Interview: Wendy N. Wagner and Jak Wagner

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

WW- Our story is about a young woman who has grown up in space and wants to return to Earth to be what is essentially a park ranger. But as a space transplant, her body really isn’t up to the rigors of Earth’s gravity, and her immune system isn’t ready for all the microbes. She completely depends on her armor to survive. So really, the piece is about the medical applications of power armor. Jak suggested it, but when I was researching the subject, it turns out there are a lot of quasi-armors being built right now that are
mobility-enhancing apparatuses. Rex Bionics, for example, has built exoskeleton legs to replace a wheelchair.

JW- There’s plenty of stories of the purely military aspect of power armor, and we wanted something with a little more character to it. PA really is one of those items that can be applied to all sorts of settings, police, firefighters, or even a park ranger.

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

WW- Honestly, I just suggested that Jak & I should write a mech story as a lark. I don’t know much about mecha or exoskeletons, and he really came up with the entire vision for the story.

JW- Wendy told me she wanted to write a power armor story together. We basically just bounced ideas back and forth trying to come up with a general idea we both could sink our teeth in. I built the suits as a concept and then we spun the world around that. I wanted the PAs to be somewhere between the Batman Beyond powered suit and the Mjolnir armor from Halo. Wendy pretty much left the power armor bits to me as I’ve been interested in them since I was about 8, and I left the world to her since she’s got more experience in that area. I wanted the suit to not just be our hero’s spandex suit, I wanted her to depend on it but also benefit from it. I also wanted aliens; because heck, why not.

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

WW- Yes, this story was tricky! It was the first story I’d ever collaborated on, and it was a topic I knew next to nothing about. Jak and I talked about his ideas, and I basically wrote down the outline of the piece as we talked. Then Jak sent me a scene he’d come up with. It launched me into overdrive, writing a bunch of scenes and talking them over with Jak. But there was a lot of editing, a lot of worldbuilding that developed from talking to JJA.

JW- Yes, I don’t normally write for outside consumption. I basically wrote down the fight scene at the end and asked Wendy if it had the flavor we wanted and she took it from there. When we’d begun crafting the world we had an idea of going for this world where genetic diversity on it’s planets was a species greatest strength and  it took a bit of bending to make that something more than just hippies and polluters.

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

WW- What’s personal for me are all the animal and environmental aspects. When Jak suggested writing a story about a park ranger, I thought he was crazy, but it turned out to be the perfect topic for me. I’m absolute bird and animal nerd.

JW- Wendy baited me on this one, you don’t ask a guy who loves mecha if he wants to write a story about mecha. I actually pitched the park ranger idea because I knew that Wendy would be able to take it and run
with it easier than if it was some silly war drama. And besides, who doesn’t like the great outdoors?

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

WW- I read some Wikipedia articles, but mostly I just called Jak. He’s written nonfiction on mecha and power armor; he’s basically been an expert on the topic since he was fourteen or fifteen.

JW- I had some concerns about what kind of materials we could build the suits out of without being too far into pseudo science so I spent a little bit of time comparing what you could afford to build from and what your reasonable mass would be, and then I baselined some hydraulic outputs so that any statements on speed, or jump height, or strength wouldn’t be totally ridiculous. I’m not saying there’s a ton of engineering in it, I just tried to keep it as reasonable as we could while still being awesome. I also insisted Wendy read Starship Troopers.

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?

WW- I’m a pretty small person, so for me, the idea of putting on a suit of armor and suddenly having  super-strength is really cool. I could open any jar in the house, reach any shelf, beat up that guy on the bus who won’t share his seat! I love that thought. No matter what size the armor or mech, it’s a source of irresistible power.

JW- My main appeal is actually for mecha, not power armor (the difference being that you wear one, and pilot the other), as it’s basically the ultimate silly dream. It’s like some kid couldn’t decide between being a Fighter Pilot, a Tank Driver, a Racecar Driver, or a Superhero. There’s both that allure you get from a finely tuned muscle car and that undeniable brute mechanics that heavy machinery has. Mecha are pretty much the ultimate American vehicle, and I’m kinda surprised they haven’t caught on more actually.

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

WW- Well, I really enjoyed Starship Troopers–the book, not the movie (haven’t seen it). Heinlein talks a lot about jumping while wearing their power suits, and that idea really resonated for me (that’s why there’s a lot of jumping in our story, because it sounds SO fun). But the first power armor/exoskeleton I think I ever saw was in the movie Aliens, that yellow exoskeleton that’s looks like it was made by Caterpillar. And that image, of this angry woman in a hydraulic exoskeleton, has never left me. The second Ripley steps inside, you just know she’s going to kick some alien ass. I want an exoskeleton like that!

JW- Anyone who doesn’t say the VR-052 MOSPEADA (also know as a Cyclone Power Armor ) is their favorite power armor probably wasn’t alive in the 80’s. What’s cooler than a motorbike that turns you into a ninja jumping tank that can beat down walls? My favorite mecha is one that’s not anywhere near as well known; the Armored Shrikes from Blue Gender are in my mind the most logical and awesome way to build a mecha (second would probably be either the Gears from Heavy Gear or Code Geass’s Knightmare Frames, mecha with roller-skates are so badass). If you dig mecha your best bet will always be anime.