"The Unparallel'd Death-Defying Feats of Astoundio, Escape Artist Extraordinaire" by Ian Creasey — story background

Escaping from a black hole is one of the most challenging stunts an escapologist can attempt.  Firstly, there are many difficulties of presentation: it's not an exploit that can be performed onstage in an ordinary theatre.  Secondly, the audience needs to be educated to appreciate the feat, as half of them won't even know what a black hole is, let alone that escaping it was once proverbially impossible.  Thirdly, and most importantly, the show has to mean something: it must create an emotional impact.  That's the hardest part to achieve, when nowadays we're all so sated with sensation.

In 2004, I saw a TV documentary about Houdini.  It described his career and some of his most famous escapes.  The documentary claimed that Houdini's stunts were particularly popular in times and places where the population suffered from poverty and oppression.  The public wanted to see Houdini escape from the chains that bound him, because they themselves wanted to escape from the oppressive circumstances that afflicted their lives.

The claim may have been over-simplistic, in the usual fashion of TV documentaries.  Nevertheless, it points to an essential truth: no performance exists in a vacuum.  A performer must connect with the audience in some way, and the nature of the audience determines what kinds of shows are popular.

I found myself wondering how this connection would apply in an SF context.  I've always been fascinated by the concept of utopia, and I asked myself what kind of escapology acts might exist in utopia.  How would they connect with their audience?  The answer was obvious.

Everyone in Cockaigne is immortal — it wouldn't be utopia if you weren't immortal.  But the flipside of immortality is a fascination with death.

The escapologist would court death.  His stunt would be something that would kill him if he failed to escape.

But what kind of stunt should it be?  The props used by Houdini — handcuffs, straitjackets, milk cans — would be too old-fashioned for a story set in the future.  I needed something grander, something science-fictional.  I needed something that seemed impossible to escape from.  And so I decided that the escapologist would attempt to escape from a black hole.

Such a large-scale stunt necessarily depends upon technology.  After all, an escapologist can't just step into a black hole, and slip free by dislocating his shoulder.  He would require some kind of vehicle, i.e. a spaceship.  But writing about a technology-based stunt raised potential problems.

Firstly, there was the showmanship aspect.  If the performer just flew into the black hole, and then somehow flew out again, that wouldn't in itself make much of a show.  I needed something more.  I addressed this issue by having the performer take the audience along with him, into the black hole.

"Everyone can watch the show from here, but I'm also offering you the chance to accompany me into the black hole.  The only problem is that you won't come out."  I paused for emphasis.  "I'll come back, but that's because I'm an escapologist — it's my job.  The rest of you will all die."  I said this with cheery relish.

"Here's how it works: you'll each create a temporary disposable copy, which will transmit full-sense signals back to your original self.  The copy will enter the black hole, and the original will stay behind.  Or vice versa!  Either way, you'll simultaneously watch yourselves die, while also experiencing your own deaths."

So the audience got the ultimate show — their own death.

The second problem was: where did the tension come from?  Any sensible escapologist would rehearse his stunt and know how he intended to escape.  If the stunt was technology-based and simply required some kind of gizmo, then it wouldn't be very dramatic.  In order to provide tension and conflict, there needed to be an unpredictable element.

I solved this problem by adding sabotage.

The elite escapologists had a tradition of spicing up each other's stunts by adding a few extra hazards.  It made our exploits more challenging.  The danger escalated with every show, and the performers accrued ever more prestige from their death-defying feats.

The prospect of sabotage intoxicated me.  I knew what to expect from the black hole, but I had no inkling how my rivals might interfere.  I would have to rely on my wits, and my large stock of weaponry.

After addressing these issues in the outlining stage, I thought I had enough material to make a story.  In 2009, I wrote the first draft.  However, that initial version — despite containing lots of exciting incidents — felt somehow a little flat.  By then I was a sufficiently experienced writer that I could sense when a story seemed undercooked.  I put the draft aside for a while, so that I could come back to it later with a fresh eye.

In 2012 I returned to the story, and tried to figure out why it wasn't working.  I concluded that it needed an extra layer, something beyond the surface-level task of escaping from a black hole.  But what?

I went back to my original inspiration for the story: the notion of escapologists in utopia.  I asked myself why the story needed to be specifically set in utopia, rather than any other science-fictional future.

As soon as I realised the answer to this question, I had the final piece of the puzzle.  Everything fell into place.  I went back to the draft, and rewrote it.  The new version felt much more solid.  I submitted it to Sheila Williams at Asimov's, who bought it.

The journey from initial idea to published version took nine years.  But I was very happy with the result.  As a writer, I'm not one of those parents who loves all their children equally.  I definitely have favourites, and this story is one of mine.

Page last updated: 2 September 2015