We’ve all been there: You commit some war crimes as a medic, and now you’re just trying to get by while living on a desert moon at the ass end of space. But while Stark Holborn’s new sci-fi space opera Western novel Ten Low (paperback, Kindle, audiobook) may be non-fiction for most of us, she says it was actually — get this — influenced by some works of fiction, both literary and not. Too weird.
For starters, what is Ten Low about, and when and where does it take place?
Ten Low follows a former army medic and ex-convict Ten (her name is her sentence) as she attempts to atone for the sins she committed during a recent interstellar war, eking out a life on an inhospitable desert moon at the edge of the known universe…
Where did you get the idea for Ten Low, and how, if at all, did that idea change as you wrote this story?
I first had the idea while driving back from WorldCon in Dublin, weirdly. I was absolutely knackered and half asleep in the passenger seat when the idea for the characters of Ten and the General (the two leads) crept into my head. Much of the book revolves around their relationship and the different worlds and perspectives they represent. So that part didn’t change much at all.
It sounds like Ten Low is a sci-fi space opera Western. Is that how you’d describe it?
That’s accurate. Space western works for me, though others might say it’s more space opera, and there are definite nods to classic sci-fi in there too.
Ten Low is your second published book after the novella Triggernometry, though you’ve also written the digital series Nunslinger as well as the games Mars 2020 and the upcoming Shadows Of Doubt. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Ten Low but not on anything else you’ve written?
There are always one or two (or more) key books or influences that I mentally attach to every book I write, sort of talismanic works I return to throughout the process. Ten Low was definitely influenced by Hard To Be A God by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky; I can’t tell you exactly how, but it’s a central ingredient in the mix. [Alan Moore’s graphic novel] The Ballad Of Halo Jones inspired me to let loose with the more colorful aspects of the world. Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber, and Philip K. Dick’s A Maze Of Death come to mind as well.
How about non-literary influences; was Ten Low influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Anyone who’s read the book won’t be surprised when I say Mad Max: Fury Road was a huge influence. I wanted to write a book with the same sort of propulsive energy, vivid world building, and uncompromising action. Firefly and Cowboy Bebop are in there too. Anais Mitchell’s songwriting — her folk-tale inflected lyrics — were stuck in my head for some of the writing process as well.
As I just mentioned, you’ve written some games. Did you ever consider writing Ten Low as a game?
That honestly never occurred to me. I write for games, but I see myself as a novelist primarily. And I feel lucky that’s the case: much of the time, it’s just me and my old laptop and an outdated version of Microsoft Word. Making a game — at least, making what most people would think of as a game — is a hugely complex undertaking, more like making a feature film, and I’m not a coder and I’m a terrible artist. I love writing interactive fiction, bringing techniques from long-form fiction writing to a different format, but I’m happy to work as part of a wider team on games projects, with others who know what they’re doing in terms of game design and programming.
Now, as you know, sci-fi space opera Westerns are sometimes stand-alone stories and sometimes they’re part of larger sagas. What is Ten Low?
… let’s see? There’s a lot more to explore in the world (at least in my head). But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be a series. More like postcards from that universe maybe.
Earlier I asked if Ten Low had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. I’d like to flip the script, as you kids probably don’t say anymore, and ask if you think Ten Low could work as a movie, show, or game?
Movie or TV, sure. It’s action-driven with a majority female and non-binary cast, and there are certainly characters I would love to see brought to life on screen. Plus, it’s what I call low-fi sci-fi, gritty and lived-in rather than taking place on any huge shiny space stations, so that would probably save on the effects budget. No horses either — the traditional Western budget killer. Just the occasional snake and beetle, and I think they’re probably cheaper and less demanding on set.
And if someone wanted to make a Ten Low movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as Ten and Gabriella and why them?
I honestly have no idea! They’d have to be actors with a bit of grit, but beyond that I’m open to any interpretation.
Finally, if someone enjoys Ten Low, what sci-fi space opera Western of someone else’s would you suggest they read and why that?
Ha! I can’t really think of many other sci-fi space opera westerns in the same vibe… Film-wise, there’s a great low-budget space western called Prospect. But in terms of sci-fi and speculative fiction I love, I’d recommend The Ballad Of Halo Jones, as well as Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente, Do You Dream Of Terra-Two? By Temi Oh, and Lavie Tidhar’s upcoming The Escapement, which is less space-western, more clown-Western (you’ll have to read it to discover what that means).