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Karyss, drawn in 2013

Karyss is the protagonist of “PSA”  the Science Fiction novel I’m currently writing for what seems like forever. Young and unassuming, she lives a life defined by the everyday, never questioning the world beyond that she sees, but a brave, yet foolish step toward her dreams casts her adrift amongst the stars, on a journey she could never imagine, let alone understand.

But my story of her is a little different than the novel’s.

Karyss entered my life back in 1997. She didn’t know it was going to happen and neither did I. I had logged onto an online text-based MUD (I was addicted to them at the time) and was spontaneously asked the odd question “Character Name?”   I knew this question was going to come up at some point while starting a new character on a new MUD, I just wasn’t ready for it then.  Really, without thinking, I typed the word “Caryss” and hit enter. I think I had thought of a strange version of “Chris,” then “future-ized” it. About 30 minutes later, I left that MUD never to return – but I took Caryss with me.

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Early version of Caryss from 1999.

Since then, she has bobbled to the surface of my imagination quite frequently. I found myself having to write glips and glops for this and that, and she kept stepping through the brain-idea barrier every time. Here, she is a bounty hunter, there an inadvertent terrorist, and over here, a co-pilot of a starship. These versions of Karyss were obvious nods to the pulpy SF I’ve absorbed and desired to write ever since I was six and seeing Star Wars that fateful summer. Then, she was lithe, sexy, full of attitude… In other words, a stereotype and not much else. She needed depth.

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Guns and dreadlocks! Caryss became Karyss and I have no idea why.

It wasn’t long afterward that shitty things started to happen in my life. Several people close to me were diagnosed of cancer, there were business issues, my then-wife and I separated and in general things began to slide into the shitter. I found myself taking bits and pieces of these events and foisting them onto Karyss’ shoulders, perhaps as a test of her character, maybe as a way to try and understand these issues myself. I don’t really know because at then, I wasn’t taking the girl seriously, as a character or anything, she was merely something I had whisked out of my imagination, without real substance or purpose. It didn’t work, she was still sexy, lithe, full of attitude, but now had cancer, was running away from home, relationships… Poor girl. She also always seemed to be carrying a gun, though that was probably because she felt like she had a lot to deal with. All this would change.

She needed a break. Or I did, I’m not sure. “I’m sorry, hun, its not you, its me,” isn’t that how it goes?  She’s a patient girl, though, because she was still waiting for me in 2007.

A dear friend went traveling during that year, though I didn’t realize it at the time: either bit, that she was a dear friend, or that she had gone traveling. The event hit me hard and left me thinking: what if you went away, and people didn’t realized what you meant to them, only it was too late for them to tell you, and now you were gone forever? To this day, I’m not sure of the reason why she went or what she did along the way, nor have I asked, but I have done a lot of dreaming about it and in a strange way, she became Karyss, or rather, because of her Karyss started her journey. In my dreams, she trekked between the stars and met many people – some very strange, some very angry, others curious and noble, others evil and self-serving. Karyss has worked, loved, died, learned, been kidnapped, vomited upon, played games, started and ended wars, befriended monkeys (goddamn it, there they are again!), been haunted, become a ghost, taught aliens how to repair spacecraft, chewed chewsticks, slurped synthslurp and… well, you get the picture, she became whatever, whoever I needed her to be. Something had changed. Before, I added Karyss into stories, now she was making them happen.

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Inspired by generic flight suit design and the artist Mark Harrison, I began to wonder what spacers might really be like.

Excited, I wrote a prologue, a few chapters and an outline and then began to think about what I had just done. It was a much larger task than I was expecting to perform at that time, so I shelved it, so I had time to gestate ideas. They began to come thick and fast and index card after index card was filled with frantic scribbling, outlining the novel that would contain her. But I still wasn’t writing it.

In 2009, I took a week off work, listened to Joanna Newsom’s pastoral harp and weird crooning, played lots of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and wrote a story – “The Game” – still unpublished, still not quite edited, only read by perhaps two people (and I’m not sure I’m one of them…) It was inspired by a chess board painted on a stone that I found on my walks. On this walk, I was Karyss, and I was witness to a game of incredibly high stakes played by members of two rival species – the maggot/slug-like Horphalum and the insectile Urkhut, every thousand years. Karyss would watch and eventually influence the destiny of these two species by moving a few pieces. A metaphor for how our lives can be influenced by the most remote, fleeting events.

It forms one chapter in Karyss’ journey and in writing it, I formed many more ideas and I realized there’s a whole lot left to write. When I lost my job last July, I decided to try to bring some closure to Karyss’ life and began writing the novel completely. Its lead me to strange places, mentally and emotionally – elated, excited, depressed (very depressed at times), guilty, apologetic – and I developed a connection to a human being who didn’t exist, or ever exist, or will ever exist. I am her father/creator and the reason she was suffering every last shitty thing I needed of her. She didn’t complain about any of this to me, even when I fund my self apologizing to her for her treatment. I’m not even sure how she feels about the painting I did of her, up there, on the banner of the website. Maybe she secretly hates me from far, far away into my imagination.  The outline that was once twenty index cards is now 80,000 words in Scrivener.

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Still haven’t nailed her “futuristic ethnicity” in this one, but it was fun to draw.

I think that by this time, she has gained some depth, a personality of her own and, though I control it, a life of her own. She fights back at me when I write her, making sure her voice and actions are hers and not mine. Usually a good thing for a character, I feel. She’s not the stereotypically “white”, lithe, sexy, full of attitude character she was in ’97, either, but a distant gene-relative of colonist stock from Earth, separated by several thousand years, part West-African, part Asian, tiny bit Caucasian, from somewhere along the line. Technically, she’s neither, she’s part of her own people now. For most of the novel, she needs to be representative of all humans, rather than just one particular ethnic group and it is my own belief that when humans reach for the stars and colonize, it will be as humans and not as single nations.  She still has her hair tied into corn-rows – to keep her hair out of her doings – only now she has a whole load of other things tied into them – bits of string, wire, transmission wands, chewsticks: things she feels she can’t be without. One thing she was without was a gun. I had written a few action sequences into the novel and my other characters began offering weapons to her and Karyss – not me – refused them. She didn’t feel right having one, or needing one. Gor blimey, girl, its dangerous out there in interstellar, alien infested space!

There’s still a few versions of her left to devise and these days I’m leaning toward changing her name to something more feminine like “Karyce,” but … well, you know how it goes, it ain’t done till its done. And I’m sure there will be a lot more sketches before I finally step back from my graphics tablet, grinning like a fool, knowing I’ve captured her essence somehow.

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The 2013 Karyss aboard a Gafal-Ar Horphalum spacecraft

After all this time, thought and idea development, she’s become as real to me as anyone I know, though I’ve never met her and never will. Real enough that I worry about how she’s doing and hope that maybe she will forgive me for subjecting her to the things that I’ve conjured to cross her interstellar path. Even as a figment of my imagination, I feel that one day she’ll show up on my doorstep, perhaps with gun in hand and looking for revenge though that wouldn’t be in keeping with her character. If she does, then I think we’ll have a lot to talk about.

She’s still out there, traveling, learning. Her novel isn’t finished yet and I often get the feeling her story won’t ever be published. But it will be told, at least.

Images: All artwork, Ken McCulloch, 1999-2013. Pencil/Paper, Photoshop and Manga Studio. Sorry about the quality of the scanned images – the paper was all warped and stained. 😦