You’d probably expect that military veteran turned science fiction author would write military sci-fi. But in the following email interview with retired army officer turned writer Michael Mammay, he points out that while his new novel Planetside (paperback, Kindle) does have elements of military science fiction, it’s actually more a sci-fi mystery.
To begin, what is Planetside about?
It’s a missing person story where an aging military officer gets sent to the far side of the galaxy to investigate the disappearance of a politician’s son in the war zone. Colonel Carl Butler arrives, only to find that evidence is missing and key witnesses have disappeared, and that there are people who are supposed to be on his side who are hiding things. Lieutenant Mallot, the missing person, never reached the hospital on Cappa Base. To complete his mission, Butler has to go down to the planet — into the war zone — to try to uncover what really happened.
Where did you get the idea for Planetside, and how different is the finished novel from that original idea?
It really started out as just an idea for an inciting event and a setting. I had this thought about loyalty and duty, and what if someone who you would do anything for asked you to do something you didn’t want to do. And that became the inciting event. The setting of Cappa Base I built as a fictional version of Kandahar Air Base in Afghanistan. I was also reading Gone Girl, and it made me want to write in a really voicey first person. Those three things are what I started the book with, and they stayed true. The story itself developed as I wrote. I was probably six weeks in before I figured out how the third act played out.
Planetside has been called a military sci-fi novel. Is that how you see it, or do you think there’s another subgenre of science fiction, or maybe a combination of them, that describe this novel better?
I don’t think it’s a pure military sci-fi. Probably more of a sci-fi thriller or sci-fi mystery, but set in a military sci-fi world. The story isn’t about the war, but the war is ever-present in the story. I’m a big military sci-fi fan, and a former soldier, so there are certainly a lot of military sci-fi elements. Tanya Huff said “Not just for military SF fans — although military SF fans will love it…” and I think that kind of sums it up.
As you mentioned, Planetside involves an investigation. Are there any mystery writers who had a big influence on this story?
Gillian Flynn was a big influence, though I’m not sure we’d classify her as a mystery writer. Other than that, I’d say mysteries in general influenced me, especially on the noir side of the genre. A couple mystery writers who weren’t an influence, but that I really enjoy lately, are Kristen Lepionka and Kellye Garrett.
Aside from the mystery people you just mentioned, what other authors, or specific stories, had an impact on Planetside but are not ones you’d consider a big influence on other things you’ve written?
That’s a really tough question. I’m not sure I had any influences specific to Planetside, other than what I’ve mentioned, but I read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, and have a lot of authors who have influenced my work in general.
I think one who probably had a subconscious impact on Planetside is Nelson Demille. I wouldn’t have pointed to that as I was writing, but I think you can see some of the influence in the finished product, especially from something of his like The General’s Daughter.
How about movies, TV shows, or video games? Did any of them have a big influence on Planetside? Like, for instance, the online sci-fi video game PlanetSide?
You know, I didn’t know that game existed until after I’d sent my book off to beta readers and one of them told me about it, at which point I wondered if I’d even be allowed to keep the title. I’m not a big gamer, but when I do play games I tend to go for more fantasy-based things. RPGs, mostly.
I’ve also had a couple readers compare Planetside to NCIS, but I haven’t actually watched that show.
And this is my last question about influences. You’re a retired army officer who served in Desert Storm, Iraq, and Afghanistan. You’re also a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and have a master’s degree in military history. How, if at all, did your military service and studies influence aspects of this novel?
It had a huge impact. Planetside, as a story, is pretty far-fetched. I mean, it’s set on a different planet, and there are aliens, so clearly it’s not real. But the soldiers — the way they act and interact — that’s where I think people will see my experience come through. They aren’t based on real people, but most people in the military will recognize them anyway.
I also tried to take the reader as close as I could to what being in combat feels like. I don’t think anyone can totally do that, but I wanted to give a feel for the chaos of it, while still trying to make it understandable.
Were there any instances when you had to choose between being accurate and telling a good story?
That’s one of the great things about writing science fiction. I can make up a bunch of stuff and only put the accuracy into places where I want it. It’s a reason why I don’t want to write straight up military fiction. I always want the leeway to add in things that aren’t real. What I tried to do with Planetside is take realistic soldiers and put them in an unreal situation.
Do you think — and I’m being serious here…mostly — that Planetside could be instructive for the men and women who will one day serve as part of our Space Force?
I’m going to give a really serious answer here: We’ve had a Space Force for a long time. Space Command was a real thing, though it got folded into US Strategic Command a while back. So there are people who are absolutely already doing those jobs, and have been doing them for decades. They come from all services, though the air-force has a lot of the purview. I’ve worked with them in the past. So the idea that this is some sort of new idea is pretty ludicrous.
To specifically answer your question, uh…no, Planetside would not be instructive for that at all. Not unless we nail down interstellar travel and make contact with aliens.
As you know, a lot of sci-fi novels are not self-contained stories, but are instead parts of larger sagas. Is that the case with Planetside, is it the first book in a series, or is it a stand-alone novel?
Planetside was written as a self-contained novel. With that said, there’s a kind-of-sequel to it coming, which will release in 2019. It’s set in the same world with the same main character, about two or three years after the events of Planetside. Rather than a sequel, I’d kind of call it “season 2.” It’s set in different places and has a completely different feel to it, along with a lot of new characters. And while I think it would help you get a lot of the context if you read Planetside first, it’s intended to also stand alone.
Why did I write the sequel? Because the publisher asked for it, and they write the checks.
Seriously, though, I think that people are going to really respond to Carl Butler, the main character, and I think he’s got other stories to tell. Right now, it’s two books, and book two definitely ends the series. With that said, we live in a world of supply and demand. If there’s a demand for more books about Carl Butler, I think the publisher would probably want to supply them. But again, book two — which is currently untitled — has its own beginning, middle, and definite end.
Earlier I asked about whether any movies, TV shows, or video games had inspired Planetside. But has there any interesting in adapting this series into a movie, show, or game?
I think Planetsidewould work well as a movie. It’s got a lot of the elements that work on the screen: The mystery, the suspense, the action, and a character that people seem to want to follow. Will it happen? I have no idea how that side of the business works. I’m lucky to work with a wonderful agent, Lisa Rodgers, who takes care of that kind of thing so that I can write.
If Planetsideis adapted into a movie, who would you like them to cast in the main roles?
It would need to be an older actor, since Butler is nearing retirement. Dream casting? Denzel Washington [The Equalizer], just because I think he’s amazing in everything he’s been in. But I think there are a lot of actors who could do Carl Butler justice.I am definitely not the right person to cast a movie.
Finally, if someone’s enjoyed Planetside, what military sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that?
I usually preface things like this with “Are you sure you’re ready for this conversation? Because you’re going to want to sit down…we’ll be here a while.”
First, there are the classics: The Forever War, Starship Troopers, Old Man’s War. Fair warning, the first two of those were written in a different era, and definitely have some things in them that are problematic. Still great books.
For newer stuff, I really love Jay Posey’s Outriders — that guy just gets how soldiers work — and I recently enjoyed The Bastard Legion by Gavin Smith, which plays with a lot of VR and cyber stuff that I think is absent in a lot of military sci-fi but would be a real part of any future combat. I love Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series, and he’s got an older main character, which is similar to what I’ve got in Planetside. I’m just about to start The Accidental War by Walter Jon Williams, an author I haven’t read, but one who comes highly recommended by someone I trust.