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Star Trek was never like this.
Sex, sentience and synchronicity: pushing the boundaries by Astrid Cooper

Starlight ISBN 978-1-55487-144-5
Trade Paper Back: 350 pages. RRP $24-99.

Starlight - think Casanova meets Star Trek with a touch of the paranormal.

Write about sex and diverge from the societal boundaries of sexuality and be prepared for some interesting times.

My latest book is a departure from my usual style and content. It has been a risk, to dare to boldly go where.

Sexy space opera - a new sub-genre?

My first introduction to "space opera" was Alastair Reynolds' House of Suns. Alastair may not appreciate me linking MY space opera to his genre, but that book of his blew me away. I began to think of how to label my Starlight series. Because of my vast setting and cast of characters, it had to be saga, but I thought, why not "space opera"? As for "sexy space opera" - no one was certain what I meant when I first tagged it to my work, but now I'm seeing this label around the lists, together with "erotic space opera", so maybe others are also pushing the boundaries of genre?

Starlight is set in the galaxy, two hundred years into the future. The story begins at the Saturn Hilton, journeying outwards to other worlds, and concluding at Broome, Western Australia. Consequently, there are some things that are familiar, but with a twist, such as "galaxy e-bay". I had fun with making the contemporary, futuristic. I believe that if I'm having fun during the writing, then maybe my readers will, too. My heroine is Australian, as some other characters, and there's a reference to vegemite in several scenes (one cannot travel the galaxy without an adequate supply of vegemite!) As for setting the end of Book One in Broome? That will be part of the surprise for Book Two: (special effect from Astrid: evil writerly cackle).

My latest book IS sexy, but writing those "docking manoeuvre" scenes, one after the other is boring. I added something new: the schahor (the starlight levels) which are stages of communication and love, shared between soul mates, culminating in mutatis. It's also a blending of mind, body, spirit with the felinus homeworld. (Sex, yes - but not as we know it!)

I have an 86 year old reader who has read all of my print published works. She wrote and told me how much she enjoyed Starlight because it had plot, story, world building - "not just a string of sex scenes strung together, like so many other paranormal romances". I was pleased to get that comment. (Interestingly, I had another reader tell me the exact opposite, so it just goes to show the diversity of reader tastes).

Sensuality and sentience

My 86 year old reader further said that "the story has been within you for a very long time." I pondered these words and I had to agree. Starlight has been the culmination of many divergent influences starting when I was five years old and the publication of my first speculative work - a romance about a Princess of Venus, which had a print run of one copy and was sold to my mother for 3 pence (5 cents).

I grew up with Star Trek and Lost in Space. In the mid-seventies I became involved in Trek fandom (writing and publishing fanfic, organising the local Trek club and numerous Trek conventions). I was also introduced to fantasy/sf fandom and I read the works of Marion Zimmer Bradley (Darkover) and Anne McCaffrey (Pern), as well as Ursula K LeGuin, Tanith Lee, etc. I loved these writers: I enjoyed the romantic touch they gave to their stories. I started up a local Darkover "fanclub", but that soon branched out to cover many worlds and interests - The Australian Council of Diverse Worlds was born. Members' poetry, art work, short stories, etc. were featured in the Council's bi-monthly magazines which I published, together with the annual fiction magazine. That group existed for 25 years and it was during this time that I began to write about my own worlds, always with "romantic" elements.

So, I blame it all on Star Trek!

The aspect of Star Trek which most interests me (besides the characterisation and camaraderie between Kirk, Spock and McCoy) is the principle of IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations) which means, basically, that all life is diverse and one cannot measure a life-form according to human standards. What, exactly is "humanity" or "sentience"? These ideas have been explored in Star Trek (the original series, as well as the New Gen) and some of my favourite episodes consider the meaning of sentience: that all life is equal, despite the exterior differences: human, animal or alien. "It's life, Jim, but not as we know it." to quote an oft-used line from Trek. Starlight has this undercurrent: the existence of humans and shapeshifters within a galaxy of the near future, though, of course, there is prejudice against the different life forms and sexuality - equally among humans and non-humans. In Starlight all creatures have sentience, for example, the whales and dolphins which appear in the final chapters (Starlight Seduction)

One of my readers wrote to tell me how much she loved the scene with the singing whale. It's a pivotal moment and I can't say too much about it, but all will be revealed in Starlight Book Two. My 86 year old reader was particularly taken by the purple tentacled shifters in the shifters' Rendezvous Bar. She has asked for more. Funny, how a one-liner character can attract attention. Obviously the character and the humour were at play and I may have done something 'right' to have such an impact with a reader.

