Michael Schuster and Steve Mollmann live on different continents, and yet together they’re the up-and-coming writing duo of the Star Trek literary landscape. Besides the reprint of their fiction debut The Future Begins in August’s Corps of Engineers paperback What’s Past, and their newest short novel The Tears of Eridanus in Myriad Universes: Shattered Light, they’re looking forward to the release of their first full-length novel Star Trek: A Choice of Catastrophes in September 2011. Michael and Steve have kindly agreed to talk to Unreality SF about those stories and their collaboration.
As mentioned, their most recent story to be released was The Tears of Eridanus in Shattered Light which, like every story in the Myriad Universes books, represents a look at a Star Trek universe that could have been if something had happened differently. The point of divergence for The Tears of Eridanus is “the death of an obscure young computer scientist called Surak who died in a surprise terrorist attack,” Michael reveals. “Consequently, his place in history is empty, but it is soon occupied by somebody else who will be familiar to readers of certain Vulcan-related novels. The result is that the planet is embroiled in a millennia-long period of clan warfare, preventing its people from shaping and affecting interstellar affairs as they did in the ‘original’ universe.”
“The lack of Vulcans to vie with the Andorians causes a lot of changes in ‘Federation’ history,” adds Steve, “and the lack of Romulans to vie with the Klingons certainly has some major repercussions too!
“There are two main characters: Hikaru and Demora Sulu each drive half of the story,” Steve continues. “Hikaru is the commander of the I.U.E.S. Kumari II, an Excelsior-class cruiser in the Interstellar Union, assigned to patrol the Klingon border in a time of growing conflict. The Andorians dominate the Interstellar Guard in this timeline in the same way that humans dominate Starfleet in the Prime one, so there are a lot of Andorian supporting characters, too.” Putting the spotlight on the other half of the narrative, he explains that “Demora Sulu is a just-graduated ensign in the Guard, stationed as chief of security on a prewarp planet called 40 Eridani A II — better known to you and me, though not its inhabitants in this reality, as ‘Vulcan’. There’s a lot of scrambling through the desert, as is traditional in Vulcan stories.”
The back cover blurbs of the other stories in Shattered Light seem to indicate that they have episodes from the “normal” universe as hooks or reference points for the readers. Does The Tears of Eridanus have something similar? “Not really,” Steve replies. “It takes place a little bit before The Undiscovered Country happens in the Prime timeline, but all that really lines up with it is Hikaru Sulu is in command of a ship on a long-term mission to do with gaseous anomalies. There are a lot of different episodes jumbled up in it, especially elements of various Vulcan and Andorian stories.”
Michael explains that “there are certainly references — and some similarities — to the Vulcan arc on Star Trek: Enterprise, as well as to the sixth and seventh movies, but since our divergence point is set so far back in history, it shaped everything, so there are some elements that are familiar and a lot of others that are new. Attentive readers will no doubt spot the connections our story has to Diane Duane’s novels about Vulcans and Romulans, in particular Spock’s World — we even went so far as to base our novel’s chapter structure on that book.”
What led Michael and Steve to choose the Sulus as the story’s main protagonists? “We knew we wanted a parent/child pair from the classic era, and our pitch featured Commodore Matthew Decker [from The Doomsday Machine] and his son, Willard Decker [from The Motion Picture],” Steve reveals. “I had a little reluctance about this, as they weren’t exactly prominent people, but we couldn’t think of anyone else from the original series that would work. Marco [Palmieri, editor] liked the pitch with the same reservation we’d had — and he suggested Hikaru and Demora Sulu as replacements. We’d never thought of original series characters who had kids after the series!
“The Sulus were a lot of fun to write and turned out to be really relevant to the themes of the story. We capitalised a lot on Hikaru’s early characterisation as a scientist, and Demora being ‘abandoned’ by two parents informed a lot of her character, too.”
The Tears of Eridanus is Steve and Michael’s first novel-length work, following short stories and a novella. Did that change their approach to the writing process? “Not really,” says Michael. “It was longer, yes, but since it still had two threads that remained separate for the better part of the story, we were able to work on them simultaneously, like we did with our previous works — and A Choice of Catastrophes, incidentally.”
Which is the perfect segue into our next topic. A Choice of Catastrophes is “set in early 2268, so smack-dab in the middle of the original series”, as Michael discloses. “The main character is Doctor McCoy, and he has one entire thread almost to himself, whereas Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the landing party have to share theirs,” in which “they get enough danger and action to make up for it.”
Getting a bit more into the specifics of the book’s narrative, he adds that “while McCoy has to find a way to save the lives of a handful of people that have inexplicably fallen into a coma as well as the lives of everybody aboard the Enterprise when the ship is threatened by a destructive space phenomenon, Kirk et al. are exploring a mysterious planet that seems abandoned by the civilisation it was once inhabited by. What they discover is a terrible crime in progress, and they will need all their skills to put a stop to it and capture the perpetrators before they escape.
“Also, our cast includes Commander Giotto,” he laughs. “You can’t go wrong with Giotto.”
How did McCoy’s prominent role in the novel come about? “A Choice of Catastrophes was pitched as a story that was intended to be a ‘nuTrek’ story, but could work in the Prime timeline, too,” Steve explains. “This was obviously before we’d heard the nuTrek line was all being indefinitely postponed! The reason for the pitch that became A Choice of Catastrophes was that Karl Urban as Leonard McCoy was my favourite character in the new film, and I wanted to do a story that would explore him. It ended up being a Prime story in the end, but that was fine by me, as DeForest Kelley is even more awesome.”
“McCoy has almost half the entire novel to his own,” adds Michael, “which certainly classifies this as McCoy-centric. There aren’t enough such novels out there, but those that exist are usually a great pleasure to read. It is our — admittedly ambitious — goal to add another one to the list.”
“McCoy never really has any big stories of his own,” Steve laments, “but his little moments in any given episode always shine, and he has a backstory, largely unmentioned on screen, that has a lot of potential for drama. He fascinates me because he has a tendency to run away from his problems — he joins Starfleet to get away from his ex-wife, he quits Starfleet to give Kirk a lesson — but he obviously also has a real passion for both space medicine and space exploration. Plus, anyone who knows me in real life will understand my attraction to seemingly crabby characters who are actually quite affectionate!”
Thanks to the longevity of the line of original series Star Trek novels, which go back as far as the original standalone Bantam novels in the 1970s, there are a lot of different takes on the series out there. Were there any authors whose work influenced how Michael and Steve portrayed the characters, McCoy in particular, in A Choice of Catastrophes? “For McCoy’s backstory, Michael Jan Friedman’s Shadows on the Sun was probably the biggest influence, but I ignored a lot [of] it, too,” admits Steve. “David R. George’s McCoy: Provenance of Shadows and Carmen Carter’s Dreams of the Raven were also in the back of my mind, but I didn’t reread either. Outside of McCoy, I can’t think of any direct influences, though Dave Galanter’s Troublesome Minds and Dave Stern’s The Children of Kings were both recent stories whose standalone, adventuresome nature I wanted to emulate to some degree.”
All of the duo’s longer works have a connection to the original series — The Future Begins focusing on Scotty, The Tears of Eridanus heavily featuring an alternate Sulu, and now a full-blown TOS novel in A Choice of Catastrophes. Was that a coincidence or a deliberate choice? “Coincidence!” Steve exclaims. “We’ve pitched plenty of things that didn’t [feature TOS]. We keep on sending in ideas for Titan novels that no-one wants to publish! That said, though Deep Space Nine is my favourite Star Trek series and has the most well-developed characters, the original Star Trek has what I think are the most enjoyable characters. There’s something about those brightly coloured uniforms and goofy plots that feel the most like Star Trek to me. What other show would give you the 1920s mob planet? I like things with a sense of humour, which the later series often lacked.”
