Last time we talked to James Swallow he was hip-deep in a sea of work, and in the two years since, it seems like little has changed. 2011 has already seen the release of several of his works in different franchises, including a project he’s been working on for the last few years: the video game Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Today, James has kindly agreed to talk to us about the game, its tie-in companion piece The Icarus Effect, and more including his most recent literary project, the Star Trek novel Cast No Shadow.
“Cast No Shadow takes place in 2300, seven years after the events of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country,” James explains. “The Khitomer Accords are finally making some headway in the relationships between the Klingon Empire and the Federation after years of being mired in politics and petty rivalry. But just as things are starting to come together, a space station integral to the rebuilding taking place on the Klingon homeworld is destroyed by a terrorist group intent on shattering the fragile alliance.”
While that alone could have been the premise for an interesting political thriller in the Star Trek universe, James raised the stakes by involving two familiar characters at points in their lives the readers are unfamiliar with. “As a Starfleet vessel is one of the casualties of the attack, the Federation – and Starfleet Intelligence – become involved. But a young Elias Vaughn [from the Deep Space 9 post-series books], right at the start of his career with SI, is convinced that there’s more to the bombing than meets the eye, and uncovers a connection that stretches back to the Gorkon assassination plot of STVI and involves the disgraced Lieutenant Valeris [who appeared in that film]. Valeris and Vaughn are brought together in an uncomfortable partnership as the story unfolds, as they struggle to uncover the truth about who is really behind these attacks.”
Despite featuring Spock on the cover, which wasn’t James’s choice, the novel seems pretty light on “major” characters from the Star Trek canon. Was that a deliberate choice or just something that happened during the writing process? “I don’t agree that the novel is light on major characters,” he objects. “Valeris is a key movie character and the story orbits around her; there’s also important appearances from Spock, Kirk and Sulu throughout the course of the narrative. I always intended this novel to be about Valeris from the start; and when I realised that Elias Vaughn’s personal timeline married up well with the period the story was set in, it was a logical choice to include him.”
Despite her sole screen appearance being in one of the most well-regarded Star Trek movies, Valeris barely featured in any Trek literature afterwards, and was never given much backstory on screen. “I think part of the lack of backstory for her in the movie comes from the fact that in the earliest drafts of The Undiscovered Country she wasn’t Valeris at all, but Saavik,” James suggests, “an existing character with plenty of backstory. It was only later when she became a different character that she grew into her own place in the ST mythos.”
Regarding her lack of appearances elsewhere, James is “not sure why it is other writers didn’t tackle her – apart from a single comic book story, she doesn’t appear anywhere else – but I always found her compelling. The reason I chose to write a story that filled in Valeris’s past and carried her beyond her last on-screen moments was because I was intrigued by the central mystery of her – what would make a Vulcan take part in a conspiracy on the scale of the one in STVI?”
Even at the end of James’s novel, after Valeris redeems herself by helping to prevent another major blow to the Klingons, she still remains a somewhat ambiguous character. “At the end of Cast No Shadow, we’re not seeing the end of Valeris’s redemption, we’re seeing the beginning of it,” James explains. “She still has a long way to go, I think, a lot to atone for. That ambiguity is deliberate – she’s a damaged, conflicted soul still struggling to find her own peace. I think that is fascinating, much more compelling than someone whose inner demons are exorcised in one go and becomes a better person overnight. Valeris knows what she’s done wrong and she has to live with it.
“I never intended for her to travel any other path than that one. I didn’t want her to end the story as a coldly logical figure, someone readers that would feel was hateful and dark; I wanted to show that she has the potential to get past the prejudices that informed her earlier life. I always thought that Valeris was someone who believed that she was motivated by logic and cool detachment, when in fact she was governed by deep-seated emotions buried far below the surface.”
In contrast to the heretofore-underdeveloped Valeris, Elias Vaughn has become something of a cornerstone of the Star Trek universe in novel form. Did that mean that James had to follow some kind of character bible? “There’s no set of hard-and-fast regulations for the character,” he explains, but adds that his approach to writing Vaughn, who is just at the beginning of his Starfleet Intelligence career in Cast No Shadow, was influenced by “a lot of notes on the older Vaughn, as we see him in the DS9 novels, but [there is] not a lot of backstory for his younger years. I tried to build on the way he’d been written in the future, ‘back-engineering’ him and stripping away all his experience and skills to the core tenets of the character.”
