Damn Dirty Space Bugs: How I Let They Might Be Giants Write My Novels

This is how The Killbug Eulogies came about.

In my mid twenties, my chief creative pursuit was song writing. I didn’t play the guitar well, and I couldn’t sing, but lyric appealed to me because I considered it a blend of what life has taught you, what you’ve read about, and what rhymes. I used to walk around lower Manhattan with a pocket notebook and a pen in hand, sometimes till two in the morning, writing down couplets as the wanderlust inspired me.

One night I was talking about ideas for songs when someone mentioned They Might Be Giants once wrote nine songs about The Planet of the Apes. Wikipedia tells me this took place on an album called Severe Tire Damage and there were only seven. Anyways, I joked I would write six songs about Starship Troopers, one for each insectoid leg. (The campiness of the film made it a favorite of mine in college.) I ended up writing lyrics for all six, each from a different character’s point of view. I even started recording them. Here I recite the lyrics I wrote for Johnny Rico: a love song called Onslaught. For another, I stole the chorus from the first verse of a song called “Cruel War”—as recorded by Peter Paul & Mary—because it tells the story of Dizzy in the movie—even the name of her love interest is same! I liked the idea of a battlefield romance, and I included maudlin lines such as:

I plant this flag upon you
In the name of naked force
Loving you forever with no remorse

The song for the Neil Patrick Harris character began with fairly disturbing:

I hear, I hear what the bugs think
Manic single-minded thoughts underground

(Pardon the nostalgia, this stuff tickles me.)

The music got worse as the series progressed, so I gave up after three. But in the song for the brain bug, I came up with the idea that the insects believe the divine creator of the universe entrusted them with the sacred mission to destroy everything he had made. 9/11 was a fresh memory and religion felt destructive to me.

I made an earnest attempt at fiction at 26. As I’ve said in an earlier post, I set to work on an enormous novel about All The Things. A character named Rey carries around the only extant copy of an imaginary 1970s science fiction novel called Galaxy Roach by Mickey Ventrino. Its scenes take place in a space hospital where the main character, Timothy Archon, falls in love with his nurse as he recovers from a leg injury. (The similarity to a A Farewell to Arms ends there.) His life prior to this injury is summarized as follows:

The protagonist is a young ox of a man named Timothy Archon. Timothy is not an archon, but a private in the army of the Human Planetary Alliance stationed on Raid Outpost Gamma Nu. Every day his unit infiltrates the hives of sixteen foot praying mantes and snipes the females during the act of copulation. They snipe the females because they are the warrior sex of the species, they snipe them during the act of copulation because that’s when they are vulnerable to small arms fire, the only weaponry that can be carried through the narrow crawlspaces of the labyrinthine mantis hives. Every day when Timothy infiltrates mantis nests to snipe the females, a few of his friends get eaten. Timothy always has more friends to be eaten. Some are friends he met in the army, but usually they are friends he made while growing up on Beta Planet.

Timothy is an entirely useless soldier and, due to his great size, terrifically eatable. Fortunately, none of his comrades will permit Timothy to get eaten. In the nick of time, they leap from the sidelines with athleticism, shielding Timothy’s body with their delicious organs and crying with their last breath, “Live for me, Tim-tim. Damn you bugs, damn you to hell! Rat tat tat tat.” Archon’s only function in his unit is to throw himself senselessly into mortal peril so that his friends can get eaten while saving his life.

Later, Timothy gives a brilliant eulogy while their corporeal remains are consigned to the earth.

All his comrades are moved by the brilliance of his eulogy. Timothy Archon does not care much for his comrades, and his comrades certainly loathe him, but by protecting his life they get to hear him speak eloquently about themselves, and Timothy gets to watch them die. This kind of relationship passes for friendship in the future.

Almost the entire first third of the novel consists of brilliant eulogy about persons we know nothing about until they meet a brutal, messy end protecting Archon. Archon is terrible at brilliant eulogy. His speeches have almost a fetish for the brutality of the fatal wounds. He says things like “No, not the eyes! Those are the eyes that used to dance as he sang for us, boys and girls alike, as pale luminance from the mouth of the ragnarite mines reflected off the subterranean pools of Beta’s outer moons. Green as grapes they were (the eyes), now so monstrously burst, making the bitterest of wines.”

In the future, lines like these move a dead soldier’s friends deeply. And even in the present day, when Rey reads these pages at family dinners, crazy Uncle Umberto will say Amen.

Timothy describes the childhood shared with the fallen on Beta Planet. With great grief he recounts those halcyon days in and around the ragnarite mines. If not for the sadness in Archon’s voice, the brilliant eulogies make Timothy’s dead comrades sound like pricks. These Betans have been prickish all their lives, but especially prickish toward Archon. The more prickish his friends have been, the more Archon weeps with nostalgia at the prickish things they did to him as they played as children in and around the ragnarite mines of Beta Planet and her moons. A friendly competition emerges among Timothy’s comrades to see who can prove themselves to have been the biggest prick to Timothy back on Beta Planet. To win at this game is worth dying for. It is much more fun than shooting mantes.

In the future, children play in mine shafts.

I wrote this with the intention of making Galaxy Roach sound like the most asinine military sci fi of all time. But as I edited the book (the real one), the core concept grew on me. This was a thing that needed to exist, I felt.

After writing an opus of third of a million words, I wanted a project with very limited parameters. A series of funeral speeches for men killed by giant space insects, given by someone who hated them.

See how that fits in a sentence? I dug that.

As I started working, but I found I was saying much of the same things as my 1000+ page book, but shorter and a lot more effectively. Despite the ludicrous hellscape I created for these unfortunate soldiers, the characters started to feel flushed out and sympathetic. Plus it amused me that the imaginary novel from my first book would find itself into the real world. Galaxy Roach, however, had been a deliberately stupid title, and even for a novel with a hokey prose style, it had be be changed.

So that’s how a baker’s half dozen of They Might Be Giants songs I’ve never once listened to resulted in a taut little book about men getting eaten by giant insects in a far corner of the galaxy. And now it is coming out in a few months!

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