I have been working on the creation of the third in the Si’Empra series and am musing on the grey area that writers of fiction stray into where they draw on fact/reality to make a point. At which point can the twist still be close enough to reality that it can provide a lesson and at which point does the twist describe something so fantastical that the reader simply dumps the incident into the realm of fantasy? And, more importantly, when does twisting a fact discredit every other fact in the story?

There is a lot that I wanted to talk about in the Si’Empra series: beauty, causes of poverty, friendship, the wonder of nature, fantasy, and so on. Over the years, I’ve gathered bits and pieces of information and I have, indeed, woven the fact in with the fiction. Especially when discussing themes of human interactions, I stayed as close to fact as I could. In describing the context of Si’Empra, I confess I often let my imagination fly. Where I worry about my imagination is when I describe something that could be but isn’t.

For example, there’s one place where I strayed because I just thought it too cute not to:
In the first chapter of Ülrügh I describe an incident involving penguins:

Ellen says:

“There’s a whole lot of penguins all huddled together in a tight group facing the sea. They’re looking at birds flying overhead. They have their beaks up in the air and they’re all looking at the same bird so that when it flies over them they all turn together – all their heads and beaks move in unison. Now they’re all looking at a bird flying the other way and – yes, all the beaks are turning at the same time … There’s a fulmar out to sea. It made a really loud noise … (all the penguins are) looking at it. It’s flying towards them. It’s flying over their heads – their beaks are going up – up- up – Oh! I don’t believe it! Their heads are tipped back and – they’ve fallen backwards on top of one another …”

I didn’t completely make up

this story. I’ve changed the details but got the idea from this story:

A Mexican newspaper reports that bored Royal Air Force pilots stationed on the Falkland Islands have devised what they consider a marvelous new game. Noting that the local penguins are fascinated by airplanes, the pilots search out a beach where the birds are gathered and fly slowly along it at the water’s edge. Perhaps ten thousand penguins turn their heads in unison watching the planes go by, and when the pilots turn around and fly back, the birds turn their heads in the opposite direction, like spectators at a slow-motion tennis match. Then, the paper reports, “The pilots fly out to sea and directly to the penguin colony and overfly it. Heads go up, up, up, and ten thousand penguins fall over gently onto their backs.

—Audubon Society Magazine (1994)

The story is, actually, an urban myth.

In the hours that I watched penguins on my visit to the Antarctic, I did indeed see them sometimes raise their heads and look at birds flying overhead – and rightly so! Dangers as well as irritations come from overhead. I didn’t actually witness any penguins fall onto their backs as a result of looking up, though. In fact, mostly, penguins raise their beaks to the sky (as the one in the image is doing) to call out something in that braying way they do.

So, my musings about that particular description concerns whether I’ve done myself a disservice with a ‘twist’ that plays to urban myth and discredits other facts – that is, whether it puts a chink into the context of the story.

There’s sometimes a quibble about whether fiction should stray into fact at all and whether readers read fiction to get away from dealing with fact (that is, to be entertained) and read non-fiction to grapple with fact (that is, to gain knowledge). It’s a silly quibble. A well-written non-fiction book can be very entertaining (e.g. James Gleick’s book, Chaos, was, for me, a page turner because it gave insights into not only the development of the theory of chaos but also the people behind the theory) and a well-written fiction book can impart much knowledge – even cause social change. Mark Twain (author of books like. Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer) wrote fiction but made an impact on people’s thinking about slavery. Fairy tales often have a moral basis that people can learn from. There’s been a blending of fact and fiction – entertainment and social learning – for as long as people have been telling stories. I suspect that a reasonable ‘quibble’ arises when someone (whether storyteller or reader/listener) claim that one is the other rather than enabling the reader/listener to sort the lessons out from the context.

I remember studying modern history when I was at school and being bored out of my mind by the history of Britain’s Corn Laws (1815 and 1846). Rather than continuing to study the dreary history book, I started imagining that somehow I’d fallen into 1815 London – a girl whose family was struggling to make ends meet in the face of cheaper, imported farm produce. Yes, the circumstances of me in a farming family in 1815 was completely made up but I created a context in which something that really did happen had relevance and I could understand the arguments that were being put – oh so drearily – in the history book. In fact, a few years later, a more enlightened history teacher thrust a bunch of fiction books into my hands when I was studying independence in India. Those books, far more than the list of historical events, let me understand how India came to independence and how that triggered a period of religious turmoil.

