Exclusive Interview: When The Sparrow Falls Author Neil Sharpson
In the following email interview about his new novel When The Sparrow Falls (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), writer Neil Sharpson talks about how this story encompasses elements of dystopian science fiction, cyberpunk sci-fi, and spy thrillers. But if he had his way, we’d all just refer to it as “Le Carré punk.” Thy will be done.
Photo Credit: Ste Murray
To start, what is When The Sparrow Falls about, and when and where does it take place?
It’s 2210. Three Super A.I.s are effectively running the world, and the majority of the human race have abandoned their bodies and live an entirely digital existence online. The last holdout of organic human beings is the Caspian Republic, a totalitarian, virulently anti-A.I. closed state.
Our hero is Nikolai South, a low-ranking state security agent who is given the task of escorting a visiting A.I. dignitary named Lily, the first A.I. to be invited into Caspian since its founding. But when South meets Lily for the first time he is shocked to discover that the cloned body she is wearing is identical to that of his wife who died thirty years prior. South and Lily are quickly swept into a conspiracy involving warring security agencies, rogue A.I., and a plot that may bring down the Republic itself.
My understanding is that When The Sparrow Falls was originally going to be a play called The Caspian Sea…
Oh, it is a play, it’s just never been staged. Though it did receive a staged reading in Valdez Alaska and another in Dublin. The version of Sparrow that is being published contains probably 85%-90% of the material that’s in the play.
Oh, okay. So then where did you get the original idea for Caspian, and what was it about that story that made you realize it would work better as a novel than a play?
The original idea was simply a desire to write something in the vein of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy. An actor friend asked me to write her an audition piece, and that became the first meeting between South and his boss, Augusta Niemann, where she assigns him to look after Lily. I was tinkering with the play on and off for around six or seven years. But just about everyone I showed it to said something on the lines of “this isn’t a play, it’s a novel.” Now, I personally think it does work as a play, but it definitely works better as a novel. The play is a much more stripped-down version of the story. There are whole subplots and characters present in the novel that aren’t in the play.
When The Sparrow Falls has been called a dystopian sci-fi thriller. Though it’s also been compared to Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon and the movie Equilibrium, which makes me think it’s cyberpunk as well. How do you describe it?
I actually haven’t seen either Altered Carbon or Equilibrium; as soon as I heard A.C.‘s premise I made a conscious decision to steer clear of it as it sounded too similar to Sparrow.
Sparrow is definitely science fiction and certainly dystopian in its subject matter. But tonally, it’s an attempt to do a mid-century British spy novel in a science fiction setting. In my own mind I call it “Le Carré punk” but I doubt that’ll ever catch on.
Challenge…accepted. The Sparrow Falls is your first novel, but you’ve written some plays, including one, “The Hole,” which appeared in the collection The UCD Dramsoc Anthology: Plays Volume I. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on When The Sparrow Falls but not on anything else you’ve written?
Well, writing dystopias without being influenced by Orwell is like writing high fantasy without being influenced by Tolkien. Can’t be done. His influence on the genre is just too huge. So there’s a huge debt to 1984. Obviously, John Le Carré is a big influence, too. C.S. Lewis has influenced everything I’ve written, not just Sparrow. He was one of very few writers who was able to write about religion in a way that was equally engaging for believers and non-believers alike (specifically thinking about the Screwtape Letters). Lastly, and perhaps most weirdly, P.G. Wodehouse. He’s had a huge role in shaping my sense of humor and I think a lot of that bleeds into Nikolai South’s observations of the shitshow that is the Caspian Republic.
How about non-literary influences; was When The Sparrow Falls influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Sparrow wouldn’t exist without the 2011 version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy. The play really began as an attempt to capture that mood and ambience.
On your website you mention that When The Sparrow Falls is the first in a two-book deal you have with Tor. Is the other book a sequel to Sparrow or a separate story?
No, it’s not a sequel. It’s a cosmic horror using elements of Irish folklore and mythology set over several decades in the life of an Irish family.
Does that mean that When The Sparrow Falls is a stand-alone story?
It is in the sense that I’m done with Nikolai South. His story has been told and the poor bastard doesn’t need me thinking up any more horrors to inflict on him. I do have ideas for stories set in Caspian, as I’ve put too much work into the place to be done with it. I have a plan for a prequel / sidequel called Yozhik. If you’ve read the book you can probably guess what that’s about.
We talked earlier about how When The Sparrow Falls started out as a play called The Caspian Sea. Do any versions of When The Sparrow Falls include The Caspian Sea?
No, but if we ever do another edition we might include the playscript as a bonus feature.
Earlier I asked if When The Sparrow Falls had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. Has there been any interest in turning this novel into a movie, show, or game?
I ain’t sayin’ nuffin’ (sorry, I actually can’t say anything about that).
Hypothetically, I think a feature film would be the best format. At 300 pages it’s a little slim for a series. That said, I have imagined expanding it into a Wire-esque kind of series where you see every level of this society and how it all fits together.
If this was going to happen, hypothetically, who would you want them to cast as Nikolai, Lily, and the other main characters and why them?
Oh, let’s do this:
South: Chiwetel Ejiofor [Doctor Strange]. Fantastic actor, terrific range and a really understated presence.
Lily / Olesya South: Emma Stone. Same face, two very, very different women and I think she’d be fantastic as both.
Augusta Niemann: Kate Mulgrew [Orange Is The New Black]. She’s got the authority obviously but also the wry, comedic streak Gussie has to have.
Sally Coe: Kirsten Scott Thomas. Sally is basically her character from Four Weddings and Funeral with a license to kill.
Vladimir Chernov: Tom Hardy [The Dark Knight Rises]. Big imposing guy who can radiate thuggishness and extreme vulnerability.
Finally, if someone enjoys When The Sparrow Falls, what dystopian cyberpunk sci-fi thriller of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that?
I’m actually going to suggest a game rather than a novel…
I’ll allow it.
…Lucas Pope’s genre-defying classic Papers Please, which puts you in the role of a customs officer in a totalitarian state, giving you just enough power to be corrupted and just enough powerlessness for you to be constantly looking over your shoulder.