“Alien Day” Q&A with Rick Wilber

Alien Day, the second novel in a trilogy by Florida sci-fi author Rick Wilber, was released in early June 2021 by Tor Books. The book and its predecessor, Alien Morning, are available on Amazon. I appreciate him taking the time to answer a few questions!

Wes Platt: These stories are heavy on sibling relationships, both good and bad. What drives your interest in those dynamics?

Rick Wilber: Storytelling thrives when characters have conflicts, and the sibling conflicts in the S’hudonni stories have been a very useful tool for plot and for characterization in the novels.

What drives my interest in those dynamics? Well, I’m one of five children of Del and Edna Mae Wilber, and the five of us certainly had our share of sibling friction as kids. Even as adults there’s been more friction than I’d like between me and several of my siblings. None of these sibling problems come close to the anguish and anger of Peter and Tom Holman, in Alien Day, though, where the rivalries get to be life-and-death in intensity.

The same is true for my alien S’hudonni princes in Alien Day, Twoclicks and his brother Whistle. They’re squabbling over who gets to control Earth and its profits, and humanity’s future is at stake while these two brothers quarrel. If that’s a little reminiscent of European history, with interconnected royal families from various countries getting involved in spats that bring entire nations to war, well, yes, that’s what I had in mind.

There are some good sibling relationships in Alien Day, too, principally between Peter Holman and his sister Kait, where the good-hearted Peter tries to rescue Kait from the clutches of the evil Whistle and things don’t go at all like Peter planned. As I wrote that part of the novel, Kait sort of took over and I came to realize what a strong and capable person she is. Her actions on the home planet, S’hudon, have a major impact on the entire S’hudonni system, including Earth.

WP: Alien Morning explored an Earth media landscape dominated by influencers like Peter whose every waking moment and interaction might be of interest to huge swaths of people, and generate revenue. How far away does that seem with people gaining fame minutes at a time on TikTok – or for hours, streaming themselves in hot tubs on Twitch? And what does such a narrow focus do to the people who watch it?

RW: That’s a terrific question, and one that no one has asked before! I’ve been tinkering with the idea of fully immersive media since the 1970s, when I wrote a story (unpublished), called “Being There,” where a football quarterback is hooked into the system and his fans feel all his sensory input and his emotional state, as well. When he suffers a traumatic injury on the field all of his tens of thousands of followers suffer the same symptoms, though they are physically unharmed. The ramifications of that are what the story talks about. I came back to the idea many years later in Alien Morning (Tor, 2016) where my protagonist, Peter Holman, is a modestly talented basketball player in Europe’s second division and after he is injured and needs to find something else to do with his life, he becomes an early “sweepcaster,” sending out all his sensory inputs to anyone willing to buy a receiving unit as he interviews Hollywood stars, top athletes, politicians and so forth. To make it more exciting he goes skydiving with these celebrities, or shoots free throws or takes batting practice or penalty shots with the athletes and so forth. He’s successful with this and apparently this new medium of “sweeping” or “sweepcasting” is what brings him to the attention of the newly arrived S’hudonni aliens, who’ve come to Earth not to conquer but to make some money. He winds up touring parts of the world with Twoclicks, the alien prince who’s intent on running things on Earth, and Peter is there when Twoclicks and his brother Whistle, equally intent on running things, get involved in violent sibling squabbles. In Alien Day, Peter is still sweeping at the start of the novel and all of Earth is connected to him when bad things happen.

How are close are we to having these kinds of systems? I was recently asked to write an essay to that effect, talking about future media systems for baseball fans, in particular and in my research for that essay I came to realized we’re very close, indeed. We already have haptic technology, gloves and other wearables, that can give us the sense of touch for a hitter at the plate or a centerfielder making a catch at the wall, we have smart glasses that could easily give us capture the sights and sounds of that hitter or that centerfielder, capturing taste and smell can’t be far off, and there you are: sweepcasting! My Alien Morning/Alien Day novels are set in the early 2030s, and I’m very certain that sweep systems will be with us much, much sooner than that.

What are the implications for the audience? I suppose it’s all part of the same worries we have about virtual reality systems that continue to improve at an amazing rate. Ready Player One is on the way, and we’ll all have to make sure and remind ourselves that there is another reality, one that requires eating and drinking and sleeping and living a “real” life.

I suppose I need to write a story to that effect, in fact, using sports (as I so often do) as the tool to talk about these kinds of issues.

I should add that sweeping or virtual reality or smart glasses or gaming are all on the same general time-sink wavelength as reading a good book. My father, a guy who played and then coached in the major leagues and managed in the minors, used to get mad at me for getting lost in the books I was reading as a kid. He wanted me to go outside and play some ball with my pals. On a sunny Midwest Saturday morning I’d be on the couch reading some space adventure and so caught up in the excitement of it all that hours would be flying by. Dad would come grab the book out of my hands and insist I got outside and play. That should sound familiar to today’s generation of gamers. Different tech, that’s all.

WP: Have you struggled at all to write during the pandemic? How have you managed to balance your creative interests with the harsh reality of lockdowns, mask mandates, and anti-vaxxers?

RW: My wife and I both teach online and have for some years, so that part of our lives didn’t change much. We know how fortunate we were in that regard. On the writing side, I very much missed all the usual social gatherings that are part of being a science-fiction writer: Worldcon in New Zealand, the Conference on the Fantastic in Orlando, the Rio Hondo Writing workshop in the mountains of New Mexico, our excellent local con called Necronomicon, and several others. These were the places where writers and readers could gather and share a lunch or dinner or a drink and chat. Technology helped during the pandemic, from Zoom to Facebook and all the rest, but doing these things in a virtual fashion wasn’t as much fun as being there in person, for sure.

