Sunday, November 04, 2007

Monkey rats in NaNo shock

I think one of the most important lessons I've learned about bookwriting in my (extremely) short career to date is that good stories are about people. It doesn't matter how weird the setting - how disfigured the laws of physics, geography and biology have become in your story's world - the book only becomes interesting when you put "real" people into the scenery and let them deal with "real" problems such as gathering food, searching for sex and keeping their loved ones safe.

Now this is a bit of a bugger for me because one of my great pleasures in life (apart from food, sex, etc) has been the development of my constructed world within which I've always planned for my stories to take place. I have maps. I have alien biology. I have sweeping histories of nation building and the destruction of empires. But when it actually comes to writing the book, it all becomes background material - something mostly hidden from the reader as the characters get on with their everyday, ordinary lives in this alien, extraordinary world I have created for them.

It's a real bugger, I can tell you!

So when I do manage to work out a way of introducing an alien creation into the novel, you can imagine my joy. For instance, I blogged about monkey rats a couple of years ago - an alien creature which appears to have three separate sexes, and yesterday I finally worked out a way to slip the wee beastie into the NaNo novel.

The big trick (of course) is to get the characters to react to the alien creature as if it is something they've known about, and lived with, all their lives: it's not alien to them at all. Yet at the same time I have to introduce a completely alien "monster" to my readers, show them this beast, explain to them what makes it a proper, alien creation rather than some sort of chimaeraic creation - beak of a bird, pelt of a fox, tongue of a snake, etc. And I have to convince the reader that it could exist outside of the bounds of the story.

Why? Because for me the alien biology of my constructed world is real. If I can't write about this world as an alien place in which humans live, then I'm failing myself as a writer.

So then, how does my writing match up to the targets I set for it? That, dear reader, you'll have to judge for yourself. Say hello to the Giant monkey rats of Burramesh:

The track was well worn: in some places it cut into the surrounding earth and in the steeper parts steps had been roughly cut into the bare rock. In several places it doubled back on itself in its climb to the top. Loken took the lead, eager to reach the brow of the hill, not taking much notice of the vegetation as he strode by. Only when the path levelled out did he stop; he could see Delesse below him, holding the shrunken woman's hand as they negotiated the trickier parts of the climb.

"God's teeth! You've got monkey rats up here!"

"Don't go too far," Delesse shouted back. "They're dangerous!"

Turning around, he could see that the hill formed a massive Y shape, with the city below nestled between its outstretched arms. Northwards, the slope of the hill was much gentler. The ground was a flattened swirl of rusts and greys, littered with rocks and boulders but little in the way of vegetation. Nearby to his right a stone hut had been built – he could see two guards sitting in the shade of its over-large roof while a third sat on top. All three were watching him; he waved a greeting to them and felt a touch of relief when they raised their hands to acknowledge him. None of them seemed to be carrying weapons.

The only vegetation of note was the monkey rat trees. They were huge – the largest reaching almost five metres from the ground. He'd seen such trees before: monkey rats were quite common, even in Stal, but few grew above man-height.

"Magnificent, aren't they." Delesse had reached the top of the hill and was walking towards him. "The Governor before my Father had a monkey rat tree growing in the Reception Courtyard, but it was cut down when we moved in."


She gave him a quizzical look.

"No, I mean why did he have it cut down?"

"These aren't normal monkey rats. They're venomous – even the trees carry the venom."

"Can we get closer?"

She pointed over to a smaller tree growing near to the stone hut. "We can have a look at that one, if you like. I think the guards have developed an understanding with its queen. Are you coming, Maeduul?"

The shrunken woman had sat down on a small rock as soon as she had reached the top. On hearing the question she turned round to look at them, shielding her eyes from the sun's glare with a flat hand.

"No, no, little kitten; I've seen the barby rats before. Do you think the guards will have some water?"

"You ought to sit with them in the shade, Maeduul."

"Gyano-ten made me put some cream on – it makes me sticky, but I'll not burn."

Delesse shrugged her shoulders, then grabbed at his hand to lead him towards the hut.

"Who's gyano-ten?" he asked her.

