Summertime is the perfect occasion to lose yourself amid the cold reaches of the cosmos, and author Alex White has the perfect beach read for space opera faithful looking for something refreshingly addictive spiced with a brilliant fusion of technology and magic.
An avid auto racing fan and aficionado of sci-fi mystery cinema like Event Horizon and Prometheus, White most recently delivered a chilling Alien tie-in novel for Titan Books set in the aftermath of James Cameron's Aliens, titled Alien: The Cold Forge.
Now he's back for his second book this year with A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe, released on June 26 from Orbit, and it's gonna hook you with g-force intensity, impactful prose, and smart alluring characters.
Injected with a forward thrusting narrative and exceptional world-building, Big Ship is both fresh and familiar at the same time, mashing up the spellcasting of dark fantasy realms with the hardware and heroics of old-fashioned military sci-fi. With infinite care and inspiration, White has created a fully formed outer-space destination detailed with sparkling Eidolon crystal dust, intoxicating elixir baths, futuristic race cars, interstellar combat, lesbian commandos, mysterious assassins, and one fabled lost starship.
The story follows Boots Elsworth, a burnt-out treasure hunter and former attack pilot now selling fake salvage maps to intrepid suckers with big bucks. Her unstable existence collides with young Nilah Brio, a pampered driver in the Pan Galactic Racing Federation who witnesses a trackside homicide caused by a wraith-like spectral killer named Mother. Framed for the murder, Brio goes on the lam from deadly spies and gets embroiled in a galactic scavenger hunt aboard a smuggler's spacecraft to search for a legendary warship named The Harrow.
White has also composed a series of companion musical tracks, Race for the Harrow, forming an enlightened ambient and orchestral score to enhance readers' experience and transport them into an outstanding odyssey they won't soon forget.
SYFY WIRE hooked up with White to chat about this enchanting new space fantasy, learn where the genesis of its thrilling tale spawned from, hear of swapping info with fighter pilots and tank commanders, his love of Harry Potter and Cowboy Bebop, and what readers can expect in his first book of The Salvagers series.
Where did the idea for A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe originate?
Alex White: It came from three unlikely places: electronic music, true crime, and terrible teamwork. Right around the time I made my first sale, the artist Seven Lions released their album Worlds Apart and the song "Nepenthe." I couldn’t stop listening to that song, and every time, a star battle formed in my head.
At the same time, I was reading Truman Capote’s (and frankly Harper Lee’s) In Cold Blood. One of the killers, Perry Edward Smith, was something of a sucker for salvage maps off the coast of Mexico. He’d send cash and a self-addressed stamped envelope to a place up in Akron, Ohio, or somewhere—and someone who definitely had no idea where there was sunken treasure in Mexico would send back a map.
Lastly, I love Formula 1, and in 2015 the rivalry between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg was heating up. Despite the annoyance at the poor sportsmanship, I couldn’t stop watching the drama unfold. I just knew I had to work that rivalry into my fledgling space opera.
Can you take us for a quick ride through the story's main plot and characters?
Nilah Brio is a talented racer at the top of her game in the Pan Galactic Racing Federation. Her mastery over magic enables her to psychically connect to machines and control them, and she’s poised to win the Driver’s Crown—until she witnesses a murder on track and gets framed for it.
Unlike everyone else, Boots Elsworth doesn’t have a spell. She has a one-in-five-million birth defect that prevents her from casting, and she’s had to work hard to make any headway in society. At points in her life, she was a fighter pilot, then a famous treasure hunter, then washed up, her only source of income the fake salvage maps she sells to unwitting rubes. But a stopped clock is right twice a day, and Boots accidentally gets closer to the truth than she realizes, attracting the attention of a deadly assassin.
Boots and Nilah are as different as can be, and I wanted to capture that classic buddy cop trope in a fun new way. Over the course of the book, they end up on the ship where Boots once served, stolen by smugglers after the Famine War. Boots’ old captain, Cordell Lamarr, is a dashing veteran with a pinch of salt.
And there’s my personal favorite, Orna Sokol, the scarred-up quartermaster with a killer robot and a Joan Jett attitude. Like Boots, Orna comes from a world destroyed by war; unlike Boots, Orna has a spectacular talent for violence and won’t put up with any crap. It was great fun to write the relationship between her and Nilah, as both characters have profound impact on one another. The quartermaster also has a pet mechanized battle armor named Ranger.
You've elegantly married magical fantasy with traditional space opera in your new novel. What was your plan in integrating these two genres of popular fiction?
