S. Andrew Swann is the pen name of Steven Swiniarski. He’s married and lives in the Greater Cleveland area where he has lived all of his adult life. He has a background in mechanical engineering and —besides writing— works as a Database Manager for one of the largest private child services agencies in the Cleveland area. He has published 23 novels over the past 18 years, which include science fiction, fantasy and horror. His latest SF novel, released by DAW Book this February, is Messiah, the final volume in his epic space opera, the Apotheosis Trilogy.
So what’s the story about?
Well, it’s a Space Opera, and there’s this Jesuit Priest/College Professor who gets sent on a covert mission by the Vatican which is worried about the influence of the Eridani Caliphate, then there’s this genetically-engineered tiger in exile trying to earn some sort of personal redemption—
That’s a character summary, what’s the story about?
Well, there’s this AI with a nanobot army that sees itself as God and is forcing a transhumanist singularity on human civilization—
That’s a plot summary. What’s it about?
Like I said, it’s a Space Opera, epic, cast of thousands, lots of things go boom.
But what is it about, really?
Welcome to the dreaded concept of theme. Theme is one of those things that can scare off both writers and readers because of bad experiences in high school English classes where they were forced into hunting symbols and theme in the literary equivalent of a fetal pig dissection. Possibly something was learned, but the whole process is so lifelessly off-putting that most victims end up only retaining how unpleasant the whole process was. A side effect is the association of theme only with the pickled innards of safely deceased capital-L literature. Many of those who survive high school to go on and study writing in college and graduate school, still tend to associate “theme” only with works of “literary” merit— genre fiction need not apply.
Which is like saying genre fiction has no truck with characterization or voice. Which is only arguably true in the case of really bad genre fiction, and only insofar that bad genre fiction handles these high level elements badly (i.e. it’s just a signifier of bad fiction in general.) It’s actually hard to omit these elements because they’re part of how we construct narrative. Theme, in fact, is almost impossible to eliminate because it’s not only a function of how we construct narrative, it’s a function of how we interpret narrative. (Which is to say, if the writer does not consciously develop a theme, the reader will provide one.)
Theme, basically, can be thought of as an abstract concept that the narrative is built to support, so that the concrete events of the story can be said to imply the concept. It also almost always represents a core belief of the writer— which is why you can’t escape it. Even in genre fiction, the writer believes the world behaves in certain ways, and will write a story that reflects those beliefs; it can be “truth will out,” “politics corrupts,” “any success without a spiritual component is ultimately hollow,” “disrespect of authority leads to destruction,” or any other number of things the writer believes. They will be in the writing whether the author wants them there or not.
So what to do about that?
Well one way is to just ignore it. If the readers bring their theme to the party, let ‘em. Of course, if the author isn’t in control of the message it can lead to what TV Tropes refers to as Unfortunate Implications. “What? That alien wasn’t a Magic Negro in drag. . . really. . .”
A better way to deal with it is to understand yourself and your writing to the point where you know the implications you’ve put into the story and consciously craft (usually in a rewrite) things so that what’s on the page is pointing at the paths you want the reader to follow. Also, the consciousness of the effort helps in making the work feel as if it’s one unified piece; eliminating contradictory elements not only in the character, plot and setting, but thematically as well.
Yeah, that’s all nice and stuff, but what is it about?
In the end, the Apotheosis Trilogy is about how removing free will from individuals— the ability to make a moral choice between good and evil— however well-intentioned the reasons, inevitably results in the worst of all possible evils.
But it’s also about large things going boom. A lot.
S Andrew Swann