At the End of Babel: The Story Behind the Story

I am very excited to report that my short story, “At the End of Babel,” has been published on Tor.com.

Babel Cover

The cover, featuring the art of Greg Ruth.

It’s a free read, and I confess I’m rather proud of the piece, so please go give it a look before continuing on with this post. (And while you’re there, drool all over that amazing art by Greg Ruth!)

After all, there are spoilers below. You’ve been warned…

Most stories have a story behind them, and this one is no different. Unlike most such things, however, I have reasons to want to share this one.

As I related in an earlier post, my path to publishing fiction began in 2003. It was then that a friend (hi, Fred!) suggested I submit some of the stories I’d been kicking around. So I sent out two. One was a retelling of Beowulf that was quickly picked up by John O’Neill at the very awesome (and sorely missed) Black Gate Magazine (hi, John!). The other tale was a science fiction story that I sent to the Writers of the Future Contest, which Fred had just told me about (yes, I was that ignorant). Some months later, much to my surprise, I was informed that I had won third place in the contest, and I’d be participating in a week-long extravaganza of workshops and celebrations in Seattle.

This was full of awesome.

And it got even better when I met some of my fellow winners that year, a set of wonderful talents that included Ken Scholes, Eric James Stone, Cat Sparks, David Goldman, and many others I consider friends (hi, gang!).

Though the black-tie awards ceremony at the end of the week was intended to be the culminating event of the week-long festivities for the award winners, of far greater impact for me was the 24-hour story — an exercise that was so insane that I regularly subject my own creative writing students to it.

What happened was this:

After a few days of extensive and intensive discussions with some of the greatest living writers in science fiction and fantasy (you have no idea how amazing it is), our workshop leaders — the incredible Tim Powers and the late K.D. Wentworth — gave us 24 hours to write a story from beginning to end. Even worse more fun was the fact that we had to write the story using three seeds we received at the workshop: a random object, an interview with a random stranger, and a book.

My seeds were these:

  • Some Kleenex. It was a pocket-packet 15 2-ply tissues, with green and purple flowers upon it.
  • A chat with a sorrowful, slightly paranoid former submariner I met down on the Seattle waterfront.
  • A book about Native American cultures that I randomly pulled off a shelf in the Seattle Public Library.

From that, in 24 hours, I wrote the first draft of “At the End of Babel,” managing to sleep for maybe five hours. The story, then titled “The Other God, Coyote,” wasn’t great, mind you, but the realization that I could do such a thing, that I could just sit down and make the words move, was both jarring and exciting. It remains, for me, the best thing about the Writers of the Future experience.

One of the first things I did after I returned home to the University of Rochester, enthused and inspired, was to try and polish up the story into something that would sell.

Foremost on the to-do list was my need to flesh out my vision of Acoma. I knew the feel of the place fairly well thanks to my mother: while I moved around a fair bit during my childhood (my father worked for the government), my high school years were spent in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where my mother worked for the local public television station. Through her connections, we came into contact with quite a few artists and artisans in the state, and on one memorable outing we were able to travel to Acoma Pueblo during one of the traditional festivals. The chance to see Acoma in person, and to see it somewhat behind the scenes due to my mother’s access, was priceless. It was, for lack of a better term, a mystical experience. Strong as those teenage impressions had been, however, I knew I needed a bit more research to get the story right.

I needed language.

The entire tale (you did read it, right?) hinges on language and the power it has to define culture. More precisely said, it depends on the fact that this power has been turned into a way of attacking culture by denying people the right to speak their language. This was the point, but it wasn’t a very good one if I didn’t actually use the language of the pueblo.

I don’t know Keresan, but deep down in the bowels of the library at the University of Rochester I found a small and dust-covered grammar for it. I did my best to absorb the language, to feel it, and then to sprinkle it into my text, to make it real and make it right.

Whether I succeeded or not, I cannot judge myself.

Fast-forward a couple of years. I’d sent the piece a couple of places, but it hadn’t gotten any traction. Frankly, something wasn’t working and I didn’t know what it was.

I’d joined the Codex Writers Group in the meantime, which organized a writer’s retreat through the good graces of an up-and-coming writer named Mary Robinette Kowal (yes, she was always an awesome person). Somehow, someway, it was arranged that Ellen Datlow, one of the greatest editors of Fantasy and Science Fiction, would join the retreat and help us workshop stories.

I brought this story.

Some of my fellow writers loved it, calling it lyrical and moving and powerful. Ellen Datlow said it was the kind of story that could win awards (fingers crossed that she has a bit of the prophet in her veins!).

But other folks didn’t like it at all. When pressed, they said that it was just too fanciful. It was set in a dystopia they could not accept. They simply couldn’t imagine a world in which people would work so hard to take away another culture’s right to think, to worship, to speak, to exist.

Well, my story just came out. It’s the first day of July, 2015.

Two weeks ago, a young man walked into an historically black church here in my beloved, peaceful Charleston — about two miles from where I sit — and gunned down nine worshipers in an effort to start a race war. In the days since, at least seven black churches have caught fire here in the south, attempting to rip away the right of people to worship. Multiple candidates for president of the United States are pinning immigrants as the enemy du jour. Judging by my Facebook wall, the recent legalization of gay marriage (only too late by forever) has conservative rage at a staggering pitch, with multiple militaristic declarations of a war in the name of creating a conservative religious utopia that isn’t troubled by all these others who think, act, or look differently.

Sadly, tragically, I think the dystopian vision in “At the End of Babel” isn’t so hard to imagine.

But there is hope. Let’s step back in time for just a moment, to the following ad, which Coca-Cola aired during the Super Bowl in 2014:

Do you remember the backlash? The xenophobic anger that someone dared to sing “America the Beautiful” in a language other than English?

I do. I remember telling more than one person that if translation was so evil they ought to read the Bible in Greek and Hebrew.

But of course the point of the righteous anger wasn’t really about language. It was about identity. It was about people feeling that the existence of people not like them was a threat.

Well, folks, it isn’t. And the sooner we realize that being different isn’t always wrong, that being the same isn’t always right, the sooner we can make the dystopia at the heart of “At the End of Babel” an irrational fantasy.

I for one would be happy for it.

And there is this: the Western Keresan language spoken at Acoma and featured in “At the End of Babel” had, as of the 1990 census, 3,391 speakers. You can hear one of them in that commercial, her voice singing amid the waves of the many living, beautiful languages of America.

So watch it. Listen to it. Yes, it’s sappy. Yes, it ultimately is a ploy for you to buy Coke (I don’t own stock).

But it’s also beautiful. It’s also hope.

3 Comments

  1. Dude! It’s about time (and then some) this story got published. Congratulations!

  2. Well said, young man! Here’s hoping we get there in our lifetimes.

  3. Thank you both! I’m so very pleased that this piece is seeing the light of day at last. It’s always been one of my favorites!

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