Author Toby Frost's latest novel, God Emperor of Didcot, has recently hit the shelves. We quizzed Frost about his work, in particular about the new book and how he goes about writing books set in the Victorian-themed world of Space Captain Smith.
SFX: Without spoiling the plot for us, can you give us a little bit of an introduction to the story?
Toby Frost: "Certainly: it’s set five hundred years in the future, when mankind has left Earth and is busy colonising the galaxy. The British Space Empire is threatened by the Ghasts, a race of ferocious ant-people, and war has just broken out. In order to maintain its morale the Empire needs a constant supply of tea, which is largely grown on one world, Urn. It is vital that Urn does not fall to the enemy, and Smith must fight to ensure that the tea continues to flow."
SFX: What do new readers need to know about the previous book in the sequence?
Frost: "God Emperor of Didcot is a separate episode to Space Captain Smith, so it’s not vital to have read the first story to get the second. Space Captain Smith introduces our bold hero Isambard Smith and his comrades: Polly Carveth, an android pilot whose main occupations are hiding from danger and chasing men, and Suruk the Slayer, an insane alien headhunter. In the first book, Smith rescued a new-age psychic girl called Rhianna from the Ghasts, but was too inept to notice when she propositioned him. Now he wonders if he will ever see her again…"
SFX: Is the character of Isambard Smith based on anybody? How did you come up with him?
Frost: "In a lot of ways he’s a classic Englishman: tough, decent and brave but also repressed and awkward around girls. He’s more a parody of a certain type of person than anyone in particular. As to how I came up with him, I’m not sure: he just seemed to be the man for the job!"
SFX: How much have the Victorian classics of SF (HG Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne and co) influenced your style and imagination?
Frost: "Quite a lot! I read Wells’ science fiction when I was young, and it still sticks in my mind. Some of his novels still have a lot of power. The technology of the British Space Empire has that polished-brass look, and there are several nods to his writing. I also loved King Solomon’s Mines - there’s a sense of adventure there which easily translates to SF."
SFX: What particularly fascinates you about the British Empire as a setting from which to launch an SF story?
Frost: "The Victorian mentality transfers very well to colonising other planets instead of countries, and it contains a strange mixture of brutality, confidence and high-minded idealism. It’s both familiar and very different to us today. The characters are convinced they’re civilising the galaxy, but most aliens are rather less certain. It gives me plenty of opportunities for jokes at the Empire’s expense."
SFX: What do you both think is the key to writing good high-adventure SF stories?
Frost: "Keep the writing good and the story exciting! Iain M Banks’ Consider Phlebas is a good example: it’s intelligent and makes interesting points, but it never stops being an exciting adventure story. Likewise King Solomon’s Mines, which is at points quite philosophical but never becomes dull."
SFX: Have you had a chance to meet your readers and conventions and signings? Have you had good feedback to the books?
Frost: "Yes, I’ve done quite a few signings and attended my first convention, Newcon 4, in September. The feedback’s been great, and everyone I’ve spoken to seems really friendly."
SFX: What other big things are going on in SF and fantasy fiction right now - who else are you reading and enjoying?
Frost: "At the moment, there seems to be a lot of enthusiasm for classic SF and steampunk: I recently re-read Homunculus by James P Blaylock, which I enjoyed greatly. Other recent reads include The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin and The Annotated Alice by Martin Gardner – even with annotations Alice is still very strange!"
SFX: We recently ran a writing competition in the mag - any tips for newbie writers on where they should begin?
Frost: "The three bits of advice I’d give are 1) keep practising, because you will get better, 2) only stop to edit your work once you’ve got a finished rough draft and 3) join a writing group. It’s an excellent way to get serious constructive criticism from people who are just as keen as you to improve and get published."
SFX: What can we expect to see from Isambard Smith going forward - is there another project on your drawing board right now?
Frost: "At present I’m finishing the third Isambard Smith story, Wrath of the Lemming Men. While I’d like to keep writing Smith’s adventures, I’ve also been working on a fantasy novel set in the Renaissance: a sort of film noir with clockwork tanks!"
SFX: Thanks Toby!
Find out more about God Emperor of Didcot, sequel to Space Captain Smith, over at the official website here .