people. Every inch of it was a battle. It has never been in the interest of corporations and employers to pay a living wage or co-exist with worker movements.

I think corporations often do this because people who are expending their energies keeping a roof over their head or paying for the doctor or figuring out where the next meal comes from have much less time to take to the streets, form a union, or travel to Washington to lobby for change. But they do. They always do. Look at the fast food fight for $15 right now. They’re not stopping because they’re getting political pushback. The Amazon union movement isn’t stopping. Change always comes when the people push for it, and push the people do. It may take years, it may take decades, but it comes, and imagining change often starts in art, music and writing. It’s important for writers to embrace that, especially in science fiction.

The Memory War books as they exist right now concentrate on how Ash, Kate, and Natalie navigate the world they’re in, rather than a bigger-picture view of how the corporate universe they live in could fall or change. That’s partially because I spent most of my thirties in survival mode; I was still caught up in all of that when I wrote Architects. But by the time you get to the end of the duology, you know the days of the Joseph Solanos of this world are numbered. Their days are always numbered, honestly. And it’s part of our job as science fiction authors to imagine how that fall might go down, and what will take its place.

You’ve spoken elsewhere of a longstanding love of space opera, including classic works that were early influences for you, but now are problematic in some ways. There are so many newer choices now that you’ve also cited as influences. However, are there any older works that you think do still hold up relatively well and should be revisited? 

The first one I can recommend is C.J. Cherryh’s Cyteen. What a book. I think I get a lot of my obsession with identity and memory from that book, from watching the Ari clone figure out how close she is to the Ariane original. Cyteen is dense, and is definitely the origin of my obsession with the scientific/political science fiction novel. It has everything—great characters, lots of intrigue, a writing style that keeps you guessing. Reading it as a teen was a big influence, and it’s one of the books where I learned just as much about craft reading it as an adult, too.

I’d also put Iain Banks’ Culture series in this category, too. These blew my mind as a kid. They came out in the late eighties when I was absolutely obsessed with Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I read them around the time I read Cyteen, and it was like taking Trek’s Federation to a new level and exploding it with a literary bomb. They made me think about my own culture. They made me work to bend my mind around new ideas. I haven’t read them in a while, but I’m right now talking myself into giving them a second look.

And, of course, pretty much anything by Octavia Butler is on this list. A third look, a fourth look, a hundredth look. She was brilliant. She was the best of us. I was older—in senior year of high school!—before I even knew Butler and her work existed, which is a crime of my early education I might still be recovering from. It’s tough to admit, but I look back at those early trips to the library and realize just how white and male the shelves were, and how that affected me as a very young writer and a human being. We have to do better—for ourselves, and for our kids.

What is the most unexpected skill or revelation that you’ve gotten from participation in writing workshops? 

This is something to which I’ve given a lot of thought. When I went to Viable Paradise and Clarion, I’d come off a decade of extremely hard work running my own wedding videography business, averaging eighty hours a week. The business failed, as did the two jobs that came after it, and my health and self-esteem was in the gutter. The absolute gutter. I felt wretched. People would tell me “write what you know,” but I couldn’t write, because every single time I tried, I’d look inward and see an ugly failure. I told myself that I wasn’t interesting, that nobody cared about what came out of my head, that nobody would want to read anything I wrote.

The workshops helped to change that, especially Clarion, where I was given the time and space to grapple with it all, both personally and on the page. All I had to do for six weeks was write. I didn’t even have to cook or make my own coffee. And when people that have wildly different experiences than you—workshopmates and instructors—tell you that your work is valid and beautiful, over and over again, and the reasons why are the things that you thought were broken, you start to maybe change the stories you’re telling about yourself. And when that door opens, the rest of it is just practice.

Time and space to figure out what I did best as a writer—that’s what did it. Twenty years of writing and flailing and trying, and I’d never let myself breathe or think of myself as good enough. The workshops changed that. Now everything goes down the gullet when I’m writing—everything I learned so far as a journalist and filmmaker and human being. Some of it’s a little weird, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Do you still have interest in writing any kind of media-tie-in novel? If so, which series/character attracts you most? 

I’d love to write for Star Trek—a Romulan novel, specifically. I love the Romulans—the backstabbing, the passionately stiff upper lip, the cool swords, the political intrigue, the layers upon layers of duplicities… I’d just have a great time.

I’d also like to write Captain Janeway—specifically, how she exists in my head. I was fourteen when Voyager came out, and Janeway was just this massively outsized cultural figure in my world, incredibly important to me and to every teenage lady nerd at the time. I don’t think the creators really knew what to do with her—it felt like they thought she couldn’t be a truly complicated figure, like they fell into the same fallacy a lot of ‘90s media did when writing “strong female characters.” She had to pick love or duty, she was either caring or a bitch but not both, she leaves her salamander children behind on a planet to die

Ahem. I would love to get into her head and figure out what makes her tick, take away all her shuttles, and actually do something with the Maquis storyline. I mean, wasn’t it suspicious that Chakotay put on the uniform that fast…? I think it’s suspicious.

