Exclusive Interview: “Red Noise” Author John P. Murphy
While real life would be so much better without jerks, the same can’t be said for fiction. Take the new pulpy sci-fi novel Red Noise (paperback, Kindle), which kicks off when jerks, well, act like jerks. What’s interesting is that, in the following email interview, Red Noise author John P. Murphy not only discusses what inspired and influenced this story, but also admits how it was almost derailed by some, well, furry jerks.
To begin, what is Red Noise about, and when and where is it set?
Red Noise tells the story of an asteroid miner who comes to sell off her ore haul at a backwater space station. The corrupt jerks who run the place rip her off and leave her stuck there to deal with the crooked cops and the two rival gangs that have driven everyone else off. She takes a good look at the situation and decides: they’ve got to go. Fireworks ensue.
(Don’t worry, things don’t get too out of hand. Okay, sure, someone throws a grenade in the galleria, but these things happen. Oh, and there’s the… Hmm. Look, it’ll be fine. It’s not like these space stations are built by the lowest bidder, right?)
Oh…kay. So, what inspired this story, and how did it evolve as you wrote it?
About twenty years ago I wrote a paper on a Japanese movie named Yojimbo, about how it borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s noir novel Red Harvest, and was remade several times in turn, most famously by Clint Eastwood in Fistful Of Dollars. I always wanted to write something along those lines, and many years later I wrote it as a novella — about 25,000 words — but I wasn’t happy with it. The basic pieces were there, but it was still kind of unsatisfying. It was only when I began to think through other important viewpoints than the Miner’s, and realized that from their perspective this story is deeply problematic, that the novel really began to unfold. I started asking questions like, “How are the gangs keeping themselves financially afloat?” and “How are they actually eating?” and “Who runs the machinery?” that turned out to have interesting answers that led to more complications.
Red Noise sounds like it’s a pulpy sci-fi space opera. Is that how you’d describe it?
That’s as good a description as any. In my head it’s more of a samurai flick or a Western, with the occasional spacewalk, cleaning robot, or nuclear weapon, but they all kinda come from the same place, really.
Now, Red Noise is your second published work after your 2016 novella, The Liar. Are there any writers or specific stories that had a big influence on Red Noise but not on The Liar?
I was on a real noir kick for a while in my reading, with lots of Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I went back and reread David Morell’s novel First Blood, which had a big effect on my thinking about the Miner. Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries came out at the perfect point for me, too, when I was revising and needed a fresh perspective. That and Ken Liu’s novella The Regular [from his collection The Paper Menagerie And Other Stories] got me thinking about cybernetic enhancements in a useful way.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or video games; was Red Noise influenced by any of them?
Oh yes. I’ve already talked about Yojimbo and Fistful Of Dollars, of course, but Pale Rider (another Clint Eastwood movie) had some influence on me. Firefly and Deep Space 9 had their impact, too — the galleria in particular probably owes a lot to DS9’s promenade. There’s a lot of anime aesthetic in this, particularly Cowboy Bebop, but even Planetes.
In terms of video games, the Fallout and Borderlands series were an influence especially on the gangs. If Disco Elysium had come out a year or two earlier, it would have had a big influence, I expect.
Speaking of influences, your bio says you have a PhD in Engineering. So I have to ask, how did the “two ridiculously fluffy cats” that are also mentioned in your bio influence Red Noise?
Purely negative. The fact that I finished at all is due solely to my being, like, twice their size and occasionally able to fight them off.
Also, one of the characters is named Bex after our cat Becky.
Seriously, though, how did your PhD in Engineering influence Red Noise? And does it explain why the story is called Red Noise as opposed to White Noise or Green Noise or Chartreuse Noise With Hints Of Amber?
My degree is specifically in multi-robot coordination and control, which probably came out most directly in the little fleet of robots in Sparks’ mechanics bay. Seriously, I spent way too much time thinking about how those little bots would work, and pretty much none of that shows up on the page, because it would be deadly boring.
