December 17th, 2014 § § permalink
I cannot tell you how excited I am to share this video with you all.
That’s my friend Daniel Jordan on the right; he’s a biophysicist and excellent musician who’s writing a way cool rock opera adaptation Wagner’s Ring Cycle, because that’s how we roll in Somerville Mass.
Other news, if you are insufficiently Holiday’d: Tor.com, the more fools they, invited me to write about whether The Nightmare Before Christmas is properly a Christmas movie, or a Halloween movie, or what. This in turn occasioned me to engage in my favorite pasttime: obsessive rumination on religion and story structure, plus Die Hard references!
This is a frivolous question, sure, like some of the best. But even frivolous questions have a serious edge: holidays are ritual times, and stories are our oldest rituals. The stories we tell around a holiday name that holiday: I’ve failed at every Christmas on which I don’t watch the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. When December rolls around, even unchurched folk can get their teeth out for a Lessons & Carols service.
So let’s abandon trappings and turn to deep structures of story. Does The Nightmare Before Christmas work as Christmas movies do? Does it work as Halloween movies do? It can achieve both ends, clearly—much as a comedy can be romantic, or a thriller funny. But to resolve our dilemma we must first identify these deep structures.
Happy holidays, y’all!
December 3rd, 2014 § § permalink
Hi everyone! I’m back at Tor.com this week, with a post about Interstellar and Kip Thorne. Behold: an essay in which I get excitable and incoherent about science writing! Read the rest here!
Or, if you’re interested, I’m trying a strange experiment: video! What experiment is this, you say. Here, says I:
What do you think? Worth doing more? Oh my god Gladstone stay off our video internet?
Other news: I’ve published a rare Craft Sequence short story, as part of the Shared Nightmares anthology. It’s available right now wherever fine books and ebooks are sold, stars Tara and Abelard, and is a piece of good clean fun about nightmares and office technology. Enjoy!
Oh, and though it should go without saying: it’s Christmastime! Have you considered possibly acquiring a nice new book for you and / or your friends?
November 19th, 2014 § § permalink
First things first: for your regular weekly dose of crazy Max thoughts about weird geek stuff, go check out this article I wrote for Tor.com on why Indiana Jones isn’t that bad of an archaeologist really:
Indiana Jones isn’t that bad of an archaeologist.
I mean, okay, the low relative quality of his archaeological expeditions is so notorious it’s become a bit of a truism. There’s a great McSweeney’s list of the reasons Herr Doktor Jones was denied tenure. Even as I make this argument, I can hear friends of mine who spent their summers on digs cringe inside, across the continent. (Hi, Celia!) But hear me out. This won’t take long.
(Looks at rest of essay)
Um. Maybe it will. Keep reading anyway.
This brings us to an important housekeeping issue: starting with this post, I’ll be over at Tor.com once every other week, posting weird off-the-wall essays on geek madness. Since blog post writing (especially at this length) cuts into fiction-writing time, I’ll be restricting myself to brief posts on this site on the weeks a Tor.com piece goes live—mostly pointing your way to the Tor.com column. I have Grand Schemes about multimedia elements to complement the Tor.com pieces, but that will take shape when I have more time than I do at the moment.
Speaking of which: second important housekeeping issue! Due to Deadline Confluence, I’ll be less available on social media and the like than usual for the rest of the year. Basically I’ll be keeping old-fashioned Visiting Hours—I’m At Home to Friends or Reasonable Facsimiles Thereof on Twitter and Facebook Monday and Wednesday afternoons. All other times, my currently live Schemes require above-average levels of Brutal Focus. Plus side: if I come through this alive, you’ll have a book, and a game, and I might be able to play Dragon Age: Inquisition!
Third important housekeeping issue! I’ve done most of the website redesign I’ve planned. The site doesn’t look much different, but I’ve created individual book pages, added a description for the Craft Sequence, and given you a menu of delectable and free short fiction upon which to browse. Also, my Events page is up to date with confirmed Con appearances through August! Coming soon: fan art gallery.
Fourth—ah, no, this really isn’t a housekeeping issue, it’s just that Breaking Bad / Frozen video you’ve seen elsewhere. Still great though!
November 5th, 2014 § § permalink
To start, news! I have a new short story out this week! Don’t expect this kind of treatment regularly, but I wrote a thing about supervillains at a bar, and it’s in the first issue of Uncanny Magazine, the rest of which is also worth reading! Now, on to your regularly scheduled bloviating.
National Novel Writing Month is here! If you’re not a dual-class writer / internet person this may not mean much to you, so here’s the skinny: every November, people around the world sign up to write 50,000 words over the course of the calendar month. This is a large number of words to write. For participant, especially those who haven’t done it before, NaNoWriMo may feel like a constant sprint against a voracious and ever-advancing wordcount target. 1,667 words every single day. Weekends. Holidays.
The Target does not stop. The Target does not sleep. The Target doesn’t care about your nervous breakdown. Tired? Wrists hurt? Out of coffee? Tough. The Target still shambles forward, rotten teeth jutting jagged from rotten gums. Run as fast as you can, look back, and you’ll find the Target behind you—always just behind you somehow, over your shoulder, down that alley. Rest and it will find you. The Target has no sympathy. The Target feels no pain. The Target doesn’t feel anything, really, not even hunger. Feelings are a distraction. The Target eats. The Target follows. The Target’s behind you right now. You could feel its breath on your neck, if it breathed. The air stinks of rot and typewriter ribbon.
I live the fight against the Target. I lived it long before I stumbled into this neat, terrifying place where I fight the Target full-time. If this is your first time through, or, hell, if this is your fifth time through but you still feel that fear, if you wake some nights drowning in the stink of rot and typewriter ribbon—I’m here to offer you some pieces of advice I hope will be worth the time you’re even now thinking you could have, should have, spent running, fighting, building barricades. I hope—this will help you. Because it’s a vicious world out there.