“Deep Space Nine is my favourite as well,” Michael chimes in, “but I grew up with TOS – which, strangely enough, was during TNG’s original run – and my first Trek books were TOS ones. I know the characters, I like them a lot, and so it was a lucky coincidence that we got to write about them. Scotty was the main character in The Future Begins because we wanted to solve the mystery of his post-Relics career, and of the handful of S.C.E. pitches we submitted to Keith DeCandido at the time, this was the one that got picked. As for The Tears of Eridanus, the setting for the story was always the twenty-third century, so the characters — though they were different ones at first — were always from the TOS timeframe.”
Now probably isn’t the best time for relatively new, inexperienced writers to break into the Star Trek line, as there has been a lot of upheaval in the editorial office over the last few years, to the extent that it’s not publicly known who’s in charge right now. That must have had an influence on A Choice of Catastrophes. “I can’t say it hasn’t caused some problems,” Steve admits. “The editor who initially approved our project, Jaime Costas, is no longer with Simon & Schuster, and there are some issues S&S now has with the manuscript that were all in the outline, so we have to do revisions to change plot elements that could have been different had we received those comments at the outline stage.”
Michael adds that “it’s made our work anything but boring, that’s for sure. Still, we’ll do our best to get the book done on time and hope our revised manuscript is approved…”
For Michael, A Choice of Catastrophes could lead to a rather strange situation: the TOS line has been added to the lineup of Star Trek novels translated by Cross Cult for the German-speaking market, so there’s a chance that this novel will be translated into German — Michael’s native tongue — somewhere down the line. “I will do anything to get my hands on the translated version,” he enthuses. “I don’t know how these things usually work, but if there’s a chance I could give some input on the translation before publication, I’d love to do that! It’ll certainly be an extraordinary experience if/when it does come out: it’ll be something I wrote in another language that got translated into my mother tongue. What this means, of course, is that I will have something I can foist on my friends and relatives who like to read their books in German!”
While the two were working on their first full length-novel, their fiction debut (the aforementioned Corps of Engineers novella The Future Begins) was reprinted in paper form in the trade paperback What’s Past a few months ago. With their added experience since writing that story, would they have done anything differently in hindsight? “More things would have happened,” Steve admits. “Sometimes I think that Star Trek books that are ‘character-driven’ end up being light on action, and I don’t think that has to be true, but The Future Begins falls into the trap at points.”
“We were still new at this,” Michael reminisces, “so we never agonised over every story aspect as we would now. Like just about every other profession, being a writer is pretty much a ‘learn from your mistakes’ affair, and while we’ve been fortunate enough that people liked what we did, we can only hope that every one of our future works will be better than the one before it.”
“Oh, and I think there would have been fewer continuity references,” Steve adds. “There’d still be some Gold Key ones, though,” he laughs. “I can’t not do that.”
Given the nature of the story, which is a coherent chronicle of what Scotty was up to in the twenty-fourth century after his rescue from the Jenolen, managing references to Scott’s many appearances in other stories was a must have been a huge part of writing The Future Begins. How difficult was it to keep all those stories straight, and what were the main problems? “It wasn’t too difficult, as we both have minds for detailed trivia!” Steve smiles. “The main problem was that several stories, primarily Diane Carey’s Ship of the Line and the S.C.E. series itself, established that Scotty had returned to Starfleet sometime in the 2370s, whereas Peter David’s eXcalibur trilogy had him bopping around on Risa after the Dominion War with nothing to do. That struck us as a story — why would Scotty leave Starfleet and then return?”
“It was a situation in which we were able to fill in the gaps, so to speak,” Michael explains. “We had various important points in Scotty’s journey prepared for us; all we had to do was find a way to connect them. Of course, since most of these separate stories were never meant to be connected, they didn’t all work so well together, which meant that we had to pick and choose. Overall, though, it worked out quite well, and we ended up with a career path that struck us as interesting and worthy of the story we wanted to tell.”
