The evolution of books on the internet has recently led to serial fiction that can be binged or watched a week at a time, just like television or video productions. That has led to the birth of Serial Box and, subsequently, the science fiction mystery serial Ninth Step Station:
Years of disaster and conflict have left Tokyo split between great powers. In the city of drone-enforced borders, bodymod black markets, and desperate resistance movements, US peacekeeper Emma Higashi is assigned to partner with Tokyo Metropolitan Police Detective Miyako Koreda. Together, they must race to solve a series of murders that test their relationship and threaten to overturn the balance of global power. And amid the chaos, they each need to decide what they are willing to do for peace.
Wilde, of course, is one of GeekMom’s own. Her novels and short stories have been finalists for three Nebula Awards, a World Fantasy Award, and two Hugo Awards. Older’s science fiction political thriller, Infomocracy, was named one of the best books of 2016 by Kirkus Reviews, Book Riot, and the Washington Post. Curtis Chen’s debut novel, Waypoint Kangaroo (a 2017 Locus Awards and Endeavour Award Finalist), is a science fiction thriller about a superpowered spy facing his toughest mission yet: vacation. Jacqueline Koyanagi’s debut novel, Ascension, was released from Masque/Prime books at the end of 2013 and landed on the 2014 James Tiptree Jr. Honor List.
The first season is available in either prose or audio format. Having read the entire season, I can say that it’s a fascinating alternate world, not too far into the Earth’s future, that puts two lead characters from different worlds together to solve crimes that their bosses might not always wish them to solve—a very noir concept. After reading, I sent questions to the authors, for insight on how the book evolved and what they enjoyed most about writing it.
Note: Only very slight spoilers below!
GeekMom: The worldbuilding is complex, with three main players driving the plot: the Japanese, the Chinese “invaders,” and the Americans “peace-keepers.” Plus, there are factions within both groups, and that drives events leading to the finale. How did you plan all this out? Did the worldbuilding come first or did the lead characters of Miyako and Emma?
Malka Older: We initially came up with the idea for a procedural that would be unique by involving multiple jurisdictions in some kind of governmentally complex future (this was partially inspired by the world in my Infomocracy series). We used divided Berlin and ’30s Shanghai as basic models, thinking about different kinds of occupation and also blurry lines between criminals and cops, and then I started thinking through what kind of geopolitical scenario could get us to that kind of a situation in the relatively near future.
At the same time, as soon as I started thinking about doing a procedural I knew I wanted to have some kind of a buddy-cop situation, so the beginnings of the characters were there at the same time as the basics of the worldbuilding.
Fran Wilde: One of the things I loved (PS: HI, GEEKMOMS, I MISS YOU ALL) is that the sense of occupation, as Malka says, shifts and blurs—and who is “there to help” vs. engage in political maneuvers vs. just trying to do their jobs—all gets murkier, which makes for a lot of good tension. The communities inside the various police forces, and those communities they interact with—from politicians to businesspeople to modders and beyond… all of it contributes to the depth and richness of the world.
So, I guess I’m thinking this is kind of a chicken-egg issue—the people and the world are parts of the whole.
Curtis Chen: From the very beginning, we all agreed that we wanted a complicated, many-shades-of-gray environment, and we each did our best to highlight certain aspects of that, in both characters and locations. The people have built the world, but the world also shapes the people that live in it.
GeekMom: Regarding the lead characters, Miyako and Emma, how did you develop them? Did you chart out their growing friendship/difficult relationship together? Did you have any particular inspirations for this detective pair?
MO: It’s pretty traditional—though not universal—to have some kind of mismatched partners in a procedural. Of course, I wanted to mess with that trope, so their relationship is a little different from some of the ones we’re used to seeing. Since we were thinking about a divided city, it made sense to have the two protagonists represent different powers involved in that city: in this case, one from the US and one from Japan.
We also decided to have the US character be (mostly) Japanese-American. This let us explore the city from different perspectives: that of the local whose world has been overturned, and that of the outsider discovering it for the first time. It also gave us openings into issues of colonialism, identity, power imbalances, and belonging. One of the key dynamics for me is that of culture shock and then gradual acclimatization to a new culture. But we didn’t really chart out their friendship, except to note a couple of important beats: most of it developed in the process of the writing.
