Worldbuilding: Atridia

© Elsa Sjunneson-Henry (aka @Snarkbat)
© Elsa Sjunneson-Henry (aka @Snarkbat)

For me worldbuilding is the most fun and best bit about writing (it’s also my Achilles’ heel, my one weakness). Of course, Atridia has been around a while (it even gets destroyed in my short story “The Breaking of the Circle”, albeit briefly) and it, or rather some of its inhabitants (Amel, Kella and others) had a role to play in The Parting of the Waters. Writing that told me several things about Atridia and its culture for later use:

  • They are beginning to explore the universe, the Juran Elaspe being a prototype ship and the first one to leave the Sirian solar system.
  • Taborin is the centre of Atridian culture but it’s not a democracy. The best comparison would be North Korea.
  • Same-sex relationships are taboo and Amel, in particular, has a really big issue with his daughter, Kella, being gay (oddly falling for an alien doesn’t seem to bother him at all).
  • Homosexuality is a mental illness on Atridia, treated with crude attempts at conversion therapy and, if the subject isn’t cured to the satisfaction of the auditors, they can be euthanised. It’s also believed to be communicable, like an idea, but also genetic and travels in families.
  • There is a translation matrix (the beginnings of what will eventually become the Union’s neural rig) but it’s hit and miss.
  • The Atridians are a curious people, looking for others in the sea of space but they also want to be important and powerful.
  • Science is their religion, administered by the Directorate. It strictly controls information, censoring anything deemed inappropriate.
  • There are three genders, with the Ubani, or progenitors, vital to the continuation of the species but segregated and strictly controled by the Directorate. No one remembers why, at least not regular folks like Kella.
  • Creativity is viewed with suspicion and strictly controlled.
  • The neighbouring planet, Arcadia, is simultaneously Occupied and also independant and known for its medical advances/export of doctors.

So I started expanding on things. I wanted to know who Juran Elaspe was and why Amel was so upset by Kella’s choice to live amongst the Kashinai, unable to interbreed with them but finding family regardless. Time to worldbuild and write.

The awesome @snarkbat posted this photo of a statue in a Swedish park and the colouring of the metal/the dress immediately pinged my ‘hey, Atridians look something like that’ sensor. I had this image of a humanish race with copper-coloured skin, maybe a little lighter (Kella, for example, tailless as she is being not-Kashinai, can pass for one of them in a temple hakashari). There’s a difference in the odd organ, the number of fingers (I need to check the specifics/hire an assistant) but as photo-inspiration goes this is as close as is.

The dress just seals the deal.

I’m assembling a Pinterest board with imagery and also thinking about music. For example I’ve found two tracks which really jumped out of me (I get a lot of them via Spotify’s Discover Weekly feature, it’s actually really useful). The first I told you about when talking about expanding “When the Stars Fade” into a longer piece, probably a novella. This song makes me think of Jaada, specifically due to a lyric which talks about rewriting scenes, something she as an author is able to do—except she’s writing what amounts to historical fiction and the Narrative demands honesty, even when writing about things she’d rather change (in this case specific to her past life as Kadjat).

The second track is below:

In my head, this song perfectly sums up Jaada’s relationship with Tobai Estus, a narssasistic who slowly takes over control of Jaada’s life, attracted by her fame and her creativity but envious of it. He eventually gets his revenge after ‘suggesting’ the pair return to Atridia from the Ceipheian city of Serani where Jaada has spent her entire life so he can take up a specific post. Atridia doesn’t pride creativity and though Jaada is able to work as a teacher, it’s not the same. As she tries to reprioritise her life, he gets upset and the deterioration of their relationship ends a month later when he burns her books (a symbolic act as well as a physical desecration of her work) and then reports her to the auditors of the Hall of the Mind, which leads into my currently unsold story “The Mystic of Room 316” (which I plan on expanding into its own second person ‘chapter’ of the book).

Jaada’s incarneration then forces her to confront and learn to control her abilities, something she’s not able to do until Bry and Chaya break her out (mentioned briefly in “The First Day and the Last”, sanctioned by the highest powers due to Jaada’s ability to create unstable micro-realities). It’s in the two to three-ish years between that and the establishment of the Union/Atridian Commission to look into the Directorate that she has to learn to wield her abilities. As a teacher on Mnemosyne, she learns to inspire others but that’s only half of her ability and getting broken out of the Hall of the Mind, it wasn’t just to save her life and soul, Jaada is needed and her abilities, well they’re rare.

The true learning, that happens during The Broken World as Jaada works for the Commission. It forces her to learn about the Narrative (her name for the thread of reality that passes through linear time and allows her to tell true history from the fiction created by Atridia’s fallen government) and access historical information that no one remembers, except for the universe. This ability, it’s not oracular like the Voices of Aia on Coronis, but it’s a similar ability except governed by words rather than sight. The Divided Land (and a more formal report) is the result because, on most world, fiction is easier to believe than cold, hard facts.