Can you say any more regarding the climate change related novel you are/were working on? And/or other future stories? 

Gosh, I wish I could. That’s the thing about publishing—the sheer amount of time you spend not being able to talk about the things you’re currently doing. I am still writing the climate change novel, and it’s going well. It’s a space opera of sorts, based off a short story that was published a couple years ago at Escape Pod, and it uses a lot of the feelings I’ve been having as the mother of a toddler who will be facing a changed world in forty years. I’ve been extremely emotional writing it, and it’s probably going to show. It needs to show. We’re not getting out of this situation with a stiff upper lip.

And then, after that, I’m going to tackle my Great American Novel! With exclamation points! I’ve had this massive idea percolating in my head for over twenty years, eating up my braincycles, but up until now I haven’t felt quite ready to tackle it. I’m still not “ready,” per se, but living through the pandemic changed me. I never want to write anything I’m not completely thrilled about ever again, and this idea thrills me. I’m really excited. There are aliens. (There are always aliens.)  It might burn some bridges. It might make some people mad. We’ll find out. I can’t wait.

And, I can’t believe that no one has asked you this yet from what I can tell: What are the chances of you writing an Alien Attack Squad episode/story?

Chances are 100% with added fairy dust and nuclear fallout. And it’s going to be weird. When I first put Alien Attack Squad into the book, it was just this funny little throwaway line, and then I started to wonder what aspects of the show that Leonard liked so much, what aspects of the show would have appealed to Natalie and brought both of them together initially, and then I was inventing characters and sketching aliens and doing a lot of worldbuilding. What kind of show would a traumatized, highly structured capitalist society like Aurora Company make? How much was entertainment and how much was propaganda? Were there spangles? What is the role of an entertainment, when you’re weeks away from port? I imagine it’s one third Thundercats or Jem, one third prestige Netflix murder show, and one third The Wellerman. It’s going to be bloody and delightful.

ARCHITECTS OF MEMORY by Karen Osborne

Architects of Memory
(The Memory War Book I)
By Karen Osborne
Tor Books — September 2020
ISBN: 9781250215475
— Paperback — 336 pp.


Indentured salvage pilot Ashlan Jackson has a new work family, and hopes of gaining citizenship now seem attainable. Saved from a mining colony owned by the Wellspring Celestium Holdings corporation where she had little chance of ever getting free from debt, Ash has been rescued by the captain of the Auroran Coporation salvage ship Twenty-Five. Taken on as pilot, Ash has a new chance at life, and the possibility of earning credits to rise from indenture. Despite being physically freed from the colony mines, Ash secretly lives with a terminal illness, one born from contact with the Celestium fuel that powers humanity’s space-flight engines. Citizenship will not only provide Ash freedom, but will give her access to the cure. But, her past on the Wellspring mining colony still haunt her, especially the memories of her dead fiancé Christopher, who perished before he and Ash could both escape.

Though her life remains full of hard indentured work, Ash sees the small steps forward, and has become relatively comfortable around her shipmates, who all trust one another with their lives amid the harshness of empty space and alien threats. Surprising herself, the closest relationship Ash has built is with the captain of the Twenty-Five, Kate Keller. Their mutual attraction and budding romance is something they each try to control and keep secret from the others, to ensure the corporate functioning of the ship remains professional, and their futures’ safe.

The great wrench in their possible futures (but also the tremendous opportunity before the crew of the Twenty-Five) comes from war with the Vai, the first and only aliens met by star-faring humanity. Conflict with the Vai has existed since first contact, and thus far humanity has lost again and again: a devastating destruction of ships, colonies, and millions of lives. Until, everything changes above the colony Tribulation, where the Vai engaged several human corporate ships in battle. Something has happened to cause the Vai to retreat beyond the interstellar boundary known as the White Line. A terrible weapon has been left behind that corporations are now after, ostensibly to help save humanity, but also to get that competitive edge. The crew of the Twenty-Five is first on the scene to scavenge Vai technology and try to find this awesome weapon that can lead to salvation or annihilation. There, at Tribulation, they try and unravel the mystery of what occurred to pause the alien threat. Ash finds answers with both personal repercussions and larger meaning for memory and the nature of life.

