Excavating Unconquerable Sun: The History Is Already Queer

Transforming history into a fictional universe means the writer begins with a template of known places, people, and events. The three part essay “Excavating Unconquerable Sun” answers some of the questions I’ve been asked about how I adapted the story of Alexander the Great into a gender-spun space opera.

Last time I discussed the places and events that represent real places and events from the past. Today I’ll be getting into the characters and their historical analogs.

Most stories succeed or fail on the strength of their characters. A successful adaptation therefore also builds on the people involved in the story’s world. This meant that in addition to the setting (part 1 of this series), I had to decide which human relationships mattered most in making Alexander who he was.

The three central figures I chose are his father, Philip, his mother, Olympias, and the person who is arguably the individual he trusted beyond all others, his intimate friend and chief marshal, Hephaestion.

These three plus Alexander feature as direct analogs in the story.

Sun is the Alexander analog. The name Sun is a reference to the Unconquerable Sun, Sol Invictus, an epithet used for multiple solar deities in the ancient world. Alexander the Great is said to have never lost a battle he personally commanded, which I believe is technically true although he did have setbacks, some detachments of his army lost a few skirmishes, and the debacle at Maracanda owed to a failure on his part to clarify the chain of command (he was not present at that battle).

Eirene is the Philip analog. Philip II was a fascinating, brilliant, complicated, and ruthless man who built the army Alexander used so effectively. I wanted to do Philip justice. He was the youngest of three brothers. His elder brothers ruled before him and both died after only a few years as king (one assassinated, one in a disastrous battle). I could do an entire blog post about different forms of monarchical rule across eras and regions. In this case, the choice to pass the kingship along a line of adult brothers instead of to a child heir comes about in part because of the need for a king who can lead the military in person from the front line.

There is marginal evidence that these three Macedonian royal brothers had a sister, so in my adaptation there are three brothers and then a youngest who is a girl (Eirene), who eventually inherits after her older brothers all die (not a spoiler; it all happens long before the story starts). As mentioned in the first post of this series, gender is immaterial in terms of rulership in the far-future culture of the story.

I chose the name Eirene because it means peace, and I liked the contrast the name creates with Eirene’s not-at-all pacific temperament and her martial accomplishments. The name also matches a fashion within Chaonia’s ruling house of naming female children after deities (Inanna, Metis, Sun) while male children are named after figures from the ancient history of the Celestial Empire (Yǔ, Nézhā. Jiàn).

Prince João is the analog for Olympias, Alexander’s mother. Like Olympias, he is not local but a foreigner (Olympias was from Epirus, not Macedon). In João’s case his foreignness is more pronounced, an aspect of his identity that I use as part of the plot. Like the historical Olympias, João is strong minded and has a difficult, tumultuous relationship with his spouse. He is also one of Eirene’s multiple marriage partners, who reflect diplomatic and political alliances. Olympias had multiple names; João just has one. I did slip in a reference to snakes, which play a part in the Olympias history. As well, I reference in passing a supposed (but unproven) first meeting between Philip and Olympias at a sanctuary on Samothrace when João mentions meeting Eirene at a temple when they were both young.

A lot of ink has been spilled over who Hephaestion was and the role he played in Alexander’s life. My friend Dr. Jeanne Reames is a specialist on the court of Alexander the Great with a particular focus on Hephaestion (link 1 below). She has written an historical novel, Dancing with the Lion, about the youth of Alexander and his relationship with Hephaestion (link 2 below). I leaned heavily on her work when it came time to write about Hestia (Hetty) Hope, who is Sun’s most trusted (and, yes, intimate) friend and also a competent young officer.

I personally would never try to write an Alexander story without embedding the Alexander figure within a closely held circle of social relations. History suggests he did indeed consider Hephaestion to be his closest associate (not counting his mother, which is a different kind of relationship). To that end, Sun and Hetty are also lovers, although that is not (in their minds) the most important thing about their relationship. What matters most to them is that they fully, unconditionally trust each other. I have Sun quote from an historical anecdote in which she says they are one soul in two bodies. Isn’t that lovely? But for me, as I work on book two, my other important goal is to make sure Hetty is an individual in her own right, not just a narrative appendage of Sun.

