With The Cruel Stars (hardcover, Kindle), writer John Birmingham is kicking off a new sci-fi space opera trilogy. Though as he says in the following email interview — in which he discusses what inspired and influenced this story — his plan for this series goes well beyond just three novels.
Photo Credit: © Vincent Long
To start, what is The Cruel Stars about?
Long story short? Spaces Nazis invade and try to ruin everything, everywhere, all over the galaxy.
I hate when that happens.
But they didn’t count on a foul-mouthed 700-year-old Scotsman in a co-dependent relationship with a depressed A.I., not one but two, count them two kickass heroines — a pirate and a naval commander — with their own unfortunate entanglements in the backstory, a violently orphaned princess of a star spanning corporate empire who thinks being a princess sucks balls, and a traitorous vat-grown soldier of Earth who just wants people to respect his source code. You wouldn’t think they’d get on, and to be honest, they don’t. But nobody likes Space Nazis.
Where did you get the idea for The Cruel Stars, and how did that idea evolve as you wrote it?
I’ve wanted to write a ridiculously massive space opera since I first read Peter F. Hamilton. I love all of his extended series, the vast scope of them. So if anyone lured me into outer space it was Hamilton. But I also wanted subvert some of the dominant ideas in his work and other modern sci-fi, and so I started to look at stuff like “true telepresence” and neural nets, and what could go horribly wrong with hacked wetware and bioengineering. I also wanted to delve into what happens at the bottom of these vast, galactic empires, in the slums of the Habitats and colony worlds, not just in the boardrooms and palaces. That idea is still evolving.
It sounds like The Cruel Stars is a sci-fi space opera. Is that how you see it?
Yep. Very comfortable and relaxed with that tag. But there is other stuff happening, too. Obviously there’s a rich vein of military sci-fi running through The Cruel Stars, but also older, more venerable genres like the great naval adventures of the 19th and 20th centuries. I spent a bit of time reading Hornblower, before writing Lucinda Hardy, for instance. And Sephina L’Trel hits the page as a space pirate, but her long story also draws on the old Hollywood tradition of capers and heists.
It also sounds like there’s a bit of humor in The Cruel Stars as well. But is the humor more jokey like The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy or is it more situational like in John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire?
I loved Hitchhikers when it came out, and recently listened to the BBC radio production with my kids again. But no, there’s not much DNA shared with Douglas Adam’s masterwork.
If there’s a point of contact with Scalzi it’s not so much situational as it is character and dialogue driven. Most people are funny. You think about it, most people, unless they’re complete zeroes, can raise a chuckle from you, and they mostly do so when talking. We are a witty motherfucking species, and we tend to be funnier as things get darker, probably to relieve the tension of our short and miserable existence. So yeah, The Cruel Stars is funny in parts, but mostly because the characters themselves are funny. Not clowns, or stand-up comics in zero G. Just funny in the way that human beings are, or perverse, or driven to negate the horror of existence with humor and wit.
So then what writers were the biggest influences on the humor in The Cruel Stars?
I do like Scalzi’s command of character-based humor, but strangely, or maybe not, some of the biggest influences on me have been TV and movie writers. Joss Whedon, Nora Ephron, even going all the way back to Steve Bochco’s NYPD Blue and whoever shaped the character of Andy Sipowicz through his dialogue. That was masterful writing.
Aside from the people you just mentioned, are there any writers or specific stories that had a big influence on The Cruel Stars but not on any of your other novels?
I love the intimacy of the “family” scenes in all of The Expanse novels. You know, when they’re on The Roci, just kicking back, or kicking ass. As a journalist I always jumped at any chance to report a story that involved getting onto a ship or a boat. I find the sealed environment of a ship fascinating. It’s a world unto itself. So probably, if I had to point to other influences it would be the sea-faring or star-faring stories I’ve read. [Nicholas Monsarrat’s] The Cruel Sea, of course. And Herman Wouk’s WW2 novels, especially The Caine Mutiny. For a head spinning sense of scale however, I always default to Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, and video games; did any of them have a big impact on either what you wrote in The Cruel Stars or how you wrote it? You mentioned NYPD Blue already…
I’ll get thrown out of the serious writers club for admitting this, but totally…The Last Ship. I loved that stupid series. Loved it! But also some of the quieter “domestic” episodes of Star Trek, where you get to see the day-to-day functioning of whatever ship you’re on. Or, and this is totally left field, Stargate SG-1. Some of my favorite episodes of that TV series where those that visited the main ensemble cast out of context. Say, at home. I seem to recall there was a whole story about Teal’c “moving out” of the base. That sort of thing, where you have a tight knit group of characters, often military, and you break them out of their normal routines, I’ve always enjoyed that sort of story. The Cruel Stars, of course, is just that theme writ large.
Now, prior to writing The Cruel Stars you wrote a number of novels, including The Axis Of Time Series, The Dave Hooper Trilogy, and The Disappearance Series, as well as numerous stand-alone stories. Is The Cruel Stars the first book in a new series or a self-contained story?
It’s a trilogy, at the very least. And my British publishers have already named it The Cruel Stars Trilogy, so they get first mover advantage. But I’ve also planned some breakout eBooks. A prequel with Lucinda and Sephina’s origin stories and some more detail of the Javan War that the Armadalens keep going on about. I’m writing that with Jason Lambright, a military sci-fi writer whose work I admire. But the really cool thing about such a vast canvas? You can write anything, anywhere within the greater frame. I totally see some stand-alone novels ahead.
Now, some people are going to wait until all of the books in The Cruel Stars Trilogy are out before reading any of them, and some will then read all of the books in rapid succession. Do you think this is a good idea?
That’s really a personal choice. I’m always happy to jump into a series and wait my turn for the new stuff. There’s always plenty of other books to read or shows to watch while you wait. And I am trying with The Cruel Stars to make each novel as independent a story as possible. But if it builds out the way I want, there’ll be no way to binge everything. There’ll just be too much. I WILL BURY YOU IN CONTENT.
Earlier I asked if The Cruel Stars had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. But has there been any interest in making The Cruel Stars into a movie, show, or game?
Ha! I’m interested. Seriously. But it’s too early to be waiting on movie or TV producers to call. Nobody but a couple of reviewers and beta readers have even seen it yet.
Though I’m serious about my own interest. A couple of years ago I started studying screenwriting texts, not because I wanted to write movies or TV, but because I wanted to study structure. Structure is super important to screenwriting in a way that it’s just not for novels. Like, existentially important. But having done that study I also became interested in screenwriting as a written form. It fascinates me, doing more with less, just in terms of raw copy and word length. So when I get a spare couple of weeks I’m going to work on a scripted version of The Cruel Stars. Just for me. But if you’ve got a lazy two hundred million lying around…
Yeah, I’ll get back to you on that. But in the meantime, do you have a preference what The Cruel Stars should be?
TV show. Without a doubt. We’re in a golden age right now and TV is perfect for big, long, complicated stories.
Lastly, if someone enjoys The Cruel Stars, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next and why that one?
Oh man, that is a big ask. They’re all so different. But you know what, something very different, but with a similar feel… A Girl In Time and then The Golden Minute. They post-date my obsessive study of narrative structure and have the same sense of humor. My elevator pitch: On the eve of a huge, breakout success, a poor but brilliant young game developer is pulled out of her world, and time itself, by a cowboy desperately searching for the daughter he lost two hundred years ago.
Hmm. Makes me want to go back and write another one.