What the fictional context did was enable me to give facts relevance – and relevance, is, of course, absolutely important if we are to retain facts or, more importantly, utilise facts. Knowing about Chaos Theory was not even on my radar when I picked up Gleick’s book. Having read it (and freely admitting I am a loooooong way from understanding Chaos Theory) I have been enriched because I understand things that border chaos much better and understand how that Theory impacts our lives today.

In Skyseeker Princess and Ulrügh, I developed a context of a nation that is disintegrating. There are many reasons for the disintegration and each of these reasons are ones that we (us humans) really are experiencing – predominantly, our inability to change social behaviour even in the face of evidence that the behaviour is destructive (e.g. acting on climate change more than two decades ago when it was revealed to be a problem – or, to put it more broadly, stopping the harvesting of a resource even when the evidence is that a resource is being over-harvested). I give instances of how greed, love, delusions, hope and avoidance of responsibility all play a part in fostering a climate that causes ongoing decay. For example, a conversation between Ghuy and Ellen in Skyseeker Princess is based on what is really happening in China as the Chinese Communist Party seek to gain more control over the lives of China’s Minority Nationalities.

I don’t bend those ‘truths’ about our current human travails, and I think it’s clear when I’m being ‘fantastical’. I ibelieve that my readers can work out the fact from the fiction.

Penguins falling on their backs, however, may be misleading – it’s one of those things that ‘could’ happen but doesn’t …

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My dearest Pedro,

I hope this note finds you well.

I was in your country scarcely eight months and yet nothing in my life has left such a profound impact. The artistry and music of your people, the way you live your lives on your most forbidding island, and the knowledge that it is also inhabited by unique others, fills my mind constantly.

This note comes to you via a close and trusted friend. I would be most humbly grateful if you would write me a little of the history of Si’Empra. My friend will convey your writings to me. I will not pre-empt your words by asking questions now but hope that you will unfold for me a context into which I can place news from your land.

I promise you that your words will never be read by other than myself, nor will they be repeated by me.

I remain your friend.

Augustine (Fr)

July 2011

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Dear Father Augustine

You are right that it is important for me to guard my words. I will tell you briefly something of Si’Empra’s history and how we have come to our unhappy and deteriorating circumstance.

Our history is complex and must start with ancient songlines that tell of the landing of people on this island. They found the island inhabited by Cryptals – those creatures you have heard rumoured of in your time with us. I know only a little about Cryptals (indeed I doubt anyone knows much about them, they are so other than we are!). Cryptals are able to use scent – perhaps we would characterise such scent as pheromones, though this has never been studied – to manipulate the behaviour of creatures on Si’Empra. We call the scent mylin or Cryptal poison. In general, we talk of mylin as if it has only one characteristic, and that it is highly poisonous; but, in fact, in small doses, it can strengthen Si’Emprans, especially Crystal Makers. I suspect that Cryptals can also produce many forms of mylin.

Cryptals inhabit the deep earth of Si’Empra and travel the underworld through an intricate weave of tunnels. One of the creatures, called the White’One, sings almost constantly. The song appears to coordinate the movement of other Cryptals. There is also talk of a Black’One, but information of this creature is hazy indeed. Remarkable as you may find what I have already told you about the Cryptals, know that they can also manipulate the very earth. You are aware that Si’Empra is on a part of a fault line between Earth’s tectonic plates – I believe it is called the Pacific-Antarctic Ridge. The earth is highly volatile along this line and, perhaps in normal circumstances, the island would not exist at all. However, Cryptals know how to release pressure in rock and the belief of many of us is the island owes its very existence to such Cryptal capacity.

When the first people came to the island there were not only Cryptals but also huge birds, which we call glasaurs. These birds seem to have disappeared soon after the coming of people. I am not sure why, though I suspect that Cryptals created the birds (I think they are mutated versions of a bird that lives beyond the forbidding Barrier Cliffs that are on the very far side of our island) and found no more use for them after people arrived. Recently, another such bird has come among us again – you have heard of this.

