Usually when I interview the author of a science fiction novel for this site, and get to the questions about influences, they’ll cite other sci-fi novels or movies or TV shows, even occasionally some games. But in the following email interview with D.J. Butler about his situationally-humorous sci-fi mystery thriller Abbott In Darkness (paperback, Kindle), he instead cited such decidedly not-science fiction-y stuff like Horatio Hornblower, Rudyard Kipling, and the East India Company.
To start, what is Abbott In Darkness about, and when and where does it take place?
Abbott In Darkness is set about a century in the future, in a star system called Sarovar, forty light years from Earth. Sarovar is rich in resources, and to fully exploit it, the U.S. Congress has given the Sarovar Company a monopoly over the system and its many products. Young John Abbott and his family — wife Ruth and two daughters — come to Sarovar for John’s first job after getting his degree. He’s directed by his new boss to secretly investigate corruption at a remote trading post called Arrowhawk, and soon discovers that those who are implicated in the corruption know what he’s up to, and want to kill him.
Where did you get the idea for Abbott In Darkness?
It came out of a lot of reading about the East India Company and other early modern trading / exploration companies. And I’ve wanted for a long time to write about a hero who was a trader and negotiator, rather than a fighter.
Abbott In Darkness is obviously a sci-fi story…
It’s also a mystery and a thriller.
…but it also sounds like it might be a bit lighthearted. Not jokey like Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, but situationally humorous like one of John Scalzi’s less overtly funny books, like the ones in his Interdependency trilogy.
It is. First of all, a little humor is necessary for the P.O.V. of John Abbott. He’s a hard worker, committed, and all in; he is also an optimist, with an unironic and good-hearted sense of humor. He’s the father of two young daughters, and he’s a good dad. So he cracks jokes with his eventual sidekick, Faisal Haddad, and with his boss, and his wife. When he attends a sort of Careers Day presentation at school, he’s not sure quite how to explain what an accountant is to the small children, so he begins his presentation talking in the persona of the family dog to break the ice.
Now, this story could’ve worked just as well with a darker tone….
Yes, it could have been dark all the way through. But the themes of the book — how to be a good person when your big institutions are compromised, how to find solutions when the world offers you violence — are serious and heavy, and if the protagonist were dead serious all the way through, and the book was humorless, I think it would be a hard read.
So then who do you see as being the biggest influences on the tone of Abbott In Darkness?
Maybe Neal Stephenson is a good comparison. There is some technical propellerhead-style detail in this book, though it is accounting, rather than engineering. There is also thriller-style action, and there is a lot of good-hearted humor.
Aside from Stephenson, who else do you see as having the biggest influence on Abbott In Darkness?
This is really an “Age Of Sail” novel, about a company that is far from its regulators and has to make the hard decisions itself and is set up with perverse incentives and almost cannot help going wrong. In that sense, I think Napoleonic naval fiction series like those Patrick O’Brian and C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower stories were influences. So were books about imperialism and colonialism and its legacies, like Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet and the writings of Rudyard Kipling.
How about non-literary influences; do you think Abbott In Darkness was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Well, one important influence was my own non-writing career. I think we don’t have enough positive stories about heroes who trade, and I’ve known some. I also think we need to reckon with the moral impact of the massive influence wielded by the giant corporations of our time.
Another influence might be the Tom Swift stories my dad would get us telling each other around the campfire when I was young. Tom Swift seemed to win with his gadgets a lot, but he also won by being clever and by striking deals, not by being the fastest or most accurate shot, or by being an unstoppable swordsman.
It’s probably also the case that Abbott is the product of the board games I love, both because I like trading games — Traders Of Genoa, for instance, or Pit, when I was a kid — and also because I like such “Age Of Sail” board games that deal with imperialism as Struggle Of Empires and Here I Stand.
Now, you’ve written both stand-alone novels and ones that were part of a series. What is Abbott In Darkness?
It’s book one of a series. It’s not clear how many books there will ultimately be; we’ll see how the books are received. There are obviously questions in the book’s characters and setting that cry out for more explanation: Where did the non-Company humans on Sarovar come from? What is the origin of Sedjem, the pidgin trade tongue spoken on Sarovar? Can John Abbott make a career here without losing his soul? But the book is a stand-alone story, satisfying in its own right. There’s no Dark Lord who has not yet been defeated at the end of the book, the book doesn’t end on a cliffhanger.
So, what can you tell us about this series? Will it be an ongoing thing, some related but stand-alone novels, or a set number of books like a trilogy?
I don’t think of it as a set number of books. I think we’ll see how well it does, and if people like John and his adventures enough, I’ll get enough sequels to explore all the foregoing and other mysteries.
Speaking of books that are part of a series, you and I previously spoke about your epic fantasy / alt history novel Serpent Daughter, which was the first book of a trilogy that was itself a sequel to your Witchy War trilogy. Where do things stand with the other books in that series?
I owe readers two more books, Serpent Mother and Serpent Son. I intend to write those back-to-back, as the very next thing I do. I know how this series goes and where it ends, it’s just a matter of doing the work. I would like to have those books to the editor together before the end of the year, and that will finish the series.
Cool. Earlier we talked about the movies, TV shows, and games that had an influence on Abbott In Darkness. But I’d like to flip the script, as kids probably don’t say anymore, and ask you this: Do you think Abbott In Darkness could be work as a movie, show, or game?
I think it’s a movie, and if a series of books, then a series of movies. The Abbott books won’t necessarily follow each other immediately in time — they may jump ahead a year or two between books, so we can see John’s career advance and his situation change. That doesn’t seem to me quite to fit ideally into seasons of long-narrative TV, but what do I know?
I also think the book could work as a video game in which the player tries to solve the mysteries John faces while juggling his other commitments. If it’s a board or card game, then I think it’s really a trading game about the Sarovar Company, maybe with a career ladder component to scoring. It could be done, and be made fun, but I have not designed such a game. Yet.
So, if someone wanted to make an Abbott In Darkness movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as John, his family, and the other main characters?
The problem with casting John is that he’s self-described as funny-looking. He has big ears and is an ectomorph with unusually flexible joints, because he has Marfan’s Syndrome. I suspect Hollywood would basically ignore that part of the character. So what’s left is a tall guy whose father is from West Africa and whose mother is from Central India. I’m not sure Hollywood has any actors that quite fit that bill, but maybe Bollywood does. My favorite Indian actor is Nawazuddin Siddiqui [The Lunchbox]. He might be a little old for the part, but maybe not.
So, is there anything else you think people should know about Abbott In Darkness?
It’s about an ordinary person trying his best to do what’s right by everyone in a world that is systematically corrupt. I can’t think of anything that’s more topical than that.
Finally, if someone enjoys Abbott In Darkness, what humorous sci-fi novel would you suggest they read next?
If you enjoy the banter aspect of the interaction between John and Keckley, or John and Ruth, or John and Faisal, you might read my own novel In The Palace Of Shadow And Joy. Palace is a banter-driven buddy comedy noir thriller, set in a rotting old city which looks like a massive Mos Eisley cantina, where one of the two buddies is an epic poet and the other is an aspiring insurance fraudster.