The Big Idea: E. J. Wenstrom
E. J. WENSTROM:
Every book starts with a little seed of an idea, and with Departures, that seed was a hook: A girl wakes up in a panic, because she was never supposed to wake up again. She was scheduled to die. From there, I started digging myself out in the vague shape of something plot-like that quickly turned distinctly dystopian.
I’ve always been a big fan of the tropes of dystopian fiction, so this was a pleasant turn of events. I love the way dystopian tales hold up a distorted mirror of our modern day world and force us to question it all. I love the way the duality used so often in the genre gives us a way to explore the impacts of those traits—and fight back against them.
In Departures, that core idea that drove the world became optimization. Which, as a Type A driver who constantly pushes myself to do just a little more, be a little bit better, just do one more thing, had some very personal implications.
Technology has done some really cool stuff for us, including the ability to capture all sorts data at the macro and micro levels. These days, we track and monitor ourselves quite literally without even trying. I never asked my laptop to give me a recap of my screen time each week. But I get one. And I have to say, it sometimes comes with rather judgey tone, even if it is just the numbers.
This information can be extremely helpful at times—I monitor my runs so I can see if I’m getting any faster, track my miles, and set goals. I track my migraines to catch patterns and triggers. I track my sleep to make sure I am giving myself the basic self-care of sufficient rest.
But it also sets up a certain mindset. If you have data, what are you doing with it?
Which brings me back to optimization. If you’re anything like me, data prompts measurement, which prompts management.
While on submissions, one editor described the novel as a dystopia in utopia’s clothing, and it fits. When we optimize and track and enforce systems, we get results. The citizens of Departures’s world are organized into quads of small communities contained within domes, where everything is so optimized even the weather is systematized.
And the results are compelling: This world is walkable, connected, and green. The people are content, balanced and healthy. Pollution is eliminated. Anxiety and burnout are relics of the past. Everyone has what they need to thrive, and nothing is wasted along the way.
On the surface, a lot of this world’s features seem good! But of course, there’s a cost to all this.
And in Departures, I caught myself exploring those costs. If we optimize everything possible, what does that look like? What do we gain? What do we lose? Who gets to decide that we optimize for?
Ultimately, the story of Departures hones in on two sisters on opposite sides of the Directorate’s systems. While one escapes and discovers the world’s dark secrets from the outside, the other peels away its layers from within.
As they start to ask questions and tug at the threads, the Directorate’s elaborate systems start to fall apart at the seams.