Monday, October 02, 2006

The Stories Behind The Stories - Tim Pratt

Introduction: The Story Behind the Stories

When it comes to short story collections, one of my all-time favorite authors has always been Isaac Asimov. Why? Not because he wrote such great stories (though he did write great ones); rather, it was because he took the time to write anywhere from a few lines to a few paragraphs about each story. The story behind the stories. Sometimes I’d go through his collections and read all introductions before I read any of the stories.

To get a glimpse into the author’s mind about what he was trying to accomplish, or how the story was born, or the assorted trials and tribulations the story caused or endured – that fascinated me. I think anyone who has ever uttered the phrase, “I would loved to have been a fly on the wall when…” can appreciate that. And given how much I love stories - long, short, printed, on the big screen, it doesn’t matter; I just love stories – the opportunity to be a fly on Isaac Asimov’s wall was a real treat. Maybe it was that secret part of my soul that, even then, longed to be a writer. On the other hand, maybe it was nothing more than that fundamental aspect in all of us, that thing in our basic human nature which simply relishes feeling like we’re “in” on someone’s secrets. Or maybe it was, C) all of the above. Didn’t much matter. I loved those introductions.

Well, for the next few weeks I'm going to be bringing you the stories behind the stories published in issue three of InterGalactic Medicine Show. I'll post two a week until all our authors have been heard from, and we'll kick it off with a few words from the author of our cover story:

Tim Pratt

"Dream Engine" is something of a hodgepodge story, combining various free-floating ideas I've had for years.

I've always liked weird cities -- from Edward Bryant's Cinnabar to M. John Harrison's Viriconium to China MiƩville's New Crobuzon, and I've long wanted to create my own bizarre urban setting. I came up with the idea of a city at the center of a multiverse, a big messy organic sprawl built up on the spinning axis of the great wheel of the multiverse, with whole discrete universes whirling around it on all sides. Conceiving of such a place raised obvious questions. How would such a linchpin city be populated? How would they feed and shelter themselves, how would they trade, etc.? At some point, reading about the collapse of the former Soviet Union, I came across the word "Kleptocracy," to describe a state ruled by thieves. That seemed perfect. The denizens of my city -- which I called "Nexington-on-Axis" -- are magpies of the multiverse, snatching buildings, people, animals, and even hunks of land from passing planets, planes, and dimensions. I knew I'd hit upon a great setting, one where I could do almost anything. I wanted the city to have weirdly alien rulers and a Regent with a hidden agenda, and so I created them.

But a setting isn't a story.

The notion of a man who kills people in his dreams -- and the question of whether he would bear responsibility for those murders -- has fascinated me since high school, and I made a few attempts at writing that story over the years, without success. I realized how I could apply that old idea to my new setting, so I decided to give it a try. At that point, there was a setting, and something that could easily become a plot. All I needed was a protagonist.

I like detectives, from literary ones like Auguste Dupin, Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, and Hercule Poirot to newer media detectives like Veronica Mars and Adrian Monk. (I'm also fond of fictional bounty hunters, assassins, and secret agents.) A weird city like Nexington-on-Axis would need some kind of detective/enforcer, and who better than Howlaa Moor, a shapeshifting rogue of no fixed gender, who serves the state because the only alternative is death or imprisonment? (The no-fixed-gender thing did provide an interesting challenge when it came to pronouns, so I chose to use one of the several invented gender-neutral sets of terms: "zim" instead of him or her; "zir" instead of "his" or "hers"; "zie" instead of "he" or "she," etc.)

I'm a big fan of sidekicks, so it seemed natural to give Howlaa zir own Dr. Watson, in this case, the bodiless tattletale know-it-all Wisp. They seemed like perfect foils -- Howlaa can transform into virtually any living shape, while Wisp has no physical body at all, just a charged field of floating motes.

Once I had setting, plot, and characters in mind, the story was remarkably easy to write, and it's a world I expect to explore further. Howlaa and Wisp have a lot more adventures in them, I think.

You can link to my blog at

best, Tim

"Dream Engine" is now available at


Jim said...

"Dream Engine" was easily the best story in this issue of the IGMS (aside from Mr. Card's own Enderverse contribution, of course), hence the reason, I suspect, it graces the "cover." I really enjoyed this world's conceptualization and implementation. It struck a chord with my own imagination.

Aliette said...

I always loved those Asimov introductions, too. Thanks for doing the same for IGMS, and I'm looking forward to hearing from everyone.

(and "Dream Engine" easily has one of the most fascinating universes around. Not to mention I've always had a weakness for detective stories :) Hope Howlaa and Wisp come back)

Anonymous said...

Don't we all know that it must be a match, that they were over head and ears in love with each other from the first moment they met?
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