After years of penning such fantasy novels as Heirs Of Grace and the Marla Mason series, writer Tim Pratt has started to explore the cosmos with his sci-fi novel, The Wrong Stars (paperback, Kindle), the first in an ongoing series. Though in trading emails with him for the purpose of his interview, he revealed that while writing science fiction may be new for him, enjoying it certainly isn’t.
I always like to start with a plot summary. So, what is The Wrong Stars about?
Several hundred years in our future, a ragtag crew of posthumans discover strange alien technology and uncover a secret that threatens all sentient life in the galaxy.
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 partly posthuman crew of the White Raven — an independent freight, salvage, occasional security ship operating out of a huge space station on the edge of our solar system — they discover a “goldilocks ship” drifting among the icy planitesimals: these were colony ships with small crews in cryonic suspension and lots of seedbanks, sent out five hundred years before, in the early 22nd century, when the Earth was nearly destroyed ecologically. Lots of the ships were launched toward any halfway plausible possible planet in the “goldilocks zones” of nearby stars, sent on long slow voyages in the hope that some of them would find habitable worlds and keep humankind alive if Earth perished. There’s no reason one of those ships should be anywhere near our solar system centuries after it launched, and when the crew of the White Raven investigate, they find all but one of the ship’s cryo-pods empty, and discover weird, seemingly alien technology on board. When the crew wake up the sole survivor, a biologist born in the late 21st century, she reveals the existence of an unknown race of aliens, far more dangerous and sinister than the baffling-but-mostly-friendly Liars. Investigating her story, and figuring out what the strange technology on the goldilocks ship can do, leads to the revelation of secrets that threaten the survival of every intelligent being in the galaxy, human and Liar alike.
Also, there are jokes and kissing and weird giant bug-monsters.
Where did you get the original idea for The Wrong Stars from, and how different is the finished novel from that initial idea?
I wanted to write about a crew of diverse people who form a created family and have adventures on a spaceship, and creating the crew was most of the initial fun: the cyborg “early adopter” engineer Ashok, who likes radical self-improvement; the morose XO and ship’s doctor Stephen, who belongs to an ecstatic chemical mystery religion; the lovelorn ship’s A.I., Shall; the navigator and pilot team of Drake and Janice, who have peculiarities best left for the reader to discover; the “sleeper awakens” biologist Elena; and the no-nonsense, pragmatic, but deep-down — like really deep — romantic in several senses of the word captain Kalea “Callie” Machedo. Once I had them fleshed out, it was question of figuring out what kind of situations would challenge them in interesting and compelling ways. My vision of the novel didn’t change radically as I wrote it.
The Wrong Stars has been described as a hard science fiction novel. Do you think this is an accurate description, or is there another subgenre or combination of them that describes this novel better?
No, I wouldn’t call it hard sci-fi; it’s a lot more Firefly than Red Mars — or even The Expanse — and there’s plenty of weird alien tech the characters don’t understand that don’t remotely qualify as “hard science.” It’s space opera, an adventure among the stars, though I was aiming for more than pure pulp, and I think the book does have some serious things to say about culture, what it means to be human, and the power of storytelling to help define us.
Now, I’ve never asked a writer about their author photo before, but in yours, you’re wearing a cartoony Cthulhu t-shirt. I have to ask, is there anything about The Wrong Stars that is Lovecraftian? Or cartoony?
Weirdly enough, yes. The ultimate looming threat in The Axiom series is an ancient race of basically unknowable aliens who, if they noticed humankind at all, would probably squish us as readily as we would ants at a picnic. The Axiom aren’t that unlike the elder gods of the Mythos: mysterious beings of vast power, indifferent to our sufferings and joys alike.
Aside from H.P. Lovecraft, what other writers or specific books had an impact on The Wrong Stars, but not as much of one on your other novels or stories?
Oh, I was certainly influenced by Iain M. Banks’ Culture series [Consider Phlebas, The Player Of Games, Use Of Weapons, The State Of The Art, Excession, Inversions, Look To Windward, Matter, Surface Detail, and The Hydrogen Sonata], Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality series [collected in The Rediscovery Of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction Of Cordwainer Smith], Joanna Russ’ The Two Of Them, M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy [Light, Nova Swing, and Empty Space], and Peter Watts’ Blindsight, among others.
What about non-literary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or video games that had an influence on The Wrong Stars?
I grew up on Star Wars, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica, and played the Dead Space games with great pleasure. Though I came to the Mass Effect games too late for them to be an influence on this series, I definitely thought, “Yes, this is the kind of thing I’m trying to do, too” when I finally got around to playing them.
As you said, The Wrong Stars is the first book in The Axiom series, with the second, The Dreaming Stars, due out in the fall of 2018, and the third, tentatively calling The Forbidden Stars, planned for 2019. What was it about this story that you felt it needed to be told in multiple books? And is it a trilogy, or will it be five books, seven, or an ongoing thing?
The first book is mostly about discovering the big threat, and staving off immediate devastation; as the books go on, the crew has to deal with the further ramifications of their discoveries and try to deal with the threat of the Axiom in a more definitive way. Each book will tell a stand-alone story, and ideally the series will be readable in any order; it’s more “continuing adventures” than “one big story,” though there are certainly looming background threats that will carry on from novel to novel.
For me, though, novels are about the characters, so really the series is a chance to put people I find fascinating in extreme situations to see what they do and how they grow and change.
The first three books are pretty well mapped out, and I have solid notions for a couple of books beyond that. Honestly, though, I could write about these people, and new characters, exploring the cosmos for years. It’s a big universe full of joys and terrors, after all.
You’ve also written a number of short stories over the years. Are any of them part of this series? Or are you planning on writing any in this saga?
I haven’t written any Axiom short stories yet, though I wouldn’t rule it out. I’ve done series work in the past, and enjoyed writing stories to highlight secondary characters or reveal underexplored corners of the universe or try out ideas. I imagine I’ll do that for The Axiom, too.
I asked you earlier about movies, TV shows, and games that may have influenced The Wrong Stars. But has there been any interest in adapting The Wrong Stars into a movie, show, or game?
Not yet, but my agents are sending it around, so who knows. I am an avid enjoyer of TV, movies, and games, but I don’t make them, so I hesitate to say how my series would work best in adaptation. I certainly like The Expanse TV show, though, and it would be fun to tune in and see Callie and the others blowing stuff up and flirting every week.
If The Wrong Stars was to be made into TV show, who would you like to see them cast in the main roles?
When I saw Frankie Adams as Bobbie Draper on The Expanse I thought, “Huh, she could play Callie,” though Callie’s a bit older than the actor; Adams can definitely play the toughness mingled with the humanity, though. As long as the filmmakers or showrunners retained the diversity of the characters and cast talented people of Pacific Islander, Korean, Indian, black, etc. heritage, I’d be content. It’s important to me that my distant future world should look at least as diverse as my current neighborhood in South Berkeley.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Wrong Stars, and they’re looking for something to read while waiting for The Dreaming Stars to come out, which of your other books should they check out next?
All my other books are fantasy. This is my first spaceships-and-aliens book, and a whole new direction for me.
That said, assuming the readers like fantasy too, the contemporary fantasy novel Heirs Of Grace is my best stand-alone novel. Though if they want to settle in for something longer, my eleven-book urban fantasy Marla Mason series begins with Blood Engines, and it’s a complete series, as of last year’s Closing Doors. Though I may do a book collecting the stories sometime soon.