It’s perhaps fitting on this Easter weekend (I’m Jewish, BTW, so happy Passover!) that I bring to you a story of a surprising resurrection–as well as the announcement of a new project I’m very excited about. The short of it is, I will soon be debuting a brand new podcast series. It’s an audio drama, a science fiction saga called Double Perigee. It will begin running sometime in April. I’m hard at work on scripts, recording and production, all of that same stuff I do on my history podcast Second Decade, and I’m in the final stages of figuring out the logistics of where the podcast will be hosted and such. But the bulk of this article–which will stretch into at least one more part–is the story behind Double Perigee, which reaches back into the past on several levels, and also, I think, tells us something about our present.
But first, the story. Double Perigee takes place in some other part of our galaxy which is torn by a destructive and large-scale war between three powerful civilizations, each jockeying for dominance in space. A young man, Raljebi, a Caprionese–the humanoid civilization–is cooling his heels at university on the distant planet of Algeron, mainly so he can avoid being drafted. A staunch opponent of the war, Raljebi’s best friend, Quilq, is a citizen of the Menkarian Empire, the race of reptilian beings with whom his planet is at war. Each estranged from their families and planets, the unlikely friends decide to drop out of school and take refuge on another planet where there’s rumored to be a groovy colony of peace protesters from every inhabited world. Raljebi’s search for peace and meaning in a war-torn universe ultimately becomes a quest for himself, as he finds tragedy, heartbreak, love and meaning in a host of unexpected and often dangerous situations.
This was me in the early 1990s, about the time I began writing the story that would eventually become Double Perigee. I don’t look like this today!
Double Perigee is one of my very oldest stories. It’s amazing to me that it swam back to my consciousness and the forefront of my creative priorities so recently, because I first began working on it, if you can believe it, 25 years ago–an entire generation. Indeed, what is ultimately becoming this podcast began as a short story, entitled “Goodbye, Algeron,” which I turned in as an assignment for a creative writing class at the University of New Mexico in April 1993, exactly a quarter century before its premiere as a podcast will take place. The seed of the “Goodbye, Algeron” idea, which focused on the characters of Raljebi and Quilq and their decision to drop out of college to join an interstellar hippie commune, ultimately ripened into a novel, then called The Farthest Forever, which I finished five years later in the spring of 1998. Although I did quite a bit of tinkering with the manuscript in the early 2000s to try to get it published, I was always unsatisfied with the subsequent versions. The scripts I’ve been writing for Double Perigee are taken very closely from that 1998 draft, whose first two chapters use the original “Goodbye, Algeron” story from 1993 almost unchanged.
In fact, believe it or not, Double Perigee/The Farthest Forever has roots that go back even farther than that. The real genesis of the idea was a brief turn at developing a science fiction role-playing game with a friend of mine back in 1985, when we were in seventh grade. I remember one afternoon we were looking at a star map–which I still have–and picking from it names of real stars to serve as our fictional RPG locations. My friend, Chris, in fact decided that the “Menkarians” (Menkar is a real star, called Ceti Alpha) should be reptilian creatures; this predated by many years the appearance of ridiculous “shape shifting reptilians” conspiracy theories that are themselves something out of pulp science fiction. The RPG never went anywhere, but years later I used its basic concepts for “Goodbye, Algeron.” So Double Perigee, which will premiere in April 2018, has a pedigree going back 33 years, longer ago than probably many people who will listen to it have been alive.
The truly terrible 1969 episode of Star Trek called “The Way to Eden” was a largely unsuccessful attempt to cast 1960s American counterculture into a science fiction setting. Here’s a bizarre jam session from that episode.
You will undoubtedly glean from the synopsis, and the show’s visual artwork (which I just made recently), that there is much in Double Perigee that deliberately harks back to the 1960s. The focus on youth counterculture, a peace movement driven primarily by college students and the various psychedelic motifs of trippy science fiction all derive from cross-currents particularly in the United States in the latter half of the 1960s and early years of the next decade. As a child and teenager I was always fascinated by the 1960s. Like that era, the galaxy in Double Perigee, which is undoubtedly the most extensive experiment in fictional “world-building” I’ve ever done in fiction, is in the midst of great change, both political and social, with a strong generational component. One of my negative-example influences on the show is the 1969 Star Trek episode “The Way to Eden,” which tried and utterly failed to make a compelling story out the idea of interstellar youth counterculture. It seemed like such a great idea but was done so poorly that I felt, even as young and inexperienced a writer as I was in 1993, that I could improve on the concept.
That said, Double Perigee is far from “doing the Sixties in space” or a simple allegory for Vietnam. The early 1990s was a transitional phase for science fiction in general, which thanks to shows like Deep Space 9 and Bablylon 5, and authors like Iain M. Banks, was finally beginning to emerge from the long shadow of pulpy space opera that had defined it throughout much of the 20th century, and particularly in the Star Wars era of the 1970s and 1980s. More thoughtful stories with lots of nuance became more mainstream, and that appealed to me at that time. Vietnam is not the only model for Double Perigee’s complicated interstellar war. A surprising amount of my original 1998 book contained echoes of the Holocaust, which was unusual considering I did not convert to Judaism until decades later. The idealism of Raljebi, Quilq and their friends in Double Perigee is tempered by a hard and cynical edge that I think one could only get from an era that looked backwards not just on Vietnam, Watergate and Charles Manson, but also the Reagan era, the death of the Equal Rights Amendment, the Challenger explosion and the first Persian Gulf War. As a writer I now have the maturity and (I hope) the skill to bring out those influences; I simply didn’t in my early 20s when I began writing.
The syndicated TV series Babylon 5 was one of the influences, I think, that changed the direction of science fiction in the early 1990s. Here’s an iconic scene from the show.
In short, there’s a great deal of my life wrapped up in Double Perigee, both before the 1990s and since that time. And for reasons I’ll discuss in the next article, the time has never been more right to bring this story out. There’s a reason The Farthest Forever/Double Perigee has moldered on old floppy disks, CD-Roms and in my desk drawer since Bill Clinton was President. Its time was never right. Now, in 2018, it is. I can’t wait for the show to go live. Even if no one listens, the story deserves to get out.