Tea and lemming men - An interview with Toby Frost

SFF Chronicles News

Well-Known Member
Oct 20, 2013
26th August 2013 05:19 AM

Teresa Edgerton

Toby Frost declares that he originally intended to write deep philosophical novels. Instead, he elected to become a man of mystery (no biography of the elusive Mr. Frost can be found on the internet) and write humorous science fiction. Recently, however, he was willing to doff his cloak of mystery long enough to answer our questions, sharing his thoughts on writing, humour … and the ever gallant (if sometimes bumbling) Space Captain Smith.

Would you tell us a little about the Chronicles of Isambard Smith and how you came to write them?

Certainly: they’re a set of comedy science-fiction novels, set in a vaguely steampunk future. They tell of the adventures of Isambard Smith, spaceship captain and brave adventurer, and his not-terribly-reliable crew, as they do battle with a wide range of cultists, giant army ants and fanatical lemming people. They came out of a conversation with a friend who was reading H.G. Wells: I had this image of Victorians landing on the moon and demanding gin from its bewildered inhabitants, and it went from there.

What don’t we know about Captain Smith — perhaps something he’d rather that we didn’t know?

I think there’s a certain light in which he wouldn’t want to see himself. He views himself (and the Space Empire) as a force for good, spreading the concepts of civilisation, order and queuing to an ignorant galaxy. However, his girlfriend isn’t really into all that, and her more enlightened outlook does make him seem like a patronising invader. I think if you told him that conquering other planets is wrong, he’d reply “Yes, and that’s why they should all be in the Space Empire”. Also, I don’t think he’d want people to know that his chief pastime is building model spaceships.

Suruk the Slayer is an honorable addition to the long tradition of sidekicks.

He’s an odd character who seems to have come from a variety of different sources. Obviously, he’s a parody of the Noble Warrior stereotype, which I think can probably be traced back from Science Fiction to old non-SF stories set in Africa, Asia, and Medieval Europe as well. Certainly his “epic” style of speech (which seems to be unique to him personally, since his brother sounds quite normal) owes something to Walter Scott and Rider Haggard. But when I started writing Smith, I wanted a core group of characters who, no matter which of them was present, could have an argument. Suruk is at one end of the scale, and so he fulfils the role of crazy glory-hunter, which makes him a nice contrast to Polly Carveth, who correctly regards space as one load of dangerous events after another.

What would Suruk prefer we didn’t know about him?

Probably that he’s quite a nice guy, when it comes down to it. And that he likes Carveth.

There’s a new book about to come out, isn’t there? What can we expect to see in that one?

Well, I don’t want to give too much away, but it expands the previous stories somewhat. I realised that I’d never written much about space battles, so they’re in there, along with some (disastrous) inter-dimensional travel. (It doesn’t give much away to say that the other dimension is not a terribly nice place). We also get to see how diplomacy is conducted in the future (unsurprisingly, it’s not done very well), and also we glimpse life in 25th century Europe. Add to that a horde of cultists and a hockey-obsessed battleship commander, and things are pretty much guaranteed not to go smoothly.

You’ve said that your comedic influences are George Orwell and Raymond Chandler. I find this strangely interesting. Could you explain?

Well, I think Chandler had a real skill for spotting the exact words for the situation. His novels contain a dry wit that has made me laugh out loud in the past. It’s hard to explain, but although amusing things happened in his books, he was never really parodying the noir genre, but adding to it. Also, the comedy never got in the way of the story, which is something I’ve more-or-less tried to adhere to. Orwell’s less of an obvious comedic influence (unsurprisingly!) but again he had a real knack for expressing himself clearly. He once said that good prose was like a window pane, but I don’t agree: it’s incredibly difficult to sound as effortless and clear as he was. Also, you only need to look at Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil to see how, awful as the things he describes are, they’re ripe for mockery.

What do you think is the most essential thing (besides a sense of humour) that a writer of satirical or comical fantasy needs to keep in mind?

I think it’s a sense of balance, or more precisely a sense of knowing what effect your writing is going to have. You might have the funniest joke imaginable, but putting it in could ruin a scene. Similarly, there are points at which you can be too rude, or that your characters can come across as unsympathetic. Obviously different people have different levels of tolerance, but you do have to keep thinking about the result of what you’ve written on both the reader and the rest of the book – it’s got to work as a novel as well as a comedy.

Other than the curious combination of Orwell and Chandler, what have been some of the books and writers who have influenced your own writing.

There’s loads. I’d have to mention Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels, John Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights, both of which have very strong characters. H.G. Wells and John Wyndham’s science fiction is very powerful, and feels far more recent than it actually is. I think that a lot of the issues behind The Day of the Triffids and The Island of Doctor Moreau are still very much with us today. I think all of them have aged well, whereas some classic SF, such as the Foundation Trilogy, seems rather dated now. In terms of humour, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis is a great comedy, as is Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. Willans and Searle’s Molesworth books also make me laugh. Although I’m not much into comic books, I find that Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare stories are amazing, partly because they’re entirely the work of one person, but also because they’re so well-designed.

As a reader, what makes you reluctant to keep on reading?

In SFF, a lack of a feeling that I’m going to see anything new. It’s a problem that anyone writing steampunk faces, but it’s there for fantasy and science fiction: you have to write something that isn’t just a reshuffling of a rather small pack of cards.

What would you like to see more of in the SFF genre?

