The Trickster Hero
Jotting ideas for this series in my notebook I wrote ‘Mission: Impossible meets Guardians of the Galaxy’. I was looking for something that would be fun to write and that might prove popular with readers of humorous action-adventure stories. It was going to be about a wise-cracking thief who used disguises and committed daring robberies. Long before this I had wanted to write something about a hero who had a big military robot as a sidekick. They were going to be something like Han Solo and Chewbacca.
The real inspiration for my character Quincy Randall, of course, was Harry Harrison’s novel The Stainless Steel Rat. I first read it when I was ten or eleven years old and I’ve probably read it a dozen times since. It’s a cliché to say that ‘reading this book changed my life’ – but it did. In subtle ways and in more obvious ones. If you’ve never read The Stainless Steel Rat, you should. And the rest of the novels in the series. They’re about James Bolivar diGriz, a.k.a ‘Slippery Jim’, who is an intergalactic thief and conman. Yes, I stole that from Harry Harrison. There are a couple of deliberate references to The Stainless Steel Rat in Battleship Raider and some more in Road Rage.
Nottinghamshire is my home county and I grew up with stories of Robin Hood. I probably first encountered him in a ‘Ladybird’ book when I was a young child. From Robin and Slippery Jim I must have gained my anti-authoritarian streak and certainly developed a love for trickster heroes. From Harry Harrison’s hero and the television series Doctor Who I gained a belief that heroes don’t need to kill people. And from The A-Team I learned that shooting guns and blowing stuff up is fun as long as no one really gets hurt. Ideally, of course, the violence is incidental and the actual solution to a problem comes from the hero’s ingenuity. Having a street-smart thief-hero and an ex-military robot with a cannon for an arm gives me the best of both worlds in the Outlaw series.
Raiders of the Lost Ark meets The Terminator. And Jurassic Park
Battleship Raider ended up being Raiders of the Lost Ark meets The Terminator. I wanted to write an ‘origins’ story that showed how my two main characters met. The title is a nod towards the original Indiana Jones movie and the computer game Tomb Raider. The ‘battleship’ part comes from Battleship Galactica. What if there was a crashed battleship lost in the jungle? And what if it was guarded by a Terminator-like robot? And what if a thief tried to break in to steal something valuable? That was pretty much my thought process for the book. Oh, and what if there are ‘dragons’ in the jungle that are like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park? Those things aren’t referred to as Crichtorax by accident, you know.
Raiding the Science Fiction Toybox
There are a lot of toys in the science fiction toybox – from the classic novels, from great Hollywood movies, and even from terrible direct-to-video films of the 1980s. I want to play with all of these toys and in this series I probably will!
As an author, the first novels you write tend to be deep and meaningful explorations of your own psyche. You think you’re writing the book as opposed to a book. You invest a lot of yourself in them because they’re supposed to mean something. Later on you learn to relax and have fun. The books I’m writing in this series are fun for me to write – and I hope that translates into a fun reading experience. They’re supposed to be fast-paced adventure stories with a touch of humour. There are no serious ‘messages’ or deep philosophical meanings here – though, of course, my values and (non-religious) beliefs inevitably sneak in.
A Bisexual Made for Two
Although I’ve been inspired by, and ‘borrowed’ ideas from, many books and films, there’s one area where I can’t point to early influences. Growing up in the late 1970s and 80s, there weren’t many examples of LGBT heroes. There were ‘gay books’ centring on the lives of, and issues faced by, gay men, but you almost never found a book about a character who just happened to be gay. Or bisexual or transgender. In the science fiction and fantasy worlds I create, there are such characters and they exist without anyone making reference to their gender identity or sexuality. This was a deliberate choice for me in my Thurlambria series of fantasy novels which have a gay man as a protagonist. It happened more by ‘accident’ in the Outlaws series.
Writing the first draft of Battleship Raider in the first person, I suddenly found Quincy telling another character that he had two ex-wives and an ex-husband. That was a surprise to me – it wasn’t in my notes for the character. I had consciously decided that Quincy would not be a gay man because I wanted to differentiate him from other heroes that I had created. But he decided he was bisexual and I wasn’t going to argue. I blame Captain Jack Harkness. Of course, having learned of Quincy’s ex-spouses I started to think about who these characters might be – and whether they would turn up in later stories. At this point I don’t know for sure, but I have a few ideas on the back burner.
