The Big Idea: Edward Willett

As much as I like the title of this feature here, not all books originally spring from a big idea. Just ask Edward Willett, whose latest book, Terra Insegura, is part of a series that sprang originally from a quick and dirty writing exercise. But from that humble beginning, Willett’s done well: Marseguro, the first book in the series, has been nominated this year for a Prix Aurora Award, one of Canada’s highest science fiction honors. You can’t complain about that.

So how does a small, quick idea become a big idea — and a big deal? Willett is here to tell you how it’s done.


I feel a bit like I’m cheating, writing a Big Idea essay about Terra Insegura, because you could say it and its prequel, Marseguro, sprang from next to no idea at all.

In September of 2005 I took Robert J. Sawyer’s course in writing science fiction at the Banff Centre in Banff, Alberta, part of the Writing With Style program there.

One morning the first thing Rob asked us to do was write, cold, in five minutes, the opening to a story. I wrote: “Emily streaked through the phosphorescent sea, her wake a comet-tail of pale green light, her close-cropped turquoise hair surrounded by a glowing pink aurora. The water racing through her gill-slits smelled of blood.”

That week I tried to turn that into a short story, but as I followed my usual story-building procedure of self-interrogation—“Why does Emily have gills? Why is there blood in the water? What is she fleeing?” I kept coming up with answers I couldn’t cram into a short story: in other words, I’d gone from a teeny-tiny idea to, yes, Big Ideas. And when the time came to propose a new book to DAW after Lost in Translation, those ideas begat Marseguro, which in turn begat Terra Insegura.

Emily, I realized, has gills because she is a human who has been genetically modified to be amphibian, able to breathe in both air and water. (It was either that or make her an alien, and who would name an alien Emily?) Besides, genetic modification was on my mind because I’d just taught myself more than I’d ever before known about genetics by writing Genetics Demystified for McGraw-Hill.

But this isn’t a hard SF novel, so my focus wasn’t on how these modified humans—nicknamed Selkies, after the seal-people of Irish legend–were created. My concern lay more with questions of human nature, not only that SFnal oldie-but-goodie “what does it mean to be human?”, but even more with the question of how, once some humans have been extravagantly modified genetically, non-modified humans will react to, and interact with, them.

On the hidden water world of Marseguro (which means “safe sea” in Portugese, and thank you, Google Translator, for giving me my title), they relate pretty well. But it’s a lingering resentment of moddies that causes one non-modded human to blow the whistle on the Selkies’ hiding place and bring the bad guys from Earth running—the bad guys who were the answer to the other questions I asked about my original story-opener, “What is she fleeing?” and “Why is there blood in the water?”

Religion and I go way back. I grew up in the Church of Christ, which some would call a fundamentalist Christian church (though I and my late father, a preacher and elder, would both argue with that, since the Restoration Movement that gave rise to the Church of Christ was part of the intellect-focused Enlightenment rather than the emotional revivalism of the late 19th century).

Anyway, with my background, there was no way I was going to take the standard SF route of making evangelical Christians the bad guys. The finest people I have ever known, bar none, have been Christians of the sort that are all-too-often stereotyped (by those who don’t know any better) as bigoted haters.

On the other hand, I really needed some bigoted haters…

So I did what there is also a long history in science fiction circles of doing, and created my own religion (though it’s unlikely to take off in the real world and become a favorite of Hollywood), The Body Purified…a religion which is exemplifies one of the less-positive ways modified and non-modified humans might someday interact.

The Body Purified sees the genetic modification of humans as an abomination, a desecration of the “holy human genome.” (They don’t like clones, either.) But it wasn’t enough just to come up with The Body Purified and its nasty God (an impersonal “It” that’s really into that whole fire-and-sword  thing). I had to explain how it managed to take power.

