“Two incandescent novels of journey and battle across the stars set in David Drake’s best-selling Hammer’s Slammers universe together for the first time in one mega-volume.” –Amazon Book Description.
STARTING A LONG WAY FROM HERE
This volume collects Cross the Stars and The Voyage, two cases where I recast an Ancient Greek epic as an SF adventure novel (a space opera). My undergraduate (double) majors were History and Latin, so that may seem an obvious thing for me to try; in fact it wasn’t. (I’ve missed seeing a lot of things that seem obvious after the fact.)
In 1980, I quit lawyering and was driving a bus for the Town of Chapel Hill. While sitting in the bus garage between runs, I wrote a letter to a friend in which I commented that the Odyssey could be rewritten as a Western, though of course I didn’t write Westerns. As the words came off my pen, it struck me that I did write SF; what was true for a horse opera would probably work for a space opera as well.
Nothing happened for a few months. Then Jim Baen called and offered me a two-book contract: a big book for $10K and a little book for $7,500. I said “Yes!” immediately. (I’ve done a lot of dumb things, but I was never dumb enough to turn that down. I made $6,100 during my year of bus driving).
Then, because at the time both Jim and I thought that we ought to know what the books would be about, I said the big book would be what became Birds of Prey (my working title was The Warm Summer Rain; note what I said above about doing a lot of dumb things) and the little book would be a rewrite of the Odyssey. That was off the top of my head, but it seemed like a good idea on reflection also. (Almost immediately thereafter I became a full-time writer, though the decision didn’t have as direct a connection as it may seem to.)
I wrote Birds of Prey first (I had been trying to write it for more than a decade). Then I reread the Odyssey (for the umpteenth time, of course), making a précis of everything that happened in it.
Until I made the précis, I didn’t have a real understanding of the way the Odyssey is paced and connected. Almost all the incidents which people (myself included until then) think of as being the Odyssey occur in one book: after dinner on the island of Scheria, Odysseus recounts to his hosts the things he claims have happened to him since he left Troy. Homer doesn’t tell the reader about the Cyclops: that’s a story which Odysseus tells to King Alcinous and his other guests.
I mentioned this development to Jim in one of our regular phone calls. “But you don’t have to do it that way,” he said.
Which took me aback. Of course I had to do it that way! It’s that way in the original.
Then I actually thought about the situation instead of just reacting. I wasn’t going to be graded on my understanding of the Odyssey; my present job was to tell a good story in English. That meant the form of the story had to be translated, as surely as the language in which I told it.
This was a typical case in which I benefited from being Jim Baen’s friend (because we were chatting as friends, not as editor and writer). There were many similar instances on both sides. Over the years, Jim and I saved one another from ourselves as a regular thing.
I already understood that I would have to adapt the incidents of the Odyssey functionally, not simply copy them. A one-eyed giant is a credible threat to an Iron Age chieftain, but such a creature doesn’t read the same in relation to the commander of a high-tech combat unit.
Finally, I had to allow for technological as well as cultural differences. Odysseus caps his victory by slowly strangling–the process is described in some detail–the female servants who have been sleeping with Penelope’s suitors.
This is only one example (although a pretty striking one) of normal behavior in an Iron Age culture which is unacceptable in a society that I (or anybody I want as a reader) would choose to live in. I might’ve been stupid enough to follow the structure of an ancient epic in a modern space opera, but I wasn’t going to describe a hero with the worldview of a death camp guard.
Adapting the Odyssey was the second most important lesson I got writing. (The most important was learning that I needed to outline.)
Since Cross the Stars I use the same process on all material, historical as well as fiction. First I consider the requirements of my medium; space opera, military SF, and fantasy all start from different assumptions. Then I look at the functional effect of every element of the original.
Only when I’ve completed those basics do I begin to plot my novel. Paying the Piper is Military SF based in Hellenistic history; The Voyage (included in this volume), is space opera based on the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes. I developed both of them and many other stories by using the technique I learned by writing Cross the Stars.
There’s one other thing to mention: I don’t forget the original while I’m writing. In Cross the Stars you’ll find hints of Homer’s words as well as his story. I’ll never be the writer Homer was (nobody else will either, but that’s another matter), but I’m better for having read him than I would have been without his example.
Voyage Across the Stars. Hammer’s Slammers Series. Riverdale, NY: Baen. 612 p. 978-1451637717. $13.00.