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L. Neil Smith's
Number 761, March 9, 2014

Don't You Know There is a War On?

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Fannish Interview with Alongside Night author/filmmaker, J. Neil Schulman
conducted by J. Kent Hastings

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Special to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise

J. Neil Schulman wrote the award-winning 1979 s-f novel Alongside Night then after writing for CBS's revived 1980's Twilight Zone and writing, producing, and directing Nichelle Nichols in the award-winning 2009 indie action-comedy, Lady Magdalene's, has now written, produced, and directed the new feature film, Alongside Night, based on his novel, just being released into movie theaters. Alongside Night stars Kevin Sorbo (Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda), Said Faraj (Ghost, Sinbad: The Fifth Voyage), Jake Busey (Starship Troopers, Contact), Tim Russ and Garrett Wang (Star Trek Voyager), Gary Graham (Alien Nation, Star Trek Enterprise), Sam Sorbo (Hercules: The Legendary Journeys) and Valence Thomas (Men in Black 3). The interview was conducted by Lady Magdalene's and Alongside Night producer, J. Kent Hastings, also co-author with Brad Linaweaver of the 2004 alternate-history novel, Anarquia, just re-released via Amazon Kindle.

Q: Neil, we've worked together on two movies that have featured actors known for starring roles on various Star Trek shows and—in the case of Kevin Sorbo—on another Gene Roddenberry show, Andromeda. Nichelle Nichols from Star Trek: The Original Series starred in Lady Magdalene's. Tim Russ and Garrett Wang from Star Trek Voyager have principal roles in Alongside Night, as does Gary Graham who was Vulcan Ambassador Soval on Star Trek Enterprise. I'm assuming the Trek connection isn't a coincidence.

A: I'm an unashamed Trekkie. I'm not even going to take that term as insulting and demand I be called a Trekker. I watched Star Trek beginning in its original NBC network broadcasts. I was thirteen when Star Trek first came on in 1966 and watched regularly. I remember doing a 9th grade history class report about the 3rd season episode "Bread and Circuses" in which a parallel-world Roman Empire survives into its equivalent of the 20th century.

But Star Trek isn't where science-fiction begins for me. I started out with TV shows like Superman and Rocky Jones Space Ranger then followed up reading Superman comics which had a lot of science- fiction plot-lines—parallel universes and the like. I was reading Heinlein's young adult novels by fourth grade. C.S. Lewis's Narnia books read to me like science-fiction more than fantasy and I was hooked on them, too. I was watching Twilight Zone, Science Fiction Theater, Outer Limits, and One Step Beyond before I got to Star Trek. So science-fiction in both print and dramatic media have influenced me from the beginning.

Q: Some have said Alongside Night itself reads like a Heinlein juvenile.

A: Sure. And to me that's high praise. Virginia Heinlein gave me editorial notes on my early drafts of the manuscript and Jerry Pournelle also did on my penultimate draft. I acknowledge the Heinlein influence in the novel when I have my youthful protagonist Elliot Vreeland reading one of my favorite Heinlein YA's, Between Planets—and Elliot checks into a hotel using the name of the hero of that novel, Don Harvey. If I had any specific literary goal in Alongside Night it was to see if the kind of story Heinlein set in future centuries and on other planets could be told in the recognizable near-contemporary landscape of the New York City I was living in when I started writing the novel—in many ways the same landscape of my favorite non-sf novel, The Catcher in the Rye. I very much saw Elliot alone in New York as retracing some of the steps of Holden Caulfield. And I've joked that someday I'd write a novel halfway between Salinger and Heinlein titled The Catcher in the Sky. In many ways Alongside Night is already that hybrid.

Q: You moved the story from New York City to Las Vegas for the movie.

A: That decision was made for budget reasons more than anything else, but I found fun ways to make the relocation of the action work.

Q: Getting back to the Star Trek influences. In your mind is Star Trek libertarian?

A: Many libertarians are critical of Star Trek because the Federation begins with a one-world government on earth and Star Fleet projects Terran military power the same way that the United States has projected its military power. In many ways the conflict between the Federation and the Klingon Empire in the original series is just a shadow of the Cold War between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. But what I like about Gene Roddenberry's vision is his rare combination of utopian ideals and cynical realism. Captain Kirk is an anarchist in command of a starship. For him Star Fleet regulations and orders from Star Fleet Command are guidelines to be ignored whenever they interfere with his own humanistic conscience. The Enterprise under Kirk's command is just shy of being a pirate ship, and the only reason he gets away with it is that Star Fleet figures out that without Kirk's audacity their goose would have been cooked repeatedly. Star Trek is, for the most part, excellent writing, up to the story telling of the best of the literary s-f writers. There are definitely libertarian ideas to be found. And while this is less true of the sequels and feature films it's true often enough to have kept me watching.

Now, I will reveal publicly for the first time that I made offers to two prominent Star Trek actors for Alongside Night and was turned down because of the libertarian content. I offered Walter Koenig the role of Dr. Murray Konkin and Walter turned me down because I had not written this libertarian revolutionary as a villain and I refused to rewrite the role to make him one. Walter even admitted that if my story had been set in the further future on another planet he wouldn't have turned the role down. After Walter turned me down I offered the same role to John Billingsley, Dr. Phlox on Star Trek Enterprise. John was even more offended by the libertarian content of Alongside Night than Walter—especially with my choice to have the specific agency of the federal government that acts as the antagonists be FEMA, the bête noire of conspiracists and Tea Party types alike. In the original 1979 novel it was the FBI and I changed it because it made sense to me that in the economic collapse I portray in the movie the agency that would naturally take point for the federal government would be the one with "Emergency Management" in its name. I made John an offer that if he took the role we could tour the movie to college campuses and after each showing he and I could debate the issues. I thought that would be fun. It wasn't enough to convince John that I wasn't making a Tea Party propaganda movie though and I next offered the role to Ethan Keogh—Agent Jack Goldwater in Lady Magdalene's—who took the role and killed it. There is still a Trek connection, though, because like me Ethan is also an out-of-the-closet Trekkie.

Q: Do you think Alongside Night could appeal to the same fan base as series like Star Trek and—perhaps even more so—Firefly/Serenity?

A: That would be awesome. But I found out with fan response on Lady Magdalene's that it's the characters more than the actors the fans are drawn to. I think with Alongside Night I'm much closer in telling the kind of story fans of these influences on me would like—Star Trek, Firefly, and Heinlein fans—but until we get a bunch of them into movie theaters to see Alongside Night and "talk amongst themselves" I won't know.

Q: Neil, thank you very much.

Left to right: Ethan Keogh (Dr. Murray Heinlein Konkin), Tim Russ (General Jack Guerdon), Garrett Wang (Major Benjamin Franklin Chin).
Copyright © 2014 Alongside Night, LLC. All rights reserved.

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