The Golden City: Part III
My account of the history of this story and why I took so long to complete it.
Issue #23: Sunday 26 March 2023
About The Story
I guess I came up the the basic idea of the story in late 1976: a Golden Tower, a place reserved for the rich while the poor had to huddle at its base.
It wasn’t all that long before I realised that I was trying unconsciously to recast the fairytale of Jack and the Beanstalk and put it in a science-fictional setting. Once I realised that, I decided to go deliberately in that direction, and so Jack came about. After quite some time, I started wondering about how the rich folk in the tower kept the peasants away, and I came up with the idea of the gravity fence. And with that came the character of Sam, a curious old man who had long been trying to find a way through (though without a handful of magic beans).
I wrote the story up to the point where I got Jack into the tower (leaving Sam behind on the other side of the Fence). But then I started floundering. What would Jack find there? What would he do? Would there be a giant in the top of the tower, bellowing “Fee Fi Fo Fum”? Well, no, that would be a far too literal interpretation of the fairytale. I tried a number of alternatives but eventually flubbed it and just had Jack find a mysteriously empty tower, an ironic take on the jealousy of the people who lived at its base.
It was in this shape that I sent it off in mid 1977 to Ursula Le Guin as a submission to an anthology she was putting together with Virginia Kidd.
Now a bit of background: I had the most incredible good fortune to have attended a Writers Workshop led by Ursula in 1975, while she was in Australia as the Guest of Honour at Aussiecon, the World Science Fiction Convention held in Melbourne. The week of that workshop remains one of the real highlights of my life. Ursula was a wonderful teacher. I was also responsible for corresponding a fair bit with Ursula about The Altered Eye, a book about that workshop and featuring a number of stories written there, as well as accounts of the experience from participants.
I give you all this background so that you’ll understand that I already had something of a personal connection with Ursula when I sent off my story. This is the letter she sent back:
This, obviously, is the best rejection letter anyone could ask for (that “You sure can write” still makes me glow), and this is how I replied:
So I salted the story away. For years. I got married, acquired a mortgage, had a child, pursued a career which wasn’t writing fiction. I wasn’t until 2011 that I started to pick up the threads of writing. And one of the things I did was look back at the stack of unpublished stories in manuscript which I’d kept through the years. This was one of them.
With fresh eyes, I realised that the key to getting the story to go somewhere was to have old Sam come along with Jack into the tower, to be a foil for Jack’s thoughts and explorations, and ultimately to be the reason Jack understands what had happened to the inhabitants of the tower.
In this form, the story was eventually published in Novapulp Magazine in 2015. Some 38 or 39 years after the first draft! It’s certainly still not a perfect story, and I’m still pondering Ursula’s suggestion that maybe it’s the start of something, rather than a stand-alone. There’s a lot of merit in that.
So there you go.
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See you next issue!