Shadow Matter: the story

This is an ancient story. A young woman is bitten by a snake and dies. Her grieving husband, a poet, travels to the land of the dead to bring her home. But he looks back to be sure she is still with him, and at his glance she fades to a shadow. Death is forever, the story tells us. Let go. Get on with your life. But what if love can somehow open forever’s grip, and death is only another mask? 

Stories and old songs, that’s how we learn. Some of our stories become history. If history is written by the victors—in other words, by enemies—how do we tell our own stories after defeat? Shadow Matter answers that question.

Shadow Matter by S.W. Mayse - book cover

Art for the benefit of humanity, art for the historical record, is a double-edged sword. It takes obsessive determination to produce unwelcome, transgressive art year after year, and even greater determination to resist the seduction of being declared a cultural treasure. 

Art for art’s sake? As the poet Pierre Reverdy observed, “For the primitive, art is a means; for the decadent, it becomes an end.” Humans have a long tradition of using art as a means, often to bring news or warn of impending disaster. Some would say such art is propaganda. It is, in the original sense of spreading an idea. But it may also be good art. 

Science is not my academic background–classics and mediaeval studies claimed me first–so I approach science with the benefit of unlimited ignorance and curiosity. Much of my research was done in the pages of New Scientist, Science, and Nature, on the websites of CBC Science and BBC Future, in many books, and at science centres and events. In the end I drew on my interest in Late Antiquity as much as my reading on deep space to talk about the peoples of Shadow Matter’s Politaya, Pact, and Neutrality. Empires and their opponents haven’t changed much from era to era. 

The technology of Shadow Matter is not far beyond the reach of our 21st century science. Avatars advise and speak for us; full virtual reality informed by artificial intelligence is on the drawing board. Phones and tablets provide all-encompassing information and entertainment needs. 

Already we culture and transplant human organs including skin. Cloning human beings is now possible but prohibited as a grave breach of bioethics. What if rogue future cultures decided body farms, cloning, and transgenic human-animal chimerai would be good for the sex trade?

Astronomers remotely assess atmospheric and surface elements, gravity, and probability of life on distant exoplanets. A space elevator and high station may soon lie within our capabilities, as may interplanetary spaceships. Quantum physics researchers have now put visible physical objects into a superposition of two states. 

Today we know enough to practise low-impact sustainable agriculture, transportation, and industry. We can stop climate catastrophe, protect biodiversity, and let our planet heal through international co-operation—but instead we deny and delay. The inevitable climate wreck may throw us back into an anti-scientific, anti-intellectual era that will take centuries to escape.

Interstellar space travel is the most obvious technological difference between our 21st century and Shadow Matter’s 28th century. Even without considering the formidable challenges of propulsion, radiation shielding, and life support, let alone time dilation, at present we cannot overcome the sheer vastness of even one small arm of our home galaxy. Recent discussion of multiverse theory led me to wonder—now that we can put physical objects into quantum superposition—what if in a few centuries we learned to send physical objects through near-identical iterations of the multiverse? It could be like flying through a hall of mirrors. 

Given that we now grow human organs and conduct gender-affirming surgery, we’re not far from readily available consumer cosmetic modification to let people change the colour of skin, hair, and eyes as well as their physical structure. 

In this book I wanted to write about cultures in which appearance is selectively mutable. What if 28th century humans didn’t view others through a flawed lens of race, gender, and ethnicity but by their social affiliations and actions? And what if people in this diverse and morally complex future learned to use art and negotiation, not brute firepower, to settle their differences? 

Private military companies have long been regarded as a scourge; they answer to no one, and the governments that hire them believe no one can hold them accountable. If unpaid and left to themselves, they murder and pillage at will. Most recently they worked in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and especially Africa with predictable outcomes. 

But what if the 28th century gave rise to well-regulated, ethical companies that provide dependable war-fighting and peacekeeping services to smaller polities? It might break the cycle, or it might not. All it takes to spark disaster is an internal power struggle. 

When is science fiction? In a future time? Now? In the unknown past? Some of my other writing considers historical events. This story could as easily chart the aftermath of a terrestrial calamity of the past or present, but writing about a possible 28th century frees me from known history to create imaginary people and places. In the end, what’s important is the story. 

In Shadow Matter I wanted to write about how human cultures might evolve and prepare to meet the larger cosmos. But mostly I wanted to write about love and loyalty that defy great loss, and the restorative power of art in our lives. 

From the Afterword, Shadow Matter, Tyche Books, 2023