By the time she publishes When the Stars Fade, Jaada’s in full command of her abilites (and will probably write more stories about other lives suppressed and whitewashed from history) but this is the one which important to her. Because it was hers. This is her way of healing, as writing “Constructed Mind, Reforged Soul” was mine.

Now to find more music, more images and write more words. Wool and Fallout are big inspirations for parts of both The Divided Land and The Broken World. Oh and everything about viruses that Seanan McGuire has ever written. On that note, it’s time to get back to the words!

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The Ashteraiverse: Writing Aliens without the Alien

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I’ve been writing a lot of short fiction lately, some of which I knew from the start were set within the Ashteraiverse, except it’s not obvious unless you recognise certain characters. Most of the time I try to avoid giving characters recognisable species or appearances, it’s just not important and I’m not a very visual person anyway. Many of these stories could pass as secondary worlds or futuristic sci fi but I never once reference these characters as human because they aren’t.

I’m being careful not to send them to anyone who might think they’re secondary worlds because that would be misrepresentation. This is an important thing to me because I want to make this stories stand alone but also be part of a larger canon. So while the civilisations and planets are definitely not Earth, it’s not always obvious if the protagonists are human or not. I like it that way … the species isn’t important, the stories are.

“When the Stars Fade” is the story I’m currently working on. It started out purely from referencing Kadjat Suru as the first Atridian to go into—and die in—space. I mentioned her as part of Teiru’s litany of names in “Constructed Mind, Reforged Soul” and she’s one of the many pioneers of technology and science that Juran Elaspe thinks of during The Fractured Era (my next novel project). I just had this line in my head which said:

My name is Kadjat Suru, I’m the first and I’m alone.

Until she started talking, I didn’t even realise Kadjat was female. I did know, however, that this story is set maybe a hundred plus years before the colonisation of Arcadia and perhaps two centuries before the Singularity, the cataclysmic event which sees Atridia embrace technology and sees their governmental system subsumed by the nefarious Directorate. This is how my characters tend to speak (and why I’m sure I’m just channelling people in another dimension or something), telling me the story as we go.

Kadjat is remembered almost like Laika from the Russian Space Program—except she was never supposed to die. The story is a meditation on life and death, especially as Kadjat only became an astronaut after losing her wife, Hesri, who was brutally murdered by a former boyfriend. Becoming the first person to go into space gives her something to focus on and her progenitor, her birth parent, raised her on stories of the stars which have lingered through her life. Now she gets to be the first person to go beyond, to where the stars shine.

“The Mystic of Room 316” is set on Atridia. I want to say it’s a contemporary story but I’m not all that sure, even if the final scene takes place on Mnemosyne (and so after the Gathering of the Races). In truth, I’m not one hundred percent sure but it feels like it could either be set in the period just after the Gathering or far into the future around the time of Contact with Earth (or at least a little before). It doesn’t matter, it’s not about that, it was inspired by my Bipolar diagnosis and my—albeit misguided—fear of sectioning.

The main character, Jaada, isn’t mentally ill, at least not when she was was admitted thanks to the malicious conniving of her ex. The problem is that she has abilities which don’t place nicely when medicated (she’s a Muse, albeit a wild and mortal one). Being confined to a ward and medicated makes her abilities turn inward and rather than inspiring others, she begins to lose the ability to tell reality from the worlds built in her head … and then begins to create unstable realities of her own, albeit ones unable to last more than the span of a dream.

“The Technopath and the MMO” is the only story so far actually set on Earth, it’s also straight sci fi set in the period after the Esper Registration Act is brought into force (and just after Contact in August 2015). I’m still writing this and it’s a lot of fun as I’m an old school MMO player. Daniel, the protagonist, is a normal kid who doesn’t realise he’s a technopath and gets hooked on an MMO called Empires of Eternity. Oh and he starts leveling his character in his sleep which means I have to finally figure out how a gaming server can tell the difference between a computer logging onto the net and a human brain.

“Constructed Mind, Reforged Soul” is set on Coronis and Elara, the smallest world of the Alcyone system of the Pleiades. This one is definitely the most recent of the tales and I’m pretty sure, regardless of the ending, Teiru is going to reappear somewhere along the way. This was one of those stories I wrote to exorcise demons and, stuff like this, it helps. Plus I really wanted to write another story featuring Kalafia (the computer program from The Parting of the Waters), this time fully sentient.

I have other stories in mind, these are just the most recent. Also, I really need to get back into writing something novel length before I lose the skill entirely. Next week, I think, and we’ll start The Fractured Era. I have a larger Moleskine all ready for it. Yes, that sounds like a plan.

