A True History of a Writer-Come-Lately
"Throne of the Gods" was my fourth Aurora Universe story after "The Defector," "Mundane Secrets of the Yo Yo Brotherhood" and "You and Each of You." But it was the story that defined me as a writer, more than any other before or since.
I had the idea for it more than 25 years before I even heard of Sharon Best and the AU. The tale of how I failed then -- of how on more than one occasion I despaired of ever becoming a storyteller -- and yet succeeded decades later is the story of my literary life.
It began with the image of a seemingly utopian world, and of its downfall--of what that meant to the few survivors who learned the whys and wherefores. I knew that I had a novel idea for a disaster story. I knew what kind of world Domyr would be (although it didn't have a name then) and I knew about the Throne of the Gods and its lonely astronomer (although he didn't have a name then, either), estranged from his kind by a cruel accident of childhood. I even had a notion about a heroine who would save his life and bring him back from the Throne to explain what had happened to those still living (In this scenario, the world was damaged but not utterly destroyed.).
I wrote a few trial paragraphs; the opening sentence is as I first imagined it, and the description of the Throne and its history virtually the same. But I never got any further than that, even though a friend of mine -- now a well known science fiction writer himself -- was impressed by the prologue and wanted to read the story.
The thing is, I had no experience at writing fiction, and I didn't think I had any vocation for it. I'd tried once or twice before to write sf -- the first time was when Isaac Asimov granted me permission to write a Foundation story (This was decades before Foundation's Friends and other shared world series). I sat helplessly before my typewriter. I had an idea, but I couldn't make it come alive.
I even constructed a theory to account for seeming inability to write fiction, involving analytic vs. synthetic thinking. I also had the ingrained notion that it required a great deal of certain kinds of "life experience" to be a good storyteller. "To know everything about writing and know nothing else is to know nothing about writing," my friend Lester del Rey once remarked, and my own life had all been about writing -- non-fiction, that is.
I should have misspent my youth better; I was one of Ed Howdershelt's "been nowhere, done nothing" types. But perhaps we all accumulate some sort of useful experience if we live long enough: the joys and disappointments of love and work, personal triumphs and tragedies that loom large to us even if they seem small to others -- and that give us a feel for what those others go through.
But there was yet another reason for not writing "Throne of the Gods," however. It required a scientific knowledge that was beyond me at the time, and still is. My original conception was inspired by Poul Anderson's Tao Zero, in which a runaway starship accelerates so close to the speed of light that time dilation enables its passengers to travel past the death of our universe and into the next.
Such a vessel would, of course, accumulate so much relativistic mass that its passage through a planetary system would wreak havoc. That much I knew, but nothing more. I once approached Larry Niven at an sf convention and ran the idea by him. He told me to forget about it. That crushed me, more than I could have admitted at the time, for I was in love with the idea. But there seemed no hope for it. So matters rested for more than two decades.
In the meantime, I continued to pursue a writing career. I wrote for newspapers and later for trade magazines. I edited a science fiction magazine for one traumatic year -- the publisher didn't like to pay writers and artists. I wrote a four-volume history of science fiction, and contributed reviews and essays on sf and other popular culture topics for a number of publications. I caught the family history bug, compiled a history of my mother's family, and became historian of the family association.
Along the way, I dabbled a bit in fan fiction. A jape about comics fans vs. sf fans for some comics fanzine (An attempted sequel went nowhere,). An X-rated space opera satirizing the publisher of that sf magazine I'd worked for -- it was so bad that friends of mine thought I must be losing my mind, and I was so traumatized that I didn't try any other fiction for a decade or so. After that hiatus came a mock sequel to Twin Peaks that impressed some fans, and of which a few scenes were performed at a Twin Peaks fan festival in 1994; and two others that impressed nobody. A short X-Files story that was posted on-line and drew little comment, but was still floating around in cyberspace when I retrieved it for my site a while back.
And then along came Sharon Best.
Well, not quite. First, along came Martha Nochimson, a college professor whom I encountered (first on line, later in person) through a mutual interest in Twin Peaks and The X-Files -- we both being contributors to a fanzine called Wrapped in Plastic. Martha is an authority on soap opera (author of a study called No End to Her), having once been a soap writer, and I had recently taken an interest in one of the soaps for a peculiar reason.
