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.