Cryptals and the first peoples, over the thousands of years that followed, came to an arrangement. I should tell you also that Cryptals have another feature: they have long and thick fur, which the first people learnt how to weave into cloth. At some stage, the people also discovered that, with sufficient heat and other treatments, they could manipulate the fur to make a sort of glass, which we call crystal. As you will have discerned, this crystal is highly prized – though we have little access to it now. There was something else that the people discovered they could do with the crystal: that is, with further work they could cause the crystal to echo certain sounds. This special crystal is called virigin. But the craft of making virigins is lost.

The first people on Si’Empra we call the Crystal Makers. I believe that at the time of their coming, Si’Empra’s climate was relatively benign but gradually changed to become increasingly hostile and cold. Crystal Makers gradually retreated into the underground world of the Cryptals. It was onto this cold, windswept island that another peoples were shipwrecked. These were my ancestors. Of the origin of these people, I know very little. (As an aside, I think that my ancestors also introduced goats to Si’Empra – though, as you and I have already established, our domesticated chickens are native).

The newcomers were welcomed by the Crystal Makers. Over time, Crystal Makers no longer left their underground dwellings but provided Sky Seekers with cloth and crystal in exchange for food and other aboveground necessities. The homes of Sky Seekers were also kept warm by hot geothermal waters that Cryptals channelled through the flooring – you have seen these structures in Si'Em City though the warming is currently carried out by the use of diesel-fuelled generators.

Sky Seekers and Crystal Makers have different social systems as well as language. Crystal Makers divide their people into guilds. Each guild is headed by a Guild Master. The code by which the Crystal Makers operate is called The Order. It is strictly enforced by the Guild Masters. Sky Seekers, as you have learnt, are governed by a council, called the Lianthem, which is traditionally drawn from a group of ruling families. The head of the Lianthem is our Ülrügh, notionally appointed by the Lianthem. However, it has long been accepted that each Ülrügh chooses one of his or her children to be his or her successor.

You have seen how forbidding our shoreline is and it is, perhaps, why Si’Empra has long been isolated. Nevertheless, a group of seal hunters did land on our island some eight decades ago. This event began a process that fundamentally changed a way of life on Si’Empra that had existed for hundreds of years.

You have remarked on our modernisation achievements. I think I implied, in our conversations, that all Si’Emprans initially did well under the rule of Ülrügh Devi. The Crystal Makers were our allies, providing unique Cryptal cloth and crystal that was much sought-after by foreigners (these things still are!). Such alliance, however, did not last. Crystal Makers do not believe in change and when they perceived that Sky Seekers were changing their lives as a result of association with foreigners, Crystal Makers ceased to provide cloth and crystal. The Lianthem discovered that outsiders were also keen to purchase the gemstones found on this island. With the help of a Chinese family (you have met a member of this family, Cheng Yi), Sky Seekers developed a gemstone business. Unfortunately, mining gemstones did not meet with the approval of Cryptals. The Crystal Makers warned against it and, when the Sky Seekers refused to listen, the Cryptals retaliated by denying Sky Seekers access to the geothermal energy the island has in abundance.

Ülrügh Devi, in spite of his many brilliant insights, was not one to be coerced into a course of action when he had set his mind on another. With confidence that Sky Seekers could continue to fend for themselves without the help of Crystal Makers and Cryptals, he decided to remove our belowground dwellers. Among the Crystal Makers who survived the Ülrügh’s purge, this purge is known as ‘The Destruction’. There were those on the Lianthem who disagreed with Ülrügh Devi. When he turned on them also, they fled. The hunt of Crystal Makers and Cryptals continues even today, the current Ülrügh having set up a special group to do it and with otherwise minimal involvement of others on the Lianthem – though a majority approve or are disinterested.

Ülrügh Devi was succeeded by his son, Briani.

We are now into events that occur in my lifetime.

Ülrügh Briani was much manipulated by some on the Lianthem who profited greatly from modernisation. Ülrügh Devi’s leap of faith that Sky Seekers could manage on Si’Empra without the aid of Crystal Makers and Cryptals is not working as well as planned. Si’Empra constantly struggles to buy and produce all that is needed – or perhaps the shortages many Si’Empran’s suffer is because some of the ruling families have grown used to a lavish lifestyles and the sharing that used to be part of Sky Seeker tradition has thinned.

