Stars Uncharted book cover hero

Exclusive: Writers S.K. Dunstall on their rip-roaring new space opera, Stars Uncharted

Contributed by
Aug 14, 2018

Australian sisters Sherylyn and Karen Dunstall have forged an unlikely creative partnership by keeping it in the family and delivering some of the finest new sci-fi yarns this side of the Milky Way. As creators of the national best-selling The Linesman Novels (Linesman, Alliance, Confluence), this dynamic writing duo have emerged as an engaging new voice in the genre, with a legion of loyal fans worldwide absorbing their far-out cosmic tales.

Using the pen name S.K. Dunstall, their new standalone novel, Stars Uncharted, is primed for liftoff today from legendary publisher Ace Books and is assured to make sci-fi fans' late summer reading list.

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In this new hyperkinetic space opera, a renegade band of greedy star voyagers are out to make the biggest score in the galaxy, but as their spaceship leaps into the cold void of outer space, some of the crew might not be exactly who they seem.

Is it Captain Hammond Roystan, a hardworking cargo runner who has stumbled across the Hassim, a historic exploration ship and its priceless record of remote, unexplored realms? Or could it be his bio-wear implanted junior engineer, Josune Arriola, who claims her last assignment took place in the dangerous uncharted rim? And don't leave out Nika Rik Terri, a well-respected body-modification expert, and her rookie apprentice, who have angered some intimidating underworld clients and must flee off-planet in a big hurry.

This ragtag crew will find themselves flung together in a race for the untold mineral riches of a lost world, streaking through the lawless expanses of deep space with Captain Roystan confidently at the helm, chased and hunted by a ruthless band of corporate hitmen.

SYFY WIRE caught up with the imaginative sisters to learn how an eye-opening medical emergency inspired the book's plot, the challenges and rewards of writing together, and where readers will travel once Stars Uncharted hits the afterburners.

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How did this new spacefaring saga originate, and what were your goals when plotting its tale?

It started with the genemod machine. A while back, Karen had what is called in medical terms a retinal artery occlusion. In layman's terms it was described to us as an eye stroke, where high blood pressure caused a blockage of one of the veins behind the eye. The blood in the blocked vein started to leak into the eye. (We writers need to exercise more.)

"You're lucky," the ophthalmologist told her. "Nowadays we can do something about it. Once, you would have just had to put up with it. The problem might have gone away itself, but more likely you'd remain blind in that eye."

According to the ophthalmologist, scientists are working on a solution that won't require an injection to fix this. Instead, the drugs will be administered as eye drops. Around the same time, we read an article about a group of skilled workers had been superseded by machines. What stuck in our mind was that they negotiated a deal with their bosses so that the machines required a qualified technician to run them, even though all they were doing now was pressing a button.

Which led us to a conversation about what will doctors — and even specialists — do when a machine can do all their work? Will they fight to the end, and demand that the machine must be operated by a qualified practitioner? What type of specialists will remain? The ones who change people's appearance. In our story, the body modders.

What is the main storyline, and what can readers expect as they launch into Stars Uncharted?

Fun characters. Action. Obsessions. Neat technology in the form of genemod machines. A chase. This is space opera. Or space adventure. Both, if you prefer.

Nika is a body modder. She accidentally built a machine that allows her to exchange bodies. An assassin found out about it, used her body to kill someone, and now he wants to destroy the evidence — Nika. Nika runs, tries to hide in space. She meets up with Roystan and Josune, who are also being chased. Only they're being chased by a company, who believe Roystan knows something about the location of a rich lode of minerals. The two groups join up and go on the run together.

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As a writing team, how do you divide up the research duties and writing schedule?

We don't divide much. We talk a lot. We're pretty boring conversationalists, because often all we talk about is the story. Where it's going, what's going to happen, what's working, what's not.

To keep the same voice, one of us will write the initial draft, with the other nipping at her heels, rewriting. Especially when they're action scenes. Two people writing doesn't equate to half the work each. It's more like three-quarters each. We do basic research initially. Just enough. Most of the research is done after the first draft. Whoever questions something does the research for it.

What recent sci-fi novels, films, or comics interest you and helped inspire the story in Stars Uncharted?

Every medical black box ever invented for science fiction influenced us, from McCoy's medical center onwards. It's almost a holy grail of science fiction, like flying cars.

We like movies and novels with camaraderie, action and a bit of fun. Star Trek movies. We loved the last one. Guardians of the Galaxy. Galaxy Quest is one of Karen's favorite movies of all time. Some of the Marvel/DC Universes. Wonder Woman and the Thor movies, particularly.

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How did you approach the worldbuilding, and what were some of the more challenging aspects of the process?

Worldbuilding is often something we do in later drafts. Quite often after our agent has said, "Not enough worldbuilding," but we're getting better. We knew, right from the start, that this space universe would be company-run. After all, who can afford to go into space and make a profit? Sadly, it doesn't take much to make companies the bad guys when profit is the prime motive.

We tried to write a universe based on that. And on a galaxy where body modding is the norm. One of the most challenging aspects for us was to make the world as different as we could from the Linesman universe. We got stuck a lot on little things. In Linesman our FTL was via the void. In Stars Uncharted they nullspace. In Linesman the characters have comms, in Stars Uncharted they link in.

Was this novel different from creating The Linesman novels, and will we see a possible sequel?

For us, every book has been different so far. The Linesman series and Stars Uncharted and set in different universes. One has genemod machines, companies ruling the galaxy, and a lot of space stations, while the other has line ships built around alien technology, with many non-democratic governments and massive space fleets.

But it was an effort, as we said, not to build another universe the same as the Linesman universe. In the Linesman books, the worldbuilding grew organically and we edited it afterwards. In Stars Uncharted we made a conscious effort to build a specific type of universe and tried to remain true to it as we wrote the book.

A sequel? We do have a second book that's being edited now. It follows events after Stars Uncharted. It hasn't been accepted yet, so we'll see!

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