Exodus, the third novel in the Roboteer series comes out this month. It was, by far, the most difficult creative project I’ve ever undertaken, and also, probably because of that, the most satisfying. Never have I teared up so much whilst writing, or laughed so hard, or felt such terrible tension. Why was it hard? There were many reasons, both personal and creative. In this post, I’ll do my best to share them.
The most obvious cause of my problems was that I had set myself up with an almost impossible challenge. Before I wrote Nemesis, the book that precedes Exodus, I had made the decision that the trilogy would need to answer the enormous question that I set up in Roboteer:
What is the difference between an intelligent species that survives, and one that wipes itself out?
I had realized, from the complex systems research I’d been doing at the time, that I actually had an answer of sorts to that question. I was sitting on fresh science from my time at Princeton that could never have made its way into a science fiction book before. So I committed myself, then and there, to try to invest the spirit of that work, if not the details, into those books, delivering the final conceptual payoff in Exodus.
So this was my first dilemma: how do you make a science fiction novel that engages and delights an audience whilst effectively doubling as a thesis in complex systems research?
So far so crazy, but I knew the book had to be much more than that. Exodus would need to resolve the complex character arcs I set up in the first two novels. And I had not exactly made things easy for myself there either.
Those who have read Nemesis will know (spoilers ahead!) that at the end of that book, Will Monet, the protagonist of Roboteer, wakes up changed on a world that contains billions of copies of himself and no one else. I would have to make sense of that ending, and build on it. I had also released onto the human race a new enemy so potent and adaptable that its intelligence had ramped from machine idiocy to violently acquisitive self-aware interstellar civilization in a matter of weeks. I would need to explore the consequences of that choice, and explain why everyone wasn’t already dead before Exodus even started. And whilst justifying those extremes, I would need to keep raising tension in my plot despite leaving the end of book two with a wave of terror already about to crash over the heads of the human race.
There were also the more intimate complexities of character development. Will was not the only player in my novels to find himself exposed to almost intolerable levels of stress and personal change. I had already pushed many of my other characters to the edge of breaking. What is there to do in a novel when the people whose tales you are looking to complete have already had their souls seared in the fires of bitter experience? You tell a story of hope, of course. So I knew Exodus would have to be that too.
So I needed a fast-paced, enjoyable tale of human triumph under impossible conditions, set against a backdrop of staggering mayhem that also doubled as a complex systems thesis, with a side exploration of a planet-wide case of multiple personality disorder. Fine. Difficult, perhaps, but that’s what makes writing fun.
And then my mother died. And in the process of caring for her in her last years, my father had taken himself to the edge of death. By the time she passed, he had three conflicting medical conditions, requiring heart surgery, regular infusions of the most expensive drug in the world, and countless other tests, procedures and medications. Over the course of that summer, he took a close orbit around Planet Goodbye over a dozen times whilst the rest of my family held its breath. His heart surgery finally happened on the same day as the Brexit vote. I had expected for him to die and the country to vote No. I got the reverse.
Outliving your parents is a natural business, and the way life is supposed to work. But it comes with a compulsory, and unavoidable education in the nature of grief. And grief, as it turns out, is both time-consuming and painful.
Whilst this was playing out, I was acting as lead parent for my three-year-old son. My wife, who was making the money we needed to live, was facing rapidly increasing demands on her time from the San Francisco start-up she was working for. Which meant there were weeks of time in which I saw very little of her, and had to invest what was left of my emotional energy into my little boy.
In this storm of events, working on Exodus at first became intolerably hard, and later, absolutely natural. I suddenly knew how to tell a story of grief and recovery. I suddenly knew what it meant to hope when death keeps knocking on your door. I understood, personally, one of the core points of the research that I’d been doing: that death is a part of life. And that without death, there is no cooperation, no beauty, and in the final analysis, no joy either.
All of this got folded into the novel. Exodus became more than just a book for me. It became an personal expression of one of the hardest episodes of my adult life and an evocation of the philosophy of hope in dark times that I came to live by. And as the world seems to trend increasingly in the direction of darkness, that philosophy feels to me more relevant than ever. The lesson of Exodus rings inside me every time I look at the news.
But does it work as a novel? Did I cram everything in that I was hoping to? Did I pull off the most ambitious writing stunt of my entire life? My readers will have to decide. But I, for one, am glad I had the experience and the chance to try.
Also on CR: Guest Post on “Influences & Inspirations”