Today's excerpt is something of a favorite. Not because it's especially well written but because I'm inordinately pleased with myself for having thought of it.
One of the advantages of working in a large, established world is that it carries its own baggage. It's a world. With history and stories that extend forward from whenever you are but also back into the past. Cultures, societies, civilizations that have been trudging away getting to whatever point you're at. And thousands, if not billions, of other characters running around outside the margins of your tale doing their own thing. It's a situation ripe for metafiction. For fiction within the fiction. About your story. Reflecting it, highlighting it, even as it throws it into sharp relief. All those people, all that time, at least a few of them are bound to have been writers.
So, in my novel one of the toys I'm playing with is the literary canon. The body of culturally important works that people within my imaginary world would know - the way people today know about the Illiad or Moby Dick or Star Wars - the stories they tell to each other about each other. Using those to provide some exposition in an interesting way. There are things that my characters know, basic information that it wouldn't make sense for them to be sharing with one another. But bits of data that a reader needs to make sense of it all. Since I'm dealing with an alternate, futuristic world divorced from our own there's a lot of that sort of thing that ground that needs to be covered. And while it might not be as efficient or as clear as a simple infodump or some omniscient narration explaining it all, I've been trying to fill in the gaps using unreal literature created by fictional authors. With scraps of songs that no one's ever sung. With excerpts from books that no one's ever written. Except within the uncomfortably frenetic confines of my mind.
The Empire, after all, is a colonial Empire. A society ruled by the soft power of cultural imperialism. They've got a big soapbox and a microphone and shout into it at the benefits of indoor plumbing and consumer goods and magazines with fashion tips and the latest hit single that simply everyone has to have. And then say, "Oh, by the by, if you wouldn't mind singing this which pledges you into eternal service of the Empress, that'd be just great. No? Well, okay, what about a favorable trade contract? Great! Now, let's talk price." These people are nasty. Insurance salesman nasty. But exactly the sort who'd be pumping out a constant stream of content in every available medium.
On the basis of that I have, for example, turned the script I worked on over the summer who's working title was Swamp Opera into an actual opera within the pages of this book. Using one view of the events, the basic synopsis of the plot of what I call Ghosts On the Wind now into a grand guignol called Her Final Task (And, if you'll permit me to geek out over my own brilliance here written by one of the characters from that script.). Because it's all about creating connections. Reinforcing the threads that bind the societies of this world together. It shows up only briefly. Really used to establish a place that was a minor setting in that script but pivatol in this text and quickly forgotten. But the thing is I could write the whole thing, beginning to end if I wanted. And, you know, I had the time or talent. If it wasn't just one little piece of the tapestry of texts and tunes I was creating.
This excerpt isn't that opera. Instead, it's a version of the story of Gethsemone. If that sounds familiar, you're right. It's part of a deliberate effort on my part to include vague references and illusions that leave a reader feeling unsettled. Questioning just where the connections are, wondering just how it all fits together, because that's the whole point of the exercise. Gethsemone isn't a garden here, though, although the translation of the hebrew name does carry a bit of symbollic weight. Instead, it's the story of how the Empress Cassandra - really, her mother - came to power. It's one of the founding myths of Imperial Exceptionalism. The theory that there's something special, something different, something remarkable about the place. As such, it's something that everyone in the Empre and, very likely, everyone familiar with it would know. The gist of the story is that Cassandra's mother led a rebellion, overthrowing a cruel leader to become the quote unquote queen (She would never call herself that. Although the modern Imperium knows her as the Queen Mother that's because of her daughter who always liked to style herself as a monarch. The mother is the type who'd have called herself "First Citizen" if she used a title at all.). The beginning of a meteoric rise to power and influence that continued through her daughter crowning herself Empress and, indeed, to the modern day with a expansive Empire growing ever larger. Pluck someone off the streets of Tetran or Avershram even Gualaxa or Kao Pa'au and they could tell you the gist. But like many stories, the telling is in the details. It's how the story is told, what audience it's for, that makes it work.
