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.


Freedom in Arbin available now!

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Freedom in Arbin is available to preview and purchase now on Smashwords and Amazon.

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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 »

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 »

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.*

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Fantasy as the unconscious dreamworld

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Fantasy, or the fantastic, can be read as a projection of our ideals, of our dreamlike ideologies. If we focus on fantasy literature, it raises interesting notions about why so often that limitless creative space (limitless by its very nature, the fantastic) is so often constrained by tolkienesque, mediaeval derivative settings.

Is it simply that we have romanticised that setting, or that time period? Is that a limitation of our dreaming? I would contend it is revealing of limitations we impose upon ourselves.

We often talk about fantasy in some ways reflecting the world we live in (let’s call it the real world, for simplicity) – and that notion of reflection, of mirroring, is crucial. It is interesting then to consider what values are reflected in the creation of a setting, or a culture, or a storyline, that are not done consciously. We must necessarily, and subconsciously, write in our own prejudices, our own judgments about the world’s limitations. Rather than simply treating fantasy as that mirror on the real world, it should be treated as a lens. In this way, we can better appreciate the limitations, our own prevailing ideologies that we unknowingly include. And by doing that, we can push back against them, as part of the very act of writing. Is that not a special power of any art?

But this must be a reflexive process: in writing, we consider the values and limitations we create and imply, and work through them not as the point of the writing, but as part of the act of writing. This self-criticism should be an ongoing and necessary part of the act of writing. So breaking the stereotypes and cliches, and considering our own ideologies in writing becomes not the end goal of the work, but something integral, freeing up the end goal, wiping the smudges from the lens.


In all spheres of human endeavour (especially creative), we should constantly try and break those boundaries we unknowingly impose, else we merely echo history and hegemony. But first we must recognise them, examine them, find their weaknesses (and their strengths). Again, I contend that fantasy provides an ideal setting in which to explore this process and carry it out.

If we don’t question our beliefs, they become self-reinforcing. They become assumptions – cliché and trope work this way. So if we don’t question why fantasy is enamoured of certain settings, we come to assume that they are a defining aspect of it.

As I have discussed previously, fantasy/the fantastic is a ripe field/genre for exploring our world and our assumptions, because it is a direct link (perhaps the most direct) to understanding our ideology. Like Freud thought dream was to conscious behaviour. This is not endorsement of the popular overgeneralisaton of Freud’s views, rather a recognition that in this convalescence between writing (the most direct form of self/auto-communication), and fantasy/genre (the most symbolically potent form of the art) we have a safe space to explore, we are not censored by ideology (rather, we are, but we can work through and around it by writing it in), just like dreams are seen as a safe space for the mind to explore emotions and actions and conceptions and fantasies that (more) conscious waking minds inhibit.

It is not that sex and death are the primal, underlying forces that drive all else, but that they are the most emotionally potent (the most intensely conditionable and the most primally feared); it is not that mediaeval settings are the most romantic and desired, but that these are the most able to directly solve the subconscious censor of our ideology, or so we think. The setting is also somewhat recognisable, relatable, and it echoes prevailing mythologies – of heroes and kings, and such. And while this creates great possibility, I feel it is also a dangerous lure – like a goldfish in a bowl, that thinks it swims in the sea.

We must always resist what comes easily, for that tells us something about our assumptions.

So not only is the content a lens on our world, the building blocks of that world are a lens through the writer. It is imperative that the writer is aware of what he or she is writing through.

Time and the space inside

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WP_20130809_004We are always looking for time and space.

People say that travel broadens the mind. For me, this is not just an expanding of horizons, of distances and numbers previously beyond awareness or comprehension; not merely of connection with ‘other’ social and cultural systems that bring about an awareness of other ways of thinking and ways of operating in the world; but of the possibility of immersion in those systems. Only immersion can beget understanding. By living the way an other lives for a time, to be challenged and fascinated by different boundaries and norms, forces you to confront your own operating assumptions, your wants and needs, relative fortunes, and supposed strangenesses. Therein lies the possibility of compassion. This is one of the romantic ideals of anthropology—to immerse and perhaps understand—and the inherent challenge of reflecting that back through familiar ways of understanding and viewing the world.

For me, the broadening occurs through the valuing of time. Time to think and reflect. And that immersion and reflection gives space, broadens the breathing space in the mind, to consider ideas and make connections.

Last time I travelled I had an idea, and over the course of a week or two, with space to reflect, that idea grew, and the story has now come to fruition. The time, freedom, and the state of mind allowed that idea to burgeon and find new connections, in ways that life at home doesn’t often allow.

Travel doesn’t broaden the mind—society and culture restrict the mind, and we should take whatever chance we get to loosen those restrictions, and to let thought branch and wander wherever it will.