When Karen and Sherylyn Dunstall put out their sci-fi space opera Stars Uncharted two years ago, the duo best known as S.K. Dunstall said it was a stand-alone story, but that there would be another. But in the following email interview about that second story, Stars Beyond (paperback, Kindle), they not only explain how it came together, but also how it came to be much more of a sequel than they originally planned.
Photo Credit: Andrew Kopp
For people who didn’t read Stars Uncharted, what was that first book about, and when and where was it set?
Sherylyn: Stars Uncharted is a space opera set in a future where companies, rather than governments, expanded into space. The settled galaxy is ruled by twenty-seven major corporations. People change their appearance regularly by going to body modders.
Nika Rik Terri is a modder. Give her a living body and a genemod machine and she will turn out a work of art. Hammond Roystan is captain of a cargo runner. Josune Arriola is crew on the explorer ship the Hassim. Her captain believes Roystan has information that might lead them to a lost treasure. She sends Josune to infiltrate Roystan’s ship, promising to follow. But when the Hassim exits nullspace, it’s out of control, the crew are dead, and unknown Company operatives are trying to take over. Roystan is wounded in the ensuing fight with the company and comes to Nika for treatment. The company follows.
Nika’s got problems of her own. An assassin is after her. She flees with Roystan and Josune. Now they’re in a race to save their lives before the company men or the assassin catch up with them.
And then what is Stars Beyond about?
Karen: Stars Beyond follows on from what happened in Stars Uncharted. Josune, Roystan and Nika have escaped the company thugs trying to kill them. They have a new spaceship to replace The Road (after it was blown up underneath them). All that’s left to do before they head out to find the legendary lode of transurides is to restore Roystan’s memory. To do that, they need to collect the genemod machine Nika has ordered.
Sherylyn: There are complications. Snow’s past catches up with him. Leonard Wickmore still wants Nika to build an exchanger, and the Justice department is after Nika for the murder Tamati Woden committed while he had control of her body.
When in the process of writing Stars Uncharted did you come up with the idea for Stars Beyond, and how did that idea evolve as you wrote this new book?
Karen: We’d pretty much finished Stars Uncharted before we came up with the idea for Stars Beyond. And that was just the first version. In the first version of Stars Beyond the story was set in the same universe, but it followed a different character.
Sherylyn: Our editor came back and said no, she really wanted a sequel that featured Nika and Josune, so we ditched that whole first story and wrote a “what happens next.” We finished that right on the deadline. A couple of days later our agent came back and said, “We need to talk.”
Karen: When your agent says that, you know something’s wrong.
Sherylyn: “It’s not a story,” she said. “It’s a series of events.”
Karen: Which it was.
Sherylyn: She talked with our editor, organized an extension, and we came up with a third idea, which is Stars Beyond. It takes elements from the first story, elements from the second, but also brand new elements as well. The Captain Norris storyline, for example, didn’t come until the third version. So the story morphed into a totally different beast from the one it started out to be, and all of that came after Stars Uncharted was finished.
Now, in the previous interview we did about Stars Uncharted [which you can read here], you said that novel was a stand-alone story, but that there was a second story. But it sounds like Stars Beyond is more a sequel than a stand-alone story; another adventure for the crew of the Another Road.
Sherylyn: You are correct. This is now a direct sequel, but it didn’t start out to be.
Stars Uncharted was a sci-fi space opera, and it sounds like Stars Beyond as well. But are there any other genres at work in this story?
Karen: Plain old adventure stories. Given that Alistair works for the Justice Department, and that he’s technically looking for a murderer, you could almost call it a mystery as well, but that’s a stretch.
Are there any writers, or specific stories, that were a big influence on Stars Beyond but not on Stars Uncharted?
Karen: No. Not that we can point to. Both these books are the accumulation of combined influences of science fiction and other writers over the years.
For Stars Beyond,we do tip our hat to some of our favorite aliens in the universe. We didn’t copy them, but all of these helped foster our imaginations of what could be. Vernor Vinge’s Tines (and more), C. J. Cherryh’s Ondat, Anne Leckie’s Presger.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, and video games; did any of them have a big impact on Stars Beyond?
Sherylyn: Not specifically for Stars Beyond, but for both Stars Uncharted and Stars Beyond we do acknowledge every science fiction movie and television show that ever created a black-box style machine where you put someone in and they came out cured a few hours later.
In that previous Q&A we also talked about how you two co-write your novels. Sherylyn, specific for Stars Beyond, what was Karen’s biggest or best contribution?
Sherylyn: I’m going to say how Karen was flat out at work and she still put words on paper every night. That was a huge plus for me because she had so much going on at work at the same time. She worked very hard on getting that first draft down. She overstretched herself with work, but still managed to get something on paper every day.
And Karen, same question to you about Sherylyn?
Karen: Sherlyn kept me sane by cooking all the meals. That was pretty good.
No, but seriously, I’ll normally write the first draft and Sherylyn will read as we go and make comments, but pretty much leave me to it until it’s done. But for the third version of Stars Uncharted — the one that’s published — our deadline was tight, so in the first draft we talked out a lot more of what happened. We talked before I wrote a scene, we talked while I was writing it, and afterwards we discussed what we had written, and we corrected a lot more as we went.
Close to the deadline Sherylyn was editing right on my heels, and I mean right on it, because she does the bulk of the editing. She rereads the manuscript, and rereads it, and rereads it again, over and over. I’d keep changing things on her, because I’m writing at the same time —normally we do at least finish a draft before she has to look at it like that — so I’d say working alongside of me and still keeping a sense of the story, in amongst all that mess.
And what was the biggest argument about this time around?
Sherylyn: We didn’t have time for arguments this time around. We were too busy.
How often, when writing Stars Uncharted, did one of you come up with an idea, only to have the other one say, “Let’s save that for the next book”?
Karen: Not this time. There’s nothing we took from Stars Uncharted that we said we could save. Not like we did with the Linesman books.
Sherylyn: We did get two ideas for other stories, but they were unrelated to anything in Stars Beyond or Stars Uncharted.
Speaking of which, is there going to be a third book? Stars Dying perhaps? Stars Trekking? Stars At War? Stars Unsalted? I’ll shut up now.
Sherylyn: I like Stars Unsalted. It conjures up ideas. Although our agent might say it sounds like a bag of potato chips. She wasn’t impressed with our original title for Stars Uncharted, you know. We’re not telling you what it was, but she said it sounded like…no, we’re not telling you that, either. [laughs]
Karen: She was right. It was an awful name.
Sherylyn: But no, no plans for a third book at the moment in this series.
Finally, if someone enjoys Stars Uncharted and Stars Beyond, what space opera novel of someone else’s do you each think someone should read next? And to get different answers than last time, let’s limit it to ones you’ve read since Stars Uncharted came out.
Karen: Last time we recommended Martha Wells’ All Systems Red. Since then she’s brought out three more Murderbot novellas [Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, and Exit Strategy], so they’re top of the list. We probably don’t need to tell anyone what the Murderbot stories are about. They’re just good. I’m hanging out for the novel, Network Effect. May 2020, I think. Or it was, last time I looked.
Yes, May 5th.
Sherylyn: Suzanne Palmer’s Finder wasn’t too bad, either. It’s about a guy who goes out to repossess a spaceship and gets caught up in a civil war on a space colony.
Karen: If you want something a little more military, Michael Mammay’s Planetside and Spaceside are both good. In Planetside, a semi-retired war colonel is sent to investigate a missing person. In Spaceside, that same colonel is now a civilian and he’s asked by his company to investigate a breach in a competitor’s computer network.