James Swallow is a writer with many talents. He’s written for TV, and has many audio plays and prose credits to his name for different media properties including Star Trek, Doctor Who, Stargate, Warhammer, and many more. In the next six months alone, more than half a dozen projects of his will be released: the Star Trek stories Titan: Synthesis and The Slow Knife (in Seven Deadly Sins), the novelisation of Stargate Universe’s three-part pilot episode Air, the Doctor Who: Cyberman 2 audio plays, the two Judge Dredd audios Blood Will Tell and Double Zero, the Blood Angels novel Black Tide, and a short story in the Legend of the Space Marines anthology. Despite his busy schedule, James has kindly agreed to talk to Unreality SF about some of his many projects.
Synthesis, which hit the bookshelves just recently, is the newest entry in the Star Trek: Titan series. “This story begins as the crew come across the wreck of an alien starship in a zone riddled with subspace distortions,” James explains, “and they soon find themselves involved in a first contact situation with a society of intelligent computers. Along the way the crew become involved in a conflict that may threaten the galaxy, and something happens to the Titan itself that challenges the crew’s preconceptions In terms of themes, on one level this is a story about the nature of intelligence and sentience, but on another it’s about family, duty and parenthood.” While one character is the focus of the story, James made sure to have something to do for others as well. “I’d say this is nominally a Riker story,” he acknowledges, but also points out that “a few of the supporting characters – Vale, Tuvok, Xin, Torvig and others – get some focus as well. Titan is an ensemble, so I tried to make sure everyone gets a ‘moment’.”
Depicted on the cover alongside Riker is Minuet, a holographic character from the first season The Next Generation episode 11001001, but that doesn’t mean that she actually is in the novel. “To be honest, the cover is somewhat misleading!” James points out. “It’s not really Minuet,” he clarifies enigmatically, “but to say more would be a spoiler…” It’s not a coincidence that she’s on the cover, though. “As for the character from the TNG episodes, I will say that there’s certainly an important connection to her.”
When the Titan series was launched, it was described as a series going back to the roots of Star Trek, featuring more exploration. Some of the previous novels deviated from that formula, but as far as James is concerned Synthesis fits Titan’s mission profile. “For me, Titan recalls the ‘boldly going’ intent of the original Star Trek series, and so Synthesis is very much modelled on that ideal, of the characters encountering something strange and new, and dealing with a unique problem it places before them. So yeah, this is an ‘exploring’ story, ‘new life and new civilisations’ and all that good stuff. Plus space battles and plenty of things exploding…”
Another rather unique feature of the Titan series is the very diverse crew, with many non-humanoid aliens serving on the ship. Some readers have criticised this, claiming that it’s felt forced and almost gimmicky during the run of the series – an assessment James dissents. “I feel that the diverse crew of Titan is one of the things that makes it interesting,” he muses, and reveals that “in fact, that ideal of the ship’s diversity is something that Synthesis directly challenges during the course of the novel.” He also emphasises that he doesn’t “think it’s a ‘gimmick’ to have unusual alien races working side-by-side; I think it’s something that would have happened on the TV shows if the producers could have afforded to do it convincingly. With the novels, we don’t have budgets or visual effects to be concerned about, so we can open up the somewhat humanoid-centric view of the Trek world. To me, Titan’s ‘mission statement’ of a highly varied crew provides some neat dramatic opportunities.”
Titan is a multi-author series, with works by writers with rather different writing styles so far. So how difficult was it for a newcomer to the series to find the series’ “voice”? “I’ve read all the other Titan novels,” James acknowledges, but also stresses that to him “the key to the series was its reflection of the outgoing, dynamic nature of The Original Series. Rather than attempt to emulate the methods of the other Titan authors, I tried to keep true to that standard and the voices of the individual characters, while still bringing my own authorial style to the narrative. I didn’t find it hard at all,” he smiles. “Titan has a strong theme and a clear ‘hook’, writerly speaking!”
