The Big Idea: Rajan Khanna

There are many interesting things about Rajan Khanna’s debut novel Falling Sky, but the one that pings my radar is that involves dirigibles, and that (of course!) noted dirigiblist Cory Doctorow plays a key role. Read on to find out how it all connects.

RAJAN KHANNA:

Like most novels, Falling Sky began with a sentence. It was a sentence I had written years ago and filed away, like I do with many of my story ideas. It involved a man, floating in a dirigible, afraid to go down to the ground. At the time I didn’t know why he was afraid, or what possibly lurked beneath him. I just knew he had to descend but didn’t want to. 

In 2008, when I attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop, I took that sentence with me. I wanted to turn it into a story, but I didn’t know where to take it. It was Paul Park, our first week instructor, who pointed me in the right direction. He said something along the lines of, “It can’t be a fantasy. You don’t want every person in this world in their own balloon.” Up until that moment, I thought I might. But I quickly shifted gears and decided it had to be science fiction and that despite the outlandish premise, I would make it as realistic as possible. 

What the man in the dirigible was afraid of became a pandemic, an apocalyptic disease that shattered modern society. A virus so contagious that it kept people isolated, afraid of being exposed or infected. The victims became, essentially, off the rack zombies (though in my defense it was late night/early morning as I was pulling this together and I was reaching for the low hanging fruit).

The man in the dirigible became Ben Gold, my protagonist, an airship pilot and survivor, staying in the air for as long as he could until his needs, primarily his hunger, sent him down to the ground to risk his life.

I had my initial hook – a post-apocalyptic setting, a rugged anti-hero in an airship, and a host of slavering, zombie-like creatures waiting below him. And while the story needed a lot of work, the setting seemed to generate some interest, enough that several of my classmates, and our instructor for that week, Mary Rosenblum, encouraged me to expand it into a novel. The other overwhelming bit of feedback was to ditch the zombies and make the disease more nuanced. So, when I revised it, instead of being fatal, the disease regressed humans into a savage and bestial state, robbing them of reason, increasing their hunger and aggression.

The third instructor to weigh in on the story was Cory Doctorow, who admirably went back and read the previous week’s stories. He suggested an extra scene where Ben, a lifelong survivor, is confronted with the horrifying lengths some people will go to in order to survive and it calls his choices into question. This would be very useful to me later.

Years went by and the story remained unpublished and a novel was missing from my mental landscape. I kept returning to the idea and bouncing off of it. It just didn’t have any life. Then one day, I found Ben’s voice. I heard it, in my head, in first person, and everything clicked in that moment.

So I had my high concept (post-apocalyptic adventure with airships) and, remembering what Cory helped me realize, I had my central idea — what it means to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. What is the cost of that survival? What does it mean to eke out existence in a shattered world? What lengths would you go to survive? Is there a point where survival by itself isn’t worth it anymore?

In the animal kingdom the basic point of life is often to live long enough to pass your genes on to the next generation. But is that enough for human beings? What about a world where procreation is often a danger because of the risk of infection? And how much of your humanity can you hold onto, and which parts, in the face of losing it to a disease?

Furthermore, is survival really the point at all? If Ben is the face of survival in the book, Miranda, one of the other main characters, is the face of idealism. At the start of the novel, Ben has joined up with Miranda and her group of scientists, helping to provide them with transport and protection. Miranda is trying to find a cure for the virus and believes that one is possible. In fact she risks her life on a regular basis for that purpose. Ben thinks she’s crazy, that her idealism will get her killed (or infected), but in Miranda’s mind, it’s worth it. In her mind risking your life for something more than just survival is the only thing worth doing. Just keeping on is a losing game.

That conflict, between Miranda and Ben’s viewpoints, is at the heart of Falling Sky both in its constructive and destructive variations. Because remember, horrible things can be done in the name of survival, and terrible things can be done in the name of hope and progress, too.

Also, there are airships. Lots and lots of airships. Because airships are cool.

