The Big Idea: Matthew Hughes

I’ve been a follower of Matthew Hughes’ work since Old Man’s War and one of his novels had the same “birthday,” and that following has been rewarded with a series of works that think deeply on a number of issues, along with enough plot twists and turns to keep things interesting along the way. Template, his latest novel, is more of the same, with a panoramic view not only a series of worlds, but with a series of people and cultures, and the things that make each culture unique… or perhaps more accurately, uniquely corrupted. Here’s Hughes to tell you more.


Not so long ago, if you called a man a liar, it was coats off and outside, pal. Go back a few generations farther, it was sabers or pistols at dawn.

Reputation was everything. “Give a dog a bad name and hang him” meant that when good standing was lost, all was lost with it. Better to die, or at least take a beating, than be branded a weasel.

Then something changed. Now people go on “reality” TV to lie and cheat their way to fame and fortune. And their blatant weaselhood doesn’t earn them public contempt. Instead, they become celebrities.

These aren’t secret agents who lie to defend their country. They’re doing it for the money and a chance to appear on Good Morning America. And every time there’s an audition, tens of thousands more rush forward and beg for a chance to connive and backstab their way to the top.

The thing that has changed, it seems to me, is that the role that honor used to play in our society has been supplanted by greed. I see it as a side-effect of the social transformation wrought by marketing in my lifetime: today we no longer think of ourselves primarily as citizens of a society, with rights and responsibilities; instead, we have become consumers in an economy whose only purpose is getting and spending. You know: “This means war! Everybody go shopping!”

In the old days, honor was an extension of pride, especially the esteem of our fellows. People might do something unworthy, but they sure didn’t want anyone to know about it. Our grandparents’ world was built around vanity. Our times are driven by avarice. We want it all, and we want everyone to know about it. And how we got it doesn’t much matter.

Being classically educated (well, I’ve read some really old books), I am aware that greed and pride are two of the seven deadly sins. I once got to wondering if there were societies based on any of the other five. For those of you who don’t read really old books, the rest of the seven big bads are: anger, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth.

Anger was easy: Sparta, Nazi Germany, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Envy? What about all those Asian societies where it is crucial not to lose face? And mini-cultures within our own sphere where keeping up with the Joneses is a driving force?

That’s about as far as I followed the train of thought, when I first had this insight eight or nine years ago. I was only looking for an idea that would underpin an 800-word guest column for the Vancouver Sun. Writing satirical op-eds was one way I kept my name in front of my client base back when I was a freelance speechwriter in British Columbia.

So I wrote a column on the vanity-avarice switch. Then, about a year later, I was working on a novel called Template. It would have been my second book for Tor if the first, Black Brillion, had sold more copies. Template is a Jack Vance-influenced, multi-planet space opera, about an Oliver Twistish orphan whose origins are shrouded in mystery and who has to go from world to world trying to find out who is trying to kill him and why.

I thought it would be cool to work in the idea that all societies are based on one of the seven sins, and take my wandering hero through exemplars. That turned out to be easier said than done. Pride, greed, anger and envy were no problem. The hero came from a world where every human interaction was an economic transaction; that took care of greed. He visited a society on Old Earth where money was considered disgusting but people knew their social worth precisely and he met a fellow from another world where people endured excruciating agony rather than say uncle.

To look at a society based on envy, I had him make a brief stop on a planet where everybody constantly sought to score one-upmanship points against each other without admitting it–passive-aggression as a way of life. A world built around anger was part of the dark secret behind the hero’s origins.

I didn’t want to do a world populated by overeaters (too easy). So I extended the meaning of gluttony beyond mere chomping and swilling to account for a society whose members tended to go overboard on whatever their interest were–imagine a world full of completist collectors.

Lust was a little trickier. Of course I toyed with the idea of a Hollywoodesque planet where sex appeal was the only determinant of status, but it kept coming out as buffoonish. In the end I opted for a sinister cult of decadent Old Earth aristocrats–a secret society called the Immersion–whose members vied “to encompass the full depth and breadth of amatory experience and thus enable themselves to break through to a new realm of consciousness they call Prismatic Abundance.”

With sloth, I confess I gave myself a pass. I will argue that any society based on doing as little as possible would soon die out or be supplanted by some invading culture that was powered by a more energetic iniquity.

All taken in all, I think I made the idea work well enough to support Template’s overarching theme: that there are all different ways to be a human being among other human beings, and that the most important thing in life is to discover where (and perhaps to whom) you belong, then go there and make the best life you can.


Template: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s|Paizo

Read an excerpt from the novel. Visit Matthew Hughes’ news page.

23 Comments on “The Big Idea: Matthew Hughes”

  1. Any chance of a link to that Vancouver Sun article? I’ve always had the thought that civil society only works because the amoral sociopaths among us find some single or combination of sins to exalt over all others.

    I’d also argue that sloth ‘binds’ to other values. It’s also the transitive state between the vanity and avarice. The phenomenon of being famous by dishonesty is just the sloth binding/following avarice, and that we are on the way to something new (my bet’s on gluttony).

  2. Here’s an idea for a society based on Sloth:

    The societal norm is to take as little decisive action as possible, but not to avoid action itself. Instead, the goal is to avoid responsibility for decisions and actions.

    Perhaps the society was original built on the idea of responsibility: its highest value was that someone should be legally responsible for the consequences of his or her actions. On the surface, this is a noble goal, the idea of holding people accountable. However, as it evolved, the people of this society instead found increasingly elaborate and elegant ways of “passing the buck,” putting off making decisions or carrying out actions. Maybe it even came to be seen as a failing to actually be the one forced into action; it means you’re not a savvy enough businessperson.

    Ultimately, of course, things in this society do still get done, even if people scoff at the ones doing them, and the ones who do are often mocked, ridiculed, and exiled from office after doing them.

    As an aside, I assure you that this idea is in no way influenced by my experience working as a government contractor.

  3. Jason – I work for the University of California. I have no idea what you’re talking about…

  4. @2: “Ultimately, of course, things in this society do still get done, even if people scoff at the ones doing them, and the ones who do are often mocked, ridiculed, and exiled from office after doing them.”

    Given the way societies work, it could be that the economic model is one where the lowest, poorest classes are the ones who make ‘decisions’. Nothing has consequence, and nothing matters, for all but the lowest rung.

    I’m picturing a society at the extreme level of personal technology and leisure, one where labor is mocked while expression is the greatest virtue, even if you have nothing to say. The society features a small ‘working’ class, an enormous middle class, and an extremely tiny upper class. The Workers are the ones who actually run the society, assisted by enormous armies of automated laborers. The Citizens do nothing, obsessed with a form of instant social media that allows endless commentary and never-ending nano-bursts of personal fame. The Elite are the ones who actually control the society, but largely exist in completely isolated, immortal, decadent seclusion. The Workers are technically as prosperous and more educated then the Citizens, but Workers are considered foolish and dumb for ‘laboring’ instead of ‘networking’. The Elite pretend at concepts like religious enlightenment or some other mental pursuit, but their perceived superiority means that they consider the rest of their society as untouchable.

    The society is capable of defending itself with its automated labor. This might be a form of entertainment, where citizens make a game out of remotely-controlling robot soldiers in a real war against real people. But its not actually expansionist, its conflicts like everything else are just another form of entertainment.

  5. Another idea for a sloth-based society, albeit one less thought-out than Jason’s:

    The slothful may do as little as possible, but they certainly wouldn’t be averse to having others do the work for them. Slave labour could be used to farm, manufacture goods, build infrastructure, etc. The sloth overlords would meanwhile sip their mint juleps, spending as little time and energy as necessary to keep their workforce in line.

    To curb the threat of outside forces trying to overthrow them, this slothful society could use any surplus resources at their disposal to hire mercenaries.

    Arguably, the slaves in this equation represent a distinct sub-culture. Or more accurately, there are two cultures working symbiotically here. But it’s the slothful that are recognized as the power-base.

  6. @7: I’m amazed and frightened by how much your idea seems a plausible extention of our own society.

    “The Elite pretend at concepts like religious enlightenment or some other mental pursuit…”

    Arguably, this is exactly what we’re doing right now. :)

  7. I scored an ARC of ‘Template’ and am about three chapters into it right now. I’m enjoying it so far, which isn’t a surprise since I’ve read a few of this other books.

    Hey, I gotta. He’s got a great name :-)

  8. For lust think beyond sex. Lust is really a strong desire for something, whether it be sex or some object. One can lust for fame, some object, or even a goal. Lust is taking desire to an extreme, as in lusting for a book, a position, or even wealth.

  9. @aet:

    I took a look for the Sun op-ed, but they only archive back to 2005. Send me an email and I’ll send you a copy, if you want. I’m at himself at archonate dot com

  10. 11: that’s sort of blurring the line between lust, gluttony and greed, I think. Lust is for people, greed is for possessions: and because, like all sins, lust is selfish, it’s either unrequited or at least inconsiderate of what the other person actually wants or needs or thinks. Lust, you could say, is the greed of someone who thinks of people as objects. That’s why we talk about “lust for power” rather than “greed for power” or “gluttony for power”. Power, in this case, is power _over people_.
    So it’s basically Ryoval territory.

  11. Sloth is an easy one: sloth is at the root of intensely mind-numbing bureaucracy. A society that has devolved into sloth would end up with nothing ever getting done because of red-tape and bureaucrats that really don’t care to do their job in the slightest. But of course no one ever gets fired because that would take too much hassle to push through the official documents required to make it happen.

    Not all bureaucracies are slothful, but many of the really dense ones are.

  12. My problem was that I immediately thought of many primitive hunter-gatherer societies, where being good at doing nothing is a way to make sure that you really can get through the lean season. You know when to just sit back and wait for things to get better.

    But that’s not sloth, really. That’s just human evolution in action. It’s being energy efficient.

    Problem is, we may be hardwired to do stuff like this, take the easy way over the good way. Think of how hard our society has to train us to work 40 hours per week, after all. I’m sure you loved that thought when you were, oh, six years old. Or sixteen.

    In an SF setting, a slothful world can be one that has the affluence of poverty. There’s just enough to go around, but not too much, and no amount of work will make there be enough to make someone richer than the others. Think small tropical island with lots of fish and coconut trees.

    It’s not a bad place to live, but nothing much ever changes, and it’s hard to leave if your ship needs repairs.

  13. “With sloth, I confess I gave myself a pass.”

    This is the best sentence I’ve read all day.

  14. Echoing what Tim Oshenko says above: I think you can do sloth with a two-tiered society, where the ones who make the rules don’t have to work because someone else does it for them. ‘Someone else’ could be serfs, slaves, a free-but-deluded lower class or even robots.

    In fact, Swift did something like that with the society of Laputa.

  15. The cover is unfortunate IMHO. Not trying to be a jerk, it’s just very 70s-ish.

  16. @ Stephanie B

    Paizo Publishing specializes in republishing old classics and gives them retro covers. Template was first published only two years ago, but fits the publisher’s series because it is also quite retro — reminiscent of the kind of book Jack Vance was writing in the sixties and seventies.

    I found the cover art startling at first, but it will stand out on a bookstore shelf.

  17. The cover is inaccurate. You cannot get enough power to make a saber cut with a pistol grip. Very dramatic though.

  18. @ Dave P

    In the book, they use a dueling weapon called an epiniard, described thusly:

    “The latch was snapped and the weapons displayed, two thin spikes of supple gray metal, each razor edged for a hand’s breadth below the needle point. They had simple hafts, with four quillions arranged in an “x” and spherical pommels that would exactly balance the weight of the blades.”

  19. For a sloth-based society pretty similar to the one theorised in #7 you need to look no further than the late Soviet Union.

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