The Story That Almost Didn’t Happen

I did it! Despite several times when I wasn’t at all certain I’d make it, I managed to finish the story I’d promised Steve “S.M.” Stirling for a forthcoming anthology of stories set in his “Change” alternate history series.

Jackalope

Jackalope

When Steve first asked me if I’d contribute a story to be due in March, I was a little apprehensive. March 1, as I knew all too well, was my deadline for turning in AA2. However, after Steve assured me that any time in March would do, I accepted. I have read many of the novels in the Change series and have enjoyed Steve’s innovative look at how different cultures might evolve if higher levels of technology ceased to exist.

Later, I was asked where I planned to set my story. I said New Mexico, because I really like New Mexico and because, as far as I could recall, none of the novels had ventured into The Land of Enchantment. After that, except for an occasional fleeting thought, I put the project out of my mind and focused in on AA2.

Well, for a variety of reasons, finishing AA2 took a bit longer than I had intended. I did make the deadline – I even beat it by a few days – but not with a lot of time to spare for thinking about other writing projects. About the only things I did toward Steve’s story was narrow down my setting a bit. I decided that the bulk of the action would take place in the malpais (that’s the “badlands,” for you there Easterners). I had some fun chats with my friend, Sally, about how various post-Change events would unfold but, still, most of my attention was elsewhere.

Then AA2 was in and I was free to start setting up this piece. My intention was to set the story immediately “post-Change.” I had a couple of reasons for this. One, there’s an inherent drama in crisis. Two, I was less likely to create a contradiction within the established history of the Changeverse. I’d decided that my story would be about a young man fleeing one of the urban areas for a refuge he knew about out in the badlands. Along the way, he’d pick up a few other people – including a woman with far too many cats and an interesting career. They’d reach their destination, only to discover that at least one other group had had the same idea.

Now, as those of you who’ve read my work know, I usually write from a fairly close character point of view. I’m perpetually interested in how the same events may seem very different when viewed from different perspectives. While occasionally I’ll write a scene that flows between points of view, usually, I break them up very distinctly. Not for me the omniscient narrative voice making ironical or anachronistic comments.

And this is where things started going sour. As I slipped into my main POV character’s perspective, I discovered something. I cannot write “cozy disaster.” (If you’re curious about what I mean by “cozy disaster,” check out WW 7-18-12.) As I slipped into my character’s mind, I was immediately assailed by his anxieties. He was thinking about his family, his friends, co-workers, even casual acquaintances. Ever heard David Bowie’s song, “Five Years”? There’s a part where the singer/narrator, having learned that the world will end in five years, begins a litany of things and people – great and small – that will soon be no more. My character’s thoughts definitely drifted along those lines.

Worse – maybe because I usually include animals in my stories and fully intended to do so this time as well – I found myself considering the sheer numbers of domestic animals that would die whether through accidental abandonment or nastier circumstances. The family dog, locked in the house, whose owners never come home. Tanks of fish suffocating because the pumps stop working. Birds and “exotic” animals who die from lack of appropriate diet or temperature regulation or…

Let me stop there. Suffice to say, I literally started having nightmares. These nightmares did not seem to be in keeping with Steve’s alternate history which focuses – in the tradition of Cozy Disaster stories like Earth Abides or Day of the Triffids – on the survivors, most of who seem to maintain a level of convenient amnesia about the ramifications of events that I, apparently, cannot.

Next time I talked with Sally, I brought this up. Sally has read all the Change novels. I hoped she might steer me in a productive direction. She surprised me. “You should use that. It’s powerful stuff.” When I protested that it didn’t seem to fit, she said, “I think Steve’s universe is big enough to take it.” When I talked to Jim (who has also read all but the last novel or so in the series), his response (without having heard what Sally said) was much the same.

Still, after numerous attempts to get around this problem, I realized that I needed to distance myself somewhat from immediate post-Change events. I decided to set the story a few years after. As I had continued my research, I had fallen more and more in love with the malpais. These “badlands” are the result of slow eruptions from seventy or so vents. By geologic timetables, some of the flows are practically new: only three thousand years or so.

Even better are the fascinating peculiarities that flourish therein. Compasses are unreliable. Small planes often have difficulty flying over the flows. Green “islands” called “kipukas” thrive, as completely surrounded by rough, hardened lava as any more normal island by water. Even in the midst of a New Mexico summer, where temperatures routinely top a hundred degrees, there are caves full of ice. Trees such as aspen, which normally grow further north and at higher elevations, can be found side-by-side with dry area plants like juniper and prickly pear cactus.

Culturally, it’s a fascinating region as well. Grants is the largest city. (This is by New Mexican terms, where a population of 8,000 is a city.) The pueblos of Acoma, Zuni, and Laguna are all nearby. The Navajo reservation is just west and north. Apaches also have ties to the area. The Spanish colonized the area. Anglo homesteaders did their best.  If the Change gave me nightmares, the malpais – despite its evil name – inspired me.

So I shifted the time a bit later, found a new plot (for which, sadly, both the lady with all the cats and another key character had to go), and got writing. I ended up with something over 15,000 words, so the inspiration was surely there. The darkness wasn’t entirely gone, but my main character and I worked on finding a balance between loss and life.

So now I’ve found a second type of fiction I can’t write. (The first one is romance novels.) Disaster, sure. Cozy disaster… Not so much. But I’m really happy with this story. It’s called “The Hermit and the Jackalopes” and will appear in The Change, edited by S.M. Stirling.

Even badlands can be good places, if they offer refuge for a shattered soul.

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7 Responses to “The Story That Almost Didn’t Happen”

  1. Paul Genesse Says:

    Thanks for the insight into the story, Jane. I remember falling in love with your short stories in several DAW anthologies years ago. This one sounds interesting as well.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Hmmm. Good points about the cozy disaster. I didn’t know about the malpais, and it will be fun to see what you do with it.

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      If you’re interested in the malpais, several Louis Lamour stories are set there, or in very similar terrain. Flint, in particular, has some excellent descriptions of the landforms and the oases.

      • janelindskold Says:

        _Flint_ is actually where I first encountered these formations and I give appropriate credit both subtly within the story and outright in the “about the author” note.

        Lamour’s handling of the malpais is good to a point. However, he really condenses time to get from one place to another in that region. He also makes it seem a lot easier to find something than it actually would be.

  3. Alan Robson Says:

    I’ve enjoyed a lot of the “Change” stories so I’m very curious to see how you have combined your way of looking at the world with Stirling’s way of looking at it.

    Do you know when the anthology will be published? I’m really rather eager to read it…


    -Alan

  4. Paul Says:

    Me too (re Alan’s comment).
    Not everyone would think of such details as what happens to the animals, when working up a new science fictional setting. But they are well worth considering. Glad that you did.

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