Peter Tieryas: Five Things I Learned Writing Mecha Samurai Empire

The Man in the High Castle meets Pacific Rim in this action-packed alternate history novel from the award-winning author ofUnited States of Japan. Germany and Japan won WWII and control the U.S., and a young man has one dream: to become a mecha pilot.

Makoto Fujimoto grew up in California, but with a difference–his California is part of the United States of Japan. After Germany and Japan won WWII, the United States fell under their control. Growing up in this world, Mac plays portical games, haphazardly studies for the Imperial Exam, and dreams of becoming a mecha pilot. Only problem: Mac’s grades are terrible. His only hope is to pass the military exam and get into the prestigious mecha pilot training program at Berkeley Military Academy.

When his friend Hideki’s plan to game the test goes horribly wrong, Mac washes out of the military exam too. Perhaps he can achieve his dream by becoming a civilian pilot. But with tensions rising between Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany and rumors of collaborators and traitors abounding, Mac will have to stay alive long enough first…

Starting Over In A Familiar Universe Can Be Liberating

United States of Japan was a standalone story with the character arcs of both main characters finished by the end. But I felt there was much more about the universe I wanted to explore and know about. Initially, I tried to write a direct sequel with the same characters. But I struggled because I didn’t feel there was more I could do with their story that hadn’t been covered in USJ. Rather than forcing a followup, I started a new standalone book in the vein of Iain M. Banks’s Culture books and the individual Final Fantasy games. The opportunity to start over was liberating because it freed me up to experiment, expand, and try out all sorts of new things in a way I couldn’t with the first book. Because a lot of the legwork of establishing the major background pieces was already in place, I could spend most of my time focusing on what I wanted, which was the mechas and the pilots behind them. There’s loose connections between USJ and Mecha, but it was in many ways a reset as it revolves around a new cast of characters in a different time period. Thematically too, the stories diverged. The first book was an exploration of the horrors of war and the dehumanizing effects of torture, spurred by stories of the tragedies of WWII I learned growing up; my family lived in Asia during WWII and shared many of their experiences with me. The second book concentrated on the mecha pilots preparing to fight against Nazis and is really about the theme of persistence and endurance through difficult times.

Experiment Boldly, Pull Back In Editing

The initial draft of Mecha was over 150,000 words in length, which is almost twice the length of USJ. Every idea I had, I put down on paper. There were many scenes I knew didn’t work, but I still wanted to try them and see where the threads took me. There were environments the characters visited, landscapes that were eerily strange, especially near the demilitarized zone between Nazi America and the United States of Japan. Some of those elements were cut in my initial edit. A major scene was also removed during my edits with my wonderful Ace editor, Anne Sowards. In every case of deletion, they were cool set pieces, but didn’t move the story forward. At the same time, those experimental failures made their way into other aspects of the plot and I was able to recycle the concepts into smaller bits that helped enrich the lore for other parts of the journey. They also provided context for what worked and what didn’t, where I went too wild and what, in contrast, felt like a natural part of the USJ universe. The eventual word count would settle in at around 125K words, but some of the stranger ideas that got discarded were important, if invisible, pieces of the fabric that helped the overall tapestry of Mecha come together.

Simplification Isn’t A Bad Thing

I love ambitious novels. But sometimes, a book can be too ambitious to its own detriment. What I liked about the concept of a new standalone book was that it helped me to address what I felt was one of the biggest regrets I had for the first book- I’d tried to squeeze in too many competing ideas. United States of Japan was in part a look back at the tragedies of WWII, a spiritual sequel to The Man in the High Castle, an attempt to tell the story of thought police inspired by my curiosity about 1984’s thought police, a tribute to some of my favorite Asian films and games, a desire to modernize and lyricize the I Ching sequences of TMITHC into poetic dreams, a dive into the mecha works I loved from my childhood, and an examination of American culture from an Asian perspective (+ 10 more themes). For Mecha Samurai Empire, I simplified to the point that it was just focused on the five cadets aspiring to be pilots and the struggles they face, in part reflecting my own personal journey as an artist and writer. Some of the themes from the first book naturally made their way back in, but with the tighter focus, I felt I was able to tackle many of those older themes in a more organic way. This choice also explains, in part, why writing Mecha was the most (relatively) pleasant and enjoyable writing process I’ve had.

Research AKA “Making Mechas Realistic” Helps The Story

I love books that get into the technical details as my background is in technical art and writing. There’s a ton of mecha games, books, and films already out there. But I wanted to inject more realism and get into the nitty gritty of the controls, the training the pilots would have to undergo, as well as the whole philosophy/history of the corps. That meant studying a lot about tank warfare and using tank crews as a general template for mecha crews. Mecha cockpits in MSE come with engineers, munitions, a navigator, and a communications officers, rather than the single driver mechas usually depicted in a lot of anime and games. I also drew a lot on my own experience working in the animation industry creating complex rigs and digital machinery to hopefully lend more authenticity to mecha piloting. I wanted to move away from the idea of a “chosen one” that happens in so many mecha projects. You know, where someone is just instinctually great, born to drive, learning things that take others years to master to save the world.  No matter how many jet simulation games you’ve played or manuals you’ve studied, if you, as an inexperienced person, board a fighter jet and try to fly it, you will crash and burn. In Mecha Samurai Empire, Mac and his fellow pilots go through hell before they can even touch a bipedal mecha. They have to start on the quadrupeds first, then graduate to crab tanks, and so on. Thematically, the difficulty of piloting a mecha connects with the narrative and the challenges the pilots individually face. What I appreciated most was how this forced me to really understand the world on a deeper level. Simple questions like, where do spare parts on mecha engines actually come from, and what type of fabric are their uniforms made of, helped inform the story and give breadth to aspects that I otherwise never would have considered.

Working With A Foreign Publisher Is Really Helpful

Having more eyes on a manuscript can be super helpful and getting input from my foreign publisher was incredible. Mecha Samurai Empire actually published first in Japan with Hayakawa. So I worked closely with my Hayakawa editor, Aya Tobo, and my translator, Naoya Nakahara, as the book was being written. This was a first for me (I usually publish a book and then it gets translated). I continually emailed them throughout the process about questions I had and ideas I wanted to bounce off them. I also had to keep in mind that the book would be split into two books (Bunko paperbacks) in Japan. This proved helpful in creating a structure that I knew would have to work, both as split books, and as a whole, so that the dramatic pace was held consistent throughout. Hayakawa’s staff gave lots of fantastic feedback, provided very useful insight, and made corrective suggestions that were crucial. Because so much of the book revolves around Asian influences, their input really helped take it to the next level in terms of authenticity. Of course, it did increase the complexity as I was dealing with editing from the US and Japan at the same time. Fortunately, I feel the end result was a more rounded book with tons of details for interested fans, but (hopefully) not so obscure as to alienate.

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Peter Tieryas is the author of Mecha Samurai Empire and United States of Japan, which won Japan’s top SF award, the Seiun. He’s written for Kotaku, S-F Magazine, Tor.com, and ZYZZYVA. He’s also been a technical writer for LucasArts, a VFX artist at Sony, and currently works in feature animation.

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