Mortal Dictata Out Now: Exclusive Interview with Karen Traviss

By bs angel -

Karen Traviss Interview

Today, Karen Traviss’ final book in the Kilo-Five trilogy, Halo: Mortal Dictata is available for purchase. Recently we had the chance to chat with Traviss about the entire trilogy, as well as get exclusive insights into Halo: Mortal Dictata. Enjoy!

Karen Traviss Interview

If you could briefly synthesize the entire Kilo-Five trilogy for someone who might not be familiar with the books, what would that look like?

The Kilo-Five trilogy is about loyalty and the moral dilemmas facing individuals in warfare, told in the context of a Cold War kind of black ops thriller. The head of ONI, Admiral Margaret Parangosky - arguably the finest-ever role model for pensioners - plans to make sure the Sangheili are down and stay down after the Covenant collapses. She sends in a handpicked black ops team, Kilo-Five, to destabilize Sanghelios by stirring up its postwar unrest into a civil war that'll keep it too busy to bother Earth again, and degrade its strike capability. The essence of the story lies in the team itself -- three ODSTs, a full Spartan and a Spartan washout who's being groomed to succeed Parangosky as Commander in Chief Naval Intelligence, a civilian Sangheili expert who really excels at spying and dirty tricks after a career in academia, and the AI assigned to them, BB (Black Box).

Neither the Spartans nor the AI know their pasts, and there's a painful process of discovery about the UNSC's conduct that calls into question whether there are any good guys involved in this at all. The collapse of the Covenant takes the lid off all the other wars that have been on hold for 30 years, and a key player in the colonial insurgency that's building is the father of one of the Spartans. But he has no idea she's a Spartan, let alone still alive, or that Kilo-Five has been tasked to stop him acquiring a Covenant planet-killer to threaten Earth. In the end, everyone in Kilo-Five has to decide what duty demands of them and if that's a demand too far in the bigger scheme of being a decent human being. How do they do the right thing as well as completing their mission? They're trying to square a circle. Without spoiling any big reveals, all I can say is keep an eye on the AI throughout. BB's got secrets. He's got secrets he keeps even from himself.

Although many of the characters in the Kilo-Five trilogy were intriguing and memorable, which one would you consider to be your favorite? Why?

I never have a favorite character in anything I write, because I don't work that way - my entire approach to characterization relies on complete neutrality, the polar opposite. The only way I can write multiple tight third person point-of-view successfully is to be able to step in and out of each character's mind, every character, and feel what they feel to the fullest extent so I can make them come to life for the reader. You can't do that if you prefer some to others. You won't be able to "be" the other characters in the story when you need to give them their voice or take the necessary dramatic risks with your favorites, which is why I have none. They all have to have equal weight to make the whole world feel three-dimensional and fully realized. A story should be a real slice of life with winners and losers, and no guarantee of who wins, or even a definition of winning. Well, that's how I write mine, and anyone who picks up a Traviss book knows that's what they're going to get.

There are characters that stand out to you as especially useful as a fiction device, and when you've made a challenging character work especially well then you feel good about that, but that's not about the characters. It's about your own exercise and command of your craft as a writer. It's like the compulsory figures in skating - the audience doesn't need to see it, but as a pro you have to master them so that the performance itself is seamless and nobody sees the strings.

Karen Traviss Interview

From a technical perspective, which is purely internal stuff that writers talk about, I'm pleased with how BB turned out. He was a necessary device to make the story work because of the way I write tight third person point of view. BB can see everything the other POV characters can't, so I can always use him to set scenes and impart information - he's like the guide in a game, in a way, the overall perspective. But he's also the emotional key to all the other characters. It's making a virtue out of necessity. Without BB playing out exactly as he did, there would have been no trilogy. So, in a way, it's all BB's story.

With its key placement between the events of Halo 3 and Halo 4, the Kilo-Five trilogy offered some interesting exploration opportunities in terms of Halo fiction. What areas did you enjoy exploring the most?