That reason was Michael J. Anderson, who may be known to some of you as the Man from Another Place in Twin Peaks and as a trailer park manager in the "Humbug" episode of The X-Files. In the summer of 1999, for reasons I have yet to learn, he was cast as a double agent named Peter Zorin in Port Charles, an ABC soap that had been spun off from General Hospital (and which died in 2003). His gig there lasted only a couple of months, but by then I had become interested enough in the other characters to keep watching.
When I later became acquainted with Martha, she regaled me with stories of the glory days at General Hospital -- Luke and Laura and their adventures, including the saga of the Ice Princess in which they saved the world from a super-villain who threatened to freeze it with "carbonic snow." Being a long-time science fiction fan, I knew that the device allegedly used to control the weather was idiotic. But that gave me the idea for a fan fiction in which that device turns out to have been just a cover story for the real weather machine, control of which was now being sought by Peter Zorin as head of a criminal organization called the Cobra (The original numero uno of same on Port Charles ended up in a coma, after which there was no further mention of him or the organization.).
Zorin, International Little Person of Mystery never got very far, the main reasons being that there was no potential audience for it and that some of the main characters I was using were subsequently either written out of General Hospital entirely or had their story lines altered so drastically that they were no longer plausible in my own. But before that I had gotten to the point of writing a scene involving Luke Spencer, Scott Baldwin, Stefan Cassadine and Mac Scorpio at a meeting of the Port Charles Homeland Security Committee. I sent it to Martha, who kind of liked it, but said it needed work -- especially Luke's part. She then proceeded to walk me through several drafts of the scene, until at last I came up with one that she informed me captured the true voices of the characters and their relationships and the kind of emotional line that is essential to good soap writing. This was high praise, from a source I knew that I could trust.
And then along came Sharon Best.
More like, along came me, suddenly encountering a web site devoted to fiction about a fetish -- sexy superheroines -- that I'd never known I had, but which must have been buried in me somewhere all along. We got to corresponding by e-mail -- some of you know how that could be. One thing led to another. Elsewhere I have told the story of how she goaded me into writing "The Defector." It's a simple story: she sent me a sketch about a Vel, for no apparent reason, seducing a professor right in the college library.
It was so totally unbelievable, but seductively appealing to a scholarly type like myself. Having learned to construct a scene, I thought that I might have it in me to construct a whole story to make that fantasy take place in a more believable context. I would also have a chance to vent some of my pet ideas and pet peeves, plug some of my favorite writers, and tease potential readers with in-jokes (Did any of you get the Winnemac references?).
So it began, with much advice and input from Sharon, but still my idea and my story. And she liked it. She really liked it! (Enough to own up to me about not being a woman, which only a few people knew at the time.). So did others. Not Sally Field, perhaps, but at least one old friend from outside the AU circle as well as people within it.
And so I continued, with "Mundane Secrets of the Yo Yo Brotherhood" (Ed bugged me for a sequel to that, and the result is "Sleeping Beauty.") and "You, and Each of You" (One reader was pleased to find that it gave both his hand and his brain a workout, but I was more pleased to learn that a long-time woman friend enjoyed the story in all its raunchy splendor.).
At some point in the summer of 2002, Sharon suggested the idea of a quest story involving an old wizard and a Protector. But while I love Tolkien, and Stephen Donaldson, and other fantasy writers, I didn't think I could do wizards, and I didn't have any idea what the story of a Vel and a wizard would be about. But then my mind went back to that old scenario about the Throne of the Gods.
This time, I had a sympathetic ear to run the idea by: Tarot Barnes, a far from callow youth who already knows more about physics than I ever did or ever will. He quickly disposed of the runaway spaceship idea: the ship would implode (Why hadn't Anderson thought of that?).
Anyway, that idea no longer made sense for another reason: current cosmological theory is that the universe will expand forever, and maybe be destroyed in a Big Rip, rather than reaching the limits of expansion and contracting again to be reborn and begin a new cycle. But Tarot had a better idea that worked just as well for the purposes of the story. And so the story unfolded, in an entirely new direction as an AU story, yet true to its original vision as well.
