Sean O’Brien is best known as a West Ranch High School English teacher, basketball coach and retired football coach, as well as the 2008 California High School Educator of the Year Award winner. Once he finds time within his busy schedule, O’Brien uses that time to write sci-fi novels, something he’s done for 25 years.
O’Brien was passionate about writing from a young age, long before he became a published novelist.
“In first grade, they assigned us to write a Christmas story that was completely invented and made up,” O’Brien said. “Most kids did a little one page story, and I just dove into it unbelievably deeply, to the point that, when the time came to turn it in, I asked my teacher for an extension — in first grade! I was like, ‘There’s so much more to do on this. It is not done.’ The teacher indulged me and I just went crazy and made this really elaborate myth.”
O’Brien’s interest in science fiction derives from his experience as a scientist before becoming an English major. Since 1996, O’Brien has published a total of four novels, drawing inspiration from his everyday life and putting a science fiction spin on the mundane.
His first novel “A Muse of Fire” takes place after the end of a war between Earth and a neighboring planet, with Earth as the victor. The story follows a teacher that has been sent to the planet as a civilian worker while Earth sets up an infrastructure. However, the teacher encounters the planet’s natives, known as the Mnemosyneans, and begins to fall in love with their culture, putting him in conflict with the Earth forces.
Next, O’Brien wrote “Vale of Stars,” a story that follows a matrilineal family line. The first woman is working as a caretaker on a ship that has been sent to colonize another planet, and her job is to care for individuals on the ship who have faced birth defects due to cosmic radiation after the ship has been in space for 100 years. As the ship approaches their destination, the people in power decide that once on the new planet, these “defective” individuals must be euthanized. The caretaker resists and sparks a revolution. As the ship lands, they realize that another colony ship has beat them to their destination due to a development that sped up space travel. The story then follows the caretaker’s daughter as she works to integrate into the new colony and then follows her granddaughter, and continues to follow the women in this family line.
“I have been fortunate to have a string of women [in my life]. I have women that came before me, like my mother and grandmother. I have a woman that’s with me now, my wife. I have a woman coming after me, my daughter,” O’Brien said. “The vast majority of people in the world, it seems to me, have the attitude of, ‘Men shape the world and women kind of stand off to the side.’ It just occurred to me that, actually, it’s women… If life is a river, the river is women, and men just get carried along in it.”
O’Brien’s next novel went the opposite direction, as he was inspired by the men in his life, mainly his father, brother and son. Thus “Beltrunner” was written, an action-packed buddy-story following an asteroid miner and his “defective, but charming” computer as they attempt to make a living without getting caught up in the corporations that have taken over. Eventually, the miner discovers an alien artifact that causes everyone to suddenly pay attention to him. Released in 2016, O’Brien said this story also follows the idea of, “What happens when you get your dream?”
O’Brien’s latest work, published in 2019 and titled “Silent Manifest,” inspired by a tragedy that took place in Santa Clarita over 20 years ago.
“A science teacher did an unauthorized and unsafe experiment on their football field. The experiment went wrong, one kid was immolated – he was caught on fire and almost died. He was in and out of the ICU for several weeks. He ended up surviving, but he easily could have died, and he is altered significantly as a result,” O’Brien said. “As it happens, I was that teacher’s assigned mentor. So there’s quite a bit of psychic responsibility on me, even though I had already told him, ‘You are forbidden from doing this experiment,’ he went and did it anyway, and a tragedy occurred. I sort of carried the guilt of that for an awfully long time.”
“Silent Manifest,” was written as a form of therapy for O’Brien, as he was inspired by this tragedy and decided to write about it in his familiar sci-fi-esque fashion. The story follows another colony ship that is transporting a quarter million growing embryos to a new planet. There are very few adult humans taking care of this vast number of embryos and no one truly understands their exact mission. As they investigate, their true mission is gradually revealed, and it takes a rather nihilistic turn.
“This is the dark part of me that says, ‘No, things won’t work out. Things are not good. Nothing you do matters.’ We’ve got to purge that, it’s in us, there is something in us that’s dark,” O’Brien said. “You can ignore it and just push it down, or you can do something awful, or you can get it out some other way. Some people paint, some people sing, some people go to therapy. I did this.”
As stated at the start of this story, O’Brien has a packed schedule. Nonetheless, he is still able to find time to write.
“The key to it is, write even when you don’t feel like it. If you wait for inspiration, you might be waiting forever. What if it never comes? So, you write all the time,” O’Brien said. “The stopping point is when you’re rolling, not when you’re stuck. It sounds completely backwards. Here’s why, and I swear it works: If you stop when you’re stuck… that means when you stopped you were blocked. You’re not going to want to go back to it because you’re going back to a block. If you’re rolling… stop. Because every part of you is going to want to get back to that as soon as you can. You trust yourself that you’ll catch that wave again.”
Currently, O’Brien is working on the heavily-demanded (from readers on Goodreads) sequel to “Beltrunner,” expanding the story and tying up any loose ends left in the original story.
“A writer is always working on more than one thing at a time,” O’Brien said. “That’s the one I’m writing now, but I’m also planning another thing. And there are some I have written, but I’m trying to find a home for.”
Before the pandemic hit, O’Brien would have book signings at The Open Book in Canyon Country, and he plans on continuing to do so post-COVID-19. Readers can stay up-to-date on when O’Brien’s book signings will continue on The Open Book’s website under “Upcoming Events.”
Readers can also find O’Brien’s work through Amazon and Bookshop where e-book downloads and physical copies are available for purchase. E-books are also available for download through Nook and Kindle devices.