Notes on “A Place of Honor”

The story “A Place of Honor” and its world has two distinct inspirations that I can recall, both dating to my college years.

The first when I learned that the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository existed. For those who don’t know, the YMNWR (as I will be calling it from here on out) is exactly what it sounds like: a big chamber hollowed out beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada, about a hundred miles from Las Vegas and about fifty miles from Area 51, intended to store nuclear waste for a very, very long time. So long, in fact, that it was deemed necessary to leave warnings for future generations about the dangerous material at the site. But the nuclear material would be radioactive for thousands of years to come. How do you leave a message for someone that may not even speak your language or understand your culture?

Different methods were proposed, ranging from the practical to the fantastic. Bury everything in concrete so that it’d be too costly to ever both to excavate. Leave the site completely unmarked so no future explorers would ever have a reason to believe the location had been used for anything. Build giant, eerie monoliths to create a sense of foreboding and unease in any who would wander by (for added effect, construct them of a dark material so they absorb heat and the area is unpleasant even to be in.) Create a non-governmental organization to function like a religion and pass down tales of the dangers of the site through the years. Genetically engineer cats to change color in the presence of massive amounts of radiation (no, I’m serious.)

With just a little bit of research it’s possible to find a treasure trove of information on the subject of YMNWR and similar sites around the country. But the bit that stood out to me was the message that was intended to be conveyed. An actual message was never settled upon, but the committee responsible for figuring out just what the hell to do with YMNWR came up with a general tone they wanted to convey. A few excerpts, for your reading pleasure.

This place is not a place of honor… no

highly esteemed deed is commemorated here

…nothing valued is here.

The danger is still present, in your time, as

it was in ours.

The danger is to the body, and it can kill.

The danger is unleashed only if you

substantially disturb this place physically.

This place is best shunned and left uninhabited

I love it. It sends chills down my spine every time. Imagine some future civilization learning that we created some great uncontrollable evil and could do nothing but hope to contain it deep beneath a mountain. That’s a story all in itself. How could I not use that?

The second inspiration for the story came from a challenge a friend of mine in college gave me. I’ve gotten it time and again since then, but college is the first place I remember hearing it. After reading a few of the stories I’d produced at that point, I was asked why I never had female protagonists.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know how to write women and I don’t want to do a bad job of it.”

“Well, why don’t you try?”

Why indeed. Recalling the story formed in my mind: the young chieftess of a village in a post-apocalyptic world is struggling with defending her people against neighboring tribes. They feared her father, but they do not fear her. The tribe has some technology from before the apocalypse, but it will not save them. One night, a village elder has a dream of a voice whispering to him from a vault deep beneath the desert sands. She gathers her best warriors and the elder and they venture many days into the desert, convinced that they will find some great power to defeat their foes. The elder’s trepidation grows until at last they come to the site, a twisted wreck of a tomb. Iconography of skulls and skeletons, of pain and agony adorn every wall. Inside the tomb are nothing but barrels full of debris, and the warriors become convinced that the tomb is cursed. But not the chieftess. All she can think about are the rivers and lakes back at home that her enemies draw water from and what might happen to them if this cursed material were dumped into them.

Obviously that’s not quite how the story turned out, but I’m sure you can see the seeds of its present form in that little anecdote.

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