"The Odour of Sanctity" by Ian Creasey — story background

Every day, Dora felt guilty when she arrived at the hospice in the centre of Manila.  Francesco had forbidden her to come.  "Others need you more than I do," he'd said, when he was still able to talk.

She came anyway.  Today, as always, she disembarked from the crowded jeepney into the smell of traffic fumes, garbage, and fried bananas from the street vendor.  Beyond the hospice doors, the city odours disappeared, swallowed by the Olvac filters and replaced by a soothing scent of apples.  Dora walked upstairs to Francesco's room, which was small but comfortable.  He needed nothing larger, there being no prospect of him rising from his bed.

I've always been a fan of J.G. Ballard's fiction, and one of my favourite Ballard stories is "The Sound-Sweep".  This was first published in 1960 in the magazine Science Fantasy; it later appeared in Ballard's collection The Four-Dimensional Nightmare, and is currently available in The Complete Short Stories of J. G. Ballard: Volume 1.

The titular sound-sweep is a technician who operates a device called a "sonovac", which sucks up sounds and residues of noise, depositing these in a sonic dump.  Ballard plays with the ramifications of this concept over the course of a long novelette.  I shan't attempt to summarise the story here, because I would inevitably be forced to omit too much, and one of the pleasures of the story is seeing how all the various elaborations are successfully integrated.  It's a masterpiece of craftsmanship, and it also has some funny moments — Ballard has a subtle wit that's often overlooked.

Inspired by the sound-collecting sonovac, I came up with the idea of a device called the Olvac, which collects odours.  I originally intended to write a Ballard pastiche, as an homage.  However, after contemplating some possible storylines, I found myself reluctant to tackle them — partly because I was intimidated by the challenge of writing that kind of story.  To put it bluntly, Ballard was a genius, and I'm not.

And so the Olvac languished in my files for a few years, until one day I hit upon the idea of using this device in tandem with the real-world concept of the odour of sanctity.  Like many writers, I read widely and I have a mind full of oddments, some of which eventually find their way into stories.  I'd known about the odour of sanctity for a long time, but I'd never considered it in the context of the Olvac because I'd originally intended to write a Ballard pastiche.  After I abandoned that notion, the Olvac became available for a wider range of storylines, and I realised that the odour of sanctity would be an excellent fit.

From the basic concept, it was easy to create the characters and plot.  The hard part was the setting.  Because the odour of sanctity is a Catholic tradition, the story needed to be set in a country with a significant Catholic population.  And because the story hinged on the possibility of saints and miracles, its setting needed to be somewhere that these things mattered.  After some thought, I decided upon the Philippines.

I knew that this would cause some difficulty, because I've never been to the Philippines.  I did as much research as I could manage, but there's only so much you can learn from your desk.  Luckily, my online writing group Codex contained two people who had spent time in the Philippines, and they generously provided commentary upon my first draft.  I made numerous changes based on their feedback.  The final version may still have some flaws, but I hope that there's nothing too egregious.

Page last updated: 6 December 2017