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Exclusive Interview: “World Running Down” Author Al Hess

 

One of the great things about science fiction is that you can use to explore issues that mean a lot to you. It’s what writer Al Hess did in his cyberpunk / decopunk / gay romance / cozy post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel World Running Down (paperback, Kindle). In the following email interview, Hess discusses what inspired and influenced this meaningful story.

Al Hess World Running Down

To start, what is World Running Down about, and when and where does it take place?

World Running Down is about a wasteland salvager named Valentine, living out of a VW van in future post-apocalyptic Utah. Wrestling with body dysphoria, he dreams of earning enough money to afford citizenship in Salt Lake — one of the few remaining big cities — where the testosterone and surgery he needs to transition are free. But no matter how he tries, he can’t save enough money for a visa into the city.

Osric, an A.I. who was once a powerful disembodied Steward in the network running through Salt Lake, has been forced into an android body against his will and sent into the wasteland to offer Valentine a job on behalf of his new employer: an escort service seeking to retrieve their stolen androids. The reward is a visa into the city, and a chance at the life Valentine’s always dreamed of. But as they attempt to recover the “merchandise,” they encounter a problem: the android ladies are becoming self-aware, and have no interest in returning to their old lives.

The prize is tempting, but carrying out the job would go against everything Valentine stands for. He has to decide whether to risk his own dream in order to give the A.I. a chance to live theirs.

Where did you get the idea for the plot of World Running Down? What inspired it?

At the time, I was grappling with my own body dysphoria and ache to transition, but it didn’t seem possible with the circumstances I was in. I had nowhere for that ache and despair to go, so I channeled it into a new protagonist. But I was determined to give him more hope than I had for myself. I wanted to mirror his feelings in an A.I. grappling with an unfamiliar body, and use that as an additional lens into the trans experience.

Plus, I just really like writing about people romancing robots.

Is there a reason why you set World Running Down in Utah, and with Valentine trying to earn money for citizenship in Salt Lake City, as opposed to, say, someone in the French countryside wanting to live in Paris or a resident of West Orange, New Jersey trying to move to Manhattan?

Writing about a real place I’ve never lived in — particularly in a different country — is extremely research intensive and I have no confidence in getting it right, even if it’s a futuristic version of the place.

What about a fictional city?

I do enjoy creating fictional cities, but I also like to put futuristic spins on familiar childhood places. Every summer as a teen, I used to visit relatives in both Salt Lake and the nearest Nevada towns. The salt flats between Wendover, Nevada, and Salt Lake City, Utah, have an almost otherworldly quality, and they seemed like the perfect setting for a wasteland road trip.

It sounds like World Running Down is both a dystopian and cyberpunk post-apocalyptic sci-fi story. Is that how you’d describe it?

With its focus on A.I. as the city’s caretakers, World Running Down could likely fall into cyberpunk. But if we’re taking aesthetics into consideration, it would fit better into decopunk. The buildings and Steward eyes are art deco, the most prominent music genre is jazz, and finger waves and pastel suits are in fashion. Outside of the city, it’s very much post-apocalyptic, but in my brand of “cozy” post-apocalyptic. And we have to include queer romance as a genre, because it’s a huge part of the story.

Unless I’m mistaken, World Running Down is your eighth novel after Seraph Ex Machina, Shake Out The Ghosts, Incidents In A Town Like Yours, and the four in your Hep Cats Of Boise series…

It’s actually my tenth book. I started with a seven book cozy post-apocalyptic series called Travelers, which I’ve unpublished for now because I feel like it’s not up to snuff. After that came two full length Hep Cats Of Boise books, then World Running Down. Seraph Ex Machina is a free novella I wrote earlier this year, and Incidents In A Town Like Yours is a small town alien invasion book, and will be my next to go out on submission to editors.

Got it. So are there any writers who had a big influence on World Running Down but not on anything else you’ve written?

Thinking of writers who specifically influenced World Running Down and nothing else is hard because I carry all my influences through to everything I write. The most accurate answer to that question would be to point back to my past self, and my body of self-published works. I wanted this to be a cozy post-apocalyptic book with heavy sci-fi elements and a found family feeling, like the Travelers Series I started with. I wanted it to feature art deco aesthetics, characters in suits, and a romance with a self-aware A.I., like my Hep Cats Of Boise series. My plan was to cram everything I loved into one book, but make it the best one yet.

What about non-literary influences; do you think World Running Down was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?

I love classic ’80s sci-fi movies, and certainly movies like Blade Runner, Mad Max, and The Terminator were an influence. I used both Blade Runner and Mad Max as comps, and there’s a specific scene in World Running Down that, either through happenstance or subconsciously, has a lot in common with Fury Road.

But the biggest influence on any of my dystopian / post-apocalyptic writing is Fallout. I haven’t played any of the games in years, but they were such a big part of my teens and 20s that they’re etched on my DNA at this point. It’s always coming out in subconscious ways in my stories, whether through the humor, the weapons and sci-fi devices, or places the characters find.

