I’m always fascinated by author interviews, biographies, and the story behind the story—discussions of an author’s inspiration and genesis from concept to finished work. This just in from Bill Barton, the author of Acts of Conscience:
The Road to Green Heaven
by William Barton © 2015
Almost all writers begin by imitating other books, and in modern times, other media. All writers living today were exposed not only to books, but to movies and television, to comic books, graphic novels, cartoons, anime, you name it. I am as subject to those influences as anyone else, and most especially to the cheap paperback novels and comic books published during my own annus mirabilis of 1964, when I was thirteen and then fourteen years old.
Green Heaven, and this Acts of Conscience, is technically part of my Starover Universe, which began with the publication of Hunting On Kunderer, in 1973, but it’s a late addition, and contains some crossover with the Silvergirl Universe (When We Were Real and several other stories). The crossover is mainly technological, representing some of what I learned between the 1970s and 1990s, but the worlds of the book are pure Starover.
I have sometimes described the Starover Universe as Larry Niven’s Known Space meets A. Bertram Chandler’s Galactic Rim. And though it was far beyond that, it remains true, because it and its ancestors are what I call “featural universes.” They are all about the naming of names and the relationships between them. The thing is, you can map a featural universe, and that’s how the Titanium Brick Road to Green Heaven began.
I am a very visual person, and always have been. When I was a boy, I drew scenes from things I was reading, borrowed and expanded on illustrations from books like the Grosset & Dunlap Tom Corbett editions. And I tried to draw maps, against which to visualize the story. One day, I was laying on the floor, sketching out a map with 3D renderings of places named Tentholm and Aerhurst, when my father wanderer by, looked at it, and exclaimed, “Why, this is a map of Swiss Family Robinson!” I was proud he recognized it, and happy to have amazed him. It was certainly a validation of my sense of self-worth, and like most of us, I was a decidedly underappreciated ten year old.
I continued drawing maps of things I read, including some exquisite renderings of Barsoom, once I realized you could locate Exum positively on a map, and then work outwards, jumping from place to place, relating them to one another. Finally, maybe in the sixth grade, I began creating and mapping my own worlds. You can see how some of them turned out in the frontispiece maps to Crimson Darkness.
What I didn’t have was a sound mechanism for mapping some of the science fiction stories I liked. Oh, I knew where the planets and major asteroids of the Solar System were, and even had some sense of where the nearest stars were, once I learned a little spherical geometry. But some of those stories were scattered around the galaxy, for which no real map then existed. I could look at photos of Andromeda, and kind of guess, but… how to draw a map? One that would look the way I thought maps should look?
At first, I tried drawing the “lens” as described in some novels, with dots for stars/worlds/civilizations. Not so satisfactory. One day I tried to map the Galactic Rim universe, as Chandler described it. I drew a circle, then put the dots of the major elements of the Rimworlds Confederacy around the edge. Hmm. That was the first time I realized the old sea-captain had created an impossible entity, as if the Isle of Man, Tahiti, the Falklands, and the Seychelles had declared independence and banded together. The other thing I realized was, the rest Chandler’s galaxy was full of space-going countries. The Terran Federation, the Shaara Empire, etc.
Now, I had already created a non-featural universe, the Ohanaic Universe that would give birth to its own stories, such as Yellow Matter, based loosely on James Blish’s space-going Okie stories. I never really tried to map it, because it was internalized, more about Spenglerian history than about settings.
So I drew another circle, drew an inner circle I labeled “Galactic Core (uninhabitable),” scattered a few dots around where I knew I wanted “capitol planets,” then drew borders, colored everything in, and invented names, just like I’d done with my planetary romance settings. To the big blue splotch centered on Earth, I attached the label Terran Colony System, and the Starover Universe was born.
The rest of its genesis came from my other habit, of drawing pictures of my characters, and setting them in scenes from the stories I was imagining, and sometimes trying to write. This second element of the Starover Universe came from a coloring book I was using as a template. I could draw pretty well as a kid, but things like human figures are pretty hard, so I traced people from other sources (primarily comic books) and placed them in backgrounds of my own devising, sometimes even scaling them with a toy pantograph I had.
The first story of the Starover Universe came out of a Superman coloring book I’d spotted. Oddly, though it was without captions, there was an implied story in the sequence of images, and so I wrote a story of my own to connect them together, spawning characters from the unknown ones in the coloring book. Superman became Zoltan Tharkie, the uniformed airline pilot became Dexteran Kaelenn, the thuggish villain became Shane Lawrency, and so on. I even tried to write the story down, petering out after a few pages, as I usually did, but a decade later, that early effort became the first chapter of my second published novel, A Plague of All Cowards.
The next phase came as I began reading Larry Niven’s Known Space stories. I was fascinated by his “habitable point” gimmick, but much more interested in the fact that his planets seemed like entire real worlds, rather than “spots for plots,” like in so much science fiction of the era. I had made up a few Starover planets, but didn’t know much beyond what was in the story ideas.
And, of course, I’d drawn fairly detailed maps of my planetary romance settings, which is the whole idea. Venusworld had more than a hundred countries, each with its own language, culture, and history. Obviously, every planet in a science fiction universe should too. The next thing I realized was, the Starover Universe was in the fairly remote future, mainly years after 4000 AD. I knew something of its history, of how there’d been a terrible dictatorship called the Combine that’d been overthrown a thousand years before the events of A Plague of All Cowards.
How had human civilization gotten to that point? So I started writing down a future history that connected the 1960s, where Project Gemini was the latest thing in space travel, to the universe of Zoltan Tharkie, two thousand years later, where humans and their allies had just fought a devastating interstellar against the Tertris and their allies. Let me tell you, I thought I was mighty clever making Zoltan Tharkie the hero who’d ended the war by vaporizing the Tertris homeworld. And I did understand that made him a genocidal war criminal.
Looking at Known Space, I realized what I needed to do to flesh out the very near future Starover Universe, providing a linking civilization that would connect the twentieth century USA to the Combine of the twenty-eighth. In addition to the historical narrative, I picked out a couple of dozen stars that I figured could support habitable planets, made up star systems for them, including a “scientific” nomenclature for them (in it, Earth’s Moon would be called Sol IIIi. For Kent, it would be Alpha Centauri A-IV, etc.). Then I made up microhistories that would implement logical names for the planets in the star systems. And then I began drawing maps of each and every inhabited planet, and some of the important uninhabited ones as well. I even drew pictures of some of the gas giants I figured my characters might want to visit.
The frontispiece map of Green Heaven from the StoryBundle edition of Acts of Conscience is scanned from one of a later series of color maps I did of the major worlds. I even did a spiral arm map of the entire Starover galaxy, used as the frontispiece of This Dog/Rat World. As the Universe evolved, I decided there would be far-flung clusters of such worlds, highly habitable planets colonized first, then others nearby in secondary colonizations. In A Last War for the Oriflamme, readers get to visit Vincenzo Prime, capitol planet of the Vinzeth Empire, along with a few other planets later incorporated in the Terran Colony System. They all have maps of their own.
I wrote the outline for Acts of Conscience some time in the middle 1970s, but didn’t have either the skillset or free time to write it properly. Not long after finishing This Dog/Rat World, I threw in the towel on writing science fiction, and wasn’t to resume for fourteen years. When I did, there were all those beautiful maps, and the outline for an extraordinary novel. When I got that Special Citation from the Philip K. Dick Award, it was a personal validation not unlike the one I’d gotten from my Dad, thirty-five years earlier.
Thank you, Bill, for your insightful and moving monograph on the writing of Acts of Conscience. For more information about William Barton and his books, please see http://williambarton.com/.
So there you have it, my friends. The Philip K Dick Award Storybundle includes Aestival Tide by Elizabeth Hand (PKD Finalist), Life by Gwyneth Jones (PKD Winner), The Cipher by Kathe Koja (PKD Finalist), Points of Departure by Pat Murphy (PKD Winner), Dark Seeker by K. W. Jeter (PKD Finalist), Summer of Love by Lisa Mason (PKD Finalist), Frontera by Lewis Shiner (PKD Finalist), Acts of Conscience by William Barton (PKD Special Citation), Maximum Ice by Kay Kenyon (PKD Finalist), Knight Moves by Walter Jon Williams (PKD Finalist), and Reclamation by Sarah Zettel (PKD Finalist).
The Philip K Dick Award Storybundle runs only until October 15 so you must act now! Once it’s gone, it’s gone. Download yours today at http://storybundle.com/pkdaward and enjoy world-class, award-winning reading right now and into the holidays.