With the release of his new time travel sci-fi thriller novel Scorpion (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), writer Christian Cantrell completes a journey he actually began eleven years and far fewer words ago. In the following email interview, Cantrell discusses what inspired and influenced this story, which will also soon be coming to a theater near you.
Photo Credit: © Ellie Cantrell
As I understand it, Scorpion is an expanded version of your short story “The Epoch Index.”
What was that story about, and when and where does it take place?
I wrote the first version of “The Epoch Index” in 2010. I’d just finished writing a novel, so I wanted to do short-form for a change of pace. I decided to challenge myself to write a series of stories that were entirely unique explorations of common (some might even say “tired”) science fiction tropes, and to make them as fresh and scientifically plausible as possible. I took on zombies in a story called “Brainbox,” giant insects in a story called “Anansi Island” (which later become “CAGN”), and “The Epoch Index” was my exploration of time travel.
The original short story was also about Quinn Mitchell, a CIA analyst, and Ranveer, an international assassin, and it also took place in the near future. The problem with the story was that the characters turned out to be so interesting, and the world so rich that, to keep the length under control, I just barely skimmed the surface. But that meant plenty of room for expansion when it came time to write the novel.
So then is Scorpion just a longer version of “The Epoch Index”?
Anyone who read “The Epoch Index” will certainly recognize Quinn and Ranveer — as well as the overall plot — but they will also be introduced to brand new characters like Henrietta Yi, Quinn’s ex-husband, Alessandro Moretti (Quinn’s handler), Simon Baptiste, and the twins (Naan and Pita). They will also find themselves in several new and exotic locations, including a cluster of micronations in the Persian Gulf.
One of the most important things the novel does is answer the question everyone who read the original story inevitably asked: What happens next? “The Epoch Index” ends with a huge cliffhanger, and Scorpion gave me the space to resolve the tension — though I don’t think it goes in a direction anyone was expecting.
And is there a reason why Quinn Mitchell is a CIA data analyst as opposed to an FBI field agent or a homicide detective or a crime scene investigator?
In my mind, almost all good stories are about transformation. I love stories with wild and engaging plots, creative technology, and exotic settings, but those things have to have profound effects on characters for them to matter. Quinn is a CIA analyst because that’s the perfect place for her to begin her transformation. She’s in the intelligence business, which means she’s no stranger to the dark side of human nature, but she also typically observes it from a comfortable distance — through what are referred to in the novel as “indices.” In other words, she looks at data more than, say, dead bodies. But for characters to undergo believable and interesting transformations, those barriers have to be broken down, and characters have to find themselves challenged in ways they never imagined.
Scorpion has been called a time travel sci-fi spy thriller. Is that how you’d describe it?
I think that’s a fair characterization, but I want to emphasize that Scorpion — for all its time-travel, sci-fi, spy-thriller goodness — is very much character-driven. I love inventing seemingly impossible situations and compelling technologies, and Scorpion is overflowing with them, but more than anything else, I love creating and spending time with real and relatable characters. One of my favorite thrillers is The Silence Of The Lambs, both the novel and the film, because I think it’s the perfect balance of action and emotion.
Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Scorpion but not on any of your other stories, and specifically “The Epoch Index”?
I’m always reluctant to start citing other novels and writers who have influenced my work because there are so many that I couldn’t possibly keep them straight. But as I mentioned, The Silence Of The Lambs has always been inspirational to me for its integration of incredibly engaging plot and both real and compelling characters. That’s the type of work that sticks with me more than any other. I love books, movies, and TV shows that mash genres together and are as likely to make you cry as want to cover your eyes.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games; did any of those things have a big influence on Scorpion?
I love the True Detective anthology on HBO — again, for its ability to combine plot and character development. The first season was some of the best TV I’ve ever seen. Breaking Bad is probably the best show ever made, and it’s a huge inspiration for me in that it combines not just character and plot, but a third critical element: process (namely, figuring out how to manufacture and distribute meth). So many stories treat the concept of process as a “black box.” For example, as much as I enjoy a good James Bond or Mission: Impossible movie, I couldn’t possibly explain the mechanics of the plot because they are essentially action and suspense scenes stitched together by some kind of development shaken or coaxed from a metaphorical black box. I often find myself pausing such movies and asking: Wait, why did we just go from London to Paris? Scorpion (like everything I write) incorporates process so you get to see how Quinn conducts her investigation, and how she (and other characters) arrive at their epiphanies. To me, experiencing that along with your characters is way too much fun to gloss over.
I’m not sure I can draw a direct line between Scorpion and video games by Valve, but the Half-Life and Portal games are some of my favorite media of all time because of how seriously they take storytelling — even as you’re fighting zombies or solving puzzles. I recently played Half-Life: Alyx, and it was probably the best video game experience I’ve ever had.
From the way you describe it, it sounds like Scorpion is a stand-alone story, but could be the first of many adventures for Quinn. Is that what you’re thinking, that if people like Scorpion you’ll send Quinn out on another X-Files-like adventure?
Scorpion is very much a stand-alone narrative. The original short story, “The Epoch Index,” ended with a huge cliffhanger, but that very much gets resolved in the novel.
That said, a pattern I’ve identified in my writing is that all my novels and stories, while cleanly wrapping up their plots and subplots, also tend to end with a suggestion of a new beginning. Scorpion is no exception, so if the demand is there, I’d love to dive back in.
Now, “The Epoch Index” has already been optioned by Fox, with Brad Peyton [San Andreas] slated to direct, Justin Rhodes [Terminator: Dark Fate] writing the script, and Matt Reeves [The Batman] as a producer. Is there anything else you can tell us about it?
I can tell you that global pandemics are absolute hell on production!
All I can say at this time is that the project is still very much alive. It survived Disney buying Fox (and all the subsequent reorganizations), and it has thus far survived COVID, so we’ll see…
And is the movie only based on “The Epoch Index” or will it incorporate elements of Scorpion as well?
Probably best for me to pass on this one. I’ll just say there was some early work done based primarily on the short story, but I can’t imagine that the novel wouldn’t have a huge influence on the evolution of the project in future iterations.
So if Peyton, Rhodes, and Reeves came to you and said, “Who should we cast as Quinn and the other main characters,” who would you recommend they cast as Quinn and the other main characters?
What a difficult question. Casting seems like such an art to me, and I’m always amazed by how well actors end up embodying their roles — even when the public may be surprised by the initial casting announcements. And then you have actors whose work you personally love, certain actor’s ability to play a wide range of ages…
Okay, enough procrastinating. I’m going to say [Zombieland: Double Tap‘s] Emma Stone or Margot Robbie [Birds Of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn)] for Quinn, [Mr. Robot‘s] Rami Malek or Dev Patel [Lion] for Ranveer, and [This Is 40‘s] Charlyne Yi as Henrietta (though I also think Awkwafina [Raya And The Last Dragon] could turn the role of Henrietta into something really unexpected).
Finally, if someone enjoys Scorpion, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next and why that one and not one of the others?
My first novel, Containment, is what you would call a “hard” sci-fi novel — lots of science and technology. Equinox dramatically expands on the world of Containment, and spends much more time on character development. But Kingmaker is probably closest to Scorpion in that it is a near-future, international, spy-themed thriller with fun technology, complex and engaging characters, and a relentless respect for process.