Caper Crusaders: The Caper/Heist in Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Beyond

I recently participated in a panel on Cross-Genre Capers: A Discussion of Capers and Heists in Fantasy and Science Fiction at ArmadilloCon. I had the honor of joining Mark Finn, Marina Lostetter and Marshall Ryan Maresca for a discussion, moderated by Lauren Teffeau.

Of course, there is never enough time on a panel to get out everything you want to say (unless you’re willing to risk becoming one of those panelists), so I thought I’d put some of my extra thoughts into a piece here.

Silver Screen Sleuths, featuring “A Scandal in Hollywood”

While capers are not my bread and butter, I do have a toe in the genre. My novelette, “A Scandal in Hollywood” is a counter-caper (see terminology, below) featuring actor Basil Rathbone stepping into the shoes of his most famous role, Sherlock Holmes, to thwart an existential threat to 1940s Tinsel Town. “Scandal” is a tongue-in-cheek love letter to Holmes and Doyle that was voted “Best Short Story of 2018 (all other genres)” in the P&E Readers Choice Poll. You can find it in the anthology Silver Screen Sleuths from 18th Wall Productions.

Speaking more to the panel’s focus, I’ve written a Weird West/light steampunk caper novella, The Clash at Crush (which my publisher assures me will be out any day now). Set against the backdrop of H.G. Wells’ War of the Words, “Clash” indulges my fondness for historical cameos with three historical figures among the caper crew and introduces an atypica wrinkle when Martian tripods inconveniently show up as the caper reaches its climax.

Obligatory Note on Terminology

It’s the Italian Job … but it is an Italian Heist or an Italian Caper?

The terms caper and heist are often used interchangeably. But is there a difference? And if so, what is it? Mark Finn posits the difference between the two is that humor is a key element of capers but mostly absent in heists. That’s a division I find both intriguing and useful, and one I continue to ponder. But the one I have used and, at least to this point, continue to use is that in a heist, the target is always a tangible object and material and the crew’s plans emphasize the physical and technological. A heist is, in essence, always a burglary – no matter how fancy. In a caper, however, the crew’s ultimate goal may or may not be a something physical, and elements of social engineering (Con jobs, impersonation, blackmail, whatever.) play a much larger role.

There is also the counter-caper story, where the antagonists are planning and executing the caper and it falls to the heroes to foil them. While one could technically subdivide this into counter-caper and counter-heist categories, I will use counter-caper to serve for both.

My Favorite SF/F Caper Canon (and Horror, too!)

There is arguably a streak of sci-fi even to many capers set in what is ostensibly the modern, mundane world. These stories often involve very-near-future, clearly-on-the-horizon technology or deploy existing technology in creative ways which sometimes stretches credibility. With so many capers showcasing talents, expertise, or technology that stretches the believable, it’s only a short hop to introducing magic and technology.

Cyberpunk’s persistent shadow economy of highly skilled experts is perfect for capers/heists.

That been said, many classic caper/heist stories explicitly fall under science fiction or fantasy:

Going all the way back to that foundational classic of the genre, Neuromancer (an assembled crew of criminals and other experts on the margins of society steal the hardcopy of downloaded consciousness), it would be difficult to find a cyberpunk story where a credible case cannot be made for it being a caper/heist.

But Sci-fi capers are not limited to the near future or the morally ambiguous confines of cyberpunk. A New Hope is rife with caper/heist elements: escaping Tatooine, helping Leia escape the Death Star, and the off-screen caper of Bothan spies acquiring plans for the Death Star (which, of course, makes Rogue One a caper story as well – and, while it may not be a great Star Wars story, it’s a good caper story).

Star Trek IV may be one of the most unique caper stories in any genre. Not only does it piggyback time travel on top of science fiction, but its heist object (a pair of humpback whales) is as distinctive as it is unforgettable.  

Star Trek IV: 60 tons of McGuffin

Speaking of Star Trek, the normally straight-laced, goody-goody Next Generation bangs out an incredibly smart, funny caper story with a healthy dose of meta in the season two episode “The Royale:” [Oversimplification Alert] The crew of The Enterprise becomes trapped in a pocket universe created by aliens based on a (fictional) caper novel also called “The Royale.” As their only sample of human culture, the aliens are under the mistaken impression that the third-rate novel reflects humanity’s preferred lifestyle. Ultimately, to escape the pocket universe, the away- team has to successfully pull off the caper referenced in the novel.

Heist Crew, Hyperborean style.

Fantasy takes to caper/heist stories very early in its history. Many of Fritz Leiber’s stories of Fafhard and The Gray Mouser revolve around capers or heists. Especially notable in this regard are “Ill Met in Lankhmar, “Jewels in the Forest,” and “Bazaar of the Bizarre.” Similar tropes can be found in Howard’s Conan stories. These are on full display with the 1982 pastiche film adaptation of Howard’s most famous creation, Conan the Barbarian, as Conan’s party (crew?) sneaks into the Snake Tower to steal a legendary jewel and then penetrates Thulsa Doom’s temple complex.