Many religions rest on a founding miracle: for Christianity it’s the resurrection of Jesus. For The Body Purified, the founding miracle is an astronomically unlikely event: one asteroid smacking another out of its Earth-destroying trajectory at the last possible moment. Since The Body Purified had been busily extermin—um, “purifying”—genetically modified humans on Earth while telling the panicked population that this was the only way to convince God Itself to turn Its wrath away, this miraculous rescue convinced all but the most recalcitrant believers in other religions that The Avatar, the Body’s leader, had a direct pipeline to God.

By the time of Marseguro, The Body Purified has been in power for decades, is trying to export its purification policies to the handful of human colonies scattered among the stars, and would really, really like to find out where genius geneticist Victor Hansen fled to in a stolen spaceship with his abominable race of Selkies. Thanks to the aforementioned disgruntled non-mod on Marseguro and Victor Hansen’s “grandson” Richard on Earth (who is the story’s main protagonist along with Emily, the Selkie girl), the Body Purified’s Holy Warriors descend on Marseguro with guns blazing.

But you really shouldn’t underestimate the defensive capabilities of a society built on high-level genetic engineering. The Purification of Marseguro goes badly, Richard Hansen finds out he’s not who he thinks he is (rather, what he thinks he is changes—and he changes with it), and at the end it seems likely that rather than Earth purifying Marseguro of Selkies, Marseguro may have inadvertently purified Earth of unmodified humans.

And that gives us Terra Insegura (meaning unsafe Earth), as a mixed crew of Selkies and nonmods, led by Richard Hansen, head to the home world to see what assistance they can render.

So: a quarter of a million words of fiction, containing at least a couple of reasonably large ideas, all sprung from a single writing exercise involving very little thought at all.

In a way, that’s its own kind of miracle.


Terra Insegura: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read the first two chapters of Terra Insegura. Enter to win a free copy of the book. Visit Edward Willett’s blog.

12 Comments on “The Big Idea: Edward Willett”

  1. Interesting discussion. My question would be, in inventing a religion, do you not still run the risk of tarring all religious beliefs — or at least religious institutions –as similarly intolerant? Isn’t it easy for a reader to translate “body purified” for ‘fundamentalist’; So that the equation in the readers mind is that ‘religious’ = ‘fanatic, intolerance, evil’, while secular = democratic, tolerant, good? I wonder if it might have been useful to have invented a corresponding, but more enlightened religion for the Silkies to demonstrate that it is not religiosity per se that generates intolerance.

  2. This gives me hope that someday, one of the random scenes that I visualize will in fact turn out to lead to a full-length novel. So far they’ve yet to be more than just one scene. I look forward to reading both of these books, though!

  3. Robert,

    I’m sure that risk is there, but I suspect those inclined to look at all religion in that way were already doing so before I came along. I didn’t want to create a new religion for the Selkies because I wanted to emphasize their continuity with regular humanity: those that are religious are religious within the framework of human history.

    Terra Insegura also specifically includes members of a persecuted religious minority–Christians–surviving in an isolated location, who stand in sharp contrast to the Body Purified.

  4. I think fundamentalism in any philosophy is going to lead to non-groovy outcomes, as it means an exclusionist world view. Fundamentalist secularists would want to purify the world of religion, not just the interaction between religion and government. Fundamentalist capitalists would crush any workers’ rights or consumers’ rights, for that matter in the name of share price. Religiosity isn’t a bad thing, but when your religion says that I have to submit or be destroyed, then, dude, we’ve got problems.

    Sorry for the derail. I’ll be adding Marseguro and Terra Insegura to my to-read list.

  5. I think that’s the best Big Idea piece I’ve read yet. Thanks, Ed, I’ll add Marseguro and Terra Insegura to the list.

  6. While you are all adding Marseguro and Terra Insegura to your reading lists, don’t forget “Lost in Translation” which was a fabulous read, well worth tracking down.

  7. I love how the small details of a small idea can blow up into something big. And if you have the ability to know what to do with it, so much the better.

  8. I love those fast little writing exercises. They always feel a bit *dangerous.*