The Big Idea: Martha Wells
Where do we belong? To whom do we belong? Do we, in fact, belong at all? Questions that strike at the heart of any person who ever feels alone, and questions that Martha Wells kept in mind when it came time for her to write The Cloud Roads. Keeping these questions in mind have paid off for Wells — her novel received a coveted starred review in Publishers Weekly — and now she’s here to explain how these questions came to her in the first place, and why they matter so much for this book.
Most of my books have dealt in passing with themes of isolation and loneliness, feeling unable to fit in. I wasn’t an only child, but my sister was nine years older, and there were no other kids in the neighborhood around our house. I started reading early, and found adult SF and fantasy at what was probably way too young an age. Mostly because our branch of the Fort Worth Public Library placed the adult SF/F section next to the children’s literature with no clear line of demarcation. (“Spectacular mistake!” to quote Bill Nighy’s character from Pirate Radio.) This was before Star Wars, before the internet, and I didn’t know of any other SF/F fans. I read and thought about things that no one else in elementary school read and thought about, and sure didn’t talk about, and it was isolating.
I was told at one point by an authority figure that I was the only one in the world who liked SF/F. Even knowing that all those books in the library and the bookstore had to be produced for somebody besides me didn’t help much. Other kids my age believed that all books were written at some point in the distant past, by people who were long dead. (It also doesn’t help when someone tells these kids that all books are “ghost-written.”) I started to think that despite evidence to the contrary, maybe all those names on all those covers were dead people, or people who never existed. It was a depressing thought. Still, I felt like My People were out there somewhere, I just didn’t know where, and had no way to recognize them if I bumped into one in a crowd.
I wanted to revisit that feeling in The Cloud Roads, with a main character who was isolated and had to pretend to be something else in order to survive, who was afraid to show who and what he really was. And then I wanted him to find a way out of that situation to a certain extent, even though it wouldn’t be easy.
The main character Moon is an orphan, with no memory of who his people are or where they came from, no way to find others like him. His differences prevent him from staying anywhere for very long, even though he lives in a world with many different races and wildly differing cultures. He most closely resembles the Fell, brutal winged predators who feed on other intelligent species and survive by descending on and destroying entire cities. He’s been mistaken for one enough times that he knows he can never reveal his true self to anyone, even to friends and lovers.
When he does find his tribe, he also has to face the possibility that it may be too late for him to really become one of them. That he’s too different, and that he’s been alone too long.
I also wanted to capture that sense of wonder and possibility, of strange worlds with limitless horizons, that I felt while looking at the old paperbacks with the pulp covers tucked away in that corner of the library. But the heart of the book is about the need to find somewhere to belong, and what we are, or aren’t, willing to give up to get there.