According to the musical Carnival!, love makes the world go ’round. But what songwriter Bob Merrill failed to specify is which world he was talking about. In the new sci-fi love story Across The Void (hardcover, Kindle), writer S.K. Vaughn posits that it might be Jupiter’s moon Europa. And yet, in the following email interview about his new novel, Vaughn never once mentions Carnival! Go figure.
To begin, what is Across The Void about?
Across The Void is really an elaborate love story wherein the void of space is a metaphor for the distance between two people — May and Stephen — who have drifted apart and have become alienated from each other. It’s also a survival story, similar to something like The Martian or Gravity. You have this young woman, her name is May Knox, and she’s earned the coveted commission of being flight commander on the first ever mission to explore Jupiter’s moon, Europa.
People may not know this, but Europa is very interesting moon because it’s covered with a sheet of ice that’s probably 15 to 20 miles thick. But under that ice there is an ocean. And that ocean makes Europa very interesting in terms of potential colonization. People think Mars fits that description, but Mars is a dead hostile rock with zero potential for life — at least life as we know it. It’s actually kind of odd to me that anyone would care about colonizing Mars beyond the fact that it’s so close. Have fun living in a bubble with terrible food and no outside activities! Europa, on the other hand, has the primordial soup in its ocean, so, depending on technology, it at least has the potential to support life. The technology I introduce in this book falls in line with this theory.
The mission to Europa goes very well. It’s a total success. But the story really begins on the journey home. May wakes up in an ICU pod, she’s been intubated, and she has no idea how she got there. She has no idea where the crew is. The ship is badly damaged almost to the point of being irreparable, and she’s adrift. She’s on a collision course with certain death, so this story is really about her fighting to survive on her own, to make it home, which goes back to our metaphor for her relationship…
She and her husband Stephen fell hard and fast for each other, quite unexpectedly. She is the flight commander and his research is the whole reason for the mission to Europa. So obviously, their passion has always been their work. But they end up falling in love in spite of this — like when most people fall in love. It is something outside of our control. The problem is their egos, lack of experience, wildly different personalities, and other factors that come into play. Just before the launch all of this comes to a head and they split in an ugly way. Throughout the mission they are estranged.
Where did you get the idea for Across The Void and how did the plot change as you wrote this story?
The impetus for this story really was a collaboration. Ed Wood, my editor at Little, Brown in the UK, has published all of my previous books under their Sphere imprint. Ed is a great editor. He’s as creative as he needs to be, he’s an excellent problem solver, and can always maintain a very objective viewpoint from the 10,000-foot level. There are few in the commercial fiction world as knowledgeable and decisive as Ed. For years, I’ve been telling him we really need to do a book together. Finally, a couple of years ago, he told me about a program he’d been spearheading wherein Sphere has a concept for a commercial fiction novel and they collaborate with one of their novelists to write it. He told me they had a concept about a woman surviving alone in space and I was very interested. There were a few elements that came with that concept, but really they entrusted me to come up with the story to fulfill it. It’s a lot like movie development, which I’ve worked in before, so I dug the process.
You said earlier that Across The Void is a sci-fi love story. Are there any other genres at work in it, though?
Across The Void is a science fiction book, but I think it’s really important to note that, especially for science fiction fans, it’s not typical. You shouldn’t go into reading this book with the expectation that it’s going to be similar to whatever science fiction is popular now. It’s really, like I had said before, a love story. Andy Weir’s book, The Martian, is a survival story through and through. When I read that book, the one thing that I always wanted more of was to know what Mark was going through. But I felt like there weren’t a lot of strong connections to his personal life back on earth-things that create emotional stakes. That could’ve made that story even more powerful. I’m not trying to criticize The Martian because I actually love that book and I wrote an email to Andy after I read it telling him so. I just think it’s an absolutely fantastic story. It’s an incredible adventure. I’m just saying that it might’ve been a nice additional layer. In Across The Void, there are two different genres — love story and science fiction — and I would call science fiction the sub-genre.
Now, while Across The Void is your first novel, according to your vague bio, you previously wrote some movies under your real name. Are there any writers or specific stories that had an influence on Across The Void but not on anything else you’ve written?
The cat is pretty much out of the bag at this point about who I am and what I’ve done in the past. And if it isn’t, I would be shocked. So just to be straight up with you, I have written three books prior to Across The Void. My first book was The Interns Handbook, which is a thriller about assassins. I wrote a follow up to that called Hostile Takeover. And then I wrote a third book called The Asset, which is a spy thriller. So this is actually my fourth novel. I wrote it under a pseudonym because it’s a new genre for me, and I wanted the book to be judged purely for itself, with no contextual relationship with anything else I’ve written. Which of course, now that I’m saying all this to you, that whole thing is over. But still, at least for the release, I just wanted to have it be pure like that.
When it comes to Across The Void and talking about novelists whose work have inspired me. It’s going to sound odd but really, Vonnegut is a major influence for me. And Slaughterhouse-Five is one of my favorite books of all time. Content wise, really there aren’t a lot of similarities between his work or specifically that book, and my book, but I do love the way he tells a story, and there’s something about it that makes it so deeply personal, regardless of how utterly fictional things can be.
I feel same way about Phillip K. Dick. I’ve read many of his books and short stories and often times, conceptually and plot-wise, there’s a lot of complexity and weirdness that can be difficult to follow. But, at the same time, I always stay with it because he creates a personal connection between the reader and the character. Because science fiction explores the unexpected, it has equal potential to open up unique human experiences.
And what song was a bigger inspiration: The Beatles’ “Across The Universe” or Black Sabbath’s “Into The Void”?
I am not a huge Beatles fan, which I know will enrage some people and make others very happy. I don’t have anything against The Beatles, I’ve just never been all that inspired by their music. Black Sabbath, on the other hand, is one of my all-time favorites — although I didn’t really think about “Into The Void” as an element of inspiration for Across The Void. Maybe subconsciously? Brown acid?
Now, I mentioned earlier that you’ve written some movies. But you’ve also directed some. Has there been any interest in making a movie out of Across The Void? Aside from you and your agent, of course.
Not only is there interest in making Across The Void into a movie, I have already optioned it to Universal Pictures and I have been hired to adapt the book into a feature film script. I’ve been working on that for the past few months, and right now, I’m in the producer round, where the producer is attached, and I have been collaborating to shape the script into a very authentic and high-fidelity version of the book, but also something that maintains the human story. I have a lot of confidence in the studio and in the producing team. They are all great collaborators, respectful of maintaining the soul of my book, but also open to letting me explore some new, more cinematic ways, of telling the story on screen. If I do a good job writing the script and they can find an actress who really can carry this role — Nathalie Emmanuel — then, I think there’s great potential for the movie to be made.
And, of course, if it were to be made into a movie, I would love to direct it, but that’s one of those snowball chances in Hell situations.
You kind of just answered this, but who are you hoping they cast as May and Stephen and the other main characters?
When it comes to casting, I’ve thought of the main characters quite a bit. I would love to see someone like Nathalie Emmanuel play the role of May. I didn’t see the entire Game Of Thrones series, but I did see her on that. Obviously she’s an amazing actress. She has a strong, powerful presence. She is also mixed race like May so I love the fidelity between her and the character.
For Steven, I really like Miles Teller [Whiplash]. He reminds me of John Cusack. John Cusack has leading man qualities, but at the same time an incredible vulnerability that makes him funny and very relatable. I think it’s essential for Stephen to be this way because he’s a scientist, a guy who’s very cerebral but who has to become more visceral over the course of the story, which of course Miles could pull off easily.
Finally, if someone enjoys Across The Void, what similarly thrilling sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that?
In terms of recommending other science fiction books, that’s a difficult thing for me because I read a lot of what most people would consider a bit weird. I love the narrative rock ‘n’ roll of William Gibson, dig Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick.
There’s one Phillip K. Dick story that just sticks with me. I don’t know what it is. I think, because it has something to do with death and grieving. It’s called Ubik. I won’t give away the plot, but within that story there is, as there always is with a Phillip K. Dick novel, this kind of gem of a concept. He introduces this technology so that when someone dies their body can be kept in a kind of a stasis that allows for their brainwaves to be tapped and used to communicate with them. It’s that whole “if only I could say one more thing to…” phenomenon, but it actually lasts awhile, months, sometimes years. Eventually the signal fades and goes away, presumably when the deceased finally passes into some other dimension. There’s a grander plot around all of this of course, like a science fiction crime thriller. But again, it goes back to what I was saying before about telling a human story and what could be more human than grieving. See, there’s a strong example of working with an archetypal emotion but being able to explore it more deeply due to a powerful sci-fi story element. I’ve dealt with a lot of grief in my life. Both of my sisters died of heart disease. My father died of cancer. When I read Ubik it really resonated with me.