Excavating Unconquerable Sun: The Horse Is a Spaceship

Transforming history into a fictional universe means the writer begins with a template of known places, people, and events. In previous essays, I’ve some of the questions I’ve been asked about how I adapted the story of Alexander the Great into a gender-spun space opera: Which aspects of the setting are meant to represent real places and historical situations from the past (part 1)? How many of the characters are analogs for the historical actors (part 2)?

What events from Alexander’s history did I keep? And why-oh-why are modern (as well as historical) easter eggs worked into the text, some of which may seem wildly out of context or meme-ishly frivolous?

I constructed a plot built from events in Alexander’s life without trying to create an exact one-for-one imitation, or mirror, of his life. This meant I had to pick and choose specific events to keep in an adapted analog form, events to touch on in a wildly altered form, and events to discard because they did not fit within the space opera setting or the focus of the story I wanted to tell.

One of the most curious and fascinating events of Alexander’s late youth is the infamous wedding banquet in which he and his father, Philip, have a public fight that ends in Philip drunkenly losing his footing as he draws a sword on his son and heir, while Alexander insults his father in front of everyone present. It’s not always possible to know if an historical event from long ago really happened, or really happened “that way,” but the sequence of events at the wedding banquet strikes me as plausible. As a writer, it also struck me as too good to pass up.

The plot of book one was built around a version of a royal wedding banquet enlivened with, and made dangerous by, a very public and angry conflict between a ruler and her heir. The scene is dramatic of itself, introduces several secondary plot threads, and also serves to highlight the tumultuous relationship between Eirene and Sun.

A great deal of discussion has been expended on the nature of the relationship between Philip and Alexander. Philip married seven times for diplomatic and political reasons, in a society where a king could have multiple marriages at the same time, although few married as often as did Philip. Eirene’s four marriages are a modest number in comparison, and the only reason I did not add more is because it would involve too many names that weren’t important to the main story.

However, I did use one of Eirene’s marriages as a world-building tool that incorporates actual events. The Athenians sent an embassy to negotiate with Philip when he was in the process of establishing himself as hegemon over many of the Greek city-states. The ambassadors were the famous orators Demosthenes and Aeschines (who hated each other, by the way). I was able to reinforce the ambivalent relationship between the Chaonians and the Yele League by having one of Eirene’s marriages be to a Yele ambassador as a seal on the Chaonian-enforced treaty between them.

At the time of Philip’s wedding to a much younger woman, niece to one of Philip’s trusted associates, Alexander was on the cusp of adulthood and Philip’s most likely heir. It is possible to read the evidence as suggesting both that Philip understood Alexander’s promise and capacity, and that Philip had a difficult and at times antagonistic relationship with his brilliant son. While certain male academics seem to love to blame Alexander’s mother, Olympias, for anything that went wrong at court, some of the father-son conflict might have been the natural head-butting of two extremely strong and competitive personalities.

My interest in the relationship between Eirene and Sun was to emphasize this idea that Eirene is aware of and glad for but also at times suspicious of Sun’s capacity. While most of Sun’s actions are driven by her habit of attacking problems head on, some of what she does arises out of a desire to “prove herself” to her mother, who is, after all, the final arbiter of matters in the Republic of Chaonia because she is queen-marshal.

Many a story has been written about a young man seeking his father’s approval; this sort of quest is a staple of fiction. I wanted to tell that story, only in this case between a daughter and a mother. It has been curious to me to see a small subset of readers who feel that a young person who seeks their mother’s approval is somehow weak, shallow, not serious, or to be mocked as “YA”, which I am willing to bet would not be the case if it were a father’s approval Sun (or a male character) was seeking. This is another situation where gender-spinning can pull up unexamined assumptions: to some, only small children seek their mother’s approval because a mother’s approval isn’t worth much except to a small child; that is, it isn’t worth much to a grown man if one believes that to become a man you have to out-grow your mother. Interestingly, Alexander’s history suggests he valued political relationships with older women rather than scorning them. It’s almost as if he respected powerful older women more than modern USA culture does.

Any story of Alexander will likely include battles, and mine is no exception.

The opening chapter’s reference to the “Battle of Na Iri” in which Sun has her first (partial) command is meant as an indirect analog to the unit command Alexander was given at the Battle of Charonea. His success there showed he could lead and fight, qualities necessary to a future ruler in a kingdom where any new ruler traditionally had to be acclaimed by the army.

Late in book one, the Battle of Molossia employs indirect elements from the Battle of Granicus although it is not positioned in the plot at the same place as in the history.

Sun moves fast, as Alexander did, and strikes hard, using often unorthodox tactics. Like Alexander, she is able to process a lot of information quickly, and she doesn’t hesitate. The industrial park battle (midway through book one) is meant to showcase her abilities and her leadership just as Alexander’s early exploits did his in his campaigns in Thrace.

As well, the industrial park incident introduces societal elements present in the Republic of Chaonia, a country that has been on a war footing for several generations. I did not want to focus the entire story on the court and its scions but rather to broaden the cultural view to include multiple layers of society as being important. The introduction of the citizens’ academy (CeDCA) through Persephone’s point of view, and a later visit into a refugee camp on a marginally habitable moon allows me to do see “more widely” within the context of the story world.

By introducing a point of view character from the Phene Empire (Apama) and one from the Gatoi banner soldiers (Zizou), the story expands to explore how people from different cultures see each other as well as giving the reader a look into how those cultures see themselves.

There are more historical references than the few events mentioned here (and more coming, obviously). When the entire trilogy is done, I’ll make a list. However, I want to spend the second half of this essay discussing what these days are called “easter eggs,” references to history or pop culture that readers may recognize.

For example, the horse is a spaceship. Alexander famously had a cherished horse named Boukephalas. In the story, Boukephalas is a battle cruiser, one of a new class of faster, better, stronger spaceships all of which are named, by the way, after legendary, literary, or mythological horses.

Which begs the question: why are past and present references not specifically from Alexander’s life intruding on my far future space opera? Is the author just lazy? Trying to be cool? Or is there an actual reason for these choices?

The past intrudes into our lives all the time, sometimes without us knowing.

Most people living in the USA will be familiar with the saying Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. It is generally considered to be the motto of the US Postal service (although it is not an official motto). This phrase comes from Herodotus, writing in the late 5th century B.C.E. about the Achaemenid Persian Empire’s mounted courier service. It feels as modern now as it surely did then, and I wanted to work with this sense that there can be a bridge between past and present.

At the core of my world building for the series lies my decision to link this far future world to our Earth. While I could have concocted a space opera with no ostensible ties to Earth (and many have done this scenario well), I wanted to connect to the idea of resonance. The Alexander story had resonance in our past and has resonance today and because of that creates a bridge between then and now. Many histories were written in the ancient world and are still being written today about Alexander’s campaign and life. In addition, for centuries fictional story cycles were composed about him in multiple languages and cultures, including Greek, Roman, Persian, Arabic and Hebrew, medieval Europe, and as far afield as India, Southeast Asia, and Ethiopia.

To honor this rich tradition, I decided to create a far future science fiction landscape that has a tenuous and fragmented link to the memory of Earth. This memory, in the story, exists as legend and myth. Since Alexander himself understood the reach and weight of legendary heroes and ancient story traditions, it felt right to incorporate the idea of an ancient history remembered more through mythology and religion than known as fact. By linking the story back to a mostly lost history, I was also able to thematically give a nod to our own incomplete understanding of the ancient past. Archaeologists often have to piece together the oldest cultures from pot shards and post holes, which means there is a lot we in the present can never know about the past. In Unconquerable Sun, a passing comment about knights riding dinosaurs gives a sense that the people in this dynamic future think they understand where they came from, while at the same time the reader can see their knowledge is made up of splinters.

The principle of shards informed my use of easter eggs in Unconquerable Sun.

