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Thursday, November 29, 2018

On Writing: “After ‘Oath,’” by Guy Stewart

Worlds are supposed to be long-lasting, apparently eternal to those that live on them and even in fact whirling around their stars for a long, long time. This is what I’ve always wanted to do when writing science fiction—create long-lasting worlds so that I could return to them again and again.

Last Saturday’s SHOWCASE story, “Oath”, was the first story to grow from a pair of seeds planted by Bruce Bethke and Henry Vogel. Though “Oath” wasn’t the title then, it eventually became a convoluted intertwining of multiple ideas, characters, and fictional events. It’s not the same story I originally wrote eight years ago.

The whole mess started with Henry Vogel’s Friday Challenge in March of 2010: “Strange Bot In A Strange Land.”
...robots looks and feel entirely human and can do anything physical a human can do... at 18, each person on earth is issued their own companion robot... Each person effectively marries the bot... there are also the Wild Lands... [where]wild humans live almost like animals... a Life Companion and its human have accidentally wandered... outside of the network the Central Computer uses to modify and update all Life Companions…”
Then somehow, that first challenge got tangled up with Bruce Bethke’s March 2011 Challenge, “Seriously: About The Post-Petroleum Future.”
The idea for this Challenge started to come to me as I was driving across Wisconsin a few weeks ago and noting the typically poor condition of the highway surface after a few months of hard winter. Potholes, cracks, frost-heaves, more potholes [...]

Most near-future post-Apocalyptic stories seem to assume the roads and bridges are still there—maybe with a few picturesque weeds growing up out of the cracks, but basically still there—and therefore travelers are not seriously hampered by the terrain. This must be a California idea. (You know, one of those ideas that makes sense only if you live in Southern California?) Here in the Great White North, without constant maintenance, our roads would revert to gravel in just a few winters, even without semi-trailer traffic. [...]

As for the prospects for having working motor vehicles in this post-Apocalyptic future; don't even get me started. Most modern gasoline formulations turn into a sort of gummy varnish if left standing too long, [...].

But then it struck me: why does it have to be post-Apocalyptic? The post-Apocalyptic story line, I think, indicates a general failure on the part of the writer's imagination. Stories about people grubbing for survival in the ruins of our modern technological civilization are in a sense easy to write: all you have to do is imagine the cast and landscape from a Road Warrior movie, add a hero or heroine, stir briskly, and cut to the chases and fight scenes [...]

From the collision of these two challenges, I wrote “Oath” as my entry to a contest I lost—for very good reasons. After that, I wrote “Technopred” and the Life Companions moved off stage, but the Wilds, the wild Humans, the maglevs connecting giant urban areas called Vertical Villages remained. After those two stories, I started to lay a deeper foundation.

I had to understand the forces that had created the situation. The Wilds came about as a result of the coerced relocation of most of the world’s population to the Villages—which is already happening in 2018 ( I skip the messy parts—responses to shortages and government mismanagement (see this:, but as long as we insist on increasing our population, and the young are already moving into the cities, so I just accelerate it.

In my future, we switch power generation to solar where it works, wind where it works, geothermal where it works, water where it works—and then sharpen their efficiencies (and given one small leap in technology: energy storage, i.e. BATTERIES. We need to do something entirely different with that…). We also need to lose our fear of nuclear power—and I have no magic wand to make that happen, but given shortages, people will accept many things that they originally protested. We once embraced it as “the future,” now we run from it like Satan incarnate.

In my future, there are 20,000 Vertical Villages, each holding a half-million people in towers that are built by the release of AI machines sent to deconstruct and recycle every village, town, and city identified as unneeded. Monorails built to run on CHEAPALIN (more about that in a moment) ship recycled materials to the construction sites where Human and robots work side-by-side, creating a visible, clear, intentional link between technology and blue collar workers, a critical link to build and encourage. Like typical urban dwellers, I made the inhabitants of the Villages oblivious to the Wilds and the lands supporting them—though not in active ignorance, but because they no longer think of where their “products” comes from.

I also created a living, post-petroleum genetic amalgam called CHEAPALIN, a patchwork of the DNA of nine organisms. “…the road organism—a bioengineered DNA patchwork of cellulose-producing, heme, eel, ameba, peat moss, alfalfa, leukocytes, iron incorporated in a molecule and a mix of Notothenioidei and Noctilucan cells...acronym CHEAPALIN...[m]odified electric eel cells created current passing through hair-fine iron filaments deposited in the road. A thick black peat pad of iron-rich heme attached to the underside of any car...charged a set of batteries. A magnetic field generated as cars moved over the filaments got read by a microchip implanted in the car’s pad, matching the road’s magnetic field creating a maglev effect. A variety of chlorophyll and alfalfa genes allowed roots growing under the road organism to return nitrogen to the soil, pull up micronutrients and conduct photosynthesis. A semi-transparent, thick cellulose skin protected the whole thing while remaining flexible. A few Notothenioidei genes kept cellular fluids from freezing during brutal winter weather. Noctilucan genes made it glow at night when disturbed. Leukocytes digested roadkill, leaves, branches and old pizza boxes.”

The world that was born out of a post-petroleum future and increasing integration of robots with Humans, has finally grown big enough to contain “Oath” (first published in STUPEFYING STORIES, August 2013), spawning “Technopred” (AURORA WOLF, May 2013), “Invoking Fire” (PERIHELION, June 2013), and the deep past of the Vertical Village universe, “The Last Mayan Aristocrat” (ANALOG, January/February 2017), and actually “Teaching Women to Fly” (STUPEFYING STORIES, September 2010) which is also part of the universe that springs from the Vertical Villages.

