The Big Idea: Christopher Swiedler
Author Christopher Swielder takes a look at what divides not only his characters, but people in our society in his Big Idea for his newest novel, The Orpheus Plot. Read all about how our problems today aren’t so different from a futuristic-space society’s.
It recently occurred to me that I wrote most of The Orpheus Plot between 2016 and 2020. For future generations who might be a little sketchy on early twenty-first century history, this was a) after the invention of the Internet, b) before the COVID-19 pandemic, and c) during the 45th presidency of the United States, when disagreements got so bad that physicists started a petition to replace the term “political polarization” with “political matter/antimatter baryogenesis.”
The Orpheus Plot began with a relatively simple idea: the protagonist, Lucas, is the first kid from the asteroid belt selected to be a cadet in the interplanetary Navy. He’s lived in space his entire life and already knows half of what they’re trying to teach him, but having grown up on a mining ship without a regular school he hasn’t learned half of what the teachers expect him to already know.
What makes Lucas’s story more complicated is that the relationship between the Navy and the miners of the Belt is already tense and deteriorating rapidly. A big part of the Navy’s job is to enforce customs and mining-rights laws that the Belters are unhappy with. Most of the Navy sees miners as dirty, uneducated, and entirely unsuited for their cadet school. Lucas’s odd position as the only Belter kid on the teaching ship Orpheus makes him a focal point for all of the built-up hostility, and he soon becomes embroiled in a plot to hijack the ship and start a revolution in the Belt.
Developing the motivation for central characters like Lucas is often pretty easy. What’s usually harder is the motivation for the antagonists that oppose them. Characters can (and should!) have flaws and contradictions, but they still need to have a reasonable set of goals and a believable view of the world. As any book on writing will tell you, conflict is the key to storytelling. But for conflict to resonate with the reader, it has to emerge naturally from the characters’ core beliefs. To depict a solar system on the brink of civil war, I needed to develop worldviews for the Navy and the Belters that were both understandable and wholly incompatible.
Getting back to our present-day mess, one of the most depressing statistics I’ve read recently is that a majority of both political parties now think that the biggest threat to the United States is the people of the other party. If that had been the premise for a sci-fi novel of thirty years ago, people would have called it dystopian if not outright unbelievable. How can the person living on the next street or in the next town be a threat to the survival of your country? Humans are pretty hard-wired to consider otherness a threat, but we’re also social creatures who tend to see everyone around them as part of their identity. When we’re exposed to otherness for long enough our response is to expand our definition of self so that the otherness ceases to exist. Tell a millennial that there was once uproar over the possibility of a Catholic President and they’ll shake their head in disbelief. They understand the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism, but the idea of worrying about it is as silly as caring about whether the President has blond hair.
The problem, unfortunately, is that we’ve stopped being exposed to otherness. We isolate ourselves not geographically but politically, so that the majority of our interactions are with people we already identify with. A century ago, it was virtually impossible for a person to communicate with anyone on the other side of the world. But for the same reasons, it was virtually impossible to not communicate with the ones who lived next door. Technology has made it possible for two people in the same town to develop such different identities that each of them considers the other to be an enemy.
In a sense, the character of Lucas was a response to this self-sorting and divergence of identity. He is a connecting point between two cultures on the brink of conflict. He believes, like I do, that the two sides of his world see each other as enemies only because they’ve both found ways to segregate themselves. His bravery comes from his insistence that he belongs to both sides and his refusal to accept that there needs to be any kind of division at all.
I’m an optimist about humanity’s future. I believe that people over time find ways to break down barriers them and expand their sense of self. I love science fiction because it lets us imagine all the possible ways our world might evolve, and one of my favorite quotes is a line from Arthur Clarke’s Imperial Earth—an example of both his unfailing optimism and his signature throwaway-quote style—where the U.S. President of the year 2276 bemoans the death of ethnic diversity and how “it will be a pity when we’re all the same shade of off-white.” A pity, yes, but also my hope: that over time we will choose to weave a single social fabric and form an identity that is nothing more, and nothing less, than being human.