Sam Peters and Gollancz are releasing the second instalment of the Inspector Keon series this week and I had the brilliant opportunity to put some questions to Peters to find out more about what is happening in the series. From Darkest Skies blew my mind with creative characters, a high intensity plot and a wondrous setting. Let us hope that SP can keep up the momentum. Pick up a copy on the 19th! You won’t regret it 😀
19.04.2018 / Gollancz / Science Fiction / Paperback / 448pp / 978-1473214781
About Sam Peters
Sam Peters is a mathematician, part-time gentle-person adventurer and occasional screenwriter who has seen faces glaze over at the words ‘science fiction’ once too often. Inspirations include Dennis Potter, Mary Doria Russell, Lynda La Plante, Neal Stephenson, and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Has more hopes than regrets, more cats than children, watches a lot of violent contact sport and is an unrepentant closet goth.
About From Distant Stars
Inspector Keon has finally got over the death of his wife Alysha in a terrorist attack five years ago. The illegal AI copy of her – Liss – that he created to help him mourn has vanished, presumed destroyed. His life is back on track. But a deadly shooting in a police-guarded room in a high-security hospital threatens to ruin everything. Who got past the defences? Why did they kill the seemingly unimportant military officer who had been in a coma for weeks? And why did the scanners pick up the deceased man the next day on the other side of the planet, seemingly alive and well?
As Keon digs into the mysteries he begins to realise that the death was connected to a mysterious object, potentially alien, discovered buried in ice under the north pole. Someone has worked out what is hidden there, and what its discovery will mean for mankind. Someone who is willing to kill.
And another player has entered the game. Someone who seems to know more about Keon than is possible.
Someone who might be using Liss’s information against him.
Or who might be Alysha, back from the dead.
Thank you Sam for taking some time to answer a few questions about your latest novel From Distant Stars (Inspector Keon #2). Could you give us your own personal overview of what we should expect in within?
In From Darkest Skies, Keon returned to his homeworld to find the truth of what really happened to his wife and how she died. He thinks he knows the answers and now he’s trying to put his past to bed and move on. Thing is, everyone who works with him thinks she was a traitor, and though he doesn’t want to believe this himself, he’s having a little trouble reconciling some of what she did with his idea of who she was. Sadly for Keon, this is only going to get worse when he discovers a stack of Alysha’s old files pointing at an undercover investigation he knew nothing about, one that seems connected to the ongoing excavation of a Master’s ship buried under the Magentan ice cap, a wreck that was only discovered five years after she died.
You can expect to learn a little more about the enigmatic Masters (but just a little), along with more exploration of an increasingly blurred line between human and machine, more about the synergy between humans and the xenoflora of Magenta and maybe a clue as to why the Masters carried humans there in the first place, all wrapped in a pacy thriller as Keon hunts an almost unstoppable killer who strikes with impunity, and a secret that might change the whole future of the human race. As Bix would say, it’s all cool, man.
What was your initial inspiration for the From Darkest Skies series and its characters?
The world of Magenta and some of the plot grew out of a role-playing game I created a long, long time ago. I think the original pitch to my players was something like “X-files meets Babylon Five” (anyone remember those? It was a long time ago). One of the underlying tropes of the game was that everything was connected, absolutely everything (shout out here to every GM who’s ever had a group of players whose sole ambition seems to be to run in the opposite direction far and fast at the first sign of anything that might be plot). A lot of the world of Magenta (they used to basically live in the Wavedome) come from that, and some aspects of the Masters too. Several characters – Laura and Bix in particular – are recognisably based on characters who appeared in that game, too.
Are most of the characters from the first novel returning in From Distant Stars?
Without wanting to give anything too much away, yes, all the main characters who survive return in From Distant Stars.
Can you give us a few details about some of the concepts and ideas that you explore within these novels?
It’s taken writing all three books (yes, there’s a third, From Divergent Suns, which is finished insofar as I’ve sent in the draft to my editor and agent for them to rip to pieces) to figure out what these stories are really about. On the grandest scale are the Masters, enigmatic aliens whose motives and technologies remain as much a mystery a century and a half after they vanished as they were when they arrived; and you have the world of Magenta, a fundamentally hostile place, not fully explored, with a primitive form of alien life that interacts with human neurochemistry in a way no one really understands. On a very personal scale are the relationships between Keon and Alysha and Liss. What I now realise is that on all these levels, I’m exploring our relationship with both the unknown and the unknowable. It’s what we do as a species – when presented with a mystery, we try to understand it, and I suppose that’s about fear, too, that what you don’t know or understand is what can hurt you because you have no way to guard against it. In the case of the Masters, this was something I deliberately set out to explore, and right at the very bottom of what underlies the antagonists in both From Darkest Skies and From Distant Stars is a need to understand at ANY cost. You see the same in Keon too, in his dogged determination to get to the bottom of his dead wife’s secrets when frankly he might be a lot better off – and a lot happier – just letting it go. Speaking of which…
Is there a particular element in From Distant Stars that you especially enjoyed writing about?
