David Marusek Explains the Final Demise of the Middle ClassS

David Marusek's intriguing new novel Mind Over Ship explores a post-human future where corporations battle to control the fate of generation ships. We've just interviewed Marusek about the intriguing socio-political world of his novel.

io9: When we spoke about the book before, you mentioned that you'd had to eliminate the middle class between Counting Heads and Mind Over Ship. Why the middle class? And how did that choice change what you did with Fred?

DM: Hmm. I think what I said was that I had to eliminate the Kodiak Charter story thread, which was my stand-in for the middle class. In CH I wanted to give a cross-section of society, and I created three story threads that featured the various socio-economic groups. The Starke/Harger thread includes the super rich who own virtually everything and the AIs who manage it all for them. The clone thread represents the vestigial work force that occupies the bottom rung of society (there is no true poverty left in the developed world). The gap in wealth between the elite and the clone service class is vast, and the middle class that used to bridge it is no longer there. With the miracle of nanotechnology and the total organizational genius of the AIs, the middle class lost its reason for existence. In the mid-21st century, (70 years before the time of my story) members of the shrinking middle class organized into small, communal groups called charters, and the World Charter movement was born. Bogdan Kodiak and his dysfunctional housemeets were my poster children for the dying middle class.

In my first draft for MOS, I had a whole lovely thread about the Kodiaks. Where they landed when their charter was dissolved by the state for insufficient membership. Life in "Scootsville," where end-of-the-roaders go to live out the remainder of their lives in warrens built generations ago to house displaced persons. I followed them as they struggled to stay together and wrote about Bogdan's first steps to achieve his dream of going into space. A lot of neat stuff, but I could see that I couldn't possibly get it all in and still have any space left for Mary and Fred, who I really wanted to concentrate on in MOS. Regrettably, I axed the whole Kodiak thread.

I managed to cannibalize some choice bits from it and used them in MOS. As to the rest, I'm not yet sure what I'll do with it. Since I write the first few drafts of my work in longhand, none of this is in a word processor.

Many writers who deal with posthuman futures predict worlds where death is eliminated and we live in a state of freedom from physical limitations. But your posthuman characters seem even more imprisoned by their bodies than people today - Ellen is trapped in her baby body, the evangeline clones can't escape their neurological tendencies to depression, and everyone has to undergo these hideous purges to get all the nano out of their bodies. Plus, there are the freaky donald clones with the giant, braided penises. Why did you choose to focus on what could be called the grotesque side of posthuman life?

I was agreeing with your statements all the way up to the concluding question. You really think the donalds' surgically braided penis fetish is grotesque?

You're right, though; there is a lot of body business going on in this book, though IMO not all of it is grotesque. Quite the contrary. There is vomiting, I admit, and tiny metal things that crawl under your skin to spy on you. But there are other scenes of enjoying a good cup of coffee and Danish, for example, or wearing a good hat, field-dressing a large fish, and other sensuous and not at all grotesque delights.

Two of the companies in conflict over the fate of the O-Ships are clone-makers: an Indian firm called Capias and an American one called Applied People. Throughout the novel, Capias clones are stealing the jobs of Applied People clones. Were you thinking about present-day economic issues when you created that conflict?

Actually I created the Capias World agency to have someone to buy out my other American clone temp agency, McPeople. That was the name of Applied People's chief rival in the first book, but by the time I wrote MOS, I waned to drop all things Mc, which is an even bigger cliché than outsourcing jobs to Mumbai.

It's funny that you should ask about injecting present-day economics into science fiction that is supposedly about the future. The present-day global financial meltdown is breathtaking in its scope and speed. I'm sure there's many an sf writer taking notes on how to write planetary meltdown scenes. And as far as it goes, I feel that same sense of Everything Has Changed that a lot of people felt after 911. You remember, how 911 supposedly changed everything. As an sf writer, I didn't really feel that epochal demarcation line as strongly as I do now with today's financial crisis.

For example, I have just finished the second draft of a novella I'm working on. It's my first work of horror (or dark fantasy?), a genre I never thought I'd write in. Anyway, its working title has been "Modern Parenting." I realized last month, as banks imploded and frugality became the new black that my story, which had been set in contemporary America, is no longer contemporary. Things that happen in my story and the character's attitudes toward money are no longer credible in today's ethos. The subtext changed when no one was looking, and my whole story became obsolete. And the weird thing was that it wasn't even science fiction!

I had a hiccup of panic, and for an instant it looked like the story, after months of work, had become just the latest victim of the credit freeze. A moment later my brain started working again and I simply changed the title to "Modern Parenting—Circa 2006." The story had become a period piece.

You've created a group of artificial intelligences called Mentars who we learn about a bit more in this novel - we know they want bodies, but that they can't emulate human emotions very well. Do you think Mentars, essentially just neurological paste in boxes, are the ultimate posthuman creatures?

Not at all. I'm just getting started. I sincerely believe that our near future includes the existence of posthumans. That is, if secular civilization survives and science advances, our subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens will branch out. Whether through purely biological means or in combination with some sort of inheritable machinery or machine interface, a new subspecies of human will coexist alongside us. Nothing like this has occurred for 30,000 years when our hominid cousin, the Neanderthal, was still around, or 200,000 years when we shared the planet with possibly three other human species. But this time we'll be the obsolete species.

The idea of humans creating their own successors has been around for a long time and provides rich material for storytelling. The thing is, in most sf tales, you have to go through a Vingean Singularity to get to the Posthuman Future. We old model humans do poorly in singularities; by definition we are the past. Thus posthuman stories tend to be about trying to fight off the posthumans, especially if they're machines. Brave humans strive to prevent their rise and maintain our biological supremacy. And this is where I try to break new trail in Mind Over Ship. I'm proposing a singularity that does not deny the importance of the human body but instead relies upon it.

What's next? Are you working on a third novel in this series? You left us with quite a cliffhanger.

I left myself with the same cliffhanger. Although I have tried to be more methodical, I'm just not the kind of writer who can work from outlines. All I know is that one or more of the great Oships embarks on a thousand-year voyage to a new planetary home. That's the series arc; I have no clue what happens in the individual episodes. When I ended MOS I loaded that cliff with a lot of neat things I myself would like to see in the next episode, without having any idea of how to make them happen. I guess that's one reason why it takes me so long to write these books—all of the time they take to hatch. In the months since I turned in the MOS manuscript, insights about what Fred or Mary might do next continue to visit me at odd moments, and I jot them down. The big picture of Book 3 is starting to be sketched out.

I hate to add this, but I've been toiling in the CH universe now for about 14 years. I have recovered about five stories and two novels from it so far, and there are many more in there. But I need a short furlough from that world, which isn't a very pleasant world, to spend some quality time in a completely different fictional landscape. New digs, new lexicon, new characters. Everything is so new I can't even talk about it yet.

Read more about David Marusek's latest novel, Mind Over Ship.