Loving The Alien
I tend to avoid aliens if I can. In my books, I mean. Until recently, I’d written just one novel which was explicitly about extraterrestrials (The Foreigners), and in that story I made them as oblique and unknowable as I could. They weren't protagonists or antagonists, they were more a force of nature, a golden mirror in which the human characters saw reflected their own hopes and frailties. They were intrinsic to the narrative but also detached, like the chorus in a Greek tragedy.
Apart from that, I've been wary of the little green men and steered clear of them. One reason for this is that I think it’s hard these days to come up with a new angle on the theme. Aliens are all about otherness, a projection of what it is to be not human and therefore defining by contrast exactly what it is to be human. It’s a rich, fertile field to explore, no question, but to do it with originality is hard. You have to dig down deep to find something new, something some other writer hasn't unearthed already.
My new series, the Dev Harmer Missions, is a sequence of outer-space action-adventure tales, the first volume of which, World Of Fire, is out now and the second volume of which, World Of Water, I am halfway through writing. I realised early on in the preparation process that to make the books really zing I needed some aliens. How could you set stories on far-flung planets and not have aliens? Unthinkable!
But I wanted to produce something gritty and human-centric too, so I came up with aliens who aren't merely opponents, they’re opposites. They’re an artificial-intelligence race, Polis+, who have at some point in their history transcended flesh to become beings of sentience. They embrace physicality in the form of robot bodies but find organic matter
They’re also insanely, devoutly religious. They believe in something called the Singularity, oneness with a deity. This is the reward that awaits them after their digital-code selves have degraded through repeated iteration to the point where they are no longer viable. This is their god and their afterlife.
Humankind, on the other hand, has expunged religion from its collective heart. Just as Polis+ have transcended flesh, we humans have transcended the need for faith. The people of Earth have become united, no longer fractured along sectarian or denominational lines. I haven’t yet specified how this came about, but I will at some point in the series.
Earth’s post-religious rationalism is sharply and violently at odds with Polis+’s zealotry, and that forms the backdrop for the books. In the aftermath of a devastating intergalactic war, an uneasy truce has been established between the Terran Diaspora and Polis+, and the series’ hero, Dev Harmer, is one of several people tasked with the job of patrolling the boundary between the two sides and keeping that peace.
The idea of our relationship with our gods forms the backbone of my Pantheon novels, and I feel I’m exploring it again with the Dev books, if in a somewhat different guise. The Pantheon novels covered the various ways in which we interact with our deities and vice versa. The Dev books are more about how religious ideology can infect and warp, and the dangers of this. The more discerning among you may infer that I am making a commentary on the rise of extremist religious factions in certain quarters of contemporary society and the knock-on effect this is having on the rest of us. You would not be wrong in that assumption.
I couldn't resist the irony in having aliens who are essentially computer intelligences worshiping a god, playing on the perception that machines are purely logical. It seemed too fun not to try. Meanwhile, the human characters with all their flaws and fallibilities are the ones who have rejected the consolations of faith and are making their way through the universe as agnostics and atheists, with no spiritual support system.
To that end, I've set myself the restriction that none of the human characters uses words pertaining to religion, in order to demonstrate the completeness with which God has been rejected, just how dead He is. Mostly this means no more faith-referencing oaths, no “hell”, no “damn it”, no “Lord save us”, no “Jesus H. Christ”, not even a “holy shit”. I doubt many readers will pick up on this, but that doesn't matter. It’s there subliminally, embedded into the texture of the worldbuilding.
The otherness of the aliens in the Dev books is that they are sustained by belief, driven by it, riddled with it, and it makes them behave in an unconscionable manner. I would like to think that that presents an inverted view of humankind and that all the bad things happening around us today stem from the intolerance of adherents of one faith towards the adherents of another. I’m not sure that’s strictly true. It may, indeed, be simplistic. But if, as John Lennon exhorted us to, we can “imagine no religion”, this may be the first step towards imagining a future for us without war, genocide and oppression, a future of harmony and collective effort.
And what would be so bad about that?
– James Lovegrove
About the Author
Straight after graduating from Oxford with a degree in English Literature, James set himself the goal of getting a novel written and sold within two years. In the event, it took two months. The Hope was completed in six weeks and accepted by Macmillan a fortnight later. The seed for the idea for the novel — a world in microcosm on an ocean liner — was planted during a cross-Channel ferry journey.
James blew his modest advance for The Hope on a round-the-world trip which took him to, among other places, Thailand. His experiences there, particularly what he witnessed of the sex industry in Bangkok, provided much of the inspiration for The Foreigners.
Escardy Gap was co-written with Pete Crowther over a period of a year and a half, the two authors playing a game of creative tag, each completing a section in turn and leaving the other to carry the story on. The result has proved a cult favourite, and was voted by readers of SFX one of the top fifty SF/Fantasy novels of all time.
Days, a satire on consumerism, was shortlisted for the 1998 Arthur C. Clarke Award (losing to Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow). The book’s genesis most probably lies in the many visits James used to make as a child to the Oxford Street department store owned by his grandfather. It was written over a period of nine months while James was living in the north-west suburbs of Chicago.
Subsequent works have all been published to great acclaim.
As a sideline, James reviews fiction for the Financial Times, specialising in the children’s, science fiction, fantasy, horror and graphic novel genres, and was a regular and prolific contributor to Comic Heroes, a glossy magazine devoted to all things comics-related, until its regrettable demise in 2014.
Currently James resides in Eastbourne on the Sussex Coast, having moved there in August 2007 with his wife Lou, sons Monty and Theo, and Yorkshire terrier Honey. He has a terrific view of the sea from his study window, which he doesn't sit staring out at all day when he should be working. Honest.
About the Book
World Of Fire by James Lovegrove
Paperback, 464 pages
Published August 26th 2014 by Solaris
Dev Harmer wakes in a new body with every mission, and he has woken this time on Alighieri, a planet perpetually in flames, where the world's wealth lies below the elemental surface, and humanity is not the only race after it.
Dev Harmer, reluctant agent of Interstellar Security Solutions, wakes up in a newly cloned host body on the planet Alighieri, ready for action.
It’s an infernal world, so close to its sun that it surface is regularly baked to 1,000°C, hot enough to turn rock to lava. But deep underground there are networks of tunnels connecting colonies of miners who dig for the precious helium-3 regolith deposits in Alighieri’s crust.
Polis+, the AI race who are humankind’s great galactic rivals, want to claim the fiery planet’s mineral wealth for their own. All that stands between them and this goal is Dev. But as well as Polis+’s agents, there are giant moleworms to contend with, and a spate of mysterious earthquakes, and the perils of the surface where a man can be burned to cinders if he gets caught unprotected on the day side...