At my recent reading at the Tattered Cover, I began by giving people a quick introduction to the afterlife as I have conceived it in my book, Jane, Actually. I expected I could kill a couple of minutes afterward by asking the audience if they had any questions, but all I heard was crickets. That’s when I realized most people would require a little time to contemplate my conception of the afterlife before being able to ask a question.
That’s difficult for me to understand because I’ve been living with the AfterNet since I conceived of it circa 1995, or just about the same time most people became aware of the Internet and the World Wide Web. The “rules” governing my understanding of the afterlife erupted fully formed, but the antecedents go way, way back.
Probably the primal influence is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein. In his 1966 novel, the Moon is a breakaway republic that is aided by the Lunar Authority’s master computer (HOLMES IV), which has gained sentience. The computer, who calls itself Mycroft, creates a fictitious identity—Adam Selene—to be a George Washington figure and lead the Moon to independence from Earth. No one has actually met Adam Selene, but everyone claims his friendship. He is a virtual character who everyone assumes exists but only ever communicates electronically. He is a disembodied character. Like all great science fiction, the story asks what does it mean to be human. Can a conglomeration of circuits and logic boards not only achieve sentience but also be considered human?
Another influence was a short story, the title of which I can’t remember. It might have been written by Harlan Ellison and was about a character so unpopular he might as well not have existed and that’s just what happens. There’s a similar episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer about a high school girl so unpopular she becomes invisible.
When you’re forgotten, do you cease to exist? Can you say that someone who died in the Middle Ages and of whose existence no one alive today is aware of ever exist? Now the simple mention of your name is noted by every alphabet agency of the federal government and consigned to some data vault in North Dakota. Do you have any more existence because Google has determined that you’re desperately in want of an Arts and Craft antique brass drawer pull than that poor villein from the Middle Ages?
Another science fiction inspiration for the AfterNet is Philip José Farmer‘s Riverworld series, where everyone who has ever died is reincarnated on the banks of the endless river that circles the Riverworld. The books feature Samuel Clemens and Sir Richard Burton the African explorer and the rest of humanity. Everyone, saint and sinner, is in the same boat.
My most literary inspiration for the afterlife is Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol:
The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.
This idea, that the dead lost the ability to interfere for good, is really the heart of my fictional world and reflects my general fuzzy-headed notion that despite Grumpy Cat and political invective and twitter hate mail just for proposing Jane Austen be on the £10 note, that the Internet is overall a good thing.
What if we could learn the Mahatma’s thoughts after being freed of his body since 1948? What if I could apologize to that friend who died and never knew that I am deeply sorry for what I said? What if Jane Austen could complete the book she was writing when she died?
Admittedly death won’t necessarily make one a better person. Hitler is undoubtedly just as vile after death and would probably seek power again, but would such evil be counterbalanced by those whose good works were cut short? Would the realization that rich or poor, black or white, good or bad, Muslim, Catholic, Sikh, Hindu, Baptist or atheist—would the realization that we all end up the same place, still on earth but apart from humanity, make any difference for good?
That was my original intent in creating the AfterNet. My first idea was to actually create the AfterNet: a place where the dead could communicate with the living. Not literally, obviously, but a place where one could assume the identity of a person who’d died and contribute to the conversation that might take place between an eighteenth-century Regency gentleman and a woman who’d died in 1241 when Wenceslaus I of Bohemia fought back the Mongol horde.
It was a silly idea, of course, but it did lead to me writing Good Cop, Dead Cop, in 2006, and then Jane, Actually in 2011. So I’ve been writing about a universe where everyone who has ever died potentially could converse via the Internet for a pretty long time, and it’s a pretty rich universe. I can tell the story of any person from all of time and place them in the here and now of the twenty-first century. My next book, The Background Noise of Souls, continues the story of Good Cop, Dead Cop, and I have other stories planned that take place in the world of the AfterNet. To me it’s a comfortable world, just like Larry Niven’s Known Space has been for him and for others who play in his world.