Friday, April 03, 2015

Revelations and Revisionism, Mythology and History

One of the great things about being an author is the ability to choose any story you want to tell, whether you're fictionalizing a great event in history or creating the most fanciful fantasy or developing a love story that resounds with everyone that reads it. I'm working on a project right now called Revisionist--I'll tell a bit about it in a minute. First, though, I want to share a few revelations I've had in the past week about revisionism and Revisionist and the people who revise things. 

I love the SyFy channel. I'm an unabashed fan of several of their shows--Dominion and Defiance are great, Ghost Hunters I've been watching for years, and Face Off is a tie to the theater life I loved and now miss. But when SyFy makes a goof, they really make a big one. Their new show Olympus is an example of what I'm talking about. 

I know more about Greco-Roman mythology than just about anyone in the universe. In fact, I was a state and national champion in Mythology at Junior Classical League conventions when I was in high school, and my first fantasy series The Asphodel Cycle was a blend of traditional Greco-Roman mythology with standard epic fantasy elements. One thing I've learned as a writer with a strong classical background is that you can't "improve" the original. Clash of the Titans is a good example of this. Perseus didn't ride Pegasus the flying horse--Bellerophon did. In fact, Pegasus was born after Perseus cut off Medusa's head--for when her blood met the waters of the ocean (ie Poseidon), the god's spirit impregnated Medusa's essence and *poof!* Winged horse. 

And there's no such thing as a mechanical owl named Bubo perched upon Athena's shoulder. 

So--Olympus. I was excited that SyFy was doing a show based upon mythology, but last night when the premiere came on I was horrified within the first couple of minutes. Why? Because the Cyclops had one eye--which is mythologically accurate--but that eye was in his MOUTH. Why the change? Because a giant immortal with a single eye isn't scary enough? And think about the logistics of it. If the Cyclops's eye in in his mouth, then can he not see unless he's shouting? And what about eating? Is it really a good idea for a creature's only eye to be right there with his teeth? Not to mention the ewwwwwwwwww factor. It's just nasty. 

I could go on and on about the other "improvements" that wrecked Olympus, but that would be my longest post ever. I won't do that to you. Suffice it to say that about the only similarity between Olympus and Greco-Roman mythology are some character names and a few of the costumes. And that got me thinking: why the need for the changes in the first place? Mythology is full of amazing and relatively unknown creative elements that supersede almost anything since. 

I know what you're thinking. And I quote: My first fantasy series The Asphodel Cycle was a blend of traditional Greco-Roman mythology with standard epic fantasy elements. 

Yep. But I didn't change the basic elements of mythology. Instead, I built upon them as a foundation--made mythology into history. Asphodel has Amazons and centaurs and minotaurs and harpies and tons of other mythological creatures, but I didn't try to "improve" them. Instead, I kept their mythological roots intact. How do you figure you can make a harpy more terrifying than it actually is? A harpy is basically a bird of prey with a woman's face, what Homer called "swift robbers". They were sent by the gods to snatch things away from the earth, and were blamed for any sudden, mysterious disappearances, and anything they touched they befouled. So when a mortal named Phineus revealed some of the secrets of the gods, Zeus sent the harpies to punish him. Anytime he tried to eat, they would snatch food from his hands and befouled--yes, harpy poop and other various bodily fluids--everything else on the table. 

I'm pretty sick, but I can't think of a way to make THAT any worse. 

All that being said, as writers it's important for us to make the stories we tell our own. So I'm not saying that any story based upon Greco-Roman mythology has to be a regurgitated version of the original myths. For example--the Percy Jackson & The Olympians YA series. Author Rick Riordan brings Greco-Roman mythology into the modern age, creating a protagonist, Percy, who is the demigod son of Poseidon and a modern, mortal woman. The way Riordan drew Percy and his world up, it's very much in the line of classic Greek or Roman heroic tales. Percy's powers and abilities would work easily with those original tales. He's credible; as a son of Poseidon, for example, it's believable that he would be able to breathe underwater or talk with sea creatures. But what really makes the world and character work is the seamless integration of classical mythology and modern fantasy. Riordan doesn't "improve" mythology. He embraces it in such a way as to enhance not only those stories but the world he's created.

Something I wish the writers of Olympus had done, instead of serving us such a confused, ass-backwards mishmash of crap and loosely labeling it as mythology--and it's a lesson for me, one I learned as I work on my newest project, Revisionist.

We've all heard of revisionist history--when a people or a state change what really happened into something that bolsters their current agenda, like when Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed that the holocaust never happened, calling it an American fabrication of a "myth of the massacre of Jews." My Revisionist concept is a bit more specific. I focus on the story that might have happened if one single historical event had been changed. For example, what if JFK hadn't been assassinated? Or what if Issac Newton had decided not to sit under a tree? Or if Benjamin Franklin had been electrocuted when he flew a kite in a thunderstorm? What would change? What would stay the same? What different routes would history have taken from that pivotal moment?

Sir John Squire collected a series of alternate history essays in 1931 entitled If It Had Happened Otherwise. That volume included an essay by Winston Churchill that envisioned a world in which General Robert E. Lee had won the battle of Gettysburg, and that in turn influenced Ward Moore's Bring The Jubilee, a novel in which the Confederacy had won the Civil War in 1953. So alternate history has been around for a while, and my idea is neither new nor groundbreaking.

And alternate history is hard to write. You can't effectively change history without having a thorough knowledge of what really happened. For example, if JFK hadn't been shot and killed, what would have been affected? Well the 1964 presidential election for starters, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964--would it have been pushed through as vigorously as Lyndon Johnson did, or would the JFK administration have gotten it passed earlier? Or later? Or at all? Would Robert Kennedy have been assassinated? Or would he have been elected president in 1968, or would he have pushed back his run for the White House until 1972 or '76? One of the main reasons he cited for running was to continue his older brother's work. So if his older brother had lived to get his agenda completed or if he'd been unable to do so, when would Bobby Kennedy have felt the need to run? And how many subsequent presidents would have actually held office if that one fateful day in Dallas had never happened?

If a butterfly flaps its wings in Ohio, can that cause a typhoon in the south Pacific?

So Revisionist begins with that butterfly, and tracks the currents of history from there. The concept is intriguing to me, and because I'm studying the historical events on my particular timeline so thoroughly I am discovering all sorts of things I never knew before which is always good. I'm having to trace out my storyline adjacent the historical one, determine what events would have happened regardless and what might have been changed, and then tracing out the effects of the events that were changed and so forth. It can get very involved. I have long strips of butcher paper up on the walls of my study, where I'm plotting everything out. But it's also fascinating because I have to make sure that any changes I make to history occur in such a way that they can be seamlessly integrated with what really happened in that time period and after.

But the lesson I learned from Olympus was extremely valuable. I don't need to "improve" history. I don't need to make such wholesale changes to what we know as historical fact in order to tell a great story. I don't need to make JFK a Republican, or Issac Newton a spelunker, or the Civil War decided at Gettysburg with the swift defeat of damn Yankees to tell the stories I might want to tell in an alternate history novel. As long as I make the integration between history and fiction as smooth and credible as possible, I don't have to "improve" anything.

And man, do I wish the creators of Olympus and the SyFy channel had been able to learn that lesson before they ever put Olympus on the air.

What's that? What is the tiny change I make in the first Revisionist novel?  *evil grin* I'm not going to tell you.

But the working title of the novel is The Mother's War.