When it comes to science fiction stories about generational space ships, we usually hear about the people who are taking the trip…and what a terrible time they’re having. But in his new sci-fi Western road trip novel Twenty-Five To Life (paperback, Kindle), writer R.W.W. Greene tells us about someone who stayed behind…and, uh, the terrible time they’re having. In the following email interview, Greene discusses what inspired and influenced this sci-fi story.
To begin, what is Twenty-Five To Life about, and when and where does it take place?
Twenty-Five To Life takes place in the 2090s, in what remains of the continental United States. The human race has failed to mitigate climate change, and the powers-that-be have decided that the only way forward is an attempt to colonize Proxima Centauri. At the start of the book, the main character, Julie, watches her best friend leave orbit aboard one of six generation ships, knowing that she and about nine billion others have been left behind to run out the clock. Julie is twenty-three, two years too young under a recent Constitutional amendment to be considered a legal adult. She’s educated, bored, comfortable, medicated, and really, really stuck. When her few remaining options narrow, she takes a leap of desperation and runs away from home in hopes of finding a life worth living on the road.
Where did you get the original idea for Twenty-Five To Life, and how, if at all, did that idea evolve as you wrote this story?
Eleven years ago, when I was slowly finding my way into writing fiction, I banged out a story called “Leaving Home” that was about a girl, age 13, named Hayley O’Brien, who was leaving Earth as part of a Hail Mary colony mission to Proxima Centauri. In an early draft, Hayley had a friend named Julie, left behind on Earth, who she corresponded with as the years (eighty-six!) went by. By the time the story was published as “It Pays To Read The Safety Cards” — which was published in Something Wicked in March of 2012, and then in the book Something Wicked Anthology Of Speculative Fiction, Volume Two — Julie and the letters were on the cutting-room floor, but I took “Leaving Home” and expanded it into a YA/Crossover novel for my MFA thesis. That book followed Hayley (turned Anji) into space, Julie onto the roads, and Ben into a super storm. I finished the book in 2012, sent it out a few times to mixed effect, and eventually put it in the drawer. I pulled it out between other projects to tinker with it. It went from first-person to third. The characters went from early teens to early twenties, etc. Eventually, I ripped the thing into three pieces, drawered two of them, and, in 2019, rewrote the third into Twenty-Five To Life.
Is the short story you mentioned included in Twenty-Five To Life? Like as a bonus.
It’s not. The characters and tone have changed so much over the various drafts, that I suspect it would only be relevant as a curiosity.
It sounds like Twenty-Five To Life is a dystopian pre-apocalypse sci-fi story. Is that how you’d describe it?
I resist the idea of calling it dystopian because, thematically, most sci-fi dystopias are a utopia for someone in the story. The world of The Hunger Games, for example, is pretty good if you’re rich and live in the city. Same with Blade Runner, Metropolis, or for the Party higher-ups in 1984. Dystopias are generally what you find if you flip a utopia over and look at its belly. No one has it particularly great, at least in the long-term, in Twenty-Five To Life. Everyone is screwed, it’s just going to take some folks longer to feel it.
I also question the idea that it’s pre-apocalypse. The tipping point, when they did so much damage to the planet that they couldn’t fix it, was the apocalypse. Everything after that was reaction and allayment.
If I put my MFA hat on, I might call it a post-apocalypse bildungsroman. If I took it back off…maybe a sci-fi Western or techno-Rapture? Is sci-fi road trip a genre?
Sure. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road comes to mind. Anyway, Twenty-Five To Life is your second novel after 2020’s The Light Years. Are there any writers, or maybe specific stories, that had a big influence on Twenty-Five To Life but not on The Light Years?
Publishing has not been at all chronological for me. Twenty-Five had been in and out of the drawer for seven years before I started laying the tracks for The Light Years. The next thing I have on deck also predates The Light Years, but came well after Twenty-Five.
Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story” is probably in Twenty-Five somewhere. Just Kids by Patti Smith. Both of these books have a kind of wistful, “unable to launch and headed for self-destruction” kind of feeling.
How about non-literary influences; was Twenty-Five To Life influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Maybe some Caprica, the Battlestar Galactica follow-up… I never watched it, but I knew it from the zeitgeist. A lot of it was probably Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, and thinking about how the future was going to come to my students.
Sci-fi novels are sometimes stand-alone stories and sometimes part of larger sagas. What is Twenty-Five To Life?
It could be a series, I suppose. Two-thirds of the original story is hanging out in the drawer, and I’m sure Ben and Anjie would like their time in the sun. I also have an idea about what happens when the colony mission reaches Proxima Centauri and another about what life might look like for Julie’s kids. Julie’s story was the best, circa 2019, so that’s the one I delivered to my agent, Sara Megibow, when she said, “What’s next?”
Speaking of books that are part of a series, in the previous interview we did for The Light Years, you said, “there’s a sequel out there, or at least part of one. Whether I try to dig it out or not depends on how The Light Years is received.” Was it received well enough to get a sequel?
The short answer is…I don’t know. It takes a couple of years — books sold and being returned unsold to the publisher — to really see how things went. Plus, there was a pandemic in there, and it’s hard to say exactly what that did to sales. Sequels tend not to make as much money as stand-alone novels, and I’m not nearly established enough to cajole anyone into letting me do a “passion project.”
Though Angry Robot have contracted the first two books of an entirely different thing, a pulpy, alt-history trilogy. The first book, Mercury Rising, is due out in spring of 2022. The second in 2023. Whether A.R. buys the third book depends on the sales of the first two. As much as they are supportive and eager to get interesting stuff out there, Angry Robot still needs to keep the lights on and employees paid. Mercury Rising I’m having a lot of fun with the series and looking forward to working with Angry Robot on it.
Earlier I asked about the movies, TV shows, and games that influenced Twenty-Five To Life. But I’d like to turn things around, if I may, and ask you this: Do you think Twenty-Five To Life could work as a movie, show, or game?
Game-wise, it would be fun to see what Square Enix, the people who did Life Is Strange, could do with the story. Some kind of big-map, open-world thing, but with that Life Is Strange character-driven narrative, lots of driving, pretty music, and beautiful but pollution-tinged sunsets.
I could also see Twenty-Five as a low-budget indie sci-fi thing. Something like Coherence or Another Earth.
Finally, if someone enjoys reading Twenty-Five To Life, what would you suggest they read next and why that?
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel came out in 2014. A graduating student gave me a copy in 2017, and it rhymes well with a lot of what’s going on in Twenty-Five. A great short story to read in the vein might be “Caught In The Organ Draft” by Robert Silverberg. The New American Road Trip Mix Tape by Brendan Leonard isn’t sci-fi, but it’s a super road-trip book that hits a lot of the same rest stops. I feel like True Grit, a Western by Charles Portis captures a bit of Twenty-Five, as does The Road by Cormac McCarthy…but don’t read that if you want to maintain any happiness in your life.