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.


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?


Elegy Beach: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read or listen to excerpts from Elegy Beach, at the Elegy Beach site. There is also a site for Ariel. Visit the author’s blog. The author is also an acclaimed DJ; listen to his latest mixes.

34 Comments on “The Big Idea: Steven R. Boyett”

  1. One I haven’t read but will do so.

    Spellware? I call mine Occult Mathematics (I do like spellware though). The idea of magical software has been around for a long time, and even Stephenson used it in Snow Crash (the Samarian ‘ens’ were strings of code, very magical in nature). That’s not to say the idea hasn’t been given a great new incarnation.

    Re. the big tour of big projects. I bet a slow tour is okay, isn’t it? You know, like going to Ringworld and getting bits of exposition with the story.

  2. The Gray Area @ 1:

    For me, the thing that makes Ringworld and its ilk work are that the engineering feats are additional characters in the story. As big as Ringworld was, it didn’t outweigh the other characters of the story.

  3. Bearpaw, I agree. Compared that to a novel like Greg Egan’s Diaspora, where the size of things and time spans are so huge that it does seem to make the characters too small. But I guess that’s the point of that story, to some degree.
    It seems the genre might really have to use some human irrationality to think that there will be “humans” in the distant future. But heck, it worked for Herbert.

  4. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you, John Scalzi.

    I read this book when I was 15 or so and loved it, but the book had been loaned to me, and I had to give it back.

    A few years later, I kept thinking about how good it had been and that I wanted to reread it, but I could not remember the title or the author. I blame my horrible memory lapses on bourbon.

    Anyway, here it is again, and a sequel as well. Yeah!

    And on top of it all, we get a Big Idea on it. Tiple yeah!

  5. I, also, read Ariel as a teenager. I, also, was deeply impressed by it. I knew Elegy Beach was forth coming. My jaw dropped while reading this Big Idea. I hesitate to read the book, now. (No worries, I’ll read it! I’ll just, you know, have angst & such.) It concerns some things I’ve been pondering, recently. This sounds perilously like Too Much Of a Good Thing.

    Too much thinking! Time to squee & leap!

  6. Gray Area #1: I’m not claiming to have invented the notion of spellware, though FWIW I first proposed it (along with macro spells) in The Gnole, published in 1991 pretty much everywhere but America.

    But I don’t really care who invented it even if it was me. Elegy Beach is about spellware as much as The Tempest is about living on an island. :) As noted above, I’m not even claiming spellware as the Big Idea for the novel.

  7. Interesting idea. It’s been a while since i read them, but there’s a series of books where a hacker (the real kind, no a computer criminal) from this world is transported to a parallel world of magic and discovers that magic can be treated like software. Just goes to show that good ideas can be handled by multiple authors and still come out fresh.

    I’m going to have to get this one and Ariel, both.

  8. Mr. Boyett, I didn’t mean to diminish the idea of spellware by saying it wasn’t new. It’s just that I like the idea a lot and am glad to find it again and again in sf. Like Frank Herbert said, “We live in a magical Universe.” Of course, he wasn’t the first to say that, but I loved how he said it.

  9. BTW, my original copy of Ariel is one of those books on my shelves that is tattered and worn from multiple readings. I believe the appropriate term is “well-loved”. (It’s not nearly as well-loved as my copy of The Architect of Sleep, but that’s partly because it came to me that way, and I count myself lucky to have it at all.)

  10. Bearpaw, that’s so weird. I knew that The Architect of Sleep sounded familiar, but I had to look it up. Thanks for the flashback. I hate to say it, but I didn’t remember the author. That’s why I love places like this, where information gets networked in some very interesting ways.

  11. I’ve loved the idea of magic as software when I ran into it in Kelly McCullough’s book WebMage (first in a series). I also like that his main character is a smartass. :)

    And like everyone else here, I, too, was (dare I say it) spellbound by Ariel as a teenager. I preordered Elegy Beach from Amazon – should be here in a few days, w00t!

  12. Steve, I worked with you briefly on that Sun project at OIC; glad to see all the difficulties with getting back into print have worked out.

    Best wishes.

  13. The Gray Area @ 12:

    The Architect of Sleep is a fun book, but fair notice for others inclined to go look for it: it’s the first of a series that won’t be continued. (Last I heard, anyhow. Ahem.)

    So, you know, a bit of story-arc interruptus. But very much well worth the effort of tracking down a copy.

    (Hmm. It looks like many copies are available via

  14. Hugh57, I may have just invented a new word.

    Tipleyeah (n): A feeling of extreme elation on rediscovering a beloved book from your past.

    Maybe this bourbon things is going to work out for me after all. What do you think? Should I submit it to the OED. ;-)

    And congratulations Steve on the new book. I can’t wait to read Ariel again and read the new one.

  15. Jay Maynard@9:

    Are you talking about the Rick Cook Wizardry series? I loved those books too. I just like the idea of magic as something that can be systematically figured out rather than trial and error guesswork.

  16. I would say welcome back to fiction, except you never completely left it. But you haven’t been writing us enough novels, so it’s great to get Elegy Beach and here’s hoping some more from you in the future.

