The Big Idea: Tom Merritt
Sometimes, as a fan, you hope your a new book or show or album from your favorite creative people will give you the experience you want. But sometimes it doesn’t. What then? If you’re Tom Merritt, you use that as an inspiration to create a novel. Here’s Merritt now to talk about how his book Pilot X came out of a moment that wasn’t.
When I was 18 I went off to college, hours from the only house I ever lived in, barely knowing anyone, and scared to death. When I was 23 I moved to Texas with my then-girlfriend, leaving everything in my home state behind, and scared to death. When I was 29, the girlfriend no longer with me, I moved to San Francisco alone, barely knowing anyone, in a job I wasn’t sure I knew how to do, scared to death.
We’ve all felt alone and we’ve all made decisions that felt too big for us. What do we do when there doesn’t seem to be a right decision? Knowing someone else who’s faced the same thing helps, even if that person is fictional.
In 2006, Doctor Who returned to TV. I was captivated by Christopher Eccleston’s lonely, haunted portrayal of the Doctor. I loved that he was the last of the time lords, sole survivor of a time war, driven mad by what he had to do, and running from that past.
When the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who promised to show us the moment that made him that way, when he had to destroy his own people to end a war, I got very excited. Finally, we would see the moment that drove a good man to make an impossible decision.
But that’s not what I got. I enjoyed the episode, don’t get me wrong—it was fun and thrilling in all the right ways. But it didn’t deliver the big moment I was expecting, at least not in the way I wanted.
What should a good person do when faced with a choice between the survival of the universe, and the survival of their own people? How could you live with yourself if you had to destroy everything you knew, to save a universe? Those were the questions I wanted to see explored.
Those questions haunted me for a year.
So, I wrote several pieces of a story about a timeship pilot who had to face that moment. I created a character who did not want fame, did not seek power, but just wanted to do what he enjoyed: flying his ship. Events beyond his control thrust him into a situation where he, and only he, could decide the fate of the universe. He would have to destroy his whole culture and orphan himself or watch everything in existence burn.
I didn’t want any easy outs for him either, so I created strict rules of time travel. If I made it possible to go back in time and assassinate the folks who caused everything to go bad, it would be a short story. Even if our hero didn’t do it, somebody else would have. Besides, I don’t think time travel would work like that.
I think time travel is rigid. If you could go back in time, the effects of everything you did in the past should already be felt in your present. Headache-inducing, I know. Suffice it to say you can’t change the past. What you did in the past already happened. Trying to change the past would be like trying to escape a planet’s gravity—you can’t do it by ordinary means like jumping or even flying. It takes a lot of energy and explosions. Of course, with sufficiently powerful and advanced technology it might still be possible.
I also didn’t want to rip off Doctor Who. The comparisons were close enough as it was. Sure, I was going to have a time traveler, a ship, and race of time travelers, but that was it. No Earth, no companions (I made the ship the companion) no sonic screwdriver, no Daleks, et cetera. The main character is never a doctor, and not a madman in a box. Jelly babies and fezzes do not once make an appearance. There is, however, pie.
All that scene setting, all that character creation, all that work on the mechanics of time travel, served to make one moment inescapable. Pilot X must face the heart-breaking moment when he must destroy everything he knows, to save everything but himself, then try to live with the consequences.
Why does that situation appeal to me so much? I think it has to do with those moments in our life when we have to break with the past. When it feels like we must leave everything behind and no matter what we do, some part of our self will be destroyed. Maybe it’s a metaphor for growing up. When we leave home for the first time we end our childhood. We can’t keep it. We can try to cling to it but it won’t be childhood any more. Or, we can leave it behind and set off to make ourselves something new.
My growing up (if it’s even done) took a long time and I traveled far from home often on my own. I know that feeling of having to leave everything behind and starting over. Granted, I never had to destroy a people or save a universe, but I have felt events force me into making big decisions and then had to face the consequences of those decisions alone. That’s what I saw in the Doctor. That’s what I put into Pilot X.
My hope is that I captured a bit of what I felt back in 2006.