It’s hard enough deciding who to invite to your wedding, and what table to sit them at; imagine if you had to decide who lives and who dies because you only have so many available seats on a spaceship. Which is the predicament faced by the twenty-two kids in James Breakwell’s new sci-fi novel The Chosen Twelve (paperback, Kindle, audiobook). In the following email interview, Breakwell discusses what inspired and influenced this odd, humorous, and thought-provoking story.
Photo Credit: Van Deman Photography
To begin, what is The Chosen Twelve about, and when and where does it take place?
Thousands of years in the future, the last twenty-two humans in existence, all of them children, are charged with settling a new planet under the less-than-benevolent guidance of the self-interested robots who raised them. The kids discover that, contrary to the promises of their digital overlords, the landing craft that will make the one-way trip to the planet only has twelve seats. Those who secure a spot will lead the human race, possibly forever — or until they get killed by the biologically engineered super kangaroos who now hold the planet, whichever comes first. Those who don’t get a seat will be left behind to die on the decaying moon base, aging slowly without the injections from the immortality chamber that have kept them artificially young for decades. The resulting struggle to secure those seats will determine the fate not only of the last twenty-two humans, but also of all sentient life in the universe, both organic and digital.
Where did you get the idea for The Chosen Twelve?
The basic concept has been bouncing around in my head for years. I liked the idea of immortality being the ultimate limited resource. When the pandemic hit, I finally took the time to write it down. I imagined the entire story as a series, but with a starting point a few books further along where the last humans were already stuck on one island on an alien planet and divided into twelve tribes, each led by an immortal. But then I wanted to dive more into how the human race got itself into that situation, so I went backwards two books and started on the moon base before the landing when those immortals were still children. That’s where the fun begins.
And is there a reason you have 22 people fighting over 12 seats as opposed to 20 people and 10 seats or 10 people and 5 seats or even 36 people and 4 seats?
Ultimately, I wanted to get to a place where there were twelve tribes led by twelve immortals, so that dictated the number of seats. The number twelve is very biblical, even if there’s nothing even vaguely religious about the book. Twelve as an important number is one of those ideas that comes up over and over again in human texts of old.
On a more practical level, there had to be enough humans to reasonably restart the species but not so many that I couldn’t keep track of them all. That’s how I settled on twenty-four students competing for twelve seats, even if the population has been whittled down to twenty-two by the start of the book.
It sounds like The Chosen Twelve is a sci-fi space opera adventure story. Is that how you’d describe it?
Full disclosure, I had to Google the definition of a space opera, and after reading way too many articles (okay, two), I’m still not entirely sure. If you go by the basic idea of a Western set in space, Chosen Twelve probably fits. The kids are very much on the frontier with literally no one left to rescue them, only the hostile natives they’re facing off against on the planet are killer super kangaroos. So, yeah, your basic spaghetti Western.
Your publisher, Rebellion, also said it’s like, “The Hunger Games meets Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.” I’m guessing that means it’s supposed to be funny. But is it actually funny in a Douglas Adams way, or is the humor more situational, like in John Scazli’s Old Man’s War?
It’s situationally funny, at least in the parts before people start getting hacked apart by swords in the child / robot war. I guess how funny you find it after that depends on how dark your sense of humor is. Writing it, I laughed a lot. I’ve listened to the audio books of almost everything Scalzi has written, and all of his characters are funny because they’re witty and sarcastic. They’re like the heroes in Marvel movies, but in space. My characters aren’t that smart, probably because I’m not that smart. The humor comes more from what my characters do wrong than what they do right.
As for Douglas Adams, he’s the gold standard in sci-fi comedy, and it would be blasphemy for me to compare myself to him. But I’m more than happy to let my publisher make that comparison for me in the hopes that it helps me sell a few more books.
So who then would you cite as being a big influence on the humor in The Chosen Twelve?
The biggest influence on the book wasn’t an author, but a place. I went to Catholic school with the same small group of kids from third grade through my senior year in high school. A few even stuck with me through my first year in college. You’d think that would have made us close, but in reality, we were all basically strangers trapped together in the same unchanging institutional landscape. That was very much the vibe I tried to put into The Chosen Twelve, where these “kids” spent decades together but didn’t become close at all. Their behavior might seem strange to some, but anyone who went to a small parochial school will relate all too well.
