The Big Idea: Charles Soule
Posted on December 6, 2019 Posted by John Scalzi 10 Comments
“There is nothing new under the sun,” as some playwright once said — but is it possible to put a new and intriguing spin on a old concept and in doing so make a really cracking tale out of it? This is of interest to Charles Soule in his new novel, Anyone. And here, with his Big Idea piece, it might be of interest to you as well.
Anyone is a book about body-swapping. It’s not the first, and it won’t be the last. There’s the amazing Takeshi Kovacs series by Richard Morgan, starting with Altered Carbon, Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates, and of course, Mary Rodgers’ Freaky Friday – among many others. The idea of experiencing life in someone else’s body is one of those concepts that comes around a lot, because it’s a pretty fascinating and alluring idea. It’s something we, as yet, just can’t do. We’re trapped in the meat in which we’re born, we see through the eyes we have, and that’s that until the day we die. Who wouldn’t want to experience life as someone else, even for just a little while? I know I would. Whether it’s terrifying or invigorating or some weird version of the uncanny valley I couldn’t even begin to anticipate, I know I’d learn something profound.
(A quick digression – we can’t get into another body (yet), but a process does exist by which we can get into other minds, and you’re doing it right now: reading. If a book is good, if it hits that transportive state that takes us out of ourselves and into the story, then, yeah – we’re living as Harry Potter or Lisbeth Salander or Jack Reacher or Mina Harker for a while. Writing is a bit like that too, but it’s harder to get there; you’re both creating and experiencing the character at the same time, so it’s twice the work.)
Digression complete. My point is that body-swap stories aren’t uncommon, and that alone wasn’t the Big Idea grand enough to build my second novel around. It wasn’t body switching I was interested in. I wanted to see what would happen in a world not too different from ours where it became commonplace to just inhabit other people’s bodies for a while, like renting an AirBnb. I wanted to find out how society would change if you didn’t know just from looking at someone the sort of body they’d been born into. When I started, I didn’t know the answer. Seriously. That’s the fun of writing a high-concept speculative fiction story, by the way – or really any story. You start with a question or a puzzle, and then you solve it by telling the tale. I didn’t know all the ways the body-switch technology in Anyone, called “the flash,” would affect the world when I started writing the book, and I was surprised by some of the places the story went. True, no-joke surprise. It’s one of the best things about writing a novel. You never know what’s going to happen until you really dig in.
I began by thinking about how we, as a species, approach other human beings. We make so many instant categorizations upon a first encounter with someone new. There are the basic, surface groupings: age, likely gender, physical characteristics like height and weight. Of course, those can all be misread, but it’s part of the information set we gather about a person at a glance. And then there’s the less conscious set of assumptions we might make whether we want to or not: things like socio-economic status. Those things come to us because of whatever biases we’ve grown up with; the cues we’ve come to recognize as having certain meanings, even if unfair or unwarranted.
So, the Big Idea in Anyone was to create a world where that did not exist. If you don’t know who the person you’re interacting with “is,” in the way we define that now, then you have to categorize them more by “what they do” – in other words, their actions. I like that idea very much. We should all be judged by what we do. What we put into the world, good or bad.
Now, look. I know body-swapping wouldn’t immediately create a utopia free of preconceptions or assumptions about other people, and the book acknowledges that. Human nature is human nature. We like to other-ise people. We like our tribes. I think it’s hardwired in from the earliest days out on the savannah trying to figure out what we can eat, what might eat us, and who might help us find more things to eat. But in the grand tradition of science fiction since its very beginning, Anyone lets me take a Big Idea (what if anyone could be anyone), apply it to society, and see what comes out the other side.
There’s obviously much more to the story – intrigue, spills, thrills and chills, page-turning action, twists and turns and a heck of an ending – but that’s the Big Idea I started with.
When anyone can become anyone… what defines who we are? Again – we are what we do. To quote the big theme statement of the novel: you are you.
Anyone is out now. I hope you’ll check it out, if you get a chance.
Anyone: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website. Follow Charles on twitter.
Just FYI, “There is nothing new under the sun” is from Ecclesiastes 1:11.
Didn’t Robert Silverberg do this in a story in the ’70s or ’80s?
Looks like my library has a copy. Just placed a hold request.
Jack Chalker’s novel Cerberus: A Wolf In The Fold is a very plausible dystopian take on body-swapping. It’s set on a world where body swapping is possible, so older people with power exploit younger people without power by swapping bodies with them.
Now, I want to see if someone really can put on Ecclesiastes [/Kohelet] as a play, if just to read the NY Times review.
(Hey, even we agnostic gentiles know where ‘ein kol-chadash tachat ha shamesh’ comes from. But you’re in luck, and get to be part of today’s lucky 10,000 on that subject.)
I enjoyed the excerpt. Talk about High Concept! Definitely one for my towering TBR stack. It also reminds me a little of “Lock In” and “Head On”.
I enjoyed the excerpt too.
There was a Galaxy magazine story where every town had a seedy body swap joint, run by runty aliens, considered on a social par with a brothel. An extremely handsome man swaps bodies, realizes his mistake, and wants the other guy to agree to switch back. He won’t. And alien ethics mean the swap has to be agreed to by both parties…
The Silverberg story is called “Passengers”, I think, but it isn’t quite a body-swapping story.
The body-swapping is a feature of Chalker’s work – body-swapping, body-reshaping (one example is Medusa: A Tiger By The Tail, last book of the Lords of the Diamond series that includes Cerebus), sex-changes, bodies-as-prisons, and probably others I’m not remembering.
Interesting comparison: Fred Pohl’s 1959 story “The Day the Icicle Works Closed” hinges on body renting.
“Immortality, Inc” was Robert Sheckley’s 1958 contribution to body-swapping stories. F. M. Busby used it in a short story whose title I cannot remember.