The Big Idea: Ada Hoffman
When I wrote The Outside I had the luxury of writing an apocalypse. Cosmic horrors had been unleashed on the galaxy my characters called home; they’d burned through a fifth of a planet’s surface and left it in ruins. My protagonist, Yasira Shien, got to do some very dramatic magic to lessen the cosmic horror’s effects; but, as in many fairy tales, she wasn’t able to undo it all the way. Entropy only goes in one direction, and the damage that was done remains.
This left me in a quandary when outlining The Fallen, because the aftermath of The Outside needed to be a post-apocalyptic story, and I have complicated feelings about those.
The idea of people having to scrabble and use their skills to survive in the aftermath of disaster is an appealing one, and one that’s only going to become more relevant as we feel the effects of climate change. But it’s too easy for post-apocalypse stories to drift into gritty machismo in a way that doesn’t work for me. Battening the hatches in your survivalist compound; stocking up on guns to defend yourself from ravenous unreasoning raiders who will take everything that’s yours; being manfully confronted with “hard choices” where you get to decide who in your community lives and who dies. (As a disabled author who’s been told my life wasn’t worth living before, I really hate the narrative of “hard choices.”)
So I started researching what actually happens, in the real world, after a disaster. At the recommendation of a few friends, I stumbled onto Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Paradise Built In Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise In Disaster.
Solnit studies actual disasters in the last century of human history – including the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the Halifax explosion, Hurricane Katrina, and 9/11 – and comes to a startling conclusion. In the most desperate circumstances, the instinct of the vast majority of humans is to help each other. In each of these disasters, strangers spontaneously came together, without being directed by a higher authority, to make sure everyone was fed, sheltered, rescued, and cared for – often doing a better job than any official organization trying to help from on high.
In fact, powerful organizations trying to clean up after a disaster are often the ones compounding the harm. In a phenomenon called “elite panic,” people who had power before the disaster are the ones most likely to be violent in a disaster’s aftermath, “keeping order” by defending property and the existing hierarchy even at the expense of human lives.
Looting is a good example of this. It happens, but mostly it’s people foraging for food, medicine, and other essentials that are no longer accessible in the usual way. Elites use fear of looting to justify violence towards people who threaten property – or people, especially people of color, who simply set foot in an area where the elites don’t want them.
When I read A Paradise Built in Hell I knew that I didn’t have to write the world of The Fallen as a grimdark, every-man-for-himself wasteland. I could show people in flawed but caring communities working together as best they can. It wouldn’t drain tension or danger from the story, because the people in those communities are still up against something truly massive in scale.
Elite panic was also the perfect concept to motivate The Fallen‘s primary villains – the artificially intelligent Gods who rule The Outside‘s galaxy. It fit the narrative perfectly (not to mention Their characterization in The Outside) for these Gods to be interested in strict control, more concerned with punishing heresy than in helping the humans who depend on Them. In fact, it would be convenient for the Gods if this part of the planet went away completely – and They’re powerful enough to make that happen, in time.
Yasira and her friends, having partly saved the planet once already, are tasked with protecting the people who remain. They have particular talents and resources that the rest of the planet doesn’t, and they use them to help connect different survivor communities together. The Gods are far more powerful than all the mortal survivors combined, but as They continue to make things worse, resentment rises, and even talk of rebellion. It’s up to Yasira to figure out how to harness that rebel energy for some purpose that won’t just doom everyone all over again.
What results is an unusual book about mutual aid, (mostly) nonviolent resistance, trauma, resilience, and community – added to even more of the first book’s AI and cosmic horror strangeness.