The Big Idea: Joseph Wallace
Like a million other kids—probably a million other kids in Brooklyn alone—I always felt like I’d been born in the wrong era.
Sometimes, instead of being stuck in my never-changing neighborhood with its two-story homes and postage-stamp yards, I’d dream of being born a century or two in the future, giving me the chance to explore distant, uncharted worlds. (If P.S. 193 had offered a class whose final required surviving on a dangerous wilderness planet, like the school in Robert Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky did, I would have been the first to sign up.)
More often, though, I didn’t yearn to travel forward but backward through time. I desperately wanted to be living a hundred years earlier, or two hundred, during the great Age of Sail. Back when world maps were filled with blank spaces and countries with long-forgotten names and blurry borders. Back when the huge empty oceans bore the legend “Here Be Monsters.”
It wasn’t that I wanted to discover a new territory, plant a flag, found a civilization. The opposite: I was desperate to escape my city home, with its squirrels and pigeons, so I could truly understand what it was like to be just one species among countless others, instead of always the arrogant alpha.
But I was too late. By the time I got to do the traveling I’d always dreamed of, the world was still beautiful…but far from limitless. The empty spaces had almost all been filled in. Even while wandering among the great herds of East Africa or in the Amazon rainforest, I always knew I wasn’t truly alone. I understood that the wilderness still existed only because my species hadn’t yet chosen to destroy and occupy it.
I’ve been a writer almost since I can remember. But it wasn’t until just a year or two ago that I realized I could visit the world I’d dreamed of, if not in real life, then at least in my writing. That’s how Slavemakers was born.
In my previous novel, Invasive Species, I created a scientifically plausible way to bring modern human society to an end. While most of the book takes place in a fictional present, Invasive Species’ epilogue leaps forward to twenty years after the apocalypse. A group of survivors is about to embark on the first great exploration of what they call the Next World…aboard a sailing ship modeled on those that plied the oceans during the Age of Sail.
To explore a world once again filled with empty places. Here Be Monsters.
When I finished writing that epilogue, I thought I was done. I had no intention of creating a follow-up novel. But then the thought started nagging at me: Why did my characters get to embark on an expedition to an unknown world, but I didn’t?
And, on that thought, the plot of Slavemakers presented itself to me. (All at once, whole, as I was in a car heading back from a visit to Cape Cod.) It’s science fiction, it’s a thriller, but at its heart it’s also something else: A book about learning to adapt to, and survive on, a planet we no longer dominate.
What would it feel like to watch nature reclaim what we’ve long considered “ours”? To witness evolution rush in to fill the gaps left behind by our near disappearance, just as it did after the extinction of the dinosaurs? And, most of all, to be born onto that planet, into the Next World, and to start afresh, without the prejudices and preconceptions that led to the apocalypse?
I don’t live in Brooklyn anymore, and by now I understand the world I live in is the one I’m stuck with. But I don’t think it’s always going to be this way—our species is not going to come anywhere near the dinosaurs’ 165-million-year reign—and in Slavemakers I got to imagine what might happen next.