Like someone stalking their ex, the aliens in Emily Jane’s humorous sci-fi novel On Earth As It Is On Television (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook) stop by long enough to be noticed, and then leave just as quickly. Though in the following email interview about it, Jane says it wasn’t influenced by an ex, but by a current.
To start, what is On Earth As It Is On Television about, and when and where does it take place?
The book is about humanity’s reaction to the irrefutable existence of intelligent alien life. Massive spaceships appear over Earth’s largest cities. Then, as quickly as they arrived, they vanish. The characters — well, all humans, really — are left to wonder why the aliens came, why they left, if they’ll come back, and what it all means.
The main characters all start in different cities and their experiences differ vastly. Heather, a bored, entitled teen, witnesses the ship over L.A. from her stepdad’s ocean view pool deck. She feels, at first, ambivalent; she’s seen this whole alien invasion narrative before on TV. But as the reality of alien life sets in, she feels increasingly alone and struggles to understand her place in both her family and in the universe.
Blaine lives with his wife and two kids in Ohio, hundreds of miles away from the nearest ship. But still, the ships’ brief presence has palpable and lasting effects. Blaine’s energetic wife turns manic. His kids set booby-traps and ponder which of their classmates are aliens in disguise. His co-worker stockpiles weapons for the coming invasion.
Oliver is in a psychiatric institution in Washington D.C. When the spacecraft appears over the capital, he awakens from a 20-year catatonic state. He grapples with the aliens’ fleeting presence while at the same time trying to untangle the mysteries of his own past…and the mystery of the unusual and insistent cat who adopts him.
Where did you get the idea for the plot of On Earth As It Is On Television?
My husband deserves inspiration credit for this one. He’s really into aliens. Our basement is his Star Wars cave. Aliens have been to Earth (obviously, right?). I remember him trying to show me video footage, some blurry U.F.O. splotch on his phone screen, and wondering why, despite his conviction, I felt so unconvinced. And I think it’s because we’ve been saturated with alien storylines. We’ve been watching aliens in movies and on TV our whole lives. Any purported U.F.O. sighting feels glaringly fictional. So that gave me the idea to write a story where aliens made themselves obvious and undeniable. Everything else in the story flowed from that initial idea.
Is there a reason why you set this in modern times as opposed to in the 1950s or 1970s? Or, for that matter, in the 2050s or 2070s?
Modern times felt like the natural setting. We didn’t have nearly the same catalog of alien TV shows and movies a few decades ago that we have now. And who knows, maybe by 2050 we’ll have made some space alien friends? I also think the world-building necessary for a book with a futuristic setting might have distracted from my story’s underlying themes.
It sounds like On Earth As It Is On Television is science fiction story, though not a hard sci-fi one. Is that how you see it?
Genre-wise, I’m not sure exactly how to label it. Maybe light sci-fi or curio fiction? I’ve also heard it described as crossover fiction. I’d like to believe it sits somewhere at the intersection between sci-fi and commercial or literary fiction. I love all types of science fiction, but as a writer I enjoy focusing on human relationships and experiences. And I think it’s more fun and relatable to imagine the arrival of space aliens from the perspective of a regular suburban dude with two kids than from the perspective of the president or some high-ranking military commander.
It also sounds like it might be a little funny. Or at least cheeky.
It is funny. But humor isn’t really something I think about consciously when I write. The humor seems to happen organically through the characters, because the characters themselves are silly, absurd humans. Well, some more so than others. Blaine, for example, is fairly average and strait-laced, but his children are ridiculous, which makes some of the interactions between them hysterical. And I think the humor works well for a story about the human response to alien life. We’re bound to respond in a myriad of ridiculous and funny ways. The humor also fits with the story’s fun and lighthearted tone.
So, who do you see as being the big influences on the humor in On Earth As It Is On Television?
My children. Especially the ferocious younger one, who inspired the two main kid characters in the book. Also, my brother Anthony, who is the funniest guy I’ve ever met, and my husband, who continually amuses and surprises me. There are also a couple of great cat-related Facebook groups that influenced the cat humor in the book.
On Earth As It Is On Television is your first novel, but I’d bet good money it’s not the first story you’ve written. Any there any writers or stories who had a big influence on Television but not anything else you’ve written?
There are plenty of other writers and stories that have impacted my writing in a general sense. For humor, I’d say [Douglas Adams’] Hitchhiker’s Guide and Catch-22 [by Joseph Heller] were both formative, though it’s been at least a decade since I read either.
But no, I can’t point to any story or writer who influenced Television specifically. I don’t think my brain really works like that. I’ve ingested a lot of books and other media, and it all gets blended up in my brain into a cumulative sort of potion.
How about non-literary influences; was On Earth As It Is On Television influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
TV shows and movies impacted On Earth more directly because of their impact on the characters in the book. Pre-alien arrival, the characters had seen The X-Files, Independence Day, Star Trek, War Of The Worlds, etc. I’ll also give a shout-out to Adventure Time, an absurd cartoon watched by the kids in the book (and a favorite of my own children) and, begrudgingly, to the video game Super Smash Bros.
Wait, why “begrudgingly”?
Like one of the characters in the book, Heather, at age 19 I had a boyfriend who adored Super Smash Bros. Our plans to hang out with friends invariably turned into video game melees. I could never get into the game. Okay, I sucked at it. Which made me hate it. I did have one friend at the time who also had no interest in Super Smash Bros., and now we’re married. Our kids, of course, both love the game.
And what about your dog Nymeria and your cat Scully? How did they influence On Earth As It Is On Television?
Nymeria, poor floof, had no influence on the book. She is beautiful though. Check out my website or Instagram if you want to see her picture. Scully is an old slonk with a fondness for the dishwasher and swingy chumbis (i.e., the fat sack on his belly). He used to have a dog friend named Mulder (rest in peace). His delightful presence, and the way that my kids relate to him, influenced the cat characters in On Earth. Subconsciously, I imagine my own cat feelings impacted the fate of the cats in my book. I wish I could cuddle Scully, but sadly, I can’t. I’m allergic.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about On Earth As It Is On Television?
It is so fun You will love it!!!
Seriously, it is an entertaining, rollicking read.
I suppose I should mention that the prologue is a tad dark (it’s the backstory to Oliver’s catatonia), but the tone of the book overall is very lighthearted. I also think it is…maybe…perhaps…unlike anything you’ve read before.
Finally, if someone enjoys On Earth As It Is On Television, what sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you suggest they check out next?
This question is so difficult for someone who is terrible at remembering the names of the books they read. But I’ll take this opportunity to recommend another upcoming debut novel, The Deep Sky by Yume Kitasei. If you enjoy character-driven sci-fi, you should check it out.