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Milena Benini – Women’s History Month

The (not so little) Space Opera that Killed

Space operas have been known to contain dangerous bug-eyed monsters, but none were as deadly as this novel!

I’ve been writing since I was twelve, publishing since I was fourteen, and that’s a very long time. And in all those years of publishing, no other piece of work went through more adventures than one novel.

It was the first—and so far, only—full-length space opera that I wrote, and I was quite pleased with it when I first finished it. It contained lizard-like aliens, a sprawling Terran Union, parallel universes and uncomprehensible extraterrestrial technology, and dealt with issues such as colonialism, identity, and ecology. I know the whole thing sounds pretty much run-of-the-mill nowadays, but things like that haven’t been done at the time.

So, I started looking for a publisher who would be willing to take the novel. To be honest, I didn’t expect it to find a home: for one thing, it was rather long, and long books are always a tougher sell. For another, Croatia has a strange contradiction in its relationships towards SF: while we have five conventions (for a country with 4.5 million people, that’s a lot!) and an extremely active fandom, it seems to be a truth universally acknowledged in the fandom that local authors can never be as good as imported ones.

Be that as it may, I took my novel and started looking for a publisher. To my immense surprise, I found one almost immediately. It was a small house, and had no previous experience with publishing local authors, but they did have a solid track-record in publishing translated genre novels. The owner read my novel, and liked it so much he immediately agreed to publish it.

I couldn’t believe my luck! Not only did I have a publisher, I had an enthusiastic publisher, who wanted to put my novel with great marketing support and expected it to be successful. Paperwork was done, the edits were done, and the rest was supposed to be plain sailing. I was so happy, I walked on clouds for the rest of that week.

But, of course, things did not go as expected. That Saturday—and yes, I still remember it was a Saturday, all these years later—I got a message from my publisher, with somewhat disturbing news: there was a little problem with the cash-flow. My payment may be a month or two late. That didn’t really upset me too much. What was important was that my novel would get published. Whether I got paid promptly or with a few months’ delay really didn’t seem all that important.

Except that the little problem with the cash-flow turned out to be a full-blown bankruptcy by the end of next week. There would be no novel with a pretty cover, no marketing support, and no payment at all. The publisher did manage to give me my rights back, but that was the only thing he could do.

So, I took my novel, and went in search of another publisher. Time passed, and other publishers passed on the novel, as well, without even reading it: it was long, it was speculative fiction, and it was by a local author. Nobody could sell that, they told me—all stuff I’d known from the beginning. In the end, I went to work on other things and the novel just sat in my drawer, collecting dust.

Then, a few years later, a friend of mine started a publishing house. He wanted to do local authors, and he wanted to do speculative fiction. I told him about my unfortunate space opera, and he asked to see it. About a month later, I heard back: he liked it, his editor liked it, and they were going to buy it. They already had all the books they could do for the first year, but the year after, my novel would come out.

Now, this wasn’t as sweet a deal as the first one: their books weren’t the slick hardcovers that the first publisher had done, but rather small, cheap paperbacks. That didn’t bother me: there was something cosmically right, in fact. It was a space opera, after all. It belonged in a paperback, and the lower price might even make the book an easier sale.

I waited patiently as the first year books came out. There were supposed to be six titles in all and, by the time the fifth title was out, the editor would be ready to take my manuscript and work on it, so as to make it the first book in their second year. Except… only four titles ever did come out. By the time the fifth came round, the money ran out, and no new funds were coming in, with the sales practically non-existent. The fifth book did appear the following year, but after that, the house folded and went out of business. My space opera and I were on our own again.

This time, I shelved it (no more drawer-room) immediately, and decided I wouldn’t even bother with it any more. I was getting into theory, and fantasy, and all kinds of other stuff, and could let off any occasional science-fictional steam by writing short stories, which were a much easier sell.

Only, a few more years later, another friend of mine asked to see it. He also liked it, and was just in the process of starting his own publishing house. Would I like to be his first title? Of course I would. I did warn him that two other publishers had gone under before they could publish it, but he was not a superstitious man. Or, should I say, had not been one. After his entire venture collapsed before ever getting off the ground, he may have changed his opinion.

