Author Archives: Kevin Ikenberry

Home As Setting and Theme

When my debut novel, Sleeper Protocol, was released in 2016, many of my childhood friends, family, and even my teachers commented about my use of “home.” Where I call home is a long way from where I live now, but every time I’m there the feeling of peace is as palpable as wrapping a blanket around my shoulders. I was born and raised in upper east Tennessee in an area called the Tri-Cities. My family actually lived very near a small community known as Midway – it was Midway between Johnson City and Tennessee’s Oldest City, Jonesborough. The Appalachian mountains filled the eastern horizon, running in a roughly southwest to northeast line. It’s a beautiful place.

And I never intended for my story to go there.

As the story of a cloned soldier trying to find his identity unwound from my brain to the keyboard, I initially struggled with “What’s the point?” or even Eric Flint’s famous guidance of “Who gives a $^#@?” I needed something to make the character’s emotional struggle hit home and that’s where the inspiration hit. So, I took my character home. In the third act, he descends Cherokee Mountain, crosses the Nolichucky River, and ends up on a small knoll where a farmhouse once stood. All of those are real places and the knoll is where my family’s homestead still stands. My cousins own “The Farm” as we call it, and it’s wonderful to know that it’s still there and open for my family to visit any time we want. That openness and warmth led me to bringing my character to an very different emotional level. I gave him a sense of place, a sense of a home that he’d once had and was very different than the future one, but a place he could identify with fully and embrace his identity. Once I’d opened that door, I proceeded to move him further along the path by having him stand over his own gravesite in the Mountain Home National Cemetery.

The journey to find his “home” was really the key to unlocking his identity. My first ideas to bring him through familiar territory to help with my description and emotional resonance gave way to something else entirely: a theme I’d never intended. Our sense of home is a large part pf our identity. Even our home nation, or state, or municipality is much more than a common bond to our neighbors. We identify ourselves to that place forever. No matter where I go, when I am asked where I’m from I always say that I’m from Tennessee and just happen to live elsewhere.

My point is this – write about your home or wherever you consider your home to be. Pull that emotion and identity into your own writing. Your voice will improve, your characters will seem more grounded and real, and your readers – especially those who claim the same sense of home – will keep asking for more. When you’re not writing about your home? Put that same warmth and emotion into the characters who are there. It makes a difference to the story and to your characters.

A Small Press With Big Accomplishments

When I prepared to submit my debut novel Sleeper Protocol for publication, I decided that I would look into small presses as well as larger more traditional ones. As I prepared my list of potential “candidates” a good friend and co-author of mine mentioned a publisher I’d never heard of before: Red Adept Publishing. I added them to the list of potential publishers that I would research. As soon as I looked closer, I realized that Red Adept would move to the top of the list.

At that time, in 2014, I discovered that Red Adept Publishing had already published a New York Times Bestselling novel. That was a huge plus for them on my scoresheet. I also discovered they were located in North Carolina and being from Tennessee, this was another plus. Not too shabby. When I checked the normal sources (Preditors and Editors, Author Beware), I found nothing negative to speak of and so when the time came, I sent them Sleeper Protocol and kept my fingers crossed.

One October afternoon, I had some scheduled writing time before I was to pick up our youngest child from daycare. I walked out of Starbucks, got into the car, and my phone rang with a North Carolina area code. I picked it up and so began my first conversation with Red Adept Publishing. Lynn McNamee and her amazing team go much farther above and beyond than most small presses I know. Not only was I told that Sleeper Protocol would get a copy edit and a line edit, a spectacular cover, and marketing assistance, I found myself folded into a group of authors across many genres (fantasy, romance, thriller, paranormal, science fiction) who support each other and really are one big, happy family. I could not have been happier to have signed a contract with them.

It’s fair to say now, though, that Red Adept was not the first small press I submitted to, nor was my contract on Sleeper Protocol the first small press contract I received. The first publisher has since gone out of business and their contract, which they touted as “negotiable,” was a learning experience in and of itself. When I look back and compare that publisher and Red Adept Publishing? Yeah, there’s no comparison at all. Why? Red Adept’s contract is very friendly to authors and the quality of work they’ve produced over the last several years stands for itself.

Since I signed with Red Adept, the publisher has seen another author hit the New York Times list and two authors hit the USA Today Bestsellers List. Those are tremendous accomplishments for any press, not just a small press. What sets them apart is very simple: they are the most professional, enthusiastic, and supportive team of authors and editors that I know and I’m thrilled to be a part of them going forward.

Just the other day, I received an email from my line editor that it was time for Vendetta Protocol to start its final march to publication. We already have an amazing cover and I was fortunate enough to have the same editing team from Sleeper Protocol sign on for the sequel. I’m looking forward to publishing more with Red Adept Publishing in the future. They certainly have changed my life. I’m very glad that I decided to go with a small publisher, but it matters most that I went with one of the right ones. They’re out there.

Adding Realism Military SF

Last summer, I met up with one of my readers (I still can’t use the word ‘fan’ yet) and they told me that one of the things they loved about my novels was the depth of military realism I brought into the stories. I can honestly say that I never really planned that but after more than two decades of service in the Army I’m not surprised that the “realism” is there. Frankly, it’s never far from my mind and I’ve been retired for a little more than a year. Writing military science fiction is a perfect genre for me because I still think in military terms and I probably will until my dying day. To me, writing things like proper military radio conversations are easy. I understand rank structures and organizational hierarchies that leave most non-military folks dumbfounded. So, I wanted to share a couple of tips on writing military science fiction for this month’s “special sauce” theme.

Understanding rank and structure in a military organization is a critical point of military science fiction. Readers expect to see that you, as an author, have at least a basic understanding. Rank is fairly simple on its own. A private reports to a sergeant who reports to a lieutenant and so on and so on. That “reporting to” piece is where structure comes into play and things get more complicated. Describing that relationship would take much longer than 500 words, so I’ll simply tell you that the first key to realism in science fiction is research. There are a myriad of sources that you can tap to get the information you want. Simply searching military rank or organizational structure will get you started on that path. Remember that armies are different than navies. You can even go so far as to create your own military structure – that’s fine – but you have to make sure it passes this simple sanity check: roles and responsibilities.

Let me give you two classic examples. First, Star Trek. The captain of a ship is never going to be on an “away team” and take his officers, engineers, pilots, etc. with him. I’m not saying that the captain of a ship wouldn’t get down to the surface at some point, but he’s not going down immediately. No way. For Star Trek, though, this works because the ship’s captain (Janeway, Picard, Kirk) are the central character and it would be a boring universe if the captain did what captains do.

The second example is the movie Independence Day. Even at the end of the world scenario, the President of the United States and the “leader of the Free World” is not going to strap on a fighter jet. Maybe if he were the absolute last person on Earth, yes, but in that scenario there’s no way a President does that. For the movie, though, it works because we’re suspending disbelief all over the place.

My point is this – understand where your character sits in the grand scheme of things. At the start of your story, a private is not going to be a vehicle commander or a sergeant isn’t going to be in command of a ship. You can certainly take them to that point, if that’s your character’s arc, but negotiating them to that point means that you have to have an inherent understanding of those relationships. It’s an essential part of world building in military science fiction. As for the nuances of writing more realistic military scenes? There are a number of movies and books that do it well. The internet can be a great resources, too. However, I’m going to steer you in a different direction.

Chances are that you know someone who has served in the military. Ask for help. A simple conversation could give you more ideas and information than you could ever use. That conversation might also help that veteran in more ways than you can imagine. So, simply ask. Whatever you choose, take the time to get the details right. In military science fiction, that attention to detail sets you apart from other authors.

Artificially Intelligent Liars

One of the most pivotal scenes in the movie (and novel) 2010 comes when Dr. Heywood Floyd, Dr. Walter Curnow, and Dr. Chandra discover the reason for the HAL 9000’s actions in 2001 aboard the USS Discovery. As the ship’s near-AI system monitor, HAL 9000 killed three crew members in hibernation and caused the death of astronaut Frank Poole before being disconnected by Commander Dave Bowman. The lingering question in the nine-year intermission was “Why?”

As it turns out, HAL 9000 received two sets of instructions and the logic between them did not compute. As a result, he was forced to interpret the results as best he could…and he learned to lie.

The concept of an artificially intelligent liar is one that’s been around a long time. I can think back to an 80s movie called D.A.R.Y.L. where a defense robot with an AI capability was built with a body of a young boy. I admit that seeing the kid wearing an orange high-altitude pressure suit and flying an SR-71 was really cool having been fairly young myself, but the scene that strikes me the most fro that film is DARYL learning to play baseball.

He’s a natural. He hits every pitch a mile and instantly becomes the star player and the coaches love him, but the kids don’t. Especially his best friend on the team. So, DARYL learns to lie and in the big game moment, the whole “bottom of the ninth and the score is tied” trope, DARYL strikes out.

HAL 9000 and DARYL both learned to lie in order to deal with complex human relationships. While HAL’s is extreme, DARYL’s is one that captivates us as the robot asks and answers the question “What does it mean to be human?” in a way that we can all understand. How many of us have had that big moment and failed? I’d venture to guess that we all have.

Now, there are other examples of artificially intelligent liars (CLU from Tron: Legacy) who lie to humans to get the humans to do something in particular and humans in those films are gullible enough to do it for them. Don’t get me wrong, I am a HUGE Tron fan, and the concept was great in Legacy, but would Sam really go to the arcade? Wouldn’t Alan just call the number? Anyway, I digress…

The artificially intelligent liar found its way into my own writing. When I sat down to write the original version of Sleeper Protocol, my plan for Mally (the artificially intelligent protocol) was to simply act as a benevolent character looking out for Kieran Roark as he tries to discover his identity. When the book stalled in Act Two, I knew that my chosen antagonist wasn’t doing enough to hamper Kieran’s development. The lightning bolt of realization that Mally could become the antagonist accelerated the re-development of the book and I pounded through a new, longer draft in less than two months. And guess what? Mally became the artificially intelligent liar and the story was better for it. I’m looking very forward to Vendetta Protocol‘s release later this year as Mally learns about what it really means to be human.

Lying is a just part of being human. Isn’t it?