As someone who covers pop culture, it’s always frustrating when a writer, game designer, or director deny that their creation is even remotely similar to someone else’s, even when it so clearly is. Which is why it was so refreshing during the following email interview about his new military sci-fi novel In The Black (paperback, Kindle, audiobook) that writer Patrick S. Tomlinson freely admitted that this story — the first in a new series — wears its influences on its sleeves.
Photo Credit: © Jason Hillman
To start, what is In The Black about, and when and where is it set?
In The Black is a mil-spec sci-fi story with a healthy dash of corporate espionage for flavor. It’s set 400-ish years in a future where corporations have taken the lead in interstellar space exploration and development. The “transtellars” own entire extrasolar planets and run them like giant company towns with populations in the millions. Things are going well for their balance sheets until they push just a bit too deep into space and bump into an alien race expanding just as aggressively as we are and all hell breaks loose. In The Black is set in the uneasy peace seventy years after this unpleasantness, just as things are starting to heat up again.
Where did you get the idea for In The Black, and how, if at all, did that idea evolve as you wrote this novel?
In The Black is a fan letter to submarine warfare books and movies. It was heavily influenced by [Tom Clancy’s] The Hunt For Red October and the Star Trek original series episode “Balance Of Terror.” I’ve always thought submarines operating as they do in three dimensions on long, independent deployments in the dark and cold were the closest analogue to what real space military combat will eventually look like. As I developed the book, I decided I also wanted to run the clock forward on the privatization of space and explore what corporate instead of nation state ownership of space might look like, so new characters and subplots were brought into the outline fairly early on.
You said In The Black was a military sci-fi story, but it sounds like it’s also a space opera. Is it?
Not sure I’d quite call it space opera. Definitely hard military sci-fi.
It does not, actually. Gate Crashers and Starship Repo were written from the ground up as sci-fi comedies, while In The Black is a different animal entirely. It’s meant to be a serious take on several serious subjects. That’s not to say it’s devoid of humor. I’m firmly of the opinion that anything written without any humor, no matter how serious the stakes, is unrealistic. Humans always inject humor into even the most dire situations as an emotional coping mechanism. That and it turns out I can’t actually purge humor from my writing no matter how hard I try. But readers shouldn’t go into this series expecting the situational and slapstick comedy of Crashers or Repo.
Speaking of those books, are there any writers, or perhaps specific stories, that had a big influence on In The Black but not on those previous novels of yours?
As I said earlier, In The Black is heavily influenced by The Hunt For Red October and other cold war era submarine nonfiction books like W. Craig Reed’s Red November: Inside The Secret U.S.-Soviet Submarine War, which actually gets a shout out in the book.
How about non-literary influences, like movies, TV shows, or games?
The first kernel of the story came when I was rewatching “Balance Of Terror,” which pit Kirk against a Romulan commander every bit as savvy and devious as himself. It struck me that there was more connecting the two than the politics separating them. “In another place, I could have called you friend,” the commander said just before he went down with his ship. That “what if” stuck with me and informed the direction of the book.
Also, since the captain’s name is Susan Kamala, I have to ask: Who is she more influenced by: vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris or superhero Kamala “Ms. Marvel” Khan?
Actually, “Kamala” was randomly chosen. I wrote In The Black on spec a few years ago in between contracted projects because I was so excited about it. Kamala Harris wasn’t well known nationally yet. I was only peripherally aware of her. The choice was made after googling popular Indian names because I wanted a main character of Indian heritage. India is poised to become an economic superpower in the coming decades, and they’re pushing their own space program hard, so it only makes sense that they’re going to have a presence in a corporate-owned space future. The real namesake for the captain is Commander Susan Ivanova, hardass warrior woman and right hand of vengeance from Babylon 5.
In the previous interviews that we did for Gate Crashers [which you can read by clicking here] and Starship Repo [which you can read by clicking here], we discussed how they were part of a series called The Breach. Is In The Black part of that series as well?
It is not. The Breach is a purpose-built sci-fi comedy series. Black is set in an entirely new universe and much more somber tone.
So then is it the first book in a new series or a stand-alone story?
New series, baby! You can read Black by itself and walk away satisfied, but the overarching story I plan to tell will take quite a bit longer.
Cool. So, what can you tell us about this new series?
I’m halfway through writing the next book in the series, In The Red. No publication date has been set yet, but I’m hoping to stick to the usual one per year schedule. So far, I’m looking at between three and five books to close out the main plot. But there’s dozens of worlds to explore, and who knows what other threads will pop up in the coming installments. I’m really enjoying writing in the mil-spec sci-fi subgenre and would be only too glad to keep it going as long as there’s demand.
Earlier I asked if In The Black had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But has there been any interest yet in adapting In The Black into a movie, show, or game?
Not yet, but a book usually has to be out for a little while before there’s any nibbles on the adaptation front.
If it was going to happen, do you have a preference as to what form it takes?
I’m a big movie buff, but the experience of writing the screenplay adaptation of my debut novel, The Ark, was an eye-opening experience when it came to the difficulty of cramming an entire book into 2 hours of screen time. In The Black is pretty dense, and with three converging POV characters and plot threads, there’s not much fat to cut and still be able to tell the tale. I’d love to see it adapted into a 6-8-episode limited series for Netflix, Amazon, or one of the other streaming services.
And do you have any thoughts on casting?
OMG, give [The Expanse‘s] Shohreh Aghdashloo the Captain’s chair. She has the right heritage, she’s the right age, and she definitely has the right attitude to play Susan. That would be my dream casting.
Finally, if someone enjoys In The Black, what military sci-fi space opera novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that?
Well, I think everyone’s reading The Expanse series by now, so we’ll leave that be. My other big one right now is Marko Kloos and his Frontlines series. It’s an excellent blend of space battles, ground pounders, and kaiju. Absolutely top shelf mil-spec written by a former member of the German special forces, so he knows his stuff.