Another Star Trek project on James’ agenda right now is the aforementioned The Slow Knife, a short story in the anthology Seven Deadly Sins. At this stage, little is known about the different stories in the book, but James provides us with a first glimpse on his story, which represents envy via the Cardassians. “The Slow Knife is set pre-DS9, during the period of Cardassian-Federation border skirmishes as detailed in the TNG episode The Wounded,” he reveals. “It’s about an ambitious young Cardassian officer who is passed over for a promotion and becomes slowly consumed by her own resentment and jealousy.” And since no story hint would be complete without a little uncertainty, he also teases that “a certain other Cardassian of note may or may not also appear in the story…”
Seven Deadly Sins represents each of the eponymous sins with a particular species or group. “I’d just finished writing my Terok Nor novel Day of the Vipers, and [editor] Marco Palmieri called me up and asked me if I would be interested in writing a Cardassian tale for the Sins anthology,” James replies, when asked if the matches between sins and races were already decided when he was asked to participate. “He’d already settled on the idea of them being the embodiment of envy, and I agreed wholeheartedly – when I was writing Vipers, I saw envy as a very strong motivator in the Cardassian psyche, so it seemed like an excellent fit to me.” While James agrees with the decision, are there other matches for the Cardassians or envy respectively he could think of? “If I had to pick another sin for the Cardassians, I’d say pride, as they’re a pretty arrogant bunch. As for envy, maybe the Borg as they’re driven by a need to have/assimilate everything that everyone else has…”
Due to the lay-offs of first Marco Palmieri and then Margaret Clark, the anthology has been delayed repeatedly and will have gone through (at least) three different editors’ hands before it will be published. James is sure, though, that the final book won’t deviate much from how the book was originally mapped out by Marco. “I don’t think the anthology has changed at all from Marco’s original intention,” he muses. “The theme of the book is such a strong and clear one.” Despite the uncertainties surrounding the editorial office at Pocket Books right now, the book seems to be still on track, though. “As far as I know, the Sins anthology is due out in March 2010.”
With the aforementioned editorial upheaval and the arrival of the new timeline created by J.J. Abrams’ recent movie, the Star Trek book line is in an unusual place. Where does James think the line is heading? “That’s a tough one to answer.” he admits. “Certainly, the departures of Marco and Margaret have been keenly felt by everyone involved in Star Trek tie-ins, and their hard work stewarding the line will be missed. But at the same time, I have confidence that the editors taking on the responsibilities they left behind will do their best to maintain the standard of quality.
“New hands at helm will doubtless mean new ideas, and I look forward to seeing what they might be,” James ponders. “The creation of a new stream of fiction for the alternate 2009 Star Trek movie timeline is a sensible move, given the surge in new fans introduced to the mythos, and it will be interesting to see how that does.
“You’re right to say that we’re at an important point,” he concurs. “The 2009 Star Trek movie has proven there’s a new audience out there who want Star Trek stories, and they represent the future of the franchise. Books should – and are – being written for that audience; and at the same time, there’s still the audience who have been around for many years, who want their TOS, TNG, DS9, etc, and they should be served as well. I don’t think it’s an either/or thing, and it certainly shouldn’t be.”
He also points out that “one of the things Trek tie-ins have proven over the last few years is that the Star Trek universe is robust enough to encompass multiple fiction threads, and I hope that the current financial uncertainties in the publishing business won’t force that broad scope to contract. Perhaps we may see a reduction in the number of new Star Trek tie-ins on sale simply because of the financial realities of producing a large range of books on a monthly basis.” But ultimately, his outlook on the future of the line is a positive one. “In the end, I think Star Trek fiction will continue to be produced, because people want to read it – after all, new Star Trek novels have been coming out pretty much every year for the last four decades, and there’s no reason that should change.”
And James – who has already contributed extensively to all corners of the Star Trek universe (TNG, Voyager, Deep Space Nine, Mirror Universe, Myriad Universes, and now Titan) – plans to stick around. “I’m kicking around some ideas for future Star Trek novels, but right now nothing is contracted,” he says. Which other parts of the sandbox would he like to visit? “There’s so many great story opportunities out there, it’s hard to narrow it down… I think if I had the right idea, I’d like to do something with the Classic Trek crew. I’ve always felt that Enterprise had a lot of potential to be explored. And I’d love to do a Vanguard novel, or maybe something in the ‘new’ continuity.”
As well as prose fiction, James also writes audio plays (for the likes of Doctor Who and Stargate) – a storytelling form which never really got off the ground when it came to Star Trek. “Ah, this is something I could go on and on about,” James grins. “I’m very enthusiastic about audio as a means of SF storytelling, and I certainly believe Star Trek would be a perfect fit.” So what’s the problem then? “I think the Sulu audio dramas produced by Simon & Schuster back in the day were a good effort, but they suffered from being written by prose writers; they should have been less ‘talking books’ and more ‘radio dramas’.”
