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Anatomy of a Story: Thicker Than Water

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The second of the two stories I’ve put up on this blog is ‘Thicker Than Water’, a hard sf story set on a moon of Saturn. It was originally published in Jupiter sf magazine, issue 23, in January 2009.

Major Gina Priest lives on Tethys, a moon of Saturn. When two raiders from another moon, Titan, attempt to steal some of the fullerenes found on Tethys, they are captured. Gina is shocked to discover that one of the raiders is her brother. She learns she was abducted from Titan at a very young age. After another officer disobeys her orders and tortures the raiders, Gina decides to help the Titans escape and return with them to to her long-lost mother and father.

Here’s the PDF. You might want to read the story before you continue reading this.

The plot of ‘Thicker Than Water’ is based on the story of Iphigenia from ancient Greece. She was abducted as a child and taken to Tauris, where she grew up and became a priestess of Artemis. A pair of Athenians then raided the temple while Iphigenia was present. She learned they were her brother Orestes and his friend Pylades. So she lied to the Taurians, and returned to Athens to join her long-lost family. With the statue of Artemis they had stolen.

I forget where I originally came across Iphigenia’s story. It was back in the early 1990s, so it wasn’t on the Web. I’d also found a mention of a mysterious dark patch on Tethys in a planetology textbook I’d bought for reference – Exploring the Planets by Eric H Christiansen and Kenneth W Hamblin (1995). The book’s a bit out-of-date now, but I have the Web instead. I decided that the dark patch was buckminsterfullerenes – carbon molecules in the shape of spheres or tubes, which were thought to be artificial but do occur very rarely in nature. This idea came partly from another story, ‘Black Rain’ (available in Set It In Space And Stick A Robot In It), which is set on Titan, and takes place in an earlier version of the universe of ‘Thicker Than Water’. In that story, the settlement’s manufactory was destroyed by a blow-in of Titan’s noxious atmosphere, and the superconductor cultures were poisoned. So, instead of Aphrodite’s statue, I’d have Orestes and Pylades, natives of Titan, travelling to Tethys to steal fullerenes in order to re-seed their superconductor cultures. It all slotted very neatly together – and this is actually mentioned in passing in ‘Thicker Than Water’.

I wrote the story, and even submitted it to a magazine or two. They rejected it.

Then it sat in the “bottom drawer” for over a decade.

Last year, I dug out the manuscript, read through it, and decided it was worth having another go. But it needed more than just rewriting. While reminding myself of Iphigenia’s story, I came across mention of Euripides, an ancient Greek playwright. He actually wrote a play, Iphigenia in Tauris, based on Iphigenia’s story. So there’s another dimension, I thought. I can tie in an ancient Greek tragedy.

Greek plays, of course, have Greek choruses. So why shouldn’t ‘Thicker Than Water’ have one? And since NASA had posted a MP3 of the radio noises generated by Saturn, why not use the ringed gas giant as my “chorus”? Hence the numerous mentions of Saturn’s radio-noise in the story.

I used the play in other ways, too. I borrowed the odd phrase from the Potter translation (which provides the lines from the play which preface the story). And I named all my characters for the characters in the play. The king of Tauris is Thoas, but I decided to use King instead. Iphigenia, priestess of Aphrodite, is of course Gina Priest. Orestes and Pylades I shortened to Orris and Pyle. And two unnamed characters, a herald and a herdsman, became Messenger and Shepard.

There are a few other scattered “clues” as well – such as “as if from some oracular distance” in the opening paragraph. Oracular. Oracle. Delphi. Get it?

Oh, and Tauris… In the original version of the story, the settlement on Tethys was also a carousel – a ring which rotated at a speed sufficient to provide some gravity – but it was unnamed. When I stumbled across Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris, it occurred to me that a carousel could be torus-shaped. So Tauris became Torus. Sometimes research just gifts you things you’d be a fool to refuse or ignore.

I also changed the plot slightly when I rewrote the story. In the original version, Gina decides to help her brother to escape, but when she returns to his cell he has already been taken away. The story ended with her being unable to prevent his execution – as he was pushed out of an airlock without a spacesuit. For the new version, I had the three of them escape successfully. Which then allowed me to bring the alien sentinel more into the story. That – the mysterious alien vessel patrolling the Solar system – was there right from the start, but more as a clue to why Earth had abandoned its space colonies, and as the reason for the Tethysians protection of the sea of fullerenes.

It had always been in the back of my mind to have ‘Thicker Than Water’ (and the earlier ‘Black Rain’) be part of a single fictional universe. In it, Earth has withdrawn all its space resources, shut down its EM broadcasting, and essentially firewalled itself inside its atmosphere. This has left on their own the many settlements and colonies scattered on Mars and the moons of the Saturn, Jupiter and the Outer Planets. These settlements have also discovered a series of strange alien artefacts, most of which resemble extremely unlikely natural phenomena. Their purpose is unknown. And then there’s the mysterious alien sentinel loose in the Solar system which doesn’t take kindly to any kind of interference with these artefacts.

Now that I was basing my stories on the plays of Euripides, I decided to call this my Euripidean Space universe.

Despite all this going on in the background, the story still needed something more. The escape succeeded, and in the process doomed the Tethys settlement – from an implied attack by the alien… That gave me a better ending. But I needed something extra to round out the middle. So I looked to the news. And came up with…

Torture. The Tethysians would torture the two raiders from Titan, and that would in part explain Gina’s motivation to help Orris and Pyle escape.

I’m not actually all that interested in writing science fiction, I’m more interested in using science fiction in writing, in extending the genre. I don’t want to write adventure stories in a science-fictional universe – I consider it a form of artistic cowardice. ‘Thicker Than Water’ is in part a sf treatment of an ancient Greek play – it uses the same cast, and I tried in some way to carry the flavour across. But it’s also about torture, about Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Stories should be about something, about something relevant. Even if they are set in outer space and feature spaceships and aliens. Perhaps even especially if they are set in outer space and feature spaceships and aliens.

I read through the story now, nine months after it was published, and perhaps one or two of the reviews of it weren’t so far off the mark. Perhaps some of the characters’ motivations weren’t entirely clear – one of the perils, I suspect, of taking a story from an ancient Greek play. Perhaps the ending did seem a little disconnected… but the clues were there. But maybe that’s because that aspect of the story wasn’t intended to entirely stand alone – it would be just one element in a greater story, told through many stories. On reflection, I shouldn’t have relied on that. I’ll know better for the next one. And yes, there are more Euripidean Space stories planned.

Again, I hope you enjoyed both the story and this piece on it. No other stories of mine have been published in the last twelve months, although there’s a few due to see the light of day soon. Some time in the future, I may give one of those the same treatment.

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11 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Story: Thicker Than Water

  1. Really interesting, thank for that!Ian

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  6. The Tauris statue was of Artemis, and it should be Titanians, I believe. Also, it’s jarring to have half the names in the story truncated Hellenic (Memnon, Mnestra) and half Saxon, even those who come from the same culture and family (Orris, Pyle).

    Old myths/legends/stories lend themselves well to space opera.

  7. A point that lends poignancy to the original is that Iphigeneia was a young woman when she was either sacrificed or abducted by Artemis. She remembers her family. The character in Thicker than Water has no emotional ties either way — she was abducted a a baby and takes the words of both sides at face value.

    • Wouldn’t knowing that she was abducted mean she would be a prisoner? Otherwise she’d return to her family. I’m not sure how the ancient Greeks’ finessed that, but I don’t think that sort of acceptance is something that transfers (the difficulty of travelling across open space between moons notwithstanding). Besides, in my story Gina Priest is a trusted soldier, so she needed to be loyal to Tethys. But it certainly shows how open the stories are to re-interpretation and re-casting.

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