Valentine makes a cheeky observation about a gross mattress on the side of the road. Fallout. He has a ridiculous static-electric Gatling gun that can fry enemies to a crisp. Fallout. Mutated desert animals. Fallout. The disembodied A.I. Stewards who watch over Salt Lake City were originally called Overseers. Fallout. That name was changed, though, because the Stewards are benevolent caretakers of the city and not dictatorial slave masters, and I didn’t want it misinterpreted.

As an aside, the first tattoo I got was a Fallout stimpak tattoo on my leg.

Wait, does that mean that Valentine is named after Nick Valentine, the synth P.I. in Fallout 4?

Ha! No, Valentine wasn’t consciously named after Nick Valentine. A great deal of the character names are pulled from Shakespeare; Valentine is a character in The Two Gentlemen Of Verona. However, considering how much of an influence Fallout has been on my writing, I’m not going to deny the possibility that it could have been a subconscious decision that I picked that name in particular.

Sci-fi novels — be they cyberpunk, decopunk, etc. — are sometimes stand-alone stories and sometimes part of larger sagas. What is World Running Down?

I absolutely think there could be many more stories in the universe of World Running Down. I wrote a prequel novelette called Neuro Noir, which features Lysander, one of the A.I. Stewards in Salt Lake, and was spurned by one line of conversation in the book.

But right now I don’t have any plans for a sequel or a series. There’s one character in particular that I think could make a fantastic main character of a sequel, but I think I would struggle with it because as a trans man I’m very uncomfortable writing the POV of female characters. I love having them as supporting characters, but can’t write them as main characters.

Earlier I asked if World Running Down had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But I’d like to flip things around and ask if you think World Running Down could work as a movie, show, or game?

Oh, this is a hard decision. Can I answer for both?

Sure.

I can clearly see the visuals from a movie: a shot of Valentine’s boots as he steps out of the van and into the hard salt, the wind whipping across the flats. Lysander’s huge biomechatronic eye staring down from a decorative wall, pearly vitreous humor churning behind the transparent cornea as his voice floats from overhead. The rusty red VW van roaring down a buckled highway, the back bumper barely hanging on.

But considering that Fallout was such a huge influence, it’s easy to see it as a survival RPG where you have to fight enemies, search for food and fuel cells for the van, do side quests for settlements, and take shelter in charmingly decaying buildings.

I think I would be most excited for a game.

Okay, then if someone wanted to make a World Running Down movie, who would you want them to cast as Valentine and the other main characters?

My visual inspiration for Osric was Gaspard Ulliel [Moon Knight], who has since tragically passed away. I used so many references of him in addition to other faces to create my portraits of Osric that hearing about his death was a bit devastating. But I’m certain a casting director could find another tall, strong, handsome-but-unusual actor with a gentle voice to play Osric.

Valentine would need to be played by a trans masculine actor, preferably someone short and scrappy with an open, expressive face and a sandy voice. Though I haven’t actually watched him in anything, [Y: The Last Man‘s] Elliot Fletcher has the perfect face for Valentine.

And for Cinnamon, probably Bryce Dallace Howard [Jurassic World]. For Perdetta, [Black Panther‘s] Letitia Wright. For Brian, Gary Oldman [Darkest Hour] would be too old, but who wouldn’t want him as the villain in their movie?

And if someone wanted to adapt World Running Down into a game, you said you wanted it to be a survival RPG…

I think World Running Down would work fantastically as a survival RPG where you have to fight, explore, collect crafting items, gain companions (with the option to romance them), and discover Easter eggs. As much as I’ve loved first-person games like the later Fallouts, Dark Souls, and Borderlands, Fallout 2 will always be my favorite. So I’d love it with a turn-based combat system, isometric view, and ’90s style graphics, maybe made by an up-and-coming indie game studio.

So, is there anything else you think people need to know about World Running Down?

This is a book I wrote for myself and queried for other trans people, but it’s a story I think any sci-fi lover can connect with. I don’t want people to think it’s not for them if they aren’t trans. Certainly trans readers will be able to connect to Valentine on a more personal level, but themes of identity and finding your way in the world are something that anyone — cis or trans — can relate to. And if readers simply want to stay for the car chases, butt jokes, and the fact that Osric doesn’t wear pants on those muscled thighs for most of the book, that’s just fine.

Finally, if someone enjoys World Running Down, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next?

Definitely Mazarin Blues, the first book in my Hep Cats Of Boise series. There are elements that are quite different — World Running Down is a hot, dusty road adventure featuring a scrappy and extroverted main character, while Mazarin Blues is a plot of quiet, creeping dread in snowy Boise, ID following an introvert with an anxiety disorder — but they both have jazzy art deco cities, explore personhood with self-aware A.I. they’re teamed up with (whether they like it or not), have found family, M/M romance, witty protagonists, and everyone is queer.

 

 

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