With Space Corps (paperback, Kindle), writer Ian Schwartz is kicking off a trilogy of the same name. But as we discuss in the following email interview about it — in which he details what inspired and influenced both this military sci-fi space opera and this series — fans won’t have to wait long to find out how Schwartz is ending this threesome.
To start, what is the Space Corps trilogy about, what is the novel Space Corps about, and when and where do both take place?
The Space Corps trilogy is about humanity taking its first steps into the galaxy, and finding that it’s a lot more dangerous than we ever could have expected. It begins about ten years in the future.
As for the novel itself, let me give you the blurb: “At first, it’s a dream come true: Jonathan Blake, young revolutionary hero, is assigned command of humanity’s first FTL-capable scout ship. But when the Space Corps mysteriously loses contact with an outpost beyond the Solar System, the dream becomes a nightmare: the love of Blake’s life lives on the outpost with their child. Racing to rescue his family, Blake and his comrades are captured by the Octos, interstellar slave drivers who force them to fight other sentients in shapeshifting, memory-erasing arenas. To survive these terrors, Blake must learn to work with his crew, as well as alien gladiators from across the galaxy. If he refuses to fight, Blake’s family — held hostage — will be slaughtered. But as Blake discovers his talent for survival, he likewise uncovers his worst fears: the Octos are launching an armada to enslave Earth. Blake must therefore choose: Will he rescue his family, or abandon them to warn Earth about annihilation?”
Where did you get the idea for this series and this first novel, what inspired it?
The germ of Space Corps came from The Killing Star [by Charles R. Pellegrino and George Zebrowski], a hard science fiction novel about psychopathic aliens who decide to annihilate the human species before we even find out that they exist. Spoiler alert, but at the end of the novel, only two humans survive, and they’re both captured and taken to the aliens’ homeworld, where they’re probably going to become the subjects of a zoo exhibit. That’s where the novel ends. It was incredibly strange and bleak, but I wanted to know what happened next. Sadly, the authors never wrote a sequel.
I found out about The Killing Star while I was thinking about writing a sci-fi novel and researching futuristic weapons. A random website described something called relativity bombs or R-bombs, which I hadn’t seen mentioned in any other media. They’re basically just slugs of metal that have been accelerated to 90% the speed of light. If you fling a bunch of those at a planet like Earth, pretty much every multicellular organism there is toast. That’s what happens in The Killing Star.
Another major inspiration was Star Trek: Enterprise. I think this series had a great premise: humanity taking its first steps into interstellar space. The characters involved are voyaging into unknown worlds, and they have no one but themselves they can depend on. I wanted to do Star Trek: Enterprise, but with better drama, characterization, storylines, and science.
One of the beautiful things about writing a novel versus making a television series is that you can really go to town with the worlds you want to depict. The only limit to the budget is your imagination, so I did my best to make everything in this trilogy as extravagant as possible, though I also did a ton of research to ground all the different worlds and aliens and even the physics and economics and biology and history and anti-colonialism in science, with the caveat being that things still have to be fun and exciting and that you shouldn’t need a Ph.D. to understand and enjoy it.
The Space Corps series sounds like it’s a military sci-fi space opera story. Is that how you’d describe it?
I want to call it hard space opera. It’s like Star Trek, but the characters have stopped taking valium, although the utopian ideals are still there.
Space Corps is your first novel, but I’m guessing it’s not the first thing you’ve written. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a particularly big influence on Space Corps but not on anything else you’ve written?
2001 and Arthur C. Clarke’s Nietzschean ideas about transcending humanity are in there, too, although I am absolutely not a fan of Nietzsche, if that makes sense. The Space Corps trilogy is about collective liberation rather than the individualism and worship of war you find in a philosopher like Nietzsche. It just so happens that the idea of a star child (or an Ubermensch) tends to be pretty useful when your characters are trapped on their own in an extraterrestrial gladiatorial arena twenty light-years away with no conceivable means of escape.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? You mentioned Star Trek.
Movies like Gladiator, The Matrix, and Cube were on my mind a lot as I was writing this, as were the ideas of Baudrillard, at least the ones I (think I) could understand.
As for games, that level in Halo 2, New Mombasa, is also a big influence in some parts of the novel, although the scene in Space Corps I’m thinking of is a street battle in Manhattan.