Don’t Panic (Though it will get bad.) The Target knows your fear. It’s not smart, understand—but it uses your own smarts against you, instinctively. Our great-great-a-billion-times-great grandmas were little rats quivering under leaves as monstrous feathered lizards prowled for a snack—we’re built to freeze under pressure, or to run. The Target’s dumb, but thorough. If you remain in place, it will devour you. And the closer it gets (or the further ahead it gets!) the more a little voice will whisper in your ear: freeze. Don’t trust that voice. The Target won’t get you if you run, and keep running. And on that note…
Don’t Sprint (Unless You’re Almost Safe.) If you want to rely on sprinting, you should have been born a cheetah. There’s good evidence humans evolved to jog after animals across the savannah until they died from exhaustion and fright. You remember the bit in Butch and Sundance where they go: “Who are these guys?” That’s us, in the animal kingdom. That’s humans. I know a woman who accidentally killed her friend’s dog while taking it for a run—she’s an ultramarathonner, and turns out dogs aren’t built to run marathons. That’s the human race right there. We can sprint, when we need to, but that’s not how we’re built. Write ten thousand words in a day and your wrists will cringe, your back will seize, your scavenger’s mind will yearn to do anything else. Which is fine if you’ve just made it to that Last Redoubt called The End. It’s a problem if you’re in the middle of Act III with 40,000 words left and Target closing in. If you’re behind, if you’re in Target-held territory, figure out how to extricate yourself smoothly and dependably. Yes, Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in a couple weeks on a single roll of butcher paper, but (1) you’re not Jack Kerouac, (2) he was on a disgusting amount of Benzedrine, and (3) you’re still not Jack Kerouac. Oh, and (4), he’d written three test drafts of the novel before he sat down with the butcher paper. So:
Trust Your Plan (Most of the time.) Stress makes human beings good at lots of stuff, but it shoots our reasoning abilities in the gut. Literally! Your body doesn’t know the difference between “oh god oh god tiger gonna eat me” and “this is a minor career setback that can be overcome with reasonable effort.” So when you smell that rot and typewriter ribbon, you’ll manufacture all sorts of crazy ideas. What the hell am I doing? I should set fire to this whole manuscript. I should set fire to this whole coffee shop. Most insidious: this plan, these ideas I wrote back when I was safe, before the world began to burn, they’re all shit and I’m shit and oh my god we’ve been on the wrong path this entire time, let’s run left into the forest! Which isn’t bad in itself, but odds are you don’t know how to navigate the forest, and there are actual honest-to-god tigers out there. But sometimes you have to…
Listen to Your Gut (When it’s right.) Yeah, I know, I just said don’t do this, but if this was a science we’d be on PhDComics and I’d have better job security. Here’s the flip side of “trust your plan”—you made your plan before you met the Target. You made your plan based on a Google Earth map of the territory you’d be running through, without setting foot on the ground. Maybe that route you charted is uphill. Maybe Google Earth was wrong (shock! horror!) and the route’s actually a dead end. Maybe Godzilla smashed the Golden Gate Bridge, and you needed that bridge. Yeah, your plan made sense when you drew it, but you know, now, that you’ve taken a wrong turn. Here’s storytelling’s dirty secret, the ball they hide in those seminars about Aristotle and Freytag: our bodies know stories. And just so we don’t hide the ball any further: yes, I’m talking about sex. Just look at this diagram, which is super-industry-standard stuff I pulled from a Gamasutra article I found by googling Story Tension Diagram. There are roughly a billion of these on the internet.
What’s that look like to you? Really? To me it looks like an excellent night in. There’s a writing prompt here, but I try to keep this site pg-13.
But, and this is crucial, there is a difference between the voice in your gut that’s right and the voice that’s wrong. That’s hard to learn. You learn it on the ground, in unfamiliar territory, with Target closing in. Some guidelines that work for me: the voice that says “this project is horrible, you’re horrible” is generally wrong. The voice that says, “woah, wait a second, I’m really not into this” is often right. For me, and feel free to disregard because I’m verging on Mystical Writer Mumbo Jumbo here, if I’m paying attention I can even tell where those voices are coming from. The first sits behind and above my shoulders, pressing down and forward. The second is a hole just in front of my spine, below the belly button, about where taiji folks will place the dan-t’ien. Done with Mystical Writer Mumbo Jumbo for the moment. Trust your gut. Trust your plan. You won’t survive without both.
Find Friends who Know the Target. This is a lonely fight. It’s terrifying. People lose all the time. You will freeze, you will dive into the woods, you will hew to a plan when the landscape on which the plan was based lies in a million shattered pieces at your feet. You need friends. You need people who understand. It’s best if they’ve been here before, if they’ve run from the Target, if they’re running now—but really, if you scratch the surface, everyone has a Target. They might not realize it, but they do. Find friends. Lower your shields against one another so you can present a shield wall against the Target. Beat an orderly retreat together.
Trust the Time Machine. There’s a time machine in the Last Redoubt, and once you reach it, you can go back. Those weird sentences you know you wrote? You can fix them. That unnecessary chapter? Make it necessary, or cut it out. That scene which starts too soon, or too late, you can start it on time. Don’t flounder on the road, dreaming about the time machine. Once you reach the Last Redoubt, you’ll have all the time in the world. For now, you have to keep moving—so long as you know what direction you’re moving in. This is especially true while the Target’s chasing you. There’s no time for Joycean line-by-line angst. Run. Move. Breathe. Make mistakes. If they are mistakes, you can fix them later. But sometimes they aren’t mistakes. Sometimes they’re bigger than that. Sometimes they’re big enough to be genius.
It’s not about the Target. Betrayal! you cry. Treachery! Treason! Hogwash, I say: the target does not matter. Repeat that. If the Target matters, you will lose. The Target is death, the Target is implacable, the Target is the mechanical pacing rabbit. Don’t settle for surviving the Target. Have something to live for. Know what you want at the end of the race. Know your Last Redoubt. Know the friend you’ll rescue in the knick of time. Aim for that swordfight, that first kiss, the final joke you’ve spent the whole book setting up. Remember why you’re here—remember why you decided to write this book. Justice? Love? Rebellion? Taste it. Smell it. That’s what will pull you forward, through all the connective tissue, through all the wrong turns, through the jungle, through the stench of rot and ribbon. Go there. Take your reader with you.
I’m Writing this for You, and for Me. There’s a reason I don’t do writing advice on this blog often. Storytelling is the big human project. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years—exploring its possibilities, developing forms and techniques, trying new things and rehearsing old schemes. We tell stories about gods and we tell stories about atoms and we tell stories about people, who are even weirder than gods and atoms. Storytelling is complicated, is what I’m saying. I’ve thought about this stuff for a long time. I’ve written way more than my 10,000 hours. I still lose my way. I come from schools of martial arts where teaching is what a master gives you, or a coach. Senior students know what works for them—but they might not know enough to know that their advice only works in a certain context. A fencer might feel he’s winning for one reason but might actually be winning for another reason altogether. It’s mad.
And I’m no master. I’ve published books. I’ve been nominated for awards. I write quickly, and well, and dependably. And still I just finished a 12,500 word story—took me four days to write, and in the process I had every problem I’ve listed here, and more besides. This is a letter to my future self as much as it is to you. Maybe this will all come off as presumptive and weird. But…
I started bouldering this year. And one of the things I love about it is: there’s no master. Just you and the wall. And if you’re having trouble, one thing you can do is turn to the guy or gal next to you and say, “Damn, I’m having a hard time with this. Any ideas?” Their ideas might not work. They might. But either way they give you something new to take to the wall.
So that’s what I have for you this week: a bit of advice from someone else staring up the wall.
Go climb. Kick ass. Build something awesome.
The world needs more of that.
October 29th, 2014 § § permalink
Happy Halloween, goblins and ghouls!
In celebration of this awesomest of holidays, I have a new short story to share with you.
A Kiss with Teeth, a tale of Halloween-ish import, went live on Tor.com this morning. Here’s how it starts:
Vlad no longer shows his wife his sharp teeth. He keeps them secret in his gums, waiting for the quickened skip of hunger, for the bloodrush he almost never feels these days.
The teeth he wears instead are blunt as shovels. He coffee-stains them carefully, soaks them every night in a mug with ‘World’s Best Dad’ written on the side. After eight years of staining, Vlad’s blunt teeth are the burnished yellow of the keys of an old unplayed piano. If not for the stain they would be whiter than porcelain. Much, much whiter than bone.
White, almost, as the sharp teeth he keeps concealed.
You can read the rest on Tor.com.
Have a wonderful, and spooky, rest of the week. Remember: Skeleton Jack says, SMILE.
October 22nd, 2014 § § permalink
Goblins: how do they work?
Okay, maybe this isn’t the Great Question of Our Time, but this is my airspace and I can write about goblins if I damn well please.
