Knowing the Rules, and Choosing to Break Them: An Interview with K.B. Wagers

Knowing the Rules, and Choosing to Break Them: An Interview with K.B. Wagers

The NeoG trilogy, published by Harper Voyager: A Pale Light in the Black
(March 2020), Hold Fast Through the Fire (July 2021), and The Ghosts of Trappist
(June 27, 2023). Covers by Vadim Sadovski and Reginald Polynice

K.B. Wagers is one of the most exciting of the new crop of space opera writers. Their first novel, Behind the Throne, appeared in 2016 from Orbit Books, and it kicked off what eventually became a popular six-volume series featuring Hail Bristol, a runaway princess who becomes one of the most fearsome gunrunners in the galaxy. Packed with alien gods, centuries-long conflicts, treasonous plots, interstellar civilizations, invasions, intrigue, diplomatic missions, a spaceship with a motley crew, and full-scale galactic war, the Hail Bristol universe is terrific rest stop for anyone who enjoys space opera and political intrigue.

K.B.’s new NeoG series, set in our own solar system, follows the adventure of the Near-Earth Orbital Guard, a military force patrolling and protecting space. The first two volumes, A Pale Light in the Black and Hold Fast Through the Fire, will be followed by The Ghosts of Trappist, arriving in hardcover from Harper Voyager on June 27, 2023. Lara Báez, the Publicity Manager at HarperCollins, was kind enough to arrange an interview with K.B. before the release of the new book. The complete text of our email discussion, which took place between May 31 and June 5th of this year, is below. It has been lightly edited for clarity, and to correct the worst of my spelling mistakes.

[Click the images for space opera-sized versions.]

John O’Neill — Great to meet you! Can I call you K.B?

K.B. Wagers — Great to meet you also. And yes, K.B. is great.

Let’s start with the first thing that occurred to me when Lara told me about the book. You’re known for rousing space opera trilogies, but Lara described The Ghosts of Trappist as “A standalone space adventure and part of the critically acclaimed NeoG series.”

That doesn’t sound like the closing book of a trilogy to me. Tell me about your plans for the NeoG series — will there be more? Where do we go from here??

You are correct! Ghosts is not the closing book in a trilogy. In fact, all the NeoG books are technically standalone plots, they just happen to fall in chronological order on the world timeline at the moment. I tried to make the books in this series ones that you could pick up and read in any order without being lost in any larger overarching plot. In Ghosts we get to see a little more from one of the other Interceptor crews – Dread Treasure – and it was fun to spend some time in new characters’ heads.

As for what’s next? Yes there’s one more NeoG book coming, most likely in 2024, and while I don’t want to say a whole lot about just yet I can say it’s going to be noticeably different from the previous three books.

Is it tough to do a series of standalone novels in this market? Conventional wisdom seems to be that readers prefer a series they can binge, at least in the speculative fiction genre.

I haven’t really noticed any difficulties, to be honest. If anything it seemed like we ran into some trouble with the Hail trilogies because people weren’t able to keep up with the releases. The great thing about the NeoG books is I think you still get that sense of familiarity you can find in a series, e.g. a lot of the same characters, close timelines, familiar situations. But you don’t have to attempt to do a reread of the books before the next one releases. (unless you love them enough to want to, of course!)

The Indranan War trilogy, the first three Hail Bristol novels:
Behind the Throne (August 2016), After the Crown (December 2016),
and Beyond the Empire (November 2017). Published by Orbit Books.

This is your first work outside the Hail Bristol novels. Was it challenging to step away from such as well-loved universe?

It was and it wasn’t. The thing I will always remember is I wrote A Pale Light in the Black immediately after writing Down Among the Dead. Fans of Hail will know what a difficult story the second of the Farian War books is and it wasn’t an easy book to write. So getting to jump into a world that was less dark and far more fun was truly a life-saver for me. I adore Hail and company and would have continued writing in her world if it had been possible.

Writing in first person does lock you in as an author to a very specific viewpoint so it was a breath of fresh air to be able to expand outward with the NeoG and see the world from multiple perspectives throughout the stories. It was challenging in the sense that I had a lot more voices to keep track of to a greater degree, some of them — like Jenks — were easy. She practically leapt onto the page and started waving her arms around. Others, Max for example, proved to be a greater challenge. But I love the characters in the NeoG universe now also and it’s been a joy to write their stories.

