The Big Idea: Gareth L. Powell
If you don’t think that science fiction is affected by the events of moment, than Gareth L. Powell has some news for you: oh, boy, is it ever. In this big idea for Stars and Bones, Powell explains how world events caught up to his story in strange and unexpected ways.
(Disclosure: As you can see from the cover photo above, I gave this book a blurb.)
GARETH L. POWELL:
I really didn’t mean to be topical.
When I set out in early 2020 to write my latest novel (Stars and Bones, Titan Books), I had no idea how hard it would shortly become to write about a mysterious contagion threatening humanity, and the quarantine measures necessary to contain it, and then COVID-19 happened.
I worried the nuclear war that almost happens in the first couple of chapters might seem far-fetched, and then Putin invaded Ukraine just before the book was published.
Near-future fiction is a tightrope act, a game played with the audience. It’s a way of looking at the world, reflecting it through a prism to make the everyday extraordinary and the future relevant to the reader. But it’s a risky undertaking. If you assume it takes 18 months to write and publish a novel, world events may have rendered the entire premise of the book obsolete before it hits the shelves. No other literature has such a potentially short shelf life.
In Stars and Bones, a bumbling British prime minister makes a joke, not realising his mic is still on. The big red button gets pressed and the world braces itself for full-throttle Armageddon, only to see all the missiles snatched away while in flight and cast into the sun by a powerful alien entity. When I penned that scene, it was a wish-fulfilment from my Cold War teenage years, mixed with more recent despair over climate change.
In the 1980s, nuclear war seemed not only imminent but inevitable. All the science fiction I consumed seemed to take it as an article of faith that humanity would nuke itself before the year 2000. Even the utopian future predicted by Star Trek was built from the ashes of WWIII. And there seemed no way out. So, I would lie in bed at night and wish for a superior alien intelligence to step in and stop us acting like children.
In the book, instead of being allowed to trash our environment and run amok with nuclear weapons, the human race gets cast adrift in a fleet of a thousand 25-kilometre-long arks, with strict instructions not to mess up any other biospheres. In other words, our toys are taken away and we’re relegated to the cosmic naughty step.
Life on the arks is very different from life on Earth. For a start, every person has equal access to food, water, and healthcare. It’s a post-scarcity society, and it takes a lot of people a long time to adjust to that. But seeing as how nationalism and artificial scarcity brought us to the brink of a yawning existential chasm, it seems reasonable to imaging we’d decide to do things differently from that point onwards, to avoid the possibility of such a thing ever happening again.
But humans aren’t that simple or sensible. By the time the main story starts—seventy-five years after humankind’s expulsion from Earth—each ark has customised its interior and exterior appearances to match its own preferences, and the preferences of the millions of people that live on it. And as there’s a web of instantaneous transport between the arks, likeminded groups have tended to congregate on the arks that best match their temperaments or climate. This means that instead of a swarm of cookie-cutter starships, the characters have a thousand unique and quirky environments to explore, some hosting forward-looking societies, and others with groups that cling to the old ways.
In the book, the fleet soon runs into trouble, because the cosmos is weirder and more dangerous than we could have imagined. If you imagine Philip K. Dick got high and dreamt a crossover between Battlestar Galactica and The Thing, you’d be in the right ballpark. But the creation of the vast, intelligent arks probably owes a lot more to my love of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels. Nobody goes hungry and everyone has access to anything they need, watched over by the superior minds of their intelligent starships. And much like the Culture novels, all the books in this series will be standalones and feature different characters, with the idea they can be picked up and read in any order. Stars and Bones is the first in the series, but it is self-contained, so you don’t have to worry about waiting for sequels.
I hope readers will enjoy Stars and Bones as an adventure. It’s exciting, scary and entertaining. But on a deeper level, perhaps it might make a few think about some of the assumptions that as a society, we take for granted. SF and space opera allow us to place ourselves in the context of the wider universe and ask the big questions. They also enable us to comment on today’s society by setting up alternatives and showing how they might be better or worse that what we currently have. If art holds up a mirror to reality, science fiction holds up a crazy funhouse mirror that shows us the truth by distorting what we see. And the truth is, things don’t always have to be the way they are today; change can be a traumatic upheaval, but it is possible.
Given the way real life events almost caught up with the events in this book, though, I think next time I might write about something more restful. Like kittens, perhaps.