Author Interview: Fermi's Progress by Chris Farnell
Release Date: August 24, 2022
Your hosts talk with author Chris Farnell about his darkly humorous science fiction novel "Fermi's Progress". The conversation ranges from planets that didn't make it into the book to how he managed to make the superman character sympathetic rather than obnoxious. They also talk about diverse alien cultures in a "planet of the week" format.
You can find more from Chris here: https://twitter.com/thebrainofchris https://chrisfarnell.com/ https://scarletferret.com/books/fermis-progress-season-pass
Thanks to the following musicians for the use of their songs:
- Amarià for the use of “Sérénade à Notre Dame de Paris”
- Josh Woodward for the use of “Electric Sunrise”
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 License
*this transcript is AI generated, please excuse the mess.
Hello, and welcome to fiction fans, a podcast where we read books. In other words, too. I'm Billy.
And I'm Sarah. And we are delighted to be joined by author Chris Parnell this episode to talk about his novel from his progress. It's great to be here.
Well, before we actually start talking about your book first, but something great that happened recently, it rained.
Just on Tuesday. I was just working in the dining room. And suddenly, the garden path went dark. And there was stuff coming up the sky and I was going and yelling for the kids and my partner to come and roll running outside and dancing around. It was magical. Yeah, that was the highlight. Rain is so nice. So it's been a while here.
You've been going through a heatwave. And in the UK, haven't you?
Yeah, no massive warm, low grasses. Pretty much brown everywhere you look. You know, Britain rain, it's part of our culture. So finally getting some it was
I can imagine.
Sarah, did you get any rain? Because if you did, that's also your good thing. I bet.
I did actually get rain. It is not my good thing. Okay. But it is it is part of my good thing. I went backpacking with my father, which was a lot of fun. And we didn't get rained on, which was delightful. Although I was a little, it's a little odd, because I'm always so happy when it rains here in California, like we don't get nearly enough rain. So rain is always thrilling, but at the same time, you know, it's stopping Well, we didn't want to hike and torrential downpour, my father didn't want to hike in a torrential downpour. So it meant we could actually be on the trail. We were just camped in the tent. But it was really nice to hear the rain on the tent on the roof of the tent at night and, you know, wake up and look out and see raindrops and
yeah, my dad used to take the walk in the lake districts just sort of in the north of England here. Yeah, rain was definitely a huge part of that experience.
Yes. Well, my good thing is not outdoorsy at all. It's in fact, the opposite of that. It was my fifth wedding anniversary last weekend. A little while ago. Happy anniversary.
I don't think it was your wedding anniversary. Realize not like good. Doesn't matter. Congratulations. Anyway,
thank you. The good thing is that cult of the lamb came out recently, which is a video game that's very cute, and like the perfect level of creepy and cute. And so my husband and I had what we call a trash weekend, where we did nothing but play video games and eat delivery for like two and a half days straight. And it was a great anniversary.
Good. Ya know, my son has been Adam, we're gonna be getting that game. Looking forward to seeing that.
It's super fun. It's a single player game. So we've been just trading off. But it's, it's neat. It's a cute game. And that was my Yeah, that was really nice. Like, just relaxing. Nothing productive. It's wonderful.
The best kind of weekend, honestly.
And what is everyone drinking on this fine. Well, afternoon for me.
I'm drinking a popular soft drink brand. Excellent.
When they pay us money, then we'll say the name. I just have like bottom tier Jasmine green tea, but it is nice and warm. And I am enjoying it immensely.
I have top tier black tea. And I'm also enjoying it immensely.
Good. And then since this is a book podcast, has anyone read anything good lately? Other than Fermi's progress? Of course.
I've been reading Mickey seven by don't get the author's now I think it's Edward Ashton.
Yes, I believe it's.
Yeah, I'm really enjoying that just, I always love space stories that are from the sort of very bottom row, you know, Redwall feet, chicken soup repairman kind of perspective. And Mickey seven is very much that just the one person who gets all the absolute worst jobs you can possibly have on MySpace call.
