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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

apocalypse and me

Splendid spring day, in which I did not once venture out, except onto the porch a couple of times.

But I did get back to writing: on with chapter 14, building the turning-points of Marcus's life. I found it fairly hard going, maybe because of all the ex-nihilo creation involved: Marcus's early home, his parents and other characters. They appear only briefly, in his memory, but they need to have some dimension. This is hard, and always feels thin as I'm writing it: I'm aware of the relative poverty of fiction compared with nonfiction--a topic of keen interest to me. No doubt I'll talk about it more sometime.

I got 3 new pages done, putting me onto page 21. I want to have shorter chapters, so I'd be happy for it to end anytime now. On more session should do it.

I just finished my afternoon reading session: When Prophecy Fails. I'm seeing the evolution of this mini apocalyptic-saucer cult of the 1950s as possibly following a standard pattern for prophetic groups in general. How do they evolve? How do they differentiate and behave as they approach the crisis of fulfillment?

After yesterday's post, I've been thinking more about my own relationship with prophecy. When did I first take an interest in it? I can't exactly remember. I was certainly fascinated and frightened by the idea of nuclear war from the age of about 11. I was in grade 7 in November 1971 when a nuclear bomb was tested on Amchitka Island in the Aleutians, relatively close to Vancouver, and there was a lot of protest in Canada, and talk about it at our school among the teachers and students. Was I afraid of fallout? Maybe a little.

My first effort at writing a novel was at about that time: a science-fiction epic about a group of scientists and astronauts escaping a future nuclear war (set in 1984) triggered by the accidental firing of an orbiting Chinese multi-warhead bomb. Four warheads drop on and around Italy (I dropped a pencil at random on a map), which causes a more or less automatic counter-response by a united and nuclear-armed Europe, which in turn draws in the U.S. and USSR. My people, living near the Cape Kennedy space center in Florida, scramble to take a space shuttle to an orbiting space station, where they will found a new postnuclear society.

I was strongly influenced by The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton. Dad had directed me toward a paperback copy of it on his coffeetable in West Van one weekend while Mara and I were visiting. I found it gripping and read it every chance I got (quite a few chances). I liked the idea of a lethal germ riding to earth on a meteorite; I liked Crichton's use of cool technical detail like the printed transcript of a rocket launch and the names of real-life manufacturers of various pieces of equipment; I liked the computer-printout illustrations. And of course I liked the terrifying story of a ferociously lethal alien bug unleashed on planet Earth. I don't know if I knew the word apocalypse back then, but I knew the idea of it, the feeling of it.

So I embarked on my story of nuclear holocaust and the efforts of my scientist-characters and their families in an orbiting space-lifeboat. I didn't get far. Despite poring over maps and reading books on the U.S. space program, I felt I didn't know enough to make it realistic. I got into a research digression that I never escaped, and the project (what was the title? can't remember), after a few single-spaced typewritten pages of prose, drifted into oblivion.

Apocalypse, of course, is the stuff of prophecy. So certainly by age 12 I was keenly interested in the idea of apocalypse, in the sense of the wholesale destruction of planet Earth or humanity, but to me the idea did not yet have any religious component. That would come later.

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