The Big Idea: Elly Bangs
People often say that we, as a species, need to come together. To put our differences aside and work as one. Elly Bangs weighs in on this opinion in her Big Idea for her newest novel, Unity. Follow along with her as she tells us about different kinds of unity, and how it affects individualism.
‘Unity’ is a remarkable word, because its shades of meaning encompass both the best and the worst tendencies in the entire human condition. I think the character of this century is going to depend a lot on which of those shades takes the strongest hold.
I’m forever haunted by a moment in Octavia E. Butler’s novel Dawn. When the extraterrestrial Oankali arrive on an Earth devastated by nuclear war, and first read the DNA of the few human survivors, they’re startled to find in us a rare combination of two innate traits (individually advantageous, but fatal when combined): we’re both individually intelligent, and hierarchical. We have the power of bees and ants to arrange ourselves into massive and sophisticated units, with systemic intelligences and characters all their own — and those systems are both supercharged and perpetually fractured by all the differing wills and ideas of the individuals that make them up.
Whether we’re really doomed remains to be seen (I think, I hope) — but ever since I read that passage, I’ve been seeing the whole world through its lens. Every kind of power we know is something that happens when a lot of people come together and act as one. When that happens, it can be transcendent, or horrific, or both. It all depends on what’s unifying us, and what kind of unity it is.
My novel explores two very different kinds. On one side, there’s unity in the form of self-replicating nanorobotic weaponry that converts everything it touches into more of itself; unity as a man who similarly replicates himself by overwriting other people’s minds with his own and possessing their bodies; unity as a vast, dehumanized hyperintelligence that I can’t get into without spoiling the ending. This version of unity has always been with us: a notion that coming together means being all alike; that the unity of a nation depends on its racial, cultural, or ideological homogeneity; and that anyone different in mind or body must be isolated and disempowered (at the very least), lest they form a unit of their own.
Through its central character and her past, my novel also tries to propose an opposite concept of unity — one that doesn’t merely tolerate the differences between its members, but draws all its power from them, just as an ecosystem needs biodiversity to survive catastrophe, just as a person needs a wealth of diverse information to know anything about anything. Danae’s expansive memory, and the knowledge and perspective that comes with it, make her a borderline superhero; still, she spends much of novel being tortured by the things that set her apart and make her unable to connect to others, only to find that those differences are exactly what she needs.
We’re all living through an era of worldwide, extinction-level problems. To solve any of them, we’re going to need to draw on that immense and quintessentially human power to come together and act as one — and do it on an unprecedented scale, and with an unprecedented quality of communication and action, and there are a lot of ways for it all to go wrong. That’s the big idea in Unity: all my hopes and fears about that.