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First off, could you introduce yourself to the readers?
I am Nathan P. Butler (the “P.” so as not to be confused with the Star Trek writer, Jerry Sohl, who used “Nathan Butler” as a pen name). I am the writer of two WARS: The Battle of Phobos novellas for the Earther faction, Healers and Hunters and On Red Soil. I am also the writer of the time travel novel (that folks really should read, plug plug plug!) Greater Good, and I contributed a few times to the Star Wars saga’s “Legends Continuity” with Equals and Opposites in the pages of Star Wars Tales, assistance on The Essential Atlas (by Jason Fry and Dan Wallace), and the like.
Writing is a freelance sideline for me. I’m a high school Social Studies teacher by profession. I teach at a Title I (i.e. many low income households) high school in the southwest Atlanta metro area, currently teaching World History and Advanced Placement World History, with previous years teaching American Government, Economics, World Geography, Debate, and Constitutional Law.
In fandom, I’m an active member of the Star Wars fan community. I am the creator/compiler of The Star Wars Timeline Gold (“the most comprehensive Star Wars chronology available anywhere”), founder of the Star Wars fan audio directory StarWarsFanworks.com, and a Star Wars podcaster since 2002, currently heard on Star Wars Beyond the Films and The Star Wars Report’s Rebels Roundtable. I also host a series of YouTube videos on Star Wars, such as my From the Star Wars Home Video Library series.
I’m a total geek, but my wife adores it, so I’m allowed to live.
How did you get involved in WARS?
I was contacted by Josh Radke of Grail Quest Books in late 2009. He had found me through Facebook, I believe, and at the time I had written for Star Wars Tales in 2004 and had just self-published the original version of my time travel (and telepaths!) novel Greater Good maybe two months earlier. He asked if I was interested in writing for the WARS franchise, and my first reaction was . . . “What’s WARS?” (And why is this guy capitalizing every letter?)
He brought me up to speed on the general idea of the WARS saga, and I got excited by what I was hearing. I dove into the WARS saga headfirst, buying a lot of WARS TCG boosters (from both Incursion and Nowhere to Hide, of course), the six starter desks, and the three Mongoose Publishing WARS RPG books out of my own pocket, then researching the heck out of the WARS universe. (To date, I still have an almost complete set of the WARS TCG – all the regular cards but two, I believe.)
After that, it was a matter of coordinating with the series editor, the other writers, and the previously existing materials to pitch the story that eventually became Healers and Hunters.
Since we last talked, your second WARS novella was released, which delves much deeper into some of the complicated aspects of WARS. What was it like getting to deal with some of the more personal consequences of a WAR between planets?
I really enjoyed it. Healers and Hunters was written with sort of an Aliens vibe. You know, the ol’ “monsters are in the dark, so you’d better not be a minor character if you value your life” type of tale. It was more about introducing the universe to new fans and setting up characters than being able to use an existing foundation to delve deeper into those characters. With On Red Soil, I finally had the chance to do that with Rogan, Jannett, and Jerlen, but there’s something to be said for the freedom that comes with
taking a character that didn’t exist in the game (Kippli) and getting to create and develop that character from the ground up.
I know we’ll get into the genesis of the character later, but I loved being able to zoom in on one man’s personal struggle to do right by his people, his job, and, most importantly, his family. The war between the Earthers and Gongen would be all about powers and principalities, so to speak, but for a person caught amid that war, the primary concern has to be: “how do I protect my family?”
At one point, I had actually planned to make the first novella I wrote into a story about Chan Whitmer. I thought it would be fun to tell a spy story with a primary character who was East Asian by ancestry but Earther by allegiance. We abandoned that idea early on because we wanted to set up heroic Earther characters to be a sort of core “fellowship” to carry on through all three Earther faction novellas.
As it turns out, my second novella gave me the chance to look at the cultural issue (and briefly use Whitmer) by making one of the protagonists an Earther with East Asian roots whose wife is Gongen and son is of mixed heritage. At the time we started fleshing out ideas for what was then just called Earther-2, the only things that were certain about Kippli were his name and that he was a diplomat from Earth to Gongen. What better circumstances to have a man who understands both factions and finds himself with family roots on both sides of the fence? He’s a good man “going native” and finding that the other side isn’t all “evil” but instead a nation of other “good men.”
