Most post-apocalyptic stories are, naturally, dark and sad. But in her new novella The Future Second By Second (paperback, Kindle), writer Meridel Newton decided to give us something not so dour. In the following email interview, she not only explains this tonal decision, but also what inspired and influenced this hopepunk sci-fi story.
To start, what is The Future Second By Second about, and when and where is it set?
The Future Second By Second is about the community of Osto attempting to grow and thrive in a post-apocalyptic landscape. I set the story about 80 years after the destabilizing event, in the Midwest of the United States. The community has managed to establish some sense of stability and is looking forward to a bountiful harvest, when a group of raiders shows up to upset their plans.
Where did you get the idea for The Future Second By Second, and how, if at all, did that idea evolve as you wrote it?
I’ve always enjoyed post-apocalyptic fiction, but the parts I like the most tend to be the quiet moments where the characters are just figuring out how they’re going to get by. I love stories of people walking through ruins they don’t understand, scavenging the bones of old civilizations and repurposing what they find for their own ends. I’m always a little disappointed when a book or movie fails to explore a setting to its fullest. It’s the details of daily life in a situation like that which I’m most interested in, not the everlasting water wars.
Honestly, this novella started off as a writing exercise, it wasn’t even intended to be a narrative. I wanted to see if I could make the reader actually feel the action of winding a pocket watch as they read. I was happy with how it was going, so I named the character, and just for fun threw in a reference to her father, and suddenly I was writing science fiction. So I thought, why not? I had recently completed a degree in Geography and Environmental Science, and a lot of the ideas and theories from that field informed my worldbuilding. Geography is the study of how people interact with the physical world around them, and the post-apocalyptic setting lent itself perfectly to playing with some of those concepts.
As you mentioned, Osto is in the Midwest of the U.S. Why did you set it there as opposed to, say, New York City, London, or West Orange, New Jersey?
Osto was born out of many conversations I’ve had with friends in the past about battle plans for a zombie apocalypse. I’ve always advocated for finding the nearest warehouse-style store and turning it into a fortress. You’d have food, shelter, and limited entrances to guard. Osto is located about a hundred miles south of Chicago, in what today we would consider exurban sprawl. The sort of place that has a big box store, acres of parking lot, and nothing else that you can easily reach without a car. So in a way, Osto was a distillation of hours of idle conversation turned into applied theory.
I also chose to set it in Illinois because I wanted a place that was culturally close to where I grew up, but also wanted proximity to a major city for some of the narrative possibilities it could provide.
The Future Second By Second sounds like it’s a dystopian sci-fi story, but the press materials say it’s, “Flipping the genre of dystopia on its head…” and that it’s, “showcasing a different kind of post-apocalyptic world — one dependent on community and cooperative living.” Which sounds more like hopepunk. How do you describe it, genre-wise?
Hopepunk works. For a while I was thinking of it as a utopia, in the sense that it was about people working together to try to create a perfect society. But in the end, it’s not quite that idealistic, and I did want to work in some of the darker sides of human nature. But hopepunk is a good fit because while there are obstacles to deal with, and some of those obstacles originate within the people themselves, it is still an innately hopeful take on the situation.
Why did you want The Future Second By Second to be more hopeful? I mean, no one would fault you for writing something dystopian, especially these days.
Honestly? I’m so tired of grimdark and dystopia. I think at base most people are generally good, or at least neutral, and would prefer to try to make the world better if they could. I’ve lived through a couple genuine disasters at this point — I was in Tokyo in 2011 when the Great East Japan Earthquake hit — and in my experience, they tend to bring out the kindness and cooperation in people. I spoke more to my neighbors in the days after the quake than I had in the four years before it. We shared resources and news and generally supported each other. It was a scary time, but people pulled together to make it better for everyone. I wanted to put that experience, and the outlook that it brought, in my writing.
The Future Second By Second is your second book after your self-published urban fantasy novel The Puppet Kingdom. Are there any writers who had a big influence on Second but not Kingdom? Or, for that matter, anything else you’ve written?
Everything I’ve published so far has been in a different sub-genre, so the influences are always very different. For this novella, the biggest influences were some of the books I read as a kid that focused on newly-established, struggling communities in hostile environments. The Tripods by John Christopher, The Green Book by Jill Paton Walsh, even the Catteni series by Anne McCaffrey, though I think there I may have been focusing on the “wrong” aspect of that particular story.
How about non-literary influences; was The Future Second By Second influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
I’d hesitate to call them influences so much as provocations, but the Mad Max movies and The Book Of Eli are post-apocalyptic settings that focus on the darker side of human nature, which I kind of thought I was writing against, so to speak. I’m also very fond of Dark Angel, the James Cameron TV show. In the first season especially, it had a lot of the community-building aspect I’m talking about.
And how about your cat, Kala? What influence did she have on The Future Second By Second?
She’d tell you that she supervised the whole thing. But you’re making me realize I’ve been remiss — there are no cats in Osto. I’ll have to remedy that.
Now, you’ve already revealed that The Future Second By Second is the first in a series of novellas. What can you tell us about this series?
I’ve been thinking of it as the Shelter Trilogy. Each subsequent book will feature some of the residents of Osto that were introduced in the first novella, though the specific group in focus will shift between books. I plan for each addition to open up the world further and reveal a bit more of both the past and the current situation. This is the approach that felt most natural to me, since what I’m interested in is the growth of the community — the “lens” of the story, so to speak, will widen as the books go on.
Upon learning that The Future Second By Second is the first book of a trilogy, some people will decide to wait until they’re all released before reading any of them, and some will further decide to also then read them back-to-back. But is there any reason why you think people shouldn’t wait?
Each book tells a self-contained story; no cliffhangers here. So you can read freely without fear of frustration at the end. In fact, since some time passes between each book, spacing them out a bit might make it easier to identify with the characters’ growth between the books.
Earlier I asked if The Future Second By Second had been influenced by any specific movies, TV shows, or games. But I’d like to flip things around and ask if you think The Future Second By Second could work as a movie, show, or game?
I would love to see it as a movie. It’s perfect for a script treatment, with tight pacing and clear scene changes. A limited series would have to add extra material, but if judicious, it could be done. As a game…I have been kicking around the idea of an RPG setting, but I am not making any promises there.
And if someone wanted to make a movie or show out of The Future Second By Second, who would you want them to cast as Vasha and the other main characters?
I…honestly haven’t thought that much about it. Vasha needs someone who can convey both extreme confidence and a sense of mischievousness. I could see her being played by an older Bollywood actress, like Bindu or Farida Jalal. Drake, the raiders’ leader, would need to be a tall, physically impressive guy like [Magic Mike‘s] Joe Manganiello or Jason Momoa [Dune].
So, is there anything else that people interested in The Future Second By Second should know before deciding whether or not to buy it?
I’d like people to know that while the book is hopeful, it isn’t fluffy. There are real setbacks and tension, and…well, I’ll just say I wrote it during the last Presidential administration, so there was no denying some of the darker aspects of humanity. But you can’t have a ray of light without the darkness surrounding it, right?
Finally, if someone enjoys The Future Second By Second, what hopepunk sci-fi novella of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
Most recently, I really enjoyed Becky Chamber’s A Psalm For The Wild-Built, which foregrounds two deeply engaging characters and their growing friendship in a fascinating setting. It reads like a breath of fresh air, and I can’t wait for the next in the series, A Prayer For The Crown-Shy.