The Writer Returns to the Scene of the Theme

So, it’s five days until Third Planet Fall Down releases, and I’m chuckling today over how difficult it is for a writer to escape who they are in their writing. The “work will out”, as the saying goes — and oh my, does it ever, when it comes to being made to confront our greatest preoccupations.

After finishing The Parasite’s Lament this fall (a novel-length space-opera set in my Partnership universe and inspired by Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov), I was looking forward to writing something easy, fun, and low-concept with the Menagerie Mysteries. I’d already poured tons of social-contract discourse into the novel now seeking traditional publication, so why not just have a ball with the novellas for self-published e-book release?

And to be fair, the Menagerie Mysteries have been pretty easy to write so far. The first two are 35,000 words, give or take, so I’ve written a solid 70,000 words in this universe in the last month. Can’t usually say that about the speed with which I’ve produced other worlds!

Moreover, the writing has been made easier precisely because I’m leaning on so many well-worn genre structures. The adventures of Pax Murillo are set in a future where an alien species has “paved paradise and put up a parking lot”, so to speak: the Ir have wiped out humanity, and installed a fancy theme-park on Earth instead. And Murillo himself, as a 2040s big-screen private-eye who’s been rendered as an AI for one of the park’s attractions, is drawn from a wide range of man-of-mystery franchises. This set-up means that these novellas get to play with action, spy, political thriller, and detecting genres in a big way.

So, has the writing been easy? Yes, relatively speaking!

And… fun? Definitely! I hope that comes through.

But, ah, low-concept?

Oh no. No, not at all.

Because a writer returns to the scene of the theme. Whatever your genre, you are you, and you will probably choose to invest time in those ideas, rhythms, and story-types that have the most meaning for you. (And if you’re not, if you’re pointedly choosing something simply because you think that’s what other people will want to read, there’s a really good chance that the quality of your work is suffering for this cynicism. Lean in to what interests you.)

And over the last eight years of publishing in science fiction, I’ve found myself returning to some pretty consistent themes in my work: the nature of (alternative) justice(s), trauma-recovery, and the social contracts we build in our relationships with ourselves, with other, and as societies.

I shouldn’t have been so surprised, then, to discover that I couldn’t just write a “low-concept” SF mystery series. Not only does Third Planet Fall Down get some good genre-teasing in, with respect to the predictable narrative arcs of big-screen action flicks, but the actual mystery in the story also hinges on our protagonist understanding a system — an economic system, at that. This means that the “mystery” is less about a surprise reveal of whodunnit, and more about the reader gradually coming to understand the many components of Irian society that underpin the story’s “crime”.

And so, if I’ve done my work well as a writer, the journey will be enjoyable, the reader will leave with a new vocabulary and site of reflection for key issues, and the corollary will not be so heavy-handed as to take away from the usefuless of speculative fiction for thinking about social contracts.

The reader will hopefully also see, from all the foundations I’ve laid in Book One, why this world could not be explored in full in a single novella — but neither should they expect the second book, The Moon Is Not My Name, to be as interested in answering all the unresolved questions of the first, so much as in opening up the world even more.

That’s why the second Menagerie Mystery (out in January!) is less about economic drivers for the Ir, and more about the role of information-management and infotainment media in shaping cultural outcomes. The Moon Is Not My Name tackles a different kind of economy, the “knowledge economy”, and so a different kind of mystery emerges in it.

Readers of both novellas, though, should also very clearly pick up on yet another abiding theme for the series: trauma! Because as Pax Murillo comes to understand that he is the only thing even close to a “last human” — and even then, not ‘real’ a traditional sense because he’s a fictional character made up by humanity? — whew, lemme tell ya, that creates some serious issues for our AI!

This is a theme that will grow to a critical breaking point in the third book of the series, when Murillo is suddenly made responsible, “as a gift”, for another AI-rendering of humanity that could also become self-aware. In The Stars, at Last Count, two books’ worth of PTSD will come to a head, in what I hope will be a decent exploration of the toll of commodification on a personal level.

But it’s the last novella in this series, Wildly Runs the Dying Sun, that perhaps most plainly affirms one of my treasured writin’ rules, “Let any given story go. If the theme is true, it will come back to you.” In it, I’ll be tackling the question of how, if it all, an unjust system might be made more just. This is a theme shared by a great deal of my work to date — like “To Catch All Sorts of Flying Things”, in Clarkesworld‘s September 2019 issue, a Partnership story which deals with a complex case of genocide on a planet with many different species capable of negotiating justice in their own way; and like The Parasite’s Lament, which critiques the valorization of cultural narrative and then poses the biggest question of all: whether or not we can ever leave a broken narrative behind.

But perhaps the most interestingly resonant work is one that you’ll hear about again in January, when Ray Nayler — a fabulous writer of SF and mystery stories — will be publishing the fruits of our conversation over an earlier novelette of min, which also grapples with social-contract theory on an intergalactic scale. In “Seven Ways of Looking at the Sun-Worshippers of Yul-Katan” (Analog 2016), I imagined a universe in which folk-traditionalism on any given planet, in any given culture, could very well be preserved for the worst possible reason: to serve the consumerism of a much larger and more technologically advanced civilization.

The Ir, as an Empire that wipes out whole species, then create exhibits based on their communities and cultures, is very much in line with that story’s premise, so there is a genuine sense of having “come home” to a familiar set of literary preoccupations in writing these Menagerie Mysteries.

The greatest joy of all, though, comes from understanding that each time I return to a given theme in my published work (traditionally published, or otherwise), I do so with a great deal more experience under my belt. This gives me all the more reason to hope that some future version of the tales I’m telling now — about justice, and social-contract theory, and trauma, and recovery — will maybe point to answers we might one day be better able to implement.

Whatever themes your texts return to (whether or not you intended them to!), may the voyage of (re)discovery be fruitful — and may the work of exploration itself seem less daunting, over time.

Third Planet Falls Down releases on December 14, 2020, but is already available for pre-order on kindle (35% author take, better reach) and Gumroad (100% author take, lower reach).

You can read the first three chapters here!

M L Clark reflects on themes that keep returning in the work: justice, social-contract theory, trauma, and recovery


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