Monday, March 17, 2014

How Addiction Came to Southwatch

Editor's note: This is a guest blog post by Daniel Ausema, author of The Electro-Addictive Moth-Flame.  Enjoy!

Mellia, the central character in “The Electro-Addictive Moth-Flame,” is a steam monkey, a person whose body was modified as a child to make her immune to most electricity but addicted to high voltage. Celina has asked me to dig a bit into how I took the original ideas of this shared world and teased them out into the novella, so this is the aspect I'm going to focus on in this blog post: the steam monkeys and their addiction to electricity.

If you read the original Darkside Codex bible, you'd see that there was nothing about such an operation or addiction in the original conception of the setting. So how did that come about? To answer that I need to step outside the Southwatch setting for a moment. Around the time I was reading through the materials on Southwatch, I was also looking around for a copy of Steph Swainston's Above the Snowline. The book hasn't been released in the US, so finding a legal e-copy was proving more difficult than I was expecting...and that difficulty had me thinking more and more about the earlier books in the series.

If you haven't read The Year of Our War, I definitely recommend you do. At one level they're very traditional fantasy books, yet Swainston always manages to take the ideas slantwise, with a high dose of the best kind of imagination. Central to the books is the narrator, Jant Comet. He is immortal, at least until someone can best him and take his place in the circle of immortals. And he is addicted to a drug that would certainly kill him if not for his immortality.

So I had Jant at the back of my mind as I was plunging into the background of the city of Southwatch, and I thought it would be a good challenge to write about a character who is addicted to something self-destructive and yet without losing readers' sympathy. It was the barest of outlines for a character, but it was the central seed that Mellia grew from.

There is a good deal in the Codex bible about the high society up above the Dark Cloud, and that could have been a ripe milieu for an addicted character. Moving in fancy circles, characters hiding expensive drugs from their peers. That's not usually the kind of story I'm drawn toward, though, and as I read more about the Steamworks and the street-level aspects of the city, I found myself imagining those places much more clearly. The gas masks and twilit streets called for a story, the clanking presses of the factories and the crowded tenements. I turned my attention to those parts of the Codex bible.

But what about the whole body modification stuff? How did that work its way into Southwatch and get entwined with the addiction? To answer that, I need to point to the rest of the novels and stories I've written. It's a theme that plays out in vastly different ways across many of them, not something I consciously think, “Oh, I need to shoe-horn some body modification in here,” but a theme that develops on its own in many stories. I'd say that it's very closely tied with the infections of Chels and the other characters in my Spire City episodes. In other, unpublished novels I have characters who have cyberpunk sorts of implants in one and a land that causes the characters' bodies to mutate if they stay in one place too long in another, to just mention two. All those, as I see them, are akin to each other and to Mellia's experimental implants. Someday a grad student in literature will write a thesis exploring how that plays out in my various works...

(It's worth mentioning that similar transformations take place often in the works discussed as New Weird, as well as being not all that far off from a common motif in fairy tales and folk tales, all of which have been influences on me.)

So, that's a long way of coming back to the question of how Mellia's transformations fit into the Darkside Codex. As I read through the information about the rogue scientists and the factories, with the thought of Mellia's addiction at the back of my mind, it all fell together. Of course there are and have been scientists employed by the factories, operating outside of the usual, accepted labs and laws. Of course they've looked into tweaking the workers in the factories. Maybe some they've tried to turn into mindless drones as an alternative to the mechanicals. Maybe some they've tried to keep small, so they never outgrow their usefulness. And who can say what other experiments the factory scientists have performed? Those are great wrinkles for other writers to explore, and I hope some do.

Until then, at least we have the steam monkeys, their bodies lined with electricity-conducting wires, their necks pierced by the coils of metal that are the outward signs of their modification. And when they are too old for the factories, if they live that long, then they wander the streets and underground of Southwatch, immune to shock but craving a greater jolt of electricity. So take a trip with us Darkside Codex writers, and maybe you'll meet up with one of them.