While science fiction is often set in the future or some other version of our world, these stories are often really about issues from our time, from our reality. Sure, the original Star Trek was set in space…the final frontier, but it still explored contemporary problems from our world, including racism and the cost of war. It’s a tradition being continued by writer Joe M McDermott with his new military sci-fi novel, The Fortress At The End Of Time (paperback, digital), a book, he explains below, came from something he saw his family going through.
First off, what is The Fortress At The End Of Time about?
I think, in some ways, it is about the discrepancy between the military stories I hear from my family members — all but me are retired military — and the stories I see in books and film. Much of the military experience, for most of the people in the military, is preparation for a war that, at least for them, never comes. And, even if it comes, most of the military supports the war effort, and very few actually fire weapons in the direction of the enemy. I wanted to write a military sci-fi novel that felt more true to the stories I hear around the dinner table with my people.
I also wanted to write about the psychology of being sold a dream, and being told that the failure of that dream is your fault. The purveyor of the dream is always blameless. It is always your fault that the system, or method, or product sold didn’t work for you. The student loan debt that you accrued to buy a better future, in fact, holds you back more than it lifts you up, most of the time. And, it is your fault for not being good enough, right? That’s what we’re told. That’s what we internalize. The impact that has on different people, who all realize the dream they bought is a lie, if they allow themselves to realize it, is a topic that I feel is important right now, in this political and social moment.
Where did the original idea for The Fortress At The End Of Time come from, what inspired it?
I reached out to Larry Nolan, once upon a time. He is a fantastic reviewer, multi-lingual, brilliant guy. I was not finding interesting books to read, and I asked for a recommendation. He suggested The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati, which I adored. It resonated with me, and the war stories I remembered hearing around the dinner table, most of which aren’t mine to tell, I’m afraid. On that same Amazon page, I saw another book that looked interesting with a similar but different theme that was a classic of French sci-fi, called The Opposing Shore by Julian Gracq. I adored that book as well. It’s beautiful and decadent and brilliant. I wanted to take that same idea, of the distant, depressing military outpost, at the far reach of the empire, where nothing exciting ever happens, and take it in to deep space. It was a fantastic vehicle to play with ideas I had been trying to communicate.
So basically, blame Larry Nolan.
Will do. So how different, if at all, is the final version of The Fortress At The End Of Time from your original concept?
I wrote the first draft out by hand, and I still have it kicking around the office, somewhere in a pile. I’m painting right now. It’s a mess. Basically, the first draft was fairly well-formed, because I had been stewing on the ideas a while, and had to work at the slow pace my hand allowed. When I typed it in to transcribe it, I did all the editing there.
The big thing in sci-fi novels these days is that books aren’t just one-off stories, they’re often the first part of a larger series. Is this true for The Fortress At The End Of Time?
We’ll see how well the book does. Sales dictate whether I shall take time to pursue this or not. I usually don’t let business decisions impact art, but if I’m working on a series, I want the team to stay together: same editor, art designer, cover artist, etc. I just don’t see how I could keep the team together unless Tor [the publisher of The Fortress At The End Of Time] sees value in it. Ergo, I don’t have any firm plans, but I’m open to it.
Though if I write any more in a series, it wouldn’t be about Ronaldo Aldo. I’d love to write more about Adebayo Anderson.
I know authors hate talking about their influences, but I am curious what writers and which of their novels do you see as being the biggest influences on The Fortress At The End Of Time specifically, both in terms of the story you’re telling and the way you’re telling it?
I never seriously considered writing science fiction, at all, just fantasy, until I encountered the amazing books and stories of Maureen McHugh. It was like a switch flipped in my head, where an author in the genre was actually doing the things that I often tried to do, in her particular way, with an intense focus on characters, that were such wonderful, wide-ranging, frustrating, and delightful characters, in settings painted with such an eye for literary realism. Her work is brilliant, and I think everyone should read it.
What about non-book influences, such as games, movies, TV shows, and comics. Were any of them a big influence on The Fortress At The End Of Time?
