Thursday, August 25, 2011

Behind the Scenes to Squad Five.

Let's give a big welcome to Melange author John Steiner as he speaks about his book Squad Five set for release in late September.

The center of “Squad V” is a former Army Ranger, Quincy Barns who starts off working in an unnamed South American country as a paramilitary operative contracted by the CIA to “advise” in the Orwellian sense rebels against the nation’s duly elected leftist government. Quincy represents much of what I’ve seen in returned veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Originally, he held high ideals for why the U.S. would wage military action, but came out of those experiences disillusioned and cynical. More critically, Quincy carries a troubled past and a story of his own for why he no longer serves in the U.S. Army.

It’s his work as a CIA paramilitary advisor that brings Quincy Barns into contact with the main theme of the novel. Throughout the southern regions of the Americas there persist tales of El Chupacabra, which, with vampires, allowed me to turn mythic stories into a scientific basis. The novel as a whole and the two others in the series ask intriguing and, at times, troubling questions. When starting “Squad V” I laid out for myself the rule that vampires were bad and vampire hunters were good. However, I wanted the reader to understand my villains at least as much as the heroes of the tale in a realistic setting. Reality is filled with complicated shades of gray, and so “Squad V” likewise doesn’t have strict good versus evil monikers. I’m certain many readers will ask why they should root for Quincy and boo the vampires the Squad Five operators fight against. As of my short stories I decided it’s these questions in my audience that I want to leave, and maybe induce a little ire. Lately I feel if I haven’t successfully offended someone I’m not doing my job correctly as a writer of fiction.

For the vampire genre "Squad V" really is a wild departure. Then again my style decisions as a writer aren't typical. Back before my work being accepted I found writing advice was prolific and from all directions, particularly people who themselves didn't write stories. Of those who did write the suggestions were to read the genre you're writing in. While it's understandable I found it annoying, because I was trying to step away from how stories were told before. Granted I only read two novels involving vampires over ten years ago.

My influences for vampire stories came from movies instead. I was never a fan of the first Dracula movie, but the 1979 version with Frank Langella did strike a chord in me as a kid. Some of the Hammer Films vampire movies also got my interest more for the fact there appeared one guy who knew how to handle them. However, starting in the 1980's the way vampires were portrayed in movies underwent radical changes and considerable speciation to borrow a biology term. Fright Night and its sequel reached back for the old style, but kept the setting up to date. It also made the expert vampire hunter more of a comedic element who only played Peter Vincent, Fearless Vampire Killer but in fact turned out rather cowardly, yet still a fun figure react to the real vampires he faced. Others included Vamp with Grace Jones as a Cleopatra-esque figure ruling her domain that being a slummy stripe club in a rundown part of the city. Here again, as the geniuses of horror like John Carpenter and George Romero tell us, comedy and fear go hand-in-hand. We also learn that when it comes to staking vampires Formika didn't count as wooden enough to put the nightcrawlers down. The biggest contributors to how I wrote "Squad V" have to be John Carpenter's "Vampires" and the first "Blade" movie.

The 1979 Dracula and the Fright Night movies also instilled the idea that vampires should be shape shifters. Vampire stories tap into the deeper desires of their audience, and I feel the ability to turn into other animals should be included in that. Granted, I prefer the mechanics for how such radial changes in anatomy and physiology to be sensible and not make things too easy for my vampire characters. I didn’t want them to simply go POOF into mist then flutter off on leathery wings to their hideaway. These abilities should still take careful planning and consideration on the value of doing so.