Caper Crew, Florin style.

Conan isn’t the only overlap of fantasy and caper among 80’s cinema classics. The Princess Bride is an excellent caper story (and one of the best and most endearing examples anywhere of how “assembling the crew” can become an adventure in its own right). The same, of course, can be said of William Goldmann’s original novel, though I would argue the caper flavor is more explicit in the movie than the book.  

Horror also offers us at least one noteworthy entry. Lovecraft’s “The Curious Case of Charles Dexter Ward” is a classic counter-caper narrative with diabolic antagonists Joseph Curwen and crew engaged in multiple capers: their body-snatching and necromancy ring as well as their efforts to keep the Curwen’s resurrection a secret and return him to his former glory.  Conversely, the protagonists, led by Marinus Bicknell Willet are trying to thwart those plots (at which they are ultimately successful) and preserve young Charles Dexter Ward’s life (at which they are not).

The Lord of the Stings

The author of a famous caper story?

More than a few people have argued for The Hobbit as a caper story. I respectfully disagree. True, the whole segment at the Lonely Mountain with Smaug is definitely a caper/heist. However, while that is the company’s ultimate goal, it is only a small part of the story as measured both by page count and emotional journey. It would be like a version of Oceans 11 where the main characters spend the first 90 minutes driving to the casino.

On the other hand, I see a much stronger case for Lord of the Rings as a caper story: the crew spreads out across Middle Earth using stealth, guile, magic (gadgets), and the occasional bit of muscle with the ultimate goal of sneaking the McGuffin of Power through Mordor to Mount Doom.

(Somehow, I suspect the notion that he might have written a caper story would send Tolkien spinning in this grave).

Meanwhile Back in Our World

And, because it doesn’t really seem to fit anywhere else, two my favorite non-SFF caper stories are both from the world of 90s cinema. A third comes from prime time cartoons.

“All he’s asking for is peace on earth and goodwill toward men,” Martin Bishop, Sneakers.

Sneakers (1992) has a cast that has to be seen to be believed: Robert Redford, Sydney Poitier, Ben Kingsley, Dan Aykroyd, River Phoenix, and Stephen Tobolowsky (you might know him as Ned … Rhyerson!).

Hudson Hawk (1991) is admittedly a tough one to classify. It does have hints of magic (or at least alchemy) and miracles alongside a dose of clock-punk, but takes such a light touch with them that I feel it round up to a real-world, if very cinematic, reality. While technically a ‘90s film, Hudson Hawk, in all its glorious cheese, actually has more of an ‘80s aesthetic.

Two decades later, in 23rd season of The Simpsons, the episode “The Book Job” sees a motley collection of Springfield residents collaborate on a get-rich-quick scheme to publish a young adult novel, which turns into a caper when the group is screwed over by their publisher. An appearance by Neil Gaiman, playing himself as the crew’s Ringer, transforms an already strong story into something truly special.  

Why Do We Love Caper Stories (And Why Do I)? The Big Picture

At their most fundamental, caper stories are underdog stories. Crews run the gamut from lovable rogues with hearts of gold to full-blown anti-heroes in all their amoral glory. Exposition sets up social contexts in which there are perceived winners and losers, in groups and out groups, enforcers and renegades, underdogs and overlords. But caper stories play with the ambiguity and fuzzy corners of those worlds. With the right crew, a good plan, and a little bit of luck, the underdogs can come out on top. 

Definitely Underdogs and Outsider (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels)

Caper stories further endear themselves to us because, rather than brawn or superior resources, in capers the underdogs almost always triumph by being cleverer than their opponents. Most of us don’t have phenomenal strength or martial prowess among our assets, but we like to think of ourselves as clever. It’s enjoyable to see a little of ourselves in the caper crew and wonder “hey, could we do that?”

A final part of the genre’s appeal is the humor which permeates so many of these stories. This emphasis on humor serves several roles: it diffuses tension, it showcases the close relationship between members of the crew, and it gives further evidence of that all-important “cleverness.” It also underscores the underdog and “loveable rogue” nature of protagonists.

Why Do We Love Caper Stories (And Why Do I)? The Details

One of the reasons we all love Caper/Heist stories is that we know them, their tropes, their characters. But that doesn’t mean that every one of those aspects resonates with each personal equally.

For me, the most exciting part of caper stories is assembling the crew, with its rich spiderweb different and sometimes conflicting experiences, backstories, and assumptions somehow all coming together to pull off “the job.” In terms of my personal enjoyment of caper stories, the completion of crew feels like the climax of the story. Everything else is just denouement.

Another joy for me are the social interactions between the caper crew and the forces of law (order, the establishment, whatever you want to call them). That’s one reason I tend to favor caper stories with heavy social engineering/con aspect to them.

