Brian Burt writes both short and novel-length speculative fiction. He has published more than twenty science fiction and fantasy stories in various magazines and anthologies. His short story “The Last Indian War” won the Writers of the Future Gold Award and was anthologized in Writers of the Future Volume VIII. His debut novel, Aquarius Rising Book 1: In the Tears of God, won EPIC’s 2014 eBook Award for Science Fiction. Aquarius Rising Book 2: Blood Tide won the Readers’ Favorite Gold Medal for Science Fiction in 2016. Brian works as a cybersecurity engineer and lives with his wife, three sons, a corn snake, and an adopted stray cat in idyllic Southwest Michigan. The cat, in particular, remains unimpressed with his literary efforts unless they come with tuna. You can sample Brian’s writing at http://www.briantburt.com
Talking with Brian Burt
Sci-Fi & Scary: Outside of your work that was published in Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future 8 , it looks like (according to Goodreads) most of your published works have all been in your Aquarius Rising series. Do you have any side projects that you’ve worked on during the process that just haven’t reached publication stage yet, or was this series your sole creative focus?
Brian Burt: Great question! Actually, the vast majority of my fiction-writing career has been spent writing short fiction. I’ve had more than twenty short stories published in various magazines and anthologies over the years. With short fiction, it’s easier to experiment with different styles, different sub-genres, etc., which is a wonderful way to learn the ropes and find your comfort zone as a writer. I’ve tried my hand at everything from traditional sci-fi (like “The Last Indian War,” which as you mentioned, won the Writers of the Future Gold Award) to dark fantasy and horror (like “Phantom Pain,” which earned an Honorable Mention in Ellen Datlow’s The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Tenth Annual Collection).
When I finally worked up the nerve to try a full-length novel (gulp! ;-), I wrote the first book in the Aquarius Rising trilogy, In the Tears of God, and committed to my publisher that I’d follow through on the other two books in the trilogy. So, yes, I definitely focused pretty exclusively on that world and that series over the past five years. Now that the trilogy is finished, though, I’ve been returning to short fiction as a change of pace. I recently had a dark fantasy tale, Lianhan Shee, accepted for publication in an upcoming anthology called Otherworld Hearts. I have to confess that short stories are less intimidating than novels; more immediate feedback! But I am considering another “eco-fiction” novel series in the near future.
Sci-Fi & Scary: Please tell us a bit about the Aquarius Rising series as a whole.
Brian Burt: The Aquarius Rising trilogy fits into an emerging sub-category of speculative fiction that some reviewers have labeled “climate fiction” or “eco-fiction.” The trilogy takes place on a future Earth where global warming, and a disastrous attempt to reverse it, radically altered the planet. Human-dolphin hybrids called Aquarians have built thriving reef-cities amid the ruins of drowned coastal towns. Other hybrid species dominate different environments, like the mole-like Talpidians who create intricate underground burrows beneath the arid wastelands. And human scientists known as Redeemers cling to the barren desert realms, dedicating themselves to undoing the ecological damage and restoring the climate at any cost. These different groups inevitably come into conflict as they struggle to protect their own vision of the future, distrustful of their fellow humanoid subspecies and determined to win what some insist is a zero-sum game.
Sci-Fi & Scary: What was the hardest part of writing the first book, In the Tears of God?
Brian Burt: I have to admit, as a short-fiction writer, the thought of tackling a novel initially terrified me. I felt like a novice climber standing at the base of Mount Everest, without a support team or a guide, staring up at a summit shrouded in storm clouds. The hardest part, really, was taking the first steps: compiling notes about characters and a plot outline, figuring out a plan of attack, and developing the discipline to chip away at the novel every day. It’s very different than writing a short story. For me, the key was learning not to dwell on how far away the finish line was, to instead focus on reaching the next milestone – the end of the scene, the end of the chapter, the end of the section.
Sci-Fi & Scary: What kind of (and how much) research did you do for the Aquarius Rising series?
