The Big Idea: Leonard Richardson
When the universe is at war, what is life like for those in caught in the middle? Author Leonard Richardson gives us a glimpse at those who are caught in the middle of a galactic war, but have their own stuff going on outside of the battle. Read on to hear more about his newest novel, Situation Normal.
In my 2012 short story “Four Kinds of Cargo“ I wrote a character who, like many of us, grew up with tales of space adventure. Unlike my childhood entertainments, these stories weren’t all that unrealistic: they featured fictionalized versions of real-life starship captains and interstellar smugglers. This was a universe where someone with a head full of stories could actually buy a spacecraft and head out for adventure. Doing so was foolish and dangerous—this was the lesson of “Four Kinds of Cargo”—but not impossible.
I’ve always loved stories about the intrusion of fantastic narratives into a more realistic ‘real world’. Galaxy Quest is an obvious touchpoint for a sci-fi fan, but my absolute favorite is Edgar Wright’s 2008 film Hot Fuzz, a cop movie about cop movies, in which Prime Suspect proceduralism gradually slides into ridiculous Bad Boys action set pieces. Even as I wrote “Four Kinds of Cargo”, a comedy where space-adventure stories collide with the deadly reality, I wanted enough room to write that kind of slippery slope. It would take a novel, and the novel would need much higher stakes than a botched smuggling run.
The novel became Situation Normal, a story about a galactic war that happens for no good reason. I didn’t spend much time on the large-scale view of the war, partly because I don’t have the experience to make it realistic. My model was Catch-22 and the extent of my military-fiction ambitions was to be ten percent more realistic than Star Trek. I wanted space to show normal people caught in the undertow of an event the size of a galaxy; individuals trying to budge history with their little person-sized decisions.
How you react in an overwhelming situation comes down to the heroes you’ve chosen, and what you’ve committed to doing ahead of time. Every character in Situation Normal has a head full of stories, whether they got those stories from pop culture, ideology, patriotism, religion, military training, or good old-fashioned drugs.
These stories give them the strategies, and in some cases the courage, for getting through a horrific event. Some survive with honor intact, some compromise themselves to save someone else, and some refuse to collaborate with evil even as the situation becomes hopeless. In the end, all these person-sized choices add up to something that changes the course of history—just like it does in the real world.
In Galaxy Quest the cast of a TV show eventually comes to accept that their real lives are a genre story. The question in Situation Normal is not so much whether the characters can accept that fact—some can and some can’t—it’s which part they choose to play.