But we’re talking specifically about Capers/Heists in science fiction and fantasy. In those genres, on a meta-level, I enjoy seeing how exposition is handled (and sometimes mishandled).

When a caper/heist is set in the mundane present day, or even a well understood historical period, a lot of exposition can be omitted. Readers/viewers already understand the technology, the traps, the weapons, law enforcement, and the social and economic relationships well enough to fill in the gaps. But when the caper is sci-fi or fantasy, all those axiomatic elements are now up in the air. What does magic allow? What does new technology allow? How do law enforcement and the legal system work? What are the social and economic relationships informing the caper?

This is a challenging tightrope for authors to walk. We have to explain how all the caper tropes apply to the world in question so that the plot points feel earned and twists believable … without throwing up giant “Chekov’s Gun” red flags while doing so.

To illustrate that point by going a little ad absurdum, if an author informs us that “the three-headed hounds of Gnarr are the realm’s most fearsome guard animals but, when both moons are full in twain, the hounds are afraid of flying shrews,” the reader can safely assume that’s going to come up later. The challenge is seeding that information so that, when the crew uses the musk of flying shrews to bypass the evil Duke’s three-headed hound, it was not obvious ahead of time but still feels earned when it occurs.

On Gadgets

Gadgets are not only a major trope of caper/heist stories, they are huge part of their fun. Unless a caper story is very strong in other areas, the lack of any sort of gadgetry, technical wizardry, or Rube Goldberg-esque silliness is going to be keenly felt. However, for science fiction and fantasy capers, the challenges of exposition go double for gadgets.

More broadly, creators need to balance the sense of wonder gadgets create in a reader/viewer without leaning on them to heavily for support. I would hesitate to utilize more than one major gadget or two or three minor ones in the course of a story. The more heavily a story features gadgets, the more important it becomes to balance the narrative scales a bit. Perhaps the forces of the establishment have gadgets of their own to throw at the crew. Or maybe one of the crew’s gadgets fails, possibly in a spectacular fashion.

So … you need a gadget?

Thoughts on Writing Capers

First, to support the genre’s tropes and conventions, a certain level of social complexity and technological development in the world is required – say at least equivalent to earth’s Bronze Age. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there’s no way to write a Neolithic heist or a caper story involving egalitarian hunter-gatherers, but I’d love to read it, because I don’t know how you’d do it. (As I’m typing this, I’m realizing that Quest for Fire is basically a fantasy Neolithic heist story, with fire as the heist object. So maybe treat my preceding statement as a loose guideline).

As with any form of genre fiction, don’t bust your ass trying to come up with something nobody’s ever seen before, because its an almost impossible task. Rather, spend that time thinking about combining the elements you love in fresh and exciting ways. Don’t be afraid of tropes, they’re not necessarily your enemy. After all, those tropes are at the heart of the comforting feel that people seem to like about capers/heists. We know these stories and that’s a big part of why we love them.

With advanced technology and other areas of niche expertise playing such a strong role in caper stories, many authors anguish over the appropriate level of detail, research, and accuracy needed. These are valid questions but, as with so many aspects of writing, don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Write to the level you’re comfortable with. If you’re already published, you know the level your audience will enjoy. If you are not yet published, write to the level of the audience you want.

I cannot stress this enough: Unless you are a world-class expert in cryptography, information security, digital intrusion, etc., no matter how much legwork you do, you are not going to be write to a level that will satisfy every reader. If you try, you’re going to lose a lot of the people you really want, so steel yourself and ignore the handful who will never be satisfied.

Where are Capers Going?

In moderating the panel, Lauren Taffeau made there interesting observation that:

We’re going through a period in history right now where it feels like espionage and other crimes are happening right out in the open instead of all the cloak and dagger from an earlier age.

In light of those developments, Tafffeau posed the question

How have current events changed expectations for writing capers?

This is an interesting and important question, and one where I admit to not having much in the way of concrete answers. We may very well see that kind of open, smarmy malfeasance reflected in the kinds of targets caper crews go up against, using classic caper skills to hit those targets on the back end. On the other hand, it’s possible we may see crews engaging more openly as well. We could see the emergency of the “spin doctor” as a variation on the traditional “face” archetype in crews (for a rather prescient foretaste of what this could look like, check out the antihero crew of the 1997 dark comedy Wag the Dog).

Edy Hurst’s Musical-Comedic WotW Podcast: Q&A with Edy Hurst

For the next in my Q&A series with creators of War of the Worlds-themed media, I had the pleasure of “sitting down” with Edy Hurst, comedian, musician, wit, and driving force behind the podcast, Edy Hurst’s Comedy Version of Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of H.G. Well’s Literary Version of (via Orson Welles’ Radio Version & Steven Spielberg’s Film Version) The War of the Worlds.

Q: Tell me a little about your podcast, Edy Hurst’s Comedy Version of Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of H.G. Well’s Literary Version of (via Orson Welles’ Radio Version & Steven Spielberg’s Film Version) The War of the Worlds (from this point forward, I think we’ll just call it your “War of the Worlds podcast”).

