Feature: Penning a Loose Trilogy

TheDestructives-144dpiMatthew de Abaitua’s new novel The Destructives comes out from Angry Robot at the start of March, a sequel in part to IF THEN, which was published last year. The Destructives picks up on elements that appear both in that book and his earlier novel, The Red Men, and here de Abaitua discusses how they interlink…



My next novel The Destructives is the third novel in a loose trilogy. You hear that phrase loose trilogy bandied about but what does it mean? For me, loose trilogy means that you do not have to read the other novels – The Red Men, IF THEN – in sequence to understand each one. They are standalone works. Main characters come and go but secondary characters recur. Characters like technology consultant Alex Drown and the artificial intelligence Dr Easy, who has already been the star of its own short film. It is a loose trilogy because the novels all take place along the same timeline and within the same world, tracking the emergence of artificial intelligence. And that is the name the AIs choose for their species. They are emergences.

The emergences have no creator but they do have a point of origin, and it is the uncovering of that instant of emergence that concerns The Destructives. Arranging novels in a loose trilogy – could we draw up some rules for the loose trilogy? – means that you can work on an ever-expanding back story while tracing various possible plot lines shooting out from that central idea.

MDA author photoIn IF THEN, the people of Lewes are living in the aftermath of a cataclysmic event known as the Seizure: exactly what goes on in the Seizure and what causes it is hinted at here and there in that novel but it is only with The Destructives that I go back and explore the nature of that particular apocalypse in more depth.

I read William Gibson’s The Peripheral after completing IF THEN and I was struck by the role of the slow apocalypse in that novel called the Jackpot. It is a dividing line between a plausible near-future and a strange and distant elitist future. The Jackpot is alluded to by the characters but not explored in depth. Exposition is withheld. I wonder if Gibson will return to the Jackpot in future novels and fill in another piece of that exposition but not so much that it loses its resonance.

A loose trilogy shares common themes and style, with main characters and the dominant stories that concern them resolving within the term of each instalment. There are no cliff hangers at the end of the books. As a young reader of science fiction and fantasy, I remember the day that I gave up reading fantasy. I was four books into a David Eddings thing and I felt like I’d spent four hundred pages watching the characters go from one corner of a map to the other. The novel is a big thing, few stories are so immense that they cannot be encompassed entirely within two covers.

But themes are different. You can return to a theme with different characters and a different story and explore another facet of it. The theme of my loose trilogy – to airlift a quote from Ursula Le Guin into my argument – is “something about human beings under stress, peculiar forms of moral pressure”, and that pressure is caused by new technology and its deployment by power. The question facing the characters in each novel is this: can I do anything to change this situation when I am so small and vulnerable and the forces arrayed against me so strong and numerous?

IfThen-144dpiThe Destructives takes the story well into the middle of this century. We go hiking on the moon and swimming in the sub-surface lakes of Europa. In The Red Men I was weaving science fiction into the place I lived – Hackney – and the place in which I grew up – Liverpool. In IF THEN, I braided science fiction with the English pastoral, using the bucolic Sussex town of Lewes to ground the novel in a strong sense of place. For The Destructives, I’m using places that I’ve never been to, expanding the scope of the loose trilogy beyond the Earth.

The novel grew out of my realisation that the solar system was a very different place than the one I had grown up in. Or rather, our knowledge of the solar system had expanded so much that it seemed possible for me to set stories there. The high definition images of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons probe, the remastered image of Europa from the Galileo probe, its icy surface covered with chaotic scarring, the back of a slave exposed to the lash of Jovian radiation: these images evoke an awe-inspiring and monstrous otherness and render these landscapes plausible to my imagination. Suddenly, I saw how these landscapes alter my characters’ state of mind, how they would be changed by inhabiting them.

My science fiction concerns consciousness and technology, what has been called inner space science fiction. For the first time, I was interested in outer space but still using it as a way of exploring consciousness and technology. In outer space, there is no evident mind. No life. It’s not dead. Rather it resonates with never-livedness. For a novel that is concerned with being destructive, the landscapes of outer space are a good fit. The nihilism of the characters is at one with the lethal grandeur of Jupiter. Even the surface of the moon suddenly seemed full of imaginative possibility to me. With its landscape pulverised over aeons by micrometeorites into grey dust, the moon is a work of destruction, and so seemed the best place to begin the third instalment in my loose trilogy.

The Destructives is published on March 1st in the US and March 3rd in the UK and the rest of the world

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