Feature: Playing God in someone else’s universe

Weird Space The Baba Yaga coverDr Una McCormack teaches creative writing at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge and is a New York Times bestselling author of novels based on Star Trek and Doctor Who, as well as an acknowledged expert on J.R.R. Tolkien who helped Sci-Fi Bulletin’s editors with their recent book on Middle-earth. Her most recent novel, The Baba Yaga, is set in the Weird Space universe created by Eric Brown, and here she talks about coming in to play with other people’s creations…



I started writing without any particular ambition to get published. I think this is probably the best way. The desire to express something, the desire to explain how you feel about the world or how you think it should be different – that has to come first, even before any sense of being read and certainly before any hope of being paid!

I always say that my first attempts at writing were fanfiction – there were some long stories scribbled down in exercise books when I was at primary school that, while they technically weren’t fanfiction, certainly show the influence of whatever Doctor Who story I happened to be watching at the time. There were other stories too, increasingly intermittent as I got absorbed in school work and exams, but the urge to write fiction never entirely went away, and emerged again all of a sudden in my early twenties. I blame the BBC for releasing Blake’s 7 on video cassette.

Suddenly, the stories that had provided the setting for a thousand childhood playground games were in front of me again – warts and all. And my passion for these stories now came with an understanding of how they were flawed in many ways. Perhaps the narrative didn’t quite add up. Perhaps the motivations of a character were confused or obscure. My hyper-active post-teenage brain had made that leap from recording information to synthesising information, and it wanted to embellish, deepen, widen these narratives – in other words, it wanted them to make sense. There was only one rational course of action. I started writing fanfiction.

Never EndingI was lucky to start my fanfiction career at exactly the time that the internet was connecting people with similar interests in a way that allowed rapid communication between distant friends on a scale never before experienced. The Blake’s 7 mailing lists at that time were hungry for stories, and inhabited by postgrads and other animals eager to put their theories of the world into literary practice. One day I’d like to collect some of the fiction from that time in an anthology. The stories that came out were astonishingly good, and the community of writers, readers, friends (and foes) was generous, assertive, witty, astringent, and informed. Everything you want as a readership, in other words.

Eventually, that moment passed, as moments do. Some of us stayed put, some of us (myself including), moved on to new worlds. After a lifetime of swearing that I would never watch Star Trek, I became, inevitably, besotted with Deep Space Nine (and its tailor). And then (I’ve told this story elsewhere and many times), I accidentally got published: first, a short story in a DS9 anniversary anthology, and then then my first two novels, set in that same universe, The Lotus Flower and Hollow Men. They did OK. So I wrote another DS9 novel, The Never-Ending Sacrifice, and that was particularly well received by the readership. I was glad about that, because I’d poured a great deal into it, and it was the sum of all my thinking so far about that universe and the time and emotional energy that I’d invested inhabiting it.

A question that I’m sometimes asked about writing TV tie-in fiction is whether I wouldn’t rather be inventing my own characters and writing about my own worlds. I’m always stuck for an answer to this question. I’ve never bought this idea that imaginative work takes place in a vacuum – I’ve always felt that I was in conversation with a text, amplifying or deconstructing it. The fanfiction communities with which I was involved made these conversations transparent – my first novel, which told the story of the marriage of Faramir and Éowyn from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – was published as a serial, with my readers egging me on and reviewing as I wrote. How often does a writer get that pleasure?! So to come to the Weird Space universe was not too great a leap for me, and I had the great privilege of being in conversation with a writer that I greatly admire.

Weird space 2I could not have had a more generous collaborator in Eric Brown. As creator of Weird Space, and elaborator of that space in two novels, The Devil’s Nebula and Satan’s Reach, he was the authority – the God of this Universe! His Word was Law. Yet as we outlined the third book, The Baba Yaga, he received every new idea about that universe that I presented with enthusiasm. Even when ideas fell beyond his original conception – for example, my thoughts on the Weird or the Vetch – his response was always: “Hey, let’s try that!” I was given permission to make myself at home. It’s nice to be a minor deity in this pantheon: limping Hephaestus, perhaps, to Eric’s mighty Zeus.

I think that the main difference between writing in this series and writing for licensed series has been the accumulated history of the various universes. My novel The Never-Ending Sacrifice benefits from knowing DS9 pretty well, being a retelling of the war that forms the main story arc of the show from the perspective of the other side. My later DS9 novels are part of a long-standing ‘novel-verse’ (although they are, I hope, written so that a new reader does not feel disorientated or confused). With Weird Space, the series is still new, and there is still a great deal within Eric’s universe to be explored. I hope I’ve taken advantage of that opportunity.

JRR Tolkien, reflecting on his creation, once wrote:

“I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story… I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama” (Letter 131).

While Tolkien does not mention other writers, I took him at his word and I’ve played merrily in his greenwood, for my own entertainment and certainly not for my profit. And to get to work with another author to embroider the tapestry that he has created, and one as welcoming as Eric Brown, is enormous fun.

Weird Space: The Baba Yaga is out now from Abaddon Books




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