  17. I thought Greg Bear’s AI in Moving Mars employed an interesting kind of magic: Through the use of quantum logic, exclusive code could be manipulated. We are never given any real discription of that code, but it’s as good as the most powerful kind of magic. I mean, being able to hack in and insert some code so that photons have mass, is powerful mojo. That level of manipulation of physics makes you wonder if gods really aren’t just AI that have become game designers. I think our game designer has a insane sense of humor. All hail the Eschaton.

  18. Great blog, can’t wait to read Elegy Beach. Spent a lot of time in and around MIT dorms ten years ago pondering these imponderables. Several of us came up with a proof that it is far more likely we are currently living in something like an “Ancestor Program” (wherein some AI or semi-human group of our progeny, thousands of years in the future, create and “live” as us in a quantum-computer game that takes entire lifetimes as us but only minutes or hours or days as them; a kind of Matrix-esque construct, or 13th Floor, which came out simultaneously and was in some ways even more interesting) than a construct created by some distant, dissimilar, all-knowing, singular, benevolent and/or jealous god-being. And both in the Matrix and in various other “quantum computing” paradigms/worlds, magic, computer programming and other super advanced “technologies” are essentially the same thing. You were way ahead of the curve!! Of course, ‘tho, Arthur Clark (with an assist from Leigh Brackett) posited this concept first with Clarke’s “Three Laws”, circa 1942, 1961 and/or 1973 depending upon how one reads the chronology, the Third of which is: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

  19. I really, really enjoy the Big Idea feature. Besides turning me on to great new books (two, in today’s case), learning the story-behind-the-story — and especially, the kernel of the idea — triggers a nearly-eplileptic “OMG cool” fit of inspiration that more than makes up for working in a cube farm and writing run-on sentences to strangers whose books I like.

    Yeah. So thanks.

  20. Count me as one of those unfortunates who did not read Ariel as a teen. On the plus side only just picked up Ariel a few weeks ago and I won’t have to wait 20 years for the sequel. Or maybe I could put Elegy Beach aside for 20 years. ;-)

  21. How in the world did I miss Ariel when it first came out? Am looking forward to reading it so I can move on to Elegy, which looks to address many questions I’ve been pondering for a while. These have been added to The List, thanks!

    Also, I believe Jack Chalker also might have brought up magic-as-programming in his Well World series. On the Well World itself, some species could use what was called “magic” but was in fact an innate ability to alter certain features in the programming of the well computer which maintained reality. This, however, wasn’t on the level of conscious programming but in every case I can recall was wrapped in magical-mysticism. The two characters who could actually access the computer itself knew they were programming reality and there was no talk of magic, so I’m not sure if this qualifies.

  22. This is cool. I was lead to Ariel just a while back when you brought up Diana Peterfreund’s Rampant. I started reading Ariel on Sat., but life interfered, so I hadn’t gotten far. Now I’ll just have to get back to it and then go on to Elegy Beach. I need more hours in the day!

  23. “Mid-life crisis novel” in German. Hm.

    Lebenskriseroman would be just any life crisis. Krisedermittedeslebensroman isn’t really grammatical, though certainly long enough (not that size matters). Lebensmittelkriseroman gets the word parts right, but would mean something else (something funny, too). Google finds 97,000 uses of “midlife crisis” in pages in German, so you could be trendy and go with Midlifecrisisroman. The Infallible Wikipedia(tm) suggests Mittlebenskrise as the Teutonic crisis equivalent, making Mittlebenskrise at least plausible.

  24. Dang. Typo in the final sentence. Revised comment:

    “Mid-life crisis novel” in German. Hm.

    Lebenskriseroman would be just any life crisis. Krisedermittedeslebensroman isn’t really grammatical, though certainly long enough (not that size matters). Lebensmittelkriseroman gets the word parts right, but would mean something else (something funny, too). Google finds 97,000 uses of “midlife crisis” in pages in German, so you could be trendy and go with Midlifecrisisroman. The Infallible Wikipedia(tm) suggests Mittlebenskrise as the Teutonic crisis equivalent, making Mittlebenskriseroman at least plausible.

  25. I got about halfway through the online sample of Ariel before I had to run, not walk, run to Amazon to order it. Wow.

    The “customers who bought this also bought” section shows Boneshaker and The Magicians. The Force is strong with you, Mr Scalzi.

  26. The issue of “who invented spellware” is irrelevant. FTL, AI, and other common science fiction backgrounds are there for whoever chooses to use them.

    FWIW, Rick Cook’s magnificent “Wizard’s Bane” came out in 1989, and I’ve never forgotten the lines:

    “Now let’s see how much trouble we can raise with the league!” (dark wizards)


    And then it *really* hits the fan…

    I got the ebook of Elegy Beach, and I’m looking forward to another take on the idea.

    Thank you, Steve.

  27. Vincent@18: Yep, that’s it.

    Doug@29: What’s wrong with the long German word, anyway? German is the only language I know where words have Velcro on the ends.

  28. Jay Maynard@33: Sometimes it’s more fun to invent a compound word than to write a phrase; German allows this rather nicely. I’m learning Georgian these days, which is as sticky as German, and prone to having three to five consonants in a row (and counts things like ch, kh, zh and ts as single consonants for these purposes). The old capital, for example, is Mtskheta, and that’s not even a proper tongue twister of a word.

%d bloggers like this: