The Story Behind The Story
Last year a group of authors came together in a consortium called the Alvarium Experiment to publish a set of short stories around the central premise of an alien probe, Prometheus, sent to Earth to observe mankind throughout our history. It was a groundbreaking concept of author collaboration that produced memorable short fiction that won multiple Royal Palm Literary Awards at the 2015 Florida Writers Conference. Initially released as independent stories, The Prometheus Saga has now been published in anthology form for both ebook and print. Visit the Alvarium Experiment website to learn more about this unique project and meet the incredible writing talent that created Prometheus’ journey from the dawn of early man, through ancient civilizations, the ages of exploration, revolution and world war, right up to modern day.
Each author was allowed to select the time period for the setting of their story and show how Prometheus – part organism, part computer – could morph into any character of the author’s choosing in order to experience the pivotal events of history. What a tremendous opportunity for the creative mind!
I didn’t enter my contribution, Crystal Night into the Royal Palm Literary Awards in 2015. Why not? Crystal Night was recognized by my fellow Alvarium authors and by readers as the darkest story in the collection, a story with a naturally somber mood. I was worried that some may think the subject matter had been over-written (whatever that is) and was best forgotten. Some of the feedback questioned the demeanor of my protagonist, Johann Nilsson aka Prometheus. Why had my witness to the events in Nazi Germany on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938 remained so detached as that infamous night accelerated the Holocaust? What had motivated me to portray Johann Nilsson this way? These thoughts ran through my head. They convinced me to leave the story out of the RPLA competition in 2015. This past year I reflected. A turning point was visiting the Holocaust Museum in Detroit and talking to the staff there. The stories from survivors about their ordeals broke my heart. The visit impressed upon me the importance of story as a witness to atrocity. So I changed my mind and entered the story this year and Crystal Night has just won the 2016 Royal Palm Literary Award for Best Novella. I am forever in awe of the immense talent and creativity of the over 1500 authors of the Florida Writers Association and so this award for Crystal Night is truly humbling.
Certainly there have been more extensive and more in-depth historical exposes of the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis. There is a wealth of excellent, heart-wrenching memoirs about surviving the concentration camps. So why did I choose to set my Prometheus story in 1938 Nazi Germany? What was my purpose? And why write the story as science fiction? How could the presence of an alien probe add any more emphasis to those horrific events? Some may think that because I write Dieselpunk stories set in an alternative World War Two, that this was the reason. It wasn’t.
So here is ‘The Story Behind The Story’ of the writing of Crystal Night. Readers (and my fellow writers) can peek behind the curtain to understand what motivated me as an author.
Let’s get started. First, why did I want to write Crystal Night as science fiction? Quite simply because I was concerned that today’s youth are so separated in time from the events of WW2 – and perhaps so disinterested in it – that I wanted to find a new way to connect with them about this pivotal part of our recent history. There are enormous lessons that we all should have learned and still seem to be struggling to learn. This generation’s grandparents and great-grandparents – many of whom have been reluctant to speak to their family members about their wartime experiences – are now passing at such a rapid rate that someday soon there will be no living witnesses left to talk with. When that happens, literature becomes the witness, becomes the story teller. My goal in writing Crystal Night was to intrigue just one young person to read it, question why the Prometheus probe acted the way it did, and from that inspiration, be intrigued enough to pick up a biography or historical memoir in order to learn more.