Goblins are a standard fantasy setting element deriving from folklore and more proximately (as with many other standard fantasy setting elements) from Tolkien. Tolkien abandoned the term “goblin” after The Hobbit, though, preferring “orc.” Goblins as gamers recognize them today spring largely from Gygax et. al.’s use of the species in as a common enemy for low-level players in Dungeons & Dragons. The archetypical low-level D&D adventure features a handful of player characters sallying forth into a goblin warren to kill goblins and make off with goblin gold.
D&D has traditionally viewed goblins as fast-breeding humanoids, evil by definition, who salt away treasure and present an ideal target for adventuring parties looking for experience and gold. This vision has a whole bunch of terrifying racist and colonialist implications, which others have critiqued in fictional form. But what if we’ve been wrong about goblins all along? What if evidence suggests goblins are much weirder than we thought?
Trawling around the internet last week, I found an old Daily MTG blog post about the creation of the Jund shard, a sub-world in Alara block and a bunch of you aren’t even reading this any more, you just see a string of “nerd nerd nerd” all along the screen. Well, you’re the one who clicked on a link about goblins and fungi, so who’s the nerd now?
Still me, probably.
Anyway, I find worldbuilding in Magic: the Gathering interesting, so I read the article, and about halfway down the page, found the following quote:
High ground is bad; low ground is good. Dragons are aerial predators, and usually hunt at high elevations. Most goblins, who actually revere the thought of being eaten by dragons, live up on the mountain peaks, welcoming the draconic attention. Smarter prey species, such as humans, live in the relative safety of the bejungled valleys and lowlands (where they’re picked off by viashino and carnivorous plants instead).
I hadn’t run across this particular piece of MTG lore previously, and it threw me. Goblins don’t just revere the thought of being eaten by dragons, which would be weird enough—they’ve built an entire civilization on mountain peaks, the better to be so devoured. What kind of even semi-intelligent organism would live in its apex predator’s habitat for purely ritual reasons? Remember, we’re not talking about an occasional Moses-like quest up to the mountaintops to meet glory in a dragon gullet. The article says “most goblins.” And there are a lot of goblins! That’s one thing goblins do: have a lot of themselves.
You can’t even explain this away by claiming this weird cultural quirk dooms goblins to extinction. For one thing, cultures rarely doom themselves—the most obviously self-destructive ritual movements, like Shakerism, tend to be subcultural. For another, the world in question, Jund, is described as being ruled by raw natural selection. Nothing even slightly weak survives. This is a realm of warrior kings and alligator men, carnivorous plants and enormous rhinoceroses. So, if goblins exist here, it’s because they’re frighteningly well-suited for this environment. And part of their being well-suited for this environment must involve being eaten by dragons.
Nor is this vision of goblinhood unique to this sub-sub-universe of the greater Magic: the Gathering cosmos. Goblins exist in as many realms as elves, which is to say basically all of them, because elves are the meth of fantasy—an addictive chemical substitute for real excitement and novelty. (Seriously. Elves. Not even once.) (Except in Tolkien. And Swanwick. And dammit I’m just gonna pull a Whitman on this one, claim my right to self-contradiction, and return to my original argument.) Wherever goblins appear in the Magic: the Gathering cosmos, they fit the same profile: insanely numerous, aggressive, and self-destructive. Let me give you an example:
You don’t even need to read the text to understand what this card does: the chirurgeon is sawing off one goblin’s leg, while another goblin waits on crutches for his new leg. The card lets you sacrifice goblins to help other creatures (the other creatures don’t even need to be goblins!)—which is a decent deal for a goblin player, because she’ll always have more goblins. Or consider this card:
This one’s a little harder to understand just from the picture, but it isn’t that much harder. Some goblins are trying to throw a comically huge Spy vs. Spy style bomb using a slingshot. That’s a dumb idea, you may say. The bomb could go off at any time! And in fact this is true: when Goblin Bangchuckers tries to, you know, chuck bangs, you flip a coin, and if you lose the flip, the Bangchuckers kill themselves.
How is this a reasonable way to run a military?
Oh, they’re just goblins, you may say. If you want artillery that works, call the dwarves! Being bad at stuff is just a Goblin thing. I mean, look at what happens when they do archaeology:
That’s an even less expressive picture, but, spoiler alert, goblins are horrible at archaeology. A goblin archaeologist, presumably trained in the profession, stands a fifty percent chance of destroying whatever object he’s trying to unearth, a 50% chance of straight up killing himself, and a 0% chance of doing anything that you or I would call archaeology. That’s even worse than Indiana Jones, who for all the justifiable criticism thrown his way has a 50% chance of actually retrieving the artifact he sets out to retrieve, and a 16.7% chance of getting it to a museum. (Based on observable evidence from movies that actually exist, which is to say, Raiders, Temple, and Crusade.)
How on Earth, any Earth, do creatures evolve that are so bad at everything they do? You could say that goblins didn’t evolve—but Word of God, which is to say, Word of Designer, indicates that natural selection does in fact apply in at least some Magic: the Gathering universes.
I propose: a species like the goblin will only arise if its evolutionary strategy is dramatically different from that of a mammalian scavenger species (e.g. us). In English, which I do speak occasionally: goblins only work if what would be bad performance in mammalian scavenger species is in fact good performance for them. Some aspect of goblins’ evolutionary dynamic must force them to self-destructive behavior.
Perhaps goblins have huge clutch sizes, or fast reproductive cycles. That would explain their aggressive behavior, since a rapidly reproducing species needs more space, and expansion will bring them into conflict with their neighbors. But this theory doesn’t justify individual goblins’ self-destructive behavior. Nor does it explain the relative absence of competent professionals among goblin ranks. If the best even a professional chirurgeon can do is kill one goblin to save another, if an archaeologist stands a fifty percent chance of killing himself whenever he plies his trade, we’re either dealing with a species that is predetermined to be Bad at Stuff, or one with some reason not to regard death as a big deal.
Which brings us to fungi.
Mushrooms and the like reproduce sexually and asexually, using spores released from the fruiting body of the fungus. Asexual reproduction means the fungus doesn’t have much reason to care for its individual survival: its clones endure alongside its children. The fungus is primarily concerned, to the extent anything concerns a fungus, with the question of spore dispersal.
Let’s ponder, for a moment, the kind of culture an ambulatory fungus might construct. Individual fruiting bodies would probably seem, to us, utterly unconcerned with their own survival when confronted with large-scale dispersive destruction. Struck with a fireball, or blown up by your own bomb? No problem! The force of the blast spreads your spores over the battlefield. Chopped up by a surgeon to patch up some other creature (not necessarily a goblin)? Great! The new creature will carry you around for the rest of its life, dispersing your spores on the way. Killed in battle? Your spore-laden blood sticks to your adversary’s boots—and when she washes off in the nearest river, the current will carry your spores to unknown lands. Eaten by a dragon? Best of all possible worlds. Assuming that your spores are resistant to a dragon’s intestinal juices, which is not implausible, being devoured by a dragon is a one-way ticket to dispersal throughout the plane—or even to other planes, if you’re very lucky, since some dragons have magical powers, including in some cases the power to shift from one universe to another.
