#60: The writer
How do you write science fiction when you live in the future?
Previously: Two hundred years ago portals opened up in the middle of London, connecting the world to two other realities: a far-future version of London which came to be known as Max-Earth, and the fantastical alternate reality of Palinor. In this chapter we meet John Pierson, an author from Max-Earth in the year 2520…
(22 years earlier)
It always snowed in November, despite all the climate correction. John had visited New York on Mid-Earth, once, when he was younger, and had marvelled at the warmer winters. The streets were something else, too.
He looked out of his apartment window, high in the Nguyen Building, at the waterways far below. New York, USA. America’s Venice, they called it, although that didn’t mean much to the average Max-Earther. Venice was long gone. The traffic was worse here than Mid-Earth’s, simply by virtue of being three dimensional: the primitive automobiles and trams of their alternative twentieth century had nothing on the mix of boats, cruisers and flying cars that dotted the air above and below his vantage point. John’s apartment was halfway up the building, which was suitably indicative of his place in society. The altitude of a citizen in NYC was still a convenient proxy for their social standing. Halfway up. In the middle. Middle-class. Middle-aged. Middling success.
Still, at least he wasn’t slumming it down on the bottom ten, with the water of the Atlantic lapping at their front doors. He’d heard about some bohemian idiots who were trying to convince everyone that lower Brooklyn was being transformed into something new and exciting; that somehow living underwater was a sign of real wealth. They’d probably attract a chunk of speculative investment, create a run of new coffee bars and boutique restaurants, and then go pop when a window blew out and let in the sea. Now that’d be worth writing about.
The dark red wine in his glass swirled as he rotated it. He lifted it to his nose, sniffed, paused, then took a small sip. It was good. He’d been saving it for a special occasion, but none of those seemed to come around no more, so what the hell.
Turning away from the glare of the daylight, he stared at his apartment instead. Full of a life’s work, yet somehow entirely empty. Rita was gone. She’d had enough. No kids. He had some friends, sure, online and across town. It’s not like he was going to bother hailing a cab to fly him north to see them, and they sure as hell weren’t going to bother coming to hi. He could call them up, chat to them on the screen, but what would be the point? The usual platitudes, talking about the same old shit. Pretending to be good, feeling like he was lying the whole time. Yeah, you know, same old. Getting along fine. Working on some projects. All good.
It wasn’t all good. He’d written his Great American Novel at age 23, like a fucking idiot, leaving him with three decades of twiddling his thumbs while critics piled on him for wasting his talent. “There’s a sophomore slump,” one reviewer had noted of his last book, “and then there’s a Pierson Plunge.”
John Pierson, the most promising new fiction writer of the ’90s, reduced to an idiom.
He still had readers. Everyone had readers. He wrote stuff, he published it and it got fired out to every reader in the system. Multiple planets-worth of readers, plus several moons and hollowed-out asteroids. Volume wasn’t an issue. Even income wasn’t really a factor. Hell, the royalties from that first book would keep him going. He could fire essays off into the void and the views would rack up almost by default.
But what was the point? The problem was that first book, which has set him on a very particular trajectory. It has been an accident, really - a story more serious and literary than anything he’d ever want to read himself. It tumbled out one month and set him up for life, for good and ill. After that, he was a serious writer of serious things.
He’d never wanted that. He’d wanted to write science fiction. And fantasy. He’d wanted to dive giddily across genres, to mash the up and spit them out as something brand new. But they’d never allowed him. The critics, the readers, the online commentators. They’d had expectations, and he’d felt compelled to follow the crowd.
Truth was that science fiction wasn’t what it used to be. Oh, to be living in the fucking dark ages. Before spaceships and AI overlords and inter-planetary travel. Before there were men on Mars and women on Venus, before the Earth’s decline was halted and reversed, before geopolitics became so stable that absolutely nothing ever, ever happened. Before the poverty line was dropped so low nobody had to worry. Before disease was good-as-eradicated.
He longed for the good old days. The bad old days. Back when you could have a good war, and there was a famine, and hardship, and people had to toil just to survive, back when insane old men ran the world and had their fingers on the nuclear button. Back when ice caps were melting and oceans were rising, when forests were burning and cities were sinking. When there was so little space that people were forced to migrate en masse like fucking birds, or cattle, and try to find somewhere they could just be. Back before leaving orbit was like heading to the corner shop. Back when travel was hard and took forever, when you couldn’t call someone on the other side of the planet in real time, before you could look up anything and become an expert in under sixty seconds. Rewind back to when humanity was crammed into the one ball of rock and gas, and it was chips all-in, double-or-nothing, bet the farm, win or die, when a single wrong move would nuke the entire species.
That was being alive.
Mainly, though, he wanted to go back before those motherfucking portals opened up. It had happened long before he was born, so he’d never known anything different, but he’d imagined it. He’d read the history books, everything he could get his hands on. The history of a pre-triverse Earth, when it was just about them and everything was simpler.
Before the portals, the fantasy genre meant something. Science fiction meant something. Then the triverse happened and reality overtook fiction. The real world - or worlds - was more extreme, more unlikely, more absurd than anything a writer could dream up in their imagination. They were living in a reality of speculative fiction. Max-Earth, Mid-Earth and Palinor: the three destroyers of the imagination. There was always something more exciting to discover on the news feed than there was in the writing of John Pierson, or any other author.
Maybe that was it. Dream up what could have been. A world without interference. Write the existence he wanted, the life he wished he had. Remind people of what it used to be like, and what it could be like, before the AIs homogenised and placated humanity, before the triverse wrecked any notion of reality. It could be a map, a guide to an alternative present. His treatise and final word on everything that was wrong and could be right again.
Then he’d be remembered for more than some shitty literary fiction story. Maybe he could write something that would truly change the world.
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Thanks for reading! Well, that one was a bit different. It might seem standalone, but don’t worry - it all connects…
Another busy week, as I got the final print proof for No Adults Allowed and have finished polishing it up ready for release. It’ll be out 28 November in ebook and print form. I’ll be sharing more about what exactly it’s about very soon.
OK, do leave a comment down below and now for some behind-the-scenes:
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