I enjoy butting characters up against the mystery of the Masters and watching how they each react to questions that just don’t have answers. I like watching them squirm, except for Bix who just goes whoa, kinda cool, and gets on with life. We could all learn a lot from Bix. But over the course of the three books, it was the evolution of Liss and her relationship with Keon, and the discovery of who Alysha really was (you think I know these things from the start? So do I, and then it turns out I don’t…) that I enjoyed most of all. I found Keon butting up against the same problem as with the Masters but on an entirely personal level and in a way every one of us should be able to relate to: how well do I really know the people close to me? Can you ever really truly and completely know someone? And would you want to? Would you want to never be surprised? Where does that go? And (and this comes out more in the third book), Keon’s relationship with Liss – he’s created her to be this copy of someone who turns out not to be quite the person he thought, so what exactly is she a copy of? And time they both understand by now that they’re bad for each other, and yet at the same time they remain utterly trapped because the only way out is for one of them to let go, which, for different reasons, neither of them can do.
So yeah, putting characters in boxes that have no way out and watching them squirm.
What sort of challenges did you face when writing a sequel to From Darkest Skies?
I’m too traumatised by the (ongoing) challenges of writing From Divergent Suns to remember – the first two books seem like sunny walks in the park from here, although I have dim notion that they weren’t. Plotting out the mystery, making it work in such a way as to mesh what is basically an SF conspiracy thriller with Keon’s personal quest and keep them both aligned. It felt challenging to write a first person point of view in a way that steered the line between Keon coincidentally always being in the right place at the right time for the next plot twist and having the plot unfold in the background without him. Alysha gave me problems too. The Masters might remain a mystery, but I think I’d be cheating readers not to fully reveal what she did and why she did it by the end of the third book – but at the same time I felt I needed both to give what look like a satisfactory answers at the end of books one and two and to keep Keon guessing right up to the end, which kind of meant I ended up keeping myself guessing too… Keon spends the whole of From Distant Stars trying to prove Alysha wasn’t a traitor to her world, I spent it trying to find out whether he was right.
Had you always planned to become an SF author at a stage in your life?
“Plan” doesn’t feel like the right word. Aspired to be? Yes, for a long time. SF is what I grew up with. I’ve written in other genres, but it’s nice to finally come to what feels like home 😊
Are there any authors that influence your writing on any level?
On any level? On some level, probably every author I’ve ever read, even if in some cases it’s lessons about what NOT to do. There’s no pretending Fron Darkest Skies doesn’t come from a long line of noir-ish detective SF, so Blade Runner (the movie, not the original PKD story), Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash, Neuromancer, the usual cyberpunk suspects. 2000AD probably deserves a mention. The twisty thrillers of John Le Carre and others whose names I can’t remember. Philip K Dick quite a lot, actually, but indirectly through the screen adaptations of his works (I don’t get on with his style of prose but I very much get on with the ideas he explores).
How long did it take you to plan and write From Darkest Skies and From Distant Stars?
My writing process is messy and doesn’t have any clean lines in it – I’m still planning it out several drafts in. From start to finish, though, about a year, interleaved with other things. I find an important part of the process for me is to regularly walk away from a project and work on something completely different, read some completely different things, then come back to it with a new perspective. Then take that perspective and the notes I’ve made on the previous draft on what isn’t working and go back to the plan until all the problems seem to go away. Redraft, rinse and repeat four or five times, a month on then a month off.
Can you tell us in five words what being an author/writer means to you?
It’s very hard to articulate. There’s pride in having created something, bewilderment in having created something that complete strangers somehow find affecting. I get the odd e-mail now and then from people telling me how much they loved this story or that character, and those are always special. Wonder at the variety of reactions – for one person, a story can be life-changer, for another, the same story is unreadable dross. There’s money too. It’s not much but it’s enough to buy some time off work to spend with my family. So there: pride, bewilderment, wonder and time.
Did you take the time to celebrate finishing either of your novels?
Honestly? For these, I don’t think I did. I’ve been round this bouy before a few times and I’m not sure when “finished” is any more? Submitted? No. Published? I suppose, except when you’re writing a series that just means all the mistakes you didn’t spot in time are now carved in stone and you have to live with them… Maybe when From Divergent Suns hits the stores a year or so from now…
Have you got a hobby/activity you do to wind down from all the writing?
Writing is my hobby to wind down from life.
Finally, have you read a book/article recently that you would personally recommend to the readers of this post?
I’d like to recommend the excellent From Darkest Skies… wait, that’s not what you meant? Ok, so my stand-out book of the year so far has been Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky, which to my mind deserves all the praise and awards it’s received. I also rather liked The Hangman’s Daughter by Gavin Smith – a very different beast. In return, please can I have an explanation of Loop Quantum Gravity that doesn’t melt my head?
Thank you to Sam Peters for taking the time to share a few details about From Distant Stars. This is a fantastic SF series that takes the reader to the remarkable setting of Magenta. I love Sam Peters’ focus on AI, alternative science and high octane plot lines. I can’t wait to see what where he has taken the series in From Distant Stars later on this month. Thank you for stopping by to check out this Q&A. I have a lot more SFF interviews coming up so keep an eye put for them in the near future.