As irritating as they may be in real life, Nazis are actually interesting when they’re IN SPAAAAACE! Y’know, like in Star Wars. Which brings me to John Birmingham’s The Cruel Stars trilogy, in which Space Nazis who were driven from Earth attempt to make a comeback. In the following email interview, Birmingham discusses the newly released second book in this sci-fi space opera series, The Shattered Skies (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook).
Photo Credit: © Vincent Long
For people who haven’t read the first book, The Cruel Stars, what is The Cruel Stars Trilogy about, and when and where does it take place?
It’s set in our universe, but about 1000 plus years in the future. I’ve got a series Bible somewhere tracing the origin of my story world back to Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos competing to be the first billionaire Astro Bro. It’s why corporate regimes and monarchies have largely replaced the nation state by the time we dip into the narrative arc.
That arc kicks off with the return of the Sturm, as they are not-so-popularly known. Or the Human Republic, as they prefer to style themselves. They’re a bunch of Space Nazis, species purists, who fought a war of extermination with the rest of the culture about 700 years before the opening of The Cruel Stars. They wanted to delete every single artificial intelligence and eliminate all forms of genetically or technologically augmented biological life. They lost and were exiled to deep space. But now they’re back for a second bite of the cherry.
And then for those who have, and thus don’t need to heed this SPOILER WARNING, what is The Shattered Skies about, and how does it connect to The Cruel Stars?
The Shattered Skies kicks off a couple of weeks after the boss battle at the end of The Cruel Stars. We catch up with our heroes hauling ass across the Outer Volume, trying to stay ahead of the invading enemy. But these fascists are faster-than-light. So good luck with that.
In part, The Shattered Skies is about consequences. A lot of shit goes down in that first book, and people have to pay for it now. But it’s also about unfolding the wider story-world like a big old piece of narrative origami. We saw one lousy meat-hacked space zombie in the first book. We get to see what that looks like on a much bigger canvas in Skies. We also get to meet the former enemies of the Armadalan Commonwealth, i.e. the Javan Empire, and some new bad guys in The Combine — the same corporate oligarchy which imprisoned Lucinda’s father on a debtor’s colony.
Also, McLennan does a lot of swearing, because it’s fun to listen to him swear. And the Sturm get a little more humanized, even though they are inhuman brutes.
When in relation to writing The Cruel Stars did you come up with the idea for The Shattered Skies?
Having learned my lesson with a couple of previous series, I knew exactly what was going to happen in the second book while I was drafting up the first. I also have a lock on what’s coming in the final novel. Still, things evolve, don’t they? So anybody who heard an echo of the Alt Right in the language and philosophy of the Sturm, will totally see some of those themes developed here. But if you don’t care to go looking, or you just don’t care, that’s cool, too. You got your big honking spaceships. Your massive splodey battles between the stars. And space zombies. I try to cater for everyone.
The Cruel Stars was a sci-fi space opera story. Is The Shattered Skies one as well?
I’m happy to wear the space opera tights. If there is another genre that I’m drawing on in this series it’s probably any novel of maritime adventure. I do love stories set on ships. They are whole worlds unto themselves, and often characters as rich as the people who sail in them. Iain M. Banks raised that form of writing to fine art in his Culture novels. There is also a bit of Phillip Marlowe about Anders Revel, the Sturm investigator given the job of finding out just what happened to Admiral Wenbo Strom’s attack fleet over Montrachet. Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, or genetically modified, or full of robot weapons. That sort of thing.
The Cruel Stars also had a bit of a humorous tone. Or rather, characters who said funny things. Do they do that in The Shattered Skies as well?
Nobody has lost their sense of humor. One of the things I do enjoy about writing POV novels, where you drop into the heads of a nicely varied ensemble cast, is using their different voices and perspectives to throw the story into starkly different relief depending on who is telling it. Hardy is probably the most straight-laced and least inclined to levity of all the main characters, and even she has a sharp enough eye for the human frailties and the inherent contradictions that surround her that she can on occasion be deadpan funny.
So, are there any writers, or specific stories, that you think had a big influence on The Shattered Skies but not on The Cruel Stars?
