Casting Starfarers

StarfarersStarfarers had a unique genesis.

A local sf convention had asked me to be on a panel about television science fiction. At first I was tempted to decline, because the panel always has the same structure: Somebody whips out a list of all the tv sf from the past 20 years and reads the titles and everybody agrees  how terrible they all were. (Keep in mind that this panel was before some recent pretty good television sf came on.)

And then I thought, What if…

So I go to the convention; I go to the panel. I sit next to a young guy who whips out a list of all the tv sf from the past 10 years (he was too young to remember anything from 20 years earlier) and starts reading the titles and inviting the audience to agree how terrible they all were.

TransitionI listen for a few titles, and then I say, “Wait a minute. I can’t believe this. Haven’t you people been watching the Starfarers miniseries?”

And then I told them the plot.

By the end of the panel, I had everybody eating out of my hand, believing Starfarers had existed but had been so misscheduled and unadvertised that every single audience member  had missed it. I claimed I had heard of some bootleg tapes floating around but as far as I knew recordings of the show could not be purchased.

A local filmmaker, sitting in the front row, jumped up at the end of the hour and said “I’m going to find those tapes!” and rushed out of the room.

MetaphaseI jumped up and hurried after him, caught up to him, and said, “I have to tell you something because I don’t want you to waste a lot of your time. Now, don’t hit. It’s a hoax.”

After a moment of disbelief (and disappointment), he grinned and said, “I’m going to make you a trailer.”

He did, and it was terrific.

He and some other friends who were in on the joke (and started the Starfarers fan club) joined me in several other Starfarers panels. The trailer was so good that it fooled some screenwriters who were sitting in on the Starfarers panel while waiting for their own panel to start. We kept describing it as “The best sf tv miniseries never made,” but people kept not hearing the “never made” part. We did usually manage to tell our audience that we were having them on, and people took it in good grace.

After a while I realized it was a good story that I wanted to tell, so I wrote the Starfarers novels: Starfarers, Transition, Metaphase, and Nautilus. I like to think of them as one very long novel that I couldn’t afford to write all at once. I got to be very fond of the family partnership of Victoria Frasier MacKenzie, Satoshi Lono, and Stephen Thomas Gregory, and the alien contact specialist J.D. Sauvage, and the diver Zev, the Minoans Europa and Androgeos, and the aliens: The Largerfarthings, the Smallernearers, the Squidmoths.

And I wished it were a real tv series.

NautilusI set it inside an O’Neill colony. It had plenty of opportunities for amazing SFX, but the main action could be filmed in someone’s back yard if necessary.

At one point my former LA agent asked if I had a tv series proposal. I suggested Starfarers.

“It’s a hardware show,” she said. “They don’t want a hardware show.”

“It’s not a hardware show,” sez I. “You could film it in someone’s back yard.”

“Vonda,” she said, using that irritated and condescending “I don’t think you’re listening to me and I’m certainly not listening to you” tone that was one of the main factors in my ending our business dealings, “they think it’s a hardware show, so it’s a hardware show. Don’t you have anything else?”

(I did, but that’s another story.)

Starfarers by Vonda N. McIntyreSo every so often I think about who would be perfect to be in my Best SF TV Series Never Made.

I have some ideas, but I’d like to hear what you think.

–  Vonda





Casting Starfarers — 27 Comments

  1. At one time, i would have said Dana Delany for Victoria, but right now it’s Meryl Streep for anything (well, she could do a Minoan).

    My problem is that i could cast this with MGM stars from the 30s and 40s, but i don’t have enough names to go with acting personas to cast it for next week.

    Unless we’re downloading the authorized Leslie Howard file to generate the Stephen virtual actor in the fully CG’d version, along with Hedy Lamarr and Keye Luke.

  2. Hi Jeff,

    Quite a while back I was going to write a story about virtual actors but I never got around to it, and technology has so nearly caught up to the idea that it would hardly qualify as SF anymore.

    I think a 1930s-1940s retro-cast would be cool.

    Delany or Streep or Close could play JD. She’s supposed to be a long-distance swimmer, though, and long-distance swimmers aren’t usually built like typical Hollywood actresses.

    Victoria Frasier MacKenzie is black, the descendent of escaped slaves via the Underground Railroad. There weren’t a whole lot of black actors, especially women, in mainstream movies of the time, especially who got to play major roles.

    Lena Horne would be a possibility.

    I can come up with singers such as Josephine Baker, but my knowledge of black actors from the active black cinema of the period is, I blush to admit, approximately 0.


