During my first couple years of attending various comic conventions, I never went anywhere without my sketchbook. It doesn’t have a single drawing by me between its frayed black covers, but there’s a whole page of Groo characters by Sergio Aragones, a Catwoman by Jim Lee (with graffiti by Brian Azzarello), and enough Josie and the Pussycats to make you seriously doubt my sanity. The sketchbook is the common way for attendees to count coup, to prove to others that, yeah, we were there and we shook hands with so-and-so one time. When you meet an artist at a show, they’ll often do a sketch for you, some for free, some for a price that ranges from the reasonable to the “fuck me, how about a kidney instead?” Generally, they take the book, ask “what would you like?” (unless they’re Bruce Timm, and then you’ll get Batman and like it), and spend a moment paging through to get a look at what other high-profile scalps you’ve collected. When they flipped through mine, every artist paused on a Nightcrawler done with simple pencil lines, and with a touch of awe asked me, “Who did this?”
“A friend of mine,” I would say.
He’s easily one of the best artists I’ve ever met, and I’ve met most of the great artists in comic art. So when, many years ago, he asked me if I wanted to do a pulp magazine, my only response was an enthusiastic hell yes. There were four of us, two writers and two artists, and the plan was to have the writers put out short stories and novellas, while the artists provided illustrations. The hope was to create something like Conan or the Cthulhu Mythos for the modern age. Unfortunately, for as brilliant an artist as my friend is, he is also incredibly frustrating to work with. He draws at his own speed, and often gets hung up on a single thing in a picture, so you’ll have this amazing full page drawing that’s totally done except one guy doesn’t have feet. And it stays that way. Forever.
One of the two major series I was working on for the magazine was The Hand of Tyr stories, about a crew of space pirates plying the void during a galactic dark age. It took place long after earth was a memory, after the fall of the first great interstellar human civilization, and the subsequent rise of different feudal powers. It was intended to be pulpy and fun, but with an underlying grit. Each story would star a different member of the crew, and explore the ways a different genre melded with science fiction as well as give a detailed look at a new planet and civilization. The first tale was called “The Hand of Tyr” and was about the race to an abandoned factory world. The second was a novella called “Subspace.”
It was my first real attempt to write noir, which has since become something of a trademark. It clocked in at about 20,000 words, and when I was finished, I felt like I really had something. It was the first thing I had ever written that I actually liked and wanted to show off. As the dream of the magazine fell apart, I decided I didn’t want to lose the work I’d put in. No one was interested in buying a novella from a nobody, but a book might be a different story. After reading Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere, I started to understand how to craft a real noir plot, and with his lessons in mind, added 60,000 words to the manuscript. One of the biggest internal hurdles I had to clear was the impulse to save something for the sequel. I would show every little bit of the zero-gravity world of Hinden, because, in science fiction, as soon as you go back to an established planet, you make your universe smaller. I wanted to avoid the trap of Star Wars where we visit the same allegedly distant backwater of Tatooine in five of the six films.
Nerve Zero (thankfully retitled by my publisher, because Subspace was a working title that held on for far too long) stars Idriel Ramirez, the pilot of the pirate vessel. I had the idea of someone who was such a brilliant pilot because he thinks in three dimensions instead of two, someone born to the weightless void of space. The zeroes, inhabitants of several thousand year old space stations, were my solution. I imagined Ramirez to be utterly helpless in normal gravity, suffocating like a landed fish. The culture evolved from there, as I realized that things we take for granted — concepts like “up” and “down” for starters — would be completely meaningless to the zeroes.
Everything had to be made with a lack of gravity in mind. The weapons came from the fact that I didn’t want these people punching holes in their planet whenever someone had a disagreement. The money had holes in it because I didn’t want it floating away. Beds were hammocks you tied yourself to. Doors emerged from floors or ceilings because it just didn’t matter. It was a fun thought exercise to engage in, although it did make me seasick at times.
I don’t remember when I decided Hinden was an occupied world, but it quickly defined the planet. The press gangs — the harts — were intended as a way for hinds to carry licensed firearms, sort of the equivalent of the classic noir use of the private-investigator-as-a-thug. I was enamored of the old uses of press gang for navies and figured that in a new dark age, the practice might show up again. It also created the dynamic of honor and shame, where being a hart was a good, powerful, and well-paying job, but carried no respect, and becoming pressed was common for pilots but the source of great disgrace.
The mystery itself is classic Find the Girl noir, and is the framework to take the reader on a tour of Hinden. The biggest challenge there was my main character. Ramirez was an insider, so interesting or odd things about the planet would be normal to him, and he wouldn’t necessarily call attention to any of it. It’s why so many authors do the smarter thing and have an outsider as narrator. I had to create a sense of wonder when, to Ramirez, everything was totally normal.
The language is extremely harsh. This was entirely intentional. There’s nothing that annoys me more in science fiction where censors force baby talk into the mouths of supposedly tough characters. Whenever someone on the Galactica said “frak,” my teeth hurt. So while I would create a slang for hinds, I wanted their swearing to be just as harsh as ours is. This is not realistic, since even modern cultures vary widely in what is considered obscene, but in this case I was fine with it.
I haven’t left this universe. I am thirty thousand words into a sequel about another world that’s as different as possible from Hinden. But don’t worry… eventually we’ll make it back to that dented, battered sphere. Give me some time.