The Big Idea: Melinda Snodgrass
One day Melinda Snodgrass started wondering about aircars and why we don’t have them yet. Most people would stop there, with maybe a brief side thought about themselves puttering around in the sky like George Jetson. Snodgrass, however, kept going with that thought and ended up with a book: The Edge of Reason, which is not about aircars at all, but is instead, as editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden described it to me:
A contemporary metaphysical thriller about the secret battle between the forces of rationality and the Old Ones From Beyond Time, the latter of whom are using superstition and religion as the means by which to knock over the barriers that prevent them from breaking through and eating our brains.
Which is, you know, quite a leap from George Jetson and his aircar. How did Snodgrass get from the one to the other? Well, questions like this are exactly why The Big Idea exists at all. So here is Melinda Snodgrass to share her line of reasoning.
I can pinpoint the exact moment, and indeed the exact place, where I got the idea for The Edge of Reason. It was New Year’s Eve, 1999, at around 5:00 pm in the afternoon. I was sitting in the bar at El Pinto with a number of other New Mexico writers including Steve Gould, Laura Mixon-Gould and Walter Jon Williams. Between sips of margarita and munching on chips dipped in chili con queso we watched the television broadcasting the millennial celebrations from around the world. (Yes, I know, it wasn’t really the millennium, but it was being billed that way.)
Suddenly I said to the group, “It’s the dawn of the twenty-first century. Where’s my aircar? Where’s my Moon base?”
From an off-handed remark we began a discussion of why, at the beginning of a new century, were people putting more credence in crystal power, guardian angels, spirit guides, Tarot cards, and psychic readings than in chemistry, physics, astronomy and biology?
We ran through the usual suspects — the Religious Right, Americans’ distrust of intellectuals, globalization and the fear of a big bad world and other cultures we can’t control — and came to no good answer. But I kept pondering the issue and I suddenly thought: What if there were creatures that wanted to keep us ignorant and afraid? That raised two more questions — why would they do it, and how would they do it?
The why I decided upon was that there were creatures in other multiverses who fed on powerful emotions. Since hate, fear, grief, and pain are a lot easier to engender than love and joy they set out to encourage us in our worst tendencies. They became our dark myths and our gods.
The how was also fairly straightforward. We kill with great abandon in defense of of our gods, and our absolute certainty that ours is the only true god. Add to that our tribalism that has led us to distrust and kill the other, and I had the broad concepts of the book.
I’d just spent fifteen years in Hollywood so I cast it as a pitch — this book is about the struggle between science and rationality and religion and superstition. (Actually my terrific editor, Patrick Nielsen-Hayden had the best high concept pitch — “This is the Left Behind series for rational people.”) But high concepts don’t get a book written. I needed characters to dramatize the conflict.
I’ve always loved the Prometheus/Lucifer myths of the demi-god punished for giving humans the gift of knowledge. That gave me my Obi-Wan Kenobi/Gandalf figure, but now I needed a hero.
The protagonist turned out to be trickier than I expected. In my first try, the leading man was a psychologist who had a patient tormented by these creatures. I wrote several chapters, and ran them through my workshop, but it wasn’t really working. Finally, I fell back on Hollywood and looked at the kinds of shows that are always on television — cops, doctors, and lawyers.
I used to be a lawyer and I pretty much hate lawyers so I set that aside. I had tried it with a doctor and that didn’t work. Which left me with a cop. I started writing, and it just clicked.
It’s difficult, when you’re tackling hot button issues like religion, to avoid writing a polemic. I hope I succeeded. I tried very hard to personalize these questions to the characters. But larger issues do intrude. When three of the ten candidates running for the Republican presidential nomination said they didn’t believe in evolution, when school boards try to force the teaching of “creation science” and allow students to opt out of astronomy classes when the Big Bang is discussed, we’ve got a problem.
Doubt is the key. The ability to question assumptions and conclusions is what enables us to advance. If we can embrace that, and turn away from celebrating ignorance, I think, (as my Prometheus character would say), we can have the stars. At least in my universe we’ll win this fight, and I’ll get to have my Moon base.
A very large excerpt of The Edge of Reason is available for you to download as a pdf file here. The linked page also includes an early version of a script for Star Trek: The Next Generation, on which Snodgrass served as a story editor. Read Melinda Snodgrass’ blog here.