If I were starting this whole thing over, today, I would have gone for a smaller story. Something where less than the very existence of our planet was at stake! What a tired old trope. But I didn’t know so much, way back then. And I thought it quite exciting. I guess it is. At least, in my version, it is quite literally the Earth itself in the crosshair.
But then again, that was not the very original version of Alpha. Let me tell you how that went, as I prepare again for the one I wrote instead.
Once upon a 2001, the idea for all of this occurred to me one evening, deep in music. I saw four principal characters going on a journey in deep space, where a battle loomed. They were Madala, Jocaster, Christopher and Alexander; but at that stage they did not have names. I labelled them “Missus Scientist” and “Mister Scientist”, their boy, and the lethal “Prince”. Alpha’s core conceit was in place: that Madala has a secret past which is torn apart that opening morning; that she is no human, and neither is her son; that she is a powerful, magical creature just as much she is a living woman, and she is the princess of Andala. Yet, with all that granted, I only had half the story that I wrote this year.
Nowadays, Alpha is four acts long. It’s been that way since a few months into its existence as an idea. But before, it was two acts instead. The story started as it does now, with Alexander’s Awakening. Jocaster arrives in his sister’s household, unwelcome but inevitable, and together they head to the battle that’s been waiting all their father’s life. Act two had the uncanny fight, and, spoiler!, Christopher’s turn under his uncle’s guidance. From what I recall, the climax was the same as that point in the modern second act: the link is broken and Jocaster, wounded, returns to fight alone. He prevails. Then what?
It was long ago. But I remember a happy scene back on Andala, not so much an act of its own but a quick and merry ending. Jocaster’s welcomed home, now at last the king, and Christopher is elated with his new powers. Madala’s fallen to the background, more an observer now like Alexander, relieved they all survived but unlikely quite as happy. And that, I guess, was it. The End. Roll credits. To, as I remember, John Riley by The Byrds. I had not explored quite as much music, back then, though it fit the scene so well it’s all that I remember, to be honest.
That would have been well enough story for the “fleeting epic" I also began to speak of at the time. But something changed a few months in. Originally, there was no passionate loathing between Madala and Jocaster. Indeed, Andala’s waiting prince didn’t seem to be much anything besides a good guy. And his sister? Why was she hiding? What was there to flee?
This was the time when I started to get a hang of the necessary tragedy in the tale of high flying magic. There is no substance in a story without darkness. Characters barely tick when cast in enchantment. The fact that I needed a motive for Madala’s flight from home in the first place, was what led me to the depth in her and Jocaster. They are not happy people. There is no supreme satisfaction at the story’s end. Not so soon! Their birth into the deepest of all magic, their assured might in the face of every coming rival, is no joy but a burden. That’s why Madala fled, with her absent father’s help, to the world of men and Alexander. She says it in Alpha’s first draft. She was nothing on Andala, but for all the expectations pushed on her. Only away from her own folk could she live as an individual, as a person, as a woman.
Oddly enough, the way I actually implemented this change was with what became Act III. Jocaster doesn’t head back to his impatient capital, once his fight to become Kai is won. Madala gets there first, where she is exalted Queen, to her fury, as her brother’s threat to the story’s other world emerges before us and them. Instead of happy ending, we’re thrown into the story’s next level, where that nightmare engulfs our world.
I wonder now, this dark December day, 13 years after I contrived all this in thought if not all the words, what better way I could have achieved the same ends. Jocaster’s darkness has my full support. I’m not sure any convincing story could come from the empty version of his image that I saw in the first place. His villainy is my delight! Because he is both a monster we must destroy to save ourselves, and a tragic hero of his own world. Jocaster is the devil you can’t but sympathise. Or that’s my goal in him, at any rate. He’s the proof of my own view that there are no natural monsters, but ones that we create. The prince is an alien, and proud of it. He is a defender of his people’s identity, and a wild Jihadi to us. He’s a conservative, protecting, regressive figure; and full aware of it. A political ideology cast in the most dangerous possible individual, if that he even is; his sister’s curse not so far at all from his.
And so I don’t answer my own question. Because I cannot know. It is what it is, this world and book of mine. And my task is to do the best I can and give it justice. It’s part way there. But not where it could be. So to the work I tread again. Tropes be damned! And characters blessed.