A short note about the history already being queer. Philip had sexual relationships with both women and men. It’s right there in the history. Alexander’s sexuality is complicated in part by a tradition that he avoided sex (or was restrained about sex) as he associated it with death, but regardless he, too, was part of a culture in which it was unremarkable for powerful men of the aristocracy to have sex with women and with men (within specific parameters).

Furthermore, the ancient world did not conceive of or understand sexuality the same way we do in our modern world. That’s a topic for a different post, and one I’m not qualified to write, so here’s a link to a discussion by Dr. Reames of this specific topic.

My overall goal in writing about sexuality in the far future world of Unconquerable Sun was to make sexual relationships between consenting adults a normal part of life regardless of the gender identity or sexual preference of the individuals involved.

In terms of analog characters, Sun, Eirene, João, and Hetty were the obvious choices. Deciding what other historical persons to include is where adaptation gets complicated.

As human beings we live within a network of relationships built across time. We personally know many people and can usually sort out who they are, why we know them, and to a greater or lesser degree, how they fit into the society around us. Yet if a writer places too many named, active characters into a novel, there’s a strong chance that readers will struggle to be able to distinguish between them and understand who they are and why they are in the story. In other words, in our own lives we have months and years to sort out relationships. In a novel you have only a few hundred pages.

How many secondary characters does a novel need? That answer will be different depending on the needs and shape of the story.

In ancient Macedon, kings and queens moved through the world within an entourage of trusted intimates, marriage partners (not always trusted), retainers, servants, countryfolk, and foreigners. They don’t exist alone, untrammeled by burdensome bonds. In a way, one could say their relationships with others, with society, and with the world beyond are what make them who they are. To a great extent, this is how I world build anyway. Characters exist in a network that consists of their social relationships and their understanding of how they fit into the landscape they live within.

Furthermore, Alexander was not a lone warrior who, Conan-like, rampages across the stage of history. He accomplished what he did because he had a powerful army (mostly built by his father) and a strong network of reciprocal relationships that he had the charisma, intelligence, vision, and leadership skills to utilize to their fullest. His story does not function without those relationships.

However, because it is history, and history is populated by a lot of people, there are a lot of people who interact with Alexander, his army, and his legend. Even if one limited analogs to people who are named and have verbal or actionable exchanges with Alexander in the four main surviving ancient sources, or even just in Arrian’s Anabasis, one can argue (as I did) that there are too many people for most readers to keep track of in a novel of this length if one created a direct analog of every one.

As well, since I have chosen not to exactly re-create the history but rather adapt it to a space opera setting, my goal was to decide which historical people offer the best foundation to or counterweight against the aspects of the Alexander story I wanted to use and highlight.

For example, the respected yet cautious elderly general Parmenion makes a perfect foil for the rash young Alexander. A man with a superb reputation for success in battle, and a lifelong loyal supporter of Philip’s schemes and wars, he is often portrayed in the histories as an older man who believes that his advice for the youthful king is gold. Alexander’s disagreements with Parmenion’s advice provide several humorous anecdotes and retorts in the histories. Of course in these exchanges Alexander is always proven right. It seems possible, even likely, that these anecdotes were invented later as a court effort at spin-doctoring Alexander’s legend. During his lifetime, Alexander fully understood the power of narrative. One might even argue he Mary-Sue’d himself.

Because of the importance of this relationship both to the history and to the legend, I included a Parmenion analog: Crane Marshal Zàofù Samtarras. He has an acclaimed older son named Anas who is referenced and briefly heard (via radio) but not seen in book one, and a younger son named James who does feature in the first volume. The family plays a more prominent role in books two and three. Anas is an analog for a well-known figure in the history, Philotas, Parmenion’s eldest son and a notable field commander in his own right. James is not an analog; his role is complicated by things I know will happen in books two and three. James is a good example of the need to simplify by giving a single character multiple plot “event and relationship functions” that, in the history, were spread between several different people. Again, trying to write a note for note imitation of a history when not writing an historical novel in many ways muddies the waters of an adaptation, which can be meant to reflect the “idea of” or “heart of” a story.

A central piece of the Alexander story must be his closest associates, his syntrophoi, the companions of the prince. These are individuals he grew up with, was trained with, socialized with, and who were later entrusted with military commands, important missions, and bodyguard duties.

Ancient Macedon’s court was a complex web of often overlapping roles and offices. Again, Dr. Reames provides a useful summary of the court’s traditional offices. However, juggling Pages, Friends, Somatophylakes, syntrophoi, and various royal military units felt like a bridge too far in an already complicated setting. Therefore rather than trying to recreate the full network of court roles and offices present in historical Macedon, I simplified and combined roles.

For my purposes I use the word Companion for Sun’s syntrophoi. Eirene has her own group of once-youthful Companions as well, now grown up into respected, power-brokering veterans with experience and authority. In a world where relationships are everything, I felt the story could not be written without close companions as a major part of the setting. Alexander is never alone except when he consults the oracle at Siwah.

Thus James Samtarras, Hestia Hope, Perseus Lee, and Alika Vata are introduced early in the novel in company with Sun. Leaving Perseus aside for the moment due to potential first book spoilers, and having mentioned James and Hetty already, that leaves Alika. He fulfills the function of a young man who is at a young age already commanding his own units (some of which get into trouble due to impulsive behavior and possible discipline issues), which suggests he already has a fair measure of renown and reputation. Sun trusts him, and gives him a degree of autonomy that reflects Alika’s own good opinion of himself, earned through hard work and prior success. In other words, Alika is indeed the Perdiccas analog, a young man from a highborn noble lineage raised in the palace with the heir and given command opportunities quite young who retains a central place in Alexander’s closest circle throughout the campaign and afterward. When looking at the story, I had to make choices about who the larger story doesn’t make sense without, and for me Perdiccas is one of those characters, although obviously I adapt his role to my own purposes.

Another necessary analog character is, of course, Persephone. She was the easiest choice because only one of Alexander’s inner circle that we know of felt obliged to write a personal history, a memoir if you will, of Alexander’s campaign and their part in it. In his famous history, Arrian states at the beginning that Ptolemy’s history, together with a history written by one Aristoboulos (who also participated in the campaign, possibly as a midlevel officer), are his main sources because he considers them the most reliable.

Ptolemy’s historical life is fascinating regardless. When I wrote the Young Adult fantasy trilogy Court of Fives I did a fair of bit of research on Ptolemaic Egypt, which naturally included the foundation of the Ptolemaic dynasty, so my interest in him had already been piqued. But there are a couple of things about Ptolemy that make him irresistible as a point-of-view focus.

The first and most obvious is that he himself was a point-of-view witness who wrote about the campaign. Although his history as a complete work (rather than as fragments) is lost to us now, it was well known in antiquity which means it had a wide distribution among the literate. That he wrote his own account also means he had something he wanted to say, for whatever reason, which we can never know.

Best of all for me is Arrian’s description of why he (Arrian) considered Ptolemy’s account reliable. “(N)ot only because of his service under Alexander but also because it would have been more disgraceful for him to speak falsely than for another, given that he, too, was a king.”
[p. 3, The Campaigns of Alexander, Arrian, edited by James Romm, translation by Pamela Mensch, Anchor Books].

I ask you, when did a king ever speak falsely? How could I not include an account by a Ptolemy analog that might, perhaps, be in some small way unreliable?

The other reason I included a Ptolemy analog is his interesting history of relationships with women, which I won’t go into here except to say that I created the Companions’-companions (aka cee-cees) specifically and deliberately to make space in the story for a Thaïs analog.

This Greek hetaera (the word means “companion”) accompanied the entire campaign through significant hardships, as did many other unheralded and unnamed individuals many of whom are lumped into accounts as “camp followers,” as if they did not have lives and personalities but merely a passive function in relationship to the “real actors” of the story. Tiana provides a (non-point-of-view) vital secondary character perspective, a window onto other parts of the larger story universe that those brought up in the palace would overlook. She is my tribute to the mostly invisible people who walked every step of the same path. As well, what little we know of the real Thaïs’s amazing life is ripe for an adapted version, in which I layer elements into the story world of Sun to create a blend of old and new, real and imaginary.

As with Tiana, most of the characters function as indirect analogs. As with James, others fulfill some of the historical action of a known historical person but not necessarily all of it or, as with Aloysius, Baron Voy, compress pieces of the lives of two or three characters into one (in this case smidgeons of the famous and rival Athenian orators Demosthenes and Aeschines).

The historical trajectories do not necessarily reflect the characters’ plot trajectories, nor do they exactly replicate familial relationships. At no point am I seeking to create an exact event-by-event imitation of history. Translating the ancient world into space can’t be accomplished with a one-for-one swap, nor would I want it to because I have specific goals for telling the story as a space opera.

What about Aristotle, you may ask? I chose not to include him except the vague mention of a professor of biology in a passing comment in book two. Sorry. He just didn’t fit with how the story unfolded. Anyway, it seems to me that Alexander treated women with more respect than did Aristotle (who opined that women are inferior to men), so I admit to my own biases in being willing to shove “the father of western logic” off the stage of history which he so ostentatiously inhabits.

What other indirect analogs are hiding in the story? If you know the basic outlines of the history, here are a few examples.

Philip’s buddy Attalos whose young niece becomes Philip’s latest wife? Check. Antipater, a venerable military and administrative leader who Philip trusted and who Alexander trusted enough to leave behind as regent when he led the army into Asia? He’s there, but not in a way that has flagged him to knowledgeable readers yet. Same with Krateros (Craterus), called friend of the king rather than friend of Alexander, ambitious and brilliant, beloved by those he commanded, and possibly a back-stabber willing to climb over others to achieve higher status, and who was therefore not fully trusted by some of the Companions. You’ve met the Seleucus analog, too (one of the highborn Macedonian officers, he’s historically most important in the post-Alexander era). Alexander’s half brother Philip Arrhidaeus, deemed unfit to rule. Memnon, the brilliant military commander from Rhodes who fought for the Persians. Antigonus, one of Philip’s old guard who unlike most of the rest of the older generation retained his importance long into and past the Alexander era? Can’t wait until you get the full introduction.

Other known analog-ish quantities like the historian Callisthenes, the Macedonian nobleman and officer Lysimachus, the Persian emperor Darius III, his mother Sisygambis, the glamorous half-Greek half-Persian Barsine, and Alexander’s sister Cleopatra (and others) will be introduced in book two although not necessarily as the history reader might expect them.

By the way, Apama is not a character inserted merely to give the reader a view into the Phene Empire. She has an historical counterpoint and in some ways I consider her my most important gender spin in the entire story.

There are also characters, like Octavian and Zizou, who don’t represent historical analogs whether indirect or direct. They enter the story through the lens of the story world itself. They may or may not occasionally align with a reworked historical incident or relationship but that isn’t their purpose or motive. They are there because they exist in the story world for reasons often unfathomable to the unconscious creative mind from which they emerge.

Ultimately, wherever the characters spring from, my job as writer is to create people engaging enough that readers want to follow their adventures. I combined my love of space opera’s bold colors, vivid action, and operatic scope with my desire to write an Alexander-the-Great-related story. In the end my goal is to write not Alexander’s story but Sun’s story, the way she would want it told.

***

Further Reading

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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