Princess Altagracia has lost everything. After a bloody civil war, her twin sister has claimed both the crown of their planet, Szayet, and the Pearl of its prophecy: a computer that contains the immortal soul of Szayet’s god.
So when the interstellar Empire of Ceiao turns its conquering eye toward Szayet, Gracia sees an opportunity. To regain her planet, Gracia places herself in the hands of the empire and its dangerous commander, Matheus Ceirran.
But winning over Matheus, to say nothing of his mercurial and compelling captain Anita, is no easy feat. And in trying to secure her planet’s sovereignty and future, Gracia will find herself torn between Matheus’s ambitions, Anita’s unpredictable desires, and the demands of the Pearl that whispers in her ear.
For Szayet’s sake and her own, she will need to become more than a princess with a silver tongue. She will have to become a queen as history has never seen before.
A storyteller’s job is the photo-negative of a biographer’s.
A biographer begins by establishing the bare facts of a life: birth and marriage, work and death. From there, she helps the reader work inward: putting the subject’s actions into context, helping the reader understand what they indicate about her and her world.
A storyteller, on the other hand, begins with the inside and works out. When I decided to restage the lives of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar as a space opera, the first thing I had to do was learn who my Cleopatra and Caesar, Gracia and Ceirran, were: how they thought, what they feared, what they hoped for, what their voices sounded like. Only from there could I begin to reveal to the reader, bit by bit, what people like this might do.
Through the what-ifs of speculative fiction, history can reveal itself…
For hundreds of years before she was born, Cleopatra’s family were priests of the cult of Alexander the Great. They considered themselves his heirs, and his memory legitimized their rule. In a sense, all of the Egyptian kings and queens of that time carried Alexander’s ghost.
Who could resist making that ghost literal? Gracia inherits an AI that claims to be Alexander the Great’s digitized soul. This meant I could write dialogue for Alexander himself—such a delight to do that it still feels like it must be cheating somehow—but it also allowed me to bring abstract ideas into the realm of the physical: legacy, royalty, succession and monarchy, cults, civilization and barbarism.
Sci-fi lets a storyteller enlarge everything. A conqueror doesn’t just burn down a village; he blows up the moon. A would-be king doesn’t just want to establish a dynasty; he wants to live forever. At the galactic scale, details become sharper, clearer—at their very best, more real than reality.
…but what-ifs don’t stop at the scientific.
There was no question of populating my imaginary galaxy with modern American views of gender and sex. For one thing, those ideas wouldn’t exist in their current form without Roman law and custom around gender, so the whole exercise would be circular. For another, Roman sex beliefs weren’t just antiquated—they were different. Making the majority of my female characters the legal property of my male characters would have been a tough pill to swallow. Having a male character explain that it’s not gay for him to have sex with a man if that man is an actor would throw the reader into a very foreign world.
I wanted to create a foreign world, but—selfishly—I wanted it to be my world, with characters’ assumptions and dreams constrained by my rules, not by Cato’s. That meant entirely abandoning the enforcement of gender roles, legally or socially. I had to put characters of all genders in every part of my story, dressing in all sorts of ways, having relationships and children in all sorts of configurations.
Now I had room for all sorts of tense gender dynamics that the reader could bring their own interpretations to—for instance, Caesar could still be a powerful, privileged older man, which the reader would certainly bring their own modern-world assumptions to! But I also had room for imagination: what if swaggering, sly, rough-and-ready Mark Antony were a woman? What if dour, proper Calpurnia, seen in history only as Caesar’s long-suffering wife, were a man? What if the real-life queer love affairs of Alexander, Caesar, and Antony were conducted openly?
History doesn’t have a beginning…
What is the beginning of the history of me? Was it when I was born? Was it the moment my parents first spoke to one another? Was it the moment my grandfather decided to move to California? Was it the moment my great-grandmother’s nephews were murdered, and her family was given their spare tickets on the ship to America? Was it the moment the tsar sent his soldiers to the town where they would commit those murders? Was it the moment my father first read me a story?
Ask the person on the street to describe Cleopatra, and they might give you an image of a queen in a snake crown, or a girl rolling out of a carpet. But Cleopatra’s history doesn’t begin in the carpet, any more than Julius Caesar’s life began when she landed on his floor. So where does it begin? With the civil war that forced her to sneak into Caesar’s rooms through subterfuge? With the death of her father, which caused that war? Does it begin with the decision of her ancestor Ptolemy to found a kingdom in Egypt after the death of his general, Alexander the Great? Does it start with the first time Alexander dreamed of conquering the world?
…but stories do.
So choosing to begin a retelling of Cleopatra’s life with any event at all felt like an oversimplification—shrinking a brilliant, complex woman to a single narrative.
But in fact, no one knew those limits better than Cleopatra herself. From the carpet to the barge to her coins to her statues, she understood the spectacle of her life: the theater of herself, its boundaries and its potential. She understood the importance of telling her own story—and she understood the difference between a story and the truth. Doing justice to her wouldn’t mean never telling a story at all. It would mean holding space for that difference, the way she would have. And this gap ended up being the central engine of The Stars Undying, and of its unreliable narrator.
Human beings are infinite. Choosing a beginning for them is reductive. But the job of a story is to reduce—and by reducing, to expand: to use something simple to reveal something complex. It is to use something as small as a map to reveal something as big as the territory. It is to use something as small as a galaxy to reveal something as big as a soul.
Emery Robin is a paralegal, recovering Californian, and sometime student of propaganda and art history living in New York City.
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One response to “Emery Robin: Five Things I Learned Writing”
I admit, the talk of gods in AI computers and princesses needing to become queens left me tepid, but the backstory of the decisions behind those character choices has me hot and ready for this tale!