And now, since this has been a long story already, to jump to the hopefully happy ending: the space opera in question currently has a publisher, and an editor, and is slated to come out this year. No, it’s not out yet, but the publisher is alive and kicking. Whether the situation will change before my little bug-eyed, publisher-killing monster sees the light of day, I do not know. I’m keeping my fingers crossed: this time, there’s funding from the Ministry of Culture (yeah, we’re that kind of a country: SF publishers can get government funding because no genre sells well enough if it’s by a local author). This novel has destroyed three publishers, but I’m hoping it can’t really destroy a whole country!

milena-2010-mirko-bulaja

Milena Benini started writing when she was twelve, and hasn’t stopped since. In the meantime, she published a large amount of short stories, some of which can be found in English, here and here . She also won a few local awards, and published three novels in Croatian (not counting the one she talks about in this post). One of her novels, Priestess of the Moon, is also available in English from MuseItUp Publishing.

Priestess

In the interest of breaking curses (and letting us see just how unwarranted they can be) Milena has given us an excerpt from her novel.

Lahù caught my hands and started speaking so quietly I had to struggle to hear her through the chatter of children riding next to us.

“You’re a dreamseller, Bobbie. You dream professionally, for money.”

I tried to say something, confused, but the soft touch of her hands stopped my questions before I could form them.

“Dreams are… immensely powerful. Everything we have on Zaría, we have because of dreams. I’ve heard that other planets simply don’t work that way, but I don’t know anything about them… and it doesn’t matter, anyway. We turn dreams into energy. Like this streetcar. What do you think, how does it move?”
When I shrugged, she indicated the ceiling with her head. “Up there, there are people dreaming. People like you. Professional dreamers, whose dreams are strong enough to make the streetcar’s machinery move. That’s the simplest use of dreams. And that’s what you were doing this morning at Beggam’s: filling the batteries for his store. Gods, with what you’ve pulled, they’ll have enough power for several months!”
She shook her head a little, watching me with a strange kind of admiration. “You’re one of the best, Bobbie. Certainly the best I’ve ever met. But you’re also more than that. You’re a real dreamseller, the kind that was first to appear, or at least so the legends say. People come to you, and you make them feel what they want, see places they want to see, do things they’d like to do in real life, but they don’t dare, or aren’t able to, or just can’t afford to.” A glint of pleasure appeared in her smile. “Not that many can afford us, lately.”

“Us?”

That was the only word that actually meant something to me: us. Lahù laughed and touched my cheek with her lips.

“I’m your guide, Bobbie. Do you know what that is? No, not even that. Well, I… I guide your dreams for you. Like this morning, remember? Even the best dreamsellers can’t always keep their dreams in control. So, when you dreamsell, it’s a lot safer to have a guide as conduit between you and the customer. If nothing else, to protect you from passing nightmares. And, of course, to protect you from dreamer fatigue.”

A smile escaped me before I could stop it, but when Lahù tried to turn her head away, I caught her chin and made her look at me.

“It’s not your fault, Lahù,” I said, as gently as I could. And I really believed it. The way in which she’d shielded me when I panicked—and I was certain it wasn’t just the feeble protection of her tiny body—had filled me with profound confidence in her talent for… whatever it was that guides did.
Lahù returned my look with a lot less conviction. For a moment, I felt that I might—should—hold her, just to show her how much I trusted her. But I didn’t. I was almost embarrassed. Feeling trust, even closeness, that was fine. But not in that way; not now, when I was something I didn’t recognize, a brainless monster replacing someone that Lahù obviously cared about. Slowly, I lowered my hand back into my lap, and Lahù straightened, creating a distance between us.

I felt sudden cold at the place where her knee had been touching my thigh, and shivered. Lahù must have sensed it, for she immediately leaned closer again. My conscience resented such childish, needy behavior on my part.

“You don’t have to that, you know,” I said, almost angry. “You don’t owe me anything.”

She looked away, with a sad half-smile in the corners of her lips.

“But I do, Bobbie.”

Unreasonably angry at her guilt, I said, “Not that I remember!”

I had wanted the words to be a blow, even though I regretted them the moment they passed my lips.
Lahù didn’t flinch; she just shook a little, like a street dog shaking mud off its back. And then, before I could say anything else, she got up, pushing her way through the children surrounding our bench.
“We”re getting off at the next one.”

I followed her uncertainly, my jaw clenched to control the mindless fear that swallowed me the moment her comforting warmth had moved away. One of the children slumped onto the now empty bench and yelled after me, “Lazy Southerner!”

The child’s father muttered a quick apology, but he needn’t have bothered on my account. Lahù’s tiny figure was already at the door; I hurried towards her through the throng almost blindly, pushed simultaneously by the desire to soften her anxiety and my own painful need to feel her closeness again. I caught her shoulders and bent to her, whispering to her ear, “Forgive me, Lahù. You know I didn’t mean it that way.”

Without turning, she shook her head. “It’s my fault.”

I was ready to deny that, but the streetcar stopped. For a moment, I was busy just grabbing blindly and trying to keep us both on our feet. And then we were out on the street again and, despite my longer legs, I had to fight to keep up with Lahù’s quick, nervous steps. At last, I felt stupid running after her like a puppy, and caught her wrist.

“Lahù!”

She turned and said, her voice thick with suppressed tears, “I—I’m sorry—I shouldn’t leave you alone like that. It’s just…”

I wouldn’t let her finish the sentence. Whatever chances there were for getting out of this, they all lay in her hands. And suddenly, I knew, still in that emotionless, shallow way, but I knew that it was the point of the relationship between a dreamseller and a guide: to pull one another from holes, whenever the effort become too much for just one person. I wet my lips, searching for words that would tell her that I knew. I couldn’t find them. So, instead, I took her arm and kept walking, asking the first stupid question that came to mind.

“That kid in the streetcar… why did he call me a Southerner?”

She shrugged, waving a hand to indicate people on the street. “Try to figure it out for yourself.”

I looked around, and immediately understood. Most of them were smaller than me. And they were mostly dark-skinned. Gray locks were the closest to light hair I could see. I frowned, uncertain of my memory, and pulled a tuft of my own hair over my forehead, trying to see its color. Lahù laughed and nodded.
“You’re very blond, Bobbie, yes. If your ears were pierced, I’d consider you Sayya Fiaytan, too. Or just Sayyan, actually. You were the one who told me they were two different peoples, and that only Sayyan pierce their ears, but they’re much stronger and more numerous than the Fiaytans, so other nations tend to lump them together. But then—” suddenly, she stopped and frowned at me—”you might be a Fiaytan, right?”

I spread my hands, strangely frightened by the question. “You mean to say you don’t know where I’m from? I’m not… not from Bana? Not from here?”

“Considering your looks, that’s hardly possible. But no, I don’t really know at all. You never told me. I simply assumed you’d come from Sayya Fiayta, because you knew so much.”

“About what?”

“Sayya Fiayta, of course! You’d tell tales of their mountains, their cold mists, their snow… you even used to laugh at our local winters, calling them ‘pure spring’ when compared to real Fiaytan snows, far south. I just presumed you must have come from there. I thought maybe you were a runaway or something, and didn’t want to discuss your past.” She lowered her eyes and added, barely voicing the words, “We said something about that.”

“What?”

She sighed. “Here and now… you really don’t remember? Here and now and getting back north.”

“Here and now and getting back north,” I repeated experimentally. “No, it doesn’t ring any bells.”
Shrugging, Lahù started walking again.

She led me through several narrow passages and winding alleys that led us to a square. It was small and didn’t seem like one of the tourist attractions of Bana.

Lahù crossed it calmly and waved to the streetcar standing on the other side of the square. I followed her with a renewed feeling of urgency. If I never remembered… I didn’t really want to consider that possibility, but I had thought that it wouldn’t be so bad, convinced Lahù could fill me in on everything I needed to know. Now, I realized what a huge part of my past could be lost forever if I didn’t recover. A thin voice in the depths of my skull was whispering it might not be a bad thing at all, but I shook it off.

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