The past is prologue in Radical Publishing's new limited series, Shrapnel: Aristeia Rising, the first in a trilogy of titles that represents the most ambitious project that Radical has undertaken to date.
The story follows the moral crisis of Samantha, an ex-soldier now in self-imposed exile, forced to choose between honor and safety when an intergalactic war threatens the new human empire. With influences stretching from Ancient Greek mythology to Japanese manga, Shrapnel: Aristeia Rising combines relentless, large-scale action with a philosophical story of one woman bearing the weight of conscience and the price of heroism.
Creators Mark Long (Zombie Studios) and Nick Sagan (Everfree) took time from production to talk to us about their perspective on Shrapnel and the role of philosophy in popular fiction.
Newsarama: What was the genesis of the story?
Nick Sagan: Mark Long and I have been friends for years, going back to when we worked together on Zork: Nemesis. We’re both fascinated by ancient warfare, Greek literature and Greek tragedy, and we knew we wanted to work together on a project that encompassed these interests. One day we were talking about how Earth might go about colonizing other planets, and how our past history might inform our future.
The idea for a future rebellion on Mars came to me, and I wrote up a treatment for a story called “Liberty”, which saw a female soldier leading Martian settlers to rise up against their repressive government. Since then, the concept has expanded and evolved: Shrapnel sees a rebellion span across the Solar System, and Mark had the inspired and very cool idea of technology progressing in such a way that would allow warfare to mirror ancient conflicts.
Mark Long: Zork: Nemesis was a deep story game that literally took months to write, and since we discovered we had a mutual interest in Greek literature, we began speculating how the colonization of our Solar System might mirror the evolution of the Greek city-states, each with its own form of democracy and trade specialization. That led to the idea that body armor might evolve to such a high degree of survivability that warfare might return to the tactics of antiquity, where soldiers fight in phalanxes and have to get right up on each other to penetrate armor.
That was an exciting visual! Mech-suited soldiers arrayed for battle on the fantastically alien plains of Europa or Io—a volcano moon and an ice moon. And I love sword-and-sandal epics. Dramatic speeches made about freedom and sacrifice before the battle. The chaos of close-quarter combat. And the tragic aftermath. It's literally the most enduring type of story told.
NRAMA: Why did you decide on a female protagonist?
ML: Samantha was Nick’s idea. And I loved it. A Greek tragedy with a female heroine?! That was something really new.
NS: I’ve long been intrigued by the prowess of female warriors and military leaders, from Boudica, Tomoe Gozen and Joan of Arc up through the women fighter pilots of today. These are exceptional people who defy conventional gender stereotypes to accomplish their victories, which makes them enjoyable to write about.
NRAMA: What are your influences for this work?
NS: Appleseed, Black Magic M-66, Alexander Nevsky, Throne of Blood, the story of Hypatia, many others.
ML: For me, it was Thucydides and Appleseed. Organic, form-fitting mechsuits like Matsume Shirow’s, and Thucydides for great speeches made when democracy was new.
NRAMA: The story seems rooted in ideas about responsibility to self. Can you speak more about that?
ML: Bearing true faith and allegiance is a critical characteristic of military leadership. Sam served in the Marines before the story starts on Venus. The International Union (the Earth) gave her freedom, and she joined to free others like her. But after several years of war and an event that made her infamous, her faith is lost and her allegiance is for no one, not even herself.
Shrapnel is about Sam’s reluctant return to faith and allegiance, this time to her former enemies—and, finally, to herself.
NS: Sam is lost, she’s abandoned herself, fled the life she used to live. She’s hiding to escape the past, but she can only hide for so long. Events force her to choose sides in a conflict, and in the course of this newfound allegiance, she discovers who she is at heart, and reclaims the person she was meant to be.
NRAMA: Your story is also about war. Currently the United States is fighting a war on several fronts. How do you feel about the purpose of war in modern society?
ML: The Peloponnesian War—the historical structure for our story—is probably more relevant than ever before. The greatest democracy in history lured into a ruinous war by the hot rhetoric of its politicians. Sound familiar?
NS: War is hardcoded into our DNA. Evolutionary programming tells us to form tribes and square off against outsiders. Our leaders make use of that programming when they lead us into war. Sometimes it’s for justifiable reasons and sometimes it’s not.
NRAMA: You speak about Joan of Arc as an influence on the narrative. Can you explain that connection more here?
ML: Hah. That’s right. I pitched the first series of Shrapnel as “Joan of Arc in Space”; the second series as “Lawrence of Arabia in Space”; and the final series as “Henry the Fifth in Space”. As you can imagine, I’m being a little facetious here, but Joan of Arc, because it’s a young woman leading an army in armor.
NS: Joan was not of noble birth—she was a peasant who shot up from obscurity to lead an army to a series of historic victories, and now we remember her as a legendary figure. Imperfect though she was, her sudden rise and unexpected military success inspire people to this day. She’s never far from our thoughts as we tell Sam’s story.
NRAMA: What makes this property different from the numerous “space epic” properties on the landscape?
NS: Between Mark’s gaming background and my science fiction background, we bring a perspective to this project that you won’t see elsewhere. We’ve surrounded ourselves with great writers and artists, including M. Zachary Sherman and all the amazing creative talent including Kai, Hutomo, Okita, Artgerm and Kunkka. Shrapnel is a labor of love that should stand well apart from what we’ve seen before.
ML: I love epic cycles. Particularly space epics, so I don’t have a problem with SHRAPNEL being considered one. But I guess what will set it apart is that it truly is a Greek tragedy.
NRAMA: The book has a very specific, painted art style. Why did you settle on that approach for the project instead of traditional pencils, inks and colors?
NS: Going against the grain of what’s expected for this genre plays to our themes and gives the art a surprising emotional power. I wish I had the ability to draw like that!
ML: Completely the opposite of what you normally get in sci-fi, where you want to geek out on all the details of the cool future world you invented. The result is so much more emotional, which serves the story perfectly, instead of competing with it for attention. The illustrator on the series, an artist named Kai, is a genius.
NRAMA: How has your experience been here at Radical?
NS: Radical has been terrific. They clearly understand what we’re doing, and they’ve shown themselves to be smart, innovative people. We couldn’t ask for a better partner in helping Shrapnel come to light.
ML: I can’t tell you how much I’m enjoying it. I design and produce video games. Large-scale collaborative projects that take years to complete. I’ve seen it all, and Radical is easily my best creative collaborative experience to date. They totally get what we are trying to do with Shrapnel.
NRAMA: There’s a rich backstory to the Shrapnel universe. Can we expect to see more of that?
ML: Trust me when I say this: the first series of Shrapnel only hints at where the characters are going in the trilogy.
NS: I’m glad you’re digging the future history we’ve constructed. Absolutely, you’ll get more of a glimpse of “how did we get here?” as the series moves forward. That’s the heart of science fiction as I see it: “Where are we going as a species? Where might we end up if we don’t watch out?”
NRAMA: New readers, who might be on the fence about picking up a new series...if you could speak to them directly, what would you tell them about Shrapnel?
ML: If you liked 300 like I did—and I didn’t like it, I loved it, both the book and the movie, watched it easily 10 times at home on the big screen—then you will love Shrapnel. We were working on it years before 300, and have the same passion for Greek warfare. Shrapnel is 300 in space: “THIS! IS! EUROPA!”
NS: Shrapnel is a gorgeous, adrenaline-filled mech epic which tells the story of an unlikely heroine showing courage against overwhelming odds. What’s not to like? Get off the fence and give it a try.
NRAMA: Shrapnel very much seems built with a message. What is that message?
ML: Shrapnel is a classic tragedy in three parts. The first series is the “Aristeia”—an ancient Greek word meaning a warrior’s excellence and prowess. Our heroine Sam is reluctantly called to action, vanquishes an army and rises to power. The second series is “Hubris”— vanity and pride that leads to a fall. Sam begins to believe the myths surrounding her, and friends suffer for it. The third series is “Nemesis”—not the modern meaning, but again ancient Greek, which is something like “the payment due”. Sam achieves the greatest of victories, but the bill comes due…
NS: The “message” of Shrapnel is for readers to discover—and when you go on that journey, our hope is that it will leave you a little different from how it found you.