Such an organism might even have a dramatically different sense of what being “good” at a trade might mean. We want our doctors to heal us so we can continue our daily business, with an eye toward eventually reproducing in safety—an ambulatory fungus wants a doctor to help it disperse. Our bombers want to survive; for an ambulatory fungus of the sort we’re imagining here, dying in a giant explosion is a good outcome. The fungus we envision does not sow or reap. It fights because battle is an efficient reproductive strategy. Whatever it does, it does in a way that maximizes its potential spore dispersal.
This species sounds an awful lot like the goblins described above. And Fungus Theory explains some other oddities of the species—for example, the fact that Magic: the Gathering goblins lack obvious primary or secondary sexual characteristics, and that a search of Gatherer, the database of all Magic: the Gathering cards, reveals a single nominally female goblin, the Goblin Matron, whose card art conveys no biological gender markers whatsoever. “Matron” might be a purely social role in the Goblin community, that of an enabler of goblin reproduction. Much more sensible if goblins are fruiting fungal bodies.
Seen in this light, rather than a designated target for “virtuous” adventurers engaged in campaigns of extermination and colonization, goblins become a complex, practically immortal species radically alien from the hominidae they regularly fight. Goblins obviously wouldn’t be forthcoming about this difference—their long-term reproductive strategy relies on humanoids treating them as humanoids. To a goblin, the human birth-death reproductive cycle would seem crude and disgustingly slow, the human insistence on throwing themselves into battle without promise of clone-resurrection borderline psychotic. Goblins’ role as fantasy cannon fodder serves to spread their species to undreamt of realms and alien shores. Who knows how many million goblins have spread to strange new worlds as a spore in an adventurer’s boot, as a growth on dragon fewmets, as a dried speck of blood on a planeswalker’s trouser cuff?
Consider the perspective of the goblin, suicidally immortal. Humans build their tiny cities, dwarves delve, elves frolic in treetops. But goblins thrive everywhere. They always have been, and will always be.
Or don’t, and enjoy your Designated Antagonist Species. I like my option better.
Thanks to Daniel Jordan, for the critical logical leap underpinning this essay.
Also: looking for a good Halloween read? I just finished Peter Watts’ Blindsight, which is delightfully creepy, and contains some cool theory-of-mind loop-de-loops to boot. Many folk seem to find Watts’ vision bleak; I don’t, which maybe means I’m more cynical than I thought? Anyway. Give it a shot, especially if you’re interested in science fiction as the realm of the Big, Old, and Weird.
October 15th, 2014 § § permalink
This is not a review of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks.
I don’t even mean that in the self-consciously Magrittesque kind of way. If this were a review I’d tell you to read the book, or not, which I don’t plan to do. I mean, okay, for those of you who haven’t made up your minds on David Mitchell’s latest opus: while I had an excellent time on every individual page, the book landed strange for me, and this essay is me trying to figure out why. Asking “Should I read this book” is like asking “Should I take up power lifting?” or “Should I learn Chinese?” Answer: depending on your goals, your experience, your medical history, your ambitions, how much free time you have—Maybe?
I do, though, think this book succeeds at something really really cool and interesting, even if it fails as a unit. And the shape of this cool interesting thing challenges the goals and underlying structures of modern science fiction and fantasy—especially fantasy.
Because Mitchell’s written a fantasy novel. That point seems impossible to argue. His world contains immortals who teleport, throw fireballs around, and kill people with a thought. To call it anything else would be silly. And yet…
Let’s face it: the science fiction and fantasy community tends to moan about the “genre divide,” the fact that, say, Gene Wolfe and Nnedi Okorafor don’t stand much chance of winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. That’s a fine conversation to have, but the more we have it the more we tend to overlook the fact that great writers on the literary side of the line are biting our style in the best possible way—taking genre markers and doing fabulous, weird things with them.
Yes, some literary writers reap praise for using the genre toolbox to create work that, on a genre shelf, would pass unnoticed or fall into the gap of “well-written but unremarkable”—but many make masterpieces. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is a science fictional retelling of Hamlet (or, more precisely, the parts of Hamlet that take place before Act I); Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles is a lyric Trojan war tragedy complete with gods and ghosts. (The reverse happens too: Karen Joy Fowler’s used science fictional techniques to write a killer literary novel in We are All Completely Beside Ourselves.)
So let’s talk about the The Bone Clocks. The rest of this essay, my lawyer instructs me to tell you, includes spoilers for that book, as well as for The Magicians, Cloud Atlas, The Sandman, and the first thirty minutes of Secret of Mana. Cool? Cool.
As in Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, we’re treated here to a series of novellas that, very loosely speaking, follow a central character—Holly Sykes—through her life, from her teenage years in the 80s to her grandmotherhood in 2043. The first and last novella star Holly, while the rest follow other characters who intersect her life. A supernatural war takes place behind the novel’s scenes, between a group of basically peaceful immortals and another of spiritual carnivores: magicians who gain eternal life by eating human souls.
So far, so good. Most fantasy novels, given this sort of backdrop, would naturally settle in to some sort of Hero’s Journey. Holly’s first encounter with Magic Stuff happens after she’s run away from home; that will be her call to adventure, and we’ll follow as she learns the truth of the hidden world. She’ll discover, amid earthshattering adventures, that the bourgeoise reality of Gravesend and her family pub is the tissue paper surface over a world of secret powers and transcendent danger. She’ll beat the Bad Guys in a triumphant display of mystic acumen, or Love, or Whatever Our Target Virtue Is This Week, but she Can’t Go Home Again, or if she Can, her Going Home becomes a tragedy of magic, friends, and love abandoned.
This structure stands at the core of modern genre. I’m not saying it’s bad, or even good, just that it’s there. This is Star Wars, this is The Dark is Rising, this is Wizard of Earthsea, this is The Lord of the Rings and War for the Oaks. (All stories, by the way, for which I have a deep affection.)
But this isn’t The Bone Clocks. I’ll call what he’s doing anti-fantasy, and I think it’s wonderful.
See, that Hero’s Journey, when implemented weakly, has a glaring problem: the home village starts to seem awfully small and useless set against the background. The village is the eggshell that contains and constrains our young Hero, until its destruction frees her. After emerging wet and sticky as a fledgeling chick, she must clean herself of the (often perfunctorily handled) trauma before she, or more often he, can soar above the world, unbound by cruel gravity! Etc. So we who read stories of this kind over and over as children start to think, damn, I can’t wait for something to come and tear me away from this place, and these losers. When will I hear the Call to Adventure? When will I get my Hogwarts letter, or stumble into Narnia? When will I turn out to be the Chosen One?
When will this illusion I’m living break open to confront me with the Real?
This is the mindset Lev Grossman skewers in The Magicians, where Quentin keeps waiting for existential satisfaction to descend on him from On High as if God Herself opened the Ineffable Faucet. And of course the continually-repeated joke of that book is that it never happens, because you stay you, even when you can do magic. It doesn’t help for Quentin to go to magic school, or master magic, or go to Fillory, or even to learn that basically the entire world has been arranged for his benefit. We need to go hunt down meaning, or build it, rather than waiting in our discontent for the faucet to open. (Reactions to The Magicians seem to vary widely depending on when the reader in question processed that particular insight. Folks who figured it out earlier tend to have relatively little sympathy for Quentin.)
