Monthly Archives: March 2015

Writing Deeply (Part II)

Green Stone TowerContinuing with last week’s post, this one explores the fact that I can’t write purely escapist fiction a bit further, this time in the context of the second series I began (and unlike The Star Mages, haven’t finished yet), A Tale of Two Worlds.

In original planning, which will hopefully happen one of these days, Tale will have four volumes: The Green Stone TowerGoddess-BornThe People of the Sea, and Light and Shadow. Only the first two of these are written and published, so I can really only talk about them here.

As I noted last week, these stories aren’t for everyone — but then, no story is. If you like fiction that explores deep philosophical, spiritual, and political themes, then you may like mine. If not, you almost certainly won’t. Not that I don’t have (I hope) engaging characters and lots of action, but if you find you want to skip over the passages where people are talking about complicated subjects in order to get to that other stuff, maybe it’s not for you.

A Tale of Two Worlds

Here’s a run-down on the world and plot of The Green Stone Tower and Goddess-Born before going into the heady stuff.

These books are other-world fantasy rather than contemporary fantasy. They’re set, as the series title suggests, in two worlds, which are unimaginatively called the Old World and the New World by the denizens of the latter, and just “the world” and Faerie by those of the former. Humanity evolved on the Old World. During the long ages of prehistory, a few human beings (seven men and three women) had such powerful magic running through them that, in a death-rebirth apotheosis, they became deities. These Old Gods were worshiped in prehistoric times, but their worship and also the practice of magic are forbidden by law in the Old World societies where the story takes place, as The Green Stone Tower begins.

The youngest of the Old Gods is Malatant of Shadow, God of Evil. He achieved his divinity at the time when humanity was poised to discover agriculture and begin settling in cities. He’s a very important character in the series, and it was his plan that led to the separation of the two worlds. The gods wanted to help other human beings, and ultimately all of humanity, achieve divine status, but it was slow going. They spread their own genes among humans, but even when two deities mated the result was never a god or goddess (although usually a powerful sorcerer). Malatant came up with the idea of separating the mages from the rest of humanity so they could evolve more quickly, concentrated in their own society. To achieve this, he cunningly led the unmagical to hate, fear, and condemn the magical, and the latter were forced to flee for their lives. The gods led them away from the Old World to the New by means of the Green Stone Towers, which provided a link between the two and remained after the mages were gone. In the New World, the mages built a highly magical society, became immortal, and their descendants are today called the Faerie Folk by the humans of the Old World.

There are still mages in the Old World practicing in secret, and one of the main characters, Johnny Silverbell, is one of them. The story in the first book involves his transformation into a deity, along with that of Illowan, his Faerie lover. Along the way, there’s Johnny’s encounter with street thugs who try to castrate him, a trial for the crime of magic, seduction of Illowan by Malatant, some ambiguous prophecy, a bit of combat, some flashy sorcery, and a lot of mind-warping looks under the hood of reality.

Here’s a scene from Johnny’s preparation by Illowara of the Mysteries (one of the Old Gods) to make his transition to divinity:

Johnny sat on a chair like a throne in the middle of a big, dimly-lit room. Around him revolved spheres that provided the room’s only illumination. They spun slowly about with him at the center, as if he was the sun and they were planets. As he watched one of them, he saw that it contained an image of himself and Illowan making love in the clearing by the Green Stone Tower near Watercourse. He turned his attention to another sphere and watched himself studying magic with Master Seedcorn. Another showed Johnny playing Richard Silverbell’s ambertone and singing. Each of the spheres, of which there were an enormous number, displayed a scene from Johnny’s memory.

Illowara appeared at a great distance, perhaps the far end of the room, lit by the moonlight she always carried with her, and approached slowly. “These are more than your memories, Johnny. They are you – they are who you are, for your sense of self is all a thing of memory. It is an illusion. What you think you are is not what you really are. That is the Mystery that will be revealed to you now.”

