Sunday, February 23, 2014

One Chapter Before Breakfast

(What follows was originally written for an ASIMOV'S blog. Sheila Williams bought my novella, "The Principles", but she thought that her readers might appreciate a little explanation about its background and its logic. Unfortunately the magazine's blog is delayed. And that's why I'm publishing it here.)
My personal history is vague, particularly to me.

I once wrote an alternate history about Christ.  The central premise was that the Lord and Savior was born female instead of male, and two thousand years later, a young woman lives in a world both radically changed and perfectly familiar.  I'm not much of a file keeper, and my minimal records include the date of the first sale and its publication history.  If compelled, I could generate a rough timetable about when the story was written, and if I read it again, I could offer up informed guesses about why I did this and that.  But most of the past has vanished to me. This happens with most of my work.  I am enthusiastic and driven while focused on a project, but I usually divide my time between several stories at once, and once a story sells, I walk away. At least until the galleys come around.  Which brings me to one good reason why I'm an exceptionally lucky writer.  After several months of distraction and forgetfulness, reading my own work feels rather like reading it for the first time.  I have come across a tale composed by someone very much like me, but not quite me, and hopefully, not too much of it sucks, and maybe I even like it.

That earlier story is called “The Boy”.  According to my website, it was published in ASIMOV’S SF more than a decade ago.  But besides a few mental images and the general tone, the story was written by a stranger.

But not the premise, however.

On the face of it, Christ is an unlikely fascination.  I don’t attend church, save to help marry and bury people.  I can’t remember when I wasn't agnostic.  Which is not the same as being an atheist, I should mention.  To me, atheists are as rabidly certain as any good Baptist.  There are no burning opinions about God in my soul.  I believe in nothing but my own deep ignorance about deities and the various hierarchies in our vast universe, and that’s how I have been for all of my half-remembered life.

Why would a skeptic care about God’s daughter and a history transformed?

Maybe it’s because I live in a complicated, often dangerous world--with the emphasis on the words “I live in”.  A few dead prophets left behind institutions, and those institutions have endured for centuries, outlasting nations and entire languages.  Indeed, successful faiths are often responsible for the creative destruction of nations and languages.  Each religion has its rules and a deep hold on society.  That first story, “The Boy”, offered a glimpse of a matriarchal society and the critical business of sex ratios.  But I couldn't let it go.  What I wanted to explore was something more sweeping and thorough, except in those places where I focused hard on the boring and splendid aspects of 20th Century life.

Think of this novel as a kind of bar bet.  Two guys sit in a tavern, and both of them happen to be me. One of me challenges the other, saying, “How about this?  A chapter a day, every day of the week.  Quick chapters and minimal plotting, and let the ramble lead you where it wants to go.” And the other me agrees to the challenge.  Why not?  We’re talking about a chapter before breakfast.  How hard could that be?

The beginning date is lost.  But I remember crawling out of bed in the dark, grabbing coffee before slipping into my basement office before the rest of the house was awake.

This was after the spring of 2006.  The dog had died; nobody needed to be walked.  For several months, I held to my goals, building a hundred chapters, give or take.  There might be an old CD carrying the earliest draft, and who knows what lives on various flash drives?   The routine was pleasant enough, like the bus man’s holiday, and it was all very part-time, right up until that one morning when my various story threads connected with each other, on their own, and this steady patience suddenly took a hit of meth.

There is a strong dose of autobiography to the story.  Which is to say that I was doing what a lot of middle-aged authors do.  Studies show that the third decade of life produces vivid memories, some of the most intense that we will ever know, and why not make your past work for you?

Life in my twenties was brutally ordinary. I was teaching myself to write.  I paid bills by working in a factory.  Relationships didn't last.  While I was writing the novel, I scrupulously avoided using bad dates and lost girlfriends, but what I tried to capture, with every chapter, was that endless ripe sense of possibility.  In my early twenties, every woman was a potential mate.  Every pleasantry exchanged at the college library or in the grocery felt ripe with possibility.  Will this be the one who matters?  Will this be the one who knifes me in my sleep?  What’s more, the world during the late 70s and early 80s was exceptional.  The Cold War was endless, gasoline was scarce, Iran held hostages, and there were plenty of reasons to doubt that any of us would survive to the end of the week.

