The Big Idea: Scott Sigler
Posted on March 28, 2008 Posted by John Scalzi 24 Comments
While I’m off in Lots-of-Meetings Land, here’s a fun Big Idea for you, from author Scott Sigler. Sigler made quite a big splash being one of the the first and most successful authors to podcast his writing, garnering up to 30,000 listeners per book — which naturally enough, I think, convinced publishers to say, “hmmm, maybe he could sell a few books, too.” The latest of these, Infected, is officially released next week — but until March 31st, you can get a pdf of the book to sample it for your very own, for free (how? Buy clicking this link, that’s how). Check it out, and remember, if you like it, show your love at the bookstores.
Now here’s Sigler to explain how his book’s Big Idea involves lots of very tiny things, with some nasty ideas on their single-cellular minds.
The Big Idea, Short Version: What would it be like if a tiny, sentient creature could terraform the human body, hijacking natural processes to change our bodies into an environment more suited to them?
The Big Idea, Long version: Animals are basically biological machines, capable of growth, self-repair and design modification based on changing environmental stresses. All of the processes used for those things should be able to be controlled in the human body, if we had the technology. For Infected, that technology is there, but humans are not the ones using it. The story is taking the concept of a virus, hijacking the human body’s natural processes to make copies of a simple organism, and extending that to building highly complex organisms, organisms with a pre-programed purpose and an evil, evil plan. We are a walking planet to the bacteria and arachnids that cover our body in the billions — and if we can modify our planet, why can’t they modify us?
The initial concept drew off of nature and existing fiction, the idea of using a human as an incubator, but it went way beyond that. In Infected, the body isn’t just an incubator, it’s the factory that produces the organism. Our bodies natural processes create something that kills us … kind of like a controlled cancer. It was a bitch-and-a-half to identify the processes necessary to do this and wrap them in the context of a linear, compelling story. I had to read up on cell biology, artificial life, artificial intelligence, Von Neumann probes and — here’s a word I didn’t even know existed until I began — Neuropsychopharmacology.
I consider myself a plot guy, a character guy, a guy that puts in the wrench time to build suspense in an invisible fashion so when you get to the cliff of improbability you gleefully jump off. All of this “science stuff” put me through my paces. In the process, I came to realize that no one was really doing this kind of brutal horror meshed with hard science, save for Lincoln Child & Douglas Preston’s Relic and Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (but do keep in mind I’m not the most well-read guy around, so there are probably many more hard-science writers up to their elbows in blood and entrails). By “hard-science horror” I mean the bloody mess of creating believable characters and then whacking them, combined with something that’s scientifically plausible and is explained to the reader as opposed to just telling the reader something like “Dr. Scalzi’s genius was so vast, no one could ever comprehend how he made the Killer Whatnots.” What’s fun about Infected is you get to see the monster’s construction process, from single cell right up to mean-ass beastie. It’s like a Lego kit with sharp teeth and a bad attitude.
I really fell in love with that style of storytelling, of using the monster’s physiology as a slow-reveal plot device. It greatly impacted my other novels Ancestor, Earthcore and Nocturnal, the one I’m working on now. Using actual science to write monster stories also nails down a realistic feel for the reader. It brings home that this is a modern-day story, and the environment around the characters is the same environment the readers see every day. There is something about sharing a cultural element with a fictional character that makes them more real, more tangible.
This style also gives the reader a fixed rule-set by which to guess the plot. There are no magic wands, no random wormholes, no ghostly teleportation and no history-altering time travel — my stories are the same world you live in every day, which means characters and monsters will obey the laws of physics (for the most part, anyway). And if you read up on pop science or you remember your biology classes, you’re bound to run into things in my books that you already know. Again, there is something about incorporating knowledge that’s already around us that grips the reader, and helps build up the illusion of reality within the story.
So I think I’ve found my niche, and the fans seem to dig knowing they can look up all that science stuff on Wikipedia or in a book and see that I’m using the real stuff … just nudged a bit beyond our current levels of tech. My world involves making characters that are original and detailed (I’m a student of the Stephen King School of Character Creation), make you care about them, then put them into a nasty-old meat grinder filled with biological nightmares. Guessing who’s going to come out alive (and not necessarily in one piece) is the fun of the book. Plus, you might just learn something … at least, that’s what I’m telling the people who buy books for school libraries.
Visit the official site for Infected here. See video of Sigler speaking about his book here (scroll down a little). Listen to podcasts of the novel here.
I think I will pick this one up! Sounds pretty good — like a malevolent take on themes from “Brain Plague” (Joan Slonczewski).
(OK fine — I also just like the creepy eye on the cover. ;-D)
This really does sound interesting, and Kudos to Scott for delving so far into what you admit is not your strength. Count me in!
(p.s. to Scott, if you read this: brutal horror & hard science immediately gets me thinking of Peter Watts.)
My copy’s been pre-ordered at the local Book Shoppe, I’ll be snagging it on 4/1.
The cover wowed me, the synopsis sold me. Must get this from the library as soon as possible.
Ok, now that sounds cool. Thanks for the excellent post.
/on my way to Amazon pre-order now
The idea: that of a colonization of a human body, sounds remarkably like C’naat from Karen Traviss’ City of Pearl.
I downloaded the pdf. I’ll have to read it when I have the chance.
The PDF keeps crashing my system. Anyone else having a problem with it?
I listened to the podcast of this when he first put it up. I’m not normally into horror/gore, but Sigler tells a mean story. It’s all about the chicken scissors. I’m so stoked that he’s managed to turn this into a *real* book in stores.
Hey thanks for all the cool responses. Scalzi might just have something with this here blog …
Aaron I will check out Peter Watts ASAP. Thanks!
I downloaded the PDF and have had no problems with it. Maybe you need to update your PDF viewer?
So far, I’m really enjoying this. Even if I’m now getting paranoid about every little itch…
Try Greg Bear’s Blood Music for something rather similar to what you’ve done, but on the viral level.
Carrie @#7: The PDF has something strange. I’m using evince (poppler-cairo 0.6.3 backend) under linux and when I scroll the first pages, the ones with the high resolution graphics, the viewer keeps using 100% CPU and I’m eventually forced to kill it. Acrobat Reader 8.1.2 (always under linux) works, but it renders the same pages very slowly.
Scott Siegler @#9: Peter Watts’ books are freely downloadable from his website under a CC license if you want to sample them: http://www.rifters.com/real/shorts.htm
Alan Kellogg @11: If Infected is similar to Blood Music I’ll put it on top of my TOREAD list. Speaking of Blood Music am I the only one who preferred the novelette to the expanded novel? It was more compact and straight to the point, the expanded version felt “bloated”…
Heh. With that cover and that name I thought the book was going to be about AOL. >_>
I love when two of my favorite things connect with each other! (I actually did a double-take when I saw the Infected cover on my RSS reader – thought I’d clicked the wrong link for a second.) Scott Sigler’s an amazing writer; one of his earlier books, Ancestor (which I ordered the first day it came out in print – I will never, ever trust a cow again), was the first podcast novel I ever listened to, and now I’m absolutely addicted to them (there’s a reason Sigler fans are called junkies…). Besides, what’s not to love about free audiobooks?
…hijacking the human body’s natural processes to make copies of a simple organism, and extending that to building highly complex organisms, organisms with a pre-programed purpose and an evil, evil plan. We are a walking planet to the bacteria and arachnids that cover our body in the billions — and if we can modify our planet, why can’t they modify us?
Why, oh why is it that the body-hijacking aliens always have an evil, evil plan?
Isn’t having aliens using the human body as an egg-depository à la parasitic wasps and the insects they love scary enough?
A flatworm-to-snail takeover is just about as horrendous as it gets, especially in close-ups, but still…no evil overlord in sight.
What’s with the pile-it-on-with-the-badevilness.
Cover-wise…hmm…compare and contrast.
*Goes grumbling back to current read*
Most of Michael Crichton’s novels have that “science horror” in them, actually… which is probably why I find them so addictive!!!
I’m going to go read Infected now and see if I like it!!!
I got the pdf yesterday. Your synopsis will make me open it. Thanks.
I’m aware of at least 2 other stories with generally similar theme: Hal Clement’s “Needle” (novel), & Larry Niven’s “Smut Talk” (ss).
But they both have happy ending. Clement’s version has a good guy & a villain among the parasites, too.
In “Needle” the bad guy was a parasite, yes, but the good guy was a symbiote. That was the whole point.
Well, aside from the decent detective plot.
Did you read the sequel to Needle?
I listened to most of the podcast when it first came out. I also listened to one of his other books, about a mean cow-thing on an island.
I never finished Infected because my computer and iPod were stolen and it was all on there, so it’s good that I can read it now.
nargel (comments #18/19):
No – I’ve not read “Eye of the Needle”.
In “Needle”, both were of the same species – call it symbiote or parasite. The line between the two can be thin. In Niven’s story too – you can classify them either way.
Hmmm, no one seems to have brought up Bradbury’s “Fever Dream” so far…
Same kind of concept. A disease that, instead of just attacking a body, gets organized and takes it over.
This is in fact pretty much what cholera does, according to a biochemist friend.
The cholera bacteria takes over the entire digestive system and transforms the intestines into a continuous flow process reactor environment tuned to churning out a constant flow of new bacteria in the victim’s diarrhea, draining their body of its water in the process. Dehydration can kill within hours, days at the most. In any environment without modern sewage sanitation, their waste becomes a massive source for cholera infection of new patients.
You could reasonably say that humanity has been living with these predators all our existence, and only recently has begun to escape them.
That said, I’ve downloaded the novel (as soon as Boing-Boing plugged it) and am looking forward to reading it.
I just read it in one sitting. I’m so lot looking forward to the nightmares. It doesn’t help at all that I’m still trying to figure out what’s causing the bites and rashes on my toes. I think they’re just spider bites, but the itching is driving me crazy and reading the protagonist echoing my thoughts is beyond creepy.