Next: the premise and how I interpreted it. I interpreted Johann Nilsson, my Prometheus probe as a bio-mechanical machine with artificial intelligence. In the story it appears human but it isn’t. It was a communication device – recording data and observations that were transmitted back to its alien creators in a distant galaxy. It had a computer ‘brain’ and as such possessed sophisticated learning algorithms that allowed it over the centuries to mimic human emotional responses when exposed to a variety of human interactions. These included the ability to problem solve like a human, to ‘think’ through awkward social or diplomatic situations, to recognize danger and even to have convincing sex. The ‘romantic’ liaison in Crystal Night was initiated through serendipity but ended when Johann/Prometheus felt threatened and needed to protect the secrecy of its identity and its mission. It was still not human and throughout my story, it was still not finished learning. In fact, one of the most startling problems it faced was why mankind was behaving so bizarrely. In its experience, it was almost unprecedented that a society would be at war with itself, not with an obvious and visible external enemy. Johann/Prometheus had not experienced this new phenomenon. Here is an excerpt as Johann/Prometheus witnesses the burning of a synagogue and the vandalism that occurred during Kristallnacht:
“Why destroy buildings that still have purpose? Why smash shop windows? It doesn’t make any sense. I’ve seen so many of this world’s wars, so much destruction for no apparent reason. But this? There’s been no declaration of a war. Are the German people not prosperous and happy? Why is this happening? What is the purpose of it?”
To which, Helga the bar owner replies:
“Don’t be silly. You’re in Germany. Where have you been for the past five years? What planet have you lived on?”
Many people have commented that throughout the story Johann appeared naive. For a human character, that would have been true. But he isn’t a he, he’s an it – it is processing what it sees, unbiased by emotion or opinion, bouncing events against a database of precedents stored in its memory banks across several millennia. This ‘naivety’ was my way of expressing the computer response… TILT!
Johann ventures into the heart of Berlin searching for answers. He meets a street vendor selling bread and in their conversation comes another TILT moment as he asks the man:
“Have you seen the sub-humans?”
“The species of sub-humans. Your newspapers say a rat-like species of sub-humans lives here. They say they are everywhere, in every German city and elsewhere in Europe. But I didn’t find any in Sweden. I’ve only been in Berlin a few weeks but if they are so abundant, I don’t understand why I haven’t seen any yet. Perhaps they are nocturnal. Are they very small? Where do they hide during the daytime? I need to know. I must find out for my research. Surely you’ve seen one?”
The man grunted. “What are you talking about, you fool. Appointments with the Gestapo? And now this lunacy? The feeble-minded have no future in Germany. There are asylums that cleanse our population of people like you.”
Here is the probe – ever faithful to its mission – trying to gather evidence on a species it has never yet observed, not knowing at the time that it never would. The ‘sub-human’. Rat-like. Check out the Nazi propaganda of the time. It was pervasive. And horrifically persuasive. In print, in posters, on the radio, in films. It was everywhere. If you had been a child in Nazi Germany – or just someone profoundly naive – it wouldn’t have taken you very long to believe that such a sub-species of rat-like humans did in fact exist. These sub-humans were identified for you and eventually the vast majority of people acquiesced to the argument that it was best for society that these ‘sub-humans’ were at first ‘resettled’ and then eradicated. And if you dared to challenge this ‘conventional’ wisdom? Yes, you too could suffer a similar fate since the ‘feeble-minded’ in Nazi Germany included not just the mentally challenged who were euthanized but intellectuals and political dissidents who were also sent to ‘resettlement’ camps. The master race was clearly defined in the laws of the land. Becoming a ‘sub-human’ was just a simple act of placing a stamp of ink in your identity papers. That couldn’t happen again, could it?
Here are examples of historical facts and topics I researched when writing Crystal Night. These details were important to me. I wanted Crystal Night to have a setting as historically accurate as I could make it. This is not an exhaustive list of every historical element I included, but it gives you an idea of the attention to detail that all of the authors of The Prometheus Saga put into each of their stories.
- Crystal Night opens in a cabaret. What was the music of the period? What was popular in Germany in 1938?
Helga Gartner, waved her hand. Play on, she gestured. Pianist Siggy Katzmann tinkled the keys. Elsa Fischer composed herself, cleared her throat and with a shy smile began, A Night in May.
- What music was banned?
Siggy Katzmann squinted through the glare of the hot stage lights. His face turned pale. He reached for a handkerchief in the pocket of his jacket and wiped his brow.
“Siggy, what’s wrong?”
“We can’t play My Golden Baby,” he gulped. “Not now.”
“It’s too jazzy. Too negro. They’re SS. That’s not acceptable.”
