For Frontier (paperback, Kindle), the fourth book in his loosely connected sci-fi series, writer Patrick Chiles is giving us the hero we all need: a bored guy who wishes his job was more exciting…until it is. In the following email interview, Chiles talks about what inspired and influenced this military sci-fi technothriller, and how it connects to his previous novels.
Let’s begin with a plot overview: What is Frontier about, and when and where is it set?
Frontier is set in the near future, in the same world as my other three novels. It’s not strictly a series but some recurring characters do pop in and out.
The main character is Marshall Hunter, the son of Ryan Hunter from Perigee and Farside. He’s a new Space Force officer assigned to their first crewed patrol ship, the U.S.S. Borman, which is commanded by Simon Poole from Farside and Perigee. Its mission is to protect American assets in cislunar space and rescue civilian spacefarers who find themselves in trouble, kind of like an orbiting Coast Guard cutter. To do all this, the Borman is nuclear powered so it can move about freely between Earth and Moon on short notice. This might all sound awesome to us, but Marshall is struggling with his own disappointment; he wants to fly, not push dead satellites around or rescue rich tourists in orbit. In his mind, he’s a pilot first and foremost.
The Borman is eventually dispatched out to interplanetary space to search for a pair of entrepreneurs who have gone missing while exploring a near-Earth asteroid. Of course, there’s more to the story. While this is going on, communications and imaging satellites start mysteriously going dark, and lunar mining shipments to Earth are disappearing in transit. When the rescuers end up stranded themselves, it becomes clear none of this is happening by accident.
Where did you get the idea for Frontier, and how, if at all, did that initial idea change as you wrote this story?
My writing starts with an intense desire to see futuristic things happening now. My imagination takes me to places I can’t reach yet, and the stories come from there. So I suppose it’s impatience with the world as is.
I wanted to write straight-up military sci fi in a near future setting, like the rest of my novels. Marshall was a child in Farside, which is set roughly 10 years in our future. Making him a main character adds another 20-ish years to the timeline, which allows me to play around with more advanced technology and opens up more storytelling possibilities.
I thought it would be interesting to extrapolate some of Earth’s current geopolitical trends into space, and that didn’t change much as the writing progressed. Bad-actor nations are doing bad things, and the good guys have to confront them. But first they have to connect the dots and figure out what the enemy is actually up to. The ending was dramatically different than what I’d planned, but it’s more fun that way. The characters and story take you where they take you, and it was exciting to write. I wanted to know what happened next!
You just said Frontier is a military sci-fi story, but it also sounds like it’s a sci-fi techno-thriller…
It absolutely is. Frontier is in the same spirit as an earthbound Tom Clancy novel, just with a different setting. I’ve always maintained that as spaceflight becomes more common, the kinds of stories we once thought of as science fiction will become technothrillers. I think we’re already seeing that with mainstream thriller writers like Patricia Cornwell moving into this area.
You mentioned your previous novels Perigee and Farside, and there’s also Frozen Orbit [which you can learn more about here]. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Frontier but not on those previous novels?
None that I’ve consciously thought about. Though I haven’t read all of them, Ben Bova’s Grand Tour books come to mind. And of course there’s The Expanse. I plan to build up Marshall’s character and follow him into the Solar System on different adventures. Some of them will involve military conflict where space is just one more area of operations. Frontier is setting up that chessboard.
How about non-literary influences; was Frontier influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
The idea initially came from a project called Inspiration Mars that unfortunately never got any traction (and by “traction” I mean money). A few years ago the original space tourist, Dennis Tito, was heavily promoting this idea to take advantage of an upcoming window to send two humans on a free-return flyby of Mars. I think he was a trajectory analyst for the Viking landers in the ’70s, so you could say he knew of what he spoke. The free-return opportunity comes along every eighteen years or so. In fact, if it launched this year, I believe it could have made flybys of both Mars and Venus. The whole trip would’ve taken about a year and half and would’ve been awesome.
There were some interesting studies supporting the project and they provided the catalyst for Frontier. At first I thought it would be just a survival story, but as I played out the scenarios it all seemed kind of plodding. Others are much better at that kind of thing [cough] Andy Weir [cough]. When I started thinking about different motivations for such a trip, the idea of a similar mission to prospect for minerals on near-Earth asteroids stuck with me and the geopolitical angles became much more interesting. There could be enough recoverable rare-Earth minerals (which is kind of a pun when you think about them coming from an asteroid) to make the first person to mine one a trillionaire. Who might see that as a threat and want to keep it from happening? This little expedition ends up setting off much bigger events.
And what influence did your lethargic dachshunds have on Frontier?
Probably delayed it by months. One of them is always in my lap or sitting close by when I’m writing. This can be dangerously nap-inducing.
Now, in the previous interview we did for Frozen Orbit, you said you were working on a sequel. Frontier is not that sequel, but, as you said, it is set in the same fictional universe. So is it a prequel, an unrelated story, the second installment of a massive series that will eventually come together like the Marvel movies…what?
You got me. Thanos is lurking in the background, waiting to snap his fingers.
There were a couple of characters from Farside and Perigee who I just wasn’t ready to say goodbye to yet. I really enjoyed working them into Frozen Orbit and Frontier, especially since it sets up Marshall to build on what they did. He’s setting off for different adventures than Jack Templeton in Frozen Orbit, but they’re in the same Solar System. I think we’ll eventually see them cross paths.
Does this mean people should read Frontier before Frozen Orbit? Or after? Or does it not matter?
They don’t have to be read in any particular order. That may change in the future, depending on how my sequel plans work out.
You also said in our previous interview that Frozen Orbit was being looked at by a “major studio.” Did anything ever come of that?
Other than a very positive review of the book, I’m afraid not. My contact there said not to worry, they only take maybe 1% of the novels they screen for development.
And has there been any interest in making a movie or TV show based on Frontier?
My studio contact will be getting a copy of Frontier soon, but I can’t gauge any interest they might have in it. I tend to write cinematically, so when things are really clicking it’s almost unconscious — I’m just describing the movie that’s playing out in my head at the moment. This one is definitely more action-oriented than my last book, which I hope rings their bell. I think a limited series would be great. It could give the story more room to play out.
If Frontier was going to be made into a movie, who would you want them to cast as the Marshall and the other main characters?
I don’t cast characters in my mind as much as I probably should. I’m a huge movie fan, and remember all kinds of trivial details, so you’d think that would come naturally. I was just re-watching a couple of Marvel movies over the weekend and really liked Tom Holland’s take on Spider-Man. He’d be good as Marshall. Young, full of wonder and excited as hell. He also knows when to be scared for the right reasons.
J.K. Simmons would make a great Simon Poole at his age in Frontier. A younger Simon, around the Farside timeframe, might be Mark Strong. I liked him a lot in the Kingsman movies.
Another character, Roberta McCall, is still a mystery to me. She’s a drone pilot and friend of Marshall’s, a gum-popping tomboy who was a lot of fun to write. I’ll leave her up to the readers because I can’t think of an actress to play her yet.
Finally, if someone enjoys Frontier, what sci-fi techno-thriller of someone else’s would you suggest people read next?
David Pedreira’s Gunpowder Moon may be the closest to what I was trying to do with Frontier. Daniel Suarez’s Delta-V was also right up my alley. Martin Shoemaker’s The Last Dance is more of a mystery than a technothriller, but it was excellent hard sci-fi. I also recently started reading Chuck Gannon’s Caine Reardon series, and am really enjoying it.