I began writing Miasma in November 2014 (for NaNoWriMo of course), and as you would expect when throwing 50,000 words together in one month, it was a chaotic and unstructured process, ideas being poured into the bowl like ingredients for cake mix more than components for a carefully-constructed machine.
I somehow told the story I wanted to tell, but then I had to step back and get it into publishable shape. Now Miasma is out on Kobo, and I'm no longer fiddling with it, I've got time to step back even further and try to see where that story I wanted to tell came from.
So, I'm going to write a few posts on some of the random inspirations that fed into the book, and maybe even understand why they fitted, although this is purely in hindsight, because if there was any reason to it at the time, it was subconscious.
The first is the great Persian mathematician and poet, Omar Khayyam.
I won't duplicate the Wikipedia page, you can investigate that yourself.
Firstly, I'm not completely sure why I thought incorporating 11th century Persian poetry into a science fiction story would be a good idea. Initially, the librarian Emi needed a hobby, and it had to be something to do with books, so I thought it would be interesting for her to be translating something. It didn't even need to be relevant to the plot of the story.
But everything in a story has to serve character development, plot or theme somehow. Hitting randomly on the idea of having Emi translate one of Khayyam's rubaiyat, it seemed that paraphrasing one four-line poem wouldn't be so much work.
Hunt for a verse
Because the people on Miasma are so tame, I wanted something apparently innocuous originating on old Earth that could be seen as a little frightening and dark from Emi and Lanton's point of view, and hint at their artificial, sheltered condition. So I dug around and found this (Fitzgerald translation, of course):
And those who husbanded the Golden Grain,And those who flung it to the Winds like Rain,
Alike to no such aureate Earth are turn'd
As, buried once, Men want dug up again.
Great, I thought. Fatalism, reference to death, hint at concealment. Now, how might Emi translate that (or slightly mistranslate it, to better serve the theme) if working from the original verse, since no translated copies made it onto Miasma?
I came up with something (this is still the version on writeon.amazon.com):
Those who saved up their rice
And those who threw it all about
Both are turned to dirt the same:
Humans are buried and must be dug out.
Utter fucking doggerel, but anyway, fine for the purpose. Then, just to double check, I looked for any literal non-Fitzgerald translation to compare it with–and that verse doesn't actually exist. It looks like Fitzgerald used a lot of poetic license cobbling that one together, and there isn't an original rubai with the same sense and content. Therefore Emi couldn't have accidentally arrived at her translation by the same non-literal route. Apart from it being improbable anyway, Emi in particular is not a very non-literal-minded person!
So, the hunt was on for a better verse, and if it had to strengthen the theme of the book, I had to decide what that theme actually was.
Hunt for a theme
Then here, I found another verse:
Those who went in pursuit of knowledge
Soared up so high, stretched the edge
Were still encaged by the same dark hedge
Brought us some tales ere life to death pledge.
Nice, again with the death theme, also hints at how the Miasma colony are trapped under their gloomy sky with very incomplete knowledge of where they are or why they are in that situation. It's maybe even quite a literal translation, and there's the original right there beside it, in Persian.
But I can't read Persian, so is there a really literal translation out there? Even one in a language Google translate can help me with?
Yeah, I found one in Tajik. Helpful.
Онон, ки муҳити фазлу одоб шуданд,Or in other words (same site, English translation):
Аз ҷами камол шамъи асҳоб шуданд.
(Дар кашфи улум шамъи асҳоб шуданд.)
Раҳ з-ин шаби торик набурданд бурун,
Гуфтанд фасонаеву дар хоб шуданд.
Those who have become oceans of excellence and cultivation,And from the collection of their perfections have become lights of their fellows,Have not made a road out of this dark night,They have told a fable and have gone to sleep.Which I have Emi render as:
Even those who were fully civilised,
and made themselves into a guiding light,
have not found a way out of the night.
They told a tale and closed again their eyes.
It does some violence to the rhyme scheme, but is a plausible translation. It's still dark and death-related, but doesn't serve the theme as well. There are multiple themes though, and I can reinforce with other verses. I looked for more.
Another use for Khayyam
I was looking to give Emi more agency, but she doesn't make an appearance in part three of the book. To give her some input into the story, I thought she should send a message to the other characters, possibly with the intention of hinting how she was feeling to Lanton.
From the same page on iranchamber.com as before, I found this:
Heaven is incomplete without a heavenly romanceTo show Emi's increased determination, capability, and intellect, I had her shape this into a Tanka, and adjust its meaning a little to drive home her point.
Let a glass of wine be my present circumstance
Take what is here now, let go of a promised chance
A drumbeat is best heard from a distance.
Heaven is lacking(They are sending messages over Miasma's drum network, so that was almost too good to miss.)
heavenly love to complete
I take what is here;
Promised chances I let go.
A drum sounds best from afar.
So that verse added a little to character development and plot.
Theme at last
I close the book with a Fitzgerald translation of one of the best known verses, and when I realised that it was an almost perfect expression of the whole point of the story, I realised that while I had been playing around paraphrasing translations of Omar Khayyam and inserting them into science fiction, the guy had said what I wanted to say in 4 lines, 900 years ago.
Not included here, because spoilers. Buy the book.