A Hero of Colour
Another thing about Quincy that I don’t make an issue of is the fact that he is a black man – or a person of colour, if that’s your preferred term. A character whose skin happens to be black. As a middle-aged white guy, I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing a story set in the present day told from the point of view of a non-white person. I have no experience of growing up in a world where I am judged negatively because of the colour of my skin. I could extrapolate from other experiences of prejudice, but I don’t know what it is really like. I would spend the whole story second-guessing myself, worried that I would ‘get it wrong’ and offend people. But in a science fiction novel set in the far future, I can say that racial prejudice no longer exists and hasn’t existed for a century or more. Nobody comments on the colour of someone else’s skin. This might seem like a cop-out or as incredibly naïve, but as I have said elsewhere – my world, my rules.
Future Technology – Fuel for Thought
A lot of the science fiction I read in my teens was written in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s – and those classics are still around for people to read. Even in the 1970s and early 1980s when I was reading them, desktop computers, tablets, and ‘mobile telephones’ or cell phones did not exist. And nor did the internet. Global warming wasn’t something people worried about. I grew up during the Cold War and as kids we were worried about armageddon and a possible ‘nuclear winter’ that might follow.
While I am playing with the science fiction toys created by all the great authors (and film-makers) of the past, I have to try and take into account more recent developments. And try and anticipate a few new ones. While I think the iPhone-style device is a fad that will eventually fade, always-on communication and access to something like the internet will probably always be with us. How do you write about future tech without coming up with something that will look dated in three or four years? You fudge it by being a bit vague about the technology your hero uses! People tend not to take much notice of the stuff they use everyday. We say ‘I made a call’ or ‘I sent a message’. Nobody really feels the need to say ‘Sent from my iPhone’ any more, do they?
The world of Saphira and the vehicles in it are definitely influenced by the original Mad Max / Road Warrior movies and other similar post-apocalyptic tales of that era. But as I was writing the first books in the series, I was watching YouTube videos about the latest advances in electric-powered vehicles. Early on I had assumed that Quincy and co. would be driving around in gasoline powered cars. But the internal combustion engine will probably be obsolete within twenty years – so to have them in use two hundred or more years from now doesn’t make sense. All of the road vehicles on Saphira, with one or two exceptions, have electric motors. But they all also have sound modules that you can turn on to make them sound like big old V8s – because if they ever make a movie from one of these books, that’s what I want the cars to sound like!
Whatever Happened to Artificial Intelligence?
Back in the 1940s and 50s, Isaac Asimov and others wrote about robots with human-like ‘brains’. Asimov even created a robo-psychologist hero. Terms like artificial intelligence didn’t come into popular usage until much later. I’m disappointed that we don’t have humanoid robots in our homes – as a kid I had assumed that we’d have them before now. And I’m also disappointed that artificial intelligence turned out to be a bit of a con job. So-called ‘machine learning’ is nothing like the positronic brains we were promised. We wanted Robbie the Robot and we got an ‘algorithm’ that suggests the next book we’ll want to read or somehow manages to replicate human prejudices. That’s not what we signed up for. In my stories I’ve had to make a distinction between modern-day artificial intelligence and what I am calling artificial sentience, which is much closer to the fictional robots from the olden days. Only slightly more twisted.
Playing the Game. Or Not
I don’t play computer games. Tetris is about my limit. I did play the original Doom on an Amiga computer, but after that I decided that I wouldn’t play games until the onscreen graphics were as good as a Hollywood movie. I thought that was pretty unlikely to happen – but technology has a habit of catching up with you. I have just started playing around with Unreal Engine to create real-time moving 3D images and I can see that I may have to reassess my excuse for not playing games.
It’s probably obvious from some of the things that I write about that I’m familiar with the imagery from computer games. My ‘morgue’ of images that I flick through for inspiration contains a few pictures from magazine advertisements for 1980s and 90s computer games. Battleship Raider gets fifty percent of its title from Tomb Raider. But my problem with actually playing computer games comes from the fact that I don’t want to experience a story that a software company has created, I want to make up my own! And besides, if I ever started playing them I would never get around to doing any writing at all.
As I write these words, I have written the first four books in the Outlaws of the Galaxy series. I wanted to complete three books before I published the first one because I wanted to release them quickly, one after the other, so that readers wouldn’t have to wait long to get the next book in the series. In these days of binge-watching, none of us wants to have to wait, do we?
Book 3 ended on a bit of a cliffhanger so I decided to write the fourth one so people could find out what happens next. And I wanted to know myself. The fourth in the series, Wicked Racers, is still set on the planet Saphira and sees the hero take part in a crazy car race. If the title reminds you of a certain cartoon series, that may not be an accident. And book six may see Quin and Floyd finally get off Saphira and begin their adventures in the wider universe — unless something ges wrong with their masterplan.
Those six books make up ‘Season 1’ — I still have two of them to write and I don’t know if there’ll be more after that. I hope there will be a season two but that will depend on whether readers decide they want to see more. Do you enjoy the outlaws series? Click on the Contact button and let me know if you do.
— Paul Tomlinson, March 2021