A month ago I published The Same Story Told, a pastoral post-apocalyptic fantasy retold six times in a row. I didn’t include an afterword at the end of the book, because I didn’t want to distract from the formal strangeness of the novel. The book already has six layers of overlapping, diverging narratives, plus a frame story, and I didn’t want to toss a totally non-diegetic commentary on top of all that. So this post is in lieu of an afterword. As with the afterwords for my short fiction and plays, I’ll talk about the origins of the book, and the process of writing it. If you haven’t read the book, don’t worry, there’s no spoilers! You can’t spoil a book that delivers the entire plot in the first thirty pages and then repeats it five more times! 🙂
That said, I dunno how interesting or intelligible this will be to someone who hasn’t read the book. Proceed at your own discretion, and if you do want to read the book, you can buy it on Smashwords, or read an excerpt of it here.
The initial idea for TSST was not fantasy, but sci-fi, though the core concept was the same. A spaceship crash lands on a distant planet. There’s only enough oxygen and food for a few people, so some are put into cryo-sleep, alternating throughout the years as they struggle to gather enough resources to repair their ship. Or something, I don’t really know—I brainstormed a lot of different possible scenarios, but pretty quickly gravitated towards a fantasy setting, with a world struck by plague instead of a distant lifeless planet.
Right from the start, I had the basic structure of the different character’s stories—one person asleep for all of it, providing a sort of historical perspective; one person awake for all of it; one person continuously awake at the beginning and end, but with a big gap in the middle; and two people alternating each year. I drew out graphs to visualize how each of these characters would age over time, the dynamics of older and younger shifting.
The time is now! My novel, The Same Story Told, is now available on Smashwords and Amazon! Pick it up, or read an excerpt here. Here’s the synopsis:
Whistlers normally draw power for their incantations from the microbial sappers that infect their own bodies, but an incantation to infect others with sappers has been discovered, and the resulting plague has devastated the world. The only immunization against this plague is to be infected by a Whistler with a little more control over the bacterial life they create. Of the survivors gathered at the Academy of Sibilant Arts, Klobs is the youngest Whistler. At 14, she’s been entrusted with infecting just four people—her older brother Binlev, her mentor Daltob, and two friends from another academy, Hakleen and Boos.
These five are sent to reclaim a farming township, but soon a hostile group of Whistlers raids their food stores. Without enough food to make it to the harvest, Klobs uses her sappers to place Daltob and Hakleen in deep sleeps. Working in year-long shifts and year-long sleeps the five can conserve food, but each member of the group experiences a unique fragment of the same struggle, deviating, merging, echoing.
The Same Story Told tells each fragment one after the other, as well as the apocryphal legend that has arisen about the “Lost Expedition,” changing format and style to portray the same post-apocalyptic pastoral fantasy six times in a row.
So I haven’t actually announced this on the blog, but I will be publishing The Same Story Told, a novel(!), in just a couple weeks! The Same Story Told is a post-apocalyptic pastoral fantasy told six times in a row. After a gale of sappers has devastated the world, a group of five friends attempts to rebuild a farming town. When their stores of food are raided, the Whistler of the group must place some of them in a magically induced deep sleep to conserve resources, alternating in year-long shifts. Each member of the group experiences unique fragments of the same struggle to create a sustainable source of food, deviating, echoing, altering format and style. You can read a bit more about it and preorder it on Smashwords or Amazon.
The book is divided into five sections, one for each of the characters, and a sixth section for the apocryphal legend that has risen about “The Lost Expedition.” This sixth section is actually the first in the book, so to give you a look inside the book I’m posting it here in full:
The Lost Expedition
In the year 1,240, the same year that yits lit all the streets of Opasis, the same year the harvests overfilled the storehouses of Nesten, in the year 1,240 Bellengrew gripped the Seedlings with a rigid claw, then fell, and cracked, and desolated the world. The infectious sappers that had brought prosperity and advancement to the other city-states, Bellengrew used to raise enormous fanged animates and roll bombs five feet in diameter. The incantation for infectious sappers, a guarded secret entrusted only to the most sage scholars, the most loyal civil whistlers, was passed around loosely between the power-hungry commanders and captains of Bellengrew, until finally a spark caught within that overstuffed tinderbox, and burned across all the Breath.Read More »
If a cataclysmic shattering world could write a novel, this would be it. The organizing principle of Dead Astronauts is not chronology, nor non-linear chronology (a book told out of order still postures itself against a fixed, correct order which the reader can construct in their mind.) The organizing principle is ecology, iteration, echoes. I had a dream recently where someone told me they “experience things cumulatively,” which I find to be an oddly apt description of this novel. You experience this book cumulatively. The book takes place in the world of Borne, but it may as well not, because aside from the familiar post-apocalyptic landscape and the similarly surreal lifeforms that populate it, the way the world behaves is just totally different, starting with the timeline-hopping Dead Astronauts.
The second chapter of the book, and also the longest, follows these titular characters, “the three.” If not for this section, the book wouldn’t have anything close to a main plot, just lots of small stories filling in the histories of different places, the backstories of different characters. So, what is the narrative? “The three,” Grayson, Chen, and Moss, are on a seemingly futile mission to reclaim the City from the Company, a mission they’ve repeatedly undertaken across multiple alternate timelines, facing different variations of the same archetypal characters each time, often (always?) ending in failure.
But … why? This chapter was probably my least favorite—the parts of it that I liked most were the parts delving into the astronauts’ pasts, while the actual narrative through-line, this mission, just wasn’t all that compelling. What are they reclaiming the city for? What would they do once its reclaimed? The thing Grayson Chen and Moss seem to care about most is each other, not the City. Grayson and Moss may have personal reasons to want to exact vengeance on the Company, but … enh, that’s more my own speculation than anything the text explores. And unlike in the Area X trilogy, the hollowness of the mission isn’t developed and spotlighted as a theme, it just feels like flat writing.
Once the title characters get out of the way, other chapters shine a lot brighter, like that of Charlie X, a scientist at the Company with a fast deteriorating memory, or the chapter for the Dark Bird, a deadly, tortured creation of the Company. These chapters are much less narrative-focused, more non-linear and experimental (granted, even the Dead Astronauts section is far more experimental than something like, say, Borne—it’s a testament to how wild this book is that that chapter seems conventional in contrast to everything else.) Probably my favorite chapter was “Can’t Forget,” a vigorous, hateful 60 pages narrated by the Blue Fox, describing an ancestral memory of humankind’s assault on foxes, through fur-trapping and climate change up to the Company’s experiments on and exploitation of the Blue Fox as a biological reconnaissance tool. I could write a post about that chapter in itself—the use of huge walls of repeated text, the effect of actually reading through it, the defiant and truly inhuman voice VanderMeer achieves. There are a few single sentences in the chapter that floored me, simple phrases that land with explosive impact because of how the text builds up to them.
Truly, VanderMeer’s prose is great throughout the whole book, it’s as inventive as the novel’s overall structure. He gives lots of focus to the materiality of words, their sound, their weight when repeated over and over, with less emphasis on strict semantic meaning. Characters stutter out series of rhyming words, text appears in blocks with big vacuums of white space in between. Just as this world is full of characters whose striking, mythological stature transcends a more realist, psychological approach, the language often strives for force, vitality, in order to transcend the mere conveyance of information.
If a cataclysmic shattering world could write a novel, this would be it. And because of its non-linear nature, because the narrative is more a decentralized history than a single plot, it beckons to be reread, reread in pieces, in sections, out of order or over and over again. If you like VanderMeer’s more experimental stuff, definitely check this out. There is little out there like it.