The Big Idea: R.W.W. Greene

For his Big Idea on the novel The Light Years, author R.W.W. Greene considers what things make the cut, when civilization itself is on the line.

R.W.W. GREENE:

Moving always sucks. But especially when it’s unexpected. Even someone with Chrisjen Avasarala-level planning skills, when faced with an eviction or a sudden breakup, is going to lose a thing or thirty by the time she unpacks the boxes, bags, and bales in the new digs. Somehow, she’ll end up with both copies of Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, no can opener, a single black shoe, two years of Yankee-Swap gifts, and the bad phone charger. It can be a new home, but it’s never the same home, and it’s going to take a while to get comfortable.

That’s the big idea I kept in the crosshairs while I wrote The Light Years, which is springing from the presses at Angry Robot Books this month. In the book, which is set a mere thousand years from now, Earth has burned to a cinder and humanity is no longer living there. Generation ships, hibernation pods, and a little faster-than-light-travel for the well-to-do have given the species a fresh start, and after several hundred years in survival mode, things are settling into the new normal. There’s finally time for a few luxuries. They can begin unpacking the box marked “The Humanities.”

Naturally, time and travel left big gaping holes in all the packing boxes, and even with the best intentions, there was no escaping Earth without leaving a lot behind. There was data loss at every point in the exodus.

After all, the statue Winged Victory of Samothrace was so very, very heavy. It was carefully scanned, of course, along with The Mona Lisa and Starry, Starry Night. The Google Books servers were uploaded to the ship-based computers, along with as much of the Library of Congress as could be digitized and everything on Spotify and iTunes. All the shows on the streaming services came along, all the memes on Twitter, all the approved YouTube videos, even the ones being made right… now. I mean, now.

Now.

Is it still a work of art if the original no longer exists? That’s something the Earth refugees will no doubt want to debate later, after they’ve built the infrastructure of a new civilization. People with the means will debate it, I mean. Philosophy and classical studies will be luxuries for quite some time, I’m afraid.

The richer countries were better represented on the What-To-Bring-To-The-New-World Committees, which could explain the loss of so much non-Western art and culture. There was a representative sampling collected, but with only a generation or so to plan, sacrifices had to be made. And was it such a loss? If no one had made a parody or dorm-room poster of it by 2050 or so, how relevant could it be?

Hey, you know how after a breakup you tend to go through Facebook and Instagram to get rid of the pictures of your ex? There was a similar move to tidy up history and culture for posterity. No one remembers which version of Huckleberry Finn made the cut, and there are numerous books and films mentioned in the archives that were judged unworthy for inclusion. (However,  the director’s cuts of Bloodsport, Home Alone 2, and Zoolander were carefully curated so that future audiences could enjoy them.) In a different political climate, different decisions might have been made, but that’s democracy for you.

Many of the recorded histories reflected poorly on the countries working so hard and spending so much money on the fleet of colony ships, so the rougher parts got sanded smooth or trimmed away. There was little political will to bring the mistakes of the past into the new future.

Science and tech? They brought everything relevant, of course. Every theory. Every paper. Every debunked anti-vaccination and Intelligent Design study. All those adverts about crystals and CBD oil. It was far easier just to bring everything then to engage in politically divisive debates over facts and merit, and the really important bits were locked away under patent and copyright and statutes of secrecy.

What else was there to pack? Pictures and videos of beautiful places. A recording of the mating calls of loons. The sound of a busy street in Manhattan. Genetic samples (but there was no way to get samples of everything) and seeds. A few, small personal items.

More data was lost in transit. Most of the Earth’s citizenry traveled frozen or in massive generation ships, but representatives and build teams from the greater nations had faster means. They got to the new worlds first to make them ready and, as was their due, claim the best spots. They set the rules, created the social system, and decided what was cool long before the other refugees arrived. Family recipes were modified for available resources, and soon no one remembered what a real meal from the Old Country tasted like.

Remember how the old iPod shuffle algorithm was only pseudo-random? That’s also how the bowdlerized, gerrymandered version of the Sum Total of Human Knowledge contained in the colony ships’ computers worked. Stuff that people wanted to find got stored at the top, search-engine-optimized and nicely cross-referenced with keywords. Other stuff was never seen again, like that song from that album that never shows up on your playlist. It’s still there in the depths, where even the nerdiest of the data-spiders never go. (Somehow, though, “Friends” made it into the zeitgeist again. Go figure.)

And, thus, a new civilization (and book) was made from what we carried from the old.

Most anyone who has taken a creative-writing class has been asked to consider the following prompt: Assuming friends, family, and pets are safe, what is the one thing your protagonist would grab whilst fleeing his or her burning house? A rational character would, of course, grab the perfect, narratively-useful, archetype-defining thing for its creator to use. However, rational behavior is a lot to expect out of someone in panicked flight, and I expect most civilizations, most lives–real or imagined–are made and remade from those off shoes, duplicate CDs, unfilled needs, and broken pieces.

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The Light Years: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

2 thoughts on “The Big Idea: R.W.W. Greene

  1. I was looking for a new book to read and this sounds wonderfully interesting so I have downloaded it to my ebook reader, THANKS

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