After a bit of a hiatus, I’ve been able to find the time to bring back my popular series of interviews with authors and editors that I’ve featured here on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer over the years; and I’m absolutely delighted to continue with this series by interviewing S.C. Jensen, an up-and-coming science-fiction author whose works I recently discovered after reviewing her debut novel, Bubbles in Space: Tropical Punch which is a gritty blend of the science-fiction and noir detective genres. Jensen is the author of the popular cyberpunk Bubbles in Space series, featuring protagonist Bubbles Marlowe, a cyborg detective investigating cases in futuristic dystopia HoloCity, as well as the on-going series HoloCity Case Files which are a spin-off of the Bubbles in Space series. She has also had several short stories published in anthologies, the latest of which is in the Neo Cyberpunk: Volume 2 anthology. She was kind enough to find time in her schedule to agree to answer some questions from me about her background and life experiences, and how those have influenced her writing and goals as an author; the inspirations behind her various stories; how she manages to write stories across different genres; and what her plans are for the future.
Hi there Sarah, and thanks for agreeing to be interviewed on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer!
Thank you so much for having me, Adam!
Perhaps we could start by asking you to tell us a bit about yourself and your background, and how you found yourself becoming an author?
For sure! Well, my name is Sarah, and I’m a Canadian fiction writer. I mainly write sci-fi, because that has been one of my first loves as a reader, but I explore all different kinds of weird and speculative story worlds. I have dabbled in writing since I was a kid, and really started to take it seriously after university when my husband encouraged me to quit my dead-end retail job (yeah, that’s what my degree in English Lit got me) and take a year to finish my first novel, which I had been piecing away at for about ten years. That was the kick in the pants I needed, I guess. I finished the book, and got picked up by a mid-sized publishing house, and have since written eight novels, four novellas, and been featured in a number of anthologies.
For this question, I usually ask about particular authors and settings that inspired your writing; however, you mention in the Author’s Note to Tropical Punch that your love of noir pulp classics by the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett strongly influenced the Bubbles in Space series. How did you discover noir pulp like The Maltese Falcon? And how has it influenced the direction and themes of your fiction?
I discovered Raymond Chandler after a fairly well-known literary agent in the UK gave me some brutal but much needed advice when I was shopping around my first novel. He loved the story, but basically told me I needed to cut about 50% of what I’d written. Ouch! He suggested reading Chandler as an example of someone with a similar voice and style to my own writing, but who was a master of tight dialogue and sparse prose. I read Farewell, My Lovely and was hooked. I cut more than 50K words from my first manuscript, and it was thanks to this advice that I was signed with my first publisher. I’ve since read everything Chandler wrote and then moved onto Dashielle Hammett and John Le Carre, and have found my own authorial voice while studying these masters of pulp noir. Though I’ve since moved away from traditional publishing to pursue a career as an indie author, this agent’s advice really stuck with me and has helped to shape who I am as a writer.
As a follow-up to the above question, you also mention in that Author Note that the 1980s cyberpunk movement also influences your writing – I’m guessing that means authors like Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, and films like Blade Runner. What has drawn you to that particular aesthetic for your writing? And how do you manage to integrate noir pulp and cyberpunk in your stories?
I came to cyberpunk in a somewhat backwards way, via my love of noir. There is a lot of overlap in pulp sci-fi and pulp noir fiction, when many sci-fi writers from the 50s onward began to play with some of the stylistic tropes of the hardboiled detective fiction of the 30s and 40s and blending it with beat generation literary writers to create stories exploring dystopian futures rife with sex and drugs and ominous technologies. So I had actually read a lot of the proto-cyberpunk works before I was even cognizant of the cyberpunk genre. Larry Niven’s Flatlander stories, for example. Asimov’s robot series. Philip K. Dick, of course. I consumed a lot of cyberpunk media before I even had a word for what it was that I loved! Cyberpunk is basically a re-envisioning of pulp noir, in a lot of ways. Thematically there are so many parallels that blending the two is quite natural.
I first encountered your works with your debut novel, Tropical Punch, the first novel in the Bubbles in Space series, which I recently reviewed as one of the best cyberpunk noir thrillers that I ever read. Bubbles is a fascinating, multi-layered protagonist, and her adventures in the futuristic dystopian urban sprawl known as HoloCity were invested with superb prose and imagination. What would you say is the elevator pitch for Tropical Punch to get readers interested? And how did you come to tell this story of a cyborg private detective enmeshed in a corporate dystopia?
