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Flirting with the Zodiac and the Colonial Dialectic

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With Book 5 of the Flirting with the Zodiac series dropping soon, I think it’s time to delve into the … ambitiousness of the project. We’re almost halfway through at this point (there will be 13 books in total). So, let’s talk about the series, my vision, and what the series is attempting to do.

The Origins of Flirting with the Zodiac

The Flirting with the Zodiac series has come a long, long way from what I originally envisioned back in 2019. I started with the first draft as a Camp NaNoWriMo project in July. Then I spat out two more books and made in-roads on a fourth shortly thereafter.

The cover for "A Stranger Sort of Fairy Tale."

The idea sparked when an author friend told me to write what I wanted to write. I’ve written and read mpreg for most of my life at this point. Yet I’d been skating around it in the books I was releasing. A Stranger Sort of Fairy Tale is set up to give us an mpreg sort of storyline. My older sports romances feature omegaverse worldbuilding, which, again, gives me an easy way to build mpreg into them.

Yet I hadn’t committed. Something was holding me back. And now, my friend’s words seemed like permission to go ahead. So I did.

Drafting Order for the Zodiac Books

The first book I wrote was Main Squeeze (more on that in a moment). Initially, I’d conceived of a four-book series about snake-shifters (naga) in different environments. The Bull by His Horns was second, which is why snake-shifters still feature largely in that book. By that time, though, the series—the world and the stories—were evolving.

Hook, Line & Sinker came next; I set Bull aside (it remained ending-less until spring 2021). Ty and Lawrence wrestled with me a bit more, but the series had now transitioned toward what we know it as now: a 13-book collection featuring alien shifters from different planets, each connected to a different sign of the zodiac.

At this point, though, the books were still more traditional romances. I considered focusing on tropes—Ty and Lawrence would be the “friends to lovers” book. The next draft I started working on, Two Scorpions in a Bottle, played largely with the “enemies to lovers” trope.

Ultimately, I abandoned that idea at some point while writing Two Scorpions.

Toward a More Political World

I’ll say Ty and Lawrence set the stage for a more expansive Zodiac world. We know that Lawrence’s grandmother, Myrtle, has technology that allows fairly expansive space travel. It’s why Lawrence’s family is disgustingly rich.

Ty, on the other hand, is a hybrid—half-human, half-Piscean seahorse-shifter. His father is full-blood Piscean and rather poor. As one of my beta readers pointed out, Ty and his father seem relatively isolated. We don’t see other Pisceans. Where is their community?

In Flirting with the Zodiac #1, we meet Ty, a half-human, half-seahorse shifter.

I pondered the beta feedback for a bit: where are the other Pisceans on Mars? I began to imagine, and I decided that there was a relatively small cohort of Pisceans on Mars. They are a small, scattered, and impoverished community.

More importantly, they are refugees. The backdrop of Hook, Line & Sinker changes dramatically with this explanation. Ty doesn’t know other Pisceans and his father doesn’t associate with them because there’s so few of them. They’ve faced genocide on their home planet, Piscea.

Whew, that really took the wind out of what was a fairly light-hearted romance between two friends, didn’t it?
But that explanation was what launched me to reconsider the backdrop of the Flirting with the Zodiac universe.

Writing a Stand-alone Series That Interconnects

One of the challenges with the Flirting with the Zodiac series is that each book is stand alone. A reader should be able to pick any of them up, read them, and walk away with a satisfying story. Readers who pick up the entire series, on the other hand, will want to see interconnections.

Lions, Book 5, is the most explicit of these. It acts as a bridge, tying back to other parts of the series. It starts to pull the disparate threads of the first four books together into a more cohesive world. At the same time, it still stands alone. You don’t have to have read Hook, Line & Sinker or Riding the Dragon to understand what is happening in Lions. Doing so will deepen and change your perception (I hope). And readers of other books should see “Easter eggs” dropped in there for them.

Thus, I always intended for some sort of overarching “plot” that connected the books. Even when Flirting with the Zodiac was still a series about snake-shifters, we’d just be looking at snake-shifters in different environs.

Once I’d introduced the genocide idea to HLS, though, the project became much larger, more ambitious. Now we were looking at sociopolitical meta-commentary. And, if you’ve met me, you know I believe that art is always political.

Exploring the Family

There are other sociopolitical threads in Flirting with the Zodiac—it explicitly looks at alternate ways of forming a family. Ty and Lawrence are relatively “Western” in that they fall in love and form a new nuclear family. Riding the Dragon features a somewhat similar set-up between Drake and Cad. In Main Squeeze, we see the snake-shifters form polyandrous familial groups, which are also multigenerational. In Bull, we see another multigenerational family forming. Lions shows us found family and a polyamorous, polygynous quintet. Other planned books look at other alternate family formations—and even alternate reproductive strategies.