That’s the psychological picture. Socially, in fantasy novels the “real” world can seem like a shadow when set against the magical Other. (Sometimes it’s literally described that way: when you get to the Other World the colors are sharper, more vivid, etc.) Some books reinforce this phenomenon by presenting the hero’s pre-magic life in cursory terms at best. We’re supposed to believe the protagonist wants to get back to her home village—but do we really care? In the first act of the SNES classic Secret of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 2), when my Hero was banished from his home, my first reaction was: good riddance! It was a boring village.
(This, at the risk of derailing into discussion of my own work, is part of the reason I try to focus on my characters’ relationships to their home towns, even when that relationship is an ambitious “get me the hell out of this dump, I want to rule the world!” as in Tara’s case—antipathy is interesting. Anyway.)
If that’s fantasy, then the Bone Clocks is an anti-fantasy: it wrestles constantly with fantasia’s tendency to sap meaning from normal human life. The fantasy element here is textbook cool, with all the weird names and strange language I love (though Mitchell’s lack of experience writing pure fantasy does him a slight disservice: some of the language he invents for fantastical concepts fits poorly in the mouth—psychosoterica and psychovoltage, for example and in my opinion), but it’s by far the least compelling part of the book. It’s a classic case of cool as the enemy of caring. Outside of the fantasy elements, the human stakes in each scene are masterfully drawn, the drama tight and elegant, the characters’ individual flaws and foibles clear and compelling, while the fantasy is a shadow-play at best. I cared much more about whether the war reporter would go to his daughter’s school play or accept his next assignment, whether the teenage runaway would make it in the big world, whether the Bad Boy of British Letters would eventually become a decent human being, than about the soul carnivores’ machinations.
Ordinarily I have a kind of sick sadistic expectation when reading a fantasy (or for that matter horror) novel: when’s the cool stuff coming? When will those pleasant peasants bite it? But in The Bone Clocks I found myself dreading the very material for which I usually drool. A bad guy pops out of a hole in the air to ruin the day of an acerbic novelist, and for once rather than saying “yeah, let’s see some action!” I’m scared for our novelist friend. I don’t just want him to survive the confrontation with the evil wizard—I want the evil wizard never to show up. That wizard’s intrusion feels like a disgusting joke—he’s an inhuman creature warping the reality of people I know and love. And he does kill people. And every death matters.
Rather than Magic appearing as a strange new world, a hidden reality, the Truth that’s Out There, here Magic is a choice that pulls people out of reality, that destroys the reality it encounters. Embracing the Magic, heeding the Call to Adventure, again and again throughout The Bone Clocks, leads to abandoning love and wonder and everything that makes life worth living. Sometimes the moral environment demands people make that sacrifice—for example, to fight for truth in the face of overwhelming lies and tragedy, as in the case of the war reporter deciding whether to return to the front. But often people throw themselves out of the world, and out of the human community, for no good reason, due to promises of power, immortality, and wealth, or even for simple pique. Sometimes those same choices can even be unmade, at least in part. Souls can be saved.
And here’s the best part, sort of, from this angle: the magical plot turns out to be absolutely inconsequential! The world in the final chapter of The Bone Clocks is falling apart Mad Max style in spite of the Good Guys’ victory. Sure, one Good Guy stands against the darkness—but he barely matters. In the world of the novel we ordinary humans have done a great job screwing up our world all on our own, with minimal Bad Guy intervention. Holly Sykes’ ultimate significance is just, and more than just, that she’s a person, a human being with the capacity for dreams, growth, and love—in this book, for all its immortal war games, we bone clocks (the immortals’ word for humans) are ultimately what matters.
Gaiman, in The Doll’s House, has Dream of the Endless caution his sister Desire that “we” (the Endless, immortal god-type things) “are their dolls,” their in this case referring to humanity. In context, the line suggests that, much as Desire and Dream may feel human lives insignificant, humans are actually the ones that matter. This is one of my favorite lines in The Doll’s House, in all of Sandman in fact, precisely because it turns the usual order of fantasy on its head. Gaiman never quite follows through on the potential of this line IMO—the most meaningful moment in each human character’s life is always that character’s contact with the Endless—but it’s a great sentiment that illuminates the issue I’m hammering here. The Bone Clocks follows through. And while The Magicians does a great job of showing that magic doesn’t provide existential validation, The Bone Clocks shows that human life can.
Now. All that said, I don’t know if the book works. It certainly isn’t perfect. For example, consider the final Mad Max-in-Ireland chapter, which returns to Holly Sykes’ point of view for the first time since she was fourteen. There’s very little magical intervention here, just character—which fits perfectly with the anti-fantasy concept. Ideally, though, for a character-driven story, this would be the chapter where we see how much Holly’s grown—where the climax of the Magic plot in the penultimate chapter is revealed to be a shadow of the actual human resolution. That resolution should probably feature Holly doing something she never would have done if the events of the novel hadn’t happened—or at the very least, show some depth to Holly we never would have suspected earlier. Mitchell doesn’t take either path, as far as I can tell. Holly makes a sacrifice for another, but it’s no surprise that she does so; she would have made the same decision at fourteen, I think. As such, for this reader at least, the final chapter felt a bit pointless, serving mostly to show how the world of The Bone Clocks becomes the future of Sonmi-451 (dammit, I just got that Bradbury reference. Mitchell!!!!) and Sloosha’s Crossing from Cloud Atlas. I closed the book, as a result, a bit at odds with myself. I couldn’t really say what had just happened, in spite of enjoying every page turn. This essay, among other things, has been my struggle to unravel that confusion.
I thought reading other analyses would help, but James Wood’s review in the New Yorker misses the anti-fantasy aspect of the book which I found so compelling—possibly because Wood’s lack of fluency with the fantasy canon (he describes this book as having the “demented intricacy of science fiction”) keeps him from appreciating The Bone Clocks’ relationship to the fantastic. Wood complains that for him the human action’s meaningless because of the fantasy realm and the secret war; in fact, fantasy realm and secret war alike are constantly portrayed as slightly good at best when they observe and support human life, and demented when they impose themselves upon it. Human activity, human choice, is the only realm important for Mitchell—every time a character turns from humanity to embrace the fantastic, it’s presented as a tragedy, while even the supernatural Good Guys end up murdering a sympathetic character for no good reason. Fantasia, in this novel, is boys playing with toys, while the “mundane” world matters.
(Some other parts of that review rubbed me the wrong way, honestly such as Wood’s claim that Mitchell’s narrators all sound alike:
All the sections in “The Bone Clocks” are narrated in the first person, a mode whose natural volubility does Mitchell few favors. He uses first-person narration to seat himself in a comfy, rather bloke-ish realism; his characters, whether fifteen-year-old girls or middle-aged male English novelists, sound too alike, because they are all involved in a figurative exaggeration that is at first amusing but which becomes tiresome and coarse. Here is Holly Sykes: “Guys are all sperm-guns. . . . Green tea’s great while you’re drinking it, but it makes you pee like a racehorse, and now my mouth feels like a dying rat crapped in it.” And here is Hugo Lamb, the Cambridge undergraduate who narrates the novel’s second section (set in 1991), describing his besotted friend Olly: “His pupils have morphed into love-hearts and, for the nth time squared, I wonder what love feels like on the inside because externally it turns you into the King of Tit Mountain. . . . Olly’s glowing; if he was six inches tall and fluffy, Toys R Us would ship him by the thousands.” And here is the adult Ed Brubeck, who narrates the third section, set in 2004. (Ed is now a distinguished war reporter; he and his partner, the adult Holly Sykes, have a six-year-old daughter, Aoife.) “Pete’s bat-eared and his hairline’s beating a hasty retreat, but Sharon’s marrying him for love, not hair follicles.” Here is Ed again, describing someone’s look of sheer surprise: “If Austin Webber wore a monocle, it would drop.” When Aoife goes missing, Ed is terrified: “Twenty thousand volts fry me into hyperalertness. . . . My bones turn to warm Blu Tack.” And here is Crispin Hershey, the middle-aged novelist who narrates the fourth—and excessively long—section, entitled “Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet”: “Miguel tries to look jokey-penitent, but misses and looks like a man in white jeans who underestimates a spot of flatulence.”
