The Big Idea: Emery Robin
It is not what we take with us when we die, but what we leave behind. Author Emery Robin goes into some detail about this in their Big Idea for their newest novel, The Stars Undying. Read on to see what kind of things end up getting inherited by those we leave.
What if someone was going to live forever?
Many religions hold that, in some form, people do: that the soul is immortal, and lives after corporeal death in another world. Other stories suggest that some piece of the dead continues on this plane—ghosts and shades, preserved in spirit while their bodies decay. Others describe how the dead can become more powerful than they were in life: cursing descendants, interceding with God or gods for aid, or even becoming objects of worship themselves.
Alexander the Great ordered that, after his death, his followers should bury him in a temple of Zeus Ammon. Already, in life, he had begun demanding that people prostrate themselves before him as the Greeks did before gods. In death, he intended to be known as Zeus Ammon’s divine son.
When he died, his friends disobeyed him. On its journey to Macedonia, Alexander’s corpse was hijacked by his general Ptolemy and brought to Egypt, where Ptolemy founded his own kingdom over the bones of Alexander’s conquests. Under the Ptolemaic dynasty, Egyptians worshiped Alexander for centuries. But Ptolemy and his descendants were also worshiped: as chief priests to the Alexander-god, as Alexander’s heirs, and eventually as gods themselves. A cult arose around Alexander—a cult whose beliefs were only possible because Alexander himself was not alive to stop them.
Everyone is going to die. The world is built on this. Human histories, from the military to the marital to the economic, construct themselves around questions of who will inherit the world when its current owners are gone. Even nations rely on it: monarchy, in its most basic definition, is a government in which changes in power can only occur through human death. No tyrant or dictator, no matter how terrible, will ever outlive all of the people he ruled.
Cleopatra VII, whose story I retell in my space opera The Stars Undying, was the last queen of Egypt. She was also its last Ptolemaic ruler, its last Greek ruler, and the last heir to Alexander the Great. It is said that her first lover, Julius Caesar, once wept at a statue of Alexander. By age thirty-three, he said, Alexander had conquered the world. Yet he, Caesar, had done nothing yet that would make him so glorious—so famous—so immortal in human history.
In The Stars Undying, my world’s Alexander the Great invents a miraculous new technology: an artificial intelligence which replicates the brain-pattern of a human being so thoroughly that, at the moment of his death, he can upload his soul into its circuits. He calls this computer the Pearl of the Dead. When he dies, this universe’s Ptolemy proclaims the Pearl a god, and himself its Oracle. He passes it on to his children, down and down for three hundred years, until it reaches Gracia, my Cleopatra.
The Pearl of the Dead fascinates my Julius Caesar, Commander Matheus Ceirran, himself already a galactic conqueror. What power did it bring that past conqueror, he wonders? What power could it bring him? But for Gracia, the Pearl is not just a symbol of strength. It is an ancestor and an object of faith. It is something she must struggle for, and then struggle with. It is an inheritance, and when she chooses to bear it, she is confronted with a decision we must all make: how to shape the world through the way we carry our ghosts.
What we inherit from our dead is never only material. It is names, languages, religions, values. It is expectations, responsibilities, fears, dreams. We inherit trauma; we inherit memory. We inherit the consequences. We inherit the stories of who we are, and the stories of what we may be. We cannot choose what they are made of, our inheritances. We can only choose whether to accept them.
I wanted to retell Cleopatra’s story because I adored Cleopatra herself: her brilliance, her charm and humor, her determination, her refined taste, her impeccable sense of mess and drama. But I wanted to tell it as science fiction because, in Cleopatra, I saw a person who had spent her life living with a ghost on her shoulder.
Alexander was Cleopatra’s god. He gave her glamour and legitimacy; he gave her a cult representing her family and her kingdom. But he was also a man, and a man her ancestor had already betrayed. He was a conqueror who the growing Roman Empire respected more than it respected her. Caesar longed to live up to Alexander’s shadow, but Cleopatra needed more. She had to shape that shadow—to transform Alexander’s ghost—into something entirely her own.
In telling Cleopatra and Caesar’s story, a story about the famous dead and about a very famous death, I needed to deal with immortality, and I needed immortality to be magnificent. Death is the worst thing there is. It is the unbearable rift in this world. It is not forgivable, and to end it would be something spectacular. And immortality is terrible, too. In The Stars Undying, immortality could not flinch from this. It could not equivocate. It could not be half-good or half-evil, any more than death itself. It needed to be all horror, all miracle, all tyrant, all god.
What if someone was going to live forever? What would we inherit from them? How would it force us to carry our ghosts, dead and living? If, under a monarchy, death is the only way the world can change, what would you do if you were made to live with a king who never died?