The Big Idea: John Ayliff

In Belt Three, author John Ayliff posits the end of the world as we know it. Do the survivors feel fine? Well, it depends on your definition of “fine.”


Aliens threaten to destroy the Earth in any number of sf books and movies. In most cases, daring space heroes defeat them and all returns to normal. In the rare cases when they don’t, it usually spells the end of the human race, at least as an independent civilisation; individuals might survive, but only by hitching a ride to safety with more benevolent aliens.

The big idea of Belt Three is that neither of these extremes happens. By cosmic coincidence, the Worldbreakers arrive during a quite narrow window in human development: we’re not advanced enough to defeat them, but we’re advanced enough to survive. Three hundred years later, people live in cities built into the asteroid belts that once made up the planets. The Worldbreakers are still around, destroying these debris pieces one by one (they’re slow but thorough), and populations scramble to evacuate whenever they approach. To build the world of Belt Three I tried to imagine what life would be like under these conditions.

The details of the evacuation of Earth would leave a large mark on the society that would emerge. I’d read somewhere that there may have been a human population bottleneck around 70,000 years ago, in which the human race was reduced to a few thousand individuals, and I decided that a similar thing happened here: only around a thousand families managed to evacuate in time. These near-future refugees had more resources than our prehistoric ancestors, though, and they also managed to save banks of genetic material from a larger population, and the technology to create clones from this material. However, a flaw in the hurriedly-designed cloning system meant that the clones were sterile. Three centuries later, the most important social divide is between the “true-born” ruling class and the “tank-born” majority, and the mythology of the thousand surviving families is an important part of true-born identity.

Secondly, the way people understand their place in history wouldn’t be as straightforward as “alien robots destroyed the planets and now we’re living in the debris.” That’s too cold for most people to find comforting. Instead, various religious groups offer their own explanations for the Worldbreakers; and because these religions pull in different directions, the society-wide consensus has become a sort of agnostic shrug: “No one knows what the Worldbreakers are.”

I find religion fascinating, and I wanted to make it an important part of my worldbuilding. I decided that creating a single dominant religion would be too neat, so I invented several small religious groups. The one that features most prominently is Scriberism, which teaches that the Worldbreakers are angels sent by God to dismantle the universe and bring the spiritually pure into paradise. At the highest level of the religion, believers purify themselves then board ships that fly into a Worldbreaker’s energy beam. Other religions include the Arkites, who interpret the Worldbreakers as a second Flood, which will eventually end and reveal a new set of planets; the Eternalists, who believe that the planets are destroyed and recreated in an endless cycle; and the True Belters, who believe that the planets are a myth and the universe has always consisted of belts and asteroid cities.

Outside of religion, society’s received wisdom would reflect its circumstances in more subtle ways, common assumptions that no one questions because no one thinks about them at all. Whatever the Worldbreakers are, everyone knows that they can’t be fought, and that the human race is living through its last few hundred years. That’s enough time to grab the best life you can for yourself and (if you’re a true-born) your children, but not long enough to think about grand projects for improving the world. For someone who’s grown up with the idea of the doomed human race, it wouldn’t be frightening, and might even be a source of comfort; nothing you do really matters, so there’s nothing to worry about. When one character has this belief challenged, they react not with hope but with bafflement.

That’s some of the thinking that went in to the background of the novel. In the foreground is the idea that there are always a few individuals who don’t accept society’s commonly accepted wisdom. The main character isn’t such an individual (at least not at first), but the pirate who kidnaps him is: she knows it’s impossible to strike back against the Worldbreakers, but she’s on a personal quest do do so anyway, and she’ll tear down any part of belt-dwelling society that tries to stop her.


Belt Three: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google Play|iBooks|Kobo

Read an except. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.


16 Comments on “The Big Idea: John Ayliff”

  1. I was fortunate enough to read some of this while John was writing it (we were in the same writer’s group in Cambridge for a while). He’s an astonishing talent, and I can heartily recommend this book.

