The Big Idea: Steven R. Boyett
I’ve made no secret that when I was a teenager, one of my favorite novels was Ariel, by Steven Boyett. Why? Because here was adventure-packed novel with great dialogue, an epic quest and a love story (of sorts) at the end of the world (or at least the end of the world as we knew it). At fifteen, this was the novel I knew I wanted to write one day — and if not this novel, one that felt like it. And to top it all off, Boyett wrote the thing when he was in his late teens. There was hope for me yet.
Fast forward, oh, 25 years, and into this last summer, when two cool things happened to me: I got to actually meet Steve — indeed, I basically dragged him out to dinner at Worldcon — and I discovered that after all this time, a sequel to Ariel would be coming out: Elegy Beach. I squeed like the 14-year-old I once was.
And I am happy to say Elegy Beach did not disappoint me. The good thing about it was it was as interesting and exciting to read now as I remember Ariel being when I first picked it up. The great thing about it, to me, was that it wasn’t just a sequel — not a simple revisit to the world of Ariel, but tonally and in the construction of its story, a progression from that book. It’s (relatively) easy for a writer to go back to the scene of his or her most famous book and grind out a crowd-pleasing followup; it’s rather harder to move on from that book, in the same universe, and make your readers feel the weight of the change — even when still giving them a compelling read. Elegy Beach does that, and makes the world Steve’s created in both books that much more complete.
Now that I’ve gushed enough, it’s time to bring Steve onto the stage to talk about Elegy Beach, and visiting the world he made years ago with Ariel… and bringing it up to date, not just with our time, but with him.
STEVEN R. BOYETT:
Elegy Beach would not exist at all without a Big Idea that grabbed me hard enough to make me write the novel in the first place. For decades I insisted I would never write a sequel to Ariel, and I meant it. In some odd way I still do.
Premise-wise the big idea that grabbed me was the notion of magic as a kind of software. Or more accurately an operating system to which the machinery of the universe now responded. I called it spellware and I ran with the notion, though not as far as I’d originally intended. My underlying rationale was the viewpoint that in what for purposes of conversation we’ll call the real world the universe’s OS is commonly regarded as Newtonian physics. Yet current cosmogony tends to think that this OS is randomly formulated. That in the microinstants immediately preceding the Big Bang the pressure and heat were so incalculably intense that laws of any kind could not exist, that the possible laws of any universe were in constant flux. Then biff bam boom it all goes off, and immediately things cooled enough to lock a set of laws in place. The spinning jackpot pictures stuck. Entropy was our friend this once. As Carl Sagan pointed out, the speed of light could have been slower. Time could have moved differently. Mass and gravitation could have had a different relationship.
From our perspective these different laws would violate our own. They would be magic.
Adding to the fun are the uncertainties and apparent violations at the quantum level. What once was the province of university courses in existentialist philosophy is now spelled out on palimpsest chalkboards by leading physicists. The role of intent in shaping the world. The influence of observation. Measurement as determinator.
So I approached spellcasting as a kind of hacking, really. And surmised right off the bat that castings could be broken into basic units that could be rearranged in any number of ways. In code. In language. And macros could be created that would record castings to let them play out later. Spells could be password-encoded. Copied. Hacked.
Let me quickly say that I know that all of this is bullshit. That I was simply looking for a science fictional explanation for a fantasy idea. And that no matter how thoroughly I worked out the explanations and implications of the notion it must inevitably tilt hard at the windmill of the real. But it was a lot more fun than deciding that the happy little elves raise magic beans because the glowing mushroom in the great king’s basement gives them special powers. Or whatever it is that fantasy writers do.
For a long time this was just a five-finger exercise. A couple pages’ worth of notes I jotted down. Then I realized that the notion fit perfectly into the premise I had created with my novel Ariel when I began writing it in 1979. The idea that a Change occurs in which technology stops working and another set of laws, let’s call them magic, takes its place. In fact spellware explained it.
