Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Symposium Where Everyone Dies

Guest post by PK Lentz.

In fiction, Greece is not the word. Putting aside the present Scotland craze, for every one novel set in Greece, there are probably ten Roman books. That's understandable. Rome ruled the known world for a good long while, and not by making friends and signing treaties. That makes for good war stories. Meanwhile, when most people think of Greece, it's all silent temples and jury duty and drinking wine at symposia while sharing theories on the nature of virtue.

I studied ancient history in college and read a bunch of Homer in the original epic Greek dialect, from when grammar was a loose set of suggestions. When I decided that instead of writing SF, as I had been, I would put my degrees to use in fiction, there was never any possibility I would draw from anywhere other than Greece. But if not that tranquil Greece of Socrates and Plato, then what? There's the Iliad, of course, arguably the ultimate war epic and deserving of all the praise it gets. But it's been used to death, really, by authors of Historical, SF, and Fantasy alike.

No, my starting point could only be Thucydides. If you only ever read one book on Greek history, it should be Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian War (abridged is fine; I understand). The Greece you'll read about there is not the Greece of Platonic dialogues. It's a bloody, brutal world where disagreements between factions of one city turn quickly to open slaughter, where towns are emptied of life because they gave the wrong answer to a herald, and where there are no such things as morality or human rights, only what is most favorable and expedient for a given side. This was the Greece that appealed to me—well, creatively, anyway.

Given that you're visiting this site, you'd probably agree with me that however not-boring history is, there can be a certain something lacking in straight historical fiction. Hence, even though all my viewpoint characters and setting would be purely historical, I planned to have a far-future woman drop in from another dimension and change things. But just as I didn't want any over-civilized, stereotypical Greece, I didn't want your typical time-traveler, either, always thinking things out and fretting about the time-stream. Mine would be pure ass-kicking chaos, the kind of girl your parents would ban from the house if you brought her home.

As for ancient characters, there was only ever one choice for a protagonist. Most people familiar with ancient history know the name Demosthenes as that of an orator of the fourth century BCE. But another Athenian named Demosthenes lived a century earlier and served as an elected general (yes, Athens elected its generals—which makes more sense when you consider that every male citizen of fighting age was in the part-time army). Thucydides provides the primary record of this Demosthenes' existence. He doesn't really give him much attention, but the few mentions suggest Demosthenes was ahead of his time as a strategist, conscious of notions like surprise and ambush and taking advantage of terrain at a time when battles generally were fought by lining up and pushing, with the gods bestowing victory on the worthier city. One of Demosthenes' attempts to be clever ended in disaster, leading to a brief period of disgrace in which he was afraid to go home, lest the voters decide to exile him, as would later happened to Thucydides.

The historical Demosthenes avoided exile and erased his disgrace with a tide-turning victory at Pylos, where he made several hundred besieged Spartans surrender—even though Spartans never, ever surrendered. Ever. Years later, he would go on to co-command Athens' ill-fated Sicilian Expedition, an operation conceived by the much more famous Alcibiades. With very good reason, Demosthenes was not pleased with the assignment. During the expedition, he was captured by Sparta's Syracusan allies and executed on the spot with his fellow (also more famous) general Nicias, essentially winding up 'dead in a ditch.'

My Demosthenes, armed with help from above, could avoid that fate and shape the war to a far greater degree. The aforementioned Athenians, Alcibiades and Nicias, would make appearances. But I would need a Spartan viewpoint. Who better than Styphon, who according to Thucydides was the Spartan to whom fell, after the deaths of two superiors, the unprecedented decision to surrender to Demosthenes? Poor Styphon; it's the only mention of him anywhere in history. And hey, maybe in a brief aside I could even kill off Socrates so those dialogues that Plato gave us never happened...

Crafting alternate history is a bit of a highbrow pursuit, what with the need to work out plausible consequences for a change, and successive changes after that. But at some point in the process of creating my series The Hellennium (from the words Hellenic and millennium, if that's not clear) it became something other than that. Demosthenes and Thalassia (the aforementioned ass-kicker from elsewhen) took over. Their highly dysfunctional relationship became the driving force of events, and I think there's something to that. Real history is not shaped by gray-bearded Father Time sitting in a drawing room crafting consequences: what if this, what if that? It's shaped by humans; by their fears, their loves, their jealousies, their bitterness, their rage, their hatred, their grief. And thus did the world of The Hellennium become populated with broken people, both Greek and alien—because the more broken the people, the more broken the history. It's more fun that way, and ultimately I didn't want to write 'Sci-Fi-Historical' novels as an intellectual exercise in politics, society, and economy. However dark and violent things get (which is very, mind you), I wanted this to be fun. For you and me anyway. Maybe not for Demosthenes.

My original draft of Athenian Steel ended with a Greek army assaulting the young Roman Republic, but on the advice of a literary agent (currently managing the biggest Historical Fantasy series in the world) I cut back the plot and pushed off Rome to Book III. I didn't think there was such a thing as 'too epic,' but I guess there is. Some of the material from that original ending was too good to go to waste (in my humble opinion) so I turned it into a novella with the subtle and intellectual title, Roman Annihilation. You can get it free on Amazon or at my website linked below. In the latter case, you'll also get a free Mythological Fantasy novel and a short story about an ancient Athenian in space which was a bit of a precursor to Athenian Steel.

It's been loads of fun giving the 'other Demosthenes' a do-over, and I have much more in store. He might not exactly enjoy it, but at least I can guarantee he won't wind up dead in a ditch.

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P.K. Lentz is author of Athenian Steel, the sequel to which, Spartan Beast, is due out shortly. Get three free SF&F ebooks by joining his newsletter at Signing up will also get you an alert when the full-length Athenian Steel is free for a day or two (including later this month), so you can be ready for Book II. In addition, you'll get access to a 50% preview of Spartan Beast prior to publication and exclusive related bonus material afterward.

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