As I prepare for the launch of PARTIALS next month (my new book, coming on February 28), I’ve been doing a lot of interviews and writing a lot of blog posts and, in general, looking back at my career as a writer; it’s not an especially long career, but it comprises 5 published novels, soon to be 6, and that’s not too shabby. What stood out to me recently was the running theme in all 6 of them, a theme I didn’t even realize was there until I saw it in my outline for FAILSAFE and started looking backward. I talk about a lot of things in my books, but one thread ties them all together:
How far are you willing to go to do what you think is right?
In the case of my ebook, A NIGHT OF BLACKER DARKNESS, it’s less about “doing what you think is right” than about “getting what you want.” The main character, Frederick Whithers, is trying to steal money and save his own life, and is forced into a series of ever-mounting dangers and relationships and compromises in the single-minded pursuit of that goal. It’s a classic farce structure, and the book is a comedy, but his need to say and do and become things who would never have considered before make it a very dark comedy. Every new obstacle that arises forces him to choose, however subtly: do I take the next step and push this even further, or do I walk away? That’s a choice that all of my characters, in all of my books, face again and again.
John Cleaver is a great example. In all three of his books (only three so far, at least) he finds himself facing terrible enemies that only he can stop–or at least he thinks he’s the only one who can stop them. There may be some self-delusion there. The first book makes this choice plain: a killer is dismembering my friends and neighbors; I can stop him, but doing so will make me a killer in the process. Is that worth it? Most of us, in a moment of extreme danger, would lash out at an attacker, and maybe even kill to protect our children and family, but what about other people? Would you kill a man to protect your neighbor? To protect a stranger? What if it’s not a moment of danger: you know that someone WILL kill someone else, and the law is not an option, and now in the dark and quiet is your only chance to stop him. If you kill him, you’re a killer; if you let him live, someone else dies. Would you be partly responsible for that death? Would you FEEL responsible, even if you weren’t? I don’t have a great answer to these question–I wrote three books about a character struggling with the issue, in part because I struggle with it myself. Maybe it’s easy for you; I suspect that the decision itself may be much easier than living with it afterward, no matter what you choose. John Cleaver faces permutations of this same problem over and over, sometimes going one way and sometimes another. “How far is he willing to go” is the question that drives the series.
My fifth book, THE HOLLOW CITY, isn’t even out yet in English–the US gets it in July–but it’s been on shelves in Germany since October, and it deals with the same issue plus an extra complication: how do you know you can trust yourself? The main character is Michael Shipman, and he is deeply schizophrenic, seeing monsters and manipulators behind every shadow. As the book progresses, however, he starts to realize that some of the monsters are real, and they have a very real connection to a series of grisly murders. No one believes him, so like John Cleaver he’s on his own, but can he even believe himself? If this threat is real, it must be stopped, but with his own mind broken he runs the serious risk of harming innocent people along the way. Should he back away? Should he take the risks? Can he live with himself if he’s wrong? The added uncertainty make Michael’s conflict different from John’s, but the core theme is still there: how far are you willing to go to do what you think is right?
All of this leads us to PARTIALS, an SF novel about the survivors of a world-killing plague as they try to rebuild human civilization. There are approximately forty thousand human beings left alive on the planet, and there are still many, many dangers that could reduce that number further. The stakes here are not just a murder or string of murders, but the utter extinction of the human race. How far would you be willing to go to save your own species? What would you do, what crimes would you commit, what morals would you compromise? There is a point at which NOT doing something “evil” could itself be considered wrong, if the evil act is the only way to preserve humanity. The sheer scale of the problem, in other words, warps the morality involved. The world of PARTIALS, and the outline of FAILSAFE, are filled with people who make difficult, questionable, often terrible decisions with nothing but the best of intentions. In some ways the books have no villains at all, just earnest people who define “good” in very different ways. Playing with the multitude of strategies people come up with to save the humans race is part of what makes the series so fascinating to write–and, I hope, to read.
In part, all of this is on my mind this morning because of our own world situation: this week marked the 10th anniversary of the Guantanamo Detention Facility, an off-shore prison where suspected terrorists are held without trial, tortured for confessions, and denied any semblance of human rights. My personal opinions on this are very strong, but I recognize that it’s a thorny issue with weight on each side. I’ve added a poll to the left sidebar here on my website, and I’d love to get your opinions. Given the complexity of the issue, I’ve made it so you can choose multiple answers. I’d also love to hear your responses in the comments, but remember: keep it polite.