Writer Chris McCrudden is not the first writer to be inspired by the Star Wars saga. But as he revealed in the following email interview about his comedic sci-fi space opera Battlestar Suburbia (paperback, Kindle), he may be the first to be inspired by the mundanity of life in George Lucas’ epic.
I always like to start with a quick overview of the plot. So, what is Battlestar Suburbia about?
It’s story set on a far future Earth where machines have taken over the world. Except instead of Terminators or Decepticons, the robots that rule the planet are descended from the consumer appliances and electronics we use today like smartphones, breadmakers, and hairdryers.
Meanwhile humanity has been banished to orbiting space stations called Dolestars — imagine a housing project, but in space — and works as a servant class to the robots. Every morning, the human race gets onto Starbuses and travels to Earth to do all the cleaning, mopping, and dusting that robots refuse to do for themselves because now they create labor instead of save it.
Battlestar Suburbia is the story of how three humans — Darren, Kelly, and Janice — and a sentient breadmaker called Pam, spark a rebellion that threatens to upset this social order.
Where did you get the original idea for Battlestar Suburbia and how different is the finished novel from that initial concept?
I first started writing Battlestar Suburbia to answer a rhetorical question that ironically J.J. Abrams ended up answering in Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Who cleans the Death Star? Someone had to mop those endless corridors people in science fiction spend so much time running around. So I thought it would be fun, and funny, to write science fiction from the perspective of the people who go unnoticed: the people who clean up the messes that heroes leave behind them. This is why I think Finn, Rey, and Rose in the new Star Wars films are such compelling characters. They’re “nobodies,” they’re discovered doing menial jobs and yet they’re at the center of big events.
Obviously, in writing the book, I had to take those characters and make them into heroes and heroines themselves, so it’s wandered away from that original thought. But not too far. It’s still a story that I hope has been written from the perspective of people who otherwise go ignored.
Battlestar Suburbia is obviously a comedic science fiction story, but is there a subgenre of sci-fi, or combination of them, that describes it better?
I don’t think writers are the best people to categorize their work — we’re too close to it! — but comedy science fiction feels like the right description to me. The book has lots of the tropes of classic science fiction — space stations, killer robots, futuristic cities and a race against time against a nuclear bomb — but these are all explored comically. So the space stations are all run-down versions of northern English factory towns, the killer robots are made from cheap plastic, and so on.
Can I say both? Hitchhiker’s was a big influence on me — I thought it was the best book in the world when I was 11 — and I’ve taken inspiration from Adams in terms of how you use comedy to explain how an imaginary world works. Adams was a master of the verbal sight joke. For example, the story about the giant “Share And Enjoy” billboard that collapsed and spelled out “go stick your head in a pig” in the local language. A joke like that tells you more than two or three pages of exposition about a universe where everything is bent around corporate interests.
Yet a lot of the funniness in Battlestar Suburbia also arises from how the characters interact with one another. A lot of the characters are machines, but I’ve tried to write them all as people. What makes people funny is the way their vanities, expectations, snobberies etc. all clash against one another in stressful situations. Which is why I maintain an end of the world scenario is a perfect setting for a situation comedy.
So what comedians and comedic writers do you feel had the biggest influence on Battlestar Suburbia?
Apart from Douglas Adams, definitely Terry Pratchett. I adored the Discworld books as a teenager and still do. Pratchett is a great example of a writer who can do jokes and character comedy equally well. Each Discworld book — apart from The Color Of Magic, which I maintain is a world-building exercise — is full of great one-liners, but because he built his world so solidly his characters lived and breathed in it as people. Even if the people in question were dwarves, golems, werewolves, witches, or wizards.
The other huge influence on Battlestar Suburbia was a comedian and actor who you may not have heard of in the U.S., Victoria Wood. She wrote and performed in stand-up sketches and sitcoms that were almost always set in northern England, which is where I was born and grew up, and I think they’re perfection. She documented a thoroughly unglamorous but hilarious slice of British life: a place of bad food, hairnets, and clumsy sex. Yet she also did it with warmth, and with an ear for what sounds funny that I still find really inspiring. When I talk to British people about the book, I like to describe it as Dinnerladies — Wood’s cult sitcom set in a factory canteen — in space.
Aside from those funny people, are there any writers or specific stories that had a big influence on Battlestar Suburbia but not on anything else you’ve written?
Can I sort of answer but not answer this question by saying that one of the biggest influences on this book was growing up in the north of England in a period of de-industrialization? The north of England is a bit like America’s rustbelt. It’s a place that built its identity and economy on heavy industry that pretty much disappeared in the 1980s. One lasting thing I took out of this experience, and which I’ve put in the book larded about with jokes, is how de-industrialization vacuumed the hope and self-respect out of the people it affected. It left whole towns, including my home town of South Shields, overshadowed by shuttered coal mills and crumbling factories, and those inhabitants that did find work after they closed ended up in the low-skilled service sector. So people whose fathers had been miners and shipbuilders ended up as careworkers, call-center operatives and cleaners: jobs that need to exist, but aren’t valued anywhere near as much.
The Dolestars in Battlestar Suburbia are a bit like those towns. They’re full of people who are expected by society to be productive, but their productivity doesn’t equate to self-respect. And that has an effect on how people see themselves in the world that I wanted to explore.
How about non-literary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or video games that had an influence on Battlestar Suburbia? Besides Battlestar Galactica, of course.
