Afterword to Terranova: The Black Petaltail; Imagining an Alternative World
Note: The full text of my science fiction novel Terranova: The Black Petaltail can now be downloaded here, and will remain freely available on this website. This long post is designed as an afterword to the novel, explaining the manner in which I have constructed an alternative world and crafted a story based both on that planet and on our own future world.)
Alternative-world fiction often seems to work best when imaginary planets are structured much like Earth yet are marked with a few key variations. I attempted to do precisely this in my own novel, mainly by making “Terranova” a slightly better version of our own world. “Better,” of course, entails a problematic value judgment, but the resulting tension (I hope!) forms grist for novelistic development. At any rate, my imaginary world is slightly more temperate, somewhat more ecologically productive, and—most importantly—a bit more evolutionarily advanced than Earth. On our world, most mammalian lineages have exhibited slowly expanding cranial capacities over the past sixty million years or so; most mammals have, in other words, been gaining basic intelligence, or at least enhanced neural capabilities. On Terranova, such evolutionary processes were allowed to continue to run their course for a few tens of millions of additional years before Homo sapiens made its radical appearance.
Novan warm-blooded animals, although still dumb, are thus depicted as noticeably more intelligent than their terrestrial counterparts. What would be entailed, I ask, if the average extraterrestrial dog had greater mental capacities than the smartest dogs on Earth?—which, we now know, can possess vocabularies of over 1,000 words. As it is, I suspect that dogs played a greater role in humankinds’ rise to global ecological dominance than is commonly credited. On Terranova, that role would have been greater still. Several dogs thus form minor characters in the resulting novel.
Crows also play an important role in the novel. Corvids, especially the tool-using New Caledonian Crow, exhibit pronounced mental acuity. I imagine that on a different planet a somewhat more advanced variety of crow might have been tamed and trained to work with dogs for hunting, herding, and conducting war. Such a scenario may be a bit of a stretch; crows have never been domesticated on Earth, in part, no doubt, because their flesh is highly unappetizing. But as working animals, I do think they have potential, owing both to their native intelligence and their social instincts.
Not just the animals of Terranova are depicted as more intelligent than those of Earth; so too are its human inhabitants. Again, the differences are not overwhelming. I have not tried to create super-people, but rather a version of Homo sapiens that is just a little more advanced than our own kind. One goal in imagining such improvement was to allow a “realistic” depiction of a relatively prosperous non-industrial society. Although we often imagine our own past in such terms, the resulting vision is not warranted; before the industrial transition, most agrarian societies were deeply impoverished, disease-ridden, and violence-plagued. By the same token, a slightly more advanced version of our own species allows sophisticated yet realistic dialogue. Few novels or plays represent human conversation as it is actually carried out; almost all eliminate the false starts, gaps, and restatements that characterize actual human speech (to make someone sound like an idiot, all one generally has to do is transcribe verbatim statements). More evolved humans, I reason, would be more articulate than we are, speaking more as we imagine ourselves speaking.
A story based on a more advanced version of humankind that nonetheless remains locked in a pre-industrial economy faces a seeming contradiction. Would not a somewhat smarter human species have advanced more quickly than we did into a technologically driven economy? Actually, I am not so sure. Many blockages to technical advance have emerged over the course of human history, convincing many scholars that the industrial breakthrough was by no means inevitable, regardless of our species’ native intelligence. A steam engine, after all, had been built in antiquity by Heron of Alexandria, yet it was never considered anything but a toy. At the dawn of the modern era, China was in most regards significantly more advanced than Western Europe, yet it exhibited little of the latter region’s dynamism, a phenomenon that historian Mark Elvin has attributed in part to China’s “high level equilibrium trap.” I reason that such “high level traps” could be even more pronounced on a planet inhabited by somewhat more advanced human beings.
Blockages to development in a pre-industrial society can be enhanced by political unification at the continental or sub-continental scale, as was perhaps the case with imperial China. Here I follow the arguments of a number of historians who contend that Europe’s rise to technological domination was related to its instability; the region’s multitude of competing, warring states allowed sanctuaries for innovation yet helped propel the rapid diffusion of beneficial new social arrangements and technical developments. Had the Hapsburg Emperor Charles V succeeded in unifying the sub-continent under a conservative Roman Catholic monarchy in the 1500s, would Europe have experienced its wrenching transition to modernity several centuries later? I am not so sure.
The constrained historical development of Terranova thus hinges on stability and political unification. Here a massive empire is envisaged as blanketing the largest continent and maintaining links to the rest of its world through an expansive merchant network. Together, the imperial and mercantile orders generated a prolonged period of stasis. But the story unfolds as the tightly constructed Novan world system begins to collapse, undermined by flaws inherent in its structure. The ultimate message, I suppose, is that the dynamism of human progress can be thwarted but not so easily eliminated.
The societies of Terranova are based loosely on historical Earth analogues, although certain salient features are enhanced and elaborated. But as Novan humans are imagined as a bit more evolved than us, and as their planet itself is depicted as a little more ecologically productive and less disease-ridden that our world, systematic differences are encountered here as well. In particular, games are more important on this world than on our own, based on the idea that behavioral neoteny—neoteny being the retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood— might be linked to evolutionary advancement. Novan societies are also portrayed as more sexually egalitarian than ours were at a similar stage of technological development. Typical gender distinctions of humankind, however, are retained, although they vary significantly from one part of the planet to another. The most female-empowered society in the novel (based loosely on the Nairs of southwestern India and the Minangkabau of western Sumatra) is by no means depicted as an androgynous, gender-neutral utopia. It is instead envisaged more as a society in which women use their “erotic capital,” as recently spelled out by Catherine Hakim, to maintain sway over men. Whether such portrayals seem credible is obviously for readers to decide.
Although my imaginative efforts long focused on the development of an alternative world, the novel takes places as much on Earth as on Terranova. The name of the imaginary planet tells one as much: “Terranova”—or “new land”— makes sense only from the perspective of our world. As I imagined this planet over the course of many years, I came to picture it as being observed from afar by people from an unspecified time in Earth’s future. When I began writing the novel, I decided to play up this angle for all that it was worth. As I was depicting Terranova at the time of a planetary crisis, I figured that it would heighten the tension to throw Earthling observers into the mix. How would the people of our planet respond, I ask, when witnessing traumatic events being experienced by the human inhabitants of another world? The uncanny similarities of the two planets also encourage philosophical exploration. How would the existence of a human-inhabited alter-world, I inquire, influence cosmological speculations on Earth?
Adding a terrestrial component greatly increased the complexity of the resulting novel. Not only did I have to construct a future Earth, but I also had to link the two planets in a manner that would allow instantaneous observation but not interplanetary travel. In doing so, of course, I had to violate the laws of physics; information, like everything else, cannot travel faster than the speed of light. But while demanding the suspension of disbelief on this issue, I still sought to construct a seemingly realistic mode of indirect interplanetary exploration, extrapolating from emerging technologies. Whether the attempt works is again for readers to decide, but in one sense, the maneuver was perhaps ill advised. After finishing the story, I was unable to convince a literary agent or a publisher even to glance at the manuscript. After a number of form-letter rejections, I finally received something of substance. Based on my two-page prospectus, one agent kindly told me that in an age in which almost everyone carries a smart-phone and habitually surfs the internet, no one is interested any longer in technologically mediated science fiction. This objection seemed absurd at the time, both because Terranova is not really technologically driven, and because I saw little evidence that audiences were rejecting futuristic science fiction. New additions to the Star Trek corpus continue to appeal, and even James Cameron’s blockbuster film Avatar links a future Earth to another world through highly technical means. But convinced that such arguments would get me nowhere, I abandoned the effort to publish the book conventionally.
In retrospect, however, I suspect that the agent’s comment was not entirely off base. Backward-looking fantasy seems to be much more popular these days than forward looking-science fiction. And even in regard to science fiction per se, Terranova may be out of keeping with the temper of the times, not so much because it employs advanced technology, but rather because it embraces it. The novel forwards a basically optimistic view of Earth’s future, whereas many if not most works in the genre foresee decline and doom, with relentless technical advance undermining the human spirit and destroying the global ecosystem. In much speculative fiction, non-industrial societies, whether on Earth or elsewhere, tend to be depicted as harmoniously whole, retaining the social integrity and environmental balance that we have sacrificed to modernity. Cameron’s Avatar typifies this trope, with its marauding moderns assaulting a primordial paradise. This storyline is of long-standing, but was elaborated most insistently by eco-romantics in the late 1960s and early 1970s. More recent scholarship, however, shows that on Earth “primordial peoples” were sometimes environmentally destructive and were usually plagued by incessant violence (Steven Pinker’s recent The Better Angels of Our Nature offers a compelling if perhaps exaggerated exposition of this thesis). But as Cameron shows so well, one can easily retain the “noble savage” narrative by transposing paradise from our own past to some other planet’s future.
I have no objection to portraying non-technological societies as retaining certain wholesome relationships that we have generally lost; indeed, I do much the same in Terranova. I also do not oppose dystopian depictions of our own future. We do have the capacity to destroy our world, and it can be salutary to wrestle with that possibility through fiction. But I have long since tired of the genre; every other science fiction film these days seems to be set in a stock post-apocalyptic world. I am more generally sated with bleak visions, and have thus come to long for depictions of the future that are a little more hopeful.
Although modern audience seem to have an endless appetite for stories of technological Armageddon, I see relatively little actual pining for a return to the pre-industrial past—certainly much less than at the time when I began imagining an alternative world. In many respects, we live in a profoundly technophilic age, one in which high-tech entrepreneurs can become virtual folk heroes. Why then do we tend to shun positive portrayals of a yet more technologically intense future society? Are we too saturated with technology as it is, and thus seek escape into timeless fantasy landscapes where magic takes its place? Or is it due to the fact that we tend to repress our own misgivings about modernity, and thus resonate subconsciously with dystopian expressions? Regardless of the underlying cause, I cannot shake the impression that we have unduly denigrated optimism in this domain, viewing it somehow as vacuous and simpleminded. Serious literature, many seem to think, must discern only a wasteland when either surveying the present or imagining the future.
Any imagining of an improved future runs the risk of descending into utopianism. Yet I fervently reject the utopian imagination. To begin with, those who have actually pushed utopian agendas have tended to generate dystopian outcomes. More broadly, utopianism does not adequately take into account human nature. No matter how healthy, safe, and prosperous our society becomes, we will still fall prey to envy, greed, jealousy and every other human failing, creating our own private hells with abandon. We also quickly habituate to any improvements, soon taking them for granted and finding only exasperation when they malfunction—a phenomenon brilliantly satirized by comedian Louis C. K. in his routine, “Everything Is Amazing and Nobody’s Happy.” In the future, everything could be even more amazing, but most people would probably be just as miserable as they are now.
The future depicted in Terranova thus derives from what might be called a sub-utopian or “ameliorationist” imagination. I depict improvements in our own society, as well as a somewhat “better” world located some light-years away, but neither is envisaged as ideal in any sense. In the end, I would hope that such a guardedly optimistic viewpoint might have some small beneficial effect. By reveling in doom and gloom, I fear that we risk restricting our own capabilities for effecting positive change.
As a warning to any would-be reader, I would note that the narrative structure of Terranova is rather complicated. The action not only shifts back and forth between the two planets, but the perspective also moves among multiple characters on each world. If the book is read over a prolonged period of time, such shifts might prove confusing. Also significant is the fact that the book is envisioned as the first volume of a trilogy. The main lines of action in The Black Petaltail are wrapped up in the end, but the overarching story is left hanging. Finally, it is important to note that the manuscript offered here is slightly different from the original book. Chapter Three, in particular, has been significantly edited.