We are delighted to welcome Alex Lamb back to the Gollancz Blog. Alex’s latest book, Nemesis, the sequel to the hard-hitting and action-packed Roboteer, is out now in bookshops. To celebrate the publication of Nemesis we asked Alex to tell us about the process of writing the book and following up the epic Roboteer.
How do you write a great sequel to a story that already has a complete heroic arc?
This question has been pondered many times in film and fiction, and for good reason. Making the right choice can make or break a writing career. A good sequel is capable of creating a lasting imaginary world that can spawn any number of exciting tales and spark endless conversations. A truly bad one can even condemn the work that preceded it. Say the word ‘matrix’ to yourself to see what I mean.
Writers have tried a variety of different methods to create strong sequels, with varying degrees of success. What I’d like to share with you here is what I did, and why I’m proud of what came out of that process, even if I never use the same method again.
I originally wrote the first drafts of Roboteer in 2004. I shopped it around. I did all those things an author is supposed to do, but nothing came of it. With some frustration and regret, I eventually moved on to other projects. When Roboteer was picked up for publication a decade later, I was extremely surprised. I rapidly went from disbelieving that the deal was happening at all, to being asked whether I could see a sequel for a work I hadn’t thought about for years.
How to do that was far from obvious. Without getting spoilery, anyone who’s read Roboteer will know that it ends on something of an up. My characters’ universe has changed dramatically. My protagonist is not the same man he started out as. The story feels complete. And yet, I had purposefully left something of an open question in that book: what does it take for an intelligent species to not wipe itself out? Maybe, I thought, in that overarching theme, lay the seeds of still greater adventures.
I chose that motif for Roboteer because it’s been a question I’ve pondered for most of my adult life. We’re an extraordinary species. We have changed the face of the planet we live on. We’ve unpicked many of the secrets of the universe we inhabit. But we’re also capable of the most unbelievable acts of self-destruction. Whether we’ll make it through the next few centuries has always struck me as a topic worthy of serious concern. That subject has informed not only my writing, but the scientific research I’ve been involved with. And that’s where, rather unexpectedly, I found inspiration.
The news that the wonderful people at Gollancz wanted to publish Roboteer came at a curious time in my life. My wife and I were living in Princeton, New Jersey with my one-year-old son. My wife had just decided that she no longer wanted to be an astronomer, while I was back in professional academic research for the first time in many years. Suddenly, it looked like very few of the simulations I’d been building would actually make it as far as professional journals before our lives completely changed. All that science was going to be wasted. Or was it?
One simulation that I’d worked on struck me as special. I’d taken some choice bits of game theory and tallied them up with some research on human societies that I’d learned about in the excellent Why Nations Fail, by Acemoglu and Robinson. Then I’d channeled Isaac Asimov and built myself a little psychohistory model to see if I could derive the rise and fall of civilizations from a few simple rules.
At first, I was delighted by the results. I witnessed the slow, staggered rise of secular, democratic societies on my laptop with astonishment. And the longer I watched, the more interesting and relevant the output became. But the simulation was developing slowly, so I eventually left it running and went to bed. This was a bad idea. When I came down for breakfast the next morning, my tiny world civilization had done something frightening that with hindsight was horribly, perfectly inevitable. My picture of the future of mankind turned on a dime.
I’d built that simulation for fun. I’d always known that justifying my model choices would require a year of follow-up, even if I could convince Princeton to let me work on it. So I walked away from that project too. But now, with the chance to write some science fiction novels again, I suddenly saw a way to share my research with the world and tell some amazing stories at the same time.
That’s where Nemesis came from. Science fiction writers often struggle to find really new ideas to base their books on, but I had brand new complex systems results that the world had never seen. My trilogy could actually answer the question I’d set up in book one.
But huge ideas on their own are not enough to build a strong sequel. You need vivid characters. You need plot. And I had changed a lot since 2004. How could I possibly do justice to the characters I’d created as a younger man, and make them live again, only better?
A natural answer leapt out. What if my characters had changed too? What if I put at least as much time between the events of Roboteer and Nemesis as there had been in my own life? A gap between stories would give me room to show how that universe had developed. It’d make the new book fresh, and even enable readers to read the books out of order if they wanted.
The more I thought about it, the more right that solution seemed. I reasoned that the bigger the character transformation in a first novel, the more reason there is to leave some time between it and whatever comes next. That’s because great stories are about human growth and the release of tension. The more your protagonist learns about themselves in their first story, the longer it will take them to get screwed-up and stuck over something else. And when it comes to protagonists, screwed-up behavior is narrative gold.
The last thing I needed was the germ of a terrific plot. Roboteer is, in many ways, a classic space-war story updated for our modern, complex age. How do you beat that? I did the only logical thing, and told the story of the peace that follows. Whereas Roboteer is set in wartime, Nemesis is the story of a society on the brink, riddled with subterfuge and simmering social tension. It is not the end of a conflict, but the genesis of one, with all the spies, plots, and schemes that entails.
Am I proud of what I’ve done with Nemesis? Yes, unreasonably so, despite the fact that as its author, all I can see any more are the book’s flaws. Will I use the same technique again to build future sequels? I don’t see how I can without another detour into academia and another scary breakfast. But that’s okay. Strong stories arise surprisingly out of our own experiences, each one unique. As it turns out, great sequels are no different.