Sweeter than Lead

Ladies and gentlemen and everyone! Buckle up, and close your eyes, because my short story Sweeter than Lead has gone live in audio form on PodCastle, the original fantasy fiction podcast! (Text version now available also.)

Sweeter than Lead is a dark fantasy about succession, addiction, and malevolent prophecies. With worldbuilding so thick it will go back in time and drown you as a child.

Plenty of story notes on this one; worldbuilding this dense comes with extra layers, sources of inspiration, and so forth. Spoilers abound, of course, so stop right here until you’ve read or heard the story…

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As I told the fine folks at PodCastle:

This was my attempt to write a “Neo-Lovecraftian” story: one with that classic sense of cosmic dread in the face of a hostile universe, without the underpinnings of racism and xenophobia. I also wanted to explore the mechanics of precognition in fantasy. What does it mean to see a “possible future?” Who chooses which futures are foreseen, and which are not; which are fixed, and which are escapable?

Graeme’s afterword is perfect: on the surface level, Yeva seems to have won, but there are a lot of lurking alternatives1. Moreover, his thoughts on the world and mood are even more spot-on than he realized. I originally wrote this story for a flash fiction contest on the Codex writers’ group, almost exactly a year ago this week. One of the prompts was, “A character lives in a society where expressing even minor civil disobedience can be very risky. Write about a decision they (or someone around them) has to make as a result of this state.” I thought I’d subvert that by making the police state a genuine necessity, a protection against a Lovecraftian existential threat.

Yes, that means Sweeter than Lead started out as a 1,000-word flash fiction piece. The plot and world were already fully present, even at ~1/3 its current wordcount. If you think the worldbuilding is dense now, you should see that original version!

This story marked the moment when I realized worldbuilding was my Innate Talent as a writer. Because not only did I put this world together in 3 days, I also came up with a stack of additional ideas that never fit into the story. For example:

  • Trained timeline-resistant adventurers who go into the City to extract physical samples of the City, which the Imperial Alchemists distill into luck-magic.
  • The visions are always strife and doom, but not always your strife and doom, so sometimes you want to ensure the visions instead of avoiding them. But sometimes it’s hard to be sure, let alone figure out the implications, so (as a practice) Seers never explain a vision even if they want to achieve it.
  • The Empire was built on this prophecy-power. When the first explorer came upon this uninhabited island with huge basalt walls, there was no Empire yet. With luck (and/or the Masters’ manipulation), the founders safely extracted the first prophecies, and used them to forge the Empire.
  • Therefore, one of the reasons the Empire is a morally-dubious military expansionist system is because it’s influenced by the bloody prophecies of the City and its Masters.
  • The Seers are female not because of any magical necessity, but as a political reaction to the male-only Imperial Alchemists.

Finally, one last inspiration for this story: for many years2, I played a series of fantasy roleplaying games in the Aralis universe. One feature of the setting was Seers who could not tell anyone their visions lest those visions become true – and because Aralis was a rather squalid world, any given future was likely to be ugly. This created some great social dynamics around the seers, but also made me wonder how and why things might work this way. I never got involved in Seer storylines, so I have no idea what the Aralis answer was, but Sweeter than Lead is surely a reaction to this idea, seven years after I last played one of those games. Scientist that I am, I wondered: what sort of mechanism would produce this situation, of only the most awful futures, foreseen yet escapable, where giving them voice would turn could into shall?

Now you have my answer…

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  1. Just where exactly are her toes in that last paragraph?
  2. 1999-2009, ish

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