The novel found life, and I began writing the novel again, from the beginning.  And my energies grew tenfold.  One chapter was written before the house woke, and several more chapters came after the house emptied out.  The book was one big file, and then two files, each as hefty as a stand-alone novel.  Then I started a third file.  My favorite writing feels like reading.  I had a sketch of what would happen, what should happen, but the story has its own momentum and little surprises, and sometimes huge surprises. I stood aside, watching events unfold.  Soon I was working all day on the project.  I would go to bed wondering what tomorrow’s first and second and third chapters would reveal.  Eventually I started a fourth file, which had to be the last.  Near the end, I would wake at four in the morning, contemplating actions and inactions from people who were vivid to me.  Nearly 350,000 words went into an epic drawn around ordinary lives, and it was great fun, and for me, the joy and passion of that experience won’t ever be duplicated.

Not in this reality, certainly.

When it comes to history, I’m an agnostic.

I don’t believe in history.

Not that I can’t enjoy reading a good story.  And of course I accept the premise that Alexander was great, and Winston Churchill definitely led an interesting life.  But with a background in science and confidence in my total ignorance of Creation, I save my respect for the idea that we don’t really know shit about the past.

Armed with laudable skills and every scrap of data, the finest scholar can invest her life in the seminal history on a single past day.  Yet in the end, sitting on her death bed, she has no business pulling the priest’s ear to her mouth, saying, “I know what happened on Calvary Hill.”

A thousand libraries don’t hold enough data to resurrect the past.

Witness accounts.  Bureaucratic records.  Forensic evidence as well as the informed sensibilities about human nature and human foibles.  These supply useful slivers of data, but the picture always remains incomplete.  Maybe someday, in a dust-free superconducting alcove on the fourth world circling Alpha Centauri B, we’ll find a thorough recording showing the earth as it stood two thousand years ago--a data ocean devoid of gray margins, invulnerable to interpretations.  But even then, the heart of history remains unknown.  One video showing every person in the world, coupled with every act and word, still falls short of Truth.  We still need to see inside every head, urges and memory weighed with precision, as well as all of those electrochemical factors that don’t resemble rational thought as much as they do the hard tossing of many, many dice.

This is how much I distrust history:

Take a perfect picture of the past.  Create a model of reality both ridiculously honest and utterly convincing.  Then let those inherent motions push into the future.  Run the simulation one billion and eleven times.  We’ll begin with the day when a virgin claims to be pregnant, and I predict nothing.  Nothing but one billion and eleven new histories.  The dice are tossed.  Little differences vanish, while other little differences become giants.  The prospects of duplicating any one of us, complete with our same first loves and the same credit card numbers, remains out of reach.  But maybe ten of these worlds will duplicate our world, complete with Christianity and a Cold War.  And however unlikely it is, perhaps one of these billion worlds will end up being very similar to the world that I invented while writing “The Principles”.

When I say I don’t believe in history, I'm boasting that I don’t believe in any single story. Life is random noise and little turns, and every day is a sandwich made from dumb moments and brilliant insights.

What I believe is that Sandra West is inevitable.

And even though I have spent a surprising portion of my last seven years thinking about Sandra, I know precious little about her.

“The Principles” is a novella published in the April/May 2014 issue of ASIMOV'S SF, and has been teased free from a much larger book.

Quentin Maurus lives in the matriarchal West.  Christianity and its offspring rule Europe and the New World as well as large portions of Africa.  Meanwhile, Asia is dominated by a second religion.  At first glance, the Maimuns might remind the reader of Muslims.  This is common mistake.  And the standoff between civilizations has a Soviet-versus-US feel.  But again, that’s an error made by many readers, sometimes including the author himself.