During all those long years that I never thought I could be a fiction writer, I was aware of what writers said about their craft. How they got their ideas, how they made up their characters, how they might aim the plot in one direction only to see it spontaneously take another, how seemingly minor characters would become important, how they would struggle to make certain scenes work and realize that they had to be rethought entirely. But it was all from the outside looking in. It has thus been a strange and rewarding thing to experience it all from the inside looking out.
The Aurora Universe proved to be a congenial environment, much like that of the pulp magazines of old. According to a documentary I once saw on TV, Dashiell Hammett stopped writing because he'd discovered James Joyce and felt intimidated by the shadow of his genius. He couldn't possibly write anything as good as Ulysses, so why bother trying to write anything? I felt just as intimidated by the shadow of sf giants -- not only those familiar to everyone here like Heinlein or Bradbury, but people like Henry Kuttner and Clifford D. Simak and Cordwainer Smith.
No feeling of intimidation here, The other AU writers are peers, more or less. And they have a sense of community, more like that of the pulp writers of old than the too often self-absorbed writers of today. There is also the literary pleasure of working in a genre: "Sharon" may have set the rules, but the rest of us can bend them any way we see fit and stretch the limits of our fictional universe. Literary critics can never seem to get it through their heads that there is a difference between a set of conventions and a rigid formula. We know better.
One of the conventions of AU fiction, of course, is the coming together (literally) of a Velorian goddess and an ordinary man. What Sharon calls the "heart of the fantasy," the erotic vision of a superwoman who can't be raped, can't be injured, can't be compelled, who doesn't "need" a man for support or protection, yet chooses to share herself freely with a deserving frail. I've indulged in that fantasy several times myself on a number of occasions, before and since.
But for "Throne of the Gods," I wanted to do something completely different. By the very nature of the story as I first conceived it, it would be impossible for Amsul to have a sexual relationship with a human or, in this case, a Vel. She just wouldn't appeal to him on that level, wouldn't seem at all alluring, wouldn't even smell like honey and wildflowers. I had to create an entirely different kind of relationship between Amsul and Theel'dara, in keeping with Sharon's idea of a quest story but with the details entirely my own.
I also have friends who are not comfortable with the kind of explicitness typical of AU fiction, whether it be called porn or erotica. So I wanted to write a PG-13 story to share with them, as well as with AU fiction fans. Perhaps some of the latter were disappointed, although I did give Theel'dara a true lover in scenes far less explicit than is customary. I hope that they felt compensated by what "Sharon" called the "classic science fiction" thrust of the story. From my own point of view, at any rate, the story as it stands is complete in all essentials.
I had written Theel'dara's eloquent speech (the writer she quotes is Antoine de St. Exupry) early on, but the exact circumstances of its delivery were conceived much later, and the Glorious Revolution that followed surprised me almost as much as Velor when it welled up from the recesses of my mind near the end. Of course, "Sharon" had been hinting for some time that things were going far from well for the Enlightenment, politically or militarily, but I imagine that she was still startled by my response. I imagine that "her" new incarnation Shadar was even more startled by my continuing development of this theme in "Terms of Enhancement." But that's the fun of writing in a genre; there are so many possibilities, and sometimes you yourself don't realize what they are until you start writing.
That sort of thing is true for any writer, and it was already true of "The Defector" and "Mundane Secrets of the Yo Yo Brotherhood" and "You, and Each of You." Yet those were stories that came to me on the spur of the moment, and would never have occurred to me but for "Sharon Best" and her milieu -- there are obvious references to that milieu: the AU "convention" in Las Vegas, an unfinished Sharon Best story called "Desert Wind." There are personal elements in both stories, yet these are relatively trivial.
"Throne of the Gods," however, was a story I had longed to write, one that had torn at my heart and soul, trying to find expression. But it couldn't. It was a dream that had turned to ashes, until it was rekindled by that chance remark from "Sharon" about a wizard and a Vel.
There is also this: during all the years of writing sf history and criticism, rewarding as they were, I had felt a twinge of discomfort over the fact that I could write about science fiction, but seemingly couldn't write science fiction itself. I felt as if, on some fundamental level, I hadn't paid my dues to the genre. But with "Throne of the Gods," in some measure, I finally did that. Two phases of my life came together in that story. Writing it was like being reborn.
--Brantley Thompson Elkins