The Big Idea: Brad Parks
Sometimes the Big Idea of one’s book is… well. Not something that you would contemplate in real life, but might make an intriguing premise for one’s novel. Brad Parks knows a little bit about this, as it relates to his newest work, aptly entitled Unthinkable.
I love my wife very much.
So, naturally, I’ve been thinking about killing her.
That’s the Big Idea behind Unthinkable, my latest novel. And before I get myself indicted—for the record, Your Honor: she’s still very much alive and unharmed—I should probably explain.
As I began brainstorming the manuscript that eventually became Unthinkable, I found myself focusing on stakes.
What would the protagonist gain if he succeeded? More importantly, what would he lose if he failed?
Stakes are what make a novel go. They’re what make readers furiously turn pages. And depending on the genre, they can look very different.
In romance, it’s going to be the unconsummated love between two characters who can’t . . . ever . . . quite . . . get together. In science fiction, it might be the survival of the entire race of Gebulons on Beta-Hydra-9. In fantasy, it’s the fate of the wizarding world.
Whatever the details, it has to be something that feels like it matters. That, to me, is often a failing in certain, ahem, literary novels. When it becomes apparent to me what’s going to be at stake for four hundred pages is the professor’s wranglings with Proust—and a side plot about whether they sleep with their grad student—I get the urge to binge-watch shark videos on YouTube.
Since stakes are so important, I figured that’s where I’d start with Unthinkable.
And because I love my wife so much—really! I do!—the first thought I had was: Wouldn’t it be gripping if the thing at stake was the protagonist being told he needs to kill his wife? Especially if I put something really compelling on the other side of the equation.
Like, he has to kill his wife or a billion people will die.
That became the elevator pitch for Unthinkable. Basically, it’s the classic trolley problem from Philosophy 101—would you pull a lever to divert a trolley that would kill five people if it made you responsible for the death of one person?—but on steroids.
I made the protagonist an ordinary guy like me: Nate Lovejoy, a stay-at-home dad to two rambunctious toddlers. (I did time as a SAHD myself and have the scars to prove it.) Despite the trials of childrearing, he and his wife, Jenny Welker, remain deeply devoted to each other.
After all, that further increases the stakes. If the marriage was on the rocks, Nate’s choice might be easier.
I then had to make the whole proposition plausible within the framework of the novel, so I introduced a character with limited skills of precognition, the ability to see the future.
This is a little out there, of course. So in my world-building, I grounded it in the real-life principle that physicists have long understood: the fact that we perceive time as moving in only one direction is truly an accident of our senses. The laws of physics work perfectly fine either way.
Furthermore, it has been theorized—though neither proven nor disproven—that a positron may actually be an electron moving backwards in time. If that’s true, we’re literally being bombarded by matter from the future all the time.
The final step, then, is to have a human being who has evolved the ability to sense that matter; in the same way that about a half a billion years ago, during the Cambrian period, organisms first evolved the ability to detect light.
Still with me? Right, so there’s this guy who can see the future. And he has foreseen that Jenny, a lawyer, will win a massive, Erin Brockovich-style lawsuit against a power company who has been sickening people with a coal-fired power plant.
This, however, will have a wildly unintended consequence. It will cause power companies to install smokestack scrubbers that use sodium hexafluoride, a greenhouse gas that is twenty-four-thousand-times more powerful than carbon dioxide. This, in turn will trigger a global warming catastrophe.
Causing the death of a billion people.
And the only way to stop the lawsuit is for Nate to kill Jenny.
Will he do it? Can he do it? That’s the Big Idea that moves Unthinkable forward.
It’s just not something I’ve ever given serious thought to myself.
I swear, Your Honor.
So you can, y’know, dismiss the charges now.