The goddess approached one of the spheres closest to her and furthest from Johnny. It showed his sister Karen, age eight, popping a pillowcase over the head of Johnny, age six, and laughing as he stumbled about and began to cry. “You won’t miss this one much, I think,” Illowara said. She touched the sphere and its light went out. As it disappeared, Johnny frowned, thinking back on all the times Karen had picked on him when they were children, or rather trying to think back on them, for the memories had disappeared, all of them. He knew that Karen had been a monstrous tease when they were children, intellectually as if he had read of this fact and memorized it, but he could call no image to mind of any such event.

Johnny could not help it: he cried out in dismay. Illowara smiled, and if Johnny could still have remembered such things he might have noted the similarity to his big sister’s smile when she had pulled some especially clever and evil trick on him. She advanced to another distant sphere, this one showing Richard Silverbell frowning and expressing disapproval of everything in the house – its cleanliness, the behavior of the children, his wife’s choice of wine, everything. Illowara touched the sphere, it, too, went dark, and Johnny found that he could not remember the man who provided for his childhood and whom he had thought of as his father until recently. One sphere after another the Goddess touched.

One sphere after another ceased to be and took

Johnny’s memories with them. He lost all memory of his sisters, his mother, the life he had lived in Watercourse, his studies in school and of magic. His loves, Shavana and Annie and even Illowan, disappeared. His trial for witchcraft was forgotten. His passage of the Green Stone Tower lived no more in memory. His captivity by the Darklings and his rescue by the Rangers, and all his time in the world of Faerie and the Bright Place ceased to be. He no longer knew the name of the woman who moved among the spheres and worked such ruin on his mind. He had forgotten how to work magic, how to play the ambertone, how to ride a horse, how to read and write and do calculations, every skill he had ever acquired.

Finally she stood quite close to him and only three spheres remained. The one on the left showed Johnny engaged in conversation. The one on the right showed his face, up close, passing through one vivid emotion after another – love, fear, anger, puzzlement, joy, sadness, and so on. The one in the middle showed Johnny’s body, naked and apparently sleeping. “As they are for everyone, these three things are at the core of your self-perception,” the woman said. She indicated the sphere on Johnny’s left without touching it. “This is your ability to speak, your knowledge of language.” Her hand hovered over the sphere on Johnny’s right. “This is your emotional core, your feelings and the way you react to various situations.” Finally she nodded at the sphere in the center. “And this is your body itself, composed of your senses. If these last three memories are stripped away, what will be left? Whatever remains, that is the true self.”

Goddess-Born continues with the story of Johnny’s son Malcolm and Illowan’s daughter Sonia, and of the democratic revolution that sweeps over the Kingdom of Grandlock where Johnny was born and where both Malcolm and Sonia reside. A major part is played in that story by Lasatha, the Goddess of Wisdom, whose Book of Wisdom informs the nobly-born democracy advocate Anne Fircone as she attempts to overthrow the monarchy through her witty writing. The story in Goddess-Born includes a nefarious renegade priestess of Malatant, a love story between the two main characters, a last-minute rescue from the gallows, a battle against wolves, a war, a revolution, magical assassinations, and the banishing of a greater demon, but woven through all of that action are ideas like this:

A leader is chosen by the people who follow him, whether they know it or not. The leader must meet the approval of those who follow, or they will follow another instead.

For the leader to be among the wise, therefore, it is first necessary that a measure of wisdom be found in the people. The leader is elevated by the people’s choice, or upon elevation by another factor is at least maintained in power by the people’s tolerance. The people’s tolerance varies according to their wisdom, and their wisdom varies with the times.

At their most foolish, which is to say at their most frightened, the people follow a tyrant. In this, they surrender the power that should be theirs into the hands of another. If they are lucky, he proves to be a visionary who does great good. If they are unlucky (and this is much more common and likely), their lives become a nightmare for a time.

In their normal state, neither very foolish nor very wise, the people follow a venal leader, but keep him tightly bound with the restraints of law and of their own suspicion. Such a leader can do little good, but dares do little harm, and if he should dare, the law and the people restrain him.

If the people should become wise, they would follow a wise leader. But no generation has ever been wise.

And this:

“You are not going about this the right way, Madame Foresight,” she said. “Wisdom is not something that can be conveyed by words alone. Words can only be understood by those who are already wise, as you are, and a person may gain the wisdom to understand them only through painful experience.”

