Author Jeff Somers discusses The Eternal Prison, the third book in the action-filled Avery Cates science fiction series that combines a noir detective style with a worse-for-the-wear high-tech aesthetic in a dystopian future. Also, read a review of The Eternal Prison.
Pete Dulin: Did you conceive of the idea for the plot of the series (The Electric Church, The Digital Plague, and The Eternal Prison) or the main character Avery Cates first? When did the idea first form?
Somers: Strangely enough, the first version of The Electric Church involved a band of stray kittens struggling to survive in the backwoods of Texas Hill Country, scavenging for food and hiding from demonic, rabid squirrels. For some time I failed to interest anyone in that version of the story, for some reason, despite having created over 500 hand-drawn illustrations. In fact, I believe I somehow inspired the LOL Cat craze, twenty years ago. I plan to sue, as soon as I can figure out who actually own LOL Cats. Ted Turner? Steve Jobs?
Anyway, one day while editing the 3,000-page manuscript I realized the cats had no religion. So I asked myself what kind of religion stray kittens would develop, and clearly it involved cyborgs, eternal life, mind control, and dystopia. So I set about revising.
The Electric Church was originally a standalone story, but I always had a sense of what was going to happen on a macro-scale in the universe. My editor at Orbit suggested there was more to tell about Avery, and after a little thought I agreed—the opportunity to tell a story against the backdrop of a declining universe was too good to pass up. I had the original concept first and the character was an organic extension of the universe, I thought, filtered through old noir detective novels.
Dulin: How did you develop the character of Avery Cates? Where there role models or a specific persona that you wanted to project?
Somers: Naturally, I used myself circa ten years old, known in Hudson County, New Jersey as my “bully” years, when I terrorized the neighborhood kids into giving me their allowances. Ah, good times.
Then I turned to old detective novels—Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett—and altered as necessary for the world Avery lived in. I wanted that dry, black humor, and I wanted that sense of a man who had no real special abilities, but was physically effective simply because he wasn’t afraid to get hurt and knew how to hurt people in turn. I’ve always thought that’s more powerful than superpowers.
Dulin: Avery Cates is an anti-hero who kills for a living and exists with a perpetual target on his back, but he still operates by a self-imposed code of honor. In the decayed state of the world he lives in with pervasive global governance, a police state, and the general bleakness of the surrounding people and places he encounters, is there a moral relativity to the jobs that he performs that involve violence?
Somers: Absolutely not, and he knows it, on some level. This is why we beat Avery up as often as possible: He’s a bad man. He deserves to be beaten up. And he punishes himself for being a bad man, too. He knows he doesn’t deserve better.
It’s fun, you know, having a character you can mercilessly torture.
Dulin: Many heroes have a weakness that makes them more accessible and human, not so omnipotent and capable. Indiana Jones has a fear of snakes. Superman’s weakness is kryptonite. Cates has a bum leg that impedes him as a physical weakness in a life that’s physically demanding. Does he have a psychological weakness?
Somers: Cates’ leg isn’t conceived as a pat “weakness” – in fact, he’s physically fine when the first book begins. I don’t like stories where the universe/protagonist remain unchanged forever, and sometimes the “weakness” is an example of that—Indy Jones will be afraid of snakes forever, but will never have a limp despite his death-defying antics.
I barely break a sweat in my real life and I’m aching all over, so I figured a guy like Cates, who’s malnourished, has no health care, and spends his days dodging knives and bullets and jumping out of crashing hovers is gonna get a little dented in the process. I try to keep track of his wear and tear a little—which includes his advancing age in a world where thirty is considered old—and at least give a nod to it from time to time.
Dulin: Can you share some thoughts on how you render the setting for these stories? It is set in the future, but doesn’t feel inconceivable that these places exist.
Somers: It’s sort of a “two weeks in the future” idea—obviously there’s some distance between now and then, but I definitely conceived of it as part of our timeline. The technology is advanced but I tried to extrapolate from existing concepts, and other aspects of the world have declined rather than advanced. I also like playing with subversions—the concept of Unification came from the idea of World Peace, or One World—everyone assumes world peace is a good thing. What if it isn’t? What if world peace was The System?
So, The System always starts in this world, and then I hit the fast forward button. Do things just disappear? Usually not. Buildings stand for centuries, cities remain largely unchanged for decades. Some systems get replaced, and some systems just get worse and worse. I just have fun with it. My guiding principles are: One, if it chiefly benefits the poor or middle class, it’s in ruins, if it chiefly benefits the rich, it’s pristine and modern; and Two, the older and more essential it is, the less likely anyone’s remembers how to maintain it properly.
