Edward Willett’s Big Idea post for his new novel The Cityborn references John Calvin, so allow me to suggest that you were predestined to find it and read it. But Willett might argue with me on that, as you will read (of your own free will!) below.
Some novels are born with big ideas, others have big ideas thrust upon them.
The latter was the case with The Cityborn, my new stand-alone science fiction novel from DAW Books: I was a good 60,000 words into it before I realized what I it was really about.
Now, I’m not new at this. The Cityborn is (to my own astonishment) my eighth novel for DAW. (Better yet, it’s under my own name—my last four books were written under pseudonyms, Magebane as Lee Arthur Chane and the Masks of Aygrima trilogy as E.C. Blake). But every book is different, and this was one where the writing process turned out to be as much one of discovery as it was of ex nihilo creation.
Oh, I had good science fiction premise, a fast-moving plot, interesting characters, and a (I hope) fascinating setting. I’d had the idea for the book, I just hadn’t discovered the big idea within the book.
Books can be born many different ways. The Cityborn began with a striking image: that of a young man scavenging for survival on a giant trash heap, outside a great city.
My process for building a novel from such an idea is similar to that of an oyster crafting a pearl around a piece of grit. I ask myself questions: “Why did that rubbish heap form? How big is it? What kind of city created it? Who lives there? Why are some of them reduced to scavenging? Who rules this city, and why do they allow this to continue?” My answers to those questions gave me the skeleton of my story. In The Cityborn’s case, it looks like this:
The metal City towers at the centre of the mountain-ringed Heartland. It straddles the Canyon, filled almost to the brim with centuries’ worth of rubbish and waste, a gigantic trash heap known as the Middens. The City is stratified and authoritarian, ruled by with an iron fist by the First Officer, in the name of the semi-mythical Captain. Armed Provosts enforce the First Officer’s decrees.
The Officers, the ruling class, live in luxury on the Eleventh and Twelfth Tiers, while the poor live hand-to-mouth on the First and Second Tiers. (The middle classes live…wait for it!…in the middle Tiers. Clever, huh?) Criminals and other outcasts fight for survival in the Middens, where the City’s law does not extend and vicious gangs rule.
The young man from my initial vision, Danyl, has been raised in the Middens by an old scavenger, who claims to have found him abandoned as a baby. Meanwhile, Alania, ward of a cold, distant Officer, lives on Twelfth, a pampered prisoner, never permitted to explore the City or the surrounding Heartland.
The plot gets cracking when Alania, fleeing from an unexpected attack on Twelfth, plunges into the Middens—and into Danyl’s life. Suddenly, the Provosts are after both of them, and they don’t know why. As they are pursued down the Canyon, into the Heartland, to the mountains of the north and back again, they learn secrets about who and what they are…and the actions they take in response will determine the fate of the City and everyone who lives there.
That last vague cover-blurb sentence is where I found the Big Idea that grew out of the “little idea” that provided the plot. It came to me in a literal epiphany, one morning while I was writing in Atlantis Coffee in downtown Regina (a favorite haunt of mine; it’s at the corner of Hamilton Street and Victoria Avenue, should you ever be in town and want to check it out. Tell them I sent you).
You see, the reason everyone is chasing Alania and Danyl is that both of them were literally designed to fill an important role within the City: predestined, in a way even John Calvin never dreamed of. Every day of their lives, until they come unexpectedly together, they were being unknowingly guided toward fates determined for them from infancy.
Even after they meet, throwing the proverbial monkey wrench into the machinations of their secret manipulators, they find it almost impossible to deviate from a path they had no say in choosing, whose destination they hate but may not be able to avoid.
The big idea at the heart of The Cityborn, then, is a question: can individuals break the chains forged by the circumstances of their birth, the way they are raised, the expectations and restrictions placed upon them by their society? Can they deviate from their preordained path in life?
It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has read my other books that my answer to that question was a resounding “Yes!” The value of individuals, the importance of individual liberty (and individual responsibility), is a theme that runs through all my stories, as characters struggle to do what’s right (as they see it) despite the cost, however often they stumble and fail along the way, even if it means renouncing everything they once believed to be true.
Danyl and Alania make difficult choices. They make bad decisions that sometimes make things worse, not better. But they also fight: fight against the fate imposed upon them by those who created and nurtured them, against the chains placed on them by the society into which they were born.
They act, in short, as individuals free to make choices and take action. In the process, they change their world.
Just as, perhaps, we can.
That, it seems to me, is a pretty Big Idea.