There are another six stories that I’ve pretty much set aside; a novel that, now that I’ve discovered its main flaw, I can repair —OUT OF THE DEBTOR STARS—and a YA novel that, while it doesn’t specifically mention the Villages, does take place just after the Villages are complete and Humanity, flush with “saving the planet,” finally turns to really, really exploring the Solar System. You might see it here in 2019 as a serial. There are three stories currently in submission that have grown out of these two Friday Challenges.

Years ago, I made a promise to myself that I would resist the urge to create disposable worlds where I’d write a single story to make a point, then abandon it. Seeded by “Strange Bot in a Strange Land” and crossing in “Seriously: About The Post-Petroleum Future” by Henry Vogel and Bruce Bethke, the progeny have become a complex, rich, and deep world I have started to feel very comfortable in. I expect there are many more stories in this place and for that especially, I thank Bruce and Henry.

In fact, one in submission to Trevor Quachri at ANALOG Science Fiction & Fact, is perhaps the best story I have ever written. I love it because it mixes CHEAPALIN with the time just as rural and suburban areas are being coerced into the Vertical Villages. A bit of roadway escapes a test site and may cause an international incident. The government drafts an online veterinarian consultant in, “Road Veterinarian.” I still like the story title and the idea!

If I sell many more stories and the novels, I may have to arrange for a kickback to Henry and Bruce…

Guy Stewart is a husband supporting his wife, a breast cancer survivor; a father, father-in-law, grandfather, foster father, friend, writer, teacher, and counselor who maintains a SF/YA/Children’s writing blog called POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS; and more seriously, the author of GUY’S GOTTA TALK ABOUT BREAST CANCER AND ALZHEIMER’S. He has 66 publications to his credit, including stories in ANALOG, AOIFE'S KISS, STUPEFYING STORIES, AETHER AGE, AURORA WOLF, CRICKET MAGAZINE, and PERIHELION, and a book that’s been available since 1997. In his spare time he keeps animals, a house, and loves to bike and camp. Guy has been a member of the Stupefying Stories crew since before the beginning, and his Amazon page is here:  

If you enjoyed this story, you might also enjoy “Bogfather,” which appeared in SHOWCASE just about a year ago, or “Teaching Women to Fly,” which appeared in the very first print-only issue of Stupefying Stories


Mark Keigley said...

That's a great take on worlds. I wrote something a while back with vertical housing that combined coop common areas and gardens for a contest and pretty much shelved it. Perhaps I should dig it out again and work on it. On another note, the early part of this blog put me in mind of SM Stirling's Emberverse series. An excerpt from "Flying Monkeys" my own take on vertical villages:
“Look, Mommy, some Emerald Towers,” Maya pointed out the windows.
“I see them, honey,” Jennifer said. “They're pretty, aren't they?” Maya nodded. Jennifer looked outside the window to the dozen or so several story, circular immigrant housing towers. Another OZ innovation, Opportunity Zones borrowed freely from Frank Lyman Baum's most popular story for creating touchpoints to connect citizens to their cities. Even if artificial emerald-beryl-ceramite-concrete had been one of the discoveries made during the early Depression years, Jennifer wondered if OZ Memes weren't a bit overdone. Jennifer had read about the towers. Each circular floor held several small apartments that backed up to a large, south-facing green glass-enclosed solarium common area that took up 1/3 of that floor. This common area boasted raised container gardening spots and an open all-weather protected enclosed space for young kids to get their ya-yas out and for their parents to host multi-floor-block parties.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Mark!

The idea of an "arcology" has been around for a short while. I read Sliverberg's novel when I was a kid. There's a Wiki entry:

so it's nothing new. But it's been FUN to play with!

Thanks for reading and commenting!

Mark Keigley said...

Yeah, Stirling's Emberverse is hard core Oregon apocalyptic future. Were you thinking of Silverberg or Stirling? Different works? Anyway, your road stuff got me thinking of other CURRENT tech:

Unknown said...

Nope, this was really old school!

"In Robert Silverberg's The World Inside, most of the global population of 750 billion lives inside giant skyscrapers, called "urbmons", each of which contains hundreds of thousands of people. The urbmons are arranged in "constellations". Each urbmon is divided into "neighborhoods" of 40 or so floors. All the needs of the inhabitants are provided inside the building – food is grown outside and brought into the building – so the idea of going outside is heretical and can be a sign of madness. The book examines human life when the population density is extremely high."

Mark Keigley said...

Interesting! Anyway, here's the Stirling info: I've gotten through moist of the Emberverse series:

Arisia said...

You guys are so optimistic. (That's a good thing.)

GuyStewart said...

ISLANDS IN THE SEA OF TIME has been a book I've sort of wanted to read, but the cover put me off. Seemed like outright fantasy -- and not even all that interesting. My daughter vettes my Fantasy -- I read Tolkien and Lewis on my own, introducing my kids to them. But she discovered The Bartimaeus Trilogy and JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL and I read those...

But after this discussion, I'll pick up a copy the next time I have a B&N gift card or go to Uncle Hugo's Science Fiction Book Store...



Mark Keigley said...

Uh, "Islands" tends more toward fantasy... the Emberverse series, starting with Dies the Fire (my recommendation for first read and probably available from you library system depending on state... Islands is a parallel series dealing with the SAME event that runs the Emberverse series plot line.

GuyStewart said...

Ah! Noted. I will begin when my current short stack of books needs to be replenished. THANK YOU FOR FOLLOWING UP ON THIS!