They say you never get a second chance to make a first impression. But is that still true if you change your name and the way you look? Writer Gavin G. Smith is about to find out, thanks to the release of zombie-centric, post-apocalyptic survival novel Spec Ops Z (paperback, audiobook), which is actually a retitled rerelease of his 2017 novel Special Purposes: First Strike Weapon. In the following email interview, Smith discusses not only what inspired and influenced the original story, but also what led to this new edition.
For people who didn’t read Special Purposes: First Strike Weapon when it came out four years ago, what is Spec Ops Z about, and when and where was it set?
Spec Ops Z is the story of a Spetsnaz (Russian Special Forces) squad. They are a band of disgruntled misfits, veterans of numerous Cold War proxy conflicts and black ops, thrown together during the USSR’s failed war in Afghanistan. Vadim Scorlenski, an experienced officer, leads the squad. Once a “Hero of the Soviet Union,” he has become cynical due to the actions of his superiors / The Party.
The story is set in 1987, in a world where Glasnost did not happen, and the USSR is controlled by Party hardliners. Vadim’s squad is sent to New York, where they are tricked into delivering a zombie-creating bioweapon that their masters in Moscow use as a First Strike weapon, the opening gambit in World War III. Infected by the bioweapon, Vadim and his crew are understandably pissed off at being sacrificed, and decide to try and make their way home across a war-torn, zombie-ravaged world.
Where did you get the original idea for Spec Ops Z, and how, if at all, did that idea change as you wrote this story?
The story grew out of a childhood conversation with a friend about a kind of Legion of the Damned fighting in a war-torn, post-nuclear war, Europe. I think in the ’70s and ’80s even kids were very much aware of the threat of nuclear war that seemed to hang over everyone’s head. Throw years of consuming post-apocalyptic fiction, films, games, etc., into the mix, a love of grittier war films, and of course some zombie films, and it was kind of born out of that. I seem to remember that a number of the details for the story were thrashed out at a Con (possibly Nine Worlds, possibly Eastercon), at the bar, in conversation with my editor at Rebellion, Dave Moore.
I’m not sure the story changed much [as I wrote it], though I’m struggling to remember when the idea for the climax came to me, as I seem to recall that I was still researching as I was writing. One thing I do remember is how much stronger and better defined the relationships between the squad became the more I wrote.
And what kind of zombies do you have in Spec Ops Z, and why did you go with those kind and not some other kind?
So they’re dead, they rot, and they can run. I’m not sure how conscious the decision was. The zombies being dead (as opposed to living victims of a rage virus, or something) ties in with the larger background of the story, which I can’t reveal. As for the running, I’m as big a fan of Romero as the next guy, but I’m afraid I just find zombies scarier when they run.
I think the idea that some very few of the zombies can hold onto their sentience / personality came out of wondering what it’d be like to be trapped in a rotting corpse trying to resist the urge to eat living humans… (I mean that’s normal, right?)
Spec Ops Z sounds like it’s a military sci-fi novel. Is that how you see it?
I think the most sci-fi element is that it’s an alternate history diverging in 1987 at the tail end of the (old) Cold War. With the inclusion of zombies there’s a supernatural element, and it’s also a war story. I’m not sure how much of a respecter of genre / sub genres I am, I recognize their importance but I think it’s fun to mix and match. War and horror? I’ve been referring to it as an apocalyptic post-survival story.
Were there any authors or specific stories that had a particular big influence on Special Purposes, but not on the books you wrote before it?
Er…yes, though I sort of wish you hadn’t asked me this as it connects to my somewhat dodgy taste in ’80s post-apocalyptic pulp fiction.
Early on, there was a very definite decision to embrace the eighties-ness of it all. There was a lot of very ropey, very pro-US / anti-USSR (as if that would matter in the wake of a nuclear war) post-apocalyptic pulp fiction around at the time, and I read a lot of it. I think the one that sticks in my mind is The Survivalist series of books by Jerry Ahern. It’s also been suggested that there’s a bit of Sven Hassel in the mix there. I think I had Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising and General Sir John Hackett’s Third World War in mind as well. They were stories about WW3 that came across as more realistic.
I should point out that just because I read those books it doesn’t mean I agree with the politics espoused therein.
And what about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, and games? You mentioned George Romero earlier.
So the obvious influences are the Romero films, particularly my favorite: Dawn Of The Dead. But also 28 Days Later, the Bratpack-fight-World-War-Three / Cold War nonsense that is Red Dawn, directed by John Milius, and the excellent Russian film about the Afghanistan War, The 9th Company directed by Fedor Bondarchuk.
Game-wise, the Twilight 2000 TTRPG by Games Designer Workshop (a new edition has just been Kickstarted by the excellent Free League, who also did the Tales From The Loop and Alien RPGs).
Research-wise, I looked at a lot of Osprey Books about Warsaw Pact special forces during the Cold War. I researched the Soviet Union’s disastrous war in Afghanistan. I also read what I could about the Spetsnaz during the Cold War, but this seemed as much myth as anything else, though some of the more entertaining myths made it into Spec Ops Z.
The above was mixed in with all the other nonsense that gets in your head growing up in the shadow of a possible nuclear war.
