Monthly Archives: August 2012

Special Promotion: The Star Mages Free at Amazon 9/3-9/7

This post is to let my blog readers know that I’m having a five-day promotion of The Star Mages combined one-volume at Amazon in which the eBook will be free for download. This is the entire trilogy in one e-volume. The normal price is $4.99.

The book will be available for free download next Monday – Friday, September 3-7.

If you haven’t checked out the page on The Star Mages yet, here’s a description of the trilogy followed by a link to its Amazon page.

A fantasy story set in the modern world. Two secret, conflicting orders of powerful magicians. Two ex-lovers — one in each order.

The Star Mage order is filled with idealistic zeal and a vision of utopia. Its adepts have worked in secret for six thousand years under the guidance of the Star, a sentient talisman whose goal is to create world peace, universal prosperity, and universal enlightenment.

The Crystal Mage order is consumed with selfish ambition. Five thousand years old, its adepts are empowered by a sentient talisman of their own, the Crystal. For the Crystal Mages, hidden power is an end in itself, and the Star’s utopia a pointless exercise in futility.

Correl Brannigan and Karla Jasovich are ex-lovers. She ended their relationship ten years ago, and now he’s a Star Mage while she is a Crystal Mage.

The story opens as Karla renews her contact with Correl to inform him of a strange thing she has found in the Background Realm of visions and dreams: a great stairway going who-knows-where, made by the combined efforts of the recently-retired leaders of the two orders, with a mysterious intent that Karla doesn’t trust. After seeing the stairway and sensing its danger, neither does Correl.

As if that weren’t enough, it soon becomes clear to Correl that Karla is also interested in renewing the relationship that she ended ten years earlier, despite the conflicts in their respective allegiances. His own feelings about this are decidedly mixed, but he finds her difficult to resist.

This discovery embroils the Star and Crystal orders in a terrible conflict splitting both the orders internally and forcing enemies to become allies and allies to become enemies. The outcome of that conflict could advance the Star’s utopian agenda significantly — or plunge the world into a vicious tyranny without end.

And on top of THAT, under the conflict between the Star and the Crystal is revealed a hidden cooperation for a common purpose, which may — or may not — be what the Star has assured its adepts about for thousands of years.

Follow the mystical, magical journey through layers of hidden plots and sorcerous intrigue, in which nothing is ever what it seems at first glance. What is the final truth behind the agenda of the Star and the Star Mages?

Contains the full text of The Stairway to Nowhere, The Child of Paradox, and The Golden Game.

Available at: Amazon

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Changes to Sexual Morality in Fantasy and Religion

It’s probably just me, a personal quirk, but I can’t seem to write about main characters who take traditional monogamy seriously, or if they do initially they stop sooner or later. Angée in The Star Mages at one point had three lovers, one of whom had three of his own: Angée, another woman, and a man. Falcon and Dolphin became polyamorous as well, although they didn’t start that way. In A Tale of Two Worlds, the same applies.

Polyamory is a back-burner sexual morality issue in our culture (the front-burner issue at the moment is same-sex marriage, of course), but it serves as an illustration of the way we are changing. We’re not becoming an anything-goes, no-rules culture as some might fear, but rather a culture with a new set of rules that we’re still evolving. Strictness is actually increasing in as many areas as it is loosening; we no longer tolerate marital rape, for example, or regard a rape victim’s promiscuity as a defense, and we put up with far less in the way of sexual harassment than we once did. In other areas of sexuality, though, such as homosexuality or having more than one partner, we are loosening the  rules, while applying new ones that are more appropriate to our changed circumstances.

It’s interesting to me the way that our evolving sexual morality is finding its way into fantasy fiction. Even when the story is set in a somewhat primitive world as fantasy often is, the writer manages on many occasions either to craft a society with a sexually modern perspective (such as Diane Duane‘s The Door Into Fire and its sequels, in which everyone seems to be bisexual), or to provide a critical view of traditional sexual mores from a foreign culture (often quasi-human) or a particularly insightful and self-willed individual within the main culture (usually female). Of course, contemporary fantasy presents no such difficulties.

This illustrates once more the mythic character of fantasy writing and its connection to spirituality and religion. A fantasy storyteller crafts myth and so crafts religion, well or poorly, but always with touchstones to our own world and time and the ways in which we are ourselves evolving. It’s also the case, whether they like it or not (and many don’t), that religion itself is evolving and changing.

Sexual morality is a powerful component of the changes we are going through. I believe that’s so because sexual morality is strongly connected to two other things that are also changing: reproduction and the status of women.

As we cease to be a warrior culture, as machines do more and more of our grunt work and thus we lose the premium that was once placed on upper-body strength, and (most of all) as the agrarian-age imperative to maximize our birthrates is replaced by a modern-era necessity to control them lest we breed ourselves into extinction, the conditions that once justified and facilitated the subordination of women to men have changed into ones that demand gender equality. That’s especially true when it comes to female sexuality, traditionally under the control of men (so that women would bear more children, whether this was consciously acknowledged or not — often it was), today under the control of women themselves (in part so that they will not bear so many children, again whether this is consciously acknowledged or not — usually it isn’t).

