Daily Archives: March 3, 2009

The Big Idea: S. Andrew Swann

The bad news is that today I have a sick kid at home, so I have to focus on her, and not all of you. The good news is that in my absence, you get a Big Idea piece, this time from S. Andrew Swann, talking about Prophets, the first book in his new science fiction trilogy. See? Even when I’m away, I’m still thinking of you, and giving you quality amusement, even when (indeed, especially when) it’s actually someone else doing all the heavy lifting, amusement-wise. Take it away, S. Andrew Swann!

S. ANDREW SWANN:

Sometimes it’s a flash of inspiration, whole and complete. Sometimes it’s a laborious process of methodical development.

And sometimes it just sits in the dark, growing larger when you aren’t really looking at it. . .

Tracing the impulse behind Prophets, and the trilogy it begins, inevitably leads to the prior set of books in that universe. I wrote the Hostile Takeover Trilogy nearly fifteen years ago, and my main goal was to write about a realistic anarchy. However, because my planet Bakunin needed a universe to inhabit, I spent a lot of time and effort developing the background of my libertarian-nior space opera. One of the issues I needed to address was how to write an old-school space opera, with all the neat gadgets and stuff, without dealing with some of the more outré elements of what everyone calls now the technological singularity.

Now, I could have just ignored the issue and written it the way I wanted even if I didn’t think it was plausible that with the all the technological gee-whiz elements I threw in, the universe I wore about was in some sense, technologically retarded. But that would have bugged me, so I took another route and gave my future star-spanning human culture(s) a moral aversion (with good reason) to three specific technological developments; artificial intelligence, genetic engineering of sapient life-forms, and, most importantly, a complete and utter ban on self-replicating nanomachines.

Using that old sfnal standby, I got my tech behaving the way I wanted, and I got the added bonus of having a few characters who’re remnants of all three “heretical technologies.” They got to add color and backstory, they didn’t alter the balance of power- at least not in any way I can mention in a non-spoilery fashion.

I really liked the universe I set up in those books, and given how I ended it, any direct sequel would have seemed anti-climatic. So, for a long time it seemed that the story of the Hostile Takeover universe had reached an end.

But. . .

All the characters had walked offstage, their journeys complete. But the universe itself continued to nag at me. The arc of each character had been completed, but in the back of my mind the arc of the universe wasn’t. For a long time there were a number of questions that lurked in the darkness.

One question in particular:

“What happens when the cultural ban on these ‘heretical’ technologies starts to break down?”

I’ve always tried hard to fully develop the implications of whatever premise I’m working from- it’s why my stateless planet Bakunin looks more like Somalia with venture capital than a libertarian utopia- so leaving that particular thread dangling eventually prompted me to write a sequel.

Once I started writing Prophets, I opened a whole new can of worms. Not just about the frictions of a technological asymmetries, but about the frictions of moral asymmetries. The more I looked at the issue of change coming to my universe, in the form of a long-deferred singularity, the more apocalyptic things became. And not just apocalyptic in a metaphorical sense. Because my world had taken a moral stand against this technology, the bringer of these advances can be seen as the devil. The singularity becomes, in most meaningful senses of the term, “the end of the world.” And the idea of the singularity as “the rapture for nerds” becomes less of a joke.

Of course, you can’t have a apocalypse without religion, so this influenced the background and characters. The main protagonists turned out to be a Jesuit priest and a genetically-engineered tiger that follows a form of puritan gnosticism (what’s your view of God when your creator is such a fallible being as man?), the MacGuffin in Prophets is the transmission of a verse from Revelations coming from the vicinity of Xi Virginis, and the main political actors in the novel are the Catholic Church and the Eridani Caliphate.

All of this played into another long-standing fascination of mine, speculative religion. I’ve been working on alternative moral frameworks for my characters for years, building belief systems that grow logically from some fundamentally different premises. Prophets, and the books that follow, gave me a chance to stretch those muscles in what I think were some interesting directions.

It also gave me a chance to unload all the cool space opera ideas I’ve been sitting on for the past decade or so.

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Prophets: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Visit the Prophets Web page. Visit S. Andrew Swann’s blog.

Paul and Storm and Me and Some Other Guys and a Run-on Sentence and Some Creepy Stalking and Maybe Some Other Stuff Too

The excellent and melodious musical comedy duo Paul and Storm, who I recently saw perform in San Francisco, and who at the concert threw a fudge cake at me (it was meant out of love, mind you, and which, somewhat disturbingly, I still have, unconsumed), have been so kind as to say nice things about me and my novels in their podcast today, at around the 28 minute mark, which says to you that the podcast has gone waaaay long, since it’s touted as being five to ten minutes on average, but you know, sometimes things you don’t expect to go for very long just keep on going, like this sentence, and you just have to let it happen, because sooner or later they do just stop. See? Anyway, very nice of them to say kind things about my work to their masses of minions.

And indeed if you have a half hour to kill, the rest of the podcast is pretty interesting as well, particularly the bit where the two of them riff off being in the interesting position of meeting some of the folks they like and admire, and how it’s sometimes a challenge not to completely lose your shit in that situation. For example, when they met this dude recently (link to the dude’s actual journal, which suggests that he did not in fact find them to be creepy stalkers).

There’s some irony in that particular example for me, since at one point in the early 90s, when I worked at the Fresno Bee, I pitched a story about graphic novels to my editor just to have an excuse to phone the dude and talk to him for a half hour. Yes, yes, I too was a creepy stalker in my day. But on the other hand, I’ve not had breakfast at the dude’s house, so Paul and Storm win this round of Creepy Stalker Sweepstakes. That’s all right, because I still have my “Sharing a bong with Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore” story. And what a tale it is! Man, the stories I could tell you. About the bong. And Kim. And Thurston. And the bong. But never mind that now.

Paul and Storm also have an audience participation part, talking about embarrassing moments in their past that they still beat themselves up over years later, and asking folks to share their own story in the comments. I think the closest thing I have to that happened about three years ago, when I thought it would be ginchy to have one of my books have an official soundtrack, so I e-mailed a hungry young musician who I thought would be perfect for the gig, and it went a little something like this:

ME:
I think you should do an EP based on my book
The Android’s Dream! It starts with someone farting
someone else to death! The kids will love it!

JONATHAN COULTON:
Er… no.

In retrospect, probably not my most suave moment, and I think I’d probably redo it if I could. Rather more recently I casually inquired of Coulton’s booker how much it might cost to have Coulton perform a private gig and got back a number which was expensive but which I could now totally afford, thank you Stargate: Universe. But given my past history with Coulton, I suspect my invitation to have him play a private gig at my home, in a special room in my basement that I’ve made up just for him, will just get me put on his list of People To Have Restraining Orders Against. It’s a reminder that once you’ve made an impression as a bit of a jackass, as I figure I may have with poor Mr. Coulton, it’s hard to come back from that.

In any event, if you have any tales of Eternal Embarrassment you’d like to share, whether or not they involve famous folk, drop Paul and Storm a comment. No, don’t leave it here, it was their idea. I’m just telling you about it. Mocking comments about my pathetic stalkery ways, however, should be left here. And you know, do your worst. Because I’ll always have Kim. And Thurston. And that bong.