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Never mind that Frenna, the main character in University of Maryland lecturer Severna Park’s new novel Hand of Prophecy, belongs to the Jatahn tribe, whose name means “favored ones”—her life is anything but blessed. Taken from her family when she was 18, enslaved by the Emirates, who have conquered her world, and beaten and raped by her master, a sociopathic veterinarian, Frenna, like all slaves, has also been infected with a cruel virus. Though it keeps her from aging for 20 years, the virus renders Frenna sterile and dooms her to “fail,” painfully and quickly, at the end of those 20 years. Complicating matters, when Prophecy begins, Frenna’s girlfriend Martine is near failing, and the Faraquis, who were conquered by the Emirates some 100 years earlier, are returning, powerful once more, with death and destruction trailing their ships like exhaust.

Revisiting the same far future she created in her first science fiction novel, Speaking Dreams, Park once again mercifully eschews impenetrable technical jargon for writing that is clear and honest, firmly rooted in character and human psychology. “Some people who write science fiction feel in their souls that they’re inventors, that it’s terribly important to make sure the details of the science work,” Park says. “But for me, as an artist, I have so little science background that it has to make obvious sense to me in a really short amount of space. So although there is cellular biology in my book, it doesn’t take a whole lot of time to get through.”

Just as Park maintains that the science should be second to the fiction, she thinks the inclusion of characters who are gay or defy traditional gender roles should be done without any driving political agenda. “I try to treat sexuality as though it’s just one more aspect of these people, not as a diatribe or a lecture. These people are just gay, are just straight. I mean, they just are,” says Park, who lives in Baltimore. “Whoopi Goldberg once said that one of the reasons she loved Star Trek when she was growing up was because of Lt. Uhura. It encouraged her to know there would be black people in the future. I agree. If we don’t show in our books that the future is diverse sexually, racially, then we’re not gonna have a very diverse audience reading about our future.”

Another reason Park believes her writing appeals to people is because it examines—through metaphors of slavery and freedom, failing and surviving—themes eternal to human experience. “There are plenty of things that people do in their lives now which, I think, people have done for millennia and will do way, way, way into the future. For example, you can count your friends who are in jobs or relationships that are not good for them but stay because they haven’t been able to find a way to adjust what they believe to be true about their lives,” Park concludes. “What you do with your life depends on how you approach it. How you survive depends on what you believe. When pessimism changes to a belief that something better is out there, that’s when everything changes.”—Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa