With zombies in space, some people reading Timothy Johnson’s debut novel Carrier (Permuted Press: paperback, digital) might think, “Oh, so it’s like those Dead Space games.” But in talking to Johnson about the book, it’s clear that while he may have played those games, he was actually more inspired by movies…that also inspire those games.
I always like to start with the basics: What is Carrier about and where did the original idea for it come from?
I could tell you it’s about a space mining ship that is forced into deep space by Earth’s unified authoritarian government, that they’ve discovered an unidentified material under the crust of a doomed planet, and that the crew has to mine the material and bring it back to Earth for study. I could tell you it’s about seeking redemption, sacrifice, necessary evils, fear of fading into obscurity, friendship, family, deceit of and mistrust in authority, politics, love.
But what you really want to know is it’s zombies in space.
As for where the idea came from, it was the ending that sold me. I read somewhere that the moment you know your ending, your novel is dead. I hope not because, among some other novel ideas floating around in my head, Carrier was the most tangible. I felt like I knew where I wanted to take it, what I wanted to do with it. Stephen King also wrote in On Writing — which is obligatory for fiction writers — that one of the most important things to writing is knowing what you’re doing. I wasn’t doing anything else, so I jumped in with both feet.
Beyond that, I like challenges. Zombies in space sounds ridiculous, right? I wanted to do it legitimately. I wanted people to come into it and be surprised at its depth, and I hope it surprises them how it affects them on an emotional level.
How different, if at all, is the finished version of Carrier versus that original idea, and why did you make those changes?
I’m something of a slave to drafting. I consider it a personal mandate that I have to be willing to delete or rewrite anything at any time. Sometimes it’s as simple as changing a word or a sentence’s syntax. Sometimes it’s as grand as rewriting whole chapters from scratch. Often, I go back through my writing and just see what I can do differently. It could be analogous to a director trying different camera angles, and I find that, when I move that focal point around, different ideas occur to me, and I like to follow them wherever they take me.
That said, I think Carrier achieves the goals I had when I envisioned it. If my pre-Carrier self could sit down and read it, I think he would recognize it. More or less.
Talking about the book, Suffer The Children author Craig DiLouie said, “With Carrier, Timothy Johnson marks his territory as a strong new voice in zombie fiction.” When you started writing Carrier, was the idea to write a zombie novel?
No, and neither was it to write a sci-fi novel.
I started writing in earnest when I was in college, studying English with a focus in creative writing. At the time, I was doing Chuck Palahniuk-esque literary fiction and serial killer persona poems. It was weird.
I was always drawn to dark fiction, but one of my teachers taught me about monster archetypes in contemporary and modern horror. I even did an independent study on disturbing film and literature, and I learned how to analyze the meaning behind this stuff, to get beyond the visceral reactions and try to understand their meaning and the meaning of the material. If fiction, in general, is a mirror, horror is a mirror that shows you the things you’re trying to hide.
I could reference Stephen King again. In Danse Macabre — not as obligatory as On Writing, but just as essential for any horror writer or fan — King discusses the origins of horror and the purpose it serves. In essence, horror is a place writing can go to investigate the thoughts and ideas that might be taboo elsewhere. As zombies go, I’m drawn to them because they’re unique. They are malleable. They can represent anything. I even have a story titled “Awakening In A Dead City” that’s coming in Permuted Press’ upcoming anthology Fat Zombie [out in January], and in my story, zombies are an allegory for time.
Zombies can be an immediate threat, or they can be setting or background. There’s just a lot you can do with the dead that you just can’t do with other monsters. If the purpose of monsters is to investigate the darkness of humanity, zombies have the power to make us confront our very existence, not just mortality. I find that terrifying.
All of this talk of space zombies makes me think of the Dead Space games. How big of an influence were those games on Carrier?
The Dead Space games are great. I love the atmosphere they create. On a fundamental horror level, they work remarkably well, and they’re sci-fi enough to be intriguing without cluttering the narrative with fabricated terminology.
That said, I don’t know that the games influenced me directly, but it’s obviously hard to be impressed by something and not say, “That, right there. That’s how it’s done.” Of course, Carrier is a different story, but I think tonally, if you’re a gamer who reads and who enjoyed Dead Space, you might like Carrier. I think you’ll find that, once you get beyond the space zombies thing and space mining thing, they’re very different stories, but it would be really cool to think a Dead Space fan also picked up Carrier and enjoyed it. It would be cool to think they complement each other in some way.
So if Dead Space wasn’t an influence, what works of science fiction — be it books, comics, movies, TV, or other games — would you say were an influence on the story you’re telling in Carrier, and which were an influence on how you told the story, your writing style?
In terms of story, I admit that I get a lot of inspiration from film, TV, and, sure, even video games. Games have come a long way in terms of story telling. Have you played The Last Of Us?
My friends are getting tired of me bringing it up, but that game’s story is incredible.
In terms of writing style, I think I’m more influenced by fiction that’s outside of the sci-fi genre. For example, Stephen King and Chuck Palahniuk are huge influences on my writing style. I’m really digging Joe Hill’s work. But Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick hit me pretty hard at some point that I can’t remember.
What about the way you depict the zombies in Carrier, what pop culture sources inspired the way they would act, and why that way as opposed to another way?
You know, I honestly don’t know. It’s hard to do anything in this genre and not talk about The Walking Dead. You could say the same about World War Z. The novel, by the way, not the movie. There’s a madness element in Carrier that I think is a combination of several sources of inspiration across literature and film. As for the reanimated dead people? It’s probably just a combination of all of it. I don’t know. I felt like trying too hard to do something different with the monster, specifically, could be perilous. Many authors who are better than me are pulling it off, but I wasn’t confident that I could. So, instead, I focused on the meaning behind the monsters. Instead of building this new presentation for them, I’m trying to use conventional means to convey new meanings. I guess I’m more interested in the message I’m sending. I don’t care if the gift is wrapped in last year’s wrapping paper. I want to get at what’s inside. And in some way, maybe I didn’t want to distract people from that.
Large spaceships have also been shown in many different ways, from the clean and polished Enterprise in Star Trek to the space truckin’ of Alien. In creating the ship in Carrier, which way did you go, and what did that add to the story?
I think I split the difference there, but I tried to think functional over fashionable. I did a lot of looking into submarines, actually. For example, there are no windows on the Atlas, which is the name of the carrier ship. No screen doors either.
As silly as it may sound, I wanted the Atlas to feel alive, organic. I wanted it to feel like a character in its own right. I wanted it to feel like home because I wanted the reader to get attached to it and the people inside of it. It’s an old rust bucket, but it has its charm. Yet, we’re talking about technology that doesn’t exist in a distant future we can’t even see. It has to have some appeal of the fantastic, and I feel like I did some of that, too.
In the book, Earth’s natural resources have almost run out. Science fiction has a long tradition of making political points. In Carrier, were you trying to make any points about how we, as a species, are treating the Earth and its natural resources, or were you just trying to write a fun romp and this seemed like a good way to explain why a cool space ship needs to visit deep space?
It’s funny you should ask this question because I don’t really consider myself a sci-fi writer so much as a horror writer who has transplanted into sci-fi. In that vein, there were times where I just wanted to make it work so I could get into the meat of the story, what I really cared about. It was never about getting to the action for me. It was about getting to the horror, and the extrapolation process for writing sci-fi is hard. Really hard.
That said, I found themes on politics coming out naturally. Same with environmental comments. Sure, that stuff is in there as undertones.
But it never was just a vehicle. The sci-fi elements were never just casually thrown in because it was fun. When I jumped into the project, I charged myself with legitimizing every detail so that it was necessary to the story. If it wasn’t, I threw it out. I wasn’t interested in sci-fi for sci-fi’s sake. This is a story that takes place in the future on a spaceship in deep space, and I wanted to write it so that it couldn’t have happened anywhere or any time else. Otherwise, you could just put them on an island in the ocean in present day. So I wanted to distinguish my story from that. Otherwise, I didn’t see a point other than it was fun.
And fun is definitely important. Part of even admitting to myself that I was going to do this was that it was going to be fun, and I hope the reader has fun. All of that other stuff, metaphor, themes, character, plot, it all takes a back seat to fun. It’s very much in the car and often driving, but if we’re not enjoying the ride, what’s the point?
On your website, your bio says, “Nothing frightens him more than the future, so he writes about it in hopes that he is wrong.” In what ways do you think this attitude influenced Carrier in ways that wouldn’t if you were more hopeful for the future?
I love post-apocalyptic fiction, but a lot of times I’m intrigued by what may lead to the fall of civilization, what pillar came crashing down and what followed in that chain reaction. I feel like a lot of apocalyptic writers just throw us into this world and say, “this is the way things are,” and I’m not knocking that at all. For many stories, it works, and it’s what those authors are doing. And even in some stories, it’s advisable to not dwell on it too much. Getting into how these things came to be can be a rabbit hole, and somewhere along the way, you risk losing your readers to disbelief.
But I don’t want to turn away from that apprehension for the future and what leads to our undoing. That’s specifically what fascinates me. If we fall, what’s it going to be? Will it be greed or corruption? Will it be something not so obvious or something we haven’t even seen come into play yet? And what really interests me are the reasons that seem to settle on human qualities that otherwise might be considered assets to our race. Tenacity, for instance. Off the top of my head, I can think of several current events where tenacity is a crippling hurdle, but it wasn’t so long ago that our kind depended on tenacity for survival.
I think hope isn’t mutually exclusive with apprehension. I think that, by the end of Carrier, the reader might get that. We’re in this precarious position. We might just hold the fate of our race in our hands right now. It might take drastic measures that in any other context would be monstrous. But I’m hopeful we can resolve it without losing our humanity.
Your bio also says you have a dog. Is it safe to assume your dog didn’t influence Carrier at all?
Ha! He did, but maybe only as a distraction. My wife and I love animals. We love to care for them. Our dog is a pug named Butter, and I have a very big soft spot for him. I’d do almost anything for him.
Come to think of it, maybe he inspired me more than I thought.
The cover art for Carrier is very 2001-ish. If Carrier was made into a movie, and the people making the movie let you decide who would direct it and star in it, who would you pick and why?
I think the artist who did the cover illustration might take that as a compliment. Jack Kaiser is fantastically talented and great to work with.
Considering the upcoming Interstellar, Christopher Nolan might be the easy choice. Danny Boyle also might be a great choice. But I have to go with David Fincher. Of all the guys doing genre film, I feel like Fincher takes a notably simplistic approach and focuses on the characters. I like that he emphasizes the action and his characters and uses that instead of trying to put his own stamp on it from behind the camera.
As for stars, it’s funny, part of my process for creating characters is casting them. I don’t write out detailed profiles or anything. I figure the people I know don’t exist on paper, and neither should my characters. So by imagining known actors in there, I get an organic feel for who they are. But casting them is just a jumping-off point. They evolve into their own people.
If the filmmaker was open to “Hey, I’ve seen that guy in something before” level of actors, Cole Hauser is underrated and could be a good lead, but if you need an A-lister, Matt Damon would be a good choice. Rachel Weisz would be great. Liam Neeson might steal the show as the captain, but it would be great to see him in a morally ambiguous role. I think Alan Tudyk can do anything, so it would be interesting to see him in a more dramatic role. Scarlett Johansson because why not? It might be cool to see Kate Mulgrew in there. Tom Skerritt’s mustache? Ed Harris could be a good captain, too. Oh, what about Michael Biehn? I could do this all day.
Cillian Murphy is incredible, too, but I’m not sure who he’d play.
We’ve also talked a bit about games. Do you think Carrier could be made into a game?
I honestly hadn’t ever considered the idea. I think about my stories in a cinematic sense, so a film adaptation wouldn’t be crazy. I don’t think a strict adaptation to a video game would work because of the novel’s story structure. The suspense and action starts at a minimum and slowly builds throughout.
That said, there certainly are games gaining popularity that are more story- and character-driven. My wife and I sat down together to play The Walking Dead game by Telltale, and that was a really cool experience that wasn’t so much focused on combat. Something like that might work.
I usually like to end my author interviews by asking which of their other books someone should read next. But since Carrier is your first novel, I ask this instead: If someone liked Carrier, what sci-fi novel do you think they should read next and why?
How about something completely different? Let’s go from outer space to the bottom of the ocean in David M. Salkin’s Deep Black Sea. It’s amazing how similar the settings are, and that’s part of the point of David’s book. Our styles differ a bit, but David tells a compelling story.