Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Looking at “The Spires,” Part 1

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Note: Over the next three days, I’ll be discussing the origins of my novelette “The Spires,” the lead story for the March/April 2018 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. You can purchase a copy and read a long excerpt of it here.  

On December 1, 2015, give or take a few days, I was browsing in my local thrift store when I came across a copy of the book Alaska Bush Pilots in the Float Country by Archie Satterfield. As I’ve noted elsewhere, it struck me at once that the subject matter would make a decent foundation for a short story—the time and place were evocative, the material was available but obscure, and the pilots that it described were the epitome of the competent men that so much science fiction uncritically celebrates. (I’ve become more skeptical of the whole idea, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t use it in the service of a larger narrative.) After some dithering, I bought the book, even though I knew that I wouldn’t be able to use it right away. As it turned out, it sat on my shelf for close to a year before I picked it up again, and as it turned out, that delay profoundly affected the result. A story is the product of whatever constellation of influences and interests happens to be in a writer’s head at a particular moment, and the version that emerges on a given day might differ considerably from the one that crystallizes a few months later, even if the starting point was exactly the same. In my case, between buying the book and writing the story, not only had I begun the research for Astounding, but I’d spent months doing nothing else but reading science fiction from the golden age. In a few weeks, I would take the plunge into the first draft. And it seemed to me that if I was going to write a story in the meantime, I might as well turn it into an homage to the authors and stories I’d been reading.

First, however, I had to decide what it was about. As I had expected, Alaska Bush Pilots furnished me with an abundance of good material, and I ended up focusing on the chapter about a pilot named Frank Barr who was active in the early thirties. In late 1932, he was stranded for a month at Wolfe Lake, about fifty miles north of Anchorage, when high winds overturned his plane on the ice. Here’s how Satterfield describes the scene:

A steel cabane strut holding the upper wing to the fuselage was buckled. The plastic windshield was broken. Several ribs in the wings were broken and flattened. The fabric covering was ripped in several places. The top of the rudder was smashed. Worst of all, the propeller had about six inches broken off one tip…He started on the wing. He flattened a gas can and nailed one edge to the top of the wing spar, then curled it over the leading edge and fastened it to the bottom of the spar. He patched the broken windshield by drilling holes along both sides of the break and lacing them together. He straightened out the cabane strut and dug an axe handle out of his supplies and lashed it to the strut as a splint…There was no prop-balancing machine nearer than Juneau, over the mountains in Alaska. So he did the next best thing. He made a paper pattern of the broken tip, which gave him an idea of where to begin cutting off the good tip. He smoothed down the rough edges of the broken tip and hoped he was at least close on his estimate.

This was obviously great stuff, and I used a lot of it, along with biographical information about another pilot named Shell Simmons, who provided much of the backstory for the character I eventually called Bill Lawson.

At this point, I knew that I was writing a story about a bush pilot who gets lost in the middle of nowhere, but I didn’t know what he was doing there. Under most circumstances, I would have turned to see what my favorite science magazines had to say about Alaska, but this time, I decided to take a different approach. I had always been vaguely aware of the work of the paranormal researcher Charles Fort, but I had recently been reminded of him by such stories as Heinlein’s “Goldfish Bowl” and, above all, Eric Frank Russell’s Sinister Barrier, which I’d feel comfortable ranking these days as my favorite science fiction novel of all time. Instead of Discover or Scientific American, then, I did a quick search for Alaska in the online edition of Fort’s complete works. There weren’t as many references to it as I had expected, but I did come up with a section from Fort’s book New Lands that eventually became the epigraph to “The Spires”:

In the English Mechanic, Sept. 10, 1897, a correspondent to the Weekly Times and Echo is quoted. He had just returned from the Yukon. Early in June, 1897, he had seen a city pictured in the sky of Alaska. “Not one of us could form the remotest idea in what part of the world this settlement could be. Some guessed Toronto, others Montreal, and one of us even suggested Peking. But whether this city exists in some unknown world on the other side of the North Pole, or not, it is a fact that this wonderful mirage occurs from time to time yearly, and we were not the only ones who witnessed the spectacle. Therefore it is evident that it must be the reflection of some place built by the hand of man.” According to this correspondent, the “mirage” did not look like one of the cities named, but like “some immense city of the past.”

Fort relates that the silent city was first described by a prospector named Dick Willoughby, who, after repeated attempts, actually succeeded in taking a picture of it. After quoting an earlier account of the story by the author Miner Bruce, Fort notes dryly: “Bruce publishes a reproduction of Willoughby’s photograph, and says that the city was identified as Bristol, England. So definite, or so un-mirage-like, is this reproduction, trees and many buildings shown in detail, that one supposes that the original was a photograph of a good-sized terrestrial city, perhaps Bristol, England.” As I looked at the picture itself, which I managed to track down online, it seemed to me that I had a decent beginning, and I began to research possible causes. There were plenty of rational explanations for what Willoughby claimed to have glimpsed, but they weren’t particularly interesting. The fact that so many otherwise reliable observers had described the apparition as a city was enough for me to argue—at least within the context of a story—that it was something other than a mirage, and the fact that it had been compared variously to Bristol, Toronto, Montreal, Peking and “some immense city of the past” suggested that it was really like none of the above. (I was influenced by the famous red herring in Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in which a voice is reported by different witnesses to be that of a German, an Englishman, or a Russian. It’s actually an orangutan.) At some point, I came up with the idea that the city in the sky was the image, cast backward in time, of some future structure or scientific project based in Alaska, which the witnesses were unable to identify because they had never seen anything like it. All that remained was to figure out what the source of this mirage might be. It didn’t take me long to come up with an answer—and when I did, I really, really didn’t like it. But as I’ll explain tomorrow, I ended up using it anyway.

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