Americans love the end of the world. Look at any summer blockbuster lineup, and you’ll find a movie in which some hunky guy is the only thing that stands between humanity and total ruin. Roland Emmerich has built a lucrative career on films like Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012 because people love to savor worldwide destruction, myself included. I dragged my brainy husband to 2012 despite the iffy reviews, and when we left the theater properly stuffed with Twizzlers and popcorn, he admitted that he’d had a great time. The end of the world is panoramic, after all. It’s exciting. It’s cool.
But the End doesn’t end with the End. As every good apocalypse proves, the ultimate goal is always what comes next: The Fresh Start.
That’s the appeal, isn’t it? All those people crowding you on the sidewalk with their elbows and overlarge umbrellas are finally out of the way! The smudge of civilization has been polished off the globe. Cities have collapsed into the ocean, leaving behind miles of unclaimed beachfront property. The dead have left behind their cars, their houses, and their sporting goods, and Our Hero has no choice but to hotwire that transmission, jimmy those locks, and proprietarily check the sights of that gorgeous pump action rifle! Best of all, there are no more trivialities. Every choice from now on is about survival, not about pleasing the boss or choosing a scented body spray. The hero, (and you, and I) are finally free to remake human society the way it should be made.
As a writer, this beginning is what interests me—that moment when the hero looks at the empty field and imagines what s/he will build upon it. That is the moment of pure dream, when our deepest desires and our most cherished values are imposed upon the landscape. It sounds nice, but is anything ever that simple? What kind of world would you want? Is it the same world Hugh Hefner would make? What would Sarah Palin fashion out of the Alaskan wilderness? When does our utopia become someone else’s dystopia?
This fresh start, with its potential for dreams and nightmares, is the basis for my science fiction series The Sky Chasers. Kieran Alden and Waverly Marshall are two young lovers onboard the Empyrean, one of two spacecraft fleeing the dying Earth on their way to colonize a distant planet. New Earth is so far away that it will take eighty-five years to complete the journey, and so as members of the first generation born in deep space, it is their imperative to marry and reproduce. They’re about to do just that when their companion vessel, the New Horizon, which should be light years ahead of them, mysteriously shows up without warning. Just as Kieran learns the mysterious ship is barren of children, the New Horizon attacks and steals Waverly and all the other young girls.
On board the New Horizon, Waverly’s abductors are led by a woman called Pastor Mather, who is the figurehead of an oppressive theocracy. Waverly must rescue the girls from the future Pastor Mather has planned for them, even as Mather weaves a convincing story for why she had to “rescue” the girls. Meanwhile, Kieran is left on the hobbled Empyrean with a bunch of unruly boys, and finds himself in a bitter power struggle with Seth Ardvale, his rival for the captain’s chair and for Waverly’s heart. The first book of my series, Glow, is about how Waverly and Kieran find a way back to each other. Ultimately, though, The Sky Chasers series is about the battle over the future of New Earth. They’re fighting for that Fresh Start, the chance to make a new civilization in their own image. Will New Earth be the land of Canaan for the God fearing crew of the New Horizon, or will the secular humanist crew of the Empyrean sow their own dubious seeds of Manifest Destiny? If I did my job right, and I think I did, the reader won’t always know whom to root for.
The Sky Chasers participates in the grand tradition of the dystopian novel, a genre that is enjoying a resurgence in young adult fiction with titles like Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games. Dystopian fiction explores themes about the individual versus society, morality versus survival, and ideology versus personal freedom. It almost inevitably comments on the society of today, cannily lowering the defenses of the reader by divorcing theme from context. Maybe no one wants to read about how our hearts are being hardened by programs like American Idol where hopeful young singers are publicly crushed by a disdainful Englishman. But create a society in which youths are selected to participate in televised gladiatorial games where they must fight to the death… You’ve got a bestseller on your hands. (At least, Suzanne Collins does.)
The Sky Chasers comments on our current milieu, too—it’s the American culture wars in a pressure cooker. The secular city slickers and the traditional small town folks are duking it out in deep space. Yes, the traditional New Horizon is the attacker, but as the series progresses, the reader finds they have their reasons. And that avuncular captain of the Empyrean, an avowed secular humanist, isn’t such a nice guy himself.
The Sky Chasers isn’t just about contemporary society, though. The story has deep historical roots, too, that stretch all the way back to the first Puritan settlers in America, who, like the characters in a Roland Emmerich doomsday flick, left the world they knew behind, and found themselves on the brink of a grand experiment to build the perfect society.
Amy Kathleen Ryan is the author of Glow, book one in a new dystopian YA series, The Sky Chasers trilogy, available from St. Martin’s Press in September 2011.