Male control of female sexuality and the promotion of high birth rates underlies all traditional sexual morality. Marriage traditionally was a relationship in which a woman became the property of a man, who had rights both to enjoy her sexual services and (more importantly) to make use of her procreative ones. Homosexuality was discouraged or condemned because same-sex matings produce no offspring. A married woman having sex with another man besides her husband was usually condemned strongly because this violated her husband’s property rights; a man cheating on his wife was not similarly condemned until relatively modern times unless he mated with some other man’s wife and so committed the sexual equivalent of theft.

All of these things are changing today. These changes to sexual morality are part of the larger-context change to our gender status balance and our breeding patterns.

And yet our sexual morality as it evolves into something new isn’t centered around these issues overtly. As usual, it isn’t consciously tied to any principle before the fact, but emerges from feelings, and principles are applied afterward to express or explain where the feelings are coming from. This doesn’t invalidate the principles, however. It’s worth examining what principle ties together increased acceptance of homosexuality, uncommitted sexuality, sex purely for pleasure, and multi-partner committed relationships on the one hand, with increased condemnation of rape, deception or pressuring of someone into sex, pederasty, and sexual harassment on the other. Any such attempt will increase our understanding of who we are and what we are becoming. “Consent” has been suggested as a defining feature, and that comes close, but I would suggest that respect comes closer still.

Respect means treating a person as a person, someone with rights and a will of her or his own. Respect means honoring the rules by which another person chooses to live his her her life, even if they are different from one’s own rules. Respect means accepting absolutely another person’s right to say no — and another person’s right to say yes. We can perhaps reduce the sexual morality into which we are evolving to a single commandment: In all of your sexual relations, you will have respect for one another. It doesn’t matter if you are mating with the opposite sex or with your own (or both). It doesn’t matter if you have a single partner or half a dozen. It doesn’t matter if you do or do not want to create and raise children. But it matters absolutely that you treat others with the respect due to another person, who has every right to make his or her own decisions.

I believe that’s where we are going. The convulsions we are seeing happen because it isn’t all that easy to get there.

Image credit: malchev / 123RF Stock Photo

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Dragons

As I’ve suggested in many posts on this blog, there’s a lot of crossover between fantasy fiction and spirituality. In my case, that’s especially true of dragons. Dragons are fantasy creatures appearing in many different forms in many works of fantasy. In all cases, dragons are big, powerful, and potentially very scary. Often they are also highly intelligent and cunning, although sometimes they are just big scary beasts. Dragons have elemental, magical powers in many conceptions that are normally denied to big scary beasts, including flight (I mean, seriously, consult some basic physics and biology — even an ostrich is too big to fly, let alone a reptile the size of a mansion), fiery breath or another form of elemental long-range armament, and sometimes magic itself.

Many fantasy treatments make dragons hostile, evil creatures. That was certainly the case of Tolkien’s dragons, which were creations of the Dark Lord Melkor/Morgoth intended to spread destruction and ruin. A dragon appears in the Book of Revelations in the Bible as an image of evil, a form of Satan. Some make dragons benign, more in the spirit of Chinese dragon lore in which the dragon is an icon of the creative force or of Heaven. In a few cases, notably Robin Hobb’s treatment of the creatures in her fiction set in the world that includes the Six Duchies and the Rain Wilds, dragons are neither good nor evil but simply magnificent creatures with whom humanity shares the world. That was also somewhat the case in Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy, although those books were written from a more narrow human perspective and the dragons were hostile to humankind, yet beyond human moral judgments.

The dragon is particularly important to me because it is my primary totem image. In a vision achieved through shamanic vision quest stimulated by fasting, drumming, and trance, the dragon answered my call and has been a guide and protector to me ever since. (I wrote a poem recounting the experience and the insights the dragon has brought years ago: Hymn to the Dragon Spirit.) So for me, the spiritual implication of the dragon in real life is very important.

I haven’t used dragons a lot in my fantasy writing so far. I did include one inThe Child of Paradox (Book 2 of The Star Mages) where a dragon appeared in the Background Realm (a vehicle for just about any fantasy element I wanted and a way to sidestep the limitations of contemporary fantasy) and gave advice to Falcon, Dolphin, and Angée involving a disturbing development in their conflict with the Sword. But that dragon, Azure, was not a main character nor a main plot line.

The ambivalent way in which dragons appear in both fantasy and myth — benign or hostile, good or evil, sacred or devilish, but always powerful and frightening — makes them an interesting element to think about, and that’s what I want to discuss today.