Towards the end of 2019, a simpler time, when all that we had to worry about was the rise of fascism across the world and the UK’s dedication to falling backwards through a bush out of the European Union, I was working on a new show to be toured around the UK.

This show was called Edy Hurst’s Comedy Version of Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of H.G. Well’s Literary Version (Via Orson Welles’ Radio Version & Steven Spielberg’s Film Version) of the War of the Worlds, because it amused me that Jeff Wayne gave the only musical version of the War of the Worlds a fairly unwieldy title. The whole show started as a throwaway joke that I thought it’d be funny to talk about Jeff Wayne and then try and do a really high budget 2 hour production with no budget and less than 10 minutes, and the whole thing spiraled out from there.

Understandably, the previews, tinkering, performing and tour has not come into fruition yet, but I wanted to continue working through the vast array of War of the Worlds adaptations, re-imaginations and inspirations.

As the book was originally serialized, this gave me a great opportunity to create a chapter by chapter look at the original book whilst also still working on new songs and jokes for the live show. It’s also given me a great excuse to work with some of my personal comedy friends and bother some genuine experts in their field.

Q: How did you first discover War of the Worlds? You mention that Jeff Wayne’s musical may be a bigger influence upon you than the Wells original. I’d love to hear more about that.

“It’s a Musical Version of a Victorian metaphor for colonial invasion with a rock disco sound track starring the lead singer of Thin Lizzy, what part of that did someone think was a surefire hit?”

I think that in a way War of the Worlds is a bit like the Beatles. Even if you’ve never actually heard the originals, you are in some way aware of its effect on pop culture, and behind the scenes there’s far more adultery than previously thought.

There’s two times where I became aware of War of the Worlds. As you mentioned, and I talk about in Interlude 2 of the podcast, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version had a huge impact on me, as I think it does many people who cross its path. It’s a Musical Version of a Victorian metaphor for colonial invasion with a rock disco sound track starring the lead singer of Thin Lizzy, what part of that did someone think was a surefire hit?

Generally, I am drawn to and obsessed with things that are far more successful than on paper they have a right to be. I think it’s a sort of wishful thinking that no matter what ideas my fire dumpster of a brain throws out one of them might be deemed a success. And Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds ticks every box for this.

The concept is bonkers, the performers are giving it absolute stacks, and it has been a resounding hit since its release. Nobody would have believed towards the end of the 20th century minds immeasurably superior to ours would be scrutinizing a novel where nobody would have believed towards the end of the 19th century that minds immeasurably superior to ours were scrutinizing our earth.

I found it in my dad’s record collection following him buying a turn table at the start of the 2000s vinyl revival. Initially it was the artwork that brought me into it, but after listening it’s always remained close to my heart.

The second time was actually much before this, I must have been 10 or younger. There’s a science museum in Manchester that had an area where they were, for some reason, playing the Orson Welles’ radio version in its entirety. It was in the aeronautical hall with all the airplanes, and I think part of why I remember it is because it was such a weird location for it to be. Why was it there? Was it to do with radio as a form of communication? Was it because they had space stuff? It was next to a model of a Boeing, but why?

Who knows, not me, all I know is that the story of a town entering collective hysteria because of a radio show sounded amazing and too good to be true, partly because as we know now, it kind of was.

Q: What inspired you to use WotW as the anchor for a project? Is this the first time you’ve used a book as inspiration or a touchstone for a project?

I’ve often used pop culture as a reference point, either deliberately or it just seeped into the work I’ve been doing. Given how immediate stand up needs to be, you’re always going to be using some form of popular references as a means to quickly communicate images or ideas.

My last show was about how I make daft comedy songs as a means through which to mediate a history of depression, and it had a nightmare Kermit as my inner voice of doubt. So I think that the art that I love inspires me whatever I’m doing.

But this is the first time I’ve used something so explicitly. The show is a very loose adaptation, and really more about ideas of alien invasions than a particular focus on the book itself. It’s an excuse for me to be really daft and big and silly in a way that there is already an established context, which I think comes across in the title.

The podcast, however, I wanted to create something that was in my wheelhouse but something different to what other comedians I saw doing with their podcasts. I love all sorts of audio comedy projects, but I think for me this helps me to create a sort of audio scrap book, so you can listen to it as if it’s a regular (ish) audiobook, but it’s also got the cliff notes and explanations attached.

Martians, battered and fried

It gives me a great way to look further at British identity, at the basis for our pop culture (and by extension US scifi) as well as questions such as why H.G. Wells would choose for a Martian to be a weird octopus thing rather than a humanoid.

Basically, if you’re looking to do a book report, you could easily just crib the work in the podcast.

Q: Originally, you intended to use WotW as the basis for a live show and adopted the podcast approach in response to Covid. How would the live show have differed from the podcast (beyond the obvious, of course)?

