As the current Chair of the British Science Fiction Association, you’d expect science fiction writer Allen Stroud to cite his fellow Brits when listing his influences. But in the following email interview about his sci-fi space opera novel Fearless (hardcover, paperback, Kindle), Stroud shockingly lists writers from, gasp, the colonies.
Let’s begin with a plot overview.
Fearless is set in 2118 AD, in space somewhere between Mars and the asteroid belt. The search and rescue ship Khidr receives a distress call from a freighter, Hercules, and alters course to go and help. However, as the cover tagline suggests [see below], they weren’t expecting what happens next — a conflict with a mysterious enemy warship, with stowaways and even members of their own crew.
Where did you get the idea for Fearless, and how, if at all, did that idea change as you wrote it?
I wanted to write a very focused, action oriented novel that could sit alongside some of the stories I’ve been inspired by over the years. In terms of the characters, my writing in the last few years has often focused on themes of physical disability and the way in which people live with their limitations, rather than the somewhat tired trope of overcoming them. My main character, Ellisa Shann, is a character who has grown up understanding her physic limitations and learned to accept them and thrive in the environment she works in: zero gravity. I think we need that in the way we tell stories. People are very different. Writers need to embrace that.
It sounds like Fearless is a military sci-fi space opera story. Is that how you’d describe it?
That is pretty much how I’d describe it, yes. Hard science fiction is a label that’s been used to describe it, too. That does make me smile a bit, as I’m not much of a scientist, but I do try to pay attention to details to create a believable environment. If we’re thinking of writing mechanics, there’s a little mythology in there too. I’m not a fan of complete explanations. I like mysteries, linking things into the real world, and projecting into history.
Prior to writing Fearless, you did a fair bit of writing work for the video games Elite: Dangerous, Chaos Reborn, and Phoenix Point. How do you think writing for those games influenced either what you wrote in Fearless or how you wrote it?
It definitely shaped my thinking. Elite: Lave Revolution was my first foray in SF novel writing. The game has a fairly hard science fiction premise, which became a necessary thematic element. Fearless pushes a little further in that direction. With Elite: Lave Revolution, much of the description connected directly with the experience of flying a ship in Elite Dangerous the computer game. With Fearless, there’s less of that direct connection to something in the same way.
My writing for Chaos Reborn and Phoenix Point is more stylistically similar to Fearless, in that there is a lot of first-person present stuff in the stories and cut scenes written for both games. The themes of physical disability are ones that I have written about in all three of these franchises, too.
Aside from your work on those games, was Fearless influenced by any other video games? Or, for that matter, any movies, TV shows, or board games?
In terms of the events of the story, I have always loved the Star Trek film Wrath Of Khan, and I was also very impressed by the TV adaptation of The Expanse series. There’s something about the tension you get in that kind of story. The Battlestar Galactica TV series from 2003 was also an influence. Some of the moments in that had me on the edge of my seat.
How about literary influences; are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on this story but not on anything else you’ve written?
There was a moment, back in 2015 in the Royal Observatory Library at Greenwich when I was at a critical masterclass, run by SF Foundation and discussing the work of Alfred Bester with the brilliant SF writer, Pat Cadigan. She was pointing out how Bester was trying to write about diverse characters and get some of this past his editors. That stuck with me. We all need people we can identify with from lots of different backgrounds and lots of different walks of life.
When thinking about the bread and butter of the story, actually Fearless was written with less specific influence on the style. I never thought I would write a first-person present novel. Before, when I wrote in third person past, Isaac Asimov, James Khan (who wrote the novelization of Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi), Michael Stackpole (Star Wars: Rogue Squadron), and others really helped me, but with the first-person present style of this novel, there was less of that.
I was reading Emma Newman’s Planetfall series, which I’ve continued to read and review, which helped get into the style, and I guess Andy Weir’s The Martian was also helpful in the way in which he used technical detail in his work.
And lastly for the influence questions: You are the current Chair of the British Science Fiction Association, and a lecturer at Coventry University. Which means you do a lot of public speaking. In the process of writing Fearless, did you ever read it aloud?
Yes, I’ve read it several times. The first reading was as part of the reading series at Fantasycon in 2017 alongside Adrian Tchaikovsky (Dogs Of War), Phil Sloman (Becoming David) and Robert Malan (The Prisoner) In the opening chapter, the main character, Ellisa Shann breaks the fourth wall and I could feel the tension in the room over the way she addresses the reader. That’s intentional and I was delighted when my editor at Flame Tree Don D’Auria “got” that. It’s a jarring moment, which the story needs, so the image of the main character is fixed in place.
During the drafting process I did question my choices a lot when I was getting feedback and talking to people. For the most part, I was worried I wasn’t a good enough writer to tell this story, or at least I wasn’t good enough yet on my journey.
More recently, I did a reading of the first chapter for our online SF convention Lavecon [which you can watch by clicking here].
Now, while some military sci-fi space opera novels are self-contained stories, others are parts of larger sagas. What is Fearless?
Definitely the first in a series. I think anyone who gets to the end of the book will notice that.
I’ve always written novels that have the opportunity for more after the main story is over. Part of that is a desire to find an audience for my work, I guess. As I’ve got older, I’ve found I have a preference for narratives that conclude, but don’t tie everything up. It seems more real to me. It is very rare that you get to put a full stop on life and close a chapter, or shut the book, unless we’re being morbid and pointing out the obvious.
So what can you tell us about this series?
I’m currently working on the sequel. Ellisa Shann’s story is definitely not over at the end of Fearless and there’s plenty of this fictional 2118 AD left to explore and discover. The working title is Powerless, and that’s definitely a theme for the characters, finding themselves in situations where they have to confront adversity and can’t see a way out of what they’ve found themselves caught up in. The stories are very much focusing on individuals in this larger 22nd century future for humanity, so that gives me an opportunity to explore the situations of different individuals whilst also continuing the story of Shann and her crew and advancing the macroplot of governments and corporations as they scheme and squabble over the resources available to them in our solar system.
I did a short reading of the first chapter draft of Powerless for BSFA Vector’s Reading series [which you can watch by clicking here].
There are definite inspirations for Powerless. I read Chris Brookmyre’s Places In The Darkness after being on a panel with him at Fantasycon in 2017 and loved it. Again, there are cinematic touchstones too. “Die Hard on a space station” is the current theme I’m trying to write to.
Earlier I asked if Fearless had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. If someone wanted to adapt this story, what form do you think it should take?
When Elite: Lave Revolution was turned into an Audio Drama by the brilliant Radio Theatre Workshop, for me, listening to it as an experience was like discovering a whole new story — not in that the audio producer had changed lots of stuff, but in that hearing it in the new medium was such a transformative experience. I was listening to actors deliver my dialogue and I couldn’t believe I’d written the lines. It was a great experience.
Finally, if someone enjoys Fearless, what military sci-fi space opera story of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that? Oh, and since you’re current Chair of the British Science Fiction Association, I’d like to limit your answers to writers who are not British.
Tricky question, particularly as British SF is a really strong genre at the moment!
I’m a big fan of John Scalzi, and in the last year I read and reviewed Arkady Martine’s brilliant A Memory Called Empire. I do believe it’s important that you try to expand your reading palette when you can. I also loved Ken Liu’s work. Ted Chiang’s writing was difficult for me to get into to start with, but it really taught me something about how every aspect of what you are writing can be used to portray the changes in a character. I also loved Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice for the way it made me feel strange and dislocated when the main character was deprived of their hive mind and if we’re stretching a little outside of the military SF bubble, a re-read of Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild also made a big impression on me.