It’s been said that while almost no one bought the Velvet Underground’s albums, everyone who did started their own band. It seems you could say something similar about the TV show Firefly, which has inspired numerous sci-fi space operas, including R.E. Stearns’ Barbary Station, T.J. Berry’s Space Unicorn Blues, and Mike Brooks’ Dark Deeds. But while you might think the same of the sci-fi space opera Stars Uncharted (paperback, Kindle) by S.K. Dunstall — or, as they’re known to their friends, sisters Sherylyn and Karen Dunstall — in the following email interview, the duo confess they’d never saw Firefly until someone pointed out the similarities to their new book.
To start, what is Stars Uncharted about?
Stars Uncharted is story about three people, all of them hiding something. Nika Rik Terri is a famous body modder. She redesigns people. Give her a living body and a genemod machine, and she will turn out a work of art. Josune Arriola is crew on the explorer ship the Hassim. They’re looking for the most famous lost planet of all — Goberling’s world — which contains a massive lode of the most sought-after metals in the galaxy. Hammond Roystan is the captain of a simple cargo runner, but Josune’s captain believes he also has information that might lead them to the lost world. She sends Josune to infiltrate Roystan’s ship, promising to follow. But when the Hassim exits nullspace close to Roystan’s ship, it’s out of control, the crew are dead, and unknown Company operatives are trying to take over. Roystan and Josune escape, but they’re wounded, and come to Nika for treatment. She’s got problems of her own: an assassin is after her. She flees with them after the next Company attack. Now they’re in a race to save their lives before the company men or the assassin catch up with them.
Where did you get the idea for Stars Uncharted and how different is the finished version from what you originally envisioned?
Karen: Stars Uncharted started with body modding machines — we call them genemod machines — and extrapolating what might be left when one of the black-box type machines so beloved in science fiction became part of life. The only thing left was cosmetic surgery. Only it wouldn’t be cosmetic surgery any more, it would be remodeling the body in genemod machines.
The basic storyline remained the same, but how we got there changed. For starters, Josune, one of the two point-of-view characters, didn’t turn up until the draft just before we sent the completed story to our agent.
Sherylyn: Also, when our agent read it, she came back with a suggestion to change how the ending happened, and we were, “D’oh! That is so obvious. How could we not see that is the only way it could happen?” So we changed that, too, which made the story so much more circular.
Stars Uncharted has been classified as a space opera science fiction novel. Is that how you see it?
Sherylyn: It falls squarely into space opera for us. Action, fights, camaraderie. A bit of fun. There is no military in this book so, if you prefer, it could also be called space adventure.
Are there any writers or specific stories that you feel had a big impact on Stars Uncharted but not on your earlier novels?
Karen: Definitely every science fiction book or movie that ever had a medi-centre that you went into and came out cured an few hours later. Including the best known of them all, Star Trek, but there are lots more.
There’s a bit more science in Stars Uncharted as well, in the body modding. It’s not too heavy, but it’s there, so we have to tip our hats to some of the harder sci-fi writers we read and who influenced us. Like Charles Sheffield and Vernor Vinge.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or video games; did any of them have a big impact on Stars Uncharted? Because the plot kind of reminds me of Firefly.
Karen: As we said, Star Trek, because of the medical center. And probably pretty much every big budget science fiction movie — think Guardians Of The Galaxy, Thor— that has action and camaraderie and banter and is fun, with lots of things happening. We love those movies.
TV shows? We’d have to go back further, all the way back to Dr. Who and Blake’s Seven.
Sherylyn: A lot of people say the story reminds them of Firefly, but until people started comparing Stars Uncharted to the show, we hadn’t actually seen Firefly. In fact, the first Firefly-related show we ever saw was the web series Con Man, which Karen liked. She also lists Galaxy Quest as one of her favorite movies of all time, so you can understand this.
After people started comparing our book to Firefly, we watched the show. We enjoyed it.
As I mention in my intro, you two are sisters who co-wrote this book. I’m curious how that works.
Sherylyn: We work closely together. We say we’re pantsers — don’t work to a plot outline, just let the story come — but we do talk things out while we write. We talk about the story before we start writing, we talk about it while we’re writing it, and we talk after we’ve written it.
We have quite different writing voices, so to keep the same voice throughout, one of us writes the first draft, with the other following behind, rewriting and editing. And we literally do write together, in the same document, at the same time. Which works, most of the time, unless we’re both editing exactly the same section, when Word has a meltdown. That’s caused a few problems in the past. So much so that now we tell each other which chapter we’re working in.
Karen: Although we have, on occasion, forgotten, and one of us moves on to the chapter where the other is working. But we’re getting better.
Sherylyn, what is Karen’s role in your writing and what makes her so good at that stuff?
Sherylyn: For the Linesman books, and for Stars Uncharted, Karen wrote the initial draft, so she sets the voice. She’s also the science geek, so she does a lot of the heavy research.
Karen, same question: What does Sherylyn do as a writer that you do not?
Karen: Sherylyn’s a better editor than I am. I get attached to writing, attached to characters. I don’t like to cut. I need a long time away from a manuscript before I can edit cleanly. She has more patience, too. She goes through the manuscript over and over. Many more times than I do. She also rewrites the fight scenes. Multiple times.
Speaking of which, is there anything that you two always get into fights over? And I mean writing stuff, not things like who’s the better Fortnite player or whose turn it is to pick up the check at brunch.
Karen: What, you don’t mean all the games Sherylyn plays when she should be writing?
Sherylyn: Or all the internet surfing Karen does when she should be writing?
Karen: I hate to let go. As we said, I get attached to certain characters and story ideas. Jordan Rossi, from Linesman, is a perfect example: there was so much that Sherylyn wanted to cut. I argued about it for months, but it finally saw the light.
We have heated conversations, yes, but we don’t generally fight over writing. We’ve come around to a working method where eventually, if neither of us refuses to budge, we have to rewrite, come up with something different until both of us are happy with it.
I’m also curious why you two decided to publish these novels as S.K. Dunstall as opposed to Karen and Sherylyn Dunstall? Or as Sherylyn and Karen Dunstall? I just answer my own question, didn’t I?
Karen: You did. It’s a mouthful.
We originally planned to write under a pseudonym, and our agent sent the first Linesmanbook out under that name, but when Anne, our editor, picked it up, she asked if we really needed the pseudonym.
The most difficult thing about the name was deciding which way around the initials went.
Sherylyn: “I wanted K.S. Dunstall.”
Karen: “And I wanted S.K. Dunstall.”
Sherylyn: We finally settled on S.K. because it sounded better.
Karen: “And I’m bossier.”
Now, as you know from when you wrote your Linesman series, some space operas are not stand-alone stories, but are instead parts of larger sagas. You’ve already said that Stars Uncharted is a self-contained story. What led you to this decision?
Sherylyn: Honestly, every first book is stand-alone. We don’t write with a series in mind. Even Linesman was a stand-alone novel initially.
Karen: And while we didn’t plan it that way, there is a second story in Stars Uncharted.
Speaking of the Linesman trilogy [Linesman, Alliance, and Confluence], while Stars Uncharted isn’t part of that series, I assume you think fans of the Linesman books will enjoy Stars Uncharted as well. But is there anything about Stars Uncharted that will surprise fans of the Linesmanbooks?
Karen: We don’t want them surprised so much as to find a new set of characters to love and to go on the journey with. But we want each story to be unique enough that they don’t sound the same. There’s no point reading the same story over and over. You want fresh, new, but providing the same enjoyment.
Also, is the Linesman series done, or are you thinking you might write a second trilogy in that universe, or maybe some side stories?
Karen: We have lots of Linesman stories we want to write; too much to write, too little time. Not all of them about Ean, some just set in the universe. There’s also the one thing we haven’t resolved — the aliens — and that’s Ean’s story.
When will these books be out. We have no idea. Hopefully in the not-too-distant future.
Going back to Stars Uncharted, earlier I asked if it had been influenced by movies, TV shows, or video games. But has there been any interest in adapting Stars Unchartedinto a movie, show, or game?
Karen: We’d love to say yes, but sadly, no interest yet. We’d love to see it.
Which of those do you think would work best?
Sherylyn: We can see advantages to both the movie format and TV. It’d look great on the big screen, and we tend to watch more movies than we do television series, but a TV series would allow full character development and storylines. So we’ve got not real preference, either would work.
If Stars Unchartedwas to be adapted into a movie or TV show, who would you like them to cast as Nika, Josune, and the other major characters?
Sherylyn: We’d like Nika and Josune to be played by good but relatively unknown actors. So they can take the part and make it their own, in the same way Daisy Ridley [Star Wars: The Force Awakens] and Kelly Marie Tran [Star Wars: The Last Jedi] created Rey and Rose Tico.
What about if it was a game?
Karen: Video games we haven’t thought about. But we’d love to see that, too. Some of the video game soundtracks nowadays are awesome — e.g. Final Fantasy— so we might get a great soundtrack out of it, too.
Finally, if someone enjoys Stars Uncharted what space opera novel of someone else’s do you each think someone should read next and why?
Sherylyn: If you like fighting with your space opera, Rachel Bach’s Paradox trilogy, starting with Fortune’s Pawn. Devi Morris is a lady with ambition. She wants to make the King’s Devestators, and to fast-track her application she takes a job as security guard on a ship which looks like a common cargo freighter but goes through a lot of security guards. Devi kicks butt, and she has a suit, and there’s definitely something strange happening on board the Glorious Fool. Devi is a kick-ass character, and there’s a nice story behind what’s happening. Dare we say, now that we’ve seen Firefly, it’s a bit Firefly-ish, too.
Karen: For something more genteel, try Anne Leckie’s Provenance, where Ingray wants to prove herself to her mother, so she breaks a thief out of prison so he can regain some priceless artefacts. Except nothing’s quite that simple. It’s a nice little story, and Ingray is also a lot stronger than she realizes she is.
If you want out-and-out pure science fiction, which is also space opera, read Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. That’s writing to aspire for.
But first, go and read Martha Wells’ novella All Systems Red. Because Murderbot is awesome.