Thursday, May 22, 2014

Kresh - creating society from mythology

Any decent worldbuilding, particularly where it posits an imaginary alien species, needs to delve into the social structure and belief system that exists.

When I considered creating 'the alien', I knew I couldn't go 'too alien'. There are - no doubt - aliens out there in the vastness of space that we will never understand or be able to relate to because our frame of reference has nothing in common with theirs. That's okay from a 'real world' point of view but it doesn't work in a fictional setting, especially where I want the reader to empathise with my alien protagonist. There has to be a basis for understanding for real empathy to emerge. On the other hand the alien can't be too like us otherwise why bother?

One of the key excitements of speculative fiction is in encountering and considering the different world views, concepts and reactions that alien societies have. There's a perspective shift that comes with that for the reader, allowing us to view our own mores or peccadilloes in a different light. (And I thoroughly recommend China Mieville's Embassytown as a fantastic example of that kind of writing.) So the aliens need to be relatable but different enough to provoke that kind of reader reaction.

As a result, I thought of encountering the Kresh as one might have encountered a foreign civilisation in the early days of terrestrial exploration, a bit like the culture shock that accompanied the Conquistadors' encounters with the Aztecs. Both had a functional society and worldview that worked but each saw the other as alien.

My narrative trigger was the mutilation by the Earth-based Hegemony of the Kresh empathic mantle. As I said previously this was a means to an end to enable the Hegemony to dominate the Kresh. But such a strong narrative element - to my mind - gave rise to a number of other possibilities that fed directly into the development of the Kresh mythology and, following on from that, the basis for the development of their social structure.

How much more debilitating would such an act be if it not only struck at a basic means of Kresh communication but also fed into an existing social more for them? So I posited the idea that, to the Kresh, any kind of physical disability of impairment was anathema. That magnified the effect of the mutilation but it also meant I had to have a deep-seated reason for Kresh society to hold those views.

This led me to the development of the Kresh mythology. All mythologies start from a creation myth. Bearing in mind I wanted my Kresh to appear alien - but not too alien - I borrowed from the Shiva mythology.  In some traditions, Shiva is seen as both destroyer and benefactor. So I imagined a Kresh god, Sakat, who was the god of death and the creator of the Kresh homeworld and it was from him that the idea of bodily perfection came. Here's an extract from an earlier draft of Lenticular Book 1 explaining this:

But as a concept, the creator deity — Sakat, god of death — promoted a closed system. He created Kresh life so that there could be death (this is what the priests teach and the adept philosophers theorise on). Death cleanses and replenishes. The unfit seed is cut down. Sakat is the ‘vigilant gardener’. The weak and deformed are killed so that the strong can survive and thrive unhampered and that way we move towards the perfection of Kresh form which is the underlying foundation of Sakat’s plan for us. 
So the disabled are imperfect. They are not 'fit to breed' (I hasten to add this is not my own views but a device to show an 'alien' culture that we can at least understand on an intellectual level if not agree with). As a result any Kresh that is injured badly is euthanised. If other intact Kresh were not around to perform such an act the disabled Kresh may actually consider suicide. This leads to so many dramatic possibilities that the idea has grown to suffuse most of the series.

:Tchon, my alien hero, suffers mutilation at the hands of the Hegemony. By Kresh social strictures, he and the thousands of others treated this way should be euthanised. But how can Kresh society function if this occurs? :Tchon, as I've said earlier, is an agent for change. One of the changes he must create is a new way for society to view those who do not meet Sakat's standard of perfection. It's the only way to avoid complete social collapse.

Never one to let an idea only serve one function, the underlying tyranny of this accepted Kresh worldview also fuels a major betrayal in Book 1 that - I hope - you'll read about one day.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Kresh - plot and themes

One of the things I've realised in working through the development of this story cycle is just how malleable plot is. The genesis of the Lenticular books led me to write a bunch of short stories - a serial in fact -  published on the Nuketown website in the late Nineties.

I look at those stories now with a somewhat embarassed sense, because the writing lacks nuance. Even so, the key plot points from those early attempts have survived into the novel sequence I'm working on now. But the furniture has shifted and reshifted over the intervening years. Whole plot elements have disappeared, or been combined, or altered radically. Despite all these plot changes, I haven't broken it. That's what I mean about the elasticity of plot.

Themes, of course, are another thing. I didn't set out to write to a particular theme, but as I worked on the story I began to understand what it was about. And I think that understanding then informed the plot changes which in turn strengthened the expression of the theme in a symbiotic, back and forth manner.

So the Lenticular Series has become a work that explores the role of outsiders as agents of change in society. Both my protagonists, alien and human are 'outside' the society they belong to. One because he's always been that way, the other because of what she did. But as these two societies clash, it is the 'outsider perspective' of my protagonists that help them not simply to react, but to act to change the way things are. To mould the unexpected around them into something that contains meaning for both societies engaged in the struggle. It's transformational on both a personal and racial level.