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Finding the Angle in Short Fiction

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I’ve been making a concerted effort to write more—and better—short fiction and send it out to markets. This is partly because I want to be a better writer and because I would love to see my name on the covers of magazines I adore reading. I can’t subscribe to every magazine but I do read LightspeedUncanny and BCS religiously (thank you Kickstarter credits, regularly updated websites of free fiction goodness and Weightless Books).

I’ve spent the last couple of days devouring an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) of my friend Kim’s Mosaics: Volume 1 and it’s a beautiful tome, not just physically but compositionally. That’s what struck me, the positioning of the stories, poems and essays was particularly well done and I’ve not yet found one entry in the anthology I don’t like whereas I normally find anthologies are very much like albums; you love a couple of songs and the rest are kinda meh. That book has a soul which is a very hard thing to do and is seldom ever seen in magazines, no matter how well they’re curated.

I suppose a lot of that is down to the fact the anthology was curated with chosen pieces rather than a compendium of on-spec stories (which is how the anthologies I write for normally seem to be done). It makes for a nice change but it also got me thinking about my short stories, the ones I’m sending out to magazines, those are all on-spec (meaning I’m writing and sending them out without being asked for them). This makes it much harder as you’re basically writing stories in the hope that one of the slush editors/the EiC are going to like them enough to buy them.

But these on-spec stories, they’re also me; my ideas and composition. I have four stories out right now, with one more to follow after my crit group later today. Each story has focused on different ideas, styles and tenses. One is urban fantasy, another sci fi with notes of magical realism and fantasy, the third is historical, alternate fiction and the fourth an origin story. The latest story is epic fantasy with a secondary world based on ancient China which is just about ready to go out into the world for a round of rejectomancy. The last is a second person sci fi story about an author whose stint in a mental hospital activates psychic abilities which allow her see other worlds and dimensions, eventually evolving to a point where she is almost able to alter reality.

Each story is stand-alone and unique, part of the act of selling stuff is knowing which markets to try and that, in my opinion, is the problem or, at least, the challenge of submitting to market. You’re basically sending stuff out with no idea how it will be received, though if you’re lucky then you get rejections (called personals) with a note on what the editor liked or didn’t which can help guide future submissions, albeit to other markets.

Of course then you have that great question: to re-edit or not re-edit. A single editor doesn’t speak for the whole collective and one change might turn another editor off a story entirely. Being a slush editor for is one of those things which should help, except I did it for two issues and never had one of the stories I sent up go anywhere. Plus, with new magazines, it’s much harder to find a soul than with once that have been going for years. It’s almost like a brand and those, regardless of whether it’s a person or a magazine, take time to form. But, boy, is it fun to watch.

Every time I get a personal, I want to re-edit. This is my character flaw: I’m impatient and I latch onto what people say as if it’s gospel. It’s also why I’m in a crit group, surrounded by people whose opinions I trust, especially when it comes to my attempts at short fiction. Like journalism, it’s all about the angle except it’s this amorphous thing which changes depending on the editor.

I started a file last night, a folder on my browser called ‘Short Stories I Love’, mostly composed of entries from Lightspeed and Uncanny of short fiction which has really moved me. It delights me when I see the authors of my favourite stories with new ones in magazines I wait for with baited breath each month. I’d love to be able to to subscribe to every magazine but I can’t so I rely on the biweekly updates where fiction unlocks for free on publishers’ sites. Doing this, it’s helped me with my own writing but has also helped me, with my short attention span, to find a medium I really do love to read.

And if I read it, one day, I’ll sell just the right story.

Until then I’m going to play the probability game.

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Lightspeed and Uncanny Magazine Announce People with Disabilities Destroy SF!

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This makes me squee so hard, I just gave myself heartburn.

Ow.

(X) Destroy SF/Fantasy/Horror is one of my favourite Kickstarter projects to back. I’ve done so for every issue and was quietly wondering, nay hoping, that Disabilities might be on the upcoming list. I missed the submission for Queer, I’m a white writer so PoC was out, and being disabled, well it’s my very definition (thanks blindness, bipolar, brain damage etc). I’m practically champing at the bit at the very idea that, next year, there will be an open submission period that I can answer with a story.

It excites me.

Surprisingly, I don’t write many stories about disabled characters (though I do have some) and I’m in the middle of reworking “The Mystic of Room 316” which deals directly with mental illness and is set in an Atridian mental institution (though it’s a very stand-alone Ashteraiverse story). Ditto “108 Hours” which follows a war veteran with PTSD who hid from the draft in a war and is now stuck in a decimated city post-war with aliens with a little girl called Grace.

I’m so pleased that Uncanny, one of my favourite magazines, will be taking over the mantle. I love them and the magazine is on my Short Story Bingo Card as somewhere I’d love to see my name on the cover. The chance, oh it’s an enchanting thing, ripe with possibility and the promise of being able to try. I know the call isn’t until next year but I know it’s coming, it’s on my radar, and I’m going to give it everything I’ve got.

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