The Apocalypse Will Be Serialized—and Fun!
It is a very unusual thing to publish an epic poem of any kind in the twenty-first century—especially an epic that is specifically science fiction. This wasn’t always the case. Poetry used to be the central literary art. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the novel and short story may have been on the rise, but poetry reigned as the top form. Lord Byron was a rock star. Longfellow was proof that America had given birth to a national culture.
Storytelling is basic to human nature, and in antiquity, the epic poem was the long form, the novel. There was a reason. Most people weren’t literate and they had to get their story on by listening to someone tell one. Memorizing a long tale is no easy task, especially if your audience is paying you and expecting you to deliver something better than amateur yammer. Memorizing a novel-length epic or two (or ten) is a rather immense undertaking, and without regular rhythm and repeating forms such as rhyme, traditional imagery, kennings and identifying epithets (Zeus does a whole lot of cloud gathering in the Iliad, for instance, and quite a few bone-houses get fatally rattled in Beowulf), probably not possible at all for your average working bard.
Today we read. Well, you and I do, not everyone. So why write an epic poem in iambic pentameter?
Because (i.) it’s cool. And (ii.) there is something about the resonance, the compression, the nicely turned image—the poetry—that entertains and delights even an experienced modern reader. Poetic phrases, ways of expressing something, in an epic poem will get stuck in your head in a manner similar to a song. In fact, exactly as a song will, because that’s what it is. You remember a poem in a different way than you remember a novel. Scenes and characters might pop up when you are thinking about a book you loved. The same thing can happen with an epic, but usually these are accompanied by the way the thing got said.
An epic poem is a novel crossed with a song.
A science fiction epic poem has at its command that great property of science fiction, evoking a sense of wonder in a reader. Science fiction delivers the intellectual and emotional charge of telling stories about what might happen and what people might do about it. It’s just fun to read about stuff like that.
Fred Turner’s epic poem Apocalypse is all those things: cool, as memorable as your favorite song in many spots, and, most of all, entertaining. Fun.
Phillip Theophrastus Gribbleflotz was born on a Saturday afternoon in the upstairs board room of Mannington Main Street, the Mannington West Virginia chamber of commerce during the first 1632 minicon. Ultimately, he’s Virginia DeMarce’s fault.
We were sitting around after lunch, waiting for our afternoon guest, the mayor of Mannington, and discussing the social effects of being transported to the seventeenth century on the residents of Grantville. Virginia looked around and spoke in her mild, inoffensive voice. She had a lilt that I came to recognize over the years as provocative, but at the time sounded as though she was just speaking off the cuff, spontaneously.
“You know, these southern women are going to be most upset when their supply of baking powder runs out. How are they to make biscuits?”
Then, she looked me squarely in the eye and said, “Surely there’s a way to make baking powder in Grantville.” and paused. . . .
I floundered, and began coming up with excuses . . . Other chemistry is more urgent. There is a restricted number of chemists. We can’t do everything at once. We’ve already agreed we can’t make primers, how could we divert resources to baking powder?
Virginia replied in that same lilt, “Surely there’s a down-timer you could give the recipe to?”
A few minutes later, Herr Doctor Phillip Theophrastus Gribbleflotz took up residence in the back of my mind. Kerryn Offord summarizes our working relationship as “Dr. Gribbleflotz is yours, Dr. Phil is mine.” Since that Saturday afternoon, Dr. Gribbleflotz has been a co-resident of my mind, occasionally invoked and wakened from slumber by a poke, an idea, a question, usually from Virginia but with occasional participation by Paula Goodlett and David Carrico and Laura Runkle. The first character description of Herr Doctor Gribbleflotz (HDG) had something of his background and character and an outline of the “Cheat Sheet” that he was supplied with to make the first supply of baking soda for the ladies of Grantville. Not long after, Kerryn Offord took that outline and produced the first story: “Calling Dr. Phil” that detailed the problem, the search and the finding of the technician. That set the pattern. Someone would call HDG out of the dungeon I had locked him in. I would channel him long enough to create the technical background for the story, the problems, the solution and the issues and Kerryn would take that and wrap dialog, plot and humanity around my cardboard. The new book 1636: The Chronicles of Dr. Gribbleflotz continues that tradition with about 65 percent new material.
Each of the stories turns on a scientific detail and frequently on a pseudo-scientific detail. Because the rule of storytelling is that the story comes first, the science behind the story is generally glossed over. For those of you who are interested, this article will fill you in on the science behind some of the stories and some of our decisions about what could, and could not be used.