American sci-fi author Greg Cox has written everything from epic trilogies to back-cover blurbs, penning original stories and novelisations, and contributing work to a broad variety of different ongoing series. His latest project, however, is new ground – The Vesuvius Prophecy is the first ever novel to be based on the now-cancelled sci-fi series The 4400, and Greg took time out of a busy schedule to preview the novel with Unreality.
We kick off our conversation by discussing The 4400 as a series. “I was definitely a fan of the show right from original miniseries, and was watching the show religiously,” he enthuses. When Margaret Clark, an editor at Pocket Books, called him up and asked if he’d like to write a novel based on the show, he “jumped at the chance, especially since the series is set in my old home town of Seattle, Washington. Trust me, I milked the local colour for all it was worth!”
Sadly, The 4400 never received the huge popularity it deserved, failing to reach the same levels of success as similar series such as Heroes. In December 2007, it was announced that there would be no fifth season of the show, due to budgetary problems, the WGA strike, and the low ratings. “Needless to say, I was disappointed by the show’s cancellation, both as a fan and a writer,” Greg comments, when I ask how he reacted to the news. “The plan was for my book to debut in July, just in time for the premiere of the fifth season, but now, alas, it’s on its own.”
Fans of The 4400 hoping to reverse the decision have been mailing sunflower seeds, the snack-of-choice of popular character Kevin Burkhoff, to network executives. I ask Greg if he’s participated in such campaigns. “I haven’t mailed any sunflowers seeds myself, although I’ve signed a few online petitions, but, as a fan, I’m still hoping that maybe we’ll get one more miniseries just to bring the story to a close, like the way The Peacekeeper Wars wrapped up Farscape after that show was cancelled. The 4400: The Final Chapter or something like that.”
Steering the discussion back towards The Vesuvius Prophecy, Greg offers a few tantalising hints about what’s in store for fans. “The book takes place about midway through the third season, shortly before Jordan Collier returns. The plot begins with Maia having a vision of Mount Rainier erupting, which sets Tom and Diana on a manhunt for a mysterious 4400 who may possess the ability to trigger volcanoes with his mind. Tom and Diana are the main characters, but Shawn, Isabelle, Richard, and Alana also figure in the plot.”
The 4400 was always a heavily-serialised show, which must complicate the process of writing a tie-in novel. “Oh god, yes!” Greg exclaims in agreement. “That was our main challenge in getting the outline approved by the TV people. We went back and forth several times before finally deciding to place the story right before Collier returned. That seemed like the very last place we could slip in a standalone adventure before the whole Promicin storyline kicked into high gear.”
Greg is also particularly well-known amongst genre fans for his extensive Star Trek work, such as Thinking of You, a short story featured in last year’s Next Generation anthology The Sky’s the Limit. Unusually, the story focussed on Ro Laren, Reginald Barclay and Lwaxana Troi, rather than the regular crewmembers. “To be honest, that Marco Palmieri’s idea,” reveals Greg. “He was the editor of that anthology, which was intended as a salute to TNG‘s twentieth anniversary. Marco was determined that every aspect of TNG be represented, which meant he needed to include Ro, Barclay, and Lwaxana. He also wanted a humorous adventure to balance out some of the heavier tales in the book. As a result, I got a very specific laundry list of ingredients for that story. ‘Greg, I need a funny story involving Barclay, Lwaxana, and Ro, preferably set during the fifth season. Can you do that?’”
How was the writing process? “It turned out to be a fun combination of characters to work with. Ro makes a great straight man! I also convinced Marco that no tribute to TNG could complete without at least one ‘malfunctioning holodeck’ story…”
Other recent Trek appearances by Greg Cox include the novel-length The Worst of Both Worlds, which featured in the compilation Mirror Universe: Glass Empires. “That was another story where the editor of the anthology, Margaret Clark, had a very specific idea of what she wanted. The basic concept – Jean-Luc Picard, tomb raider, versus the Borg – was all Margaret’s.” That’s quite a few elements… “I do make up my own ideas sometimes. Honest!”
The Mirror Universe has deliberately been portrayed as the polar opposite of the “normal” Star Trek universe, featuring everything from a bearded Spock to a manipulative bisexual Kira. When using the Mirror Universe as a setting, is there a temptation to ramp up the melodrama and campness to extremes? “I wasn’t really going for campy,” Greg counters. “Once you throw in Gul Madred (Picard’s torturer in our own universe) and the Borg, it’s almost inevitable that things get pretty serious. You just have to remember that, in the Mirror Universe, life is cheap and the characters are, of necessity, a lot more ruthless. Nobody worries about the Prime Directive or sets their phasers on ‘stun’ in the Mirror Universe, so you want to amp up the brutality a bit, just for contrast’s sake. Selar and Vash would never have tortured someone with a Ceti eel in our universe!
“I want to point out that it was Margaret’s idea to have Wesley beaten to a pulp. In my original outline, it was Nog who got beaten, but I think Wesley worked out much better in the end. Talk about a crowd-pleasing moment!”
Greg is still perhaps best known in the Star Trek universe for his three Khan novels – the two volumes of The Eugenics Wars, and the follow-up To Reign in Hell. They were released between 2001 and 2005 to huge acclaim from fans and critics alike, and are continually cited as some of the best Star Trek fiction to date. No pressure, then… “I really appreciate all the positive feedback I got (and am still getting) on those books,” Greg smiles. “I’m not sure what my next Trek project will be, but I sure hope that I can come up with something just as fun.”
In 2005, I moderated a fan interview with Greg, and leftover plot threads from those three Khan novels were fresh on his mind – he mentioned that he wanted to “write that Rain Robinson book” and had “talked about going back to Sycorax”. Has there been any progress on either idea? “Nothing definite. Just vague ideas at this point. I really need to get my act together and do another full-length Trek novel, but other projects have been keeping me busy for the last few years.”
Some of those upcoming projects from Greg include Moonstone Books’ Tales of Zorro – featuring “original stories of the legendary swashbuckling hero” and authors such as Peter David, A.C. Crispin, and Andy Mangels – and novel-form adaptations of various DC Comics miniseries, with Infinite Crisis and 52 out now and Countdown forthcoming. Greg identifies himself as a long-time comic-book fan, and enthuses that he’s “having a ball writing everybody from Captain Marvel to Batwoman!” He also has a CSI novel on the way – “a bit of a departure for me, but I’m enjoying the challenge!” – and the novelisation of upcoming Houdini movie Death Defying Acts, to be released in conjunction with the film.
It seems that Greg already has a large number of tie-in universes under his belt, but there are still some he’d like to visit in the future. “I would love to write something set in the world of the classic Universal Monsters. I grew up on those movies and am still hoping to tackle those characters someday. Dark Horse did a line of Universal Monsters novels a year or so ago and I am sooo jealous of the writers who got to work on them!”
So, it looks like Greg Cox’s plate is pretty full at the moment, with a number of genre-spanning stories on the way. Perhaps the ultimate tribute to his popularity are the “I love Greg Cox” t-shirts that mysteriously appeared on Amazon.com recently. “My mind boggles,” a bemused Greg comments. “I’m still trying to process that, to be honest. Does anyone know where those came from?”
The Vesuvius Prophecy will be released by Pocket Star in June 2008.