The dragon is reptilian, and yet it’s usually much more intelligent than any reptile, and that means, taking advantage of modern knowledge that was unavailable to our distant ancestors who first crafted this myth, that perhaps the dragon is more a fantasy dinosaur than a fantasy reptile. (Dinosaurs are no longer classified as reptiles; many of them are believed to have been warm-blooded, quite likely feathered, and the ancestors of modern birds.) It is an aspect of nature  foreign to human beings, more so than dangerous mammals such as big cats or wolves who are more closely related to us. The dragon is a mythic image of nature in all its wildness, indifference to our well-being, beauty, power, wisdom, and danger. This perhaps accounts for the different treatment of dragons in Christian and ancient Chinese myth. Christianity is entirely human-centered, with man as the center of the universe and the absolutely unique object of divine interest (God having sacrificed His “only begotten son” not for the world or nature in general but for us), while the older Chinese mythic structure has a little closer tie to the pre-civilied view of man as a part of and subordinate to nature and of nature itself as being divine. The same mythic/fantasy concept is touched upon in both conceptions, but in one it is good because it is an embodiment of sacred nature, while in the other it is evil because it is untamed and (at least potentially) hostile to humanity. The difference is not in the creature itself but in our own attitude towards it, and whether we are capable of reverencing nature when it presents a danger to ourselves.

(Remember that the imagination has power and myth has its own reality; we are not free to imagine dragons or anything else entirely as we please, without losing the essence of the myth and its power over our souls. Dragons have been stripped of their mythic qualities in a few works of fantasy but always with humorous intent. In serious fantasy, the dragon is always an awesome and terrifying creature to be treated with great respect, if not necessarily with reverence.)

In an earlier post (Fantasy, Spirituality and Environmentalism), I noted that as our moral and spiritual views evolve in the course of transitioning from classical to advanced civilization, we are adopting a third view of man’s relationship to nature, neither the “man as subordinate” view of pre-civilized cultures nor the “man as dominator” view of agrarian civilization, but a man as caretaker view in which it becomes our responsibility to protect the natural world, first from ourselves, and then from anything else that may threaten it. In this view, a dragon as a mythic embodiment of nature itself would be approached properly by us neither with “It’s great and holy and we must reverence it (and if it eats a few of us that’s a sacred sacrifice),” nor with “It’s an abominable, evil creature and we must destroy it,” but with “It’s beautiful and irreplaceable and we must protect it lest it be lost forever.” There have already been two fantasy treatments of dragons that fit this motif. One is Robin Hobb’s remarkable dragons in her Liveship Traders and Rain Wild Traders books. The other is George R.R. Martin’s dragons in his Song of Ice and Fire, where dragons are the source of all the magic in the world and if they become extinct (which nearly happened) we will be much the poorer and our survival itself will be threatened by the forces of ice, cold, and death.

Which can also be said of nature itself.

Image credit: ancello / 123RF Stock Photo

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A Brush With Castration

I find myself feeling like another post should be added today, but not in a position to write anything pithy and insightful about the subjects appropriate to this blog. It happens sometimes. So . . . I shall engage in a cop-out (y’all forgive me, please) and post something I’ve already written, namely the first chapter from The Green Stone Tower (A Tale of Two Worlds)When faced with future intellectual doldrums of a similar nature I may present further excerpts and it’s even possible I will eventually serialize the whole thing that way.

Here the character of Johnny Silverbell or Johnny the Singer is introduced, we learn a little about the Kingdom of Grandlock where he lives and the mystery of the Green Stone Tower which confronts him. He has a brush with castration which shows something of his character, and the stage is set for further development of the plot. Hope you enjoy it!

***

It was an April Sunday, and there were no classes that day or any homework to do. The breezes by the river, thankfully upstream from where the sewers of Watercourse dumped their syrupy slime into the waters, smelled of apple blossoms and wildspice. It was a perfect day for music, for poetry, for good ale, and for love. Johnny Silverbell had the music in hand as he strummed his father’s eight-string ambertone. The poetry lived in his soul and emerged as sweet as kisses in his songs. He kept the good ale at his side and would sample more of it at the song’s ending. Love waited for him in the Garden Court in the person of delicious Annie Fircone. Life was good, he was young, and the sunshine warmed his spirit as the breeze played with his hair, reminding him of Annie’s dainty fingers.

Young Johnny sang by the Tower so high
Of juicy sweet fruits and oyster pie
With a wind in the trees and stars in his eyes
And a faerie to listen and sweetly to sigh

But of course he couldn’t sing that one, not here, not out in the open where anyone could hear him. The naughty implications of juicy fruits and oyster pie weren’t the problem. That would only send boys into grins and girls into simpers, with the bolder girls ready to offer him a sample of their juicy fruits and their oyster pie in thanks for his music. But whatever imp moved him to add that line about the faerie was not strong enough to overcome his self-preservation and good sense. Not that singing about the faerie-folk was any crime, but best not draw the attention of those willing to look for what might hide beneath the song’s surface.

So he sang instead a song of love under moonlight on the Maiden’s Night around the Springtide fires. That was bad enough with the priests so sour-faced and always suspicious of the old ways, but at least in that song there was no magic to be found except the magic of love.

Lie upon me ‘neath the Maiden’s moon a-glowing,
She told her lover, Let me be your field,
And be not slow, sweet plowman, with your sowing,
And I to you my love completely yield.

