I’m a fan of science fiction books with bad-ass female characters, so when I saw the premise for FIRST LIGHT by Casey E. Berger, I had to reach out to her for an interview. FIRST LIGHT will officially debut on September 14, 2021:
When Jaya Mill’s parents were killed and her brother was kidnapped in an attack on her childhood home, she saw only one future for herself: enlist in the Union Starfleet and learn to defend herself.
Now, as a lieutenant commander aboard the UNS Avalon, Jaya and her elite counterterrorism unit enlist the help of Tynan Vasuda, an alien scientist from the Szacante Federation, to investigate the potentially sinister research of the new and mysteriously well-funded Sons of Priam.
Across the stars, a bounty hunter named Marantos accepts a high-paying assassination job in hopes of putting more distance between herself and her estranged royal family. But that job draws her straight into the web that the Sons of Priam are weaving to capture the highest office of the United Human Nations.
As Marantos claws free from the Sons of Priam, her path intersects with Jaya and Tynan, and she must decide whether to keep running from her past or turn and fight this new threat. And as Jaya pushes to uncover the identity of the shadowy figure at the helm of the Sons of Priam, she begins to reveal what truly happened the night she lost her family.
What Jaya discovers will challenge everything she knows…
What has surprised you most in the lead up to your first book debut?
I’m a very thorough person. I do a lot of research, so I think I had a pretty good sense of what was ahead for me by the time I signed my contract. But I will say nothing quite prepared me for how this process feels. It’s so very up and down, and hearing other debut authors describe their experience still doesn’t quite match living through it yourself. I knew I would have to advocate for myself, that I would have to do some marketing but also that I would be relatively powerless to move the needle of sales myself. I knew that it would be strange to take a project that existed only in my head and that was in a constant state of in progress and suddenly have it be done and in the hands of other people. I knew all these things in my head, but it’s another thing entirely to experience them, and I think I was so focused on the process that I was most surprised to realize just how much I will miss this world and these characters when book three is finalized and there’s nothing more to do on this series.
But I think I was very fortunate to have signed a three book deal with a rapid release strategy, because book one was not out there yet when I wrote books two and three. I wasn’t dealing with reviews and sales numbers and marketing while I was drafting the sequels. I also think having those projects to focus on shielded me a little from the anxiety of being pre-release. The wait part of the hurry up and wait in publishing was actually spent drafting and revising, so everything felt like it happened very fast. One of my critique partners actually pointed out to me this week that I just passed the two month to publication milestone for FIRST LIGHT, and I had to check the calendar because I hadn’t even noticed. I was too busy working through proof pages for URSA MAJOR.
I think there are more surprises to come, as the part of this process that is most out of my control is just around the corner. I’ve had little snatches of realizing this series is coming to its end and feeling sad about it, but then there are more revisions to tackle and no time to sit with that feeling. In just a few months, this will all be out of my hands, and that will be very interesting indeed.
I’ll bet! FIRST LIGHT explores how Jaya’s present and future ultimately affects her past. How did you know this needed to be part of her story?
I think one of the central questions for Jaya is one of identity. How do the choices we make and the circumstances of our life change us? How much control do we really have over where our life ends up? Jaya had a dream for herself that was taken away when she lost her family. She ended up on a very different path, and one of the questions she’s afraid to ask herself is who would she have been under different circumstances? This is a question we all ask ourselves to some extent, and it’s always fascinated me. I studied philosophy in my first degree, and one of the topics I returned to often and which I never found a satisfactory answer to is the question of free will.
FIRST LIGHT and its sequels draw a lot of references from the Aeneid, and one of the themes of that epic is that no one–human or god–can escape Fate. We can only determine how we meet our destiny, not whether we will do so. And this is only one example of that question in humanity’s literary and philosophical past. Questions about choice and determinism have been around since we began to reason. I still don’t know where I personally land on that question, and I think both as a scientist and a writer, it’s fascinating to me.
Another question that this raises in the book is the question of interpretation. What are we supposed to believe about people when we only have fleeting glimpses of their true nature? What does the whole story even look like, and can we change our perceptions of someone once we have seen more of them? For all the central characters in the series, this is something they have to grapple with, as more and more of the picture is revealed to them.
The way that we make and remake ourselves and write and rewrite our personal narrative about the world when faced with new information and opportunity is an essential part of our growth. I started writing this book just as I was shifting careers, and I think that pivot in my personal life drove a lot of these questions to the forefront of my mind, but I also know they are questions that have always been there and that I will probably always be exploring in some way.
I also love the quote from the Aeneid that you include in the beginning of the book. It speaks volumes about how difficult growth can be, and how necessary it is to remain optimistic in the midst of it. In addition to being an author, you are also a computational physicist. In what ways, if any, does this inspire the worlds you build in your novels?
I actually started writing FIRST LIGHT before I went back to school for physics, so in many ways it developed independently of my physics career, and I can’t really say that the heart of it was affected by my scientific experience, since the bulk of that experience hadn’t happened yet when I finished the first draft of the book. It’s not a science heavy book, which is something that space opera can get away with.
It’s funny, also, that I started writing this book before I became a physicist, and yet my physics career has ended up in a particular subfield that raises a lot of the same questions about free will that I explored in my philosophy degree and that have come up in the central themes of this series. My academic research focuses on quantum mechanics, and while the mathematics of quantum mechanics is pretty clear, the interpretation of what that math actually means has stirred a lot of debate. There are multiple competing interpretations out there, and some of them suggest a totally deterministic picture of the universe, while others suggest quantum mechanics proves absolute free will down to the level of the tiniest particle.
I think fundamentally the same things that drove me to science also drove me to writing: deep curiosity about the world, a desire to learn and then to communicate what I’ve learned to others, and the satisfaction of bringing a long-term project to its conclusion. All those elements are present in my work as a physics educator, a computational science researcher, and a speculative fiction writer.
And it also proves that the sciences and humanities are inevitably inter-linked, probably more than people realize. What are some of your current projects?
Last summer, I moved to coastal Maine, which is unquestionably the most beautiful place I have ever lived. It was a real blessing to be here during the pandemic, as it’s been so easy to get out into nature, so I wasn’t just cooped up inside for a whole year. My spouse and I spent a lot of time hiking and kayaking and exploring the rocky coastline, and I’ve never felt so inspired by a location. Although I’m moving again to a new state in just a few weeks, the year I spent here breathed life into a eco-feminist epic fantasy idea that had been floating around for a few years in my mind. It’s still in very early stages, and I think the worldbuilding is going to take a long time to put together, but I’m really thrilled to have found my way into that story with the help of this beautiful place.
While I develop the worldbuilding for the fantasy, I actually have a project that’s much closer to fruition. It’s a gothic horror with a science fiction twist, set in a computer science department at an elite academic institution. This is a place where my computational physics experience definitely inspires the worldbuilding, as the themes raised by the academic setting and the science fiction interpretation of the gothic are both heavily informed by things I learned during my PhD. I’m very excited about this book—it’s one of the few times I’ve had a project snap into place almost overnight, and I think that’s evidence that this is the story I need to be writing right now.