The combination of sentience and sexuality also featured in my short story, recently published by Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild in its Masques anthology. I wrote Still Life (a clock punk setting) after being inspired by the film A Destiny of Her Own, about the famous Venetian courtesan (Veronica Franco). I sent off the story, but had second thoughts, due to its sexy story line. I emailed one of the editors to give an alert about sexual content, only to be reassured that sex was OK provided it was integral to the story.

Ironic isn't it, that the story I spent weeks agonising over was not the story that was picked to appear in Masques. Gillian Polack was my editor and she was as interested in getting the history right, as I was, so I learned a little more about medieval food from her, and I'm sure my story is that much better for her clever and pedantic eye. One of my characters in Still Life is a robot. There's also an artificial intelligence in Starlight whose companion is an A.I. kitten. This use of robots/A.I. in my books is just an extension of my quest to understand sentience. I pose my questions using a romantic/futuristic framework.

When humanity ventures into space, we are going to meet some diverse life forms: we won't be able to measure them against a "human" standard. How can we? How can we be so arrogant as to assume that life forms will be recognisable either mentally, spiritually or physically? We will have to have a new perception.

Again, blame it on Star Trek - particularly, the first motion picture. The idea of V'ger returning home after gaining sentience, asking itself (what we all ask ourselves): 'is this all that I am, is there nothing more.?' was a poignant and pivotal moment for me. V'ger's desire was to 'join with the creator' and at the end of the movie, the machine-entity did so through the A.I., Illia, and the human, Decker.

Synchronicity strikes:

In an interview I did with Kim Falconer in The Specusphere, we talked about synchronicity. (LINK) My life and my career is all about synchronicity. Many of my publishing contracts have resulted from so-called "chance" encounters, or moments of "luck". Starlight is a good example.

I received an urgent phone call from my Canadian publisher - a hole had suddenly appeared in a list of upcoming titles: did I have a 5,000 worder that might be suitable? I had this short story hanging around - a sexy piece, set in the near future that might fill the gap. As I began to re-write it, I found the premise changing. Then, suddenly, the hero told the heroine: "My father is felinus." Whoa. I came out of the writing trance and read what I had typed. 'What's a felinus?' I wondered. By the time I finished the story, I had an inkling. I sent off Starlight Ecstasy to the publisher and figured that's 5000 words and the slot's been filled. End of story. (yeah, right!!?) I went to bed that night. In that state between sleep and consciousness - a time when I do a lot of my 'writing' - I had these characters and scenes appear: cat shifters, an evil reptilian starlord (again, who, what??) so when I sat down in front of the computer the next morning, I had Starlight in my head, along with characters demanding that I tell their story. Now, after 125,000 words I know all about the felinus. Except 'Harimal' will have some surprises up his paws in Book Two.

The reader reads.

A reader reads from their perspective and can see (or ignore) the layers in the story they are reading, or even see something that the author has not consciously included - the meaning of the text is in the eye of the beholder.

If the work is speculative, then an author may cross a boundary that a reader cannot. Speculative fiction, by its very nature can challenge - should it always do so? It can present a different worldview than the reality in which we live.

Starlight might appear, on first glance to be a series of highly sensual scenes with a "fluffy" story threaded throughout. But the characters and the plot textured as I wrote and re-edited. Most of the characters are shapeshifters, particularly felinus (human cat/shifters) who interact with the world and others usually through their sexuality, so there's bound to be a lot of "docking manoeuvre", in all its infinite diversity. But within the obvious, is the "unobvious" - the layers and depth that are there for a reader IF they choose to look. My 86 year old reader saw the layers - saw the loyalty and courage and sacrifice the characters made for each other. This loyalty-at-all-costs was one of the compelling reasons I had behind writing the story (so I later discovered). I grew up reading the tales of King Arthur and I studied medieval history at University. The concepts of loyalty, courage and fidelity permeate Starlight. Another underlying theme of my work is: 'what is humanity'? And I ask that question of the artificial intelligences in the book as well as the shifters - mostly done through the point of view of my human heroine, who must also question her "humanity". A book can always be read on many levels. So, regardless of whether a reader sees (or decides not to see) the themes, layers and depths within a work, the work is interpreted by the reader based on their own world view.

The author writes:

As a writer I am constantly challenged by my creations. I do not plan what I write. Only once did I succumb to advice that I must plan every scene or have the work out of control (the sign of a bad writer, I was told). By the time the outline was finished, I knew the story and was bored. It remains in the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet. I like to let the characters tell the story. As a writer, I want to be surprised. Something happens, or a character appears, or another character says something and I wonder why at the time, but my subconscious knows it all. Me? Well, I'm just the poor schmuck in the middle, the medium who types, who does what she's told. My readers tell me that there are always unexpected twists and surprises in my books. That's good to hear. If my work is predictable to the reader, then I think I've failed as a writer. I figure if my characters surprise ME, then my readers will have to be, too.

