Exclusive Interview: “Assassin’s Orbit” Author John Appel
It’s always fun to see how someone describes a story when they’re trying to be pithy. Take, for instance, how Solaris described John Appel’s sci-fi space opera thriller Assassin’s Orbit (paperback, Kindle, audiobook): “Golden Girls meets The Expanse with a side of Babylon Five.” But as Appel himself admits in the following email interview, that weird mix isn’t that far off.
Photo Credit: Leanne Watts
I always find it best to start with an overview of a book’s plot. So, what is Assassin’s Orbit about, and when and where does it take place?
Assassin’s Orbit is set in the middling-far future, in a group of worlds known as the Exile Cluster, settled hundreds of years before by refugees fleeing a wetware nanotech plague on Earth. The planet Ileri is on the brink of a referendum on joining the Commonwealth, one of the multi-world states, when a government minister is assassinated on Ileri Station, which sits atop the planet’s space elevator. Ileri is already in the midst of civil unrest over the imminent vote, with a very vocal and violent minority opposed to joining the Commonwealth. The protagonists, Noo Okereke, Nnenna Toiwa, and Meiko Ogawa, each have their own reasons to investigate the mass murder, but are quickly forced to work together as the situation escalates, especially when a starship from a rival interstellar power, the Star Republic of Salju, appears without warning.
Where did you get the idea for Assassin’s Orbit and how, if at all, did that idea evolve as you wrote it?
The original idea of the Exile Cluster was inspired by sci-fi author John Barnes’ Meme Wars series, in which most people in the solar system succumbed to a form of mind control. But what if some people escaped, and founded colonies so far away the plague couldn’t reach them? I wanted to tell those people’s stories. In Assassin’s Orbit, we find out that maybe their escape was not as complete as the original refugees thought.
One big change as I started writing was the creation of Noo, who began as a side character helping another character, who at the time was one of two protagonists. But I found her so compelling that she pushed the other character aside and took their spot as a POV character.
Nnenna Toiwa, on the other hand, was part of the book from the very beginning, but only became a viewpoint character partway through the first draft, when I realized I needed a POV to show what happens in places Noo and Meiko aren’t.
I started writing Assassin’s Orbit in 2016, shortly before I attended Viable Paradise — and before the election. It’s definitely true that life under the Trump administration influenced the story, in ways I didn’t fully appreciate until I was about 2/3rds of the way through the first draft.
Assassin’s Orbit sounds like it’s a sci-fi space opera story as well as a murder mystery. Is that how you’d describe it?
I’d definitely describe it as a space opera thriller. It starts as a murder mystery, and the hunt for the killers remains a major driver through most of the book, but larger events overshadow the assassination pretty quickly.
Assassin’s Orbit is your first published novel, though you did write an expansion for the tabletop role-playing game Shadowrun called “Do No Harm,” as well as some convention-only adventures. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Assassin’s Orbit but not on anything else you’ve written?
I’ve already mentioned the John Barnes series that first put the idea for the Exile Cluster in my head.
But a big influence that only one other person has ever picked up on is the late Alastair MacLean, a thriller writer from the ’50s until his death in the ’80s. He wrote, among other works, The Guns Of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra, and Where Eagles Dare, all of which also became movies (as did many of his books). His work fell out of fashion not long after his death, and while the books are still in print, quite a few aspects haven’t aged well; women, for example, get very short shrift in his work. I read a lot of his books when I was in middle and high school, and a lot of my love for stories filled with action, intrigue, and people doing their best under dangerous circumstances comes from those books.
I might also describe Meiko Ogawa as in some ways a spiritual descendant of Dorothy Gilman’s character Emily Pollifax, an older widow who becomes a spy — though Mekio has been a spy all her adult life, and her adventures aren’t as comical as the adventures of Mrs. Pollifax.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games; was Assassin’s Orbit influenced by of those things? Because the press materials say it’s, “Golden Girls meets The Expanse with a side of Babylon Five.”
I actually came to the notice of my agent during a Twitter pitch event in 2019 with something a lot like that marketing tag! My pitch then was “Middle-aged women noir competence porn in space: The Golden Girls meets Battlestar Galactica.” I was shooting to describe what I call the id of the book. The good folks at Rebellion seem to largely agree.
The only real similarity Assassin’s Orbit has with The Golden Girls is that all of my protagonists are middle-aged or older women. Unfortunately, there aren’t many widely known works that feature ensembles of older women; the closest thing I could come up with was a gender-flipped version of the movie Red.
The Expanse, both the books and the TV series, definitely influenced some of my portrayals of space warfare; but so did the grand old star of the sci-fi table-top role-playing game Traveler, which I’ve played off-and-on since 1979.
I only caught a bit of Babylon Five when it was on so I can’t say it was definitely an influence, but there are definitely similarities. I’d put those in the “Form follows function” category; if you’re writing about adventures and intrigue on a space station, Babylon Five and Star Trek Deep Space 9 (which I also only caught parts of) are the obvious comparisons.
And for reasons I won’t elaborate on, the 2005 version of Battlestar Galactica has some tendrils of influence too…
Now, space operas and mysteries are sometimes stand-alone stories, and sometimes they’re part of a larger series. What is Assassin’s Orbit?
Assassin’s Orbit is actually the second book I wrote, and it originally was the sequel to another book that’s currently trunked. I wrote it as a “stand-alone with series potential,” and I have a lot of other stories to tell in this universe — including what happens after the conclusion of this book — but we’ll have to see if it does well enough to warrant more. My agent and I plan to pitch a sequel to Rebellion soon.
Earlier I asked if Assassin’s Orbit had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. To flip things around, has there been any interest in turning Assassin’s Orbit into a movie, show, or game?
Nothing so far, but it’s a debut novel from a first-time writer, so that’s not surprising. But I like the idea of a series, like The Expanse, or what Netflix has done with Altered Carbon, with each season covering more-or-less one book.
If someone wanted to make an Assassin’s Orbit TV show, who would you want them to cast as Noo, Meiko, Toiwa, and the other main characters?
I really don’t have head-casting for these characters. I’d love to see people who are less-well known, I think, as that’s proven successful for shows like The Expanse.
Finally, if someone enjoys Assassin’s Orbit, what sci-fi space opera thriller of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
I think people who enjoy my book would also like Karen Osborne’s Architects Of Memory and Engines Of Oblivion for sure. If they want something a bit lighter in tone, then Valerie Valdes’ books Chilling Effect and Prime Deceptions fit the bill. And if they dig the investigation-that-goes-sideways angle, then Suzanne Palmer’s Finder and Driving The Deep would be great follow-ups.