Maimuns began with a religious prophet who claimed to be the son of god.  He didn't die young and he wasn't martyred, but In many ways, his faith is a closer analogy to modern Baptists than are the Christians in the woman-led West.  Maimuns are unapologetically patriarchal.  They are aggressive and quarrelsome with one another, and after thirteen hundred years of war, they are ready to go to war with their female counterparts in the West.

Likewise, the West looks at every man with grave suspicion.

Two civilizations have divided the earth between them.  Queensland and Europa dominate one hemisphere, Persia and Greater Mongolia the other.  Each side has its own calendar, its own clocks.  Science is shared, but with deep restrictions.  Technology is roughly at the stage that we inhabited by 1980.  Perhaps computers aren't as powerful, but both sides have spent enormous capital and hope on space missions, including giant rockets and lunar bases and the Mongolian mission to Mars.  The World’s War was fought in the 1940s, resulting in a draw. There was a Vietnam, recently ended, but that tragedy was born from rather different reasons than our Vietnam.  And because each of these civilizations has one vast, unbeaten enemy, governments and churches are willing to do anything to maintain religious purity.  This is why there are no Mormons, and there never were any Shakers, and even mainstream churches are unified by convention and shared purpose and two thousand years of fear.

In Quentin’s world, almost every young male is drafted at eighteen, serving his government for ten years.

Quentin wasn't drafted, and that was a blessing that kept him safe, and it was a curse that left him profoundly alone.

In the Western word, a substantial portion of the male population is in prison, and most free citizens, male as well as female, embrace that level of incarceration.  Add to that the missing millions who are sitting on the borders of Asia, guarding the Armistice Line, and also the fact that women prefer to give birth to daughters...well, you might expect a young man like Quentin to have a busy and very happy social life.

That is, if you didn't know anything about Quentin Maurus.

Or his maladjusted world.

When I began writing “The Principles”--that is, when I was yanking obvious threads out of the big original story--I discovered one major blunder.  The original novel was told in a first-person POV, and the results weren't as effective as I hoped.  So that was one of the larger matters:  I freed myself from Quentin’s voice and Quentin’s need to be at the center of every scene.

For the last several months, most of my daily work has centered on reweaving the original novel into a 3rd person narrative.  Plus tweaking and slicing where I saw fit.

At least one more novella is coming from this work.  And a finished novel.  And there’s no telling when either will be done.

As for other warnings/asides to readers:

Extinction events might seem inevitable, but they’re often anything but.  I had fun changing the available species on this other earth, two thousand years divided from ours, including blue pigeons and bamboo bears and a rather robust population of hominids too.

Critter names and object names were approached with the spirit of a translator.  I preferred to find words that capture some essential quality about a bird or automobile, and how their world looks at them.  Hopefully my translations hold clear meanings for readers as well.  But since I’m working with a language that doesn't exist, I think I’m entitled to a little more leeway than we allow real experts and Google software.

And finally, a little warning about thunderbirds.

I grew up with dinosaurs.  When I was eight, dinosaurs were giant lizards that lived inside my imagination.  But it was a mistake to name the animals after cold-blooded reptiles.  They are not reptiles, and the wrong name infects the expectations of readers and believers, no matter how wise they might be.  In Quentin Maurus’ world, a brilliant Mongolian paleontologist uncovered some of the first fossils, and he correctly recognized the resemblance between chickens and these giant bones.  Because of that, my protagonist has a life blessed with two great gifts:  He doesn’t have to worry about fighting in a foreign war, and he grew up knowing that wingless birds the size of buildings used to run wild across the world.

Of course not fighting wars is the bigger gift.

But as Rebecca Christ might say, holding a different history in your head is transformative.

1 comment:

  1. I have read The Principles and as with some of your other longer stories I'm going to have to read it again! I suspect it will end up in one of those Best of anthologies.