Exclusive Interview: “Terraforming Mars: Edge Of Catastrophe” Author Jane Killick
If you set a story in the future, and on the planet Mars, people will assume it’s a sci-fi story. I know I do. But in the following email interview with author Jane Killick about Edge Of Catastrophe (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), the second novel she’s written connected to the board game Terraforming Mars, she explains that while yes, this story does take place in the future, and on the planet Mars, she sees it as less a hard sci-fi story and as more of a detective thriller.
In the interview we did about your first Terraforming Mars novel, In The Shadow Of Deimos, we talked about how Terraforming Mars is a strategic board game. But for people who haven’t played it, when and where is it set, and what’s the basic set-up?
In the year 2315, Earth announces a plan to terraform Mars and invites corporations to take part. Players of the game take the role of a corporation, and each round takes place across a generation where they have the opportunity to enact a series of projects for profit or increased terraforming rating. They might mine valuable metals like titanium or emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to warm the planet. To win the race, they must amass the most victory points through their terraforming rating, awards, milestones and cards they have played.
My stories, as told in the books, take place across one generation. They follow a series of characters living in one snapshot of the terraforming journey, with all the changes going on around them, while they deal with their own troubles and are thrown into an adventure.
And how many hours of the game do people need to play to get what’s going on in your novels?
Earlier this year, I was at a signing for my first Mars novel at the UK Games Expo, and some people came over to ask if they needed to have played the game to read the book. My answer was that you don’t need to play the game to read the novel and you don’t need to read the novel to play the game because both the books and the board game are creating a vision of a possible future Mars where scientific ingenuity is being used to change the cold, inhospitable world into a planet where humans can live almost as they do on Earth. They got really excited and bought the book on the spot.
As for the books, what was In The Shadow Of Deimos, about, what is Edge Of Catastrophe about, and when does Catastrophe take place in relation to Deimos?
For the first book, I wanted to start right near the beginning of the terraforming project, so it’s 2316, and Mars is largely an unchanged world populated by the first colonists. In The Shadow Of Deimos sees a wayward asteroid crash onto a research station and kill a man. Two people — one the head of a corporation, the other an ordinary worker recently arrived from Earth — investigate what happened. What they discover leads them down a dangerous path as they unravel a chilling conspiracy.
The Edge Of Catastrophe takes place two hundred years later when the effects of terraforming are beginning to show themselves, and an experiment to create a valuable food source for its inhabitants is on the verge of success. When the experimental field suffers a catastrophic crop failure, scientist Mel sees her life’s work destroyed in front of her eyes. But then farm crops begin dying from what appears to be the same thing, threatening the food supply and the whole future of the Mars colony. Mel must go on the run to prove she is not the one responsible and discover the real person who is to blame.
Because each novel takes place within a different generation, they are stand-alone stories. You don’t need to read one to read the other, and you could quite easily read them in a different order if you wanted to. The second book contains a couple of nods to the events of the first book — a lot of it is set in Deimos City, for example — but these are more Easter eggs for loyal readers than important plot points.
When in the process of writing In The Shadow Of Deimos did you come up with the idea for Edge Of Catastrophe, and what inspired this book’s story?
With Deimos, the plot centered around the crashing of an asteroid into Mars as part of a project to warm the planet. For Catastrophe, I wanted to explore another part of terraforming and plants are one obvious area. But, unlike crashing asteroids, they do not have any drama in and of themselves. In the game, you could introduce moss onto the planet’s surface or bacteria to generate greenhouse gases. That could gain you vital terraforming points, but watching moss grow and produce oxygen doesn’t make for much of a story.
My drama comes from an experiment with food crops which goes wrong, but I wanted to steer completely clear of the cliché of the mad scientist. In Terraforming Mars, scientists are heroes. The rest of the planet may want to believe Mel is using science for nefarious purposes, but I want the reader to be cheering her on to prove her innocence.
In The Shadow Of Deimos was a hard sci-fi adventure story. Is Edge Of Catastrophe one as well?
It’s about getting the science right, or as right as it can be with the scientific knowledge we have at the moment. I even sought advice from a professor at a plant genetics research laboratory to help with the details (anything I’ve got wrong, however, is totally my fault). This setting is the backdrop against which the story unfolds. There are scientific concepts which get explained and consequences for the characters which involve the science, but they serve the story, not the other way around.
So, yes, Edge Of Catastrophe is hard science fiction, but in my mind, it is more of a thriller with a detective story element.
What were some of the things — literate and not — that had a big influence on Edge Of Catastrophe?
I distinctly remember sitting down and re-watching The Fugitive, the Harrison Ford movie about a man on the run trying to prove he did not kill his wife. To me, this is a superbly written cat-and-mouse story in which our hero is both running from something and running toward something. I think there was a scene from that movie that I wanted to steal for the novel, but I can’t remember which one it was now, and I’m fairly sure I didn’t manage to squeeze it in. Watching a movie like this is a way to allow my mind to wander and absorb the type of storytelling I want to emulate.
The other influence was definitely Rebel Without A Cause, the 1950s James Dean movie about a young man rebelling against society without really having anything to fight for. Part of Edge Of Catastrophe follows an angry young man who resents the limited choices offered to people like him who’ve been born on Mars. Having grown up in gravity one third that of Earth’s, he cannot return to humanity’s home and feels powerless to do anything about it. I never re-watched the movie, but that concept was very much in the forefront of my mind as I thought about what society would be like two hundred years into the terraforming project.
Finally, we talked earlier about how you don’t need to have played the game to enjoy your novels. But what do you think people who play Terraforming Mars will get out of Edge Of Catastrophe that non-players won’t?
I just want to tell a good story. The game provides the background for that story, and I try to highlight aspects of it wherever possible, but fiction can never be an accurate rendition of a board game. Rather, they complement and amplify each other.
After I had written Deimos, I spoke to Morten Skovgaard, who translated the novel into Danish. He said that after he had finished the translation, he sat down and played the game again, and it really helped him get more out of it. Meanwhile, I have a friend who reads all my books before they go to the editor, and she really enjoyed them even though she has never played the game. So I believe they work on all levels.
I know the publishers [Aconynte] are hoping that the novels can bring more readers to the game and the game bring more players to the novels. But, as I said to those people at Games Expo earlier this year, it’s entirely possible to enjoy one without the other.