Anne sighed. “Painful experience is coming, I can see it. But I hoped to find another way, an easier way – or at least a way less costly in blood.”

“I know. Unfortunately, the price of wisdom is what it is. It cannot be negotiated, because the price and the learning are one. To lower the cost is to weaken the lesson.”

One of these days I’ll get around to writing the other two books of this series, which deal with the deceptive nature of good and evil, among other things. Along with lots of sea creatures, impossible odds of combat, and venomous jungle monsters. Should be fun — and as always, thoughtful.

Next week: Refuge.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Fantasy Storytelling, Philosophy, Spirituality

Writing Deeply (Part I)

The Star MagesThis post and the next three are about how I write fiction.

Nobody who writes fiction writes it for everyone. That’s a fact. If you try to write for everyone, you end up writing for no one, or at least not for anyone who will particularly care. It’s better to be yourself. It’s better to drive away people who can’t get into what you’re saying, because that’s the only way you’ll say something strong enough to pull in those who can. I firmly believe that.

In some ways, I write stories the way I write this blog. I’m not saying that they’re philosophical essays, because I try to present realistic, engaging characters and strong plot lines, and hope I succeed in doing that. But there’s always the deeper message wound into the narrative and dialogue. That’s just how I roll. I write stories that (I hope) make people think. Whether you would like them depends on whether you like that kind of thing. Not everyone does, and there’s a place for stories that are just escape, especially in the fantasy genre. But I don’t write them. If that’s what you’re looking for, you should probably not waste your time on my fiction. (I suppose it’s possible that could be the case even if you read this blog. Reading fiction and reading nonfiction aren’t the same experience.)

If you do like stories that make you think, that’s different. In that case, I would encourage you to check out my books at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords. Links to some of them are on the sidebar.

For the rest of this post, I’m going to describe what I’m talking about in the context of the first of my three-going-on-four fantasy series (only one of which is actually finished). (The series, that is. Individual novels are finished.) Over the next three weeks I’ll do the same for the other three series.

The Star Mages

This represents my first foray into publishing. The Stairway to Nowhere, volume one of the series, was published in 2010. As far as voice and style, I think I’ve gotten better, so these are somewhat rawer and cruder than my later efforts.

The Star Mages is contemporary to near-future fantasy, built around three sentient talismans, the Star, the Crystal, and the Sword. Each of these gives its adepts awesome magical powers and makes them immortal. Each has its own agenda.

The series involves a number of plot lines, including star-crossed lovers in Stairway, rebellion and magico-political plots in volume two, The Child of Paradox, and an all-out no-holds-barred wizard war in volume three, The Golden Game. Through all of this, themes reflecting on human motivation (power versus love), trust and deceit, and the nature of reality through multiple layers of illusion, all play out.

The Star itself is a case in point. At the beginning of the series, there seems to be an irreducible conflict between the Star and the Crystal. The Star (called that because its physical form is a meteorite with gold and precious-stone embellishments) is noble, altruistic, and idealistic. It (or “she” as the Star Mages all call the Star in the end) wants to create a utopia and the Star Mages are bending fate to make that happen, under the Star’s guidance. The Crystal is amoral, vicious, and ruthless, and its adepts are only interested in self-aggrandizement and power. But it turns out that the Star was responsible for the Crystal’s creation, and the Crystal’s inner spirit is actually the dark side of the Star itself. The Star is using the Crystal to push the world in a direction it might not be willing to go otherwise. There’s a layer of reality under the apparent conflict between the Star and the Crystal, and another layer under that layer, and so on. Where is the real truth? It’s not easy for the Star Mages to find. Perhaps they never do find it.

A lot of the story, especially in volume two, involves the question of whether the Star can be trusted. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of play on the power-versus-love theme. The conflict between the Star and Crystal, and between the Star and Sword later on, also occurs within each individual.

“What did I just see?”

“One side of yourself,” the Librarian said. “It is currently obscured and suppressed, but is pushing its way into the light. At this juncture, you have the option of bringing it into dominance, if you choose to do so.”

I grimaced. “I don’t,” I said.

