While the current political climate has been both good and bad for women (and the men who support them), it’s been oddly great for fans of female-centric science fiction (and the people who write it). Which is where we find writer Siobhan Adcock who, in the following email interview, discusses her new novel The Completionist (hardcover, Kindle), which is set in a world damaged by issues with fertility and the weather.
Photo Credit: Sara Bonisteel
I always like to start with a plot summary. So, what is The Completionist about?
The Completionist is a mystery set in a near-future version of America that’s been impacted by climate change and a fertility crisis, which has all resulted in some alarmingly strict regulations for the declining number of mothers who remain. In this world, Carter Quinn, a young veteran of a decades-long war, comes home to what’s now called “New Chicago” to search for his sister Gard, who’s gone missing, and to try to help his other sister, Fred, who’s miraculously pregnant, and as it turns out, is in serious danger.
Where did you first get the idea for The Completionist and how different is the finished novel from that original idea?
I first had the idea for the book when I got my hands on some letters home from Vietnam that my father wrote to his older sister during a time when their younger sister was going through some scary stuff. These letters from my then-19-year-old father were so powerful for me that they gave me the nugget of a plot, and a set of characters…though in the end none of the characters really resemble my father or my aunts in any way.
It’s so interesting how novels take on this life of their own, and can evolve away from your original idea. In this case, though, the novel came out pretty consistent with the original idea; it was more the characters that diverged sharply from the inspiration.
The Completionist has been described as a dystopian sci-fi story. Is that how you see it?
I think dystopian storytelling is kind of having a moment right now for a lot of reasons, and The Completionist is certainly in that tradition. I love that it’s also being described as sci-fi, because I put a lot of work into the imagined technologies and the worldbuilding in this novel in a way that I think sci-fi writers take very seriously, so it’s a real badge of honor to be included in the sci-fi category in that sense.
But I think of it as more of a mystery. The setting was a lot of fun to construct and imagine, and that’s what makes it sci-fi and / or dystopia, if anything, but the plot and the action and the characters are more in the mystery vein. I was influenced as much by Dashiell Hammett as Margaret Atwood when I was writing it, if that makes sense.
A lot of classic dystopian novels have been getting a bit of a boost lately by our current political situation, including George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. How, if at all, did current events influenced The Completionist?
We live in a challenging time for feminism, for tolerance, for acceptance, for peace. There was a popular protest sign I saw last year that read, “Make The Handmaid’s Tale Fiction Again.” A cynical reader would say that dystopian storytelling flourishes when people feel hopeless, when all hope is lost, when everything seems headed to the brink of collapse, fire up Netflix and start binging Black Mirror.
But what I love about really great dystopian fiction is not necessarily that it presents a hopeless, bleak view of humanity and what we stand to lose if we lose our way. What I think the best dystopian stories show is the struggle of trying to stay human in a world that tests our humanity. These are stories about discovering what we’re made of. What’s so compelling about a story set in a time and a place in which everything is familiar and yet uncannily unfamiliar, in which humanity as we know it faces challenges we fear and yet recognize at the same time, is that it helps us answer questions about who we are, what we can be.
So did you set out to write a story with a socio-political undercurrent, or did you just set out to write a good story and these social and political themes just came up naturally?
Oh, yeah, the political and social undercurrents were baked in all along. To be fair, you couldn’t really write a story that factors in climate change, unwinnable wars, threats to women’s reproductive freedoms, and our treatment of veterans without considering how to balance those political themes with a plot, right? So hopefully, ideally, those two things amplify and enhance each other: The political themes boost the plot and vice versa.
I finished the novel on Election Day, as it turned out, which was also just a few days after my late father’s birthday. As I said, my father is very much in this book as the original inspiration for the main character, but in a lot of ways the political preoccupations of the election year are also threaded throughout. There’s even a whole section that’s basically a set of intercepted emails that compromises one of the main female characters, funnily enough.
So why did you decide to tackle these subjects in a dystopian sci-fi novel as opposed to a story set in our world?
I think Naomi Alderman, who wrote The Power, said it well: every dystopian novel is also very much about the world we live in. But as far as setting the book in the future, I think it has something to do with my day job, to be honest. For many years I’ve worked in digital publishing for women, where we’re constantly focusing on the future, for so many reasons. To build compelling digital products for consumers, you have to be thinking ahead to the next five to ten years, the trends and habits and forces that will impact what you’re building. And to really represent women’s issues and stories thoughtfully, you have to do the same thing: Where are we pacing to be in the next decade, if things like maternal health and family leave and women’s health and pay equality and sexual harassment are handled the way they are now? What does the future look like? Trying to answer that question requires you to also think deeply about our world, right now.