I was born on the second day of the ’80s, so a lot of these probably say more about my age than my work. My whole relationship with science fiction is refracted through the distorting lens of Star Wars, which was the first example of the genre I ever saw and have loved ever since. Well, not the prequels. My favorite characters though, once I’d gained enough insight about myself to appreciate my own geekiness, were always the droids. I have a running joke with friends that C3PO made me the man I am today. What I loved about C3PO — and this is also why writing him and R2-D2 into the prequels made me so cross — was that he was there in the center of events not because he was destined to be there, but because he was just there at the time.
Another big aesthetic influence on the book was Doctor Who, albeit the pre-re-booted version that the BBC cancelled in the 1980s because it was full of questionable acting and worse special effects. I’ve always been drawn to the campiness of this original Doctor Whoand wanted to recreate something similar. When it came to worldbuilding I drew a lot of inspiration from mid-century popular science fiction, notably things like The Jetsons and Buck Rogers In The 25th Century. The world of Battlestar Suburbia is one like The Jetsons, but few hundred years on when no one pays taxes anymore. All of the shining edifices of a brave new world have started to crumble away.
In terms of comedy, there are two other influences from the world of TV and games. The first was Red Dwarf, which is a sitcom set on an all-but abandoned spaceship. The humor in Battlestar Suburbia is very different to Red Dwarf, but I wanted to capture something similar to its down-to-earth tone.
The second was The Secret Of Monkey Island adventure games by Lucasfilm that I spent hours playing on my Amiga at the beginning of the ’90s. I loved the worlds they created, full of eccentric characters, and the fact that in an era of limited computer graphics the writing had to convey so much of the jokes.
And is Battlestar Galactica an influence on Battlestar Suburbia?
It is! I didn’t love the original Battlestar Galactica as a child — it was too sad and strange for me — but the Cylons had a lasting impact. I have always loved a robot.
The reboot, however, I thought was incredible. It dealt with human-robot relationships in such an intelligent, searching way, and the way it played with and then exploded the “human = good, robots = bad” paradigm was such great long-form storytelling.
Why Battlestar Suburbia then? Firstly, I think it’s a good pun. Secondly, because I think the word combination summarizes the book: it’s a collision between high-concept science fiction and low-concept life in the suburbs, except 10,000 years from now. Thirdly, because it explores similar territory, albeit in a very different way. If machines and humans reach a point where they’re fully conscious intellectual equals, how do they find accommodation with each other?
Your novel also of reminds me of Terminal Alliance, the first book in Jim C. Hines’ comedic sci-fi series Janitors Of The Post-Apocalypse, which is also about space janitors. How is your book different?
I’m afraid I don’t know the book so I can’t really comment on it.
No worries. Now, as you know, some science fiction novels are stand-alone stories, while others are part of larger sagas. What is Battlestar Suburbia?
It is the first book in a series. The second book in the Battlestar Suburbia series, Battle Beyond The Dolestars, will be published in 2019.
The second book is a direct sequel to Battlestar Suburbia. It finishes the story I’ve started telling in the first book, following the same characters — and a few new ones — through the events of a full human rebellion against The Machine Republic. So far it’s turning out to be my homage to The Empire Strikes Back, so there will be far more space battles in this one.
If my publisher wants them, I have plans for further books in the series, though I envisage these more as Discworld-esque world extensions than direct sequels.
So is there any reason — and I mean a story-based one, not a publishing one — why someone should wait for Battle Beyond The Dolestars to come out before reading Battlestar Suburbia? Or that they shouldn’t wait?
While the story in Battlestar Suburbia isn’t totally complete — otherwise why would I write a sequel? — it does reach a natural ending that I hope will satisfy the reader. Plus, they won’t have to wait long for the sequel. If all goes according to plan Battle Beyond The Dolestars will be available in 2019.
Good, good. Now, earlier we talked about the movies, TV shows, and video games that influenced Battlestar Suburbia. But has there been any interest in adapting Battlestar Suburbia into a movie, show, or game?
Naturally, I think any sort of adaptation would be amazing, but it’s much too early to talk about anything like that now. I’m a debut author and the book is just out, so I’m just concentrating on doing the best I can with this novel and writing the sequel.
If Battlestar Suburbia was to be adapted into a movie or TV show, who would you like them to cast in the main roles?
In terms of film or TV, I’d take either: writers can’t be choosy. And if by some remote possibility I got a say in the casting I’d cast Phoebe Waller-Bridger as Kelly — her turn in Solo was the highlight of the film for me — Imelda Staunton [Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix] as her mother Janice, Riz Ahmed [Rogue One: A Star Wars Story] as Darren, and Alison Janney [Finding Dory] can play the voice of Pam the breadmaker, who would have to be CGI’d into existence.
And if it was being made into a video game…?
A game would be really interesting, but I think it would work best as the kind of writing-driven Monkey Island-style adventure game that people don’t much make anymore.
Finally, if someone enjoys Battlestar Suburbia, what comedic sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that one?
I’m going to suggest Jasper Fforde’s latest book, Early Riser, which is more speculative fiction than science fiction, but I think it’s brilliant. It’s set on an alternate Earth that’s still gripped by the Ice Age where humans hibernate through the winter, watched over by a small group of Winter Consuls who have a duty to protect sleepers from the dangers of the winter. It has all the hallmarks of a good Fforde book: a strong sense of place, Wales, a flawed but compelling main character, a fully but not heavily realized world, and lots of good jokes.