An Interview with Chris Farnell

Chris Farnell is not an ancient Egyptian stonemason born into a family llama traders, but if he were, he’d no doubt be as passionate about it as he is about Fermi’s Progress, his ongoing mission to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and then blow them all to smithereens.

You can buy a Season Pass for Fermi’s Progress from Scarlet Ferret. Buying extra individual copies is also a great idea as then you can send copies to your friends, or start a book club and discuss the way Chris completely stuck the landing.

I interviewed Chris Farnell via a collaborative Google Document in July 2021 and in a Zencastr call on 28 July 2021.

What are your earliest memories of science fiction, either in print or on screen, and are there any creators you have read or watched right from those early days until now?

I’ve a vivid memory, when I couldn’t have been older than four, visiting a primary school and the teacher showing me a picture book with a time machine in, ruining my life forever. When I was five I saw BACK TO THE FUTURE for the first time, cementing a lifetime obsession. In Fermi’s Progress, the ship’s alcubierre drive draws negative energy flowing out of an unexplained source, channeling it into a temporary storage compartment until it is full and the ship has to travel at FTL speeds (blowing up a planet) or explode (blowing up everything). I hugged myself when I realised that this meant the ship was powered by a literal flux capacitor.

My childhood memories are probably pretty typical for a nerdy British millennial- Star Trek on BBC 2 every Wednesday night, Doctor Who reruns on Saturday mornings, Asimov, Clarke, Tolkien, Adams and Pratchett at bedtime and Nicholas Fisk in the school library. I think Fermi’s Progress is probably a pretty comprehensive map of its own influences and it steals liberally from everywhere.

A frame from Robert Zemeckis’s BACK TO THE FUTURE (Universal Pictures, 1985)

When you were creating the Fermi’s Progress novellas, did you first think of the characters and the dynamics of the crew, or was the initial seed the space operatic scenario?

James Cooper’s cover art for the four Fermi’s Progress novellas

The question writers are supposed to get asked a lot is ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ and I’m always a bit sceptical of it because ideas are dead easy. One of my favourite pieces of RPG writing I’ve done was The Wasteland Almanac, which is just sixty campaign story hooks for other people to build off. Just off the top of my head now: What if a planet of robots bred a range of genetically modified organic life to perform small tasks for them? What if a civilisation evolved from the bacteria on the surface of a devastating supernuclear interstellar missile, achieving awareness just as the missile’s target comes into view? What if cups tried to kill us?

The hard bit is taking that premise and finding characters who can live inside it and things that they want which will make it a story.

Which is the long way of saying a lot of the individual story ideas in Fermi’s Progress had been bouncing around my head for years before I started writing it.

I came up with Fermi’s Progress as an engine for telling ‘big idea’ stories without getting bogged down in galactic star empires and unnecessary continuity. Also as a way of doing ‘Humans visit and explore an alien planet’ stories without the rather white colonialist implications of a ‘Prime Directive’ type rule, or its opposite, ‘the space travellers who keep overthrowing governments to install democracy’.

Of course, my ship needed a crew, and in trying to figure out what that might look like I dug out an old half written scrap of a story called Samson 39, which was an attempt to do a Doc Savage/Captain America type figure that showed all the really gruesome implications of those characters- partly through the introduction of a ‘Control’, his non-superpowered twin.

That sense of looking under the bonnet of a popular sci-fi trope and finding the ugliness wriggling about underneath seemed to fit well with my planet destroying spaceship, and I built the story out from there.

How do you feel RPGs relate to writing fiction?

I think some of the first writing that I ever did for an actual audience was writing scenarios for a little tabletop RPG gang when I was in high school, or writing play-by-email role-playing games online at the same time. So I think there’s always been that connection between RPGs and more straightforward storytelling. And I think it’s useful because you get very instant feedback in that scenario in a way that you don’t, when you’re just sitting down to write a novel of 80,000 or so words.

What is the hardest part of sitting down and writing those words?

I think actually getting the stuff down is obviously always the big part. But I think there’s not enough said about the privilege and the effort that is involved in actually finding the time to do the writing. If you actually need to earn a living and you don’t have some sort of cushion there, then actually creating time to write is probably the biggest challenge. But it’s something I think a lot of writers can get quite snobby about. If you don’t find that time, you’re somehow not committed enough to the craft or something. But to achieve that you need to have all sorts of privileges in terms of health, money, and the environment.

Once you wrap up these four novellas, do you see yourself returning to this particular universe for either short stories or novellas, or something else entirely?

