Exclusive Interview: “Rich Man’s Sky” Author Wil McCarthy
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos recently announced that he would stepping down as the company’s CEO to dedicate more time to his aerospace company Blue Origin. And he’s not the only rich guy who wants to be Captain Kirk. But what would happen if the final frontier of space was explored by a bunch of businessmen who’ve beaten NASA to the punch? Such is the premise of Wil McCarthy’s new sci-fi space opera thriller Rich Man’s Sky (hardcover, Kindle). In the following email interview, McCarthy discusses what influenced this story, and where it might be going, as well as the recent reissues of his Queendom Of Sol novels.
I always like to begin with an overview of the plot. So, what is Rich Man’s Sky about, and when and where does it take place?
Rich Man’s Sky takes place roughly 30 years in the future, and it’s about what happens when the colonization of space is under the control of a few high-net-worth individuals. This is much slicker than what we have now, because highly driven individuals are a lot more focused than governments, and better at getting certain kinds of things done, fast. However, this also means that the workers actually building the future are subject to the whims and egos of these trillionaires, who are not directly answerable to Earthly governments. So it’s an enthusiastic time, but with a creepy undercurrent running through it.
Both the plot and the setting are kaleidoscopic — pinging back and forth from Earth’s surface, to a space station full of women, to a monastery on the moon, to a fuel processing station at one of the Lagrange points, and other points between. But basically, you’ve got trillionaires doing things that make governments nervous, and the governments responding in predictably unsavory ways.
Where did you get the original idea for Rich Man’s Sky?
Heck, the idea is all around us right now. You’ve got SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and other big players in the private space business. Finance magazines are publishing straight-faced articles on whether asteroid mining startups are a good investment. Not everything that’s happening right now is going to succeed, but new players are popping up all the time. So yeah, you roll that out 30 years into the future, and you’ve got, literally, a “rich man’s sky” overhead.
It sounds like Rich Man’s Sky is a sci-fi space opera story. Is that how you’d describe it?
It’s got a bit of space opera, yes, but also a bit of spy thriller and political intrigue and drug-fueled road trip, and a lot of hard sci-fi. There’s power and money at stake — control over a whole future, really — and it’s the kind of thing people get killed over. Regardless, it’s a very character-driven story. As in, critical events hinge on the character of the people involved.
Rich Man’s Sky is not your first novel. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Rich Man’s Sky but not on anything else you’ve written?
Hmm. I would say there are no such influences.
What about movies, TV shows, or games? Was Rich Man’s Sky influenced by any of those? If so, what and in what ways?
I guess in some ways it resembles the sort of board game where you have different corporations competing for resources. Each group has its own strengths and weaknesses, right? Kind of like that, I suppose. But no, I can’t really think of anything that directly influenced the story, except the real world itself. Although it’s a hard science fiction novel set almost entirely in space, Rich Man’s Sky has a very right-now kind of feel to it.
Now, you’ve written some stand-alone novels as well as ones that are parts of such series as The Waisters and The Queendom Of Sol. Is Rich Man’s Sky part of a series as well?
Rich Man’s Sky is the first book in a series, though it is set in the same world as my novel Antediluvian and my novella The Last Biker Gang, though this is not necessarily evident, even to someone who’s read all three. The next two books will be called Poor Man’s Sky and Beggar’s Sky, respectively, and they are definitely about the future. And there might be more after that. The nice thing about the future is how open-ended it is — lives and stories may end, but the worlds keep spinning. I like that idea.
Speaking of your Queendom Of Sol books, Baen — who are publishing Rich Man’s Sky — have been reprinting Sol series, with 2000’s The Collapsium coming out last month, 2003’s The Wellstone out last August, 2004’s Lost In Transmission last December, and 2005’s To Crush The Moon, which will be out July 6th. For people who haven’t read any of those books, what is the Queendom Of Sol series about?
The Queendom Of Sol series starts about 600 years in our future, within our solar system, and sprawls out over the next several thousand years and a dozen nearby stars. It’s about “immorbid” people, who can be killed but who can’t grow old or sick. The nice thing about mortality is that you can create a bunch of problems and then simply die, and let future generations figure out what to do about it. When you’ve immorbid, you end up having to live in your own mess, while those “future generations” wait around indefinitely to inherit the world you’re still using. But there’s really cool superscience that serves as a kind of stand-in for magic, so in many ways the series reads like a book of fairy tales, or an epic fantasy. With quantum mechanics.
Honestly, The Collapsium was a book that I thought might very well end my career, because I crammed in all kinds of hard physics and refused to talk down to the reader about it. As it turned out, the book pretty much made my career, so you never know. I was passionate about it, and I think readers really pick up on that.
Are the versions of The Collapsium, The Wellstone, Lost In Transmission, and To Crush The Moon the same as the original editions, or did you change or add anything?
No, I don’t believe in changing things that have already been published. Except for typesetting and cover art, these four books are the same as the originals.
Cover art is a rare treat for authors, though, because it’s an opportunity to see the pictures you’ve created in someone else’s mind. The Collapsium has had something like eight different covers, all very different from one another, and there are a few I love and a couple I’m not crazy about, but they’re all interesting interpretations.
These books will also be coming out in audio format, which I’m quite excited about — a chance to hear someone else’s experience of the book. So there’s exciting new content in those ways, yes.
With all four of the Queendom Of Sol books soon to be available again, there may be people who decide to read them back-to-back. Do you think they should, or do you think they should take a break between them?
You know, with the benefit of age and hindsight, I can see that the last two books in the series are really much stronger than the first two. The Collapsium was groundbreaking but rather manic. If I’m actually trying to maximize people’s enjoyment, I would say they should read Lost In Transmission and To Crush The Moon first, and then circle back to The Collapsium and The Wellstone. I could be wrong about that, but since you’re asking, that’s my answer.
There are also two novellas and a novelette in that series: “The Policeman’s Daughter,” “Wyatt Earp 2.0,” and “Doc Holiday 2.0,” which explore different corners of the Queendom than the novels do. And three prequel short stories: “The Dream of Houses,” “The Dream Of Castles,” and “The Dream Of Nations.” Interested readers should track those down as well.
I think the question you’re really asking, though, is whether each book stands on its own, and I think the answer is yes. The books in a series can form a larger arc, but once you hit the back cover of a book, I feel you should have seen the beginning, middle, and end of a story that fits within that arc.
Going back to Rich Man’s Sky, earlier I asked if that novel had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. To flip it around, do you think Rich Man’s Sky could work as a movie, show, or game?
Huh. I dunno. If you were going to make a movie from it, it would have to be pretty long, so I guess I’ll say miniseries. But a board game could be interesting, sure. I love board games. It’s hard to say what would or wouldn’t work, though, because there’s so much creativity out there, and people are really good at adapting things they love into new formats. Think of a cat meme; it’s pretty simple, and you wouldn’t think there was much depth there to be explored. But that meme becomes a tiny window for interpreting the whole universe, so really it’s endless, until a new meme comes along and does the same thing. So maybe the answer is, if people love the story enough, or find it to be a good enough window, they could turn it into anything.
Finally, if someone enjoys Rich Man’s Sky, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next and why that one?
I think people should read Antediluvian. Until Rich Man’s Sky was finished, that was the best thing I’d ever written. Or The Last Biker Gang, which is the second-best thing I’ve written. But okay, in terms of what’s thematically similar, probably Bloom, which is a novel about people living in the moons of Jupiter, and launching a dangerous mission into an inner solar system infested with nanomachines. That was my first “big” book, and I think it’s held up quite well indeed. I think the best stories have an epic feel (like, these events are of historical importance and will be remembered for a thousand years), while also being tightly focused on the people involved, in a way that builds realism no matter what crazy stuff is happening. And yes, the best science fiction has a lot of crazy stuff, which of course is why we love it so much.
To read the first chapter of Wil McCarthy’s Rich Man’s Sky, please click here.
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