Sunday, February 8, 2015

THE SEA IS OURS roundtable: Timothy Dimacali #SteampunkHands

When I first read Timothy Dimacali's story, I said to my co-editor, "Joyce, this thing has got flying whales." I didn't yet link him to the story I had read and adored in Alternative Alamat, "Keeper of My Sky," a retelling of a love story between an earth goddess and a god who holds up the sky. "Flying whales, Joyce," I insisted, to which Joyce replied, "flying whales!" It immediately made me think of the Fantasia 2000 segment, "Pines of Rome." As it turns out, butanding aren't whales, but very large catfish generally. Which I am also all for!

Give a one or two sentence summary of your story.

In a world where the power of flight can be had for a song, freedom has its price. 

Why did you choose this particular theme?

I've always been fascinated by flight, particularly the "fly-by-wire" open cockpit kind experienced by the Wright brothers and the early aviators of World War 1. I like that pilots of that era had a direct, tactile connection with their flying machines.

I also happen to be a violinist by avocation, and I love the tactile feel of the instrument under my fingers. There's also something to be said for the feeling of being in an orchestra: there's a heightened sense of awareness and camaraderie that comes with it that you can't get anywhere else. You're required to have a certain level of discipline as well as implicit trust in your comrades, and it sometimes struck me how reminiscent this is of a military institution.

And so I dreamed up a world where musicians weren't just for entertainment but were so essential to society that an entire global economy was built around them that would collapse without them.

Did you do a lot of research for this story? If you did, found anything interesting?

A whole lot! I looked into everything from science to history textbooks. For example, the flying butandings central to the story are a fictional species of catfish, indicated by the scientific name I gave them: Clarias volantis. This suggests that these catfish are related to Clarias batrachus, a species of catfish common to Southeast Asia. ("Volantis" comes from "volare", the Latin word for flight). 

In the Philippines, "butanding" is actually the common name of the whale shark (Rhincodon typus), which is completely unrelated to catfish. I had originally imagined my universe's butandings to be whale sharks, but I realized that the evolutionary history of catfish made more sense for the latter to be a better candidate for the flying creature.

Clarias volantis' distant catfish ancestors were likely also mud dwellers that would invariably have ingested high amounts of gravidium (the fictional element that enables flight, more on that later) on a regular basis. This would have enabled them to eventually evolve into flying creatures, and the natural lack of predators would have allowed them to grow to immense sizes.

I imagine that my own ancestors would have been more awed by these giant flying catfish to call them "butanding" over the relatively smaller, water-bound whale shark.

Tell us a bit about where you've set your story.

My story is set in an alternate-history Philippines that is the location of the single largest natural deposit of gravidium, an element that converts sound waves into repulsor or anti-gravity waves. It's a discovery that makes the Philippines the crown jewel of the Spanish empire, which realized that gravidium was worth far more than its gold interests in South America.

This is a world where heavier-than-air flight became practical and widespread as early as the 1700's, and where musicians are the backbone of society and the economy. In this world, the Wright brothers were johnnies-come-lately, their invention of the airplane seen as a mere curiosity by the rest of the world and only heralded as a breakthrough by the Americans because it meant a way out of the US' dependency on Spanish musician-navigators.

What was the hardest part about writing this story?

The hardest thing was deciding on whether I should make it an "alternate history" or an altogether different "alternate reality". I had inadvertently stumbled onto a potentially rich storytelling tapestry, and the setting would've affected way I chose to include certain narrative elements into the story. But it was really very important for me that the story resonate with "our" real-world history, so I chose the former course.

Thank you, Timothy! Timothy will be tweeting from @tjdimacali on February 15!

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