One question about the book James can’t answer is why it hasn’t been labelled and marketed as part of the acclaimed Lost Era series (a 2003 line which began to fill the gap between the final Original Series films and the start of The Next Generation), despite fulfilling all the requirements. “There hasn’t been a book with a Lost Era subtitle for a while, so maybe it’s been retired?” he ponders. “I honestly have no idea – that’s a question better put to the editors at Simon & Schuster.”
One series that is definitely still going strong, and which James has been involved with for several years now, is the literary tie-in line to the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop game. “I played the tabletop game back in the 1980s when it first came out, so I was familiar with the tropes and the lore of the 40K universe,” James recalls, and adds that “when Black Library – the fiction imprint of Games Workshop, the creators of Warhammer 40,000 – were starting to take off, I knew a guy who was writing short fiction for them, and his mention of it caught my interest. I was looking for new writing opportunities, so I pitched a couple of short story ideas to them, and in turn they liked what I wrote enough to offer me the chance to write novel-length fiction for them. My first novels were a duology featuring the Blood Angels Space Marines, and since then I’ve gone on to write several books, audio dramas and short stories in the work of 40K.”
The universe’s strap line (“In the grim, dark future of the forty-first millennium, there is only war”), says James, “pretty much sums it all up in one sentence. The world of Warhammer 40,000 is a gothic sci-fi future, epic in scale and utterly lethal; it’s a universe where million-strong armies march in the name of an Emperor imprisoned for ten millennia on a psychic throne. Humanity is threatened by alien races, demonic creatures living in warp-space and the slow stagnation of an empire wracked by war and ruled by a brutal, unforgiving master. Against this backdrop, mankind struggles to survive; fighting the tide of destruction are the Space Marines of the Adeptus Astartes, genetically enhanced crusader knights in powered amour; the Sisters of Battle, fanatical warrior nuns dedicated to the worship of the God-Emperor; the common soldiers of the Imperial Guard, the secretive Inquisition and more… Take the society of Frank Herbert’s Dune, add in some of Peake’s Gormenghast, a dash of Moorcock and a dark streak of nihilism, and you’re getting close to the world of Warhammer 40,000. Although it’s background designed to support a tabletop wargame, it’s so rich and nuanced that there’s an incredible breadth of story-telling opportunities. It’s about as far from the hopeful, forward-looking future of Star Trek as you could hope to get!”
His newest contribution to the line is the novel Hammer & Anvil, which will hit the bookshelves in December. “[It] is my third work about the Sisters of Battle – the first was the novel Faith & Fire, followed by an audio drama prequel called Red & Black. The Sisters are an all-female army who fight in the name of the Imperial Church, burning heretics, chastising mutants and the like all across the galaxy,” he tells us. “In Hammer & Anvil, the characters I established in the earlier stories – Sister Miriya, a warrior broken in rank after disobeying orders, and Sister Verity, a hospitaller (field medic) – are part of a mission to a distant outpost that was destroyed by alien invaders. The Battle Sisters arrive to re-consecrate the holy site, but they discover that the enemy they thought long gone is still around…”
Asked about future projects in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, James reveals that he’s “recently been talking to the editors at Black Library, the imprint that produces the Warhammer 40,000 fiction line, and they’re keen to have me write more stories for them. In the months to come I’m going to be writing more books, first a novel called Fear To Tread for BL’s extremely popular Horus Heresy series and then more 40K fiction. I’ve also got an omnibus edition of my Warhammer 40,000 Blood Angels novels [Red Fury, Black Tide, Heart of Rage, Bloodline, and the short story Redeemed] hitting stores early next year.”
And as mentioned above, simultaneous with all his recent prose, James “was a core part of the writing team on Deus Ex: Human Revolution, working on the game for the past four years. I had a lot of different tasks on the project; most of the central storyline was scripted first by me, but I also helped develop the core narrative, create backstory for characters, faction and the gameworld. It was a great project to be part of, and a fun experience to work with a team of talented, highly creative people.
