The Big Idea: Jennie Goloboy
Comedy comes to us in surprising times and surprising circumstances, as Jennie Goloboy discovered as she sat down to write what would become Obviously, Aliens. Here is to give you all the (possibly hilarious) details.
Obviously, Aliens was not the book I intended to spend 2017 writing. I planned to polish the novel that I’d drafted the previous year, in which history took a wrong turn at the War of 1812, and America ended up under the control of a stupid, venal, and cruel emperor and his vicious minions. It was meant to be an object lesson about how easily democracy can slip away. But in the face of the politics of 2017, I couldn’t face rewriting such a hopeless, tragic novel.
So instead, I thought about comedy.
Comedy does a lot of things well. It can remind its audience of the humanity of the comedian; in this way, comedy can be very political. It can surprise us into acknowledging a contradiction in our worldview, something we haven’t thought through properly. One of my favorite kinds of comedy is when the story appears to be headed to a tragic ending, and then the plot takes a swerve, and then suddenly the characters find themselves at the best possible outcome. The story is haunted by the disastrous things that could have happened, but didn’t, and the reader is forced to think—what went right?
Terry Pratchett was a genius at this kind of thing. In Going Postal, for example, our hero Moist von Lipwig has gotten himself into a bet he cannot win, with the future of the postal system at stake. But instead he manages to use his powers of deviousness and glibness for good. He earns a happy future for himself, and for Pratchett’s beloved Ankh-Morpork.
I was trying to do something similar in Obviously, Aliens. The two heroes of my novel, Dana Elson and Adam Shapiro, originally think they have absolutely nothing in common. She’s a buttoned-down commercial artist; he’s a thrill-seeking professional thief. She’s the daughter of a rock star who left more than seventy children behind; he’s got no family but his boyfriend. But when they are forced to work together, he helps her loosen up a bit, and she helps him make better decisions. And it becomes clear they share a personality flaw: they both have allowed their capacities for empathy to wither. They have untapped reserves of kindness and love that they’ll need to become whole people.
The central crisis of my novel is that millions of alien refugees are headed towards Earth. Dana and Adam are the only ones placed to help them; they have to decide if they’re in a tragic story, where this ends in war and destruction, or a comic one, where good things are possible. (And as a side note, it’s disturbing that the standard term we use for this kind of story is the inherently pejorative “alien invasion.”)
We often think of tragedies as more profound than comedies, but that can be an excuse for cheap nihilism. Let me quote Rebecca Solnit here: “To me, the grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly. And that the unofficial history of the world shows that dedicated individuals and popular movements can shape history and have.”
In short, my Big Idea was to use a comic science fiction story to imagine sunnier days ahead, and a future I think we’d like to live in.