The point here, of course, is that what we think of as “natural” and “normal” is not necessarily so. Why would species from other planets follow the Western patriarchal-capitalist rules of family formation and reproduction? Humanity isn’t even such a monolith.

It makes no sense that every species we ever encounter would reproduce the way we do, let alone have similar social structures.

The Political Backdrop of the Flirting with the Zodiac Series

Thus we arrive, somewhat, at the political backdrop of the series. We could see it as an anthropological commentary; each of the species represents a different cultural outlook, an alternate system talking back to Western paradigms. There is no reason that we can’t find love and family the way Marty does in Main Squeeze. The snakes’ social structure makes sense for them, and it begins to make sense for Marty too.

The political backdrop becomes more explicit in Riding the Dragon and Lions Will Tame Leopards. These two books are in dialogue with each other, more than any other books so far.

In Riding the Dragon, we know that Cad has been to war; we know he suffered in a crash and now has PTSD. We also know the war is over, but tensions remain.

The cover for "Riding the Dragon," Flirting with the Zodiac Book 2, features a green planet and a red dragon rising behind it on a starry background.

Riding the Dragon Is about Colonialism

Cad is human, and he fought on the side of Earth. We see Earth colonizing a planet they thought was “uninhabited,” although the dragons used it as a nesting ground. This echoes European doctrine of terra nullius during the colonial period.

European colonizers used this to say that the land they found in North America and elsewhere was empty. (Terra nullis is Latin for “empty land”). They were free to steal the land out from under the Indigenous peoples who had lived there since time immemorial. Euro-Western colonial governments attempted to get them to “settle down” and “farm the land,” arguing that the land could only belong to them if they “improved” it.

Otherwise, it was uninhabited, fallow, unoccupied. You had to stake a claim. This is terribly counterintuitive to many Indigenous peoples’ understanding of land—it’s not something you can own; “improvement” in the European sense is desecration of the gift from your forebears to preserve for your descendants.

In Flirting with the Zodiac, we see humanity—a vaguely American, neocolonial, Westernized version of humanity—perpetuating the same sorts of logic on various planets. They colonize Librae, a planet they believe to be uninhabited. In turn, Cad ends up on Drake’s nesting site, which sets off a whole host of problems.

Lions Gives Us a New Point of View

Lions takes us to the world of Rasalas in the immediate aftermath of the war. Here, we see a society in upheaval. They’ve lost the war, upended their government for a new democracy, and are attempting to conclude peace talks with the Coalition forces.

Delving into the leonids’ side of things complicates things. In Dragons, we’re led to believe the Coalition was “right,” that their war was justified. They were seeking “liberation” from the “evil” of the Scorpiate empire.

The cover for the fifth book in the Flirting with the Zodiac series features a lion's silhouette on a yellow planet with blue leopards running around the edge.

Yet Lions gives us a very different view. We see instead a benevolent Alliance with the Scorpiates at the helm. We see Harriot, leaders of the Coalition, as greedy imperialists, looking to expand outwards and subjugate the former Alliance members. Nix refers to lopsided peace treaties that will allow Harriot to extract natural resources and impoverish Rasalas in the process.

The point here is that we ought to suspect Harriot’s grandiose claims that they’re leading a “just” war. Are they liberators, freedom fighters? Or are they neo-imperialists justifying a raid on other political powers with the smoke and mirrors of democracy and “freedom”?

The parallels to our neocolonial, neo-imperialist world order are not unintentional. It’s not accidental, either, that the leonids—lions and leopards, animals that, on Earth, traditionally inhabit Africa and the Middle East—are the ones at the mercy of Harriot and their colonial ambitions.

Pushing Back against the Dominant Narrative

The pivot here to tell the story from the point of view of those facing colonization is purposeful. Lions is meant to be a counterpoint to narratives delivered in Riding the Dragon or even Hook, Line & Sinker. The narratives offer us a more complete picture—something we often lack in Western societies.

It is not news that the US has intervened in many places to ensure “democracy” reigns—but a particular pro-capitalist kind of democracy. The country has invaded places where oil or other natural resources are abundant. The US has destabilized regimes where outright war was not an option. It fuels conflicts with post-Soviet states over resources. Other “former” colonial powers retain plenty of influence in their “former” colonies.

And we certainly ought to mention Israel as a manufactured state. The victorious Western Allies carved it out of a former British colony (Palestine) to “solve” European antisemitism. That Western powers continue to prop up Israel is no surprise. It’s Anglo-American imperialism in a more presentable, almost untouchable form. After all, anyone criticizing Israel might be guilty of antisemitic sentiment, even if this is just a rehash of Europe’s medieval solution of expelling Jews from its borders. It’s easy to deflect criticism for how Israel continues the legacy of Western imperialism in the Middle East.