Johnny finished the song and drew a long drink of his ale and of the applause, both at once. Then he smiled back at the smiles about him. It was an April Sunday with apple-blossom breezes and happy smiles, with music and poetry and good ale ready to hand and love waiting for him when the sun went down. And if the magic sang secret in his blood as well, if the memory still dazzled him of the faerie he had really seen in the long grass near the Green Stone Tower, nobody listening needed to know that. She had listened to his music and sweetly sighed, and said he had a voice that could sing the trolls into kindness and the dark god into daylight. But he knew she was only flattering him, sweet deceiver that she was.

He sang more songs and he drank more ale. He ate spring fruits and berries and fish pie and green salad and fresh bread, and then he sang some more and drank more ale. His voice never failed him, though his legs grew a bit unsteady, as the people came and went. Some tossed coins into his open ambertone case or on the cobblestones nearby. Some blew kisses and some threw flowers, and all gave him smiles and the clap of their hands. At last when the sun was on the horizon he bowed his thanks, gathered up the earnings that he didn’t need except as a measure of his singing, put away his instrument and walked away from the square to meet sweet Annie at the Garden Court by the girls’ college.

The sun sank into the west, past the Sunset Gate of the Watercourse Wall. Against the red visage of the setting sun as it slipped towards its sleep (shush, boring philosophers who spoiled the romance by pointing out the world was round) rose the mighty unanswerable spire of the Green Stone Tower. Let the priests cry heresy on magic or the philosophers say there was no truth to it. Both must fall mute before the Green Towers of the Old Gods, towers that were never made by the hands of man. They paid no heed to the accusations of the Church, and smiled in amusement at the philosophers’ presumption. But on this day at this sunset Johnny set his feet to the east. The sun was at his back and so was the Tower, and although he felt it always as the compass knows the north, he paid it only a passing thought. He smiled as he went to meet the lesser but far sweeter mystery of his red-haired love.

East down the narrow cobbled streets he strolled with a spring in his step, town houses looming on each side, ambertone on his back and a song still in his heart. The gas lamps began to shine and drive away the gathering dark of night with their noisy brightness. Soon Johnny walked through empty twilit streets. The good folk of Watercourse went indoors to do their evening chores and devotions, or to enjoy the entertainments provided by the city’s theaters, restaurants, taverns, and such. Thus it was that when he saw a number of young men sharing the street with him and keeping pace with him he became wary. He knew that these were unlikely to be among the city’s good folk, but were instead among its bad. Two of them moved in front to cut him off and two more closed in behind. Looking about to left and right he saw that he was unlikely to make his way free from their attentions without a fight.

“Good evening to you, gentlemen,” he said. “What do you wish of me this fine evening of an April day?”

“Why, listen to this fellow talk,” said one young man behind Johnny and to his right. “Don’t he talk pretty?”

“That he does,” said another, a wiry, thin man in front of Johnny and on his left. “They school ‘em to talk sweet at the university.” He invested the last word with such scorn that Johnny wondered how he could hold it all in his mouth. Indeed it seemed he could not, for the thin man spat upon the ground near Johnny’s shoes. The fellow before Johnny and on his right was taller and looked stronger but much dimmer. He laughed a gravel-deep laugh, full of malice and as stupid as a stump.

“Never catch me at the university,” said the fourth young man, behind Johnny and to his left.

“Never be let in, that’s why,” said the thin one. “Unless your dad’s a lord, or at least rich like a lord.”

“Well,” said the fourth young man reasonably, “my dad might be a lord. My ma never tol’ me who he is.”

“That’s ‘cause she don’t know herself,” said the other man in back of Johnny.

“Does so,” said the fourth man sullenly, but the other three laughed.

“The university ain’t for our sort,” said the thin man who seemed to be the leader. “A lord’s boy, he’s better’n scum like us. Ain’t that right, lord’s boy? Ain’t you better’n scum like us, with your fancy music box on your back and your pretty way of talkin’?” He took his hand from his pocket then and in it he held a short knife. “But there’s one way scum like us’ll be better’n you after tonight, lord’s boy.” He nodded to the two in back, who seized Johnny by the arms and held him tight. “No, there’s two ways,” said the man with the knife. “We’ll still have a cock and we’ll still have balls.” He grinned wickedly as he reached with his empty hand for the fastening to Johnny’s trousers.

There was but one thing to do. Johnny feared to do it but not as much as he feared that knife. He called to the magic that sang in his blood, the gift from the faerie who had smiled at his music. He invoked the teaching of old Stephen Seedcorn who lived in the cabin in the Blackwater Woods to the west near the Tower. And he prayed to the Old Gods that no one was watching, knowing as he did that the Good God of the Church would not be listening or wouldn’t answer the prayer if He was. The two men before him and the two behind seemed to freeze like statues as Johnny pulled his feet up. Holding onto the two behind, he kicked hard into the face of the man with the knife, that never saw the kick coming or moved an inch to dodge.