The films I drew on most posed some serious questions as to what vampires should be capable of in the realm of physics and biology as well as what normal people do to counter their prowess. John Carpenter's portrayal of vampires and the hunters came from Catholic traditions and the medieval European model for the creatures of the night. However, being the hard core science geek and more interested in science fiction than fantasy I wanted all the technical details. I needed to know how vampirism spread, what was the pathogen and why the mythologies contained the details they did. In most vampire movies and novels we've come to expect vampires to not only be strong but fast as well. Ironically neither of these exist in the old folk tales. Rather, vampires seemed closer to today's zombies who clawed through shallow earth to stalk the night in a slow arduous shuffle. Even the sharp teeth were added to the tale by Bram Stoker as a stand-in for crossing Victorian era taboos. Here I did reexamine the literature of vampire stories back to the first of the giants. It occurred to me what I might attempt to circumvent, and what new aspects of vampires I’d do well to keep.

Most critical of those is that vampires couldn’t simply be soulless creatures lacking inner thoughts or feelings. Given where I was going in “Squad V” I intended to fully humanize vampires anyway. So much so that I didn’t for a moment allow the concept of vampires and normal people being two different species. Vampires don’t call their prey humans and the hunters skip the term vampire almost entirely. The psychology of “Squad V” vampires draws on what happens to people over decades and what would happen over centuries. Far from domination of their realms vampires still skulk in the shadows of civilization fearful of real sunlight and the metaphorical light of public awareness. In our times this means foregoing the prospect of becoming financial masters or lords of the inner city filled with loyal subjects aspiring for vampirism. But, living outside the laws and etiquette of society a vampire in “Squad V” becomes survival fixated and the condition allows their real face to come forward. What would a normal human being do if they knew negative consequences wouldn’t be visited upon them.

From this position is born the policy response to discovering vampires. If a vampire was a good person at first could they stay that way. In history there are many civilizations that started out as truly great in their achievements, then their descendants take a wrong turn into oppressors and conquerors. If groups of people take this course it stood to reason a single person living that long would be no more resistant to this souring of disposition. As such they become stand-ins for the real monsters of the world around us. Vampires are the terrorists of “Squad V” which then lets me open up the genre to readers who aren’t big on vampire novel authors.

Keeping with my desire for realism I delved into government agencies and military tactics. In movies and novels vampires could lift in straight arm fashion whole cars. But the truth is physics governs all, and regardless how strong a person is their body weight and leverage is at least as important. So the solution for trained military would be to shift combat away from the vampires’ advantages over to where they remain no different from people. I kept with the model of military fire teams and drawing on equipment and tactics that mostly existed already. Many of the strategies of “Squad V” go back to the Roman legions, and most of the weapons of choice didn’t require much innovation.

Part of why covert operations function they way they do is that such missions don’t draw much attention and none whatsoever if the special forces can help it. Generally when a covert missions reach public awareness it’s because something went wrong even if the operational objectives were met. I considered that when determining where I could stretch the limits of technology when weighing the priorities of taking down vampires and ensuring that their existence remains unknown. Many newer vampire stories have it that regular people simply can’t defend against vampires without the nightcrawlers getting cocky or suicidal. The truth about imbalanced conflicts is that the underpowered side does have options if they’re clever and resourceful. In real conflicts it’s not unusual for a piece of equipment costing hundreds of thousands to tens of millions of dollars being taken down using a few decades old artillery shells wired to a cell phone or a washing machine timer all costing just hundreds of dollars.

However, other aspects of the story weave in other myths and side plots that enter through the wedge question of, “If vampires are real what else is out there?” Sometimes even the best of modern science can’t have all the answers, though– maybe, one day it will. These are the many trains of thought I had while drafting “Squad V” into a single tale that’s also capable of being a thrill ride for those not looking intellectual Easter eggs.

Thank you Mila for opening your blog myself and other writers.


Mila Ramos said...

Your book sounds quite fascinating John. :) Thanks for coming!

Winter Why's said...

I recognize that Photo and Face! LOL

Jenny Twist said...

I've been really busy and am just catching up. I'm really surprised there weren't more comments on this. Perhaps because the piece brings up so many issues that you don't know where to start. I'm particularly interested in El Chupacabra (suck-goat?) which I have never previously heard of. Not to mention the political and moral issues developed in this book. I shall watch this author with interest