Local writer Damon Wakes is working with online publishers Unbound to crowdfund the publication of his new book Ten Little Astronauts, a re-imagining of an Agatha Christie classic. Here, Damon shares the inspiration for his book and explains how working with Unbound could land him a book deal with Penguin Random House.
I wrote Ten Little Astronauts as the final project for a Master’s course, but really it began life 52 years before I was born. The book is a hard sci-fi reimagining of of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, published in 1939 and widely regarded as one of the finest murder mysteries of all time. That was partly why I thought it would be so interesting to move the story into a science fiction setting, but the closer I came to completing the book, the more I realised just how neatly Christie’s basic premise fitted into the new world I’d chosen for it.
Though it’s overshadowed by her incredible literary talent, Agatha Christie had an exceptional scientific mind. She qualified as an apothecaries’ assistant during World War I: a position that demanded considerable skill with medicine and provided knowledge of the poisons that featured so prominently in her books. The murder method featured in her first published work, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, attracted praise from the Pharmaceutical Journal for its strict scientific accuracy.
My goal in writing Ten Little Astronauts, then, became not only adapting And Then There Were None specifically for a sci-fi setting, but also maintaining the same level of scientific realism that Christie strived for in general. The challenge was to construct a mystery that took place in interstellar space, but could be solved using only knowledge available to us today.
A large part of what I found appealing about setting the story in interstellar space was that space is inherently dangerous. Cosmic rays are a constant threat, as is the risk of explosive decompression. A fire or a gas leak within the confines of a spaceship would be catastrophic, and the sheer distances involved guarantee that should anything go wrong, the crew would be dead long before an S.O.S. could even be received, let alone answered. The setting makes it immediately clear that only the ten astronauts themselves are in a position to stop the murderer in their midst, and abundantly obvious what the consequences will be if they fail.
As well as earning me an MA with Distinction from the University of Winchester, Ten Little Astronauts really seems to have caught the attention of Agatha Christie and sci-fi fans alike. Shortly before I graduated, the novella was accepted for publication by Unbound, who were confident enough in it that they funded a video outlining the story behind the book, which you can watch below. I managed to have it filmed on board HMS Alliance at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport, where I’d also done much of my research. The vessel was a huge influence on the overall atmosphere of the book—industrial and claustrophobic, set inside a craft with pipes and rails on every surface—and the insight provided by the guides ended up forming a significant part of the plot. I was thrilled to be able to record the video for the book on board, because as far as I was concerned there really was no backup plan.
Although I like to think the book stands on its own merits—earning me an opportunity to speak at the International Agatha Christie Festival this year—that video has certainly contributed to its success. Unbound is a crowdfunding publisher, meaning that potential readers must pledge (pre-order) for the book in order to provide the funds necessary to design, edit and print it. This offers an opportunity to provide bookshops with books that more risk-averse publishers simply wouldn’t consider. Without this chance to prove that there are readers out there with an interest in the book, it would simply get set aside in favour of a celebrity biography, TV tie-in, or a novel in a more readily identifiable genre. The downside is that it’s significantly harder to sell the idea of a book than it is something that readers can already pick up and flip through. Without that video and its intriguing backdrop, I don’t think Ten Little Astronauts would have anything like the 200+ people waiting to read it that it does now.
If Ten Little Astronauts sounds like your kind of thing, you can become a supporter by going to my Unbound page here and putting in a pledge for a copy of your own. If it reaches its goal by Christmas, the book will be distributed by Penguin Random House and the names of all supporters will be included in the back of every edition.
Follow Damon and the success of his Unbound campaign on YouTube.
Image taken from Damon Wake’s Unbound video.