How did “Apotheosis” begin? What inspired you?
Usually my stories begin with a long, slow process of accretion. “Apotheosis” was different—the first line came to me while I was standing in line at the supermarket, and I wrote the entire story in the next twenty-four hours. At the time, my main conscious inspiration was “The Ballad of God-Makers,” a creepy, haunting poem by G. K. Chesterton. (I was also thinking of the imagery in Hayao Miyazaki’s movie Spirited Away, particularly when I came up with the Commotionless Sea.)
But several months after writing “Apotheosis,” I looked at it again. And suddenly I realized that it was a completely blatant response to Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” I had read that story as a teenager and loved it, but I had probably taken it a bit more literally than I was meant to, because my first reaction was, “Why are you walking away? GET A GUN AND BREAK THAT KID OUT OF THERE.”
Of course, that’s not the story Le Guin was trying to write. But it ended up being the story that I did.
In many old tales, the youngest son is the hero. “Apotheosis” uses a similar structure—three sons on a quest to save their people—but while the youngest son is the one who brought Ipu a new goddess, it is the middle son who understands the world most clearly. What is the reasoning behind your decision to make the middle son the most enlightened of the three, the “hero” of sorts?
Because “Apotheosis” is about the corruption of stories and ideals. The people of Ipu understand the trope of sacrifice, they just don’t get the meaning. So it was only appropriate that the son who followed the city’s ideals would be the youngest, and that he would believe he embodied the trope of the wise and heroic youngest son.
The gods in Tsubarime’s factory in “Apotheosis” seem rather helpless. Freshly released from the grave, Siriumana is passive to the youngest son’s intention to bind her to Ipu. Why did you choose to write them this way? What is Tsubarime’s role in making them what they are?
It would have been really interesting to write a story from the POV of the gods in the factory, and if I had done that, they probably would have been less passive and ended up rebelling on their own. But I was writing a story about the people of Ipu, and about the choice of whether or not to accept their system. And that choice becomes a lot more dramatic if the system works.
There isn’t much moral drama in deciding not to oppress people when you know that the oppression will not work. That’s just enlightened self-interest. There’s more drama when you think that oppression might help you. But if you knew beyond all doubt—and in the real world, you could never know, but fantasy lets you take things to the limit—if you knew that torturing an innocent would bring your city peace and wealth and happiness without any other drawbacks, then the choice of yes or no would be really interesting. That’s what puts the sting into “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” and into the similar parable in The Brothers Karamazov. So that’s what I decided to do in “Apotheosis.”
Tsubarime’s role is, uh, magic? I don’t know any more about her than is in the story.
Near the beginning of their journey, the youngest son says “Dulce et decorum est,” part of a line from Horace’s Odes. Was that connection deliberate? Why that particular line from that particular poem?
I wish I could say that it was a complex and erudite comment on Horace. But actually, at the time I wrote that bit, I had just discovered the allure of stories with kitchen sink worldbuilding/aesthetic. I thought the line sounded good, so in it went. If I were writing the story now, I probably wouldn’t use it, because I think it brings in a bunch of connotations that aren’t balanced out by the rest of the story. (Basically, this story is not kitchen sink enough.)
That being said: I used that line because when I think of hardcore devotion to the city, I think of Rome. And when I think of Rome—the stories of Horatius and Cincinnatus and Gaius Mucius Scaevola, whom I imprinted on as a teenager—I find those words genuinely moving. But I was nearly as young when I read Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est,” and so those words also always have a cynical overlay in my mind. Which made them perfect for expressing the good but twisted ideals of the youngest son.
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