Fantastic History #66: Dueling–Bringing the Past Forward by Doug Engstrom

Back in 2013, I was thinking about what work would look like in the near future, contemplating a political movement that seemed determined to take us back to the Gilded Age, and planning to combine all that into vignettes of people in the mid 21st century talking about their jobs—sort of an SF-version of Studs Terkel’s Working. As often happens, none of this turned out as I expected, but it did produce my near-future thriller, Corporate Gunslinger.

The book is about Kira Clark, a young woman trying to make her way in a world that’s been transformed less by futuristic technology than by ideas imported from the 1800’s, including dueling’s comeback as a dispute-resolution mechanism. Since it portrays Kira’s career as a professional duelist, I had to consider what the institution would look like. Though clearly reaching into the past for legitimacy, dueling would also clearly be bent to serve the perceived needs of Kira’s time. As the quote says, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

For legitimacy, the duels in Kira’s world preserve certain trappings from the past. Dueling pistols are single-shot weapons, designated “seconds” watch over the preparations, and the combatants start back-to-back, walk ten paces, turn, and fire. As is often the case, these “historical” trappings don’t have a lot to do with actual history and everything to do with popular perception.

Although they are single-shot weapons, the pistols used in Kira’s day are far more accurate and deadlier than historical dueling pistols. Crucially, they retain the drama of deciding a dispute—and possibly a combatant’s life—in a single instant, which is a key to dueling’s popularity.

In historical duels, the seconds played a crucial role in attempting to negotiate the conflict and set the duel’s terms of engagement. In Kira’s day, those roles have been taken over by professionals who manage the special dueling facilities and provide the weapons and ammunition. When private individuals duel each other, the seconds mostly watch while the professionals act. On the field, seconds supply little more than moral support for the combatant they represent, and furnish agreement when the process is complete, in pretty much the same spirit as signing off on a complex, multi-page legal document while installing software.

The second’s role for a professional duelist like Kira is another matter. A professional’s second is usually their primary trainer and appearing on the field to offer advice and support is the final step in the rigorous, full-time preparation they’ve put their gunfighter through since long before the duel was scheduled. However, this role isn’t visible during the duel, and having both sides supported by a second on the field is another superficial trapping of “fairness”—another important key to dueling’s appeal.

The drama of “ten paces, turn and fire” appears to originate more in movies of our time than the dueling codes of prior centuries. Most codes I read left the distance and other details to be worked out by the seconds, based on field conditions and the combatant’s skills. Some even specified drawing lots to determine the order in which the participants would fire, which struck me as a testament to both the combatant’s courage and the inaccuracy of short-barreled, black-powder weapons.

So, if the “historical” elements merely cloak modern purposes in the trappings of time-honored tradition, what are those purposes?
When looking at the differences between our world and the world of historical dueling, a big difference, maybe the biggest difference, is the complete subordination of all societal goals to the perceived needs of business, especially large, publicly-traded businesses. Corporations have not only won the right to “personhood” but to more than that. Today, many firms insist that customers give up the right to seek redress in the courts as a condition of doing business, and that employees give up the right to speak via non-disclosure agreements. We no longer seem to believe that the economy exists to provide for society, but rather that society’s proper role is to serve as raw material for the all-important economy.

In Kira’s world, corporate dominance is even more complete. Borrowers can be compelled to offer their freedom as collateral, sacrificing their autonomy if they default, and enforcement squads roam the streets, tracking down indentured workers who have escaped their workplace. Burdened with debts incurred to earn an MFA in acting, Kira becomes a gunfighter to escape this fate.
So, when this society reaches back into the past to revive an institution that allowed rich white guys to “defend their honor,” what’s really going on?

Essentially, businesses have won the right to murder their most difficult and persistent critics. But, of course, they can’t come out and say that.

Instead, dueling functions as the last step in a multi-part system designed to ensure that in case of disputes, almost everyone will shut up and accept what’s the company wants to offer. First, most businesses have followed the lead of financial services and compelled customers to give up the right to sue if they want to do business. When disputes arise, they’re settled by a private arbitration system, which strongly favors businesses as “repeat customers.” When people are unhappy with that outcome, they’re offered a final out with ancient resonance—the dueling field.

The proceedings are overseen by the impeccably honest Association for Dueling, and everything from the pistols to the changing rooms are not only made as identical as humanly possible, they’re assigned at random to remove any possible hint of bias.
Except, of course, for the tiny little detail—just a technicality, really—that a flesh-and-blood person must represent themselves, while a business must choose an employee. And as it happens, this isn’t some random employee, but an employee who has trained for a year and spends all their working hours preparing to be a better gunfighter.

Somebody like Kira—aspiring actor, potential debt slave, professional gunfighter, and the protagonist of Corporate Gunslinger.

***

Doug Engstrom has been a farmer’s son, a US Air Force officer, a technical writer, a computer support specialist, and a business analyst, as well as being a writer of speculative fiction. He lives near Des Moines, Iowa with his wife, Catherine Engstrom.

Fantastic History #65: Miracles by Dr. Michelle Herder

Stories of miracles occur in countless medieval European manuscripts. They were told in sermons and collected in their own right: cures, impostures, rewards, punishments, story after story of the workings of divine power in the lives of ordinary people. Fantastical stories, presented as true.

I teach medieval history at a small college, and miracle stories always present obstacles for students. They respond, understandably, with skepticism. Few of my students are believers, or at least they don’t believe in that particular way. So they ask: did medieval people really believe in miracle stories? Sometimes they try to find a rational explanation for the supposed miracle, speculating about how some real-life coincidence might lie behind a story. Sometimes they think that the medieval clergy who wrote down these stories must have been deliberately committing fraud. Often they conclude that people in medieval Europe must simply have been extremely gullible.

But if we can suspend our disbelief, miracle stories open a door. Perhaps not a literal door to a long-gone world in which divine power could heal the sick or punish the wicked directly and dramatically – but perhaps instead miracle stories can shed some light on the beliefs and mindset of the people who told them, wrote them down, and passed them around. Many stories were well-known; clergy used them as examples in sermons, artists depicted them in church decoration. The book of saints’ lives known as the Golden Legend contains numerous stories of miraculous deeds, adventures, and violence, and was one of the most widespread texts of medieval society, translated into numerous languages. (In contrast, many medieval tales that are better-known to modern people, such as Beowulf, survive in only a single manuscript.) Though European Christian clergy wrote down most of the miracle tales that survive, the stories give us glimpses of the lives of a wide range of people, including, poor, ill, and disabled people.
Around the year 1000, Bernard of Angers recorded a number of miracles attributed to Saint Foy, or Faith, according to legend a young girl martyred long ago. Bernard knows his readers might not believe in Foy’s holy influence. In fact, he presents himself as a skeptic, only recently converted into a devotee of this particular saint. Eager to demonstrate Saint Foy’s bona fides, he takes care to assure readers that he heard all these stories from people who had seen them firsthand.