Speaking of games, along with your own novels, you’ve also written books based on the video games Crysis [Crysis: Escalation] and Elite Dangerous [Elite Dangerous: Wanted, Empires: Infiltration, and Empires: Extraction], which you cowrote with Stephen Deas under the name Gavin Deas. How do you think writing stories in other people’s fictional universes, and with their rules, influenced what you did in Spec Ops Z?
I’m not sure to what extent it did beyond you learn something with every book you write. I do wonder if perhaps it helped me in defining the reality of the worlds I write in more strongly, which I think / hope means that the world comes across as more real.
Now, as we’ve been discussing, Spec Ops Z is a new and retitled version of your 2017 novel Special Purposes: First Strike Weapon. First, what prompted this reissue?
I think there was a sense that First Strike Weapon had fallen between the cracks for a number of different reasons, and not gotten the attention that it deserved. Both Dave, my editor, and myself have a great deal of enthusiasm for the world and the characters, and would like to see the story continue, so we’re hoping that it proves more popular this time round, and the argument can be made for two more books. Second chanced don’t happen very often in publishing, and I’m extremely grateful for this one because I loved writing Spec Ops Z.
And what prompted you to change the title?
So this was completely my fault. I pushed for the title Special Purposes (the rough English translation of Spetsnaz) and I can’t remember why, because looking back now it’s a bit bland and doesn’t even hint at the speculative genre elements of the story. Dave and Rebellion wanted something a bit more on brand, and I think they’re right.
I still like First Strike Weapon, though.
Also, when you decided to change the title to Spec Ops Z, did you know there was a game called Spec Ops: The Line? It doesn’t have zombies, though.
I did not. I have now watched the trailer. It looks fun but needs zombies.
So aside from the name change — and, of course, the cover art — is there anything else different about Spec Ops Z? Like, does it have a new intro, a new afterword, did you add a new subplot about the guys wanting pizza but not sure if they should go to Famous Rays or Original Rays or Famous Original Rays…? It is set in New York City, after all.
I think they’d only want pizza that came in human-brain flavor, which of the Ray’s does that?
The one on the corner of Astor Place.
I do remember trying to find out about camping stores in New York in the ’80s, which was harder than I thought it’d be.
The text is the same, nothing has been added or removed. The main changes were the name, the cover, and the format. The original cover was done by Clint Langley who is one of my favorite 2000AD artists (particularly for his work on Slaine), and it’s a great piece, but again we felt it was a little misleading and didn’t quite portray what the book was actually about.
Originally First Strike Weapon was released in the UK as quite an expensive trade paperback, it’s now a much more affordable mass market paperback.
So if the plan does work, and Spec Ops Z sells better than Special Purposes: First Strike Weapon, what’s the plan?
We’re hoping for enough interest to get another two books out of this. I’ve already got two reasonably detailed ideas for where Vadim and the others go from where I left off at the end of Spec Ops Z.
Looking back, do you think anything about writing Special Purposes: First Strike Weapon lead you to change what you did in the books that came after it?
It was the first time that I’d really written outside of sci-fi, though there were horror and fantastical elements in my Age Of Scorpio trilogy. I remember that I had a great deal of fun writing it, which isn’t always the case. I think maybe I loosened up a bit, had some fun with the eighties-ness of it all, and felt less like I had to stick within the boundaries of one genre / subgenre.
Earlier I asked if Spec Ops Z had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. Has there ever been any influence in turning Spec Ops Z into a movie, show, or game?
There was not, as far as I am aware, any interest in adapting it into another format. In an ideal world, I’d love to see a TTRPG adaption, perhaps an alternate world supplement for the Free League’s Twilight 2000 mentioned above.
I also think it would make a particularly brutal and terrifying first-person shooter, the kind that gave you nightmares…
Like most authors, I’d love to see a film version, though I think it would have to walk a careful line between the amount / degree of action and the drama between the characters, rather than just go for the splattery spectacle, which I think would be a mistake.
If someone did wanted to make a Spec Ops Z movie, who would you want them to cast as Vadim and the rest of the 15th Spetsnaz Brigade?
Interestingly (well for me anyway) the character of Vadim was based on a half-remembered news article about a Soviet film called Odinochnoe Plavanie — which is alternatively translated as Lonely Voyage or The Detached Mission — which was supposed to be their version of Rambo. I remembered a picture of Clint Eastwood-looking guy, Mikhail Nozhkin, playing a Spetsnaz officer. This is the reason Vadim’s reasonably mature for a military hero.
I’ve not thought too much about whom I’d want to play the members of the squad. I think it would be interesting to use an Eastern European and Asian cast, though I don’t know enough about the film industry in those part of the world to make any sensible suggestions.
Finally, if someone enjoys Spec Ops Z, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next and why that one?
Good starting points with my books are Age Of Scorpio, Veteran, or Bastard Legion. Probably closest in tone to Spec Ops Z are the Bastard Legion books, which are a military sci-fi take on the Dirty Dozen / Suicide Squad, down-and-dirty, futuristic, black ops action stories about a group of convict mercenaries led by a pleasantly deranged psychopath on a mission to avenge her dead father.