The show when it’s been performed is much more chaotic and sillier than the podcast, my live shows are a mix of lo-fi props, musical comedy and messing around with the audience. The vibe of it is someone making a high-end musical with the budget of a children’s birthday party.

I think the sensibility is the same, if you like the jokes and the bits that I find funny as we read along, then you’d definitely enjoy the show.

Whereas in the live show I’m racing against the clock to cram as much alien invasion, home made heat rays, bombastic songs and homages to other adaptations in as possible, in the podcast I can stop reading a sentence and go ‘that’s weird, what’s that about?’ and then go off and gain an in-depth understanding of early colonialism in Tasmania.

Q: Clearly, your podcast involved an enormous amount of supplementary research. How did you approach that research?

It’s different with each topic, which is a rubbish answer. Essentially, I try to avoid just googling or using a search engine in the first instance. This is because a lot of the time the questions I’m trying to answer start off quite vague before getting specific (such as ‘how does science fiction predict the future?’) on somewhere that is trying to give you the most efficient answer you’ll often wind up reading articles in newspapers or magazines.

“…these particular deep dives take quite a lot of navigating and research, which is incredibly rewarding, but also not possible to do on a fortnightly basis.”

These can be really helpful for an overview, but by the time you’ve got them the writer has usually done most of their research and collated it in a particular way.

I was hugely fortunate to go to University and whilst studying became aware of a range of academic sites. Less fortunately, now I am no longer a student I can’t really afford the access to full sites like JSTOR, but they have free resources on there. These academic papers range from mega headache chunks of writing to hitting the nail exactly on the head in terms of researching, but often give a much fuller picture for me to figure out what I think about the topics they’re discussing.

Plus, they have loads of footnotes and citations which means I can go and find what they were reading.

I think it’s such a massive shame that in order to gain access to these papers as someone outside of an academic organization you have to pay a pretty large amount of money in membership fees, or track down the books yourself which is also an expensive and time-consuming endeavor.

It just strikes me as so weird that we’re meant to live in a world that encourages you to educate yourself and yet there’s so many cost prohibitive measures that stand in the way of that. It’s almost like we live in a society where some people are afforded the luxury of education and the rest are in a system designed to make it hard to have equal footing. But surely that can’t be the case, I say with a knowing cynical look at my computer screen.

As you can imagine, these particular deep dives take quite a lot of navigating and research, which is incredibly rewarding, but also not possible to do on a fortnightly basis. I try to make a mix of the deep academically focused topics and also more fun tangents like the top tripods and Extra-Terrestrial tourism.

For those two it’s a mix of things I already know about and things that I ask listeners to get in touch with me with on my social media channels.

Q: Of all your podcast’s informative tangents, amusing digressions, etc. which one did you enjoy the most? Which of those journeys took you to the most surprising place?

Some of them I kind of knew where they were going to go. I remember during a history of art course we looked at some Victorian science papers on genetics between white and black people that now is appalling and wrong, but at the time was presented as the latest research, which is pretty chilling.

I knew that if I was doing something that looked at the Victorian era, and especially with a look at the scientific, I didn’t want to shy away from these aspects of the past. Likewise with colonialism, which Britain was at the height of its rule during the book’s publication.

It would feel ingenuine of me to make something that’s meant to be looking at the original War of the Worlds book with a contemporary eye and not address these things. Whereas the tripods and the aliens are cool and thrilling, there’s a lot of underlying subtext about humanity’s (read: Britain’s) response to a more advanced civilization attacking out of nowhere, and how that information is disseminated that I think is really fruitful for discussion.

There’s a whole narrative of me struggling to unpick the tangles and contradictions of H.G. Wells. On the one hand he becomes a champion for human rights and an outspoken critic of apartheid, but on the other he can frequently use language that is less than ideal, and although spoke of gender equality, still had numerous affairs.

I think of the things that have really surprised me is the look at local newspapers during the Victorian times. I like it because it started out from a single sentence about a telegram, and revealed this high functioning system of papers that were produced both locally and nationally.

Victorians Surfing the Web

There would be reading rooms in pubs across villages and towns where one could go and hear a reading of the latest news, sort of like how you can get 24 hour rolling news now, but with a pint of beer.

It’s clear that even though there wasn’t something with the immediacy or wealth of information as the internet or television or radio, people still had a need to understand the world around them and what was going on.

No matter what time you find yourself in, people still seem to have the same basic desires that come up over and over, and that is something I wasn’t expecting to find from just looking at how someone in Victorian times might find out about Martians. I thought the answer would be they just wouldn’t, or they might a week later, but there was a pretty robust means of communication even without all the technology we have now.

Q: You’ve brought some other very talented people onto your podcast. Tell us about some of them, who are they, how did you find them, how do you utilize them?  

