While space is mysterious, it’s not often the setting for mystery novels. But that’s exactly where writer J.T. Nicholas has set Re-Coil (paperback, Kindle), a cyberpunk sci-fi space opera mystery. In the following email interview, Nicholas discusses what inspired and influenced this whodunnit, and whether there will be more mysteries in space anytime soon.
To begin, what is Re-Coil about, and what kind of world is it set in?
Re-Coil is set in a futuristic version of our own world, where humanity has colonized the solar system, though the speed of light limitation has made expansion beyond that impossible. Through cloning and other technological advances, humanity has effectively conquered death, backing up the human consciousness and guaranteeing as a human right that, should you shuffle off the mortal coil, you will be reborn (or re-coiled as it were) into a new body. Of course, there are as few guarantees in death as there are in life, so you never quite know what kind of coil in which you might find yourself. One thing remains true, though: more money means more options.
The heart of the story is a whodunnit, as Carter and Shay — the main characters — find themselves waking up in new coils after their salvage ship was lost with all hands. They have holes in their memories as they’d been too far into deep space to back up their consciousnesses. Worse, two of their crew members are missing, and one of them seems to have been wiped from every public or private record, as if he no longer existed. The pair quickly learn that it was no accident that killed them — a fact made clear when assassins keep showing up to finish the job. As they try to unravel what happened to them, their ship, and their crew, they battle corporate hit squads and advanced A.I.s and, ultimately, stumble upon the first real existential threat to humanity in centuries. They’re forced to partner with erstwhile enemies to try and save not just themselves, but the vast Archives that hold the memory of human consciousness.
Where did you get the idea for Re-Coil and how did that idea change as you wrote this story?
I sat down to write a sci-fi horror novel with vague notions of Event Horizon or Alien floating around in my head. But writing is a funny thing, and the book didn’t really go that direction at all. The more I wrote, the more it kept shifting to more of a mystery in the vein of some of my favorite authors rather than horror. I’m a big fan of sci-fi mysteries (Phillip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Alistair Reynolds, etc…) so, I just leaned into it.
Another big change was the role that the concept of self-identity played in the story. It was always a part of it (the idea that you might find yourself stuffed into a new body completely unlike your old one and what that might do to you mentally), but as the political and social landscape of our word changed during the writing process, it became a little more of a central theme.
It sounds like Re-Coil is a cyberpunk sci-fi space opera mystery. Is that how you’d describe it?
Definitely cyberpunk. I’m always a little blurry on the lines between space opera and hard sci-fi. The classic demarcation line is the Star Wars / Star Trek divide, but I’d say Re-Coil is somewhere between the two. I make more effort to define the science than Star Wars does, but hard science isn’t really central to the story, either. So, sure, space opera probably fits.
Prior to Re-Coil you wrote the three novels of your New Lyons Sequence: SINthetic, SINdicate, and SINdrome. Are there any writers, or specific stories, who you think had a big impact on Re-Coil but not on The New Lyons Sequence novels or anything else you’ve written?
That’s a tough one. If I listed out my favorite sci-fi authors, I could certainly group them and say, “Re-Coil is more like these and New Lyons more like these,” but I wasn’t really thinking of it that way when I was writing them. The New Lyons Sequence to me was about humanity’s need to break people into groups and then pick one that was other, less than. And, of course, having the main characters try to rise above that. Re-Coil is more about how technology changes us at the individual and societal level and the various goods and bads that come along with that. From a pure trappings perspective, Re-Coil certainly pays homage to Richard K. Morgan, Alastair Reynolds, and L.E. Modesitt, Jr., while The New Lyons Sequence was a little more influenced by Phillip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov. But there are so many other amazing authors that inspired me to write in general that it’s hard to say that one influenced me more than another for any given story.
What about non-literary influences, such as movies, TV shows, and video games? Did any of those have a big influence on either what you wrote in Re-Coil or how you wrote it?
All of the above are huge influences on me in general. Good stories come from all forms of media. I think there’s sometimes an idea that TV and movies and games are all “junk food” but I don’t buy it. Some of the most moving and thought-provoking stories have come from those mediums. Video games, in particular, have told some absolutely amazing stories over the past couple of decades, becoming so much more immersive than the years before that. More than that, they provide great visuals to help inspire. I can’t picture a space station without seeing Knights Of The Old Republic or Mass Effect, for example.
I’ve already mentioned Alien and Event Horizon, both of which made huge impressions on me (big enough that they were still in my mind 20+ years later when I started writing Re-Coil). I’m also a huge fan of anime, and certainly things like Appleseed, Ghost In The Shell, and Akira have influenced my love for cyberpunk.
