Often times when aliens invade Earth to manipulate us, it’s for some nefarious reason. But in Sylvain Neuvel Take Them To The Stars trilogy of novellas, the aliens are actually on our side. In the following email interview about the first installment, A History of What Comes Next (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), Neuvel talks about what inspired and influenced this story and this series, and talks about where the latter is going from here.
Photo Credit: James Andrew Rosen
To start, what is A History Of What Comes Next about, and when and where does it take place?
The Take Them To The Stars series is about generations of incredibly smart, genetically identical women messing with history for the past three thousand years. Their goal: to take us to the stars, before Evil comes and kills us all.
A History Of What Comes Next starts in 1945, and follows Sarah and her daughter Mia, the ninety-ninth generation of these women — they call themselves the Kibsu — at the dawn of the space age. It starts with Mia having to exfiltrate scientist Wernher von Braun from Germany to get him to work for the Americans.
Where did you get the idea for A History Of What Comes Next, and how, if at all, did that idea evolve as you wrote this story?
I’m not entirely sure what sparked the original idea, but I wanted to write some version of the same characters at different times in human history. That meant they could either live a really long time, or I needed for them to “copy” themselves in some way. The former had been done quite often with vampires of other immortals and I didn’t want to do it again. It usually means having a character who’s somewhat of an anachronism and who doesn’t really change. I decided to have them pass on all their genetic material to their daughters instead. That way they’d be the same person in some sense, but also a product of their time and experiences. The rest just sort of happened. There is obviously a science fiction element to their story, and once you understand their motivation, the space race is a natural place to start.
And is there a reason why the Kibsu are all ladies?
There’s two. I’d explored the father / daughter relationship in previous books, but I wanted more, and a mother’s perspective. What makes the Kibsu unique also makes them perfect to talk about so many things we all experience in one form or another. Seeing part of yourself in your child, not recognizing some of it. Wanting to be your own person, trying not to turn into your parents. All these things take a different meaning when you’re an exact copy of your mother.
The other reason is more technical. Had they been men — and there are men with the same traits in the book — they’d need a mother to be born, fed, raised, whereas I could have generation after generation of these mother-daughter pairs without any real need for a father every time (aside from a brief encounter).
Your previous trilogy, The Themis Files, was a series of epistolary novels. Is A History Of What Comes Next one as well?
Chapters in this one are not recordings or documents, so no, it’s not epistolary. There’s still a lot of similarity. I love dialogue, and it makes a good portion of everything I write. There’s also some internal monologue as well, and there are chapters between sections about older generations of Kibsu that have a more traditional narrative style. In terms of format, it’s actually closer to my novella, The Test.
A History Of What Comes Next sounds like it’s a sci-fi thriller. Is that how you’d describe it?
Oh God. I hate boxes.
It’s not technically alternate history since all the events in the book actually happened, save for the role I give my characters in them. There’s a bit of fantasy vibe to it at times, with ancient rituals. There’s always a daughter who’s much younger. So it’s a sci-fi, secret history thriller with a dash of fantasy and YA crossover appeal. Or you can just call it a sci-fi thriller. That works.
It’s also been said that A History Of What Comes Next is darkly satirical. Who do you see as being the biggest influence on that aspect of this story?
Hmmm. I don’t know if I can pinpoint any specific thing, other than [gestures at everything]. There’s plenty parallel to make between now and the ’30s and ’40s, but a lot of it has to do with the years the story is set in. Millions of people dying and almost cartoonishly bad people running half the world. I tried to have each book represent the era, not just in story but in mood, and these were very dark times. The next book is set in the ’70s, so it has a very different vibe.
So, are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on A History Of What Comes Next but not on anything else that you’ve written?
I can think of one thing, but I suspect you’ll ask me about movies of TV influences next, so I’ll hold off on that answer for a minute. No wait, there’s another: Music. All kinds of music. Each chapter title in all three books is a song title from the years the story takes place in. I wrote each chapter to its very own song so many chapters are purposely structured to match the changes in rhythm, in mood. Some chapters actually have the song playing in the story. It was really fun to do, and I think the playlists are worth your while even without the books.