Oh god no I will not write a sequel to a novel I wrote when I was nineteen. And sat down to write.
Anyone who has written anything more complicated than a recipe knows that the thing you write can often have a different notion about itself from yours. It surfaces on the page like a black spot on an X-ray. And anyone who tries to deny or argue with it is just asking for trouble.
I’ve learned at least that much.
So I got out of the way and let the writer part of me write the novel. And as it formed I realized that the big idea of spellware wasn’t this book’s Big Idea at all. It was just an idea.
People who don’t create a lot tend to hoard their ideas like some kind of gold. They send you emails and say Let me tell you my Idea. But anyone who lives in the place where ideas are made (or at least within hearing distance of it), be they writers or mechanics, will tell you that ideas are cheap as sausages and most of them aren’t very good. I have storage boxes full of them. Lots of writers do. Bookstores are chock full of them too. Science fiction and fantasy tend to be about their ideas, to the extent that it’s perfectly possible to write a work of fiction in the field fueled by little more than an idea.
I’m not saying that’s right or wrong. But for me it ain’t enough. I need theme. Resonance. Lamination. Characters. Landscape is a character, sure, but not the main one. It has to be about more than its premise or events. It’s the difference between Moby Dick and Jaws. Novels about celestial aberrations or colossal engineering feats to me are simply tour guides populated by figures who elucidate them. I need the foreground and background to not trade places.
Elegy Beach takes place about twenty-seven years after the Change depicted in Ariel. Now a new generation not only has no memory of that world, it can’t imagine why the Pre-Changers are always going on about some great loss that’s had no impact on them whatsoever. They aren’t ignorant, they’re truly alien. They’ve grown up on a different world.
As I swam deeper into the growing stack of pages that was Elegy Beach I realized that it was about the devastating necessity of the outgoing generation to be supplanted by the incoming one. To regard one another with faint suspicion and even derision. For the old to pass the torch and realize what an act of faith it is to think it will remain alight. For the young to regard the torch itself as a kind of Trojan horse, a gift whose purpose is in part to subjugate the recipient to the memory of the giver. I wanted to delineate the contribution, sanctimony, iconoclasm, and entitlement of Baby Boomers. I wanted to explore what I loved and disliked about this newer generation of information-saturated serial collaborators. And I wanted to set them against each other. The only way a generation can prevent itself from being buried by its inheritors is to build some static, fascist system that may be powerful but does not evolve and certainly does not accommodate fundamental change.
That was Elegy Beach’s big idea. It’s about other things, too — for one thing, as Ariel was my bildungsroman so Elegy Beach is my midlife-crisis novel (surely there’s a nice big German word for that too). It’s even about my own relationship to my first novel, and it offers the idea that one way to escape a storied past is to befriend it. It perpetuates my firm believe that the object of any quest exacts its weight from the seeker’s heart and soul, as any Grail knight worth his salt found out.
Love is a quest.
This essay is more abstract than I’d intended; I think I must save my concreteness for my fiction. But talking about fiction seems necessarily less concrete to me; fiction itself is an abstraction. What I set out to tell you is that Elegy Beach is a big fun book full of interesting characters who have breathtaking adventures and harrowing escapes in a faraway land that only superficially resembles our own, a land that fans of dragons and unicorns and special-effects-laden wizard battles will have a grand good time exploring. For all these things are true. But in a world that ably demonstrates that it can commodify almost anything, the only reason I can see to employ these worn-smooth tropes is to subvert them. To use them to talk about why such tropes exist at all. This seems to be an approach I’ve had in almost everything I’ve written (including, apparently, this essay).
I confess I’ve mostly found it difficult to just sit back and have fun for fun’s sake. Most fun things are fundamentally useless (not that fun itself isn’t useful, I feel obliged to add). And despite virtually all of the above I’m basically a silly person who thinks it’s fu to make stuff up. But even so for me to want to make (or read, or watch, or attend) a thing I have to feel that it’s about something more than its events or premise. Else what’s the Big Idea?