The Big Idea: Scott Sigler
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.