How To Stay Original cont.
Way back in 2005 I was lying on the sofa reading a book. After a while I began to lose the sense of what I was reading, because something had appeared in my head -- the image of an immense, emerald green dome covering the city of Seattle. The dome looked like thick, imperfect glass, and the buildings under it appeared wavy and dream-like. I knew that inside the dome time was running in a loop and the inhabitants were unaware of their situation. Then I saw a boy, a young teenager. He was pushing a stolen rowboat into the waters of Elliott Bay, launching from an island outside the rim of the dome, intending somehow to get inside. And that's all I had. I fiddled around with it a little, then went back to the book I had been reading.
This 'idea didn't come out of nowhere. A few nights before, I had watched the Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day. It was funny, and kind of touching at times, but the main thing for me was the situation. A day that repeats endlessly, and one man who knows the truth. It reminded me of an X-Files episode about a bank robbery gone bad. The robber is wearing a bomb, which he decides to trigger. Everything is blown up, including Agent Mulder. Then Mulder's day starts over, repeating again and again. He always walks by the same parked car on his way to the bank, and a woman with an exhausted, haunted face, stares at him. She's the one who knows.
Time loops in science fiction have been around forever. I think they appeal to our sense, sometimes, that we really have been here before. There is no "idea service" in Schenectady, but there is one inside the head of every writer. Let's call it Humptulips, which is the name of a small town in Washington State. Humptulips is the unconscious mind. We post stuff to it all the time: books, movies, comics, broken hearts, first kisses, depressed low-land gorillas dozing behind thick glass at the zoo, the smell of your father's cologne, and so on. Everything. The Humptulips Post Office workers than take this stuff and mess with it. If a writer is looking for an idea, which is something writers do constantly, Humptulips will post something back to you. It won't always look like what you expected, but it will be something. Like a giant green dome, for instance. The point is, you must not only inundate the Humptulips Post Office with stuff, you must also drop a post card when you are ready to receive something back -- a post card, because when dealing with the Humptulips Post Office it is best to keep things simple. The post card that resulted in my receiving a giant green dome said something like, "Seattle has one day and it repeats endlessly. Help." An email or text message won't work, by the way. They're too fast. The Humptulips Post Office operates outside Time and Space. It doesn't care how fast you want a reply.
I let the dome, the time loop, and the boy in the rowboat nag at the back of my mind for a couple of weeks, then I sat down to write. And immediately the Humptulips Post Office sent me a story. There was no boy on an island, no rowboat. There was a stormy sky filled with acid rain and electrical bursts, and there was a flying vehicle, and a sixteen year old girl on a mission of destruction. The story wrote itself out over the next few days. I did some minor revisions, sold it to Asimov's and kind of forgot about it.
Or so I thought.
Around 2007 I decided to expand the short story into a novel. I needed to write a novel, and LOTP seemed to be a premise tailor-made for expansion. I would develop the survivor society outside the dome, and then a bunch of stuff would happen followed by a big explosion! In short, my expansion "idea" sounded exactly like something ten thousand other hacks could have produced with their left hand while watching Independence Day and drinking a case of Red Hook.
Thank God the Humptulips Post Office had other ideas.
First of all, I made the mistake of not using a post card. Far from it. I wrote the Humptulips Post Office a long, detailed email, which pretty much spelled out the kind of book I expected to get back ASAP. My email, addressed To Whom It May Concern, detailed the big science fiction adventure story I expected. It had to guarantee to be "successful," a certain sale in the marketplace. Because what the stupid Humptulips Post Office didn't understand was that I absolutely needed a commercially viable book and I needed it now, before I disappeared off the face of science fiction.
Of course, the Humptulips Post Office does not check its email. Ever.
So I spent two years writing terrible novel-length versions of my successful little short story, powering through the Blasted Lands of my deliberately planned prose, until, in despair, I all but gave up hope. Then sitting at my desk late one night, searching through the drawers for my lucky Scotch glass, I found a blank post card with a picture of the Space Needle on the front. On the back of the post card I printed, "Seattle has one day and it repeats endlessly and I need 90,000 words. Help."
After quite a while the Humptulips Post Office started sending me packages containing some very odd items. It was up to me to figure out what to do with the items. I did figure it out, and the result is Life On The Preservation, published by Solaris Books on May 28, 2013.
And that's how you stay original in a wilderness of post-apocalyptic novels: Humptulips.
Oh, one more thing. That giant green dome that first interrupted my couch reading way back in 2005? I know where it came from. I remembered while I was writing this essay. A very long time ago my junior high school science teacher, Mrs. Goto, used to spend Friday class time reading science fiction books out loud to us. She was wonderful, obviously. One of the books she read to us was "The City of Gold And Lead," by John Christopher, which is the middle book in a series about aliens who take over the Earth. Here is the description of the alien Master's city: "It rose beyond the edge of the ruins, a ring of dull gold standing against the gray of the horizon, surmounted and roofed in by an enormous bubble of green tinged crystal."
I was thirteen years old when I posted that description to Humptulips, and past fifty when Humptulips posted back to me Seattle's Preservation dome.
Thanks, Mrs. Goto.