It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Anatomy of a Story: Killing the Dead

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The author tells us that he’d had the title in his head for years, but no real plot to go with it. “Later the idea of setting the story on a generation starship occurred to me,” he says. “And then I decided it should be about terrorism, which fit perfectly with the setting – the sealed environment of a generation starship is especially vulnerable to terrorists. The rest of the story came out of a conversation with Eric Brown as we travelled north from a convention on a much-delayed train.”

So reads part of the introduction to my story ‘Killing the Dead’ by the editors of the Postscripts magazine/anthology . It appeared in ‘Edison’s Frankenstein’, issue 20/21, dated December 2009. According to my records, I finished ‘Killing the Dead’ in June of 2008, tried it at two magazines, before it was bought by Pete Crowther and Nick Gevers of Postscripts at the end of July. It was another 18 months before it eventually saw print.

I had indeed had the title knocking around for years – the earliest version of the story I can find was written on an Amstrad PCW, and I owned that I when I was at university in the early 1990s. In the 500 or so words which are all I completed of that draft, the story is set on an alien world and in a city which, like in ancient Egypt, sits on one side of a river with a necropolis on the other. But that’s as far as I got with it. Some fifteen years later, I decided to have another go. I kept the necropolis, but moved it onto a generation starship – which then gave me a reason for preserving the bodies of the dead. And indeed for their destruction to be a major felony, with ramifications for all those aboard. It also gave me the opening image of the dark spreading across the sky.

‘Killing the Dead’ is one of the few stories I’ve written where I actually did make it up as I went along. I had a fairly clear idea of the cast and plot: members of the starship’s crew are preserved after death in necropolises with the intention of resurrecting them, and their valuable skill-sets, once the starship reaches its destination. But someone is destroying the tombs, and so jeopardising the crew’s ability to build a functioning colony when they arrive. These crimes would be under investigation by a detective, who previously has had little beyond the occasional theft or assault to look into.

The logic behind all this was hashed out in the conversation with Eric Brown mentioned above. We were on our way to our respective homes from Novacon in Wallsall in November 2007. He told me I should write the story, so I did. I finished it in less than a week. But it wasn’t very good, and needed more work. So I fiddled with it over the next six months.

I did some research, of course: I picked a suitable destination and worked out how long the journey would reasonably take. At some point I decided that I wanted the story to reference Dante’s Divine Comedy. I’d already described the necropolises as low hills of seven levels in reference to Purgatorio, but I wanted to include more. So I split the story into seven sections – including a dream sequence – and buried in each section an image derived from one of the seven terraces of Purgatory. These are:

1 The Proud, who carry huge stones on their back
2 The Envious have their eyes sewn shut
3 The Wrathful walk around in acrid smoke
4 The Slothful are engaged in a ceaseless activity of some sort
5 The Covetous lay face down on the ground
6 The Gluttonous are forever tempted by fruit out of reach (although I think the source I used mentioning running water, so I went with that instead)
7 The Lustful must pass through a wall of flame

I leave it to the reader to find the relevant sentences in the story.

Despite all this, I don’t think I’d actually figured out the end when I started the story. I didn’t know who the terrorists were. So when I did work it out, it came as a surprise – but one of those good ones, one of those ones where you realise the answer has already been set up in the story right from the start.

The same was true of the final few sentences. I’d been hiding references to purgatory throughout the story, so it seemed only natural that the journey aboard the generation starship should be cast as a form of limbo. It also occurred to me that a fear the journey’s end might leave them in hell rather than heaven could be a valid motivation for the terrorism.

Incidentally, all the named characters in the story are named for various mythologies’ gods of the dead: Arawn (Welsh), Supay (Inca), Flins (Wendish), and Jabru (Elamite).

Those few venues which did review the issue of Postscripts were positive about ‘Killing the Dead’. It didn’t set the genre on fire, although I’d have been surprised if it did. Tangent Online described the story as “Highly recommended”, and Gav at NextRead was also nice about it. And, er, that’s about it.

For those of you who want to make up your own mind, here it is (PDF).

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