Can we rewrite our culture? Author PJ Manney asks the tough questions about humanity and society in the Big Idea for her newest novel, (Con)science. Follow along as she explains what it means to be human in an ever-evolving world
I’m not great at following directions.
In theory, I should write my Big Idea about the question (CON)SCIENCE and the entire Phoenix Horizon trilogy asks: what does it mean to be human when we can augment our brains and bodies? Or if we upload our consciousness to a non-organic substrate and inhabit virtual reality? And what does the evolution of humanity through technology mean for a just society? That was the Big Idea that spurred the writing of the Phoenix Horizon trilogy.
But that’s not the Big Idea that confronts me at the end of a trilogy that took years to finish. Writers evolve and stories evolve with them.
When I wrote (R)EVOLUTION, I thought I knew what it was about: the ethics and societal change of human enhancement involving convergence technologies like brain-computer interfaces, nanomedicine, robotics and artificial intelligence. When 47North asked for two more books, I wanted to use the longer story arc to walk the reader through a mix of subgenres from near-term political technothriller, through a future American history, to more heady, hard science fiction.
This might be provocative to share publicly, but I have a mission to imagine possible futures and help mainstream readers understand what’s coming. Our society already suffers from “future shock,” Alvin and Heidi Toffler’s concept that “too much change in too short a period of time” creates “information overload,” and disruptions, violence, hatred, and blame, and often an attempt to regress to an imagined, simpler time.
If I could help people understand what was coming, perhaps they wouldn’t fall into negative or nonconstructive behaviors when stunned by future developments. They’d be more likely to make the necessary ethical decisions and adapt, or have empathy for those who did. That allowed me to guide readers from what they think they know about the future, to what they don’t. From the comfort of the recognizable, to the discomfort of what-if. If nothing else, I’d introduce a few more people to science fiction who thought it was too intellectual a genre, or dealt with subjects that didn’t affect them.
While writing (CON)SCIENCE, Trump was elected and the sociopolitical change I had anticipated and written about in (R)EVOLUTION and (ID)ENTITY, and assumed was four more years away, came crashing down. Everything had changed, not only politics.
First, I wept. Then I threw out my draft of (CON)SCIENCE the day after the election and started again. But I was completely stymied. What would I write now?
On a 2018 Norwescon panel called “Science Fiction in the Time of President Trump,” I had an actual epiphany, complete with ringing in my ears and an out-of-body experience seated between Nisi Shawl, Elsa R Sjunneson and Gordon Van Gelder. It wasn’t original, but I babbled like I’d inhaled the psychedelic gases at Delphi.
The old stories aren’t serving us in the 21st century. If stories reflect our cultures, cultures had failed us with dystopias that either ended badly, or at best brought us back to societal norms. We recognize villains, oppressive systems and danger, but beyond cessation of badness, aren’t presented with concrete alternatives we can replicate. When confronted by evil, by confusion, by danger, we need to see beyond the world we know and embrace ideas that might seem alien. Our problems are too complex to be solved by a stranger who rides into town, kicks some ass, and leaves.
How do we move away from the Hero’s Journey to a sustainable and ongoing group effort? From standard three-act structure, with the brief flash of hope at the dénouement, to a structure that includes constructive applications and results within the Happy Ending? How do we make inclusion more than tokenism? How do we see a climate future where we not only survive, but thrive? How do we stop seeing everyone who isn’t like us as the other? How do we embrace change and adaptation? How do we leave preservation of the status quo behind and build a better tomorrow?
We need a New Mythos. Yeah, that’s hard, and something that one might think is an evolutionary or emergent process beyond any one writer’s grasp. But could I and a group of fellow SFF writers on social media bootstrap this as a movement? Break down the unsatisfactory, but accepted stories we tell ourselves and see things afresh? And in a way that allows our cultures to be better than they were before?
We dare not call it utopian. That’s a sophomoric concept. Or at least that’s what we’re told, especially when there are far more questions than answers. But we have to try, because we become the stories we tell ourselves.
Like all creativity, it’s an experiment. The New Mythos is the Big Idea (CON)SCIENCE embraces and that I’ll continue exploring in my work to come.