He’s absolutely right that Mitchell’s characters all play the figurative hyperbole game, and that is a limit to Mitchell’s supposed ventriloquism, but the imagery differs wildly from voice to voice, I think—the fourteen-year-old’s stumble into cliche, Lamb’s over-the-top Cambridge bro-ism in “the nth time squared” and “King of Tit Mountain,” Ed’s contempt for upper class twits of the year, Hershey’s scalpel scatologia. I can see how the inventiveness, the push for unique imagery and literary fireworks, can grate, but they don’t “sound too alike” to me. The different voices of these four brilliant, lingually dextrous people come through in their choice of imagery—though maybe it’s the use of imagery itself that bothers Wood. I digress.)
To sum up: I read The Bone Clocks as a sophisticated unraveling of core tropes of the fantasy genre, a masterful pommel horse routine that two-foots the landing. I wonder if fantasy will rise to the challenge I think this book presents, by embracing the power and tragedy of human relationships, by rendering the real world real—if fantasy will bite the lit-ra-ture’s style back. If so, it’ll be fun to read.
October 8th, 2014 § § permalink
It has been a crazy week. I’ve spent the last half-hour coming up with something else to write here, without success. Between a trip to Tennessee, workshops and hangouts and podcast recordings and SEEKRET PROJEKTS which I can’t wait to start talking about, I’m basically spent.
Final edits to Last First Snow continue apace. Basically everything I could say would be a spoiler, which is a shame, because if you can’t trust The Internet, who can you trust?
Hm. On second thought, don’t answer that.
I finished The Bone Clocks, which I loved on most individual pages and have more complex feelings about as a unit; I see where James Wood’s review in The New Yorker‘s coming from, but I diverge with him on so many particulars, generally to Mitchell’s benefit, that I will offer my own analysis as soon as I have spare psychic cycles to do so, which should be, well. Um. Let’s say next week.
Started watching Gurren Lagann, AKA The GAINAX Mecha Anime I Haven’t Yet Seen. Four episodes in, I’m not certain what I think. The show’s done impressive, risky psychological work already—I’m thinking specifically of the Episode Two Reveal, if any of y’all have seen it before. It seems aggressively resistant to the creation of a status quo, which I do appreciate, having seen too many anime series waste too much time, and it’s utterly mercenary in its storytelling, also a relief. The fight scenes are awesome, the animation is cool and weird, and I like the music a great deal.
That said, Gurren Lagann is, so far, diving deep into a lot of the hyperactive gender politics that bore me in shounen (boy’s) anime—c.f. Kamina’s constant crowing about “proper manly behavior;” I’d accuse him of overcompensating if the plot so far hadn’t gone out of its way to reinforce his concern (“the manly art of combining!”). And then there’s Leeron, who’s, well, let’s just call him problematic and get on with our lives. Meanwhile, female lead Yoko demonstrates my least favorite shounen trope, that of The Girl Who In Spite of an Awesome Character Design Never Gets To Do Anything But Look Pretty and Moon Over The Male Lead—she has this crazy cool sniper railgun, and is ostensibly this badass Mad Max-esque warrior, but her railgun has yet to influence the outcome of a fight. She shoots at stuff, sure, but I don’t think her bullets have done more than dent a robot chassis. And that’s not even to mention the series’ gaze: she’s wearing a bikini, and the camera spends an awful lot of time ogling her.
I’m only four episodes in, admittedly—but dammit, episode five of Evangelion is the episode where Shinji falls on top of Rei and the whole shounen anime “durr I just tripped and ended up groping you on accident” visual joke ends up played for total horror, shame, and discomfort rather than humor—a brilliant and chilling subversion. And ep 4 of FLCL, as close as that series gets to a filler episode, is the one where 13-y-o boy Naota hits his father in the head with a baseball bat in a fit of sexual jealousy, only to discover that the thing he thought was his father was actually a robot that looked like his father, which leads to him rescuing his real father from the cupboard into which he’s been stuffed—some serious Iron John levels of investigation of male sexuality, desire, and manhood, carried out in maybe 5 minutes of screen time.
Now, I’d argue that Evangelion is (among other things) a damning, daring feminist analysis/critique/deconstruction/etc. of giant robot shows and “boy’s own stories” in general, which returns again and again to the viciousness and brokenness of human relationships and the warping (dis)embodying effect society has on the female mind and form, even as the women in Eva fight to build and preserve their own identities, and to seek pleasure from life. (And it’s telling that The Dystopian Future Ushered In by Shinji’s Failure—the horror into which he wakes in the third Rebuild movie—is basically a world in which the women are doing just fine without him thank you very much.) (Oh no, I’m going to have to write that long post about Eva and feminism, won’t I?) FLCL, meanwhile, is a brilliant and compassionate look at the tangled mind of a confused adolescent that externalizes his central concerns through giant robots and rock & roll—and yet FLCL still manages (IMO) to represent the women Naota encounters (& to many of whom he’s attracted—this is a show about being an adolescent boy) as their own subjects, with internal lives, goals, desires, and plot impact.
Which is to say, Eva and FLCL are special shows, though neither of them’s perfect—while to me, so far, Gurren Lagann seems all id. There’s nothing wrong with the id, but it’s pretty simplistic. That said, there seems to be enough love for this series that I’ll give it more time.
October 1st, 2014 § § permalink
Hi everyone! I’m in Tennessee this week to deliver a workshop and a keynote address at the Saint Andrew’s-Sewanee School Celebration of the Book. Keynotes, it turns out, are awfully long, and take a lot of time to prepare! Fortunately, when you’re done with one, you have a ready-made blog post. All of which is by way of saying that this blog post may be a little more protracted and, um, call-to-action-y than my usual ruminative fare. I hope you like it!
By way of weird coincidences, today (fine, tomorrow) is the second anniversary of the publication of Three Parts Dead. I’ve been a full time writer for two years. It’s been a wild ride, and a wonderful one, and I don’t plan to stop so long as y’all keep reading.
Heck, I wouldn’t stop even if you stopped reading. But your reading does keep me in food, and writers do like to eat.
Why celebrate the book?
