Like The Running Man, J.R.H. Lawless’ darkly comedic sci-fi novel Always Greener (paperback, Kindle) is set against the background of a TV show, albeit an Extreme Makeover: Home Edition-esque reality show and not a Survivor-meets-Gladiator-ish combative game show. But in the following email interview about this novel, Lawless not only admits that The Running Man was an influence, so was a certain spacial travel guide and a couple cyberpunk video games.
I always like to begin with an overview of a novel’s plot. So, what is Always Greener about, and when and where is it set?
Always Greener is technically set in London in the Corporate-run 2070s, but it’s really set inside a bunch of eyes. The plot of the story revolves around The Grass Is Greener, a hot new reality show where contestants fight to show the world how bad their lives are, so they can earn the title of greatest victim of the modern world (and the prize that goes along with it: a life of luxury). And since joining the show means every contestant has to accept ocular implants broadcasting their life to viewers around the world, 24/7, the first eyes the story is set in belong to the contestants.
But, at the same time, we experience the story of Always Greener, and all those lives laid bare for the purposes of entertainment, through the eyes of our main character, the show’s host, Liam Argyle: a man cursed with a grain of decency and faith in humankind in an age that has long moved past such quaint notions.
Where did you get the idea for Always Greener and how, if at all, did that idea evolve as you wrote it?
I was living in rural England when I started writing the manuscript that eventually became two books: Always Greener, and its sequel, The Rude Eye Of Rebellion, which is coming out from Uproar Books later this year. We had just had our second child, and I was either working from home while taking care of our baby, or flying to Paris where I was working (and sleeping) at the French National Assembly. So, on one side, I was surrounded by English humor and satire — soaking in Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett in particular — and on the other side I was brutally confronted to how dysfunctional our modern societies are. Always Greener and The General Buzz series universe are the result, even though that vision has evolved and updated considerably, particularly with regards to technology, over the decade or so it has taken to get here.
Always Greener has been called a dark comedic sci-fi story. Is that how you see it?
Dark comedic sci-fi is about right really. When I was pitching the book, I once compared it to a Black Mirror novelization penned by a drunken Douglas Adams armed only with an etymology database — that last bit is a reference to one of my personal pleasures in this book and the rest of the series, which is my inclusion of footnotes exploring the revealing and / or deeply funny origins and hidden meanings of the words we use (and which I use myself in the book).
That being said, there are definite thriller elements to Always Greener and the rest of the series, and the technology fits 100% into the cyberpunk genre, even if the fundamental message, beyond all the horrors the book explores, is more hopepunk than anything else.
And you kind of touched on this already, but in terms of the comedic aspects, is Always Greener jokey like Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy or is the humor more situational like in John Scazli’s Old Man’s War?
I set out to write humor that was somewhere between Douglas Adams and John Scalzi, and hopefully I haven’t fallen too short of that mark. You’ll find more Adams and Pratchett-like wordplay than you can shake an electronic thumb at, plus a bunch of etymology mind-bombs and innuendos. But at the same time, there’s a lot of dark situational humor built into the nature of the material, since we’re following a show chasing down and flaunting the worst lives the Corporate 2070s have to offer. Hopefully, there’s plenty there for everyone.
While Always Greener is your first published novel, you’ve previously written some short stories. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that were a big influence on Always Greener but not on anything else you’ve written?
Always Greener has a lot of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams in it — something of a mix between Zaphod’s misadventures bumbling through the corporate nightmare of the sold-out Guide and Moist von Lipwig trying to con the whole Disc into believing the Post can travel faster than the clacks. That being said, all of my short stories are set within the same universe as Always Greener and the rest of The General Buzz series — sometimes contemporaneously and even with some references, like in my 2019 story “Losing Face,” and sometimes centuries later down the timeline. So there’s obviously a lot of common ground in terms of worldbuilding, themes, humor, and even voice.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or video games? Did any of those have a big influence on either what you wrote in Always Greener or how you wrote it? Because anytime someone mentions game shows and sci-fi in the same sentence I always think of The Running Man.
Funny you should mention that: The Running Man was indeed the first thing my awesome wife and partner in all things, books very much included, said when I tested out the concept for Always Greener with her. Plus, there’s a very thinly-veiled reference to The Running Man as early as page 2 of the book. So that was definitely an influence for this series, alongside all the reality TV shows in the UK and France that were very big at the time.
Video game-wise, Deus Ex (both Human Revolution and Mankind Divided) and later Detroit: Become Human were big inspirations for the visuals and the feel of the world. And, as I mentioned before, this book reads in many ways like a Black Mirror novel.
You said earlier that Always Greener is the first book in a series you’re calling The General Buzz. What can you tell us about this series?
The General Buzz series kicks off with Always Greener and will contain at least two more novels, one of which, The Rude Eye Of Rebellion, is already scheduled for a Fall 2020 release from Uproar Books. But depending on many factors — including how much readers like the series — I have plans for Liam Argyle and The General Buzz to carry on for a solid five books, if not more. If both Liam and I are lucky enough to carry on for that long, then readers can look forward to massive changes in both Liam’s world and Liam himself, all as a direct and logical consequence of his actions and everything he sets in motion in Always Greener and The Rude Eye Of Rebellion.
Upon hearing that Always Greener is the first book in a series, some people will decide to wait until all of the books are out before reading any of them, and still others will then read them in rapid succession. But is there any reason why you think people shouldn’t wait to read Always Greener?
Well, one reason people should pick up Always Greener and get an immediate feel for the world is that they’d be hampering their own chances of making a special guest appearance in The Rude Eye Of Rebellion if they didn’t! That’s because we’re going to be running a #LiveYourWorstLife event on Twitter once Always Greener has hit enough shelves, including at Barnes & Noble who’ve placed a lovely order. The contest will run on that hashtag and will invite people to post their own “worst life” stories. And just like in The Grass Is Greener show, the likes and retweets from around the world will be the votes that decide who the winners are. There will be multiple winners and prizes, but the Grand Prize will include having the winner’s #LiveYourWorstLife story included in the spot specially reserved for that very purpose in The Rude Eye Of Rebellion!
So much fun, and this is only the first book.
You mentioned that there are some short stories connected to this series. Are there plans to release a collection of them as well, or maybe include them in the printed versions of Always Greener or one of the other books?
That’s a damn good suggestion. I have enough short story material set in the General Buzz universe (published and unpublished) to fill a book as it is.
Earlier I asked if Always Greener had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. But has there been any interest in adapting it into a movie, show, or game?
I don’t think my awesome agent, Marisa Corvisiero, would be too happy with me talking about any sort of details, but she’s very much on top of that part of the business. Things are, as they say, “in the works,” and it’s true that, just by the nature of the plot, Always Greener and The General Buzz are by essence very cinematic, and would work great as movies or a series — even if I do say so myself. And since the book is about a game show, I’d love to see what some game developer out there could do with the concept. Maybe a game where you are one of the contestants, and have to design the most miserable backstory possible and then fight against the rest of the contestants to promote yourself as the biggest victim, through a series of challenges and events. Hell, that could turn out to be the next Jackbox!
Finally, if someone enjoys Always Greener, what similarly dark comedic sci-fi story of someone else’s would you suggest they read while waiting for The Rude Eye Of Rebellion to come out?
If Always Greener catches your fancy, then 1) Welcome to the collective, I hope you enjoyed your assimilation, MWAHAHA, and 2) Do yourself a favor and check out John Scalzi’s Lock In series and Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway. And if you’re still hungry for more after that, there are free short stories set in the same Universe as Always Greener ripe for the taking on my Curious Fictions page.