- I bought a tourist map of Berlin from 1940 from eBay. Why? Prior to 1933, there were no Nazi government buildings in Berlin. After 1945, the center of Berlin had been so completely destroyed by aerial bombing and artillery bombardment, it was pure rubble. In the reconstruction of Germany after the war, many of the streets – particularly the more infamous ones where the Reich Chancellery & the Gestapo HQ we located – were renamed. Germans wanted to bury their past in the piles of broken concrete. I needed a map from the Nazi era. A current one was useless. Locations in Crystal Night are historically accurate and were based on that 1940 map.
“Just tell me how I can get to Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse. Please?”
“One block north. Turn right. An ‘appointment’ with the Gestapo?” The man chuckled. “God help you, idiot.”
Johann crossed the plaza, following Saarland-Strasse north into the administrative center of Berlin. In a few minutes he came across a crowd lining the sidewalk in front of the Reich Ministry of Labor. Music filled the air. A marching band approached, followed by a double column of brown-shirted stormtroopers stomping down the broad avenue carrying Nazi banners on staffs topped with golden eagles.
The building with the nondescript exterior sat dwarfed by the massive Air Ministry on the opposite side of Prince-Albrecht-Strasse. It was a building devoid of Nazi banners or flags. Berliners avoided walking past Number Eight, preferring to cross over to the other side of the boulevard.
A black Mercedes stopped in front of the main entrance. People on the street halted their conversations in mid-sentence. They waited just long enough to see if they could recognize who was being hauled out of the car’s back seat. A man and a woman in their sixties, and still in their nightwear, were frog-marched into the building. Once the onlookers’ morbid curiosity had been satisfied, they went about their business, their one-time neighbors forgotten.
Oberrisch met Johann on the front steps of the Reich Security Office, Number Eight Prince-Albrecht-Strasse.
- The Nazis used many techniques to control the minds of the population, root out undesirables and prepare for their military expansion. Propaganda and early school education were the obvious tools. They formed paramilitary youth organizations like the Hitler Youth and paramilitary police like the brown-shirted SA or ‘stormtroopers’. Neighbors were encouraged to spy on neighbors. The Gestapo even employed prostitutes to dig up dirt in order to blackmail those who were not totally aligned with the Führer and the Nazi Party. Here is how that played out in Crystal Night:
Helga pushed the note back. “I’m not condoning her kind of business in here.”
“She works for me, which means she works for the Reich and for our Führer.” Oberrisch grabbed Helga’s wrist and thrust the money into her palm, closing her fingers over the bill. “You will do as I say, Helga. Magda is doing her job as a loyal German, helping uncover another traitor. You are a loyal German, aren’t you? Give them another bottle of champagne.”
Helga winced. “You and your informants, Klaus. You’re like red wine stains on a dark carpet. You hope we’ll walk right by you without noticing you’re there. Your brownshirts patrol Berlin’s streets like escaped lions. Those thugs don’t belong anywhere near my club. I want them out of here.”
“The SA keeps the streets clean.”
“Tell that to the women who have to wash the blood off our pavements each morning.”
There is so much more I could tell you about that infamous night. I’ll end by giving you this opportunity:
Read FWA’s 2016 Novella of The Year, Crystal Night for FREE for three days.
The FREE days in the Kindle store are:
Saturday, October 29 – Sunday, October 30 – Monday, Oct 31
I want as many people to read Crystal Night as possible. Tell your friends about it. And please leave a review. It would be much appreciated!
Berlin, 1938. On the eve of one of history’s darkest moments, a Swedish bartender with unusual talents accidentally uncovers a woman’s hidden past while working in the heart of Nazi Germany. Crystal Night is a tale of intrigue and mystery with a twist of science fiction that follows ordinary German citizens as they struggle under the jackboots of marauding brown-shirts, the dreaded Gestapo and the infamous SS. Can the Prometheus probe as ‘Johann Nilsson’ remain detached during this ugly piece of our history, or will it become an accomplice as the Holocaust accelerates?
A short story from The Prometheus Saga.