Jeff Somers began writing by court order as an attempt to steer his creative impulses away from engineering genetic grotesqueries. His feeble memory makes every day a joyous adventure of discovery and adventure even as it destroys personal relationships, and his weakness for adorable furry creatures leaves him with many cats. He has published nine novels, including the Avery Cates Series of noir-science fiction novels from Orbit Books, the darkly hilarious crime novel Chum from Tyrus books, and most recently tales of blood magic and short cons in the Ustari Cycle, including the novel We Are Not Good People and the upcoming novellas The Stringer, Last Best Day, and The Boom Bands from Pocket Gallery. He has published over thirty short stories, including “Ringing the Changes,” which was selected for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories 2006, “Sift, Almost Invisible, Through,” which appeared in the anthology Crimes by Moonlight edited by Charlaine Harris, and “Three Cups of Tea,” which appeared in the anthology Hanzai Japan. He also writes about books for Barnes and Noble and About.com and about the craft writing for Writer’s Digest. He lives in Hoboken with his wife.
by Jeff Somers
I have a pet theory that everyone is defined by the circumstances under which they first saw the film Alien and their reaction to it. This may be because I myself was a wee lad when the movie was released, and my parents, disturbed by the advertising and word-of-mouth, refused me permission to see it, meaning I spent the summer of 1979 listening to my so-called friends in the neighborhood breathlessly recount how terrifying it was when they weren’t openly mocking me for having missed it. And thus, Alien became something of an obsession, and when I started writing my own stories and began stealing ideas from everything, Alien was of course right in the mix.
Every writer borrows ideas and techniques and sometimes plots entire from other writers; as T.S. Eliot once reportedly said, “good writers borrow, great writers steal.” In fact, I’m currently working on an essay for a future issue of Writer’s Digest about techniques for getting inspiration from the stories you’re reading or watching, so this topic has been on my mind. Especially because the story I’ve got in the new anthology Mech: Age of Steel from Ragnarok Publications, “The Bonus Situation”, is a direct result of this.
In Alien, of course, lovable, irascible space engineers Brett and Parker-“space engineer” apparently a euphemism for “space janitor” based on their activities on screen-spend a lot of time complaining that the extra work they have to do because of the detour to collect specimens of a deadly, unstoppable alien killing machine (spoilers!) entitles them to more money. The officers shut them down pretty hard (apparently even the future still has a 1% problem [also: a hygiene problem based on the incessantly sweaty appearance of every character]) and then of course everyone starts getting murdered horrifically by an alien xenomorph who’s life cycle is apparently just murdering things until somehow it winds up breeding with them or something.
Now, for most people, the murdering alien is the point of Alien. It’s the chest-bursting and the flame-thrower in the dark and risking your life to save a cat. But for me, the bit that stuck with me was the constant complaining of Parker and Brett:
Parker: Uh, before we dock, I think we oughta discuss the bonus situation.
Parker: Brett and I, we think we oughta-we deserve full shares, right baby?
Brett: Right. You see, Mr. Parker and I feel that the bonus situation has never been on a-an equitable level.
Dallas: Well, you get what you’re contracted for like everybody else.
Brett: Yes, but everybody else, uh, gets more than us.
When Ragnarok Publications invited me to contribute a story to their Mech: Age of Steel anthology, I immediately thought about Parker and Brett, and that’s where I started: Imagining a group of people motivated not by exploration, or glory, or the defense of humanity, but by greed. Or, if not strictly speaking greed, certainly by the profit motive. After all, throughout history most human endeavors have been motivated by money. Rome’s armies didn’t march for love of Rome, homesteaders didn’t settle the Midwest because they felt a moral compulsion to do so, and if giant kaiju were to rise up out of our oceans I have a feeling we’d still have to pay the folks we hot-dropped into the Pacific to try and fight them off. And I have a feeling they’d complain endlessly about the amount and frequency of their pay.
Now, the characters in my story aren’t heroes recruited to fight a giant robot; they’re scavengers and salvagers who stumble on a dormant mech on an alien planet, and they’re not going to let a little thing like millions of skeletons littered all around it deter them from devising a way of carting it home and getting paid. I imagined a whole ship of Bretts and Parkers and gave them that classic dilemma that has haunted great thinkers since the dawn of civilization: That thing that might make you incredibly rich but then again might also kill you and destroy the universe. But … those riches, though.
When I was a wee lad in high school I had a math teacher who used to teach his classes almost exclusively through the repetition of catch-phrases and bon mots. One of his favorite phrases was “We are merely midgets standing on the shoulders of giants,” meant to convey that none of us were geniuses inventing math on the spot; we were merely learning what smarter people had figured out before us (he also liked to say “Just because when it rains you get wet doesn’t mean when you’re wet it’s raining” which always resulted in about four minutes of sustained silence in class). That’s writing: You read a book, see a movie, hear a song, and there’s a dangling thread, a bit of gold you wish they’d explored further. You take that thread and use it to spin off something else entirely, and that’s a process that continues after you put your own work out there. I took a throwaway line and two relatively minor characters from Alien and wrote this story, and this story, let me be blunt, is awesome.
What’s that? You never saw Alien? Your life is very mysterious and confusing. But here’s the takeaway
For more info, check out the Mech: Age of Steel Kickstarter page!
MECH: Age of Steel is a collection of 24 mecha-inspired short stories in the spirit of Pacific Rim, Macross, Transformers, Robotech, Gundam, Evangelion, and more. MECH features a vast array of tales featuring giant, human-piloted, robot war machines wreaking havoc in blasted cities, or on dystopian landscapes, or around space stations and asteroids against a cosmic backdrop, or wherever, you-name-it!
MECH is anchored by authors such as Kevin J. Anderson, Ramez Naam, Jason Hough, Jeremy Robinson, and Jody Lynn Nye. This anthology features illustrations for every story and is the perfect companion to its sister title, Kaiju Rising: Age of Monsters. So strap in. Activate your interface array. Let’s rock!