Dulin: What do you have against female characters? There have been a number of interesting women in the stories – Cates’ protégé Gleason in The Digital Plague, Marlena in The Eternal Prison. None of them fair too well. Is Cates destined to not have romantic aspirations while he’s dodging bullets and System pigs?
Somers: Everyone wants Cates married. Well, my wife, editor, agent and various others at my publisher—all women—want him married, or at least in love. I fear I’m losing half my potential audience. Maybe I should at least introduce a puppy that Cates can carry around.
I don’t have anything against female characters. People near Cates—at least people who aren’t also competent killers—tend to die at a startling rate. Hell, in The Digital Plague just about anyone who comes within a few feet of him dies. So it’s really just the fact that Cates is attracted to interesting women that causes their sad demise.
As for romance, I’ve never been convinced that Cates lives in a world conducive to romance. He’s always murdering and fighting for survival. If I’m running from cops and strangling people with my bare hands, I’m pretty sure relationships would be far from my mind. That’s why the relationships Cates does form—Gleason and Marlena—occur when he’s got “down time,” when he’s not racing around dodging bullets.
Dulin: Each book in the Avery Cates series is action-packed, full of unexpected twists and developments, and an equally intriguing cast of supporting characters. Can you elaborate on how you move the plot forward from chapter to chapter by working in cliffhangers of different scale?
Somers: Thanks for the compliments! It’s a rhythm. Every chapter ends on a “beat”. Sometimes this is just a witty line of dialog (at least a line I think is witty), sometimes it’s a “da-da-dum” kind of moment. This stems from the long-ago origins of the book, which was originally going to be a serial on a web page, with new chapters posted each week. So it was natural to go with an old-school serial kind of format, a sort of “Tune in Next Week” vibe.
It works incredibly well. Every story, after all, can be divided up into a series of small stories. All I do is wait for the natural beat in each vignette and hit a hard return.
Dulin: What surprises you most about the character and this series now that you’ve written three books with a fourth, The Terminal State, on the way?
Somers: One, how easy it is to imagine the world ending in slow motion around Cates—The System is going to hell, and nothing’s going to stop that now. It’s exhilarating to plan how it’s going to fall apart, and what that means for Cates.
I’ve been a little surprised at how much people like Cates. He’s charming, sure, but he’s also a bad person. Despite his code of honor, he abandons people, kills people, and no matter what horrors he’s performed he manages to still like himself enough to stay alive. It just seems to me that if you met Avery in real life you’d stay as far away from him as possible, yet he’s popular.
Dulin: If I recall correctly, the first two books are told in a straightforward sequential manner. The Eternal Prison bounces between different timelines and plot points. Why switch it up?
Somers: The question is, why not? Once I decided on the central plot element in The Eternal Prison, I knew I wanted to mimic some of the disorientation that Cates feels for the reader. I wanted to generate a sense of disjointedness and I wanted the reader to share in that moment of sick realization when everything comes together.
Dulin: F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack series is up to seventeen or more books in that series. Do you envision a final installment in this series with a logical conclusion? Or will the adventures of Cates continue as long as there’s demand and the money keeps trickling in?
Somers: Right now I have through book five planned (book four is actually written!) and no plans beyond that. Book five will wrap up things that have been brewing over all of the books, and provide a logical cadence for the overall story.
It’s not just interest/money—you do need to have inspiration. I think Avery’s got lots of stories left in him, but I’m trying to adhere to some sense of time passing and realistic wear and tear; Avery’s going to be older and beat up when book five concludes, and the universe he exists in will be changed in many important ways. Will it make sense that he continues having this sort of life, or does Avery retire and drink himself to death peacefully?
It boils down to, if I had a great idea I’d probably write it, heck, I’d probably write it even if no one wanted to publish it. If I have an idea I’m excited about, I pursue it, period.
Dulin: How did you begin the publishing relationship with Orbit?
Somers: Originally, The Electric Church was sold to a web publisher called Another Chapter, which, as I said, planned to publish it as a serial. They didn’t last long. The editor I’d been assigned was Lili Saintcrow, author of the Jill Kismet series among many others. Lili kicked my ass up and down on that book, editing the hell out of it, and when AC went under she sent the book to her editor at Warner Books.
Her editor loved it and bought it, and then jumped from Warner to Orbit, and took me (and Lili) with her. So now her editor is my editor too.
Dulin: Is there an Avery Cates film in the works?
