Interview with James Wolanyk

1. Can you describe what Interstellar Gunrunner is about?

Fundamentally, IG is a series of misadventures told by Bodhi Drezek, an eccentric conman who’s in need of fast cash to pay off his debtors. He’s been operating as an arms dealer (among other… pursuits), providing both sides of a cosmic war with all sorts of atmosphere-vaporizing weaponry, but that cash flow starts to dwindle as the conflict winds down. So naturally, like any decent criminal in media, Bodhi’s forced into a risky yet simple heist job at the behest of a hive-mind crime lord. As you might expect, that risky yet simple heist job loses the “simple” aspect rather quickly, and he finds himself trying to contain an apocalyptic threat with things like superintelligences, genocidal empires, and ancient pathogens breathing down his neck. Along the way, there’s plenty of hijinks and snide remarks from his motley crew. And a few singularity-causing explosions.

2. Can you tell us about Bodhi?

Bodhi is, as mentioned above, a conman to the core. He’s got a taste for the flashy and the exotic, and he has little to no qualms about manipulating others to get what he wants. There’s a small, dim semblance of morality in his mind, to be certain, but those morals aren’t exactly a blueprint for a functional society. In his mind, good and evil are essentially conceptual tools wielded by those trying to manipulate susceptible groups. Everything is colored by the transactional flow of buyer and seller, winner and loser, producer and consumer. So, owing to that, Bodhi’s primary concern is safeguarding his revenue stream and maintaining his luxurious lifestyle, which includes a fondness for space yachts and state-of-the-art body modifications. Unlike many other “space criminals,” however, he’s not much of a brawler on his own. He’s not exactly skilled with firearms, abhors hand-to-hand violence, and largely leaves destruction to the clients that purchase his weapons (which, naturally, he is not responsible for!).

3. What separates Interstellar Gunrunner from other sci-fi space opera out there?

That’s a hard question. It’s undeniable that media like Firefly and Rick and Morty inspired certain elements of the series, but at the same time, I wanted to ensure that there was still some personal “heart” involved in the storytelling. I’m a bit of a snide optimist. Despite all the absurdity, there’s a sense of a universe that continues to persist (and perhaps even thrive) in the face of apocalyptic conditions. Overall, I really tried to incorporate everything I thought was rather novel and unexplored in the sci-fi genre, yet had lurked at the back of my mind for ages: Eldritch beings responsible for FTL travel, the effects of precognitive abilities on daily life, the notion of humanity not as explorers or conquerors, but scavengers with technology beyond their comprehension. On top of that, it’s just a lot of fun. I wanted to construct a universe that felt both hostile yet also somewhat enjoyable to inhabit. (The victims of orbital bombardment might disagree with that last bit).

4. How did you come up with the story?

If I recall correctly, I first had the idea while living overseas in Latvia. I’d somehow managed to royally screw up my back, and was essentially bedridden. I cranked out the first book in just under a month, which you can attribute to slowly losing my mind and supplementing with caffeine. There wasn’t exactly an “aha!” moment for the story itself, but rather a slow accumulation of my vision for the universe. The first snippet that came to me was “humanity as a bunch of hopeless primates.” From there, it sort of told itself.

5. What is the universe of Interstellar Gunrunner like?

In a nutshell, the universe is presented in a state well beyond what we would call the “golden age” of cosmic existence. Humanity went extinct, then was resurrected deep, deep in space as a sort of zoo animal or science experiment for a superior alien race… which then fell prey to humanity’s massive amount of dormant viruses and bacteria. Eventually, just about every species is either eradicated or massively depopulated by the spread of these human diseases. This leaves humanity as the Pyrrhic victor, trying (often poorly) to operate the technology of extinct species. In the same way we don’t know how to build a microwave but can still heat up pizza, the humans of IG are essentially doomed to never produce high-level machines, yet still able to make use of what remains in the cosmic graveyard. Of course, it isn’t just machines that are still around. Humans routinely bump into the few surviving aliens, near-sentient AI constructs, failed experiments on other worlds, gateways, so on and so forth. They’re sort of like little kids exploring a super-collider installation.

6. Who is your favorite character after the protagonist?

I think I’d have to go with Chaska for this one. Maybe an obvious choice, but she was modeled after my wife, so I’m sort of obligated to give the answer. Beyond that obligation, she’s consistently the only one sharp and perceptive enough to foil Bodhi’s shenanigans. She’s tough as nails, compassionate at the right moments, and more than able to handle herself as an insurgent commander. On top of that, she’s got a killer relationship with the native species on her homeworld (which happens to be lopers, a species of sentient rabbits!).

7. How would you describe the antagonists?

There’s a whole suite of baddies that appear throughout the series, but the primary enemies are all members of the Halcius Hegemony, which is a galaxy-spanning theocracy based on human supremacy and a disdain for technology (even though they aim to control all of that technology for their own uses!). Bodhi’s archnemesis is Grand Mediator Kemedis, an operative of the Hegemony that’s got a real desire to see him imprisoned and tortured for his antics. The driving theme behind the Hegemony and its villains is the fruitless attempt by humanity to subdue things beyond its control. We have an innate fear of the unknown, the unexplainable, and our instinctive response to that fear is one of subjugation. Fittingly, there are some villains that shine a light on how useless that response really is. Cosmic horrors and superintelligent constructs are probably the best examples.

8. How was the response to your books?

Shockingly, very positive. I say shockingly for two reasons. First, the speed with which I wrote the first book. I tend to be a meticulous plotter, and I wrote the series without much of that planning. Second, the intricacy of the absurdist. I didn’t think of readers much while writing it; it was a fairly pure example of “passion” writing. There were a lot of jokes and situations I feared might not translate to readers who didn’t know me well in real life. When it actually released and began getting high praise, I was floored. Even my father, a boomer of the highest degree, thought it was one of the best books he’d encountered (and believe me, he has no problem criticizing my writing!). So, overall, I’ve gotten really kind words and feedback from about as diverse an audience as you can ask for. Garrett Brown, who did the Audible narration, knocked it out of the park as Bodhi and helped to cement that positive response.

9. You finished up the story with a trilogy, what made you restart the series?

From the beginning, I set out to build a universe that I could (hopefully) explore for the rest of my life. I’ve had something of an obsession with world-building since childhood, and this was the first world I truly felt I understood and could bring to life through all kinds of media. (I’ve got podcast plans, short stories planned by the dozens, and a few other, weirder circuits in mind…). The universe setting, at present, is known as the Cutthroat Cosmos, and I intend to keep fleshing it out with novels and other outlets until I’m unable to carry on!

10. What can you describe about the new series?

The next entry in the universe is, strangely enough, going to be a tongue-in-cheek LitRPG known as Players Must Die. A drinking binge causes our lovable hero, Bodhi, to stumble into a real-life MMORPG in a pocket universe with a loper dignitary at his side. The only problem is that this “MMORPG,” besides being full of real pain and death and beasties, is also defunct. What results is Bodhi’s attempt to journey through a wasteland of insane “players,” eldritch terrors, and glitches that cause far worse issues than missing textures. I’m not much of a LitRPG reader myself, so it felt especially apt that our narrator was also an outside observer trying to muddy his way through the genre.

11. What other authors would you recommend?

Can I start with C.T. Phipps? No? Well, I’ll do it anyway. Following from there, I absolutely adore William Gibson, Iain Banks, Frank Herbert, Joe Haldeman, Octavia Butler, Ursula LeGuin, and Vernor Vinge.

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