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The Rise and Fall and Rise of The Fall of Tartarus

by Eric Brown

Forgive the title, but I couldn't resist it. As will The Fall of Tartarus by Eric Brownbe made clear, there's a reason for the long-winded tongue twister.

Way back in 1990 I had an idea for a series of novellas or long short stories--or, rather, less of a definite idea than a feeling, an atmosphere: I wanted to write about a big planet whose sun was going nova over a long period. Each story would be about characters who lived on the planet, or who had lived on it and were returning, for whatever reasons. And each story would be set ever closer to the impending, apocalyptic blow-out. This, I hoped, would give the collection not only a common theme and background, but a sense of climactic tension as the nova grew closer.

There would be common themes: loss and love, as ever with my work, sacrifice and redemption. The stories would feature artists, explorers, religious fanatics, journalists, administrators, lovers, all of them on a quest for something--more often than not the enigma of themselves. Each story would be about characters in conflict, rather than about the science behind the story--which is what always interests me in any fiction, SF or otherwise. The other character, of course, would be the planet, Tartarus. Most of the tales would be set on different continents or areas of the planet, each with a distinctive feel. (How often have we read SF which characterises planets as geographically, meteorologically, etc, homogenous?)

I suppose one the difference between the Tartarus stories, and the other series I've written, is that while the Tartarus tales were conceived as a series from the start, the other series or 'future histories' grew from ideas in one story which prompted or suggested the next, until I'd either run out of ideas or grew bored with the setting. Tartarus would be finite--the series ending with the last tale, the final destruction of the planet. (Of course, I could always go back and write stories set between the tales already written, but that would be like going over old ground--and an admission, almost, of defeat, of not having said what I meant to say in the first go round.)

The first story I wrote, and the first in the collection, was the novella "Destiny on Tartarus" about a boy, Sinclair Singer, and his quest to find his father. It has a more fantastical feel than the other, more realistic stories--this I put down to the fact that it's set more than a hundred years before the nova, features arcane transport, and introduces the fairy-like Messengers. I then wrote what would become the third story in the volume, "The Eschatarium at Lyssia", about an artist's return to Tartarus at the behest of a Messenger who has word from his dead wife. "A Prayer for the Dead" came next, written out of sequence for reasons I can't recall now. It's the story of Joe, who returns to Tartarus just before the nova and looks back to an incident in his childhood, which forms the body of the story. It's one of my two favourite stories in the collection; I like the elegiac atmosphere, the lush setting, and the doomed romance at its centre.

Next came "The Ultimate Sacrifice" featuring Katerina De Klien, a journalist come to Tartarus to find out what happened to her brother. This was the first tale to introduce the strange religious cult, extrapolated from Catholicism, called The Church of the Ultimate Sacrifice, a schism of monks and their followers who lop bits off themselves in order to appease the God of the nova. I enjoyed writing about these fanatics so much that I then jumped ahead and wrote what would be the final story, "Dark Calvary", which takes the belief system to its logical conclusion. It's my favourite tale of the series, partly because of the plight of the doomed rationalist at its centre, caught up in the madness of blind faith, and partly because of the mad Abbot and his belief system.

Then I skipped back to write "The People of the Nova", about the Ey'an people, a tribe of 'primitives' descended from north European settlers, who live a hunter-gatherer existence on the southern continent, and the planetary administrator charged with the task of persuading them to evacuate their homeplanet. "Vulpheous" was the next to be written, telling the tale of Connery, a desperate man in search of a cure for the rare disease which had killed his wife. To find the cure, he must kill the last remaining vulpheous--a massive sea elephant-like animal--on the planet.

The last story written, though the penultimate in the volume, was "Hunting the Slarque", perhaps the most difficult tale of all to get right. It's a novella of around 15,000 words, with a strange framing structure and a lot of flashback. It's told sometimes as a transcript of a recording which reports on another recording ... All in all, it was hell to do, and in fact I set aside the second draft for over a year, in despair. I dug it out again, cut and re-arranged sections, and finally, I thought, got it right.

Then I sent the collection to my agent and waited for the rejection from Pan Books.

They'd published four of my books by then, the novels Meridian Days and Engineman, and the collections The Time-Lapsed Man and other stories and Blue Shifting. I doubted they would want another bunch of stories, even though this one had a more cohesive linking structure. However, Simon Spanton, my then editor at Pan, liked the book and bought it.

Eighteen months later I received word from my agent that Pan were cutting back on their SF list, and one of the titles to be dropped was The Fall of Tartarus (which effectively meant that they were dropping the author, as they wouldn't want to see anything else from me... So it goes. The vagaries of publishing.)

So I set about rewriting the tales for magazine publication, and over the course of the next few years placed the stories with Interzone, SF Age, and Spectrum SF. I took another look at "Hunting the Slarque", decided that it could be better, and rewrote it yet again. This sold to Interzone, and won the 2000 BSFA Best Short Story award--more than rewarding all the effort that went into its creation.

I thought that'd be the end of the story. The tales had had their outing, had their day, enjoyed a little success, and would now be relegated to languish in the back numbers of the various magazines where they first appeared.

However, Simon Spanton moved to Gollancz/Orion and I did three books for him, two children's books in the Web series, Untouchable and Walkabout, and the SF novel Penumbra. Then, in an act less hopeful than desperate, I sent my agent the (once more rewritten) manuscript of The Fall of Tartarus with the instructions that he should try it again with Simon.

Lo, but Simon still liked it--and acquisition at Orion must have liked it, too--and he bought it: this was way back in July 2000. And now, at last, the book is out, almost five years after it was contracted--and fifteen years after it first came to me.

Now I hope you see the reason--and can forgive me--for the title of this piece.

© Eric Brown 2005.

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