July 28th, 2010


A Grand Design, Pt.1001

I have a lot of story ideas flitting around in my belfry, too many to ever let them all out. Especially considering how lazy I am. I've proved to myself that I can put out a massive mound of work when properly motivated, however. On this journal I've outlined several ideas I've had for future projects, only bringing up the ones which I can immerse myself in to the extent where I know the full (general) story, and can feel the details itching to flow. If I were a short story writer, I'd probably be able to spit out one every couple of days, but those have never satisfied me. My taste is in depth. Even Robert Jordan's world, epic though it is in length, is too shallow for me. Tolkien is really the only fictional author who has given me the kind of richness of detail in plot, recursiveness in storytelling, and true mastery of the epic in time that my mind craves. And yet, I've studied Ancient Egypt, which filled in dynastic genealogies like Tolkien never could, and Greece, which contained a greater dysfunctional family of city-states than Niven could extrapolate into star-faring civilizations and impossible journeys that put Burroughs to shame. Roma was the Empire, one that dwarfed in its greatness and tragedy that other one dabbled in by Asimov. The Khans really knew how to rock a continent, which places them above the Hyborean Age in my book. Likewise, China's Middle Kingdom drew together strands of culture, wealth, and power that no fictional tyrant could ever dream of, even if his Empire was a whole galaxy far, far away. This is the kind of thing I love, and what I want to write. Yeah, I know, my imagination is not worthy of Tolkien's, much less ten million Romans. I have written something of a sweeping story, though, in my Sita Roryn project from last summer. It's basically only about two women, however, and takes place over only a decade or so. If I want to write something anywhere close to what I'd want to read, I'll have to think bigger.

So I've thought bigger. Actually, I've been thinking that big ever since high school, but my efforts were hardly worth mentioning. A scifi epic to straddle the stars, of course. Taking humanity from your next-door neighbors to the far future in places unimaginable. I've developed the story somewhat, which I've talked about here before. It's sort of an ongoing tale of two lovers, seemingly forever trading off living for hundreds of years and dying, leaving each other alone until the next cycle begins. I realize now how claustrophobic the idea is. Along the way, we might see civilization evolve, but it's directed by the main characters toward an ultimate flowering only they can see. And they're lonely. For hundreds of years, waiting. It's damnably unfair to the reader to outline the basic idea from the beginning and yet still go through all of the frustration and angst over and over. I need a story like the history of Ancient Egypt, Greece, and the Roman Empire, that has a direction and destiny, but one that no one in the beginning could possibly have imagined. One that is not about two archetypical images on a Tarot card but many different characters in the great sea of history. Ah, a sea...now there's an idea.

I wrote the Sita Roryn project originally to keep my cousin in Antarctica occupied during the winter darkness, but also to study, if informally, a lot of what it takes to build an epic. I think I've learned a lot, maybe enough to get started on the real thing. I still have this young adult version of that project to finish and my story about the geeks in the `80s, but the big one is beginning to build within me. If I can hold onto it through these two novels, maybe I can do some real justice to my imagination. If I do, it won't be a continuation of Sita Roryn, because that's a world that belongs to three women (the third shouldered her way in while I was writing - what could I do? There had to be three, it seems) and one slice of time, kind of like Conan or John Carter. No, this will be analogous to the rise and fall of successive civilizations, told from the perspectives of many of their characters, both major and minor. Imagine Egypt, growing from mythical origins, later sharing political space with Mesopotamia and Greece, each of which having their own semi-fictitious origin stories, then all three conquered by one man of unprecedented ambition, Alexander. Imagine the further rise of Rome, the Eternal Empire that was so full of itself and so drunk on its power that it named the Mediterranean "Our Sea". The heights that Rome rose to and the scope of its power were unmatched in the West, but it stretched itself too thinly and finally unraveled under the feet of barbarians and a cult that it once had laughed at. Finally, civilization around the Mediterranean divided into the West, an uneasy conglomeration of warring sibling feudal states and, in the East, a gilded shadow of greatness, slowly shrinking under the pressure of a rising tide of Muslim fanatics. This is the kind of story I want to write. Too big for a single couple or even one dynasty. Hell, too big for one civilization. I want to bring agriculture into a world of hunters and fishermen, then stomp them down under the boots of soldiers. I want to build the First City, make it the mythical template for a hundred others, and have them all crumble as they are choked by the weeds of the New City. I want to write about the curious man who, four thousand years later, goes back to the buried ruins of that First City and finds that it was not the home of the gods after all. Oh, yeah, I'm loving this. There's even a place in it for three women, the unlikely warrior, the improbable princess, and the killer priestess. They wouldn't be called Roryn, Sindane, and Savane, but they should be recognizable. It won't be centered on them, however. Maybe they'll have their moment on stage near the beginning of the 'second empire', when the world really needs fighters with a vision for a future they won't see. But there has to be more, oh, so much more.

