Today I’m interviewing Kate Sheeran Swed, author of the Tocatta System series, which is a trilogy of novellas about runaway assassins, cyborg vigilantes, love and technology. All three books in the series are now available through Amazon and will soon also be available at other retailers. These books are literary retellings, sort of, exploring the darker side of Great Expectations, The Phantom of the Opera and Treasure Island. They’re also great fun and really fast, action-packed reads as Astra, Claire and LJ try to take on a rogue AI determined to control the entire system and take revenge for her broken heart.
Let me give you the blurb for the first book, Parting Shadows, and after that I’ll pass the blog on to Kate as she graciously answers my nosiness about balancing literary allusions with writing your own new story, the polarising effect of technology (and its topicality), and a little bit of what to expect from Prodigal Storm since this interview focuses on the first two books. Go, my organisational skills!
Raised by a heartsick AI, she’s programmed to kill. And desperate to flee.
After growing up on an isolated space station, Astra dreams of solid ground. But with an AI guardian plugged into her head–and her nervous system–it’s not like she’s flush with choices. In fact, she’s got just one: use her training to carry out the rogue AI’s revenge. Her first mission? Assassination.
When her target flashes a jamming device that would guarantee her escape from the AI’s grasp, Astra sets out to steal it. But the AI’s plans are more dangerous than she suspected. Corrupted by heartbreak, the wayward computer is determined to infect the star system with a new order of digital tyranny.
Astra’s been raised to care for no one but herself. Now she’ll have to decide if she’s willing to trade the star system’s freedom for her own.
Parting Shadows is a far-future take on Estella Havisham’s journey in Great Expectations, and the first installment in Kate Sheeran Swed’s Toccata System novella trilogy.
LEO: The Toccata System series draws heavily on classic literary texts yet presents a single narrative whole. Can you tell us a little about your experience balancing keeping the classic stories recognisable with telling your own unique SF story?
KSS: It’s definitely been a challenging balance. From the first, I made the choice to cast off ties to the original when necessary, in favour of the new story. The farther I write into the series, the more it become its own. I’d intended the last volume to be a take on Treasure Island, but at this point it’s little more than a nod. For me, it was a matter of deciding early on that the new story rules the day.
LEO: Everyone always wants to ask writers where their ideas come from, so… Where did the idea to write an SF story inspired by Great Expectations come from? Why SF?
KSS: I like idea-related questions J I’ve wanted to do a classics-inspired novella series for a while. A few years ago I thought it’d be a lighter, fantasy-type thing—I had an idea for a magical Pygmalion, probably gender swapped or with mostly women—but that just doesn’t fit my style anymore. The last few novels I’ve drafted have been sci fi, and I wanted to do something set in space to kick off my indie author adventures.
Great Expectations is one of my all-time favourite books, so it was a natural pick for me. But it wasn’t until I hit on the idea of Miss Havisham as a murderous AI that it started to come together.
LEO: It’s clear from Parting Shadows that SATIS has thought quite far ahead, and equally clear from Phantom Song that she couldn’t plan for everything, so can you give us a small hint of what to expect of the upcoming finale?
KSS: SATIS definitely did not plan for everything (a bit of AI hubris, perhaps?) and those she left behind are going to struggle with her failures even more in Prodigal Storm. More than any of the other books, the last book deals with the ripple effect of what SATIS has done, and how that’s affected the people she hurt.
LEO: One of the underlying conflicts in Parting Shadows focuses on the dangers of relying overly much on technology with one character wanting to increase that reliance and another severing it. How do you feel the plot of the book ties into current day reliance on computers?
KSS: It’s a topic I wanted to explore, though I can’t say I personally have an aversion to technology in any way. I think it serves us well—I wouldn’t know you without it, after all! Or most of my writing friends.
However, I’m always interested in exploring a polarizing issue. Who controls the technology? Who’s afraid of it? Who puts Alexa in their home, for example, and who avoids it? And why are they avoiding it? Who’s regulating what AIs can do, if anyone? Who regulates the regulators, for that matter? It’s a fascinating subject, especially for a fiction writer!
Even in our world now, the corporations with the resources to develop these technologies are also powerful enough to sneak around (or blast through) many rules. In Parting Shadows (and more importantly, through Prodigal Storm), Edward Keyes is an important AI developer…and the person who most wants to break the rules. That’s not such a great combination.
LEO: Cyborgs, the reader learns in Phantom Song, are not accepted in society. Can you tell us a little more about the reasons why cyborgs are so frowned upon?
KSS: People are afraid of them. As you referenced in the previous question, a lot of the series is about the balance between technology and humanity—and sometimes even an AI without a physical presence, like SATIS, can be very human. At a certain point, what’s the difference?
Cyborgs are an uncomfortable reminder for people who live in Toccata about how powerful computers can be. It’s like they want to be attached to computer systems and technology—they even insert chips into their wrists voluntarily for convenience—but the idea of a cyborg is too much. It’s hypocritical, but then most bigotry is.
If I’d written full novels, I’d have wanted to explore that aspect a bit more. I may need to come back to it in the future. But folks who are interested in these kinds of questions should check out John Scalzi’s near future sci fi novel, Lock In—that book is incredible.
LEO: What was it about The Phantom of the Opera that drew you into retelling it in Phantom Song?
KSS: The musical was what made me fall in love with music as a middle schooler—say what you will, there’s a reason it’s been on Broadway as long as it has, and I still think the music is beautiful. But the novel, while much creepier, has these incredible scenes where the Phantom (whose name is Erik, by the way) weaves them through these intricate mirror labyrinths and fun houses. I really wanted to do something with that.
LEO: Both books currently available in the Toccata System series include a lot of inside jokes and allusions to the classic literature you’ve drawn from. What are some of your (non-spoilery?) favourites?
KSS: One of my favourites is in Prodigal Storm, and it’s such a terrible inside joke to myself that I’m almost afraid to tell anyone.
But I do love Claire walking through the Palais grounds wondering about all the statues in Phantom Song—I used classic lit to underscore my world building, adding Pride and Prejudice and Lord of the Rings statues. I had to cut an anecdote about her ignoring a history lesson during a tour of the grounds, but the statues got to stay. I like the idea of story as legacy.
Kate Sheeran Swed loves hot chocolate, plastic dinosaurs, and airplane tickets. She has trekked along the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu, hiked on the Mýrdalsjökull glacier in Iceland, and climbed the ruins of Masada to watch the sunrise over the Dead Sea. After growing up in New Hampshire, she completed degrees in music at the University of Maine and Ithaca College, then moved to New York City. She currently lives in New York’s capital region with her husband and son, and two cats who were named after movie dogs (Benji and Beethoven).
And that concludes the interview. Parting Shadows, Phantom Song, and Prodigal Storm ebooks are available now from Amazon (Parting Shadows; Phantom Song, Prodigal Storm and the boxset) with other eretailers coming before the holiday season. Paperbacks are also available!