As Lord Acton so smartly said, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But what if that power is super? It’s what’s explored in Bob Proehl’s new sci-fi novel The Somebody People (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), the companion in a duology with last year’s The Nobody People. In the following email interview, Proehl discusses what inspired and influenced this second half of the story.
Photo Credit: Heather Ainsworth
For people who didn’t read The Nobody People, what is that novel about, and what kind of world is it set in?
When it was written, The Nobody People was set in a world like our own but maybe slightly worse. Now it seems like it’s set in a nostalgia-tinged past. Anyway. The Nobody People is about a group of folks with abilities, who call themselves Resonants. They’ve existed since World War II, but have kept themselves secret, and the book is about the repercussions of their decision to reveal themselves to the public.
It follows Avi Hirsch, a reporter who’s just finding out not only that Resonants exist, but that his young daughter Emmeline is a particularly powerful one.
Along with Avi, it follows Fahima Deeb, a teacher at a school for Resonants who’s forced to make questionable decisions to keep her people safe, and Carrie Norris, a student graduating from that school and trying to find a way to live with her powers.
And then what is The Somebody People about, and aside from being the second half of the story, how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to The Nobody People?
The Somebody People is set seven years after the end of The Nobody People. Without giving too much of the first book away, the events of that novel lead to an open conflict between Resonants and the U.S. government, and in the end, Resonants win. This is their chance to build a better world, but at the same time, they’re carrying the baggage of violent conflict, and the resentment of having been discriminated against, imprisoned, and killed. So we follow Fahima, who’s now in a leadership role and really struggling with the moral compromises she’s made, Carrie, who’s been severely traumatized by her role in the war, and Emmeline, who’s spent most of her teen years secreted away to prevent her being used as a weapon, and is exploring this new world for the first time.
In the previous interview we did about The Nobody People [which you can read by clicking here], you mentioned that you had started writing that book in 2016, and that it had been influenced by current events. Is the same for The Somebody People, has it also been influenced by current events?
Certainly it’s not as directly influenced as The Nobody People. It’s going further into a fictional world that isn’t like ours, and so to an extent you lose those touchstones, those easy references to the way things actually are, and instead focus on the implications of what’s happened in this fictional world. It’s a loss, that connection to the familiar, but I think it’s important.
I will say that current events meant I gave myself permission to write a simpler villain. The Somebody People has a much more explicit villain than The Nobody People, and he’s driven by fear and anger in a way that I think five years ago, I would have felt more need to delve into, and create more shading and nuance. But I think there are people who are scared and angry and act on it, and there’s got to be accounting for harm done, even if it’s part of a cycle of past harms.
The Nobody People is a science fiction story. I assume The Somebody People is as well, yes?
It’s still very much a science fiction story, but this is the part where we arrive at a kind of dystopia. The seed for this story was always “Carrie drives across a barren wasteland” and everything else took shape around that. There’s more horror in this one, and more adventure novel elements. There are sections that are buddy movie-inspired, and at least one big swashbuckling story beat.
Are there any writers, movies, TV shows, or games that had big influence on The Somebody People but not The Nobody People?
It’s not an influence that’s going to be apparent, but Avatar: The Last Airbender was a big influence on The Somebody People. I’ve always been in this camp of narrative economy. Like, keep your number of settings and characters limited, because there’s a cost to having the reader moving around a bunch, having to describe a new place. And Avatar is so good at building its world through movement, and sketching the dynamics of each new place we see. As I was watching it for the first time, which was just I guess last year, I swung all the way around to considering what the potential might be for movement, for a multiplicity of settings. So while The Nobody People was really grounded in Chicago and New York, The Somebody People is a bit of a travelogue through the world that’s been constructed in the wake of this conflict.
The other sneaky influence — so sneaky I didn’t realize it was in my head until after the books were done — is Final Fantasy VI. Or III. I guess it depends which numbering you’re going with, but it was III when I played it on SNES. It’s the one with the mix of high fantasy and steam-punk aesthetics, and then halfway through the world more or less ends? Sorry if that’s a spoiler for a game that’s a quarter century old. But that idea of re-visiting characters in completely different circumstances returning to their own narratives, and the idea of getting the band back together, those aspects of the game feature pretty heavily in The Somebody People in particular.
You said in our previous interview that while you are a huge comic book fan, and that “The X-Men is sort of written into my creative DNA,” you also said that you didn’t think The Nobody People was influenced by a specific run of the comics or the movies. Is that true for The Somebody People, or was it influenced by a particular series of X-Men comics or one of the X-Men movies?
The ’90s-era Age Of Apocalypse crossover turned out to be the big influence on this book. The premise is there’s a version of the world where mutants ascended to power, and once they had power they used it to build a world that’s just an insufferable hellscape for everybody. Now obviously that rings false. No one sets up to build a bleak dystopia; they work toward a utopia for themselves and people like them, and dystopia is the shadow that casts. But that story was humming enough in my head that I wouldn’t let myself pull the comics down off the shelves until I was done writing the book.
As we’ve been discussing, The Nobody People and The Somebody People form a duology. Some people who write duologies later expand upon them with side stories, sequels, or prequels. Are you planning to do that as well?
I don’t have any plans on expanding it, because for me the story and the world comes from the characters, and I’ve finished telling the stories of these characters. I have notes for tangents and asides, and bits of backstory (or futurestory) for some of the core characters that didn’t work for the novel, pacing-wise, but are still true in my head, and part of the story the readers aren’t going to get to see. But I’m ready to let this world chug along on its own for a while without my hand guiding it. One of the themes of the book is letting the future be undefined, so I guess I’ll take my own advice and step away.
There are undoubtedly people who have been waiting for The Somebody People to come out so they can read both books back-to-back. Do you think this is the best way to experience this saga, or is there some story-based reason why you think people should take a break in between?
Like we talked about last time, in my head, these are one big book. I like the idea of absorbing that shock of narrative time passing, without necessarily experiencing it yourself. We’re in the era of returning to fantasy worlds from our own childhoods and teenage years and the amount of time that’s passed for us has passed for the characters too, and there’s a magic in that, but I wanted these books to come out as close to one another as they could so the reader has a dislocation going into the second book, and spends some of their energy parsing out what’s happened in the interim.
The Nobody People and The Somebody People have been optioned by Fox for a possible TV series. Where do things stand on that in light of the coronavirus pandemic and Fox being bought by Disney?
I am so entirely not part of those goings on. My limited understanding is that because it’s part of Fox’s television side, it remains unconnected to the Mouse. But obviously, development of traditional scripted shows is difficult to impossible right now, so I know they’ve decided to keep the option another year, but I can’t say that anything about it has moved forward.
And are you still bad at fantasy casting, or do you know who you’d like them to cast to play the main characters?
I remain very bad at fancasting, but I can say that young Kevin Bishop in this book is probably Ben Whishaw [Spectre] in my head, while young Raymond Glover is a more malicious Farley Granger in Strangers On A Train.
See, even when I do it, it’s too nerdy to be fun for anyone else.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Nobody People and The Somebody People, what similarly superheroic novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read and why that one?
Obviously I’m a sucker for “school for kids with abilities” stories, so I would point people to either Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, or Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House, which are both excellent. Oh, and Sarah Gailey’s Magic For Liars. They’re all on the fantasy side rather than sci-fi side of the rickety, crumbling fence that divides genres, but they’re all very different, really powerful explorations of the idea.