James wonders whether misunderstandings and cultural differences might be the reason why British companies are more successful when it comes to audio plays. “Something I’ve often found when discussing the concept of audios, particularly to an American audience, is the confusion about what audio dramas actually are: people often think I’m referring to the traditional talking book – one reader reading out prose – but audio dramas are performances, not readings, with full casts of several actors, music and sound effects. I wonder if this is because in the UK, radio plays are a popular and current form of entertainment, regularly broadcast on national radio stations, whereas in the US, contemporary radio drama is practically nonexistent. But I digress…”
James certainly hasn’t been quiet when it comes to promoting the idea of Star Trek audio plays, but, alas, it hasn’t come to fruition yet. “Star Trek audios are certainly an idea that has been on my mind for a long time,” he sighs. “A few years ago, Gary Russell [then the executive producer at Big Finish, who produce the ongoing Doctor Who audios] and I discussed concepts for an original Trek series set aboard a new starship with a new crew, in the mould of the New Frontier and Starfleet Corps of Engineers stories, but Gary left to work on the Doctor Who TV series and it never went any further.” Another possible way to launch the idea of Star Trek audios was shot down for other reasons. “Some time later, I pitched a different concept to StarTrek.com for a webcast audio series, but changes among the site’s management and at CBS meant that it too fell through the cracks.” That hasn’t diminished James’ enthusiasm, though. “I still think it’s a great idea, and I’d love to make it happen.”
Until he succeeds in his quest to make Star Trek audio plays a reality, he won’t be out of audio projects. December will see the release of the Doctor Who miniseries Cyberman 2, a box set of four instalments following up on 2005’s Cyberman. The first Cyberman series was written by Nicholas Briggs, so how did James come to enter into the picture this time around? “Nick and Alan Barnes, the Doctor Who story editor, had offered me the chance to do a Cyberman story for the main Doctor Who audio line – which became a Seventh Doctor story called Kingdom of Silver,” he explains. “At the time Nick was working on ideas for the second Cyberman miniseries. He called me in for a chat, originally to talk about how we might work in some kind of connection between his Cyberman story and mine, and to my surprise he asked me to take on the whole thing myself! I was certainly very flattered. Nick did great work with the first four-parter and it was heartening to know that he trusted me enough to turn over his characters and storyline to my tender mercies.”
Taking over a series from another writer sounds like a hard task, so what was it like? “It certainly was a challenge to pick up the plot four episodes in and maintain the dynamic-but-grim tone of the first series,” James concedes. But he didn’t fear the challenge. “I think that as Nick and I have a lot of commonalities in our writing style, it was a good fit. He didn’t so much give me an outline as take me to the pub and throw some ideas at me; it was all very informal, which is one of the great things about working with Big Finish. I was so enthused by the idea of taking on Cyberman 2, I just took what he gave me and ran with it…”
The original Cyberman features some distinct stylistic quirks, such as direct address to the listeners by the characters and “live” sound effects. Will Cyberman 2 be maintaining these? “The whole ‘live recording’ recording thing was a wild idea, but as great as it was, Nick decided not to take that route the second time around!” James reveals. “We had a more conventional five-day recording schedule. I’ve kept the narrative method of the characters ‘thinking aloud’ as a bridging device in each episode – I like the level of intimacy it gives between the listener and the character.” Cyberman also didn’t credit actors to specific parts on each release – will that be continued in the new series? “I assume that all the cast will be credited as they should be…”
Both Kingdom of Silver and Cyberman take place during the Orion Wars, the conflict between humanity and renegade androids. Is there a stronger connection between the two stories? “With Kingdom the war is only a background element. It’s actually the supplemental story – Keepsake – on the same release as Kingdom of Silver that actually has a direct connection to the events of Cyberman 2. I wrote that element into Keepsake as an oblique tie to the Cyberman 2 plays, but you don’t have to listen to one to enjoy the other.”
So far, little information on Cyberman 2‘s story has been revealed, but James gives us a little teaser of the plot. “The first Cyberman series was about the politics of invasion and the nature of compromise in wartime; Cyberman 2 is about what it’s like to live in an occupied state, to be on the losing side but still struggling to keep the fight alive,” he discloses. He also drops some hints as to what’s in store for Cyberman’s surviving characters: Samantha Thorne, Liam Barnaby, and Paul Hunt. “Android agent Sam and special forces operative Liam both find themselves on different battlefields, racing against time to save the Earth and each other, while Paul, now the puppet ruler of the planet, is in deep with the Cybermen themselves, trapped between what’s left of his humanity and the loyalty to his new masters.”
With the plays coming out soon, what was the most enjoyable aspect of working on Cyberman 2? “Aside from the sheer coolness of being able to play around with the Cybermen, I had a great time at the recording sessions,” James smiles. “The actors really threw themselves into the production and there was a fantastic sense of energy about everything. Part of the storyline takes place aboard a cramped starship trapped behind enemy lines, and my inspiration for that came from classic ‘war-at-sea’ movies like In Which We Serve, Das Boot, The Cruel Sea and The Caine Mutiny; the cast hit the tone perfectly, and I was blown away watching them take my script and turn it into real, powerful drama.”
