In his comedic military sci-fi novel Terminal Alliance (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), writer Jim C Hines introduces us to the unsung heroes of the universe: the janitors. But rather than give us an entire book about people emptying trash cans and cleaning up the mess hall, he’s instead given us an epic saga that exposes the truth about our past. Er, future. Whatever.
To begin, what is Terminal Alliance about?
In brief, a group of more-or-less human space janitors are the only survivors of an attack on their starship. They have to fight back against the bad guys and stop the alien weapon that took out their crew. But first they have to figure out how to fly the ship, and the tutorials aren’t exactly user-friendly. In the process of trying to track down that weapon, they start to uncover a bigger conspiracy that goes all the way back to the near-extinction of humanity a hundred and fifty years ago. Also, there are some poop jokes. Because they’re janitors, ya know?
Right, right. So where did you get the original idea for it from, and how different is the finished version of Terminal Alliance from that original idea?
I wanted to combine two big ideas: aliens come to Earth, and the zombie apocalypse. Though my agent suggested I avoid the Z-word, so we’ll just call them omnivorous sentience-impaired humans. Unfortunately, the aliens don’t show up until after the plague, so the humans they meet are very different from what they expected based on our transmissions and technology. The aliens do their best to fix us, and recruit these semi-cured humans into the Earth Mercenary Corps, because let’s face it, humans can be pretty scary.
Originally, I’d meant to write about a group of space marines, but the book didn’t start to click until I switched them over to Shipboard Hygiene And Sanitation. It was a lot more fun forcing them to use their janitorial expertise and equipment against various enemies.
Now, as you said, Terminal Alliance has zombies in it. Sorry, “omnivorous sentience-impaired humans.” But what kind of “omnivorous sentience-impaired humans” are they? Are they the slow-moving shamblers of Dawn Of The Dead, the fast runners of 28 Days Later, the independently infected appendages of the Dead Space games…
My humans are mostly cured. They’ve got about 90% of the intelligence of pre-plague humans, and they’re roughly as quick and coordinated as humans today. But they don’t feel pain, which can be both an advantage and a problem. There’s also the thankfully-rare possibility of going feral and reverting back to that aggressive, sentience-impaired state. Feral humans are instinctive creatures. There’s no real intelligence, but they’ll work in packs and cooperate to overwhelm and take down prey.
The PR materials for Terminal Alliance call it, “a humorous military sci-fi series fans of John Scalzi and Douglas Adams are sure to love.” But Scalzi and Adams are a bit different when it comes to humor. Is the humor in Terminal Alliance more like Scalzi’s situational style or Adam’s surrealism?
I’d put it closer to Scalzi than Adams. I tried to play around with some Adams-like surrealism in an early draft, and it didn’t feel right.
But really, a lot of the humor in the book comes from the characters and their interactions. The protagonists are starship janitors, so there’s definitely some situational humor when the space plumbing…let’s just say it “reverses polarity.” But I had even more fun exploring cultural clashes and assumptions and misunderstandings, the challenge of translating alien languages and concepts, and plenty of confusion about those weird humans.
So do you consider Scalzi and Adams to be influences on Terminal Alliance?
Nah. Scalzi talks about opening a book with a fart joke. I used a poop joke in chapter one instead. It’s totally different.
Though I’d be thrilled to have anywhere near the success of either of those authors.
Aside from Scazli and Adams, what other writers or specific novels do you think had an impact on Terminal Alliance? And I mean on Terminal Alliance alone, not on your style as a whole.
I can’t think of any direct or obvious influences on Terminal Alliance. I tried to read more military sci-fi as I was working on the book, to get myself deeper into that mindset. Things like the first three Expanse books by James S.A. Corey [Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, and Abaddon’s Gate], Terms Of Enlistment by Marko Kloos, Margaret Fortune’s Nova, and a few others.
What about non-literary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or video games that you feel had an impact on Terminal Alliance?
I’m sure there’s some Star Trek influence, if only from the old joke about the janitor on the Enterprise who has to clean up the holodeck.