“Excuse me,” said the Librarian, “I don’t believe I was clear. You have the option, but the decision cannot be made at this moment. You cannot bring that side fully into play without the aid of the Sword, which you cannot gain until you have cleared the Stairway to Nowhere. Your final decision will be made shortly before you undertake that task. Between now and then, you will explore the darker side of yourself.”

I shook my head. “I don’t need to do that. I know it’s not something I want to let out without a keeper.”

He smiled sadly. “You have already begun. That’s why you left the Star. It’s why you left Dolphin. The reason you thought you left them was only a mask. The real reason is so that you can know yourself fully. Only then will you be in a position to choose: the Star or the Sword. Love or Power.”

“I know which one I’d choose.”

“You have already turned your back on love, Falcon.”

I frowned. He had a point.

“It is Power, not Love that insists on respect and trust. You left Dolphin because she denied you power. She did not deny you love. But that was not a final decision, either. There is a sharp division between the sides of you. The Sword has won a round, but only a round. Its victory means that you will explore your inner shadow and it will have a chance to make its case. It does not mean the Sword’s victory is assured. It may be that in the end you will return to the Star.”

“I don’t want to return to the Star. I don’t want to join the Sword, either. I am sick of the whole game.”

He shook his head. “The option of rejecting both is not before you, Falcon. Sick of the game? There is only one game, the Golden Game, and you are a crucial player. You cannot leave the Game, because you are always in it no matter what you do, and in the end you will choose. The Star or the Sword, Love or Power. It is not possible to reject both.”

There’s plenty of action in The Star Mages, but it also includes many passages like this one where the themes are explored deeply. Its how I write, and the only way I know how. Whether that’s any given person’s cup of tea is, of course, up to them.

Next week: A Tale of Two Worlds

1 Comment

Filed under Fantasy Storytelling, Philosophy, Spirituality

Maturation (Part II)

unfoldIn the last post, I discussed our move from the paradigm of agrarian civilization to something else that I call the advanced paradigm or mature paradigm. It’s a transition that’s not finished yet. It began in Europe in the 15th century or thereabouts, and over the centuries since then we have seen monarchies replaced with democratic republics, feudal economies replaced with capitalist economies that evolved into capitalist-socialist blends, patriarchy morphing into gender egalitarianism, and established, state-supported religion dropping out of the picture, replaced by a spiritual marketplace of ideas.

As with the change that occurred thousands of years ago when our ancestors settled into farming communities that grew into cities and the first civilizations, this one is driven by technology. All of our social institutions, political and economic arrangements, religious beliefs, and collective mores adapt to our material circumstances, and as technology progresses, those circumstances change. All of our ways of doing things change to accommodate them.

I could write huge amounts (and have before) on the political, cultural, economic, and global relations aspects of this transition, but in keeping with the theme of this blog, I’m going to talk here about the spiritual and religious aspects. I’ll note in passing only that science fiction writers who depict a future society with advanced technology like faster than light travel, artificial intelligence, and human genetic engineering, but one substantially the same as our own in terms of politics, economics, and other social institutions, are confused. Star Trek got it right. Firefly got it wrong.

That said, on to the changes that have occurred and are occurring in religion.

The first change to manifest was the breaking up of monolithic religious authority. This change began in western Europe, so the authority involved was the Roman Catholic Church, which had become an effective religious monarchy after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. (The lack of an Emperor is the reason why the western half of the old Imperial Church has a Pope, while the eastern half, called the Eastern Orthodox Church, does not. The Imperial Church featured the Roman Emperor as titular head of the religion. In the West, the Emperor was gone, so the Pope replaced him. In the East, he remained in power until the 15th century, when Constantinople fell to the Turks, hence, there is no Eastern Orthodox Pope. Once again, institutions follow material circumstances.)

The invention responsible for the splintering of the Catholic Church was the printing press. (That same invention would later drive democratic movements that overthrew kings or reduced them to figureheads.) Printing with movable type was introduced in Europe in the 1450s. Over the following century, printing reduced the cost of books, which made learning to read worth doing for the non-wealthy, and this led to widespread literacy on a scale that hadn’t been seen in a very long time.

Reading leads to thinking and questioning, and ordinary Christians in Europe wanted to read the scriptures for themselves and began to question the claims of the Church authorities. Against this background of growing religious dissent and dissatisfaction, Martin Luther’s famous protest against Church corruption sparked a conflagration. At the end of the firestorm, Europe was no longer a religious monolith, but had become a more diverse community spiritually (although still almost entirely Christian).