…I’ve made sure that when you reach the end of the fourth part of Fermi’s Progress it feels like the end of a story.

Chris Farnell

Like I said, Fermi’s Progress was envisioned as an engine for telling lots of small, self-contained, high concept sci-fi stories. So it’s ironic it’s turned into the longest thing I’ve ever written, and that the premise throws up some pretty big long term plot questions.

Now I always enjoyed the Monster of the Week X-Files episodes more than the Big Alien Conspiracy ones, and that’s always where Fermi’s focus will be, but I want to answer those questions.

I’ve enjoyed a few series that were cancelled or simply never finished, so I’ve made sure that when you reach the end of the fourth part of Fermi’s Progress it feels like the end of a story. I don’t want it to seem like you’ve only bought half a story if I get hit by a bus or it sells so badly that even I can’t justify writing more.

But there are still a lot more stories I want to tell about the Fermi, and there are still questions about their predicament that should be answered.

So in other words- yes I am 100% writing another cycle of Fermi novellas.

A publicity shot for THE MIGHTY BOOSH featuring Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt (BBC)

I was pleased to see you mention THE MIGHTY BOOSH in an interview and I was wondering, to what extent do you see these novellas as episodes in a television series as opposed to, say, parts of a film? Is there that cinematic aspect to the way you visualise these people and what happens to them? And if Noel Fielding demanded a part in the low-budget television adaptation of Fermi’s Progress, who would you let him play?

The stories were very much born out of nostalgia for a very specific kind of 90s alien of the week style TV sci-fi, so while Fermi is very much a book and a story that is designed to be told through a book, that episodic TV format is part of its DNA.

As for that hypothetical TV show, there are two versions of it in my head. In one, every single episode has the budget of James Cameron’s AVATAR, with beautifully rendered, fully realistic zombie survivalist mushrooms. The other is made with cheaply constructed puppet aliens and Airfix model spaceships against cardboard sets, with all the most epic scenes being described by characters who are watching it happen just off screen.

And for Noel Fielding, I could definitely see him voicing the beekeepers in the latest part, PLANET OF THE APIARIES. In fact— canonically the ‘universal translator’ will often translate alien voices into those of actors from the ship’s media library, so you can tell them apart. So this might actually be the case.

Can space opera envisage better futures not just for individual humans, but for humanity as a whole?

I’m risking bordering on spoiler territory for Fermi here, but I think if (and it’s a big if) science fiction has one unifying theme or message, one idea that binds FRANKENSTEIN and HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and ANCILLARY JUSTICE and THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE THE TIME WAR and yes, BACK TO THE FUTURE, it is this: You are wrong.

…if science fiction has one unifying theme or message, it is this: You are wrong.

Chris Farnell

Your ideas about politics, gender, morality, the nature of life, history, they are all nailed to where and when and who you are, and as soon as you step outside that, those ideas will be challenged in ways you won’t necessarily enjoy.

There is an extremely racist 20th century horror writer with a penchant for tentacles, and this idea runs through all of his best work.

The difference between him and the true greats of the genre is that for him ‘You are not the centre of the universe’ is a terrifying message, rather than an exciting, or frankly, funny one.

When it comes to the scientific accuracy of science fiction, do you feel there is a need for space opera to adhere to Einsteinian constraints and basic principles of physics, or, to quote John Clute, do you think that space opera might accomplish more ‘as a form of unshackled telling of our human tale in an arena with free flex’, with authors basically doing whatever they want?

This argument has been all over Twitter this week and the obvious answer is ‘No, because it’s all made up’.

My more nuanced answer is that the ‘Hard’, ‘Soft’ division of science fiction has been used for extremely shitty, often gendered gatekeeping that rarely plays by its own rules.

While that needs to be challenged and dismantled I think there is a useful genre distinction. All a genre does is give the audience a loose set of expectations going into a story. This is usually something the story does itself. When we see the little ship being chased by the big ship with lasers that go ‘Pew! Pew!’ we already know that STAR WARS will be guided by what seems cool more than anything Isaac Newton ever thought about. Likewise, THE MARTIAN and GRAVITY give us enough little factoids, jargon and recognisable tech to inform us that they will be pretending to be scientifically accurate (because all a story can manage is to pretend).

