Essays and Musings

Shedding art’s symbolic skin

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Fall of Light: Book Two of the Kharkanas Trilogy

As I have begun to read the second book in this trilogy, what has struck me as an inherent challenge, and by extension an underlying theme, is the idea of rendering the abstract into words, into something known, concrete. To sculpt something tangible from abstract ideas, making physical change.

Of course the voice must be the blind poet’s, for how better to represent the challenge of making the abstract comprehensible, when that in itself cannot be seen. Without objectivity, there can only be subjectivity, and in subjectivity, there is all manner of truth.

At the beginning of this second instalment, we are confronted with the difficulty of facing the real, the concrete, the brutal truth, and in fact we shy away from it—much like being confronted by the blood of violence as opposed to the revelry in pronouncements of war. Not only is it impossible to portray the concrete, even when an attempt is made it is bound to fall short. It must be couched in known, shared terms. The symbolic lies between abstract and concrete, like shadow between dark and light.

I wrote in Sleight of Hand that the underpinning thesis of the Malazan Book of the Fallen was that no experience can be related, without living it itself—and so the journey of those books was the journey of the reader, becoming by doing. Here we are being shown a corollary of that idea, that the abstract cannot be portrayed or related—only the true experience holds the full effect.

And in the voice of the blind poet, the ink of this writer, we are seeing that problem laid bare, even as the very point necessitates its impossibility. The writer is discovering, reflexively, as this story progresses. The question now is, like in the Malazan Book of the Fallen, do we come along for the ride, do we live something in the concrete by experiencing this journey? Will we flinch from its truths even as it is dressed in a poet’s flourish? That is the holy grail for the artist—to communicate in the concrete, stripping away the symbolic layers and making it real.

There is of course a lot more going on here, but I’m interested to see if this thesis holds through the remainder of this book and the end of the trilogy.


How our stories were found: On Matt Bell’s Baldur’s Gate 2

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Part of what created this investment was a precise lack of detail writers call “flatness,” a way of making room for the reader to fill in motivations, psychology, physical details, or other attributes of characters and settings…you begin to fashion explanations for this behavior, imagining its effects on the character you’ve conjured in collaboration with the game. (Matt Bell, Baldur’s Gate, Loc 685 Kindle ed.)


In this way I used to submit my impressions of life to my grandmother, for I was never certain what degree of respect was due to anyone until she had informed me. Every evening I would come to her with the mental sketches that I had made during the day of all those non-existent people who were not her. (Proust, Within a Budding Grove)

A special thing happens when you are reading two books in tandem, or working on two projects, or you watch two distinct movies or hear two musical pieces in succession: you are primed to draw from them the things that connect them–themes, ideas, phrases, words, myths, key-changes. It could be called synchronicity, but that would assume the connections are inherent, there to be found–rather, in truth, the connections are made only when there is an observer doing the connecting–the way a character might not live if an author doesn’t tell their tale. There is no sense without a perceiver. No character without an author or player. No self without a cognizant, conscious mind. Read the rest of this entry »

Maybe we should talk about empathy?

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To what extent can we say that, in confronting the Otherness of Nature, humanity is confronting its own essence, the negative core of its own being? Speculatively, this is obviously true, since nature appears as a threatening Otherness only from the standpoint of a subject who perceives itself as opposed to nature: in the threatening negativity of nature, the subject receives back the mirror-image of its own negative relationship towards nature. –Zizek, Living in the End Times

Barely a video or article is produced that is critical of our ways of life, our over-consumption, the lack of political action on climate change, or resource depletion, without somebody piping up with the mantra of ‘yes, that’s all well and good, but maybe we should talk about overpopulation?’ Read the rest of this entry »

A critical issue in fantasy?

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I have been dancing around the idea of reflexive authorship in the fantasy genre, calling for conscious, empathic work. This rarely happens in isolation, and I would argue that strong critical voices are vital, perhaps necessary, to fostering that reflexivity in the genre.

If fantasy is to maintain any sort of standing as a subversive literature, there must be critical foundations to build and break. We must demand, as readers and writers, for critical voices, to foster our own reflexivity, and advance the conversation. There is no point becoming involved in a circular conversation—the best you can do is recite the known lines in unison. You must shift the conversation, intercept it, subvert it. Read the rest of this entry »

Fantasy as creation and subversion

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I have recently explored the idea that fantasy may consciously or unconsciously reflect aspects of our ‘real’ world. I argued that the more important reflection is of the unconscious reflecting of the writer’s culture/boundaries etc (their ideology) in the shape and form of the fantasy.

There is a notion of the fantastic as being the unreal—impossible—the ‘not’. But I think fantasy is most effective not when it merely creates impossibility, but when it defies the real. When it accepts and explores its boundaries, and challenges them fundamentally. That requires reflexive authorship. Again, this strikes at why horror can be so effective, because it works within the confines of the real, (presents the bounds) and then defies them by allowing the horrific (the fantastical aspect) to break through. This perturbs the psyche of the reader/characters. Read the rest of this entry »

Shattering the fantastical mirror

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Writing about escapism, I asked in a roundabout way how we might escape in fantasy, when the fantastic is the accepted structural norm. When fantasy is no longer an escape in and of itself, but a paltry reflection of ideology, what then is the route of escape from what is purportedly already an escape?

Well, psychoanalysis has a response—and it deals with the fantasy under which we live, not those we write.*

Read the rest of this entry »

Escapism and the genre wheel

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I want to continue this exploration of genre and how it functions as both a flavour of writing, and as a structural concept that informs both the subject of a piece of work or writing, and how it creates boundaries for that—what do those boundaries mean, and how do they inform us about the ideologies under which the writer strains? I’m exploring this not because I have a grand idea to organise these thoughts, but to help in finding one.

Generalising excessively, we can think about three broad genres of literature that are often considered to have at least some connection: fantasy, science-fiction, and horror. Of course, like so many other aspects, these bleed into one another, the boundaries are blurred, etc., but at their most basic, every reader has some broad concept of them as distinct. We can think of them as proto-genre. Each has become, in a way, a caricature, a defining structural characteristic, rather than an adjective that describes an event, or a theme, or an intrusion.

Each to some degree functions as a form of escapism—and also as a set of boundaries. But I think the most curious, and somehow defining, aspect is how they create escape by pushing against boundaries. Horror confronts fears, sci-fi seeks utopias (of course, I generalise), but fantasy is a more pure escapism, by virtue of creating a new set of boundaries.

Why? What do we need escaping from? Those are the questions that fantasy as a genre should probe. It is the safe dream that can drift away on gossamer threads on waking. Read the rest of this entry »