Essays and Musings

Rejoice and transcendence: Compassion and a new ecology

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We are at a watershed. We’re on the verge of a phase transition toward a larger conception and experience of self, and that in that transition there are things…it is time to surrender.What is the next step that is calling to us in our evolution as beings? – Charles Eisenstein1

I think science fiction is inherently optimistic, despite the proliferation of dystopian settings. The fiction that we best engage with as readers is that which focuses on the characters—the study of humanity as it strives against the odds of whatever speculative settings an author might throw at it.

The saving of humanity from itself, in the guise of ecological collapse, is fertile ground for such an exploration of what constitutes humanity. In Rejoice: A Knife to the Heart2, Steven Erikson takes another fertile trope—first contact—strips it of all its explosive flair, and forces us to ask important questions, including: Why would they? and, importantly, What happens next?

Rejoice, A Knife to the Heart by Steven Erikson

In Climate: A New Story3, Charles Eisenstein charts our ecosystem’s decline, and the narratives employed that perpetuate our self-destructive reality. He convincingly argues that we need a complete inversion of our priorities, and this will not come from our current modes of activism, denial, or martial rhetoric.

Climate: A New Story

Eisenstein writes and speaks about the need for revolutionary experience, that our minds can best be changed by direct experience of our oneness with the earth and all it contains. Here, in Climate, he takes the most fundamental cause, saving our existence, and tells us that we need to meet it with love.

Rejoice is about aliens arriving and overturning our current unsustainable systems. Climate is about overturning our current assumptions about climate activism, and finding alternatives to those same systems. Both are thought experiments in the shape humanity might take.

These are two alternative futures being posited. They run the same basic script—our current methods and myths are powerless, and for humanity to move forward and prosper, for the earth to be healed, something is going to change. To that end, Erikson offers a specific case, a metaphor perhaps, while Eisenstein grounds it in reality, theory.4 Both are treatises for humanity, offering hope, based in compassion. Here, then, are two rallying cries for humanity to join hands and look for greater purpose.

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Cynthia Voigt’s Tales of the Kingdom – All Fantasy is the Kingdom

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I’ve been seeking something easier (well, no, easy bores me…something comfortable) to read. Something lighter for commutes and workday lunch hours. I tried rereading a few classics of fantasy that I’d read as a kid (though not, purportedly, for kids), but they didn’t hold up so well. People say they mature as readers, but is that necessarily true? I suspect a large portion of readers don’t, and that may explain the concept of ‘universal appeal’.

Glancing over a friend’s bookshelves I saw a handful of books by Cynthia Voigt, firmly in the young adult realm, and we’re not talking fantasy here. The name tickled my memory meat, and after a couple of days I recalled being gifted, as a child, her book Wings of a Falcon. A little research told me this was the third in a young adult fantasy series (loosely connected) by the author.

My curiosity was now piqued, so I got my hands on the first three (now repackaged) of her Tales of the Kingdom series. I remember that I dipped in a couple of times to that third volume, but never got far. I wanted my fantasy to have flailing swords, gouts of blood, grand battles. Instantly this took me now, and lulled me in.

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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 »