Osborne begins Architects of Memory like a blast of lively brass at the start of a Romantic symphony, dropping readers right into the action of this salvage scene and slowly introducing the world, plot background, and characters through Ash’s point-of-view. Along with Captain Keller, we soon meet fiery and loyal war veteran Natalie Chan and Leonard Downey, the engineer who has a thing for Natalie and uses his and irreverent humor as “Chief Executive of Snark” to help calm the others. Also on the Twenty-Five are: Dr. Reva Sharma, an Auroran citizen and physician whose high birthright status and accomplishments sharply contrast with her assignment to the grunt-work of the lowly Twenty-Five‘s crew; the ambitious Executive Officer Alison Ramsay, whose taciturn efficiency compliments Captain Keller’s gentler leadership.

Just as one is getting to know these characters and their histories, Osborne presents more revelations, deepening mysteries, and new quagmires for her protagonist Ash or supporting cast. The pages of Architects of Memory flow with a well-paced intensity balancing action with twisty plots, character betrayals, and moments of quiet resilience when all seems lost or over. The novel embodies space opera as if part of some epic saga, yet manages to do this within a constrained setting of time (days) and location. The reader witnesses struggles, heroism, and failures among this salvage crew, but it feels like a personal story of something much grander in scope. In other words, this is a novel about a handful of specific people, but Osborne makes that individual scale also symbolic for human-wide conflicts of corporate class structure and alien contact.

These humanity-scale themes are nothing new to SF, of course, but Osborne makes them fresh and entertaining at the personal level of character interaction. And, on the front of alien first contact, she writes some fascinating concepts regarding the nature of the Vai. I would write and say more, but I definitely want to avoid spoilers on this. With governments failing to maintain the high cost of space travel/colonization due to fewer immediate benefits (the pandemic has again shown how awful we are at preparing for longterm betterment), private companies have taken on the risks of space exploration to invest in the far-future rewards that will come. Two hundred years from now in the time of Architects of Memory, this practice has led to the indenture and cut-throat (literally perhaps) corporate competition that forms the fabric of human society and injustice. While Osborne doesn’t necessarily take this theme significantly astray from what other space opera SF has done, it seems as if it plays an even larger part in the sequel novel.

I adored the characters of Ash and Natalie, whose interactions and friendship/conflict form the bulk of the novel’s momentum. Osborne puts these two women not just through traumatic pasts, but continued challenges that eat away at the core of their identities and dreams. Yet, they each stay as honestly true to themselves and their ideals as one could ever expect, and fight against tremendous odds for the slim chance of continued survival or eventual victory. The so-called Golden Age of SF soap opera is notorious for having pretty awful representation of females. The men are shown in a better light, but still read as far less than believable humans. They do great things, but they also seem so poorly challenged. As others have also recently done, Osborne corrects things in two ways thus: the genders are treated more equally, and in many regards the gender does not even need to matter (such as clothes or occupation or relationships); all are written with strengths and weakness, and their victories are earned. As much as I loved the character of Ash, I loved Natalie even more. This may be because she and her past still remain dark and mysterious to the readers in many ways (compared to so much of Ash’s point of view). I’m excited to see that the next novel actually is with Natalie as protagonist.

There is only one criticism I would make of Architects of Memory; it comes from its compressed setting, but I was very willing to look past and forgive it amid the abundant things the novel excels at. So many important events occur offscreen (in the past) to have made the present that the novel explores. OK, I admit that’s kind of a dumb statement. Of course the background to a story’s plot has huge monumental events that shape the plot. But here there are some whose absence lessens that impact that plot threads, character relationships, could otherwise have. One instance is the broad close-knit relationship between the Twenty-Five‘s crew, often described by Ash as a family. Cracks and tensions that form in this family, betrayals that occur, happen before readers have gotten to fully see the degree of trust and friendship there. Ash at least relate how things were different, however. The more unfortunate example is the relationship between Keller and Ash. Ash’s love for Christopher, Kate, and herself form the emotional heart of the novel, and it would have been great to see more of her together with the Captain. To Osborne’s credit, she does try to solve this with hallucinations that are a side-effect of the Celestium sickness. I can’t honestly think how Osborne could have solved this without creating other problems, so maybe my criticism here is totally unwarranted. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that my one regret from reading Architects of Memory is that with other constraints it couldn’t explore that relationship between these two great characters more.

With its excellent pacing, compelling characters, and riveting plot, Architects of Memory is a novel that makes the reader want to enjoy the ride in one sitting, or as few as possible. Although it has a sequel, Engines of Oblivion is the intended end to the duology, to my knowledge. And, if you were inclined to just stop with the close of this one, Osborne does a fantastic job at wrapping the events of this episode up in a satisfying way, which makes further adventures possible and welcome, but not obligatory.

For any interested, excerpts from Architects of Memory are available to read on Tor.com and the Tor/Forge blog. I’ll be starting my copy of Engines of Oblivion in the next days and will have a review of that up here shortly after completing, and I also hope to have up an interview with author Karen Osborne on the two novels and her machinations for the future. Look for those then, and if you haven’t yet started with this one, what are you waiting for?