In his new sci-fi horror thriller The Razor (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), writer J. Barton Mitchell drops us off at the titular space prison, and then abandons the place, leaving us — as main character Marcus Flynn — to figure out what’s going on and how we can escape. But in the following email interview, Mitchell explains that while The Razor may be a prison in space, it wasn’t based on any space prisons we’ve ever been to.
Photo Credit: Clark Campbell
To begin, what is The Razor about?
The story takes place on a prison planet whose rotation is such that one side always faces the system’s star, always bathed in fire and heat, and the other is always in shadow and frozen. The planet itself is at just the right distance for a thin band of habitable atmosphere to form right in the middle, and that’s what’s nicknamed The Razor, this little line of life sandwiched between two powerful geologic forces.
The Razor became a prison planet because it’s a source for Xytrilium, the element that basically powers the galaxy. Because it’s so dangerous to mine, prisoners are used for the work. Being sentenced there is pretty much a death sentence.
The main character is Marcus Flynn, an engineer who’s been framed by his former bosses, the corporation that owns the mineral rights to The Razor. Flynn is, of course, eager to prove his innocence and escape The Razor, though the reality that that’s impossible quickly dawns on him.
Which is when the entire planet gets completely abandoned by the guards and its corporate overseers for very mysterious reasons. Flynn and an ensemble group of different villainous sorts are the only ones left to figure out what’s happening. There’s a lot of Lost type mysteries to unravel, an unfriendly alien creature lurking around, and the worst news, The Razor has begun to shrink, and if they can’t figure out a way off the planet by the time that happens, they’ll be cooked. At the same time, all these hints begin appearing that the planet has a long, dark history no one knew about, which might make it even more valuable than it previously was.
When did you first come up with the idea for The Razor, and how, if at all, did the story evolve as you wrote it?
It was an idea that my editor at Tor (Brendan Deneen, who’s also an author) and I bounced around, that prisoners on a planet in the future find themselves suddenly abandoned for mysterious reasons. I liked that idea because, for one, it was a cool hook: What could occur that was so bad it necessitated evacuating a planet full of really dangerous people?
I also really liked the idea of being able to do a cast of villains, or, at least, a cast that on the surface seems like villains. All the characters are sort of at the end of their respective roads when the evacuation happens, and it’s kind of a second chance for them, which gives some interesting story possibilities.
The Razor sounds like a sci-fi thriller. Is that how you see it, or are there other genres or subgenres or combinations of them at work in this story as well?
It’s a real hodge podge. It’s a sci-fi thriller for sure, but there’s a good amount of sci-fi horror as well, and, if the series keeps going, it becomes more and more space opera.
In deciding what the prison planet would be like, did you base it on real prisons, on fictional ones, or did you just make it up?
Really, the planet itself and the mining operation going on there determined the specifics for the prison aspects. The rare element the prisoners are mining is inside the super-heated half of the world, which is called the Cindersphere. But you can’t stay in the Cindersphere very long, it’s too harsh an environment; the temperatures and the radiation will cook you inside your heat suit. That means prison infrastructure not only has to be mobile, since it needs to go into and then out of the Cindersphere, but it also needs to be large enough to transport a labor force — and all the support and guard staff — that’s a thousand or so strong, as well as the equipment needed for the mining operation.
Those story aspects informed all the prison specifics in the story, really.
On the flipside, did you intentionally avoid making it like any specific fictional prisons? Like did you not make 11-H37 a frozen world because you didn’t want it to be like Rura Penthe in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country?
It’s cool you mention Rura Penthe. For whatever reason, when I think of sci-fi prisons, that’s the one that pops into my head first. That film was pretty formative for me as a kid, and it’s my second favorite original cast Trek movie. It was a mining operation too.
But, no, I wouldn’t say the emphasis was on avoiding any specific fictional prisons. It was more on just trying to create an interesting environment from a storytelling standpoint. Honestly, most fictional prisons aren’t all that interesting, just because of their inherent nature. Life in a prison is generally pretty static and mundane. It’s just a holding area for people.
The mobile nature of the prison, the modular cell blocks, the fact that the crew is locked in with the prisoners on these giant land ships and, further, that the giant land ships are isolated in an incredibly dangerous environment, gives the potential for some interesting stories.
Speaking of influences,The Razor is your fourth book, following the Conquered Earth trilogy. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that were a big influence on The Razor but not on the Conquered Earth series?
James A. S. Corey’s Expanse series is certainly an influence, both tonally and world wise. I think their world building is incredibly expansive — no pun intended — while at the same time remaining pretty grounded, which helps it feel all the more real. I like story worlds in that vein.
How about non-literary influences, such as movies, TV shows, or video games; did any of those have a particularly big impact on The Razor?
James Cameron’s Aliens, to me, has a similar feel, and I’ve always preferred grounded and pared down tech in my science fiction: ballistic weapons over laser guns; keyboards instead of holographic displays. Even if it is somewhat pre-anachronistic — I just made that word up — it’s an aesthetic I’ve always liked. It feels more real, but only because it’s what we’re used to now.
As I mentioned, you previously wrote the Conquered Earth trilogy. Is The Razor the beginning of a new series?
The Razor is the beginning of a new series, and you can tell when you finish the book it’s written that way. It’s an ensemble cast, and their stories going forward are pretty much set up. I have it plotted out to five books in my head right now, but of course depends on how well it sells. Here’s hoping…
We talked earlier about the movie Aliens being an influence on The Razor. But has there been any interest in adapting The Razor into a movie?
I know there’s been some interest, because it’s come through my agent, and they were referred on to Tor, who has the film rights for this series. We’ll see what happens there, but, honestly, a book like this needs a pretty big following before it would get bought. It would not be a cheap movie to make.
If it happens, who would you like them to cast in the main roles?
It’s funny, I spoke with Travis Baldree — the awesome voice actor who did the Audiobook version of The Razor — several times while he was working on it, and he sent me his own cast list that helped him focus the different voice styles for the characters, and I loved it. I’ll share it here:
Flynn: young, Tron-era Bruce Boxleitner
Maddox: a younger Josh Brolin [Avengers: Infinity War]
Key: Tessa Thompson [Thor: Ragnarok]
Zane: Dave Bautista [Guardians Of The Galaxy: Volume 2]
Gable: Helen Mirren [The Fate Of The Furious]
Raelyn: Emma Stone [Zombieland]
If you haven’t listened to the audio version, you should definitely check it out. Travis nails it, and it’s a lot of fun in that format.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Razor, they’ll probably read your Conquered Earth trilogy next. But once they’ve done that, what similarly thrilling sci-fi novel or novella of someone else’s would you suggest they read?
Less obvious? I love Simon R. Green’s super pulpy — in all the right ways — Deathstalker series. H.P. Lovecraft has always been a huge influence for me; At The Mountains Of Madness especially. I’m writing an article for the Tor blog about John Steakley’s underrated book — and Heinlein meditation — Armor as well. Steakley actually grew up in my home town of Cleburne, TX, and even though I never met him, he always had a mystique to me because of that.