Let’s talk about the new book. The publisher’s description says it “expertly weaves the fun aspects of mysteries, pirates, and battles, with deeper, more existential themes involving A.I., queer relationships, and healing.” That sounds terrific, and I’m here for the mix of mystery and pirates. But AI is having a serious moment right now, both in fiction and in real life. Do you ever worry about reality overtaking your fiction?

Oh excellent question. *laughs and claps hands* Honestly, no? In large part science fiction’s entire purpose is to be taken over by reality. We dream up things that can be possible in our works (sometimes built off ideas that are already floating around in the science space, sometimes built out of whole cloth).

I’ve already run into this with the pandemic — the first NeoG book came out March of 2020 and while it doesn’t deal expressly with a pandemic, part of the world-building revolves around the Collapse which was a series of plagues and climate disasters that led to the near-extinction of the human race. I’m sort of used to real life mirroring my books at this point, though I’m not particularly happy about it. I would absolutely prefer not to experience the Collapse in real time.

Anyway, AI is a fascinating topic for me and Jenks’s robot dog, Doge, provided the perfect opportunity to explore just that. We get to see him grow in ways I hinted about in Hold Fast Through the Fire as well as a look at where he came from and what his relationship with Jenks is like. Doge is what’s known as an artificial general intelligence (AGI), which doesn’t exist in our space right now. An AI that’s more human-like in nature, capable of making decisions with the information they have, capable of feelings, and the ability to problem-solve and learn. Is he supposed to be able to do that? No. Which is a large part of the fun.

K.B. Wagers

Some people claim that’s exactly what things like ChatGPT are doing, but the reality is those programs fall under the definition of artificial narrow intelligence (ANI). They’re around to solve a specific problem and limited by the programming. They’re not designed to learn, they’re designed to pull information from their collective data banks and regurgitate that information in a new format. The problem as we’ve see is that this information is often biased and dangerous. And the answers are riddled with inaccuracies.

And, as we all know the other issue here is that these programs aren’t solving any “problems” we currently have — they’re targeting artists and writers and musicians. Give me an ANI that can perform hazardous, tedious, repetitive tasks so that humans can make art. (whew, don’t I know there’s a whole other ethical discussion on the horizon about AI and sentience but at least as far as the tech is concerned that’s a pretty long distance away)

But yes, pirates! And very non-realistic space battles.

Engaging with EXACTLY these questions is a big component of what makes science fiction fun. I don’t know if it’s actually relevant but boy, it FEELS relevant. Not just books like yours, but the discussions that rise up around them.

Speaking of which, one thing I appreciate about your work is that you help bring a vocabulary to these discussions, which is enormously useful. AGI, ANI… see, this interview has made me smarter already.

It’s tough enough to tell an interesting story without having an audience that expects you to also be a leader in cutting-edge technology discussions. How do you keep up?

Half the time I don’t. *laughs* I actually just got home from the amazing opportunity to attend the Launchpad Astronomy workshop (, which was a week of cramming space information in my brain at the University of Wyoming with a handful of fellow authors. It was incredible and I learned so much more about space. I needed to lie down for a few days afterward and let my brain rest. (I also acknowledge the fact that while I love science and put accuracy in my books, I also play really fast and loose with rules and sometimes just ignore physics entirely in favor of a space fight.)

I am not great at recall, but I have been blessed with the ability to know where to find good answers and a lot of smart people in my life willing to help. A good friend I used to practice kung fu with was a valuable resource for writing a lot of Sapphi’s hacking scenes, for example, thanks to his information security skills. Another fellow author knows a thing or two about robots and was kind enough to beta read Ghosts to give me a hand with Doge.

At the end of the day, I’m a storyteller and I’m more focused on the characters and what they’re going through than a deep dive into a technical explanation of something. It’s a choice I’ve made and one I’m happy with.

The second Hail Bristol trilogy: The Farian War, published by Orbit Books.
There Before the Chaos (October 2018), Down Among the Dead (December 2019),
and Out Past the Stars (February 2021). Covers by Stephan Martiniere.

That’s a lovely answer — and not just because it has robots, space physics, hacking, and kung fu virtually in the same sentence.

The NeoG series keeps the action close, in our local Solar System. Do you find staging the story in a familiar celestial environment demands more scientific rigor on travel, in a way that space opera across a far-flung galaxy might not?

