This is the second in a series of blogs exploring some aspects of my UK-published science fiction backlist, now available electronically through Orbit books. (I have several other novels that are out of print, in case anyone reading thinks that Maul was my first novel. It was my fourth.) Today I'll write about Double Vision.
This book was originally titled Cookie Starfishes, after the behaviour of the protagonist (Cookie) who can stretch her consciousness across what she believes is interstellar space and also after the name of a fictional breakfast cereal. Yeah, that’s what I said.
I was interested in ecosystems. I’ve always been curious about mathematical modelling as a way of representing factors and forces we can’t directly apprehend, of tracking them and making them perceptible. I kept wondering about the behaviour of ecosystems that aren’t biological, but ideational, informational. When I thought about the world I had grown up in (and much of my youth was spent watching TV), I had the itchy feeling that an ideational system was being built that wasn’t under the control of its creators; indeed, it didn’t even seem to be within the perception of its creators. I wanted to bring this itch into some kind of focus for myself.
I called the system The Grid in honour of Tron, because after all the book is set in 1984 and when I thought of SF of that time period the luminous graph-paper cyberspace of that movie came to mind (I've never seen it, oddly enough). But my Grid was not cold. It seethed with life, not to mention consciousness. And we could only see it through the eyes of Cookie.
When I first began writing about Cookie, she was a white man in an abortive short story. The only things the original character had in common with Cookie were his weight and his SF fan status, and those things were there because I wanted a dramatic disconnect between the protagonist's day-to-day life as a sedentary corporate drone and his ideational life as a flier in an alien war. But he was soulless. I soon realised this was because I’d conceived him straight out of a stereotype; he wasn’t a person. So I decided to write about a black woman, because, hello, SF? Where were your black women? Few and far between. Once I made that decision I became nervous and uncomfortable about what I was doing, but this seemed like a better place to be. Suddenly I had a character who was talking back to me.
At the time I was writing Double Vision I was going through a hard phase with a baby son who demanded more energy than I had (I literally could not keep weight on), and our living situation was unstable. It was fraught, actually. There was enough money for food and minimal heat, full stop. Our dial-up internet was rarely used and I often went weeks without talking to another human being apart from my partner. I coped by bundling my son in a waterproof pushchair or backpack and walking for several miles a day. The physical discipline kept me from cracking up.
I thought about survival: what it means, how we do it, where it diverges from what is called victory.
I made my soldiers female, and while I was writing I kept comparing my own experiences as a stressed-out mother with theirs. Until I’d had children I’d never really felt particularly womanly and there was a part of me that didn’t quite accept being female—maybe because I identified with strength and self-reliance, and women generally seemed to be short-changed in that department. After going through pregnancy and birth and breastfeeding and all the usual I started to redefine my ideas about what strength can be, and I began to question the validity of self-reliance. Having a baby totally dependent on me restricted me, stretched me, changed me—and it made the me of me at times irrelevant. I began to see myself as part of a larger system whose inner workings were mysterious. All of this fed into the way I wrote about the Grid.
Here’s an excerpt from the point of view of Serge, one of the soldiers who has inadvertently reproduced within the generative intelligence that is the Grid; she now has nine alien children.
They took her to the place where the missile had fallen. It didn’t look the same to her now. She was still aware of all the misfit equipment arranged above the dust bowl, but the importance of the human artifacts seemed reduced in her new eyes. She noticed now that the Grid was woven into a spiderweb, a concentric series of irregular rings crosshatched with pulsing beams of something forever caught in a state halfway between solid matter and sheer light. And she knew what had happened because the Grid’s memory was a part of Serge: it lay in the bottom of her lungs, the coming of the MF missile with intent to destroy all life at the logic mines and being instead itself pulled down by the defensive system that these little girls had created.
Oh, they had built it, for sure. Six would have provided that aptitude in his ejaculate.
They had sacrificed miles of the Grid’s sinew, wedded it to stolen stereo components and transistors, poached body parts thrown in for good measure; and now by the will of the Grid, whatever that was, the dead zone was coming alive in some sneaky and hard-to-fathom way.
The girls went down into the dust, proud of their creation.
She looked at them, jerky little Sergettes with music around them like a smell.
She was no longer wanting to have them exterminated.
She was well and truly screwed. What good was she, Captain Bonny Serge, with the Grid leading her around by the nose, literally? Information hung in the air. It thrummed in the branches. It simmered in the well. She was just another storehouse, a mobile one, but a member of the club now all the same.
‘Holy Poobah,’ said Serge. ‘I’ll never be just me again. I’ll never be an individual. From here on out, I’m always part of something else, something alive.’
She paused, chewing her lip.
‘I don’t like that.’
My next blog in this series will be about some of the racial and cultural issues that I messed up in these novels, and what I’m learning from the mistakes I made.