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August 26, 2013

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On Writing “Oath”

by Guy Stewart


Worlds are supposed to be long-lasting, apparently eternal to those who live on them and even in fact whirling around their stars for a long, long time. This is what I’ve always wanted to do when writing science fiction: create long-lasting worlds so that I could return to them again and again.

“Oath” was the first story to grow from a seed planted by Bruce Bethke and Henry Vogel—though that wasn’t the title then—that eventually became a convoluted intertwining of multiple ideas, characters, and fictional events. It’s not the same story I wrote three years ago in response to their Friday Challenge in March of 2010: “Strange Bot In A Strange Land...robots looks and feel entirely human and can do anything physical a human can 18, each person on earth is issued their own companion robot...Each person effectively marries the bot...there are also the Wild Lands...[where]wild humans live almost like animals...a Life Companion and its human have accidentally wandered...outside of the network the Central Computer uses to modify and update all Life Companions…”

From this challenge, I wrote the original story as my entry to a contest I lost—for very good reasons. (Don’t think I’m trying to be coy here by not writing the name of the original story. One of the criticisms of it was that the original title gave away the ending.) “Oath” languished because I’d gotten another idea based in the same future. I abandoned “Oath”—I can’t even find a “Notes” file, so the fragment was obviously written on-the-fly—and wrote “Technopred” (April 2013, AURORA WOLF), a complete story, set in the same place as “Oath” with the addition of a few more ideas and the subtraction of one. The Life Companion moved offstage, but the Wilds, the wild Humans, and the maglevs connecting giant urban areas—which came to be called Vertical Villages—remained. In response to an observation from both judges (“This story has a really strong ending. [But] the setup leading to that ending needs considerably more work to support [it]...”) I dug deeper and built a more complete foundation. I had to understand the forces that had created the situation. I made it so that The Wilds came about as a result of the forced relocation of most of the world’s population to the Villages and the machines that were sent out to deconstruct and recycle every village, town and city identified as unneeded. I made the inhabitants of the Villages oblivious to the Wilds and the lands supporting them not in active ignorance, but because they no longer think of where their food comes from.

A year later, Bruce issued another Friday Challenge titled “Seriously: About The Post-Petroleum Future.” “[...]The post-Apocalyptic story line...people grubbing for survival in the ruins of our modern technological civilization are in a sense easy to write...stretch your imaginations and imagine a post-petroleum-economy future that is not a post-Apocalyptic landscape…”

For this challenge I wrote “Last Contact,” and created a living, post-petroleum genetic amalgam called CHEAPALIN, a patchwork of the DNA of nine organisms. “…the road organism – a bioengineered DNA patchwork of cellulose producing, heme, eel, ameba, peat moss, alfalfa, leukocytes, iron incorporated in a molecule and a mix of Notothenioidei and Noctilucan cells...acronym CHEAPALIN...[m]odified electric eel cells created current passing through hair-fine iron filaments deposited in the road. A thick black peat pad of iron-rich heme attached to the underside of any car...charged a set of batteries. A magnetic field generated as cars moved over the filaments got read by a microchip implanted in the car’s pad, matching the road’s magnetic field creating a maglev effect. A variety of chlorophyll and alfalfa genes allowed roots growing under the road organism to return nitrogen to the soil, pull up micronutrients and conduct photosynthesis. A semi-transparent, thick cellulose skin protected the whole thing while remaining flexible. A few Notothenioidei genes kept cellular fluids from freezing during Minnesota winters. Noctilucan genes made it glow at night when disturbed. Leukocytes digested roadkill, leaves, branches and old pizza boxes.”

This one has never been published because I got bogged down with the description of the road!

The background had finally grown big enough to contain “Oath”. It had spawned not only “Oath,” “Technopred,” and “Last Contact,” but combined with an entirely different idea produced “Invoking Fire” (June 2013, PERIHELION), “Body of Man, Taken From You” (currently submitted to ANALOG), and a novel I’m in the middle of editing called OMNIVORE’S DEBT; all this spilled out of the world-building that was sparked by Bruce and Henry’s Friday Challenge in March of 2010. I rewrote the fragment, placing it in the future history that had grown over the years, changed the title to the now more-appropriate “Oath,” and sent the short story to Stupefying Stories with deep sense of coming back home.

Years ago, I made a promise to myself that I would resist the urge to create disposable worlds where I’d write a single story to make a point, and then abandon it. “Oath,” seeded by an idea tossed out by Bruce and Henry and incorporating the DNA of another idea, has become a complex, rich, and deep world that I have started to feel very comfortable in. I expect there are several more stories in this place, and for that especially, I thank Bruce and Henry.



Guy Stewart is a husband, father (biological, in-law, grand, and foster), teacher and school counselor as well as a writer (not necessarily in that order). He’s also a member of SFFWA and has had short stories published in ANALOG, AOIFE'S KISS, STUPEFYING STORIES, AETHER AGE, AURORA WOLF, and PERIHELION, as well as having science fiction stories for young adults in CRICKET MAGAZINE and podcast on CAST OF WONDER.

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