Saint Foy’s miracles are shockingly punitive. People who denied her monks their donations were killed by a collapsing roof. An unfortunate fellow named Vuitbert, blinded through a mentor’s cruel betrayal and reduced to poverty, received his sight back through his devotion to Foy. But, Bernard tells us, the miracle turned out to be conditional: when Vuitbert succumbed to worldly temptations and paid less attention to his saint, his sight once again dimmed, and only a performance of penitence and devotion to Foy restored his sight again. Though the stories praise Foy for her beauty and purity, she evokes a jealous fey rather than a holy martyr. But this does not appear incongruous to Bernard, who takes these stories as examples of Foy’s great power.

In some stories miracles compensate for personal failings. In one, a young nun flees her cloister and embarks on a life of sin, retaining only her devotion to the Virgin Mary, Mother of God. Much later, the woman regrets her choices and returns to the monastery… where she finds that Mary herself had taken her place, adopting the runaway nun’s appearance and living an entirely virtuous life. The runaway could therefore resume her place without confessing her adventures outside the cloister to anyone. This admittedly begs the question of how the story came to be known at all – but the point is that Mary rewards devotion, even from those who might seem unworthy of her favor. Like Foy, Mary blesses those who are loyal to her.

Miraculous cures are the perhaps the kind of miracle story we would most expect to see, and at the same time the hardest for a modern reader to believe without reservation. Take, for example, the case of a boy born deaf and mute; at the age of eight he had been taken in by a blacksmith, who taught him to help around the forge. The smith also took him to church with his family, where the boy learned the movements and gestures of prayer, though presumably without understanding. By age twenty he had moved on to other work, and then followed along with the massive royal entourage conducting the body of King Louis IX to its burial place near Paris. At the tomb, so the story says, the boy had a revelation: during a Mass he suddenly acquired the ability to hear and speak. Frightened by the unfamiliar noises of the world, he made his way back to the blacksmith, who took him in again and began teaching him words. Eventually, the formerly deaf young man took the name Louis, in honor of the saint whose miracle had cured him.

In another story from the same collection, a widowed laundress named Nicole suffered a paralysis at age forty-two. Unable to work, and able to eat only soft foods, she relied on her friend Contesse, who cared for her and took her to the public baths in hopes that the hot water would help her recover. Another friend, a woman called Perronele the Smith, paid for a cart to take Nicole to the tomb of Louis IX. There she was cured of her ailments, and walked home with her friends.

It sounds as though Nicole experienced a stroke, something from which people do recover. But a person born deaf suddenly gaining the ability to hear? That scenario sounds far less plausible to a modern reader.

In that case, however, Louis himself testified to this miracle before the investigators who were collecting miracles for Louis’s saintly portfolio, just as Nicole did. In documenting cures, the investigators noted details of the witnesses’ lives and experiences, to make their case for Louis IX’s sainthood convincing. Those details themselves show how people helped friends and neighbors who had become disabled, and how a deaf boy found work, and a place in the world. Fantastical though they are, miracle stories give us glimpses of mundane details and motivations that bring the medieval past to life.

Further reading:

Sharon Farmer, Surviving Poverty in Medieval Paris, Cornell University Press, 2002.

Sherry Reames, The Legenda Aurea: A Reexamination of its Paradoxical History, University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

Pamela Sheingorn, The Book of Sainte Foy, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.

***

Dr. Michelle Herder Professor Herder teaches courses covering the range of European history from the early Middle Ages through the end of the 17th century. Course themes include religion, violence, and the relationship between powerful groups and less powerful groups in medieval European society. She is exploring the use of simulations to study history in several of her courses. Her research interests revolve around women and religion in late medieval Spain.

Fantastic History #64: Six Tricks I Use in Writing About Dinosaurs by Rosemary Claire Smith

Whenever I tell someone that I write stories featuring dinosaurs, a smile crosses their face. I mean really, who isn’t captivated by dinosaurs? These fantastical creatures are gigantic, incredibly ancient, and dominated the world for over 185 million years. I’ve talked to a number of authors who’ve thought about writing dinosaur stories, but shy away from doing so. Wouldn’t it be fun if more writers gave it a try? After all, you use precisely the same techniques and tricks you draw upon to write about many other specialized topics.

1. Start with what interests you the most about dinosaurs.
Yes, I’m talking about steak-knife teeth of an Allosaurus, or the football-shaped thagomizer at the tip on an Ankylosaurus’s tail, or the undulating motion of a Spinosaurus as its tail propels the monstrous beast through Cretaceous waters, or the leather-like wings of the Quetzalcoatlus northropi stretching as wide as a small biplane when it soars over Mesozoic skies, or the trumpeting of the Parasaurolophus blowing air through the resonating chambers of the three-foot-long hollow horn atop its head. I’ve relied upon a number of these features in my own stories and my interactive fiction role playing game, T-Rex Time Machine.

That said, several aspects of dinosaur physiology simply don’t interest me. For example, I’ve never managed to read to the bitter end of a scientific paper about dentition or hypothesized jaw musculature or chewing motions of herbivorous Ornithiscian dinosaurs. Nor do I find this a hindrance. In fact, forcing myself to work in these topics risks losing the interest of my readers, for they will unerringly pick up on my own boredom.

2. Keep up with new developments (without letting them overwhelm you.)
Spinosaurus, Parasaurolophus, Velociraptor: These are not your father’s dinosaurs. Much more has changed than just the demise of the dimwitted tail draggers of days gone by. In fact, there’ve been tons of new developments after the release of the first Jurassic Park/World movies. A paleontologist I know recently estimated that for roughly the past fifteen years, an average of forty six species have been discovered and/or described in the scientific literature EVERY YEAR!

The existence of feathers made a big splash, as did microscopic evidence of pigmentation and skin impressions. But there’s more. Vast Hadrosaurus rookeries have been discovered complete with eggs containing unborn dinosaurs. That’s not your bag? Then how about theropods such as Deinonychus that may have hunted in packs? The point is you don’t need to confine yourself to overworked tyrannosaurs or plodding, plant-munching Diplodocus, or graceful giraffe-necked sauropods. Not when there is the possibility that, like bighorn sheep, bone-headed Pachycephalosauruses might have been the head bangers of the Late Cretaceous.

A plethora of scholarly journals and periodicals aimed at intelligent laypersons publish articles on recent excavations and new paleontological research. Few writers can possibly keep up, but we don’t have to! On line courses provide a great way to organize your knowledge and fit isolated facts and bits of information into a coherent framework. These courses never fail to give me new ideas and stimulate my writing.

3. Don’t worry about your research becoming as outdated as canals on Mars or cold-blooded tail-draggers.
Speaking of recent developments, I once asked a friend who also writes dino tales if he worried about the premise, or even some of the telling details, becoming obsolete after his recent book was published. He said there were things that had become outdated before publication. Did that worry him? Not in the least! If it’s a good story, it’ll survive. Not convinced? Then consider the vast swaths of time and territory from which we have no fossils whatsoever. It’s entirely possible that the species or anatomical feature you lovingly describe or the behavior you postulate was close to correct somewhere once. Fun fact: It is estimated that less than 10% of the varied dinosaur species living during the Mesozoic left fossilized remains that we’ve discovered. Some undiscovered specimens lie beneath the 75% of the world covered with oceans. Others are buried by layer upon layer of sedimentary rock hundreds or thousands of feet deep. A great many individual creatures succumbed to decomposition or predation upon their deaths, leaving no remains that ever became fossilized. Even when fossilization did happen, subsequent metamorphic processes or simple erosion destroyed those remains.