Back and down went the man with the knife and struck his head hard on the cobbles, while Johnny pulled one way and then the reverse. He tossed the men holding him into each other so that both of them stumbled and went down. Then he ran up the street throwing shadows in the gaslight. His attackers soon recovered from the spell, though the one with the knife didn’t quickly get up. He lay on the ground clutching his head and moaning. But the other three saw Johnny sprinting down the street and took off after him at a run. Around a corner Johnny ran, straight into the night patrol, two men in red uniforms with pistols and short swords and clubs at their sides. Literally into them: he bounced from their bodies to stand breathless in the street. Before they could complain or ask him what he was about, the three young men pursued him round the corner and drew up short.

“Here, what’s all this?” said one of the constables.

“He –” began one the hoodlums.

“That feller there –” spoke up another.

“He’s a damned witch,” said the third.

“They were going to castrate me,” said Johnny.

The constables looked Johnny over appraisingly and then gave a similar treatment to his pursuers, with their ragged mismatched clothes, ground-in filth, and uncouth smell.

“He’s a witch, I’m tellin’ your Lordship,” said one of the men, the one whose mother had been accused of not being able to identify his father. “He cast a spell on us, and our mate’s lyin’ on the pavin’ stones dyin’.”

The constables looked at Johnny once more. “They were going to castrate me,” he repeated. “The fourth one had a knife. I kicked him and he went down and hit his head on the cobblestones and I ran.”

“A spell, your Lordship,” whined the hoodlum of unknown parentage.

The constables nodded to Johnny, then frowned at the three young men and drew their clubs. “A likely story,” said one.

“Come along with us now,” said the other, “and you can tell it to the captain. He’ll decide if you can tell it to the judge.”

“But first lead us to where your friend hurt his head,” said the first constable. “You, young man,” he said to Johnny, “be on your way now. We’ll deal with this scum.”

Johnny nodded, and walked on down the street as the constables waded into his erstwhile attackers with their clubs, none too gently. The young men howled and protested but to no avail. Johnny paused a moment to thank the Old Gods for answering his prayer. If the constables had seen him do his magic it might be him arrested and not those four walking piles of dirt.

Somewhat shaken, but with his smile coming back to his face, and with a story to tell that needed but a little editing and embellishment to make it fit for tender ears, he finally reached the Garden Court of the Watercourse College for Young Ladies. There, beneath the spreading leaves of the biggest oak in the city, sat the lovely red-haired green-eyed girl who held Johnny Silverbell’s heart in her slender hands.

In the side of that oak nestled a hidden door, well known to many of the young ladies of the college. If truth be told, it was known to the instructors and mistresses as well. Their stern faces might be caught breaking into the ghosts of girlish-impish smiles, when they looked out the upper-storey windows of the college. There the huge oak shaded more than half the Garden Court. The hidden door opened on a small hidden room dug into the flesh of the oak itself and into the earth beneath its roots. The room was stone walled and strewn with a bed of rushes and flowers. On this soft bed Annie Fircone lay down naked in Johnny’s arms and took her pleasure of his love. Afterwards she heard the story of his escape from the four men who would have sliced off his manhood. Then she took him again in reward for his courage and in relief that he still had that part of him she loved best.

Three nights later, Rufus Littlenut’s head was quite recovered from its pounding on the paving stones. He and his three companions in villainy were released from the city gaol, there being no evidence against them of serious crime beyond a general air of larceny and mayhem. Rufus vowed to himself that he would find that witch boy who had knocked his noggin on the hard street. When he found him, he would not be so foolish as to challenge him directly a second time. No, Rufus was wiser than his fellows and knew himself no match for a sorcerer, but the right threat might cause the lord’s boy to display his magic in a way that would come to the law’s attention. Rufus was going to be an instrument of the King’s justice. He was a bright enough man that the irony appealed to him, and he laughed when he thought of it.

It was the work of but a few more nights afterwards to discover that the sorcerer was sweet on a pretty red-haired student at the girls’ college.

***

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The Fallacy of Scripture

I’ve recently begun reading the Quran. I’m doing it because its absence was a hole in my multi-religious education. I had never been all that interested in Islam. My initial focus after my first spiritual experience at age twelve was, more or less by default, Christianity, and thereafter I became intrigued with Buddhist and Hindu conceptions of the holy, moving thence into the Hermetic traditions and then into Neopaganism. Islam with its strict, unimaginative monotheism, its we-have-the-only-way mistake so obviously displayed, its entrenched misogyny, and its propensity for spawning violence, struck me as something I could safely bypass. However, for the sake of completeness and because knowledge is always of value, I finally decided to plunge in and read the Quran (in English translation; learning Arabic for the purpose would be further than I’m prepared to go). Also, Islam gave rise to both the Sufi and the Bahá’i faith, and that to my thinking means it must have something going for it somewhere.

