Radio Life: Interview With Author Derek B. Miller

We speak to author Derek B Miller about the inspirations behind his new sci-fi thriller, Radio Life and what he has coming up next…

Derek B Miller Radio Life

Set during an apocalyptic future, Radio Life shows a world where The Commonwealth, a knowledge-gathering society on the rise, is locked in a clash of ideas with the Keepers… Should ancient knowledge be kept, learned from and archived? Or should that knowledge be kept in the past where it can’t harm anyone?

When a young woman stumbles upon a finding that could change the way people gain knowledge forever, something that calls itself ‘the internet’, this difference of ideals could lead to a fight that threatens to destroy the world… again.

We spoke to Radio Life author Derek B. Miller about Hopepunk, the inspirations behind his political thriller and what he has coming up next…

How did you first come up with the idea for Radio Life?

The general themes and problematics struck me long before the story itself emerged. To me, a story is the telling of central dramatic tension that needs to be — ideally — resolved, and then what happens to the characters along the way.

My experience as a writer — without exception so far — is that the themes and big ideas come before the story. This is because they command my attention and create a mental space to dwell inside, where all the pieces of that world fit together somehow because they’re already related. Once that thematic or philosophical universe becomes seductive to me, I begin to wonder who might live there; what their daily lives might be like and what key event might trigger a crisis that animates them all to action. The ending of the story is totally unknown to me when I set out on the journey. If I’m not surprised I don’t know how you can be.

Radio Life began as a project in 2015 after I watched a 2012 documentary with Keanu Reeves called Side By Side. The movie was about film-making and captured a moment when the industry was switching over from film to digital. The conversations ranged from artistic possibilities to what’s gained and lost, to what it means for the democratisation of storytelling on the one hand, and whether we might lose something vital on the other. It was all fascinating but one issue jumped out. At the end of the documentary, a cinematographer named Geoff Boyle reflected (along with George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and others) on the lax state of our archiving and whether these films/movies would even still exist a few hundred years from now — let alone after an apocalyptic event.

Geoff’s view? (I’m quoting from the film here): ‘We’re f**cked.’

I was intrigued. I got in touch with Geoff and we discussed it in depth. He even took some questions to tech professionals in the sector who — on listening to our questions — got worried. Which was an answer in itself.

With everything moving to cloud computing — photos, documents, music, maps, news, memories of any kind — what would happen if it all failed? Talk about putting all your eggs in one basket! And if this happened about one hundred years from now, after all the libraries have closed, young people have stopped reading and collecting physical books, and even the old LP collectors have died off after it stopped being hip. There would be no physical artifacts to refer to if the internet died. How long would it take before we forgot everything and had to start over? This is what got me started. The reason I think it feels salient and urgent today is that the big themes of remembering and forgetting, truth and lies, trust and mendacity, and what defines our moral universe are all pulsing with energy right now as themes that pervade our daily lives. Dramatising this in an exciting adventure in a new world with fun and rich characters was tantalising.

What were your inspirations when writing Radio Life?

Most directly, it’s the 1959 novel by Walter Miller Jr. called A Canticle For Leibowitz. I consider Radio Life to be in direct dialogue with the core ideas of that novel, and I credit my initial premise — of a society dedicated to collecting the remaining scraps of knowledge from a dead world — with that book. My hope is that people might someday read them together as alternative visions of what it means to start over again and where we might end up given the radically different life experiences and beliefs of the writers; almost counter-factuals to one another. I plan on writing an essay on Radio Life and A Canticle For Leibowitz in the future.

Radio Life is set in a dystopian future – what is it about this setting that appealed to you?

It’s dystopian from our perspective, because the world as we know it is gone and the people are dead. But from the perspective of the characters who live there, their lives are rather good. Their families are strong, there’s food and water and culture and government and art and order. There’s a strong sense of civic purpose and the community is joined by a shared vision of who they are and what they are meant to be doing. So… considering the UK or the US today… where would you rather live?

It’d say this is a distant, post-apocalyptic story, not necessarily a dystopian one. What appealed to me was thinking, not about the fall of civilization, but about the rise. Usually, we watch the collapse or else wallow in the aftermath. But… then what?

So what if the world didn’t look like Mad Max where people struggled for control, but rather it was defined by a community of people trying to rebuild? What if they were succeeding? What new questions would arise for them that only science fiction creates the space to ask? What philosophical challenges would they face? What practical ones? What alternative visions might co-exist, and what might that co-existence portend? Will it last or will the different views come to a head?

I wanted to explore — rather than take for granted — what it means to remember. I’m Jewish and we’re always taught to remember. To remember everything. But remembering hurts. So… do we accept and use the pain or avoid it? And why? Bring these questions to life through action and choices and events and drama and fun and you’ve got a book!