Brian Burt: I probably did far too much research before I had the guts to start! I knew I wanted to depict a fictional world set primarily beneath the ocean waves, a place with which I had limited experience. I’m a landlocked Midwesterner; we have the Great Lakes, which are awesome, but they aren’t comparable to the Pacific. So I read everything I could find on marine biology, oceanography, climate science, bioengineering. I visited family members living in Oregon and had a chance to explore the Pacific Coast, where the novels are set. And thank god for the internet! I threw myself on the mercy of some wonderful marine scientists on various web forums who graciously answered my questions and volunteered to read rough drafts of the first novel.
Sci-Fi & Scary: How much of you is in your protagonists?
Brian Burt: I’m no psychologist, so take this with a grain of salt… but I think every writer extracts “psychic splinters” from their own internal lives and injects those into their characters, both good and evil. We’re all complicated. We all have light and darkness inside us. So, certainly, my protagonists aren’t “me” by any means. But I think they’re derived from bits and pieces of me, intermingled with people I know, people I admire, maybe people I envy or fear a bit. Ocypode, the main character in the Aquarius Rising Trilogy, is someone I think I’d call a friend, and definitely someone I’d strive to emulate.
Sci-Fi & Scary: Obviously, with the premise of an Earth ravaged by global warming, you’re definitely aware of the problems that we’re facing right now. Do you have a pet project you champion to try to help us not make more of a complete mess of things than we already have?
Brian Burt: Great question – I wish I had a great, simple answer. I do worry enormously about humanity’s future on this planet as I read the latest developments in climate science. I’m an enthusiastic member of numerous organizations that I believe are doing their best to help: 350.org, Union of Concerned Scientists, and Greenpeace for example. And I work with local organizations closer to home, like the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and For Love of Water. Connecting with concerned people, both globally and locally, seems like a good place to start. Also, I’m tremendously encouraged by the explosion of passion from other fiction writers who are focusing on this subject in their own published works. Web communities like Eco-Fiction ( http://eco-fiction.com ) provide a platform for both fiction and non-fiction contributions aimed at spreading the word about the dangers of climate change inaction.
Sci-Fi & Scary: Do you think your writing style changed any from book one to book three or did it just become more refined?
Brian Burt: I think, honestly, that I learned quite a bit (the hard way 😉 from writing that first novel. Very few of us hit a home run with our first at-bat, and I made mistakes. Reader and critical feedback helped me understand what I did well, what I didn’t, and how to improve on the next attempt. Still, it was gratifying to win EPIC’s 2014 eBook Award for Science Fiction with Aquarius Rising 1: In the Tears of God. It provided encouragement to continue the hard work of finishing the series. I do think my writing style matured steadily through Books 2 and 3; I’ve had readers and reviewers reinforce that belief. We all improve with practice!
Sci-Fi & Scary: What is your writing routine like?
Brian Burt: This probably violates most expert guidance, but at least when working on the novels, I generally start a writing session by rereading and revising the last few pages I wrote during the previous session. For me, it helps prime the pump and get the creative juices flowing, gets me back into the thread of the story. Then I launch into extending the tale. At that point, I try very hard not to agonize over every word or phrase but to keep moving the story forward, maintaining some “momentum of imagination” without dwelling on how well (or painfully) it’s going. Some days, the words spill out as fast as I can type them; other days, it feels like pulling teeth. But after the good days, I often discover during revision that the Muse hid a lot of blemishes from me; and after the bad days, I find that the prose isn’t as hideously ugly as I feared.
Sci-Fi & Scary: Who are your biggest literary influences?
Brian Burt: I adore Stephen King and gobble everything I can by him. He creates such vivid, believable characters and puts them in incredible situations that become utterly real in the reader’s mind. I also love many of the “Golden Age” science fiction writers like Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, and Bradbury. But my tastes are pretty eclectic. There are so many brilliant writers of SF, fantasy, and horror out there, I feel like I’ll never be able to read a fraction of them… and I learn invaluable lessons from every book I read!
Sci-Fi & Scary: You spent 16 months in Dublin, Ireland. That sounds like a dream! Do you have any experiences from there that influenced your work in any way?
