The Big Idea: Diana Peterfreund

Jane Austen has been a muse for more than one speculative fiction writer, in no small part because the world she lived in can echo into the future, amplifying what the author of a new work wishes to say. So it is for Diana Peterfreund and her latest novel For the Darkness Shows the Stars, which takes its Austen inspirations in new and compelling directions.

DIANA PETERFREUND:

Post-apocalyptic Persuasion. At first, it was just a fun tongue-twister. After all, in 2009, the book publishing world was in thrall to a little mash-up called Pride & Prejudice and Zombies. But as I started thinking on it more seriously, I realized the potential for a true re-imagining. Persuasion, for the unfamiliar, is the story of a nobleman’s daughter who, in her younger days, refused the hand of an ambitious but poor young Navy officer on the advice of friends and family who thought he wasn’t her equal. Years later, her useless father’s mismanagement has left the ancestral estate in a precarious position, forcing them to rent out their family home to up-and-comers of the middle class. Into her life waltzes her old suitor, now a rich and famous captain, and certainly still angry about her rejection.

It may be the most class-conscious of all Jane Austen’s novels, and deals directly with the failure of an indolent nobility to recognize how swiftly the economic and social landscape is changing thanks to the industry and success of a rising bourgeoisie. The world is changing, getting better, moving forward – and the old guard, who’d run the world in less-enlightened times, refuses to entertain the idea. How much more post-apocalyptic can you get?

Modern retellings of Austen twist themselves up like pretzels trying to formulate a notion of class that makes sense to young American readers, who generally consider class to be fluid (we’re all going to grow up to be rich celebrities, right?). Clueless, for example, recasts the minor class barriers in that story as the cliques of a status-conscious high schooler. In my case, I got to utilize science fiction to make my class divides durable and understandable to my young adult audience.

My husband and I spent a few enjoyable evenings with glasses of wine and important questions: What caused the apocalypse? What is the makeup of the class system? Fascinated by the idea of what the future holds in the realm of biotechnology and genetic engineering, we initially played around with a class structure arranged on those lines. But Aldous Huxley had that pretty well sewn up, and it didn’t necessarily jibe with my imagery of an upper class mired in the past.

Then it hit me: I could kill both birds with the same stone. What if overeager genetic engineering was actually the cause of the end of the world, and the backwards-thinking post-apocalyptic upper class were the descendents of the people who’d denied themselves this tragic genetic tinkering through religious objections, scientific skepticism, or just plain poverty? The meek who’d inherited the Earth.

Thus were born my Luddites, the survivors of a genetic experiment gone wrong that rendered the bulk of the population of the Earth severely mentally disabled. Fiercely anti-science and anti-technology, they plunge the world into a new Dark Age.

This backstory opened up all kinds of knotty moral conundrums. The Luddites aren’t actually wrong—genetic engineering was demonstrably dangerous to the human race. To this, add the fact that their ancestors faced attack from a dying society that would rather destroy the world than let other people have it, and that they spent countless generations as the caretakers of the helpless “Reduced” people left behind. That’s a pretty hefty chunk of indoctrination and duty to set on the shoulders of my heroine, Elliot, the teenaged daughter of a feckless Luddite lord.

Elliot, like a lot of teens, is trying to define her own beliefs about the world and decide how they differ from what she was taught growing up. What parts of her heritage are true and right, and what parts should be discarded as humanity moves into the future?

By the time of the novel, there’s a growing population of healthy humans born to the Reduced who, nevertheless, possess the same low status and lack of liberty. One of these “Post-Reductionists” is her childhood best friend, the servant Kai. Her relationship with him causes her to question Luddite values and the complacent and self-satisfied caste system that disenfranchises the Posts.

Kai is unwilling to accept the social status quo, and runs away to make his fortune beyond the confines of their Luddite estate. Years later he returns, wealthy, powerful and spouting radical, revolutionary philosophies of technological progress. But though he may be angry, he hasn’t forgotten about Elliot. And Elliot isn’t the woman society expects her to be, either. Together, they could be the start of a new age, a chance to move past the devastation the world has suffered – as long as they can forgive each another.

But how to tell this story of their fraught reunion while giving proper weight to the earlier relationship that made it possible? Again, Jane Austen came to the rescue. She loved epistolary novels as much as I do , and often incorporated letters into her works (Sense and Sensibility was originally an epistolary story called “Elinor and Marianne”). Persuasion’s own famous love letter gave me the idea to create a parallel epistolary narrative.

As childhood friends, Elliot and Kai sent each other letters where they debate the nature of their society and the potential of their star-crossed romance, following in long tradition of letter-loving lovers whose correspondence is as philosophical as it is affectionate: Heloise and Abelard, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and (my personal favorite) John and Abigail Adams.

These letters from my heroes’ younger selves are interspersed throughout the novel, showcasing the character’s changing views of the world and each other, and setting the stage for the world-changing trials they face when they meet again. The story is about love and second chances, both for Kai and Elliot and for the world they live in, which is finally emerging from its long, restless sleep.

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For Darkness Shows the Stars: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Read a prequel story (pdf link). Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

5 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Diana Peterfreund

  1. Hmm… Sounds worth picking up to me.

    I am very much enjoying the “big ideas” in the Big Idea posting series here, this one included. Much musing here and on Stross’ blog and elsewhere on big ideas in speculative fiction, and while we’re all grumbling about it we keep seeing new writers who Have a Clue putting ideas like this out. Bravo.

  2. Daughter of the most minor of the noblity, barely a nobleman at all — a minor baronet, which is not a peer of the realm — which makes Eliot’s pretensions even more silly:

    “A baronetcy is the only hereditary honour which is not a peerage. A baronet is styled “Sir” like a knight, but ranks above all knighthoods except for the Order of the Garter and, in Scotland, the Order of the Thistle. A baronetcy is not a knighthood and the recipient does not receive an accolade.”

    and:

    “The title baronet does not qualify a person as a peer, so a person whose highest title is baronet cannot enter the House of Lords. This means that while a baronet is a nobleman, he is also a commoner, and is qualified for the House of Commons, if he is elected …”

  3. This…sounds pretty swell. Jane Austen figured prominently in my pantheon of storyteller idols long before I discovered SF in college. The thing I love most about her stories as that her characters actually learn something from their experiences, and not merely to grow into mouthpieces for some authorial ideology, but to understand how and why others with different experiences see the world differently.

    I do so agree that her and other proto-romance/society novelists are a rich vein to mine for speculative fiction, even if it means dragging those literary stars down into the gutter of our ghetto :-/

    SFF, where everyone is welcome, which is probably why literary critics won’t even acknowledge geek-lit. What was that you were saying about upwardly mobile commoners upsetting the applecart?

    @ Foxessa

    Aye, but was not always so. British peerage has been shuffled several times through the course of its relatively long history. Also, Continental nobility doesn’t and hasn’t matched up quite as perfectly as a chess board (which has also been rearranged a few times as cultures rose and fell around the game). If you want a real headache, try figuring out Welsh titles! Anyway, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine a civilization dealing with a full bell-curve of dementia not quite slotting the right Victorian/Elizabethan titles into their appointed autocratic slots without some confusion or deliberate reshuffling of hereditary rights.

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