Tom Merritt co-hosts Sword and Laser, a science fiction and fantasy podcast and book club with Veronica Belmont. He also hosts the award-winning daily technology show Tech News Today and Frame Rate, a show for cord cutters, along with several other podcasts. Merritt has written three novels and a Chronology of Tech History. His new novel is Lot Beta.
by Tom Merritt
In 2010, for the 8th time, I attempted National Novel Writing Month. I’d finished the 50,000 word in one month challenge exactly once. But I always tried. That year, I cheated and won.
That year I had just finished reading Mists of Avalon and The Once and Future King for the Sword and Laser book club. I’m a fan of the Arthurian legend. I don’t so much love the Malory romantic stuff as the folklore of a Roman soldier defending the Celts and the remnants of the Empire against the Saxons.
So with my own historical readings now mixed up with two very different takes on the legend, I had a very clear picture in my mind of the essential elements of Arthur’s legend.
To extremely oversimplify it, a young boy has his true heritage hidden, befriends a wizard, becomes a King, fights against spirituality, assembles a team of heroes (one of whom betrays him) and falls by the hand of his illegitimate son.
So I decided that would be an excellent scaffolding for a story.
To start, I set that story in a distant stellar system, to divorce it from our culture. I made the system run by a single mining company with hereditary positions to give it the medieval flavor with a modern feel.
Next, I needed good analogies for the main elements both legendary and historical. The mining system was Europe with the Roman Emperor as CEO. A regional headquarters on a distant moon served as Britain. I needed some Celts to represent the indigenous population and be my druids. The Pioneers served the purpose as a race of humans who had settled the system on their own before the Corporation came in and took over, running them off their land.
Then there’s the magic. I wanted a science fiction novel, not fantasy. For some of that you can get away with sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic, from a certain point of view. But what do you do about wizards?
I decided to leverage the idea of psychology. What magicians do is really just manipulating human psychology and perception. It’s misdirection. I took that principle and mixed in a little of Harry Selden’s Foundation and created the Psychological Systems Administrator. The position is a holdover from the generational ships that brought the first Corporate settlers to the system. They needed people to make sure everybody didn’t go crazy.
My Psychological Systems Administrator can “see the future” as a series of possibilities and chooses subtle actions that have great consequences. That way what he’s doing is science, but it can appear very magical.
With those pieces in place the rest seemed easier. The COO of the regional headquarters has an affair. The son is hidden because he would be a political football. The Psychological Systems Administrator hides him even from the Mother. And so we have the first event where the boy can realize his destiny. After the COO dies he locks the systems of his headquarters in a way that only his heir can undo. But nobody thinks he has an heir. The CEO is furious because he wants to put his son in the position for training. And we have a classic “Let the boy try” situation, as everyone attempts to unlock the system.
Probably the most difficult part of the legend to mimic were the quests. We don’t usually put unrelated episodes within a novel. I did my best to emulate this by having my Lancelot character assigned with a very important “to do” list to take care of in the region after my “Arthur” character takes over.
In the end it has adventure and romance and battles and intrigue, as any good Arthurian legend should. It also has planets and moon mines and spaceships and spacesuits and galactic history, as any space opera should. There’s even an analog of the invading Saxons.
I hope that I’ve captured a tiny slice of the epic telling of Arthurian tales. Even so, it was fun to write and it helped me “win” NaNoWriMo without breaking the rules of planning the story ahead of time. Ages of Britains had done it for me.