Ülrügh Briani married Lian Thea, a twin sister of our current Chancellor, Lian Chithra. She bore the Ülrügh a son – you have met Ülrügh Redel. Rumour has it that Lian Thea was unkind to her child. She died when he was but a young boy – perhaps four or five. After fourteen or fifteen years, the Ülrügh took a new wife. A very young bride, only a few years older than the Ülrügh’s son. Nevertheless, there seemed to be real love between Constance – the bride’s name – and Ülrügh Briani. Constance gave birth to Ellen, who became much beloved by her father and many Si’Emprans and all indications were that Ülrügh Devi intended her to be his successor. The Ülrügh’s unexpected death, however, saw Redel become Ülrügh.

Forgive me. What followed after Ülrügh Briani’s death is extremely painful to me. While I have entrusted to you the above version of Si’Empra’s history (not one that is safe to discuss nowadays), I find myself unable to continue. Suffice to say that our new Ülrügh abused his sister but denied the abuse – and Ellen has never confirmed or denied. In an effort to safeguard her daughter, Constance, agreed to become his wife. She bore him a daughter, who is called Chrystal – you have met the child. Constance died soon after childbirth.

Perhaps you understand Si’Empra better now. We have access to the most wonderful things that the outer world can provide – we have Internet access, mobile phones, electric lighting, lifts to save our legs from stairs, access to word class education etc etc. Even cars we have on Si’Empra, (though there are few roads on which to drive them – one to Sinthen and one to the mines, and a minor one up to the Serai). The cars are all but useless but the helicopters potentially more useful – though at present they are put to deadly use. Our access to the ‘wonderful things’ is, however, limited. Indeed, beyond Si’Em City and Baltha, people live in poverty.

I hope you stay well and I look forward to many more years of correspondence with you on philosophical exercises of the mind that need not be burdened by the raw emotion of day-to-day melancholy.

With kind regards,

Pedro

PS: If I were to tell you a fuller story of how Si’Empra is today, I would begin with an event about two years ago that caused Lian Ellen to flee Si’Em City and not return.

 

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Glossary of names

 

Acolyte SythelAcolyte of the Guild of Weaving who helped Sami and Tharnie
adjutantRedel's special guard
AnnePartner of Lian Dane
AuchustGuild Master of Construction: short hair in spikes on his head
BacharWeb Cleaner child with good voice
BrianiGrandfather of Ellen
ChithraChancellor
ChrisWeb Cleaner/harvester/looks after Muther over summer
Cillapregnant Crystal Maker
ConstanceEllen's mother
Cryptalscreatures of the deep
DeviRedel's father
DevoutsRedel's priest aids
Dr Thomas DohertySurgeon that Lian Shivay communicates with to help Ellen
Dr ThrakeOrthopaedic surgeon
EllenDaughter of Briani and Constance
ElthanEllen's grandmother
Ethanson of Sathun
FrancisA huge muscled black man from South Africa
GreciaDoctor at Sinthen and Pedro's old home
GrettaLives beyond the Barrier Cliffs
Heiniepartner of Thyrol
Ian SewellOne of Norm Tucker's crew
Jessorphan girl Sathun found and now wife of José
JoeOne of Norm Tucker's crew: a tall thin man
JonAdministrative aid to Chithra
JoosthinCrystal Guild Master
Joseeldest son of Sathun
JosieWeb Cleaner child with the burnt face
KatherinaEllen's devoted carer
LaraAcolyte in Guild of weaving
Lian AchtonMusic teacher
Lian CecilTax Collector
Lian DaneOwner of most of the hothouses, clear blue eyes, balding pate, and trim fram
Lian DiánnéIn charge of the stores
Lian IsoldeAchton's wife
Lian JulianHas much real estate, arthritis, nephew to Devi, cheerful
Lian PethriePhysician
Lian ShivayDoctor at Baltha hospital
Lian SienneOne of the coup leaders
Lian TheonOne of the coup leaders and father of Thull
Lian ThessaTakes over Marthin's role
Lian ThobiasChief Engineer
LumanA favourite grandson of Lian Julian and good at Chatham
MarthinHusband of Mary
Marypartner of Marthin
MutherSi'Empra Mayal -living with Grecia
PedroElthan's partner, Ellen's grandfather
Phanlives with Grecia
Phietnurse helping Greçia
Rangera section of the adjutants who are involved with the hunt
Redelbrother of Ellen and Ulrugh
Richardson of Muther
Rosaa glasaur - a very large bird, one of a kind, that Ellen rides
SamiAcolyte of Tharnie - who is on crutches
SaraGuild Master of Weaving: small woman, chews her nails, youngest member
SaraGuild Master of Weaving
SathunThe son of Sienne the rebel
SiraAccompanied Thanin to meet Ellen
ThaliaThe child in Fadil Village that Redel murdered
ThamNurse helping Greçia
ThaninGuild Master of Design
TharylWeb Cleaner in charge of one of the food storage areas
The Black OneLarge, dark brown eyes
The Othersthose living beyond the Barrier Cliffs
The OvercomeThose addicted beyond reason to mylin
TheresaSathun's oldest daughter
ThilAcolyte of the Guild of Memory and Gate Master of Illiath
ThimonWeb Cleaner/harvester/Elthan's harvester deputy
ThomaliasDaughter of Thom - the girl in Fadil Village
ThrenFriend of Joosthin now become part of the Overcome
ThrevorGuild Master of Memory: one of the guilds of the Crystal Makers; old, stooped and the most powerful
ThrevorGuild Master of Memory slim male of middle age with pale yellow braided hair
ThullSathun's father, recently deceased
Thyrolpartner of Heinie
White'OneSinging Cryptal
WhypoonMaster who taught Elthan how to clean webs
ZaraAcolyte of Joosthin

