Gearbox’s Chief Creative Champion Mikey Neumann makes everyone’s version of looking busy look like a stroll in the park. On September 18th, the much anticipated ‘Borderlands 2’ will be hitting the shelves, and coming on February 12, 2013 is the canonical sequel in the Aliens series, ‘Aliens: Colonial Marines’. If the pressure wasn’t enough from those two things, Neumann amped up further by creating, an experiment in science fiction novelization. From his website you can read for free ‘The Returners’, a science fiction novel that will blow your mind.

It is called an experiment because of the way it is written. The story had started out on Neumann’s personal blog before he had moved to, where it is now formatted so that you can read it as an ebook. It is updated chapter by chapter, broken down into seasons much like a television show. What has just been published is Season 1 Part 2. Fans can follow Neumann on Twitter (@mikeyface), where he frequently posts statuses of when the next chapter will arrive for eagerly awaiting fans. From there, to read the book on the go, or if you would just rather read it in bulk, you can purchase each Part on Amazon for Kindle.

Aside from the unique way it is brought to the fans, ‘The Returners’ sets itself above the rest of science fiction novels for several reasons. First off, it brings in notable historic characters, ones people don’t think of once they leave their history classrooms. Secondly, with the way that it is written, it is fast paced and, while that can get confusing at times, the pace pays off in the long run. Thirdly, you feel you already know these characters, which in a sense you do, so you really feel for them when bad things happen.

Part One begins following Alex Heaton and Chloe Friemont, a seemingly normal couple until a gunfight in a fast food taco joint sends them running. We learn quickly that the couple isn’t who they say they are but are two of The Returners, historic figures of the past who are now in our present day. Part of the fun of Part One is learning who each Returner is; the guessing game of who is it going to turn out to be. Some are easier to figure out than others, while some will give you a chance to brush up on your history lessons. Part One is really about the establishment of characters, which is done well, leaving most characters really well rounded. I originally had thought that the character Janey was lacking until I had gotten into Part Two, which I will talk about below. The fast pace both helps and hurts in this case, because it does leave you wanting more, but at the same time you feel it can be slowed down just a bit so that you can really get your bearings with each character. It does keep moving and there is no stalling points, which leaves room to read multiple times to possibly pick up on something you missed out on the first time. I know I have read it several times not just for reviewing purposes, but because it is just that good.

Part Two is where the story itself starts to really develop. It picks up three hours later than where Part One left off, which was a huge cliffhanger and those of us reading during development times were really left hanging for more. The plot is thickened more, and it actually feels like it slows down a bit. Not slows down in a bad way, but in a way that gives you time to really think about what is happening. As I’ve said, I’ve been reading the book during the development process, waiting for chapters and being automatically hooked on the series. Those who are reading the completed version on Kindle will not have that type of anticipation until they finish. The characters who I felt lacking, namely Janey and John in my opinion were rounded out and what felt to be up to par with the rest of the characters.

To put it completely blunt, ‘The Returners’ is a work of art. A harmonious blend of science fiction, humor, action, history, and a hint of romance. The faults lie in the a mixed pacing, but its nothing that cannot be overlooked in favor of story. Reading in development is my preferred way to read it, but like with some television shows sometimes you just need to read it in completion.

I was able to talk with author Mikey Neumann about the development of ‘The Returners’, and to pick his brain a little. We didn’t go completely spoiler free in talking though, so if you don’t want to be spoiled I would recommend holding off on reading this part just in case!

SF: The concept of ‘The Returners’ is different than what we are used to seeing in the science fiction world, where would you say you drew inspiration from?
MN:  I’m a fan of crazy genre-fiction. I’ve always found that my favorites types of stories are ones that take an existing idea and turn it on its head in a clever way (feel free to embrace the entire Whedon oeuvre to illustrate that). I think a lot of my inspiration is worn proudly on my sleeve. I think you can see the influence of not just ‘LOST’ but the television format as a whole in the work. It’s not your basic “Oh hai, this is the main character and he’s got to murderlize Bad Guy A in this rigid story format.” I like the idea that the cast of characters evolve over time, shifting around in importance. It’s more ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘Firefly’, ‘LOST’, etc. The neat idea was to take famous historical figures and simplify their essence down to a classical archetype. From there, I supplied their existing life as the back story, and built them back into fully formed people from there. These people all had to grow up twice. That evolves a character in really interesting ways without betraying our understanding of who that person is.I also thought it was rad to make all the “brute” or “warrior” archetypes and make them all female. Joan of Arc, Harriet Tubman, Sacagawea. Are we spoiling things? Spoiler alert on everything I just said. Man, you probably shouldn’t have read it, but at least now you can’t I say I didn’t warn you.

SF: Do you have a favorite of the Returners? Is there one you relate closest with?

MN:  I think the best way to write characters is to find some way to relate to them. Even the bad ones. Actually, the best villains are always the ones you find yourself relating to in different ways. Sometimes the villain isn’t wrong, and although we haven’t delved far enough into the story of all of the villains, the basic ideas in play are relate-able.

Good and Evil are less concrete ideas in the story and ideas I’m trying to convey. The chapters where Albert is explaining the “moral imperative” in Season One Part Two explain this the best. Complex moral dilemmas are just that. Evil might exist in the world I’m creating, but it doesn’t make every issue clean and tidy. It’s actually quite messy when everything starts to fall apart in the Fish Stick Factory.