  3. Josephine Baker, oh yum!

    Oh wait, I should say something of substance right? Um, here’s me blushing because I seem to have totally missed those books of yours somehow, when they sound exactly like the kind of thing I’d love. You can be sure I’ll be rectifying this toot sweet.

    No, I don’t feel compelled to read anything/everything by writers I know ‘in real life’ as it were. These really do sound like something I’d like.


  4. Hi Mary Kay,

    I neglected to mention, earlier, that Victoria Frasier MacKenzie is Canadian. (Canada was a major destination of the Underground Railroad.)

    Starfarers is going up on Book View Cafe pretty soon. When Bantam went all Star Wars all the time (and that went so well for them…) and put all my other books OP, I didn’t get a chance to get very many copies of the STARFARERS books, or DREAMSNAKE for that matter.

    They came out in paperback, and Starfarers and Transition came out in Easton fancy “fake-first-editions” as I found out a lot of book collectors call them. I thought those were kind of cool until I discovered they weren’t going to publish the third and fourth volumes in similar editions. The explanation was that they didn’t want to publish too many books by the same writer. This made about as much sense to me as the Italian publisher’s insisting on buying TRANSITION, but not the other books. (I wish I’d said no, but at the time life was complex and I had other things to think about.) (Transition, of all the Starfarers books, has the most “part of a series” problems of all the four books, in my opinion.)


  5. Jeff, I’ve been thinking about Leslie Howard and the horrible truth is that Leslie Howard just doesn’t do anything for me.

    Now, Errol Flynn…

    Or (if we were doing a 1960s cast) Peter O’Toole…

    Be still my heart.


  6. Probably the white guy i really am, but i didn’t see Victoria as so black in characteristics that Dana couldn’t play her (or i just like having an excuse to think about Ms. Delaney). I’ll have to find the correct box or shelf to pull the old copy of Starfarers to see how you described her — oh weak and wobbly memory, how you fail me!

  7. Oh, what about the guy who is the foil to Clark Gable in “Mutiny,” wasn’t it Franchot Tone (sp)?

    And have you ever read “The Darfsteller” by Walter M. Miller, Jr.? Yep, the Leibowitz author. It’s a short story, that reads as a period piece technologically, but i think holds up as a narrative quite nicely. The virtual actors are robotic, but computer controlled. The story is at heart a turn on that old Chekhov adage, “if you introduce a John Deere tractor in the first act, you must run over a British executive’s foot with it by the third act.” Or something like that.

  8. Hi Jeff,

    Franchot Tone is a little too suave to be Stephen Thomas. Stephen Thomas is a lab rat. He just happens to be a really handsome and more than averagely athletic lab rat.

    Maybe Gene Kelly.

    I think Dana Delany is a terrific actress but she’s not going to play Victoria Frasier MacKenzie in my miniseries. She’s welcome to play somebody else, though.


  9. I went over to my wife’s bookshelf and pulled her copy of Starfarers. It’s the Ace paperback edition from 1989. Victoria, Stephen Thomas and Satoshi are all on the cover. I didn’t even know there was a different edition until we moved in together and unpacked the books.

    Previously, I was only familiar with the Bantam editions which were always hard for me to sell at the feminist bookstore I used to work in. The covers always put my customers off a little. I wonder if I would have had a little more traction if I had had the Ace edition available. A sci-fi book with a black woman as one of the main protagonists (and on the cover no less! w00t!)? That was a handselling dream. But I didn’t know since I didn’t read them until years later and most of the people I ran around with at the time didn’t read sci-fi.

    As for casting, I’d probably go with someone like Regina King (of the late, lamented show, SouthLAnd) for Victoria. She’s not a Canadian actress but I like her work.

  10. I can see either Regina King or Gina Torres as Victoria — great suggestions!

    Regina King:
    Gina Torres:

    Tiffany — the trailer isn’t in digital format and the videotape turned out not to be copyable given the technology of the time. Alas! It was pretty cool. It fooled Hollywood folks, who always thought it was for real. I’ll ask the director about it, but I think it may have to live in memory only.

    Jackie — I loved the first cover for STARFARERS. You’re right that it was extremely unusual for a book with a black protagonist to have that protagonist show up on the cover.

    Starfarers, by Vonda N. McIntyre
    Somehow the artist got all the characters just right, and the PR department didn’t veto it. (You will already know how unusual this is.) The artificial gravity is in the wrong direction and Stephen Thomas would never be caught dead drinking champagne out of a glass that shape, but never mind.

    The clothes are a little uniform-y — reviews would refer to the “crew” of the starship. There is no crew. It’s a University town. There’s faculty, there’s staff. There is no crew. No officers. No captain.

    I’ve always been sorry that the feminist and sf communities don’t overlap more. (I think there are more feminist sf readers than sf-reading feminists, if that makes sense.)

