Writing “The Golden Years”

The World In Ruins: 2001 – 2004

It’s been a long time since the beginning of the Iraq War. 15 years? Anyway, at the time the war started, I was in such a downer mood. All this violence unleashed. It was launched by a superpower that was trying to remake the Middle East in its own image, in response to a shocking terrorist attack that had nothing to do with Iraq. The war brought all the simmering hatreds of a region to a boil: Sunnis versus Shiites, Arabs versus Israelis, Muslims versus Christians. Anti-Jewish, Anti-Muslim, Anti-American, Anti-Arab, almost all the combinations of anti- with something else seemed at play. War seemed to be everywhere, and a hundred thousand or more innocent civilians were killed, and hundreds of thousands more were turned into refugees as their homes became battlefields.

That year, I was very despondent about the world. The Christmas cards I sent out were very bleak and nearly wordless. Just a picture of doves and the word “Peace”.

Healing the World

At that time, I was thinking what would it take to heal this bloodied world. The US can launch a war against Iraq without much pangs of conscience, and Al Qaeda can blow up buildings in New York City because other people’s lives from halfway around the world seem like abstractions to them. They don’t seem real. We don’t think of people on the other side as being fully-realized humans that we can have disagreements with and still respect as neighbors. Obviously, it’s impossible for a world of 7 billion people to all feel like neighbors and friends. A childishly naive answer popped into my head.

Everybody’s Dear Friend

At this point, my reverie about healing the world departed from peace studies to science fiction. But I was okay with that. Maybe I could write a novel that would inspire a new peace movement, or something?

The idea that popped into my head was: We can’t all be friends, but what if everyone on Earth could have a dear friend in common?

How would that be possible? Well, anything is possible in science fiction. In the story that was developing in my mind, there was a character, who I named Rachel Gold, who everybody knew and loved. Of course, that’s not really possible. One person can’t have 7 billion friends. But maybe it can seem that way. Not in the one-way sense that all human beings seem to be friends with Jennifer Lawrence, but in a mutual sense.

Rachels R Us

The way this could be arranged is clones and satellites! In the world that I was creating, there would actually be a team of Rachel Golds. I’m not sure how many would be necessary: One thousand? Ten thousand? A million? Details, details. To be worked out later. But continuing with the idea, there would be a vastly powerful, secret and benevolent organization that would be in the business of maintaining a network of Rachel Gold clones. These would be children cloned from the original Rachel Gold, and raised from birth to be Rachel Gold. They would be taught Rachel’s history, taught her philosophy, trained in her mission to heal the world. And all the various Rachels would be kept up-to-date on relevant information that any Rachel should know by communication from a satellite. This satellite would have computing resources comparable to that of Google, but exclusively devoted to maintaining the history of the various Rachels, and summarizing and sharing the relevant parts of that history among all the Rachels.

Tikkun Olam

This much figured out, I faced another problem. If I’m going to create a world that revolves around a single person, then who is that person? Who is Rachel Gold. I decided that Rachel should be Jewish. The sole basis for this decision was a phrase that had started to mean a lot to me: Tikkun Olam. This is a Hebrew phrase that literally means something like “Repair the World”, which in my mind, I slightly modify to “Heal the World”. The difference is small, but to me, “repair” is something you do to something inanimate, like a car, while “heal” is more appropriate for something living, which is how I think of the world. This phrase has a religious significance to practice Jews, and not being Jewish, I’m not sure that I fully appreciate what it means. But the phrase is so evocative that I want to adopt it as my own slogan. Anyway, my feeling is that for a certain subset of Jews, it became important in the last 100 or so year to dedicate themselves to fixing what’s wrong with the world. Tackling injustice, racism, poverty, ignorance. Rachel would be following that tradition.

I realized what a can of worms I was opening to have my main character be Jewish. Not being Jewish myself, I could easily make horrible mistakes that would be offensive. Also, it’s a strange choice to have a Jewish girl be the person who everyone knows and loves, because historically, not everybody loves the Jews. Details, details. To be worked on later.

But that didn’t really answer the question: Who is Rachel Gold? Why should anyone (let alone the entire world) care about her?

The Present Day: Superhero Without Science Fiction

So it seemed to me that I needed a “prequel” to the main story I wanted to write, to introduce the character of Rachel Gold. It occurred to me that this would be an unusual multi-volume story. If the main story was to take place in the near future, and the Rachel Golds of that story were clones of the original Rachel Gold, then maybe the original is alive in the present day. It’s quite common to have big sagas that span multiple generations. But those stories are set in the past, or set in an imagined future or alternate world. If you had a multi-generational saga where the first volume was set in the present, then the sequels would be set in the future, and so would necessarily be classified as science-fiction. I didn’t know of a multi-volume story that starts off as realistic mainstream fiction but then continues as science fiction. I’m not sure that it would be a good idea, because the fans of science fiction and the fans of mainstream fiction don’t necessarily overlap much. Details, details. To be worked on later.

But my attention was diverted to the question of writing a story set in the present that would introduce Rachel Gold. My goal would be to convince the reader that this girl could plausibly be someone to heal the world one day (with the help of a few thousand setras–that’s an Orphan Black reference, in case you didn’t get it).

At this point, I realized that I was in real danger of slipping into saccharine territory. How can I make Rachel Gold seem like the sort of person who could heal the world without making her into a sickeningly sweet goody-goody? That was another challenge, which I recently thought of a possible solution to. Details…to be worked out later…

The other issue is what could an ordinary girl do that could command the attention of the world? I’m setting this in the present day, and it’s supposed to be sort of realistic fiction. So Rachel wasn’t going to be able to fly, or stop bullets, or heal people by touch, or have psychic powers, or any of that. She had to be an ordinary human, but somehow extraordinary. A superhero without science fiction or fantasy aids. But there are plenty of examples of those sorts of people: Ann Frank, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Nelson Mandela. She didn’t need to be able to leap tall buildings at a single bound, but she needed to have the will to start a movement.

All the Bridges of Cornell

The issue for the prequel was: How is Rachel to make a name for herself? I had the idea that Rachel would grow up in Ithaca, where I live. Why not? Spiritually speaking, she’s one of my daughters. Ithaca is a beautiful city, with lots of waterfalls and gorges and a huge, beautiful lake, and two gorgeous college campuses: Ithaca College and Cornell. It’s a nice setting for the story of a childhood, I think. But something that might connect Rachel to the grand task of healing the world would be to start at home. A decade or so ago, Cornell was the location of a string of high-profile suicides by depressed college students. Often, they took the dramatic form of the victim leaping to his or her death off of one of the many bridges that span chasms throughout Cornell.

The vague idea was that Rachel would rally others in Ithaca to become watchers on the bridges, to look for those who might want to end it all and try to intervene. Once again, I’m worried that this is venturing into maudlin territory, but maybe it could be made to work without being too emotionally manipulative. I had the rough feeling that preventing a depressed person from killing himself might be a small act of healing that could be a synechdoche for healing the world (sorry for the pretentious word—it means a literary device in which a small part metaphorically represents the whole, or something much larger).