The Song does not remain the same:
(with apologies to Led Zeppelin!)

Every creature has his, her or its own "song" and this is also a theme in Starlight. Readers have asked me about the opera sequences. Before I began writing Starlight I never listened to opera, never understood its appeal. I was a Led Zep gal. But all that changed when one of the characters told me that he sang opera; the hero's felinus name is Kuno. Kuno was a name from a Steinbeck novel, The Pearl. So I had this idea about Kuno and pearls and I don't remember how it came about, but I listened to a piece of music that haunted me. Then I discovered the name of the opera - the Pearl Fishers by Bizet. Synchronicity strikes again. I also heard a tune by Puccini and that sent shivers up my spine and I "saw" the two felinus brothers signing a duet. I didn't rest until I discovered its title - and from that time to now, I listen to opera, and it is at these times I "see" the characters and scenes I have written about in my book, or am planning to write about in the next. By reader demand, I have added a glossary of opera, as well as felinus words and phrases in my book.

The birth of the reader is the death of the author:

Isn't this a challenging statement? The French philosopher, Barthes, said that 'the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author'. Kim Falconer introduced me to the topic (thanks, Kim, for pushing my boundaries of perception of writer/reader). Check out the posts on the Voyager blog spot.

Yes, I think a reader can breathe new life into - or present a new interpretation of a published work. Again, I cite my 86 year old reader. Occasionally, a character or a work of mine so inspires her that she writes poetry for me - she was very taken with Harimal as well as the shifter with the purple tentacles (and I am awaiting a poem about the purple tentacles). She doesn't write very often now, as her hands are crippled with arthritis, but when she does. it is the highest compliment. She is reincarnating my work, in her own image (again, her eye beholds what I have created, and she re-works it).

The author is also re-born (as is the work) when the book is read by others. And, recently when I returned to Starlight after an absence of months and read it as reader, I was surprised by what I saw. In that time, I had, as a person, undergone some experiences that ensured I was not the person I was when I wrote the story - so I read the book with new eyes, with new experiences, and discovered layers and depth that I had not noticed. This may sound odd - as creator/author, I surely must know what is in the story, what I am doing? Not necessarily. The characters tell the story and there is often moments in the writing process where what I write comes from "without" - from somewhere beyond the author and the characters. I could cite some specific examples, such as the experience I had with tarot cards while writing the felinus tarot card scene in Starlight. All that aside, while reading one particular scene, I had an "Ah-hah!" moment - the theme of the book revealed to me as reader. Here is a brief extract:

What sort of person let a friend suffer alone? In that moment she understood the felinus world, their humanity. The irony hit her. Humans, so proud of their humanity and their superiority over all, would turn away in fear or disgust, or in jealousy, not sharing a lover because of their own inadequacies.

Am I human, or am I felinus? Samantha wondered.

So the writing process for me is characterized by surprises, by synchronicity. I will always have varying degrees of sexuality in my books - I write about relationships. For me, a fully developed fictional relationship of fully developed characters must, inevitably, be consummated - whether in the traditional human way, or through other means, appropriate for that species. I may not have explicit docking manoeuvre in all my books, but there will be "bedroom scenes", or hints of them - it depends on what the characters want.

I used to be worried about reader reaction to the point that I would delete scenes and words to remain inside the boundaries of the genre in which I was writing. But that created many issues for me, not least of which was writer's block.

A brave new world?

In the past few years I think that "alternative realities" and new ways of looking at the world have begun to enter the mainstream. It seems that many are looking for "answers" beyond the traditional. The popularity of The Da Vinci Code, or the proliferation of the urban fantasy/paranormal books (45% of all SFF is now DUF) is indicative of this search, not to mention the popularity of Harry Potter and fantasy, in general. And there is also the green movement, as well as the animal rights movement, particularly PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals).

I listen to people talking. I hear "past life", "reincarnation", "ghosts", etc. threaded through ordinary conversation. I wrote my first vampire/fantasy in the mid nineties and sent it to New York. Agents and publishers rejected it telling me that 'no one wants to read about vampires'. Ten years later, what fiction genre is selling the most? I just think this shift is gradual, but it's there and whether one believes in ghosts, reincarnation or synchronicity, our world view is so very different from our grandparents, even our parents. Kim Falconer talks about this in her Quantum Enchantment series and in the interview I did with her at the Specusphere.

Writers are now exploring sexuality and alternate realities in ways that ten years ago would have been considered "taboo" or "off the planet". People look at the world through different lenses and explore different realities through the media of pictures, words and sounds and I use these, often in combination, in Starlight.

To read reviews, reader comments and the first chapter of Starlight, please go to astridcooper.com/books-starlight.htm.

Details of where my books can be purchased, please go to: astridcooper.com/bookstore.htm


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