Thursday, March 31, 2011

A city - ?

I'm thinking about cities. Cities are great, eh?

The thing is that I love institutions. I love systems with moving parts that interact, offices with odd powers that can be exploited to different ends. Julius Caesar conquered Rome (in part) by taking by seeing opportunities in the powers of two offices: aedile, which made him responsible for public festivals, and pontifex maxiums, a priestly post which carried a grab bag of ritual and legal responsibilities and powers. He used the office of aedile to throw incredibly elaborate games and festivals, winning the love of the plebs. And it turned out the pontifex maximus had control of the calendar, a power with any number of political uses (oh, no, his term of office actually doesn't end till next week - sorry, we were due for a few leap days).

That's not important except that it's a good example of the kind of thing I mean. There are institutions with blurred borders, offices with odd powers, positions with unexpected influence. There are checks and balances, and every player in the game is trying to shift the balance their way.

I think I want the setting to be (principally) a city, and the characters to be involved in the governing institutions of that city.

What kind of place is this city? Well, that's still a little up in the air. It's independent, at least to a degree, and therefore something of a world unto itself. It's governed by institutions rather than laws or a tyrant, and therefore a bit chaotic. It's prosperous to a point, but over time it's been in decline. It has a past - a nasty one. It's been depopulated; there are empty houses on the edge of town.

I think the depopulation event is tied to the great lie, and to the prophecy.

Note on motive and theme

So first let me say, I sat down and said, "Maybe I'll try to write a fantasy novel." And I'm not necessarily talking about the next Wizard Knight. I'd be happy with some really nice straightforward genre business. Genre is such a dirty word, but the fact is, I love genre. I always have. Why hide from that?

The trick, then, is to make an engaging and fresh genre piece. Which is, frankly, a tall enough order, thank you very much.

So that said, a few words on theme.

The world is so frightening. It's so big, and it's forces are so vast compared to its inhabitants, and everyone with a shred of knowledge or power spends most of their time trying urgently to tell you that everyone else with knowledge or power is going to - very quickly - end the world. It can be hard not to believe them.

I re-read 1984 recently. It terrified me, more than when I read it as a teenager. I don't (necessarily) mean to say I think the world is falling apart. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. The point is, we take so much on trust, and it's not really in anyone's best interest to be honest with us; it's in their best interest to persuade us. There are honest voices, but they're not necessarily the most trusted or powerful, and it can be very hard to tell them from all the others. Given that, we all believe many lies to be true. It's unavoidable.

Thematically, that's what I'd like to treat: the idea that truth is complicated, deception is easy, and institutions and individuals have incentives to lie.

What leapt to mind, for a fantasy setting, is the concept of prophecy. Prophecy is, of course, a rather tired bugbear. Prophecies are frustrating, aren't they? They kill tension, so in order to get it back, any story that includes one becomes a game of, "How different from what the prophecy clearly states can things be, while still technically fulfilling the terms of the prophecy?" Once the prophecy is made, there are basically two possibilities:
  • The consequences are averted through tricky wording: "Yes, the Slayer died fighting the Master, but the prophecy didn't say she'd stay dead!"
  • The consequences are felt, but at an unexpected time or in an unexpected way: "Yes, Oedipus married his mother - because Jocasta was his mother all along!" Well, I'm sure it was unexpected at some point.]
So, the idea I want to poke at - and I won't pretend this is original - is not, "How do our heroes try to wrestle with the prophecy to avert/fulfill it, and how does fate eventually override all their efforts?" Rather, it's "What if the future is not predetermined or even predicted, and the famous prophecy is a bald-faced lie being told by someone with an angle?"

I would be remiss not to acknowledge the fine work of the inimitable Fred in discussing the bald-faced prophecy-related lies in the Left Behind books. His nuanced discussion of honesty as it relates to holy scripture is no doubt incredibly influential in how I'm thinking about this.