It’s not time for a final assessment of the Jack Commer, Supreme Commander series, but after completing the first draft of the seventh and (probably) last book, I’m beginning to reflect on the long journey from The Martian Marauders to Balloon Ship Armageddon. Space captain Jack Commer has been with me since September 1962, first appearing in four of the thirty-four science fiction stories in my fifth grade Blue Notebook. He and his three brothers then starred in my first attempt at a novel, Spring 1964’s Trip to Mars, and then the unfinished eighth grade draft of The Martian Marauders, a book which I happily rediscovered, completed and rewrote as a modern novel decades later.
I refrained from sprinkling self-serving promotional links into the above paragraph, but we need to get them out of the way or else I’ll have to repeat all that content here.
The idea for a seventh book to conclude the series originated with Jack’s wife Amav’s declaration at the end of Book Six, The SolGrid Rebellion, that she and Jack ought to mount a search for their traitorous son Jonathan James, who’s just been rendered into a million pieces of jagged glass by a Martian shattergun but, still alive, has been reconstituted as one-third of a solid chromium pyramid. Apparently Jonathan James is heading to a star thirty-four light years away to seek assistance from the deadly Wounded race of artistic exterminators Jack has been battling for the last two books. But there was no plot beyond that, which Jack and Amav both lamented in their blog interviews with me this spring.
I’m not killing off main characters in Seven, or otherwise making an Eight impossible, as, who knows, I may want to compose Eight a few decades from now. I think I’ll relax more working on this novel if I leave this option open. The thought of permanently abandoning some characters like Dar or Kner or Suzette Borman is hard. Worse is the idea of merely tossing them into the seventh book to “resolve them all” as Heinlein did to his galaxy of characters at the end of The Number of the Beast–very tired writing there.
It may be that you’re doing yourself a favor by not writing sequels and returning to the same characters. The often-delivered line from authors, “And then the characters spoke to me and told me their story wasn’t over,” etc. etc., could also be a way of staying comfortable with an arts-and-crafts level of consciousness. Consider Dostoyevsky exploring many of the same themes in new books but always extending them with fresh characters and plot; dynamic beings like Raskolnikov, Rogozhin, or Dmitri Karamazov may share similar forces, but they have wholly unique life stories behind them.
Am I writing fan fiction of my own work? Easy to grab onto Kirk and Spock and run with them, eh?
So the seventh Jack Commer warily sidled up to this concept of continuing characters. But somehow an unusual warm-up for the novel, involving twelve major characters confronting the end of the series, resolved the issue. I decided to interview them in depth, and their responses poured out effortlessly, at a final 22,956 words just the right length. These interviews, with a mix of new characters and old, all understanding this was most likely their final night on stage, infused the coming novel with energy and insight.
I published the interviews on the blog earlier this year, before I began writing Draft 1, and will tastefully not link back to them, unwilling to overdose the reader with even more marketing hooks to my glorious writing skills. But I spoke with:
- Rick Ballard, bombastic, ego-saturated seducer, 4/26/18
- T’ohj’puv, ancient tetrahedral robot for creating Martian Empress gowns, 4/30/18
- Jonathan James Commer, Jack’s troubled, insecure son, 5/1/18
- Amy Nortel, Wounded doctor and Jack’s old high school English teacher, 5/2/18
- Jack Commer, Supreme Commander, United System Space Force, 5/7/18
- Amav Frankston-Commer, Jack’s wife and planetary engineer, 5/9/18
- Waterfall Sequence, cloudlike entity of the Ywritt race at the star Iota Persei, 5/11/18
- Ranna Kikken Commer, Joe’s Commer’s wife and negotiator with the Ywritt, 5/13/18
- Joe Commer, Jack’s brother, Deputy Supreme Commander, and perennial sidekick, 5/15/18
- Jackie Vespertine, Ranna’s sister, Joe’s former femme fatale, and influential exobiologist, 5/17/18
- Laurie Lachrer 283, insolent robot seeking to supplant the human she’s modeled after, 5/19/18
- Laurie Lachrer, the human version, Jack’s new genius physician/engineer, 5/21/18
One purpose in declaring this the last Jack Commer novel was to open psychic space for completely new writing after Book Seven. While the daily self may quail at not being up to such a task, deeper levels know there’s a vast unknown novel waiting, a blank at this moment despite recent unproductive idea strip mining experiments. But in any case I’m certain “space opera” isn’t my fate.
But at the end of Draft 1 I found myself semi-consciously loading in teasers to a future Jack Commer novel: four deadly Wounded Class A human robots are still at large, and Jack and six series comrades have just embarked on a dangerous mission to the multidimensional Uninhabitable Sphere of leftover karmic crap from the beginning of the universe. Those unresolved plot bits can both end the series and invite speculation for a sequel that nevertheless doesn’t demand to be written. A good place to be.
Though I’ve been reluctant to do so, I decided it was time to reread the entire Jack Commer series. I think I was mainly worried about the quality of the first book, since I hadn’t reread it in years, and I wasn’t eager to discover typos in Four through Six, which I haven’t reread since publication, And there are always typos. An obvious reason for rereading is to make sure the final book doesn’t contradict the others–though, armed with insanely long facts, character, and chronology files, I’m not expecting much in the way of that. But I also hope to find some new insight for Balloon Ship Armageddon.
Then a couple nights ago came the happy rediscovery of the excellent first paragraph of The Martian Marauders, and I’m finding Book One to be a solid and enjoyable story, one which retains the free-flowing kid logic of its abandoned eighth grade draft. Sure, there are some stylistic changes I’d make, as I’ve honed my writing skills on subsequent novels, and there’s really nothing like publication to force you out of the rut of old styles you’ve been attached to. There’s definitely been a lot of growth through these seven books.
As this decades-long series begins, with Typhoon I orbiting dead planet Earth:
The five hundred-mile-wide crater had been thoroughly radar-mapped, though nobody had ever seen it. They all knew the ground was still burning eight months later. Copilot Joe Commer looked away. Imagine the red-orange lava beneath all that soot.
copyright 2018 by Michael D. Smith