Michael spoke of “picking and choosing” — were there stories that had to be ignored or tweaked to make their own story work? “The Future Begins kinda steps on the intent of some references,” Steve has to admit, but clarifies that he doesn’t “think it outright invalidates anything. G. Wood’s Dorian’s Diary and Scott Pearson’s Scotty short stories, for example, don’t establish that Scotty is in Starfleet when they happen… but they don’t clearly establish that he’s not. So we sort of snuck in.”
Another problem arose when two stories showed different takes on the same event. “We did have to pick between two contradictory stories where Scotty learned that Picard had rescued Kirk from the Nexus only for him to die for real, both of which appeared in Strange New Worlds VII! We even kept Scotty’s service on the Sovereign from the Shatner books in place, though we had to ignore the fact that Spectre says Nechayev commanded it at the time, because A Time for War, A Time for Peace had put her in command of the Gorkon during the Dominion War.”
There were more than four years between the original release of The Future Begins and its What’s Past reprint, so were any changes made? “Only minor ones, such as corrected typos,” Michael reveals. “The biggest one, relatively speaking, was the change of a reference to Christine Chapel, which had her on the Enterprise-A in the eBook, although she later transferred to the Excelsior, as established in The Sundered. It should have made it into the final version of the eBook, but somehow that never happened. This just goes to show how very trivia-oriented we were at the time, when we tried to reference everything and combine it into a more or less unified whole.
“I believe we’ve mellowed somewhat in that respect,” he laughs. “Certainly, A Choice of Catastrophes contains only a handful of Trek literature references — so far, anyway.”
Still on the subject of changes to Future Begins, Steve explains that “the timeline of Scotty’s twenty-fourth century career was updated to account for the last few S.C.E. stories, A Singular Destiny, and the new film. A whole 140 words of new content! I kinda wanted to take out a reference to Starfleet: Year One to thwart the Memory Beta folks who extrapolated an entire theory of United Earth’s twenty-second century government on the basis of a passing comment, but I ultimately decided not to be mean. Also, Michael really likes Starfleet: Year One.”
We’ve talked about how TOS-centric their longer works have been so far, but what other Star Trek series they could see themselves working on? “We once wrote an entire outline for an early-TNG novel, but in hindsight it didn’t quite work,” Michael discloses, and adds that “as mentioned [earlier], we both love DS9 and would certainly like to write a novel for that series. The same goes for the novel-only series about the U.S.S. Titan. However, there are no actual plans for anything concrete.”
“We once wrote a post-finale Enterprise outline on spec, too, though we never submitted it because [Michael A.] Martin and [Andy] Mangels seemed to have that sewn up,” Steve adds. “From what little I know of what they did, though, I still think it could fit in. It was a neat idea, and I’d like to write Malcolm Reed and Doctor Phlox some day!”
Michael and Steve are also both fans of the long-running British science-fiction series Doctor Who. Have they ever thought about pitching to the various Doctor Who tie-in lines? “We’ve pitched several times to Obverse Books’s various Doctor Who tie-in anthologies, both for Iris Wildthyme and Faction Paradox,” Steve replies. “[Editor] Stuart Douglas sends us the nicest rejections, and always promises that it wasn’t the quality; they just didn’t fit the book for x reason.
“Going more mainstream, I’d love to write for BBC Books, but especially Big Finish. When I was in high school and college, I wrote a lot of audio dramas for fun – Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, and wholly original – and it’s a medium I really like.”
As Michael reveals, he and Steve have already tried to break into this specific part of the Doctor Who franchise once. “We pitched an audio story to Big Finish when they ran their New Writers Opportunity in January 2010, but that one didn’t make it, unfortunately. Steve turned me into an audio enthusiast, going even so far as to invite me to work with him on some original audio dramas. Doctor Who and its related shows are very enjoyable, so we’d jump at the chance to write for them in any capacity. Stargate, too, though that may be truer for me than for Steve. Beyond that, however, there’s little else that interests me enough right now to want to write for it.”
When two people are writing one story, the work has to be divided up somehow, but everyone does it differently. How does the Mollmann/Schuster collaboration work? “We normally divide our stories by plot thread,” Michael replies. “It’s worked out well so far, starting off with The Future Begins, which we more or less accidentally divided into two main parts that we could write simultaneously. Now that we’re about to start our sixth year of working together, we seem to do this sort of thing automatically, from the early planning stages onward.
“Once we finish our respective first drafts, we swap and edit the heck out of them, then swap again, and maybe swap some more, until we are happy with the final product. In writing the novels, we were also lucky enough to have Steve’s writing group offer their insightful and usually on-the-button comments.”
Steve is happy that “weirdly, there always seems to be a plotline that’s naturally more one of ours’ bailiwick than the other’s. Google Docs has been a real boon for us — A Choice of Catastrophes is the first time that each chapter will have scenes from both plotlines, partly because it’s the first time it’s been possible for us to work on both at the same time.”
While writing collaborations are nothing unusual in the Trek lit landscape — going way back to Marshak and Culbreath, the Reeves-Stevenses, or L.A. Graf — writing partners from different continents are. Do Steve and Michael think their geographical separation has any influence on their writing, or that the collaboration would look different if they lived nearer together and had the chance to meet in person more often? “I do think there are certain differences between Steve and myself which are due to our respective situations, but if anything, these are an advantage,” Michael muses. “No doubt, having the opportunity to meet without needing to hop on a plane across the Atlantic is a good thing – not to mention, quite a bit cheaper – but our collaboration profits a great deal from our similar, yet different, circumstances and personal histories.”
As avid readers of Unreality SF might know, both Michael and Steve have contributed reviews to the site (of Stargate and Doctor Who audios respectively). Has being a published author changed how either of them approach reviewing another author’s work? “Strangely enough, I don’t think so,” Steve ponders. “It might be because we actually published our first story long before I got into reviewing regularly, both on my blog and here on Unreality. I try to be fair and reasoned as much as I can, but sometimes something doesn’t work for you so much that you can’t even be bothered with more than a sentence. Sometimes I worry I have a tendency to be a little too negative, since you get to tell better jokes that way, so I try to watch for it and accentuate the positive aspects of things.”
“I’ve only reviewed a handful of Stargate audios on Unreality since then, and I can’t say it’s influenced me all that much,” Michael agrees. “Getting to see the other side of things is certainly a big help in understanding the processes involved, so certain choices may be a bit easier to understand now.”
After finishing the revisions on A Choice of Catastrophes, there’s nothing tie-in related on their plates at the moment, so Michael and Steve will concentrate on working on their own original projects for the time being. “Steve and I have been working on SF stories set in an original universe that he created, and our goal now is to finish them and submit them in the hopes that there is a market for our not-quite-so-serious kind of SF,” Michael says.
“We were going pretty full bore on the Systemic Territories stories,” Steve adds, “and then someone had the temerity to give us a novel contract! So it was a derailment, but certainly a welcome one.”
Besides their work together, Steve also is working on his professional future. “As a graduate student in literature, I am always trying to publish papers. I have a whole mess of them that I need to revise for submission, on topics from electric fairly tales to Indian postcolonial science fiction. Oh, and scientists. I love writing about scientists in literature.”
So while it might get a little quieter for the two when it comes to Trek literature, the two certainly won’t be idle. In the meantime you can find their joint website at exploringtheuniverse.net, with links to their individual blogs and background information for their stories. You can also find Steve’s reviews here at Unreality.
What’s Past and Shattered Light were released by Pocket Books in August and December 2010 respectively. A Choice of Catastrophes will be released by Pocket Books in September 2011.