A lot of this is partly an attempt to bring in the aspect of guests that you can get on other shows. Being a comedian, most of my contacts are other comedians I perform with and so it gives me an excuse to spend time with them and also introduce my audience to these incredibly talents folks. These would be guests such as Hannah Platt, Josh Jones and Tom Little.

Here I get them to read out bits of the dialogue and play characters, where sometimes it will be straight as written in the book, other times like with Jade Fearnley, Bexie Archer and Tom Burgess, we’ll play around a little more to add some humor in.

“Sometimes if I’ve got a guest who’s a comedian but has a specific knowledge outside of comedy it’s a great opportunity to use their knowledge and save some precious research time.”

Sometimes if I’ve got a guest who’s a comedian but has a specific knowledge outside of comedy it’s a great opportunity to use their knowledge and save some precious research time. Alastair Beckett King and James Shakeshaft run an ace podcast called Loremen that’s all about unusual Folk Tales, so there’s a really nice natural overlap that we’re both looking at the past with a funny view.

Ross Brierly likewise is a professional horse racing expert, and an excuse to be able to invite him on and use that knowledge on something as ridiculous as Martians invading was just too good an opportunity to pass up.

Alongside comedians, I’ve been lucky to speak to, both on and off podcast, experts about particular topics. Simon Guerrier is a BBC producer I was put in contact with from a random email I sent to a presenter called Samira Ahmed, who both worked on an H.G. Wells documentary.

I also spoke with an author of a book on the Victorian news cycle for a specific question that wasn’t covered in articles. This was again just from sending an email directly, and often there’ll be no response, but it’s heartening to see how frequently people do get back in touch.

Q: Talk a little bit about yourself. In particular, I’d love to hear more about your background in comedy, influences, etc.

Edy Hurst
(c) Andy Hollingworth Archive

I started comedy in 2013 (I think, I don’t really know what counts as ‘starting’ as that could mean anything from professional which I was by no means a that point, or doing it regularly, which was also not necessarily the case then) and performed big absurdist bits.

My big influences for comedy at that time was Steve Martin, Emo Phillips and Tony Law. I guess that hasn’t changed so much, but I think I’ve discovered more about my own voice and what works with me on stage.

Performing music with the comedy has sort of crept in over time until eventually I realized that if I’m largely performing 10 – 15 minute sets it’s a lot to tell an audience ‘ok! Here’s a made-up story, and here’s some jokes and now a song and now back to a story’ there’s just not enough time for so many different threads.

Since starting I’ve been nominated for the BBC New Comedy Award in 2017 and taken my debut hour show to the Edinburgh Fringe and across the UK last year and early this year. I also do improv with Murder Inc, who do longform mystery shows based around an online suggestion.

I love stuff that is very silly and stupid but very smart at the same time. Eric Andre, Monty Python, Maria Bamford all spring to mind.

Q: You describe yourself as “a musical comedian,” tell me more about that? Who are some of your musical influences?

I think of myself as a musical comedian as in someone who is a comedian that is also musical. Maybe that sounds stupid, but what I mean is that I perform music and write songs but the focus is on them being funny. I will also use music as a means of making an observation or a joke. Real talk: I just use a guitar on stage and do jokes that involve it.

Billy Bailey, Flight of the Conchords, Tenacious D are all people who are and have been hugely influential in terms of what I’ve wanted to do. I also have massive respect for artists such as Weird Al Yankovic who does parody songs (he does write his own music too which is really great and funny), although performance-wise that’s not where I’m at.

I’ve always been drawn to songs that are funny regardless of whether they are by comedians or not. Randy Newman whilst not a comedian, writes hilarious songs, as does John Grant and 10cc. There’s a lot of humor in song writing that I think is underappreciated, but I absolutely love it.

Q: One of your interludes includes a light-hearted segment exploring what it would be like other well-known musical acts (Lady Gaga, Kool and the Gang, etc.) did a musical version of War of the Worlds. Let me turn the tables and pose that as a serious question. If you could select one other musician/group to do a musical version of War of the Worlds, who would it be? And why? 

LCD Soundsystem’s Musical Version of Edy Hurst’s Comedy Version of Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of H.G. Well’s Literary Version (Via Orson Welles’ Radio Version & Steven Spielberg’s Film Version) of the War of the Worlds

Aha! What a great question, and a tricky one too. There’d be a few that spring to mind. I always find it weird that the musicians that go into big stage musicals often aren’t really the ones that you’d think naturally fit. Like, who listened to U2 and thought, these guys need a musical, let alone one about Spiderman?

In that vein the Killers of modern bands would probably have a great bash at it, but I’d rather not hear that.

Guys that sprung to mind immediately were Tom Waits and Laurie Anderson, maybe together, but then again, I’m not sure if that’s fair as I’d just love to see them do anything together.

So having to choose one, ok, here we go. I think I’d really like to see someone like LCD Soundsystem do a concept album of the War of the Worlds. They have such a great way of wearing their influences on their sleeves, and also an ironic detachment that I think would be perfect for where we’re at now.

