X-Men: Watchers on the Walls

X-Men Watchers on the WallsX-Men: Watchers on the Walls

For years, many have believed that the rise of superpowered mutants represents a threat to the survival of ordinary humans. The uncanny X-Men have dedicated their lives to proving that peaceful coexistence is possible. When a refugee spacecraft crashes on Earth, hounded by a warship bent on its destruction, the X-Men race to the rescue — only to learn that it carries beings of an entirely different order whose very existence may jeopardize life as we know it.

Now, facing a direct threat to all life on Earth, the X-Men grapple with an impossible moral dilemma — to defend the aliens whose only crime is being born different . . . or to embrace the methods of those who have long condemned mutantkind, joining forces with their own greatest persecutors to go hunt down their common enemy and end the evolutionary menace, once and for all.

Audiobook (available January 26, 2021):

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I have to confess — unlike with Star Trek, I haven’t been a fan of the X-Men or Marvel Comics my whole life.  In my youth I never read them, and in high school, what I glimpsed of them seemed rather silly to me.  The occasional cartoon adaptations of Marvel characters on TV didn’t do much for me either.  I was more into Superman and Batman.

It was the excellent animated adaptations of the 1990s that won me over, particularly the X-Men and Spider-Man series that aired on the Fox Network.  Through them, I came to discover how rich and character-driven the Marvel Universe really was.  Yes, it did have its share of cheesiness — the implausible, fanciful powers and phenomena, the melodrama and corny dialogue — but beneath it all was a core of very human, very complex, very real characterization.  Heroes who weren’t too perfect, who had problems and doubts like the rest of us.  And of course there were its rich ongoing storylines.  I’m a sucker for continuity.

When my Star Trek editor Marco Palmieri invited me to pitch for the line of Marvel novels Pocket was doing (well, actually Pocket Star, the name of their SF/media tie-in imprint — Star Trek is the exception, published under the regular Pocket label out of tradition),  he expected me to go for something like The Fantastic Four.  But that’s not one of the series I’m more familiar with, and what I really wanted was to write a Spider-Man novel.  I let Marco know, for future reference, that I’d also be interested in the X-Men.

I was going to do the Spidey novel first, but a few months later, Marco asked me to put it off and do an X-Men novel, something that could be done in time to come out in conjunction with the third X-Men movie.  I hesitated at first, since the deadline was a bit tight and I wasn’t sure I felt ready to try my hand with the X-Men.  But I soon began getting ideas, and so I agreed to do it.  But first I had to do a lot of research.  I wasn’t that familiar with the X-Men beyond what I’d seen on TV and in the movies.  So I tracked down every trade paperback my library had and found a few good websites for research, and learned as much as I could.

My brief for the novel was to write it as though it were a movie — a timeless, standalone story that would be accessible to a new audience, not dependent on any storylines from the comics.  Still, I wanted to keep it as faithful to the comics as I could, so that the hardcore fanbase wouldn’t be disappointed.  It was a bit tricky to find a timeframe within the X-comics that let me use the team members I liked most and knew best and didn’t get mired in all the massive changes that the characters have undergone in the past few years.  I ended up implicitly setting the novel shortly before the saga of “The Twelve” that was published in 1999.  However, for the sake of the story and to avoid confusing the casual reader, I made a couple of slight continuity fudges.  Wolverine had lost his adamantium skeleton sometime before that point in the comics and didn’t get it back until shortly thereafter, but he has it in the book.  Also, I don’t think the Xavier Institute was actively teaching students at that point in the comics continuity, but the students are a big part of Watchers on the Walls.

For the record, the featured X-Men in WotW are: Professor X, Cyclops, Jean Grey, Wolverine, Rogue, Nightcrawler, Shadowcat (with Lockheed, of course), and Beast.  Several other X-Men and supporting characters from their family of titles make cameo appearances, but I don’t want to give all the surprises away.  Okay, I know, maybe it’s a bit redundant to have two fuzzy blue acrobat/jokesters in the same novel, but Beast is a favorite of mine, and my best friend would be heartbroken if I didn’t include Nightcrawler and Lockheed.

The main plot of the novel is adapted from a couple of ideas I’d been mulling over for my original science-fiction work.  The core scientific concept was inspired by Stephen Gillett’s nonfiction book World-Building, part of the Science Fiction Writers’ Series.  One section of the book discussed a concept for a type of alien life that Gillett said nobody, so far as he knew, had ever explored in science fiction (at least as of the book’s 1996 publication date).  Naturally I was eager to take on the challenge.  As it happens, the place I decided to use it was an X-Men novel.  So readers can expect this book to be somewhat more grounded in real-world science than you might expect from a comics-based novel.  (Hey, it’s what I do.)  But I think that’s fitting, because past X-Men writers like Chris Claremont and John Byrne often made a good effort to ground their comics in semi-plausible science — for instance, remembering that Nightcrawler would conserve momentum when he teleported, or realizing that the phased Kitty would fall through the floor if she didn’t have an extra ability to “walk on air.”  That’s one reason I like their work so much.  In Watchers, I’ve tried to strike a similar balance between credible science and uncanny superhero action.

So who’s the main villain in the novel?  Well, as in much of my work, the main antagonists here aren’t really evil, just doing something they believe is regrettable — even horrendous — but necessary for the greater good.  But they end up partnering with some familiar foes in order to do it.  Who?  Well… the title is a clue.

Annotations page  (Spoiler-heavy!)

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