The answer (and I’ll bet you saw this coming) is that the story isn’t true.
That’s the problem all fiction authors face. We want to tell universal truths, but operate in a world of artifice. Our characters and tales are invented, but readers will care about nothing we say if they can’t see themselves walking in that made-up story’s shoes.
And that means — drumroll, please — that a writer’s impossible job is to make an unreal world seem real.
I got to thinking about this recently while reviewing the forthcoming audiobook version of Plugged: How Hyperconnectivity and The Beam Changed the Way We Think. You see, the author of Plugged — like the world of The Beam — isn’t real. His name is Sterling Gibson, and he writes from his home in the North American Union in the year 2097. The NAU, in case you haven’t been keeping an eye on the news, also isn’t real. Oh, and neither is the year 2097 … yet.
Still, despite these troublesome unrealities, Sean and I created Sterling for what felt like the most logical reason in the world: we wanted to explore a world that didn’t exist in the most honest way possible. And yes, we had been exploring that world ourselves while writing The Beam, but we were doing it as authors. Authors bullshit for a living. We say “what if this happened?” and then magically, it does.
We don’t need to abide by the rules of normal reality. We’re like wizards, with Macbooks for magic wands.
Sterling Gibson is different. In his made-up world, he’s more real than Sean and me. He’s in the Enterprise party (the NAU’s true capitalists, who are free to sink or swim without restrictions or safety nets) and must play by the Enterprise’s rules. He lives in District Zero and never thought of it as New York. He was born after The Beam went live, and can’t imagine living disconnected from its omnipresent, always-on presence.
While Sean and I will always be visitors to the world of The Beam, Sterling is a native. Don’t ever let an author tell you that he or she knows exactly how everything will turn out; the best story worlds surprise even the writer. So when we wanted to know more about the NAU, we learned by writing scenes. And yet, we still had questions that we’d never know the answers to unless we went into our fictional world and visited an archive.
It’s true that The Beam — the core series — wasn’t the right place to explore those questions. But it’s equally true that we, as bullshit artists who barely knew the world we pretended we were in charge of creating — weren’t the right people to write it.
We needed an insider. Someone who had lived in that world all his life.
Now, to step back from the fancy way I’m writing this post for a second, Sean and I got a whole lot of raised eyebrows when we decided to step into Sterling Gibson’s skin and write Plugged. We could describe it as “The Beam’s Season 1.5” (which it is) or “a Malcolm Gladwell-style social exploration from the future” (which it also is), but still nobody knew quite what the hell to make of it.
That was okay. Because we wrote it for ourselves, then shared it with you. The intent was always to use Sterling as a vehicle for seeing our own story world from the insider perspective of a native.
Do you want to know what Sean’s and my job really is, as it pertains to the future world of The Beam? It’s to watch and observe. It’s to set up chess pieces, then see where they move. What happens always surprises us. We write a bit at a time, see what’s happened, then try to decide what might happen next. There are always more questions than answers, more boxes to open. We try to keep up, but baby, there’s a whole wide world out there. And any two people can only ever see so much of a world.
Of all the worlds Realm & Sands writes, The Beam is by far the most real to us both. This includes stories that take place right here in our current time, in our current society. Everyone Gets Divorced is about a man and his asshole friends living in present-day America, and we’ve both been there. And yet, The Beam is more authentic. It has a feeling of eventuality I see every single day of my life.
Every time I’m compelled to check my cell phone, I think of The Beam. Every time I hear about something Google has pioneered, I think of The Beam. Every time I wonder who in our global society is truly pulling the strings, I think of The Beam. It’s one of the most common things readers say about it: Reading this, I can’t help but feel that it’s inevitable.
We invited other writers into our world, to tell their own stories. The first to hop aboard was our friend and erotica author Lexi Maxxwell, with whom we co-authored the (very explicit) Future of Sex series. But while it helped our understanding of the world to grow (FOS takes place in 2060, during the Crossbrace years) it opened more boxes than it closed.
What was Crossbrace, other than The Beam network’s progenitor? How were the two different, and how did they evolve from the internet?
How did our present world get from where it is today to where it was in 2060 … and how did the world of 2060 grow into the world of 2097, when our canon series takes place?
We knew that the entire North American continent was protected from the barbarian East by a shield called “the lattice,” but how did it work? How did it come to be, and what — if anything — did it have to do with the rise of nanotechnology and AI?
We could have asked those questions … and in off-the-record story meetings, Sean and I did. But because our characters didn’t expound on those things (why would Kai explain how her biological implants work to a friend any more than I’d explain my microwave?), there was no way to explore them from where we were standing.
But hell, Malcolm Gladwell does the exact same thing about our current society, so why couldn’t a future version of Malcolm Gladwell do the same?
Our rule for all ancillary Beam-world projects has always been that they should expand the world for devoted readers and seekers of Easter eggs, but that events in them must not be required for understanding of the core series. With both The Future of Sex (with Lexi) and Plugged, we’ve kept that promise.
You won’t miss anything vital if you never read either, but your view of the world will be expanded if you venture down those narrow alleyways.
That said, the world is big and shares mythos and history. Our characters tend to orbit the same circles, and many have a modicum of fame. As a result, there are cameos that cross from series to series. Sterling Gibson is in The Beam: Season Two, and so is Plugged. So are several other historical figures from Plugged’s future history, and there are small appearances by characters who make their home in the 2060s world tended by Lexi. You don’t need to read it all, of course. But your mind will be blown that much farther if you do.
Sean and I have the best job in the world. We don’t just make up stories; we make up realities. Sterling Gibson has his own two legs now and his own beating heart. We wrote in the “About the Author” of Plugged that Sterling was a celebrated NAU writer with more than a dozen books under his belt.
Once we’d published it, it became true. Now we have many more books to play with … and listening to Sterling’s voice in our ears, we’ve seen that the next one 2014 will see will be Sex 2.0. In that one, Sterling wrote about the change from organic humanity to the hyper-stimulated 2060s (where everything went, and the monolithic O corporation ruled the world). And here, paths cross again, building subtle bridges between our core narratives and Lexi Maxxwell’s.
So that’s who Sterling Gibson is. That’s why he matters. And that’s why, despite all those raised eyebrows, Sean and I gave him life. Sterling could ask the questions from the inside that we could only guess at from the outside.
Because remember, we may have seen this world first, but we can no longer, in the strictest sense, tell it what to do.
Now we can only sit back and watch what happens.
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!