They say you should never meet your heroes. It’s a lesson that Uma, the engineer of the science space ship Gallion, learns the hard way in Ren Hutchings’ new sci-fi space opera novel Under Fortunate Stars (paperback, hardcover, Kindle, audiobook). In the following email interview, Hutchings discusses what inspired and influenced this epic story.
To start, what is Under Fortunate Stars about, and when and where does it take place?
Under Fortunate Stars is a story about accidental time travel, a history nerd to the rescue, and the perils of meeting your heroes. It takes place in deep space, but it explores several worlds and locations around the galaxy through flashback chapters.
Uma, an engineer on the science ship Gallion, has always been fascinated with the past. She knows everything about the Fortunate Five — a legendary group of historical heroes who brokered a truce with an alien civilization and stopped an interstellar war 152 years ago. When the Gallion encounters a strange rift in space, they get a distress call from an antique freighter that claims to be the Five’s famous ship. But the people on board aren’t exactly as history described them, and they don’t know anything at all about diplomacy. With their power reserves depleting, the Gallion crew is running out of time to escape the rift, but their survival isn’t the only thing at stake — because if the peace was never sealed by the Fortunate Five, then the future of humanity would have played out very differently.
Where did you get the original idea for Under Fortunate Stars?
A central question in this book is, “What if you could meet your historical heroes, and you had to confront the reality of them as complex, imperfect people?” That’s a theme I’ve explored in several different stories over the years. But the spark that led to this novel was a conversation I had with my best friend. We’d been talking about urban legends that described a teleporting, time-hopping naval ship. That conversation led to me drafting a NaNoWriMo project which set that concept in space, and followed a crew of historical re-enactors who accidentally time-travelled.
Ultimately, Under Fortunate Stars morphed into a totally different book, and it now has a completely different plot than I started out with. But there’s still accidental time travel, and there are still those “never meet your heroes” vibes. And one of the main characters is still a massive history nerd, so some fragments of that original idea are definitely in there.
And is there a reason why the Gallion claims to be from 152 years in the future as opposed to 252 or 552 or 1052?
152 years felt like a workable distance between the two time periods to suit what the story needed. They needed to be close enough together to share some common points of reference, but far enough apart that some things would seem almost unfathomably futuristic to the “past” characters. It’s long enough for things to have changed significantly for humanity, yet not quite so long that it would be implausible for the characters to understand each other pretty easily.
Crucially, 152 years also puts the earlier timeline outside of living memory for the Gallion crew. It allows enough time for the historical accounts of events to have drifted from their original telling, long enough to make primary sources more difficult to verify, and long enough for the exploits of historical heroes to become legendary across a galaxy.
It sounds like Under Fortunate Stars is a sci-fi space opera story. Is that how you’d describe it?
Yes, a character-driven space opera. However, lots of early readers have mentioned the mystery elements, and the way the story fits together like a puzzle box, because you get different information in different timelines. I think it would also appeal to mystery fans who enjoy speculative fiction.
Speaking of which, are there any writers, or stories, that had a particularly big influence on Stars but not on anything else you’ve written?
I grew up reading every sci-fi book that the library had on the shelves, and I was particularly drawn into space opera by Alastair Reynolds. The Revelation Space series probably had the biggest influence on me as a space opera writer, especially when it comes to worldbuilding with lots of moving parts that slot together as the story progresses.
I also want to mention Becky Chambers here, because even though I didn’t read her books until after Stars was already drafted, her writing definitely influenced me in revisions. Reading The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet encouraged me to lean harder into those small, personal stakes for the characters, and to give their emotions and relationships all the space they needed on the page, regardless of how big and dramatic the galactic stakes are in the background.
How about non-literary influences; was Under Fortunate Stars influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Under Fortunate Stars is a love letter to Star Trek: The Next Generation in a lot of ways. That show and its characters had such a huge impact on me as a young sci-fi fan. The non-linear structure of the book is influenced by the TV show Lost, specifically the way the flashbacks tell a separate story in parallel which ends up linking into the events in the main timeline. I’ve wanted to write a book that felt like that ever since Lost first aired. There’s a sprinkling of Firefly vibes in the book too, because we see ships and outposts that feel a bit more “lived-in,” and a grittier, less utopian lens on the galaxy than the one in classic Star Trek.
Speaking of games, your bio says you’ve worked in game development. Are you working on anything now you can talk about?
I’m not working on any new game projects at the present moment. After spending most of a decade in games, I paused my work in game dev in 2020 to focus on writing, mentoring, and freelance editorial work. I’m currently an editorial assistant at Stelliform Press, an indie publisher of climate-focused SFF. Before that, I was a creative producer for children’s / educational games for several years, and then I moved into mobile games, where I worked across QA, content management and production.
Is that why did you decided to write Under Fortunate Stars as a novel as opposed to a game?
Game writing is a very specific skill, and my experience as a writer is mainly in long-form prose and novels. I’ve occasionally contributed bits of creative writing to game projects, but I’ve never worked as a game writer outside of children’s games. Maybe one day I’ll write something for a sci-fi game, but the story in Under Fortunate Stars has always been a novel.
Some sci-fi space opera novels are stand-alone stories and some are part of larger sagas. What is Under Fortunate Stars?
It is a stand-alone novel. I’ve written some other stories that take place in the same universe as Stars, and I do have a novella idea that features some of the same characters, but the story that’s told in Stars is very complete. It ends in a way that wraps up all the major storylines, although I have left a few little questions open to the reader’s imagination.
Earlier I asked if Under Fortunate Stars had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But I’d like to flip things around, if I may, and ask you if you think Under Fortunate Stars could work as a movie, show, or game?
I would love to see Under Fortunate Stars as a movie or as a limited series. Because it is a stand-alone story, it does have a clear conclusion, and there’s only so much material in the book, so I don’t think it could be a long-running series.
The Under Fortunate Stars galaxy would probably work as a game setting, but I’m not sure how I could tell this specific story in a game format. A game based on Stars would have to use the vibes, the locations, and the worldbuilding elements, rather than the plot.
And if someone wanted to turn Under Fortunate Stars into a movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as Uma and the other main characters?
I’ve never really had any specific actors in mind for the leads…but I would love to get a cameo from Mads Mikkelsen [Doctor Strange] as a minor character, even if it was just for 2 minutes of screen time. There’s a minor antagonist — the governor of a space station in one of the flashback storylines — that I think he’d be perfect for.
So, is there anything else you think someone interested in Under Fortunate Stars should know?
Under Fortunate Stars is told in four points of view and two timelines. It’s got moments of action, adventure, and peril, but at its heart, this book is a character journey. It’s about flawed, regular people just trying their best, and ultimately learning as much about themselves as they do about the events that shaped galactic history.
Finally, if someone enjoys Under Fortunate Stars, what sci-fi space opera novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next? Oh, and extra points if time is a factor in it.
I’d recommend A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe by Alex White. It’s a fast-paced space opera with a wonderful group cast of complicated, flawed characters, some cool mystery elements, and a twisty plot. I think it shares lots of vibes with my book if you loved mine (plus, it has an extra helping of space battles, spellcasting, and magic-based tech). [For more on this novel, check out this interview with Alex White.]
If it’s specifically time related you’re after, read Here And Now And Then by Mike Chen. This isn’t a space opera — it’s more grounded, near-future literary sci-fi — but I love a time-travel story with intimately personal stakes. It’s about a time traveler trying to save his daughter and prevent her from being wiped out of existence. It’s a gorgeous story about love and family and trying to fix mistakes.