It was an experiment in genre for me. I set out to write a character-driven spy thriller that happened to be set in a science fiction universe. I have an Italian friend who says that science fiction is seen as a setting where he comes from, not as the genre itself - okay, the story is set on this planet or that future world, but is it a detective novel, a romance, a thriller? It's stage dressing. The nuts and bolts of the story are the characters and the way they interact, and the mechanics of the storytelling. Using his analysis, all my books, both my tie-in work and my original fiction, are all other genres that happen to be on a science fiction stage set. They're war stories, moral dilemmas, political thrillers, and made up of fundamental elements that could just as easily be set in today's London or Renaissance Florence with adjustments made for technology. There are various thriller structures that I work with. For example, I've just finished a book where the reader knows everything that's going on but the characters don't -- as you read, you watch them going up blind alleys and second-guessing the opposition but getting it wrong, and you see it from both sides, but the heart of the story, the mystery to be answered at the end, is about identity, how the characters discover who they are and who they'll throw their lot in with. With Mortal Dictata, the reader doesn't know some vital facts until the very end because the characters themselves don't. And at the very end, the reader will still know something that the characters - bar one - will never know. It's more of a will-they-won't-they succeed in their mission kind of thriller, with a who-is-this-character-in-reality, but the main element - the people side of it - is what side they'll take, and why. I tend to divide thrillers into whodunnits, whydunnits, and howdunnits. The advantage of doing that in an science fictional setting is that you have no limits and can ask "What if... ?' to the nth degree.

Were there any advantages or challenges while pioneering some of the uncharted territory immediately after the Human-Covenant War?

There are things that work in a game but make lousy narrative fiction, and vice versa. I was able to look at events and scenarios that wouldn't make good gameplay but make cracking novels - intricate, open to interpretation, real insights into how the individual characters think, and the kind of political maneuvering and human military detail (as in how people in uniform behave - I'm not being speciesist there) that provokes thought. I don't care what conclusion readers come to - it's up to you as an individual to decide which character is right - but I do insist that they stop and think, and don't just swallow what they're told.

Karen Traviss Interview

What was the reasoning behind selecting ‘Mortal Dictata,’ a reference to government legislation within the Halsey Journal, as the title of the third Kilo-Five installment?

The elephant in the Halo living room is the Spartans. Seriously, does anyone not think there's something seriously, dangerously wrong with all that? Imagine if your kid didn't come home one day and you found years later that they'd been kidnapped, subjected to potentially lethal experiments, and then packed off to war. Against other humans. You'd shrug and say, "It's all for the greater good," would you? No. You'd go ballistic. So would your society. (Because the UNSC is very good at glossing over that little detail about the original purpose of the Spartans and making it look as if it was all about stopping the wicked aliens.) The essence of the third book is Naomi as a human being taken from her family, and what happens when that crime is examined in detail and the consequences have to be faced. Having seen the one-liner in the Halsey journal, I asked if the Mortal Dictata existed in any shape, and Jeremy [ed: Patenaude] said no, it was just that one line, so I wanted to expand that idea into the actual laws and spell out what was banned. Oddly, I really like doing that kind of "discoverables" stuff - I've had a ball writing discoverables for games I've worked on - and I was able to call on my previous experience in a job where I actually drafted policy documents and regulations. I like to think I still give good document!

When you were approaching writing Mortal Dictata, which unresolved story threads from the previous two novels did you want to focus on the most? Why?

I wanted to explore the pasts of the two Spartans and see how the ODSTs (and BB!) reacted when push came to shove about personal loyalty. If I spell out what I really set out to explain, then I've spoiled the ending. But you find out who people really are and why that's both good news and bad news. All becomes clear by the time you finish the book.

Without giving away any secrets, what was your favorite scene to write in Mortal Dictata?

Favorite is a word that has misleading overtones of enjoyment, so I'd prefer to say "the scene that made everything fall into place" - the cornerstone, if you can call something at the final stage of construction a cornerstone. It was the whole last chapter, and the epilogue in particular. I built up to that for four years, and keeping it on track over such a long period and through two games was a big challenge. When I kept the mystery going to the very last page, I admit I was both relieved and satisfied. The epilogue really gave me a sense of closure. There are so many open-ended series you find yourself having to write that actually having an ending that's an outcome people have been waiting for rather than just tidying up a stump, so to speak, is very therapeutic.

As this third novel brings the Kilo-Five trilogy to an exciting and rewarding close, what do you feel was your favorite contribution to the Halo universe in this series?

Again, I really hate the word favorite. Let's say added value. I like to think I gave it a real-world military vibe by focusing on Marines who think like Marines. (And spooks who think like spooks, and aliens who think like aliens, but that's another matter.) However far-out the technology is and however many aliens there are, those characters and the situations they find themselves in are recognized instantly by people in uniform. I get a lot of mail to that effect. That matters to me more than anything. I've said this in many interviews, but I set out to tell the truth even in an entirely made-up universe because fiction has enormous potential to create dishonest stereotypes that percolate into real-life opinions, so my priority is to keep faith with men and women in uniform. (Yes, it's even more important to me than the money.)

Oh, and I'd really like a Huragok. Please. I keep finding jobs it could do.