Earlier you mentioned Dashiell Hammett and Margaret Atwood as being influences on The Completionist. Are there any other writers or specific stories that had a big impact on it as well.
I went on a pretty strict “reading diet” while I was writing and researching this book. Not in terms of limiting the volume of what I read, but in trying to focus the categories I was reading. For two years or so, I read exclusively three types of books: dystopian and near-future stories, mysteries, and writing by and about veterans of war.
In the dystopian and near-future category, obviously there’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but also Gold Fame Citrus, a beautiful end-of-the-world “cli-fi” novel by Claire Vaye Watkins.
In the veteran and war fiction category, the great novel Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, one of the best books I’ve ever read about war or anything else. And also The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, an amazing cult classic that weaves together science fiction, dystopian worlds, and the fiction of war.
Cool. I like both of those books.
For digging deep into the techniques of mystery writing, everything the Irish writer Tana French has ever written. I also love Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie mysteries [Case Histories, One Good Turn, When Will There Be Good News?, and Started Early, Took My Dog]; they’re so elliptical and weird and compelling. And Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon was a huge influence. The main character of The Completionist, Carter Quinn, is always one step ahead or behind, like Sam Spade, always drinking or about to drink, like Sam Spade, and always just about to have his face punched, like Sam Spade.
What about movies, TV shows, and other non-literary influences; have any of them had an impact on The Completionist?
Black Mirror, with its seductive and dark technologies, was a huge influence. Every episode features some kind of amazing technology that’s simultaneously a breakthrough and a terrifying trap. It was a big influence on the Wearable device that I imagined for The Completionist, which kind of takes our current wearables and smart devices to its next extreme.
As you undoubtedly know, some dystopian sci-fi novels are stand-alone stories, but some are just one part of a larger series. Which is The Completionist?
My next novel picks up not long after The Completionist ends and is about the same family, focusing on one of Carter’s sisters, and what happens to her. This won’t be a hugely long series, but I did want to write more about this family and this world.
As you also undoubtedly know, some people like to wait until every book in a series is out before reading them in rapid succession. Is there any story-based reason they shouldn’t wait? Or should?
Wow, if you are the kind of disciplined reader who can buy a book in a series and then hold off on reading it until the whole set is out, I salute you. I don’t think I have that kind of patience as a reader.
The Completionist ends on a bit of a cliffhanger for at least one of the characters, while other parts of the plot are drawn to a close. So if you like this book I hope you won’t be too frustrated waiting for the next one.
So has there been any interest in making a movie or TV show based on The Completionist?
It’s funny, one of the first questions people tend to ask you when you say you’ve got a book coming out is, “When is the movie coming out?” My understanding is that it’s pretty rare in general for books to be made into movies — so my expectations there are thoroughly managed — but luckily I have an agent who represents the film and TV rights for both this book and my first book, and they’re shopping them around.
If this did happen, which do you think would work better: a movie or a TV show?
We’re living in this golden age of scripted streaming series, as I know I’m not the first person to point out. It would be amazing to see The Completionist adapted into a short-run series like Stranger Things on Netflix or The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu. I feel like that’s the ideal adaptation format for novels. You have more space for storytelling than in a traditional two-hour movie, and yet you also can draw the story to a satisfying conclusion without dragging it out for years past its natural end, as has happened with some tv shows I love.
So if The Completionist was made into TV show, who would you like them to cast in the main roles?
Best. Question. Ever.
Thank you. I am a professional.
I admit that my first thought is Adam Driver [Star Wars: The Last Jedi] as Carter Quinn, because Driver was also a Marine, and because he’s got sort of a prominent nose and an unusual face, which is how Carter describes himself. For Fred, an actress whose done roles that are a bit fierce and intense but can be funny too, like Rooney Mara [The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo] or Kristen Stewart [American Ultra] or Rachel Brosnahan [Louder Than Bombs]. For Natalie, Letitia Wright [Black Panther]. Actually just put Letitia Wright in everything.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Completionist what would you suggest they read next?
I can’t help but recommend the favorites that influenced me as I was writing it: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, and The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. You literally cannot go wrong with any of those.