And I guess I now have to ask: Was A History Of What Comes Next influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
There might be a bit of The Imitation Game in there, a dash of MacGyver. They don’t build lasers using a bicycle frame and pool cleaner, but they do math and science on the fly. Maybe some Dexter. The Kibsu are undeniably the good guys in these books, but they’re smarter than just about everyone, physically stronger, and there’s really no way someone like that wouldn’t be at least a bit dangerous. They’ve also had a singular purpose for three thousand years, so anyone standing in the way of that would be in serious trouble. I wanted them to be ruthless at times, very ruthless. Dexter was interesting because it’s someone with some serious homicidal tendencies, but he makes a conscious choice to be better and he lives by a code, which reminded me a lot of the rules the Kibsu live by, even if it’s for totally different reasons. It’s not a perfect analogy but I got some inspiration from it, that and big dogs, like a German Sheppard. They’re nice (I love big dogs) but there’s a wolf in there somewhere, always.
Now, A History Of What Comes Next is the first book in a trilogy called Take Them To The Stars. What was it about this story that made you realize it had to be told in three parts and not just one or two or thirty-seven?
Well, it could, technically be one, two, or thirty-seven. Each book follows one generation of Kibsu, so the daughter in book 1 is the mother in book 2, etc. There’d be over a hundred books if I began with the first Kibsu, but if you start in 1945, you end up in the 2000s after three generations.
Do you know yet what the other books will be called and when they might be out?
Not really, and no. I usually suggest a title, or two or three, and we discuss it with the publisher. It might sound strange but naming books is always an ordeal. I don’t know how long we spent playing with near-synonyms of “sleeping” and “giants” for my first book. This one was easier, but choosing the title is never my favorite part. I love A History Of What Comes Next, though. I think it’s a great title.
Now, as you know from when you published your Themis Files trilogy, there are people who are going to wait until all three of the Take Them To The Stars books are out before they read any of them, and some of them — myself included — are going to also decide to read them back-to-back when the time comes. What do you think, do you think people should wait?
No, I see no reason to wait. Each book has its own ending, so you won’t have to wait until the next book to know what happened. There’s an arc that spans all three books, of course, but they definitely stand on their own.
Earlier I asked if A History Of What Comes Next had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. Has there been any interest in turning A History Of What Comes Next — and, by extension, the Take Them To The Stars trilogy — into a movie, show, or game?
There’s nothing in the works right now. I think you could make three films out of this, or three very full seasons of TV. Either would work. I’m not sure I have a preference.
If that was going to happen, who would you want them to cast as the main characters?
You have to remember that in A History of What Comes Next, Sarah and Mia are physically the same, only at a different age. In fact, every single Kibsu from 1200 B.C. to 2010 would have to be played by the same actress, kind of like what Tatiana Maslany did in Orphan Black. I have absolutely no idea who I’d cast but I think it would make one hell of a performance.
Speaking of adaptations, your previous novella, The Test, is currently being adapted into a movie that will star John Boyega [Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker] and be directed by Gavin Hood [Ender’s Game]. Is there anything else you can tell us about the movie?
Nothing since. We’re waiting for a start date. The Covid situation makes everything in Hollywood a bit more complex. I really hope we get to see this and soon, it’s going to be great.
Finally, if someone enjoys A History Of What Comes Next, which would you suggest they read next, The Themis Files trilogy or The Test, and why that and not the other?
Every book I wrote is different. If you like giant robots and first contact stories, then the answer is obvious. If you want a dark near-future societal critique, then The Test is for you. Other than that, I’d say it depends on how you approach relationships. If you’ve only read A History of What Comes Next, we’ve only known each other for one book and maybe a trilogy is too much too soon. You can read The Test in one sitting, it’s a little over a hundred pages, then go for Sleeping Giants and see where it leads. If commitment doesn’t scare you, read The Themis Files first (they’re all relatively quick reads), then The Test.