If you’ve ever seen the film Thirteen Days about the Cuban Missile Crisis, there’s a great moment where Anotoly Dobrinyn, representing the Soviets, tells Bobby Kennedy, JFK’s brother: “You’re a good man. Your brother is a good man. I assure you there are other good men. Let us hope the will of good men is enough to counter the terrible strength of this thing that was put in motion.” I think that’s Kippli in a nutshell.
Would you live on the Earth of WARS, or on Gongen, if given the chance?
Confession time: writers often write characters to be similar to themselves or idealized versions of themselves. That said, I think I would hope to be someone like Rogan Hallard. He lives in a meritocracy, he is a proponent, presumably, of economic freedom (something I particularly value, given that I’ve been an economics teacher), and he is a patriot, but at the same time, he values life and honor, and he is willing to try to see both sides in the conflict and serve the greater good by helping the wounded on both sides. Rogan’s characteristic of being from a family with many people in the medical field, yet him serving others in a different way is very much based on my own family, with my father, stepmother, sister, and an aunt all in medical fields, yet my mother and I both feeling a similar call to “serve” through teaching.
So, I’d be an Earther, but I wouldn’t be a jingoistic bigot. (I’m looking at you, Jossel Swin . . . at least after I was through with you!)
What stories inspired or influenced your writing?
I’m a big fan of Star Wars, which is my main sci-fi passion and the franchise I grew up wth, so that universe influenced me in both writing and much of the rest of my worldview. I tend to aspire to produce writing that reaches toward Aaron Sorkin in terms of dialogue and J. Michael Straczynski in terms of weaving a solid sci-fi adventure tale. A lot of my WARS writing was inspired by the game, once I dug into it. I know that sounds like a cop-out, but writing in the pre-Rift era has a different feel than telling a story in the post-Rift era of the actual game, so it felt at times like the latter was inspiring ideas in the former.
What is your favorite thing about writing in the WARS Universe?
I love the idea of three (or five post-Rift) factions in WARS. I mean, Star Wars has the Rebellion and the Empire, or the Separatists and the Republic, but it is usually pretty easy tell who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are. WARS is much more like Babylon 5 with its handful of major races and the interactions between them. Each side has its own view of right and wrong, good and evil, and thus makes each side feel like the heroes in their own tales, yet villains in the eyes of others. A good villain is often one whose decisions and actions aren’t about “being bad.” They make decisions they feel are toward a particular greater good or goal, but their methods and the underpinnings of their goals are what make them villains. Heck, when it comes down to it, Darth Vader was a boy who grew up a slave, grew up without a father, was taken away from his mother when he was a kid, was brought up in a monastic order that put pressure on him to be the fulfillment of a prophecy, and then ended up just wanting to save his wife from dying in childbirth. Just being “evil” is too simple. It’s the way each side looks at itself and the other factions that makes WARS so interesting.
Is there anything about the setting you don't like?
In terms of the setting as described through the roleplaying and trading card games, probably the thing that stands out the most is that there really aren’t designated “main characters.” There are characters who got their own cards when others only rated a mention in a card’s lore, but when writing for a franchise, you really need the ability to harken back to a core group of characters. Star Wars is about Luke, Han, Leia, Anakin, Obi-Wan, etc. Lord of the Rings is about Frodo, Gandolf, Aragorn, and the rest. Before we started writing the novellas, there really wasn’t a way to look at WARS and say it’s the story of Characters X, Y, and Z. It was a huge, sprawling, really cool setting, but outside of small bits of prose fiction and card lore, it was in most respects just a setting, rather than a storyline. The story was all the backstory for the game, not the game playing itself out, with the exception of the Incursion RPG adventure book. As a fan, I want more WARS stories to read myself.