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Falling Sky: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

12 Comments on “The Big Idea: Rajan Khanna”

  1. changterhune – Before you hear lies from Chang Terhune himself, we thought we’d tell you the truth: without us, his old action figures, he’d be nowhere. He loved science fiction from way back and began reading it at an early age, but it was through us that he acted it all out. That’s what led to the writing. He watched a lot of science fiction shows like Star Trek, U.F.O, and movies, too. But we were always there to do his bidding. And it’s like they say: you always forget about the little people on your way up. Oh, the 70’s and early 80’s with him were good times! He’d use these blocks and make all the crazy buildings for us to be in his stories. I gotta say the kid’s imagination was pretty damn fertile. Oh, he had friends, but they just weren’t into it like him. He was like the Lance Armstrong of action figures. And of science fiction. At first, when he began writing in the eighth grade, we didn’t mind. He still made time for us. And we knew that when he was holding us in his sweaty little hands and he got that far off look in his eye, he’d come back to burying us in the back yard or - god forbid! – blowing us up with firecrackers. But it was worth it for a part in one of those stories. We loved him for it. He kept us around even when we were minus a leg or two - or even a head. In that mind of his, he found a use for all of us. Then he discovered girls. October, 1986. It was like the end of the world. One day we’re standing in the middle of this building block creation he’d pretended was some marble city on a planet near Alpha Centauri and the next we were stuck in a box in the closet. Not even a “See ya later!” Nope, it was into the closet, then we heard some high-pitched girly-giggles then silence. We didn’t see him for years. We got word about him once in a while. Heard he took up writing, but it was crap like “The Breakfast Club” only with better music. We couldn’t believe it. Not Charlie. What happened to those aliens with heads he’d sculpted out of wax? Spaceships? Those complex plots? All gone. For what? You guessed it: Girls. Emotions. “Serious fiction.” I tell you, it was like hearing Elvis had left the building. During our two decade exile in the closet, we heard other things about him. He went to college. He wrote a lot, but not much he really liked. We knew it even then. It was like he didn’t dare write science fiction. Some of us had lost hope and just lay there. Others kept vigil, hoping for a day we didn’t dare speak about. Then we heard he’d stopped writing in 1996. Did he come to reclaim us? No. He took up music for ten years or so. He took up yoga. Once in a while, he’d visit us in the closet. But it was half-hearted. His mind was elsewhere. Then one day, he really did come back for us. One second we’re in the dark and the next thing we know we’re in a car headed for Massachusetts. Suddenly we got a whole shelf to ourselves out in broad daylight! Then he bought a bunch of others form some planet called Ebay. He’d just sit and stare at us with that old look. But why were we suddenly back in the picture? He had a wife now, who didn’t mind that he played with us. So what had happened? Turns out he’d never forgotten about those stories. He’d been thinking about all of us and the stories he’d made up and then remembered he’d been a writer once. From the shelf we could see him typing away. Before long he’s got a whole novel together! Then he’s working on another one. Word is there are two more in the planning stages! Some short stories, too! It’s good to see him using his imagination again. Its good to know he never abandoned us. He returned to his true love of science fiction. We hear the stories are pretty good. Someday we’ll get one of the cats to score us a copy of the manuscript. Man, it’s good to be out of the damn closet! --- I'm smarter than you I'm harder than you I'm better than you I'm just raw I'm hotter than you More popular than you More clever than you And goshdarn it, people like me I'm smarter than you I'm harder than you I'm better than you I'm just raw I'm hotter than you More popular than you More clever than you And goshdarn it, people like me
    changterhune

    Rajan is a major dude. Looking forward to picking this up!

  2. naqvioski – Lahore, Pakistan – Naqvioski is the alter ego of designer/illustrator Zain Naqvi. Zain has a Bachelors Degree from National College of Arts, Pakistan. Currently he is working on his second Graphic Novel.
    Zain Naqvi

    i loved the premise the setting looks delicious, I am glad there are no zombies and air ships! Its been a while I’ve seen them being used somewhere in an intelligent way.That said i do find the title of the book a little dull, reminds me of this TV show!

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