It sounds really good. I think I actually have a copy of that, that I haven't gotten around to reading yet. But I do. I do want to read it at some point. So I'm glad that to hear that you're enjoying it.
Yeah, it's really fun read just exactly the sort of crappy working space kind of story.
I actually did have some reading time when we were backpacking. So I started and finished the final book in The Indus series by Sherwood Smith. a reread for me but I'm still on my Sherwood Smith kick. So that was a fun.
Wonderful. I had a trash weekend so I did not do anything productive reading
I'm assuming some text on the screen.
Absolutely. There we go. I read some dialogue, subtitles. But I also read Fermi's progress, which was an excellent book, the heart wrenching at moments, you really put us through the wringer there, Horace.
There was a bit of rigging, there's no denying.
I don't normally think that this question is an interesting one, which is where did you get your inspiration, but some of the premise of it is so dark that I just I feel compelled to ask,
well, where it came from for me is I'm there's loads of sort of real science bits that come into it. Such as, there's a theory that if you did build an R cube, you drive, the warp bubble would collect up all of the sort of tiny particles along the way. And so when it got to the planet, what you would have is just a giant particle cannon in front of the spaceship that will just obliterate wherever it was you're trying to go to. So as part of that, partly, as a kid, I always loved the idea of Freeman Dyson Orion propulsion system, which is basically a rocket where you throw nuclear bombs out the back, and the bombs explode, and the explosion pushes you along. So for a long time, there had been this idea of just this incredibly deadly spaceship engine, just sort of bouncing around. But also, I really missed the kind of science fiction stories that were just sort of procedural, like a planet procedural, where you fly along, you find a weird planet, you land on the planet, you have an adventure, you leave the planet, and you get them in things like the original Star Trek series. And once they leave, you'd never see the planet again. You know, it might as well have been blown up. And so this just seemed like a really good way of doing lots of big, high concepts, ideas, stories, where you can just take the idea play around it, build an alien world. And then when you're done, just want the extra sketch. Do another one.
I love visiting all of those planets, with the characters seeing just all of the crazy different worlds and aliens that you came up with. did leave me wondering though, if there were any that you came up with, it didn't actually make it onto the page. Oh,
there's a few. And there's some that might still be to come. So I'm going to be careful how I answer this one. There's a bit of a montage at one point where you see a few worlds in quick succession. And some of those were ones that I had originally wanted to do all the stories around. But the idea didn't quite hold up enough for an entire story. So you just hit the idea. Oh, that one's gone. Yeah, I think the only one that I didn't have was a planet of just origami life forms just big rectangles that would just rearrange themselves into shapes that the biosphere needed, whether they be, you know, benign, or something that the paper cup. Oh, God, I never quite got fitting that
one of the things that I really liked about all of these alien worlds and alien life forms is how you wrote it in the novel, where you make it very evident to the reader that they are alien life forms, before we actually see them from the cruise perspective. But like, it's, it's a very subtle way. I don't know if I can describe it very well, but you you use things like talking about the crotch of her hand, for example, or saying things like what a budding mess to show that, you know, these aliens have different idioms and metaphors and things like that. Can you talk a little bit about just like that process of doing that?
Yeah, I think there's a story. I heard a writer giving a talk once where he was traveling with some desert tribe. And he used the phrase sleep like a log. And the person he was talking to just didn't get where I came from, because no logs. So the author asked, What would you say? The guy said, sleep like a dead candle. And I don't know if the story is made up. I can't even remember who the writer is. But that stuck with me just that sense of how your frame of reference divine symmetry use, what things look like to you. And I wanted very much for the alien point of view, to always be at the center of its own universe. And for any difference between them, and the Fermi crew to be the Fermi crew being the aberration.
I didn't love how I think the crew even points out a few times, or maybe the world pointed out to them that they are really the aliens in all of these situations. That was just Yeah, liked it. Sorry, that wasn't a question.
Dangerous? He says, Well, I mean, yeah, the inhabitants of these planets, if they encounter the Fermi crew and react hostile we do have right to do so pretty much.
