One year ago, I published An Unquiet Calm, my first collection of short stories. To celebrate the anniversary, I will be posting this week about the inspiration behind the five stories. First up: ‘Thieves in the Night’. There may be spoilers ahead.
Nearly two years ago I came across the Fauxpocalypse Project: a prospective anthology of stories set the day after a global extinction event didn’t happen. While facing inevitable apocalypse is an engaging enough trope the idea of what happens if it doesn’t happen was an engaging tweak, so I knew I wanted to be involved; but not what I would write.
A few days later I realised that there is a real-world thread of surviving the end of the human race: there are many stories throughout history of groups whose belief in a prophecy was strong enough to live as if the world was going to end. Which triggered the thought that, as the apocalypse of the collection was supported by mainstream science, there would be a certain beauty in having a priest pull together a small community based on the message that the world wasn’t going to end.
People living their lives as if they weren’t facing a threat to the status quo is almost the definition of not-a-story, so I knew I needed a conflict to replace the choice between morality and hedonism the expectation of death would bring.
I found the conflict in my second realisation: that the United Kingdom is a place of laws. Even if existing laws cover a situation, the Government of the day will often pass laws to show they are acting; and even if the application of laws is reasonable, there will be social pressure to both apply them harder and more broadly, and lighter and more narrowly. So, there would have been sweeping legislation enacted in response to oncoming oblivion and the Government would have tried to take noticeable action as soon as the world didn’t end.
But I still needed a reason for the religious community to be chosen as the target of the legislation.
Fortunately, the answer lay in the question: why do Governments want to be seen to act? Because they function within a framework of constant challenge: the mere suggestion there is an answer they didn’t have is a challenge to their legitimacy. The idea that the real UK Government would care about, or even notice, the community seemed unlikely; but there being a small area of the intelligence services that was so paranoid about the threat of any religion gaining power it wouldn’t take the chance the community was used as an example? That seemed a challenge equal in resonance to the end of humanity.
The final idea behind the story was a negative one. The first outline was about a lawyer, who was defending the remnants of the community from charges of terrorism, discovering a conspiracy. However, a couple of scenes into the first draft I was struck by the radical idea of making the story accessible to readers who weren’t extremely interested in the nuances of English criminal trials. So I threw out all the law and wrote the days leading up to the community being set up instead.