Gavin Grant Smith is a Scottish science fiction writer best known for the sci-fi novel Veteran. His latest work is the critically acclaimed Bastard Legion series, which is cracking military sci-fi. We caught up to find out more about his latest novel, The Bastard Legion War Criminals.STARBUST: What’s the elevator pitch for The Bastard Legion War Criminals?
Gavin Grant Smith: Aliens meets The Dirty Dozen. Or: a mercenary legion, consisting of some of the worst criminals in human space, is blamed for a series of atrocities - most of which they didn't commit - whilst fighting a vicious colonial war on an alien jungle planet. But if they didn't commit the atrocities who, or what, did?
And how would you pitch that to someone who has only ever seen Star Trek?
If the Federation were to hire the Bastard Legion, the Borg would just go home. These are the people you send to frighten the Klingons.
What character is the most fun to write?
Miska, the protagonist, is a lot of fun to write because she's a horrible person, but she's very upbeat about it, and that's very refreshing (for me, at least). I also like the Mafia consigliere 'Uncle' Vido Cofino because I write him as a genuinely nice guy, and I suspect he probably is. Also Massimo 'the Fisherman' Prola, Vido's right hand man, who's not so nice. With those two characters, I get to embrace my love of the likes of The Sopranos and Goodfellas, which becomes all the more interesting when you get past their archetypal exterior and find out what they're really about. The big fun about the series is writing about a group of people who have an excellent reason to dislike one another coming to very begrudgingly like each other. It's best not to get too attached to any characters, however, as the body count is so high Sean Bean fears being drafted.
Which character seriously needs to have word with themselves?
Well, Miska doesn't really get morality... but she seems reasonably content. Torricone, one of the convicts, tries to be her conscience and I suspect he can be a little sanctimonious about it. The serial killer known as the Ultra, leader of the Nightmare Squad, a kind of post-human weapon of mass destruction only used in emergencies, is a bit too cool for school but he seems popular. I'm not sure that they're 'have a word with themselves' kinds of people. There's a lot of psycho/sociopath juggling amongst the Bastard Legion.
Why did you go for military sci-fi?
I'm not sure I have a really good answer for this. I'm interested in military history, particularly the history of Special Forces, but I also saw Aliens when I was 12, decided that Star Wars wasn't for me, and I haven't really looked back since (also Rogue Trooper!) I'm a bit wary of mil-SF as a subgenre but there's no denying that's what the Bastard Legion books are, though there's a big crime element as well. I guess I see myself as writing SF action adventure stories.
Why did you use the name ‘Bastard Legion’?
Because punk rock - that's why! Err... I genuinely can't remember. I was thinking about all the names of pulp - I love pulp in all its myriad forms - bad boy military units: The Dirty Dozen, Inglorious Bastards, The Expendables, Bad Company, etc. and Bastards just seemed to fit. Legion came because I wanted a big pool of potential victims err... I mean characters choose from and this feeds into a central mystery running through the series. It's caused some problems, it made some people in my publishers a bit nervous, doubtless it didn't help foreign sales, and I can't advertise it on that guardian of public morality: Facebook.
The Internet tells us that you won the Campbell for Veteran. How has that shaped your writing career so far?
Sadly I didn't win the Campbell award, I was nominated for it but Ian McDonald won it, which is worrying because I've been holding a grudge against Hannu Rajaniemi for winning it for years now. Also I saw Ian in the pub last week could've railed bitterly against him if I'd realised! It's made no discernable difference to my career and I have to admit that when I was told about it I had no idea what a Campbell award was or its significance. Now my only award ambition is to get the award that George R. R. Martin allegedly gives out for not winning a Hugo!What has been the most interesting shift in sci-fi writing in recent years?
It feels, and I'll probably be told that I'm hugely out of touch for saying this but we've moved a little beyond trends in science fiction. My sweet spot is the sort of post/transhuman space opera and that seems to be going great guns at the moment. I think the most interesting thing that's happening, however, is that we're starting to hear from a much more diverse spectrum of writers. I know there's people out there who feel it's a cynical box ticking exercise but I think it's making a huge difference. We're getting perspectives that we've never seen before, which is in turn making us older hands reassess our comfortable position and so every one is just making a bit more of an effort across the board. What I don't understand is the resistance to this, particularly in a genre like SF. I mean it's not as if all of Heinlein’s books have been burned.
What tropes do you personally avoid the most?
I love tropes! I'm irritated that so many of them are now considered old hat. I'm the guy who's annoyed that he can't get away with writing a book where a dwarf, elf and wizard all go on an adventure together. The ones I do avoid are the ones I know I sort of should because people express dislike for them. There are also some properly toxic tropes out there tied to representations of race, gender, and sexuality - those can do a burton. Other than that I avoid the chosen one trope because I'm deeply suspicious of messianic figures (as good guys anyway), and think people should save themselves rather than wait for a hero to do it for them. Thing is people say they don't like the chosen one/messianic trope but it's pretty much every superhero film. At least Harry Potter was bred as a weapon!
If you could give the 16-year-old version of yourself any advice, what would it be? Would you listen?
Be less of a dick, try harder in college, write more, mullets aren't cool, go easier on your family. Also, here, take this manuscript and send it to this address before the Internet takes off! And no, he wouldn't listen. He was an idiot.
THE BASTARD LEGION WAR CRIMINALS is available now.