Ever had one of those story ideas that just wouldn’t leave you alone? Or woke you up in the middle of the night? Great, isn’t it? Writers love those ideas.
That’s how my debut novel, The Eternity Plague, got its start.
Sometime in the fall of 2003 (October, maybe?) I woke up early in the morning, thinking about what would happen if people suddenly became immortal, without having done anything to earn or deserve it. Finding the secret to immortality, only to discover there’s a high price to be paid for it, paying it, and then being left to wonder—for the rest of eternity—whether it was worth it or not is an old idea. Robert Silverberg told it in The Book of Skulls.
What kept me awake until I got up and wrote it down, however, was the twist of immortality just happening. What happens if there’s no obvious price to be paid up front? What if the price becomes apparent only after the immortality has been achieved?
And what would happen if the immortality turned out later not to be real but only a case of seeming wish-fulfillment—after so many people had emotionally committed to that fulfillment?
Yeah, that’s an idea I can run with. And so the story began.
There were a number of other things happening in my life and around the world around that time that influenced the development of the story.
First, I was taking undergraduate college courses in order to have enough humanities credits to enroll in a master’s degree program in English that I hoped would improve my writing to the point that I could publish. This was still at a time when traditional publishing was the primary way of getting your work out to the reading public.
Second, this was around the time when the national news media was all a-twitter about the avian flu epidemic in Asia and how it was sure to spread around the world and there was no cure and we were all going to DIE!!!!
Which, as you know, didn’t happen.
Third, I knew what I didn’t want to write was the tired old cliché of the evil/mad scientist who’s out for revenge or something but gets it wrong and is surprised by unintended effects and consequences.
So there was my mechanism for creating this pseudo-immortality: viral infection. And a source of conflict: biology and biologists versus the news media, overwrought reporting, and unrealistic expectations.
Okay, but what about impacts? What’s the problem, really, with living forever? Well, what happens to the earth’s population if the birthrate doesn’t go down dramatically? Shades of Soylent Green, no? Sort of, and environmental catastrophe generally. Robert Malthus on steroids.
And how would religions deal with the end of death? No more reincarnation. No more translations to heaven—or hell. No more dust to dust.
But wouldn’t there also be people who believed these problems, especially the physical, psychological, environmental, etc., ones could be solved now that everyone had all the time they would ever need to solve them? Of course there would be.
And couldn’t there…? Hang on. This is complex enough already.
So that’s where it started. Geneticist Janet Hogan and her team discover the viruses that cause the syndrome reporter Lisa Lange names the Eternity Plague. Environmentalist David Wade realizes the consequences the plague is going to have for humanity and Mother Earth, which safety lobbyist Sarah Green-Dale believes can be solved. The Reverend William Baxter struggles with the moral and religious consequences. Everyone wants Janet to do what they want: to cure or not cure the plague. It’s a fine mess, and while Janet finally decides what she’s going to do, the plague viruses aren’t yet done with humanity… and Janet’s one of the first to feel their next effects.
For a long time I thought The Eternity Plague was going to be a stand-alone book. Now I know it’s the start of a series. As I write this, the first draft of book 2 is in progress. And book 3? Stay tuned.