I can share my reasons with you. One o’clock in the morning, can’t sleep, ten years old, I read a creased paperback of Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, turning yellowed pages until dawn, this mystery explosion of Hindu gods and alien worlds and immortal Buddhist con-artistry. Malingering in a tourist bookshop in Prague, same year, my Dad’s pulling me out to see this beautiful medieval city but I only want to fall into this strange comic book I’ve found, which turns out to be an adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic—my first exposure to Pratchett, life-changing. Flat on my back with food poisoning in a Zhengjiajie hotel as the manager tries to break down the door because he doesn’t want an American dying in his establishment, I lie full of swoon dreams from The Hound of the Baskervilles and Invisible Man. I still have this one copy of The Hero and the Crown I checked out so often from Sewanee Elementary the librarian gave it to me when I left. Somewhere in my mind I’m always running home through the rainstorm with Crime and Punishment tucked into the waistband of my jeans under my shirt, reaching safety to find the paperback all sodden and accordioned, Roskolnikov wet to the bone. And then I did the same with Zorba the Greek a few months later. I could tell you stories about road-tripping with Dorothy Dunnett, falling asleep with my face in the cleavage of the Collected Works of Shakespeare.
So I celebrate the book, full of dog ears and margin notes, the stories which became part of mine—but maybe I’m moving too fast. My love isn’t necessarily yours. Saying books are great because I love them, because I’ve marked my life with them, because I’ve filled my house with them, because I’ve written them, doesn’t tell you much. After all, there are people in the world who like salt licorice.
Why celebrate the book?
The codex, this thing I have here, is the killer app of the second century CE. Before this, you had to read with scrolls—rolling page by page to the left. You just scrolled to the left. Forget something? Scroll back to the right. With one of these, it’s great—you remember a bit earlier in the book that’s relevant to this piece of information here. When was the War of 1812 again? Just flip those pages back. Cutting age technology. Before the codex, everything was what we call serial access—you can only read one page at a time. The codex is the earliest random access memory, like RAM on a computer: you could move to any point you wanted, at any time.
So let’s celebrate the book! Pinnacle of technology!
Technology has advanced since the second century. The phone in my pocket can hold all the books ever written in the memory I haven’t yet filled with animated pictures of cats pushing things off tables and otters that look like Benedict Cumberbatch. Though electronic books are much closer to the scroll than the codex. With an ebook you only see one page at a time; you have to move forward or back in sequence, rather than fanning through the pages until you find just the spot you’re looking for. Scientists have studied these questions in double-blind experiments: turns out people remember information they’ve read in a physical text better than information they’ve read on a screen. Also, human beings are better at locating information within a physical text than within an electronic text. The codex offers readers a lot of feedback—you feel how many pages were on one side, how many pages on the other, you remember the shape of paragraphs and chapter breaks. The human mind is much better at estimating than at precise recall: having a book you’ve read in front of you is a much better aid to memory than is pure text search.
So let’s celebrate the book! Celebrate its superior search capacity! Celebrate it as an aid to memory! No, that doesn’t sound right.
Maybe neuroscience can help us! Maybe neuroscience can tell us what we should celebrate about the book. MRI studies show that reading about hammering in a nail makes the same parts of your brain fire as hammering that nail yourself—and as nerve cells fire they develop lasting physical connections. When you read about driving, you practice some parts of driving—at least, if the writer you’re reading knows enough about driving to write about it well. So, when we read books about hard decisions, about bravery and heroism, about doing the right thing, we practice doing the right thing ourselves.
And then we get to the health benefits of reading. People who read half an hour a day have measurably lower stress levels than people who don’t. Reading also fights dementia.
All hail the book, training tool! All hail the book, modeler of behavior! All hail the book, which reduces stress and fights dementia!
Eh. I’m still not convinced.
But reading has economic benefits as well! An energy department survey in the United Kingdom determined that houses with lots of books had lower heating bills. Turns out lining your walls with a foot or so of wood pulp is great insulation in wintertime.
Professionally, though—reading is one of the few tasks at which humans are still better than machines. Computers are great at interpreting ‘structured data’—numbers in a spreadsheet, names in blanks on a form, whether or not you clicked “like” on a Facebook post, who you message on Snapchat. Computers still aren’t very good at interpreting ‘unstructured data’—a raw stream of information without context, like a diary entry or an interview or a book. Understanding, interpreting, and navigating unstructured data is computationally difficult, and is likely to remain so for a couple decades. By reading books, you practice one of the shrinking number of skills at which humans will remain better than machines for the foreseeable future.
Let’s celebrate the book, economic benefactor! Celebrate the book, which prepares us for the jobs of the future!
No? I don’t buy it either.
But: books can change the world!
All art can change the world, of course. But narrative art is about change, and books are the form of that art most likely to take up arms. For one thing they’re cheaper to make than any other form of mass narrative entertainment—so they can take bigger risks. A television show episode costs around a million dollars to shoot, if you’re not working with A-list stars. Guardians of the Galaxy cost $170 million from conception to final print, and hundreds of millions of more in marketing and promotion. Companies only spend that money when they want to make it back. So films push merchandising rights, and television shows cater to advertisers. This isn’t some insidious agenda—when something costs a lot of money to make, the people who sell it want to make that money back. But this means a film needs to sell millions of tickets to make ends meet. When you have to sell millions of tickets, or please millions of viewers, you don’t take as many risks. You tell stories that comfort and reassure.
Books, on the other hand, need a writer, an editor, a printer, and some paper—and all those things are cheap. Books need to please fewer people to make back the publisher’s investment—so publishers can afford to take risks, and so can writers.
That’s how Random House could publish Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a scathing and brilliant novel about race in America, and the erasure of black people at the hands of white—in 1952. And if large publishers aren’t willing to take a chance, small presses step up: Alan Ginsberg published HOWL through City Lights, a San Francisco bookstore—I saw the best minds of my generation starving hysterical naked. Ulysses, by James Joyce, was published by Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, another bookstore with a printing press—and was promptly banned for obscenity on its import into the US. Free Speech! And there’s always self-publishing: Virginia Woolf self-published her novels. Lady Chatterly’s Lover was self-published.
And even if a book doesn’t light the sky on fire at once—books are patient. Books wait. Moby Dick disappeared on publication—its first edition ran to only two thousand copies, five hundred of which were later found unsold. It waited. Mikhael Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita waited, too: a novel written during Stalinist purges in Russia, this horrible period in which people the government claimed were enemies of the state were arrested, tortured, and deported to the Gulag. Master and Margarita is about Satan and his buddy, a talking cat with a revolver, wrecking Stalin’s Moscow, mocking the government and exposing hypocrisy—and the book lurked unpublished for thirty years, until it appeared like a bolt of lightning in the mid sixties, miraculous. The journalist Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, his great novel of the Second World War—Soviet secret police burned the manuscripts they found in his house, and even the typewriter ribbon he used to compose them. And still the book escaped.
Celebrate the book, because books revolt! Celebrate the book, because books can change the world!
I like that better than ‘because books cut your heating bill,” but it’s a short jump from ‘books can change the world” to “books must change the world,” and a short jump further to “books that don’t envision a world we like are bad books,” and once we’ve gone that far, those same thugs who burned Vasily Grossman’s typewriter ribbons are waiting.
Besides, while books can change the destiny of nations, they don’t always—rarely ever, in fact—do it in the way their authors plan. Upton Sinclair meant The Jungle as a socialist manifesto. It didn’t get the workers in the streets, but it did get Washington to pass food and workplace safety laws. Ayn Rand’s valorizations of unregulated capitalism inspired supposedly well-meaning treasury officials to de-regulate the financial industry—which led to the 2008 recession, and the economic madness from which we’re still recovering. And I doubt Stephanie Meyer anticipated that fan-fiction based on her work would become 50 Shades of Grey.
So, we’ve come this far, and dangit, we’re still no closer to the reason why we’re celebrating the book! They all seem incomplete.
