With The Forbidden Stars (paperback, Kindle), writer Tim Pratt will be concluding the trilogy of sci-fi space opera novels he started two years ago with The Wrong Stars and continued last year with The Dreaming Stars. In the following email interview, he explains what inspired and influenced this new novel, when he first came up with the idea for it, and how he hopes to continue the Axiom series.
For those unfamiliar with this series, what are the Axiom books about, and when and where are they set?
Short version: Several hundred years in our future, a ragtag crew of posthumans discover an ancient alien race that threatens the existence of all sentient life in the galaxy. Then they try to blow up the threat.
Long version: About 600 years from now, humankind has spread to colony worlds throughout the galaxy, and have a centuries-long relationship with an enigmatic race of aliens known as The Liars, who provided the wormhole gates that enabled galactic expansion. The crew of the White Raven (which includes an acerbic captain, a cyborg engineer, a lovesick A.I., a moody ship’s doctor who does lots of hallucinogens, a navigator and a pilot who are victims-and-or-beneficiaries of alien medical experimentation, a recently unfrozen biologist time refugee from the 22nd century, and a Liar who always tells the truth) discover the existence of an ancient species of very unpleasant aliens called The Axiom. The Axiom are in hibernation as their various ten-thousand-year-plans come to fruition, but their extremely deadly and aggressive technology is littered around the universe, waiting to kill anyone who stumbles across it…and if The Axiom wake up, they’ll take a more active role in exterminating human life, as they see any other intelligent creatures as rivals to be crushed or enslaved. In The Wrong Stars, they discover the threat and almost get murdered and blow up an Axiom space station before its automated fleet can scour our solar system. In The Dreaming Stars, they save a whole colony system from being transformed into computronium by a swarm of nanobots, and destroy an extremely ominous Axiom project called The Dream.
In The Forbidden Stars things get a lot worse.
There’s also a lot of queer romance, because basically all books benefit from that.
And then what is The Forbidden Stars and how does it connect, both chronologically and narratively, to the previous novel, The Dreaming Stars?
The Forbidden Stars is set shortly after the end of The Dreaming Stars. At the end of that volume, the crew of the White Raven received a letter from someone calling themselves “The Benefactor,” offering information about Axiom facilities that could be targeted. The crew tested a couple of the pieces of intelligence and found out they were accurate. This novel begins when The Benefactor suggests they tackle a bigger target: the Vanir system, one of the star systems accessible by wormhole gates and colonized by humans. The Vanir system went dark a long time ago, though — ships went to the system, but no one ever came back, and no one know what happened there: whether the gate malfunctioned, or some horrible plague broke out, or some a fanatic faction of humanity seized control and refuses to allow any communication with the rest of civilization. The crew of the White Raven has access to their own one-of-a-kind wormhole generator, though, so they can take a look and see what really happened there. (It wasn’t anything good.)
When in relation to writing the previous books did you come up with the idea for The Forbidden Stars, and how did that idea change from its initial concept?
I mention the existence of a forbidden, interdicted system in book one, and I always knew the third book would be about visiting it. I had a pretty good idea of what my characters would find there all along, but of course it shifted and changed a bit as I wrote the other two volumes.
The Wrong Stars and The Dreaming Stars were science fiction space operas. Is The Forbidden Stars one as well?
Definitely space opera, perhaps a bit darker than the other two (though bits of those were pretty dark as well). There’s definitely a lot more body horror, and lots of horrible alien medical experimentation and biological weirdness. The immense starfish-looking space station on the cover is not metaphorical.
Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on The Forbidden Stars but not on The Wrong Stars, The Dreaming Stars, or, really, anything else you’ve written?
I draw from the same well (or grow out of the same compost heap?) for all my work, but certainly there’s a bit more squicky gross biological stuff in this one than usual. It’s got a touch more Peter Watts in it than the others did, I’d say.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or video games; did any of them have a big impact on The Forbidden Stars?
Now, in the interview we did two years ago about The Wrong Stars [which you can read here], you said the Axiom was an ongoing series of stand-alone but connected novels, something you reconfirmed in the interview we did about The Dreaming Stars [which you can read here]. But you’ve now said The Forbidden Stars will actually be the last book in a trilogy. What prompted this change?
The publisher saying “We want to wrap it up as a trilogy” mainly! I was given enough warning to come up with a suitable conclusion, fortunately. I’ll likely do more books with Angry Robot, just in a new setting.
But does that mean The Forbidden Stars is the last book in the Axiom series? Because some writers expand their trilogies with side stories (which is what Yoon Ha Lee did to his Machineries Of Empire trilogy with the story collection Hexarchate Stories), while others have written sequel trilogies (which is what K.B. Wagers is doing to The Indranan War trilogy with The Farian War trilogy).
I expect to still write stories and novellas set in the world, so it will continue. I could even crowdfund another novel if I have an idea, though I think three novellas would cover most of what I have to say. I want to do a short book each about the engineer Ashok, the A.I. Shall, and the alien Lantern.
So what are you going to write next?
I have just sold a new novel. I cannot say much about it yet because the contract hasn’t been fully executed, but I will say it’s a multiverse adventure book and will probably be out in early 2021.
Sweet. You also said in the interviews we did for The Wrong Stars and The Dreaming Stars that these books were being shopped around as potential movies, a TV show, or video game. Has anything come of that?
Nothing to report, but I remain open to producers driving dump trucks full of money.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Wrong Stars, The Dreaming Stars, and The Forbidden Stars, what similar-ish sci-fi space opera trilogy would you suggest they check out next and why that?
No trilogies come immediately to mind, but Max Gladstone’s Empress Of Forever is quite fun, and the book he co-wrote with Amal El-Mohtar, This Is How You Lose The Time War, is one of my favorite works from this year. The latter isn’t really space opera but they’re both definitely great science fiction.