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.

CHRISTOPHER SWIEDLER:

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.


The Orpheus Plot: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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11 Comments on “The Big Idea: Christopher Swiedler”

  1. If you’re in a minority, you’re exposed to “otherness” every day — and it’s hostile. My neighbors are armed and able to kill me without consequences if they choose. This is the legal reality I survive every day, and it doesn’t leave much sympathy for the optimism and cheerful false equivalances of a white dude who has never lived my reality, and seems to think we would all get along fine if we would just talk to each other.

  2. I can contribute.

    Once I was a part of two LBGTQ clubs, college and university, who felt misunderstood by each other, and disliked each other’s values. Both clubs knew I was part of both, and neither club asked for my opinion. No doubt for psychological reasons.

    My response once, when asked if I was OK (but still not wanting my view of reality) was to respond with negative humour about the other club. And then a lady said my name in a deep voice, “a man of deep loyalties.”

    At the time there was a stereotype that cowboys don’t like queers. I might add that US stereotypes have to be divided by ten to apply to Canada, although Canadian people aren’t conscious of that on a daily basis. For example, Canada had gays in the military, and a rainbow army base flag (in Edmonton) for pride month, years before the US did.

    One morning back in the 20th century it was clubs day, where clubs manned six foot tables to get new members. By chance, the gay table was next to the rodeo club. So I got to talking with the cowboys, and after we were friendly and I had credibility, I included the queers in the conversation too, without (I think) showing that I already knew them. It worked well, the two tables got on.

    It was Barak Obama’s mentor, Saul Alinski, who wrote that young people genuinely expect to like others and to be liked in return. And now that I am an older member of the establishment I still try to keep that youthful optimism—which people of all ages respond to, in me, so I recommend it.

  3. Living in the Bible belt I’ve had more than one person tell me they used to be Catholic but now they’re a Christian.
    Anti-semites are becoming increasingly open about their beliefs, and I don’t think it’s because they suddenly stopped knowing any Jews.
    I like your optimism but I don’t share it.

  4. I was once part of two different groups: Unlike ethnic groups overseas, they had not been raised, cradle to grave, to have hatred as a family value.

    I was with the campus Women’s Centre (Women’s Collective and Resource Centre) as we crowded in for a meeting. (including lots of people I didn’t know, not regulars) Folks expressed loud dismay about the campus newspaper, The Gauntlet. Twice I said quietly “I can answer that” and I went unheard both times. It was as if they didn’t want to hear an opposing reality.

    As it happened, the Gauntlet was just down and across the hall. One of the subeditors used to shout to no one, “Bitch!” when he was walking near The Centre. I knew the Gauntlet volunteers prided themselves on being nearly the only non-leftist newspaper in the west, because I too was a reporter there.

    So I went down the hall and asked the editor, a fellow in his mid-twenties with literally long hair, if he would like to meet some young feminists. Yes.

    Back at the Women’s Centre I threaded my away among folks having wine and cheese to ask a few of the younger ladies I knew—none of the older “over thirty” ones—if they would like to meet the Gauntlet editor. Yes. So I led them down the hall to him.

    At the time I judged I should not be a part of the meeting, so I went back to the party. Anyways, their conversation went well. They felt heard.

    Here’s the thing: When both sides reported back to me, they each worried about how they had been perceived by the other side. Young people can be touchingly sincere.

  5. Hard to sympathise with, I’m afraid. This is basic paradox-of-tolerance stuff. Resistance to widespread mistreatment and xenophobia doesn’t, itself, amount to mistreatment and xenophobia – so while I am also generally optimistic, none of my sentiments come from ‘can’t we just all get along?’. I am not American, but it seems to me that one side has a heck of a lot more to do in order to reach an understanding of how things have been inequitable for centuries and how that was a big part of the whole idea. It is nothing whatsoever like a childish argument and name-calling on roughly equal footing.

  6. I think the issue I have with trying to make this a metaphor for the Reign of Orange Foolius is that there isn’t an equivalence between the othering.

    On one hand there’s a faction that imagines a group of racially diverse, socially liberal, fairly typical cits as raging communist militias whose plan is to nationalize Amazon and force church-goers to host Drag Queen Story Hour every Sunday.

    On the other is a faction that actually DOES want to legislate entire groups of people they see as unworthy out of the social, political, and economic commons, and are willing to tolerate or even encourage armed nutjobs to back that play if they can’t do it legally.

    So I’m not sure I see how “can’t we all just get along?” really works with this…

  7. Part of the reason for the fiasco of the Iraq occupation, was not respecting Iraqis to the point of taking actions without listening, even though everyone—barbers, taxi drivers, translators, administrators—I mean everyone would have warned an American “Are you crazy? You can’t—”

    Another failure was not respecting fellow Americans either. People with years of experience in nation building in Yugoslavia were turned away in favour of fellow party members according to (I think) the book Fiasco. Also the State Department was not respected enough to be a partner, even though they had tons of learning about democracy (Hint: a sound bite is not enough)

    It’s hard when your own neighbours and relatives don’t respect you, but you have to try to respect people anyways. Even if it takes them a while to believe you. That value is the foundation of democracy. Otherwise you become an Ugly American before you even leave your house. (yes, I read the book)

    So yes, my small part could be to practise respect, by any means necessary.

  8. Re: the comparison to Iraq…what’s interesting is that I draw the exactly opposite lesson from it; that respect has to be earned, not given.

    The Bushies were a cabal of known schemers and criminals going back to Iran-Contra. Their “arguments” for WMD, smoking guns and mushroom clouds, were patent bullshit in service of the Ledeen Doctrine and should have been laughed off by the 60% of their fellow citizens who hadn’t drunk the wingnut kool-ade.

    But because they were Very Serious People they were accorded respect they hadn’t earned and didn’t deserve, so here we and tens of thousands of needlessly-dead and maimed people are.

    So…as discussed above, no. Sometimes one side really IS bad and wrong, and to elide that is, as we have seen, deeply dangerous.

  9. Regarding Bush, if Americans had respected themselves as citizens more than their couches, they would have done more to supervise.

    In the last big war, even though they respected FDR, they still sent teams of congressmen to inspect. In Iraq their were no teams to write up investigative evaluations, only individual congressmen (as far as I can tell) who, like Ugly Americans in Saigon, had no time to go out to the countryside, no time to talk to low ranking American servicemen.

    The book fiasco exposed Blackwater as undoing all efforts to win hearts and minds, yet it was years after publication before Blackwater’s shortcomings started appearing in the newspaper.

    An Atlantic Magazine cover story by James Fallows (Why Iraq (still) has no army exposed an angry colonel saying, “You tell me one person in the Whitehouse who is covering this war full time!” and James could only find a single obscure women. Fallows also exposed how the US could not budget to give walkie talkies, Toyotas and armoured vests to the Iraq police, could not budget to give Iraq an effective army.

    From the pentagon’s budget, Fallows noted, you would not know the US was in two wars against insurgency, only the usual Cold War.

    To my knowledge, the citizens did not respect themselves enough to become aroused and insist on change after that article appeared.

    From their mouths came the word “war” but they did not have the integrity to act as if they were at war.

    It was instructive to me to check the table of contents for various Readers Digest during the Cold War with the table of contents during the War on Terror. The gap in interest was very noticeable.

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