When we see that right at the beginning with bountiful shore, who might have been my favorite character in the whole book, for as long as she was there anyway.
I was so sad when we left that planet because of the implications for bountiful shore.
Oh, just hurt scene. I guess the fact that her planet gets blown up is not a spoiler since everyone's planets get blown up. But we are left with, like our last moment on that planet is with her. And that it was just,
it was heart wrenching.
Yeah, because obviously, I'm doing a sci fi comedy where planets explode. So there are certain authors you are going to get compared to, inevitably. And I very much wanted to make sure that it didn't always just feel like a punch line. When the product got blown up. I think one of my favorite jokes of all time is the Austin Powers movie. Whenever they kill a henchman. And whenever they kill a henchman, they immediately cut to this henchmans family who are supported by them love them so much. And they mean so much to them. And then they received the news. And I think, you know, when you're writing stories with violence and death in them, you have to do that. And it can be a joke. Joke doesn't always mean happy. But you need to, you know, look at the person, the thing is happening.
Absolutely. You mentioned earlier, though, the real science involved in some of this. And we were wondering how much research went into this book, because it's sci fi, but heavy on the side.
I was actually really surprised interjecting just for a moment. I was kind of surprised when I was like, I was looking at people as you mentioned them. And I was like, Oh, that's a real person. That's a real person. That's a real person. Which was really cool.
It's, it's all the hustle. And it's all calm. And it's all, you know, trying to get the ideas past the believability radar without anyone noticing. But yeah, there were people much better qualified than me who I talked to bugs with stupid questions, and was like, Yeah, but what if I did this? And I did have a number of spreadsheets to calculate things like how fast things needed to rotate for everyone to stand up on them, how fast things would need to move. So yeah, I probably did do quite a bit of research, but at the same time, it always felt to me more like shoddily putting together a fake ID to get past the bouncer then, you know, Jules Verne level stuff where he predicted the precise weather we do the moon launch.
It's interesting that you bring up believability, because for me personally, at least, when the characters in the book acknowledge how ridiculous a situation is, that just like, basically fixes anything? Yeah,
we'll never get tired of using that loop. Just have a scientist say, Well, this is impossible.
Yeah, it's okay that no one understands it. Cuz that's a real thing. Sometimes we don't understand stuff. And then I can just go okay.
You have a very long resume filled with like journalism type writing. Do you think that that influenced your writing process at all or affected in any way?
I think the I spent a lot of time learning how to write to a deadline, and how to achieve a word count by a certain amount of time. And it's, in a lot of ways it's a very, very different kind of writing to fiction writing. Because it's all somebody wants this from you. They need it by this time. You Just have to produce the words. But that doesn't mean you get into the habit of just producing the words, if they need fixing, you can do that later. But you need to just get stuff down on paper. It means writing a lot of different stuff. So it means having to be fairly versatile in what hands you're putting on. So yeah, I think it's been useful for writing fiction, just learning to treat it as a job.
Absolutely. And there were some very non traditional storytelling methods you use, I would say, especially in the beginning of the novel, partially, you know, splitting the novel into parts, or are separate novellas, which I actually totally missed, because I was reading an ebook. And I was like, Oh, this is just the name of the next section. Apparently, it's considered a series of novellas or
I personally think as a one book, I released it as four novellas over the space of about a year actually, just because I was really going for that sort of Paris for the week series, kind of feel that I wanted each story to feel like its own episode, in a way.
Well, I love the episodic nature of it. I agree. It feels more like one one book, though. And that first part is not even pulled linearly. So can you talk a little bit about, you know, making these choices? And if it affected writing them at all?
Yeah, I'm, originally it was recently. But the trouble with that is, I've got a story about a spaceship that blows up planets, and people go into alien worlds. And you're spending just so long on planet Earth, and it's not even exploding. So as I added to every draft, the page one happened later, and later, it starts with Connor, in the office, his 10th job, it starts with them on the spaceship just as the planet explodes. Until eventually, it starts where starts now, which is just, you're writing a story about exploring alien planets, so get on an alien planet?
