Back When I Hated The Beam

Back When I Hated The Beam


Johnny B. Truant is an author, blogger, and podcaster who, like the Ramones, was long denied induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame despite having a large cult following. Follow him on Twitter @johnnybtruant

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BEAM S1Sean pitched me the idea for The Beam almost a year before we started work on The Beam S1.

I hated it.

Given how The Beam’s first season turned out, that might seem dreadfully short-sighted, but it’s not my fault. See, Sean is astonishingly good at many things, but squeezing his usually ambitious, always A.D.D. ideas into a nutshell isn’t one of them. (Neither is writing action scenes, according to Sean’s other partner, David Wright.)

Sean introduced The Beam to me as futuristic world where the political system was different somehow… and oh, there was also a super-internet. Dave and I had also heard about it in another context: “That project I mentioned a while ago where nothing is capitalized.”

And I remembered. Sean had mentioned it on our Self Publishing Podcast, on the episode in which we’d discussed the rather dry subject of grammar and punctuation as an example of knowing the rules in order to break them. Because, you see, nothing in The Beam would be capitalized except for “Noah West.”

Now, aside from seeming stupid to me (and Dave, but everything seems stupid to Dave), the idea of capitalizing nothing also seemed 1) overly gimmicky and 2) fucking obnoxious in practice. My fingers want to capitalize like a normal English-speaking human writer. Slowing down and finding a way to force my fingers not to capitalize things would have been ridiculous.

We didn’t make it any farther than that. In his pitch to me, Sean went right from “science fiction” to “political” to “nothing is capitalized,” and by then I’d checked out. That thought flow might sound exaggerated, but if you think it is, you don’t know Sean. He’s like a muppet. I’ve learned since that almost every single one of his ideas is something we can turn into Awesome with a capital A, but you sometimes have to hold him still and punch him a few times to get the core of those ideas to come out. Besides, if the project was to be The Beam, then we couldn’t do Awesome with a capital A since nothing was capitalized. The best we could do would be “awesome with a pretentiously lower-case a.”

There were a dozen other things I hated about it at first, too. The project as conceived wasn’t The Beam; it was theBEAM, all one word with the absurd no-first-capital and all-second-word-capitals. There was even a full season written but never totally fleshed out and published. It was full of jargon; I felt like I needed an alternate reality dictionary to understand it.

The FutureWe kept a few of the slang words from the original lexicon (two examples are jagger for dick and burned for mentally screwed), but the original dialogue read like a cockney argument at Radio Shack. Whenever you said “fucking X,” you were supposed to concatenate the two words; I’m not fuckingkidding about how fuckingannoying that was to me before I suggested we fuckingknock it the fuckoff. Oh, and SerenityBlue’s name used to start with an asterisk: *SerenityBlue. I told Sean that I wasn’t going to do that because it made me want to punch shit.

So due to a series of misunderstandings worthy of a Three’s Company episode, the genius behind The Beam got lost behind all of these dumb writing conventions.

Sean then pitched me The Beam for a second time when we were considering writing something else together. But again he got all muppety and we ended up talking about that already-written season and the punctuation and jargon again, and again I passed.

We ended up writing Unicorn Western instead, so all wasn’t  lost.

Then, by March or April of 2013, Sean and I had known each other for several years, had been podcasting and speaking together regularly for a year, and had been writing as a team for almost six months. By then, something must have clicked in my head — say, a new ability to see past the A.D.D. muppetry that shows up in projects Sean is most excited about and to the genius beneath — and this third time when he pitched me The Beam (ahem, theBEAM), it suddenly seemed interesting.

And so we started to talk it out. Sean had built this world, and he had it all fully realized (its 1.0 version, anyway) in his head. I had to understand it. So he took me on a tour, and what I saw beneath the gimmicks blew me away. And so we began.

When we write together, Sean does all of the initial world-building and writes the outline of how we think the story will turn out. I then write the first draft from beginning to end, and Sean and I re-convene on story direction to explore where things are going after I inevitably deviate from his original beats.

If we were excavating the story like a fossil in the ground (thanks to Stephen King for the metaphor), Sean picks the site, plans the dig, and operates the big machinery. I’m the guy in the trench with shovels and picks and toothbrushes.

