Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Gehenna: Part 3

Okay. Our collaborative story has a provisional title. This may change as the story evolves; a good title should cut to the quick of the story and we don't yet know what the story's about. But it gives us a handle while we grope forward in the dark.

Here's where the story now stands. First, what we already had (you'll note that I've made minor revisions; this will continue happening throughout):


The city had been frozen in time. The moon hung, a thin disk of ice, as unchanging as the afternoon sun. Birds were motionless specks in the sky. You could climb the smoke billowing from its chimneys halfway up to heaven and there, perhaps, discover an unimaginable nation living on the clouds just an hour's effort above the mundane world.

Gehenna Immaculata stared at the city from the vantage of the topmost branches of the tallest oak in the adjacent forest. She had no history or philosophy or even peasant morality to help her put what she saw in context. She was illiterate.

She only knew what she wanted.

So far, we have a tableau. Now let's move this into the realm of fiction. Last week, I asked what Immaculata wanted and as of when I sat down to write, got no suggestions. So I made her desire as basic as I could:

Which was food.

I also asked where Ms Immaculata came from. Mike Flynn suggested that she had no memory. This seemed to me a good way of pushing her past deeper into the story's future -- and amnesia has been a reliable workhorse in sf and fantasy for generations -- so it is now implicit in all that happens between the end of the next paragraph and whenever it is that Gehenna has to acknowledge it.

Sandy came up with a plausible explanation of where Gehenna came from and what she wanted. It was a good one, too -- good enough for Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere and I consider that quite a successful tale. But by the time I read it, I'd already written the next two paragraphs containing an implied back-story.

Why only implied? Three reasons:

1) The beginning of a story should be primarily concerned with drawing the reader  in. Explanations slow things down, so they should be avoided as much as possible.

2) The bruises arouse the readers' curiosity, giving them more reason to continue reading.

3) I have no idea what the back-story is .

Later, we'll come up with something that will serve the story's purpose -- once we learn what that is.

So now we have:

Hunger drove Gehenna down the tree almost as fast as a squirrel, despite her many aches and bruises. Luckily, no bones were broken. So the only disability she suffered was pain -- and pain was hunger's handmaiden.

Note how the last word establishes that this is a medieval and not a modern city.

Next week Gehenna enters the city. The trip there should be glossed over as quickly as possible because it's not as interesting as what the opening promises the city will be. So here's the transition:

From the ground, the city was invisible. But Gehenna had noted that if she lined up a nearby beech with a distant staub, she could follow that line straight to its heart. Not half an hour later she burst free of the forest.

Next week: the city! And here we must deliver the fan service that first paragraph promises. The story demands vivid images of stasis. A drop of water hanging in the air below the spout of a pump? A butterfly frozen above cornflower? A cutpurse eternally sawing away at the string hanging from a citizen's belt?

Your ideas are solicited.  Let's see how brilliant you can be.



Unknown said...

The land above is parasitic. It squats above this city now, as it has done in other times to other cities, and feeds on its unlived moments. And up above, the music plays and they dance and dance. And they are beautiful and frightening.

Gehenna was raised in a small community of exiles, fugitives and those who were maybe a little touched-by-the-gods, eking out their meagre existence in the great forest of the West, burning charcoal and selling it when the season was right, waylaying lightly-armed travellers when it wasn’t.

On long nights spent watching the charcoal mounds, she heard tales of the city her great-grandparents had fled and the doom that had fallen upon it--the nature of which no two tellers could seem to agree on.

Curiosity burned in Gehenna, as it so often did, until one morning she slipped out of the camp with her knife, worn down to almost a sliver, her sling, and as much dried deer meat as she could steal without them coming after her. She faced east and started to pick her way through the trees. Weeks later, half-starved, she came upon a particularly tall oak that could serve as a vantage point above the forest, and she started to climb.

Unknown said...

Cheating a bit, since I missed the opportunity to suggest backstory earlier. I also didn't notice you'd decided to go with the amnesia device when I wrote the above, but maybe something happened in the forest on her way to the city that caused her to forget her original purpose...

David Stone said...

Entry to the city offered no challenges. Gehenna stepped boldly around and through the frozen clumps of wayfarers and locals that thronged the road near the western drawbridge. The city gate was a dark tunnel of masonry clogged with warm statues which she picked her way through carefully and with purpose. She emerged from the far end of the port unchallenged and unassailed, though under the glassy stare of a dozen or more sentries. It was only then, standing at the edge of a silent and crowded market, near a baker's stall, that she finally knew despair. Having been driven nearly half a league by hunger pangs and the imagined promise of limitless food free for the taking, she realized with a sickening jolt that the market did not smell right. It simply did not smell at all.

Erik said...

Well, there is the obvious image: people seated at tables, biting into food. Teeth sinking into fruit, juices sputtering at their lips. Fingers pulling apart roast birds, steam suspended in air, hot fat dripping from fingertips, crisp skin eternally golden. A single knob of once warm bread, perched perfectly on an old man's lips, never to be swallowed.

Not that she can eat a bite of it, nor even smell it, the city locked in a moment.

Other images that come to mind, perhaps less arresting (and less narratively useful): a child jumping into a puddle, surrounded by a frozen splash, a look of delight on their face eternally - perhaps a look of horror on a nearby parent. Or more amusing reversed? A graceless adult falling into a puddle while a child laughs from the side lines? A couple, locked in love, garments spilling to but never quite reaching the floor. Another mid argument, faces red with rage, a hurled cup never quite reaching the wall.

Erik said...

Ah, yes, well done David for getting to the fact the city wouldn't smell before me!

David Stone said...

Hmm, no smell but in my version I made the people still warm. Is this a conflict? Does it matter?

Michael Swanwick said...

Lots of good stuff here. Addressing David's final question: No, it doesn't. It's a fantasy world, so we get to dictate the physics. In a science fiction world, we wouldn't even be able to enter the city.

(It would be interesting to work out the physics of the city in the SF world, but that's another issue.)