Oh, it's like how there's never enough sharks in shark movies.
And then, you know, you can fill in the other stuff as you go on. And so I spent a lot of time jiggling scenes around so that when the flashbacks came in, they resonated with what was happening at the time. But yeah, I wanted to write a story about going to alien worlds, so I wanted to make sure that's what you're spending your time on.
Absolutely. Well, you brought up Connor, and I have some opinions, but those are definitely spoiler opinions. So before we get to that section, Sarah, why should you read this book?
You should read this book, if you want really thoughtful sci fi WITH THE PLANET OF THE WEEK format, with the twist of everyone dies at the end? Not the crew. Yeah. Everyone else.
Oh, and characters that you have very complex relationships with? Yeah, it was the reader. And let's get into that. To avoid spoilers skip to 3332. Oh my goodness, Connor. Everyone probably thinks of themselves as an underdog to some extent, right. So it's pretty easy to identify with and sympathize with Connor, who is the not boring twin, the unfortunate twin out of a twin experiment where one is great and one is terrible.
He's the control group. He's you know what Samsung would have ended up as if he hadn't had all of the weird evil mad science stuff that hit hot dogs.
Well, as easy as it is to sympathize with Connor at his temp job and being in spacing completely in over his head. We still also end up sympathizing with Samsung, who is a character who could have very easily been just completely obnoxious. And so like, how did you do that to me?
I really wanted from the start for Samsung to be all of the things that he was supposed to be. Because the idea that yo Connor was the lesser half of this pair, the other half was Superman. If the Superman half was a decade, that kind of makes it easy. That's a that's your payoff. I don't have super powers, but I'm not immediately hated. So I wanted to make him likable. I wanted to fake unkind and to care about ethics and listen to other people has taught how to do it. I think sincerity is such a easy way to make someone likable. Just having a mean what he says that so much of the work for you.
I really enjoyed how we learned more about Samson as the story progressed. And like, in the beginning, I was like, okay, he's been experimented on. Great, but then he gives you a little snippets of all of the things that he's done. And I'm like, Wow, you really, you have done so much. And you're still I still don't hate you. Like you're still actually a character that I sympathize with. And root for. It was great.
Yeah, it did enjoy. There was a line where he said his first job was to find a cure for cancer, and then destroy it before it could be weaponized. And I just, yeah, I wanted to always have in path that hook, I think the originally the idea for the character was just to take your sort of Captain America type character, you Doc Savage, like character, and to just have his origin story be eugenics just, here's the subtext of that stuff you love. Now we're just gonna put it right. And the problem was that I started writing this around 2015. And by the time I was doing the final draft, it was early 2020. And they're whatch newspaper columns here in the UK, with people saying, his eugenics all that bad. And so I had to go back during the very last draft, and just make sure I included a few explicit bits saying, by the way, eugenics is bad and it doesn't work.
Do you ever have a moment of going, I can't believe I had to write this down.
There's an early draft where Gordon calls some characters snowflakes. Now what she means by snowflakes is someone who is in love with the idea of their own uniqueness and special. But again, then five years of terribly politics happened. And that wasn't completely reverse.
Language. Evolution is a beautiful thing. And sometimes it's the fucking worst. I love the dynamic between Connor and Samsung, though, than watching them reading them as brothers and just going through these ridiculous events was absolutely delightful and really brought a human element to some of the crazy things.
They're fun to write. Because they both think they're in completely different stories. Samson absolutely believes that he's in a proper Vintage Space Adventure. Well, Connor, just he doesn't want to be in any story at all, he would much rather be in some sort of Nick Cormier thing. So
you do this for all of the members of the crew too. And I imagine that there was maybe different difficulty levels, humanizing or making likable some of these different characters. You know, you have Rashida who is a charming, sort of off the wall engineer who is just lovely and wonderful, even when she's going through hell. And then you haven't Gordon Regina?
Yeah, Gordon. Yeah, no, my partner, when we were students be some reading for me just kept hearing a lot about how he was right to do so.