This decision and a discussion about it with a Christian friend of mine sparked this post. My Christian friend Dave expressed alarm at my reading the Quran, as he believes the book has great power. He worshiped once at a mosque and felt peace descend upon him and fellowship with those who prayed with him; he took the Shahada (I have not attended a mosque and don’t know if that was a requirement) and I asked him how he could reconcile this with his Christian faith. The Shahada is a two-part declaration of faith, usually expressed in English as “There is no God but God and Mohammed is His Prophet.” I could see that a Christian would have no problem with the first part, but what about the second? But Dave apparently does believe that Mohammed was a prophet. I don’t know how he reconciles this with his personal faith, but that’s his concern I suppose. His concern about my reading the Quran was that it would be “opening a window.”

I explained that I was not really “opening a window” as I had no intention of reading the Quran as scripture. Very simply, I don’t believe there is or can be any such thing as “scripture.” That applies to the Quran, the Bible, the Baghavad-Gita, the Vedas, the Buddhist Sutras, or anything else written in human language. Such writings may (and often do) contain powerful myths and metaphorical expression of profound insight. But the way that Christians like Dave (and also Muslims) regard these books, as divine dispensations of Truth, without error, before which we must kneel and obey, questioning only insofar as to determine meaning and proper interpretation (if even that) — this is not just a false idea but one whose truth is impossible. Literally impossible. Not only has no scripture in this sense ever been written and published, but none ever will be, because none can be.

I’m not yet convinced that Mohammed was a prophet. I’ve seen no indication in the early chapters of the Quran that he had any great spiritual insights, as is clear to me about both the Buddha and Jesus. There is some powerful myth in those early chapters, true, but all of it is borrowed from Christianity or Judaism, and Mohammed actually made no bones about this; his claim was that he was speaking a divine truth that had also been brought by a long line of prophets before him. But I haven’t gotten very far into the book yet; perhaps the indication I’m seeking will show up in a later chapter and I’ll change my preliminary impression.

Be that as it may, whether Mohammed genuinely was a prophet or not, and recognizing that Jesus certainly was one (that is, he was a spiritual teacher of great enlightenment and power), the attitude that both Christians and Muslims take toward their scriptures is my subject for today, and why that attitude is and must be wrong, not only about those particular scriptures but about all pretenders to that status.

Scripture is written in human language — Sanskrit, Hebrew, Biblical Aramaic, ancient Greek, Arabic, Farsi, even English in the case of the Book of Mormon. What is language? Where does it come from, and how does it communicate ideas?

Language is at root a set of tag-sounds. An association is created between a sound and an experience or category of experience. The word “tree,” for example, is a sound associated with a category of experience involving certain tall plants. Everyone has seen trees, and so once one learns that the word is associated with — “means” — those big plants, the word can be used along with other words to communicate ideas. “Climb that tree.” “Cut down that tree.” “Prune that tree.” “Watch out, there’s a bear in that tree.”

All of this is possible because everyone has experience with the things referred to in all these sentences: climbing, trees, cutting, pruning, caution, bears. The words refer to real things with clarity because they are things within normal human experience.

But when the words refer to “God,” “salvation,” “the soul,” “eternity,” and similar ideas, that’s no longer true. These are not things within normal human experience. In fact, direct experience of any of them is quite rare, and so in the minds of most people hearing or reading the words, they will either communicate nothing or, through misapplied metaphor, communicate a falsehood.

So that’s the first problem with the idea of scripture. Insofar as it’s attempting to communicate an understanding of God, it’s attempting the impossible. I will acknowledge that many of the world’s scriptures do contain valid metaphors for divine reality, but they do not convey understanding to those whose god sense is unawakened.

Scriptures also contain many references to and statements about less lofty subjects that are a part of common human experience: moral teachings, for example. These ideas, unlike the ones connected with sacred reality, can be communicated without metaphor and can be understood. But for the same reason, in our changing world they can rapidly become obsolete. For example, this appears in the Quran (2:228-229, Sahih International version):

Divorced women remain in waiting for three periods, and it is not lawful for them to conceal what Allah has created in their wombs if they believe in Allah and the Last Day. And their husbands have more right to take them back in this [period] if they want reconciliation. And due to the wives is similar to what is expected of them, according to what is reasonable. But the men have a degree over them [in responsibility and authority]. And Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise.

Divorce is twice. Then, either keep [her] in an acceptable manner or release [her] with good treatment. And it is not lawful for you to take anything of what you have given them unless both fear that they will not be able to keep [within] the limits of Allah . But if you fear that they will not keep [within] the limits of Allah , then there is no blame upon either of them concerning that by which she ransoms herself. These are the limits of Allah , so do not transgress them. And whoever transgresses the limits of Allah – it is those who are the wrongdoers.

I have no doubt that at the time these verses were written, they represented an enlightened teaching, introducing a measure of justice and compassion to the ways in which pre-Muslim Arabic men treated women. In today’s context in the West, however, they sound quite barbaric. That will be the fate of any moral teaching that can be expressed in any language, as time passes, technology progresses, and material circumstances change.

