When we talk about the state of our planet, one idea that doesn’t sit well with those from all sides of the political spectrum is the assertion that maybe there’s too many people. But while futurist and sci-fi writer Karl Schroeder explores this idea in his new novella, The Million (paperback, Kindle), in which there can only be a million people in the world at any one time, but they’re all members of the 1%.
Photo Credit: Do-Ming Lum
I always like to begin with a plot summary. So, what is The Million about?
On an Earth thousands of years in our future, young Gavin Penn-of-Chaffee enjoys riches greater than the wealthiest person of our era could imagine. Yet he’s had to stay hidden his entire life. There are only one million people in Gavin’s word and The Million have inherited our planet and all the wealth, power, technology, and artistic accomplishments of human history. But there can only be one million people on Earth. Excess people — like Gavin — are branded “visitors” and are ruthlessly hunted by the population police, the feared auditors. When Gavin’s adoptive father is murdered, he has to take the identity of a dead Million boy to survive. What Gavin doesn’t realize until too late is that the person whose identity he’s stolen was on his way to a special school: the school for auditors. Now, in order to survive and discover who murdered his father, Gavin must become the thing he hates the most, and hide from the wolves in their very midst.
Where did you get the idea for The Million and how different is the finished novella from what you originally envisioned?
I’d been thinking about The Million for more than ten years; I set my 2005 novel Lady Of Mazes in a future solar system that had a population of something crazy like 70 trillion people. And one day I sort of snapped to attention and thought: if humanity has the resources to expand like that, it has the resources to go the other way, to shrink. In such a world, the amount of riches each individual could have would be inconceivable by our standards.
This was a great idea, and it spawned a good dozen plot ideas. It didn’t all come together, though, until after I’d written my 2014 novel Lockstep. That gave me the essential key that every thirty years, the paradise of The Million is interrupted as ten billion people overrun the planet for a month! This interruption is key to the story now, but initially it wasn’t part of it at all.
It sounds like The Million might be saying something about our society.
The Million isn’t a social commentary at all. It could be, I suppose, but I’m way more into exploring this world than making a statement. I mean, just imagine an Earth where individual people don’t have budgets or money, they have their own economies; and where the poorest of them is richer than the richest person alive today. This is actually quite a credible future, if you flip the human population switch from Grow to Shrink while keeping all our technological capabilities.
The Million is a science fiction novel. But are there any subgenres of sci-fi, or combinations of them, that you think describe it better?
Oh, The Million is clearly a “planetary romance.” Planetary romance is an old and respectable subgenre; it includes such masterpieces as Dune or [Edgar Rice] Burroughs’ Barsoom novels. Like Barsoom, the world of The Million is intended to be a fertile setting for any number of possible stories.
By the way, there’s a deliberate Young Adult tone to The Million. This does not mean I dumb down any ideas; I don’t believe in doing that. I just wanted to take a lighter tone with this story, have fun with it.
Are there any writers or specific stories that you feel had a big impact on The Million?
There wasn’t any particular author or novel that influenced The Million. This is probably because The Milliondidn’t come to me as one story, but as a setting in which many tales could be told. The hard part was deciding which story to choose from. So you can imagine adventures, romances, mysteries, and drama of all styles happening in this world.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or video games; did any of them have a big impact on The Million?
I sometimes joke around by saying that the elevator pitch for The Millionis “Downton Abbey meets The Hunger Games.” There’s also a certain Harry Potter flavor to this first story, of the “boy with a secret shows up at a really weird boarding school” type that you also find in manga. But The Millionare big enough to absorb tropes and keep on going; I still have an inexhaustible number of stories and styles I can adopt for future stories.
As you know from your Virga series, some sci-fi book are stand-alone stories, while others are parts of larger sagas. You’ve kind of already answered this, but what is The Million?
There is a larger plot that gets introduced in this story; the overall arc is actually epic in scope, but this first tale has a very close focus on just a couple of characters and situations.
The Million is my first novella. I found I really liked writing in this form; you can tell a compact and tight story but still have room to expand and get crazy with ideas and character quirks. So, at the moment, I’m imagining this storyline to unfold across several interconnected novellas, in a loose fashion that you could nonetheless stitch together into one volume when it’s all done. I have no commitment or contract demanding that of me, though; I’m playing it by ear.
Some people wait until every book in a series is out, and then read them all in a row. Is there a story-based reason why people shouldn’t read The Million now? Or that they should?
The Million can be read as a standalone story. It’s also an introduction to a whole open-ended universe. There is a larger story-arc here, but I try to make sure that you don’t need to have read the other stories to enjoy any particular one. There’ll be an order, but you’ll be able to drop in anywhere, and read them out of sequence, I hope.
Earlier I asked what movies, TV shows, and video games were an influence on The Million. But has there been any interest in adapting The Millioninto a movie, show, or game?
There has been some interest in adapting The Million for TV or film, but I can’t really talk about the details. Nothing is set in stone at this point.
It’s a funny thing: usually when I write, I have a novel or short story form in mind. With The Million, I kept thinking about it as a television series. There’s a naturally episodic quality to the storytelling, and yet everything builds towards a climactic deadline. You could spread that escalation over several seasons and tell lots of side-stories. Also, this isn’t a special-effects heavy world; you can picture The Million as primarily a parlor drama where petty disputes are occasionally resolved using private robot armies. It’s like a Downton Abbey without human servants and where the estate’s grounds are an entire continent. It wouldn’t have the same CGI demands as, say, The Expanse.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Million which of your other books would you suggest they read next and why that one?
The Million is set in the same universe as my last novel, Lockstep. If you read Lockstep, you’ll completely understand what’s going on in The Million, but they’re completely different stories. They’re also — and you’ll only really get this if you read both — utterly different story-universes.