I can remember the exact moment when I got the idea for Sky Pirates. I was reading one of Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian books, The Gods Of Mars. I came across his descriptions of the savage green men and, of course, I thought of orcs. For some reason, from then on the idea of Burroughs Green Men and orcs became conjoined in my mind. My brain was filled with the idea of orcish hordes rampaging across the desiccated landscapes of a dying world not unlike Barsoom.
Thuvia, Maid of Mars is one of the very first SF novels I can remember reading as a small kid. I can still picture the cover (by Bruce Pennington I think) in my mind. It had a very scantily clad Thuvia and a Thark on it. It made a lasting impression on me. There’s something very primal about Burroughs work that certainly appealed to me as a child– the wish-fulfilment fantasy element of being an earth-gravity superman on a different planet, the flying ships, the ruined cities haunted by white apes and over-run by the migratory hordes of Green Men. You cannot write SF like that any more, of course, and I’ve always had a hankering to. Even when Burroughs was writing it, one hundred years ago, it was not terribly realistic and now it is purest fantasy. And that was the key the green men gave me. I thought you can’t write SF like that but you could write a fantasy novel.
The idea excited me. At first it was simply my intention to transpose a Burroughs setting to fantasy. It was going to be a dying world of embattled city states with hordes of orcs in the deserts. The flying ships would be powered by magic. The warriors would be lightly armoured swash-bucklers just as they are on Barsoom, but in this case it is because they are protected by magical deflection shields like those in Dune. As I kept writing other desert world fantasies kept infecting my brain. Magic made me think of Vance’s wonderful Dying Earth stories and Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique so elements of those crept in. The attitude and speech style of the wizards began to resemble those of Vance’s self-centred, peacock mages. The morality came to reflect the decadence of Smith’s lushly creepy fin de siecle fantasies. Zothique made me think of the evocative Bruce Pennington paintings on Smith’s books which reminded me of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun which the artist also did the UK covers for. Necromancy snuck in. Mars got me thinking of Leigh Brackett’s noir tributes to Burrough’s Mars and hero Ulrik began to resemble one of her cynical, damaged, romantic protagonists. Other far future images invaded my mind. The cat-girl Rhea could have stepped straight out of Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality.
The world began to mutate away from a simple Burroughs pastiche under all these influences. This was an ancient world where astonishingly powerful magic had once been worked. It had, like Vance’s world, been invaded many times by legions of demons. Magic was used to power amazing flying ships and to do many other things. Magical technology snuck in. This was a world where people could have demonic body parts grafted to their bodies, and demonic organs transplanted within. Shades of cyberpunk! Flying ships got me to thinking about Final Fantasy, my favourite ever series of Japanese role-playing games, which got me to thinking about all the anime I had watched since back in the 80’s. The post-Apocalyptic landscapes of Fist of the North Star and Genesis Survivor Gaearth provided me with more visual inspiration.
Flying ships also made me think of sky pirates which gave me the title and once I had the title I figured the central character would need to be a sky pirate. Enter Ulrik, once a sky pirate captain now captured and sentenced to death in the arena (I had to do it– how often did that happen to John Carter.) Being a sky pirate, Ulrik is a considerably darker character than John Carter though. I decided I did not want to soften or glamourise his deeds, so his backstory is quite brutal. I liked the Vancian wizards so Ulrik swiftly found himself embroiled in the schemes of the sinister Valerius, a self-important dandy with great magical skills who needs his services as a bodyguard and a guide to the city of the sky pirates. Rhea, the cat-girl, Valerius’s henchwoman became another important character as the story progressed. And progress it did. I knew I wanted to do an action-adventure tale in the Burrough’s mode and I knew I wanted it to feature glorious air-battles and hair’s breadth escapes. Everything raced along at a breakneck pace as our not-terribly-heroic heroes try to thwart the mad schemes of the half-demon sorcerer Molok. I had a rousing good time writing the book and I hope it shows.