The Big Idea: Greg van Eekhout
Posted on June 21, 2011 Posted by John Scalzi 24 Comments
Timing isn’t everything — but timing doesn’t hurt, either, as author Greg van Eekhout learned with the release of his latest book, The Boy at the End of the World. In this Big Idea, van Eekhout talks about how Boy benefited from being in the right place at the right time… and also how a writer can tell a story that works on more than one level at once, a skill and practice that’s useful, regardless of timing.
GREG VAN EEKHOUT:
Giant killer parrots of death. Piranha-crocs. Insane, artificially intelligent wormbots. Weaponized prairie dogs. When people ask what The Boy at the End of the World is about and I list the wackier elements, the reaction tends to be positive. But, honestly, this book seemed like a pretty bad idea at the time.
Dark, post-apocalyptic science fiction, for a tween and early-teen audience? When I showed the book proposal to my agent, there really wasn’t much like it on the shelves. For precedent, the kinds of things I cited tended to be stuff I saw on television in the 70’s. Planet of the Apes. Land of the Lost. Maybe a little Logan’s Run. Maybe Ark II. (I can’t be the only person who remembers Ark II. The talking chimp was the stuff of nightmares, but the van was pretty cool.) These are not references you’d use when trying to sell a book to a kid in our new century, and one mistake I see a lot of writers make when trying their hands at YA or middle grade is writing the exact kind of book they read when they were kids. The world has changed a little. If you were a kid today, you’d be different than the kid you were two or three or however many decades ago.
Anyway, as I was saying, writing post-apocalyptic fiction for this age group didn’t necessarily seem like an awesome idea, commercially speaking. But then something happened. Well, specifically, Hunger Games happened, and suddenly booksellers were using the term “young-adult dystopia” to mean a marketing category encompassing anything science-fictional with a dark tone, and Hunger Games was selling by the crate, and suddenly we could describe my book as dystopian for middle grade, a slightly younger set than young-adult readers. You know, get ’em early. (We can talk about whether it’s appropriate to file post-apocalyptic stories under dystopian, but I’d prefer to have that conversation over beer and wings. Actually, I’d prefer to have all conversations over beer and wings. So.)
Here’s the gist of the plot: Fisher, a vat-grown boy, emerges in a coffin-like pod amid the smoking ruins of the bunker where he, along with hundreds of other people and animals, has been stashed away to save the human species and preserve biodiversity. As far as he knows, he is the only surviving human on Earth. In the company of a broken robot named Click and a cloned pygmy mammoth, he sets out on foot across the continent in search of another bunker where he hopes to find other humans.
The robot was there from the very beginning, when I first started getting notions about writing this book. I’ve got a fondness for messed-up robots. HAL-9000, Box from Logan’s Run, the dented, beleaguered droids in Star Wars … they’re kind of funny, and kind of sad, and that’s an emotional area I like to explore. Fisher calls him Click because, thanks to damage sustained during the attack on the survival bunker, Click makes involuntary clicking sounds. Click doesn’t hear them himself. People are like that, and so are broken robots.
The mammoth came about because limiting the main cast to two characters would have made the story a buddy flick. Three made it a quest, and I wanted this to be a quest. Fisher names him Protein because a mammoth carries a lot of meat on its body and Fisher is hungry. The basic necessities of survival are never far from Fisher’s mind: Food, shelter, fire, water. Also, early on, when I was talking in vague terms about the book to Margaret Miller at Bloomsbury, who eventually became my editor, I mentioned the kid would have a robot pal and maybe a mammoth, and she may have squee-ed a little bit, because it turns out Margaret really loves elephants. So, yeah, the book totally required a mammoth.
If readers come away from my book feeling they’ve gone on a fun amusement park ride filled with Wacky Stuff, I’ll be okay with that. But I do think it’d be a shame to have the attention of a smart, engaged, young audience and not use that opportunity to tackle some bigger and more complex issues. Because, even more than attempting extrapolations about technology and the future, I think what science fiction does well is pose philosophical questions about humankind’s place in Nature. And I really did want this to be a science fiction novel. So, over the course of his journey, Fisher comes to understand a few things:
1. The world will hurt you, sometimes badly.
2. The world doesn’t do it on purpose, because the world isn’t conscious. It doesn’t think about you one way or the other. Even if you raise global temperatures and extinguish yourself along with the polar bears, the world doesn’t care. It will go on existing in some form, with or without you. You are not its primary concern, nor its secondary, tertiary, quaternary, nor other numeric terms I’d have to look up. You’re not all that big a deal.
3. You don’t need an asteroid impact to achieve apocalypse. Consumer habits will do quite nicely.
4. Friends make everything better. But if your primary purpose is survival, what happens when helping yourself comes into direct conflict with helping your friends? Part of the hero’s journey — or at least the journey of any hero I can be bothered to care about — is engaging with the notion of altruism.
