The wotmania Files: A Conversation with R. Scott Bakker (11/1/2005)
February 12, 2009 § 2 Comments
Scott Bakker is one of only a handful of authors that I have interviewed more than once. Since I posted the 2004 interview on Tuesday, I thought I would go ahead and post the second solo interview I did with him (there are two other interviews from 2008 in which I supplied a few questions that were posted on Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist, but I’ll have to search for those URLs later, as I’m actually writing this several hours before this is posted and I plan on being asleep when this goes live). There are two Q&As with Bakker that I believe will be posted by Ken on his blog, Neth Space, in the near future, once we figure out how best to showcase the questions/answers. Oh, and for those few who’ve ever heard me refer to Bakker as the missing member of the 80s band Air Supply, the joke is based on this photo, which appeared on the galley proof for the Penguin Canada edition of his third book, The Thousandfold Thought. Agree or disagree with my assessment of the photo? Anyways, here’s the interview:
For the past week, Scott Bakker and I have been emailing back and forth over issues pertaining not just to the thematic elements of his books, but also on matters of society and the relationship that literature, particularly fantasy, has with it. Since Bakker has to leave this morning for the World Fantasy Convention in Madison, Wisconsin (Nov. 3-6), we agreed to split this conversational interview into two parts, resuming after he returns. Of course, if you have more questions that you’d like to see Bakker answer, feel free to reply here and we’ll see if some of them can be worked into the interview. But it is our hope that this conversational piece addresses much of what readers have wanted to know about the Prince of Nothing‘s author, its genesis, and other miscellaneous questions.
When we last sat down at our computers and begun the the interview process, you were a new author who had just seen his first work, The Darkness That Comes Before, published in the United States. What were some of the reactions that you received from the ‘mainstream’ press and authors about your work?
Well not much from the mainstream press ( I am a loser fantasy writer, you know), but what I did receive was more positive than I dared hope. Both Publisher’s Weekly and the Library Journal gave The Darkness that Comes Before starred reviews. Publisher’s Weekly then went on to choose it for their ‘Best Books of 2004’ list, and for their ‘Overlooked Books of 2004’ list, which made my American publisher, Overlook, very, very happy – as you might imagine. The Guardian continues to be kind to me in the UK. In fact, their review of The Warrior-Prophet has given me my new favourite quip: “The Warrior-Prophet is a good book: with more stringent editing it could have brilliant.”
But other than that, I haven’t received much interest or attention anywhere other than fantasy circles.
And why do you think there hasn’t been much interest or attention outside fantasy circles? I’m curious, because it seems like there’s some pre-determined ‘marketing’ labelling that’s going on for all sorts of books. An example would be Jonathan Lethem. Dude writes some interesting, quirky novels that seem imbibed within a healthy spec fic tradition, books that were out there for years, then suddenly, with Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude, he’s being proclaimed as a “hot new author” in publications such as Rolling Stone. What are we to make of this? Is there some magical ‘boundary’ that must be passed for an author to go from the SF aisle to the Literature section? Can it go in reverse, can an Umberto Eco or a Jorge Luis Borges have their works appear in the SF section?
Well, the world is a big place and our brain is only three pounds. We constantly economize by placing evaluative labels on things. It is simply a fact that as a label, ‘epic fantasy’ carries a host of negative associations for those into ‘serious’ literature. Why do you think Margaret Atwood initially argued that Oryx and Crake was not a work of science fiction, and then only recanted after the book had established itself in the literary mainstream? The labels we give things always include implicit social coordinates, and as social animals, we tend to be very self-conscious of where we find ourselves in the pecking order.
Literary types don’t read my books for pretty much the same reason they don’t wear white after Labour Day. They’re afraid of being laughed at.
Of course, this begs the question of what IS it about fantasy/speculative fiction that causes such negative associations. It can’t be just the image of geeky adolescent boys reading D&D-style writing – there’s something else that seems to be at play. What is it about the types of literature that the literary mainstream is reading and writing that is portrayed as being so antithetical to fantasy?
