The Big Idea: Brenda W. Clough
In today’s Big Idea, Brenda Clough explore the issues of power, and superpowers, and whether both are more trouble than they are made out to be — and how that affects her new trilogy, of which The River Twice is the first installment.
BRENDA W. CLOUGH:
I was born in Washington DC and have lived here, off and on, all my life. So a fascination with power comes naturally to me. All my novels revolve around power and the difficulties of acquiring and managing it, and my new time travel trilogy Edge to Center is no exception.
And what is time travel but the ultimate power? Think about it. Nothing is over, if you can go back and fix it. No battle lost, no relationship destroyed, no opportunity missed. You blew it big time. But you could go back and make everything right – couldn’t you?
Well … of course not. Who wants to read about Superman steamrollering all the opposition? The whole point about writing about power is to explore the dilemmas it generates. My hero Jack Wragsland falls into every possible pit of knives his ability to manipulate time allows him to get into. A reasonably conscientious fellow, he does try to fix it. It does not go well.
But there’s more to power than tinkering with space/time. The main tool the human race has developed to manage untrammeled power is government. Only good governance separates Americans from Yemen or North Korea. There’s a reason people want to immigrate into the United States, and it’s not because of our climate. Living in a well-run nation allows you to get stuff done: useful things like staying alive and having a family and not starving to death, picky details like that. And writing books – are there any great novels you know of that written by a resident of Pyongyang? Think of how difficult it would be to start a decent theater project in downtown Lebanon today. If art is the fullest expression of a culture, it’s government that gives the space for that culture to flourish.
So the other protagonist is Calla Ang, heir to an (imaginary) country in Southeast Asia. The problem she has is how to manage her political power. God knows there are plenty of knife pits a ruler can fall into, and the misery this can generate is just as great as meddling with time lines. Which Jack helps her with, a couple times.
There is a solution within the story, one that both characters work towards. It’s a grown-up answer, not an action-movie solution, kind of Zen: that you don’t have to wield the sword. You can have the power, and hold it back. Sometimes the wiser path is to simply not use the maximal weapon in your hand. Of course you can dive in there, thrashing and trashing, and that makes (I trust) for a thrilling set of novels. But if you keep on throwing the big hammer, are you smart? Sometimes, as Tolkien told us, the answer is small and mundane.
I insist that my protagonists be smart. Jack and Calla make horrible mistakes, but they learn from them. They don’t keep on banging their heads against walls. They grope their way, eventually, to a solution that Marvel heroes would never fall into.