I was actually surprised by how much I liked Gordon. I mean, like, Gordon, as a person is obviously kind of horrible. But as a character to read about. I was like, I I really enjoy reading about your struggles with Shadowfax for example, and, and the maneuvering and the posturing you're doing with this alien business person who is every bit as like ruthless and businesses you are, that it was really fun.
Not funny, and I think she's starting to actually figure out her place in all this a little bit more. And I love writing, you know, terrible assholes who actually start to figure out what they're doing, how their worldview actually works. But Gordon is also hard just because, you know, she's very obviously, you know, Ace character that is in that sort of evil musky, Jeff Bezos see role. But the problem is she's also extremely intelligent and competent and pragmatic, in a way that yeah, that's just not. I think, if Gordon ever found that she was supposed to be based on Musk she'd be
I was gonna say competent, so not like them at all.
Yeah, I think we, when you're writing contemporary science fiction, especially there is this problem where billionaires are sort of like wizards. They're these are all powerful entities that you kind of need to get the plot moving, because how else are you going to get that many resources to get the government. So you need that. But they also need to be a character in the story, and trying to make her a character who could be part of that cast, and who, you know, was also asked one of the last survivors representing some of our very worst qualities. And I think each character represents a worst bit of humanity in one way or the other. But Gordon is special. And so it's hard to have what she represents and what she needs to do for the story, while not making her this sort of fantasy version of a tech billionaire, tech billionaires, but
she definitely felt like a real tech billionaire. I work in tech, and I'm like, I Yeah, yeah. Yeah, Gordon, I've
seen her moments where she was struggling with trying to be a leader for people who don't particularly want or need a leader. And trying to figure out even how to do that, if she shouldn't be at all was very, I mean, seeing her struggle, I think, went a really long way for making me more sympathetic to her.
Also, I think she's much more sincere than her real life counterparts. And that I think she genuinely believes the absolute rational self interest or somehow lead to egalitarian utopianism. She's probably fuzzy on the middle steps, but she really does believe that that's the way the world works.
And I think one of the things that also makes her a little more sympathetic is that she's very upfront or more sympathetic than an actual, like real life tech billionaire. So she's very upfront about her beliefs. And like, I can respect that I disagree with your beliefs, but I can respect that like, at least you're you're saying the quiet part out loud.
Yeah, exactly. And I do try to make sure that, you know, she's not a nice Tony Stark ish billionaire. She knows that there are factories full of poverty line, people building her products in terrible conditions. This is all stuff she's fully aware of and cognizant. She's not a good person, by any measure, at least when the
she had some time to reflect. Oh, yeah. Well, speaking of the crew, were introduced to a few crew members in the apiary are the planet of the aviary is the name of that I loved all of the names. For the sections. They were so, so delightful.
They were so much fun. So
Naomi, and George, kind of come out of nowhere. I was so smug when I was reading that section. Because I was like, Well, I have I've read the beginning. So I know they weren't there all along. You can't trick me. And then you did. But I was wondering if they were always intended to have been part of the crew, or if they were actually invented in that stage of the story?
No, they they will always they're like, Yeah, I think, throughout writing it, I have been sort of very careful with perspective in it. One thing not a lot of people have noticed is in de Carmageddon. There are no interior perspectives aside for Vegeta. And the Centium mushroom people in that book, everything else is always exterior to the characters you don't know their thoughts or internal monologue or anything. And, yeah, I just I really liked the idea. Partly just the idea that you could have the audience not knowing if their perception was somehow, you know, immune or nisi and from what was going on around. But also, you know, I'm having fun, I'm doing my little fun, you know, Star Trek play. I want to do red shirt, I want to kill ratio. And it's a really small spaceship. You can't really fit that many red shirts on. So it was partly, I just wanted to introduce characters that could kill
George and having everyone
forget about them was really hard. And it was partly that there are certain things that you really need if You've got your spaceship crew. And one of the things you need is a doctor and someone who can do the squeegee side. And up until that point in the story, there haven't really been room to introduce another character alongside the ones we had. And so I just liked the idea of this being a whole other regular character this entire time of what you been here the whole time. Also to do a little bit of plotting, if you buy Fermi's progress through Scarlet Ferret, which is a indie ebook site, that comes with a lot of extras, one of them is a catalogue of Samson 30 nines previous adventures. Just the blurbs of all these other books, Samsung 39 has been in before Fermi's progress, but are definitely real, but are out of print everywhere. And the other is just a short story. That is just the entire story up until pranesh, the AP ares from Naomi's point of view, just let you know what her George was up to the entire time.