The Cybermen have appeared repeatedly throughout the history of Doctor Who, going back to their first appearance in the First Doctor story The Tenth Planet. What makes them such appealing villains in James’ eyes? “The Cybermen have always been my favorite Doctor Who monster, ever since I was a kid,” James admits. “I grew up living in a high-rise, so with flawless child logic, I knew that Daleks could never climb the stairs to get to me – but the Cybermen were a different matter. And unlike the Daleks, who would just kill you if they got you, the Cybermen would make you into one of them. That whole idea of body-horror and loss of self scared the hell out of me as a kid, and I think it’s what makes them so compelling; the Cybermen were once like you and me, and they became this chilling machine-hybrid piece by piece.” So how has he made sure to maintain this in this play? “For Cyberman 2, I used the Cybermen as almost a force of nature; they’re this terrible storm bearing down on the human and android characters in the story, unstoppable and apparently impossible to defeat – so how do you prevail when faced with something like that?”
Stargate is another franchise with a growing line of audio stories, and James is also involved with those. “I’m currently working with Big Finish developing the third series of Stargate audios for 2010; they’ve brought me on as story editor for the line, and we’re in the process of planning out the next plays.”
His next Stargate project is a novel, though: James’ novelisation of Air, the opening episodes of the new Stargate series Universe, will be published in November. There are always horror stories floating around about how secretive some production studios can be when it comes to providing the authors of novelisations with information, so how much access did James have to inside information about the series while writing the book? “I was working directly from the three episodic scripts that made up the pilot storyline, along with a few scripts from later episodes, photos, story synopses and character notes,” he explains. “Early on, I had to work from out-of-date versions of the scripts where many details were still in flux – names and ranks, order of scenes, that kind of thing – but later I got access to the final drafts, thanks to the help of John Scalzi, the show’s creative consultant, and used a combination of all the elements to build the novel.”
Some studios demand very strict novelisations of their episodes/movies, with little to no added material, but that wasn’t the case with Air. “I got to add a fair bit of new stuff,” James reveals. “Mostly what I did was expand and ‘open out’ existing scenes from the scripts with added dialogue and more narrative depth, but there are a couple of places where I wrote some totally new scenes. I was lucky in that I had a pretty free hand.”
By now, the episodes have aired, and James has been able to compare his novelisation with the final episodes. “It’s fascinating to see how scenes were actually shot compared to how I had visualised them,” he ruminates. “I guess in a way, the novelisation is the way I would have ‘directed’ it. There’s not a lot of differences between the two on a gross level, but on a smaller scale there are variations – for example, Air has a lot of quick, choppy flashbacks in it, and while that works well on TV, it’s not so good for a novel, so I wrote a strictly chronological version of the events. There’s also a couple of scenes that were moved to later episodes of the TV show that appear in the novel, and some that were scripted and shot but cut for time.” He admits that there are “some things I would have written differently if I had seen the episodes first, but I kinda like the fact that the book and screen versions don’t exactly marry up – it means that fans who watch the show and then read the novel get to experience two versions of the same narrative.”
With the novelisation of Air, James has written for all three TV incarnations of Stargate. What does Universe brings to the table to stand out against the two previous series, in his opinion? “You can see from the outset that SGU is a very different show, in terms of look and texture. I think this series has the potential to be Stargate’s equivalent of Deep Space Nine, with a darker take on familiar tropes. I imagine that, like DS9, SGU will be the red-headed stepchild of its franchise,” he laughs. Asked if there will be original Universe novels following his novelisation James reveals that “there are indeed plans in the works for Fandemonium Books to produce original Stargate Universe tie-ins in the future, adding to the existing line of Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis novels.” Another James Swallow book in the Universe line could be a while off, though. “I certainly wouldn’t rule out writing an original SGU novel myself – but I think I’ll wait until the first season is complete to get a better handle on the show’s direction before considering it.”
While James’ next six months are especially busy release-wise, he’s got a lot more to come, too. “I’ve been working on Deus Ex 3, a big videogame prequel to the original Deus Ex PC game, so that’s kind of a tie-in project; after that, I have another Warhammer 40,000 novel lined up for the Horus Heresy series called Nemesis, a Blake’s 7 audio called Escape Velocity, plus some stuff that’s still NDA’ed [under a non-disclosure agreement] at the moment.”
So, seeing the huge pile of work waiting for him, we quickly release him and thank him again for taking the time from his busy schedule to talk to us.
Synthesis was released by Pocket Books in October 2009. The novelisation of Air will be released by Fandemonium in November 2009, and Cyberman 2 will be released by Big Finish Productions in December 2009.