4. Do fieldwork (safely).
I may not have a time machine, but I can still learn a lot by direct observation. My subjects are birds and reptiles, the more exotic, the better! Today’s alligators, crocodiles, and birds are the closest living relatives of dinosaurs. In fact, paleontologists consider modern birds to be avian theropods. As such, birds and crocodiles can give us insights into traits and behaviors they have in common with dinosaurs, such as laying eggs. This might also extend to vocalizations, territorial defense, seasonal migrations, and mating practices. I had great fun using these as jumping off points in “Dino Mate,” T-Rex Time Machine, “Not with a Bang,” and other stories.

Nevertheless, I’m no Steve Irwin, nor even Richard Attenborough, when it comes to my risk tolerance. While I stick close to home these days, my backyard provides fascinating examples of nest building, food acquisition, and cooperative behavior among the cardinals, crows, doves, robins, chickadees, sparrows, and suchlike. For more excitement, nature shows are another great source of ideas.

5. Set your story in a fascinating setting.
“White room syndrome” is the bane of many writers who dislike ginning up settings and tend to skip over descriptions when reading for pleasure. Too often, writers fall back upon settings that have done to death. Dinosaur stories are no exception.

It doesn’t have to be that way. With dinosaur remains having been discovered on every continent, including Antarctica, there is simply no need to situate a Mesozoic tale in an overworked location such as the high plains of the United States or Canada. I set one dinosaur story, “Dinomate,” in Subsaharan East Africa where the Kentrosaurus once roamed. I think of this Jurassic dinosaur, which is a relative of the Stegosaurus, as a dinosaur designed by committee. Half of that committee favored a ridge of plates arching along its spine and the other half went for three-foot long spikes. So in the finest committee tradition, the Kentrosaurus sports both plates and spikes. Similarly, I used the temperate Cretaceous forests of Antarctica as the backdrop for my story, “Diamond Jim and the Dinosaurs.” Looking ahead, I have plans—big plans—to hop backward to Cretaceous Northeastern China. That’s where paleontologists discovered Epidexipteryx hui a weird little tree-climber sporting a finger about a third the length of its body.

6. Smash disparate notions together in your large idea collider and work with whatever falls out.
The first story I sold, “Mom and the Ankylosaur,” came out of desperation while I attended a writers’ workshop. I cast about for a new, interesting angle regarding my favorite critters. Another writer attending the workshop knew and shared a great deal about hypnosis. That’s how I embarked upon a story about my mother trying to hypnotize dinosaurs. But rather than picking a standard off-the-toy-store-shelf sauropod, I chose an Ankylosaurus, that armored tank of the Cretaceous. Similarly, “Diamond Jim and the Dinosaurs” grew out of the fact that Antarctica not only had dinosaurs like Antarctopelta (a variant on Ankylosaurus) and Giraffititan (a type of brachiosaur), but also kimberlite formations suitable for diamond mines.

Looking back, I got my start in the dino-tales business not because I had a formal degree in paleontology, but simply because I’ve loved these great beasts ever since I first set eyes on a Brontosaurus skeleton at age five. If dinosaurs are your jam, then go for it. Doing research will be great fun, I promise you. On a cold winter day when the wind howls outside, there’s nothing like checking how warm it is amid the Jurassic cycads. Hmmmm…maybe I’ll crank up the temperature another degree or three for my protagonist. Those dinosaurs won’t mind.

***

Rosemary Claire Smith’s interactive fiction adventure game, T-Rex Time Machine, is available from Choice of Games. She’s an AnLab Readers’ Award finalist, a former archaeologist, a lawyer, a photographer, but most importantly a fan of dinosaurs as well as just about any oversized furry animal. She’s been blogging for the past 156 million years. Her shorter work appears, or is forthcoming in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Fantastic Stories, Amazing Stories, Hybrid Fiction, Drabblecast and other magazines and anthologies. Follow her on Twitter at @RCWordsmith or Facebook as Rosemary Claire Smith.

Fantastic History #63: Turning Points and Alternate Histories by Laurence Raphael Brothers

The turning point is one of the key conceits of alternate history stories. As readers, writers, and day dreamers, we naturally want to redress the many grotesque injustices and horrible outcomes of real world history, but it’s daunting and sometimes rather unpleasant to consider these events as the emergent consequences of all-but-inevitable tides of historical processes. It’s much more fun to consider a particular dreadful executive decision from a head of state, or to analyze that one crucial battle in which that one general got up on the wrong side of bed and inexplicably botched their orders of the day. Sometimes we may want to use our time machine not to fix the problem, but to find the culpable party responsible for some all time bad decision and just slap them silly.

Winston (slap) Bloody (slap) Churchill (slap) what (slap) were (slap) you (slap) thinking (slap) when (slap) you (slap) came (slap) up (slap) with (slap) the (slap) idea (slap) of (slap) an (slap) assault (slap) at (slap) Gallipoli (slap slap slap)? And that wasn’t even the worst thing he did in his career. If it wasn’t for his conduct during WWII, he might well have been one of the worst British politicians of all time, including even the current crop of monstrous clowns.

But of course you might equally well abuse the Khwarezmian governor at Otrar for his cosmically bad decision to execute Genghis Khan’s trade embassy out of hand, or perhaps suggest gently to Pericles that Athens probably can’t win a war with Sparta after all, or even advise secretary-general Hammarskjöld that laudable as his intention to fly to Katanga might be, his peacekeepers will be just fine if he only lets the whole situation well enough alone…. Or perhaps you have more humanitarian motives and will swoop down to rescue Hypatia from the Alexandria mob, or Archimedes from the Romans, or, for that matter, Oscar Wilde from Reading Gaol. None of these last are classic turning points, but who knows what kinds of butterfly’s-wing consequences they might entail.

This kind of fiction has broad precedent and comes in several varieties. Starting perhaps with Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp (1939), there’s the common trope of a time traveler who changes history deliberately. In de Camp’s case, this is achieved by rescuing the Gothic revival of the western Roman Empire from Belisarius and Justinian through sheer technological prowess.

Then there are alternate historical setpiece dramas with no fantastic element involved in the historical divergence. In some of these (say Neal Stephenson’s gonzo Baroque Cycle books, 2003-4) the points of historical divergence are fairly obvious (the duchy of Qwghlm, precocious computing machinery research, alchemical gold-based immortality, etc.), but in others the story is just plain fabulism with no fantastic explanation for the historical deviation. Examples of this type include The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick (1962) and Tirant lo Blanch by Joanot Martorell, published in 1490 and possibly the world’s first alternate history story. This kind of story can sometimes be a sort of roman à clef temporelle (to coin a phrase) in which part of the reader’s fun is figuring out exactly what the crucial turning point might have been. Then there’s the radically different magical or steampunk version of the world where for unexplained reasons familiar historical figures and historical events recur despite the profound differences in setting and technology. For a recent example of this type, consider Naomi Novik’s delightful Temeraire series (2006-16) in which the Napoleonic wars proceed more or less along familiar lines at least at first despite the presence of overwhelmingly powerful dragon forces on all sides.