Oh, that's awesome.
That reminds me that I did buy the book from Scarlet ferret. So I do have those bonuses. So I should read them.
You mentioned this a little bit, discussing the nonlinear aspect of the first part of the book. But how different is the final product from the first draft, you spent quite a bit of time working on this project?
It's hard to say I think the biggest differences are often structural ones are figuring out the shape of the story. And I think it's the same when if you're telling an anecdote about real life, I think, or writing a nonfiction book, so much of storytelling is figuring out what order it goes in, in which bits to cut out. So a lot of the first draft is just clear all the events in the order that they happen. And then you go back and you get rid of the stuff people don't need to hear you make sure the stuff people need to know is up front. So that's the main difference it went through in editing. And also, there was a lot of filling out the characters in late drafts. I think the the first draft seems very much, you know, the adventure story elements. And as I was going over it, I think a lot of it was kind of adding shade. And just dealing with the fact that these are people who have had everyone they know done, and will also have pretty much everyone they meet from this point onwards die. And that is not going to feel
was there anything that surprised you when you were writing the book?
Yes, actually, there was one specific thing that really got me which is, it's just like a lie. But there's a bit where corner, Elizabeth Gordon talking. And she's telling him a story about the early days of her company, the corporation. And how nobody had yet figured out that the name of the company was just her initials. I realized that at the same time candidate, I'd be calling it the a corporation, I'd be calling her Elizabeth Gordon, I just got to this point. And then Oh, that's awesome. I love that.
I believe that you mentioned at the end of the novel that you're working on a fifth part. Can you tell us a little bit about that at all?
Oh, no, it's much worse than that is second Oh, there is a whole new set of stories. I'm currently in about two thirds into the second story in that cycle. So I don't know when that's going to be ready yet. But that is in progress and handling. There's still a lot more planets for the
delightful news. Although I'm going to be very sad. I was very sad this entire play like it was really fantastic. I loved it. But also I was very sad reading it because I was like all of these characters, all of these aliens that I really like and sympathize with. And they're, they're all just inevitably going to die.
Well, I think part of the thing is one of the things you don't really sort of clock about the book into after you've finished writing it. But when I was putting the final draft together when we were in the middle of lockdown, and everything on the news was flames. Just I think part of it is just that sense of being trapped in a machine. But it's just doing irreparable harm constantly. And you're complicit in it just by going around your life and do your job. You feel like you're making things worse. And you Yeah, you still have to do that to survive. I think that, for me feels very much. You know what the guts of the firm is about?
Yeah, it definitely felt like there was a lot of implicit commentary on like real world life and events and things.
I was questioned if the book was actually even science fiction when I described it as you know how humans destroy everything they touch. But if someone wanted to find out when this next part is coming out, or learn more about you, and Fermi's progress, where can they find you on the internet?
You can find me on Twitter. For brain of Chris, I've got a website, Chris funnel.com. And also stole it ferret when more Fermi comes, that's where it will be appearing fast. And they've just recently got the distribution rights for InterSolar magazine, which is just one of the best oldest sci fi magazines out there. So it's a great place to follow and keep track of indie authors and sci fi in general.
Speaking of inner sound brief shout out to Gareth, who I believe is now heading interzone because it was through him that I first discovered your book
earlier. Well, thanks, Gallus. And thank you for joining us to talk about this excellent book, even if it did make me tear up sometimes. In between laughing at the dry humor, I was like laughing and crying at the same time. Oh, I don't feel about this. Well, it's been so much fun talking to you. Thank you so much for joining us. See you too. Thank you so much for listening to this episode of fiction fans.
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