If I started out being excited by the plot I was creating from a 'flash of inspration' I find now as I near the end that I'm equally excited about the meaning that can be extracted from the thematic overlay to the action.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Kresh - the origins

While I'm working my way through the latest draft of the Kresh books, I thought I'd start an irregular series of posts covering aspects of their development. First up, where the hell the whole idea came from.

Way back in the 20th Century, 1996 to be exact, I was on a tram, riding home from the Aurealis Awards ceremony that was held that year in Justin Ackroyd's Slow Glass bookshop in Swanston Street (yes, it was THAT long ago) when I had a flash of an image. An alien held down on a bench by Earthmen, struggling against them while some part of its body was cut away.

I never question my subconscious too closely when it comes to ideas and writing. I happily receive whatever it wants to spit at me. This image was so strong, it got me thinking about the whys, whats and wheres behind it. And that set me on the road to writing about my alien.

Everything that came after was informed by years and years of reading science fiction, watching movies, reading comics, tv shows, all of that bubbling beneath my conscious mind. It's a rich source of material that's just waiting for all of us to tap into.

It seemed to me that this act by the Earthmen was part of an invasion and the mutilation of the alien must have - as a result - a political motivation. I remembered that scene in Apocalypse Now! when Kurtz is talking about a mission he'd been on to immunise children and how the Viet-Cong had come in after the US soldiers left:

We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember... I... I... I cried, I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out; I didn't know what I wanted to do! And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it... I never want to forget. And then I realized... like I was shot... like I was shot with a diamond... a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, my God... the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we, because they could stand that these were not monsters, these were men... trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love... but they had the strength... the strength... to do that.
 So what were the Earthmen removing from the alien that would have a broader political or social impact on the alien community at large? That's when I thought that the aliens must be empaths and the 'organ' that was being removed was something that supported their empathic ability.

Imagine the affect on a species. If it was commonplace for them to feel the emotion behind the words spoken by one of their own kind, to know instantly how a friend or stranger felt about them, or the situation they were sharing, what would it be like to suddenly have that sense destroyed? Their social fabric would disintegrate.

Of course from the Earthmen's point of view it would make them much easier to control. The aliens would be forced to communicate like the Earthmen do. And their spirit would be broken because they'd lose their sense of self. But how could Earthmen do such a thing?

I'm not interested in writing stories with one-dimensional 'black hats' and 'white hats'. So there had to be a good reason for the Earthmen to do this, even if it wasn't a reason you may particularly agree with. The next idea was that humanity had nearly been extinguished in the past due to an encounter with other aliens. Rebuilding their civilisation from ruins, the survivors had vowed that they'd never be put in that situation again. So while outwardly they sought peaceful relations with aliens, their hidden agenda was to use whatever dirty tricks were expedient (espionage, destabilising governments, political assasination) to protect humanity. Their normal mode of operation would be to find an ally on the inside of the target alien species and do whatever was necessary to install them as leader. It sounds evil but it's not a million miles away from what Western and other governments have been doing in third world countries on Earth for many, many years. And it gave me a valid (though morally bankrupt) rationale for mutilating my alien.

These ideas served as the origins for the rest of  what was to come.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Why write?

I've been writing fairly steadily for nearly forty years now. What keeps me going? I used to think it was the desire for fame and fortune, but there's been none of that in all that time, although a minor ego boost from the odd short story publication has been very welcome. So why am I still doing it? I had to seriously consider this - along with all the other things we seriously consider when we realise we are now (fairly) well past the 50 mark.

I've been a reader longer than I've been a writer, devouring sci-fi and adventure stories in book, TV, film and game form for so long now and it's something I never tire off. Equally I really love the act of writing, although every morning when I open up the laptop (or take out my pen) there's always that anxiousness at getting the first word down (will I be able to?) as well as the inherent laziness I think afflicts quite a few writers (do I have to?). Well, yes, I do have to since I make myself every day, and so far I've been 'able' to as well: I haven't written myself into a corner or contracted terminal writer's block.

So when I say I love the act of writing, it's once I get over that ambivalent 10 or 20 seconds. But the thing I love about it is the way the blank page (or screen) allows me to interface with my sub-conscious. I'm a strong believer in the unconscious mind as the tireless problem solver and game player. Problem solver because so often I've wondered about a particular plot issue and been surprised and pleased when - days later over a cup of tea or when I'm waking up - an idea or phrase will surface that solves what I was worried about and (even better) sometimes opens up a whole new line of enquiry. Game player because I'm also often surprised by the little plot details that come out the end of my fingers as I write or type that add colour and texture to my world and my story. In short my sub-conscious entertains me by helping me to construct a story that I think (and hopefully others will think) seems to be shaping up to be a satisfying read. Despite the ambivalence, it's fun and rewarding. I guess that's why I keep at it.