In the first volume of my WWI-era historical fantasy duology, Twilight Patrol, set at the end of 1917, there are no turning-point deviations from history whatsoever, not on the large scale, anyway. Though I suppose in the real world George IV probably didn’t send a scout squadron to the Celtic otherworld in response to a request for assistance from the previously only thought to be mythical Seelie Court. I chose total historical authenticity to the extent I was capable of offering an accurate presentation of the war time situation. Apparent deviations from history are the author’s mistakes. However, there’s the strong implication of some kind of enormous turning point deviation to come. With their discovery of the otherworld, the Triple Entente can hardly play out the rest of their hand in quite the same way as before… and then there’s the question of the otherworld’s influence on our own, as well. In the second volume, the consequences of actions in the otherworld will reverberate from the fields of Flanders to London, Paris, and Berlin, not to mention Rome, Vienna, Istanbul, and Washington DC.

***

Laurence Raphael Brothers is a writer and technologist. Over 25 of his short stories have appeared in such magazines as Nature, PodCastle, and Galaxy’s Edge. His WWI-era fantasy novel Twilight Patrol has just been published by Alban Lake and is available for purchase on Amazon. His urban fantasy novella The Demons of Wall Street will be published in 2020 by Mirror World, and his Gothic historical fantasy novella City of Magic and Desire will be published by World Castle. Follow him on twitter: @lbrothers, or visit his website for many stories that can be read or listened to for free online.

Fantastic History #62: The 19th Kentucky at Vicksburg by Dawn Vogel

Vicksburg, Mississippi, was a major Civil War stronghold. Confederate president Jefferson Davis referred to it as “the nailhead that held the South’s two halves together.” The city was positioned in a vital location for the Confederate supply line, allowing the South to receive food and other needed materials from the West. As such, Vicksburg was an obvious target for the Union forces under Major General Ulysses S. Grant.

Major General William Tecumseh Sherman began his advance on Vicksburg in December of 1862. Grant joined him there in March of 1863. Initial attempts to approach the city failed, but in late April 1863, “Union gunboats and troop transport boats ran the batteries at Vicksburg and met up with Grant’s men who had marched overland in Louisiana. On April 29 and April 30, 1863, Grant’s army crossed the Mississippi and landed at Bruinsburg, Mississippi. An elaborate series of demonstrations and diversions fooled the Confederates and the landings occurred without opposition.” Grant then conducted a series of attacks on the Confederate forces, ultimately forcing them to retreat to Vicksburg after sustaining heavy losses.

After additional assaults on the city of Vicksburg on May 19 and 22, 1863, Grant determined to settle in for a siege. His Special Orders No. 140, issued on May 25, 1863, dictated that “Corps Commanders will immediately commence the work of reducing the enemy by regular approaches. It is desirable that no more loss of life shall be sustained in the reduction of Vicksburg, and the capture of the Garrison. Every advantage will be taken of the natural inequalities of the ground to gain positions from which to start mines, trenches, or advance batteries.” Union troops dug entrenchments around the city, ever nearer to the fortifications around the city. “With their backs against the Mississippi and Union gunboats firing from the river, Confederate soldiers and citizens alike were trapped. Pemberton was determined to hold his few miles of the Mississippi as long as possible, hoping for relief from Johnston or elsewhere.”

However, the siege was not the only problem that the Confederates faced. “The dead and wounded of Grant’s army lay in the heat of Mississippi summer, the odor of the deceased men and horses fouling the air, the wounded crying for medical help and water.” On May 25, 1863, Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton suggested a temporary truce: “Two days having elapsed since your dead and wounded have been lying in our front, and as yet no disposition on your part of a desire to remove them being exhibited: in the name of humanity I have the honor to propose a cessation of hostilities for 2 1/2 hours, that you may be enabled to remove your dead and dying men. If you can not do this, on notification from you that hostilities will be suspended on your part for the time specified, I will endeavor to have the dead buried and the wounded cared for[.]” Initially, Grant refused, but in the afternoon of the 25th, he agreed to Pemberton’s suggested terms, and that evening, the Union troops collected their wounded and dead while mingling with Confederate soldiers “as if no hostilities existed for the moment.” The siege of Vicksburg resumed the next day, and continued until the Confederate surrender on July 4, 1863, one day after Confederate forces at Gettysburg under General Robert E. Lee surrendered.

The 19th Regiment Kentucky Volunteer Infantry was mustered into service in January 1862 and mustered out of service three years later in January 1865, with some veterans becoming a part of the 7th Kentucky Veteran Volunteer Infantry. They participated in the Vicksburg campaign from late April through the surrender, as a part of the 2nd Brigade, 10th Division, XIII Corps, Army of the Tennessee. “The regiment lost a total of 198 men during service; 1 officer and 42 enlisted men killed or mortally wounded, 3 officers and 152 enlisted men died of disease.”

James J. Ray, one of the characters in the story “The Glorious Dead,” was an actual soldier in the 19th Kentucky. He was born in Washington County, Kentucky, in 1819, making him 44 years old during the Siege of Vicksburg. He kept a diary that he eventually sent home to his wife and children, which has remained among his descendants to the present day. The quoted entry of May 25th in the story is taken directly from his diary. Many thanks to James’s descendant, Ian Ruark of Murphysboro, Illinois, for providing me with a copy of his transcription of the diary for use in “The Glorious Dead.”

Fantastic History #61: The Historical Wonder Woman by Catherine Schaff-Stump

I’m getting ready to move all of my fall classes online, and starting in August, I’m teaching a course called American Dreams. In my attempts to make pop culture a little more literary, and make literature a little more attractive to my students, I have opted to include a couple of graphic novels in the course. One of the novels is New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke, largely because I am drawn to the portrayal of Wonder Woman in the novel. Cooke pares away a lot of the soft Western feminization of the character and truly gets down to a character, who, when push comes to shove, reacts very much like an Amazon warrior.

I haven’t written any academic papers on Wonder Woman, let’s be clear about that. But that said, Wonder Woman was my first comic book hero. My parents brought me home a giant Wonder Woman comic from the grocery store when I was about 8. I kept hoping through my early childhood for anything Wonder Woman. I read ridiculous stories about how she got her shoes, her earrings, how she mastered kanga riding and won a tournament in a mask to come to man’s world to fight in the war against her mother’s wishes. I read a lot of really dopey portrayals of Wonder Woman as she was jealous of her Diana Prince alter ego and puzzled how to get Steve Trevor to marry her. I was saddened by the Kathy Lee Crosby Wonder Woman pilot, and ecstatic as Lynda Carter brought the character to life in a way an 11-year-old could really get behind.

