“I lost all my experience,” my Russian friend told me, his eyes flashing. “I cannot live in this country.”
“You haven’t lost anything,” I replied, smiling and shrugging. “Your experience is still there. You just have to learn how you can apply it here.”
This snippet of conversation has stuck in my mind for over 20 years. My Russian friend and his family came to the United States expecting to find, I think, everything run the same as in the USSR, only now they were free. When you’ve been born into a society in which everything is done for you and decisions about your life are made for you, then the absolute worst that can happen is to end up, as an adult, in a society in which the individual is responsible for his actions and must do everything for himself, include make his own decisions. I began Perceval’s Secret with this concept in mind, thinking that Evan Quinn, having grown up in dystopian America, ends up in free and democratic Europe. How would he react?
I began with superficial things. The abundance of goods in stores open to anyone. Computers available for anyone to buy and use as he wishes. A free flow of information with many, many media outlets and television channels. From his memory, he compares Europe with his American experience, his observances of Underground opposition activity, and the flourishing Black Market in everything from baby shoes to life-saving medications. So much individual activity had to occur in secret in America. His father teaches him: Don’t let anyone know what you really think and feel. I realized that Evan may have left America, but America had not left him. He just didn’t realize it. This would become a challenge for him.
Writing this novel became an education for me. As I learned more about Evan, I learned more about his family background and America. Society influences the individual far more than he realizes through its institutions: family, church, schools, government. Then I had an epiphany about dystopias: they are abuser societies. Evan’s psychological life is that of someone who’s been abused all his life: no concept or understanding of an authentic self, no self-worth, no internal empowerment, but instead, Evan sees himself as almost unreal, alienated from the physical, isolated emotionally, worthless and powerless. Wow. This was a major leap in my thinking about his character. So, what happens to Evan psychologically when he escapes the dystopia? He may physically escape America, but he’s definitely carrying some heavy-duty baggage that will affect his life in freedom, and not only from his family background. Evan will feel that he’s lost all his experience.
Research into survivors of abuse helped me as I wrote. I read books by survivors as well as by medical and psychology professionals. I talked with therapists about ranges of behavior, what is plausible, what not. When they heard that Evan had had a positive relationship as a young boy with his Uncle Joe Caine and his family, they told me there was real hope for Evan overcoming his past if he chose. The Caines would have given him love, support, acceptance, mirroring his self-worth back to him, showing him how psychologically healthy humans live. But there was still the overwhelming effect that dystopian American society had on him. An internal conflict for Evan then seen in his memories of Uncle Joe and his reality in music vs. abuser society influences.
A lot of near future speculative fiction focuses on advanced technology, and dystopian fiction is no exception. I wanted to focus more on the human, however. It took me months to realize that Europe in 2048, while enjoying technological benefits, had also decided to make all technology voluntary, and to make ranges of technology available. Cell phones are ubiquitous. Computers run cars and houses. But photo/video capability on cell phones has been outlawed due to abuse and illegal use, for example. People carry identification cards that tell authorities that their DNA, fingerprints and retina scans are on file. It can be difficult to be a criminal in this society, but murders still occur as well as white collar crime. And espionage.
Evan, a former citizen of a dystopian society, understands the advantages of a low tech life. But is he free now in Europe? He believes he is, but he still has a lot to learn about himself and living….