Author interview: Eric Brown

The Guardian’s resident science fiction reviewer talks to Stephen Jewell about his new space opera universe

Eric Brown

Eric Brown

As The Guardian’s resident science fiction reviewer, Eric Brown knows better than most what elements make for a compelling space opera. Now the Helix/Bengal Station author has created Weird Space, Abaddon’s new shared universe series that premiered recently with first installment The Devil’s Nebula.

SFX: Space opera is one of the well-worn staples of sci-fi. How do you keep it fresh after so many years?

Eric Brown: I love space opera, and I believe that every sub-genre has potential no matter how old it is. But that’s true of every form of literature – each writer brings new things to it because each of us is an individual. If our writing is worth anything at all, then we have to put ourselves into it. I suppose it’s the old SF dichotomy of ideas versus tradition. But I don’t read or write SF for cutting edge ideas; I read and write it for the storytelling, and every story is new. So have I brought anything new to it? Only in so far as no-one before has written about the characters I’ve invented in their particular situation.

SFX: Like Star Trek, The Devil’s Nebula spans several universes and it’s also been compared to Firefly and Blake’s 7 as – to quote the back-cover blurb – it centres around “Ed Carew and his small ragtag crew of smugglers and ne’er-do-wells…”

Brown: I’ve never actually seen Firefly or Blake’s 7 but I was obsessed with Star Trek as a child, so perhaps that influence has percolated in me. But I’d say a greater influence was Jack Vance, although that might not seem so obvious. Another was the space operas of John Morressy, the little-known US writer.

SFX: And what about Alien? There are a few spaceship wrecks in The Devil’s Nebula

Brown: For some reason, I write about crash-landed spaceships quite a lot and my wife is sick of hearing of hearing my ideas for new tales about them.

SFX: Ed and his crew are forced to team up with the imperialistic human empire the Expansion first against rival alien race, the Vetch, and then the even-more-otherworldly Weird. But we don’t actually see much of the Vetch in The Devil’s Nebula, as most of the novel takes place in the unknown territory of Weird Space. Will we see more of the Vetch in future volumes?

Brown: I hope so, although that’s down to the other writers who do the follow-up novels. Certainly there’s a bit more of the Vetch in Satan’s Reach, the second Weird Space novel that I’m also doing. It was my intention when writing the first novel and outlining the universe to include elements that might not be mentioned a lot in the first two books, which could then be developed and expanded in subsequent books.

SFX: Are you playing with themes of colonisation? There’s a sense that Ed is not necessarily in the right when he allies himself with the Expansion.

Brown: I didn’t implicitly set out to deal with ideas of colonialism but I did want to get over that Ed and his crew are throwing in their lot with a regime they despise because they realise that they are up against a greater evil in the Weird. It’s a case of better the devil you know. That said, the Weird are not evil as such; they’re acting out a series of cultural and even physiological imperatives. They need to imbibe the knowledge of other races, and know only one way of doing so. In order to survive, the human race must defend itself.

SFX: In calling Ed’s ship The Paradoxical Poet, did you want to give Iain M Banks a run for his money in the quirky spaceship name stakes?

Brown: I like writing about spaceships, but I wasn’t trying to rival Banks. The Paradoxical Poet is actually a veiled reference to one of my favourite writers, GK Chesterton. Other ships in the second book will be named with my other favourite writers in mind.

The Devil's Nebula

SFX: How many books will Weird Space eventually encompass?

Brown: I loved outlining the universe and writing the first novel. But as to how many novels will feature in the series… that depends on its success. I’ve tried to include many elements, so it could go in many directions.

SFX: Will the threat of the Weird strike closer to the Expansion’s home?

Brown: They will invade, and will have to be fought. But there is also the conflict with the Vetch to be explored, and many conflicts within the human expansion itself. It really depends on where other hands take the series.

SFX: Thanks Eric!

The Devil’s Nebula is published by Abaddon and is available now. You can read more author interviews in the latest edition of SFX, available now to subscribers or in good newsagents tomorrow.

Stephen Jewell