The Big Idea: Stacey McEwan
Posted on September 13, 2022 Posted by John Scalzi 2 Comments
Humans can make a life in almost any circumstance, but when things get really rough, what sort of life can it be? Stacey McEwan has been thinking about this a lot, and in Ledge, she’s got a few answers, at least as they will apply to the folks in her book.
How would humankind fare in a hostile climate, where the objective is not escape?
I have read a pile of stories about lone survivors dragging their half-dead bodies through deserts, or hanging on to boat scraps, floating resolutely in storm-tossed seas. If a hero or heroine finds themselves on frozen wasteland, the story will inevitably follow their harrowing journey to safety. Always thrilling. Always thought-provoking. What is the character willing to do to survive an environment designed to kill them? What would we be willing to do? I could juice this question all day, wring every possible ‘what if’ from it. It’s one of my favourite plot lines. The conclusion to a story like that – man vs. wilderness – always seems to be predicated on time. How much time left until the food runs out, until dehydration sets in? How long until the survivor finds his sanctuary, or will time run out before he can? This led me to a thought – what if the objective wasn’t escape? What if escape wasn’t possible? What then?
So, the boat is set to bob on an endless sea. The man in the desert must wander forever. I rather thought it would change the trajectory of the story. A conclusion seeking not just survival at all costs, but a worthwhile life in unimaginable conditions. When we remove the lure of escape, you would have to assume that a human would next seek contentment, and not just survival.
Let’s take a woman, and place her in such an environment. In my book Ledge I envisioned a treacherous mountain scape – snow and ice and blizzards. But how to entrap her there? Fortunately, the fantasy genre allowed me the privilege of suspended belief. I could create a setting in which it was entirely possible a woman could live on an inescapable mountain. I put her on a mountain shelf, added some steep, unclimbable rock face on one side, a vast uncrossable chasm on the other; done.
But how could she stay alive on that mountain shelf? That question was the mortar between bricks. The first brick is shelter – she would need to escape the elements for a sustained period of time. This led to the existence of pine trees on the Ledge. A grove of precious resource that the people could use to build their homes. It gave them wood to burn. Later, it occurred to me that trees and wood would inevitably become currency.
The next brick was food and water. The water is simple enough; snow plus fire. As for food, it would be a reasonable assumption that the pine grove would attract small game. Presumedly birds who could cross the chasm. Other than that, the potential for hunting, gathering or farming seemed limited. It was a problem to fix. Luckily, I had already added some stakes.
The question of how people could have found themselves in a place so unreachable was always going to add tinder to the story, and I had my answer. Winged creatures of the mountain – Glacians, had raided a village in the valley, and herded its humans up the mountain, flown them across the chasm and dumped them on the Ledge, much like cattle behind a fence. The Glacians became my solution to the food problem. If the Glacians needed live humans, they would need to keep them alive. The idea of ‘the drop’ was that the Glacians would dump meagre supplies on the Ledge. I thought about what an act like that would lead to, and could only imagine incited violence.
Brutality was the next brick in my story’s skeletal build. A setting so hostile, with stakes so high, does not seem the place for peaceful community. The people would likely scratch, claw and kill for food, for the trees, for their family – if family exists.
In a place of such despair, desperation, hostility, how would one seek contentment? My last brick – human nature. Our species simply doesn’t have the capacity for things like love and self-actualisation when fight or flight is their baseline. It would make for a complicated, messy main character. A hard axe-wielding woman. A calculating, distrustful, mercenary creature. My most favourite brick – Dawsyn Sabar. The rest of the story follows her journey to stay alive, find answers and justice and seek actual contentment despite herself. But the walls of the story were built on the foundation of one idea. Not a new idea, by any means. But an idea with endless potential.
Ledge: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Visit the author’s Instagram and TikTok.
It seems to me that there are two different kinds of stories here.
In the “escape from a place where one cannot survive”, the ‘escape’ is an essential part, because of the ‘one cannot survive’. In a situation without water – nor any way to get it – escape is required because of the fact that, once the water is gone, one dies.
On the other hand, the “survive in an extremely harsh environment” is something that people do, and have been doing for a very long time, be that in mountains, deserts, the arctic, etc. And this is a different type of story, if only because one CAN survive this environment.
Which brings up a different aspect: in very harsh environments where people live, it seems that humanity – rather than brutality – is the norm. Quite possibly because, in such an environment, one needs the help of others.
I love the McEwan’s description of her logical flow in the construction of the world and then how it leads to the main character of Ledge.