This led to other changes, particularly when a community had contending versions of Christianity, so that no one version was clearly dominant. This occurred increasingly in England, Germany, France, and other areas of Europe, and their colonies in the New World as well. At the same time, movements for increased popular representation and democracy in politics took shape, and this also influenced religious discourse. So did horror at the religious wars and persecutions that swept Europe in the wake of the Reformation. In consequence, the ideas of religious toleration and pluralism emerged, leading by way of the Enlightenment to the separation of church and state and religious freedom.

This takes us to about the beginning of the 19th century, so the transition to that point took roughly 350 years. With the separation of church and state, the political changes impacting religion were essentially complete, but changes to religion itself have continued past that point.

The technological changes that continue to impact religious thought include further improvements in communication technology (telegraph, radio, television, communications satellites, the Internet), and technologies with economic impacts (the steam engine, railroads, factory production methods, the airplane, modern agricultural methods and machinery, medicine, computers). The first has rendered the isolation that formerly allowed doctrinal purity impossible. The second has led to the obsolescence of many traditional moral concepts, particularly those that accommodated and regulated slavery and other forms of servitude, as well as sexual mores and gender roles that served the purpose of maximizing birthrates (a purpose that has now become self-destructive). In addition, the increasing dominance of science and the scientific method over the way that we establish facts about observable phenomena has rendered literal interpretations of scriptural stories such as the creation myth highly dubious. (It’s fair to note here that theologians did not, in pre-scientific days, generally advocate a literal interpretation of these myths. That’s a modern phenomenon and part of the reaction against these changes in religion.)

Today, all of the so-called “great” religions are under siege. Spirituality itself is universal and constant, but the religious doctrines and practices that clothe it are not. With the power of government removed (in the advanced world anyway), or guaranteeing peaceful discourse, the challenges to religious orthodoxy are ideas rather than guns. (Unfortunately, the religiously orthodox have been known to resort to guns as a defense against ideas.)

The challenging ideas come from three sources primarily:

The challenge from science goes beyond knowledge that calls literal interpretations of myth into question. A bigger and more fundamental challenge is posed by scientific method, and by what might be called meta-elements of scientific method. Scientific method per se isn’t applicable to spirituality, as science deals strictly with propositional knowledge and spirituality is non-propositional, but there are some accompanying attitudes and approaches that are transferrable. The most important of these meta-elements is the idea that all knowledge is tentative and gained through experience (or, in science itself, observation). Transferring this to religion means that no religious idea is permanent, but merely the best we can do at any point in time, and that the ultimate authority is our own spiritual experience, not revelation. It means the end of God’s law inscribed on stone tablets. It means that there can never be a Seal of the Prophets. It means the loss of authority for scripture.

Other religions also present a challenge to orthodoxy. That’s nothing new in itself, but the scale on which this is occurring is unprecedented and results from improved communication technology. It’s no longer the case that religious believers live in isolated communities and rarely, if ever, communicate with someone who believes differently than they do. In Christian communities in the West, ideas from Islam, from Buddhism and Hinduism, and from Neopaganism and New Age philosophy are influencing the evolution of Christian thinking. From the perspective of a Medieval Christian authority, all Christians today are heterodox and becoming more so all the time. The same thing is happening in other religions, too.

Finally, modernity itself challenges religious teachings that were established in the agrarian age. Traditional sexual morality doesn’t work well in a world that needs to reduce fertility rates rather than maximizing them, and in which declining violence and reduced need for hard manual labor make traditional gender roles increasingly absurd. The universe as we increasingly see it, vast almost beyond comprehension and with our little planet making up a tiny and insignificant part of it, carries its own weight of sublime and divine mystery and wonder, but is not really compatible with agrarian age concepts of man’s role in God’s world.

All of these pressures are causing religion to morph and change. It’s questionable whether any of the old great religions still exists in its original form, especially in the advanced nations. None shall endure. We will always have religion, but it will not — it cannot — remain unchanged.

Leave a comment

Filed under Spirituality