Q: Do you have plans for any future WotW related projects?

H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds" Mask by Glennascaul | Redbubble
Deadly microbes … not just for Martians anymore.

If we get into a future where the germs aren’t destroying us and the live show can happen, and I finish book 1 and 2 of the podcast, I think I’m ready to move on from War of the Worlds.

Although as said before, my creative output is a bit of a meat grinder of pop culture references and weird ideas my head throws out fed through what an audience will put up with, so there’s no doubt it’ll come back in some form like an unexpected belch.

Q: What else are you currently working on?

I’m making quite infrequent videos that go on my social media stuff, as well as writing new songs and bits for when I can go out into the world again.

Q: What are the best ways for my readers (if, indeed, they exist) to find you online?  

I’m on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @edyhurst (or/Edyhurst) where you can follow me for podcast news, videos and jokes.

I also have my website

And you can listen to my podcast on apple, spotify or anywhere else that podcasts are slogged.

Check out other installments of my War of the Worlds Q&A series, including H.E. Wilburson and C.A. Powell.

The Martian Diaries: Q&A with H.E. Wilburson

For the first in my Q&A series with creators of War of the Worlds-themed media, I had the pleasure of “sitting down” with H.E. Wilburson, author, musician, and creative driver behind The Martian Diaries, a soon-to-be-completed trilogy of audio dramas complete with original soundtrack.

If you’re too impatient to read the interview first, go ahead and click to listen to samples of H.E. Wilburson’s The Martian Diaries.

H.E. Wilburson and the Red Planet

Q: Tell me a little about the Martian Diaries trilogy?

My sequel to The War Of The Worlds is based on a second, more devastating Martian invasion. The astronomer Ogilvy–from H.G Wells’ original book– has kept a record of everything he has learned about the Martians, and his account becomes The Martian Diaries.

In volume one The Day Of The Martians, an unopened Martian cylinder–that had crash landed at the time of the first invasion–is discovered in the mountains of Wales in 1913 and transported to London for examination. Separately, it becomes evident that the Martians are actually on their way back to Earth, in a huge armada that looks like a green comet. Ogilvy and other original H.G Wells characters remain key to the new plot.

In volume two Lake On The Moon, we learn the back story of how Ogilvy survived a Martian heat ray attack on Horsell Common during the first invasion. Then in 1919 an unexplained outbreak of Red Weed occurs in southern England, just as Ogilvy discovers that fresh water supplies are widely contaminated by mutant alien bacteria, responsible for a sinister water borne plague that is spreading  around the world.

Ogilvy is convinced that the cure for this mutated bacteria lies within the Martian shadow-weapon carried inside the 1913 comet, and which he believes is now on the moon. His idea to locate the weapon comes to fruition in 1945 with an early manned mission to the moon–pre-dating NASA and Apollo spacecraft.

Volume three Gateway To Mars, the final title in The Martian Diaries trilogy, covers what happens on the moon in 1945 and moves forwards in time to the first human colonies on Mars. Right from the start of The Martian Diaries, it was my intention to bring H.G Wells’ story full circle and to give my interpretation of why the Martians came to Earth. To me, it is important to keep the element of hope and surprise running through the series, as it is in the original War Of The Worlds.

Q: How did you first discover War of the Worlds and what attracts you to using that setting for your own stories?

In the 1970s, when I was about twelve, I saw the 1953 film on TV in black and white. Of course the film is loosely based on the book, however I could not imagine how it would turn out for humans, after they did all that they could to defeat the Martians. Over the years I longed for a continuation of the story–but none came. In 2015  I decided to create a sequel myself and now I am always being asked ‘Does it turn out well for humans?’ It gives me hope that I am doing something right!

Q: How long has it taken to do this trilogy so far.

I came up with the idea of doing a sequel to The War Of The Worlds in late September 2015 and the first version of volume one was finished and recorded by early April 2016. After a few months doing other projects, I revisited the manuscript again and this time I lengthened it. Then I re-recorded with Harry Preston as the main narrator.

Q: What kind of research did you do for the trilogy? How did you approach that research?

My research was done using an old copy of H.G Wells’ book. I also spent many hours listening to an audio version from LibriVox which is a great place to find audios of published books that are in the public domain. Then of course there is Jeff Wayne’s ‘War Of The Worlds’ from the 1970s, which I still listen to from time to time.

Q: What was the greatest challenge of creating the Martian Diaries?

Sitting in front of three blank pieces of paper and trying to come up with something H.G. Wells would find entertaining as a sequel!

Q: What aspect of it did you enjoy the most?

No one was happier than I, hearing Harry Preston’s opening lines of volume one: “The terror of the coming of the Martians was all but a distant memory–a bad dream that had faded with time.” And later with volume two: “Are your dreams your own?” To hear his performance for the first time, together with the music I had specially composed, was definitely something. I’m looking forward to releasing a remastered version of The Day Of The Martians in the near future.