    I can’t exactly blame people who aren’t intimately familiar with SF for tending to avoid it, especially if they are feminists. There’s an awful lot of (incorrect) propaganda about how SF is a boys-only club.

    Even in my own community I often find myself being sent books for blurbing that completly puzzle me as to why the editor could possibly conceive that I would like it. “Oh, Vonda is a feminist — she’ll love this book in which the writer wallows in the abuse of women for 300 pages in order to prove how terrible it is to abuse women.” (Um, no.) And on the other hand, “Oh, Vonda will love this book in which women turn the tables on men and abuse/kill/enslave them all.” (Um, no, not that either.)

    I have been tempted to write back and ask what single word I’ve ever written that would lead the editor to think I would like either sort of book. I only did that once (under provocation by someone who simply would not take diplomatic silence for an answer), and the editor said, “But, Vonda, you don’t understand. The way you tell the bad guys is, they abuse their women.”

    (Stunned speechlessness.)

    And it seems to me that on the other hand since I don’t write books in which women get abused for 300 pages or in which women subjugate men, I’m sometimes dismissed as not sufficiently feminist.

    Sigh. Rant off.

    Maybe Starfarers will find its audience when it debuts on Book View Cafe in December.


  11. I’ve asked the director about the Starfarers trailer and he thinks he can digitize it, with the technology of now.

    Stay tuned, same bat-time, same bat-station.


  12. I had absolutely no notion that this series began as the idea for a TV show, but, jings, I’d LOVE to see it televised. And it’s more plausible now than before, perhaps? (Although these are unforgiving times for scripted dramas, and good shows get canned more often than not, while somehow the shlocky pulp Stargate franchise continues to flourish.) Thank you for sharing the video with us! Now I’m going to have to go and reread the books…

  13. Hi Nic,

    Thanks for the kind words. I’ll be posting the Starfarers books on BVC as soon as Superluminal is done.

    I’d like to see it as a series, too, and I think the special effects would be more do-able now. Especially the aliens. It doesn’t seem like most SF on film does much with aliens except weird facial stuff on human actors, or gross-out insectile or arachnoid monsters.

    I’d love to see Nemo the Squidmoth.

    The video is a kick, isn’t it? Captured right off the tv, dontcha know.



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  15. “Starfarers is going up on Book View Cafe pretty soon.”

    Woohoo! Those are the books I’ve really been waiting for. Though I’ve re-read the other two while waiting. 🙂

    Unfortunately, I haven’t read my paper copies since the early 90’s and my memory isn’t up to the task of remembering character details enough to think of suitable casting.

  16. Oops, I forgot to add that one of the most interesting stories I’ve heard of for the genesis of a book series. 🙂

  17. I love Starfarers but you know when you have a strong picture of a character that you just can’t match to a real person? I am having trouble even doing an imaginary casting! I kind of see the singer Mika as Zev – wrong body type but he has that very young enthusiasm. And a smarmy Brit for Gerard- I’d quite like a younger Charles Dance, or perhaps John Barrowman’s grin could be used to ingratiating effect? Otherwise I am completely stuck! However I do have all 4 paperbacks ( slightly smug, bought ’em backpacking in the US maybe 17 years ago?? Had to chuck out clothes to fit the books in to come home, surprised I didn’t have to pay excess bagggage but pre amazon and I have never seen them in a bookstore here, so very glad I did), so I could go have a reread and a think. Thank you, Tiff

  18. Hi Tiffany,

    Thanks for the kind words on Starfarers. The series was never published in the UK — not sure why, as several of my books did quite well there. I hope you didn’t have to leave your favorite shirt behind to take the books home.

    Thanks for the casting suggestions. I’ll check those out.


  19. I think I left a pair of canvas shoes which after 6 weeks wear were pretty stinky! Somehow I squeezed 19 paperbacks into a full rucksack! I have no idea why we didn’t get Starfarers over here, I had Dreamsnake, Exile, and Superluminal, I was very excited when I got transition in a second hand store ( and found all the others new so you had some good from it, though it bugs me a bit that the covers don’t match, I prefer the swirly black Transition to the drawings on the others). Don’t have any other casting ideas though, sorry!

  20. Hi Tiffany,

    Paperbacks sound like a definite improvement over stinky shoes.

    There were a couple of times when the Starfarers books were to be published in England, but it never happened. I liked the swirly Transition cover with the sort of tentacle-y fractal string, too. I had an idea for a set of fractal covers for the series but couldn’t get the art department to go for it.

    Bantam brought out the set with matching covers but the earlier ones were more stfnal and I kind of liked them better.