NaNoFeed: a different kind of Trip (and an excerpt)

This year’s NaNo novel is a challenge, with a lot of reading left undone at the time I began. Increasingly, I’m realizing that this one is less a draft novel than a first sketch. Every novel is a Trip, in the ultimate sense: the opportunity to live in another skin for a while.

This year I get to be Cleopatra. The novel is pretty definitely single-viewpoint, and my original proposal was this: how might steam technology, specifically the steam-powered warship, develop from a completely different cultural and philosophical tradition? All sorts of reading is coming into play here, including long-ago reading of Plato’s Timaeus, whose interlocutor gave me the name of Cleopatra’s tutor and mentor, who (I decided, the facts being lost to history) is an astronomer and student of Sosigenes (hence the direct connection to the Julian calendar).

I’m aware of sailing straight into the voids in the historical record.

Many years ago now, I attended a talk by the great contemporary novelist A. S. Byatt, who spoke on writing historical fiction. Use fictional people as your viewpoint characters, she advised, because historical personages impose horrifying constraints. Given that I was then working on the stage adaptation of a military memoir, and doing enough research on the side to have crowned my labors with a doctorate, I was inclined to agree.

Now I’m flouting that wise advice, and writing an alternate-historical Cleopatra who nonetheless hews as closely to the historical facts (up to a point) as my knowledge of the era will permit. What turns this novel into a Trip is precisely the alien cultural framework: here is someone who is matter-of-fact about being the incarnation of Isis, yet acts flexibly, prudently, and with a clear-eyed adaptability that speaks of sharp observation and the ability to learn from her mistakes. What throws this into high relief is writing her alongside Julius Caesar, who’s known not only for military and political acumen but for a keen interest in applied-scientific questions such as the improvement of the calendar and the source of the Nile River (a question not answered, point-of-view those in Egypt, or for that matter in the larger Mediterranean Basin, for another 1800 years).

A bit of improvised characterization here, in a retrospective to 11-year-old Cleopatra with her tutor:

 As the household gods were to the hearth, so she was to the Nile and its valley, to the Delta and Alexandria.

And to add to that, into which she had been born, there had been the apprenticeship in power, in which she knew herself capable. Four years under the watchful eye of father and tutor, and the careful questionings after. The presents her father had given Timaeus—well, those alone revealed his estimate of her education. The tutor had done well by his pupil.

Four years, from the moment when she took over the duties of the ceremonial consort and learned to wear the elaborate regalia. She had not screwed up her eyes when her attendants painted them with kohl; she had not wriggled—as her brother did now—when the heavy wig was settled on her head, and over it the elaborate crown. He was looking down at his jeweled sandals, tugging at the sash of his ceremonial kilt—

—Which his attendant carefully rearranged for him. Yes, that was an onerous task, to attend on a pettish child who would have absolute power. She appreciated the difficulties of that position, because Timaeus had explained them long before she was appointed as consort.

Roundabout, of course. He told her the story of Socrates, then asked, “Would you poison the messenger, my lady?”

She frowned. “News is news,” she said, with an eleven-year-old’s insouciance.

“Ah, but you’ve not yet had news that flew in the face of your hopes.”

She frowned. “Yes, I have.” He raised an eyebrow.

“When you explained the succession to me. That I must marry my brother, that I cannot rule alone.”

“Neither can your brother.”

“Ah, but you showed me the drawings of the queens in the Nile temples. The queen always walks behind the king.”

“With some notable exceptions.”

“I will be such an exception.” She smiled at him. “And to recall your question, no. I didn’t order you killed for telling me the bad news.”

“Very well, my lady. May you always maintain such equanimity.”

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