When writer Emma Newman published the five urban fantasy novels in The Split Worlds series, it was clear you needed to read all of them to get the full story. But as she discusses in the following email interview about her new sci-fi psychological thriller Atlas Alone (paperback, Kindle), while it is also part of a series, it’s not one you need to read all of, or even in order.
Photo Credit: Lou Abercrombie
Atlas Alone follows on directly from After Atlas, set six months after the end of that book, and takes place on Atlas Two, the second ship being sent to follow the Pathfinder whose trip was the subject of Planetfall. The protagonist of Atlas Alone is Dee, Carlos’s best friend from After Atlas. Dee is an avid gamer who has lost the ability to escape into immersive games following on the harrowing events at the end of After Atlas. Then she is invited to play test a new game, only to discover that the villain she kills at the end of the game was actually a real person who died at the same moment as she killed his character in the game. The novel is all about recovering from trauma, immersive gaming, and how much of one’s humanity can be retained in the pursuit of justice and revenge.
Where did you get the idea for Atlas Alone, when in relation to writing the other books did you come up with it, and how did the story evolve, if at all, as you wrote it?
I honestly can’t remember, which is a terrible thing to admit in an interview, isn’t it? I think it’s because it was a logical progression in the series. I knew I wanted to explore Dee’s personality, and I wanted to write something about…oh, I can’t say as it would be a terrible spoiler!
I had a fairly firm idea of what the book was about and the main questions I was asking myself to answer by writing it, and as far as I recall, it didn’t deviate from that very much. The only thing that did shift was just how cold and sociopathic Dee is. In an early draft she was too cold, making it hard for the reader to root for her. Hopefully I fixed that without losing the core of who she is.
In the previous interview we did for Before Mars [which you can read here], you said that novel was a, “sci-fi psychological thriller.” Is that how you’d describe Atlas Alone as well?
Yes, I think this one fits into that category more than anything else. It’s very different to Before Mars in many ways, but still falls under that sub-genre umbrella.
Are there any writers or specific stories that had a big influence on Atlas Alone but not on any of the other Planetfall books?
No, not that I can think of. I read several non-fiction books to research this novel, but that was to check that the things I had in mind weren’t actually ridiculous. And they weren’t, which is nice.
What about non-literary influences, such as movies, TV shows, and video games; did any of them have a big influence on Atlas Alone?
I mean, all things I consume get mulched down to form the compost from which everything I create grows, but again, I can’t point at one specific thing. What did influence my creation of the ship was a personal experience of living on board HMS Illustrious for a weekend many years ago, to visit my father when it was alongside in Portsmouth. I drew on memories of the feel of the interior far more than anything else when writing the book.
A significant amount of the book is set in immersive games that Dee is playing, and it was my own extensive LARP [live action role playing] experiences, as both player and G.M., that informed those sections more than anything else.
Now, while Atlas Alone is part of the Planetfall series, it’s also, like the other books, a stand-alone story. Why is it important for you that these books are self-contained novels?
My previous series [The Split Worlds] was five novels, all of which had to be read in a strict order or the story would suffer, and that was very stressful. Constantly having to say “please start with this one!” is tiresome in the age of social media, and maintaining attention for a series that long is hard. People are busy, and having to commit to a whole series is sometimes unappealing.
I also found that, as a reader, I missed the satisfaction of reading a novel and having a fully completed story. I wanted to give readers that feeling, regardless of where they jump into the Planetfall universe.
Having said that, what will someone get out of reading Atlas Alone after Planetfall, After Atlas, and Before Mars in order, and maybe even in rapid succession?
All of the novels are interconnected and feature the impact of a few major events that have multiple effects on society, so reading all of them in publication order will give an appreciation of how they all fit together. Though I do think that it is better to read After Atlas before Atlas Alone, due to the latter being set six months later and featuring several of the same characters. There is one significant event that happens in After Atlas that will affect the experience of reading Before Mars, but I don’t think it spoils anything whichever order those two are read in — it just changes which characters the reader may be most worried about.
So what is your plan for this series? Do you have more books in the works?
I would like to write at least two more books in the series, but I am probably going to take a break from this universe first. I’ve been writing the Planetfall novels for several years now, and while I have had the opportunity to finish The Split Worlds series and also start a new one in novellas, Industrial Magic, during that time, I do think I would benefit from a break. Though I’m not able to say anything more about what I am planning at this stage, as discussions with my publishers are ongoing.
Understood. Now, going back to our Before Mars interview, at the time you said there was some interest in adapting the Planetfall books into a movie or TV show, but nothing had come of it yet. Is that still the case?
Yes, that’s still the case, and as for what is going on, the short answer is: the usual. Someone expresses interest, that interest is handled by my agent, and these things take a long time and often result in nothing happening. It is simply the nature of the Hollywood beast.
Finally, if someone enjoys Atlas Alone, and they’ve already read Planetfall, After Atlas, and Before Mars, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next?
Between Two Thorns, as that is the first novel in The Split Worlds series, the one that has to be read in order. That series is urban fantasy and very different to the Planetfall novels, but I do have lots and lots of readers who have loved both.
I would also recommend that fans of the Planetfall series subscribe to my newsletter as subscribers receive a free short story set in the Planetfall universe every month. People can sign up here.