Having said all that nonsense. 13-year-old Albert is my favorite character to write. He’s so conflicted. There’s so much data inside his brain, but he hasn’t developed enough to remember it. He gets frustrated for knowing he knows things, but can’t understand the concepts.

SF: With you putting out ‘The Returners’ in seasons, like television format, who would be your dream cast for the roles?
MN:  Ha! That’s a great question. I’ve oddly never really put actors in my head while writing it. If I’m on the spot, Alexander the Great would be tough. He’s young, impulsive, coming off of early-twenties binge of being a complete womanizer. You need that discovered star quality. Arnie Hammer, I think that’s his name, from ‘The Social Network’. He’s got that cocksure bravado and just enough condescension in his voice. Eliot Ness is in his thirties, so a completely out-of-budget casting of Joseph Gordon Levitt with a goatee would be just about the best thing in the world. He’s got classic prohibition style. Joan of Arc is another crazy one to talk about. I can’t believe I’ve never really thought through something like this before. She needs really intense eyes where a simple glance can imply two entire lifetimes that didn’t go according to plan. Mary Elizabeth Winstead has eyes like that. So her. And all other characters would be played by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in a donkey-suit.

SF: Speaking of the way that you’re distributing through both for free at and through Amazon, how is the experiment working? Do you find it more frustrating or rewarding? Do you feel it is better to leave people hanging per chapter, or do you think it is something you should sit down and read all at once? Do you think you deal with more disgruntled fans this way? Are they more supportive this way?

MN: Opinions differ on how to enjoy it in the best way. Some people like reading it live; some people like waiting for the novellas to come out on Amazon. I don’t think there’s a right way or anything, but there’s certainly a free way to enjoy it.

I like the challenge of putting out a story in the serialized format; that goes all the back to Charles Dickens for me – that’s why it’s called “BOZ” Publishing because Oliver Twist was serialized in a magazine under the pseudonym “BOZ.” I like that the big fans are always clamoring for more and more. That’s gives me drive to go home after a full day at work and put out content in my free time. It’s a blessing having fans this dedicated.

Conversely, I think there is a slight negative to reading it in big chunks. It’s purposely a little soap-opera-y, and it’s purposely got a lot of cliffhangers that I wouldn’t necessarily put in if I was only releasing it in regular novel form. I’ve heard some comments like that on Good Reads and Amazon and I can’t say I disagree with them. But the style of ‘The Returners’ is certainly a nod to older storytelling ideas. I like that people don’t know where the hell I’m going with it but they are excited to take that journey with me.

I’m doing something different, for better and for worse, and people are taking notice of that.

SF: Since this had started out as a short story and has evolved to something much greater, have you actually plotted where you want it to go from here?

MN: Oh yes. I am a maniac when it comes to structure over the long term. Not everything is set in stone, but I have major concepts for five seasons and a definitive ending. It won’t go on forever just because it’s serialized.

I have changed things on the fly, or in one crazy case, purposely left something open ended so I could make the decision when I was living in the emotions of the moment when I was writing.

(SPOILER ALERT) In the chapter “Nature Vs. Nurture,” the killer explains to the two people he had kidnapped that he would only kill one of them, but he hadn’t decided yet. That was me speaking through the villain. I love doing stuff like that. I set that up in my notes by taking both characters and plotting out WAY into the future of what that character would do in the story. I wanted that power in the moment. I had the knowledge that I was actively destroying value from my universe and I had to make a choice. And if you read the end of that chapter, you know I changed my mind.

SF: In Part 2 we start learning more about the killer, which in theory is a harder character to write. Did you have a process for writing them and developing more layers for them, or did you know from the start exactly who it was and exactly what they are going to do?

MN: The universe is larger than that. There are obviously other dangerous forces in play that are not necessarily directly connected to the killer. Every season, I’m going to peel back the curtain more and more as to what is actually going on here. Season One is about discovering each other and trying to stop a crazed killer from ending their lives before they understand why they’ve returned in the first place. The end of Season One is a direct set up for Season Two (and beyond.)

I just answered this question with something else because we got a really solid look into how I write the killer in the last question. Writing a villain like that is awesome. There! Answered it.

SF: Do you ever feel guilty for what happens to characters? Do fans get upset?

MN: They have, but I follow Whedon’s law (not to be confused by Wheaton’s Law). A book is just about the only format where you are free to do whatever you have to, to tell the story you want to tell. On television, killing a character means firing an actor and possibly losing a close friend you have at your job.

Joss Whedon has never hesitated to sacrifice a character to tell a better story. I feel the same way.

When my editor read THE chapter towards the end of S1 Part Two, the first message I got back from him was, “You just killed my favorite character.”

And I was like:


SF: How soon do you expect Part 3 to start being written? How many parts are there going to be per season?
MN: Every season is in three parts. We have rounded the corner into the final act. I have pages and pages of outlines and notes for the chapters in Part Three but I need a little bit of a break from it until work calms down a little. Apparently, launching all these video games can take up a fair bit of your time. I’ll be writing on it as I can fly around the country promoting ‘Borderlands 2’, though. Some people go to bars on business trips, I go to my room and write about how Beowulf and Batman can be on the same make-believe crime fighting team. Part Three will be out by the end of the year, I would guess. From the day Part One came out on Amazon, to the day Part Two came, it was exactly three months. That’s really fast.

If you’re interested in reading ‘The Returners’, you can check it out at or purchase it on Amazon. Have you read ‘The Returners’? Tell us what you think about it!