It’s like the old Arthur C. Clarke quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” When I think of space opera, I think of tons of stuff that’s frankly BS, from FTL and gravity drives, to Mass Effect’s biotic powers, to the Force in Star Wars. It’s hilarious to me that we draw this line and say, “This is believable technology/psychic power, but spellcasting is fantasy.”
Growing up on JRPGs like Final Fantasy III, Chrono Trigger, and Xenogears, the fusion of magic and technology was anything but novel for me. I wanted to infuse magic into every aspect of these people’s daily lives, similar to what J.K. Rowling did for Harry Potter.
How did you go about the world-building process, and what elements did you draw from in forming it?
Of course, I was inspired by the sprawling nature of Star Wars, because who isn’t? I want to write the kind of universe that other writers feel they could play inside, so it had to feel like there were tons of worlds and places to visit.
Furthermore, since everything runs on magic, my first question was always “What’s the practical use for this spell? What tech could I reimagine with magic?” I assumed humanity, in addition to being able to cast spells, found ways to capture cheap versions of them into their tech. So, for example, all of the guns shoot spells instead of bullets.
In order to bring authenticity to life onboard a warship, I drew on my old day job, as well as consulted several of my friends in the U.S. armed forces. I worked on military projects for a long time, so I have a broad base of aviators with weapons experience to bring to the table. I’ve consulted with F-18 pilots, Apache pilots, Kiowa Warrior folks, and so on. I also have the privilege of knowing a Navy ship commander and an Abrams tank commander, who gave fantastic perspectives on crew life. I live beside Redstone Arsenal, home of Marshall Space Flight Center, which means we’re lousy with rocket scientists and NASA folks.
How did you design and organize the complex system of spells, glyphs, and weaponized magic?
I actually used an almost identical magic system for my podcast, The Gearheart, which ran for five years, so I had a lot of kinks worked out going into it. There are essentially three things to know about the magic system:
First, I stole all of the basic equations from electrical engineering and repurposed them to calculate glyph size and power. So P=IV became B=FL, meaning the bandwidth of a glyph is equal to the power of the caster times the life force present.
Second, there are these batteries called eidolon crystals, which can be used to add juice to a spell. Basically all tech in the galaxy runs on them, and just like regular batteries, they can be used in series, get overcharged, explode, and all those other good things that action scenes require.
Third, all warships have amps, so their captains can cast their spells and get them magnified by the boat. Nilah and Boots are onboard the Capricious, and the captain can project force shields through the amps capable of withstanding massive damage.
What were some of your inspirations when crafting this imaginative new saga, and what was your gateway into science fiction/fantasy?
One of my greatest influences is an old anime called Cowboy Bebop. I was an addict for that show, and while some of it hasn’t aged well, the dialogue is still tight, the action impeccable, and the ship designs—well, I mean, it’s Shoji Kawamori, the legend. I also got really into the works of Daniel Simon, an ex-Bugatti designer turned futuristic racing concept designer.
Aside from Star Wars and video games, my gateway, tragically, was William Shatner’s TekWar. As a middle schooler, I loved those books for their nonstop sex and violence. As an adult, I recognize that they’re pretty much trash, but they got me reading in a long series, and that’s something.
A love of Formula 1 car racing is evident throughout your space saga. When did the racing bug hit, and how did you hope to weave it into the storyline?
I’ve always enjoyed the fact that it’s a sport where they give the engineers a trophy. In truth, I didn’t get into it for real until I saw Ron Howard’s Rush in 2013. My friends and I went home from the theater, swearing to watch the Silverstone GP the next weekend, and we never quit after that.
There's an ultra-cool, robotic battle-suit named Ranger in the story. What is the the origin of that concept?
I figured, given the crew of eight, it would only make sense for one of them to have a pet, and I needed to marry that concept up with magic somehow. I thought it would be fun to give Orna this independent battle armor that she can control with a remote mental link. I grew up on Masamune Shirow comics (Appleseed, Ghost in the Shell), and was captivated by his mecha designs, particularly the Landmates that the cops rode around inside, so it was a natural evolution from there.
This is the first book in The Salvagers series. What's next for the sequels, and when can we see these dynamic characters in action again?
The next book is December's A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy, and I can already promise action sequences to dwarf the first book! The crew uncovers a cult linked to the mysterious villain of the first book, and they’ll have to go undercover if they want to dismantle it. Given the scale of the conspiracy in A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe, there are still spies everywhere, and they have no idea who they can trust.