But maybe we’re asking—maybe I’m asking—the wrong question. Asking why supposes a final cause for books, a single purpose they must fulfill, or else fail. The why is a question of use: what is a book good for?
The Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi tells a story about a tree.
A carpenter and his student go for a walk and pass a shrine in front of which an enormous ancient oak is growing. The student is impressed: “Master, look at that awesome tree!”
The carpenter scoffs. “What are you talking about? If you made boats out of that tree, they’d sink. If you made a coffin, it would rot. If you made floors out of it, they’d sweat tar. Use it for a house-beam and the house collapses. What a useless tree!”
That night the carpenter sleeps, and in his dream the oak appears. It’s not pleased.
“You call me useless. But look at your useful trees! You cut them down for lumber—and the ones you don’t, the cherry, the orange, the apple, as soon as their fruit’s ripe you tear them apart. Their big limbs are broken off, the little ones tossed every which way. Their usefulness is the death of them.
“Me, I’ve worked very hard to become useless. I almost died, but I’ve finally got the hang of it.”
Books may have lots of great qualities, but at heart they’re useless like that tree is useless—they’re bigger than use, and so they are immortal.
Which in turn makes books the best possible companion for human beings.
Because the danger we all face, every day, is that we are very useful indeed.
We’re told, every day, from thirteen to seventy and beyond, that we are valued by our usefulness. It starts with that kindergarten question: what are you going to be when you grow up? as if you’re nothing now. Ads promise us we’ll be valued if we want things, and people, and sometimes if we want people in the same way we want things. Social media promises us we’ll be valued if we build networks that make the social media platform worth more on the stock exchange. Gyms promise us we’ll be valued by our ability to lift heavy objects, which coincidentally depends on the amount of money we spend on gym memberships and protein powder and personal trainers.
That might sound cynical. Maybe it is. But it’s only dangerous when we forget that we are bigger than the uses others find for us. We are subjects, not objects. We come in front of the verb. We build, we do, we decide, we make, we love—we cook, we climb, we carve, we teach, we learn, we write, we dance, and we work.
But when so much of the world wants to use us, we need to find space to breathe. We need to make space for ourselves in front of those verbs. Archimedes says “give me place to stand and I can move the world;” to become subjects we need a place to stand—freedom from the destructive state of being useful. We need room to be alone inside our own heads, to confront the mystery of life and decide what meaning we will take from it.
We can find that space in the natural world, in religion, in music, in dance. But reading is special—when we read, we stand at once alone and before the greatest, and worst, and maddest minds in history. We are the carpenter in Zhuangzi’s story, visited by the ancients in our dreams. And yet, when we read, we are not compelled. A book has no power beyond the power we give it. To read we must pull meaning from a text—and we must do this work alone.
In this world where our lives are constantly monitored and controlled—when we read a book, we are alone and invisible and free. Reading has the simplicity of the weight room or the track, the purity of a time trial. We face a book with no limits and no resources save ourselves. No one can follow us where we go when we read. No one can peer into our heads and see the thoughts we form. Books are the final inch, the ultimate refuge. I say refuge, not retreat—they’re more than a place to hide from the world, though they can be that as well if a place to hide is what you need. Books are a secret base within which you can plan your attack, your revolution, your transformation. In books you can decide what you want to do—what verb you want to stand before.
Books are possibilities and arguments and other worlds. Books hold truths and lies, laws and guidelines, mysteries and answers, which like any other answers are wrong or right depending on your time, position, velocity, history, and whether you’ve had lunch. Books are refuges and vanguards and secret lairs. Books are the Shadow Gallery and the Gray Council and the Rebel Moon of Yavin IV, and they are the doorframe on which we mark our growth over time. They are friends and enemies, old lovers, betrayed comrades, mistrusted Mr. Darcies, and mugsful of warm cider. Books are electric, and books ground. Books teach, and books laugh at the idea of teaching. Books transcend. They are subjects.
Let’s celebrate them.
Let’s celebrate the book by reading and re-reading. Celebrate the book by loving this book and hating that one and talking and thinking until we know why. Celebrate the book by throwing one across the room because the author finally crossed the line from transgressive to reprehensible. Celebrate the book by picking up a volume we threw across the room ten years ago and finding something cool this time—or discovering we were right to throw it. Celebrate the book by reading a story we’ve never read before, by an author whose name we don’t recognize. Celebrate the book by picking our way through a text that challenges our most deeply-held beliefs. Celebrate the book by sprinting out of our comfort zones, and celebrate the book by returning to them with eyes wide open. Celebrate the book by reading one and learning how to code, or find our way through the woods by night, how it feels to ride a dragon or be abandoned by a lover. Celebrate the book by savoring library must, the pebbly roughness of paper, the curve of a good font, that crease in the cover, this incomprehensible underline made at three in the morning by our own hand.
Let’s celebrate the book not for its use, but for itself—as we celebrate human beings. As they transcend use themselves, books free us to transcend the uses others find for us, the places they put us in. And when we’re free, we can come back and free our friends.
September 24th, 2014 § § permalink
Hi everyone! Check this out.
LAST FIRST SNOW, the next book in the Craft Sequence, has a cover! It features Temoc, who those of you following along with the Sequence will recognize, and it’s absolutely badass. Tor.com asked me for a post on the book, which turned into a solid essay on occupying fantasy. Read the essay here!
Here’s the heart of the thing:
In dark moments, though, I don’t always want to attack a tale of kings to find the hope I need. I want a book that reflects the hopes I know, and the dangers people face as they work to realize those hopes.
I want a fantasy of taking to the streets. I want a fantasy with crowds and leaders, negotiations and council meetings. I want dockworkers, ex-priests, professional necromancers, cops, schoolteachers, chefs, gang leaders, imperfect human beings of all races and genders, with histories and baggage, who become heroes—sometimes only for a moment.
I want a government terrified for the future, struggling to preserve its power and work with a movement despite massive historical differences. I want an undead overlord who’s slain gods with his bare hands explaining to a citizen council why his rezoning proposal will improve the lives of the very people who protest it. I want a consulting sorcerer torn between her loyalties as talks fail and battle lines are drawn. I want a priest choosing to stand by his family, or by the faithful who look to him for help.
I want people who beat against the walls of history, who are bound by choices others made forty years ago, by the outcomes of old wars. I want good intentions to lead to horrible ends, and vice versa. I want a book of human and inhuman beings trying to do better, and of that trial being—maybe—worth the consequences.
Read more on Tor.com!
Just between us, I’m really excited for this book. It’s the most intense of them all by far. Also I’m focusing on older characters for the most part, folks like Temoc, Ms. Kevarian, and the King in Red, people carting around more history. And there’s this really cool bit where—Aaaaaah I can’t wait to for y’all to read this. Maybe I’ll write an early trailer for you.
Also this week, Rob Wolf of the New Books Network interviewed me about FULL FATHOM FIVE (which is still out and you should get it!), and the Craft Sequence more generally. I talked a lot. If you want to hear me talk a lot (based on some fascinating questions!) go ye forth and listen!
That’s all for this week—I spent all my blog post mana on the LAST FIRST SNOW post on Tor.com. But in case you want further edits, I’m making solid progress into Craft Sequence Book 5, and there are numerous pieces of Exciting News that I’m not allowed to tell y’all about for the immediate future. But: SOON.