Somers: We’ve sold an option. I don’t know if it will turn into an actual movie. Strangely, despite my complete lack of film-making experience and insistence that I would be a great lead actor, no one seems to want my direct involvement in the film. It’s insulting, really. I have some fantastic ideas about getting the kittens back into the story.
Somers: About me: I like Scotch and accept free drinks gratefully, and if you live too far away to take me to a bar they make airline-sized bottles of booze and I’ve had success with people mailing them to me by way of buying me a drink. I encourage this.
About my work: I don’t just write Sci Fi; my first novel, Lifers, was a mainstream thriller/mystery, and my short story Ringing the Changes was chosen for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2006. I’ll also have a short story in the Mystery Writers of America’s 2010 anthology, edited by Charlaine Harris. Plus, I publish a zine, The Inner Swine which is a collection of poorly researched and largely unedited essays about whatever’s on my mind. I’ve been publishing it since 1995, in fact, and we’re closing in on 60 issues.
Avery Cates is not meant to be a likeable character, according to author Jeff Somers. Who roots for a hired killer, the most famous gunner in a dystopian future? Compared to a corrupt global government, brutal System Security Force, and devious power mongers, Cates has a rough-and-tumble charm. After bringing about the downfall of an organized religion that turns its followers into zombies in The Electric Church and surviving a bioengineered disaster known as The Digital Plague, hard-drinking, curse-uttering, weapon-wielding Cates finds himself an incarcerated man at Chengara Penitentiary in The Eternal Prison. Maybe it’s his instinct for survival or his code of honor or the fact that he has lived to the age of 30––a life span considered old by most standards in the broken shambles of this near future world––but Cates is a compelling anti-hero (read: not admirable) that is captivating to follow on his techno-noir adventures.
Jeff Somers’ page-turning series invokes the dark elements and atmosphere of noir detective novels and worse-for-the-wear science fiction where the high tech future isn’t necessarily better. Technology is a labor saving device, mostly in service of the baser aspects of human nature and behavior to kill, subjugate, imprison, hoard valuable information, and exert power over others. Rather than a gleaming, promising world of tomorrow, Somers concocts a place where things break down, communication devices are squirrelly, people aren’t to be trusted, and transportation isn’t reliable. Kind of like life now on a really bad day with little hope for improvement. Finding food is difficult, consuming booze is a sketchy endeavor, scratching out a living means not getting beat down by System pigs.
Cates looks out for his interests – health, sanity, cash flow – while facing a cascade of challenges and tight spots in The Eternal Prison without the aid of superpowers, overwhelming firepower, or saves-the-day technological solutions. Rather, he gets by on fists and wits. He’s conniving and savvy but doesn’t have all the answers; he’s physically aggresive but doesn’t dodge every blow; he’s diehard persistent but gets the raw end of the deal more often than he cares to remember.
Somers writes with an economical style full of grit, grime, and gruffness that reflect the environs of Cates. Who knew such a battered main character and dire world could be evoked with brawny eloquence? The fast-paced action and violence (killing others before getting killed) is not gratuitious; these elements serve a purpose in a postmodern Darwinian struggle. Going it alone when able, keeping shifty allies close at hand, and knocking off threats is Cates’ best bet to keep breathing in a post-Unification world where nothing works for the benefit of the people.
Whether trodding on foot or zooming on a creaky hover, Cates traverses Las Vegas, New York, Moscow, and desolate wastelands that are more of a semblance of place than a scenic backdrop. Cates is more concerned with exit strategies and escape routes, especially in Chengara prison where he’s stuck with a motley crew to plot and execute plans for freedom and revenge in a place with a survival rate of zero.
Unlike the previous two books in the series, Somers strays from a fairly sequential storytelling style to shift between multiple timelines and plot points. When the action and key revelations converge, the story shifts into high gear. The Eternal Prison is a bit disorienting at first and readers need to keep alert about some basic conventions – who’s who, where, when, and what’s happening. This disorientation is by design, echoing Cates’ senses and state of mind.
Somers populates the book with an equally vivid cast of supporting characters in prison and on the outside vying for power. Characters from the previous books figure into major and minor plot points here along with fresh faces to keep things lively.
The Eternal Prison is a thrilling read that continues to entertain and extends the series without falling into a formulaic pattern. Avery Cates is one of the most exciting and original characters to appear in a long time. Complex, focused, and driven, Cates faces choices, applies his code, and behaves suitably in a grim world where morals are relative to survival.
Originally printed in Present Magazine, April 2011.