Scripture consists of these two categories of writing: those that attempt to express the truth of the sacred, can do so only in metaphor, and will inevitably be misconstrued by ordinary people; and those that express more comprehensible ideas that are by the same degree temporal and subject to change and obsolescence. To regard such writings as beyond question is inevitably to descend into error, on the one hand by freezing into rigor one’s dim and faulty interpretation of a spiritual metaphor, and on the other hand by refusing to upgrade moral beliefs into more compassionate forms when a change in the times permits or requires such an upgrade.

So as I said, I’m not reading the Quran as scripture, because I don’t believe there is or can be any such thing. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading.

Image credit: stevanovicigor / 123RF Stock Photo

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The Evolution of a Story

I’m not quite halfway through the writing of Goddess-Born, the sort-of sequel to The Green Stone Tower. When I say “sort-of sequel,” I mean that it’s really a separate story. A Tale of Two Worlds will, as I currently envision it, be published as four novels, but it’s not a tetralogy — not one story separated into four volumes. My feeling is that when you’re e-publishing, it doesn’t make that much sense to publish stories broken up into multiple volumes like that, although this is a late revelation and The Star Mages is in fact a trilogy. (The only sense it ever made was when a story was too long to make a convenient printed book size.) But Goddess-Born although it occurs after the events of The Green Stone Tower takes up an altogether new story. Two of the minor characters from Tower have become major characters in Goddess-Born, while the two major characters from Tower appear as minor characters, and there are very important characters in Goddess-Born who were newborn babies at the end of Tower. So there’s a connection, but it’s really a whole new story, and I plan to do the same with The People of the Sea and Light and Shadow. (That also means there’s no reason to wait to read The Green Stone Tower until I’m finished with the whole series. I’ve done that with multiple-volume stories in progress, too, and I’d prefer not to give my readers that sense of frustration.)

What I want to talk about today is the way a story evolves in the telling for me, using Goddess-Born as an example. It’s not unlike the process of biological evolution, as well as other kinds of change, in that its engine is a random process, but the end result is non-random. Randomness generates the content that falls into a pattern — non-randomness — through the power of skewing and selection.

To begin with, all I had of Goddess-Born was one character, Sonia, and only the barest outline of her. In the final scene of The Green Stone Tower, Sonia’s mother (a goddess) left her with the young wife of a wealthy merchant who had just lost a baby of her own. I knew that Sonia had black hair and blue eyes, that she would have a difficult life, and that she would be a great sorceress, because her mother said so when she fostered her. And that’s all! At the last minute in writing The Green Stone Tower I changed the gender of another character, Malcolm, also newly born, from female to male and moved his location from the southern island home of the faerie-folk to Grandlock, deciding he would be a part of Goddess-Born as well (the title can refer to either Malcolm or Sonia or both). I had previously established that Malcolm would be a great artist and would one day paint a famous portrait of Sonia. So now I know:

  • The location where the story takes place (Grandlock, also the location of the first part of Tower)
  • The names and a few framing bits about two main characters
  • One probably-not-defining plot element, or more likely side-plot element

This is the attractor of the rest of the rest of the story, which sets the direction for skewing. As I thought about what to write, my mind tossed up ideas randomly, but they were always skewed towards the attractor. All the ideas that presented themselves had some connection, however tenuous, with Grandlock, Sonia, or Malcolm.

The first thing I considered was when to start the story. I originally intended to begin it in Sonia’s childhood and present tales from her growing up, which her mother said would be difficult. But I rejected this idea in the end because I knew the main story would happen when she was a young adult, and I wanted to get right into it, working the events of her childhood in as backstory.

This shows the work of the other de-randomizer: selection. In biological evolution we call this “natural selection,” and I suppose that’s the case here, too, insofar as I’m natural, which has occasionally been the subject of doubt but of which I’m fairly convinced. A random idea, telling stories from Sonia’s childhood, was selected out. Other random ideas which popped up have been selected in.

One random idea that made the cut was incorporating two not-major characters from The Green Stone Tower, General Tranis and Anne Fircone, as major characters of Goddess-Born. Tranis is sent from the other world by Sonia’s goddess mother to do something mysterious but portentous and described only by hints. (Incidentally, cryptic hints from a goddess are a great way to disguise the fact that, in creating the story, at that point the author has no clue what is going to happen, which I didn’t and in some ways still don’t, although some things have crystallized.) Anne, it turns out, is Malcolm’s aunt by adoption. She was the faithless lover of one of the main characters in Tower, who did him a terrible wrong, and that story and all that went with it have bubbled into her more mature persona in Goddess-Born, twenty-one years later.

So I began the story not in Grandlock but in the other world, with Tranis being sent on his mission, his experiences in the city of Watercourse, and his encounter with an agent of a secret society called the People of the Shadow, which was another random idea that popped in and was not selected out. And in telling the separate and interacting stories of Tranis, Sonia, Malcolm, and Anne, all in third-person limited point of view, the major plot elements, involving a democratic revolution, a nasty sorceress, and the machinations of this secret society, have sketched themselves in outline.

And that’s more or less the way my stories evolve. I always have an idea or two, a character, a concept, an overall theme, but I have never sat down to write a story and had it all planned out in my mind before my fingers touch the keyboard. It grows organically on the way.

