Friends, I must confess something pretty embarrassing. For one reason or another—be it the pandemic or general upheaval of This Moment—I have not been able to finish reading a book in months. For too long I’ve cracked open tomes I’ve meant to read for ages only to get about 60 pages deep before leaving them to languish in a sad little shame stack on my nightstand.
Thankfully, something has finally broken my illiterate streak: Devastation Class, a zippy YA sci-fi novel with an improbably fascinating backstory.
Devastation Class, out Tuesday, reads like a fresh-faced riff on Star Trek as a group of young cadets commit mutiny in order to save humankind from a villainous extra-terrestrial race called the Kastazi. The teens take turns narrating as the story unfolds, revealing traumatic personal histories and building out the world’s lore along the way.
The book’s co-authors, Glen Zipper and Elaine Mongeon, have a fascinating personal history as well; they dated for eight years after meeting on the now-defunct dating site Nerve. (For the uninitiated, Zipper explains that Nerve “tried to present themselves as being slightly more edgy than a Match.com or OKCupid.”)
“Let me see if we can patch in my therapist,” Zipper said at the top of our interview—right before Mongeon launched into a description of their first date.
Things started out conventionally enough, with Zipper struggling to find the tatted-up motorcycle rider he’d seen in Mongeon’s profile picture in a bar. (She was wearing a trenchcoat which temporarily complicated this effort.) But after the bar closed early, the two relocated to Zipper’s home—where they fell deep into an overnight Battlestar Galactica binge. (“The Ron Moore version,” Mongeon clarifies.)
In other words, Zipper said, “It devolved into the nerdiest night of my life.” And after the date ended and Mongeon returned home for a shower? She came right back and the two continued their marathon—a nearly perfect replica of that Portlandia sketch.
After eight years together the two decided to break up while Mongeon worked on her short film Good Morning through Warner Bros.’ Emerging Film Directors workshop. They were still living together at the time, and Zipper continued to collaborate with Mongeon on the short.
But Zipper and Mongeon did not stop collaborating there. Last year Mongeon’s date-night horror short Swiped to Death, which Zipper co-wrote and produced, won Hulu’s second annual Huluween film festival. The two have also worked on a couple film treatments they haven’t pitched yet.
Zipper is a director as well—and an Oscar-winner at that, after producing the 2011 documentary Undefeated alongside his brother Ralph Zipper. He also created the Netflix docu-series Dogs, which will debut a new season next year, and Challenger: The Final Flight, which premieres on Netflix Sept. 16.
Devastation Class wears its influences on its sleeve; readers will catch whiffs of Star Trek, Star Wars, and even a little John Hughes, all of which Zipper cites as inspirations. But another, perhaps less expected creative spark came from the 1981 drama film Taps—in which a cohort of military academy students fight to take over their school to stop it from closing and becoming a condominium.
As Zipper explains it, he and Elaine wanted to build on that story while heightening its stakes from abstraction to complete obliteration.
“If they don't make the decision to break the rules and break the law and put their own lives in jeopardy, everyone might perish,” Zipper said. “Including all of humanity.”
Both Zipper and Mongeon agree that collaborating on a book offers more creative freedom than working on a television or film project. The two took turns taking passes at chapters and looking them over to complete the novel.
“We kind of joke about the idea that people probably envision us sitting at a table together with our laptops out, like literally writing together, but that’s not how we work,” Mongeon said.
“Yeah, like that visual of two people playing Battleship—dueling laptops—we would have been throwing things at each other,” Zipper added.
As for what their collaborative give-and-take actually looks like?
“I would say 90 percent of the time we’re on the same page in how things should go,” Mongeon said. “And if we’re not on the same page we, you know, have a lively discussion about whatever it is we don’t agree on...”
“I would encourage you to put ‘lively discussion’ in quotes,” Zipper added.
Former Warner Bros. president Greg Silverman had already purchased the movie rights to Devastation Class before it published, but the two have since regained the rights and will soon begin shopping it again after parting over creative differences about how to bring the project to screen.
Despite its dark-sounding title and life-and-death stakes, Devastation Class is a captivating, breezy read. Its characterization can, at times, feel a little dependent on tropes, but the teens’ chemistry is charming enough to make up for that. (As well-worn as the “girl who likes explosives” gambit can be, I admit I still reveled in every deranged and dangerous idea the team engineer—nicknamed “Ohno”—concocts.) And despite some heavy-handed foreshadowing that unnecessarily spoils some of the novel’s twists, its gripping action scenes and fascinating broader narrative left me more than willing to spend a few more hours with the forthcoming second and third installments of this trilogy.
Also—and I cannot stress this enough—Devastation Class was just good fun. And right now that’s worth traveling to the moon and back for.