There will ultimately be three books in the Space Corps trilogy: Space Corps; Star Drive, which will be out April 5th; and Cosmonauts, which will be released May 10th. For starters, is this a trilogy in the classic sense, or is are just the first three noels in a much larger series?
If people like the trilogy, I could happily spend years writing more books in this universe, but the story does conclude in the third novel.
So what was it about this story that made you think this story had to be told in three parts as opposed to just one or two or thirty-seven?
I’ve always loved sci-fi, but I’ve also been drawn to classics my whole life. I thought it would be cool if the first book was inspired by The Iliad, the second by The Odyssey, and the third — since I don’t think we have a third epic by Homer — by Gilgamesh. People have been enjoying these stories for thousands of years, so I thought I could do worse than use them as models for my books. We don’t always have to reinvent the wheel.
Gilgamesh in particular I wanted to include because I think it’s pretty under-represented in modern culture despite being absolutely wonderful. If I wrote a fourth book, I would probably draw inspiration from the Epic of Sundiata. I’ve been listening obsessively to West African music since I first found the albums Festival In The Desert and Mali: Ancient Strings in my college’s library about fifteen years ago. The Romance Of The Three Kingdoms, which is a household name across East Asia despite being pretty unknown in America, might also be a source of inspiration. A different book I’m finishing right now, a LitRPG novel which takes place in a fantasy version of Byzantium, has strong influences from the Shahnameh.
The Space Corps trilogy also concerns various stages of adulthood for Jonathan Blake, the main character. The first is about being a young dad and having to balance work with family life. (It was written during an incredibly stressful time when my family and I were moving from South Korea back to America.) The second book is about middle age: you’ve sacrificed everything for your family, but the issue is that you weren’t actually physically present for them. The third is about being an older guy who is forced to come to terms with the fact that the world he knew no longer exists. It’s swept past him entirely — his work and family life both go completely off the rails — and he’s left trying to pick up the pieces.
Upon hearing that Space Corps is the first book of a trilogy — and one where the other two books will be out rather soon — there will be people who’ll decide to wait until Star Drive and Cosmonauts are out before reading any of them, and still others will read all three back-to-back. But is there any reason why you think they shouldn’t wait?
I’d say get the first novel when it comes out. I wrote the novel Space Corps in one go toward the end of 2017, but then a couple of years passed, actually, before I wound up writing the two sequels, which I churned out back-to-back during the first summer of the pandemic. The first novel can function as a standalone book, but if you like it, there’s many more adventures with the same characters you can read about.
I asked earlier if Space Corps was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think the Space Corps series could work as a series of movies, a show, or a game?
This isn’t exactly the question you asked, but I was really into making movies when I was younger, and I would die of joy if I could turn these books into movies or a TV series. I would direct, and I would also have a cameo where I’m the random guy in engineering who shouts: “She’s gonna blow!” Or I would just be a civilian who gets vaporized or something. I wish we could do this entirely with practical effects, but Space Corps features giant bioluminescent air-breathing space octopuses, a bipedal ant colony, and ravens the size of people, so I don’t think that’s possible.
I think a story about people fighting to the death in shapeshifting gladiatorial arenas has plenty of potential for gaming as well, but I’m obviously a little biased here. Ultimately though there’s about fifteen hundred pages of material in the trilogy, so a TV series would probably work best.
And if you did get to turn Space Corps into a some movies or a TV series, who would you want them to cast as Jonathan and the other main characters?
I know Hollywood wouldn’t allow this, but I would pick new unknown actors. If you force me to choose someone, I would choose LaKeith Stanfield, since I’m a huge fan of the movie Sorry To Bother You.
So, is there anything else that people interested in Space Corps — both the first book and the series — should know before deciding whether or not to buy it?
Slavoj Zizek says somewhere that he isn’t interested in the lead-up to a revolution, so much as what happens after. A big question I wanted to answer in the Space Corps novel and trilogy is: what if workers took over the world today?
Finally, if someone enjoys Space Corps, what military sci-fi space opera novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read while waiting for Star Drive to come out?
I think a book like Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed would be perfect for someone interested in what this trilogy is going for. The Collected Stories Of Arthur C. Clarke was another big influence, and it would probably keep even the most voracious readers pretty busy for a while.