The only real non-book influence was probably still a book influence. I was working at a wonderful, little book store here in San Antonio that has since gone out of business, and if the store was very slow, the manager let me work on books while sitting on the register. It’s one of the reasons I wrote the first draft by hand. I miss that store. It was a wonderful place, with wonderful people. I actually ended up with the store cat when all was said and done. She’s resting beside the keyboard, now.
In poking around your website for research purposes, I noticed that you write poetry. How do you think poetry — both writing it and reading it — has influenced your non-poetic writing, and The Fortress At The End Of Time specifically?
I love poetry. I think there’s a lot of C.P Cavafy in Ronaldo’s voice, now that I think on it. “Waiting for Barbarians” is such a perfect poem to consider, besides the other two novels I mentioned, above. I often tell people poetry has never been more popular than it is right now, at this point in human history, because the lyrics of all the songs we hear around us are all lyric poems that populate our landscape, shape our dreams and expectations of ourselves and each other, define relationships, and mark the stages of our lives. Poetry is alive all around us, and a lot of the stuffy academic stuff I encounter, these days, pales in comparison to the energy and invention of rap and hip-hop, and the stark beauty of new folk revivalists, of electronic pop experimenters. Much of the best poetry, right now, is being made in bedrooms and backrooms, and it is carried out to the stage. There’s a reason Bob Dylan won a Nobel.
The other thing that I saw on your website that struck me was that you said of The Fortress At The End Of Time, “I was surprised that Justin [Landon, your editor] and Tor.com, saw great potential in this little novel….” Why were you surprised they were interested in it?
It was the first time in my life an editor at a major press reached out to me, unsolicited, to see if I had anything he might like. I write pretty non-commercial stuff, and I always try to push boundaries with what I do. I’d rather fall over the edge, artistically, than cower back from it. I was surprised that forces converged like that. It’s a rare moment in writing, and still feels unreal.
So, has there been any interest in turning The Fortress At The End Of Time into a movie or TV show?
I have no idea. You have closer ties to L.A. than I do.
Which do you think would work better, a movie of it or a TV show? Or, for that matter, a video game?
I never mind seeing work tumble into other forms. But at the end of the day, I wrote a book of words intended to be read or heard read. At the moment, I would be happy just to see an audio book get made, and no one’s knocking on my door for that. If anyone wants to make something else with it, I’d be happy to help it along as best I can, but once the story enters a new form of telling, it doesn’t belong to me, anymore, and would be the baby of whomever was foolhardy enough to attempt the transfer of narrative power. If they’re any good at what they do, it’ll probably work out fine, regardless of what form it takes. I don’t really know enough to say either way what might work better.
Well, that kind of makes my next question moot, but I’ll ask it anyway: If The Fortress At The End Of Time was being turned into a movie, TV show, or game, who would you want to play the main roles, and why them?
I can only think of one actress for Adebayo Anderson, and that’s the only one I’m really sure about. Uzo Aduba [Orange Is The New Black], I think, would be amazing as Sergeant Anderson. Adebayo needs a woman of Nigerian-American origin, who can carry a lot of physicality and charisma, without being a typical Hollywood beauty, so to speak. Which is a horrible thing to say about a beautiful woman.
It’s hard for me to cast the rest of them. I think of actors that aren’t working much anymore, or are too old to play the part. Though I would love to see, if it ever comes around to it, an actual transgender actress playing as Amanda. It’s such a waste that when the rare part comes along that celebrates a transgender actor or actress, Hollywood gives a prize to some fellow brave enough to put on a dress and lisp. It’s like blackface, isn’t it? It seems to be the same thing, to me.
Lastly, if someone enjoys The Fortress At The End Of Time, which of your other books would you suggest they read next and why?
Well, you can read anything by me that you like. I stand by all my books. Might I suggest checking out Maureen McHugh. My favorite is Mission Child, though the first book of hers that I read was Of Mothers And Other Monsters, and it set me on the path.
I also just read Jerusalem by Alan Moore, and I think that’s an excellent, amazing work of art. Maybe check that out.