In The Spirit of Things

About a year ago I told myself I would do something with all my milsim nerdery and historical trivia. In the absence of any other talents, all I could really do was to write a story that incorporated them. My main obstacle was that I don’t like historicals; if I wanted to read something where the history is predictable because it actually happened here I’d read some nonfiction. I know that for most historical fiction the appeal is seeing new characters in familiar settings, but something about those stories always put me off, like they were very selective readings of history.

What I wanted to do primarily was to write a story that was informed by our history but did not slavishly adhere to it, and that presented readings of history that were both highly alternative but also strongly rooted in reality. The Solstice War is speculative fiction and I like to say it is fantasy, but it is full of parallels that satisfy my ideas as to what war stories and their characters should be like. Essentially the elevator pitch was “Fantasy Soviet Union 1941, almost everyone’s colored and there’s tons of queer folks of all kinds, Barbarossa happens but it’s done by essentially, western liberal-technocrat imperialists with a few fundamentalist religious people in the mix. Things develop from there.” I kept this in mind as I began to plan and research and so on.

Of course, the elevator pitch always changes after more thinking and more planning. I definitively wanted to keep the Nazis out. I hate the Nazis, I hate all of their depictions, I hate any attempt to humanize them, I hate being in their heads. I just want them dead; and though they certainly would be killed in any story I wrote, I did not want them in it. I would have hated writing them, and I would have hated introducing what that they represent into the story. For my purposes I needed an evil that was less intense, both for my own sanity and for the entertainment of the readers. I also wanted an evil more difficult to identify and more challenging ideologically. Everyone who is not broken as a human being can get behind the destruction of the nazis. I wanted instead a more insidious and contemporary foe.

In addition, of course, the “fantasy soviet union” would not end up quite as such. For one I didn’t want to perfectly reproduce Stalin’s reign in a story. I believe Socialism has always risen from the context of its surroundings, and so the Soviet Union will never be reproduced, and to simply reproduce it in fiction would have been, to me, a very facile thing to commit to. Instead I developed an “Ayvartan” socialism out of its own context and out of the wills of its own people. It has certain tenets of communist anarchism and of Soviet Union style socialism and it is very much its own thing. This is important because it makes it more believable: direct 1-to-1 comparison to the historical object, in my opinion, would have made it more difficult to suspend disbelief in the events of the story. Especially if you know the history of it, and especially if you know primarily a westernized history of it. This is why it is important to invoke a spirit of the period, but not the artifact in full.

Starting point is essentially 1941, or in Ayvarta, 2030 D.C.E.; but we’ve already gone back, within the story. The Solstice War is a story that moves through time in strange ways for dramatic necessity. To pace it right, I can’t simply start at the beginning and go in a line from there.

When I write The Solstice War, I have a few objectives that might appear very strange to most people. Certainly it would be easier to have one main character and tell one traditional story of war, starting with the background of the war and moving into the fore, but that wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do. Certainly it would have been more straightforward to write a historical, but then the war couldn’t have gone the way I wanted exactly. Bagration would’ve had to happen in 1944 and so on. I couldn’t even really make up my own silly operation names! So, I’m not writing a historical. I’m writing a fantasy war in the spirit of the period of World War 2, and I’m writing about military conflict in the spirit of a war narrative rather than through a lavish adherence to media or history surrounding it.

There are little interesting things that you pick up while reading about a period that stick in your mind when you are writing a story set in that period. I never want to linger on these details or explain them too thoroughly. But for example, the fact that the majority of cars did not have seat belts. It contributes to things like the scene where Parinita is trying to drive and gets pummeled by the steering wheel when she hits a bad bump. Later on the characters are talking about films and they mention slapstick films. In the absence of speech, slapstick was a great way to convey comedy in film. It was funny seeing a dude smacked up and falling into manholes, more funny perhaps than reading his awful jokes in a dialog card cut into the film. And Parinita shows a little a sympathy for the protagonists of such films which was fun for me to write given that she was in essence the protagonist of a slapstick scene a few sections back. All of these details are not contemporaneous to us, they are our history, but they are also the current lives of these fictitious characters. This is what I understand as writing in the spirit of things. I don’t want to get too deep into these details, I don’t really want to be pushed to show my work so to speak, but my writing is definitely informed by them and I want these details to create interesting scenes. Overall though, I’m not writing a historical; this is a story in its own fake world that happens to have technology and culture parallels to our world’s 1940s.

Similarly, I didn’t want to write about war in the way war tends to normally be written about. War in fiction is usually very strange. It is a very individualistic and centered rendition of an apparatus that has an incredible multiplicity of perspectives within it. I did not want to write a story primarily about A Hero or even A Group Of Heroes. Because I am writing primarily about a socialist military I wanted to look at it as an apparatus that does not create the focused single or groups of “heroes” like popular narratives do, but a community. I did not want to write a story where single persons “win the war” but one that showcases groups of people fighting together for a common cause, each with their own important roles. This is why there are a lot of perspectives. Some will inevitably be lavished more attention. I am a writer, biased in that I want to write about some things more than others. As the character roster builds, however, I would like to write a tapestry of interconnected characters where the individual development of a character can be secondary to what their perspective, however limited, says about the war as a whole, his or her or their people as a whole, the story as a whole. I’m not exactly in the business of writing intensely dynamic individual heroes around whom the story revolves, but a community of characters who, together, create a good story. This, I feel, separates the kind of war story I want to write from traditional war stories revolving around individual icons of war.

Of course some characters will grow and change, but this is not my primary focus. Individual character arcs are less important to me than showing a lot of viewpoints and people in different roles. It’s a matter of degrees. I’m not looking to write a specific “hero’s journey” of the Solstice War, but one might happen somewhere. There are a lot of characters, and like I said, I plan to touch upon a few more than I will touch upon others. My emphasis and goals are just different, and in the end, that will hopefully create a story that is different than most you may have read. I don’t see The Solstice War as having a real protagonist. And I don’t particularly see having somewhat static characters to be a detriment to it, ultimately. Though certainly people have disagreed (and sometimes violently) on this score.

This is why, for example, there’s a scene with Parinita sitting around working on documents. This is something that happens all the time in real war. For all that rugged manly war fiction likes to decry bureaucracy, the army would fall apart and become worse than useless without staff. War is not solely won by powerful humans deploying weaponry, it must also be won by the cooks, by the clerks and by the truck drivers: by a community of people. Certainly the Solstice War won’t be won just by soldiers. I wanted to show different aspects and to give prominence to different people. This complicates writing, and it introduces scenes where I questioned whether they would be boring or unimportant, but ultimately I included them because they are in the spirit of what I want to do. Primarily the Solstice War is written as I want to like it and experience it. Overall, it is an eccentric story, I think, and with eccentric aims. But it is in the end the story I want to write.

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