Seems to me that there has been a retrenchment of sorts in literature, where people are gathering behind these drawn lines or fortifications and are just digging in, refusing to acknowledge anything counter to their own vision of what consitutes ‘literature.’ In a sense, it’s a negative conviction to me, where people are convinced of their ‘rightness’ to support such-and-such a literary field because the other side must be incorrect. Thoughts on this?
Also, your comments about humans being social animals seems so apt in a world where even our so-called ‘non-conformists’ have their own established pecking orders and customs and dresses to mark those traditions that they have created to counter the ‘mainstream’ culture. How is there hope for something such as Fantasy fiction to create something ‘new’ or vibrant out of this mess of conformity? What would a Kellhus make of this, I suppose I’m asking in passing. Or perhaps a Cnaiür might make for a more apt counterpoint – thoughts?
What would Kellhus think, hmm… Dammit, Larry, you really have to think when you try to think what Kellhus thinks – and I gotta headache. So lemme tell you what I think.
Check out the reviews posted on Amazon. How often do you find a reviewer saying, I’m a bad reader? Never. Absolutely never. Instead you find, This is a bad book – even if the author happens to be Gene Wolfe! The reason for this is obvious: the tendency for all of us is to make our tastes and opinions the absolute yardstick for what counts as good and what counts as bad. Given that our tastes and opinions form our immediate frame-of-reference, we generally labour under the illusion that they are absolute. Education, humility, and imagination are required to ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes,’ or to relativize our frame-of-reference within another. Since we can’t see what we can’t see, we generally assume we’ve seen everything, and think that it’s the other guy who’s ‘missing the obvious.’ This is a powerful psychological tendency – let’s call it ‘self-centred yardsticking’ – with obvious evolutionary benefits for humans living in stone age communities (but which could end up killing us in today’s world).
It seems obvious to me that literary types are just as susceptible to self-centred yardsticking as anyone else. (Unfortumately, education, humility, and imagination are a rare combination in humans.) In some ways, I think it’s even more pernicious, both because they tend to think they’ve faced and overcome the problem (when it’s a battle that’s never won), and because they occupy the cultural high ground. Literary types will tell you they look down on epic fantasy because ‘it really is crap,’ not because they possess a specialized set of expectations that precludes them from appreciating it.
Since self-centred yardsticking is part of our hardwiring, the best we can hope for is to mitigate it through education. Given the amount of self-deception and conflict it generates, you could argue that it’s not only a powerful social bane, but a major personal one as well. Self-centred yardsticking is among the greatest obstacles any one of us will face.
Then the question becomes, Why aren’t we taught anything about it in public school? It really is flabbergasting – perhaps even criminal – when you think about it. But since parents tend to be quite attached to their absolute frames-of-reference, the last thing they want is their kids telling them it’s a psychological illusion. People might have to start changing their minds and learning things!
I don’t think we’ll see classes on it anytime soon.
Interesting points brought up here, Scott. I still think, in light of what we’re discussing here, that keeping in mind what a Kellhus might make of this would be key, because in one sense, aren’t we addressing something that is played out over the course of your three novels?
You use the term ‘illusion’ to describe how readers (and presumably people in general) create assumptions and viewpoints based almost entire on a self-centered frame of reference. A reference in which everything that is Outside is therefore suspicious and possibly not kosher. But I want to know more about what you mean by how ‘self-centred yardsticking’ might end up killing us?
Kellhus simply manipulates this weakness, the way he manipulates all of our ‘worldborn weaknesses.’ So for instance, the Inrithi take their limited frame-of-reference to be the absolute frame-of-reference; they literally judge the moral worth of everyone against their yardstick. Kellhus masters the particulars of this frame-of-reference, so that the Inrithi believe he’s ‘one of them.’ Then he slowly starts introducing claims that ‘fall off the yardstick’ as it were, that the Inrithi don’t have any habitual or canonical way to measure. As a result, many begin thinking he’s mastered their common frame-of-reference, and so begin to accord him greater status. Then Kellhus starts adding secret knowledge, knowledge that no normal Inrithi could possibly possess, and he does it in such a manner that the Inrithi, given the limitations of their frame-of-reference, can only interpret it in one way. Kellhus, they begin thinking, possesses divine knowledge, prophetic knowledge.
And he owns them.
No frame-of-reference is absolute. It’s only the limitations of our perspective, the fact we have difficulty gaining persepctive on our perspective, that make it seem that way. We have a three pound brain in a universe so immense that much of the starlight we see is as old as the dinosaurs. We’re like plankton trying to make sense of the ocean – less than plankton! No matter what our beliefs happen to be, odds are they’re woefully incomplete, or just plain wrong. The only hope we have is to keep this in mind, and to continually question and revise, question and revise.
Thinking that one’s frame-of-reference is absolute, that one pretty knows the answers to pretty much all the important questions, closes down on the possibility of learning, of expanding one’s frame-of-reference. It’s literally a kind of enforced ignorance. And ignorance, as I think the example of Kellhus proves, is a kind of trust. The more inclined you are to think your frame-of-reference is absolute, the less inclined you are to ask questions, the easier you are to manipulate.
And yet no one, but no one is taught anything about this problem, even as our tools become ever more powerful. You do the math.
Pretty scary math, even if it’s been ages since I’ve done moral calculus! Now there’s something in what you said that piqued my interest – Ignorance as a kind of trust. I remember quite well when I read that quote in The Warrior-Prophet and I meant to ask you about that back then. Trust is such a powerful word, even today. In a sense, in a world where our three pound brains are struggling to make sense of anything from the perfumes we smell on people walking past to issues of ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ it seems like so much of what we do and what we are has to be taken on faith. How does faith, or rather Faith, relate to what you are writing in the Prince of Nothing trilogy and elsewhere?
Well, to quote Donald Rumsfeld, there’s known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. If you remember, the media had a field day with this quote – they quite literally thought it was hilarious. I think they found it so funny because, superficially at least, it resembled Clinton’s definitional hairsplitting in the Monica Lewinski imbroglio. ‘Ooooh, you mean sex sex.’ This was the only yardstick they had, and it was a self-centred one at that. Which of course is the irony: since the problem of knowledge Rumsfeld was referring to was, for the media anyway, an unknown unknown, they had precious little way to make sense of it short of ridicule. By laughing at his statement, they were demonstrating the very thing he was referring to!
Let’s call this unknown unknown, the superunknown. What is the superunknown? Well, ask yourself, why didn’t the ancient Egyptians build automobiles? The obvious answer is that they lacked the technology. But if they lacked the technology, why would they waste all that time on pyramids, when they could have built a science research park instead? The obvious answer is that they knew nothing about scientific research. So why not hire some philosophers to figure out the scientific method, and get cracking? I mean, think of what the ancient Egyptians could have achieved with a couple of nukes…
But how could they, when they didn’t even know that they didn’t know? Cars, research parks, and the scientific method simply did not exist for them, not even as an absence! So much of what we now take for granted were unknown unknowns for the ancient Egyptians. They were literally adrift in the superunknown.
And we’re in the exact same boat. It’s a bit roomier, quite abit faster, and probably a whole lot more dangerous, but it bobs like a cork nonetheless. There’s no end to the superunknown. Odds are 5000 years hence we’ll look even more parochial and naive to our descendents than our ancient Egyptian ancestors seem to us now.
In practical terms, what the superunknown means is that we can never be absolutely certain of anything. This is why some kind of faith seems inescapable. No belief is absolutely justified, because no one can possibly account for all the unknown unknowns – by definition.
But note that this understanding of faith stands in stark contrast to the ‘faith’ espoused in traditional religion. The former faith appreciates that knowledge is always a matter of degree, and never absolute. It defines itself in opposition to knowledge. The less we know, the more we take things ‘on faith.’ The faith of traditional religion, on the other hand, defines itself as a kind of knowledge, and in many cases, a kind of absolute knowledge. I think it’s quite obviously the result of self-centred yardsticking, our hardwired tendency to confuse our frame-of-reference for the frame-of-reference. Pretty much every traditional belief system makes self-aggrandizing claims to absolute knowledge. And none of them can seem to agree.
In part, The Prince of Nothing is about the dialogue between these two species of faith, the one that identifies itself with doubt and remains open to the superunknown, the other that identifies itself with certainty and remains blind to the superunknown. It shows how empowered, how manipulable, and how dangerous we become when we think we possess an absolute yardstick.
So, in one sense, it comes down to matters of epistemology, yes? It’s not necessarily the ‘what’ we have in terms of knowledge, but the informational systems that we have developed not just to process this knowledge but also that which we use to account for the just plain Unknown? It’s sobering to think of just how far our conceptual systems have developed over the past five centuries, just ‘only’ (in the eyes of many) to illustrate just how little we know! Very interesting how your definition of Faith appears to be so much more Functionalist in nature than the traditional Christian definition of Faith being ” the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Thoughts on this and how it applies to what we are witnessing in Eärwa as the Holy War is progressing?
No matter what our particular beliefs, we assume that a greater part of the human race lives in delusion. Why? Because we assume we’re in the know, and that the billions who disagree with us are not. Everyone can’t be right. And if we go far back enough in history, we have to say that at some point, everyone but everyone lived in delusion, because our beliefs are historically contingent.
Not only only are we committed to saying that humans are inclined to believe falsehoods, we have to acknowledge that they believe those falsehoods with the same conviction, the same depth of passion, as we believe our truths. In Eärwa, for instance, it’s not simply the Inrithi who are willing to murder and die in the name of their beliefs (absolute yardsticks tend to license such things), the Fanim are as well. This amounts to saying that the personal character of our beliefs, the ‘gut feeling’ or the ‘epiphany’ or the whatever it is that makes our beliefs seem uniquely true, are the very same things that other people with entirely incompatible beliefs use to anchor their conviction.
And this just means that convictions are cheap. I know I offend people when I say this, but they really are. It’s a fact that everyone has them, and it’s a fact that very few bother to ask whether they’re justified. Most people simply, well, have them. Even though convictions tend to to differ drastically across households and communities, most simply assume that they somehow won the belief lottery, that the beliefs they just happen to have are more or less true, and that the incompatible beliefs that others happen to have are more or less false.
It’s kind of embarrassing when you think about it.
The best way to avoid this situation is to either accept that you likely live in delusion, or to be relentlessly critical. And the best way to do the latter is to be wary of all the ways we humans dupe ourselves – our matter of fact tendencies to cherrypick, to footstomp, to anthropomorphize, to flatter ourselves, to oversimplify – and to make our commitment to various claims proportional to the evidence.
As it stands, we humans tend to believe first and to cook up reasons after the fact. In other words, we rationalize. We’re rationalizers by nature, and only reasoners by education. Rather than seek to continually expand and revise our beliefs, instead of remaining open to unknown unknowns, we circle the wagons around the beliefs we already have (despite the tremendous odds against us simply ‘lucking’ our way into true beliefs), and we find ourselves in the ludicrous situation described above: everyone brandishing their yardsticks crying, “Mine is absolute! Mine is absolute!”
And the reason for this is implicit in the classic Christian definition of faith you give above: ‘faith is the substance of things hoped for…’ Faith is taking what we want to be true as true. It’s the confusion of hope for knowledge.
And this is precisely what you would expect from a prescientific belief system. Before science was institutionalized, the only constraints on our belief systems were sociological and psychological. Think of all the hypothesizing, the experimentation, the controls, the dreary mathematics, the elaborate procedure, the peer review involved in science. It’s all a form of methodological and institutional discipline that allows us to generate and evaluate claims independent of what we want to believe. As imperfect as it is, it’s the first institution in human history that has been able to do this. And in five short centuries it’s transformed archery into nuclear weaponry.
But still we persist in waving our ancient, absolute yardsticks. This situation is so obviously irrational, that it’s hard to fathom how people could possibly continue to perpetuate it, let alone murder and die for it. It’s almost as if we humans are hardwired for this behaviour. This is the interpretation I flirt with in The Prince of Nothing. But then that’s a different question, and I’ve babbled for far too long as it is! Talk about waving yardsticks!
Nah, I wouldn’t worry too much about babbling here, as I asked a fairly tricky series of questions rolled into one above, yes? Anyways, I had a thought as I was reading your comments about the delusional aspects of confirmation bias and how people in general want to believe that their world-view, their Weltanschauungen as the Germans might say, is the correct and right path that leads to eternal happiness or at least to some positive end. What about the Inchoroi and their Tekne? It seems from reading the books that there is something about them that is meant to be a counterpoint to the Inrithi and the Fanim. Are they meant to represent something about our own lives and views of the world?
You’re intent on prying your way to the heart of the book, aren’t you? Damn good question.
Given my previous response, someone might assume that I’m simply taking science as my absolute yardstick, which is certainly not the case. I simply think that where theoretical claims are concerned, science is the only yardstick we have that actually works. And I also think this is tragic.
Let me tell you what I think has happened since the rise of institutionalized science in our society, and then bring this back to the question of the Inchoroi.
Societies are vast mechanisms that take the repetition of individual actions as their constituent parts. Like any other mechanism, their function depends on the precision and reliability of those parts. Think of the amount of schooling modern society requires: this is simply a function of its complication. Modern society requires literally tens of thousands of different kinds of precise and reliable actions – we call them occupations, pasttimes, habits, careers, and so on. When a human infant is born, it’s field of possible actions is well nigh infinite. But since society requires particular gears, and not fuzzy ones, it spends its life being sculpted to do very specific things: to shop, to repair engines, to parent, to sell, to design rocket engines, and so on. You get the picture.
Now the more productive a society is, the more latitude it allows for ‘discretionary actions’ – for people to ‘do what they want.’ The less productive it is, the less latitude it allows. So for instance, though I’ve been poor all my life, I was lucky enough to live in a society productive enough to afford me the opportunity to write The Prince of Nothing in my spare time. I could indulge my desire. I have science and technology to thank for that.
Ancient societies, however, operated far closer to the brink. As a result, they required much more in the way of precision and reliability from their constituent parts. The pool of possible discretionary actions was far, far smaller, which meant that people simply could not do what they wanted. Desire, in other words, had to be strictly policed.
The primary way societies police desire is through systems of belief. Think of our society and our belief in conspicuous consumption. If we all stopped believing in it, our society would literally collapse. Note that the truth of the beliefs is pretty much irrelevant. It’s their social function that’s important. Our belief systems are literally not meant to be true, only to be taken as such.
Now think of the small paleolithic communities that put the final evolutionary touches on our brains. Here, the margins were even tighter still. These societies required even more precision, which is to say, very strict systems of belief, and even more reliability, which is to say, deep and abiding conviction. Our ancestors not only had to do the right thing, they had to see it through to the end, otherwise the social machine would crunch to a halt. We humans are literally hardwired to believe, and to believe deeply, to enable the tight social coordination required to keep prehistorical communities afloat.
Now along comes science and technology. Since technology changes the characters of our actions, usually by rendering them more productive, it actually transforms the structure of the social machine. This means the faster technological innovations come, the faster society changes. At the same time, we find ourselves with prehistorical brains and, thanks to the invention of writing, a repository of historical belief systems. All you have to do is look at what pundits are calling the ‘culture wars’ in America to see the result. There’s those who want to rewrite the rules to take advantage of all the new discretionary actions afforded by modern technological society, and there’s those who cling to retooled versions of ancient belief systems condemning them.
Now I imagine you’re wondering what the hell this longwinded preamble has to do with the Inchoroi and the Tekne. The thing is, the more productive society becomes, the more it licenses our biological desires. We can do whatever we want (outside of work), so long as we don’t interfere with other people doing what they want (outside of work). This is a cornerstone principle of liberalism, and it sounds great, until you realize that biological desires have no point outside gratification and survival. We are becoming a society of consumption for consumption’s sake, which is to say, for the sake of nothing. The adherents of traditional belief systems are picking up on this, and they are, I think, rightly critical. Their proposed solution, however, amounts to little more than oppression: the universal imposition of a very parochial vision of right and wrong. (Thanks to self-centred yardsticking, however, they literally think they would be doing everyone a favour.)
The Inchoroi are the flip side of the Inrithi and the Fanim. You could read them as a vision of the nihilistic implications of unrestrained desire. They are simply another dead end in the book’s thematic labyrinth.
So let me see if I have this right: The Inrithi and the Fanim represent (in part) a constrained system of Belief and Order, by which the day-to-day functioning of their societies is maintained via a fairly rigid belief in a paradigm (or as you say above, a yardstick) that is absolutist in nature, while the Inchoroi represent the dissolution of this, being nihilistic in their interpretations of the world around and in their actions. But where do the Dûnyain fit into this? In a world that is seemingly berift of ‘saviors,’ how does a Kellhus or a Moënghus relate to these opposing ends of the societal/moral spectrum? Are they beyond these concepts of Good and Evil, or is there something more to them than just that?
I just knew you were going to ask that. Superunknown, my ass…
Aside to add that what you just recapped is simply one way of interpreting what’s going on (I lost control of the trilogy’s meaning a long, long time ago), I’m afraid the most I can say is, no comment.
Ha! I was beginning to wonder when I’d get my first RAFO-type response! Fair enough, but luckily I have a question in reserve that might be a bit more difficult to answer and yet would allow you freedom to roam: We’ve been talking about the differences between prescientific and scientific societies in many of the questions above (not to mention elsewhere outside the realms of this interview). What do you make of this shift of storytelling, where elements such as ghosts, goblins, divine creatures and entities, etc. used to be viewed as being of a ‘religious’ (or is another term more appropriate than that?) but now are relegated to the ‘Fantasy’ section of the bookstore? Where and how did we change, if we did so at all?
As a moderator at wotmania, I imagined you’d be pretty used to it! But to answer that question would be to unravel the secret of existence, to make aircraft from beef, to squeeze OJ out of styrofoam, and the world just isn’t ready yet. Alas.
This question is different story. As you know, it cuts to the heart of why I’m so fascinated by epic fantasy, and why I think it’s perhaps the most significant form of genre fiction – or at least among the most telling, culture-wise. (And yes, I realize this fits the mould of a ‘flattering rationalization’ – I write epic fantasy, therefore it simply has to be the most important form of fiction on the planet!)
One thing that’s puzzled me over recent years is the fact that more hasn’t been made of the Harry Potter controversy. Think about it. How long has it been since a work of fiction inspired organized book burnings? And what does it mean that a fantasy was the target?
It just so happens that humans are hardwired to understand the world anthropomorphically. What this means is that we have a profound tendency to interpret natural things and events in human terms. We think of our pets as little people. We’re disinclined to boast because we fear the world will punish us the way our buddies would. We think natural events happen for reasons, just as human actions do. We humans are social animals, and given that our brains evolved in response to social pressures, it becomes easy to imagine how this kind of systematic category mistake could find its way into our hardwiring. Anytime the brain is confronted by something too complex to understand using its basic cause and effect schemas, it simply switches to its ‘people-schemas.’
