It’s finally February! I’ve been waiting for February 2012 for a long time because, you see, I have a book launch on the 28th. And not just any book launch, but a brand new series in a brand new genre. After a string of supernatural thrillers (and one goofball comedy available only in audio), this month will see the release of PARTIALS, my new YA, SF, post-apocalypse novel, the first in a trilogy. It’s the biggest, most ambitious, most complex book I’ve ever written, and I’m super excited for everyone to read it. It’s going to be awesome.
I’ve already talked a bit about the book, and as the months progresses you’re going to see a lot more, both from me and from various other reviewers and bloggers and so on. Right now I want to talk about something else–not the book itself but an experience I had while writing the book that changed the way I thought about it. This experience happened at a U2 concert.
I have never been a huge U2 fan, a fact that has been shocking to many of my friends and most of my girlfriends. My wife, in particular, was astonished to learn that I didn’t really care for her favorite band of all time–I didn’t dislike them, I just didn’t really get into them. Fortunately for all involved, she married me anyway, and then last year as a present to her I bought two tickets to the U2 360 Tour; a friend of mine had extras to sell, and I knew my wife would go nuts, so why not? The 360 Tour is massive, record, breaking in all sorts of categories, and when we got there (a bit too early) we got to see exactly how record-breaking it was: an enormous stage with a gargantuan screen, more speakers than I ever knew existed, and so on. In a nice nod to the people who come early, the screen was covered with scrolling statistics, most of them based on various issues of world hunger and violence and so on: how many people have died from smoking so far this year, and so on. U2 is very politically active, and I used to work for a charitable foundation, so this kind of stuff interests me as well, and it sitting there watching it got me into a reflective state of mind.
Sprinkled in among the socially conscious statistics were random bits of trivia, many of them related to the concert itself: how many stops are on it, how many people work behind the scenes, and so on. Being in the middle of writing PARTIALS, two of these stats stood out to me. The first was voltage: how much electricity it took to power a single show on the tour. The number, of course, was immense, and I realized that it was more voltage in a single evening than the characters in my book are likely to see in a year. It’s a post-apocalypse story, and aside from a couple of solar generators the characters simply don’t have access to electricity at all. This really struck me, probably because of all the “save the world” statistics I’d been watching–the stark contrast between the book’s desperation and our society’s decadence. My (admittedly fictional) characters were struggling just to power their hospital, and yet today we have so much electricity we can “waste” it on something completely frivolous, like a rock concert.
The second statistic that struck me hit a lot harder: the numbers of people in the stadium. This was Rice-Eccles stadium in Salt Lake City, the same huge stadium that hosted the 2002 Olympic ceremonies, and it was completely sold out. I don’t remember the exact number, but it was right around 46,000 people, and I thought “there are more people in this stadium right now than the entire human population of Earth in PARTIALS.” The apocalypse that strikes our world in PARTIALS is a plague that wipes us right off the map, killing some 99.999% of the people on Earth. The North American survivors gather together in one place, count themselves, and find just 40,000 left alive; they’re unable to contact anyone else, even before the satellite network goes down, and as far as they know they’re the only people left on the entire planet. That kind of blew my mind, not just the visual depiction of “this is what 46,000 people looks like,” but the fact that it was a rock concert specifically–that after the plague, there’s not even enough human beings left to get together and throw a party in a stadium.
Yes, it’s kind of weird that I was struck so powerfully by the imaginary plight of some fake people I made up for a story, but such is the mind of a reader. You know how it is. It really hit home to me how dire I had made the situation for the characters in my book, and I left with a resolution to depict that hopelessness, and the determination to survive in spite of it, much more directly than I had been. And that resolution set the stage for my experience during the show, which was much more profound.
U2 being, as I said, very politically/socially active, they had a segment about halfway through the show in which they started talking about all the problems in the world, and hunger and poverty and so on, and and how we all needed to go out and do something about it, and the whole time I kept thinking: “I saw the statistics on your screen, guys; you’re spending more electricity and time and money on this show than most of these starving African kids can even comprehend.” It made me angry–not just angry, it made me furious, it made me nauseous, it made me want to get up and walk out. I felt like these rich a-holes were using a facade of social consciousness to promote themselves, literally using starving children for their own gain. But U2 is smarter than that, and they knew what they were doing, and about 30 seconds before I told my wife we were leaving, they moved on from “look at all these problems” to “look at all these solutions.” They talked about the ONE organization, advertised and almost fully funded by U2 and their fans, and started listing success story after success story, including video testimonials of people who’ve been helped and are now turning around to help others. U2 wasn’t just telling people to help each other, they were doing it themselves; more importantly, especially for me as an artist, they were using their visibility as a platform to spread their message and their help to more people than they could ever reach otherwise. The exorbitant cost of the tour was worth it, because how else are you going to get 46,000 people to sit through a 30-minute commercial for a charity? This crowd didn’t even sit through, they stood and they cheered and they donated and they signed up for the ONE mailing list.
This was important for me to see. I didn’t realize it beforehand, but I needed this assurance that I wasn’t wasting my time as an artist–that art could be fun and entertaining and also be an engine of change. I left that concert with a renewed determination to make my books matter, to make people think, to make even one of my readers a better person when they’re done. I also left as a U2 fan, because those guys can put on a show. I was never all that into them, like I said in the beginning, but seriously: if you haven’t seen them live, you haven’t seen them at all. They’re one of my favorite bands now.
I’m not saying that PARTIALS is brilliant, or that it’s going to change the world. But I am saying that I put a lot into it–that I tried to tell more than just a post-apocalyptic adventure story. I grew up reading SF because the best SF makes you think about who you are, and about what the world is like, and about what it could be like as we create our own future. The characters in PARTIALS are dealing with some pretty hefty problems, including the very real threat of human extinction. They come up with a lot of answers, and not all of them are right, but if they can make us think about our own answers and our own choices, then I’m a happy man.
I loved writing this book, and I hope you love reading it.