Overall, I miss the shorter, idea-driven fiction of the 1970s and early 80s, when it wasn’t necessary to have three sequels and a romantic subplot lined up (says the man who has written four books in a series). Writers like Dick, Brunner and Aldiss produced brief, powerful stories that didn’t outlive their concepts (and with which cinema is still trying to catch up). Sometimes, those books didn’t work, but they at least were trying to say new things. A lot has been said, largely correctly, about the need for diversity of characters, but SFF needs diversity of ideas and settings too. While I’m glad that characters are now much stronger in SFF, I worry that stories naturally move towards soap opera if they’re not kept in check. I’m happy to see characters and settings reoccur, but I’d like it more if each volume was a self-contained story, as Scott Lynch and Iain M Banks have done.

As you no doubt know, Chronicles members are always eager for book recommendations.

I’ve recently been reading a couple of novels by Tim Powers, and I’m very impressed. On Stranger Tides is about piracy and Voodoo, and was the basis for the last Pirates of the Carribean film (although it’s a much more coherent and serious story than the rather ropey film). At the moment, I’m reading Declare, a mixture of Cold War thriller and supernatural horror. Powers is great at mixing reality with the supernatural, and making them both fit perfectly. He weaves unreal events into real ones with great skill. His characters and prose are strong too, and I like the idea of uncovering a secret, supernatural history underneath what we already know.

When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer?

When I was about 11 or 12. I’m not sure what brought the realisation on, but I had a little blue notebook in which I wrote a story about aliens conquering London. I don’t think it was a work of particular brilliance. I wish I knew why exactly it seemed like a good idea.

What do you know now (about writing and publishing) that you wish you’d known back then?

That, much like crime, writing doesn’t pay! Actually, I’m not sure there’s much I’d have done differently, except to be lucky enough to get published earlier. I suppose there’s the fact that most books are pretty small-scale, and only a few are marketed enough to make serious money for their authors. To be honest, I don’t think that now is a great time to be a writer. I’m sure you can think of at least one book that’s been effectively created by marketing. Of course, publishers have to turn a profit, but I don’t know if the big companies have ever been so willing to rely on a few big names to sell so many books. Perhaps the increasing popularity of ebooks will change things.

Why science fiction, and humourous science fiction in particular?

Science fiction because it enables you to see amazing things. Science fiction can not only show you bizarre flights of fancy, but it can hold up a mirror to the real world that both distorts and clarifies it, by exaggerating and extrapolating from reality. An SF novel like Farenheit 451 doesn’t have to be about one single country or time, because it’s exploring ideas applicable to a lot of them (I’m trying not to say something pompous like “universal truths” here!). And also, you just don’t get entertaining stuff like robots and spaceships in “normal” books. A while ago I saw an article in the newspaper by a female journalist who was a big fan of The Lord of the Rings. Basically, she said “Why should I be expected to only want to read about people who are very much like me?” I think that’s quite a good point.

I’m not quite sure where the comedy came from, but it does seem to be the best way to approach the whole Victoriana issue. Comedy allows you to look at things from a wry angle. Very early on, I had to make a decision as to how black a comedy Space Captain Smith was going to be: was the Space Empire fundamentally exploitative or civilising? I felt that writing a satire condemning the actual British Empire would be crude and obvious, so I made the Space Empire a (comparative) force for good. At least, compared to the Ghast Empire and the Greater Galactic Happiness and Friendship Co-Operative, but that’s not a very high standard.

I won’t ask where you get your ideas, but what, other than reading, tends to produce new ideas?

Loads of places: films, pictures, games, songs and sometimes even the real world. However, what tends to happen is that they spark off an idea which then changes and develops as I think it over, so that the end result isn’t very much like the thing that started it. I think it’s important to take in sources from areas other than your own, to avoid the problem of rearranging a few stale ideas.

As a writer, when you’re watching a movie or television show, do you sometimes find yourself mentally rewriting parts of it — plugging up plot holes, polishing up the dialogue, revising scenes you didn’t like?

Not often, but I do think that writing gives you more of a sense of understanding how stories work. If a film isn’t engrossing enough to carry me along with it, I do sometimes find myself thinking “I see what you’re trying to do there.”

Would it please you or horrify you if one of your stories was made into a movie or adapted for television?

It’s hard to say. I’d definitely be flattered, but I think that seeing someone else’s view of the Smith world could be very odd. I can imagine someone making it look very cartoonish, which isn’t really how I see it. I remember one of the writers of Tank Girl saying that, when his comic was made into a film, he eventually just had to resign himself to the fact that the end product would be quite unlike what he’d wanted. Not that I’d complain, of course!

If you had unlimited time and research resources, and didn’t have to worry about length or marketability — in short, if there were no constraints at all — what would be your dream writing project?

A five-part fantasy story, set in the Renaissance, culminating in a conspiracy by supernatural powers to enlarge the Thirty Years’ War to destroy human progress. The first two and a half books are already written. Goodness knows if I’ll ever do the rest, but you did ask… I’d also like to write a one-off story about false memories set in the Smith world but focusing on different characters, a sort of parody of 70s science fiction, especially Philip K Dick.

What’s next for Captain Smith?

I could see Smith having two more books. However, I do want to write other things and concentrate on other characters, although I’m reluctant to say that I’m finished with him. I can imagine other characters having their own adventures in his world. It’s a very big setting, and there are plenty of other stories that could happen there, perhaps not centred on Smith himself. But I doubt that he’ll disappear forever.

What’s up next for Toby Frost?

Well, the plan is fairly simple: I’m working on a non-Smith project at the moment, and next year I’d like to get another Smith novel into print. Following that, it’s hard to say – and knowing how things pan out, I don’t want to risk making too many predictions!

And finally, just to be fair, what would Toby Frost prefer that we not know about him?

I’m not quite as much like Smith as might be thought. Although in some circumstances, that might be quite a good thing to point out!

Thank you for taking the time to interview me. The new book, A Game of Battleships, is out now!

And thank you Toby for agreeing to answer our questions!