For Radio Life, author Derek B.Miller to explore what it means to remember…

Radio Life has a focus on technology and how they may be used after civilisation as we know it ends – why did you decide to go down this route and why choose these particular technologies?

I think the technology is somewhat incidental. At the heart of this story is a fundamental question: Having suffered trauma, is it better to remember or to forget? This isn’t a question about technology. It’s a question of philosophy and in the case of Radio Life, political philosophy because the consequences of the answers will drive the direction of socio-political history. My attention to technology was only plot-related. Like many science fiction writers, I tried to make certain predictions. In my case, ones I think are limited and fully justified, such as the movement of all information to the cloud (or whatever we call the cyber-realm in the future), and the eventual connectedness of most systems to the internet (or whatever the internet evolves into). That means there is little or no access to primary sources of images, text, or sound without access to the internet, and there are few objects that will fully function without that connectivity. So… as soon as that fails, so does knowledge and memory. This is what I wanted to explore dramatically. In fact, I might say that Radio Life has a focus on how technology is being used now as it suggests the means to our own end.

The Commonwealth has based their society around the board game Trivial Pursuit – what made you choose that particular game/idea?

When the world goes digital, and the digital fails, it means that almost no information is left behind. No music, no pictures, no maps, no books. For those who had a bit of time to pack, my response was to place a board game and some old books — the kinds meant to be read and re-read slowly — in the bomb shelter to keep the people entertained when the power went down.

Trivial Pursuit was perfect for a number of reasons. It has truly random pieces of information most of which is… as it were… trivial. When taken together they do not form a story. There is no way to weave a narrative from them as they are only a pile of facts (let’s say that facts are found in piles).

But those facts are enticing! They suggest a very loose chronology about world history. They claim that the world is round. That humans have been to the moon. That athletic competitions and books and films were all important to us. We learn that the world was once populated by nation-states, thousands of languages existed, and that there are oceans filled with sea creatures. There’s a microscopic world and a cosmological one beyond imagination. But more than mere facts: The game classifies and organises knowledge, allowing one to gain some conceptual and administrative control over ideas. This is the gateway to abstract reasoning and to all higher social accomplishments. I cannot overemphasise how important that move is for the progress of civilization even if those efforts to classify are insufficient or wrong.

Embedded within the game is an ethos for the pursuit of knowledge; the promise that it is ‘out there’ to be learned; that what might be learned could be world-changing; and that for all the vast possibilities of human thought, we can gain conceptual control of it all if we do so with purpose and clarity. The question, of course, is … then what? What are we applying that knowledge towards?

Anyway, I wouldn’t so much say that the Commonwealth organised their society around the game, as they studied the game to craft a society that pursued knowledge in an orderly manner. That is, that they were inspired by it and used it wisely.

And, stepping back from all that stuff, the pieces are colorful and make for a great flag and the bottom line was… I thought it was funny. Which is probably the better answer.

There are themes on climate change, nuclear war and biological weapons (which have all had a hand in ending civilisation as we know it) – why did you choose these themes for Radio Life?

The theme is social fragility. When Walter Miller Jr. published A Canticle For Leibowitz in 1959, he was concerned with technology and nuclear war because he was certain of humanity’s incapacity to control what it created. He focused on run-away technology. This is also a man who flew 55 bomber missions during the war, was partly responsible for killing many civilians, and who helped destroy Monte Cassino — the oldest Monastery in the Western world. He eventually committed suicide.

I see a way out because my life, my education, and my worldview make that possible. So if Miller’s book was dystopian, mine aligns more with — what some people are calling — Hopepunk. I rather like the term. Apparently it was coined by Alexandra Rowland who wrote: “Hopepunk is a subgenre and a philosophy that ‘says kindness and softness don’t equal weakness, and that, in this world of brutal cynicism and nihilism, being kind is a political act. An act of rebellion.”

My definition – looking at the same body of literature that she did, and adopting her term — is derived from a word considered obsolete by the Oxford English Dictionary. That word is ‘detenebrate’ which means, ‘to free from darkness’. Hopepunk is therefore a sub-genre of science fiction united by a shared impulse to tell stories that free the soul from darkness. That necessitates situating the characters and action in a dark world and then directing the drama and activity towards the light. Whether they reach it or not is part of the story.

Radio Life is a big, sweeping, epic adventure on the edge of a world trying to forge a new tomorrow. It is about cooperation and self-sacrifice. It is about the resistance and resilience against shock and atrophy. Where it gets complicated is that people can often imagine very different solutions to this… and they can come into conflict.

