In some zombie stories, the living try to use the undead as a workforce. Though usually just as protection, as an early warning system, or as an army. But in his new novel The Death And Life Of Schneider Wrack (paperback, digital), writer Nate Crowley envisions a world in which criminals are turned into zombies and forced to work manual labor jobs. Though in talking to Crowley about his novel, what struck me is that his tale isn’t told from the perspective of the living, but of the dead.
As I understand it, The Death And Life Of Schneider Wrack is actually a combination of two previously published novellas: The Sea Hates A Coward, which came out in 2015, and Grand Amazon, which was released in 2016. For those who didn’t read the novellas, what is The Death And Life Of Schneider Wrack about?
The story is about political prisoners who, after being executed, get reanimated to serve as indentured workers aboard a fishing fleet stationed on an alien ocean. The title character, Schneider Wrack, was either a librarian who was framed for spreading dissident material, or a dangerous rebel leader. Unfortunately, the few memories death has left him with aren’t too clear on the matter. The book tells the story of his friendship with a woman named Mouana, who was a mercenary before being executed as a POW, as they try to lead a mutiny among the dead. Then, the second part, Grand Amazon, told from Mouana’s perspective, and deals with the consequences of their actions.
Is The Death And Life Of Schneider Wrack just the two novellas as they were originally published, or did you change anything about them to make them into a single story?
While the story is very much untouched, I revisited The Sea Hates A Coward to link it a little more fluidly with Grand Amazon, and to streamline some of the writing. The Sea Hates A Coward had been my first published work, and coming back to it two years later, there were passages that just read like I had tipped a sack of adjectives onto the page, so I took the opportunity to prune some of those back a little.
It sounds like The Death And Life Of Schneider Wrack is a mix of science fiction, horror, and humor.
Genre is always such a tough subject. In terms of setting, the book is full-on baroque fantasy sci-fi. It’s set in the remnants of a huge interstellar civilization connected by what are basically stargates, but one that collapsed hundreds of years before the book starts. As a result, you have all of these feudal states using whatever technology they’ve managed to hold on to to carve out territory in this big, shaky web of planets.
As for the horror, there’s definitely a lot of physical unpleasantness to the story. Hey, it’s about decaying slaves working on a giant factory ship. But there’s nothing sadistic about it. The book is about good people who are stuck in a nightmarish situation, and how they manage to find ways of dealing with that. And that’s where the humor comes in. Personally, I think the best way of staving off the real horror in the world is with gallows humor, and that’s certainly something I try to get across in the book.
Now, given your name, people probably expect your horror to be Aleister Crowley-esque. Or maybe Ozzy Osbourne-esque. Do you think it is, or is that just so obvious that you avoid it at any cost?
Ha! Well, I’ve got an academic background in the history and philosophy of science, so I’m kind of interested in some of Crowley’s ideas on thelema/magick and how they apply in a secular context, but all in all I’m not really into mysticism or the supernatural. If there’s any magic in my books it’s the kind described by Arthur C. Clarke: technology so advanced we can’t recognize it as such.
As for Osbourne, I certainly appreciate the classics when it comes to metal, and I live near Birmingham so I couldn’t not love Sabbath, but my go-to musician when I want heavy is Devin Townsend every time.
As for the humor, who do you see as being the biggest comedic influences on The Death And Life Of Schneider Wrack?
I guess the sort of humor I’d most want to emulate is Iain M. Banks’. He wrote about some utterly bleak and colossal stuff, but there was a real vein of good-natured humor all the way through, from the personalities of his all-powerful ship A.I.s, to the descriptions of small talk between incomprehensible aliens. Plus I grew up on Terry Pratchett, so I can’t help but admire his eye for satire.
Aside from them, are there are any writers that had a big influence on The Death And Life Of Schneider Wrack, but who were not an influence on your writing style as a whole?
I suppose the big influence I should mention is China Mieville. I remember reading Perdido Street Station for the first time and having his imagination hit me like a wrench to the brain. His work is a relentless feast of ideas. That sense of leaving constant, throwaway clues to an incomprehensibly complex background universe is something I always wanted to do myself in my writing. Mieville is also very political, and that’s something I do a little of as well.
How about non-literary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or video games that you think had an impact on The Death And Life Of Schneider Wrack, and if so, what and in what ways?
There’s certainly a lot of music that had an influence on it, if that doesn’t sound too odd. I’m a fan of big, overblown music, especially tending towards prog, and I always choose a big soundtrack to work to.
Film-wise, though it’s very dissimilar in terms of plot and setting, I guess I’d call District 9 an influence in the way it approached its world building, and the way it told a story with strong social themes using incomprehensible aliens. There’s also, oddly, a bit of Robocop in The Death And Life Of Schneider Wrack. I actually consider Alex Murphy to be a zombie in that film, and some of my thinking about him went into my writing of Schneider.
As we mentioned, The Death And Life Of Schneider Wrack was originally written as two novellas. Are you planning on writing any other stories in this series?
There is certainly at least one more Schneider Wrack book in me, which I have an embryonic plot for at present. I have a novel and a couple of novellas on the go at the moment, but if The Death And Life Of Schneider Wrack is well received, and Abaddon [his publisher] are keen, I would hope to start on the next Schneider Wrack book around the start of 2018.
Going back to movies and whatnot, has there been any interest in making a film, TV show, or game out of The Death And Life Of Schneider Wrack?
There’s been no talk of that yet, but I know for a fact that The Sea Hates A Coward portion would make a really cracking survival horror game. A lot of that book is just about Schneider trying to stay intact aboard this hellish, city-sized whaling ship, being sent out to sea on hunting boats, and trying not to get savaged by the ship’s overseers while trying to wake up the other dead people. The monsters alone would be a joy to encounter in a game.
If it was to be made into a movie or a game, who would you like to see cast in the main roles and why them?
Schneider is a really tough one to cast, but as for Mouana, the former soldier who comes to the fore in the second half, it’s hard not to think of Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road. The action in Grand Amazon has a lot in common with that movie. It’s a chase story across a brutal landscape with a tyrant in pursuit, and Theron played Furiosa with the same sort of rage and pragmatism that I imagine Mouana having.
Lastly, if someone really enjoys The Death And Life Of Schneider Wrack, which of your other books would you suggest they read next?
Well, this is my first book in print, but there’s more on the way. In September, The 100 Best Video Games (That Never Existed) gets published, and that’s pretty much what it says it is: a big, very detailed retrospective on games that never existed, complete with lavish illustrations from a team of games industry artists. I hope people will find that funny. I’ve also got another big, non-Wrack, novel on the way, which is more of a fantasy effort, but still has plenty of sci-fi round the edges.