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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, May 02, 2005

literary triangles

Cooler weather has drawn in. Rain sprinkles down from the overcast, and the open windows let in cool air.

Thinking back again to the origins of this project. The solo trip I made abroad in 1981-82 was mainly to visit locations I had in mind for my would-be novel More Things to Come, which had a spiritual component that would take some of my characters to Jerusalem. So I visited Israel in November-December 1981.

I have a memory of being in Tel Aviv, staying in the youth hostel, and making a trip to a nearby cafe. A weird phrase came into my mind: "the patristic catena". I was imagining, or feeling, an epic story that would be a "spiritual science fiction". I liked the idea of a futuristic tale involving spacecraft and other planets, but that had a serious spiritual purpose. I'm sure my main inspiration for this was Frank Herbert's Dune.

I read Dune when I was about 14. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. Herbert's famous mix of the sociology, politics, and religions of a remote future galactic empire, and their combustible mix on the Arab-flavored desert planet Dune, was riveting. It felt real to me: all these different forces and factors come to play in life--not merely the more simply conceived issues of technology and warfare that seemed to be the concern of most science fiction at that time. This was the story of a prophet, a holy warrior in the Islamic vein, the small-statured aristocrat Paul Atreides. Destiny and the spirit were ingredients of Herbert's potent brew--one that went on to big sales, awards, and lasting fame.

I wanted to create something like this. I think I still do. A few years ago I bought another copy of Dune (my old one had gone missing) and tried reading it again. This time I couldn't finish--it was more of a standard sci-fi melodrama than I remembered. But the creative vision that went into it was still impressive. Herbert's ideas were great.

So I've made Dune one vertex of my "literary triangle". I think of my novel falling somewhere in a triangle formed by the books War and Peace, Dune, and Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave. War and Peace is an epic depicting the sweep of history around Russia's confrontation with Napoleon, showing characters arising in and shaped by those historic events. The Crystal Cave is high-quality historical fiction written with evocative sensuousness, showing Merlin's inward journey to discover the meaning of his existence in the sweeping events of his time. And Dune depicts a whole world, a whole galaxy, caught up in a prophesied spiritual-political-military convulsion in a strange, vividly imagined time and place.

These are all inspirations to me. I don't want to "repeat" what any of them has done. They have inspired me, excited me. I want to apply what I've learned about the art of storytelling to my subject-matter--the birth of the Age of Pisces--to create a story that drags and pushes the reader through an epic journey. I'm trying to storyize the meaningless terror of our ancient spiritual heritage.

Like all really worthwhile tasks, it's probably impossible.


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