Oliver Langmead has burst onto the science fiction scene with a captivating novel entitled Dark Star, which is told in epic verse form. This hauntingly beautiful story of a world living in eternal darkness, whose inhabitants are addicted to light in all its varied forms, begins as a sci-fi noire story, but slowly turns into something so much more.
Hi, Oliver, since I know my blog readers want to get right to the questions, we will skip the customary words of admiration for each other and jump right into the good stuff.
Who was your favorite science fiction author when you were growing up?
This is actually a pretty tough question to answer. I think the first author that grabbed me as a child was Brian Jacques, and then others, like Terry Pratchett and Philip Pullman, who, if you haven’t noticed already, have very little to do with science fiction. It’s not that I didn’t try and read science fiction. I certainly did, with authors like Frank Herbert and George Orwell. It’s just that… I never seemed to find a science fiction author who resonated with me in the same way. As if, none of them quite had the sense of adventure I was looking for. Not that they weren’t great books. Just not the kind of stories I was looking for.
The best book you have read lately is ______? Why did you love it?
Easily Michel Faber’s Book of Strange New Things. It’s sitting on my windowsill nearby, and it’s such a pretty book that it glitters every morning in the sunrise, and I am drawn to remembering how brilliant it was to read. Truth be told, I’m a slow reader, and sometimes I get so caught up rereading books I love that a lot of new books pass me by. But this one was something special – filled with such vivid characters, and a very brilliant relationship as it’s tested to incredible limits.
Your first novel probably taught you a lot about the industry; what was the most important lesson you learned and can pass on to others?
You’re absolutely right about that! Probably the best thing I can tell others is to be patient. The world of publishing is glacially slow most of the time. It took me about six months, from the first point of being noticed by an agent, before that agent finally got back to me with good news. And that good news was that he was going to recommend me to another agent. It’s a lot of waiting, and refreshing your inbox. But it’s worth it, in the end. Your best bet is to find someone in the industry who really likes your stuff, and will champion it for you, be it an agent, a publisher, or maybe even another author.
What was the inspiration behind Dark Star?
This is an enormous question! I think that the book is probably a combination of all my influences, of which there are a lot. And then, one day, ruminating on the idea of having a dark world to write in, I had this vivid image in my head, of a dead girl down a dark alleyway, with glowing veins. I’m not quite sure where that image came from. Perhaps a film, or something else. But it was enough of a burst of inspiration to get the book rolling. I’ve written quite a lot about my influences elsewhere, however, were you to be interested in having a look here.
How long was the idea for this story floating around in your head before you actually put it down onto paper?
Somewhere close to two years. It began from the small seed of an idea – light based technology, and what influence it might have on people. And from there, it slowly grew. The dark world, under its dark sun. And the mystery element: the detective. Then, just before I sat down to write it at last, I read through Paradise Lost, and decided to try writing it in verse. Just to see. The rest is history. But this one spent a long time simmering away in my head before it ever saw the page.
Why take on the herculean task of writing this book in verse?
You know, it started off as a sort of experiment. I had this idea for a book I thought was pretty great, and I’d just been learning about the old epics (written by Homer and Dante and Milton and the such), and I thought: why not? So I sat down and tried it out, just to begin with. My first attempt sucked. Well, it was all right… but it didn’t quite seem to work. But I still showed it to a couple of people, and they gave me a lot more encouragement than I was expecting. So I gave it another shot. A better shot. And I ended up with a prologue I liked. I guess by that point I was hooked. It’s a strange way to write, but it’s also nice to really test yourself, see what your limits are. Turns out, my limits don’t end at prose. I’m not sure it’s something I’d do again, though. Just an experiment that turned out well this time.
Favorite sci-fi movie ever? Why?
Ah, an easy question! Tarkovsky’s Stalker. A film so ridiculously good-looking and ahead of its time that it could have been filmed yesterday. I’ve seen it twice, and both times I was absolutely enraptured by it. It’s a slow burner, definitely, but the characters are brilliant, and the dialogue is brilliant, and the setting is brilliant, and just… the whole package makes for one of the most wonderfully realised films I have ever seen. Tension created from nothing! It’s a film that plays on your imagination with the simplest of tools. A nut tied to a piece of bandage. An empty tunnel. An open doorway in the distance. And all balanced on the question of whether the science fiction element is at all real. Watch it! I implore you.