Okay, here goes another flight of fancy into the world of my imagination. I'm writing this out for the first time to try some of the ideas, not to cement them into a final order or design. I want the overall story to be a framework for each individual tale, not too different from Asimov's Robots-Empire-Foundation world except that there will be no single thread to tie them all together beyond the general struggle of people to live. It will be about four great civilizations, each in turn taking its place as the bastion of Order against outer Chaos, yet all (but the last) falling inevitably against the forces of change. Seen through the eyes of those on the ground (though at times being seen from afar by a person long before or after the fact), it will be shown only in part. I can't possibly give the whole story without losing all of the wonderful details, and would have to live a million lifetimes to give all of the details. So, I'll give it as it's seen from within, as the world at war was seen by priests and monks in the Chronicles of the Crusades or far palaces were described by alien visitors like Marco Polo, except that most of my tales will be in the third person (did I mention that I'm lazy?).

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Notes about how the story might be written

The first thing I have to say is that I haven't yet thought of how to name the kings or the empire, but you probably guessed that. Names are a tricky thing in ancient culture, even what they called their own countries, so I'll hold off on that until I have the time to think about it in more depth. I can imagine a system not too distant from the Ancient Egyptian one, upon which this is largely based. It also has shades of Pre-Roman Mediterranean cultures, so I might throw in some identifiable allusions to those. There won't be any direct parallels; my "Tutankhamun" won't be called "Fruitincommon". Even the more recognizable stories won't be so recognizable once I've twisted them around some. I want to echo some of the main themes, though. The conquering native Theban and the heretic king are two that are just too hot to pass up. I'll also be adding in some queens, both those trying to rule after the deaths of their husbands or brothers, like several in Egypt, and one or two who took power for themselves and had a true reign, like Hatshepsut and the Cleopatras. Before everyone starts screaming that I've left them out because I don't consider them important, it's really because they are unique in ancient history, even the Ptolomaic Queens who were of Greek descent. Much more thought has to be taken as to where and how they come to be queen than the men who, after all, basically either get it by genetic accident or by usurping the throne. I believe men like Horemheb were different, so I've included what amounts to the whole Amarna Period. I'll probably mix it up a little, but keep at least three of the primary figures.

This leads me to the next topic. I've defined the timeline by dynasties and kings, but most of the stories (probably short or long, randomly), will actually be about secondary or tertiary characters. The tale of the First Father might be told by a friend-turned-official-chronicler, as a story-behind-the-official-story. This story will again be told in part on later occasions, as legend by a peasant in the first intermediate period, as myth by a priest in one of the later empires, and as a hypothetical reconstruction by a foreign "scientist" of the last period (I used "foreign" pointedly for the outer empire, as all of the separate groups would consider each other foreign in the beginning). Likewise, many different kinds of people can be followed in the different periods. A soldier rising through the ranks of the first empire to become the high commander of the army, only to watch the destruction of his civilization by a massive tsunami from the northern mountain slopes while vacationing at his "summer home". Two peasants looking back to the lost (first) civilization with alternatively a sigh of awe from one and a shrug from the other. The actual youth who rises up to take back his homeland at the beginning of the second empire. A young woman sent to become a minor queen during this period, only to be left holding the crown after many assassinations and battles (this might have actually happened to a few tragic queens in Egypt's Old Kingdom). The possibilities are legion, and should come to me when I decide which parts to concentrate upon.

The point is to take a survey of the civilization, across time and class, showing how much and how little things changed throughout. This also is mostly based upon my studies of Ancient Egypt and Rome, which show an astonishing amount of cultural inertia among the lower classes, with cultural developments happening much faster among the royalty and nobility (but still glacially by modern standards). I want to show the development of the religion, the meaning of being a king and public opinion of the kings, the changing roles of women and the peasantry, the overall swings of power and how they affected (or rather, didn't affect) the lower class, the amazing variety of landforms and how this was reflected in the culture (and how it affects history), and the reasons behind and efforts involved in building the great monuments, as well as how these were seen by the people (some statues in Egypt were themselves deified and given their own small shrines!). Specifically, I want to show things like: the power of visual propaganda in an age when writing was considered to be truth in a way we can barely understand and most of the population was illiterate, how the different classes were seen as different kinds of people (as the Indian caste system can come close to even today), how the theology pervaded every corner of the people's lives (to the extent that the gods practically walked among them), the variety of cultural artifacts (while coming in a very limited number of "types" like pots and beds, combs and sandals), and the comprehensive nature of their culture (how every person and thing had its place in this world and the next). These are what archaeologists learn about, not just the names and fates of kings and queens. Through writing my Sita Roryn project, I think I've learned how to instill the stories with all of these elements and string them together in a way that is understandable, if not quite linear.

This is the last point: I want to build a world through its parts, from the bottom up and from pretty random points of view rather than by telling a single narrative of the various dynasties. There were too damned many kings (emperors, whatever) in the ancient world to do that and keep a reader of fiction interested anyway. There were 30 dynasties of Ancient Egypt and who really knows how many "official" Emperors of Rome and Byzantium. No one knows how many Greek kings there were in the various city-states, much less the earlier cultures in the Mediterranean. The Hittites? The Hyksos? Don't even try, but there were hundreds of kings of various levels of power throughout the region. Only a very few, like Alexander and the Caesars, became infamous enough to be known universally in their own time, and whole swaths of ancient civilizations have been lost because their writing (when they did write) was simply destroyed. I want to give a better picture of an ancient-ish civilization than is normally shown through encyclopedia articles and pretty pictures. I think I can do it, but I have to do it to find out.

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