Well, I finished up the new project about a month ago. It's called SMARTASS OF MARS. Here's some of the query letter I wrote (I took some spoilers out):
Being transported to the savage planet Mars would be tough enough for any man of action. For 29-year-old basement-dwelling Internet nerd Chance “CJ” Shifflett, it should be a death sentence. But even if he’s too skinny to be much of a warrior – he is a survivor.CJ discovers that his legendary ancestor, CSA cavalry officer John Byrd, didn’t die in the Civil War, but was yanked across space to Mars, where he made himself its Emperor. Mars is a barbaric planet full of adventure, where the low gravity and cosmic rays make you like Superman. It’s totally insane – and fucking awesome.But on a planet where having a swordfight on the deck of a flying boat is just part of your average road trip, it’s man up or get cut up.
Coming at it from another direction - so, what is the point of this book? Well, I love what they call "sword-and-planet" fiction even though it's gone out of style. Probably because it's gone out of style, actually. Last year I needed a new book to read so I duck into my TBR pile and got out Joe Lansdale's UNDER THE WARRIOR STAR, which I'll admit I got for free at World Horror Con.
(By the way, it was published in a double volume under the Planet Stories imprint of Paizo Publishing, which looks like it aims to be a kind of Hard Case Crime of scifi, publishing reprints (and some new works) with great-looking covers. This particular book was combined with Michael Moorcock's SOJAN THE SWORDSMAN, which I have no idea why the hell he agreed to the reprint as he wrote it when he was fifteen or so and it's not very good. I don't think I'd reprint any of my teenage writing for love or money. Well, maybe for money. But it'd have to be a lot of money.)
Reading through WARRIOR STAR made me want to check out more books like it and I read several by Otis Adelbert Kline and of course ERB's great Mars books. Something struck me as I was unknowingly doing research for my next book - how, despite the passage of years, the story always had the same essential elements. For instance, you never saw a wimp end up on one of these planets. It was always a guy who was improbably physically fit - hell, even in Farmer's WORLD OF TIERS (my favorite series by him), the main character is an old man who's mysteriously rejuvenated into a perfect physical specimen when he crosses the dimensional barrier or whatever. (Even the great H. Beam Piper follows this rule in LORD KALVAN OF OTHERWHEN - a state police officer from the 60s who can handle a sword!) I already had that one under my belt along with John Norman's Gor books (the first four or five of which, I think, were quite good examples of the genre). So I wasn't exactly a newcomer to this corner of the scifi universe, just a guy who didn't know everything that was out there yet.
Anyway, it seemed to me like every writer who'd tackled this concept had such an intense respect for those who had gone before that he didn't dare change anything. I had this feeling of these stories being like late-morning dreams, desperately held onto so they don't fade away. I didn't like that much. Nostalgia is fine, but life is better. It's one thing to collect vintage clothes - but if you ask me, what's the point if you don't wear them? Lansdale's book cemented this for me. WARRIOR STAR is damn good, but it doesn't really push the boundaries (that said, if there ends up being a sequel I will read it and enjoy the hell out of it).
So, seeing an amazing opportunity, I sat down to write this book, about a guy who's pretty much the exact opposite of your typical sword and planet hero. He doesn't know how to fight, he's in no kind of shape, in fact he's kind of an intellectual. Of course he's also an internet nerd with a mild ADD case so that only goes so far. He's dissatisfied with his life, but not to the point where he wishes that someone would zap him to 12th century France so he could be a knight or some crazy shit like that - he is entirely a creature of the modern world. So he'll be dead meat when he lands on Mars, right? Well that's why they call it an adventure.
Now, this book might sound like a parody, but it isn't. I genuinely loved the books I read and want to read more. But like I said, I didn't much like how the whole thing was kept as a kind of museum piece. I thought the perfect example of this way of thinking was how, in WORLD OF TIERS, one of the main characters who has all this techno-crap that makes planets builds himself a real-life Barsoom, with ten-legged lions and everything just like in the books. Sure, it was Farmer telling you what inspired him - but also notice how he never altered that world in any way. No writer that I know of, with the exception of George Alec Effinger, ever did anything but treat ERB's Barsoom with pure reverence, refusing to examine, alter, or react to them in any way. Even the recent JOHN CARTER OF MARS makes only relatively minor changes to the source material.
I wanted to write a book that not only the same old men who read these books when they were kids would like. In fact I figured there was a good chance I'd piss them off! I wanted to write a book that took an archaic concept and send it blazing into the modern world like one of those movies where an old gangster comes out of retirement to give a bunch of punks an old-school ass kicking. So my own Mars is not Barsoom. John Carter isn't there, stuff like that - the material is only quasi-public domain, but that was good because it pushed the book in this direction (originally I was going to just straight up write a Barsoom book), and that allowed me to go some crazy places as well as dump the crap that didn't make sense or was just dumb. So yeah, I'll say it: I had the balls to do what none of these other writers could (even Effinger hid behind the cloak of parody). I looked around a long time and I'm pretty confident in that statement. Maybe there's nothing new under the sun but I think of myself more as Richard Burton being the first Western infidel to enter Mecca - daring to go where no one else has yet because it's dangerous territory.
And I think I came out okay. SMARTASS OF MARS is about, basically, the same questions that sword and planet fiction asks: is it the man, or the time? What is missing in the modern world that man needs to feel alive, and why? But I also pose some new questions: is the modern world really that bad? How do extreme experiences change a man? Are old concepts of masculinity outdated or are they timeless fundamentals of human nature?
And those are just the philosophical questions. Others are much more basic. Like, why is it that everyone on ERB's Mars (and thus in every other book by anyone in this genre) have laser guns easily available, but they use swords all the time? Why do they have flying ships but still ride living domestic animals? Does anyone there have a job? What do they do for fun? Is there booze on Mars? Are humans and Martians really sexually compatible? If the planet Mars really was inhabited by crazy-ass barbarians with four arms, why don't we know about it? And that's just to start.
Without spoiling anything, I'll just say this: the world out there is crazier than you ever knew. It's dangerous and wonderful and full of interesting people and animals who want to kill you for no good reason. The food is also pretty good. And, yes, there is booze. And weed.
Right now I'm querying agents to try to take this motherfucker mass-market. It's a long shot, I know - seems like everyone only wants to buy books written for little kids these days. But I refuse to follow the crowd and I think that you have to write the book and then find the people who want to read it, and I believe they are out there. HBVK taught me that. Times are changing and I think I'm one of the guys who's come along to smash the game and make a new one. Crazy, yeah. Maybe I'll end up like Piper, or worse, totally unknown in my own time. That's okay. The work is its own thing.