It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Anatomy of a Story: Through the Eye of a Needle


It’s been nearly a year since I dissected one of my stories and the creative process which led to it. I’ve had several stories published since my last ‘Anatomy of Story’ back in October 2009 (see here) – six in this year alone, in fact. But I’d sooner not write about one of my stories if people can’t read it, and though I may only have sold first serial rights to the magazines which published those stories, I feel it’s better to wait a suitable period before sticking the story up here on my blog.

Unless, of course, the story was published online. In which case I can just link to it.

Which brings us to ‘Through the Eye of a Needle’, which was published in M-Brane SF #19, and is available on the website as #19 is the sample issue for the magazine.

‘Through the Eye of a Needle’ is, I think, the first story I’ve ever written to a specific market. I wrote it to submit to Catastrophia, an anthology of post-catastrophe stories edited by Allen Ashley and published by PS Publishing. Usually, I have an idea – sometimes it includes a plot, other times not even that – I work on it until it’s a story, then I submit it to whichever venue I feel it best suits… and then the next best… and then the next… and so on.

The central idea of ‘Through the Eye of a Needle’ came from a couple of New Scientist articles. (I subscribe to their feed, rather than to the magazine itself. I especially like the Zoologger column – some of the creatures it describes are even more bizarre than any alien race invented by sf writers). Anyway, there were a couple of articles about creating an artificial sunshade high in the atmosphere using particulates which, it was hoped, would help alleviate global warming. Both articles were strongly against the idea, suggesting that the effects on the climate could be catastrophic. I filed the idea away for a possible story.

Around the same time, I’d read an article by Jonathan McCalmont on his blog about the fascism inherent in secondary-world fantasies, in particular George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones. McCalmont mentions specifically the public execution by Lord Eddard Stark of an “oathbreaker”. That got me thinking – not so much about public executions, but the practice of displaying the body after an execution; and of a world in which doing something like that wouldn’t be fascist.

Then there was the current recession, caused by scumbag bankers, who continue to pocket ridiculous bonuses. Plus the likes of Fred Goodwin, ex-CEO of RBS, whose criminal mismanagement – a loss of £24.1 billion – was rewarded with a £700,000 a year pension. Clearly, the ever-increasing equity gap is grossly unfair and is only going to result in yet more financial disasters.

I put all the above together with the planetary sunshade idea from New Scientist. I’d have a billionaire put up a planetary sunshade on his own initiative, and it would all go horribly wrong. Which would lead to a backlash against wealth and the hoarding of riches… But I wouldn’t actually tell that story. I’d tell a story about a young couple living in this new post-wealth ice age world, and how they fell foul of these new laws.

I’d originally planned to call the central couple Peter and Pauline – as in “robbing Peter to pay Paul” – but decided that was a bit naff. So instead I called the husband Robin (robbing? geddit?), and the wife Petra. I wanted to describe a world which was only a few years ahead of our own, so I decided to keep the technological extrapolation light. People would use their phones for pretty much everything – as I think will probably become the case anyway. Robin reads books on his phone, listens to music on it, does his banking, and uses an app to follow his route on the bus. The roads are also heated, and the bus electric-powered.

There was a fuss in the news at the time I was writing ‘Through the Eye of a Needle’ about Muslim women wearing veils and the hijab (the wearing of veils in public has now been made illegal in France). Having grown up in the Arabian Gulf, and spent ten years working there after graduating from university, I’m used to the sight of women in veils, or even full abeya. Given that climate collapse could badly affect the ozone layer, greatly increasing UV to dangerous levels, it made sense to me for people in my invented post-wealth world to cover up completely when outside. Perhaps even wearing veils; which could then lead to them becoming fashion accessories. The scene in the kitchen at Robin’s work thus serves double-duty – laying out some of the story’s politics, but also commenting on the wearing of veils.

I think at one point I toyed with the idea of people wearing masks – not necessarily decorative masks, but ones that aped their actual features… or how they wanted their features to appear. But that struck me as a bit too fetishistic, so I stuck with veils.

In the event, Allen didn’t take ‘Through the Eye of a Needle’. He liked it, even described it as “beautifully written”, but he bounced it all the same. He had enough stories, he said, set in post-catastrophe worlds. He was now looking for stories set at the point of catastrophe. So I wrote another story, ‘In the Face of Disaster’, which describes the beginnings of a global epidemic of prosopagnosia, and he took that one.

‘Through the Eye of a Needle’, which is, I think, a little too literary for most sf venues, was subsequently bounced by a couple of magazines, spent several months each at a couple of literary magazines who never bothered to respond, before finding a home at M-Brane SF.

Chris Fletcher of M-Brane SF admitted when he took the story that he was a little unsure of its politics. To me, it’s quite clearly left-wing. But Chris was afraid some readers, especially US ones, might think the story was anti-socialist, that it painted a deliberately harsh portrait of a socialist society as a way of showing how “inimical” that political system is. Except, well, I don’t think ‘Through the Eye of a Needle’ actually depicts a dystopia. To my mind, there’s nothing Nineteen Eighty-four about it. A well-developed public infrastructure, free public transport, free public leisure facilities, no equity gap… Okay, so no one gets to save the money they earn. But why would they? If they lived to their means, what’s the point in wealth? It only leads to conspicuous consumption, which contains a multitude of traps for the careless.

‘Through the Eye of a Needle’ was a deliberate attempt by myself to write a sf story with a more literate feel than is common in the genre. I tried to keep the world-building to a minimum and avoid info-dumps. I told a story about a marriage which disintegrates, with a cause that is specific to the world of the story – and that’s why ‘Through the Eye of a Needle’ is definitely science fiction.

I hope you enjoyed it.

5 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Story: Through the Eye of a Needle

  1. Love this series of articles. It’s fascinating to peek behind the curtain. Especially after reading the story and making my own judgments. As an American, I’ve got no problem with the politics. Always interesting to hear people’s guesses.

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