The Great Symmetry
James Wells’ novel of knowledge screaming to be free
Who: James Wells
What: The Great Symmetry
When: 7pm Sat., May 30
Where: Village Books
Wednesday, May 27, 2015
The most compelling speculative fiction comments on the present day.
James Wells says the seeds of his novel of a dystopian future were long germinating, but the soil required something more to bring it all to vivid life. And that ingredient was fertilizer of the most pungent variety—modern corporate excess, the despair of the faceless, grinding oligarchs rising as monoliths in our world today, and the chance—by no means certain, and therein lies the drama—that small acts of curiosity and action may turn it back.
“For the past three years I have been deeply involved in efforts to educate our community about issues relating to the proposed Gateway Pacific coal terminal,” the Bellingham author notes. “My experience with helping to engage and mobilize a community against an outside threat is definitely reflected in the book.”
The Great Symmetry examines a future of truth manipulation and information suppression—science fiction with timely commentary on our times.
As Wells notes, “While the story is set 300 years in the future, it casts a sharp eye on issues of the 21st century. What is the boundary between a genuine infoterrorist—who releases a secret in order to cause harm—with someone who simply reveals an inconvenient fact about a government or a company? What are the acceptable lines defining the relationships between corporations, government, and individuals? When someone appears to agree to a loss of freedom, is that consent in fact given freely?”
Science fiction runs hot in Wells’ veins. His great-grandfather was fiction pioneer H.G. Wells, and the elder author’s themes of knowledge as a crumbling edifice against ignorance, of ordinary people happening upon extraordinary things, questions of truth and folly run strong in this book.
The questions arise as a planetary archeologist stumbles upon a cosmic truth and then must flee for his life, pursued by rapacious interests who seek to both suppress and profit from that truth. These questions, Wells says, “really come back to the True Story. Every day in our lives, narratives are constructed for us, different overlapping versions of the True Story, that we are expected to buy into.
“You take one effect, one discovery, one thing from outside of our civilization and see if the True Story will be able to sustain and protect itself, or will new ideas be able to assert themselves and emerge? Counter to the True Story is the notion that new ideas are screaming to be free.
“All of this I tried to wrap into a fun, fast-paced, thrilling story.”
The story and action were developed early, Wells relates, “but it was missing something. What came to energize the story was the activism I began about three years ago in response to the coal terminal. I organized sessions where people learned how to submit public comments. In my day job, I design information systems that support energy efficiency programs for utilities and others who are working to save gigawatt-hours every year, reducing costs and emissions.
“What I saw through that public process, really for the first time, was democracy in action,” Wells says, “the idea that people can do more than just vote. They can be part of the decisions that face them in their community at that moment and it can be a very personal thing that matters. And that was the spark that was missing, and able to give the book more significance and meaning—people fighting to defend their community.
“You can write a story filled with action and characters, engaging descriptions of what they look like and say, but you must have an element powering it along.”
Wells challenges the idea that his book concerns little people fighting a big system.
“You perceive that those forces are much larger than yourself or your community,” he explains. “Sometimes they’re only bigger because you accept the perception that they’re bigger. Part of the nature of power is that people accept it is powerful, that creates a sense of legitimacy. And there’s a presumption that if you’re not a participant agreeing to that legitimacy, you do not matter.”
Remarking on the real world events that inspired his fiction, Wells—who writes a blog diary for Daily Kos—notes his home is a special place that routinely challenges these paradigms in remarkable ways.
“Shell’s plans to drill in the Arctic have been the center of a storm of controversy this spring,” Wells relates on Daily Kos. “Large protests in Seattle have focused on plans to park oil drilling rigs at the Port of Seattle. At the Shell annual shareholder meeting, questions about Arctic drilling received a lot of attention. Even as Shell plans to drill the Arctic, an internal document revealed that the company fully expects to see global warming that exceeds the 2C threshold that scientists have identified as the maximum warming our ecosystems can tolerate.”
A young woman, a student at Western Washington University, chained herself to the anchor of one of those ships, moored in Bellingham, for 66 hours. She changed the story.
A crewman called down to her, “What are you thinking?”
As Wells relates, she called out to her support crew, “I’m doing O.K. Just want to see the sun rise and the earth healthy.”
Sometimes the smallest acts carry a message that can change the future.
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