Interview: Chris Farnell on world-busting novellas

A spaceship against lurid skies

It’s the last day of SciFiMonth (sniff), but before we call curtains I’ve got one last interview to end the month with a bang. Chris Farnell is the author of Fermi’s Progress, a series of linked novellas about Earth’s first – and last – FTL spaceship and its ongoing mission to try and stop blowing things up…

Fermi’s Progress has a helluva core concept: where did it come from and why did it appeal to you?

Basically I wrote Fermi’s Progress because I wanted to do an alien planet procedural – I wanted characters that approached alien planets the way CSI approaches murders or House approaches weird nose bleeds. While the characters are important and have their own arcs, they are also largely a framing device for a much more anthology-like form of storytelling. I wanted a story engine that would allow me to take a science fictional idea, run with it, then drop it.

At the same time, I didn’t want to spend pages and pages debating the Prime Directive, or have my space explorers travelling around upending dictatorships, introducing the concept of true love, and generally acting like a bunch of White Saviours.

Blowing up the planet when I was done with it solved both problems.

There is also a strong argument that an Alcubierre drive (Warp drive to you and me) such as the one the Fermi uses would gather up a bunch of super-accelerated particulate matter as it travelled, unleashing it as a massive particle blast when it arrived and destroying the planet it arrived at, and so I enjoyed having that nugget of real science in there.

What would you say to reassure readers who are a wee bit unnerved by the idea?

I can definitely understand reticence about series where the “heroes” do a genocide at the end of each story.

I’m not generally a writer who gets a kick out of going dark – or at least, when I do go dark, the dark has to be for something. It was towards the end of writing Fermi’s Progress that it finally clicked for me what it was about this set up I liked, and while I feel unbearably wanky for saying so, I think there’s something very Millennial about it.

I don’t think our generation really believes it’s promised the shiny utopian Star Trek future in the way our parents did. We hope for it, sure, and maybe even still think it is an ultimate possibility, but it doesn’t have the same sense of manifest destiny I think it did when Star Trek or even The Next Generation was on the air (yes, both of those series dictated that we’d go through a nuclear World War III first, but it was seen as a surmountable challenge).

But we’re also too old to be the youth revolution that will overturn the evil empire. We have jobs and bills and student loans and kids to worry about. Most people my age are working really hard, for not enough money, for employers who are actively making things worse for people and planet.

So I think the Fermi crew’s situation resonates – not just being trapped in a murderous machine, but being forced to maintain that machine to survive, being made to feel complicit in destroying planets even as you’re powerless to stop it.

So the question of the story becomes “So what then?” – How do you live with yourself? How do you try to do good? How do you cling to the narratives that tell you who you are, when what you have to do get by makes you look a lot like the villain?

And that’s all fairly heavy stuff, but it’s also very much in the background of stories that are primarily about giant space bees living in Gas Giants, or sentient mushrooms fighting through a zombie apocalypse.

I love a novella (or a series of linked novellas) – what drew you to this format for Fermi? And will there be more in future?

I always preferred the X-Files episodes that were about the Monster of the Week, not mythology-heavy conspiracy episodes, and Fermi’s Progress was conceived in that spirit. I’m less interested in doing a massive overarching saga than I am in creating an engine that allows me to do small, self-contained stories where I can play with a new idea. That is what Fermi’s Progress is.

That said, I don’t want to introduce mysteries I don’t have a cool answer for, and there is a plan for how the voyage of the Fermi will pan out. And more importantly- I have a big bucket of cool story ideas I want to play with, so I’m not done with the Fermi just yet. In fact, I was unable to resist sneaking out a Halloween story after the novellas were all out.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of humanity? Do you think we’ll make it out of our solar system? (what’s your pick: generation ships, faster engines or wormholes?)

To make an incredibly vast generalisation, I don’t think you can write science fiction without, on some level at least, being an optimist. Even the grimdarkest science fiction future either includes a spark of hope within the narrative, or simply the hope that it can be averted. If you look at thematically quite grim stuff like Black Mirror, if you scratch the cynical surface you’ll find disappointed idealism running all the way through it.

So yeah, I’m an optimist about our future.

We have some incredibly robust and dangerous power structures in place, controlled by people who don’t believe most other people are really real. We’ve created an economy with guiding motivations that are counter to the survival and wellbeing of most people. We have a lot of hardwired biases that mean we look at complex macroscale socio-economic and environmental problems with tools primarily developed to judge how ripe fruit is.

But also we’re social animals whose first instinct on meeting another human, all things being even, is to try and get on with them. In the face of disaster, humans are more likely to collaborate than try to screw each other over. And we have achieved many amazing things no other animal has, and overturned structures of power seen as permanent and everlasting.

So I think we’ve got hope.

What was the best SF you encountered this year? 

Always fun, in 2021, trying to remember how long a year is.

But it’s been a good year for spaceships hasn’t it? Space Sweepers, three new Star Trek series, live action Cowboy Bebop (which isn’t as good a live action version of Cowboy Bebop as Space Sweepers, but I’m still having fun with it). I’m watching Dogs in Space with my son, which is a nicely kid orientated take on the sort of comedy space adventures Fermi’s Progress was designed for.

Bear Head by Adrian Tchaikovsky is definitely a highlight. It’s a sequel to Dogs of War, but stands alon and is one of the few stories to feature a villain that is “Donald Trump with the Serial Numbers Filed Off” that actually feels like it understands what Donald Trump is and doesn’t feel the need to make him a mastermind to show the threat he poses.

My Scarlet Ferret stablemate Outermen by BP Gregory has an astounding premise and really drives home just how terrifying space is as a concept.

Death of a Space Ranger by Stefan Mohamad is set up in a way that makes you watch it waiting for the punchline, but it’s actually just a lovely piece of military sci-fi and body horror by stealth delivered via Disney merchandise. I think it might just be the best piece of media about Buzz Lightyear released this decade.

Intrigued? Fermi’s Progress is chronicled in: Dyson’s Fear, Descartesmageddon, Planet of the Apiaries and The Phone Job. The series is available as individual novellas – or snap up all four with a season pass from Scarlet Ferret.

Chris Farnell was hatched from a vat and immediately went to study English Lit with Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. On graduating, he received his first book deal for the YA science fiction novel, Mark II.
In addition to fiction, Chris has written for the National Science Museum, Wired magazine, Warner Bros Studios, Den of Geek and many, many other places. He has also given talks and run writing workshops for schools, adult education and fan conventions, including somehow persuading a room of 50 people to write an entire novella within an hour and 15 minutes at Nine World 2015.

Chris can be found online: twitter | website

Many thanks to Chris Farnell for popping by for a chat.