Sometimes I think the best ideas bloom in the most unlikely places, because the more unlikely the origin of the idea, the more fascinated we are with the possibility of making some of it.
When I trace things all the way back, Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned came from a failed fan theory of mine. But failed in a good way.
Twenty years ago (get off my lawn, he said), I was in line with friends at the movie theater to see The Matrix, just then opening for the first time. None of us had any idea what it was really about, and that was all for the better: we hated it when the trailer for what looked like a good film ended up saving you two hours.
It helped that the marketing material for The Matrix had been a masterclass example of how to preserve a film's greater mysteries. Not one bloody thing in the trailers gave away the film's chief conceit; it just promised an eye-filling thrill ride with some breakout visuals.
"Actually," I said to a friend as we bought our popcorn, "I have a theory about what's going on in the movie. But I'm going to sit on it for now. Let's see it first, then see if I was right or not." My friend agreed: best to let the movie wash over us first, compare notes later.
Two hours and some-odd minutes later, we emerged, blinking and giddy.
"So how did your theory hold up?" my friend asked.
"Demolished!" I said. "But in the best way!"
Meaning my theory about the film's central conceit couldn't have been more wrong — and what they provided in its stead was far beyond anything I could have hatched on my own.
Only later on, once I was back home, did I realize I would have been happy either way. If I'd been right, or near right, I would have scored a cleverness point. But if I'd been wrong, I would still have what I thought was a nifty idea to work with in some form.
Here's my failed theory. The "matrix" referred to in the film is the matrix of time and space that we are all immersed in. Certain people are able to tap into this matrix, to see how time and space flow around us, and to alter it strategically. And since this is Against The Rules, certain Dark Forces are dispatched to prevent them from further altering reality. Tabletop RPG mavens might get this reference: Mage: The Motion Picture.
(I confess, most of the mechanics of this theory stemmed directly from that one shot in the trailer when Neo unloads both barrels on an Agent and it seems to dodge by moving in multiple directions at once.)
Since I was immersed in some other creative projects at the time — in fact, I wasn't doing any writing at all just then, it's a long story — I stuck the idea in long-term storage and mostly forgot about it.
But like a cat pawing the underside of a bedroom door to demand in, it continued to nag at me. An idea with that much potential deserved more than just to sit on some mental back burner and remain perpetually warmed over.
It wasn't until 2005 or so that I began to write fiction in earnest again. (Again, the reasons why I stopped and then came back to it after such a hiatus deserve their own essay.) But it wasn't until late 2015, another ten years, that I actually did anything with the idea. Before then, my hands were already over-full with projects to choose from.
But in 2015, something happened that caused me to ditch the project I'd already been working on and attempt to hatch this long-incubating idea.
In Part 2, I'll talk about what happened, and how through that, this bud of an idea came to full bloom.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind