When it comes to humorous science fiction, some writers go the parody route, while others inject humor into otherwise serious stories. But in the following email interview about his comedic sci-fi novel Starship Repo (paperback, Kindle), writer Patrick S. Tomlinson explains that he’s going both ways.
Photo Credit: © Jason Hillman
Let’s start with an overview of the plot. What is Starship Repo about?
Starship Repo tells the tale of a teen runaway who escapes the poverty of her home colony and sets out to find new and exciting kinds of poverty in another part of the galaxy. She’s further from Earth than any human has ever been when she finally finds a place to take a breather and settle down; an enormous trade space station the locals call Junktion, because it’s kind of a dump. It’s not long before her larcenous ways land her in trouble, and she’s given a choice between being “recruited” into a repossession company eager to utilize her skills, or be the first human to find themselves in an alien jail.
Where did you get the idea for this story, and how different is the finished version of Starship Repo from what you originally conceived?
I was between writing projects a couple years back, taking a mental health day on the couch, when this show came on the Discovery channel called Airplane Repo. Basically these four high-end repo agents run around the world stealing back private jets, yachts, that sort of thing from the 1% when they fall behind on their payments. I must have binged six episodes that day. By about the second episode, the idea sprang to mind that someone could do the same with starships, and that was that.
As for the story, it’s very close to what I originally dreamed up. The differences between the first draft and the final are so small they’re hardly worth mentioning. It was not only the fastest novel I’ve ever written, but the cleanest to go through the editing process.
Definitely trying to split the uprights between the two. There’s a ton of situational humor a la Scalzi, but also quite a bit of the sort of slapstick and silliness that I loved so much about Hitchhikers. I hope it strikes a happy balance with readers.
Aside from the humor, are there any other genres or subgenres or combinations of them at work in the story as well?
The storytelling in this novel is very episodic, with six distinct “jobs” the characters embark on, each with their own flavor. There’s elements of heist stories, coming-of-age, band documentaries, found-family, even a chariot race.
Are there any writers, comedic or otherwise, or specific stories that were a big influence on Starship Repo but not on anything else you’ve written?
Can’t really say so. This book was about pushing my own boundaries and exploring new things that I hadn’t read before.
How about movies, TV shows, and other non-literary influences; did any of them have a big influence on either the story you tell in Starship Repo or how you tell it?
Oh yeah. Each “job” was meant to be as different from the others as possible in setting and tone, so you’ll feel like you’re in an Ocean’s 11 movie one minute, then This Is Spinal Tap, then Ben Hur the next.
Now, in the previous interview we did about your novel Gate Crashers [which you can read here], you explained that it was the first book in a series called The Breach, and that the second was Starship Repo. But Starship Repo is a stand-alone story. So how does Starship Repo connect, narratively and chronologically, to Gate Crashers?
Starship Repo picks up five years after the events of Gate Crashers, but does so in a completely new part of the galaxy with entirely new characters. Indeed, only one character from Gate Crashers makes a cameo in Starship Repo, though I do hope it’s a memorable one.
The storylines are only connected in the sense the galaxy has changed since the end of Gate Crashers, and it has the effect of letting our hero slip out through the fence and explore the larger galaxy. But this story belongs to her and her new friends.
Why was it important to you that people be able to understand Starship Repo even if they haven’t read Gate Crashers?
Well, we didn’t want it to be a sequel, per se. Early on my editor and I agreed that we weren’t trying to build a linear series that readers would have to trudge through, but a shared universe they could jump in and out of at their leisure, more akin to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Most were stand-alone, or part of a subseries that followed specific characters like the Nightwatch, Death, the Witches, etc. I think that’s part of the reason that universe had such appeal and longevity. Also, it allows me as an author to jump around and explore new stories and characters at will instead of being locked in to advancing just a single story arc for gods only know how many years. I think it will keep me fresh and excited if I can just pivot to an entirely different place with each new book.
And do you already have plans for the third book?
My pitch for Book III was just one line: Spinal Tap meets Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. It tells the story of four kids from Battle Creek, M.I. who make up The Wolverines, the last Hair Metal cover band on Earth. Three hundred lightyears away in every direction, radio signals from Earth are sparking a wave of obsessive hair metal fans of every imaginable species demanding live performances. An unscrupulous music producer/promoter travels to Earth and makes The Wolverines an offer they can’t refuse, and away we go.
Though Tor and I are actually doing an entirely different book next, a military sci-fi / corporate espionage novel unrelated to The Breach that will hopefully launch its own more traditional series, so I haven’t started writing Book III yet, and a release date isn’t on the schedule yet.
In that previous interview we did, you also mentioned that there were no plans to adapt Gate Crashers into a movie or, as you preferred, a TV series. Is that still the case?
I wouldn’t say there were no plans to adapt Gate Crashers for film or TV, we simply hadn’t been approached about it by anyone at that time. That…may have changed. That’s all I can say.
Interesting… Finally, if someone enjoys Starship Repo, what funny sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you suggest they check out? And to keep things interesting, you can’t pick Adams or Scalzi, since we’ve talked about them already, or Becky Chambers’ A Long Way To A Small Angry Planet or Cat Valente’s Space Opera, since you picked those last time.
Gosh, you’re really putting me in a bind, here. The sci-fi comedy niche is such a small one to begin with, and we’ve already covered the big names, past and present. It’s difficult writing humor with broad-based appeal that also works for the peculiar tastes of science fiction fans and vice versa. It’s a hell of a needle to thread, which is why most authors, and most publishers, are reticent to attempt it.
Fortunately, I’ve kept reading since the last interview, and I can recommend Year Zero by Rob Reid. It’s a story of a copyright lawyer who gets sucked into a galaxy-spanning lawsuit over music piracy. A real gem.