FW: It’s really all about the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and the sarcastic tea mugs.
Jacqueline Koyanagi: Liminality plays a huge role in Ninth Step Station, and this was always in the back of my mind while writing. Of course, Miyako and Emma each embody this in their own way, and this sense of liminality, to me, exists in concentric circles beyond them as individuals: their relationship with each other, their relationships with others, their work, their city. Exploring these in-between spaces is one of my favorite aspects of the story.
GeekMom: What inspired this setting?
MO: I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Japan, but most of it was outside of Tokyo. Most of the time that I was in Tokyo was after, and usually on work related to, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. I have very specific sensory and impressionist memories of those times. They were mostly during the winter or early spring; I was mostly at least a little lonely because I was only there for short stretches and always with sort of complicated work identities. Most importantly, the country was reeling and rallying after a major tragedy. I based the setting largely on those memories.
GeekMom: How did you develop the different tech that’s revealed bit by bit, especially the tech that’s revealed as helping a murderer? Did the sleeves come first and all arose from there?
MO: The sleeves came up in our initial writers’ room, but most of the other tech developed as the different episodes demanded it or writers decided to create it! We did have a Slack channel dedicated to different weird tech we found out on the interwebs, so that probably inspired some of it.
FW: I love spinning out new ideas for tech and then working up and down causality ladders looking at consequences—working on the tech-human interactions in NSS was one of my favorite side quests.
JK: The tech! Ahh, the tech was so fun to play with. Some of my favorite memories from the writers’ room involved spitballing about tech and its implications for the setting and plot. Technology like what we see in Ninth Step Station changes some of the most intimate aspects of the way we perceive the world and process information on a fundamental level, so thinking about how that might impact criminal activity and police investigation was especially fun.
CC: The data sleeves definitely helped us calibrate the level of tech we wanted, and it was a ton of fun coming up with a big list of possible “future crimes” and then narrowing that down to the cases that would be the most interesting in this setting with these characters.
GeekMom: I found the tattoos and the tattoo artists particularly interesting. Do any of you have tattoos that meant something to you?
FW: I have one tattoo—my first, that I got only a few years ago. It’s a compass rose that was designed for me with a bit of flora and a tiny bit of cryptography as well. I’ve been fascinated with the tattooing process, the art of it, and with inks of all sorts, for a long time, but was afraid to take the plunge. Turns out, I loved the entire experience, and am hoping to get at least more. No metallics or fancy [spoilers!] inks for me though—I can only do black ink. Bodies are weird.
JK: I’m fairly covered in ink depending on where you’re looking. I’d say my favorite piece is a full back piece of a sakura tree with my family’s kamon carved into the bark.
GeekMom: What one character did you love writing most? What scene was your favorite? (Can be your own or one of your co-authors.)
MO: I love both the main characters. I love Emma’s attitude and smarts and directness, but I think I loved writing Miyako even more. I identify with her interiority and her combined devastation and resilience in the face of what’s happened. I’m not sure I can pick a favorite scene but maybe all of the cold openings? I loved getting my co-writers’ episodes and reading those first scenes. They manage to combine creepiness, drama usually some kind of fun tech, and often some of the themes of the show, and diving in that way was such a pleasure.
FW: I’m surprised that I loved writing the Councilwoman’s episode as much as I did because that one was really hard. I adore writing Miyako and Kensuke, but my joy is Charles. He’s just so… Charles. I think my favorite scene was the butterfly bar, and possibly the modder’s workshop scenes.
JK: I relate strongly to some of Emma’s background, so the Japanese-American perspective was interesting to think about in this setting, but it’s hard to say whether I enjoyed writing Emma or Miyako more. I adore them both. Emma’s warmth, Miyako’s defensive carapace—there’s just so much that’s worth exploring within and between them. As for favorite scenes, probably some of the things revealed in the season finale. Shh… I can’t say more than that!
CC: I introduced a couple of secondary characters in episode 6 that we all ended up having a lot of fun with later. You’ll see. #nospoilers
Want to check out Ninth Step Station but still have questions about how Serial Box works? This video answers them for you: