While science fiction and comedy work well together — see Futurama, et al. — the thing about funny science fiction novels is how the humor often takes a back seat to the sci-fi. Not in a bad way, mind you. More just that authors are more inclined to write a sci-fi story that’s funny like John Scalzi’s Lock In or his Old Man’s War series than they are a funny sci-fi story like Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. But in the following email interview with writer Joe Zieja, he explains that with Communication Failure (paperback, Kindle, audiobook) — the second book in his Epic Failure trilogy — he’s actually trying to make science fiction readers laugh.
For those unfamiliar with this series, like me, what is the Epic Failure trilogy about?
The Epic Failure Trilogy is about a man named R. Wilson Rogers, who leaves a peacetime military to pursue a glamorous life of a con artist and swindler. He’s not very good at it. He gets arrested and forced back into the military, which is now a war-time military, and very unlike the service he left. Insanity ensues.
Then what is Communication Failure about, and how does it connect, both chronologically and narratively, to the first book in your Epic Failure trilogy, Mechanical Failure? Besides being the middle part, of course.
With obvious spoilers, Communication Failure picks up at the end of Mechanical Failure, in that the neighboring system has just invaded Rogers’ territory, breaking a two hundred yearlong peace. Communication Failure is about Rogers dealing with an invading force, having zero knowledge about how to conduct a war, and discovering that the rabbit hole runs a lot deeper than just a few ships coming across the border.
Communication Failure is a science fiction novel, but is there a specific subgenre of sci-fi that you think best describes this novel, and the Epic Failure trilogy as a whole?
Well, it’s military sci-fi with a humorous twist. So we’ll go with that.
So then who do you see as being the biggest influences on your comedic style?
That’s a tough one. People compare it to Terry Pratchett, which is funny because I’ve never read any Pratchett other than Good Omens. Most of my comedy consumption throughout my life has been a little goofy, which shines through. Some Monty Python, some Catch-22, some Police Squad/Naked Gun, and some real thick humor like Vonnegut.
In terms of how the humor is used in Communication Failure, though, is it more like Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, in that it’s trying to be a funny sci-fi book, or is it more like John Scalzi’s Redshirts, in that it’s trying to be a sci-fi book that’s funny?
It is definitely a comedy first, though I would say that Communication Failure trades a bit of the zaniness of Mechanical Failure in exchange for some thicker narratives and character development.
Prior to writing, you were a member of the U.S. Air Force. But how accurate, in terms of military behavior and protocol and tactics, is Communication Failure and the other books in this series?
I’ve been writing novels for about seven years, though nobody has read most of them. Mechanical Failure was my sixth novel, which I wrote two years after leaving the USAF.
As far as accuracy goes, I borrowed a lot of protocol from both the USAF and the US Navy, but most of it is very basic. The book doesn’t focus at all on military tactics, though I do take several jabs at real military doctrine throughout the book.
In writing Communication Failure, were there any instances where you had to choose between being authentic to military reality and telling a good story?
I almost never choose authenticity over a good story, as long as my bending of the truth is believable. If it isn’t, then it’s not a good story to begin with, and I need to rethink what I’m doing. In a novel like this, where my audience probably has never served in the military, it doesn’t do me any good to win points with fellow veterans by making sure I call it a “ship” instead of a “boat.”
Are there any writers or specific novels that had a big impact on Communication Failure, but were not an influence on Mechanical Failure?
The timeline between these two books was so short that I’m not sure this is possible. I wrote Communication Failure immediately after Mechanical Failure, so there wasn’t much time for me to consume anything too influential that might stand out from the first book. The day my publisher handed me the contract for book 2, I handed them the manuscript.
How about non-literary influences, such as movies, TV shows, or video games. Are any of those you think had an impact on Communication Failure?
Regarding the Epic Failure Trilogy as a whole — since all three books were essentially written within a two-year time span — I can’t say that too much influenced me while I was writing it. Most of the influences on my humor came from the works I mentioned before.
By the way, was Captain Rogers, the hero of Communication Failure, named for Captain America?
My jaw is kind of on the floor right now, as I literally did not realize this until I read this question, and I feel kind of stupid.
No, there’s no connection between Captain America and Captain Rogers, but thank you for making me feel like I’ve achieved the height of unintended symbolism in art.
I’m suddenly glad I didn’t ask you any Led Zeppelin questions. Anyway, as we mentioned, Communication Failure is the second book in the Epic Failure trilogy. What can you tell us about the third book, Miserable Failure?
Since they’re all one continuous plotline, it’s difficult for me to tell you about Mechanical Failure without spoiling Communication Failure [except that it] should be out sometime late 2018 and continues the events right where they left off in Communication Failure.
Some authors who write trilogies end up adding more to them, like side stories or tangentially connected novellas or short stories. Do you have any plans to do that?
I’m not sure I’m at liberty to discuss the future plans of this universe, but stay tuned.
Understood. So, has there been any interest in adapting the Epic Failure series into a TV show, movies, or a video game?
I am absolutely interested in adapting any of my books into any of those things, yes. But currently, there are no concrete plans to do so.
If the Epic Failure trilogy was to be adapted into a movie, show, or game, who would you like to see them cast in the main roles? Or if you’d prefer it be a game, what kind of game should it be?
You know I was just talking about this the other day with someone, and I couldn’t quite get a good grasp on who I would cast for Rogers. I mean, he’s a goofball, not particularly handsome, not particularly competent. Seth Rogan [This Is The End] might make an interesting Rogers, and Gwendoline Christie [Game Of Thrones] would make a good Viking. I’d love to play Deet, myself, but that’s my ego talking.
Video games…now that’s another story. I’m not really sure what format would work best for an adaptation of the game, other than perhaps a Telltale narrative. Rogers isn’t quite dynamic enough of a person to be running and gunning, so it would take some very creative folks to adapt it to a playable format.
If someone does license it to make a video game, will part of the contract be that you have to be in the voice cast? Because aside from writing, you’ve done voice over work for such games as Battlefield 1, Persona 5, and Oxenfree.
Voice acting is actually my primary profession, but I would never make it mandatory that I be cast as a specific role. If I’m not right for a part, I’m not right for a part, and I would never sacrifice creative expression so I could shoehorn myself into a part. But yeah, I’d at least make a cameo and would likely see if I could work as a main part somewhere in there.
Finally, if someone’s enjoyed Communication Failure and Mechanical Failure, what would you suggest they read while waiting for Miserable Failure to come out?
Hmmm. Well, it kind of depends on why they enjoyed the Epic Failure trilogy so far. I’m an eclectic reader who, admittedly, doesn’t read a whole lot of comedy. For some snappy dialog, a la Deet and Rogers, you might check out The Caledonian Gambit by Dan Moren. Or, if you love a new twist on a classic with some humor in there, you might try the Warlock Holmes books by G.S. Denning [Warlock Holmes: A Study In Brimstone, Warlock Holmes: The Hell-Hound Of The Baskervilles, and the upcoming Warlock Holmes: My Grave Ritual].