As soon as the evil queen's guards had closed in on her mother, young Cassandra knew fear. Its shadowy hand reached through her chest and massaged her heart with icy fingertips. Her mother told her to run. To escape. To flee far away. But fear had grabbed her by the ankles. And she found that her legs would not obey her when she told them to move. A guard put her heavily mailed hand on her shoulder and made to lead her within Gethsemone's walls towards an uncertain fate. And Cassandra could do nothing to resist.
But, then, the guards holding her mother twisted her arm, to force her into following along. The piercing cry of her mother's pain sliced through young Cassandra. She gasped in shock, in sympathy, at the treatment of her mother. One look up at the look of grim fascination on the face of the guard holding her and Cassandra knew what must be done. She could not allow herself to be captured for, surely, Gethsemone held nothing but sorrow for her and her mother. So she sagged. Pretending that her legs had given out. And as the cruel guard bent down to set her right, she kicked. Aimed hard and true at the guards calf, just above her boots.
With the guard wincing in pain, she ran. She heard the commotion behind her as her mother shoved at the other guards to prevent them from giving chase, yelling for her to get away. Listened for the dull slap of flesh that was her mother's reward for her efforts and the thud of her body slumping to the ground. But she didn't turn and she didn't stop. The sounds of her mother's beating rang through the woods but Cassandra knew she couldn't afford even a single look back. Instead, she ran as fast as her legs would carry her. Crashing through brush and hopping over branches in her mad dash to put as much distance between her and the soldiers who would surely follow.
While her mother was led into Gethsemone and met with its foul-hearted queen, she was running. Only when she could no longer hear the shouting of the guards did she slow. Did her stride lessen from wasteful and taxing speed to a more measured pace. Cassandra picked her way carefully through the underbrush, threading a looping path along the forest floor. Her mother had taught her the ways of the tracker and the woodswoman well and young Cassandra used every trick she had learned to disguise her trail. She tried as hard as she could to pass through the woods like a spirit without a trace. No browned leaves crunched under her feet. No dried branches snapped by her hand. Only the rustle of wind among the gently swaying trees marked her passage.
But Cassandra knew that it wouldn't be enough. Already she gasped for air and her skin felt clammy and cold from sweat. She couldn't hope to outrun the soldiers. Not for long. Their legs were long. Their backs strong. Cassandra was just a little girl and, now, one alone without her mother. Her mind raced as her heart pounded. The spectres of doubt and fear dogged her each step of the way. But Cassandra refused to fall under their sway. Her mother could take care of herself and would find her own way back to her. What Cassandra had to do, she understood, was to stay safe until then so they could be reunited. She needed a place to hide, a spot where the guards couldn't find her. But where? But how? How could she manage to stay hidden from the guards who were even now marching after her. Hunting her down. And then, like a flash, the answer came to her. And she raced along, looking for the perfect spot.
The guards did follow, in time, but the mother's distraction had delayed them enough for her to speed into the distance. By the time their commander had finished shouting at them orders to pursue, Cassandra was nowhere to be seen. Vanished amid the brambles that the guards, weighed down by their heavy armor and uneased by the approaching fall of night, found hard to travel through. The woods were harsh and foreboding. And the evil queen of Gethsemone had long forbidden her subjects from traveling too far into them. The wind rustling through the branches, shaking the slender trees which reached upwards for the sky unsettled the guards. The chill of the fading day sent shivers running along their spines. And shadows dancing along the forest floor toyed with their imaginations. The guards were afraid. The guards were weary. And they wanted nothing more to return to the safety and warmth of their home and shed themselves of the bulky protection they wore.
Halfheartedly, they searched through the underbrush. Looking within tree roots and piles of leaves for pockets of safety where the young girl could hide. But search as they might, they could find nothing. No spot. No sign of the young girl. The superstitious guards swore that she had vanished. Slipping into the night like a spiritcaller summoning the shadows to do her bidding. Filled with thoughts of what might happen to them if they should happen to find such a witch yet driven by thoughts of what would happen if they returned to their queen empty handed, the soldiers huddled with one another, afraid to stray too far away. As night dawned and the light faded, they had resigned themselves to failure. Cursing the silent woods, they turned towards Gethsemone.
