The Genesis of Confluence

It began when I met Greg Bear at the 1993 World Science Fiction Convention in San Francisco. Greg was looking for stories to fill New Legends, an anthology with a novel brief: instead of stories about magic horses or chicks in chainmail -- stories tightly clustered about a specific and very familiar trope -- Greg wanted stories about science fiction itself, its core themes and central concerns. He wondered if I would like to try my hand.

The central themes of SF? Well, how you define the center of this notoriously protean genre depends on where you're standing. Some think SF's central strength is a heightened satirizing of the present; others that it is that good old sense of wonder, pitting human values against the infinite; others that it is the heady booming and zooming around the baroque worlds of space opera. As for me, I sat down and slowly began to write a story from the point of view of some aliens on a huge structure some ten million years in the future. After all, SF's main arena is the future, and even anyone who hasn't read any SF knows that it's all about aliens -- giant insects or octopi, resolute logicians, little green or gray men with a perverse interest in human anatomy.

And so I put a lot of future in the story -- ten million years of it -- and a great deal of implied history. The far future (and ten million years, about two thousand times longer than recorded history, barely scratches the truly far future) is super-saturated with history. Everything that can possibly happen has already happened, usually more than once. Every gesture, every action, is resonant with echoes of past gestures and actions. For one of the characters in the story, as with so many characters in the far future, it is impossible to escape the past.

As for the aliens, they are not true aliens. None ever are, for any story written about really alien aliens would be truly incomprehensible. It is a cliche that aliens in SF are anthropomorphized pets. Certainly there are many aliens like cats and dogs (almost as many as those like octopi or insects), and they are certainly not much like real cats and dogs. (I have a collection of cartoon strips by Berke Breathed, and in one of them a little girl is cooing over a basset hound and sweetly wishing that people could share a dog's hopes and dreams; and the dog is thinking, "Tomorrow I get to poop again!".) At any rate, I decided to literalize the cliche: my aliens are alien animals altered into human-like servant races. They, and the huge structure on which they live (which is an artificial world, and so a kind of spaceship, another of SF's central tropes), were constructed by the Preservers, humans who had become as gods and vanished from the Universe into a huge black hole of their own making. And now the last human has landed on this structure, which has a long river running down it, and which is called Confluence. What she does, and how the servants react, are the bones of the story, which became "Recording Angel," which Greg duly published in New Legends.

Meanwhile, I was still thinking about Confluence, the artificial world which had been created by god-like creatures as a home for their servants just before they took leave of the Universe. I'd lifted one corner of ten million years of implied history in a story set in one small dusty city at the end of Confluence's river. Slowly, I realized that there was more to be discovered. Why had the Preservers vanished from the Universe? What was their history? What was the fate of their servants? And what would happen as the story's narrator, Mr. Naryan, spread the gospel of Angel, the last human?

The best short stories, or at least the easiest to write, arrive all at once, breathless and all aglow with excitement, jostling the mind, demanding to be told. A novel, though, is more like the slow accretion of a pearl around a speck of grit. Short stories are incisive; novels are discursive. Discovering what a novel is about, and how best to tell it, can take a while. This was the case with me, especially as I realized that the story would be a very long one. I knew that I wanted a way of showing the world of Confluence, the variety of its peoples, its thousands of years of history, the millions of years of the history that preceded its making. I knew also that I wanted to write about the clash between the way the beautiful stories of religion attempt to explain the Universe in human terms and the way science patiently builds, fragment by fragment, its great, chilly, well-lighted palace of incontrovertible truth.

Confluence is a theocracy run by a civil service according to precepts embedded in Suras (Mr Naryan was a kind of lay priest), which were dictated by the Preservers, a world bound by tradition masquerading as faith. Angel's heady but selfishly solipsistic scientism precipitates a civil war, but perhaps both sides are wrong. Perhaps the world needed a savior who could find another way.

It took me a while to learn something of the hero of the story, although I already had his name: Yama, which I later found out was an affectionate contraction of his real name, Yamamanama, a word from an obscure dialect which meant Child of the River, which was the title of the first book of the trilogy. By now, I'd gone to another World Science Fiction Convention, this time in Glasgow. While there, I'd visited the Necropolis and had taken pictures of its grandiose monuments, many overgrown, or tumbled to ruin -- it's not often that an SF writer gets a chance to photograph scenes of one of his imaginary worlds, and I did not pass it up. For it is in a very much larger City of the Dead that Yama's story begins.

Yama, an orphan whose origin is intimately bound up with the fate of the world, is taken in by the Aedile of the little city of Aeolis. In Rome, an Aedile was a magistrate in charge of public works, from the root aedilis, meaning one who is concerned with buildings. The Aedile not only administers the ruins of the vast City of the Dead, which surrounds Aeolis, but digs down into the layers of the ruins, seeking answers to the fate of that greater construction, the world. Yama, brought up in the Aedile's household, is educated as the son of an important civil servant, the equivalent of a medieval baron or a CEO, saturated in stories of the past and driven by the need to discover who he really is.

And so I was embarked on a big book, a trilogy in fact, with a single story divided into three books, each a crucial episode in Yama's life. In the first book, Child of the River, he learns that he is a pawn in someone else's game, travels to Ys to try and find his real parents and begins to find out what he can do. In the second, Ancients of Days, he learns the limits of his powers and, setting off for the place where he believes his people to be, escapes from one plot to use him only to be caught in another. And in the third, Shrine of Stars, he finally learns how to put his powers to use, by learning of the true nature and history of the world, and discovers where he came from. The first book is cast as fantasy, the second as science-fantasy and the third (which explains everything which happens in the other two) as science fiction.

Where Yama's journey takes him, and what he learns, and how he uses what he learns to save the world, I leave to you, gentle reader, to discover.

Copyright © 2000 Paul J. McAuley. All rights reserved. Please do not copy or excerpt this material without permission.

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