Earth's corporate structure is very much a meritocracy, but in many ways Gongen's is too with Shocho putting people into career path's based on their strengths. Do you think their cultures are more similar than they would like to think they are?
Well, if we assume that a person will play to their strengths in terms of the career path they embark upon and their eventual choice of corporate affiliation, then one could argue that Earth is using the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith’s capitalism to accomplish the same ends as Gongen’s socialist or communist central planning. That’s one thing I find intriguing about WARS’ take on command economies. In real life, socialism and communism, when applied to entire societies, have resulted in more of an oligarchy than actual equality, the ol’ “some are more equal than others” aspect that George Orwell wrote about. WARS, though, leaves the decisions of its command economy (Gongen) to an artificial intelligence that, in theory at least, removes the element of human ambition and lust for power from the equation. The result is a capitalist society on Earth and a communist or socialist one on Gongen that both manage to thrive (unlike how purely communist countries in the real world have essentially self-destructed in the vein of the Soviet Union). Their methods are different, but their end result, at least in terms of individual skills being realized and put to use, ends up being very similar.
But that is a big part of the human experience, right? We enter into conflicts not just over major ideological differences (Judaism vs. Islam in the Middle East, Confucianism vs. Buddhism in China at one point), but also over minor differences amid many similarities (such as Shi’a vs. Sunni Islam in Middle East geopolitics).
Obviously a huge difference between them is the Western/Eastern cultural divide between Earth and Gongen. Do you think the divide in WARS is in any way an adequate Sci-Fi parallel of reality?
It isn’t the kind of divide that I think Americans often think of these days. We are preoccupied with American culture versus the goals of Islamic Extremists or with American sovereignty versus Central American culture in the immigration debate. In reality, yes, there are some pretty wide gaps between Western and East Asian cultures, but many of those differences have been papered over by changes in the last century, especially in Japan after World War II and China after the Great Leap Forward. As “they” have become more like “us,” our cultures have come to seem less different than they were in the past.
I would argue that the East / West divide is either more akin to (a) the era before Western Imperialism (the Opium War, etc.) when Western Europe was surging through the aftermath of the Renaissance, Reformation(s), and the Age of Exploration, and China had dominated East Asia (both on their own and under Mongol rule) for centuries or (b) the division of West and East that gave rise to the Cold War, since its philosophies better mirror WARS, but the culture of the West in that case was most concerned about the Soviet Union, rather than East Asian communists.
Again, there’s a lot we can see in WARS that is an allegory for history, but it isn’t a perfect parallel. Instead, it does what most good Science Fiction does: it takes elements from reality, realistic human behavior, and a dose of “What if?” to create a tale that is different enough to entertain but similar enough to our own experiences to feel grounded in realism.
Your Novella also features a family that is being torn apart by having parents on opposite sides of the war, a personal touch that really brings the war down to earth (so to speak). Can you tell us anything about the creation of Kippli Darnel?
Well, you hit it right on the head. My goal (and the goal of the team when discussing the different angles being taken in the different novellas for each faction) was to provide a more personal struggle in On Red Soil than something as sweeping as a planet versus planet throwdown. In Healers and Hunters, I had a responsibility to sort of reintroduce readers to the WARS universe while telling a story focused on the Earthers and building characters for that faction that would be able to carry forward into the series and, eventually, into the game era. With that in mind, I’d focused in on the inter-company rivalries on Earth and how the Mavericks could come in to profit from it. I’d hit two of the three factions, but not the two that were about to engage in full-scale war. I look back on it as being akin to what Fantasy Flight Games (for fellow RPG fans out there) did with their Star Wars roleplaying line recently. Rather than jumping straight into the Rebellion versus Empire conflict, they focused more on a seedier, fringe side of things with Edge of the Empire, holding that greater conflict for their second outing, Age of Rebellion.
In that same vein, I had introduced (reintroduced? Is there such a thing as “pre-introduced?”)Rogan, Jannett, and Jerlen back in Healters and Hunters when dealing with Pepper and Joker, but that was a sort of fringe conflict. I’d made references and such within that story to explain the situation in the Solar System, but On Red Soil was about taking these characters that we now knew (better than we knew them from just their trading cards) and putting them into the primary conflict of the Battle of Phobos series: Earth versus Gongen.