High above, nestled in the tree branches, young Cassandra slept with only the night time sky studded with stars for a blanket. She had always been a strong climber and the guards could never hope to scale a tree in their cumbersome outfits. The trees' canopy had concealed her from easy view and, so, she escaped detection. The day would bring with it new problems and new searchers but Cassandra would deal with them when the time came. For now, she needed her rest. And her strength for the trials to come.
This version is for children. The sort of thing a mother reads to her child before tucking her in at night. The Imperial version of a fairy tale. Which, I hope, lets it be basic and simplistic, glossing over the complexities and contradictions of actual history while allowing me to focus on just what the Empire values teaching its children. It's intended to be an excerpt placed between scenes, between chapters, to help illuminate not only the character of the Empress but of the Empire she controls. It would have several chapters alternating between points of view between the Empress and the Queen Mother. The one here is the second one, the first to focus on Cassandra, the future Empress, who's, here, just a small girl in an impossible situation. It's a big contrast, in other words, to the lofty position of supreme authority and confidence she holds throughout the rest of the story. An insight into what she was before the crown and just how she got to her throne. As well as an example of the kind of propaganda, the kind of self-delusion, that pervades the Empire - you think the Empress is coming off bad in a book published within her Empire? No, it's crafted to make her look as good as possible. Not because she ordered it but because that's how much her peoples love her.
I'm not sure just how many chapters of this story will make it into the book. I've laid them out but this is the only one I've managed to work up in detail. And, as as I said, I don't think it's very well written. I could do better. I hope. But, you know, rough draft and all. It has problems. But the final image - the young Empress sleeping underneath a blanket of stars while soldiers fruitlessly search for her below the canopy - is a powerful one. I haven't done it justice yet, though, but it works for now. I think, eventually, I'd like to have something like this surrounding any scene whee the Empress - or maybe her daughter appears. So, just for kicks, though, here's the header that would have proceeded it whereever it appears.
>>Gethsemone's Toll by Hatiristo
>A Child's Story
>First published 8 BE / 25 YAG
>Summary: A dramatic account of the story of Gethsemone written by renowned child's author Hatiristo. The Empress and her mother are captured by the ruler of Gethsemone but the Queen Mother manages to usurp her throne while the Empress manages to escape. In the end, their path towards creating the Empire has begun but only after paying a bloody price to the Council. Considered a modern day classic of the vernacular, from these well-known facts Hatiristo weaves a striking tale full of imagery and suspense without once losing sight of the needs of her audience: the curious young and the parents who read to them.
>Royal Department of Education, Office of Developmental Education standardized evaluation: Recommended for maturity level 3 with reading comprehension scores of at least 4A. Trust index rating - Moderate. May contain slight exaggerations and historical inaccuracies for dramatic purposes.
>This story has been awarded the Royal Office of Historical Literature's seal of approval, being considered an excellent way to introduce children to the events at Gethsemone.
>This story is regarded as culturally significant by the Meishpaolan Literary Council and recommended for priority archival storage by the Imperial Cross-cultural Historical Commission.
>>Please select chapter to display:
>Chaper One: The Fateful Walk
>Chapter Two: Running with the Wind
>Chapter Three: The Hard Bargain
>Chapter Four: A Princess Among the Trees
>Chapter Five: The Evils of the Queen
>Chapter Six: The Right Woman, the Right Time
>Chapter Seven: A Merry Chase
>Chapter Eight: The Council's Messenger
>Chapter Nine: Captured by the Forest
>Chapter Ten: The Hardest Cost to Bear
>>You have selected to continue Chapter Two: Running with the Wind (Digital Bookmark from Luodenum. Never lose your place of mind.). Patient thoughts while it is retrieved.
I should point out I'm not just playing with metafiction, but also with my favorite hobby horses of technology and communication, too. At this point in history, the Empire's developed a rudimentary internet. It's nothing like what we have today, being a lot more like a BBS like Usenet instead of graphically driven and commercialized. But keep in mind that if we were going to compare the level of the Imperial world's development with our own, this period would correspond to the Cold War. Early 80s at the latest. And while not everyone in their civilization is on "the grid" as they'd call it. It's a lot more established and widely used than the precusors of our own information superhighway. And the conceit is that the interstitial passages dividing up the scenes in the book all stem from characters or observers accessing that internet and seeking out some bit of information amongst the wide web.