Ew. Now, you’ve already said that Terminal Alliance is the first book in a series you’re calling Janitors Of The Post-Apocalypse. What can you tell us about the series?
Right now, the plan is for a trilogy. I’m currently working on book two, Terminal Uprising. I have a rough “big picture” plan for the fate of humanity and The Krakau Alliance. Book two will take us back to Earth, and book three will take all of these plot threads and characters and their stories and resolve everything in a beautiful and satisfying way. At least, that’s what it says on my outline for book three.
Aside from novels, you’ve also written a number of short stories, which have been collected in such books as The Goblin Master’s Grimoire and Sister Of The Hedge And Other Stories. Are there any plans to write some Janitors Of The Post-Apocalypse-related short stories, if you haven’t already?
I haven’t yet, and there are no immediate plans for Janitors Of The Post-Apocalypse short fiction. Most of the time, I write short fiction as a break from whatever novels I’m working on. When I finished Terminal Alliance, I took a few weeks to write a Magic Ex Libris novelette, for example. So if I do end up writing short stories about Mops and her team, there’s a good chance it wouldn’t happen until after I’ve finished the trilogy. I mean, unless some editor wants to offer me lots and lots of money…
In researching you for this interview, I noticed that your website not only has links so people can read the first chapter of Terminal Alliance [which you can see here], but the first chapters of all of your novels. I assume this has been helpful, since you wouldn’t continue to do it otherwise, but what’s been the reaction of your publishers? Because I don’t know of a lot of other authors who do this, and now I’m wondering why.
You know, I have no idea how much of a difference those excerpts have made in terms of increasing sales or readership, but I figure it gives people the chance to sample my writing style and decide whether it’s worth picking up the whole book. It doesn’t take me too much time to put the samples together, and if it helps even a handful of readers, I think it’s worth it. My publisher hasn’t said anything directly about me posting those excerpts, but my contracts allow me to post up to a certain word count, which usually comes out to about one chapter. So legally, I’m covered.
Earlier I asked you about the movies, TV shows, and video games that may have influenced Terminal Alliance. But has there been any interest in making a Terminal Alliance movie, show, or game?
We haven’t yet gotten deals for Terminal Alliance: The Movie, Game, Show, or Breakfast Cereal, but we’ll see what happens once the book is out. After thinking about this question for a while, I kind of want to see an anime version of the story and the characters. I don’t know if it would work best, but I think that style would make for a really interesting series. Imagine your favorite anime swordfight, and then swap in high-tech mops for the swords.
If Terminal Alliance was adapted into an anime, who would you like to see cast in the main roles and why them?
I wonder if we could get Kevin Conroy [the voice of Batman/Bruce Wayne in Batman: The Animated Series and Batman And Harley Quinn] to play Gromgimsidalgak, the ship’s alien computer tech. The idea of Batman’s gravelly voice coming from that geeky worm-like alien, going on about their latest high score or the horrors of having to scrub terabytes of Nusuran porn off their commander’s system, sounds like so much fun. Maybe Kathy Bates [Misery] to do the voice of Mops; I think Bates could do a great job with Mops’ no-nonsense style. [The Fate Of The Furious‘] Michelle Rodriguez for Wolf. I bet Tom Hanks [Inferno] would be fun as Kumar, a character who tends to be a bit more anxious and chatty.
Finally, if someone really enjoys Terminal Alliance, and they’re looking for something to read while waiting for the next Terminal Uprising to come out, which of your other books would you suggest they read and why that one?
If they’re purely interested in humor, Goblin Quest might be a good one to pick up next. Jig and his fellow goblins are very much the underdogs of their fantasy realm, and some of the situations and struggles they deal with are similar in tone to what Mops and the crew of the EMCS Pufferfish get up to. My best-selling series to date are the Magic Ex Libris books [Libriomancer, Codex Born, Unbound, and Revisionary], so presumably I did something right with those. If folks are more interested in a magic librarian from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and his pet fire-spider, they should start with Libriomancer.