Imagine you’re a caveman (this will be easier for some of you than others). Now, you’re handed an iPod. How do you think you would think about it? Would you even be able to think about it? Yes, I know, a deep thought for a Tuesday. But it’s actually relevant to this week’s Big Idea, from author Patrick Lee. No, his new thriller The Breach is not about cavemen with iPod, but it does think on how disruptive technology can be if you’ve never seen it before — and aren’t prepared for it. Take it away, Patrick Lee.
It was almost Clan of the Cave Bear meets The Dirty Dozen. That was the first half of the big idea: what would happen if stone-age humans somehow came upon a stash of 20th century weapons and equipment, without meeting the people who’d designed and built it? Imagine a hundred crates of the stuff just magically showing up in the woods outside one of their camps, twenty-five thousand years ago. What impact would our technology, all by itself, have on their lives?
Most of it they’d never make sense of: socket wrenches, volt meters, hard drives. Hell, a toilet plunger would leave them scratching their heads.
But I bet they’d figure out the guns. Maybe not the first day, but in time — certainly. Someone smart enough to shape a spear-head from stone and fix it to a shaft with vines — I don’t know how to do that, do you? — would eventually work out that the little open-topped container full of shiny blunt-ended things fits neatly into this opening down here, and then when you move this big thing on the side until all the clicks are done, set the little red/green thing to red, and put pressure against the part that’s unusually well-shaped for a fingertip… yeah, I think they’d eventually get it. The early lessons would be costly (God help them when they got into the grenades), but they would learn them. Given time, and a few batteries among the supplies, they might even puzzle out some of the electronics — significant, considering that a two-way radio is still among the most powerful weapons a soldier carries into battle.
These ancient people would never grasp how any of this stuff worked. Most of us don’t know how it works. But what little they learned to use would be enough to make life interesting. I imagine the next few decades of interaction among their tribes and clans would be rather eventful. And if I’d felt like studying paleoanthropology for a few years to prepare myself to write a book like that, I may well have charged ahead with it. Actually, no, I wouldn’t have. So here’s the second half of the big idea:
What if it happened to us?
What if we came upon a supply — in the case of The Breach, an ongoing one — of technology crafted by someone thousands or even millions of years more advanced than us? How much of it could we make sense of? How eventful would our next few decades be, among our tribes and clans?
From the beginning, working with this idea, my goal was to root it as realistically as possible in our present world. I wanted it to feel as if these events could actually be happening. I wanted the story to creep the hell out of people, the way reports about Groom Lake and Roswell used to, before they got a little too familiar — a thing can only be so scary once it’s been a successful teen drama on The WB. Think back to the days when Peter Jennings would do an ABC special on Project Bluebook, and your uncle would take a swig of his Michelob and say, “You know, some of that shit’s probably real.” That’s the feeling I wanted, without actually using Groom Lake or any of its contemporaries.
So that’s the approach I took: a real-as-I-could-make-it tone, and a premise that effectively makes hunter-gatherers out of the modern human race — the select few who are in on the secret — as they try to understand technological relics that are, in most cases, simply beyond them. And as they deal with the political and global consequences. And hope like hell they can distinguish the toilet plungers from the grenades.