Now the world is a very complex place, which means that we relied on our people-schemas to ‘understand’ quite abit. We quite literally sketched worlds where almost all natural phenomena were understood anthropomorphically, by analogy to people. This is why our ancient ancestors thought the world watched and loved and hated and punished and rewarded and so on. It wasn’t until we discovered science, and learned how to extend our cause and effect schemas to ever more complex phenoma, that we were able to see past these illusory ways of interpretating the world.
But note that we had to discover science, whereas our anthropomorphic ways of understanding the world came quite naturally to us. This is one reason why I think that, even after the scientific world-view rendered anthropomorphized worlds ‘fantastic,’ so many of persist in believing in these worlds, whether they be traditional or ‘new age.’ It comes naturally to us. We feel most comfortable in such worlds.
And this is also, I think, one of the reasons why we have fallen in love with fantasy worlds like Earwa or Middle-earth. Like scriptural worlds, they’re also anthropomorphic worlds, which is precisely what makes them fantastic. Think of the parallels between Middle-earth and Biblical Israel or Vedic India or Homeric Greece or Viking Scandinavia. Palpable gods. Real magic. A certain, objective moral order. Apocalyptic retribution. The primary difference is that fantasy worlds have dispensed with the belief that comes part and parcel with scriptural worlds. Fantasy allows us to lose ourselves in anthropomorphic worlds without the burden of belief. In this sense, they’re scriptural worlds that openly acknowledge themselves as fantastic – which is to say honest scriptural worlds.
And this was why Harry Potter was burned.
I could be next, if I don’t shut my yap!
Ooh, you just opened yourself up big-time, ya know! While I’ll eschew fetching the rope and sharpening the stake, I just can’t help but note that there’s a parallel between Fantasy’s relationship with scriptural belief with our current fascination with fast food. Seems like both offer the basics of a quick and tasty ingestion of desirable elements, yet with the potential for being left feeling ‘bloated’ afterwards. How would you counter such a stance? Is there something more to Fantasy than a pale reproduction of a world-view gone-by? What else does it offer besides the change to indulge in guilt-free anthropomorphism without commitments? Why Fantasy and why right now?
Well the answer has got to be yes and no. Pretty much any content whatsoever can be stuffed into the epic fantasy form, from the inane, to the exploitative, to the sensitive, to the profound – and so on.
But the form itself is pregnant with significance, simply because it so starkly reflects who we are and the cultural straits we find ourselves in. Thanks to science, the world has become the earth, and the earth, it turns out, is an alien planet. All the things we thought we recognized, all the human shapes we thought we glimpsed, have been nothing more than our eyes playing tricks on us. Of course, many of us still insist that we see those shapes – as we might expect, given our hardwired tendencies to anthropomorphize (just try and not look at your pet as a little person) – but year after year passes, hundreds of them now, and for some reason these ‘paranormal phenomena’ always evaporate beneath scientific scrutiny, only to be replaced by some new and even more amazing ‘proof,’ equally short-lived. There’s ample grounds to be pessemistic, even if science wasn’t the most powerful instrument of understanding in human history.
And now with neuroscience we find our very souls on the dissection table.
Scripture has become fantasy. I can’t imagine any cultural loss more profound. And I can understand why so many refuse to let go. For most of us, hope alone isn’t enough.
What a sobering thought. One to which I struggle to think of an effective counter at this point, unless maybe it’s through our glamours and illusions that we have managed to stay sane in a world that is much too vast for us to comprehend, much less master. Perhaps this is something else you tend to explore in future writings?
Given that the narrative form is one of our primary ways of making sense of the world, and given that reality seems entirely indifferent to our narrative expectations, you could say that fiction itself is the glamour you’re referring to. In a sense, all fiction writing is an exercise in hope. I play with this idea in my most recently completed work, Neuropath.
As for my future thematic concerns? As Donald Rumsfeld might say, that’s an unknown unknown.