the place of cool in weird fiction

I like weird shit; fiction that confuses the crap out of me, that sort of thing. Vandermeer, Bishop Cisco, etc. Bring it on, I'm lovin' it. Right now I'm working my way through one of the "Leviathan" anthologies (Leviant 4: Cities for those who care) and it is quite splendiferous in the quality of its fiction. Each time I dive between its pages I am transported to a place where... well quite honestly I don't know where it takes me, some acid trip through the looking glass, to someplace that's not quite anywhere else. The stories are deep, troubling, profound, and (quite often) just slightly beyond my grasp. It's fiction that makes me reach for meaning without the promise of there being any meaning to be found. It's one hell of a ride.

But, you know what, sometimes I just wish something would blow up.

Fantasy fiction is constantly striving to be taken seriously as a literary genre, and works such as those found in the Leviathan books are a fantastic step towards that goal, there seems to sometimes be a profound absence of cool. There is no populist crap here.

Is the elimination of such "populist crap" essential to weird fiction?

I suppose one of the problems is "what is cool?" Some people thing arrogant elvish bowmen are cool, and not tawdry, played-out sterotypes. Personally I dig things blowing up, gunfire, and fighting in general. If it could be used as a set-piece in an action movie then I'm likely to categorise it as cool. And as action movies are about as populist as you can get, then surely there are some things are broadly viewed as being cool. Such as things blowing up.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating explosions in every story, or even action scenes in every story, but their near sub-genre wide elimination strikes me as a little odd. Indeed, the main reason Mieville remains one of my favourite weird fiction writers is because of the sheer power of some of his action scenes. They're damn cool, they get my adrenaline pumping, and they sure as hell keep me turning the pages. And that's really the point, isn't it? To engage the reader, to get them involved.

I think, in the end, it's a question of balance. The problem with most action movies is the overwhelming nature of the cool scenes with no time for anything to balance them out. They become uncool because they overwhelm us. We become numb to them. But one (just one!) action scene in a piece of writing (it being literature or not) can really bring the piece to life. Too much = bad. Too little... well, you can certainly get away with it. But I think as much careful thought should be given to it's elimination as to its inclusion.

That's all...


moralizing, ambiguity and charles de lint

So I've been thinking about mythic structure. Two integral parts of this structure is that the hero learns a lesson (of course, this element is widespread in non-mythic stories), and that he/she brings back something (knowledge/an artifact) for the his/her society. These two elements ensure that most stories I write using this structure automatically have a slightly didactic quality to them. It certainly doesn't have to be the main element in the story but, overall, a lesson is learned by the protagonist. By extension, the story is teaching this lesson to the reader. And that's all fine and good. But...

What about when I don't have the answer?

Or when the answer is cloudy. What if its not an issue like racism, which has clearly defined moral boundaries. How does mythic structure deal with these topics? Do I have to make up an opinion I don't necessarily have?

One way round this is to have two storylines. Two characters could learn the opposite things and both come to similar fates, or they could both learn the same lesson and have totally opposite fates. Of course their fates are going to depend upon the type of society they enter so that would also play into the equation. In either example, it could easily be read as me making a moralistic statement about the two different societies. So, the two socieites have to be held equal. I worry that this would tend towards abitrariness.

And also, what if I want to have only one character?

Maybe here the ambiguity enters with the character's return to society - there is an ambiguous response to what the character has learned, and to what he's trying to teach. This would probably work better as it's the same society reacting to one lesson. But here the ambiguity is saved for the end. Still, it's a solution...

But it's not a solution inkeeping with what I see as the true intent of mythic work. The intent of mythic work does seem to be to provide some sort of solution, to provide a working answer for the issues in life. As soon as a story stops containing a message then it loses some of that mythic quality.

But is making a story mythic that important? The best I can do is this (long) quote from an interview with Charles de Lint:

JP: Since we're attending a conference on myth and imagination, why are those things important to today's society?

CdL: They're important because we don't have them in our lives. People nowadays grew up with, and the ideals that they have, are rock stars and super models and actors and sports figures. And they don't sustain the ideal because they're fallible. The characters of myth or the characters of legend are great ideals in terms of the right way to sort of live your life. Again, it goes back to that same thing about repercussions and how everything you do is gonna have an effect somewhere and so you should maybe pay attention to that. The idea of respecting everything that's around you, not just yourselves, your family, your friends, but also other people and the city you live in, your environment. To me, it's all connected. I find a connection in all that sort of stuff. And I find those kind of things in mythic stories a lot. I don't find it in the story of an actor addicted to heroin, or a sports figure who does these amazing feats then we find out that they were on steroids. I don't find that uplifting feeling in those kinds of stories. And because the old mythic stories are kind of getting far away from where we live, that's why it's fun to write new stories, new stories with a mythic feel that are set in the here and now. I get so much mail from people, or I go on a book tour, and people come up to me and they'll bring me a copy of my book Dreams Underfoot, for instance, and they'll say, "This is the book that got me through high school," you know, or "This is the book that got me through whatever," and it's very humbling, and it's a wonderful feeling to have, that you were able to help somebody you didn't even know, so indirectly. But it also reinforces that concept to me that the mythic material we're working with does have impact and does have some place in the modern world.

Now, I've just started reading some of de Lint's stories and I find them beautiful. They're hopeful. Not in a trite or contrived way, but in a simple, true way. They connect with the reader. And I think the above quote helps show the importance of mythic structure in writing.

Essentially, I believe that mythic stories comfort people. But at the same time, I enjoy reading ambiguous stories and I believe we live in an ambiguous world. They can ring more true and can reflect the world that surrounds us more accurately.

Comfort is a very important thing. Finding shelter in this world can be hard, and providing it in the form of literature is something I want to do. But at the same time I want to avoid the escapist notion that fuels so much of the Tolkein-lite crap that floods the fantasy/science-fiction shelves at book stores. de Lint manages, mostly, to provide comfort without the escapism, but he has little ambiguity.

So, again I am back to my initial problem: how to introduce ambiguity to mythic stories without undermining the shelter that they provide for people. It can't come at the end - that is where redemption lies, and to steal that is to steal the hope from the stories, and it is the hope that I find so enchanting in de Lint's stories. It must come before. It has to come during the struggle. It must be in the hero, in his problem, and in the forces that oppose him, exactly where it is in our lives.


some additional thoughts on the collective unconscious and also some new ones on the tarot

So I've been thinking more about the collective unconscious and I just can't imagine it being the result of some similarity in brain patterns, or some pool of collective psychic imagery. Rather, I have convinced myself that it must be some artifact of society. It is caused by society, rather than causing it. However, I also currently believe that it is an integral lynch pin of social human behaviour, and it allows society to continue to exist and to propagate.

The collective unconscious (there has to be a better term...) is then, I propose, a collection of the fundamentals of social existence. The archetypes and our relation to them is a universal bonding factor, something we can all relate to. This would explain the wide-ranging nature of these images. I have no idea if they appear in Eastern writings, and would actually expect them not to. I would pose that there are probably several collective unconscii (sp?) for cultures that developed with little interaction (e.g. East-West). My supposition would go so far to say that there are likely some areas of significant overlap (representing common ground between the two socities) but also some areas of significant departure.

The use of these collective images, images we can all relate to, in stories, art, etc. would therefore provide a certain glue, which holds society together. In my fictional writings, where I use mythic structure, I have noticed the stories become one of conformity. The hero, after his trials and tribulations comes to embrace the societal values that he formally ranted against. And, as I pointed out previously, the hero sacrifices himself (the individual) before he returns home to save society.

Thus mythic fiction is a force for society, against selfishness, and stimulating altruism. This is certainly not its only function, and I doubt the power of one individual piece, but as one, art using mythic tropes, tapping archetypes, acts to hold society together.

This sound all sorts of high and mighty but I think it may be true. It would certainly go some distance to explaining the creative urge. It would also explain the surprisingly positive response I have received to some of my stories (from friends and family only I would mention, I have only just submitted a piece for some more professional critique).

I am therefore going to continue to use mythic structure, and also to include more of these archetypes in my fiction. It strikes me that using fiction to try to knit society more tightly together, to increase the altruistic instinct is a decent goal in life.

But where to find guidelines on how to tap into the repository of images and thoughts that is the collective unconcious? Of course, by arguing that the collective unconscious is a universal feature of society, I am also bound to wander into the use of archetypes if I write unguided but I would prefer a more guided approach. However, Jung himself only mentions 4 archetypes (the self, the anima, the animus, and the shadow) and this is not enough to sustain fiction. Even when supplemented with other frequently mentioned archetypes (the mother, the mentor, the trickster, etc.) it seems there is more.

This is where I come to the Tarot. I want to make it perfectly clear up front that I don't believe that the Tarot can predict the future. That is new age, hippy bullshit--no more, no less. However, its reputation to do this impossible task is, I believe, tied into its relationship with the collective unconscious.

However old the Tarot is, it is pretty damn old. To have survived for so long it must be tapping into something pretty significant, and I am staking a hope on it being more than just human gullibility. People continue to find significance in these cards. A large part of this, certainly, is the human desire for causality. People look at the random assortment of cards and force connections to the situation they're contemplating. (Indeed, in this capacity, as long as the person using the cards is aware of this fact, I could see the Tarot actually being a useful way to examine a personal situation, rather than just as a way to fleece tourists out of $100). But, again I would point to the longevity of the cards. To have survived this long (at least 600 years according to wikipedia) they must have tapped into something pretty fundamental. Otherwise the old pictures would have lost their meaning centuries ago.

I would argue that the tarot is therefore a repository of the western collective unconscious.

It is therefore a perfect guide for creating fiction. I indeed to experiment with it's use as a tool to stimulate my creative juices. If you see my name up in lights in a few years, you'll know I was right.


the individual vs. society, and the collective unconscious

Are human beings social animals? We live in large collective groups and have complex rules for our social interactions. Also, our close biological relatives seem to frequently organised themselves into social groups. It would certainly seem so.

However, our entire experience of life is limited to our own headspace. Every human being is limited to their own, fundamentally ego-centric point of view. We can try to imagine what others are feeling, but only by imagining what we ourselves would experience in a similar situation. What's more, it is far easier to simply ignore what other people are feeling. We are conditioned by societies rules to not do this, but we all do it, and we do it frequently. It is an effort to put ourselves in someone else's shoes.

It is easier to be selfish than it is to be altruistic.

Indeed, biologically speaking, this makes sense. If we look ourselves over others we are more likely to survive and pass on our genes. Law of the jungle and all that. (This argument is of course more complex, for example there may be situations in which helping others helps us survive, but I would still point that our theoretical ancestor is only helping others here in order to help him-/herself).

So, again, I would state: it is easier to be selfish than it is to be altruistic.

This, to me, does not seem like the nature of a social animal. Now, maybe my definition of social is unnecessarily harsh but when I look at the world around me I believe that almost all the evil in it comes from people being selfish, from people ignoring the negative consequences of their actions on others.

Often, of course, we can't help but hurt some in order to help others but I would argue that the moral position here would be to ensure that the majority benefit, and the minority is hurt. A truly social animal would even hurt themselves if the majority benefited.

This rarely happens.

So, by my argument so far: We are selfish by nature and it is from this that "evil" originates in the world.

I seem to have wandered dangerously close to something akin to original sin. At the very least, this line of argument seems to state that all people are integrally evil. And I'm not sure I believe that. It may be true, but I want to try to convince myself that it is not. After all, the majority of people do not seem to be comporting themselves in an evil manner. As I stated at the opening of this ramble we live in large collective groups (sometimes numbering in the millions) and we tend to survive. Evil happens, but it is the minority. There is a social instinct.

Where does it come from?

Before I enter tenuous territory, there are some obvious places that should be mentioned. Most importantly: we are more likely to survive if we all agree to certain social rules. If we load certain actions with a moral aspect, that society punishes, then they are less likely to happen, and the majority more likely to survive.

However, existence is possible in a fractured anarchistic, everyone out for themselves, environment, so, again, where does this social urge come from? If it is easier to see from our own point of view, why do we look from others? What makes us want to do as we are done by?

Here is the tenuous territory: the collective unconscious. I, personally, have significant doubts about the collective unconscious. It doesn't fit with my hard-won preconceptions about the world at all. However, the evidence is there. There are undeniably universal themes and archetypes, not only in world mythology, but in how we construct our own lives. These themes and archetypes are still important today. They have been transmogrified certainly, but they are still here.

Of particular interest, I think, is the hero archetype - the archetype that stands at the centre of the story, the archetype that we aspire to. The hero is defined by sacrifice. He sacrifices himself, an individual, in order that society benefits. That is why we call people like firemen and policemen heroes: they put themselves in danger so that society benefits.

So, I would suggest that the collective unconscious is, at least partly, responsible for the social urge in humans. What this answers, however... I don't know. The collective unconscious seems to be a symptom rather than a cause. Or maybe it is just a more fundamental expression of the social urge. Whatever... there must be a cause for the collective unconcious. I don't know what this is. Maybe it is something similar in the make-up of our brains. Or maybe it is a creation of society itself, a story made up by one randomly occuring collective that allowed it to survive and propagate. I don't know.

But it is there, and maybe by exploring it, it will be possible to find out a little bit more about that terminal case we call the human condition.


some random thoughts on iraq and the nature of leadership

NOTE: It should be mentioned that I am remarkably uninformed on this subject

The general opinion of a large number of people I know is that the War on Iraq (or whatever the most popular euphemism of the day is) was/is a mistake and that the troops should be withdrawn post-haste.

I disagree.

One of the few things I clearly recall from my course in Internation Relations is that, while democratic societies are exceptionally stable (and apparently almost never go to war against each other), democratizing states are exceptionally unstable as various parties jostle for position. Iraq, I believe, is a country in the process of democratizing. Therefore it does indeed seem necessary for an external force to present in case everything goes shit-wise. That external force in this case is (essentially) the U.S.

And therein lies the problem.

The problem is not necessarily that it is the U.S. specifically that is guarding the democratizing process (though that certainly carries its own baggage) but that it is predominantly only one country that is providing the guiding hand.

I would argue that any external country involved in another country's democratizing process is bound to end up wanting to protect itself, and to try to influence the process so that it comes out of it well. You could argue all day over whether this is the right thing to do (a country's government is surely supposed to protect it's own people, and yet shouldn't the people of primary importance here be the people of Iraq?) but it is going to happen whether it is morally wrong or right. (After all, who would re-elect a government that actively endangered him/her).

However, the more countries involved in guding the democratizing the more the individual desires of each nation would be blunted, and eventually, with enough people involved, the forces democratizing a nation would be molded into something as close to a win-win-situation for all as possible.

Basically, what I am saying is that the US going into Iraq (essentially) unilaterally was a mistake.

However, I do believe that removing Sadam Hussein from power was the right thing to do. The morally right thing to do. WMD or no (and I think no) I believe that Saddam Husseub is a vile human being who was doing vile things to a large number of people. It was a good thing for a large number of people that he was removed from power.

My question though, is whether Sadam Hussein would have been removed from power had the US waited for the international community to assist? There certainly is a chance that the international community would have said, yes, this man must be stopped. However, it would have taken a long time and more people would have been hurt. And there is also the chance that the international community would have said, no, we don't think it is within our purview to take this action, Sadam Hussein is not threatening any of us. Essentially the people of Iraq would have been abandonned to the whims of a madman, as long as that madman didn't threaten anyone outside of his own borders.

I have phrased this so it sounds like a Satanic position to hold, which belies my own feelings, but it is an understandable stance. Why should a country endanger its own people (a large number of people) for anothers?

Essentially, for it to be certain that the war on Iraq should take place, a leader had to emerge. It is predictable that the US would take this role (oil, the threat of terrorism, world hegemony, etc. the reasons are plentiful, some more pertinent than others).

So, for ensured action, a unilateral approach was almost required in this scenario, but it was also the worst way the action could be performed.

It also seems to me that this general type of situation is not limited to the war on Iraq. When rapid action is required then either a mass consensus is needed, or a leader. But who are the leaders? It seems to me that in order to believe you can/should be a leader you also have to believe that you would be a better leader than the majority of other people. In other words, in order to desire to be a leader, I would suggest that you have to lack a certain faith in the rest of humanity. A certain level of ego-ism is required. Generalizing slightly (and I hope only slightly) I would suggest that leaders (at least those who have actively sought power) have a stronger belief in the individual than in society.

And, considering we entrust the safety of society to these leaders then this strikes me as being a fundamental problem in the structure of society.

I certainly thing it is this problem which leads to people like Sadam Hussein, and to the US unilaterally attacking him.

But, like I said, I believe removing him from power was a good thing. All the other baggage associated with Iraq comes from the (essentially) unilateral nature of the action. But a unilateral action if not the only option, was the only sure option to remove Sadam Hussein.

And round and round it goes.

I see no neat solution to this problem. I think I heard or read somewhere that the only people who should be allowed to lead are those who don't want to (or possibly that people who want to lead are the very people who should never be given a position of power) and I have to say I agree. This is, of course, impossible.

Leaders are a fact of life but they do not come out of nowhere. And the Bush administration could not have started the war on Iraq without the mass consensus of its the US population. So maybe it is we followers who should be the most careful.