I can go on and on in this vein, talking about the George Perez reboot which started strong and finished weak, or gush about Gal Gadot and mourn how Covid-19 is keeping us from seeing Patty Jenkins’ newest installment in the legitimization of both DC heroes and the mighty Amazon on the big screen. As a costumer, I have dressed as Wonder Woman not once, but twice, both traditional and vintage. And recently, I was even Wonder Woman’s mom.

As I have been wrapping my teacher brain about how to present the superheroes of New Frontier to my student, my mind goes back to the interesting history and origins of many of these heroes. I don’t know how many of you have read about Wonder Woman, but if you’ve read any introductory texts about her, say The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore, you’ll know all about Marston’s ideas of how a woman superhero would fight for peace and love, rather than dominance. Marston had some interesting ideas about submission and bondage, and…well, all sorts of things, but what happened as Marston created his heroine was that Wonder Woman became a heroine unlike the other heroes of her time. After Marston was done with the book, Wonder Woman was essentially made to conform to a more feminine standard after the war. Wonder Woman: The Complete History traces the heroine through her “housewification” of the 50s, her transformation to groovy martial artist (think Emma Peel) in the 60s, and back to the reclamation of her legacy as a hero in the 70s. Like many comics characters, Wonder Woman has reflected the times in which she was written, as well as the cultural mores surrounding women. She has always been problematic in a world which, unlike Marston’s original conceptualization, was not willing to accept an unapologetically strong woman.

In my course, I’m going to be talking about all of the heroes in Cooke’s New Frontier, but Wonder Woman will especially attract some notice, because she is a character in this book, set in the early 60s, that does NOT conform to the Jackie Kennedy pillbox hat standard. Her worldview is very different than many of the characters, and it seems to me that young men and women need to be thinking about what history says about their gender roles, specifically as we move forward into a brave new pandemic world, with many changes about assumptions from the past to be considered. I didn’t know this would be the case when I picked New Frontier, but often scholarly inspiration can be fortuitous.

And Wonder Woman herself? We’ve already seen some ground gained as the mighty Amazon has been brought to the screen in Greek armor, rather than the Playboy bunny suit her armor evolved into. We’ve seen her muscles swell, and her strength and compassion return. If American society can return Wonder Woman to an ideal of strength, of standing against war, of supporting mankind’s better sense of morality, AND if Wonder Woman is indicative of the shifts of our culture, perhaps our world isn’t as bleak as it currently seems.

Fantastic History #60: Being Right Versus Being True by Kurt Wilcken

Characters are funny things. I think just about any writer will tell you that there have been times when a character took on a life of his own and refused to do the things the writer planned. As the character develops, his personality develops until when the writer gets to the point where Harriet is supposed to marry Peter, the writer realizes that there is no way in hell Harriet would do such a thing. And then she has to write a half dozen more novels worth of character development to get them both down the aisle.

It’s rewarding when this happens, because it means that the character has become more like a real person than simply a cardboard puppet for the author to manipulate; and that means that the character and the things that happen to him are more likely to be meaningful to the reader.

When my characters are obstinate and refuse to follow my elegantly constructed plots, I generally let them have their head and adjust my story accordingly. I’ve got plenty of practice doing this running RPG’s with my wife.

But sometimes I come across a related problem. What do you do when your character has opinions and beliefs that differ greatly from your own?

Usually it’s not that big a deal. It’s a common situation, after all. Imagining what it would be like to be a person other than yourself is pretty much a prerequisite for being any kind of a writer, especially one who is writing about a different historical period. As the fellow once said, the Past is another country; they do things differently there. If a character of mine has different political views or religious beliefs or moral outlook than my own, we can agree to disagree for the space of the story.

I will admit that sometimes I am not above mocking such a character and use my prerogative as author to poke fun at his misconceptions. The biggest temptation of all is to “convert” the characters. Robert Heinlein once said that there were only three basic plots in fiction, one of which being “The Man Who Learned Better.” Growth of understanding is what character development is all about and what better way to develop the character than to have the story be about how the character learns that his former opinions were wrong and comes around to the author’s way of thinking?

Except… when you put it that way… Gee, that sounds awfully egotistical. And worse yet, it reduces the character back to being the cardboard puppet again, dancing for the author’s amusement.

I’m not saying it can’t be done, but to do it right, the writer needs to show the character’s conversion developing naturally out of the character.

Arthur Conan Doyle was an ardent believer in Spiritualism, and once wrote a story in which his character the bombastic Professor Challenger has a dramatic encounter with the ghost of a former assistant which converts him to a belief in the afterlife. Doyle wrote no such story about Sherlock Holmes, in which the Great Detective renounces his skepticism about the supernatural. It would have out of character for him; it would have seemed contrived; it would have seemed false.

I was once in a similar situation many years ago. I was playing a character in a Victorian Era monster hunting game named J. Hamish Broadstead who was an arch-skeptic. He completely rejected the supernatural and had made it his life’s mission to debunk fraudulent mediums. He was your stereotypical late-Victorian scientific materialist — come to think of it, I borrowed a bit of Professor Challenger for him — and I admit, I played him as a pompous buffoon. After all, since there really were vampires and ghosts and such creatures in the campaign, his obstinate refusal to see this was a running gag.

I decided to draw a comic book “origin story” for my skeptic, explaining how he became so obsessive about debunking the supernatural. I framed it as a dream in which he is guided through his past by another of the characters, who was loosely based on the Phantom Stranger. ( “This isn’t going to be like that wretched Dickens Christmas story, is it?” “I’m afraid so, Professor.” “Can’t stand Dickens. Always taking legitimate social concerns and sentimentalizing them.”)

So, I had Broadstead’s spirit guide show him selected scenes from his youth culminating in an incident where as a young man he exposes a fraudulent medium at a seance and the shock of the revelation causes his sickly, invalid sister to fall into a swoon. She dies shortly afterwards, and Broadstead blames the charlatan. Secretly, though, he harbors guilt at the thought that had he not unmasked the fraud, his sister might still be alive.

At that point in the story, I realized I needed to come up with some kind of resolution. There had to be some reason for Broadstead to relive his tragic past. I needed Broadstead to find Redemption.

Except…

I couldn’t buy it. It just didn’t seem right for Broadstead. Given his background and his personality, I could not picture him having a religious experience; it would not ring true. Even if he ever did have such an experience, he would almost certainly interpret it in purely materialistic terms. And in any case, since I framed the story as a dream, he would likely discount the whole thing when he woke up anyway.

So how would I respect Broadstead’s character without seeming to validate a world-view I disagree with? How can I be right and stay true at the same time?