This is going to sound weird because it’s not a work of fiction, but I got to reading Donald Kagan’s The Peloponnesian War after I finished The Cruel Stars and he died (totally unrelated events!) and it definitely affected how I thought about the way empires and republics grind against each other. And especially the way that small incidents can spin out into great cataclysms.
How about non-literary influences; do you think The Shattered Skies was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games? Because people striking back against Space Nazis always makes me think of Star Wars. And the Killzone games.
I’ve been a big fan of James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, in both book and TV form. It is very, very different from The Cruel Stars and The Shattered Skies because that series cares a lot more about scientific realism than I do. But one of the things that struck me in reading the earlier books was how important time became when you couldn’t just warp from one part of human space to another. If it takes three months to get a ship from point A to point B, that delay becomes a driver of the story. And of course, the found family of the Rocinante are a great evolution of the Scooby Gang concept. Happy to steal ideas directly from that.
A lot has happened in the world since The Cruel Stars came out, and sadly, some of it involved Nazis. Did any of that stuff have an influence on The Shattered Skies? Like do The Sturm ever chant, “YOU WILL NOT REPLACE US!” while holding up Tiki Torches?
I think McLennan’s interrogator in The Cruel Stars, Captain Marla Dunn, says those exact words to him. But yeah, as I said a little earlier, in my imagination this story is set in our literal future so as our present gets darker it throws the imagined future of the books into deeper and deeper shadow. I still haven’t gone full Nazi with the Sturm in this series. But don’t doubt that we will get there.
Now, as we’ve been discussing, The Shattered Skies is the second book in The Cruel Stars trilogy. Do you know yet what the third and final book will be called and when it will be out?
The final book in this sequence will be The Forever Dead, and may Hero the murderous Super Intellect strike me down if it’s not on the shelves a year from now. The end of the world permitting, of course.
And will that actually be the third and final book? Because in the previous interview we did about The Cruel Stars, you said this series was, “…a trilogy, at the very least.”
Oh man, yeah, it will be the end of this particular story set in this story world. But having unfolded that world across a much larger map in this second book, I’m already anxious at the idea of leaving it behind. I have kept writing in the story worlds I created for other, previous series like the Axis Of Time and Dave Versus The Monsters. That’s one of the nice things about the rise of indie publishing. It lets us play in the sandlot years after the source works have been conventionally published.
We spoke earlier about the movies, etc., that influenced The Shattered Skies. But to flip the script, as the kids probably don’t say anymore, do you think The Cruel Stars trilogy could work as a series of movies or a TV show, or a game?
I’m writing a TV adaptation, because I’m an idiot and that’s the sort of thing I like to do to wind down at the end of the day. Whether anybody ever gives me a couple of hundred million to produce the thing, well that’s another story, innit, guvnor.
If they do, who would you want them to cast as Lucinda, Frazer, and the other main characters?
In my head canon Lucinda is played by Agent Carter‘s Hayley Atwell. McLennan has to be Pater Capaldi [Doctor Who]. Booker keeps changing form, as would his actor, but he’d probably finish up this book played by Anthony Mackie [The Falcon And The Winter Soldier], so maybe Joel Kinnaman could reprise their Altered Carbon double act. Sephina is Imani Hakim [Mythic Quest], for sure. But with platinum blonde dreads. And Lulu Wilson from Star Trek Picard would make a great Alessia. She owned that first season episode she guested in. I wonder if Michael Caine would voice Hero?
So, is there anything else that people interested in The Shattered Skies should know before deciding whether or not to buy it?
Let me just check my list. Hmm? Punching space Nazis and zombies and even bigger space battles? Tick, tick, tick. No, I think we’re done. Go buy the book.
Finally, if someone has enjoyed The Cruel Stars and The Shattered Skies, what sci-fi space opera trilogy of someone else’s would you suggest they read while waiting for The Forever Dead to come out?
There’s a gnarly little space marine trilogy by Jason Lambright, who processed a lot of his experiences in Afghanistan through his indie novels In the Valley, The Captain’s Cauldron, and Immolation. Warning though, they cut pretty close to the bone. Otherwise, I still have Peter F. Hamilton’s latest to catch up with [The Salvation Sequence]. Happy to read along with anyone who’d like to join me for that.