Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Babylon's Ancient Waterslide

One of the things that intrigues me about time travel fiction is the dual viewpoint it provides. You can present an historical culture, artifact, or place and see it from an ancient perspective and a modern one.

For example, in Screwing Up Babylon, several scenes take place in the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Besides the tremendous fun of figuring out how the garden was build and watered, I was able to look at it through the eyes of everyday Babylonians, who’d see it as a gorgeous but private place. Because Nebuchadnezzar II built the Hanging Gardens for his wife Amytis who was homesick for Media, it’s unlikely that an everyday Babylonian ever got to visit it. So when I wrote the scenes in the Gardens, I brought a servant there, which allowed the reader to experience the servant’s stunned impressions of the jungle of plants and flowers in the middle of an oasis in the desert. But I could also share with the reader the Garden’s impact on Henry with his modern sensibilities. He realizes that ancient technology was every bit as impressive as his own time. Yet, everything has its cost. And Henry sees the demands of the Gardens—it wouldn’t exist without the slaves turning the Archimedean Screw that waters the Gardens.

But Henry’s experience of the Gardens as an interesting artifact or technological achievement isn’t the end. He brings to the Gardens his modern experiences. So later when he and Miranda need to escape, Henry realizes that the man-made river, which waters the Gardens, is pretty much a functional ancient waterslide.  And then, I got to write one of the most crazy action scenes I’ve ever written.

The waterslide escape allowed me to show the fun side of time travel’s duality, which is its genius. We visit history without romanticizing it or feeling superior to it. And we realize that although cultures may change, people—both for good and evil—stay the same.

A 16th-century hand-colored engraving of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon by Dutch artist Maarten van Heemskerck, with the Tower of Babel in the background.

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