Q: You created the trilogy as an audio drama. Tell me a little bit about why you chose that format.

I have long wanted to have the opportunity to be involved with something significant, and with so much competition for projects, and with many fine artists vying for work, I decided to create my own audio sequel to The War Of The Worlds, even though I had not done much writing in the past. Having been composing music for years I felt I wanted to include some of my own compositions and so an audio drama seemed a good way to present my trilogy. Hopefully the synergy between it all–music, text and the fact that everything came from the same mind–will come through and be entertaining. Just like the composer Hans Zimmer, I love creating melodies and painting pictures with music. Given a choice between writing a book or composing film music, the music wins every time.

Q: Involving actor Harry Preston to voice the narrator in The Martian Diaries was a huge coup. How did that come about?

Harry Preston

Pure chance. I got talking to someone who loved The War Of The Worlds while waiting for my car to be fixed in a garage. He gave me the number of an actor with a great voice who turned out to be Harry Preston. Things might have been very different if my car didn’t have a problem that day.

Q: What was the recording/production process like?

I had to build my own studio and learn how to use Apple’s Logic program. It was the only way to stay within budget. Then I spent many hours learning how to produce and master my own tracks in a quest to get the recordings up to a recognised quality. The whole trilogy will be re-mastered one day. The sounds you hear on the radio, film and TV, whether it is music. films or plays, are delivered by sound engineers who hardly get a mention. It is ironic that the better they are, the less you are aware of  the amount of work they have done.

Q: Do you have a background in radio/recording/audio production?

I do now! And I feel I am getting better at it. Here are my two best tips for anyone hoping to make a decent recording, 1. LEARN HOW TO USE AN AUDIO COMPRESSOR and tip 2. LEARN HOW TO USE AN AUDIO COMPRESSOR…

Q: Original music is interwoven throughout The Martian Diaries. Tell me a little bit about that. What inspired your take on the music? Tell me about the composition and recording process. What is your background in music and some of your main influences (both for Diaries and generally)?

I enjoy musical sounds and for me they conjure up pictures. I love using a variety of instruments and putting them together in unexpected ways–it could be as diverse as a harp matched with a distorted mosh pit electric guitar. I am not too bothered about the instrument used, but rather the mood it creates.  Although most of the tracks have been composed specifically for The Martian Diaries trilogy, the music used for the ‘Arrival of the Comet’ (track 15, volume one) goes way back to 1994 and is one of my earliest compositions.

I find composing very easy and enjoyable to do, unlike writing. One of my most recent tracks for volume three, took only two hours to create and produce from start to finish and I think it’s one of my best, so I’m looking forward to sharing that.

My favourite instrument to compose with is the piano because from the tone of a single note on a given day, can come a new and finished piece. Inspiration can come in most unexpected ways and track 11 in volume one, ‘Laura Has Gone,’ was inspired by seeing a spontaneous pirouette.

I don’t have a favourite music genre–I enjoy each piece for what it is. I absolutely get the music of Hans Zimmer, and if it were possible, one day I would love to work with him on a score. (Dreamers do what they do I guess!)

Q: The conclusion to the trilogy, Gateway to Mars, is coming out soon. Do you have a release date? What can listeners expect? Do you have plans for future War of the Worlds themed stories beyond the trilogy?

I am aiming for a release date around February 18th 2021. NASA’s Perseverance Rover is slated to arrive on Mars that month and so it seemed to be fitting and rather apt for me, especially with the word ‘perseverance’ as its name.

As for future War Of The Worlds themed stories from me–well, I deliberately designed my sequel around the diary idea so that I could insert short spin-off stories featuring some of the characters. Actually, I make a fleeting cameo appearance in Gateway To Mars–as a writer–in the second half of the book, set in the year 2135 on Mars Base Three.

This last volume is going to sound rather different to the previous two, and I hope listeners will be pleased. The Martian Diaries trilogy will be released as digital ebooks later this year or early next year, so those who would prefer to read, rather than listen, can also access the story. The audiobooks can already be purchased at most online digital platforms.

Q: Talk a little bit about yourself and your other works?

Composing music has always been in the background of my life. My first attempt at a project combining text with music was my own adaptation of Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, which I did a couple of years before starting my trilogy. I am hoping to release it in the near future–perhaps later in 2021 when I have five minutes to spare. I also have several hundred pieces of music that I would love to see used in some way.

Q: What are the best ways for readers to find you online?

I am most active on Twitter which is a great place to connect with creative people of all types. s 

Joining my email list via the website is another way of getting updates and news, such as release dates and broadcasts of the titles. Volume two is going to be broadcast by Radio Woking soon, together with a re-run of volume one–dates to be finalised. Readers may remember that Woking is the town in England where the Martians first landed in H.G Wells’ original book. He lived there for a couple of years while he was writing it during 1896-97.

Check out other installments of the War of the Worlds Q&A series, including author C.A. Powell.