In this particular story, I had the spirit guide offer Broadstead the chance to speak with the ghost of his sister and resolve their issues. Her ghost appears behind him, arms outstretched and beckoning to him. But Broadstead banishes her with a grumpy “Poppycock!” without ever seeing she was there. He doesn’t need anybody’s help and he is perfectly capable of dealing with his own guilt issues by himself, thank you. Besides, if there is an afterlife — which he does not for a moment concede — then his sister certainly has better things to do than to come back here. To the end, Broadstead remains proud and self-sufficient and true to his personal philosophy and code. And yet… his sister was there, if only he would see her. And the story ends with him standing quietly by her grave. Praying? Pondering? I left it for the reader to decide.

I’m not exactly sure if I succeeded in striking the balance I wanted in that story. I thought it worked pretty well at the time, and had some nice bits of dialogue; but in summarizing the plot, it seems rather weak. Sometimes a story works, sometimes it doesn’t.

I found myself in a similar situation with my story “Spitting at the Sun” in which an orkish shaman undergoes a crisis of faith when his world changes and a new religion arises to challenge his own. Working out his traditional beliefs was a fun exercise in world-building. The difficult part came when I needed to have my orc resolve this crisis and reconcile his beliefs to the new situation.

No, I didn’t make him a Lutheran. A Lutheran orc might be interesting; but he wouldn’t fit in this story. I wanted to be true to the character. Anything less would come off as phony. I had to find what aspects of my own beliefs my orc would comprehend and be open to, so that when he comes to a deeper understanding of things, it flows and develops from who he is and what he knows. Having him experience this satori in the middle of a fight helped. He is an orc, after all.

It can be a delicate balance. The character has to have enough in common with the audience that the reader can relate to and understand him, but he also needs to be different enough to be believably part of another world with a different society, different attitudes and different culture. If the writer manages to portray the character well, not only does the character gain a deeper understanding of his world, perhaps the reader does as well.

*****

In his secret identity, Kurt Wilcken is a ninja cartoonist. He has written and drawn stories for Antarctic Press and Radio Comix and his current webcomic, a Pulp-Era adventure titled Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine, appears on his website. He also blogs occasionally on subjects ranging from comic books to obscure Bible stories. You can find his story about the orkish shaman, “Spitting at the Sun”, in the fantasy anthology Hunt the Winterlands.

Fantastic History #59: Beer City by Dawn Vogel

Author Harry E. Chrisman claims that when it comes to the history of the American West, “If [the information] is easy to obtain, then it is ‘old hat’ and has probably been published a dozen times before.” Nonetheless, the history of the American West is filled with colorful characters and stories that have not been told as often as some others.

As Americans filled in the vast lands between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, they organized into territories as a form of government, preparatory to becoming states. But the forms of government in these territories ranged from ordered to lawless, and often fell somewhere in between. The piece of land that would ultimately become the Oklahoma Panhandle started out as a part of Texas. However, because of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the later Compromise of 1850, the portion of Texas that fell north of the 36°30′ latitude was ceded and became known as the “Public Land Strip.” Since the southern borders of the Kansas and Nebraska Territories were set at the 37th latitude, in 1854, there was a strip of land, approximately 34 miles north-south and 170 miles west-east that was not a part of any territory. “No Man’s Land,” as it was known, was in a prime location with regards to Kansas, which had prohibited the sale and manufacture of alcohol. It was easy to travel across the southern boundary of Kansas and visit a little town called Beer City.

“Town” is a generous description for the settlement. It was mostly tents, with a few actual buildings: “There were eight to ten saloons, a number of gambling houses and several bawdy houses to represent the business Industries of the Strip city.” The Yellow Snake Saloon, run by “Pussy Cat” Nell Jones, was one of those buildings, and likely served as not only a saloon, but also a gambling house and a bawdy house.

Without much in the way of organized law and order, the town had a self-appointed sheriff, Amos (or Lewis) “Brushy” Bush. According to most accounts of the town, he also ran a protection racket, requiring local businesses to pay him money in order for them to make use of his services, whether they were wanted or not. According to Chrisman, “He ruled with sawed off shotgun and six-shooters…. His ‘protection’ came high, but Beer Citizens accepted it—at least for a while.”

Sometime in the late 1880s, a 4th of July celebration in Beer City included a wrestling match and a masked ball. Residents of Beer City placed bets on one or the other of the combatants in the wrestling match, through a man named Fred Oschner. However, Brushy Bush “horned in at the last minute to hold most of the stakes, for 5 percent!” When Pussy Cat Jones found out and registered her displeasure, Brushy Bush pistol whipped her for her temerity.

Pussy Cat Jones then waited a week to enact her revenge. According to Chrisman, “Pussy Cat sat in the upstairs room of her house and saw Brushy Bush passing along the street just below her. Quickly seizing her trustworthy double barrel shotgun loaded with Blue Whistlers, those deadly little steel balls about an eighth of an inch in diameter, she poked the snout of her gun out the window and gave Brushy both barrels in the back of the neck.”

Perhaps if that had been the end of it, the fate of Brushy Bush would have been fairly cut and dried—shot in the back by a woman he had wronged. “But now the other folks of Beer City took up the battle and the crack of rifle and shotgun fire made the street sound like Gettysburg. When one group would run out of ammunition, another would commence firing into Bush’s inert form. When they finally picked his bloody body out of the street and took it out onto the prairie for burial, there was not a whole bone in his body.” Even the newspapers commented on the amount of lead that had been pumped into Brushy Bush. One account gave the numbers as “eight bullets and twenty-three shot,” while another claimed “seventy-four Winchester and pistol shots were fired into Bush’s body.”

Despite how many times Bush had been shot, the authorities did eventually find someone to blame for the murder: John Brennan. “A Paris, Texas, dispatch dated July 3, 1889, says: John Brennan, a white man, had an examination before U. S. Commissioner Kirkpatrick today for the murder of Amos Bush, also white, at Beer City, No Man’s Land, last May, and was committed without bail to await the action of the federal grand jury. Bush was from Dodge City, and was killed by a vigilance committee, one of which was Brennan.”

Clearly, though, it seems impossible for Brennan to have fired all those shots, so why he alone took the blame for the murder of Bush is unclear. At least some speculation on the subject suggests that the townspeople all agreed to fire on Bush to muddy up the evidence of an actual killing shot, assuming they could not all be blamed for Bush’s death.

Another issue with the accounts is that they do not agree—the newspaper article about Brennan’s examination mentions that Bush was murdered in May of 1889, which does not square with Chrisman’s report of it taking place after a 4th of July celebration. Additionally, another newspaper article mentions “Bush was proprietor of a saloon in the city and at the election was defeated for mayor,” and then began rounding up citizens of Beer City for a “bone yard” he planned to create. In this account, “A meeting was held and Bush was ordered to keep quiet or leave town, but he refused to do either,” so the residents banded together to kill him.

Though it is difficult to match up the details of the contemporary newspaper articles and Chrisman’s account, which does not offer any citation, it certainly seems likely that Brushy Bush was not a popular figure in Beer City. Whether he was a lawful man unfairly targeted by unlawful citizens who preferred their town not be policed, a tyrant who picked on the wrong woman, or a belligerent drunk unwilling to accept his loss of the mayoral race, it does seem clear that his murder cannot be pinned on any one individual with any certainty, and thus remains a subject of speculation in the history of the American West.

