I had the germ of the idea for The Serene Invasion about five years ago: aliens come to Earth and, in a bid to save the human race, inhibit our ability to commit violence upon one another – indeed, stop us committing any form of violence at all, upon anything: we can’t harm each other or animals. Wars are a thing of the past. So is eating meat.
The idea bubbled away on the back-burner for a while, and grew to the point where it had to be written. I outlined the novel and submitted it to the powers-that-be at Solaris, and my editor Jonathan Oliver liked it.
The need to write the novel came about from being deluged, as we all are, by the surfeit of news about wars, atrocities, killings and general violence that the news media issues – out of all proportion to the actual quantative reality of violence in the world. I fell to wondering what kind of world we might live in if we were rendered physically unable to commit violence – and that led me to consider the fact that there would be a hard-core minority who would oppose the change, for various reasons of vested interest: arms manufacturers, the US gun lobby, high-ups in the army, business-men and -woman who make a profit from human beings killing each other...
From the novel:
The newsfeeds and internet had been rife with doom-mongers in the first couple of years after the Serene intervention in human affairs. They forecast that such a radical alteration in the mechanism of the human psyche – the total abnegation of an individual’s ability to carry through acts of violence – would have dire psychological consequences. So-called experts stated that violence was a safety-valve which, if not allowed to blow from time to time, would store up untold mental pressure which would in time burst with catastrophic results.
Nina said, “I always thought they were wrong, Geoff. Okay, so if everyone on the planet committed acts of violence every day, day in day out, then they might have had a case. But think about it – how many acts of violence did you perpetrate before the coming of the Serene?”
He shrugged. “Not many. In fact… I can remember defending myself against a bully when I was twelve, and once or twice wanting to hit someone, but never carrying out the urge.”
“There you are then. I am the same, along with the majority of the people in this square, I think. The nay-sayers, as you call them, were wrong. Violence is not a pre-requisite of being human, just a nasty side-effect of social conditions. And violence is certainly not a right, as some would claim it is.”
I wanted to wrote a novel that show that the propensity to commit violence isn’t hardwired into the psyche of humankind: that, in the right environment, we can be steered away from violence. Social engineering on a grand scale, a project to make human beings better – ironically carried out by an alien race.
The novel is set over a period of four decades, showing the change in the world from the point of view of four main characters. Two work for the Serene (our mysterious benefactors who are never seen), and one viewpoint character, a businessman, trenchantly opposes what the Serene have done to humanity.
It was the hardest novel I’ve ever written in that it was an idea-based book, and I usually write character-oriented SF; that said, the characters soon took over and dictated the flow of events, which I find always happens when a book is going well. The hardest character to write was James Morwell, the businessman violently opposed to non-violence: I abhorred his mind-set, disagreed with his view that violence was necessary – but I had to include him in the narrative for the obvious reasons that I had to show a dissenting voice (as there would be dissenting voices if the Serene invasion were to happen); I also had to write about Morwell for a less apparent reason: in a novel which is about non-violence, in which the ability to commit harm is taken from human beings, how does one go about dramatising conflict? So I included Morwell and, later, a race of aliens opposed to what the Serene were doing on Earth and elsewhere.
Of course I enjoyed (as I always do) writing about the good people: Ana Devi, the Indian street kid who looks after her urchin charges and who, thanks to the Serene, transcends her lowly origins; Geoff Allen the photo-journalist who thinks, perhaps naively, that by bringing the fact of war atrocities to the awareness of the world he might in some small way alleviate suffering, and who goes on to work for the Serene and brings about peace; and ex-Marxist doctor Sally Walsh, who loves Geoff for his naivety, and through whose eyes we see much of the gradual change to human society over the decades.
It was a difficult novel to write, and one that presented numerous challenges. As to whether I’ve got it right, I’ll leave for readers to decide. For my part, I know that it’s the best possible novel I could have written on the subject, and sits alongside The Kings of Eternity, Kéthani and the Starship novellas as one of my own personal favourites.