It’s a great system, because we’re each doing what we’re best at. We’ve written several dozen projects this way, but The Beam surprised us one hell of a lot more than any of them. The fossil in the ground was simply much larger than we could have imagined, and the thing twisted and turned in ways we didn’t see coming from our original vantage point on the surface.

FossilSlowly, bit by bit, we realized that what we’d thought was Sean’s original fossil was something else entirely. We discarded the grammar tricks and the concatenated name immediately, but as I started work on the project, I saw that we’d gotten other things wrong as well. For one, the story was much more about the people than the future setting.

I had a hard time trusting that at first; the story as presented was very chrome and very foreign and had a lot of flashing buttons and robotic levers, so we had to spend a lot of time detailing the ways in which it was okay to just let it be about Kai, Nicolai, Doc, the Ryan Brothers, and all the others — people who, despite living in 2097, aren’t really any different from you and me.

So we based it in our own reality, then extrapolated. I didn’t think society’s speech would have changed so dramatically. I figured that some people would still write on paper from time to time, or wear glasses. Only the rich would be “full-on sci-fi”; the poor would still just be ordinary organic folks, albeit with much better Internet (Beam) connections. We also quickly realized that our core characters would be much older than they looked, giving them roots very near our present day.

Many characters were born around 2013, which is when we wrote this. One was even born on my birthday, down to the day and year. That let us play with current conventions and drag them into the future with us. Because the way we saw it, no matter how much the world changes around all of us, we are human and hence can’t help dragging ourselves along for the ride. I don’t care how much of the world has become chrome and flying cars; “wax on, wax off” isn’t going to stop being a cultural anchor point for someone who lived through the 1980s. 

theBEAM was left behind as the old project. The Beam became this new one. Both had the same characters and both had The Beam, Noah West, the Enterprise and the Directorate, Respero, and all the big touch points… but beyond that, everything changed.

The original project was a kind of futuristic thriller, whereas this version became much more about the nature of thought and consciousness, the lines between biology and technology, the nature of identity (philosophy nerds like me would call it ontology), distribution of power under extreme circumstances, and the all-important question that I personally feel humans do a terrible job of answering: “Now that we can do something, should we?”

The story became an adventure and a nail-biter as well as an exploration of consciousness and an exploration of human nature. It’s ironic. I was telling someone recently that I had “wasted” five years in college (molecular biology and philosophy) plus a year working on a Ph.D. (genetics) — but here I am, using all of that stuff on my first big science fiction opus.

So as we worked — as we explored; as Sean and I met over and over to keep pace with where The Beam was taking us (because trust me, the writers aren’t always in control) — the project morphed before our eyes. Sean threw away most of his original story beats… twice. The ending of the season changed so much as to be unrecognizable. A major storyline revelation in one of the flashbacks (one we didn’t know was coming until it hit me in the face one day while writing) altered the entire course of the project.

Where the future will take usWe learned about Shift and what it meant, Renewal (the second big human Renaissance) and what fueled it, why the world changed in the ways it did during the global calamities in the 2030s, and what advantage the NAU had over the Wild East when the world crumbled. We learned about the origin of The Beam and why it was called “The Beam.” We learned why nanobot and human enhancement grew in tandem with The Beam, and which was the chicken versus the egg. We learned about the history of Noah West, about the team behind him and the revelations he had about how the world could be changed.

None of those things existed in the original story beats. Some of them didn’t even exist the day before I wrote the rough draft. Yet taken together, those things are what make The Beam amazing… and let me repeat just so we’re all on the same page: Sean and I were as surprised to learn those things as you may be to read them. Our work here makes us feel thrilled. It makes us feel proud. And it made us incredibly eager to see what else was out there, in Season 2 and beyond.

We’re on this journey to explore these catacombs and fossils from the future with you. We may be a few steps ahead, but really, we’re not much further down the tunnel. So stay in the glow of our lantern, if you would. You don’t want to get lost down here.

I’d tell you that if we get separated, we’ll see you at the other end.

But I can’t, because I really have no idea where that is.

Want to explore the world of The Beam before Season Two launches on May 1st? Get Season One now while it’s on sale for 20% off… or try it for free!