I quote from the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation myth. The Gatoi banners take their wheelship names from Mesopotamian lore. The story references the Analects and Mencius (although maybe that is more obvious in book two). Some imperial Phene spaceships are named after zodiac symbols while others are named after mythological weapons. Star systems were given the names of ancient cities and civilizations by their founders. Persephone uses a pomegranate as her network icon because pomegranate seeds figure prominently in the Greek myth of Persephone and Hades. The Chaonian palace symbol is a sunburst, also known in our history as the Vergina sun or the Argead star, a symbol used by the royal dynasty of the ancient Macedonian kingdom.

The “Celestial Empire” itself is a shard-like reference to the lost home world that is unnamed Earth. The Apsaras Convergence who built the beacon system named themselves after divine messengers in South Asian and Southeast Asian traditions frequently depicted in sculpture, painting, and dance. Tiana got her start in the Campaspe Guild, named for a probably fictional woman who was said (by Aelian) to be Alexander’s first female lover; in Early Modern English literature the name “Campaspe” references a man’s mistress. The seers of Iros “who see heat and lies” are not a specific analog but an indirect reference to the importance in the ancient world of religious cult and oracle figures like the pythia of Delphi and the temple of Dodona (a name also used in the story).

Some of the references are pure whimsy.

I haven’t explained where the individual “battle names” of the Gatoi banner soldiers come from, and probably I never will although I think it will become obvious to many in subsequent volumes. It’s a choice I made just because I wanted to.

The Wheelhouse sequence is my riff on the opening credits sequence of The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night movie (1964) because why wouldn’t you, if you could?

Other references combine whimsy with a specific purpose.

Phene officers drink barako, a coffee varietal that in our world is grown in the Philippines. At the wedding banquet of Eirene and Manea, the featured song is “The Moon Represents My Heart” (月亮代表我的心) made famous by Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng in the 1970s who, by the way, has an historically important cultural role as an influential foreign singer whose songs became popular in mainland China as it first opened up to outside music (and other influences). These are two examples among many other details which are part of my larger goal to suggest that these far future cultures descend from a global ancestry and multiple cultural backgrounds.

The saints in the Phene basilica reflect how people might come to misunderstand a symbolism of vivid imagery (taken from gaming) that became detached from its original context. The architectural tradition of cathedrals and the idea of saints to whom an individual can devote themselves and pray for aid and guidance survives, and on top of this structural base a new folk religion develops through a process called syncretism (other syncretic religious traditions include, for example, Santería in the Americas and the incorporation of older Celtic and Germanic deities into the saints pantheon of early Christianity in Europe).

Channel Idol may seem like a fun (or irritating) pop meme for people who watch American Idol or follow K-pop stars but it reflects Alexander’s own use of poets, artists, and historians to create his image both for the army marching with him and as stories and accounts sent back home. I got the idea for Channel Idol after seeing K-pop group Big Bang in concert. An idol industry could blend perfectly with large scale media propaganda in a militaristic state. Chaonia uses a combination news and entertainment channel created and run by the government to build and sustain unity among a people involved in a long-term military struggle. Narrative is serious business, and since both Philip and Alexander understood it as such, so do Eirene and Sun.

It is that sense of narrative awareness that I wanted to create, and replicate, in my adaptation. Unconquerable Sun is, indeed, gender spun Alexander the Great in space. It is also its own story with its own anabasis, an expedition that begins at the visible shore of our history and marches into territory unique to its own interior history. In the end that is the point of transforming history into a fictional universe: To create a story in which we hear familiar echoes even as we walk into undiscovered country.

Kate Elliott’s most recent novel is Unconquerable Sun, gender swapped Alexander the Great in space. She is also known for her Crown of Stars epic fantasy series, the Afro-Celtic post-Roman alt-history fantasy (with lawyer dinosaurs) Cold Magic and sequels, the science fiction Novels of the Jaran and YA fantasy Court of Fives, and the epic fantasy Crossroads trilogy with giant justice eagles. You can find her @KateElliottSFF on Twitter.

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