***
Sources include

“Arrested for Murder,” Hugoton Hermes, June 21, 1889, transcribed online at http://oklahombres.org/eve/forums/a/tpc/f/5176036794/m/66510794641

Derrick Ho, “Stories of the Ages: Beer City,” The Oklahoman, accessed January 13, 2017, http://ndepth.newsok.com/beer-city/

Harry E. Chrisman, Lost Tales of the Cimarron (Denver: Sage Books, 1961)

“Oklahoma Panhandle,” Wikipedia.com, accessed February 13, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oklahoma_Panhandle

“Oklahoma Panhandle: Badmen in No Man’s Land,” History.net, June 12, 2006, http://www.historynet.com/oklahoma-panhandle-badmen-in-no-mans-land.htm

Woodsdale Sentinel, August 2, 1889, transcribed online at http://oklahombres.org/eve/forums/a/tpc/f/5176036794/m/66510794641

***

Dawn Vogel’s academic background is in history, so it’s not surprising that much of her fiction is set in earlier times. By day, she edits reports for historians and archaeologists. In her alleged spare time, she runs a craft business, co-edits Mad Scientist Journal, and tries to find time for writing. Her steampunk series, Brass and Glass, is published by DefCon One Publishing. She is a member of Broad Universe, Codex Writers, and SFWA. She lives in Seattle with her awesome husband (and fellow author), Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats.

Fantastic History #58: When the Ordinary is a Fantasy by Kate Heartfield

The Black Death hit Florence hard. At least half the city’s population died, and maybe more.

By 1350, the plague had burned itself out. Many of the city’s grand houses sat empty, a temptation to anyone who would take the risk of touching the furnishings. Giovanni Boccaccio was already writing what history came to regard as his great work, a collection of bawdy or clever stories told with perfect turns of phrase and deftly drawn characters.

It’s tempting to think of classic texts as though they were archival records, missives from the past. But when Giovanni Boccaccio wrote the Decameron, I doubt he had us in mind. It’s a little difficult to say for sure who, exactly, he had in mind. In his introduction, he says he wrote it as a comfort for ladies to ease their suffering – but the suffering he’s talking about is the suffering of being in love! The first chapter is a description of the plague’s effects on Florence, the ditches full of corpses with no one to mourn them. But Boccaccio reassures his putative female audience that all the unpleasant parts will be out of the way at the beginning, that reading the book will be like climbing a mountain and emerging onto to a beautiful plain.

In that notional meadow, his readers come upon a group of fictional storytellers. The conceit is that these characters have left plague-ridden Florence for the countryside, where they decide to wait out their apocalypse by telling each other stories. It was just barely historical fiction when Boccaccio was writing it in his half-empty city; it would be like someone in 2022 writing a novel set in the current pandemic.

What strikes me, as a historical fantasy writer re-reading the Decameron now, is that there’s not a lot of fantasy in it. There’s the occasional ghost, mythological milieu or strange happening, but the stories are mostly about ordinary people tricking each other, having affairs, showing up hypocrisy, learning life lessons.

In fact, the realism of the stories told by the Decameron’s somewhat allegorical frame characters has led many people to see it as a sort of snapshot of the transition to the Renaissance. Joan Acocella wrote in The New Yorker in 2013: “I see the Decameron as a picture, with the ten elegant Florentines, in their silk gowns and embroidered doublets, joining hands and dancing their lovely circle dance, the carola. And in the middle of the circle are monks and merchants and painters and prostitutes eating dinner and having sex and kicking one another into ditches. In other words, we see the Renaissance embraced by the Middle Ages, like a planet orbited by its moons.”

Dividing anything into the Renaissance and the Middle Ages is always fraught, and that debate doesn’t really concern me here. But the dogged ordinariness of the stories does. After all, in our own time, we’ve been told over and over again that the literature of comfort and escape is fantasy. Some, like Tolkien, have defended the “escape” function of what he called “fairy-stories”: “Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?” More often, though, it’s dismissive or derisive, meant to signal that what is escapist is not challenging or thought-provoking or elevating, that it merely allows us to forget our troubles for a while, like a glass of wine.

The Decameron, which long ago joined the ranks of Serious Art, was written with the express purpose of allowing women to forget their troubles. It is literally, avowedly, escapist fiction, anchored in the very disaster his readers had just survived: the reader is asked to imagine escaping that disaster and going to an idyllic landscape, where they have ten days to remember life in all its pain and hilarity: life without the plague.

How many times have you heard or read someone say, over the last few months, that all of this feels unreal, that we’re living in a science fiction novel? Such moments remind us that all fiction has an escapist function – or, to get away from the derogatory, let’s call it a transportive, function. Writers struggling to write “contemporary” stories at the moment, anchored in some floating nebulous “now”, are having to confront the axiom that all fiction is either historical or science fiction. It’s just easier to kid ourselves about that when there isn’t a pandemic happening. By the time any novel written during this pandemic is published, it will imagine a world that is gone, or a world that the writer can’t know yet. Either choice will transport the reader, either to the past, or to a fossilized conception of the future. All fiction moves us from one room into another.

Perhaps the novelist who writes the escapist fiction of 2022 will do as Boccaccio did and write about ordinary people having affairs and not worrying about anything else, and it will seem like a throwback to a more innocent time. Edith Wharton wrote in her memoir about the end of the Great War and the 1918 flu pandemic that “before I could deal objectively with the stored up emotions of those years, I had to get away from the present altogether, and though I began ‘A Son at the Front’ in 1917 it was not finished until four years later. Meanwhile I found a momentary escape in going back to my childish memories of a long-vanished America, and I wrote ‘The Age of Innocence.’” That novel was set in the 1870s and published in 1920, and it won the Pulitzer Prize.

I’ve had a story stub sitting in my ideas folder for a while, with a setting inspired by The Age of Innocence, set in New York in the 1870s, with magicians. It seemed somehow fitting that that story should be my contribution for The New Decameron Project, a wonder conceived of by Maya Chhabra, and organized by Maya Chhabra, Jo Walton and Lauren Schiller. So I finished it up, titled it “A Hansom Cab Outside the Liberty Street Ferry Terminal” and it was published on May 4. All the stories in The New Decameron Project, including the charming frame narrative by Jo Walton, are free to read, but Patreon subscribers support payments for the authors and Cittadini del Mondo, a charity running a library and clinic for refugees in Rome.

Personally, I want all my stories to be an escape from the reader’s current frame of mind, so that they return from the experience changed, even if that change is only one of mood. Because the escape in fiction is always a temporary one, and what it’s really doing is guiding our return, to the city that needs rebuilding, to the life that is to come.

*

Kate Heartfield writes science fiction and fantasy, including the Aurora-winning novel Armed in Her Fashion and the Nebula-shortlisted novella Alice Payne Arrives, along with dozens of stories. She is the author of The Road to Canterbury and The Magician’s Workshop, both of which were shortlisted for the Nebula in game writing. Her next novel is The Embroidered Book, a historical fantasy coming in 2021. A former journalist, Kate lives in Ottawa, Canada.