More generally, it influenced me by distracting me from the more fun shoot-’em-up side with pesky questions like, “yeah, but how would that work?” and in simply knowing that there are answers to many of these questions, and a rough idea how to find them out. It probably also set the bounds of what I would consider: it never really occurred to me to include things like faster than light travel or teleportation, though I did break down and include artificial gravity.
As for the title, I first came upon the term “red noise” in signals theory — it’s another word for Brownian noise, similar to white noise, but heavy on the longer wavelengths. If you play it aloud it sounds like a heavy rain. It’s rather soothing, actually, good for falling asleep. But visually, it’s a bit like a fine red mist, or like seeing red.
Were there any times when you had to make a choice between doing what was factual and what worked best for the story?
Artificial gravity. I cannot justify it on any basis other than “the story doesn’t work without it.” So after some hand-wringing, I just accepted it, thought through some of the implications at a shallow level, and carried on. Other than that, though, not so much.
Here’s a secret about PhDs: we’re really, really good at rationalizing and finding border cases. Ask an old professor a straightforward question and the answer is pretty much always “it depends.” It’s frustrating when you’re on the asking side, but I’m basically trained in finding wiggle room.
I’m actually a little more worried about things that are factual but might not feel realistic. For example, there’s a scene where a character is shielded from a nearby nuclear blast by not a lot of rock. I did my research: that character really will be fine. But did I convince the reader? Time will tell.
Now, as you know, pulpy sci-fi space operas are sometimes self-contained stories and sometimes they’re just one part of a larger saga. What is Red Noise?
I think of it as a stand-alone novel. It’s the story of a particular person confronted with injustice she can’t walk away from, and for that kind of person, trouble just inherently isn’t going to be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. But thematically, Red Noise is about anger: righteous anger, bitter anger, resentment, rage. Anger has no sequel, only consequences. Maybe there’s something in those consequences, I don’t know yet.
We talked earlier about the movies, TV shows, and video games that influenced Red Noise. But has there been any interesting in making Red Noise into a movie, show, or game?
Not that I’m aware of. I think that any of those could work, depending on how loosely it’s adapted. Movies based on novels tend to need to compress too much — but I already know that the main plot can be done as a novella, if they’re willing to lose subplots like Mr. Shine or Geronimo Rommel. Or maybe a short mini-series would work. I used a five-act structure when I wrote it, so I think it could be divided into five episodes without too much trouble.
As for a game… I think it could work, but it would depend a lot on the format. I can’t see it working as a first-person shooter, but as an RPG in the style of Planetscape: Torment or Disco Elysium, with a chance for the player to decide for themselves what kind of person this mystery of an asteroid miner is to them, I think it could be a lot of fun.
If Red Noise was to be adapted into a movie or TV show, who would you like to see them cast as the main characters?
I think it should be adapted, in whatever form, by someone with a very large budget who is very kindly disposed to science fiction writers.
If we’re talking film, I’ve probably spent too much time daydreaming about casting, though I’m hardly the first writer to commit that sin. I think Patrick Stewart [Star Trek: Picard] would be a phenomenal John Feeney, and it would be so much fun to see him as a villain. I think [Solo: A Star Wars Story‘s] Donald Glover would make a great Screwball — his comedy skills would be important to pulling that off, especially the more serious parts. I remember watching Alita: Battle Angel and thinking that Jennifer Connelly and Rosa Salazar would play off each other wonderfully as Angelica and Mary. As for the Miner herself… It may sound odd, but I have no strong opinions on who could best play her. It would depend a lot on the director, I think, and which of the various themes in the book they wanted to focus on.
Finally, if someone enjoys Red Noise what similarly pulpy sci-fi space opera novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that one?
Oh, I get to give homework? Excellent.
Go forth and read Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries. Also, Marko Kloos’ Frontline series. In both cases, show up for the action and snark, but stay for the serious and thoughtful worldbuilding and compelling characters.