As a genre, science fiction is often lauded for its “sense of wonder” — or as many of its practitioners prefer to spell it, “sensawunda” — but like any aspect of writing, this element doesn’t just show up on the pages of a book; the author has to work to put it there. Ryk E. Spoor was working to get it in the pages of his latest solo novel Grand Central Arena, and here he is to give you a tour of the places he went to get it, and who he called upon to get it from, a list which includes everyone from golden age SF writers to a guy who made album covers. Very cool album covers.
RYK E. SPOOR:
Grand Central Arena is a novel intended to evoke the gosh-wow sensawunda of the true Golden Age (which is either 12, or the 1930s through some part of the 50s, I think), and in specific to echo and salute the work of E. E. “Doc” Smith, creator of the Lensman and the Skylark series. In the latter, the power scale escalates until, in the final battle, the heroes end up destroying two galaxies by the expedient of taking a star from one galaxy and precisely overlaying it on one in the other galaxy. Grand Central Arena contains many references to classic SF, fantasy, various anime, mysteries, and other pop culture, in ways ranging from the direct and overt (one of the characters is named Marc C. DuQuesne – name of the villain in the Skylark series, and he has the name for a good reason) to fairly subtle (the appearance of the Milluk species mimics to a great extent the spider-robot created by Dr. Zin in “Jonny Quest”).
In Grand Central Arena I attempted – and, I hope, succeeded – in playing on this scale with slightly more modern “tools” in my writer’s toolbox. As such, it perhaps is not a terrible surprise that there’s more than one Big Idea lurking inside the shiny façade. (Spoilers ahead, of course!)
One of the sometimes-subtly repeated central ideas is the question of identity and reality – is what we see real, and whether we even know who we are. Ariane Austin originally thinks of herself as just a racing pilot, nothing particularly special; yet by the end of the novel, her identity – her self-identity – is much more as “Captain Ariane Austin of the Holy Grail“. Marc DuQuesne begins his stint with the crew as somewhat mysterious, but trying to live life as an essentially ordinary man. Yet that is, perhaps, nothing more than a mask, and one he will have to remove. The question of whether certain beings are “real people” is implied more than once – the AISages that assist humanity in almost every role, but which cannot function in the Arena, and in the opposite role the Blessed to Serve, collectively slaves to ultra-powerful AIs.
The Arena itself raises this question; it is something so different, so bizarre, with rules and powers that defy ordinary understanding, that it almost inevitably leads to the question of whether it really exists at all or is just some kind of monstrous simulation that our heroes are trapped within.
It is the Arena – the setting and title focus of the novel – that I will focus on, as it shapes every other event and idea within the novel. Just in sheer scale it is a very very Big Idea, a construct so huge that it can encompass a scale-model duplicate of the universe within, a “place” where all species who attempt FTL travel find themselves, and where they all must meet and conduct their business according to rules laid down by the unknown, and perhaps unknowable “Voidbuilders” who created the Arena.
As a writer, I created the Arena and its ultra-tech capabilities – and sometimes apparently-though-not-actually arbitrary rules –to provide the tools and opportunities to write a story on the scale I wanted: something that might, just possibly, touch others with the same awe, the same sense of amazement, of wonder, of uplifting vision that the greatest works of the Golden Age engendered in me.
What I wanted was a universe where a few individuals could affect the destiny of the human species – and, perhaps, all other species – by their choices and actions. A universe where I could have armadas of ships clash in a war that was fought by people (alien or human), not automated ships, drones, calculations. A universe in which there was truly room for grand-scale heroes, dark villains, intricate plots, challenges and victories worthy of the best of the space operas, one which Doc Smith himself might look at and nod, saying “not bad!”… and one that at the same time took advantage of what we’ve learned about storytelling in the past 50, 60 years and bringing that into the mix.
