The Big Idea: Benjamin Rosenbaum
For The Unraveling, author Benjamin Rosenbaum discovered in the writing of the novel that the tale he wanted to tell was not necessarily the tale he was then telling — and to tell the true tale, someone else in the story would have to step up.
The Unraveling didn’t begin as The Unraveling.
It didn’t begin as a far-future social comedy coming-of-age story, or a reductio-ad-absurdum satire of parenting anxieties and teenage frustrations in an age of universal surveillance, instant fame, and algorithms determining everyone’s status. It didn’t begin as a book about a quasi-utopia where hunger and murder and war and environmental irresponsibility are distant memories, about who suffers in such a utopia and what they do about it. about social unrest and cultural change. It didn’t begin as a story of young love and embarrassment and hope and defiance.
Okay, well, except for that last bit, I guess. It did begin with hope and defiance.
The book I was trying to write was called Resilience. It was a book about the deep future and epic time, about the strangeness and malleability of human being. It was a book about trying to save the world, and failing, again and again and again.
The human cultural diversity in Earth’s history is immense, but it’s just the beginning: we’ve only begun to find out what human societies could be like. Human cultures are shaped by the environments they’re in, and then they go on to shape those environments, in a chaotic feedback loop — new technologies creating new constraints and desires and social practices, which create new environments. Human societies evolve, and evolution isn’t linear. Evolution isn’t a great chain of being, a Hegelian ladder in which more “advanced” stages replace more “primitive” ones. (Crocodiles aren’t more “primitive” than ostriches: they’re optimized for a different niche.) Evolution is an explosion, life diversifying ever outwards into ever more multitudinous forms, filling all the niches.
So, I thought, I’d write a book about the Dispersal of Humanity: humans (broadly defined… not everything that considers itself human is made of meat) spreading from star to star, and to the spaces between. No faster than light travel: like Earth in the Paleolithic, the Dispersal would take tens of thousands of years for a voyager to cross. Room for vast diversity.
I figured I’d need a protagonist long-lived enough to visit these worlds, and powerful enough to affect them, a protagonist with a problem suitable to this grand scale. This protagonist was Siob the Interpreter: a durable polymorph manufactured and abandoned by the Margin, a hyper technical civilization that became so hungry for knowledge, it turned itself into supercomputing black hole, becoming in the process a rapacious kind of math, instead of people. Traumatized Siob would spent hundreds of millennia trying to nurture civilization after civilization towards resilience, watching them collapse, one by one.
These aren’t spoilers, by the way. None of this is actually in the book.
In the opening of the book I started writing, Siob fails to save another world, then travels for a few centuries to debrief with another quasi-immortal friend, Thavé. I figured the fate of this new world would hang in the balance, too, and Siob and Thavé would come into some kind of epic conflict about it, somehow. I don’t write outlines, so I didn’t know how this would all happen. But I liked what I had so far. Siob was a tragic and compelling protagonist. This whole “can-worlds-survive?” drama seemed like a good angle.
There was one problem, though, about the drama hinging on the fate of this particular planet, and this problem was: who cares?
Everything I had so far was up at this titan-like level of immortal world-manipulators, superhero polymorphs. Who even lived on this planet? Why should we care what happened to them?
Clearly I needed a ground-level view. So I wrote a chapter about an ordinary teenager named Fift, with overprotective parents and teenaged temptations and embarrassing shenanigans. It was super fun to write. I wanted to make it instantly relatable, but also full of that deep cultural dissonance and familiarity-in-estrangement that was the whole point of the project. So: different genders, different family structures, different economics, everything I could think of. I threw in the kitchen sink. it was just an illustration, after all.
But it grew. I started alternating chapters between Fift and Siob. Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Siob and Thavé as Oberon and Titania and Puck, up to mighty magic, and Fift and zir friends and family as the human lovers and rude mechanicals, romance and comic relief.
Then a funny thing happened.
The Siob chapters got harder and harder to write. Siob had a serious case of depression, for one thing, and ended up self-buried deep under the polar tundra, brooding over millennia of failure. I dragged Siob out – I am the author, dammit – but Siob really did not want to play ball. Nor did the plot of dueling immortals really work. A macguffin never cohered. The stakes were obscure. The scenes fizzled.
The fact is, I don’t actually know anything about saving worlds. I do know Siob’s feelings of loss and exile and mourning and remembrance (Siob is, of course – this occurred to me much later — the Wandering Jew). But I don’t know how to solve them. I don’t know the answer to Siob’s question.
But Fift? Fift was a joy to write. Fift’s very human struggles — zir frustration with zir nine parents’ meddling and fussing and worrying, zir unease with the gender roles prescribed by zir society, zir restless feeling of being out of place in the world — that was all super close to my heart. To reflect it through a kaleidoscope of deep-future culture weirdness was natural to me: as a Jewish kid growing up in a goyish suburb, a closeted-to-myself bisexual teen terrified by the world’s insistent dictates about what kinds of desires were acceptable, an immigrant for most of my adult life, I come by a sense of anthropological alienation naturally. Everyone around me insisting that certain things are natural and given, when I can easily see how they might be differently arranged…
So I fired Siob. I cut 40,000 words. I made it Fift’s book.
It turns out, to write about the deep future and the marvelous weirdness of human cultures, I don’t need a tour of many planets. I don’t need a supercapable protagonist deliberating Weighty Matters of Destiny. I don’t need a macguffin or a quest.
I don’t need saving the world.
It’s enough to write about trying, really hard, to be a moral person in a complex universe. Trying to love your friends, and gather the courage to be honest with them. Being torn between your heart’s desires and your family’s expectations. Trying to make a difference, not as some kind of superhero or chosen one, but just as an ordinary person on a big, confusing, messy planet…who maybe gets handed a megaphone, and has a shot at being heard, maybe just once, maybe at the most awkward and overwhelming moment possible.
To illuminate how strange and rich the future might be — how it might seem like a utopia from one angle and a dystopia from another, how it might challenge our assumptions about gender and class and family and social order — it’s enough to just write about someone from that future, someone I care about, someone I’m rooting for. Someone like Fift.