One of the things good science fiction does is extrapolate from current trends to show us where we might be heading—or simply to give us some perspective on the present. Exemplars of this sort of sci-fi are Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother. The main problem with this sort of science fiction, from an author’s point of view, is that it’s really, really hard to write. The pace of technological change is so fast, and there are so many competing trends, counter-trends, and completely unforeseeable events, that any attempt at a realistic depiction of the future soon becomes badly dated. Even visionary works like Neuromancer now seem a little quaint when read today. Writing this sort of sci-fi is so difficult, in fact, that a lot of authors prefer not to even attempt it. Rather than attempt a serious extrapolation of trends, they take a plot and characters that could be right out of a another milieu—say a medieval epic, World War II drama, or cowboys-and-Indians Western—and add what’s missing to make these stories truly awesome: spaceships and lasers. These interstellar adventure stories have come to be called “space operas.”
It’s difficult for someone not of my generation to understand just how important Star Wars is. Every generation has its defining events, but Star Wars was my generation’s Woodstock, moon landing and D-Day, all combined into a single all-pervasive cultural wave of interstellar awesomeness. I was ten when The Empire Strikes Back came out and thirteen when Return of the Jedi premiered. My childhood was so infused with Star Wars that third tier denizens of the Empire like Boba Fett and Admiral Akbar of the Mon Calamari were more real to me than most of my cousins who lived in Iowa.
Star Wars is the epitome of the space opera: characters and struggles borrowed from sources as varied as Kurosawa and Laurel and Hardy thrown into a quasi-futuristic interstellar setting. But while Star Wars made me want to go blast bad guys on alien worlds, it was Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat series that made me want to write about it. Slippery Jim diGriz was a hero for the bureaucratic age, in which the bad guys often aren’t threatening to conquer the galaxy through fear and violence as much as they’re endeavoring to bore us all to death. The Stainless Steel Rat could steal a fortune from you and convince you he was doing you a favor in the process.
So when I decided to write my own space opera, Starship Grifters, I borrowed heavily from both Harrison and Lucas. Channeling Lucas, I also looked for inspiration in the classics: as you read Starship Grifters, you’ll find a setting that is curiously familiar to a certain galaxy far, far away. But it may also strike you that Rex Nihilo and his faithful robot sidekick are similar to another comedic duo, and you may recognize in Rex Nihilo some of the quick-witted, bombastic style of a charismatic buffoon from the early days of motion pictures.
As much as I love “serious” science fiction by people like Philip Dick and Kurt Vonnegut, it was Luke Skywalker and the Stainless Steel Rat who first stoked the fires of my love for genre as a child. Starship Grifters is a fantastical farce, but it’s also my love letter to that childhood. I hope you enjoy reading it as much I enjoyed writing it.