So then what writers do you think had a big influence on The Chosen Twelve? And I mean just on The Chosen Twelve, not on your style as a whole.
My favorite comedy writer growing up was Dave Barry, and he had the biggest influence on how I write my essays and short form stuff. I wanted to be the next him, but instead I had to settle for being the current me. My favorite comedy book (or book at all, for that matter) is [Joseph Heller’s] Catch 22. I love the absurdist humor and soul-crushing bureaucratic futility. There’s some of that in the robots in my book.
What about William Golding? Y’know, the guy who wrote Lord Of The Flies?
It wasn’t an inspiration for me to start my book, but as I got into the action, Lord Of The Flies came to mind. I didn’t enjoy that novel when I read it in junior high, but I do think it’s an interesting exploration of human nature. I think a civilization where kids are in charge would play out differently than what Golding predicted, and my novel reflects that. Probably the biggest difference is that Lord Of The Flies is an island of all boys. In my book, the last humans are looking to restart civilization with both boys and girls, which is kind of necessary if you want more humans. Gender plays a big role in considering who gets on the final lander and who doesn’t.
Also, one of the popular theories about Lord Of The Flies is that it’s a critique of toxic masculinity. Basically, everything went sideways because it was boys running the show. In my book, girls hold the levers of power. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide for themselves if that affects the way things turn out.
And then how about non-literary influences; do you think The Chosen Twelve was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
I’ll always owe a debt of gratitude to Jurassic Park. I’m still fascinated by the idea that science could bring back dead creatures. In The Chosen Twelve, all terrestrial life back on earth is assumed to be extinct, but the students are expected to use cloners to recreate it on the new planet. Of course, instead of T-Rexes, they end up with killer kangaroos. Nobody’s perfect.
You mentioned the gender of the kids before. You’re also the father of four girls. Do you think that influenced The Chosen Twelve, something you wouldn’t have done if you had four boys or two boys and two girls?
The leaders of the two rival factions are both girls. That was partially influenced by being a girl dad and partially influenced by my own experiences in school. Growing up, the leaders in school clubs and activities were always girls. They just seemed to have it together more than boys did at that age. If you were going to settle a new planet with twelve year olds, it seemed logical to me that the girls would take charge. Decide for yourself what that would mean for the future of the human race.
You mentioned earlier that The Chosen Twelve was part of a series…
I would love for it to be part of a series, but ultimately that comes down to whether or not people buy the first one. I’ll keep writing stories about these kids if people keep buying them. I have plans that could take this story arc through at least seven books, but that’s probably true of every science fiction writer. We don’t want to stop writing. Or stop getting paid.
Earlier I asked if The Chosen Twelve had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip the script, as your kids probably don’t say anymore, do you think The Chosen Twelve could be adapted into a movie, show, or game?
Every author dreams of having their book adapted for the screen. It means fame and money and seeing the figments of your imagination come to life. I’d love to see it as an HBO series. That would give the characters’ competing motivations a chance to play out. Also, Game Of Thrones made George R. R. Martin richer than God. I wouldn’t mind that.
And if someone wanted to make you richer than God, I mean, wanted to adapt The Chosen Twelve into an HBO show, who are some of the actors you’d like them to cast as the 22 candidates?
I have no idea who they’d cast. I barely remember the names of famous adult actors, so I don’t stand a chance of knowing up and coming child stars. Although it’s possible no child actors would be involved since, on TV, high schoolers are played by people in their twenties and thirties. Stage makeup is basically witchcraft.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Chosen Twelve, what sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that one?
I love Jason Pargin. Or at least his work. I don’t know him personally, so declaring my love for him is a little weird. I should probably meet him first. His books are just the right mix of funny and weird. He’s written both horror and dystopian sci-fi, and both are great. Start with John Dies at The End. It’s a classic and even got made into a movie. I read it when it was just a series of posts on Jason’s former website, and again when it was a finished book with a big five publisher. It was great both times.