The Big Idea: J.S. Dewes
Posted on April 20, 2021 Posted by John Scalzi 2 Comments
Science fiction can take its inspiration from unlikely sources, but for The Last Watch, the debut novel from author J.S. Dewes, the inspiration came from what might seem an especially unlikely source. And yet, that inspiration took the author to the very edge of the universe.
“I’ll fly a starship across the universe divide.”
When I first heard the incomparable Johnny Cash sing this single, innocent song lyric back in 2016, I had no idea it would spawn a book series that would take over my life for years to come.
For months, I listened to it on a loop, unable to get the image out of my head: a haggard, burdened Man in Black in a sci-fi rockabilly trench coat (armored, of course) at the helm of a spaceship, a wild look of dread and determination in his eyes as he ventured beyond the edge of the universe.
But why? Did he know what was on the other side? Was he fleeing or searching? Could he ever come back? How is there even an “edge” to begin with?
There were so many questions, and I needed answers.
So when I hit a wall on revisions for my first novel, I sat down and let myself brainstorm some answers about my enigmatic Man in Black. Those answers turned into my debut novel, The Last Watch.
I’m a firm believer in inverse proportions with storytelling—the higher the concept, the more grounded the story and characters need to be. So I knew from the beginning that telling a story whose root concept is “what if the universe had physical boundaries?” would require a balance—an anchored lens with which to view this remarkable situation. So I knew my first big decision would be the most important: who was going to help tell this story?
Throughout his repertoire, Mr. Cash frequently espoused the plight of the working class, societal ostracism, redemption—all themes that resonate deeply with me. I immediately latched onto the idea of putting the kind of hard-working, everyday, blue collar people Cash sang about into this extraordinary situation.
From there, it was all too easy to imagine the motley crew that would become my Sentinels—soldiers discarded at a post millions of light-years from civilization: The Divide. As the purported origin of the aliens humanity fought for over a millennium, society isn’t willing to leave this mysterious edge unguarded. But after centuries of peace, the once revered posting has become a depository for the armed forces’ disgraced, delinquent, court-martialed soldiers, and now acts as a prison in everything but name.
Hence how this story that screams HIGH CONCEPT from its every orifice quickly became an intimate tale of cast-off soldiers just being their flawed, competent, tired selves, each with a unique past rife with failure to land them at this physical and societal fringe.
To corral this motley crew of criminal misfits, co-POV character and commander Adequin Rake stepped forth. Though a venerated war hero, Rake has somehow earned this dismal post of babysitting delinquents at the edge of the universe—all while harboring a secret that would put everyone else’s tragic backstories to shame. She quickly became my wild-eyed, burdened Man in Black forced to (metaphorically) helm a ship being thrust into uncharted territory, where the dangers are not only unknown but unprecedented.
But every level-headed, capable leader needs her foil, and that opportunity presented itself in the sarcasm bomb that is my second POV character, Cavalon Mercer. A disowned prince sent to join the Sentinels as punishment for a rather explosive crime, Cavalon is the definition of too smart for his own good. His unique blend of moronic genius was a blast to write, and I loved the interpersonal conflict added by throwing an inexperienced white (gold?) collar guy into the sea of blue collars.
In practically every way, Cavalon experiences the greatest shift toward “the edge” of any single character in the book—he’s a civilian, not a soldier; he’s sheltered and inexperienced; he’s highly capable when focused, but an emotional disaster. And yet, despite the royal upbringing that sets him so far apart from the rest of the crew, Cavalon’s history is as rife with missteps and failures as everyone else at the Divide.
But as Mr. Cash once famously said, “You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone.” And that’s what every single character—blue, white, and gold collar alike—has to do in The Last Watch. Now that they’ve been pushed to the edge of the universe and life, it’s time to see what happens when they’re forced to go beyond.
As a discovery writer, I didn’t know the answers to any of the questions about my universe-fleeing Man in Black when I started writing The Last Watch. But I channeled the good I see in people, the strength of teamwork, the sheer power of the human will, and I honed my high-concept mess through a largely optimistic lens that showcases humanity (mostly) at its finest. Even when shunned, discarded, and pushed to the edge, not everyone falls off—people are strong, they rise up, they fight back, and they’ll do what needs done no matter the cost.
The Last Watch: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
Sounds like fun. I’m heading out to my friendly local bookstore now and will pick it up curbside.
Recently, when I’m looking for a new book/author I check the recent Big Ideas, and often find something that appeals.
Thanks John Scalzi!
Any fan of The Highwaymen is good by me, and this sounds like an interesting book. I’ll definitely give it a shot.