As I said earlier, what I really enjoy about WARS is that it isn’t simply “good versus evil” all the time. Each faction has reasons to see itself as “good” and the others as “evil,” so there is a lot of gray in this universe. That is something I think the novella series does well, as a whole, since there are three novellas from each faction in the full nine-novella series, but I wanted to get into the gray areas on a more personal level within one novella.
The result was Kippli. Having taught history for over a decade now, I’ve always been interested in the “other” people in war: not just the soldiers and leaders but the citizens, refugees, and foreign nationals caught in the middle. I think about what it may have felt like to be a Japanese diplomat, delivering Imperial
Japan’s message to FDR right after the Pearl Harbor attack. You know that you are stuck in an enemy country and the only thing that really protects you are the “rules of war” that in themselves are just artificial boundaries society has created and said we won’t cross in order to make ourselves feel that war can be somehow kept “civilized.” I don’t know about you, but if I’m that diplomat, I’m in need of fresh undies after that meeting!
I also frequently teach students who are of mixed heritage, especially those who have one white parent and one African American parent, and I see how they are often tugged back and forth between “cultures” by their peers. I also remember my mother’s story of how, as a white kid, growing up in Evansville, Indiana, which is something like 80% white, she once tried to point something out to me and said it was over by where “that black man” was standing, and I had no friggin’ clue what she was talking about because the concepts of “white and black” had never been part of my upbringing, probably because of how monochromatic my town tended to be. Juxtaposing those two different racial perspectives on childhood, I actually started out wondering if perhaps I should have Kippli be of mixed heritage: Earther and Gongen.
The more I thought about it, though, the more I kept thinking about the childhood angle, and how the way one is introduced to cultural, racial, and gender differences as a child shapes how one relates in those ways as an adolescent and onward. What intrigued me, though, was how a young child doesn’t naturally see things through those lenses. Kids just see “people” until someone teaches them that there are differences. That interested me, but it wasn’t as though I could make Kippli a toddler or something, so I latched on to my feelings of sympathy toward parents who face raising mixed heritage children in areas where cultural differences are the subject of intense feelings on both sides. Thus, Kippli became that kind of father, torn between cultures not because of his heritage but that of his son.
Rogan, Jerlen, Jannett, and Ryuu are great and all, but to me, the most interesting character in either of my novellas is Kippli. I’m excited to see where the third Earther novella takes him, since I’m not writing that one!
Is there anything you'd like to say we didn't ask you about?
Well, if you are looking for any of my “stuff” online, you can find more on my written works and links on how to find them at nathanpbutler.com, my Star Wars Timeline Gold and some of my podcasts at starwarsfanworks.com, and my current podcasts among the podcast family over at starwarsreport.com. I’m also on Facebook and Twitter, and you can find that info on those sites as well.
And, on a completely obsessive compulsive note: If you happen to have an extra “Premeditated Reaction” or “Seyal / Dark Side” . . . the folks here at the site know how to reach me. Help an Earther out!
Is there anything you'd like to say to fans on this 10th Anniversary of WARS?
I am almost embarrassed to say that I was not a fan of WARS when it began in 2004. I had honestly never heard of it until I was asked to write for the franchise in the year of its 5th Anniversary. I tip my hat to those of you who were there in the beginning. I have come to love this saga and had a blast during my time writing in its universe, and I can only imagine the thrill of having discovered it for the first time back when the card game and its spinoff RPG were both still in full swing.
Thank you all for welcoming me and the rest of the team into WARS with such enthusiasm, and I hope we have done the universe we all enjoy justice. Above all, I hope you have enjoyed Healers and Hunters and On Red Soil. Where the franchise goes when the WARS: The Battle of Phobos novella series ends is anyone’s guess right now, but I know my fondness for the community built around this five-faction slugfest will be around for the rest of my days as a writer, gamer, and fellow fan.