Let us briefly examine this story, then, in the light of the checklist from chapter six.
1. Make every background detail work. There is not a detail in this story that does not help advance the mood or the character development or the plot. For example, we see at first that Dorn's clothing is tattered, although his soldier's boots are highly polished. Later we learn that his clothing is his soldier's uniform, from which he has torn all the insignia and pockets: a physical representation of Dorn's soul-shaking decision to become a priest. He has torn away his military insignia because he has renounced soldiering. He has torn away the pockets because, as a self-styled priest, he has renounced all wealth.
Many of the details about Elverda show that she regards her life as over; she is an old woman, no longer capable of doing creative work, waiting for inevitable death. Perhaps longing for death to relieve her of her sense of failure. She feels cold. Is that because she is dying or because she misses the warmth of human family and friendships? But once she is changed by the alien artifact, once she realizes the enormity of what Dorn is telling her, she feels cold no longer. She has a reason to continue living. She has found a friend, a companion, perhaps the son she never bore.
Look for the other details in the story and see how each of them helps the story along.
2. Don't try to explain how the machinery works; just show what it does. There is not a word of explanation about any of the technological marvels in the story. Spacecraft and life-support systems and drawing computers and cyborgs—you see them in action without any description of how they work. Nor do I for an instant try to explain the alien artifact. It does what it does. Period. In fact, any attempt at explaining its mysterious marvels would weaken the story, distract from its impact.
In Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the mysterious alien slab remains completely unexplained and stands as a powerful symbol of awe and mystery. Arthur C. Clarke's novel, on which the film was based, goes to some pains to explain what the slab is and how it works. And the story is thereby robbed of much of its mystery and majesty.
Save the explanations for academic papers or media interviews. As Nobel laureate chemist Peter DeBye often said, "Sometimes it is not so important to be right as to sound convincing."
3. Feel free to invent any new devices or scientific discoveries that you can imagine— providing they do not contradict what is known about science today. The far-flung interplanetary civilization that I postulate in "Sepulcher" depends on a lot of technological advances that have not yet been invented. But they undoubtedly will be. We currently know of no fundamental scientific reasons that would prohibit such a civilization.
The alien artifact is something else again. It is rather farfetched, I grant, but no one can prove that such a device could never be made.
4. Be thoroughly familiar with the background of your story. I have been writing science fiction long enough and (more important) been involved in the world's real space programs long enough to be thoroughly familiar with the interplanetary setting of this story. The asteroid belt really exists. No one yet knows how many hundreds of thousands of chunks of rock and metal are floating out there in the belt, but many of them are literally small mountains of pure nickel-iron orbiting around the Sun. In 1991 NASA's Galileo spacecraft took the first close-up photograph of an asteroid, Gaspra, which is roughly the size of Manhattan island.
After nearly forty years of working among space technologists and scientists I have a decent knowledge from which to draw the background for "Sepulcher."
I was also quite familiar with the background of the story's central character, Elverda Apacheta. She had been a principle character in an earlier story of mine that bears the unlikely title, "A Can of Worms." It was in this tale that Elverda carved the mile-long asteroid she called The Rememberer and electronically painted The Virgin of the Andes across the ionospheric sky of North America.
5. Learn the basics of science. I am not a scientist, nor an engineer. I am a writer. But I fell in love with science the first time I went to a planetarium and began to see the majesty of the universe.
It is especially important to at least understand the fundamentals of science if you intend to write real science fiction stories. If you are more interested in the softer parts of SF, or in areas of writing that have nothing to do with science — learn science anyway! It is fun. It is the most human thing that human beings do: trying to understand the universe, from stars and galaxies down to microbes and the workings of our own minds. What could be more exciting? What could give you more material, and more understanding, for the stories you want to write?
6. Names are important. There are three named characters in "Sepulcher," and the names of all three of them were picked with great care.
Elverda Apacheta is a latter-day Incan princess. Her family name is the name of an Andean mountain tribe. In its native tongue, the name literally means "mountain people." Elverda is from the Latin for virgin; it is frequently given to Latin American girls born under the sign of Virgo.
Miles Sterling is the name of a very rich man. That ring of sterling silver is inescapable. So, perhaps, is the other meaning of sterling: excellence, solid worth, purity. It is obvious, once you see Sterling in action, that he is not excellent or pure. So, that meaning of his name also reverberates in the reader's mind as a reminder of what Miles Sterling is not.
Dorn is a name chosen almost entirely for its sound, although back in the 1940s a screen actor named Philip Dorn had the kind of rugged yet dour look to him that I imagine Dorn's human half-face to possess. His earlier name, Dorik Harbin, comes from a city in Manchuria—Harbin—
that has known its share of destruction and misery under the heavy hand of Russian, Japanese and Chinese administration. Dorik just sounded right to me. It is a variant of a Polish name meaning, ironically, gift of god.
7. The background—and the story itself—must be internally consistent. I believe "Sepulcher" is internally consistent. The characters are in tune with the world in which they live; in fact, the reader only learns about that world through the characters' actions and words. An interplanetary civilization of ruthless capitalist corporations developing natural resources from the asteroids and other bodies in space, building and populating space habitats the size of modest cities, is engaged in cutthroat competition and even war. It seems not only internally consistent but almost inevitable, if the human race keeps expanding its numbers the way we are presently.
Which brings us to a final point: Every story must engross its readers so thoroughly that they fall into the world you have created with your words. The background of a story may be the exotic, magical world of The Arabian Nights or the hard-edged mean streets of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels, but that background must help to create a kind of reality that possesses the reader from the first word of the tale to the last.
Was this article helpful?