Fantastic History #57: Rehumanizing Chattel Slaves by Abby Goldsmith

Chattel slavery ranks high among humanity’s worst evils.

It overlaps with institutionalized torture and genocide, which make it difficult to explore through the lens of fantasy fiction. If you misrepresent chattel slavery, you are compounding injustice and spreading harmful ignorance. If you treat it lightly or gloss over it, you are misrepresenting it. And since the descendants of American slaves make up a significant portion of the reading public, any treatment of it in fiction deserves nuance and sensitivity, and a lot of research.

One of the defining features of American slavery was dehumanization. American slaves were considered a subspecies of humankind, not just a lower social class. That belief justified the treatment of chattel slaves as animals, to be bred, bought, and sold without regard for familial bonds, and without regard for the loyalties of love and friendship. To enforce this unnatural arrangement, armed violence against unarmed slaves was acceptable and commonplace.

Despite the vast gulf between masters and slaves, however, there was no erasing their shared humanity. Mixed families were undeniable. Sometimes a master owned his own children. Modern genetic tests, as well as the wide range of skin tones among descendants of American slaves, are evidence of the lie which dehumanization relied upon. As much as slave owners wanted to believe that their slaves were unlike themselves, they were wrong.

I wondered how much worse it might have been if mixing was impossible.

What if the schism between masters and slaves was based on a more substantial pretext than skin color? What if masters and slaves were, literally, two different species?

In my series, I cast the entire human race as chattel slaves. Planet Earth is like interior Africa at the start of the colonial era, isolated from a bustling galactic civilization. The rulers of the galaxy are distantly related to humankind, as well as to other “primitives.” But they consider humankind to be an inferior subspecies of themselves.

The Torth make the same mistake which white slave traders made, and the same mistake the Nazis made. They fall for the seductive ideology that they are members of an elite, superior race. The Torth see themselves as intrinsically more wholesome and more mentally advanced than their human targets. After all, the Torth wield total power as the only legal citizens of galactic civilization. They are far more technologically advanced than humankind. They rule planets. hey dominate interstellar travel. They have conquered and enslaved multiple alien civilizations. All the power they’ve gained makes it hard for anyone to question their morality, or their fitness to rule.

I needed the Torth to look indistinguishable from humans. They consider humanity to be a lesser subspecies of themselves, rather than alien beasts, and I wanted their reason for dehumanizing humans to be something more substantial than appearance. After all, visible traits are a flimsy excuse for dehumanization. I wanted my galactic-ruling civilization to seem smarter than that.

What if their claim to superiority is based on a bioengineered, inherited ability which they have made impossible for “lesser” species to inherit?

The Torth don’t need an internet because their minds are interconnected in a telepathic web that spans the galaxy. Like white slave-owners in the American South, who sent their sons to universities and who gave their daughters private tutors, but who did not knowingly share books or newspapers or literacy with slaves, the Torth forbid the sharing of knowledge with slaves.

Only Torth learn how to read glyphs. Only Torth learn how to pilot a flying transport, or how to navigate a streamship through a wormhole to another solar system. Slaves learn nothing except how to polish floors or harvest grains.

Knowledge is power. That fact was perhaps never more poignantly proven than during slavery in the United States. An educated slave was a direct, existential challenge to the notion that slaves were an inferior subspecies. Therefore, it was forbidden to teach literacy to slaves. If a slave could read, then that slave might read a newspaper and learn which runaways were being hunted, and by whom. They might give warning to their fellow slaves about impending battles or uprisings. They might communicate secret directions to an underground railroad.

They might gain a voice which could not be ignored.

Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Sojourner Truth, and others who escaped slavery wrote and orated powerfully about their personal experiences. These people were among the few slaves who defiantly learned literacy against the wishes of their owners. They were lucky enough to be positioned for a permanent escape to freedom. And once they gained freedom, they were brave enough to challenge the vested interests that ruled the civilization they lived in.

I think anyone who reads their works can only admire them. In gaining global attention, these former slaves shone an inescapable spotlight on what must be happening to a vast population in the American South who were unable to advocate for themselves.

I wanted to bring some of that defiant heroism into my series.

Torth collectively share knowledge with each other. The Megacosm is the backbone of their galactic civilization; something like a super-charged internet. It is the equivalent of books and newspapers during the era of American slavery. Torth regard humanity’s internet as a feeble, slow, primitive version of the mental network which they’ve collectively shared for a thousand generations, and which only they can access. Any Torth in the galaxy can instantly communicate with any other Torth. hey hide no secrets from each other. They don’t use spoken language.

In the same way that slave owners in early America assumed that slaves were incapable of erudition, the Torth assume that enslaved subspecies, such as humankind, are naturally incapable of using the Megacosm.

But if a reader is paying close attention, they might guess at an undercurrent in Torth society; a fear that they might be wrong. After all, why have the Torth outlawed the science of bioengineering?

They want to preclude any possibility of another species gaining telepathic abilities, or developing a communications network that might rival the Megacosm.

In my series, a group of slaves gain a window into the Megacosm through a Torth who goes renegade. Thomas rejects the privileges and benefits of being a slave owner. Having been raised by humans on Earth, Thomas has sympathy for his enslaved human foster family. He risks his life to set them free, and together, they escape Torth society and join an underground hideout full of runaway slaves.

Thomas provides the former slaves with education which is supposed to be meant only for Torth. Through his efforts, the former slaves begin to make use of super-weapons and spaceships. As knowledge spreads through the former slaves and rebels, they innovate on their own.

They found a rebel nation which energetically defies Torth laws against bioengineering and other sciences. One of their biggest gains is a “telepathy gas” which empowers former slaves to jack into the Megacosm.

The rebel nation is a melting pot of cultures, similar to how the slaves of the colonial United States were a mix of tribal nations. Their shared experience as slaves gives them a common language. This facilitates creativity, and their new forms of art and innovations even appeal to the stuffy Torth.

Soon there are secret Torth renegades who want to join the rebel nation. It is a slow trickle at first, since surveillance is a key component of the Megacosm. Torth are constantly monitored by their own peers. By choosing to join former slaves, renegade Torth must give up the Megacosm. Not only do they lose their edge in knowledge, but they also abandon their privileges as slave masters. And they must risk death to escape.

The risks are worth it to some renegade Torth. By the end of my series, the risks are worth it to many, as the Torth civilization begins to collapse from its own rotten values. They are no longer able to maintain the delusion of their innate superiority.

***

Abby Goldsmith’s short fiction and articles are published in Escape Pod, Fantasy Magazine, a Writer’s Digest Books anthology, and other venues. She’s an alumni of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, where she received a personal critique from best-selling author George R.R. Martin. She’s also enjoyed dinners with best-selling authors Hugh Howey, Kevin J. Anderson, and Robert Jordan.

A former animator and game content writer, Abby is credited on more than a dozen Nintendo games for Nickelodeon and Disney. She co-hosts the Stories for Nerds podcast from her home in Texas.