Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Gods And Monsters

While viewed through the oculus, the god had been fearsome.  Terrifying.  A tall, titan like figure, embodying chaos and darkness, striding across the storm-warped plain.  Armoured in sheets of black metal inlaid with runes and patters of silver fire which crawled like fluorescent sea-larva.  A sword or an monstrous axe, it was uncertain which of the two it might be, as not all details were made clearer by the mechanism, was strapped to its heaving back - not that it seemed to have much need of its doomsday weapon.  Eldritch fire dripped from its white hands, and bolts of violet lighting forked across the battlefield from the glowing pits of its eyes, immolating its massed foes and scattering the opposing ranks of sorcerers, witch-doctors, and armoured eight-legged, four-armed centaurs which sported their own diminutive magical riders on their backs.
Laughing as it tore out the spine of a centaur, its white-skin crinkling around its sensual lips and its black hair lifted in the field of its own thaumaturgical energies, the terminuses of its tresses braided with miniature silver skulls and swirling in the air like the heads of snakes.  It crushed a female wizard under one iron heel, her brains jetting out of the shattered orbits of her eyes as her head deformed.  Yellow sun-dogs woven from ancient spells acquired at dear price to the souls of the casters, swarmed, coal-red eyes burning above their narrow muzzles as they washed impotently around the giant’s shins, blue-flamed teeth sparking from its armour.  The god drew in its breath, sucked up the sorcerous apparitions like incense rich in human fat into its nostrils.  It spoke a Word: a chasm opened up as something obscene and maddeningly inhuman tore a rent in the clouds at its bequest, and drooped poisonous tendrils of mist and inchoate purple flashes onto the remaining forces who melted as if figures cast from wax in its elder embrace, first skin and then muscle, and then bursting internal organs, whilst the lungs of the victims and glowing nervous systems still perversely remained intact, and kept up their screaming.
“Now, I think, would be an opportune time to employ the lasso,” said Thylasses.  “While the god-head is distracted by its enjoyment of the spectacle.”
“Yes, magister,” replied the short brown khiropean, and flicked one of the many levers with its arm-wing.  There was relatively little noise, a slight click, and a muted humming from the ovoids, then all crowded forward to view the silver mirror of the oculus which had first gone matte and now cleared.
Appearing just over the god’s armoured right shoulder, a noose of pale gossamer light dropped around its neck, tightened, and then both god and lasso disappeared from view even as the titan’s fist closed around its insubstantial substance.  There had been no fear on the destroyer’s face, as it did so, only the flicker of minor irritation.
“Ready,” said Thylasses, “we should have it now in the containment zone.”
The others suddenly fearful, hung back, and only in fits and starts dared to approach the flat metal platform where the magister waited.  On its dull zinc surface, a strange being was crouched, the lasso still around its neck - hunchbacked, lank white hair falling in greasy clumps across its corpse white skin.  Thin as an malnourished child, or a convict diminished by years of slave labour in the gas mines, it quivered with confused rage.  Rags and flat pieces of bone were its only clothing, while a twisted stick, with a knapped flint point, banged against its pustulant shoulders.
Thylasses frowned.  The god leaped up, drool spiraling down from its slack bottom lip and with a groan sprang at the magister’s throat, a crudely shaped stone in its hand.
Before it could clear the platform, one of the guardians stepped forward and with a chop of the blade of its palm, brought the god crashing to its knees.  Picking up the fallen stone, he bashed the god’s head in with the rock.
It whimpered once, and then rolled onto its pale belly and expired, eyes that once feasted on the suffering of millions and to the lamentation of worlds, clouding over.  Its last laboured breath forever stilled, they looked up at the finder’s own with the luster of clay marbles.
“Tartarus take it,” said Sevius, “so that’s a god, is it?”
“Pitiful, really,” replied the magister, “but I thought you should see it, all the same.  In its own realm it is a monster, a devourer of universes but here, in the ruling reality of the City - we have revealed it for what it is.  A beast, barely sentient, the product of infantile desires admixed and bloated by the worship of feeble imaginations.”
“Not very pretty,” said the finder and stepped back away from the dead god.  A pair of servants dragged it by its heels from the platform and the magister and his winged assistant turned their attentions to the larger of the black ovoids, which had misted over with ice.
“No,” said the magister, watching the khiropean chip away at the hoarfrost, “they never are.”
* * * *
- Excerpt from Book IV, Hidden Universe

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The Triumph of Myth

What of the content of the tragedies? Perhaps the most significant fact is that the subjects are almost always mythological. The only surviving exception is Aeschylus' Persians, though we know of a few others in the early period. The Persians commemorates the victory of the Greeks in the recent war against Xerxes, king of Persia, and in particular the battles of Salamis, which had taken place only eight years earlier. But this exception in a way proves the rule, for the play is not set in Greece, but at the Persian court, presenting the subject from the Persian viewpoint.  Nor is it mere jingoism: the themes is almost mythologized, raised to a grander and more heroic plane. No individual Greek is named or singled out for praise: the emphasis falls rather on the arrogant folly of a deluded king, who has led his people to defeat. There is, as always in tragedy, a supernatural element: the ghost of Xerxes' father, summoned back to earth, pronounces stern judgement on his son's rash ambition. In the rest of the tragic corpus, the dramatists use myth to distance their stories in time, and so give them universality*. Instead of setting their actors the task of impersonating living generals or politicians confronting contemporary crises, the tragedians, like Homer, show us men and women who are remote from us in their circumstances, yet vividly like us and real in their hopes, fears, and desires.

