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Fiction Science Club

Space opera features a starship with a mind of its own

The starship is alive, and sometimes you can almost hear it purr.

Science-fiction writer Cat Rambo‘s new novel, “You Sexy Thing,” isn’t the first tale to give a personality to its characters’ interstellar conveyance. There’s the Heart of Gold from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” which had a sunny disposition as it used its Infinite Improbability Drive. There are the Vorlon starships of “Babylon 5,” which grieved when their pilots died. And there are the starships in Iain M. Banks’ Culture series that give themselves whimsical names.

But how many sentient spacecraft are inspired in part by a cat?

Rambo, who goes by they/them pronouns, had their pet cat Raven in mind while creating the character of the bioship that literally sets the plot of “You Sexy Thing” in motion.

“It’s a cross between Raven and a cousin of mine who is the not the swiftest person in the world, but is very good-hearted,” Rambo told me and my co-host for the Fiction Science podcast, science-fiction writer Dominica Phetteplace. During our chat, we delved into Rambo’s plan for a grand space opera that could eventually span 10 novels.

The biological starship in the novel — which happens to be named You Sexy Thing — learns how to see the world through an emotional lens as it interacts with its multi-species crew. “I just love that sort of wide-eyed, ‘everything is wonderful and new’ attitude,” Rambo said. “And so I wanted to convey that in the ship.”

The idea of having a spaceship learn about emotions parallels a very real trend in artificial intelligence research known as emotion AI or affective computing. That can be a good thing, if it results in AI agents that can interact more smoothly with humans. Or it can be a bad thing, if the AI agents absorb our all-too-human biases and emotional excesses. The pluses and the minuses provide plenty of possibilities for sci-fi stories such as “You Sexy Thing” and its sequels.

Over the course of the novel, You Sexy Thing starts to experience a kind of affection for the crew. There are even some PG-13 hints of a sexual awakening as the starship picks up on the cross-species relationships between crew members.

Cat Rambo
Cat Rambo via Kittywumpus.net

Rambo said the references to sex and gender in “You Sexy Thing” are meant to parallel what’s going on in contemporary society.

“One of the things about science fiction is that it’s so much about the age that we’re living in,” they said. “And I feel like right now we have come so far and so interestingly in terms of figuring out stuff about people’s gender, and the fact that people could be gender-fluid, or asexual or romantic. All of that is important to acknowledge, and so in some ways, that’s what I’m trying to explore with the crew.”

The pleasures of food play an even bigger part in “You Sexy Thing”: The leading characters are mercenaries who have retired from the battlefield and decide to open a restaurant on a space station. It turns out, however, that some old enemies — and the starship called You Sexy Thing — have other plans in store for them.

References to out-of-this-world dishes abound, so much so that Rambo’s book has been called a cross between “Farscape” and “The Great British Baking Show.”

“I will confess there is so much ‘Farscape’ influence in the book because I just adore it,” Rambo said. “I also am a huge foodie, and so when I was trying to figure out what my mercenaries do post-mercenary life, I was like, ‘They’re setting up a restaurant!’ I think that’s where the ‘Great British Bake-off’ comparisons came from.  And I’ve actually tried to continue that. I just turned in the next book, which has an alien cuisine pop-up restaurant.”

Rambo admits that there’s not a whole lot of solid science in “You Sexy Thing” — but when it was time to write the second book in the series (tentatively titled “Devil’s Run,” in keeping with a ’70s disco theme), Rambo turned to actual astrophysicists.

“I went to the Launch Pad astrophysics workshop in Wyoming with Mike Brotherton,” Rambo said. “And I was so glad to go there, because I think I sort of back-jiggered all of the science based on the things I learned there.”

"You Sexy Thing" book cover
“You Sexy Thing” by Cat Rambo. (Tor Books)

For example, Rambo is now confident that the faster-than-light travel portals described in “You Sexy Thing” are powered by the supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies. That idea actually carries scientific weight: Some theorists say disturbances within the magnetic fields surrounding a black hole could generate stable wormholes for faster-than-light travel.

Rambo said the portals will play a pivotal part in the next novel: “They have not malfunctioned very often, and the next book starts with one of them malfunctioning — and someone showing up who may or may not be on the up-and-up offering to fix it.”

Can Cat Rambo keep this up for 10 novels? Let’s hope so: There’s a big finish planned for the final installment.

“I have this long-running, smoldering love triangle that is going to run through the books, and by book 10, I want people deeply invested in the outcome, because I love that,” they said. “I love long series, and you get to the last book and you’re just like, ‘Oh, God, that’s perfect!’ So that’s what I would like to do.”

Cosmic Log Used Book Club

So what’s on Cat Rambo’s reading list? Right now they’re re-reading James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series (which is about to be expanded to, ahem, its ninth and final novel). Rambo is also partial to the space operas created by C.J. Cherryh and Lois McMaster Bujold.

Traitor Baru Cormorant book cover
“The Traitor Baru Cormorant” by Seth Dickinson (Macmillan Publishers)

Rambo had high praise for “The Traitor Baru Cormorant” and other novels in Seth Dickinson’s Masquerade fantasy series. Dickinson delivers a complex tale of empire-building, rebellion and revenge that also addresses gender and race issues.

“That was amazing,” Rambo said of the Masquerade trilogy.

Rambo’s endorsement qualifies “The Traitor Baru Cormorant” as a selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, which highlights books with cosmic themes that have been around long enough to become available in secondhand book shops or your local library. Next year marks the 20th anniversary for Cosmic Log and the CLUB Club, so it’s a good time to review the scores of selections we’ve made since 2002.

“You Sexy Thing” officially goes on sale on Nov. 16, and Seattle’s University Book Store is presenting a free Zoom event to celebrate the book launch at 6 p.m. PT on that day. Follow this link to register for the virtual launch party, and check out Cat Rambo’s blog to keep up with what they’re up to.

My co-host for the Fiction Science podcast is Dominica Phetteplace, an award-winning writer who is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and currently lives in Berkeley, Calif. One of her short stories, “Our Vices,” appears in the upcoming 2022 edition of the Pushcart Prize anthology. To learn more about Phetteplace, check out her website, DominicaPhetteplace.com.

Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Reason. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to get alerts for future episodes.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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