This is How it All Starts

Okay, so I’m at the fair last week, and somewhere along the line, either in the Men’s room or one of the Port-O-Lets, I notice the writing on the dispenser of hand sanitizer that now appears everywhere. It says, kills 99.99% of all household germs!. And I’m thinking, yeah, but it’s that other .01% you have to worry about, because they might grow up into something nasty.

That’s what gave birth to the short piece that you’ll be reading this Monday.

But of course, my brain didn’t stop working there.

See, I took something obvious, something that is worrying a lot of biologists, namely, that our psychological dependence on things like germ-killing sprays and alcohol based hand sanitizers instead of old fashioned soap might be making our immune systems lazy, and worse yet, breeding up a generation of supergerms who scoff at things like alcohol and penicillin. I just wrote it up for Monday in such a way that it has a dark, funny ending.

But really, that’s not an idea. It’s a concept. I call it a notion. Good for a 100 word story, but not strong enough to support a 100,000 word novel.

In order to do that, it needs to meet some other notions to really become viable.

Which of course, it did.

I’ve recently been wondering how much of the world’s population would have to be killed off in some kind of pandemic before our current infrastructure of internets (sic), power plants, and canned food would collapse. I’ve been wondering about loss of population percentages against a scale of technology, and what knowledge would be lost and need to be relearned in the event of something catastrophic like that.

Lost technology is something else that has caught my eye over the last couple of decades. Ever since I heard that, if for some reason we had to mount an Apollo-like mission into outer space, we could no longer do it. A lot of the Apollo-era engineers and scientists have retired or died, and we’ve spent twenty years on a “new” technology that is now wearing out.

All of this stuff, the hand sanitizer, the population numbers, and the lost technology, it was all drinking in the same bar when another of my notions walked in. Not really a notion, but a literary observation.

It’s about gunpowder.

Obviously taking a cue from history, there’s been a lot of writing in fiction that reflects the power of the invention of gunpowder. When it comes into play, it changes everything, at least in the hands of people who want to stuff it in tubes with a piece of lead on top of it, and not in the hands of folks who want to make pretty colors in the sky.

Basically, in literature, gunpowder marks a line – the beginning of an era that is reliant on science instead of mysticism. An age of enlightenment, a coming out of the dark. An age when we no longer believed in magic.

Or even, in certain pieces of fiction, a time when actual magic begins to fade from the scene as people flock to the concreteness of science. In other words, magic stops working because people stop believing in it.

This is an idea that has fascinated me for a long time, and gunpowder is such a perfect turning point. I can see why other writers have picked up this particular ball. But me? I could never suspend my disbelief to get through any fantasy piece outside of The Hobbit, which I read for a high school class. I seriously enjoyed the Lord of the Rings films, but that’s because the disbelief was already suspended for me with CGI creatures and effects.

So as much as I admired it, the whole magic v. gunpowder theme was a theme that I would pretty much leave alone.

Except now all of these notions are at the same table in the bar, and they’re laughing and drinking together and…

Are you there yet?

My subconscious said they belonged together. And pretty soon it bubbled up into my consciousness, which said, it starts at a county fair, with lots of people, food, and animals. A guy uses hand sanitizer, but it isn’t enough. Pretty soon, what he’s caught from somewhere has killed off so much of the world’s population that our technology infrastructure has collapsed, and a new dark age is beginning.

And that’s when… little by little… magic… starts… coming… back.

Now that is a sandbox I could play in.

It still needs a lot of work. I need characters and a time frame. Would it be a trilogy? Maybe just a single book, and by the end magic is not yet in full swing, but has shown up just enough to give a glimmer of hope.

Now I don’t know if I’ll actually ever do anything with this. It depends on if this group of notions that is now an idea keeps nagging me, keeps coming back to this same bar, and then some other friends show up…

But I bring this to you today just so you can see that this is how it happens. This is how writers take little things, like a dispenser in the Port-O-Let at the county fair and spin it until it has created an entire new universe worth exploring.

So the next time you see a writer stating out of a window, be assure that he is not simply enrapt with the squirrel skittering across the lawn – although he might be.

The long odds are, he’s probably thinking about gunpowder. And the .01% of germs that the bottle of hand sanitizer missed.

Listening:
If you see something that looks like a star
And it’s shooting up out of the ground
And your head is spinning from a loud guitar
And you just can’t escape from the sound
Don’t worry too much, it’ll happen to you
We were children once, playing with toys

(via iTunes shuffle play)

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