I actually really enjoyed the chance to talk about our own solar system more, because so often science fiction stories do take place in some far-flung galaxy. Getting to talk about Jupiter or the fact that the asteroid belt is so vast it’s actually pretty rare you’ll even see an asteroid unless you’re looking for one, for example.

Because it’s fiction though, I also get to do things like ignore some pretty dramatic real-life challenges we have with space flight. Things like velocity, fuel and the fact that it’s actually easier to get to Pluto than it is to the sun, or the fact that we can’t travel anywhere near the speed of light which means getting from point A to point B could take a really long time. Because space is “vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big” as Douglas Adams loved to say.

So you could say I know the rules, and choose to break them (or throw them out the window entirely *laughs*). The travel in the NeoG world is in the same bent as Star Trek or Star Wars, slightly handwavy engines and the ability to move in space at will. What is causing me some trouble currently is the lack of gravity on Mars — which is about 1/3 of Earth’s. I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with that in the next book.

One thing I appreciate about the series is the constantly growing cast. A Pale Light in the Black focused mostly on Max and Jenks; Hold Fast Through the Fire expanded the point-of-view to include Nika and Chae; and in The Ghosts of Trappist we meet Sapphi, and even expands beyond the crew of Zuma’s Ghost to meet D’arcy and Emel. Is a large cast a problem for newer readers, do you think, and if so how will you manage it?

I really enjoy writing bigger casts (though, whew, sometimes trying to remember who’s in the room and where they are in a fight is a lot). I generally try to make it as easy on readers as possible to keep track but I know that some people don’t like that. Which is fine. The plan has always been to branch out and get more voices in there to give everyone a wider view of the world while sticking with Max and Jenks as the anchors. (Also because we love them.)

We started adding a cast of characters for reference, but also I think one of the major things authors can do is to keep the voices of the characters alive and distinct. If you can do that, it makes it more difficult for readers to get lost or confused about the number of people in the story.

I enjoy the mix of tension in the books. It’s not all high-stakes space action; there’s also high-stakes competition with the Boarding Games, where our crew gets to shine. Will future books continue to feature the Games?

No one was more surprised than me to end up writing a sports book! *laughs* I love writing the Games though, it’s a lot of fun. Also a bit of a challenge to write something fresh each time. (No spoilers for Ghosts but I really had a great time writing some of those scenes out.) So the fourth book doesn’t have the Games in it due to the timeline of the story, but I’m hoping we’ll see some future books with more Games shenanigans!

You mentioned there’s a least one more NeoG book coming out next year. I won’t ask you to spoil that one for us, but I *am* curious about what’s next for you. You’ve already shown a gift for large-scale space opera (with the Hail books), and for close-action swords-and-spaceships near future adventure. Peeking ahead 2-3 years, can you give us a hint at what your next writing adventure might be? What are you dying to try next?

Thanks so much! I appreciate the compliments. I have spent the last few years finishing out contracts and trying to get my feet back under me after a pretty bad case of burnout. I’ve been privileged to have the space to rest and have been taking full advantage of it, so at the moment all I have are some vague ideas that have been rolling around in my head for years. One is exceedingly dark, a story about corruption and power and unrepentant terrible people who are willing to burn things down to get what they want. Though, I’m honestly not quite sure I’m ready to dive into it until the world is in slightly better shape.

Another is part fairy tale, part space opera, part cyborg story about how to break free from the chains you didn’t even realize were holding you down. (and because it’s me there’s a healthy dose of found family and desperate missions against overwhelming odds). I’m also dying to dip my toes into video game writing and am looking to make some connections at GenCon this fall to help with that. As always there’s the hope that I’ll get to write more NeoG, I have several ideas on that front I’m very excited about. We’re going to take a little trip back to the beginning!

Thanks for chatting with us, K.B! What’s the best place to keep up with you?

Thanks for having me on. I really appreciate it! As the internet social media sphere disintegrates around us the best place to find me is on Instagram @midwaybrawler or on my website

Check out K.B.’s space adventure novels at finer book stores near you!

The Indranan War (Orbit Books)

Behind the Throne (2016)
After the Crown (2016)
Beyond the Empire (2017)

The Farian War (Orbit Books)

There Before the Chaos (2018)
Down Among the Dead (2019)
Out Past the Stars (2021)

NeoG (Harper Voyager)

A Pale Light in the Black (2020)
Hold Fast Through the Fire (2021)
The Ghosts of Trappist (2023)

Keep an eye out for The Ghosts of Trappist, arriving at the end of the month.

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