Dark Star is set on a world orbiting a dark star, which means there is no visible light. Did you do very much research on such stars, and what did you learn that did not make it into the novel?
Funnily enough, I did a lot less research on stars than I did on the effects of light deprivation. I could go on for hours about what a lack of light does to a mind, but I can still tell you very little about stars. From what I did find out, the very idea behind Dark Star‘s local sun – that it does emit light, just not on a visible spectrum – is… highly unlikely to ever happen. It would be one hell of an anomaly. Which I guess in a way is reassuring. I went through a lot of different variations on the theme, though: perhaps using a cold sun, or no sun at all, and warming the planet using subterranean heat. But what I ended up with seemed to suit the story the best, in the end, which is what mattered the most.
Some readers have described this novel as a detective story that just happens to be set in space. True or false? If true, was this by design, or is there some deeper meaning we need to know about?
Well… that isn’t what I set out to do. Indeed, by the book’s conclusion, I’m hoping that it no longer reads just as “a detective story that just happens to be set in space.” By that point, the mystery is deeply involved in the city’s background, and the concepts behind the book; it’s no longer the 1920s style procedural it begins as. But let me explain the mechanics behind the detective elements of the book.
Basically, I started out with the idea of the dark world – a society filled with light-deprived people. And that idea felt very noir, as I’m sure you can imagine: the endless gloom and rain and shadows. A bit like that film, Dark City, or even Sin City, films set in a permanent night. So I thought, why not write Dark Star as a noir myself? And from that, the detective elements were born. It suited the setting perfectly, and it worked really well for setting up the technology in Vox to be quite backwards – to give the city the feeling that the lack of light, and the greed around light, was slowly putting humanity back to the stone age. So when it has the 1920s prohibition New York feeling (and happens to include a lot of the tropes based around the noir genre: the cigarettes, and the clipped language, and everything else), it’s designed to hark back to that era deliberately, to add bucket-loads of atmosphere to the story, and to give characters a familiar edge. This also helps with introducing the more unfamiliar elements of the book – the science fiction – as it makes them a lot easier to digest, set against a backdrop of such familiar ideas.
I’m not sure that I like the idea of Dark Star being interpreted as “a detective story that just happens to be set in space.” I wrote the book to be a love story for three different genres: epic, science fiction, and noir, with the idea of blending them as seamlessly as possible, and I dearly hope that I have not failed in that regard.
Being a musician (Surgyn is your band, I’ve read) who are your favorite musicians? And do you listen to music when you write sci-fi? If so, what albums/songs seem to be your favorite mood music?
I tend to listen to a lot of quite experimental musicians (which probably makes me a massive hipster). Having a glance through recent playlists, I’ve been listening to a lot of Purity Ring, and Mew, and Health, and Gessafelstein recently, which says even less. I don’t particularly tend to listen to music when I’m writing, however, science fiction or not, but I can definitely recommend some mood music. I really enjoy the soundtracks put together by Jessica Curry (for various games. She recently released a song called Liquid Light, which was a marvellous coincidence), and Trent Reznor with Atticus Ross (for various films). Oh! Also Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s soundtrack to Utopia, which is so great. I’ve written about the music surrounding Dark Star specifically over here.
What is your favorite sci-fi book/series of all times?
Another tough question! But I am tempted to say Frankenstein. There is no underselling its importance to the genre, and in that manner I would call it revolutionary. But more than that, it’s a really, really great book. The ideas! The execution of them! The language! And yet, disappointingly, there is a great deal of debate surrounding whether is even science fiction at all. Sounds strange, right? But it’s a book I can turn to again and again for that raw feeling of inspiration.
The main character in Dark Star is a pretty downtrodden fellow by the name of Virgil. Did you write him to be a hero, anti-hero, villain in sheep’s clothing, or just an ordinary guy doing the best he can? Any deeper symbolic meaning behind your choice?
I wrote Virgil to be the embodiment of his dark world – consumed by his own darkness, and addicted to light in all its forms. He is definitely downtrodden. From the start of the book, he’s called a “hero” by a lot of people, including himself when he uses the word sarcastically, and I really wanted the reader to question whether Virgil is really a hero at all, just like he’s doing. I think that the answer lies in the flashbacks that play out at the end of each cycle, which show what happened in his last case – the one that brought him all his fame. In fact, my own interpretation of whether or not Virgil is a hero lies entirely in the very last flashback, right at the end of the book. I know it’s a tough one to interpret. A lot of people ask me about it. But maybe you’ll find the answer there as well, if you look closely enough.