Brian Burt: Absolutely! Working in Dublin was a transformative experience, for sure, one of the best of my life. The people were wonderful! The Irish are great storytellers, as you’ll discover in any pub, and the country inspires that gift in visitors as well. It’s a beautiful, lush, ancient, haunting place, filled with history and mythology and dripping with magic. I credit my time in Ireland with inspiring me to write. I’d thought about it, often, but had never mustered the gumption to actually give it a shot until my tenure in Dublin, when I finally muddled through my first real science fiction story. It was dreadful, honestly; I had so much to learn. But I kept trying. And I got better!
Sci-Fi & Scary: What’s your writing support system like?
Brian Burt: My family forms the core of my support system, especially my wife. She’s my first reader, my most trusted editor, and the critic I most want to please. She reads voraciously, volunteers at the local library; if I can satisfy her, I feel like I’m on the right path. I’ve also enjoyed the benefit of feedback from other writers through an online critique group for speculative fiction writers, Critters (http://critters.org ). I’ve been fortunate enough to make some “virtual friends” there through exchange of story reviews and have learned vital lessons from my peers on that site.
Aquarius Rising: In the Tears of God by Brian Burt
On an Earth ravaged by global warming, human-dolphin hybrids called Aquarians have built thriving reef colonies among the drowned cities of the coast. Now their world is under siege from an enemy whose invisible weapon leaves no survivors. Only Ocypode the Atavism—half-human and half-Aquarian, marooned in the genetic limbo between species—knows why. Disclosing the reason could be as deadly to Aquarius as the Medusa plague itself. Ocypode and his comrades must face the perils of flight into the open ocean, a friend’s betrayal, a killer storm, a lethal kelp forest haunted by mutant monsters, and a fundamental challenge to their most cherished beliefs if they are to have any hope of saving Aquarius from destruction. They must enlist allies of the most unexpected sort from the most unlikely of places. Even then—when confronted by rogue scientists determined to resurrect the land by slaughtering the sea—it may not be enough.
Winner of the 2014 Electronic Publishing Industry Coalition (EPIC) eBook Award for Science Fiction.
NOVEL EXCERPT FROM AQUARIUS RISING 2: BLOOD TIDE – CHAPTER 1, TOMBSTONE TOWER:
Megalops floated in the twilit waters of Juno Reef, in the shadow of the Tombstone Tower, and grieved. Other Aquarians considered this a sacred place: a memorial to all the victims of the Medusa Massacres who had been entombed in calcite, here and in other reef-cities up and down the coast. There were only two victims who mattered to Megalops. The ghosts of his mate and child haunted his every waking moment, flailed madly through his nightmares. Their final, frantic screams filled his ear channels, rebounding and reverberating inside his skull until his sanity lay in tatters. Other mourners made the pilgrimage to Tombstone Tower to find peace. Megalops came here every day to remind himself why he should unleash war.
The high-pitched chatter of approaching Aquarians drew near. He drifted into the ruins of a submerged building as Mother Ocean smashed against the tower’s windward side above him. She, too, seemed ready to do battle with those who would threaten Her children.
A pair of biosculptors from neighboring reef-cities swam out of the murk: Auriga of Tillamook and Makaira of Nehalem. Megalops liked Auriga. She was beautiful, of course. She had skin of smooth, unblemished silver; perfectly formed, scalloped fin ridges along her arms and legs; long, delicate flipper-feet. The webbing between her toes and fingers and at the outer edges of her fin ridges paled to a milky white. Her colony, like his own, had been savaged by Medusa. Makaira’s had not been touched, and her sympathy felt as hard and unnatural as the stone-coated corpses of fish that lay half-buried in the surrounding seabed.
Megalops watched the pair glide toward the plaque near the tower’s base and said nothing. Makaira chittered loudly enough to make eavesdropping unavoidable.
“I know this place is meant to be a tribute to the fallen, but it freezes my blood like the Deep Black. I don’t see how he can bear to live in this graveyard. The memories must torment him without mercy!”
“I wonder,” answered Auriga, “if memories are all he has to comfort him. Many survivors find themselves trapped in the same dark currents. Each of us fights the demons in his own way, Makaira.”
