The Big Idea: Matthew Castleman

A near-lifelong, almost forgotten about idea of author Matthew Castleman’s ended up turning into his newest novella, Privateers of Mars. Read on to learn how a child’s drawing transmuted itself into a published work.


Mars will be free. It’s a trope well-trodden into the red sand, and for good reason. The Free Mars story that I hold dearest is in Babylon 5, one of many smaller stories tucked into the bigger arc. I’m sure lots of you have a personal favorite Mars rebellion. But what then? Mars breaks its Earth shackles, and what happens next year? Or next decade? What’s the Solar System look like in, oh, 200 years?

That’s the question I ask myself at 11 years old, sitting at a study desk in my dad’s library, waiting for him to close up. It’s a peaceful place to sit and read and sometimes pretend to do homework. This question enters my mind, and I draw a map of the Solar System. Most of the sci fi I knew was about exploring the stars, and what I’d read that was confined to our humble system was about exploration and early settlements on Mars and asteroids and various moons. But unless we stumble on an FTL breakthrough real fast, there’s going to be a long period in between, a period with a full-fledged Solar civilization.

That’s what I drew on my map. Earth and its territories, Mars and its territories, an independent Republic of Mercury just for fun, some city-states on asteroids and moons. I thought about Earth and Mars, hundreds of years after Martian independence. The phrase ‘cold war’ popped into my head. I technically was around for the end of the Cold War, but it was basically done by the time I was eating solid food. So I studied up on some history and talked to my parents. The phrase “demilitarized zone” entered my vocabulary. I looked at Jupiter, which had gone unadorned so far. I drew a dotted circle around it and called it the Jovian DMZ. How’d that happen? I didn’t know, but I liked the idea.

Six years later I’m a high school senior feeling my eyes start to glaze as I type an essay, and I’ve just found an old piece of paper with a map I drew of the solar system. I haven’t really started ‘writing’ much at this point, but my worldbuilding habit’s in full flower, so I look at this map and create a timeline of events leading up to it, starting from barely-the-future all the way to somewhere in the 2600’s. In case you’re wondering how wild I was in high school.

Skip to senior year of college. I’m planning to run a game of Alternity, the old sci fi sister-game to D&D. I need a setting for my friends to adventure in, and so this world that’s only existed in my brain and a couple documents for a decade encounters some other minds. Based on their experiences and feedback, I start tweaking and editing it. Then other college concerns take over and it sits around a while more.

In 2010, I finally decide to write a story in this world. I still have the map. I think about Big Story Characters – admirals, ambassadors, prime ministers, folk heroes-to-be. After a few false starts, I think about the long journey this world’s taken, tucked away in my head. I think about all the real world events that happened in that time. And that nobody I knew had jack to do with any of them. I scrap my character sketches, and collect a little crew of wanderers doing their best to dodge the swings of interplanetary titans and make it back to port. I’ve always loved the ‘little band of space misfits’ style, but I come to better understand why as I write a story called ‘Ceres Lament.’

The at-all-eyed among you may’ve noticed that 2010 occurred 10 years ago. My story, like so many stories, went on a series of quests to first readers, and occasional senior editors, at a variety of science fictional publications. My life took me a whole lot of places and I did a whole lot of stuff, and in 2018 I got word that after its *cough*th submission, ‘Ceres Lament’ had been accepted for publication. As soon as I heard, I started writing a follow up. One thing led to another and those two things led to a third thing, and what was going to be a short story became a novella. 

Privateers of Mars has existed in some form for a long time, and my aim for the narrative was similar – the scope of history is massive, and every poor little collection of souls straggling their way through it has to contend with their slice as best they can. Just as I have through my brief time hunkering in the wings of the world stage as the stars enter and exit, doing whatever little bits I can to steer the performance in good directions. Jacob Rhys and his privateers embody the contradictions most of us live – they’re smart but struggle to comprehend the world, badass yet vulnerable, working together like a machine whose parts really like snarking and yelling at each other. As the great Deep Purple once said: Come on, let’s go space truckin’.


Privateers of Mars: Amazon

Read an excerpt here. Visit the author’s website. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

4 Comments on “The Big Idea: Matthew Castleman”

  1. Sounds fun. I’ve had my fill of big, apocalypse stories: that’s one reason I like Jack Vance: his SF stories were often people just doing their jobs.

  2. So nice to see a Kindle Unlimited title selected for The Big Idea. This probably isn’t the first but it is the first I’ve caught.

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