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Glossary of words

 

Brimaldplants on the Chess River ravine
Hawkberry plantplants on the walk: A minty smell with a touch of rose
Jalineplants on the Chess River ravine
Lalloonsleek beast, the size of a small dog. It was a lalloon; a pretty creature with rounded, furry ears, a narrow snout tipped by a black nose and long, soft, reddish-brown fur that was prized by Sky Seekers for lining the hoods of winter coats. The creature was a hunter and scavenger, sneaky, adept at hiding and solitary.
LayamleSi'Em City's vast, communal chamber,
Lianequivalent to 'Lady'
Lianthemequivalent to the ruling council
Lithilian berriesspecial berries for making a kind of wine
Pendleweedplants on the Chess River ravine
samiraa musical instrument
schathemSi'Empran traditional climbing game
Seraiequivalent to 'palace'
Si'Empra MayalSongbird of Si'Empra
Si'Empra TheolelThe Jewel of Si'Empra
solnishunting animal
Sweensbeeplants on the Chess River ravine
Thordilonesa musical instrument

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Glossary of places

 

Balthaon the other side of the bridge
Barthgunman accompanying Lian Cecil in Fadil Villae
Charn RiverTo the east of the Sith River
Fadil Villagescene of tax collector incident
GhuyHeadman of Fadil Village
IlliathBelowground Crystmaker city
Northern LandsWhere the summer dwelling is for Richard and Muther
Overshot Gorgeseparates the Si'Em bluff from the rest of the island
River OrbEast of Thuls Refuge which has become easier to cross as a result of the earthquake and the route Ellen advised Richard et al to take
Si'Em Bluffinto which Si'Em City is built
Si'Em Citymain city on the island
Si'Empraname of island
Sinthenlinked to Baltha by a road
Sith ChamberA huge cave used by the harvesters
Sith CliffsThe first barrier above the Sith River on the way to the Northern Lands
Sith RiverTo the west of the Charn River
The Barrier Cliffsseparate the place The Others live from the rest of Si'Empra
The Lost Cityon top of the Barrier Cliffs
The Seraipalace - administration centre
The ShoalsRubbish dump and where Sky Seeker dead are left
TrebiathBelowground Crystmaker city

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Bookfunnel is an e-book delivery platform designed to make downloading to any e-reader platform easy. You’ll buy the book from Payhip which will ask for your email address to send the ebook. You’ll be sent an email to download from Payhip but if you wait a few moments, Bookfunnel will also send you an email and will make the download process easier.

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