Friday, March 13, 2015

On Truly Alternate History (Plus an Excerpt from Dark Sun, Bright Moon)

Guest post by Oliver Sparrow.

Dark Sun, Bright Moon is set in the Andes a thousand years ago, long before the Inca had been established. The book takes the cosmology of the Quechua people seriously, treating it as a central plot element. This is not a mythology of gods and spirits, but of a technology that is rooted in a clear view of how the universe is constructed, and what that means to the average person. The Quechua were isolated from all influences for at least ten thousand years, so this leads to a very distinct view of the world indeed. Each community has its apu, presiding intelligence that is formed from the dynamics of their own behaviour. Weak apus lead to death, disease and misery, but strong ones farm their people for the flows that they need to survive. Poor harmony leads to weak apus, and so a spiral of decline. Each individual is pinched off a community 'pool' at birth and returns to it at death. Harmony and community cohesion is everything, but individuals are nothing. Today, indeed, after two hundred years of repression by the Inca and four hundred by the Catholic Church, these beliefs still flourish. The apu may now be called San Pedro, but they still go up to his hillock and dance for him.

How is an author to represent this alien world in fiction? There are two distinct challenges. The first is, of course, obvious: how can a reader be brought into this complex and challenging worldview without being lectured into exhausted submission? But by bit, of course, and with most of the complexity implicit in the story and not forced on the reader. (I attached an appendix for those who wanted a more systematic insight, and from feedback, that seems to have been attractive to many readers.)

The second question is an even more difficult one to resolve. Given that your readers understand the society and its ways, how can you build a story that grips by using only these ingredients? The most common approach is what I call "Disney history", which uses the past as a set of props. Its story line gives these to entirely modern characters, each saddled with a single "historical" oddity to their nature. The cast conforms to contemporary mores, leading to an upbeat ending. Commonly used props will include cod-Shakespearean dialog: "Ho! Varlet. Doest thou espy yonder studmuffin?" You generally find that there is a cast that includes modern stereotypes - one of these and one of those - all calculated to hit every target audience and tick every political box. Hey, don't you just love that young feminist-environmentalist who leads the noble workers to expel the exploitative, pollutive baron?

It won't do. It just won't do.

My own solution to this relies on a strong plot mechanism that runs on a clear logic. Why is one character torturing victims on a tatty old mud brick pyramid? Because he is attempting to engineer the creation of an apu, a community-managing entity, so that he can control his own society absolutely. Why is he able to do this? Because that is how the Quechua universe works, and because it fits with the needs of the absolutist aristocracy of the society that is funding him. And because those are the norms of formal religion, which is used to police dissent. One step out of line, and there you are on a pyramid at dawn, bleeding out for the good of the society.

That, of course, throws you back to the first of the two issues with which I began. How do you get enough of that universe across so that the reader understands the 'strong plot logic' on which you are relying? There is no easy answer to this. If you have a novel that is set in Victorian London, then a bit of fog, a crinoline and a hansom cab will put the reader where you need them to be. When your mise-en-scène is less well-known  - dare I say, less a cliché - then the only solution is to proceed step by step, widening your gyre only as the plot acquires its own dynamic. After a first section, which displays the plot elements in action, I spend six chapters taking readers through village life so that the strange world is put into context. Only then can we soar in the destruction and creation of Empires. One needs to show the inner working of a society through how understandable characters react within it, are helped or tormented by it. As the Greeks used to say, there can be no pathos without agon; no emotional impact without conflict.

Editor's Note: Oliver was kind enough to send an excerpt of his novel, Dark Sun, Bright Moon, and you can check it out below:

Chapter 1: A Small Sacrifice at Pachacamac

A priest knelt before her, a feather from his head-dress tickling her face. His musky odour of old incense and stale blood was rank, even here on the windy summit of the pyramid. Four other priests held her body tipped slightly forwards, and the pressure that this put on her tired old joints hurt far more than the fine, cold bite of the knife at her neck. Quick blood ran thick down her chin and splashed into the waiting bowl. Then the flow weakened, the strength went out of her and she died, content.

Seven elderly pilgrims had set out for Pachacamac, following their familiar river down to the coast and then trudging North through the desert sands. Two of the very oldest of them needed to be carried in litters, but most were able to walk with no more than a stick to help them in the sand. Lesser members of the community had been delegated to carry what was necessary. These would return home. The elderly would not.

The better-regarded families of the town were expected to die as was proper, sacrificed at the Pachacamac shrine for the betterment of the community. Such was to be their last contribution of ayni, of the reciprocity that assured communal harmony and health. It was also their guarantee of a smooth return to the community's soul, to the deep, impersonal structure from which they had sprung at birth.

The Pachacamac complex appeared to them quite suddenly from amongst the coastal dunes. They paused to marvel at its mountain range of pyramids, its teeming myriad of ancient and holy shrines.

Over the millennia, one particular pyramid had come to process all of the pilgrims who came from their valley. They were duly welcomed, and guards resplendent in bronze and shining leather took them safely to its precinct.

They had been expected. The priests were kind, welcoming them with food and drink, helping the infirm, leading them all by easy stages up to the second-but-last tier in their great, ancient pyramid. The full extent of the meandering ancient shrine unveiled itself like a revelation as they climbed. Then, as whatever had been mixed with their meal took its effect, they were wrapped up snug in blankets and set to doze in the late evening sun, propped together against the warm, rough walls of the mud-brick pyramid. Their dreams were vivid, extraordinary, full of weight and meaning.

The group was woken before dawn, all of them muzzily happy, shriven of all their past cares, benignly numb. Reassuring priests helped them gently up the stairs to the very top tier. In the predawn light, the stepped pyramids of Pachacamac stood sacred and aloof in an ocean of mist.

Each pilgrim approached their death with confidence. A quick little discomfort would take them back to the very heart of the community from which they had been born. They had been separated from it by the act of birth, each sudden individual scattered about like little seed potatoes. Now, ripe and fruitful, they were about to return home, safely gathered back into the community store. It was to be a completion, a circle fully joined. Hundreds of conch horns brayed out across Pachacamac as the dawn sun glittered over the distant mountains. Seven elderly lives drained silently away as the mist below turned pink.

* * *

Oliver Sparrow was born in the Bahamas, raised in Africa and educated at Oxford to post-doctorate level, as a biologist with a strong line in computer science. He spent the majority of his working life with Shell, the oil company, which took him into the Peruvian jungle for the first time. He was a director at the Royal Institute for International Affairs, Chatham House for five years. He has started numerous companies, one of them in Peru, which mines for gold. This organisation funded a program of photographing the more accessible parts of Peru. Oliver knows modern Peru very well, and has visited all of the physical sites that are described in his book Dark Sun, Bright Moon.

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