Then there’s my real answer which is that while I’m writing I want to think it could all really happen. If something is within the realm of real science I do my best to try and make sure no real scientists point and laugh at me. If it’s not, then I do my best to make sure that it is far enough outside of real science that nobody can prove it doesn’t exist. Because as a critic I am every bit the metatextual post-modernist lit graduate; but as an audience and a writer I don’t want anything to spoil my game of Let’s Pretend.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of the publishing model and how attached are you to it?

On the one hand, it’s a good way of having something new to shout about on a regular basis. So it’s not just all out in one go. And then it’s old news. You get to try and ramp up a bit of the excitement for each new installment and you get to keep talking about it. Your marketing platform is basically being loud on Twitter.

The flip side of that is that people aren’t going to buy part three until they’ve read parts one and two. And given that books will often languish in to be read piles for quite a while after purchasing, that can mean that there’s quite a drop-off after the first installment, as people bought it, but haven’t got around to reading it yet. So the entire thing has been a learning experience, and there’s a lot that I’m still trying to figure.

Who are you reading at the moment who most impresses you?

I have got through an awful lot of Adrian Tchaikovsky over the last year and BEAR HEAD in particular is a fantastic example of what we’ve been talking about. It’s science fiction that is about power relationships and about how we narrow ties marginalized groups and why we do that. And frankly, it’s a really crowded marketplace, but I think Tchaikovsky has done the best character that is Trump in everything but name. He really nails what makes him scary as a person in a way that a lot of cartoon bad guys don’t really get.

In fiction we want clever villains. We want evil masterminds like Moriartys, and Masters, people who are perceptive and clever. We want a RADA-educated, opera-loving genius who will explain his evil plan to you, and why all your assumptions are wrong, and really challenge you on an intellectual level.

Donald Trump isn’t that. He’s just absolute, raw ego. And stupidity. Extreme stupidity. And yet he is incredibly dangerous. A lot of the real danger is down to taking complete unexamined privilege and putting it in a position of absolute power and then just having it do what it does with no regard for what happens to everyone else. I don’t think stories have really trained us to deal with a villain like that, and I think BEAR HEAD is a story that shows us how that’s doable.

Finally, switching back to space operas, I imagine you spend a lot of time thinking about planets and the aliens on them. And not just because you enjoy blowing them up. What are your five favourite alien planets in literature?

I wrote Fermi’s Progress mainly because I wanted to see lots of alien planets. Here some of the best alien planets I’ve read about elsewhere…

Regis III (THE INVINCIBLE, Stanislaw Lem)

A planet where machines have undergone natural selection, creating a world that is dangerous and strange. This world isn’t your typical robot uprising or artificial intelligence— the machines here are the product of natural selection as a blind and apathetic process, creating something quite unlike humans. But the story is also a lesson in the limits of our ability to stomp through the universe planting flags and labels on everything.

(Also Circia, in ‘The Eleventh Voyage’ of Stanislaw Lem’s The Star Diaries, is an excellent, wildly different take on a Robot Planet, and the Star Diaries were a big touch stone for Fermi’s Progress).

Rakhat (THE SPARROW, Mary Doria Russell)

This novel regards a Jesuit mission to a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri, and it is one of my favourite alien cultures. A planet with a rich culture, hierarchies and social structures, but among other things, no concept of agriculture, The Sparrow is a great story about the dangers of colonialism.

Ground (LEARNING THE WORLD, Ken MacLeod)

There’s a trope in discussions about alt history, that any changes to history should be logical and not require the intervention of ‘Alien Space Bats’. In this First Contact story, Ken MacLeod gives us a world of alien space bats. With much of the story told from the space bats’ point of view, they are recognisably human even as their fly about their city, gathering on perches for university lectures.

Chriirah (TBA, Alex Ries)

Alex Ries is currently seeking a publisher for his art book about the imaginary Birrin culture of Chriirah, which has an enormous detailed history and a fascinating alien species, but Ries’s art is readily available online and is a great example of how a culture can be alien, but identifiable, without being a straight up human analogue.

Tess 834 (CHILDREN OF RUIN, Adrian Tchaikovsky)

The star system Tess 834 contains simple alien life which, when it encounters humanity, rapidly progresses from a slime mould to a terrifyingly assimilationist hive intelligence. But my favourite planet in this story almost doesn’t count as alien- it is the ocean world, ruled by uplifted sentient octopus people (see how I dived to avoid the plural there?). Tchaikovsky is great at writing sentient species that aren’t just physically different to us, but that have a completely different mental architecture, maybe even a different kind of consciousness.

Honourable Mention: Darwin IV (EXPEDITION, Wayne Barlowe)

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