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.