You may notice I began this Big Idea post with giant killer parrots of death, and here I am at the end, talking about apathetic Nature and heroic altruism. To my mind, there’s not much of a jump there. Because the kind of science fiction I loved when I was a kid was the sort where things like darkness and Nature and heroism were explored in worlds with talking chimps and light sabers. You can ask big questions while fighting weaponized prairie dogs.
The Boy at the End of the World: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Read the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.
Maybe mine will be on the doorstep when I get home. (Squeee!)
My son loved the squid book; looking forward to grabbing this one for him.
I remember Ark II. I don’t remember a talking chimp (those were on Lancelot Link), but the van was seriously cool.
Sure, I remember Ark II. I remember that I -really- wanted that RV. I also remember thinking how impractical those uniforms were. But I suppose studded leather and animal pelts weren’t very appropriate for Saturday mornings back then.
John’s remarks about timing are well taken, but timing can cut both ways. With the recent popularity of the Fallout video games, I’m sure people will draw comparisons between the bunker and a Fallout Vault. (See, I just did it.) But as we say in the design business, “form follows function.” If you’re going to put a pre-apocalyptic character into a post-apocalyptic period, you don’t have many options: a bunker (The Boy…), a time machine (The Time Machine), a protected location (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind ), or a spaceship (Planet of the Apes).
Anyway, that’s just the setup – the real story is what happens afterwards. This one sounds like a winner.
heh, me, too, with remembering Ark II (I wanted that vehicle SO HARD back then) but not remembering the chimp.
A mimmith, eh? I know someone who will be interested in this…
I have Ark II on DVD. Envy me.
I haven’t found any footage of Adam the talking chimp, but there’s a pic of the freaky little dude (along with the rest of the cast and the sweet, sweet van) here.
DemetriosX@3: The chimp in Ark II spoke a few words in a guttural, almost barking way. He wasn’t the chatterbox that the Lance Link characters were. (Is it sad that I remember what A.P.E. and C.H.U.M.P. stand for?)
GlennS@5: Heh. Hopefully the mimmoth exterminators will have all gone away during the war.
This book sounds perfect for my 10-year-old grandson. I will of course borrow it from him after he reads it. If not before.
The third thing young Fisher learns is one much of the world’s population ought to learn, including me.
Greg! What a wonderful surprise to read you in Whatever. Congratulations on the novel — I’m hugely looking forward to reading it. You had me at Wacky Dystopia. :)
There was at least some YA-oriented post-apocalyptic fiction around way back when: I have distinct memories of The Girl Who Owned a City. And of course John Christopher’s Tripod books.
I heard about this from another blog (the YA5), and went to buy it but it was not out yet (grrr). Glad to hear it now is. I’m tossing it on the pile to read to my son, after we finish the Harry Potter series.
Best of luck Greg. I hope to sells well.
Any reviews of this one? It sounds interesting, but hrm. How much of the story is driven by consumerism = apocalypse?
Weaponized. Prarie. Dogs.
This I have to read.
(P.S. Greg: I’ve been a fan ever since I heard “Will You Be An Astronaut” on Escape Pod and spent the rest of the day creeped out!)
Hey, Steve! I think I’ve said this to you in person, but in case I haven’t, thanks for being the first writer I admired who wasn’t dismissive or condescending to callow n00b me.
Tony: Yep, lots of review, many of which are linked to or at least quoted here.
MasterThief: I love the Escape Artists family of of podcasts. They’ve given a lot of my stories a home, and they’ve turned me onto a lot of really good stories.
Just out of curiousity, are there Tito’s chips at the end of the world?
Pam: Can’t say, but now I have a craving for a Tito’s burrito with chips and salsa, thank you very much. (I guess you listened to “Taco” on Escape Pod, eh?)
I love that a market niche for this great idea opened up at the right time for your book. I wish you a bazillion copies sold (and am going to account for at least two for my godchildren)!
Heh. I have “Ark II” on my “hmm, I should get this” list, though I keep skipping over it. Earlier this evening, I checked it on Amazon (only used; ridiculously $$$; should’ve bought it eons ago).
Will be picking this up tomorrow. I love the Big Idea; I’ve found so many new authors from it.
I’m hoping I can get my 8 year old cousin into this and then work on turning him into a life long sci-fi fan.
Yesterday my editor forwarded me a new review from The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, and I thought this snippet might address your concerns:
“van Eekhout manages to stop short of environmental lectures for the most part, trusting that the bemused discussions about golden arches and unhealthy eating habits will be resonant enough on their own, and keeping most of the focus on Fisher’s quest.”
Yeah, you had me at weaponized prairie dogs as well. I had forwarded this URL to my wife yesterday, and she thought it sounded pretty kick-ass as well. We discussed the plot over dinner, and immediately thereafter my 11-year-old (w/ our permission) purchased the Kindle version and disappeared into his room, not to emerge until bedtime. His verdict: “It starts off kind of surreal, but it’s pretty awesome.”
That’s my favorite kind of endorsement. Thanks!