Interview: John Jackson Miller

Tell us a bit about your story.  What’s it about?

Human Error springs from a very simple premise. In an interstellar defense organization that employs multiple species wearing specialized power armor, what would happen if a team got sent the wrong species’ armor? And at the absolute worst time? It’s a fun thing to think about, and it results in a pretty fun story.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

The basic kernel of the story—the wrong armor—was suggested by friend and sometime assistant Cathe Smith, and it fit in with the kind of story I was looking to tell—one of those “you’ll never believe this” anecdotes that mech operators might tell. When I got into it, though, it went from being a tall tale to a pretty serious predicament. Surge Team Chief Bridgie Yang’s people are the only ones who stand between a human colony and an omnivorous, well-nigh indestructible alien life form—and they’ve got nothing to wear! It sets up an interesting puzzle for Yang and her team to work through.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

A lot of mecha stories take place within an established milieu, where the forces and locations involved are already established. “Human Error” involved the creation of a completely new science-fiction setting in Earth’s interstellar neigborhood in the not-so-far future. Transportation systems, government, communications methods—it’s a short story, but it helps to have that kind of background. It gives me a good reason to return to this milieu in the future.

Most authors say all their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

Most of the prose fiction and comics I’ve written have been done for licensors—STAR WARS, IRON MAN, MASS EFFECT—so I’m usually playing in other people’s sandboxes. This is all my own creation, so I would say it’s by definition personally important.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

I try to keep my science fiction reasonably hard in a technical sense—there are fantastic elements, certainly, but I think it’s important that I know how things work. Especially with armored fiction, which I think is very much rooted in the mechanical workings of things. So I worked to make sure I presented a world that was credible, even though it was populated by some amazing things.

Also, with regard to the alien species in the story, I imagined them as being quite different from humans—enough so that receiving the wrong armor would be more of a problem than just not having big enough helmets. For the Uutherum I looked at some very exotic Earthly life forms, and extrapolated out what their life cycle might be like, and what they might need to have in power armor to be effective.

What is the appeal of power armor/mecha? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do you think readers/viewers/gamers love it so much?

I think it has a very practical feel to it, and it’s easy to imagine ourselves using the equipment. The simple act of driving a car, if you think about it, gives a human a mechanical extension that greatly enhances his or her natural abilities; it’s a small leap from that to driving a big robot, or wearing a suit of armor. It also puts some limits on what characters can do in many ways—suits might only be capable of certain things, and damage or the wrong environment becomes a big handicap. That can create some interesting and dramatic obstacles. When I wrote CRIMSON DYNAMO for Marvel a ways back, I built all sorts of handicaps into the armor’s system—and since it didn’t come with an owner’s manual, the operator had to kind of figure it out on the fly. I think those are fun things for readers to think about.

What are some of your favorite examples of power armor/mecha (in any media), and what makes them your favorites?

My first brush with it probably came from Marvel’s old SHOGUN WARRIORS comics series three decades ago. I could never find the toys—they were expensive even then—but as with MICRONAUTS and ROM, Marvel’s other toy titles, the comic book series was better than it probably had to be, and it started me thinking about the idea of over-sized robotic vehicles. Then, or course, came IRON MAN, which I got the complete collection for—reading that led me to my own run on the title, which was a lifelong dream—and the Mandalorians in STAR WARS, which I later got to write about in the KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC comics. These have all been fun concepts to think about as a fan, and I’m pleased that I was able to work on them later on. Then and now, there are some great toys in this business!