Really, the actual instruments of destruction don’t matter to me. It’s the cascading devastation that could have been stopped that captures my attention. And what fascinates me is watching good people face the darkness under brutal pressure to see what will happen next. This is why Hopepunk can be thrilling.

There are warring factions in Radio Life – those that pursue knowledge for the betterment of humanity, and those that feel knowledge is the reason for ending it. Why did you choose these two ideals and what are your personal thoughts?

The first decision was to have two ideals and put them to motion — both internally and against one another. One of things I liked about the first X-Men movies (though I’ve now lost the plot), is that Magneto was a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, convinced that mutants would never be accepted into society whereas Xavier was a British aristocrat certain that everything would work out for the best. They were two decent and powerful men at odds over a philosophical difference that did not have an easy or obvious answer. Sure, the X-Men were the heroes and had our sympathies, but were they right? Hard to say. And so we watch and wonder and become entranced by the arguments as well as the actions. I love seeing good people do their best and how even that can go to hell. In this case, what’s going to save the world? Remembering or forgetting? It’s a good question.

I wanted a real, deep, and interesting conundrum to give the pulsing heartbeat for Radio Life, because it is not always clear what we should do, and or how we should go about deciding. I’m certain that burying the past under deception and lies only creates trauma, and often inter-generational trauma. So ‘pretending to forget’ is a nightmare for everyone. But when the goal is healing, there are many ways to do it. So the Commonwealth and the Keepers share a love of this world that they want to nurture and protect but very different approaches to going about it. This brings them to a confrontation with global repercussions in a drama that holds our attention both through actions and ideas and some humour.

Radio Life’s protagonists are mainly powerful women – why did you choose these female leads and how do you go about building your characters?

What’s so interesting about this is… I didn’t choose them. They just kept appearing. Every time I needed a new character it was a girl or a woman. And my instinct as a writer is to trust my instincts. There was just something so powerful about these young women — girls, really — bounding over rooftops in the Gone World to ensure the survival of art and literature, science and philosophy. And when Lilly entered the picture, as both a teenager and then reappearing as a 71-year-old woman, I knew she was the matriarch of the story and that women were the primary cast. This was not a conscious decision. They just dominated the story and I respected their appearance and then their characters.

On reflection, and now that it’s done, I think I envisioned a society grounded on ideas and cooperation rather than muscle and fighting. I don’t buy into the stereotype that women are inherently more cooperative and friendly. I think that’s sexist nonsense. But when ideas and cooperation are valued over brawn — where men have a physical advantage — it puts women and everything they have to offer on a completely natural and obvious and equal footing because what separates men and women – namely our bodies — becomes as irrelevant as our birthday or star signs. This changes the role of men too, because men who don’t accept this will be seen as holding back the natural assets of the community and will be frowned upon or worse. Men and women would rise together in this case.

I think the women kept appearing in the story because each powerful female character sort of begat the next one. I liked their company and I wanted more of them. So this female energy started bursting off the page and I fell in love with Lilly and Alessandra and Henrietta and Elimisha. It was becoming a modern story. A new kind of post-apocalyptic story that didn’t have naked women in cages but were champions of a new order.

What are you reading right now?

With America in civil war and a global pandemic? Mostly the labels on bottles of bourbon. But when that’s not happening, I have a pile of books and I tend to read up to a dozen at the same time. In no order, A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles, At The Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell, the last third of Don Quixote by Cervantes, The Silence by Don DeLillo, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Keep Saying Their Names by Simon Stranger, a really cool tome called The Time Traveler’s Almanac edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer, and Good Omens by some goofball writing duo from the Nineties. I’m not sure they ever worked again.

What’s next for you?

It’s a big year. First there’s Radio Life coming out in January. Soon after comes an Audible Original called Quiet Time. That’s a novel too but coming out first on audio. Inspired by the life I was planning to lead, Robert Livingston and his Kenyan/British wife move from their high-powered jobs in Geneva to charming Marblehead, Massachusetts with their two Swiss-born daughters in a modern-day ‘search for America’. What they encounter is… America. It’s a comedic-drama about people stuck in the past or trying to get back to it and what that means for growing up. It’s great fun. 

Then later, in July, is my Big American Epic: How To Find Your Way In The Dark. That’s the prequel to Norwegian By Night, and features Sheldon Horowitz in a coming-of-age story set between 1937 and 1947 in rural Massachusetts, Hartford, Connecticut, the Catskill Mountain resorts of the Forties, and finally New York after the war. For Sheldon fans… this is the one.

As for writing? I’m completing the first draft of the sequel to Radio Life. It’s called The Find. If anything, it’s even bigger and bolder and more fun than the first one. I hope I can hold it together!

Radio Life by Derek B. Miller is out now from Jo Fletcher Books.