Now, I’m certainly not saying this is the only way to tell a story. Other writers use more up-front planning. There’s no One Right Way when it comes to art. But I thought I’d describe the process because it’s a nice illustration of the way that order and coherence can emerge from randomness, through the influence of skewing and selection.

Image credit: veneratio / 123RF Stock Photo

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Fantasy, Spirituality and Environmentalism

Our culture is going through massive changes. The transition we face is every bit as huge as the change from pre-civilized life to civilization that began some ten thousand years ago. That transition was complete, the important political, economic, social, and cultural features of agrarian civilization all in place, by about eight thousand years ago in the earliest places it developed. Those features included technologies (farming, the wheel, metal-working, written language), political and social developments (classes of warrior nobility, commoners, and slaves; monarchy), and religious and moral developments, which are the ones of concern for the present purposes (not to say the others were unimportant, of course). So the entire transition took about two thousand years. Our own metamorphosis has been ongoing for about five hundred years. It may take just as long as the earlier one, or it may not; at this point it’s impossible to say.

We have developed new technologies as part of our transition (artificial energy, computers, new communication technologies from the printing press to the Internet). We have replaced monarchy with the democratic republic as the standard, prevailing political form. We have abolished slavery and serfdom and the old warrior nobility. These changes are huge and wrenching and they’re not finished yet — we’re not in the forms, political or economic or cultural, that we will have when the change is done, although we’re no longer in the old ones.

We have also made changes to religion and values. In the last post, I wrote about one of the most important of those changes, the rise in the status of women, the return of gender equality (arguably to an even greater degree than it existed in pre-civilized times). Another huge change is the way that we see mankind’s relationship to the biosphere of which we are a part. Environmentalism is potentially almost as big a change as feminism.

The religions that emerged during the agrarian civilized age, which includes all of the so-called “great” religions, saw man as dominant over nature. This was a huge shift from the prevailing view of pre-civilized humanity, that we were subordinate to nature like every other species of animal. That view was not compatible with an economy that depended on the enslavement of nature for prosperity: one cannot plow the soil and dictate what will grow, or domesticate (which means enslave) animals for meat, milk, hides, or labor, if one views oneself as subordinate to nature. In fact, pre-civilized peoples surviving into modern times are known to view these activities with suspicion and distaste.

The view of man as nature’s tyrant is appropriate to agrarian civilization; it frees humanity to tame the wilderness and exploit nature for human needs and desires. The moral belief that man is entitled to do this is expressed in the Bible in Genesis 9:1-3: “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.” Religions outside the Abrahamic faiths have similar beliefs.

But just as the technological changes opening the way to agrarian civilization made the old man-as-subordinate view of pre-civilized life inappropriate to the new circumstances, so has the technological revolution of our own times done with man-as-dominator. Our power over nature has grown so vast that we can no longer afford to see it as ours to exploit at will. We are capable of undermining the basis of life on Earth now, and in doing so we would destroy ourselves, for our original status as dependent on the biosphere has not changed. We cannot return to the pre-civilized view of our place in the world; we have far too much power for that to make any sense. We cannot continue with the view of agrarian civilization, either, or we’ll destroy ourselves. A third approach, man as caretaker of nature, must be adopted, and is being adopted. It remains to be seen whether the transition will be complete before we do in fact destroy ourselves, but the attempt is being made.

Like feminism, environmentalism has a major impact on both spirituality and fantasy storytelling (although in fact, the impact of environmentalism is greatest not in fantasy but in science fiction). We’re seeing environmentalism emerge as a major moral tenet in such unlikely religious traditions as evangelical Christianity, at the same time as new religions such as Neopaganism incorporate it from inception. That we are no longer entitled to exploit all life for our own benefit without restraint, but must pull our punches and protect the planet both from ourselves and from anything else that threatens it is where this is going. From a clever animal, to nature’s tyrant, to nature’s protector — that has been our transition over thousands of years.

As I said, in terms of storytelling we see this more in science fiction than in fantasy. David Brin is a major proponent; it’s all over his Uplift series and the entire theme of Earth. But it does emerge in the myth-making of fantasy, too. It was a part of the ethos of the Lords in Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series, for example. In other fantasy the myth-making is a bit more subtle. The backlash of nature against human fecklessness or wickedness is one way in which it’s presented; this can take the form of old sleeping gods being awakened or guardians of the land arising to punish human greed. The disturbing of balances that redress themselves in vengeance against those that do the disturbing is a motif with broader applications than environmentalism but it has relevance to that as well.

One thing about fantasy is that one can approach a subject indirectly through metaphor, and most of the time that’s what is done, especially in regard to environmentalism which has little direct significance to a low-tech world (where most fantasy other than contemporary fantasy is set). When we see a culture in which old ways must be set aside and new ones taken up; when we see powerful forces unleashed by human greed, power-lust and stupidity threatening to destroy a civilization if a change isn’t made; then we see mythic treatment of the theme of environmentalism.

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