A few days ago I announced that I’m working on a dramatic science fiction podcast, called Double Perigee, which will begin broadcasting sometime in April (2018). While it’ll be new to everyone out there, I began writing the story that would eventually become Double Perigee 25 years ago, in 1993, and some of its ideas go back even farther than that. I talked in that article about the evolution of the idea over the years and how science fiction itself has changed as a genre, especially in the crucial years of the early 1990s when I was writing more or less obliviously to what was going on around me. In this installment, I thought I’d offer some thoughts on why I think Double Perigee is particularly apposite today, much more so than it was in the 1990s–indeed, why its time has come as a story.
Here’s a little information on the story itself. While the podcast version will be told in epistemic fashion, as a series of diary-like letters from its main character Raljebi Xoltihare to his cousin back on their home planet of Caprion, the backdrop of the story–which features Raljebi’s search for himself and for love tumultuous times–is a massive war occurring in a part of the galaxy called the Eastern Arm. It’s a complicated tapestry. The Caprionese, who are human-like, are facing a coalition of enemy civilizations, principally the Menkarian Empire, a race of reptile beings, and the Aliothans, who are amphibians. The conflict is ostensibly over territory and influence, but has significant racial undertones. Neither side is innocent or has any monopoly on righteousness. In Double Perigee the war is portrayed as cynical and depressing, not jingoistic or empowering. The focus of the story is not on the war itself, but on the characters’ reactions to it and the situations created by it.
Here is the theme music for the Double Perigee podcast, composed and performed by George Kay.
In 1993, when I began writing the story that would become Double Perigee (known for most of its existence as The Farthest Forever), war was a more abstract concept to me and to most Americans than it is today. Though we had recently come out of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, that conflict was heavily sanitized for most of us, as it was delivered through CNN and made to look much like a video game. In any event it was over in five weeks. The Vietnam War era, which Double Perigee reflects, was a generation in the past. I was born in the waning years of that war and had no memory of it. By 1993 the “bums” whom President Nixon accused in 1970 of “blowing up the campuses” were more heavily invested in their 401Ks than political or social change. The President who came to power in 1993, in fact, was a living example of that journey. The original draft of The Farthest Forever/Double Perigee had a kind of shallowness to it that was, I think, largely a result of thinking of its central concept as an abstraction.
Things are much different today. We remember the September 11 attacks like they happened yesterday. As a result of those attacks, the United States has been at war in Afghanistan since October 7, 2001, and there’s no end in sight to that conflict. The Iraq War dragged on for eight bloody years, delivering exactly nothing that its chief architect promised, and leaving America’s military and the people of Iraq shattered and traumatized. Most of us now personally know veterans who came back from that conflict with PTSD and other physical or moral injuries. We understand now that war is not a video game or a simplistic exercise in moral black and whites. It’s a long, grinding, brutal and dispiriting business. The war in Double Perigee is like that, but now, in 2018, I understand much more of what it really means.
The war in Afghanistan has dragged on for an astonishing 16 (almost 17) years now. War-weariness is now as well-known to Americans as it was in the 1970s as Vietnam ramped down.
Disturbingly, it seems that the nihilistic experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan may not be our only lessons. Since the accession of President Donald Trump, the specter of a catastrophic conflict with North Korea has become much more of a possibility–perhaps even likely. Trump recently purged his National Security Adviser and replaced him with an uber-hawk, John Bolton, who not only didn’t learn from the loss of the Iraq War, but wants to embark on another one with Iran. In 2018 we live in a world where previously stable institutions are increasingly fracturing–a world of “quivers” not unlike those that preceded the First World War of 1914. Climate change, the world’s most important and difficult problem, is putting even more stress on those institutions. We may be much closer to a very large-scale episode of upheaval and conflict than we think, and certainly much closer than we were a generation ago.
Other things closer to home also resonate from Double Perigee. Caprion, the hero’s home planet, is a fascist society where truth is subsumed by propaganda, spin and ideology. That again was an abstraction in 1993, but in 2018, which some have labeled a “post-truth era” and where even basic facts of history are distorted or misunderstood to achieve partisan ends, no one can doubt this reality is much closer now than it was then. Caprion is also a society of deeply entrenched gender inequality, except the gender roles are reversed; it’s men on Caprion who cannot vote or own property, and are denied basic civil rights and sexual freedom in the name of “protecting” them from themselves. Science fiction has always been a realm where real world problems can be recast and explored in a unique and imaginative context, where often other forms of fiction can’t be quite as bold.
Leigh Brackett, one of the great science fiction pulp writers, is one of my heroes and a definite inspiration for Double Perigee. I picture her here with the cover of a magazine she wrote for–which exhibits the same objectification of women as was common to science fiction in its golden era and beyond.
Science fiction itself has become a battleground of progressive change vs. regressivism. I can’t help thinking of the 2013 fracas in the Science Fiction Writers of America, where a minority of male writers generated a backlash against the increasing inclusion and visibility of women and people of color in the genre. For so long science fiction has been a boys’ playground, where archetypes like Princess Leia in a cast-iron bikini were the usual portrayals of women. Double Perigee‘s primary hero is male, but the unique science fiction situation in which he finds himself means he lacks the privilege that could otherwise make his masculinity toxic. He must navigate a multicultural and contested universe in which power dynamics shift depending on what planet you’re on, or whether your blood is warm or cold. A character so situated would be difficult, if not impossible, to write in another genre. I had no appreciation of this whatsoever when I began writing The Farthest Forever/Double Perigee in 1993, but in the #MeToo era I’d like to think I finally get it.
Double Perigee is, for me, more than just a simple space opera, another science fiction story or another podcast project. It’s a personal journey for me, which has taken a quarter-century to complete. Even if no one listens at all, I’ve learned a lot from it. I hope you do listen, though. It’s going to be a great story.