If there’s a theme to all of my books, it may be about an individual living and functioning in a world, or part of it, that is slightly foreign, slightly hostile to his or her nature, a world not of his or her own choosing or making. In such a world, the main character has to be on guard, move carefully, and remain watchful, because he or she is essentially operating behind enemy lines.
I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider, someone not quite part of the group. This might have been a residue of my upbringing. My father was a mechanical engineer, and so every five to seven years we moved to a new place as he took up a new job. This was a common theme of the 1950s and ’60s, when a man—rarely a woman back then—who was climbing the corporate ladder had to be flexible about locations and assignments. Unless you worked for a small local company or a municipality, you and your family got regularly uprooted and sent to a new division or district, usually in a different state or part of the country.
One of those moves while I was still in elementary school took me from Long Island, near New York City, to a suburb on the North Shore near Boston—not so far in geography miles, but another country in terms of language accents, word choices, attitudes, allegiances, history, and juvenile enthusiasms.1 The only greater cultural dislocation could have been if our Yankee family had relocated south of the Mason-Dixon line. And then later, in high school, we moved again, from the suburbs of Boston to a small town in central Pennsylvania, and I had to adapt to another kind of culture.2
This was back in the day when television and radio programming and Hollywood movies were only part-way through the process of disseminating a universal American accent. And it was long before the internet and social media would make our culture one big, coast-to-coast schmear.
So, for middle-class, upwardly mobile people of a certain age, who were moved around as kids but didn’t have the cocoon of a military culture to buffer their experience, my sense of being lost behind enemy lines will have a familiar ring.
Things didn’t become better when I grew to adulthood. As an English major, someone trained more in stories, music, art, and ideas than in math, science, and commerce, I’ve always had to scramble in the world of business. At least, in my first job, as a book editor at the university press, my position was central to the world of publishing. Editors are the backbone of the business, which is preparing the author’s manuscript to become a saleable book. While authors don’t always like their editors, they usually acknowledge the need for the process.
At my second job, however, at a hardcover trade publisher which celebrated railroad histories, California and western Americana, and anything to do with steam locomotion, I might have been the book editor, but I was also a transplanted easterner from Pennsylvania. So I had to become a quick study in those strange niches of history. And then when I moved on, into technical editing at an engineering and construction company, not only did I enter an new world of technology but I was also definitely on hostile ground. I had to prove to the engineers—the numbers guys, where science and numbers had never been my strength—that an English major could keep up, not mangle or misinterpret their engineering proposals and reports, and could actually add value to their work.
It was no different when I later changed jobs and moved successively to a public utility, a pharmaceutical company, and a biotech firm. Each editing and technical writing role presented new requirements and complications, new areas of expertise to master, new norms to adopt as if I were born to them. I became a perpetual student—which means I was always moving into unknown territory full of intellectual dangers and pitfalls, exposing myself to scorn and ridicule. I sometimes had to think fast and move even faster. I gained a reputation for listening closely to what the experts had to say and asking savvy questions.
In various forms, this same sense of being a stranger in the land has driven or inhabited most of my fictional characters. In general, they are like left-handed people living in a right-handed world. They are connected emotionally and intellectually to an earlier time or to different social conditions, brought up with different values and expectations, having training and skills, and bearing a different set of attachment points, than the people around them. They are, in their own terms, representative of “the other” in the greater society that surrounds them.
Ariel Ceram in The Doomsday Effect starts as a geology professor who notices a quirk in her data, is pulled into a national program to announce the threat of planetary annihilation and then try to save the planet, and ends up an astronaut on Mars. Her academic background hardly prepares her for becoming a media sensation, engaging with both engineers and cyborgs, and rescuing a Martian colony.
Granny Corbin in First Citizen is the ultimate outsider. He was trained as a lawyer and proved to be a middling failure at it, becomes moderately successful as an entrepreneur of garbage recycling, gets pulled into politics after the nuclear attack on Washington, DC, and ends up invading his own country in the Second American Civil War.
Of course, the artificially intelligent computer program and spy in ME: A Novel of Self-Discovery exists to hack into the operating systems of other computers, so by definition he lives behind enemy lines.
Robert Wheelock in The Judge’s Daughter is a Harvard-educated law student and the son of a local industrialist in central Pennsylvania, who finds himself stranded when his father dies and must make his way in a small town among people he hardly knows. To survive and hold onto his father’s legacy, he develops a practice amid farmers and shopkeepers, lumbermen and geologists, eventually becoming the judge whom they all respect.
Robert’s own son, William Henry Wheelock, in The Professor’s Mistress is a war veteran and classics professor tossed into the intellectual and political turmoil of 1960s campus radicalism. He also endures the pain of a wife who goes quietly mad. In his loneliness, he develops a passion for an old steamboat that reminds him of a more gentle and gracious past, although no one around him can understand his attachment. He sails away one summer to pursue a dream of freedom that he barely can define for himself.
A far-future time traveler, or Jongleur, Merola Tsverin in The Children of Possibility operates constantly behind enemy lines. Her job is to explore the distant past and take DNA samples from people so primitive and so far behind her own time that their cultural, political, and economic lives often survive only in rumors. She must disguise her genetically advanced body by posing as a prepubescent girl and guard constantly against detection and exposure.
The aging and crippled detective Jean Metis of Crygender is thrown into a dangerous new world of medical crime and punishment. His sensibilities, his reflexes, and even his spinal prosthesis are out of date for dealing with the adversaries he mush overcome.