If I had to give you an elevator pitch for the series I’d describe it like this:
Blade Runner meets The Fifth Element in this eccentric cyber-noir thriller series about a bleak world ravaged by corrupt leaders, mega-corporations, and crime lords… and the washed-up cyborg detective who might be the only one crazy enough to take them on.
As for how I came to tell this story, that’s a little harder to answer… I guess it started with my desire to flip some of the hard-boiled noir tropes on their head. Instead of a grizzled, hard-as-nails, alcoholic male private eye I wanted someone I could relate to. So I made my protagonist a woman. I made her sober, since I struggled with alcohol abuse and have been sober for four years now. And while she tries to be hard-as-nails, she’s really a bit insecure of who she is and what she is doing in her sobriety. More than anything she just wants to protect her friends and not attract too much attention, which is something she’s notoriously bad at managing throughout the series. The setting is very much inspired by the two aforementioned movies. I love the glitter and grit of these high-tech future worlds, and it just felt like the natural place to set the story.
The Bubbles in Space series, and the spin-off HoloCity Case Files, all take place in the titular HoloCity in the relatively-distant future on Earth. One of the most common tropes in the Cyberpunk genre is that of the gritty, neon-drenched city with slums at the bottom, sparkling skyscrapers for those at the top of the greasy pole of capitalism, and relentless advertising everywhere – it’s been seen everywhere from Blade Runner to the recent Cyberpunk 2077 videogame. How did you go about creating HoloCity in your mind, and then translating it onto paper? And how did you differentiate it from its many competitors in the trope?
You know, this isn’t something I did very intentionally. I was really just translating my favourite noir settings, in particularly Chandler’s gritty 1930s Los Angeles, as I imagined it might be in the future. Of course, HoloCity isn’t Los Angeles. It’s just a symbol for what I envision rampant urban sprawl, unhinged capitalism, and technological poverty might create. And because I wasn’t really trying to write a cyberpunk novel, a lot of the tropes that readers might expect to see in a cyberpunk novel aren’t there, or they look a little warped. There are no hackers. I don’t go into a lot of detail about specific technologies. No one is single-handedly trying to take down an evil mega-corportation (at least not at first).
Ultimately, Bubbles in Space is a series about survival in a hostile environment, for a small group of people who are trying to do the right thing. I wanted to create a world that showed how people could be simultaneously oppressed by and reliant on big companies, so that it wasn’t as simple as a kind of David and Goliath narrative. Later in the series I get into some of the complex issues involved when fighting against oppression, namely that not everyone wants to disrupt an oppressive system, even if there’s a very good reason to.
Interestingly, you’ve noted on social media that the Bubbles in Space series has now concluded with its fifth novel, Cherry Bomb, and you won’t be continuing the series any further. Instead, you’ll be telling more stories in the setting with the spin-off HoloCity Case Files series. It’s quite common in the cyberpunk genre – and indeed many genres these days – to continue series almost indefinitely in order to sell more books and tell stories. What made you decide to close the series after the fifth title? And how did you resist that urge to continue on regardless?
It was really important to me when writing Bubbles in Space that it have multiple entry- and end-points. This series is finished, the main storyline is concluded with book 5. That doesn’t mean that Bubbles’ stories are finished, though!
I will be exploring her backstory in the stand-alone novella series HoloCity Case Files, where I plan to really dig into the noir style with more traditionally structured detective stories. I will also be giving Bubbles a new series, in a slightly different genre (think Cowboy Bebop meets Firefly) which I hope will be a new entrypoint for people who haven’t read the original series. And I plan to expand the universe surrounding HoloCity with some stand-alone thrillers and other things that push and expand on the cyberpunk genre a bit.
I will keep playing in this world!
But I don’t want readers to feel overwhelmed, or that they are committing themselves to reading twenty different novels when they pick up Book One. I hope to have a selection of stand-alone, trilogy, and five-book series in a connected universe, but which can be enjoyed on their own. The reader experience is really important to me, and flexibility and accessibility are something that gets forgotten when authors start planning these mega-series.