Reducing Everything to Black and White

Western lenses invite us to glide over the fraught and fragmented nature of any political era, including our own. We see “the West” as a pro-democratic freedom fighter, “liberating” peoples around the world from oppressive regimes, much the same as we uncritically view the Allies of WWII as “the good guys” or the conquistadors as “explorers.”

When all is said and done, perhaps we admit that imperialism—in its bald-faced, 19th-century form—was wrong. But we obscure the fact imperialism, neocolonialism is ongoing. We try to hide it under a veil of benevolence: we invaded Iraq to overthrow a dictatorship and liberate the Iraqi people. We went after their oil, really.

This is not to say that there is not a tension here—is democracy not more laudable than a dictatorship? Do some governments not oppress their own people? (Indeed, the US could easily be accused of doing so on their own home turf; Canada is not exempt either.) We can see that the thread of “liberation” and protection of “freedom” is perhaps not all bunk. But it usually masks cultural assumptions about what is good and bad, as well as ulterior motives.

The Issue of Cultural Supremacy

With the addition of Lions, we come up against the notion that drives most imperialist/colonial projects: cultural supremacy. Western culture has assumed, at almost every juncture, that it is the “best” or “natural” form of culture.

This assumption paves the way for assimilationist and genocidal agendas, such as what we see in Canada and the US. Today, residential schools have morphed into disproportionate incarceration and family break-up. In Canada, Indigenous children are much more likely to be in foster care than non-Indigenous children. Indigenous people are incarcerated at rates far above the national average. This is perpetuation of the ongoing colonial project. Very often, it stems from the assumption that Indigenous cultures are lesser or bad. We thus attempt to assimilate Indigenous peoples into the Western machine. The entire social structure of the Western state is hostile; it assumes it is the “best” form, the only form of sociocultural structure.

This is the larger work of the Flirting with the Zodiac series. Against a backdrop of “space exploration” and space-colonialism/imperialism, against a backdrop of war and arguments about whose culture is legitimate, the books are in dialogue with each other.

And, at the end of it, we should ask: are these ways of being not all valid? Or, perhaps, are some that have been shoved out and denigrated not actually “saner” ways of being?

The Reading Order of the Flirting with the Zodiac Series

One of the other challenges is that the books are not in the chronological order. Thus Book 1, Hook, Line & Sinker, is not actually the first story from a chronological standpoint. So far, to read the series in “chronological” order, you’d need to do this:

  • Main Squeeze (Book 3)
  • The Bull by His Horns (Book 4)
  • Lions Will Tame Leopards (Book 5)
  • Hook, Line & Sinker (Book 1)
  • Riding the Dragon (Book 2)

The order will continue to shift somewhat until the series is complete. By and large, though, Main Squeeze is the “jumping off” point for the series, while Riding the Dragon concludes it.

The Bad Beginnings

The cover for Main Squeeze shows a pink planet with two small moons being squeezed by an oversized green snake.

You can see this relatively easily: Marty, the main character in Main Squeeze, is one of the first space explorers. He crash-lands on a faraway planet, discovering it has a complex civilization populated by snake-shifters. This culture echoes many found on Earth, but I modeled it on cultures in the Amazon Basin. (The snakes themselves are anacondas.) There’s a background tension, especially as more humans arrive and set up an ambassadorship. The shadow of imperialism and colonialism looms over Marty’s “happy ending.”

That is drawn through more in The Bull by His Horns. Here, we return to Earth with Ro, who has previously served as part of Earth’s space military forces. He recounts that war had been simmering for some time, but finally turned hot. Earth allied with Harriot in the conflict. Ro mentions trying to save the Piscean refugees, which ties us back to Hook, Line & Sinker—where we see the son of a Piscean refugee.

Ferrante, the love interest in Bull, is a snake-shifter from a different part of Martinique. He relates genocide carried out by another group of snake-shifters against his people; the other group has allied itself with Earth. The politics are murky. Were the Conmarra fighting with Ferr’s people before Earth got involved? Whatever the case, we know the Conmarra have used Earth’s backing as a sort of “blessing” for their own quasi-imperialist takeover of another group’s lands.

The Aftermath of the War

Lions Will Tame Leopards jumps us ahead some; the war has ended, largely thanks to technological advancements made by Myrtle Trafford—Lawrence’s grandmother. The Alliance of Scorpius, Rasalas, and Corvus has been defeated. Here, we get an explicit look into one of the Alliance members’ world. We have a counterpoint to the narrative that Harriot and its allies spin. This is not benevolence, freedom fighting, or liberation. This is a hostile take-over that will harm Rasalas for perhaps eons. Little wonder, then, that Nix and his cohorts try so hard to push back against the peace treaty. Their government, however, is driven underground and we’re left to wonder what will befall Rasalas and its inhabitants.

