With Earth Retrograde (paperback, Kindle), writer R.W.W. Greene is concluding The First Planets series he launched last year with Mercury Rising. In the following email interview, R. discusses what inspired and influenced this alt-history sci-fi series, how the two books connect, and why his main character isn’t named after a town in New Jersey.
For those who didn’t read it, what was Mercury Rising about, and when and where did it take place?
Hmmm… Mercury Rising is about Brooklyn Lamontagne, a lowlife entrepreneur (sort of a Ratso Rizzo type) from an alt-history version of 1976 Queens, New York, who gets way-above-his-head involved in an extraterrestrial invasion of Earth.
And then what is Earth Retrograde about, and when and where does it take place in relation to Mercury Rising?
Earth Retrograde begins in the autumn of 1999, aboard Brooklyn’s military-surplus spaceship, the Victory. It’s about twenty years after the end of Mercury Rising. Earth is under new ownership, and something very strange is happening at the top.
When in the process of writing Mercury Rising did you come up with the idea for Earth Retrograde, and what inspired this second book’s plot?
The First Planets series started in my head as a quintology, with a book for every decade from the 1970s to the 2020s. My agent Sara Megibow wisely talked me down to a trilogy, which became a duology because of fiscal stuff. The ending of the thing, whether after five books or two, was always the same. The challenge was bending or cutting or rewelding the plot structure to reach from one side to the other.
As you said, Mercury Rising and Earth Retrograde are set in alt-history settings; Brooklyn is sent to the moon in 1976, and as someone who was alive then, I know that wasn’t possible. Trust me, my dad would’ve used it to get me to do my homework if it was an option. Why did you decide to set these stories in an alternate version of our history as opposed to a version of our future, like 2076?
This whole deal started with a short story I wrote in response to the end of the space-shuttle program in 2011. There was a lot of talk then about the end of manned space missions in favor of probes and drones. I took the Apollo 1 crew — Grissom, Chaffee, and White — and gave them a different ending: a heroic, fighter-pilot sacrifice against alien invaders in a 1967 wherein Oppenheimer had invented the atomic engine. After that, I started to think about turning it into a book, and I like the 1970s. To me, it’s a decade where a lot of things almost went right.
Also, is there some significance to his name being Brooklyn as opposed to something like Rob or Paul? Or, for that matter, Manhattan? Queens? Staten Island? West Orange, New Jersey? The geographical possibilities are endless…
Brooklyn is so named because he was born in Queens. His parents lived in Brooklyn as newlyweds, but were forced to move in with their in-laws shortly before their son was born. They weren’t happy about it.
Aside from being an alt-history story, Mercury Rising and Earth Retrograde are also obviously sci-fi ones. But are there any other genres at work in these novels?
There’s a little ’70s crime drama in there, some spy-vs.-spy-vs.-spy intrigue. Some pulp. Maybe a little subversion of the American Dream. A dash of New Hollywood stuff.
Earth Retrograde is your fourth book after The Light Years, Twenty-Five To Life, and, obviously, Mercury Rising. Are there any writers, or stories, that had a big influence on Earth but not on anything else you’ve written, and especially not Mercury?
Not particularly. The original idea for the quintology had me playing with the sci-fi tropes popular in each decade. The ’80s book, for example, was going to go hard with these paranoid cyberpunk, identity-confusion, They Live themes. In the end, with the number of books decreasing, the tropes kind of slopped together.
What about non-literary influences; was Earth Retrograde influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Music and music subculture probably had the most influence, but I feel like a lot of that also was lost to the truncation. It might have been a good thing.
As you said, Mercury Rising and Earth Retrograde form a duology. Because of this, some people may consider reading them back-to-back. Do you think this is a good way to take in this story, or should people put some distance between them?
I see absolutely no reason why people shouldn’t read them back-to-back, other than the fact that the story will be over and done. It’s one big arc that could have been told over five books, but might be even better over two.
Or take a break between the two. A month. That’s OK, too.
Earlier I asked if Earth Retrograde was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think Earth — and by extension, Mercury Rising — could work as a movie, show, or game?
I believe The First Planets series could work as a television series or miniseries. Apple TV would be great because I really like the way they curate their properties, and it would be awesome to see it shot in that ’70s Technicolor Rockford Files way with modern effects.
And if someone wanted to make that Rockford Files-style show, who would you want them to cast as Brooklyn, and the other main characters?
Brooklyn to me is sort of a Diego Luna-type [Star Wars: Andor]. Underfed, unkempt, kind of ratty.
[The late] Ron Cephas Jones would have been an amazing Demarco. He was Bobby Fish in the Luke Cage series, and did the street-wise but bookish thing really well.
Jillian Milk could be played by…Juno Temple [Ted Lasso], maybe. If she can do an American accent. She can go from brash and wild to broken in a blink.
Andy / Andromeda…. How about Asia Kate Dillon [Billions] or Ruby Rose [Orange Is The New Black]? I think they have the look, as long as they don’t mind going green.
So, is there anything else people need to know about Earth Retrograde?
As with all my books, I hope folks grok what I’m trying to do. With this one, maybe they’ll finally understand why we have such nostalgia for times we never knew or that never really were.
Finally, if someone enjoys Earth Retrograde, and they’ve read Mercury Rising but not any of your other novels, which of them would you recommend they check out?
The other two are probably as different from each other as they are from The First Planets.
The Light Years is set a long time from now, a long way away…so if you prefer to believe we’re going to make it out of the chicken mess we are currently in, go for that one.
Twenty-Five To Life is probably my most realistic book so far, set maybe seventy years from now. It’s bleak but hopeful, if that makes any sense. If that’s your dish, may it prove worthy of your time.