Secondly, Greek Tragedy is civic in emphasis: its plots, that is, deal with kings and rulers, disputes and dilemmas which have vital implications for the state as a whole.  If Oedipus cannot find the murderer of Laius, the plague which is already devastating Thebes will destroy it. If Odysseus and Neoptolemus cannot recover Philoctetes and his bow, Troy will not fall. Consequently tragedy normally deals with men and women of high status - monarchs and royal families, tyrants and mighty heroes. Characters of lower rank generally have smaller parts. As we shall se, however, this is one area in which Euripides showed himself an innovator: 'I made tragedy more democratic,' he is made to say in the satirical treatment of tragedy in Aristophanes' Frogs, produced after his death.

Thirdly, complementing and often conflicting with the political dimension, the family is regularly the focus for tragic action. Part of the lasting power of Greek drama lies in the vividness with which it  presents extreme love and (still more) intense hatred within the family: matricide, parricide, fratricide, adultery and jealousy, even incest and other forbidden passions. Duty to family and duty to the state may come into conflict: can Agamemnon bring himself to abandon the expedition against Troy, or must he take the terrible decision to sacrifice his daughter for a fair wind? Loyalty to kin is central to Antigone; conflicting obligations to different members of the family create many of the dilemmas in the Oresteia. The list could easily be extended. 
- Richard Rutherford, Introduction to Euripides, The Bacchae And Other Plays 
*emphasis mine.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

The Power of Utopias/The Power of Fantasies

The power of books has diminished. Once, they could move the world, but I think now an author is doing well if she or he moves a few copies – and manages to penetrate the fug of modern life in their readers’ minds at the same time.

To tell a good story, to entertain is all very worthy but good books should always do more. They don’t need to preach, but they should engage with greater principles, or at the very least, continue a dialogue that stretches back to (and in the case of fantasy I’d argue, even before) the written word.

Myth, dream, hopes, fears, the irrational, and the fantastical can all be powerful tools in the hands of a skilled writer. From the Greek dramatists to the likes of Borges and Calvino, the inventive retelling of our story, the human one, is important. What we tell each other even if outwardly just to entertain, tells us in turn much about who we are, who we’ve been, and where we are going. SF doesn’t have a monopoly on the future, just as literary fiction doesn’t hold the rights to telling meaningful stories about the past/present. Good fantasy can blend in elements of all three.

It can also allow us to play, without the restraints of a rational, understood world limiting those horizons. Play in writing as in life, is important, both as a liberator and a goad to inspire creativity. When well used, it can free us from the self-applied shackles that day to day routines can often forge. Set alongside humour, it can be not just a tool to elevate a story, but a balm for the weary mind.

All worthwhile things in my opinion. This is not to say that novels can’t still be important. And there's a fair point raised regarding their potential impact when you consider works of non-fiction.

But compare our present age to those antiquated years when few people had any books in their possession, or when a book could break entirely new religious/cultural/philosophical ground, and was often couched as fiction rather than a strict work of didaction for this very reason. I think the age of this sort of impact has passed, or at least diminished, the novel’s previous role in this regard co-opted by other more immediate forms of media. Or perhaps it is simply harder to see, against the huge background of chatter created by an increasingly literate society.

This is not a bad thing, just a change. The novel survives, even if its role is harder now to pinpoint.


Sunday, 15 May 2011

Heroic Journeys

Nothing happens while you live. The settings changes, people come in and go out, that’s all. There are no beginnings. Days are tacked onto days without rhyme or reason, it is an endless, monotonous addition. Now and then you do a partial sum: you say: I’ve been traveling for three years, I’ve been at Bouville for three years. There isn’t any end either: you never leave a woman, a friend, a town in one go. . . . That’s living. But  when you tell about life; everything changes; only it’s a change no one notices: the proof is that people talk about true stories. As if there could possibly be such things as true stories; events take place one way and we recount them the opposite way. You appear to begin at the beginning: “It was a fine autumn evening in 1922. I was a solicitor’s clerk at Maromme”. And in fact you have begun at the end. It is there, invisible and present, and it is the end that gives to words the pomp and value of a beginning. “I was out walking. I had left the village without noticing, I was thinking about money troubles.” This sentence, taken simply for what it is, means that the fellow was absorbed, morose, miles away from an adventure, in exactly the sort of mood in which you let events go by without seeing them. But the end is there, transforming everything. For us, the man is already the hero of the story. His morose mood, his money troubles are much more precious than ours, they are all gilded by the light of future passions, and the story goes on in the reverse . . . And we have the impression that the hero has lived all the details of this night like annunciations, promises, or even that he lived only those that were promises, blind and deaf to all that did not herald adventure. We forget that the future was not yet there; the fellow was walking in a darkness devoid of portents, a night which offered him its monotonous riches pell-mell, and he had made no choice.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Enemies of Alien Mind

Hear us, you gods perfect in power;
Hear us, sovereign gods and goddesses,
Protectors of our country’s bulwarks:
Do not betray our city
Thus in the labour of battle
To enemies of alien mind