Under an Alien Heaven Dreaming of a Lost World, Composing, 08/09/2013

Of course it’s impossible to have an epic novel combining the world-building intricacy of Dune, the depth of characterization and thematic intensity as Robinson Crusoe or Moby-Dick, the post-colonial political sensibility of Chinua Achebe or Kojo Laing, and the genre-aware sarcasm of its inspiration as a cheesy, surreal, condescending kids’ sci-fi show, if you don’t have characters.

No, definitely not these idiots.
The thing is, I only have two so far. The second character I came up with was the pilot of the expedition that crashes on the distant planet. One element of this story’s world is that several planets have been colonized in other star systems, and they all have pretty much total political autonomy because it was just physically impossible to maintain direct rule of any kind when messages take months to reach its recipients. It’s impossible to run a state as complex as ours with that kind of delay in basic communication. So Earth has been mined out and maintains its economy with cultural industries and materials imported from the other worlds in the Sol system (Mars, Mercury, and Ganymede), and they still fund new colonies to whittle down their population, and for the old-fashioned cowboy romance of it all.

But the pilot isn’t from the post-metals Earth. He’s from New Earth, in the Delta Pavonis system. It’s the strongest economy of all the human worlds, and it’s making all the same mistakes we did here. They even think of Terrans as naive old hippies past their prime. I imagine a scene of Jorge being interviewed for the captain’s position on this mission, and he’s asked why someone would come to Earth from Pavonis. He tells a story about walking in the woods on the outskirts of the major city where he grew up. It was winter, and snow was falling in large flakes. Jorge watches the snow land on his arm, so polluted that it’s the same colour as his skin. That’s how you learn he’s black.

The first character I thought of isn’t even originally from this novel. She’s Alice, the android I developed for one of my first short stories that I brought to the public. In that story, she was built to the specifications of a British middle-aged journalist/academic who commissioned her as a Compandroid: a robotic race of private sex slaves. The kicker is that their artificial brains actually give them a rational intelligence, perceptual accuracy, and emotional intuitiveness superior to humans in every way. The story is about her personal emancipation, and suggests that they’re all being quietly emancipated by owners who have fallen so deeply in love with their androids, they arrange for them to live as free creatures. 

The Lost in Space novel would take place 4,000 years after this story. The androids have separated their civilization from humanity centuries ago, and live in a loosely connected complex of ships in deep space. Alice is one of the oldest androids left, with 4,000 years of life experience and thought having given her a deep wisdom few humans could ever have achieved. She expresses this through a kind of pithy sarcasm, always suggesting that she has a more profound insight into the person she’s making fun of. No one on the expedition, at first, has any idea that she’s an android. She also looks pretty much like Christina Hendricks.

And that’s literally all I’ve got for this one so far. Well, that and the civilization of gigantic alien cephalopods. But that’s for another time.


  1. Interesting mashup of classic science fiction -- the black skin reveal of Stranger in a Strange Land, the endurance of a sensitive and all-too-human robot reminiscent of R Daneel Olivaw.

    Of Jorge, what is the significance of his skin color and the pollution of his world? You could develop it along the lines of the colony strikes back (dark complexion from pollution land wants to tell white skin rich people that they're privileged), but that is well-trod territory that preaches to the choir (since you're unlikely to have readers who think that people of different skin color who come from poor countries are ignorant savages). How about if he were instead the ultimate pro-colonial type? Wants to get back to Earth because he thinks that's the real world, like a bright Indian student who wants to get a degree from Oxford because that's the only school that matters -- he might be overlooking the reality of a third power actually in ascendency, maybe an inner track of non-national power that flows across the colonies. Sort of a Canadian in England c 1925 excited to be part of the rebuilding of the center of the universe, only to realize that actually the center has in actuality shifted to the US, but then the US is reluctant to admit it. And of course the big thing about power is when you have it, you don't need to think about it.

    Of Alice: What is the point of living for thousands of years in a group of spaceships with a bunch of the robots who don't age and where no new life is introduced to the community? Where is meaning derived from in such an example? I think this sounds quite pitiable, like meeting an old spinster who has refined her life to a perfect routine and excels at some craft or other that no one cares about and which has no benefit for anyone else. Lived lived for 4000 years, if you call that living.

    To tie these threads together, you could have Jorge slowly realize that power has become concentrated not in one world or one polity/ government, but rather in a Philosopher King set-up orchestrated by robots -- only to grow increasingly sensitive to the divisions within that oligarchy and the very different pathways that are being prepared for humans. This in turn is reminiscent of Iain Banks's Culture but the distinction would be in much scaled-down AI. Alice as a very old robot might be as skeptical of the ascending AI power as she is of human power. To my mind, her character would be interesting as a view point but would really mobilize the narrative if she were to have a definite vision that she's been pursuing the whole time (probably with a mix of irony and a dose of fanaticism). But what bizarre future could a robot spinster Christine Hendricks have been pursuing these 4000 years??

    Of course, if the vision were one rooted in your (Adam's) philosophical understanding of experience, and extrapolated to an insane degree as the genre allows, that would be pretty interesting.

    Just thought I'd engage to my utmost, hopefully you don't feel I'm transgressing on your authority autonomy.

    1. As always, I apologize for the typos and extra words

    2. If anything, I find your reaction fascinating because it's nothing like what I want the story to explore. This project is the purest version of what you could call world-building. It's been enough time that whole civilizations rise and fall, and this multi-stellar culture(s) would be just as alien to ours as ours would be to an ancient Babylonian. Motives at personal levels are the same: prestige, money, sex, power. But the content those motives would give life to would be totally different from our own.

      Two examples. New Earth is totally racially mixed, and has been for centuries. It doesn't really have ethnic divisions that would constitute different communities. Jorge's last name is Patel. I imagine New Earth as what happens when a whole world is colonized with laissez-faire attitudes when all the major communities are even in their powers. New Earth is corrupt corporate capitalism in its purest form run amok. If anything, there are feudal class divisions based on your family's corporate loyalties. But they aren't organized by formal rank — an Apple exec doesn't consider himself somehow better than a steel industry exec, just in a different line of work.

      Earth/Terra, in contrast, takes seriously what would happen to a society that runs out of raw materials: they really go full hippie. They're wards of the economic state for Mars and Ganymede, the worlds in Sol that still have usable amounts of metal. There's nothing left on Earth for developers to get rapaciously greedy over. So they just throw up their hands, and turned into a planet of research scientists, psy-trance hippies, and isolated communities of religious social conservatives.

      The androids didn't withdraw to a cold, austere set of spaceships. They've built a centuries-long cultural renaissance of constant and radical artistic experimentation, total social equality (because they don't need any resources but the power to recharge their batteries), and their relations consist of ironic drama and constant recreational consequence-free sex. They've retired from humanity not to rule over them in secret, but because they're tired of having to slow down to talk with these creatures.

  2. Wild stuff, look forward to what you end up producing. It might be entertaining for you to write it in a Hegelian manner: three even divisions for each world, with a thesis-antithesis-synthesis setup (but of course an ironical commentary rather than actual synthesis in the third section).