What does it mean to live? And does your life have less meaning if you can never die? Edward Ashton aims to answer those questions in his engaging new novel Mickey7. The titular character is what’s known as an Expendable. He can die over and over again and be resurrected. But when he’s resurrected, is it really the same him? That’s the question at the core of the story which was recently announced as Bong Joon-ho’s next movie project. Recently we chatted to Ashton about sci-fi, influences, existential crisis, and the genius of Director Bong.
NERDIST: What was the origin of Mickey7?
EDWARD ASHTON: I actually wrote the first chapter of this book back in 2015. It’s been a long slog, and it’s gone through a number of different iterations. I’ve always been interested in a philosophical problem called the teletransportation paradox. It’s the transporter problem. In Star Trek, you have a transporter and you get dissolved on this end, and then you reappear on the other end. It’s pretty clear that you’re not actually being transported, right? You’re being killed and then they’re making a new you on the other end. And to everybody else, it seems like it’s you. But what is your subjective experience? Is that really you on the other end or are you just dead? And there’s a new you who’s getting his hands all over your stuff?
I first explored that in a short story that I published a number of years ago called Backup. I didn’t feel like I’d really worked my way through the problem in the 3000 words that I had there, so I decided to try a little more of a long form approach. It grew into a novella. My agent shopped it around a little bit. He got some interest from Navah Wolfe, who looked it over and said, “I really like this, but novellas are really hard to sell. Can you make this into a novel?” And he said, “Sure.” And that’s how the manuscript wound up growing to where it is now.
For such a high concept and deep philosophical trappings, it’s really accessible and engaging, which really comes down to Mickey’s voice. Could you talk about finding his voice?
My basic process when I’m writing is very different from what a lot of people do. A lot of people will write about a detailed character sketch for the whole backstory and a bunch of other stuff before they even start writing a book. That’s not how I operate. I tend to get the plot down, get the characters written, and I sort of learn the characters as I go. As they go through different situations, I see how they have to react to move the plot in the way that I need the plot to move. They sort of gain character attributes in that way and their voice develops.
So when I get to the end of the book, I have to go back to the beginning and take a complete editing pass through for each individual character. Adjust their voice, adjust their diction. And with a first person narrative like Mickey, you basically have to rewrite the entire book to make them have a consistent voice. So that’s one of the reasons why this took so long to get done. That’s the process that I follow.
Mickey is an “Expendable.” Could you talk a little bit about that concept?
In any sort of dangerous situation—whether it’s a military expedition or, in this case, an exploration of a new hostile world—there are a lot of things that have to be done. These things are dangerous and perhaps bordering on suicidal. The Expendable is the person who’s designated to take on all those jobs. His personality, his biometrics, and his body plan have been recorded. He can be recreated if he dies. So, from the perspective of the other people in the expedition, there’s really no hazard to letting him die. There’s no problem with it because he just comes back and he’s the same as he was before. So no harm, no foul.
A lot of the meat of the book is “how does that feel for the Expendable?” There’s a conversation early on between Mickey and his girlfriend Nasha where she expresses “I don’t really know how to feel, I saw you die. But now here you are with me. And you look just the same as you did before.” So to her it’s been a seamless transition. To him, it hasn’t. And he struggles with what it means to fill this role. What it means to die again and again, and come back but not really be sure that you’re really the same person you were before. That’s the sort of existential dilemma that he has to struggle with.
Mickey7 walks the line of feeling fresh and unexpected but also familiar. You mentioned Star Trek, but were there any other influences you looked to when writing this story?
Any writer who says that they’re not standing on the shoulders of the people who came before them is lying. We all build on what we read and what we experience in the world. Our writing becomes a synthesis of other people’s work, our own experiences, and our own perspective that we bring to that. One writer who was very influential on me when I was much younger was George RR Martin, pre-Game of Thrones. Before A Song of Ice and Fire, he had a whole series of novels that he wrote, Dying of the Light being the most famous and probably the best of them.
They are set in this sort of far future universe that bears some similarities to the universe that Mickey inhabits. There are a number of different colony worlds. They relate to one another in different ways. There’s some homage being paid to that sort of a universe as an idea in this book, for sure.
Before Mickey7 came out, it was announced that it had been picked up for adaptation by Oscar-winner Bong Joon-ho. How did that feel and what was the process like?
Everything that’s had to do with the movie deal for this book have been total surprises to me. The way I learned that this book was even being offered to anyone in Hollywood was when my agent sent me the press release in Deadline saying it had been picked up. It was entirely bizarre. I cannot express how strange that feeling was. He doesn’t need to involve me. I’m not complaining about that at all! The announcement of Bong Joon-ho and Robert Pattinson, that business that came out on January 19, that also was conveyed to me in a text which contained a link to a press release. That’s how I’ve learned these things.
I’ve had people ask me “are you nervous?” Literally, Director Bong is going to change a lot about the book. When I spoke with him, he made it pretty clear. “You’ve got a 350 page book. I’m gonna have a 120 page script. There’s a lot that’s gonna go.” So my answer is no, I’m not concerned about that at all. In my view, the man’s a genius. I don’t believe he’s ever made a bad film. And I sincerely hope that this isn’t going to be his first.
Mickey7 is out everywhere now.
Featured Image: St. Martin’s Press