“Ten Little Astronauts” by Damon L. Wakes (2018)

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“Even before the alarm began to sound, Blair knew in his gut that something was wrong.”

I’m normally against remakes. I’m one of those people constantly screaming at the publishing industry and Hollywood that it needs to have some new ideas, not just keep throwing out rehashes, remakes, reimaginings, retellings, repeats … People need to take more risks. There are, of course, exceptions. Some films with literary backgrounds actually do turn out very well (see Stardust or Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World), and sometimes an author can take a classic (Hamlet) and give it a new entertaining twist (The Lion King). In Ten Little Astronauts, Damon L. Wakes takes Agatha Christie’s crown jewel, And Then There Were None, and gives it a sci fi flavour.

The U. N. Owen is a spaceship that has long departed Earth and is now hurtling through the void to a new planet for humanity to colonise with four thousand bodies preserved in suspended animation. Ten astronauts are awoken mid-journey, something that is only supposed to happen if there’s an emergency on board. It seems that something has gone wrong with the computer system. Then they find the body.

Trapped in interstellar space, trillions of miles from home and with no chance of rescue, the ten astronauts must deal with the fact that one among them is a murderer. With no way of being sure who it is, they agree that they can’t go back to sleep until they’ve worked it out. But then more of them die, and as the bodies pile up, so does the tension. They just have to hope that the little grey cells work just as well in space…

As a premise, it works wonderfully. The original novel is of course one of the finest examples of mystery writing in history, with ten people isolated on an island and killed off one by one. The “closed circle” plot is common in the murder mystery genre, and here it’s dialled up to eleven, with the characters entirely isolated from everything and everyone else. Although occasionally erratically paced, the tension ramps up perfectly and you begin to question your own thoughts, because as soon as you think you’ve worked out what’s going on, the rug is pulled from under you and things prove to not be as they seem. A stellar retelling.

The book also contains a second short story, Six Years Stolen, which is another science fiction crime story set in a future where people no longer require sleep. Some specialised police officers – known as sleeper agents – do still sleep as we do, but it renders them with better cognitive faculties and speedier reactions, meaning that sacrificing a third of their life to sleep is beneficial. The whole thing is apparently based on a pun in the term “sleeper agent”, and I applaud Wakes for managing to pull off an interesting, intelligent story around it that feels curiously believable. I enjoyed it as much as the first story.

If you want a quick, thrilling read, you could do a lot worse than picking up a copy of this clever and unusual story.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!


Book Chat: Damon L. Wakes

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Damon L. Wakes is a fellow writer and crowdfunder of mine, who has recently used Unbound to fund his murder mystery novella Ten Little Astronauts. The story is said to give a science fiction twist to Agatha Christie’s classic And Then There Were None, but it is far from Damon’s first foray into the world of writing.

Aged 27, he has already published seven other works, most of them collections of flash fiction with compelling titles like Robocopout and OCR Is Not The Only Font. He is also a a game designer, with an impressive collection of interactive fiction published online, as well as Spoiler Alert, a game that you can only complete by playing backwards and in 2014 was declared “Most Promising Game in Development” by Indie Prize Amsterdam.

I took the chance to ask him some questions in between his ferocious schedule of writing for himself and convincing others he should write for them too.

What are you reading at the moment?

The Fifth Head of Cerberus, by Gene Wolfe. It’s an odd sort of book: I don’t think I’m far enough through it to say much else, really.

Hardback, paperback, eBook or audiobook?

It depends what I’m reading, and where. If I really love a book, I like to have a nice copy for my shelf. However, I tend to do most of my reading while travelling, which means eBooks are preferable to cramming hard copies into my already overstuffed backpack. I read most of The Count of Monte Cristo on my phone: I’ve got a Kindle, but carrying it with me means having another gadget to worry about if I’m sleeping in a hostel or likely to get caught out in extreme weather. A trip to Death Valley once cooked my digital camera.

What book do you think you’ve read more than any other?

Lord of the Flies. It was one of the books I had to read for GCSE English, and we seemed to be stuck with it for several eternities. When we had supply teachers we’d frequently go over the same chapter over and over because that was what was in the lesson plan that had been left for them. It was awful. I don’t think I could read that book ever again.

Which author, dead or alive, would you most like to meet?

Douglas Adams. He died shortly after I discovered The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and since then my interest in his work has only grown. He was writing witty, engaging interactive fiction way back in the early days of the format. I wonder what he’d make of games now.

What genres do you prefer?

I like speculative fiction in general. It’s interesting to see a well constructed world as well as well rounded characters. I’m about as likely to read non-fiction as I am anything with a real-world setting: both are nice from time to time, but I don’t gravitate towards them in the same way I do to sci-fi or fantasy.

What factors are important to you when choosing a book?

The most important factors probably have the least to do with what’s actually in the book. I won’t shove a pristine hardback into my bag, so I’m more likely to read anything if my copy is a beaten-up old paperback or saved on my second-hand phone. I try and read things that’ll prove useful in some way or another – things that are likely to inform my own writing – which isn’t too hard since those are typically things I’ll probably enjoy anyway.

Have you read any books translated from a foreign language and how did you find them?

I’m a big fan of Walter Moers, who writes in German. The translations are by John Brownjohn. Not being able to read German myself, it’s hard to say how much of what I enjoy is the original story and how much is the work of the translator, though I imagine it’s a bit of both. However, I did manage to identify one bit of wordplay that never made it past the language barrier. In The Alchemaster’s Apprentice, there are bat-like creatures called “leather mice.” I’m reasonably confident that in German, “leather mouse” would be “Ledermaus:” a play on “Fledermaus” (bat).

What were your favourite books growing up?

I really enjoyed Brian Jaques’ Redwall series. Each book stood well enough on its own, but what really stood out to me was the way each one added to the world around it. Strangely, what’s stuck with me most are the inconsistencies between the books (particularly between the original Redwall and the later instalments): one character is Portuguese though no real-world countries are mentioned anywhere else, and an army of rats travels in a single horse-drawn cart even though it’s implied that all the other creatures are similar in size. Although that might be seen as a flaw, I like to think that it’s evidence of the world coming together gradually for Jaques as he wrote it, in much the same way that it came together gradually for me as I read it.

Can you tell me about a book that scared you?

When I was about 10, I read a book following the kid who goes missing on the dinosaur-infested island in Jurassic Park III. I can’t say whether or not it was particularly well written, but looking back it’s kind of a neat story to cover: the film has the kid pop out of nowhere and save Sam Neill like some sort of pre-teen Rambo, but this book made him a much more vulnerable character. At one point he finds a pair of roller blades, only to be ambushed by velociraptors while wearing them. That bit in particular struck me as absolutely terrifying, but having got that far it would have been scarier to stop and not know what happened than to push on and finish the book.

The impossible question: what is your favourite book?

Probably Rumo & His Miraculous Adventures by Walter Moers. It’s the size of a phone book, set in a bizarre fantasy world of floating cyclops islands and talking dogs with antlers, and yet everything that happens makes perfect sense. Reading it as a reader, it’s a gripping story in its own right, but reading it as a writer it’s particularly impressive how Moers manages to set up all the details the plot later depends on. Also, the plot follows the basic structure of a classical epic, which I think is a nice touch.

You can find out more about Damon’s previous books or play his games on his website, seek out information about his upcoming Ten Little Astronauts at Unbound or follow him on Twitter: @damonwakes.