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The Big Idea: Chris Panatier

How do we know what we know? In Stringers, author Chris Panatier posits a wild premise… and an even wilder way of getting that knowledge out into the world.

CHRIS PANATIER:

Stringers features individuals who have knowledge they can’t explain called, well…“Stringers”. Our main character Ben’s knowledge centers on three distinct areas: nitty-gritty of animal reproduction in eyeball-exploding detail, antique watches, and also something called The Chime, but he doesn’t know what it is. There are others in the galaxy, and presumably the Universe, who are like Ben.

Another POV, a pipefitter from the planet Scella named Naecia HyRope, is tormented by an algorithm and plans for a mysterious machine that she feels compelled to build. Oush-Sadicet Ciksever, a side-character, is possessed of information on theoretical weapons systems as well as the ins and outs of Boblet farming (“small, roundish, six-legged oinkers, bred in order to guard livestock”). Again, none of these people know why they have this extra gunk in their brains, but unfortunately, there are people do (it’s bounty hunters). And sometimes, that information can be valuable.

*Teeny* spoiler: Stringers are people who have limited access to consciousness of the dead. Ew. Oh, and consciousness is a ubiquitous type of particle matter called the “Oblivion Fray”.

The problem for bounty hunters is that Stringers usually aren’t super keen on giving up their secrets…and sometimes those secrets are buried so deeply in the subconscious mind that they aren’t readily accessible anyway. How then to get them out?

I wanted to get creative here, while hopefully not overshooting my audience’s patience. Some of the obvious methods for extracting information I considered were interrogation, torture, drugging, downloading a subject’s brain to a thumb drive—you know, the usual. I wanted to push the boundaries beyond what I’d seen before. Our main protagonist, Ben, is a big fly-fisherman. So, I thought, let’s treat his brain like a body of water. How do you find things at the bottom of a river in a really dramatic and devastating way? You dredge it.

Enter the Neural Dredge, a super-computer “videogame coffin” with an interactive glass lid. It works by creating a link between machine and subject by “baiting” the subject’s brain with flashing images projected on the glass that the person sees from inside. These images are simple shapes, presented in a variety of Tron colors, and it’s implied in the story that these shapes, together with their sequence and color are a sort of “language” of deep subconsciousness.

Eventually, the person being dredged learns that if they blink the afterimage of one shape over a subsequent shape, they begin to make sense. The subject’s progress in building these larger structures allows the machine to go deeper, churning up visual packets of “glimmers” dredged from the consciousnesses of others residing in the Stringer’s brain. Glimmers present as small vignettes of the life of another as seen through their eyes.

Could a Stringer just shut their eyes? Sure, but then they get a drug called anxiolysin; and its side effects are usually enough to force cooperation.

Is dredging good for you? It’s not advisable. It induces nausea (Ben lets fly during his first session), headache, fatigue, and malaise. And the more a Stringer is dredged, the more coherence they lose; coherence being a measure of how much a person is themself. The deeper one goes into their subconscious, the more they lose. If they go too deep, their own consciousness unravels into the Oblivion Fray like a ball of yarn. The Universe takes you back.

That’s the big idea for gaining access to potentially valuable secrets from those with the Stringer’s curse. Now, if you suspect that you may be a Stringer, the best way to avoid being picked up by a bounty hunter and ending up in a neural dredge is to never, ever, do internet research about your condition. So long as you aren’t sending signals into space at the speed of light, no one lurking in the void will be the wiser.


Stringers: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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By John Scalzi

I enjoy pie.

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