What was your main influence for the brilliant "A planet called Treason"?


Thanks for calling "A Planet Called Treason" brilliant <grin>. For some reason, this second novel of mine has suddenly started to surface again in the past few months -- I get asked about it more than any other book outside the Ender and Alvin series. Maybe its time has come. In any event, partly because of that reader interest, my production company is working with Digital Muse, a computer graphics house in Santa Monica (they did the effects for Deep Space Nine, among many other projects), to develop an eight-part miniseries (each part being a standard television "half-hour," meaning 22 minutes) of an animated version of "Treason." We're hoping to develop a graphic novel simultaneously, sharing some of the graphic images.

As to the sources of "A Planet Called Treason," there are several. First, when I came up with the idea I was working as an editor at "The Ensign," the official magazine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; with two of the other editors, Jay A. Parry (my collaborator on "Dogwalker") and Lane Johnson, I spent my lunch hours talking about writing science fiction stories and discussing ideas. From one of those discussions I emerged with the idea of a society in which people could stimulate the growth of body parts. It would emerge from the medical procedure that would cause lost limbs and organs to regrow; inevitably, I thought, as soon as it became possible to stimulate regrowth of lost items, people would begin to use the same procedure to stimulate the growth of extra items, which could then be removed (the current fad for tattooing and body piercing shows that there is nothing people won't do to their own bodies in order to be "cool"). People would show up at parties with extra fingers, breasts, arms, or even small extra heads growing out of their shoulders or the back of their neck. It was, I thought, a cool idea, but I didn't have a story yet.

Quite separately, I was also a longtime player of the Parker Brothers game Risk -- but had long since left behind the original set of rules. (The key change: To allow countries to be held but unoccupied, so that buffers could be left to stop a powerful enemy from sweeping through all of one's holdings in a single turn.) We also (my brothers and I) had left behind the original gameboard. Now, I had a longtime habit of doodling maps of imaginary worlds during meetings. Sometimes a world emerged that was interesting enough that I would name the countries, and on one such map I found myself naming the countries with surnames from different national traditions: Mueller, Huntington, Schwarz, Ku Kuei, Nkumai, etc. European names predominate, but there are others.

Why would a world have nothing but nations named for individual people? One of the possibilities that I thought of was: What if this was a prison planet, where a whole bunch of exiles spread out and founded cities which, over time, became city-states and nations? That idea was intriguing enough that I transferred the map to a large sheet of muslin in order to make it into a gameboard. No game was ever played on it (as with most role-playing games, the set-up usually took so long that there was no time for the game -- a fatal flaw in game design), but the game was all I was developing this world for.

Then, as I was working on my first novel, "Hot Sleep" (since rewritten and published as "The Worthing Chronicle," which now is part of the omnibus volume "The Worthing Saga"), I realized that I needed to think of what my next novel would be. The Worthing stories had occupied me for years ("Hot Sleep" was the "prequel" to "Tinker," "Worthing Farm," and "Worthing Inn," along with other Worthing stories I had written or planned to write); now that "Capitol" and "Hot Sleep" were going to be published, what else was I going to write? In mentally poring over the ideas I had, I thought of that map of a planet of exiles in the context of the society of people who can grow spare limbs, and the idea emerged: What if each of these nations had developed some weird ability like that of regenerating body parts? Instead of being a medical procedure available to everyone, the ability to regenerate would be the result of breeding and genetic manipulation, the society using itself as its own experimental population. Other nations would have developed other abilities in a sort of technological trade war, competing for something of value from off world. And from that, the basic milieu of "A Planet Called Treason" (original working title: "Extra Parts") was born.

That isn't all, however. I was drawn to the idea of a story about a radical regenerative in part because of my long experience with self-alienation resulting from separation from and distaste for my own body. This had been exacerbated by adolescent weight gain and other body changes, but that alienation from my body began even earlier, when in childhood I discovered that I wasn't very good at physical things. I loved to run until I discovered that I was the slowest runner my age; I loved to climb until I discovered that I was the weakest climber in the neighborhood. I began to realize that my body was definitely a second-rater, while my mind was first-rate (in my neighborhood, anyway) -- I was a reader, I could wow grown-ups with the way I talked and wrote, etc. My response was not to work on my body until it could keep up, but rather to withdraw from physical activities (hence the weight gain) and devote myself to the pursuits at which I started out with an advantage. By the time I was working on "Extra Parts" my separation from my own body was almost complete. I lived in it, I had to deal with it, but it wasn't me and I didn't like it at all. Though I was not conscious of it at the time, I realized, soon after writing "Extra Parts," that this was precisely the issue that I had been working through as I wrote it -- a body that grows on its own and refuses to do what its owner wants, even as his mental abilities increase; the body as prison, as burden, as overlord. If I had planned the novel as a way of working out that "theme," it would have turned it into drivel. But because I was completely unaware of this confessional aspect of the project, it emerged only as an unconscious theme underlying the story and thus became, in my view at least, trustworthy: Instead of deforming the story, this unconscious influence gave it much of its visceral power. Lanik's rage at his body, his misuse of it, the torment he goes through to get rid of it, all came out of my own frustration and shame -- and this is one of the aspects of the story that speaks to some of its readers in the same unconscious way.

If there are other influences on "Treason," I don't know what they are right now -- the only influences I trust are the unconscious ones, and I feel no particular obligation to analyze myself in order to detect them. In this case, the unconscious influence became obvious soon after the writing; most of the time, though, I remain blissfully ignorant of whatever it is my novels confess about my inner life. Fortunately, most critics remain even more clueless, since they lack the advantage of being me and therefore have no idea which elements of a story come out of my deepest self and which are simply ideas tossed into a story to make a plot work. Thus I've read critics' speculations that are ludicrously wrong and obviously contrary to fact -- but that's what happens, inevitably, when people speculate about other people's motivations. It's a bad critic who tries to use fiction to psychoanalyze the author anyway.