You’ve just had your latest published story released in the Neo Cyberpunk: Volume 2 now available on Kindle and in paperback. What can you tell me about that story? And how did you end up contributing to that anthology?
Oh, that was a fun one! I actually did a spin off of the Bubbles in Space series with a comedy story featuring Bubbles’ right-hand-man, Dickie Roh. I am determined to prove that cyberpunk can be funny as well as gritty. So it should be a nice contrast piece to the rest of the stories, haha.
This anthology was organized by the wonderful Anna Mocikat, an indie cyberpunk author (Behind Blue Eyes and Cyber Squad series). I am very privileged to be a part of a number of cyberpunk author groups where we work together to drum up excitement and enthusiasm for the genre, and Anna is really the heart of the indie cyberpunk movement. She is the Cyborg Queen! So that’s how I came to hear about the anthology, and it has been an absolute joy to be a part of it. I’ve met so many wonderful authors. It’s exciting to be in the middle of what–I think–is going to be a big shift in the next few years as cyberpunk re-gains traction it lost in the 90s.
Turning now to some more general questions, I know every author is unique in terms of their writing process, but I’m curious – how do you write best? Are you one of those authors who go to a coffee shop and sit with a laptop typing away; or are you perhaps more for quiet spaces and solitude? And do you listen to anything while writing?
I write like it’s my job, which it is. I do business writing for the mining and transportation industry in order to pay for getting my fiction writing out there (indie publishing is not cheap!) so writing on a schedule is something I have trained myself to do. Basically, I write a minimum of 3000 words a day close to 7 days a week. When I’m not writing, I’m reading fiction, craft books, or marketing and publishing books about the indie publishing industry. I write in my home office, ideally when my kids are at school, but often when other stuff is going on. I get interrupted a lot. I don’t let it derail me, though. Sometimes I listen to music, but it can only be music without lyrics or I get distracted. So I often listen to classical or electronic music. But I don’t really need anything except my notes and my laptop.
Following on from that, would you say that you’ve found your writing style changing as you’ve written more and more fiction, and moved between short fiction and then full-length novels?
My style has definitely evolved over the years. When my children were infants and toddlers, I took a break from writing novels to focus on flash fiction and short stories simply because I didn’t have the headspace to develop longer, more intricate plots. That has impacted the way I write now, as well as my personal preference for writers of sparse, hard-hitting prose. I don’t like to meander. I try to be as clear as I can. I linger on particular images that I feel tie in to the theme and tone of the work to round out each scene and dig into some sensory detail, but I try not to do it too often. Readers who like 800 page tomes full of intricate world-building and photorealistic character descriptions are likely to feel lost in my worlds. I deal in feelings and glimpses, and try to let the reader fill in the blanks with their own imagination. But I’m always trying to improve upon my writing too. I’m always studying the craft of other authors and trying new things. I suppose I will continue to evolve.
So far you’ve written stories that focus primarily on the science-fiction genre. Are there any other genres that you’d like to explore and write in, that you haven’t ventured into yet? Anything that takes your fancy – but perhaps isn’t commercially/financially viable, or you haven’t had the time to focus on as yet?
I read and write very widely. I enjoy horror, western, fantasy, mysteries, thrillers, dreamy literary slipstream… you name it. Pretty much everything except for romance. I will pursue more of these, under different pen names, as necessary. I think science fiction will always be my home base, though. It seems to be where all my ideas swim around and play.
And finally – what’s next for you in the writing and publishing world? You’ve just had a short story published, and you’re continuing on with the HoloCity Case Files series. Do you have any other stories or novels in the works at the moment? And do you have a long-term aim for the stories you’d like to publish – new settings, perhaps, or different characters?
I have so many things on the go right now, it’s not even funny. I’d like to have 100 books published in the next ten years, and I have plans for most of them!
First up this year is the re-release of my previously traditionally published first trilogy, The Timekeepers’ War. I’ll be putting out three novels and a novella (maybe two) in this series this spring and early summer. HoloCity Case files will be getting at least 5 more novellas this year. I plan to start a new thriller series, set in HoloCity but with a new set of characters, this fall. I also have a top secret fantasy project started under another pen name, which will come out this year too (but I may or may not ever admit that its mine, haha). So I will be busy, and there will be lots of books to explore!