The Arena grew in the making. The basic concept was to have a single location to which anyone travelling FTL would go – a location that would then, somehow, force or facilitate the interaction of the new arrival with all the older ones. It would have some complex rules governing interactions which would force our Heroes into some sort of difficult contests or quests in order to return home, and humanity would have some sort of “edge” that would get them enough of an advantage to survive this encounter. There would also be some mechanism to facilitate communication, so we didn’t spend far too long just learning to talk to the aliens.
Originally I had envisioned the ships from our universe arriving in what amounted to an actual docking slip, and simply stepping out of the airlock brought you into the “common” area which became what is now called “Nexus Arena” in the novel. This, however, had a lot of practical problems with it; perhaps the largest problem being that this would make the “rooms” devoted to each species be physically connected by being on the same huge construct, yet I wanted possibility for both isolation and adventurous interaction in the Arena.
For a bit I toyed with making the entry areas somewhat larger (allowing more than one ship, giving a small living space, etc.) and adding some huge effectively wild areas inside the gigantic construct. But that left me with the question of why the heck aliens would create such a gargantuan construct and then have these areas inside – and why they’d stay that way, after thousands or millions of years with alien species coming and going. Plus, as effective FTL travel would require our ship being moved to another (cooperative) alien’s “docking slip”, I was at something of a loss as to how to get from there to here. What, you have to CARRY your starship out the door, down the hall, and over to Alien 509’s launch slip?
While I was chasing that idea around in my head, I wondered – if this construct was effectively holding the universe inside it, by keeping anyone from travelling FTL between the stars directly – what lay OUTSIDE this construct?
I suddenly had a memory of the band Yes and the covers/paintings done for them by Roger Dean, and I saw it, for a moment… a gargantuan sphere (which would become Nexus Arena) drifting in a limitless sky, with floating islands that seemed weightless, yet had gravity to pour waterfalls into the infinite void.
This is one of those instants in writing that is almost impossible to describe; I literally stopped breathing for a moment, knowing that I almost had it, almost the exact correct idea, and that even breathing might keep me from finishing the thought. Everything seemed frozen in a single moment as I saw this impossible universe laid out in front of me, but… not quite right, missing one single piece to make it exactly and precisely what I wanted.
And then suddenly it was there, in a perfect flash of inspiration that crystallized the entirety of the Arenaverse for me: the floating islands were the landing slips. One island for every star. Travel from one island to another and activate the drive according to some rules, and you’ve gone from your star system to the next. Breathable – or usually breathable – air. Storms of unimaginable scale, adventures across the universe of sky and floating island and whatever lies between. And on every floating island, a gateway that brings you to Nexus Arena.
The details, of course, changed as I developed the background and the story. The floating islands became the Spheres – with the Island bit still on top, but a huge harbor area inside. The rules for how and when you could travel from one point to another, the details on how the Arena controlled the use of technology to keep interactions on the level desired, all of these things developed and changed, but that single moment defined the most critical elements: a way to keep FTL travel possible yet controlled, a way to let us meet alien species and compete with them in something like a fair setting, yet a setting in which you could set out into an unknown universe and – perhaps literally – sail the stars. But in a sky of wind and light and shadow and color, where instead of cold vacuum and dead, dead rock, there would be air, life, danger, and opportunity.
This gave me the space-opera universe I wanted, and with Captain Ariane Austin, Marc C. DuQuesne, and Dr. Simon Sandrisson I had the very people needed to enter that universe… and change the history of humanity forever.
Whether I really succeeded in telling the story I wanted to … I can’t know, not yet. But if just a few people feel that sense of wonder, if just one girl or boy at the Golden Age feels a chill of awe go down their spine when Orphan throws wide the Window of the Arena, or when Marc C. DuQuesne tells the Molothos they have no idea what they’re dealing with, or when Ariane Austin finds a key to victory in her heart where before was only defeat… then yes, I have succeeded. Because the true Big Idea is the Sense of Wonder; all else is just details.