  2. I’m 76% of the way through Stephenson’s Seveneves; from the description above, it appears that comparisons to Belt Three will be inevitable. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) that won’t happen for me for quite awhile, as Ayliff’s book has automatically gone to the bottom of the unread queue, currently about 50 novels long (that’s just the SF queue; Stephenson, Scalzi, Vinge, Bujold, Gibson, and a few others go right to the top of the queue). John has jumped into a very high level of competition.

  3. Okay, it’s intriguing enough that I’ve downloaded the sample and will read that tonight. I can’t promise any more, but the odds are good.

  4. I like the sound of this. Purchased, downloaded, and will be read… sometime. I just need to find some time to get through the backlog of about 500 books on my to-read pile.

  5. Question for the author:
    iBooks is selling this book in pounds (not dollars) – is it available in the US now?

  6. Bought, downloaded, read and reviewed on Amazon. I really enjoyed it. My favorite bit may have been near the end when the antagonist says to the protagonist, “This was my great achievement, go get your own.” (I’m paraphrasing.)

  7. @old aggie:
    The book is available in the US. I don’t know how to change the display currency in the iBooks web interface, but if you click on ‘View in iTunes’ then iTunes should display it in US dollars (or whatever currency you have it set to use).

    Thank you so much for the review! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    Hi! Thanks for the endorsement. :)

  8. Those Worldbreakers must be really something. It would take about as much energy as the Sun puts out in a week to destroy the Earth by breaking it into pieces. And what for? Anything that you would gain from the exercise (other than the destruction of life on Earth) is available elsewhere in the system for much less energy. So unless the Worldbreakers are basically super-duper Beserkers, the MacGuffin fails.

  9. This took about two paragraphs (of TBI) for me to go “done, I’m in!” Mind you my TBR list is about 10x worse than bobmunck’s.

    @JohnD – Traditionally one allows one unchallenged MacGuffin per book/series. Personally I find it easier to handwave stuff like that out the way and go with the story, provided the author doesn’t try to explain it too hard. YMMV.

    AFATA (Apologies for all the acronyms…)

  10. @old aggie (and @John…either one): The iBooks link uses ‘mt’ and shows me Euros (mt…Malta?! that’s an…unusual jurisdiction to use for the link, especially when the other links appear to go to U.S. stores), but changing that in the URL to ‘us’ pulls up the U.S. version of the page:

    That said, the link on the ‘mt’ version of the page does open up iTunes to the U.S. version of the book, in dollars. (shrug)

    Anyway, the book sounds interesting – I’ll check it out, @John Ayliff!

  11. @John, since you are reading this thread (brave man). Did you consider leaving off the epilogue?

  12. @WomanWhoWeaves:
    I did think about leaving off the epilogue, but in the end I decided to keep it. I intended Belt Three to be a standalone novel, so I wasn’t worried about closing off my sequel options – in fact, I thought that without the epilogue the book would have felt incomplete. (If I do change my mind and write a sequel then I’m confident I could write around the epilogue, but right now I’m not planning to.)

    Thanks again for the review – I do appreciate hearing which bits of the novel worked and which didn’t, and I’m glad the epilogue didn’t spoil the whole book for you!

  13. @John, epilogue was fine. But so was your first ending. Your first ending reminded me of Robin McKinley, who mostly (entirely?) writes one offs. After the first ending I had a different story in the back of my head for Jonas. The first ending had this amazing energy of rebirth. The epilogue made me think you didn’t trust your own instincts.

    Remember, this is my two cents and who am I, a random reader on the internet who doesn’t have the perseverance to write stories herself. So don’t dwell on it, but tuck it away. I look forward to your next outing!

  14. @WomanWhoWeaves: Don’t worry, I’m not going to dwell on any one piece of feedback! I do appreciate getting the feedback, though, and I’ll bear it in mind for future books.

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