Sam Peters’ debut novel From Darkest Skies is out later this month and it is a fantastic book. I had a chance to ask Sam a few questions. Big thanks to Stevie Finegan and Gollancz for helping to make this happen.
From Darkest Skies is a crime thriller, to what extent did that dictate how you built the world?
In broad sweeps almost not at all. The world came first and inspired the story. Thinking about it now there isn’t a great deal about the Magenta (apart from the xenoflora) that seems necessary to the plot itself; things like the gravity and the weather and even most of the history generally informed the tone and the characters (Keon weathering the return to high gravity, for example, and Esh’s past). The xenoflora came before the plot and inspired it. I think the same goes for beyond the world too, with what happened to Earth and the invasion and then disappearance of the Masters. Deep down the world drives the story by providing the motivation for the bad guys to do what he bad guys are doing (and did) but I don’t think I changed it all once I’d written the broad strokes of the setting.
Where there any things you specifically wanted to avoid in your world building?
I wanted a world we hadn’t seen before. I’m not sure that Magenta came out terribly interesting in the end but I wanted an alien world that wasn’t either entirely hostile (so it has air and water) or like-Earth-but-different. I suppose the main thing I wanted to avoid – this applies to Magenta but more to the Masters – were aliens that weren’t really alien. I know it’ll probably bug the hell out of some people that no one knows a damned thing about who the Masters were, why they did what they did and what they wanted but that was really the point of them. They’re alien. I wanted aliens that were impossible to understand because I wanted to explore how people – both individuals and en masse – reacted to that. The same goes for Magenta’s xenoflora. Even if it’s a lot less threatening than the Masters, it’s just there, right in front of you all the time, and no one really understands it. I wanted aliens that created uncertainty, not aliens that were simply a problem that gets solved.
In the acknowledgements you say that the planet Magenta was originally created in a roleplay game. Did it change much from game to page?
Magenta is largely as it was when we played it as a setting. It was great being able to use that (and probably why I didn’t have to change it much). Places like the Wavedome wouldn’t have existed without that history. I down-played a couple of elements (I dimly remember the planet being in ecological crisis due to an infestation of snails and I don’t think that quite fitted with the tone I was looking for) but it didn’t change much. The Masters changed a little – in the original we had a much better idea of who they were and what they wanted which, in hindsight I think took some of the mystery away. The hallucinogenic Xenoflora (and what it does) was always there.
Was the setting the only part from the game to make it into the final book?
The characters survived better than I thought they would. I think the people who played the original game will recognise all four of Keon, Bix, Laura and Esh. Laura and Bix are similar to the characters they once were and possibly Esh too (it’s hard to remember for sure – it was a long time ago and I’ve been living with the newer versions for a long time). Keon changed quite a bit (a lot of the new Keon is lifted from another character from a different game who had a dead former lover in a box). I think that’s to be expected: a game with multiple players is an ensemble story and From Darkest Skies definitely isn’t that.
Bits of plot survived although they got mutated and merged and… okay, bits of the ideas of some of the plots survived. If I’d written the actual narrative of the game then if would probably be eighty percent surfing and drinking in the wavedome and twenty percent plot having to come and bash the bloody door down to get noticed.
A lot got thrown away. A fair general summary would be that anything in the foreground (so Keon’s past, Alysha, Liss, almost everything to do with Settlement-64) was either cut from new cloth or grown from a few scraps of ideas that were never developed very far. On the other hand, a lot of the background colour survived.
What are your favourite sci-fi thrillers?
I read Altered Carbon while I was editing From Darkest Skies and that’s just brilliant – I can’t wait for the TV version to air. The Expanse rocks; so does Bladerunner, Ex Machina is pretty good and then there’s Westworld… (I don’t care if that doesn’t count as a thriller!)
I like my thrillers to be personal. It’s fine for the SF tech/world/idea to be integral to the mystery (in fact if it isn’t then why is it SF?) but for me all the best thrillers are driven by something deeply personal – either the heroine is trying to understand a part of herself at the same time or else trying to understand something that happened to her that’s left a wound that won’t heal. FDS has both of those, I hope, in Liss and Keon.
… and Source Code and Moon and Primer and and Snowcrash and Neuromancer and…
I notice I’m mostly going for movies and TV here. Do SF thrillers have an easier time on screen than on paper? Or is it the other way around and that thrillers are an easier way to get SF onto the screen unless it’s Star Wars?
Are you someone who is likes to wear their influences on their sleeve?
From Darkest Skies has a cameo character called Royja Bhatti. So I guess that’s a yes to whether I do it. Do I like to? Now and then, yes. I’m riding on the shoulders of giants, trying to follow a familiar path in a different way, and I love those other stories that have become the waypoints of our storytelling and I know that most of the people who read something like From Darkest Skies will probably love them too so it’s like we’re sharing a little moment together on the ride, pausing to look out the window and point at some fabulous monument as we drive past.
Can we expect more Keon Rause stories in the future?
Yes. Species Traitor (working title for the moment – it was going to be called Silkworm but someone quite famous got there first…) is with my editor. It’s set about six months after From Darkest Skies.
What was the last thing you read that you would recommend to other people?
Scalzi’s Lock-In was pretty good. Not profound but very readable. If I stick with SF, Kameron Hurley’s God’s War. Now I think about it maybe that counts as an SF thriller too but I was too busy engaging with the characters to notice the thriller bit. I’m re-reading Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself. I never got past the first volume first time round for some reason but I’m thoroughly enjoying it this time (I have to wonder how much of this is because Ferro Maljinn feels like a Nyx waiting to happen though).
The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan was possibly the most interesting book I read last year.