The Big Idea: B.J. Graf
Posted on November 23, 2020 Posted by John Scalzi 2 Comments
Do we have destinies? Or are we agents of our own fate? These questions are a mystery, but one thing author B. J. Graf makes certain in her Big Idea is that life isn’t fair. Read on to hear about how these questions play a part in her newest novel, Genesys X.
B. J. GRAF:
There’s a popular saying that “what you don’t know, can’t hurt you.” I have my doubts about that. Ignorance, especially if it rests on secrets and lies which deliberately hide the truth, can rob us of free will. That was the kernel of the big idea behind my sci-fi mystery Genesys X. The story is set in the L.A. of 2041where derma ads have replaced tattoos, the Nike swoosh is projected on the moon, and digital sponsor logos race along the side of every police vehicle. In the near future the city’s under siege from a gang war which has flooded the streets with green ice, a drug more deadly than fentanyl. And there’s a new plague. A virulent new strain of Alzheimer’s, dubbed Alz-X, is spreading like wildfire, and unlike Covid-19, it attacks teens.
Nobody knows why.
Enter haunted Homicide Special Detective Eddie Piedmont. Growing up with an abusive green ice addict for a father, Eddie starts Genesys X certain that we are masters of our own fate. He doesn’t want to be like his dad, a corrupt cop who was kicked off the force years ago, but who still makes excuses for his bad choices and always blames others. Eddie’s been running from his father’s legacy all his life. But as the great student of mythology, C.G. Jung wrote: “You meet your destiny on the road you take to avoid it.”
People lie to themselves as well as to each other, especially when they talk to police. And the secrets and lies Eddie discovers while tracking down the killer of an exotic dancer, circle back to him in a very personal way. Eddie finds the killer, but in doing so he learns that what you don’t know can direct and derail your life, and as Jung put it: “you’ll call it fate.”
What about the rest of us? Are we slaves to fate or masters of free will? Even when I was studying for my doctorate in Classics, the Greek myths that drew me in dealt with that question.
Now that I teach Classical Mythology, I find this question and others like it more haunting than ever. So do my students. I watch them grapple with a number of myths that deal with what I’ve named ‘the Red Line Event Horizon of experience.’ It goes something like this: only after a character crosses the threshold, doing something irrevocable, are the repercussions of the action made clear, never before. Persephone finds out that eating a few arils of a pomegranate, which Hades offers her, prevents her from returning to her old life on Olympus – only after she eats them. Never before. And Oedipus finds out the man he killed at the crossroads was the father he desperately tried to avoid killing only after the deed is done. Although Oedipus expressly tried to evade his prophesied fate, his avoidance effectively ensured it.
“It’s not fair,” my students say, and they’re right. But as Will Munny says in Clint Eastwood’s film Unforgiven, fairness “got nothing to do with it.”
Pull the thread on any of these myths, and they lead you into labyrinths which draw you down into deep chasms that open onto treasure troves of psychological wisdom. Although the myths deal with characters from remote antiquity, they reverberate through time to us. In our own lives there are experiences like these irrevocable acts in myth: falling in love, having sex for the first time, getting married, having a child, going to war, taking a life, losing a beloved friend or family member to death, and of course dying. If you haven’t experienced these things yourself, you can approach them from the outside. You can understand the idea of them, and an artist can take you closer to the threshold, but you can’t really know what they mean and are until you cross the event horizon yourself. Like Persephone though, once you cross, you can’t go back to the innocence of unknowing. You are changed forever.
Of course, most people today turn to science, not mythology, for answers to questions on deep issues such as fate vs. free will. And contemporary neurological research has weighed in on the subject. Various studies seem to corroborate the notion that we aren’t as free as we like to think. Experiments show we often act before we’re even aware that our minds and bodies have taken action. We make decisions before we even know we’re making them. So how could we be acting with free will? Paradoxically, however, we need to believe in free will, even if it’s a bit of an illusion, in order to make it a possibility. Otherwise there’s no point. We might as well just throw up our hands and flop down on the couch to munch on ice cream and potato chips while binging Netflix mysteries. To put it another way, contemporary scientific research corroborates the paradoxical reality which myth already knew.
In Genesys X I wanted to marry science fiction to Greek mythology via this idea. Eddie’s relentless pursuit of the truth takes him to some very dark places in himself as well as in the criminal world. That pursuit causes him to doubt his agency. But he doesn’t avoid the fight. As a believer in free will, he takes it on because he also knows you are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.
And I’ll confess that as the author of Genesys X I started the book with the ending preordained. But Eddie, like all characters who come alive, fought and made me change my ideas. So, by the last page of the novel, what does Eddie end up thinking about the Big Idea? Are we slaves to fate or masters of free will?
Eddie would say the answer is “Yes.”
Or to state the paradox in a slightly different way, fate versus free will? Maybe that’s the wrong question. Tell me what you think.
But fairness “got nothing to do with it.”
Genesys X: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
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I always put it this way: from our nurturing to our brain chemicals and all the rest… No, we don’t have free will, but we have to act as if we do.
Which, of course, is much what you’re saying here.
I’m sceptical of a drug noticeably more dangerous than fentanyl’s popularity and ability to leave the protagonist’s father alive long enough to abuse him childhood-long.
If the answer is that it’s cut so much that it’s not dependably lethal, it’s about where fentanyl is on the spectrum of danger.
Sorry to quibble but I’d worry more about drug more like speed, which usually kills noone but often leaves them such that everyone around them wishes they’d die.