We then arrive to Riding the Dragon, which, despite being Book 2, chronologically book-ends the series. The war is over; it’s been over for some time—we have hopped forward from even the events in Lions. Here, we see the somewhat mystical dragons discussing how to restore balance to the universe; on a metaphysical level, the universe is “out of balance,” tipping to extremes of violence and hatred. The solution is to tip the balance back toward love and peace—something that seems and feels impossible given the “nature” of the universe. And again, we see the leonids from Lions, only this time they appear as antagonists. The question, of course, is whether they are actually the “villains” here.

A Vague Timeline

Hook, Line & Sinker can slot in anywhere between Lions and Riding the Dragon; it may even occur after Riding the Dragon. Yet the establishment of the “science center” at the end of the book suggests it doesn’t take place after Dragon. We see, once again, the Harriot Coalition and its allies working together. The establishment seems hopeful, perhaps even lofty. Viewed in the context of the larger framework, we have to ask questions about the true aim.

Afrofuturism, Hopepunk, and More

I pointed out that Lions draws parallels to Africa, both in the creatures and in that Rasalas is a resource-rich planet exploited by outside forces. Rasalan society is by no means a utopia. As the narrative points out, the fundamental issue in Harriot’s war is the idea that Scorpius and its allies have been oppressing other people.

Nix pushes back against that view—he mentions Scorpius’s culture of “hedonism,” of pursuing one’s own pleasure. Drugs and sex are not taboo, but encouraged. In Rasalas, family formation is quite contrary to what a Western lens would suggest is normal. Whereas Harriot paints these societies as immoral, debauched, oppressive, and harmful, those within the society question that view.

Both Rasalas and Scorpius, to some extent, draw on alternate Knowledges that derive from Indigenous peoples around the world—in this case, African Knowledges that are either buried in Western societies or denigrated as being perverse and oppressive. Here, we see cultural imperialism at work again.

Exploring Other Ways of Being and Knowing

By the time I started working on Scorpions and now into Lions, I admit I am increasingly drawn away from Western cultural paradigms. While trying to be wary of appropriating (although I acknowledge that I do), I find resonance with Indigenous Knowledges. I hear them; I know them to be true. I’m still searching for the European equivalent of these Knowledges; they are there, buried under layers and layers—centuries—of patriarchal-Christian-capitalist insanity. They are difficult to unearth and reconstruct; we’ve been burying them, killing them, much longer than we have even Indigenous Knowledges.

So, I’ve turned to the Knowledges we still have, that have been carefully preserved and continued by Indigenous peoples themselves and, often, selflessly shared with even colonizers, who harm both intentionally and unintentionally. Thus, I can say I am attracted to ideas put forward by movements like Afrofuturism. What would the future look like if we adopted some of these Traditional Knowledges? What would a world shaped by African sensibilities look like? Those are questions Afrofuturism poses—and the answers are usually quite hopeful. Instead of imagining continued violence, oppression, and hatred, this vein of thought suggests the future can be quite different. This bleeds over into hopepunk and solarpunk—the literary antithesis of cyberpunk, the 1980s genre that kicked off our fascination with dystopian landscapes.

I don’t know about you, but I’m quite sick of dystopian landscapes—perhaps because we’re living one. And in that, I’m drawn to try to imagine something radically different—instead of violence, peace; instead of hate, love; instead of oppressive power dynamics, true freedom and caring; and instead of despair, hope.

From Despair, Hope

I recognize that the Flirting with the Zodiac world is, by and large, a dystopia—it shows us the universe going to war and colonialism winning. Yet, by including the “alternate” voice and logics and cultures, I find hope: these lights have not yet been extinguished. Rasalas may have lost the war, the government may be driven underground, but they are not entirely defeated. They continue—they persevere. That means they can rise again—perhaps they are instrumental in rolling the universe back toward love and peace, as the dragons ultimately decide to do.

In that, Cad is emblematic here: he has been brutalized by Western culture. He fought in a war, believed what he was told, and was then abandoned when he was no longer of use. His physical and mental health have deteriorated; he is alone, isolated. And then along comes Drake. And, at some point, Cad realizes that perhaps there is another way forward—and the change starts with him.

The ending of that book suggests there is much work to be done; changing the balance of the universe will take time. It is slow, incremental work, and many of us will not see it happening. But we are all Cad: scared, hurt, wounded, and unsure if we can do it. But like Cad we must all realize the truth: if we don’t try, then nothing will change. As difficult as it is, the change requires each of us to reorient ourselves.

And that’s the ultimate message of the Flirting with the Zodiac series. Although we exist against this dystopian nightmare, although the shadow of colonialism looms long, although the Western machine seems utterly unstoppable, we can persevere and we can change. And that, I think, is radically hopeful.

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