Guest Post: “Creating A Sentient Starship” by Gareth L. Powell

Today, the BiblioSanctum is pleased to welcome back Gareth L. Powell, who we’re excited to host again as part of a book tour in anticipation of the release of his new novel, Fleet of Knives! This sequel to Embers of War is the second volume in a three-part science fiction series about a sentient starship called the Trouble Dog, and is described as perfect for fans of Ann Leckie, Alastair Reynolds, and Adrian Tchaikovsky. Being perpetually behind, I am a bit late to this party, but I hope to be reading the first book real soon. In the meantime, please enjoy this guest post by Mr. Powell as he shares with us the process behind creating the Trouble Dog and all that makes this starship special. Published by Titan Books, Embers of War is currently available in stores while Fleet of Knives will be released on February 19th and can be pre-ordered now! Be sure to check it out and visit the other stops on the tour!

by Gareth L. Powell

Of all the characters in my Embers of War trilogy, the one that readers seem to respond to most is the starship Trouble Dog. Although much of the plot focuses on the humans she carries, Trouble Dog plays a decisive role in events. She even narrates part of the story herself. In fact, you could make the argument that she is the novel’s main protagonist.

In science fiction, intelligent starships are nothing new. One of the most famous examples is in Anne McCaffrey’s novel, The Ship Who Sang, in which the eponymous ship’s controlling intelligence is the brain of a disabled child that has been scooped out and inserted into the vessel. This concept was later updated and satirised by M. John Harrison in the novel Light, in which 14-year-old Seria Mau Genlicher escapes her sexually abusive father by having her limbs amputated so she can be inserted into the control matrix of an alien starship. Iain M. Banks wrote about a whole society of humanoids (the “Culture”) living inside ships and habitats that were vastly more intelligent than their inhabitants. And more recently, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice follows the fortunes of a several-thousand-year-old troop carrier that finds its mind suddenly trapped in one frail human body.

What sets the Trouble Dog apart is that she’s not a brain in a jar or a hyper intelligent computer. The organic sections of her brain were grown in a vat, cultured from the harvested stem cells of a dead soldier. They were then integrated with artificial processors and other systems, and, as she was designed to be a warship operating with five sister ships, canine genes were spliced into her DNA in order to enhance her tenacity and sense of loyalty to the pack.

The only problem comes later, when as the result of trauma, human feelings start welling-up from the organic matter and she develops a conscience.


Rather than simply write a sassy AI like Eddie in the Hitchhiker’s Guide, I wanted Trouble Dog to be a fully rounded character, every bit as flawed and complex as her human crew. And I think this is what makes her such a fun character to write, and why readers sympathise with her plight. She becomes very relatable as she’s torn between what is expected of her, and what her own nascent morality tells her is right. It’s the old question of nature versus nurture, played out in the head of a killing machine capable of torching a planet. Sometimes she feels it’s easier to give into her conditioning and unleash violence to achieve her goals; other times, she’s disgusted with herself and the things she’s done. And all the while, those canine genes long for her lost brothers and sisters, who she had to abandon when she resigned her commission.

Like Clint Eastwood’s reformed gunslinger in the movie Pale Rider, the Trouble Dog has her share of demons. But will she overcome her propensity for violence? Can she atone for the things she did in the Navy? Will she find a new pack to which to belong?

You’ll have to read the book…


GARETH L. POWELL is a speculative fiction author from the UK. He has won the BSFA Award for Best Novel and been shortlisted for the Seiun Awards in Japan. His novels and novellas have been published in the UK and US by Solaris, Titan Books, and Publishing. His short fiction has appeared in InterzoneClarkesworld, and Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best Science Fiction, and his story ‘Ride The Blue Horse’ was a finalist for the 2015 BSFA Award.

Gareth was born and raised in Bristol, UK, and was once fortunate enough to have Diana Wynne Jones critique one of his early short stories over coffee. Later, he went on to study creative writing under Helen Dunmore at the University of Glamorgan. Gareth has run creative writing workshops and given guest lectures at UK universities, been a guest speaker at the Arvon Foundation in Shropshire, and given talks about creative writing at various literature festivals around the country. His nonfiction book About Writing is an essential field guide for aspiring authors. Gareth has also written for The GuardianThe Irish Times2000 AD, and SFX. He has written scripts for corporate training videos, and is currently at work on a screenplay.

Fleet of Knives, the second book in the Embers of War trilogy is out on February 19th from Titan Books. You can find Gareth on Twitter at: @garethlpowell

22 Comments on “Guest Post: “Creating A Sentient Starship” by Gareth L. Powell”

  1. Pingback: Mogsy’s Bookshelf Roundup: Stacking the Shelves & Recent Reads | The BiblioSanctum

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