We speak with British sci-fi comedy author Simon Bullock about his debut novel, Toxic Beer—a laugh-out-loud, zany space opera that will undoubtedly appeal to fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Red Dwarf, and Galaxy Quest. While Simon’s book undoubtedly, and intentionally, pays homage to his literary hero, Hitchhiker’s Guide author Douglas Adams, Toxic Beer is strikingly original and a must-read for fans of the genre that Adams created.
Q. What do you feel are the essential ingredients of a good comedy novel?
A. Treat it with the same respect as if you were writing a serious fiction novel. I found it very easy to get lost on writing one-liners in my first novel but realised that you can get carried away instead of concentrating on building up believable characters. Once I started to develop the characters and make them come to life then I started to have fun with their interactions. That, in my opinion, is essential for any comedy writer.
Q. What do you want readers to come away with after reading Toxic Beer?
A. I would hope that the people who read my book enjoy is as much as I did writing it. From their reactions , including those of reviewers, Toxic Beer has had people in stitches from start to finish. I’m hoping that readers like this tongue-in-cheek sort of humour and, hopefully, this sort of comedy sci-fi will appeal to a broader public.
This is what one reader wrote: “A ride through an alternative galaxy, where the aliens are inebriated, irresponsible joy riders. Mix 'Mars Attacks' with Douglas Adams' Vogon space-fleet and you have an idea of the mentality of these visitors from Outer Space; but imagine if they had a outlook similar to that of a teenage booze cruiser from the 1980s, yet the power to take over planet earth at the same time. Ridiculous? Yes - and it makes me laugh, giggle and snort uncontrollably throughout the plot that careers along like something out of a Kenny Everett Captain Kremmen episode. This writer clearly grew up with the same influences I had, but has the ability to keep making me laugh. Thoroughly recommended.”
Q. What would you say is the importance and legacy of Douglas Adams to the sci-fi comedy genre?
A. I don’t think that there were any sci-fi comedy writers before Douglas Adams wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy so Douglas was unique with this kind of genre and, in my opinion, he penned one of the funniest, most original books I have ever read . His legacy is hard to try and emulate. Many authors have gone on to write comedy sci-fi books but nothing has come close to the genius of Douglas. I hope that people will see in my book that I haven’t tried to emulate him but, instead, compliment him with the occasional nod to some of his characters in the H2G2 series.
Q. Your novel took 10 years in total. Tell us about your writing process?
A. Ten years is a long time to write a book and I have to admit that I had a bit of love-hate relationship with it. Even though I thought the idea of having a group of alcoholic aliens bumping and burping their way around the universe in a stolen spaceship, on the run from the intergalactic police, could possibly appeal to a Douglas Adams fan, I found the writing process hard as prior to Toxic Beer I had never written anything other than song lyrics. As such, the thought of having to write 60,000 words was quite daunting to a novice author. At first I would write in bursts, stopping when I didn’t have the confidence to continue then going back to the manuscript and trying again. It wasn’t until I let an author friend of mine read what I had written, and he told me he thought it was a good read which was very funny and original, that I decided to get it finished and here we are .
Simon Bullock spent a decade perfecting his debut novel, sci-fi comedy book Toxic Beer, which pays homage to the work of sci-fi comedy legend Douglas Adams.
Q. Your novel is screaming out for a TV or film adaptation. Who would you cast in such a film, and why?
A. I like the idea of putting my book into script form and seeing if anyone is willing to buy it. I think it has the potential for a good comedy play or TV series. I could see comedian Omid Djalili playing the part of landlord Vangelis Popudopulous as he is a very convincing comedy actor and could easily play a Greek landlord. As for retired DS John Smith, or even Sidney Ramsbottom, I think Simon Pegg would be perfect and I think this style of humour would appeal to him. The aliens main characters, such as Chas and Dave, I’ve not given that much thought to—mostly they would have to be alien in appearance, unless they are using their human disguises. Maybe some of the younger actors/comedians, like Josh Widdicombe or James Acaster for instance, would work well.
