The Big Idea: Marjorie B. Kellogg
As anyone who has ever written a near-future novel will tell you, the problem with that sub-genre is that “the future” keeps catching up with you in unexpected ways. Marjorie B. Kellogg can attest to that; while writing Glimmer, the world kept reminding her that the story she was creating was all too close to the one unfolding around us all.
MARJORIE B KELLOGG:
It could be said that another expression of The Big Idea for a science fiction novel – or perhaps any novel – is asking the question “What if…?”
What if…the aliens are evolved lizards? What if…the A.I. has its own agenda?
What if…we could live forever? Usually, the writer aims to pose an original question and explore a strange and weird answer.
Glimmer began not with a new Big Idea, but with what seems to me a tragically obvious one: climate change is upon us, and we are not going to fix it. Even if we could muster the global will to try, it’s likely too late to succeed. So how are we going to live with it?
And when I say ‘we’, I mean all us non-superheroes who won’t be able to insulate ourselves from the daily ravages of a climate-changed world by means of wealth, power, or even the Darwinian advantage of physical might.
So: What if…you’re stranded in flooded Manhattan with no means of escape?
What if…it’s no better anywhere else?
What if…surviving means making the best of a very bad situation?
What will you do? What will you become? What kind of society will you create?
These were the questions I challenged myself to work out a response to. I say ‘work out’ because the answers evolved in unexpected ways as I went along. As a writer, I am less interested in the strange and weird than in how people – ordinary folks like me – respond to the strange and weird, to the unforeseen, the difficult or life-threatening situation. As my story unspooled itself, each event or character choice arising directly from those preceding it, unplanned twists and turns kept presenting themselves and making sense, eventually heading toward a conclusion I hadn’t anticipated. This is where you toss aside your synopsis and submit to the logic of the muse. And enjoy every bit of the ride…well, mostly.
Challenge #2: the logistical problem of carrying a college teaching load plus on-going commitments in my other professional life while trying to finish a novel. So, the writing proceeded slowly. But climate change did not. It kept catching up with me. What I’d offered as fiction one month became too-close-to-real the next, and the whole book would have to nudged further ahead.
The near-future is a tricky time zone to work in. Its longitudes are shifting all the time.
But the most ‘writerly’ challenge I set myself was to discover a credible and sympathetic voice for my narrator. I wanted Glimmer to tell an intimate, personal story – no Big Picture omniscience – so chose a strict, first-person point of view. But Glimmer is a young woman whose recall of her past has been locked behind a barrier of recent trauma. She is, in effect, tabula rasa, which puts a real crimp on the opportunities for world-building exposition. How can she tell us about herself? She can share what she sees around her and what she’s learned since the awful event, but little about the world as it was beforehand, or how it got to where it is now.
I learned to rely on my narrator’s curiosity and her need to reclaim her past, to ask the hard questions, and on other characters’ willingness (or not) to fill her in, mostly in bits and pieces during the course of normal conversation. But she doesn’t always ask the right questions, and others don’t always offer the truth in return, intentionally or otherwise, leaving it to the reader to decide who to believe until Glimmer’s returning memory and events themselves supply more reliable evidence. Some editors will insist the reader should always know more than the protagonist, but I feel that sets up a distance between you, the reader, and the character I most want you to identify with. Anyhow, a gradual reveal of crucial facts powers up the narrative drive, as long as I don’t leave you floundering in confusion and ignorance – an unpardonable sin! Kind of like writing a mystery.
The most fun thing I got to do, on a personal level, was to work in excerpts from my own great-great-grandfather’s journal documenting his trip around the horn of South American in 1849. It turned out that colorful and compelling parallels in human behavior could be drawn between a storm-tossed Victorian sea voyage and surviving in superstorm-wracked, near-future Manhattan. Not just the life-threatening weather, but the stresses of randomly selected groups crammed into small spaces, subsisting on limited food, water, and other resources. I can only hope my ancestor would feel I have put his youthful observations to good use.