I did manage to get a lot of writing done, though, despite the election turmoil and the constant worry about C-19. I was especially worried about my Down syndrome son during the pandemic, and that worry didn’t ease until we finally got him fully vaccinated a few months ago. My wife and I had been lucky enough to get vaccinated a bit sooner than that.

It’s interesting to me that I felt like I didn’t want to write about the isolation and the pandemic. I needed to be free of that, at least in my mind. So I wrote a romance novel set in Edinburgh, Scotland (a city I dearly love) and London (ditto). I haven’t sent that novel out yet, but I wrote it at a feverish pace, ninety-thousand words in five weeks time. Perhaps I’ll send it to my agent sometime this summer, if it’s good enough. Writing it was a great release of energy for me.

And I kept up with other writing things, too, collaborating on a novelette with physician and pal Brad Aiken. That was “Tin Man,” and it appeared recently in Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine. I also wrote a twenty-thousand word novella, “Billie the Kid,” and sold that to Asimov’s. It will be out in the September/October issue. I also collaborated on a generation-ship novelette with best-selling author Kevin J. Anderson, “The Hind,” that ran in Asimov’s last December and is a finalist in the Asimov’s Reader Poll for best of the year. We’ll see if it wins or not. It was great fun to write, and Kevin is a force of nature. He writes so well and so fast that it was hard to keep up with him. In fact, to be honest I couldn’t keep up with him, but eventually even with my plodding we got it done and it’s a good story.

And, of course, most importantly I finished final edits and proofing and all the rest on Alien Day back in the summer of 2020 so it’s great to finally see it come out and get some good notice. It was a Top Seller just the other day on the Macmillan/Tor website, so that was a good sign.

I got a few other things written and published, too, so 2020/2021 have been pretty good to me in terms of writing, despite the pandemic.

WP: Did you pick up any new interests, hobbies, or useful skills because of the pandemic?

RW: I wish I could say I went online to learn conversational Spanish or how to play the guitar, or that I took that online course in Climate Science that I’ve been wanting to do. Alas, I didn’t get any of those things done. Que lastima.

I spent the bulk of the pandemic working online, or writing and revising. My wife is a runner, and I’m a cyclist, so we did that for our exercise, especially after we learned how much safer it was being outside. Other than seeing my Down syndrome son every morning, the both of us masked up, I wrote, taught, read and watched a lot of Norwegian and Swedish television (through the magic of Walter Presents and Netflix). That was mostly it.

WP: Where do you find the fun in telling these stories?

RW: I’ve been in love with the written word since elementary school, so the very idea that I could not only read a story, but I could write one, send it to an editor and the editor might like it and publish it, first got me excited in high school. I wrote some poetry for the high school literary magazine and was shocked and a little embarrassed (that old Midwest humility at work, I suppose) to see it published. But, boy, was that fun. Since then I’ve progressed from high-school poetry to sportswriting for local papers when I was in college, to feature writing for newspapers and magazines, to reviewing for newspapers and magazines, to writing science fiction short stories and, ultimately, writing a few novels. It’s been great fun all along the way. The process of invention, dreaming up an idea, roughing it out, maybe outlining it, then writing one draft and the next and the next and then, down the line, seeing it in print, is still a whole lot of fun for me. I’m a storyteller, and these are the stories I like to tell.

WP: What surprised you most about the writing of this new book? Did any particular characters or storylines twist in a way you didn’t expect?

RW: Sure, things change all the time! In this novel, Chloe and Kait (Peter’s love interest and sister, respectively) sort of took over the story in ways I hadn’t really planned. Peter is very angsty and self-reflective, and that’s OK. But Chloe embraces life and enjoys it, sometimes very courageously. She’s a lot of fun to write about. And Kait has a tremendous arc, from a terrible moment in her youth through a drug-addled retreat from that ugly reality to finding happiness in her true love only to have Whistle yank her away from that to a whole different planet, where she rises to the occasion and finds her heroic inner self. That was tremendous fun to write. In both cases, Kait and Chloe, I didn’t plan on how things went for them, but I’m sure glad they surprised me.

WP: Does the third book have a title yet? When is that expected to be released?

RW: I’ve been slow in getting these novels done, for sure, so there’s no timeline yet for the release of the third novel. What happens in it is that, many years later, Peter finds himself visiting an Earth colony planet that was set up for Earthies by the S’hudonni. Peter is a famous writer by this time, and he thinks he’s there to write a book and do a sweep documentary on life in Caledonia, a drizzly, cool place where the humans have prospered to some degree. But Twoclicks has other things in mind, and they have to do with worries over the return of the Old Ones who left in a hurry millennia ago from S’hudon, leaving behind their technology, which Twoclicks and friends have used to establish their little trading empire.

And now that old civilization is returning, and Twoclicks has made sure that the crazy warlike Earthies on Caledonia are right in the way of the coming trouble. Can Peter Holman, poet and writer, become a leader to hold off the encroaching Old Ones. I guess we’ll find out.  I don’t have a name for the novel yet. You or your readers have any suggestions?

WP: Your books are available in print and on Kindle. Has there been any discussion about audio versions of these books?

RW: The two books I did last year for WordFire Press, The Wandering Warriors (with Alan Smale) and Rambunctious: Nine Tales of Determination, are either out now in audio versions or will be soon. It was great working with Marie Whittaker, associate publisher of WordFire Press on getting these audio versions done. We had a chance to listen to the early versions and make any needed corrections in pronunciation, which was great. My agent is at work on audio versions for the other books.

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Wes Platt

Lead storyteller. Game designer and journalist. Recovering Floridian.

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