“And each of us surfaces to breathe when our lungs demand it. I fear Megalops means to linger in this morbid place and hold his breath until he drowns. Juno doesn’t need more death, it needs more life.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” said Megalops as he kicked out of the shadows. Auriga looked chagrined, but Makaira recoiled as if confronted by unquiet spirits. Perhaps he wasn’t the only one to see such things in these accursed waters.
“But life grows out of death, doesn’t it? We biosculptors built Aquarius on the bones of drowned Human cities, planted gardens in the wreckage and seeded them with living works of art. We Join with the Living Reefs to draw inspiration from the memories of long-dead ancestors. And here, now, we resurrect a murdered colony beneath the world’s most towering monument to genocide. If I linger here more often than I should, it’s to remember what we sacrificed to save ourselves.”
He swam between the two of them. Auriga’s jade eyes brimmed with compassion. Makaira arched away from him, face pinched and anxious, a healthy creature terrified of catching a disease. Did she fear he would infect her with his madness? Perhaps he would, at that. He pointed one webbed finger at the gruesome statuary encircling the base of Tombstone Tower. A tiny white crab speckled with red, like a blood-spattered skeleton, scuttled from the crook of a frozen elbow and dove into the crevice between two fossilized legs, joints clicking as it moved. Megalops’s extended arm held steady. On the inside, his heart tumbled, flotsam on a stormy sea.
“My mate Loreto and daughter Decora are a permanent part of the memorial…near the top, almost to the surface. Hard to make them out, in that tangle of arms and legs and faces. When Medusa struck, Loreto’s only thought was to protect her child. You see how she holds Decora above her, as high as she can reach, trying to lift her child to safety? Even as the other dying members of her pod clawed at her, clambered up her back, as the nanomechs wove their smothering cocoon of calcite around her flesh, she struggled to push her child above the waves. Impossible. She must have known. And still, she didn’t stop trying. She never will.”
He turned to his fellow biosculptors. Auriga’s delicate features crumbled, reflecting his own grief. Makaira’s expression more closely resembled the faces of the statues: trapped, terrified, wanting only to flee. “I believe there’s a lesson there, don’t you?”
Auriga drifted closer and squeezed his arm. “You’re right, Megalops. We’ll honor your mate’s courage by bringing this reef and this colony back to life. We won’t ever stop trying, either.”
Makaira nodded tepidly, relieved that his attention had been diverted elsewhere. Megalops chirped a brittle laugh. “Hmm. I see that the lesson depends on the student. Yours is uplifting, Auriga.”
He didn’t answer, simply swam away. He could hear Makaira chattering to Auriga and had no desire to listen. As Tombstone Tower receded in his wake, its upper stories jutting high above the waves like the polished tusk of a beached leviathan, the ghosts of his lost mate and child followed him. No matter where he drifted through the sprawling Juno reefscape, where new life wriggled its way out of Death’s skeletal embrace, they were never far away.
He appreciated that biosculptors from other reefs came to these cemetery waters, spent their creative energies fighting to revive his home. It was a noble effort. But it was not enough. The rest of Aquarius clung to the belief that the Redeemer scientists from the barren lands above the waves who had unleashed the Medusa Plague had been an aberration, the threat eliminated by incinerating one isolated nest of vipers. How could they be so naive? Did the history of dirt-swimmers teach them nothing?
A pair of elfins darted from a stand of elkhorn coral beneath him, diaphanous bodies luminescing pale blue as they dove through a crumbled window into the cavernous blackness of a nearby building. For a moment, before the spectral light that marked their passage faded, Megalops glimpsed Loreto’s and Decora’s somber, pleading faces.
He would find a way to guarantee the survival of Aquarius, even if the others never understood his actions. Even if they hated and reviled him. Let them curse, let them claw and clamber at his back. He would still hold them up. He would still lift them to safety.
Someday, they would build a monument to Megalops, commemorating the destruction of their enemies instead of the slaughter of innocents. Then, finally, his mate and daughter would be at peace. And so would he.