[LJ Cohen is a novelist, poet, blogger, ceramics artist, and relentless optimist. After almost twenty-five years as a physical therapist, LJ now uses her anatomical knowledge and myriad clinical skills to injure characters in her science fiction and fantasy novels. She lives in the Boston area with her family, two dogs, and the occasional international student. DREADNOUGHT AND SHUTTLE (book 3 of the SF/Space Opera series Halcyone Space), is her sixth novel. LJ is a member of SFWA, Broad Universe, and the Independent Publishers of New England.]
I wrote my first complete novel in 2005 and if you’d asked me what message the book contained, or what issue it explored, I would have given you my best deer-in-the-headlights expression. It was just a story. One that had been kicking around my head since I was a teen. One I finally had the drive and the discipline to sit down and write in my 40s.
Eleven years and eleven novels later, I actually have a body of work to examine and a better sense of my own process. And while I don’t consciously set out to write a book with an overt message, my subconscious always has other plans.
There seem to be three related issues that emerge from my stories: identity, trust, and choice. I am able to put my characters in situations where they are forced out of their familiar contexts and where they find themselves challenged on all three fronts. While this can be true in almost all literature, speculative fiction can reflect current society while not seeming to directly confront it. Speculative fiction is stealth fiction in that regard.
We live in a world where identity can be a fraught issue and where each of us lives at the intersection of many different identities. Some are given to us by virtue of where we are born, others by genetics, still others by accidents of geography. And then there are the identities we choose for ourselves.
When I look at my identities, I can list a string of them: female, cis-gendered, heterosexual, white, suburban, agnostic, Jewish, New Englander, American, middle-class, post-college educated, liberal, feminist, nerd. And this is definitely not an exhaustive list. Some of those identities fit better than others, some may change over time, other likely not to. Many are identities that emerge either through opposition to my surroundings or in concert with them. The ones that I feel have more validity are the ones I have either fully accepted or chosen for myself.
In my fantasy series, Changeling’s Choice, Lydia Hawthorne is pulled from her suburban life into Faerie where she discovers she is not a typical teenager, but a Fae changeling. While the trope is a familiar one, the story is not: it is one of identity and who has the right to determine it. How Lydia identifies herself is critical to the outcome, not just for herself, but for everyone around her.
My SF series, Halcyone Space, begins with each of the main characters in the ensemble cast enmeshed in their lives on a small space station. They must forge themselves into a crew when the derelict spaceship they have hidden aboard wakes up from a forty year sleep. One of their challenges is in deciding what to keep and what to discard in terms of their prior identities. And it is a matter of survival because if they can’t figure out how to work together, the ship will kill them.
Trust is another issue that seems to thread through every one of my stories. I think it emerges because of the bombardment of voices and messages we endure. From the time we are small, we are overwhelmed by external pressures that seek at their worst, to manipulate us, and at their best, to teach us. But few of those voices help us learn to trust ourselves. It is my strong belief that trusting self must happen before we trust others.
Nearly all of my characters find themselves in situations where they need to learn to shut out external voices and trust themselves to make a critical decision. And once they succeed in trusting themselves, they need to learn to trust their companions. The concept of interdependence and the importance of trusting relationships form the core of every one of my novels.
One could argue that there is no story without choice. We read to see characters exercising agency in whatever settings and situations they find themselves in. In all of my stories, characters need to make difficult choices in stressful situations. And those choices are related to how well they’ve been able to navigate their way though the issues of identity and trust.
Early on in DERELICT (book 1 of Halcyone Space), Ro makes a choice not to tell Jem that she’s planning on running a computer program he’s created in real time, rather than in a sandbox. Because she is wrestling with her sense of self and hasn’t had any experience trusting others, she lies to him and comes very close to permanently destroying their nascent friendship and working partnership. Her actions set the stage for all four of the main characters being on board the broken space ship when she inadvertently triggers it to blast off. It is not until much deeper into the story that Ro is able to allow herself to rely on the others and it is at that point where they begin to rescue themselves.
I’ve been told I write ‘small stories’, and if small means character-based narratives where much of the conflict comes from internal rather than external factors, then I am guilty as charged. While I set my stories in either fantasy environments or futuristic ones, they are all, at their core, very human tales. I hope you enjoy them.