"A man is talking on the telephone behind a glass partition; you cannot hear him, but you see his incomprehensible dumb show: you wonder why he is alive."
Albert Camus, "The Myth of Sisyphus"
I had many goals when writing Steel Sky. I wanted a lean, fast-paced novel, with sharply drawn characters who acted according to their their own drives, not to the needs of the plot. I wanted old-school world-building, in a world that hadn't been seen before, or at least not in such detail. But I had deeper, more personal reasons for writing what I did. Questions I was asking myself about some very old concerns: right and wrong, crime and punishment, power and submission... or resistence.
One night, when I was in college, I was mugged by two men. As I passed them on the sidewalk, one of them broke a beer bottle over my head. Obviously, they weren't experienced at this sort of thing; otherwise they would have used a full bottle instead of an empty one. I ran like hell, and after a few blocks it became clear that my money just wasn't worth that much trouble to them. I stumbled into my girlfriend's apartment with an untouched wallet and a scalp laceration that wasn't as serious as all that blood made it look. But I'd lost something very real: my faith that the world was sane and ordered, that someone was making the hard decisions to keep me safe. My job required I work late into the night, and my apartment was a long walk from the bus stop. Every person I passed looked like a potential threat. One night I found an ice pick lying in the bushes next to the sidewalk. It was an old thing, slightly rusted, with a wooden handle from which almost all of the paint had peeled away. I took to carring it in the pocket of my jacket, where it could easily pull it out. I would never have cause to use it, as it turned out, but just knowing it was there made me feel a little better. I had a lot of time to think as I walked home in the dark, running my fingers along the rough wood. Could I actually plunge that rusty steel into human flesh? Why, in this civilized, wealthy society, in the greatest country on Earth, did I need to ask myself that question? Why didn't somebody take these bad people and just... get rid of them?
I grew up reading comic books, and I enjoy them to this day. In a comic book world, the solution is simple: Superman swoops down, carries the malefactors to the local jail, and... well, that's it, really. But in the real world, of course, it's much more complicated. There are laws and procedures to be followed. Those laws are in place for good reasons, but wouldn't it just be better to take those two guys out back and hit them both with something much heavier than an empty bottle? And no one has that kind of power anyway, the power to act without fear of repercussion. So that was one of the questions I was wrestling with. If someone with good intentions had that power, how would they use it? How should they use it? What if Superman picks up the wrong guy by mistake?
My father skirmished with cancer most of my adult life. He had lymphoma, of a type the doctors called "indolent". It would flare up on occasion, oozing out of whatever recesses it was hiding in, and they would burn it back with chemo. My father always put on a brave face in the hospital, even when some idiot resident punctured his pleura with a bronchoscope, causing his lung to collapse. And the treatments worked. His hair came back in, fuller than ever (turns out chemo is a kind of a cure for pattern baldness). He was symptom-free for years at a time. So it was easy for a young man busy starting his own life, his own family, to think the old man would always be okay.
Then one day I got the call. This time was different. I don't remember the medical terminology in their words so much as the tone; how quiet it was. Nobody said "drop everything," but that's what I did. Nobody said "one week to live," but that's what he had. The lymphatic fluid was seeping into his lungs and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. We elected to treat the pain but otherwise not seek to forestall the inevitable. People sometimes speak of illness reducing a person to an animal; in this case my father was reduced to a machine, one whose only purpose was to keep breathing. Like a ratchet being drawn tighter, the most ancient part of his brain would fight against the fluid pressure to inhale with a series of clacking noises. Then a pause, then the exhale, then the ratchet would tighten again. Over and over, until some time deep in the night it finally stopped.
I was luckier than many. I had time enough to say goodbye, but a relatively short time to see him suffer. But the question of how a society should deal with the terminally ill was much on my mind as I wrote Steel Sky. In this constrained, resource-poor world I had created, sympathy counted for little and practicality was king. It was only logical that such a place would create the Deathsmen, quasi-religious figures who would make the necessary decisions of who lives and who dies, with no avenue of appeal. And it was inevitable that, having created such monsters, I would need a protagonist to oppose them, who would be a doctor, like my father.
Welcome to the Hypogeum, a world with no illusions and no hope, just an endless series of limitations, losses, and hard choices. Welcome to Steel Sky.
About the author
Unless your eyes are attuned to the proper wavelength, Andrew C. Murphy appears to be a perfectly normal human being. His illustrated short stories were published by Dark Horse Comics, before he decided to pour his heart and soul into the novel that became Steel Sky. What is left of him works in advertising, as a senior partner at BrainWorks Communications. He lives, if you can call it that, in Pennsylvania with his wife and three children.