I’ve read that you did not intend to convey any message about drugs or addiction in the novel, but obviously, some readers are seeing that in the narrative. Does that bother you at all?
Not in the slightest. The drugs in Dark Star are simply one layer out of many that explore the theme of addiction. The characters you meet in Vox are addicted to drugs, and cigarettes, and light. And perhaps there is an argument that a lot of them are addicted to the dark, as well. I certainly didn’t write any particular message into it, but I know that people read a lot into it, and that’s okay. Once your book is out there, being read, then you, as an author, no longer have much control over it. You can say what you intended… but in the end, the book’s message is open to interpretation.
Coolest concert you’ve ever attended and why? Coolest concert your and/or your band have ever played and why?
Last year I finally got to see my favourite band ever, Cult of Luna, play live, and it was everything I wanted from the performance and more. It was just before they released their newest album (called Vertikal – inspired by Fritz Lang’s science fiction masterpiece, Metropolis), so almost every track they played was new, and it was all so… perfect. The musicianship was beyond almost anything I’ve seen before, and they blew me away.
As for the best concert I’ve played… It would probably have to be the second time we played Resistanz festival in Sheffield. There was something special about that night. The audience sang along to every song, and shouted, and jumped, and just had a really great time with the music. Which is what it’s all about in the end, really – making a connection with someone. We just had a good night, and managed to connect with a thousand instead of just one, and there’s nothing else quite like it.
As a self-professed gamer, how have those gaming experiences integrated themselves into your writing?
This is a cool question, because gaming actually helps with my writing a lot. I do a lot of pen and paper role-playing (you know, like Dungeons and Dragons), but instead of using a pre-existing universe, I’ll use one of my own, and really test it to its limits. I did this with Dark Star: I got three players together, and let them loose in my world, and in doing so found out quite a bit about it. I remember a moment when we were all surprised to find that there would be no muzzle flash in Vox. Sometimes, getting a few people to just run around in your new universe can enrich it substantially.
What are your writing plans now? Any more science fiction noir poems in the future?
I am writing something new, but I’m keeping it under my hat for now. It’s another hugely ambitious book, but this time, not in verse. I’m not sure that I have a sequel for Dark Star in me quite yet. That’s not to say I don’t have any ideas. I think I know where I’d go with it. Just… that I’m not quite ready to revisit Vox yet. Dark Star was a hugely difficult, but hugely rewarding book to write in its own right. However! My publisher was clever enough to release Dark Star on the same day as the solar eclipse this year, and I have been informed that there is another one coming up in just over a decade, and maybe it would be quite the opportune moment to return to the story.
For me, the Phantom Menace didn’t quite live up to the hype. Don’t get me wrong, Darth Maul was great. But the rest… it felt a little flat to young me. As if I had missed the part of the film that made it really great. But I’m glad that general opinion seems to have caught up with me on that one.
These days, I run Beer and Bad Movies nights, so that we can all get together and really tear into terrible science fiction films. That’s not to say anything from the Syfy channel, which would be a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. But rather, those classics that took themselves a bit too seriously. Plan 9 From Outer Space! Space Mutiny! And, of course, modern classics that do the same. I’m sure you’ve heard of the incredible Birddemic…
So, would you say your taste in science fiction has changed over the years?
In a manner of speaking, I think so. Not so much as regards literature – I seem to be quite picky when it comes to science fiction books that I really like instead of just appreciate – but more as regards cinema. I’m massively into science fiction films. From thoughtful science fiction like Primer, to big spectacles like Sunshine, and artistic masterpieces like Stalker, I just can’t seem to get enough. If there is something to be said for technology, then it must be that it is doing a lot for science fiction films. I mean, just look at how absolutely gorgeous Interstellar was. More of that please. But… at the same time, I am slowly coming to understand that I am not the biggest fan of space opera. Specifically, Star Wars. It’s another one of those series that I really do appreciate, but that I’m not altogether sure I enjoy quite as much as everyone else. Peculiar, perhaps, or maybe just a side-effect of having grown up with the prequels.
