Some people write sci-fi so they can create a universe they’d like to visit, others a universe they’d like to avoid. In her new sci-fi murder mystery novel The Man In The Tree (hardcover, digital), writer Sage Walker wrote about one that’s both. Though in talking to her about it, she explained why that is, and why neither are like Quincy…In Space.
I always like to start with the basics. So, basically, what is The Man In The Tree about?
I want to get out there, and I’ve given up waiting on faster than light travel, though I hear fusion power will be here in less than a decade. Do I need to put a glyph of irony on that statement? So I built a generation ship out of a hollow asteroid, a lottery, and dire necessity. A murder mystery and a nine-day deadline for solving it kept me from going on, and on, and…
Gotcha. So where did you get the idea for The Man In The Tree, and how different is the finished novel from that initial idea?
A future history always has an origin story, even if it’s not written yet by the time book five or six rolls around. Far future novels need a past, preferably a half-remembered past that becomes mythical. The people in The Man In The Tree sometimes refer to themselves as Founding Fathers and I had fun having them wonder which of their random acts of cruelty or kindness would turn into proverbial cherry trees. The ending surprised me. It changed up as I learned more about how the world had to work if it was going to keep on working.
There’s been numerous stories about human colonization space ships that run into trouble, such as that crappy Passengers movie. Aside from not being about a creepy dude and the snarky gal he’s in love with, how else is The Man In The Tree different from other stories that have mined similar territory?
Poul Anderson, Gene Wolfe, Fritz Leiber, even Frank Herbert, and now Stan Robinson — the list of generation ship writers is long and honorable. On the mechanics of how the world works, I chose to limit myself to the possible, wherever possible. I tried to leave some space for people to sort out how they would change things if they bought a ticket for the trip. You got me on whether that’s different.
In researching you for this interview, I saw that you used to work as an ER doctor. Why did you decide to make The Man In The Tree about someone who works security instead of a space doctor who solves crime? Y’know, kind of like Quincy…In Space?
Oh, there are several medical docs on Kybele [the spaceship], and more PhDs than you ever want to deal with in any committee meeting you can imagine. I’m happier looking at them from outside these days.
Now, The Man In The Tree is a sci-fi novel. But it also has elements of pulpy crime novels or mysteries. What writers of pulpy crime novels or mysteries do you think had the biggest influence on those aspects of The Man In The Tree?
I read some of the classics to get the conventions straight. I read Stieg Larsson when that study of a damaged woman high on the spectrum came by, and some Jo Nesbø. You know, Nesbø, the guy who seems to think there are more serial killers in Scandinavia than there are Scandinavians. I went with a single p.o.v. character for the whole story, because that’s harder to do but it’s the only way to really play fair.
What about other kinds of fiction? Are there any other writers, or specific novels, that you feel had a big impact on The Man In The Tree, both in terms of what you wrote and how you wrote it?
You’re asking who my rock stars are, I think. A lot of sci-fi writers punch my “sensawonder” buttons, but when I’m actually writing I’m more worried about the sentence I just wrote than I am about who might have influenced it.
Last influence question, I swear: Are there any movies, TV shows, or video games that you feel had an influence on The Man In The Tree?
Uh-oh. I’m going to have to admit that I avoid both big and small screens whenever I can. I avoid black boxes that make things blow up at the twitch of a finger. They are so immersive I’m afraid I might get lost in there. We could discuss how many novels and novelists’ worlds became part of the conscious or unconscious cultural milieu that made a film like Avatar possible. That’s always a fun game, though I play it with bemusement rather than fury. Homage is homage, although homage with royalties would be a better deal.
Now, one of the big things in sci-fi books these days is for books to not be stand-alone novels, but to instead be part of a larger saga. Is The Man In The Tree a stand-alone novel or the first book in a series?
Honest, it’s a stand-alone. For now.
Earlier I asked about the movies, TV shows, and video games that may have been an influence on The Man In The Tree. But has there been any interest in making a movie, show, or game out of The Man In The Tree?
I hear there’s a nibble about media rights, but don’t tell anybody, okay? Current wisdom says an author is the worst person to make decisions about media platforms for a book. I won’t argue that, but I think it’s safe to note that you could do this book as a feature film or limited series with remarkably little CGI. Most of the story takes place in interior sets with recognizable walls and floors and so on. I would love to see the CGI that could be done when Kybele plows through the rings of Saturn to harvest ice. I would love to see the hollow core of the asteroid, with its patterned shadows, towers that support the sun, fields and rivers and canyons high up the curve of the world. Oh, would I love that.
If The Man In The Tree was to be adapted into a movie or short TV series, who would you like to see them cast in the main roles? Assuming, of course, that Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt are unavailable.
After I had finished the book, I found Elena’s image in the work of Aaron Paquette, a Canadian Cree artist [whose work you can see here]. Look for the goddess with two ravens [which you can see here].
However, for this interview, I consulted a panel of three experts — I pay them in Jaffa tortes — about casting choices, and they suggested Alexander Skarsgård [True Blood], Charlie Hunnam [Sons Of Anarchy], o Nikolaj Coster-Waldau [Game Of Thrones] for Helt, and Sarah Shahi [Person Of Interest], Olivia Wilde [Alpha Dog], or Emily Blunt [Edge Of Tomorrow] for Elena.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Man In The Tree, what would you suggest they read next and why that?
Not next, but again, Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. Because wonderful.