Speaking of influences, the press materials for Re-Coil say it’s like “The Expanse meets Altered Carbon.” Obviously you don’t totally disagree with this, otherwise it wouldn’t be part of your press materials, but do you think this is more like the book versions of The Expanse and Altered Carbon or the TV shows?
I think it’s like them at the macro level, if that makes sense. The…high concept level. I think that level is preserved in both the books and series.
In Altered Carbon, you have the idea of immortality through technology. Morgan wasn’t the first to explore this idea (though I loved the books and Netflix series both, and think they’re amazingly executed) and I certainly won’t be the last. But given that I have immortality through cloning and mental back up, that comparison is inevitable. There are also thematic similarities — the kind that you’d find with any cyberpunk / dystopic stories. Corporate greed, corruption of power, and so forth. I think we go in different directions from there, though.
With respect to The Expanse, I think the main similarity here is the idea of colonization as a much dirtier and almost…divisive…thing. You have new governments or polities forming within the solar system as we expand; you have new cultures developing and new prejudices and stereotypes following on their heels. One thing sci-fi does (and The Expanse novels do this quite well) is take our world and project it on a much bigger screen to highlight the problems and absurdities.
Both also have a detective story at their core, a sci-fi tradition hearkening back to Isaac Asimov and probably earlier. At the end of the day, though, these kinds of comparisons are really just marketing tools to say, “Hey, if you liked these books, we think you might like this one, too!”
Now, as I mentioned earlier, you previously wrote a three-book series called The New Lyons Sequence. Is Re-Coil also part of a series?
The answer to this is a resounding, “Maybe.”
I really like the universe of Re-Coil and would love to write more in it. But there are some real-world considerations that come into play. To whit — will anyone buy it? I’m not currently under contract for another book in the Re-Coil universe (I do have another book under contract with Titan, but it’s a stand-alone in a different universe, and much too early to release any details). If Re-Coil does well, I will certainly pitch another book in that universe…I even have a fully fleshed-out synopsis ready to go. But I also like to eat and pay my bills, so it all depends on the sales numbers.
If I do manage to sell a sequel in that universe, I’d like to have a sort of “case files” approach, the idea of each individual book being a stand-alone novel, but advancing the broader things happening in the setting over time. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files is a great example of this. I wouldn’t have any set number of books in mind.
Earlier I asked if Re-Coil had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. But has there been any interest in adapting Re-Coil into a movie, show, or game?
There’s been some mild interest. But the movie / TV industries aren’t big risk takers. So, there won’t be any movement on anything like that until Re-Coil is released and gets some sales numbers. I’d say the interest we have at the moment could be categorized as, “Let us know if does well, then we can talk.”
If it does well, and you do talk, do you have a preference as to what form an adaptation would take?
In my dream world, I’d love for Re-Coil to be serialized into a Netflix / Amazon / Hulu kind of series, built more on the British model where you have maybe six episodes, rather that the US model of 13-24ish episodes. I think that model is the best avenue for taking a book and turning into something movie-ish. A feature film is too short for the nuances, and 24 hours of run time ends up having a lot of filler.
If Re-Coil was being made into a TV show, who would you want them to cast as Carter and the other main characters?
Carter is a sort of blue-collar everyman, the kind of person who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty. I could totally see Vin Diesel [The Fate Of The Furious] or Jason Statham [The Meg] in that role. For some reason, John Boyega [Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker] also comes to mind, though I don’t know why.
For Shay, there would need to be a double casting — her male coil, and her self-image. For the male coil, definitely a Hemsworth of some kind. For her female, someone tiny, but powerful. Brenda Song [Station 19] or Lana Condor [X-Men: Apocalypse] come to mind.
I’m also a big gamer and would love to see games made of anything I did. I think you could take something like the Mass Effect engine and build a cool Re-Coil game on it. And I think it would be super simple to port the setting over to a tabletop RPG as well. Hell, they’ve done that with both The Expanse and Altered Carbon, and Eclipse Phase could be used to run a Re-Coil style game with very minor changes.
Finally, if someone enjoys Re-Coil, what cyberpunk sci-fi space opera of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that one?
An oldy, but a goodie: The Parafaith War by L.E. Modesitt Jr. It leans more heavily towards the space opera rather than the cyberpunk (though there are elements of cyberpunk), and tells the story of an interstellar war being fought between two peoples, one religious fundamentalist hell-bent on expansion at all costs and the other concerned solely with maintaining the ecological balance of their colonies and undoing damage done by previous generations. I think Modesitt does an amazing job of humanizing both sides of the conflict and there are echoes of issues that are still with us today (the book was originally released in 1996).