Is there anything you cut or changed prior to publication that you now kick yourself for doing?
Looking back, I can’t think of anything I cut which should have been in the final book. I wrote plenty more than is in there, of course, and even that final product differs in some substantial ways from the manuscript I originally submitted, but I don’t think I’d turn back time and change anything. Perhaps the only really interesting bit I cut was a very, very surreal scene, from the end of the first cycle, where Virgil, in his drugged-up stupor, hallucinates walking the black sands of a desert, and meeting Phos. In the traditional epic story, the protagonist tends to be visited by the Gods, and I wanted the same for Dark Star. In the end, however, it just didn’t quite work.
Which one of the characters in the book is most like you?
This is tough to answer, because hardly anybody in the book is particularly pleasant. Maybe Pastor Michael, though. Not for his belief in Phos, or for his rural ways, but more – for that single scene, where Virgil finds him in his workshop. For the way that Michael tells Virgil, in his own way, that everyone has a gift for something. And while I’m hardly a carpenter, like Michael, I can relate to how Michael feels in that scene. If I have one thing that I define myself with, then it’s my writing.
Do you love, hate, or feel indifferent to the major role social media seems to play in the success of novels in this era?
I have mostly fallen out with social media. I used it for years to help promote my band’s music, and while it was effective, it was also irritating to use. So, you might have noticed that I haven’t set a page up for my writing anywhere. I don’t have an official twitter, or an official facebook page, or anything like that. Instead, my wonderful publisher seems to have it all in hand. Their twitter is a bustling hive of activity. This is great for me, because I can just sit back and do what I really want to do: write, without having to worry about sending out so many messages every day, and updating everything. It’s a surprising amount of work. But you know what’s really interesting? Despite not having a twitter or facebook page for my writing, I have noticed absolutely no difference as regards outreach. It doesn’t seem to have made the slightest bit of difference. So, while I’m sure, one day, I will be asked to make all of these social media pages up, for now, I’m perfectly happy living the life of an internet hermit.
How do you define success as a writer? Sales? Adoration? Creative satisfaction?
I think that this changes from artist to artist. Personally, all of the above are really great, but I get the most excited when I get good feedback (or a good review) from someone whose opinion I really respect. For instance, the first time I knew I was really onto something with Dark Star, was when the mighty Kirsty Gunn herself really took to the idea – this meant a lot because, traditionally, I know that she does not read much in the way of science fiction. It’s also really nice to just stumble across nice comments about your book on the internet every now and then, in some really unexpected places. For instance, Dark Star just got short-listed for the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize, which is done through popular vote – a brilliant feeling.
Any words of wisdom for aspiring authors – besides writing as much as possible?
I think the best bit of advice I can give off the top of my head is that whoever said “write what you know” was wrong. If anything, the opposite is true. Write what you don’t know! Make your book a journey of discovery for yourself! That way you’ll always want to keep writing, just so you know what happens next. This advice doesn’t mean that you should write blindly, though. Definitely plan for how your book is going to start and end. Just… enjoy the journey along the way. Sometimes it’s a lot of fun to not know what’s going to happen next.
Besides yourself, your favorite science fiction author now?
My favorite currently is probably Michel Faber. Considering that he is not best known for his science fiction, and has, indeed, only actually written couple of books that might be considered to contain some science fiction elements, I can understand why this might sound odd. But it is the very fact that the science fiction of his books is not their focus which makes them so appealing to me. One of the elements of the genre that has never really grabbed me (though I do understand and celebrate it for its importance) is the focus on the future – the questioning of what might happen next, and the ramifications of certain concepts. Whereas in books like Under the Skin, and, recently, The Book of Strange New Things, the focus is on themes far closer to home, and it somehow makes them all the more gripping.
Weirdest thing a fan of your books has asked you to sign? Did you actually sign it?
Signing books has been fairly normal, all things considered. I’m just learning to ask people how their name is spelt, no matter how mundane that name sounds. Some people spell their names very strangely. No… compared to signing an album, signing a book is pretty tame. Now, albums – there’s something peculiar. Once you’ve signed your stage name over your own face a few hundred times, you begin to question your sanity. Not to mention all the different patches of flesh over the years. My real name has found its way onto a lot of books, but my stage name has found its way on to a lot of strange places indeed!