The economic analyst William Clive of Trojan Horse is turned into an international spy by a shadowy economics bureau. They assign him to track a dangerous biological entity and the people trying to steal it. He travels from the Bay Area to Paris and back to a drilling rig offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. Because his skill set is all wrong for such intrigues, he is forced to make up his own tactics as he goes along.
The presidential aide Harley Waters in Sunflowers is yanked from a private law practice in the Pacific Northwest to campaign for his friend in a national election, support the new administration during investigation of a major terrorist attack against Hoover Dam, and then practically singlehandedly build the renewable energy program that will recover the dam’s lost megawatts. All the while he must work against engineering delays, political obstructions, and a savage international terrorist.
And finally, the two middle-aged main characters of the novel I’m working on now—with the tentative title Coming of Age—embark on vastly extended lives through advanced medicine based on genetically manipulated stem cells. Each of them experiences the changed perspective and alienation of someone taken out of his or her own time and thrust forward into the future. They must deal with new problems they never expected to face and hobnob with great-grandchildren they never expected to meet.
In writing these stories, I’m betting that this feeling—of dislocation, of not belonging, of operating perhaps under false pretenses and behind enemy lines—is not unique to me or just to those of my generation. Other people out there must feel that the world has changed around them. The old certainties, the games we learned to play, the perceptions and propositions that we all bought into, have all changed in recent years.
Certainly, anyone who has simply grown older will feel this. The books, movies, music, and manners that we grew up with, the values and the media of exchange, all migrate with the generations. The people we thought of as adults and the figures to whom we looked up have since become wrinkled masks and feeble voices. The popular figures and authoritative voices that everyone respects nowadays seem to come from the faces of children in childish accents; so it’s sometimes hard to take them and their views quite seriously. The world has become a different place, with sometimes cheaper values, more violent attitudes, less acceptance, more arrogance. Some of this is the world’s fault. Some of it is our own. But still, we feel we don’t quite belong.
I’m not implying that I write—or ever intended to—for the dispossessed or the downtrodden.3 Many of my characters are experienced and powerful people in their own place and time, and some are wealthy. But skill and training are no armor against alienation, against the feeling that the ground has moved under your feet and the world become a subtly hostile place.
It happens to all of us in the face of challenges, in the face of catastrophe, and in the face of moving time. That’s the particular vein of gold I’m working in the quartz mine of modern literature.
1. Examples: In New York, we drank Coke or Pepsi; in New England, the drink of choice was a strange, malevolent herbal brew called Moxie. This was like a demon-inspired root beer, about which I immediately—and not very kindly, but then I was always a smart-mouthed kid—observed, “Goes down harsh, comes up bitter.” In New York, my mother’s sister was called my “ehnt”; in New England, she was my “ahnt.” In New York, you could root for the Yankees, the Dodgers, or the Giants—my move was that long ago—so it was a pretty open field; in New England, you were brain dead if you didn’t love the Red Sox. In New York, you ordered a “milkshake”; in New England, you ordered a “frappe”—but pronounced it “frap,” not the French way, “frappé.” In New York, something you liked was “good” or “great”; in New England, it was “wicked.” It was a strange and hostile land for an eight-year-old to enter unannounced.
2. The cultural dislocation from suburb to small town was not as great—not for a boy who had only been a trespasser in the Boston area to begin with—but the socioeconomic differences went much deeper. Life in the suburbs was uniformly middle class. Everyone’s family was structured the same: mother took care of the children while father went off to that strange place called “work.” Even though we kids might be ethnically Italian, Jewish, Russian, Polish, or whatever I was—some variation of WASP, I think—we all wore the same clothes, played the same games, and treated each other pretty much as equals. And we all were all conscious of the great city, Boston or before that New York, just over the horizon with its strange and accessible delights—Chinese and Italian food, world-famous department and specialty stores, first-run movies—that we could visit on a weekend trip.
But central Pennsylvania was deep in the woods. The middle-class kids who made up the college track in high school were a stratum among the farmers and mechanics who took classes like shop and home economics seriously, because that was their future. It was there I met my first classmates who actually owned guns and went out in the fall to shoot and butcher deer for food. And the ethnic divide was between the colony of Swedes in town and everyone else. The nearest big city was ninety miles away in either direction. Specialty cuisines like Chinese, Italian, or Mexican were unknown; hell, imported foods like artichokes and avocados were practically unknown. And there was one movie theater in town which got films a couple of weeks behind the rest of the world. But rural isolation also had its charms for a young person, because we missed out on big city attitudes and problems, such as the reputed mob hit that took place in my north-of-Boston neighborhood, and drug use was virtually unknown.
3. People who are living totally on the outside of society—the enslaved, refugees, victims of fire, flood, or persecution—have their own set of stories. They also, generally, have a group they can identify with that is set against the greater society. My characters are usually individuals alienated from the society which, in normal circumstances, would lay claim to them, including their colleagues, friends, and family.
To tell the truth, I also have a conceptual problem with characters struggling on the lowest rungs of society. To the extent that they have skills and ambition and are ready to seize opportunity, they will have interesting stories to tell. But to the extent that they feel victimized and oppressed, they lose interest for me. I believe everyone has at least some skills, resources, and the means to succeed, however he or she might measure “success.” Even the poorest person can borrow books, learn through reading, and develop a rich inner life. But if the character believes all skills and options are missing from his or her life, then the result is indistinguishable from that character actually lacking them. I don’t know how to help such people with their stories.