“On DXHR the writers worked very closely with the level designers, the graphic artists, etc. Part of what makes good game storytelling work is when the narrative is integrated fully into the game – so the plot doesn’t just come from people telling you things, but from the world of the game itself, the environment, the dialogue, all of it working in synch. It’s not possible to craft a great game story without working hand-in-hand with the art guys, tech guys, the programmers…”
Talking about the game’s setting and plot, he explains that “it’s a cyberpunk action-adventure, set in the year 2027, in a future on the cusp of a massive societal change as human augmentation technology becomes widespread. Against this global setting, Adam Jensen – an ex-cop turned security consultant for a major cybernetics corporation – is caught in the crossfire when an age-old power group launch a bid for control of humanity’s future. Left for dead after a brutal battle, Jensen is augmented with top-line military cyberware and sets out on a quest to find the people who tried to kill him – and along the way he travels across the globe, uncovering a massive conspiracy…”
James also penned The Icarus Effect, a tie-in novel to Deus Ex published earlier this year. “Icarus Effect is a ‘side story’ that parallels the opening chapters of DXHR,” he explains. “It features both new characters and characters from the game, and the two plotlines cross over. The aim of the novel is to enhance and broaden the narrative of the game, presenting an additional story for players who want to go deeper into the future world of DXHR. In Icarus Effect, ex-SAS soldier Ben Saxon and US Secret Service Agent Anna Kelso are both involved in life-changing, near-fatal attacks on opposite sides of the world. Saxon and Kelso are drawn into events surrounding the same conspiracy facing Adam Jensen in DXHR, and as their paths cross they are forced to confront hidden forces, traitors and cybernetically-enhanced mercenaries in a desperate race to survive.”
It’s pretty unusual for a tie-in writer to be involved with the very project they’re writing the tie-in for, but working on Human Revolution must have helped James write Icarus Effect. “Absolutely,” James acknowledges. “Being embedded in the game writing team for four years, developing the world and the characters, all that gave me a unique insight that any outside author would have had to work very hard to duplicate. It also helped that I had a good rapport and strong working relationship with the design team.”
And as James discloses, being across both projects helps make them more interconnected: “Some characters and scenes that were cut from the game because of timing issues return in a slightly altered form in the novel, and I was also able to expand on some elements of the gameworld; there are also some facets of the novel that cross back into the game, especially in the upcoming DXHR downloadable content mission The Missing Link, which will be available later in 2011.”
For James, the difference between writing prose and writing for a game is “huge. ‘Writing for a game’ covers a great deal of ground; it’s not just one single kind of job, like writing prose fiction for a novel. Game writing can be any one of a number of different kinds of writing, or a combination of many of them.
“For example, a game writer could be called on to write scripts for cinematic cutscenes, in-game conversations, dialogue for supporting characters, radio chatter, backstory for characters or factions, briefs for level/character designers, game design documents, text for in-game items like books or documents, mission briefings, event the manual for the game itself… and those are just the jobs I can think off of the top of my head.
“Add to that the long lead time – DXHR took four years to produce, for example – and the amount of collaboration with other departments that has to take place, and the contrast with the relatively isolated job of penning prose is starkly dissimilar. The two mediums have very different needs, and some writers find it hard to change gears between them, but it’s an interesting challenge and it can be very rewarding.”
But as if that wasn’t a big enough challenge already, James also continues to work for yet another medium – audio plays. “We’re in the process of recording the last few pieces of actor’s dialogue for a the next series of Stargate audio dramas, and Big Finish are hoping to have the first of them on sale before the end of 2011, to be confirmed,” he reveals. “Series Three of the Stargate audios are full-cast plays, unlike the two-handers we’ve done before. It’s a six-episode miniseries set in the last season of Stargate SG-1, with Michael Shanks and Claudia Black reprising their roles as Daniel Jackson and Vala Mal Doran; the series is made up of two three-part stories, and we’ve brought in actor Cliff Simon to guest star as the Goa’uld System Lord Ba’al in the first trilogy. I worked as story editor for this series, as well as writing episode one, Half Life.” (And James’s audio work for Big Finish goes beyond Stargate: he’s also working on a play “for their Blake’s 7: The Liberator Chronicles series.”)
In our last interview, James also talked about his desire to work on audio plays set in the Star Trek universe. Has there been any development on that front in the interim? “Sadly, no!” he bemoans. “I would still love to do it, though. Anyone out there reading this who wants to fund the project, call me…!”
The Icarus Effect was released by Titan in February 2011, and Cast No Shadow was released by Pocket Books in July 2011. Hammer & Anvil will be released by Black Library in December 2011.