"It's Maeduul's name for my mother."

"Do you allow all your Servants to talk to you like that?"

"Yes. Why? Shouldn't I?"

"It doesn't seem, well, right."

"Do you have Servants?"

"Well I suppose we do, but I rarely see them. You don't even put collars on your Servants!"

They were coming close to the tree, now. One of the guards had stirred himself onto his feet and was walking towards them.

"We do things differently in Burramesh. I'm not sure I'd feel comfortable if I had to give orders to a Servant forced to wear a collar. I think we'd better stand here."

They stopped about 10 metres from the branches of the tree. Looking, he could see the four roots at the base, and just above their join what looked like a large, half-lidded eye set within the bark-skin. The main bole stretched up, the backbone clearly visible on either side as it helixed around the trunk from which emerged the great, black, pinnate leaves stemmed in their pairs to fan across the sky in search of the sun.

"So where's the – queen?"

She shaded her eyes with her hand, scanning the tree. "There!" she pointed. "She's sitting right on top of the growing arch."

He copied her actions, but could see no sign of the creature. Then it moved.

It was much, much bigger than a normal monkey rat. Rather than the sparse rust-coloured fur he was expecting, this queen had a luxurious pelt: alternate stripes of black and dark charcoal running slantwise across its flank. Two eyes, forward on its head, above a shortened snout and beak gave it a curious, human quality. He could see no ears; a row of stubby spines running the length of its back, coloured red, were visible, as were the claws terminating each of its paws. It was sitting as if relaxed on its throne, yet its black eyes were trained on the two humans as if to dare them to move closer.

"It's beautiful!" His voice was a whisper.

"She's beautiful," Delesse corrected him.

"How do you know its a female?"

"The queens are the big ones – each tree has its own queen. The princes are much smaller – no bigger than a common monkey rat."

He continued to stare at the creature. "One of my tutors once compared the Empire to the monkey rat: the tree was the land; the leader was the emperor; I was a guardian in this story. He said that when the leader died, one of the guardians would have to become the new leader, for without a leader the tree would die."

"And you believed him?"

"Oh yes, for a while. I was only seven at the time."

"I remember the tree that grew in the Reception Courtyard had no queen nor princes. I also remember it screamed horribly when it was cut down."

"These trees have voices?"

"Oh, yes. And eyes and blood. Can you see the eyes?"

He nodded.

"Velledue – he was my tutor – told me that these monkey rats were created specially by God to test us. He called them prison trees because they have eyes to watch our every blasphemy. I used to have nightmares that the trees would see my every sin and send their queens to hunt me down and poison me."

"He wasn't a very nice person, this Velledue."

She caught his hand in hers: "Oh, he has his little peculiarities."

Loken gave her a swift look; she had shifted her gaze away from the tree towards the northern horizon. He could see that some strands of her hair was beginning to work their way loose from the knot of plats pinned to the base of her head. He squeezed her hand.

"So why do you tolerate these creatures so close to the city, if they are as dangerous as you say?"

"They're very, very good guards. They'll attack any large creature that enters the grove. And the queens attack in packs, you know. I think they're quite intelligent."

"Ah," he said, looking around him. "That explains why the wall doesn't completely circle the city."

She smiled at him, returned his squeeze.

"But surely fire would destroy them?"

"They're very resilient – at the first sign of danger the trees furl their leaves up tight and the base sinks into a hole in the ground. The queens can run away of course, carrying their favourite princes. But they seem to make an effort to keep the grove clear of burning material. Anyway, they only cause us problems when they spawn; there's not much room up here for new trees so the obvious place to go is downhill ..."

"Straight into the mansions and compounds we walked past earlier?"

"That's right! Every second equinox we have a festival where everybody comes up here to clear our side of the hill. The little ones aren't as poisonous as the big ones. The person who bags the most monkey rats becomes First Citizen for the next year."

"My, you are a strange race of people! Where shall we go next?"

"Let's fetch some water for Maeduul, then I'll let you choose the next destination."

1 comment:

  1. Works for me. Course, you could also use the Tolkien method, but that might be a little out of date.