Anti-intellectualism has always annoyed me, and the recent and unapologetic increase in it has made the last few years even more irritating than they already were. So it’s exciting that the hero — yeah, hero — of Chris Panatier’s humorous new sci-fi novel Stringers (paperback, Kindle, audiobook) is someone who knows it all. Literally. In the following email interview, Panatier explains where he got the idea for this science fiction story, as well as what influenced it.
To start, what is Stringers about, and when and where is it set?
Stringers begins in the present day, and starts off in a small town in Kansas. We are introduced to Ben Sullivan, who is totally normal except for all of the crazy knowledge he has in his brain. Despite searching his entire life to learn the cause, he’s never figured it out. As a result, he is bombarded day and night with facts from his annoying brain about bug sex, antique watches, and “The Chime.” He doesn’t know what The Chime is, but he knows it’s important. His constant internet searches have reached a flesh-robot bounty hunter, who knows that The Chime is really valuable. Ben is catfished online by said alien, which leads to the abduction of him and his best friend Patton, and thus begins their inglorious adventure. So it’s also set in space.
Where did you get the idea for Stringers, and how, if at all, did that idea evolve as you wrote it?
It began as a daydream really. I wondered if there were bugs that reproduced via fucking themselves in the head. Turns out there are lots. Once I knew this fun fact, I supposed I would like to write a story about someone who knows lots of hilarious and gross facts about animals, but not via learning. So I came up with Ben, who was just born knowing…and then had to figure out why.
You said the bounty hunter chasing Ben is a “flesh-robot.” What does that mean? Is it like a Terminator?
I think about it as basically an artificial flesh robot. A person who is entirely biological, but bespoke. Created by someone else, programmed in certain ways, and entirely alive. Aptat the bounty hunter is similar to a Terminator, except with better fashion sense and non-stop trash talk.
Stringers is clearly a sci-fi story. But are there other genres that apply as well?
This is absolutely a sci-fi story. It’s got all the trappings. Spaceships, aliens, galactic jeopardy, faster than light travel, and probing. It’s also humorous. I hope.
Stringers is your second novel after The Phlebotomist. Are there any writers who had a big influence on Stringers but not on The Phlebotomist?
Because Stringers was set mostly in space, I’m educated and influenced by other writers who do space well, such as Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham [a.k.a. The Expanse “author” S.A Corey], Nnedi Okorafor, John Scalzi, Yoon Ha Lee, Liu Cixin, and the past and present cast of The Great British Bake Off. There are many more, of course, both books and on screen.
How about non-literary influences; was Stringers influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Nothing directly. But I absolutely channeled every buddy movie I’d ever watched in the scenes where Ben and his best friend Patton are together. Both the books and the television version of The Expanse were extremely educational in helping me see how to do hard sci-fi concepts in a straightforward way.
And what about the “fluctuating herd of animals” you own, especially the one you say is “almost certainly a goat”? What influence did your menagerie have on Stringers?
We have this dog named Gretel. I mean let’s start with the name: Gretel. Who names a dog that? Nobody. But you would name a goat that. She looks like a goat, and acts like one in that she eats trash. I could have said “possum” or “raccoon,” but aesthetics won out. She’s a full goat.
The dogs’ role in Stringers was to lay about in my office and keep me company, which I welcome.
Gretel the G.O.A.T.
Now, in the previous interview we did about The Phlebotomist, you said, “The longer I’ve been writing, the more strongly I believe that social commentary, whether directly or as satire, in science fiction is unavoidable. I borrowed extensively from our present world to create the world of The Phlebotomist.” How did the present world influence Stringers?
Because Stringers is so removed from earth, there’s very little political or social commentary. There was, however, a fun scene where Ben is confronted about his assumptions about Aptat’s gender (if any), and his extensive knowledge of the animal kingdom allowed him to process what he learned. The animal kingdom, by the way, is amazing when it comes to how they make new animals. Some aphids reproduce parthenogenically (asexually) and give birth to daughters who are already pregnant. So, effectively, grandma gives birth to daughter and granddaughter. Wow.
Sci-fi stories are sometimes stand-alone novels and sometimes they’re part of larger sagas. What is Stringers?
I’m kind of in stand-alone mode write now, though I know how I’d do Stringers 2: Even Stringier if it ever came to that. That’d be a working title. But right now, Stringers is an only child.
The reason I prefer stand-alones at the moment is because my interests swing wildly from one thing to the next. I want to write whatever I’m most into at the time. I may not always be able to do that, and so I’m going to while I can.
Does that mean that none of the short stories on your website are connected to Stringers?
Yeah. In fact, most of my short stories are entirely different in tone than Stringers, which is snarky and funny, and fast paced with lots of action. My short stories tend to be kind of broody and creepy. Mostly horror and some sci-fi. I think only two of my short stories are full on humorous, “When Billionaires Flee To Proxima B” published in Defenestration, and “Internet Review from a Vampire” published in the Bureau Dispatch.
Speaking of novels being part of a series, in the aforementioned interview we did about The Phlebotomist, you said that book was a, “…stand-alone that comes pre-wired for a two or three book series.” Is there going to be a series?
I’ve got 30,000 words on a prequel and 30,000 on a sequel. I’m actually excited about both, but right now there isn’t anything official in the works. Perhaps that comes as I (hopefully) grow my readership. I can tell you that the prequel takes place in 1860s goldrush California and is an origin story of sorts. Totally different feel from The Phlebotomist, but absolutely part of the story. Even though I haven’t worked on that manuscript in a year and a half, I love it.
Earlier I asked if Stringers had been influenced by any specific movies, TV shows, or games. But I’d like to flip things around and ask if you think Stringers could work as a movie, show, or game?
Stringers can absolutely be a movie. Hell, it was basically a movie in my head. It’s got all the things you want for something you put on screen: action, spaceships, and pickles.
And if someone wanted to make that happen, who would you want them to cast as Ben, Patton, and the other main characters?
I haven’t thought a whole lot about this simply because to have a book optioned and then actually made into a TV show or movie is sort of a pipe dream, but I think I would play all the characters.
Kidding! I would only play the main character.
Kidding! Okay, honestly, totally straight here: I would want mostly unknowns; really talented actors that are emerging or simply flying under the radar. I loved the cast of The Expanse and a ton of those people are Canadian. So I’d probably want an all Canadian cast. Or just Cara Gee [from The Expanse]. Actually, change my answer. Cara Gee for all the characters. Or just Naecia if she’s only allowed to play one. She’s perfect for Naecia.
So, is there anything else that people interested in Stringers should know before deciding whether or not to buy it?
Know that it’s a funny book. There are people who want nothing to do with funny books. (Totally true and no judgment from me.) It’s just a matter of preference. So word of warning: do not read if you hate laughing.
I also recommend the physical copy. There are formatting decisions that we used in the story to add some elements that you don’t always see. They work fine in all mediums, but it just feels best in paperback in my opinion. And the cover is gorgeous.
Finally, if someone enjoys Stringers, what sci-fi novel of someone else’s that involves bounty hunters would you suggest they read next?
Now I have to go to my special list I keep of top bounty hunter books…
So, the last one that I really enjoyed was Ginger Smith’s The Rush’s Edge [which you can learn more about here]. There is a bounty hunter / assassin in that book, and it’s a great character. That book is a fun read and Ginger is an awesome person, too.