Today on the blog, author Rebecca Langham joins me to talk about her debut science fiction novel, Beneath the Surface. Welcome, Rebecca!
Beneath the Surface brings readers into the plight of a refugee group of humanoid aliens, segregated from humanity in underground facilities. Lydia Barrett is quick to empathize with the Outsiders and cannot resist the pull she feels toward Alessia, the de facto leader of the group. The very title of the book is multilayered: there is so much more going on beneath the surface of the conflict than is readily apparent. You can read my review of this exciting story here on Goodreads.
This novel, although set in the future, touches on many contemporary subjects: refugees, gender identity, environmental changes, and government secrets. In many respects it's a cautionary tale as well as an entertaining one. How did the idea for this book develop?
Rapidly, that’s how! Gosh, it’s hard to know where to begin. I often feel very frustrated by my government’s lack of empathy toward refugees. In Australia, it’s been policy to ensure they’ve been locked away, often for years at a time, with people simply assuming they’re dangerous criminals because they’re not from here – taking far longer than is truly necessary to confirm their refugee status.
It’s been a divisive debate, with plenty of awful stories to come out of it. Yet, there’s not much I can do when politicians are determined to be so hard on the issue. Or maybe there is, and I just haven’t realized what it is. On top of this, I was influenced (in certain aspects of the story) by Australia’s history of government policies toward Aboriginal Australians. Whilst BTS is definitely not an allegory about Aboriginal Australia -- I’m not qualified to explore such issues in that way -- but that historical background of my own country is definitely present within the book, shading the edges of certain scenarios.
When you read the book, particularly the ending which feeds into the core of Book II, you’ll also see that the sci-fi elements of the story took over some of those social issues that inspired the original premise.
The book also developed from a perhaps (too?) ambitious idea: to have a passive protagonist. I love strong female leads, but I felt like quite often to be ‘strong’ meant traditionally masculine, a warrior of some kind who brandishes a gun or a sword. Whilst I adore those characters and absolutely want to see women across a spectrum of masculinity and femininity (and everything between), I asked myself – well, how can a woman also be strong in ways that don’t stem from her body?... By pushing past her fear and letting her pre-conceived notions about herself and the world be challenged. That’s what Lydia is meant to embody, a slightly different style of courage.
People warned me off this kind of protagonist, of course, but I’m stubborn and did it anyway – which may not be every reader’s preference. But I wanted Lydia to be a fairly ordinary person in a lot of ways, when it comes to her attitudes, her lack of thought about the world around her. Then she goes through some experiences and meets some people that start to stir change within her, change that will evolve across the duology.
Like me, you are a die-hard science fiction fan. What is it about the genre that speaks to you and inspires you?
Oh, so many things! Sci-fi has always pushed readers and viewers to ask questions about themselves and their world. I love the conversations that sci-fi can spark, the ideals it can explore, the possibilities it can toy with. It’s also a genre that has managed to both exclude minorities and help them rise, which is a fascinating paradox. LGBTIQA+ characters and stories have often been told through speculative fiction long before they were considered in contemporary or romance stories. The same can be said of sci-fi female characters who have been important in popular culture. Star Trek. I mean, wow! Aliens, Battlestar Galactica, Dark Matter.... And now, Doctor Who, yes please!
Beneath the Surface is just the first book in The Outsider Project series. How many are planned, and what's next for Lydia and Alessia?
This particular story is planned as a duology. The epilogue of the first book gives some pretty un-subtle indications of the core ideas of Book II, though not quite all of them. If you read Book I and think: Wait – that happened too fast. Or – hang on a minute, that wasn’t really explained…then I’d be willing to bet it’s because it’ll bridge into Book II or there’s something else propelling a relationship or a situation that the characters simply aren’t aware of just yet.
As a series, there’s scope to play around with it some more in the future, but I’ll wait and see how Book II is received. I might consider doing some novellas about side-characters such as Jez or Fermi, but I don’t know if that’ll be something readers will want to see. I’ve also thought about a prequel, something set right back at the very beginning of the Outsider Project, showing us how it all started. It all depends on the time I have available and my readership. At minimum though, there will be two books and there will be a more definitive ending to Book II than there is to Book I.
As for what’s next for our girls…well, they’ll need to get to know one another better. There are some forces behind their meeting that they weren’t aware of at the time, and becoming aware of those may make them question the validity of such a strong attraction. But their personal relationship, whilst important to Book II, is likely to be dwarfed by issues much larger than themselves, at least for a little while. Book II is called Beyond the Surface, and that’s probably the only major spoiler I’ll share!
Are you a meticulous plotter, or do you just wait to see where the characters take you?
For BTS, I planned obsessively. I had about 15,000 words or so of summaries. They had to be changed along the way, but I had to have the whole thing fully planned before I wrote one word of a chapter.
However, for Book II (I’m about 25% through the first draft and hoping to get a lot done in February), I’ve got summaries but a lot less of them. I know what threads I want weaved in from Book I and what I purposely left vague or dangling, so it seems to be a little different.
You are a teacher when you aren't writing. What books do you recommend to your students who are interested in science fiction?
I actually don’t have that many students who are keen on sci-fi! Or if they are, they prefer films or TV. Far more of them are interested in fantasy and/or urban fantasy style books. I break at least ten hearts every year when a student asks me what I love most about Harry Potter and I say “Mehh. Not that into it.”
When I’ve taught sci-fi as a genre study to senior students I’ve recommended a whole slew of books. This includes some of the classics, of course, such as Left Hand of Darkness, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ray Bradbury’s various short stories (I absolutely LOVE ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’), anything by Octavia Butler, and you can’t go wrong with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
For younger students, there’s a lovely little book that isn’t very well known called The Tunnels of Ferdinand, I’m not even sure if it’s in print anymore, but I found that Year 7 students just ate it up, it was wonderfully creative, easy to read, and dealt with some great societal issues.
Thank you for joining me on the blog today! Where can readers interact with you on the web?
Thank you so much for reading the book and hosting me on your blog. I’ve been so keen to see what a fellow sci-fi fiend thinks of it and it’s been fun answering these questions.
I’m probably online far too much and I love chatting with new people, so please, feel free to reach out!