Interview: Rex Burke, author of the Odyssey Earth series
Read Fantasy Book Critic‘s review of Orphan Planet, book one in the Odyssey Earth series here
Buy Orphan Planet, book one in the Odyssey Earth series here
Pre-order Twin Landing, book two in the Odyssey Earth series here
Thank you for taking the time to talk to us! Welcome back to the Fantasy Book Critic. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, and your upcoming series, Odyssey Earth?
I’m a debut SciFi author, but a long-time writer in another genre – maybe ‘veteran’ is actually the word, seeing as I published my first book in the, erm, 20 th century…and not even in the very late-90s, let’s put it that way. Anyway, if you’re into travel writing and trains, or have ever bought a Rough Guide to places like Barcelona, Sicily, or the Lake District, you can probably figure out who I really am. But I wanted to keep the books and genres separate, so for the SciFi I’m Rex – and I’m growing into him, or he’s growing into me, it’s difficult to say.
Feel-good space adventure – with teenagers!
In the same vein, what three adjectives would you choose to describe the Odyssey Earth series?
Hopeful, kind, uplifting
While this is your first foray into science fiction, this is not your first book. Throughout my read, I marvelled at how well the book was written, and it’s clear that your experience has transferred well to this. In what ways did you approach writing this similarly, and in what ways was it different?
Oddly perhaps, I started writing SciFi with exactly the same approach as I use in my narrative travel writing (not the guidebooks, that would have just been weird – ‘Jordan discovered a hidden gem of a planet, and enjoyed a meal of freshly foraged space apples. Service was adequate.’) I wanted the book to be an enjoyable, easy read – and I don’t mean ‘easy’ in a pejorative sense. An early reviewer saw exactly what my intention was when they said that reading Orphan Planet was ‘like settling down for a drink with an old friend.’ That’s it, right there – and it’s what people say about my most popular travel books, like ‘Not Cool’.
With Orphan Planet, I had to start with a blank page, and as it turns out, that’s quite hard.
I think the book was tightly edited, and extremely lean, but conveyed what it had to brilliantly. Can you give us an insight into your editing process?
I, for one, am extremely glad that you chose to write sci-fi, your book ticked every box I have at the moment. What brought on this story, and how did you decide who to approach, and share it with early?
Teenagers are at the heart of this story, and I’ve had two of my own. Teenagers are fabulous, with hearts of gold – but also hilarious, annoying, self-conscious, know-it-alls. I just had to put them in space, contrive a situation where they wouldn’t be comfortable, and sit back and watch what happened. I had a very specific incident from my own teenagers’ life that was the spark for the entire series – a disastrous Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme camping trip. So I stole that for Orphan Planet and everything just unfolded from there. I shared a few early chapters with a couple of writer friends, who encouraged me that it was worth continuing. And when I had a first draft, that went out to a small team of beta readers – basically, people I knew from social media who’d shown an interest. That really helped tighten and shape the story – there are definitely things in the finished book that wouldn’t be there without their input. I’ve now got a select but strong group of readers who are working their way through the next two in series, and who seem to be as invested as I am in the story, so that’s amazing!
While you have been traditionally published, you are self-publishing this. How has your journey been, and if you were to reflect on how things have been in the lead unto launch date, what actions did you take that helped, and that do you hope to improve on, for future books, that other authors can also benefit from knowing?
After I left guidebook writing, I self-published quite a few travel books, so I knew what I was doing by the time I got to launch Orphan Planet – or, at least, I knew the theory. My travel stuff has appeared in a piecemeal fashion over the years – standalone books, starting off doing my own covers etc, before I realised I needed a much more professional approach. So I took all the stuff I’ve learned and really tried to ramp it up for the SciFi books. That meant knowing it was going to be a series published in reasonably quick succession, writing the sequel (and some of Book 3) before even publishing Book 1, getting artwork and branding sorted well in advance, and setting up a website and social media presence.
That’s a lot of work, quite apart from the writing, but I think it’s crucial if you’re going to give your book the best chance to succeed. You often only get one chance to hook a reader – whether it’s the cover art, your website home page, or what you do on social media – so I really wanted everything to be as professional as it could be. Ideally, I want my self- published book to appear indistinguishable from a trad-pub version. I also self-edit and proofread, but as well as running it past my beta team, I did have Orphan Planet professionally proofread. All these things cost money, and I’ve spent more on producing this book than anything else I have self-published. Obviously, that’s a personal call – while I think you should strive for professionalism, it has to be up to each author to decide where they are going to devote their resources.
I’ve tried to be active on social media, with a presence that isn’t just about promoting my own work – no one wants to see that daily. But I’d say this is my weakest presence, and it’s the hardest thing to do right for any writer. I know I should be on Instagram and TikiTok, and active on Discord, but the truth is I don’t use those platforms – and I think that would be obvious if I joined in. I keep to what I know, which is Twitter, Facebook and my website, and just bang away there. So if anyone wants to TikiTok me, or whatever the young people say, feel free to get in touch…
The setting of the book is an alternate present in our world (or space). How did you settle on this, and what can you tell potential readers about it?
This is pure laziness on my part. Basically, I wanted to be able to make jokes about music, films and events without setting the book in the future and then having to make up all sorts of bands’ names and film genres. I’m also of a certain age – and I wanted all the jokes about music and films to be about the music and films I’m familiar with. It was funny to me to write that Reeves, the AI, has deleted all the Nicholas Cage films in the archive, in case the ship ever came into contact with judgmental aliens. Or that Reeves rebooted himself, only to find that he had a pre-installed U2 album that he didn’t want. Those jokes just wouldn’t work if I had to make up an actor and band that had no resonance. Of course, if you’re twenty-something, I apologise for all the grandad-era jokes.
And actually, once the first half of Orphan Planet is out of the way, the whole alternate-present thing just kind of disappears, because then we’re fully in the actual present.
This is interesting, because although the whole ‘orphan’ concept was integral to the book from the start, the parent-child-family stuff really did evolve as I wrote. Beta readers pointed out elements that I really hadn’t thought about, and that I then expanded upon or refined.
I’d say the book(s) evolved in another way too, again relating to the relationships that I was writing about. I suppose my influences at the start were fairly clear – Douglas Adams, Red Dwarf, maybe a bit of Gaiman and Pratchett – but it was never going to be a straight comedy. I find a lot of such SciFi books to be quite forced in their humour – like everything has to be amusing, and the characters are simply not believable. But I found myself realising more and more that my characters were acquiring emotional heft. It was my proudest moment so far when of my betas said I’d made them cry. That’s perfect – that’s what I want, laughing and crying. And the fart jokes.
As to what’s coming, I can promise a proper villain in Book 2, and satisfying endings for everyone that we care about. The parent-child-family dynamics will be resolved, and everyone gets something they want – it is feel-good SciFi after all.
Orphan Planet has been received very well by readers. Can you share your feelings about this?
Thank you for answering all these questions! If there is one thing you’d like our readers to take away from this interview, what would it be?
Two things, really, though I don’t think they will be news to your readers and followers. The first is that this indie-trad divide means less and less these days – there are some awesome indie books out there, with people setting really high bars. From the outset, I never thought there was anything second-best about my book, and that’s certainly true of many other indie authors I can think of.
And two, I really hope my book can be a kind of gateway or crossover book for people who think they don’t like SciFi. It’s set in space, sure, but it’s a character-driven story about found family, growing up, finding your way, and being kind. Ultimately, that’s how I’d like people to recommend it to other readers.