Author Katrina Olan Discusses the Making of Mecha-Centric Sci-Fi Novel, ‘Tablay’

In the fall of 2019, sci-fi and comics fans in the Philippines were transported to the 22nd century in Katrina Olan’s novel, Tablay. War has been raging for generations between the Philippine Mech Force and hostile machine life called aswangs. When a mecha pilot finds out that the enemy is creating a super weapon of drastic proportions, she and her partner must find a way to stop it before it is too late.

Tablay will be released for international audiences for the first time when it becomes available for Kindle on Monday August 30. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic raging all over the world, Olan hopes that her novel becomes a mark of the generation in how it has become a response to everything that has been going on.

“We’ve reached the point in humanity when we don’t know whether technology is going to make us or break us,” she explained in a Zoom interview. “Technology has brought us so many good things. It’s here. It’s kept us connected during the pandemic. It’s brought a lot and circulated a lot of ideologies worldwide. And we appreciate our own culture also because of it, right? Because of the internet. But also, there’s a lot of bad things that technology can do.”

The bad things Olan is referring to are cyber acts that have become frighteningly normalized within recent years: from trolling, to fake news, to the dark web and so on. Olan emphasized how Tablay explores the ideas of whether technology is worth it at the expense of humanity and how while history may have affected the present, it’s those in the present who must decide what the future will behold. “That’s the core of the story and what I really wanted to point out when I was writing it,” she added, “because whatever we choose to do affects people, not only us now, but the generations after us. That’s why we have to make it better for them.”

Growing up an only child, writing has been a passion of Olan’s since she was very young, and it was one she started taking more seriously at the age of twelve when she started writing longer forms of prose. Her debut novel, Skies Above, is a project she initially started when she was thirteen.

Asked how writing Tablay compared to writing Skies Above, and the difference is notable; particularly in who the leads are.

“My first ever novel was a steampunk fantasy novel,” Olan said. “It had more of a… How would I say? A white male lead. There’s no other way to put it. That’s fine, but I also wanted to really explore our own culture, and I felt like even the gestures, even the way that the characters think [is] very redolent of our reality and our culture.”

The desire to both delve into her roots, as well as challenge herself in an entirely different genre, is what led to the conception of Tablay — which means “electric charge” — to begin with. As she elaborated, “So I said, ‘Okay, why don’t we do something that’s practically never been done before?’ So that’s science fiction. And what makes us Filipino? And it’s our mythology, right? It’s our culture. It’s our heritage. So bringing together science fiction with Philippine mythology and melding it into one sci-fi epic, I said, ‘That’s something interesting. I don’t think anyone’s ever really seen a mecha tikbalang, right? Or a mecha tiktik or a kapre or whatever the folkloric character is.’”

On a more grounded note, Olan relates a lot to the book’s protagonist, Anya, in the similar transition periods they both go through. While Anya is starting off as a new pilot of the mech force, Olan was just getting used to life outside of school. Writing Tablay originally started off as a release during this period of the author’s life.

“I never really wrote Tablay with the intention of sharing it,” she said. “It was more of like a self-projected fan fic sort of thing, but then I realized… That was the first draft. I revisited it again, and I said that there could be so much more potential in it. That was me writing the first few chapters, like, ‘Oh, I’m so sad. I miss school,’ and stuff like that. But after that, you go out into the world and you realize there’s a lot more stories to tell. There’s a lot more of social commentaries that can be placed, just a nod to what’s happening in our country, into the book.”

For Olan, finding inspiration for exactly how this world was going to look and feel came from prior experience as her country’s first representative at the Google Creative Campus in Silicon Valley.

“It really changed my life because you get to see a lot of the things that happen behind the scenes,” she reflected. “It also inspired me because there were a lot of really techie stuff like integrating seconds of fashion, automation, right? AI, robotics, everything like that. So, they brought us around and showed us to the lab and a lot of the labs that you’ll see in the book are also inspired by the Googleplex.”

Olan self-published Tablay as opposed to going with the traditional publishing route. She explained how the publishing industry – and the creative industry, in general – in the Philippines isn’t nearly as developed and accommodating as it is overseas. This especially goes for those in the world of comics.

“In America, you guys have this big Marvel [franchise], right? All of the big comic book industries,” she pointed out. “Here, it’s mostly seen as a pastime, as a passion project, but not really supported by our infrastructure or our government. And that’s why the number of large publishing houses here are not many. There are a lot of small presses.

“So, I decided to go the self-publishing route because I submitted to big publishers and none of them accepted me,” she added. “So, I got rejected multiple times, but that’s okay. You really find your way.”

It’s because Olan decided to self-publish that she wears multiple hats. Aside from being the author of Tablay, she’s the one who funds every single copy, she makes sure each copy is delivered, and she manages the social media accounts for the book.

Since its initial release in the Philippines, Tablay has generated quite a bit of success. Even Budjette Tan, co-creator of the Trese comics, has hailed it as “a fun mashup of mecha and myth.” Olan believes that it’s because mechas play a central role in the story that that is what has gravitated Filipino readers, having grown up watching anime like Voltes V, as well as there being a large market for model kits for mechas.

But the significance of mecha in the Philippines runs deeper than that, as it became something more during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.

“Did you know that the dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, canceled the last few episodes of Voltes V here in the Philippines, because he said it was too subversive and that it could cause or inspire people to rise up against him?” she said. “So that was so interesting because people rallied for this mecha anime to be shown, because it was one of the only TV shows allowed during the dictator’s regime. It was canceled because it was too subversive. So when it finally came back a few years later, people really rejoiced. Mecha is the sign of hope and change and strength for Filipinos. So, I think that’s what really stuck with them.”

The international release of Tablay is Olan’s main focus right now. However, she does have some other projects in the works that are set in and around the universe and characters of her creation. She’s working with her illustrator, Paul Medalla, to adapt it as a graphic novel, which she hopes to release next year. She also is working on Tablay After Hours; a collection of stories that follows the characters when they’re not out piloting mechas and fighting aswangs. She is targeting to release that project this winter.

As for whether or not there’s a sequel in the works, Olan said there isn’t — at least, for now. She explained how, “I want to make sure that there’s a good story to tell before I make a sequel. I know some authors [who] want to make a sequel because their first book sold like pancakes, right? And they’re like, ‘Oh my goodness. I have to follow it up because I have a good following and they’re willing to buy the book.’ But I don’t want to push it unless it’s really something that I want to tell, so we’re sticking to the first book.”

Tablay will be available for Kindle starting on Monday August 30. There will be a book launch for it on Facebook Live on Sunday August 29 at 7:30PM Pacific/10:30PM Eastern.

All images courtesy of Katrina Olan.

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