Q. Your novel is full of crazy, largest-then-life characters and scenarios, not least aliens on a booze cruise. Where did you get these wildly creative ideas?
A. Originally, I thought it would be funny to have aliens with common English names like ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’ then, as two of the main character, John and Vangelis. As for the creative idea for booze-cruising aliens and an unemployed computer engineer with his sheep and a Polish pole dancer-loving father, and 1980 pop duo John and Vangelis, I’ve no idea where they came from to be honest. I just write stuff down as it pops into my mind and ideas for daft character and one-liners just seem to flow out of my head. Take, for instance, a line out of the new novel I’m working on, a prequel to Toxic Beer, The Last Intergalactic Booze Cruise.
I have a Formula 8000 hyper jump pilot (a sort of Formula One driver, only these guys drive faster-than-light racing spaceships round a course of, say, 50 different star systems) and all the spaceships are on the starting grid waiting for the signal to start the race. Instead of coming up with the usual flag-waving, as in Formula One, I thought it would be funny to have the race started by a nuclear missile fired directly at the starting line—and the pilots! This would, I reckon, be a pretty good incentive for the racing pilots to put their ships into hyper drive before the missile exploded. This is the sort of stuff I come up with almost instantly when writing and it’s a lot of fun creating larger-than-life characters and situations.
Q. If you could meet Douglas Adams, what would you ask him?
A. I think the first thing I would ask him is how did he come up with such original, larger-than-life characters and ideas for his books. I would also definitely ask him to read my book and provide his honest feedback on what he thought of my attempt to pay tribute to his writing style. I’d also ask for his autograph!
To be perfectly honest, though, I think I would be overwhelmed at meeting one of my all-time heroes and probably, despite having a thousand and one questions for him, I think I would just like to shake his hand and say thanks for writing and making me laugh, and for bringing a very large amount of the planet to their knees with his daft humour.
Q. You pay a certain tribute to Douglas Adams in your novel, but Toxic Beer is definitely its own beast. To what degree were you influenced by Adams, and how are your approaches to writing different?
A. I’d say Douglas Adams was, for me, my only influence. Comedy sci-fi is such a niche genre that there are very few writers who have written anything close to Douglas novels. His style of wit was unique and what went on in that man’s mind when he came up with The Hitchhiker’s Guide is pure genius.
Douglas is always there and when I started writing Toxic Beer it was like I had him guiding me when I came up with my own daft ideas and one-liners. That said, I think that I have been able to develop my own unique style of writing. I do wonder what he would have come up with if he had written Toxic Beer. Whatever it was, it probably would have sold a lot of copies!
Simon Bullock’s sci-fi comedy novel Toxic Beer is a laugh-out-loud, larger-than-life space opera.
Q. The sci-fi comedy genre is a relatively recent phenomenon but has proved a big hit with the public, with shows such as Red Dwarf or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy becoming cherished classics. What do you think is the reason for the enduring appeal of the genre, and why were you drawn to it?
A. Science fiction and comedy is a risky combination, which is probably why science fiction comedies are as rare as “Melloovian Rocking horse poo” (a quote from Toxic Beer).
I think, however, that like a lot of Brits I was drawn to this kind of genre because of its originality, strength of characters, and just good, funny humour. That appealed to my daft sense of humour and I would say it is a typical English type pf humour that only the English seem to be able to do properly. It works and I think most people who enjoy this kind of humour would agree
Q. What’s next for you as an author?
A. Even though I had love-hate relationship with my first book I decided that I actually quite like the sci-fi comedy genre … a lot. If you read Toxic Beer and enjoy the larger-than-life characters as much as I did creating them then you will be pleased to hear that I have two more books planned involving these creations. As mentioned earlier, I’m currently working on a prequel to Toxic Beer, The Last Intergalactic Booze Cruise, as I think the aliens are really funny and I wanted to explain why they are on a 100-year booze cruise and on the run from the intergalactic rozzers. When this book is finished, hopefully later this year and not when I’m 80 years old, I will write a third book about the characters Sidney John and Vangelis.