The Big Idea: Jason Sheehan
Sometimes, when an author meets a piece of obsolete technology, it can change the way he looks at the world — or at least, a world. Just ask Jason Sheehan about that, and about aircraft, and his debut science fiction novel, A Private Little War.
I figured I was in trouble when I actually saw my first biplane.
Not in a movie. Not in a grainy Youtube video. Not on the smudged photocopies of pages from a book on the technical specifications of the Fokker, the Spad, the bloody Camel. I knew I was in trouble when I saw my first for-real biplane—when I stood close enough to smell its exhaust and see the pissing drizzle of rain beading on its skin.
The machine was nothing like I’d expected. And standing in a muddy field outside of Seattle, Washington, surrounded by dozens of biplanes—touching them, staring into the gleaming complexities of their engines and talking with their pilots—I seriously considered junking my book entirely.
Why? Because the book that I was working on at the time (the book that would become A Private Little War) was about biplanes. It was about biplanes being flown by mercenary pilots working for a private military company who had chosen to employ them against a primitive and distant alien species because biplanes are cheap and simple and because it just does not take that much to achieve air superiority in a place where the natives still think that god makes the thunder. The biplanes, therefore, were important. Hell, they were central. They were the howling, flame-spitting, fuel-injected heart of the story. And biplanes-versus-aliens? That was my Big Idea.
Or so I thought at the time.
I’d had other moments like this. Early on in the process, I’d pitched the book based around a half-remembered story that’d stuck in my brain like a burr since I was a teenager. It was from a newspaper article I would’ve (and did) swear that I’d read following the first Gulf War, about Saddam Hussein attempting to hire pilots to fly biplanes against the Kurdish rebels in Northern Iraq. Following the ’91 war, the Iraqi military infrastructure was smashed. There were no runways, no air control, no radar. All the Iraqi MIG’s had been shot down or bombed in their hangars. But Hussein still wanted to go north and drop poison on the Kurds. And to do so, he needed planes.
Biplanes, as I kind-of-incorrectly recalled, were deemed perfect for this by his surviving air force officers. They didn’t need radar or modern runways. They didn’t need anything but a pilot willing to climb into what was essentially a bathtub strapped to a flying lawnmower and hand-drop chemical weapons on his fellow man for money. And since the Kurds were, for the most part, fighting from donkey-back with 100-year-old bolt-action rifles, going after them in wooden airplanes covered in flammable cloth seemed to make a weird sort of sense. My Big Idea then was the kind of dissonant brain-noise made by the crashing together of futures and pasts. I thought I was so goddamn clever.
After I’d used this story as the central hook of my pitch (“Look what these crazy idiots were doing! How cool would it be to do the same thing all over again in the future!”), I learned that I was wrong. That I’d had the bones of the tale right, but some vital historical details dead wrong. Near as I could figure, what I was actually recalling was a story from the end of a different war (WWII) where Iraq, after having their infrastructure smashed during the fighting (and subsequent coup) and being desperately in need of something air-worthy, employed a dozen-odd British Gloster Gladiator biplanes left over from the colonial days to go north and (of course) attack the Kurds. This was in 1949. A 42-year difference that, I believed, made all the difference in the world.
Again, I seriously considered junking the entire book. And might have, had I not already been, you know…paid.
I thought, for a time, that the Big Idea I had working was this whole economies of war thing. I was wrong.
There was a draft where my Big Idea was all about man’ instinctive fear and hatred of the unknown. One paragraph of that survived to the publishing date. About five lines. They’re really good lines and I like them a lot, but they are the distillation of tens of thousands of words of just utter, terrible crap—the living core of a Big Idea that died on the vine.
In case you’re interested, here are those lines:
“Arriving on a new planet, any new planet, is like being born again. Everything is new. Nothing has a name. For lack of anything better or more productive to do, you ascribe malice or creeping evil to the stupidest of things: that rock, this plant. It’s the same everywhere. Everyone does it. After his first half-dozen landings for Flyboy, Ted was never able to look at a baby the same way again, knowing for a stone fact that from the moment they come into the world they are full of hate and formless terror.”
I believed once (and still, to some extent, do) that my Big Idea in A Private Little War was a discussion of the military doctrine of “least application of force,” and the absurd limits of exigency and penury to which that can be taken when wars are planned and fought on spreadsheets by accountants and lawyers who risk nothing in their execution.
This certainly became a theme in the final version of the book. It became the driving plot device (which, in a perfect world, would make it, by default, my Big Idea, but what world—even among the made-up ones—is ever perfect?). I humanized it in the character of Eden “Fast Eddie” Lucas—the white-collar company man sent along on the ill-fated mission to Iaxo to make sure that the pilots and their biplanes kept the war on schedule and under-budget—and have even said in other interviews and conversations that this is What The Book Is About.
But I’ve never been entirely sure that this is true.
Obviously, I didn’t junk the entire book after seeing my first biplane up close. I changed the things I had to change (the sound of the engine at idle, the feel of the doped skin, where the f’ing gas tank was located) and—accurately, I think—retained the initial sense of awe and wonder and terror I’d first felt when picturing in my head these modern biplanes roaring across the alien skies of Iaxo. This worked because, as cool as the biplanes were, they weren’t the thing that held the story together or made it sing.
I didn’t give up after learning that my pitch was a load of crap. Instead, I laughed like a crazy person over the similarities between the false story I was remembering and the actual thing that had actually happened. As a lie, it’d been plausible enough to hang in my head for twenty years and eventually become the basis for a science fiction novel. And in its true form, the story was even better because it felt, weirdly, like proof. Of course this could happen because, look—it’s already happened once before.
As I imagine must happen with all books (save a very fortunate few), A Private Little War’s Big Ideas were whatever I needed them to be on the day and in the moment that I was putting them down on paper. And in the end, all of them—the half-lies, the unknowns, the worthwhile explorations and even the worst flights of high-minded dumbassery—contributed to the final product. This is a book about madness. About power and its limitations. About the technological curve, lust for machinery, love and death and whiskey and toast. It is, in its final version, a lot like the story of its creation: a record of miscommunication, false belief, wrong-headed assumptions and the failure of Big Ideas on every conceivable level.
For me, this is great because I came out the other side with a pretty cool book full of biplanes and aliens.
For my characters? Well, things turn out a little bit rougher for them in the end. I mean, it is a war story, after all. And those things? They rarely end well.